The Fourth Sunday of Easter: Year A

“Following Our Gatekeeper’s Voice”

A sermon by Lay Preacher, Allison Brown

On summer afternoons, I would sprawl outside on a bed of prickly long grass. I would stretch out my arms and legs, so every inch was touching the tender blades, sometimes dried from the heat and sometimes coated in glossy dew. My hands would shield my face from the sun as I stared up at the clouds thinking and making up stories. Minutes would go by as I surrendered to a sleepy peaceful state, just being. This morning the words of Psalm 23 remind us of peace that comes from letting God guide us. Green pastures and still waters sound almost idealistic. It brings us back to a place of letting what will be, be. Lay back in the grass and let the clouds roll by God whispers in our ear. I got you, follow the sound of my voice.

Walking with God, we find ourselves lacking nothing. Like the Psalmist we can trust in God, in our shepherd to guide us gently in the journey of life.  Our hope comes from where we find God our protector as we walk through the highs and lows. For the psalmist, the phrase “you are with me,” repeats over and over. It’s an active dwelling of God in the midst of the world we find ourselves in.

And the world we find ourselves in is a fractured place, full of joy and brokenness. And yet we encounter God by listening and then following in the broken pieces. The Gospel today is a continuation conversation of Jesus’s authority in His ministry. A few weeks back in our lectionary Jesus heals a blind man which leaves the community and religious leaders scratching their heads questioning who can do such things. Through the blind man’s transformation, we get front row seats to how Jesus relates to us. Once the blind man is healed, his faith grows even in the messy places of community. Now we find Jesus once again in today’s Gospel reminding us how to walk in faith.

There are two choices; to enter through a door or find an alternative way that is perhaps more dangerous. Jesus, the shepherd of the sheep holds open the door and calls out for the sheep to come home. The first six verses are John’s version of a parable. And like most of Jesus’s parables, what follows is an explanation of these metaphorical lines. Jesus unpacks what His ministry is, using gates, shepherds and sheep. These terms would be familiar to those in the ancient world; many were shepherds or knew people who were. In those days shepherds gathered their grazing flocks back together with a unique call. The sheep follow the call because they know the voice even if they aren’t sure of the way to the gate. In this parable that Jesus tells, it is the gatekeeper who knows the flock well and calls each one by name. We are the sheep and Jesus is the gate. Our entry into dwelling with God is met with God calling out our name and caring for each of us whom He loves. In making himself the gate, Jesus is joining us where we are. In Jesus we are held, protected as we travel through from one pasture into another.

I can almost hear Jesus responding to the Pharisees’ who already had begun questioning Jesus’s authority saying, “I am not just a good loving king, but Shepard, gatekeeper to all.”

In the parable Jesus explains that the gatekeeper not only holds the gate open, but he goes before the sheep and they follow him. The gatekeeper knows those He tends so well and so too God, our gatekeeper knows us so well. We can trust God as our guide even when we face rugged terrain because he knows what we are able to handle. When we can trust God as our guide, we have freedom to follow and explore. Our identity as children of God tethers us to God our guide so we are safe wherever we roam.

But then what do we make of Jesus’s warning of those who do not know His voice? When the terrain goes from green pastures to steep terrain, I find myself asking where does my confidence and identity come from? I think the words from 1 Peter can be of some help.  In verse 21 Peter reminds us “for this we have been called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, so that we can follow.” Jesus as shepherd suffers and gives his own life, so that his sheep may know God even more.  Friends, we are reflections of Christ’s character, and we follow a God who understands it all. Peter wasn’t perfect, he followed Jesus so closely and still wavered by denying Him. And yet he has been called to lead the early church, some of the ways of which we get to read this morning. If Peter is welcomed back, we too are still chosen even if we get a little lost now and again. Our identity rooted in God allowing us to go in and out of the pasture. The gateway is there for a reason, and yet it does not consume one’s ability to move in and out. The gate points to the fringes where the work must occur. It’s an invitation, not a method for exclusion. God’s love for his sheep doesn’t exclude but invites.

The invitation, which Jesus reminds us of in verse 10 of the Gospel, is abundant life. Jesus doesn’t say a long life, or an easy comfortable life, but rather life abundantly. The implication of such a word, “life abundant,” is profound. It answers our question of who to turn to and trust in, in this fractured world. In our humanity we are vulnerable at times to turn towards the wrong voices. Today we are encouraged to turn toward Jesus as gatekeeper, as the leader who knows his people. Jesus is not a faceless head of a system like other world leaders. The guidance is for our own safety and abundant life. This is radically counter cultural from our fractured society, just as God’s ministry always will be.

Our readings this morning all speak to the ways God is overturning current systems; laying down his life for those he loves, which is very different from how others in power may lead. It’s a re-history. The voice may be counter-cultural, but it is ever loving, nurturing and comforting.

God is leading us in the work of un-strangering. Jesus says the sheep know the Shepard’s voice. Both the sheep and the Shepard know something about who the other is enough to listen. Jesus is essentially saying, God knows me and I know God, and God is in relationship to you and me, and all of us are in relationship to God and the world. Jesus’s ministry and our own life is to be rooted in a relationship with God that extends out beyond. God leads us by nudging, not forcing and offering His own child as a guidebook. We too are called to be in relationship with one another, calling out the belovedness of one another and working towards a just, compassionate world. This can happen in conversations on the road, in churches, in parking lots, in the checkout lines of stores, anywhere we are in community with one another.

We are called to this ordinary life where joy abundant resides. These pastures and still waters most times are not the exotic vacation getaways we dream of. They are the quiet moments while waiting in traffic, the busy mornings trying to get everyone out the door, the afternoon coffee conversation with a dear friend. There God meets us and dwells, reviving our soul and guiding us. When God dwells with us, God often shows up in community of those around us. By doing so, God reveals that we need others.

There are days when it is challenging to see where the path leads, and it is on those cloudy days that those I travel with guide me towards God, our Gatekeeper. Sheep travel in flocks, and we too are not alone.

There are times when the people around us will guide us gently, listening to the voice of the gatekeeper. I am so often reminded of this when I go hiking with friends. One time, my friend and I found ourselves at the edge of a cliff overlooking a waterfall. The terrain down to the stream was rugged. There was a hilly slope covered with mud, rocks and trees. We wanted to get to the bottom to take pictures of the falls behind us. But the risk appeared too great. My friend or I could fall. Was there really a way down if there is no marked path? Yet, I trust her decision to forge ahead knowing she won’t put us in danger intentionally. She insists if we sit on our butts we can hold onto the trees and slide down. I following her, still afraid of risks because there is no direct way down. We cautiously slide in one direction then the next, zigzagging and sometimes back tracking. Once we got to the bottom, we were surprised by a path clearly marked towards the top overlook. Pointing and smiling, both of us begin to climb keeping our eyes on the falls the entire time as our guide to get there.

My reference point that day, the waterfall, was the gate into abundant joy. In using Jesus as a reference point, I was able to move walking closer by following the familiar voice. It led to tranquility I would not have been able to find journeying by myself. To this we are called, to hear God’s voice within ourselves and others, tending to what is growing and sustaining us in this fractured world. “I got you,” God whispers to us, “follow the sound of my voice.”