The Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 10:22-30

One of the things planned and planned well, I think, in our future renovation plans is putting the nursery in close visual proximity to the worship space. The idea was to make it convenient for people coming in to church – especially new folks – to be able to locate and drop off their babies and toddlers at the nursery, and to make it convenient for parents and ushers to retrieve the younger children for participation in worship at communion time.

In fact, the new floor plan will make virtually everything visible from the one large common room and main entrance just outside these transept doors. From that room you’ll see the entrance to the worship space, the entrance to the new parish hall, the restrooms, the nurseries, the elevator, the marked office hall and a stairwell right there in the room leading to the choir rooms and classrooms. The two story entrance hall will be “Grace Cathedral Central” and will tie the entire facility together. It will be a beautiful thing. That connecting room (along with our members) will help make this entire facility a more welcoming space, an “attractive” place, a comfortable place, a safe and familiar and familial place for all. It will say clearly, “This is the place – all of this place is the house of the Lord where God’s people – God’s family – gather: the sheepfold, where the flock hear and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.”

This will be a place – and is now, but will be a more accessible, identifiable place – where people come for worship AND fellowship, to learn and pray, to minister within and in outreach to others, to laugh and cry, to work and play, to give and receive in community. To know and to be known by the shepherd of the sheep, the Lord of life who gives us life abundant and life eternal.

A renewed building AND a renewed spirit. A renewed sheepfold for a renewed flock and a renewed commitment, because my sheep hear my voice and know me and I know them.

Today’s gospel lesson contains a parable and an explanation. And although the passage is relatively brief, it is quite complex. Many Bible scholars have distinct and varying opinions and views about it. I didn’t find one explanation that included a building project. That’s all me. But there is some difficulty in this passage, for all of us, even the most imaginative of us, for the purely practical reason that most of us are not familiar with pastoral imagery. Most of us have been no nearer to a sheep than one gets in a petting zoo. We know very little about the behavior of sheep and even less about gate-keepers or shepherds or sheepfolds.

The keys to understanding this passage – a general understanding we can all agree on – of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and of us as his faithful sheep can be found, I believe, in learning a bit more about how shepherds in the region Jesus knew and loved, go about their work. For it is still done today much like it was in Jesus’ day.

Then as now, shepherds in the field would find a spot, near where they grazed their sheep, that was protected by a hillside or an outcropping of rock, providing a natural shelter. The shepherd would then gather piles of brush, which he would combine with the stones that are so abundant in that region, and he would construct a fence or enclosure within the sheltering rock or hillside. And in this wall of brush and stone, the shepherd would leave a narrow opening–just big enough for the sheep to enter.

Then, as daylight began to fade, the shepherd would call the sheep by name. & following the sound of his voice, the sheep would come to the sheepfold.

And the shepherd would stand in the opening in the wall, allowing only one sheep at a time to enter the enclosure. As the sheep responded to their names, the shepherd would take hold of each one, inspecting it carefully by running his hands through its coat. He would put salve on any injuries the sheep might’ve gotten during the day, and then would pass the sheep between his legs into the fold.

After all the sheep had been called and checked, the shepherd would sit down in the opening in the wall, and there spend the night. Effectively, the shepherd became the door through which the sheep could enter in safely, and through which no predator could reach the sheep while the shepherd was alive. Throughout the night the shepherd would talk to the sheep (or maybe sing to them), to calm and comfort and reassure them.

So, from this explanation, we learn two important things about today’s lesson. First, the gate of the sheepfold is the shepherd himself, positioned in the opening – at the door – of the enclosure he has prepared as a home, a base; a safe, comfortable familiar place for his sheep.

Second, the sheep – which, as anyone who’s been around sheep knows, are not the smartest of God’s creatures – (they) are intelligent enough to respond to the human voice. And not to just any voice; but to the voice of one they know: their shepherd who cares for them, comforts them and protects them with his life. The voice of the shepherd to his sheep is trustworthy. It is a familiar voice; it is a familial voice.

And, of course, there are other images in the lesson, and important ones, notable ones. But it is the voice of the shepherd that calls us – beckons us – to the sheepfold.

Perhaps the complexity (or some might say the simplicity) of the parable is most fundamentally summarized in what the voice of the good shepherd represents: that like sheep going into the fold, we are known, we are called by name, and we follow.

We might hear that voice, feel the safety of God’s presence, through the Scriptures, or in prayer or worship or fellowship, in thought, or in the words of another person, or even in and through the place we gather as God’s own people. But how we hear that voice is not nearly as important as that we recognize in it the willingness to care for us, to comfort us, to protect us and to love us and bless us.

“The good shepherd –is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.” Which our Good Shepherd has already done for us on a cross on Calvary.

The voice of the Good Shepherd, the voice of our Lord, is a voice we can trust. It is a familiar voice; it is a familial voice.

Several years ago, I was called to officiate at a funeral service. A resident of a nearby nursing home had died, and the home’s administrator was making arrangements on the man’s behalf, –because he had no family.

After a brief meeting with the administrator to try and learn something about the man, I discovered that, although the man had a name, virtually nothing else was known about him. The only history the administrator had on the man was this:

That prior to coming to the nursing home, he had been a resident in a state hospital. When the state closed that facility, he was moved to a Veterans’ Administration hospital, but in the process of trying to gather some basic information on the man, the VA discovered that he wasn’t a veteran, so he came to live as a welfare client in the nursing home, and that is where he died. Unable to speak or write, his life was a total mystery.

I generally don’t even do homilies at indigent burials unless someone specifically requests it & even then, I don’t know what to say. But, in this case, I felt something should be said about this man who lived out the last years of his life alone. But, again, what was there to say? What could be said about one of whom so little was known? What was there to say, when the only people who would be at the service were a few workers from the nursing home and the funeral director?

This is what I said: “We may not know who this man was, but God knew him. He may have been a stranger in our midst, but he was no stranger to his creator. And when God, in wisdom and mercy, spoke his name, and called him home, he was ready and willing to go; for the voice he heard was a trustworthy voice, full of comfort and care. It was a familiar voice; it was a familial voice.”

And this was the scripture passage I used from John 10:
I am the good shepherd (who calls his own sheep by name . . . and the sheep follow me because they know my voice.) I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. For I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly.

Let us rejoice today and give thanks for those unique but familial individuals in our lives: mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, friends, teachers, caregivers, who called us by name, who looked after our needs, who first taught us to trust. –Who taught us to trust in God. Let us rejoice and give thanks for the good shepherd whose hands and heart they are: the Good Shepherd who calls us by name, who bids us to follow him, who has called us to this place, this cathedral, and this family.

Let us rejoice and give thanks for the familiar, familial voices of love. But most of all, let us give thanks for the One who loves us most: the One who laid down his life for his sheep; the voice that calls us; –the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.