A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
May 4, 2014
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (NRSV).
Easter Sunday was weeks ago, but we are still in the season of Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus in these “great fifty days” and trying to appreciate all that it means to say, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!” It means that death has been defeated, that life has won the day, and that now—truly—anything is possible.
So I’m not really sure why the lectionary committee chose our Gospel reading for today. It’s the one where Jesus says, “I am the gate.” And I think, “Really? ‘The Gate?’” If you wanted to choose one of “I am” sayings for the season of Easter you might have picked, “I am the bread of life,” or, “I am the Resurrection and the life,”” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But, “I am the gate?” A gate isn’t very warm and friendly, and not nearly as appealing as the image Jesus uses in the very next verse, where he says: “I am the good shepherd.” I can picture that Jesus seeking and finding his lost sheep, carrying them home on his shoulders, rejoicing. I like that image. But a gate? A gate is so cold and impersonal, so mechanical. It swings on a hinge. And it carries the unavoidable implication that you might end up on the wrong side of it, which also serves as a warning:
I know something about that from my own experience. In the spring of 1979 I dropped out of college for a semester to work on a sheep farm in West Virginia. I had been struggling through my pre-med studies, almost certain that I wasn’t going to become a doctor. I mentioned it to my brother Ed who was teaching school in the high mountains in the eastern part of West Virginia. He said, “Why don’t you come up here for a while. There’s a farmer in my church who hurt his back; he’s looking for some help.” Almost anything sounded better than another semester of organic chemistry, so I said yes, and in late January I ended up on the McNeel farm, just outside the little town of Hillsboro.
I went to bed that first night and woke up early the next morning to find the farmer, Mac, cooking breakfast on a wood-burning stove. He served up some fried eggs and bacon, a couple of cold biscuits, and then told me to come on out when I was finished. He motioned to an extra pair of coveralls hanging on a hook, and some muddy rubber boots underneath. “Wear those,” he said. I did, plus a big, thick coat, a warm, wool cap, and some heavy gloves. It was twelve degrees when I stepped outside at six o’clock and it didn’t warm up much through the day. Organic chemistry began to look better and better.
But I stuck with it. I had to. Mac had a lot of sheep and most of them were ewes who were expecting lambs any minute. We would let them out during the day but at night we would pen them up in the big, warm cellar under the barn. It was warm in there, but cold outside—so cold that a single sheep, on its own, might have frozen to death. It had happened before. And so we counted carefully when we brought them in out of the fields.
Mac knew exactly how many were supposed to be there, and if one was missing we would set off in the truck to find it. I remember one afternoon in particular when we had penned up all the sheep but one and Mac knew which one it was: an ornery ewe who was always pushing her way under a high strand of barbed wire and getting out of the fence. Dark was coming on fast, and we drove around the farm with the high beams on, looking for old number 38 with Mac rolling down the window every once in a while to call for her. He had a special call he used, and usually the sheep came running, but not this time.
We finally found her on the back part of the farm and Mac pinned her down with his headlights in a fence corner where I could wrestle her to the ground and heave her up into the bed of the truck. I rode with her back to the barn and shivered in the cold, but when we got her inside the pen with the others and shut the gate behind her I realized how important it was. That gate could mean the difference between life and death, and if old number 38 had ended up on the wrong side of it she probably wouldn’t have made it through the night.
“I am the gate,” Jesus says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved.” And it would be easy to leave it right there, thinking of the world outside the sheepfold as something cruel, dark, and dangerous, while the world inside the fold is warm, and safe, and comfortable. It would be tempting to think it’s our job to get everyone out there in here, to stand on the front steps of the church and say, “Jesus is the gate. Come on in if you want to get saved!” And then to come inside and sing a chorus of “When we all get to heaven.” But right after Jesus says that about entering and being saved he says the ones who enter will come in and go out and find pasture. Because I don’t think he’s talking about eternal salvation—not yet. I don’t even think he’s talking about eternal life—not yet. He’s talking about abundant life—the kind that’s worth living—and apparently it involves both coming in and going out. I wasn’t a good shepherd, I wasn’t even a pretty good shepherd, but even I could see that the gate has to work both ways: that you need to bring the sheep in on a cold winter night but let them out on a warm spring day.
And maybe it’s only because it’s Mother’s Day, but that reminds me of a story:
When I was thirteen years old I read a book called “The Walkabout” which told the story of an aboriginal boy about my age who spent several weeks on his own in the Australian outback as a kind of coming-of-age ritual. I admired the way he lived off the land in those days. I admired his independence and self-sufficiency. And, because I was a Boy Scout, I thought I could do it, too.
So, one afternoon in the fall of the year I made a loincloth for myself out of a long, wide band of fabric which I secured around my waist with a leather belt. Like the boy in the story I decorated my face with tribal markings, using my mother’s red lipstick to make two big circles around my eyes. When I came down to the kitchen she was cutting up the ingredients for a stew she was making for supper—potatoes, carrots, celery, beef. She looked up from the cutting board and saw me standing there in a loincloth, big red circles around my eyes, but to her credit she showed no surprise.
“Going somewhere?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m going on my walkabout. I’m going to go spend the night in the woods and live off the land. So, whatever I do, no matter how hard I knock, don’t let me in that door tonight.”
“All right,” she said. “Have a good time.”
And with that I was off, out the door and up the path toward the woods, past our neighbors’ house where I stopped long enough to steal a couple of gourds left over from their summer garden. I don’t know what they would have thought if they had looked out the window at that moment and seen an aboriginal boy, wearing a loincloth around his waist, with big red circles around his eyes, stealing leftover gourds from their garden. Luckily, they didn’t see me, or if they did they didn’t say anything. I moved on up the path in my bare feet, holding those gourds in my hands, making my way to the top of the mountain. I had to watch out for the briars that wanted to scratch my bare legs, and I had to step over old strands of barbed wire from long-gone fences. There was one part of the mountainside that was covered in stinging nettles—a waist-high weed with tiny, stinging spines on the undersides of the leaves—and if you’re walking through them in a loincloth you can’t keep from getting stung. But I had learned how to pop open the fat joint of a jewel weed, which always seemed to grow nearby, and squeeze the juice onto the stings to provide instant relief. I made my way up the mountain and got to the top just in time to see the sun setting behind the hills. I didn’t have much daylight left.
I found a big, flat rock that was covered in thick, spongy moss. It felt so good when I lay down on it that I knew it was where I would sleep that night. To stay warm I gathered up a big pile of dry leaves and put them next to the rock thinking that when I was ready to go to bed I would just pile them up on top of me. And then I squatted down on another rock, looking out over the valley, to crack open those gourds and scoop out the pulpy flesh. I felt like a real aborigine up there on that mountaintop, hunkered down in my loincloth, the fading light of day on my face, a big handful of gourd pulp in my mouth. But it tasted awful. I spit it out and decided I wasn’t quite that hungry. I thought about that big pot of stew simmering on the stovetop at home and how good it would be to sit down with my family and eat it, but then I chased the thought from my mind. I had told my mother I would be out all night and that’s just what I intended to do. So, because it was getting dark, I bedded down for the night.
That moss was surprisingly comfortable, and the rock under it was so smooth and flat it felt almost like being in my bed at home. I piled those dry leaves up and over me and lay there feeling warm and satisfied. I closed my eyes and waited to drift off to sleep as the moon began to slide up over the horizon. That’s when I felt the first bite. It was a hard, fiery bite, like someone had poked me with a burning stick. And then there was another, and then another. Apparently that moss was not only a comfortable bed, but home to a million or more small, biting bugs. All they needed was the smell of my warm, exposed flesh to draw them up out of the depths of the moss and into a feeding frenzy. I leaped up off my bed and tried to brush any remaining bugs off my back and legs. But it was too late. I must have been bitten a hundred times.
I stood there in the moonlight for a minute wondering what to do next. I couldn’t really lie back down. Those bites were itching like crazy. And then I thought of the soothing, black mud down on the riverbank. How good that would feel! I left the bug-infested moss, the pile of dead leaves, and a half-eaten gourd there on top of the mountain and started picking my way back down the path in the moonlight. Down through the field of stinging nettles. Down through the sharp, scratching briars. Tripping over the broken-down barbed-wire fences. Bruising my feet on the sharp stones. Making my way toward the rich, black mud of the riverbank. When I got there I was itching and aching from head to toe. I scooped up handfuls of the mud and smeared it on my face, my arms, my ankles. It felt so good, so cool and refreshing. I sat down right there on the riverbank and covered myself with the stuff.
Now there’s a picture for you. The mudman of West Virginia. Little Jimmy, the aborigine, ready to be done with his walkabout. I sat there and sighed for a while, until the cool air began to drift in off the river and make me shiver. I started thinking about home, about my family gathered around the table with a big pot of stew in front of them and hot bread fresh from the oven. I thought about how it would look from the outside, with all them talking and laughing around the table and the warm light streaming out through the window into the darkness. I wanted to go home. But I had told my mother I would be out all night, and not to let me in no matter what. I could go sleep in the barn, or maybe in the back seat of the car. But I didn’t want to do either of those things. I was achy and itchy and cold. I just wanted to go home.
I waded out into the cool water and washed off all the mud and then started back up the hill, limping on my bruised feet and bent over with fatigue. I climbed the path to our house, and stood there in the back yard for a minute. It looked like supper had been over for a while—the table had been cleared and Mom was in the kitchen washing up. I swallowed hard and climbed the back steps, knocked on the back door, and waited to see what would happen.
“Who is it?” Mom called.
“It’s me,” I said, in a small voice.
I was outside the door, a little lost lamb, knowing that everything depended on the woman who stood on the other side, my mother. Would she let me in, or would she do what I had asked, and leave me standing out there on the stoop? I hugged myself for warmth and waited for what seemed an eternity. And then the door swung open, and the light and warmth came pouring out, the smell of fresh-baked bread and homemade stew came rushing toward me, and my mom stood there in her apron, looking at this skinny, shivering, bug-bitten boy in a loincloth, a little bit of mud still smeared behind one ear.
“Would you care for some supper?” she asked.
“Well, yeah, but . . . I told you not to let me in.”
“Aw, that’s all right. I think I’ve got enough stew for you.”
And then she pulled me into the house, and into her warm embrace, and the love flowed all around me, and filled me up, until it spilled over in tears. I stayed right there for a long time. And then Mom pushed me gently down the hall toward the bathroom where I washed up and put on some warm, dry clothes. When I got back to the table there was a steaming bowl of stew, and a thick slice of buttered bread, and a tall glass of milk waiting for me, and Mom sitting there to one side. I don’t think anything had ever tasted so good before, and I don’t think anything had ever sounded better than my mother saying,
It wouldn’t have sounded so good if I hadn’t been out there, miserable and bug-bitten in the outer darkness. The door that had opened to let me in to warmth and comfort had also opened to let me out to adventure and freedom. My abundant life required both.
I think Jesus knew that about me before I was born. I think the Heavenly Father has known that about his children all along. King David—who loved adventure more than anybody—said the Lord was his shepherd, the one who made him lie down in green pastures, and led him beside still waters, the one who led him in paths of righteousness, but also the one who walked beside him in the dark valleys, and prepared tables for him in the presence of his enemies, who anointed his head with oil and filled his cup to overflowing. This is the kind of God who will open the door for you when you’ve come to the end of your resources, who will invite you in to sit down and sup with him, but also the kind who will open it up and let you go out again. Because it’s not just safety and security he wants for us; it’s life—abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.