by: Rev. Paul Herpich

4rd. Sunday of Easter

Date: May 3, 2020

 

Acts 2:42-47

Psalm 23

John 10:1-16


Dear friends in Christ,

It has been a long time since I have been with you. I do want to thank you for inviting me to join you this Sunday, if only from a distance. Some of you may remember me as I served as conference dean from 1992-2000. My memories include a hotel that had the most wonderful homemade pies and The Adirondack Bat Company that made a personalized bat for my daughter’s softball coach which the players all signed at their senior banquet. I remember and give thanks for Don Miller, Archie Clark and Jim Paulson who were wonderful colleagues and pastors. Pastor Walt Kopp often would tell us stories about growing up in Dolgeville. I also enjoyed celebrating the reality that Lutherans and Presbyterians could work together long before we officially entered into full communion. Thanks again for inviting me to share these words with you as we celebrate the 4th Sunday of Easter, what we often call “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Christ is Risen!! He is Risen Indeed!!


(Introduction) When I think of the various uses of a gate I think primarily of its use to keep someone or something out. Gatekeepers take your ticket (or scan your ticket) at concerts, ball games or shows. They are there to keep you from sneaking in to the event. One of their responsibilities is to make certain that there are no gatecrashers. Others will check credentials or parking passes especially if you are trying to get into a high security facility or an exclusive gated community.

Gates are closed to keep unwanted people out. Even turnstiles are built so as to make certain that people can’t get around the system. There are some who jump the turnstiles as they race to get on the subway, but for the most part those inanimate gatekeepers do their job.

As I reflect upon the work of gatekeepers rarely have I seen one whose job was to invite people into a place or an event. Even at the Civic Center in Syracuse, the people who are scanning tickets, as cordial as they may be, will not let you in without the appropriate ticket.

Gatekeepers exert control. Even in the church, and yes, we do speak of gatekeepers here…they tend to be the people who are the “power block” or those who “run the church.” They “protect the church” at least that is what they claim they are doing, and often for their own self interests. They both exert and enjoy control. And certainly, don’t sit in their pew.

The Gatekeeper: In our Gospel lesson Jesus invites his hearers to know him as the gatekeeper, the gate and the good shepherd. His role and identity is much different from the gatekeepers I have met.

This gatekeeper leads!! He offers us a picture of one who leads the sheep BOTH in and out of the pen, which allows for the sheep to both come and go. It is not an exclusive but an inclusive vision. There is a missional (outward looking) nature to the gatekeeper. All are welcome as Jesus says, “there are other sheep who are not of this fold, and they are invited to come and go as well.” Jesus welcomes us all!! As we heard in chapter 3 of John’s gospel, “for God so loved the world.” (That is, the kosmos, the entire created order). It is important to note that with this gatekeeper both protection and pasture are offered to the sheep. The gate is an active, not a passive perspective. (No rusted or squeaky gates in this image.) In a very real way this gate offers us access to God.

(23rd Psalm) Today’s psalm is familiar to most of us. The Lord is my shepherd…this shepherd leads us to pasture, there is water and there is food. The shepherd restores my soul, walks in the valley of the shadow of death, and fears no evil; the shepherd’s rod and staff bring comfort and protection.

The gatekeeper also acknowledges the presence of evil and protects us. There are thieves and robbers, strangers who attack; those who seek to rob others of life itself.

(John 9) Jesus did battle with those who sought to rob others of life. We witness that in chapter 9 of John as Jesus heals the blind man. Jesus becomes the gate for him as one who was kept outside of the community as he is now invited in by Jesus’ healing and acceptance. This healing becomes a ‘battleground’ over authority, over the building of walls, that is, who to keep in and who has to stay out, who is accepted and who is rejected. The religious leaders of the day had become harsh gatekeepers. They were proficient at keeping those out who did not recognize their leadership or their interpretation of the religious requirements of the day.

Jesus challenges those who rob or stifle life…that arbitrarily develop a system to keep some of the sheep out of the pen while allowing others free access. Do we live as exclusive and not inclusive gatekeepers? Who among us may actually be stealing life from others, those who look out for their own self-interests and not for the greater good?

The pandemic has provided a great picture of the kind of gatekeepers we find. The most depressing sign held by a woman without a mask I saw on a news clip read, “Let the weak die.” I am sure we all have stories of those who do unhealthy, unloving things to keep some out or perhaps throw some out of the pen.

On the other hand, my heart has been warmed over and over again by people who serve the needs of others. At least three groups of nurses from Syracuse have traveled downstate. Nurses and others are working 12-18 hour shifts; organizations are providing food for those both in need and for those working these horrible hours. I don’t know how many times I have had goose bumps and found myself thanking God for those whose lives are given to the service and care of others. (Providing for people to both know the protection of the pen and the food of the pasture.)

It is therefore, abundantly clear that this gatekeeper, Jesus, is one who cares for, provides for, nourishes and sustains ALL of the sheep. Any who seek to exclude folk have not understood the promise of the one who is: the gatekeeper, the gate, and the good shepherd.

We hear the Voice: We also learn that the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd. There is a connection that comes with hearing Jesus’ voice. There is an intimacy present in this relationship. The voice of Jesus brings hope and acceptance and life to those who hear his voice. We see this over and over again in John’s Gospel…Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus in chapter 3, the woman at the well in chapter 4, the man by the pool in chapter 5, the man born blind in chapter 9, and then, in chapter 11, Lazarus hears his name and he walks out of the tomb. Perhaps the most touching of all of these stories is when Jesus and Mary meet in the garden and she doesn’t recognize him until she hears him say  “Mary.” Each experiences the personal presence of God in the relationship with the one who knows our name.

This is so different from the cacophony of voices that are crying out for our attention. There are so many and they are so loud we really have little time to hear, much less recognize Jesus’ voice. With so many different voices we tend to ignore them, or give them too much power or credence. Whose voices do we listen to? Who can we trust? Who dare we follow? It is really difficult because there are those who say they are Christian leaders and yet their actions convince us to not follow their voices. And then, if we meander into the political realm that noise just gets louder and less clear. The Internet and social media have given all of us a voice and it seems to me that the noise is only getting louder and less useful. Where do we turn? To whom do we listen? In my life, at this time, in the midst of the pandemic, I have found myself ignoring many voices or checking people’s comments out on snopes.com. For example, I have a friend from high school, very bright, and yet he posts the most ludicrous things, he share one conspiracy theory after another.

Given all of this noise how do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and dare I ask, are we even listening? It is a rich blessing that this voice does know our name, as Jesus called out tenderly, “Mary”—so he calls us out as well. It is that personal and that intimate. This reminds me of the hymn “I heard the Voice of Jesus say.”

Verse 1 “Come to me and rest...”

Verse 2 “I freely give life giving water...”

Verse 3 “I am the dark world’s light…”

In John’s gospel we hear these words:

Chapter 13:34 A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.

Chapter 14:1 “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.

Chapter 14:27 Peace I leave you, my own peace, as the world cannot give.

…And so we listen to his voice.  Where do we hear that voice?

Our friend who took it upon herself to feed the late shift at a Syracuse hospital because no one thought of that. She has been bringing food that she has collected from friends and earlier this week she fed them with 15 pizzas.

Our friend who has sewn over 150 masks and she let me know there were a bunch of people who were doing the same thing at her church. (How many nationwide, I think in the millions by now.)

Distilleries making hand sanitizer (lots)

5000 college students from a few schools in New England offering to tutor children in grades k-12.

This list grows and grows. I hear more amazing stories  daily…people listening to the shepherd’s voice as we love one another, even the stranger we have never met.

God’s voice, into our chaotic and bewildering lives is speaking very clearly. Can we, dare we, quiet our souls so that we are able to hear and heed that voice?

There is even more good news in this gospel reading. For those who are nourished in the pasture, who are able to go freely in and out of the gate, who listen to the voice there is the promise of a most wonderful gift.

Abundant Life, which can be translated, “life in all its fullness.” It is a life that is flourishing, thriving and filled with joy. What does this life look like? I would suggest that Luke describes it in our first reading from Acts 2.

It is life lived in community, that is, in relationship. We find in this community that people are:

Absorbed in the disciples’ teaching. They seek to learn and grow, to listen to new and life changing ideas.

They dynamically participate in one another’s stories. The word used to describe this is koinonia in the Greek, fellowship. It is more than a great potluck dinner (when will we have one of those again?) and more than going to a ballgame with your friends, (When will I see the Syracuse Mets play this year? (If at all.))

They are committed to being together in the “breaking of the bread.” It is the gift of a loving and accepting and caring community.

My hope during this pandemic is that we can begin to put aside our differences which divide this country and be there for and with and alongside of one another. I see millions doing just that and yet at the same time others continue to trumpet their viewpoints or their rights to the detriment of the larger community.

Steadfastness in prayer. We see this taking place in the early church, and we see it in the life of Jesus. I have been blessed (I am sure you have been as well) by the countless prayers of others.

A sense of awe before God. These first Christians believed in the presence and reality of God in their midst. God active in radical and powerful and wonderful and intimate ways.

I have seen these qualities in our churches. Before I retired from King of Kings we worked with a church consultant for over a year. At one point he said to the church leaders, “I see this church as both playful and prayerful.” What an awesome compliment.

I have been privileged to witness richness in the church today. I have been bouncing around the Internet seeing old friends and listening to them preach (Palm Sunday it was 13, I was down to 4 this past Sunday.) I have been watching the great variety of uses of the Internet and technology for worship. At first, I thought to myself why don’t a few churches who have lots of money and great musicians and tech experts do the service for all of us. It would save a lot of pastors a lot of time. But then I thought to myself, “No, people want to see their church, hear from their pastor, be connected with their friends.” The church proclaims the gospel each week in a plethora of styles and so the gospel is proclaimed and we live into this promise of abundant life…life in all its fullness.

Conclusion: In a world struggling with thousands of voices crying out for our attention and allegiance, and with thieves and strangers robbing us of the very promise and hope of life; we can draw comfort from the images of Jesus as a gate, a gatekeeper, and a shepherd. We dare not keep this gift to ourselves, but rather draw comfort and hope from this promise so that we can indeed share this with our world. The next time we walk through a turnstile or hand our ticket to the person at the gate, or have our ticket scanned, let us remember who it is who is OUR gatekeeper and how he offers to lead us out and in, to protection and to pasture (nurture), whose voice is friendly because he calls us by our own name as we recognize the sound of that voice. Truly this is life in all its fullness.

I am the gatekeeper he says. I am the gate he tells us. I am the Good Shepherd he promises. What good news! What awesome news!

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!


AMEN.