Text: John 10:1-18
“The most important part of a church is the front door.” This was the assessment of a distinguished church architect.
Not what we expect to hear someone say, is it? If you had to name the most important part of the church building, what would you say?
Some would say that it is the nursery. For new parents, the nursery is extremely important – the quality of the nursery can make or break whether they will come back to the church.
Or some might say the baptistry. We’re a Baptist church, after all.
Or the Fellowship Hall. It is used for meals, for receptions, for showers, for meetings, for all kinds of events. Important stuff happens in the Fellowship Hall.
A person could make an argument for several different areas of the building as being the most important. The bathrooms would get some votes and certainly the HVAC system –air conditioning is nice and the boiler, for all the pain it can be, is critical.
But if we were playing Family Feud and surveyed 100 parishioners, I have no doubt that the number one response would be the sanctuary. This is where we worship, and worship is our reason for being. This is where we gather week after week.
But this architect says no, the most important part of the building is the front door. He said that because the front door is the first thing newcomers encounter about the church. (Of course, with our parking lot, the back door is the first thing a lot of newcomers see, but we get the point.)
We are involved in a capital improvement campaign, and while functionality and basic maintenance has a lot to do with it, we are addressing some of those obvious ways that people first interact with our facilities. We are re-doing the parking lot, and it needs it. We are replacing carpeting that has a lot of mileage on it, not to mention too many coffee spills. And we are replacing the back doors, which after many years are rusting, with rusted frames.
The doors say something about our church. When the weather is decent, the front doors are often left open on a Sunday morning as a way of saying to those on the outside, “Come on in, you are welcome here.”
When we put in new flooring several years ago, the fire doors to the stairwells had to be made a bit shorter. I remember Jack and Delmar and Bob working hard to cut and grind down thick metal doors. It wasn’t easy but it had to be done.
A door needs to fit – not only fit the size of the opening, which some of us amateur carpenters can have trouble with, but a door also needs to be fitting to the life that goes on inside.
We have all been in that situation where you knock at an unfamiliar door and are not sure what you will find. The story is told of the pastor who went out to visit a church member. It was obvious that someone was home, but nobody came to the door, even though the pastor knocked several times. Finally, the preacher took out his card, wrote “Revelation 3:20” on the back of it, and stuck it in the door.
Revelation 3:20 says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you, and you with me.”
The next Sunday, that card turned up in the collection plate. Below the preacher’s message was written the following notation: “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” - Genesis 3:10
In today’s scripture, Jesus describes himself as “the door.” While the other gospels are much more subtle about it, in John, Jesus makes many statements of this sort about himself. In John we have Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” “I am the true vine.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” In this passage, he goes on to say “I am the Good Shepherd,” but before he gets there, he says “I am the door.” All of these images ask us to reflect on who Jesus is and how we think about Jesus.
As you came in this morning, you were asked to vote among various images of Jesus. Which of these do you find most appealing? Which do you like best? We did this in the college class last Sunday and there was a suggestion that we have the whole church join in, so we did.
There were a lot of responses, but the top vote-getters were teacher, friend, shepherd, and savior. Shepherd is a familiar image in scripture – you’ve got Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," as well as numerous New Testament passages. And then there are many shepherd-type hymns. But let’s face it: most of us are unfamiliar with sheep and with shepherding today, to say nothing of ancient Palestine. Without these familiar scriptures and hymns, it is not necessarily an image that we would gravitate to.
And then there is “door.” Door did not get a single vote. It’s one of the ways that the Bible speaks of Jesus – here as a gate or a door, depending on your translation – but we don’t go around thinking, “Jesus is my door.” We just don’t.
While an architect might point out the importance of a door, we all know that we do not come to the church for the door – even for new ones. A door is a means of getting to where you are going - not an end in itself. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the door? And why does Jesus speak of himself in that way?
You might think that Jesus is mixing metaphors too much. Is he the door, or is he the shepherd? What does it all mean? If the disciples were a bit puzzled, we may be really puzzled.
Well, we are so far away from what it meant to be a shepherd in the time of Jesus that it may appear that something was lost in translation, but that’s not the case. Often, the shepherd functionally was the door, or the gate, to the sheepfold. There would be an enclosure for the sheep, but the enclosure did not always have an actual door. The shepherd would sit, or lie down, at the opening. To enter or exit, you had to get by the shepherd. The shepherd knew who or what was coming and going and could serve as the protector of the sheep.
While in the fold, the shepherd would protect the sheep. But they couldn’t stay in the fold indefinitely. There wasn’t enough grass, there wasn’t enough food, there wasn’t enough space to roam. The sheep could not live their lives in the fold.
We might think of Jesus as our door, our entrance, our way to God. And that may be a helpful way to think about Jesus as the door. But there is more. The song “Hotel California” says, “You can enter any time you like, but you can never leave,” but most doors work both ways. The traffic moves in both directions. To say that Jesus is the door could also be a way of saying that Jesus is our way out into the world.
The shepherd protects the sheep in the fold, and then leads them out of the fold. The text says that the shepherd brings them out and the sheep follow, but that is actually a pretty understated translation. It’s really more like, “the shepherd propels them out” or “drives them out.” The shepherd is not passive about bringing the sheep out of the fold.
Remember Psalm 23? “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he leads me in the paths of righteousness.” None of that involves being in the fold. The shepherd is with us out in the world.
Now as we read this passage, a few questions come up. It speaks of Jesus as the shepherd and others as bandits or thieves. Who is he talking about?
We might take a moment to remember the previous passage, which we looked at last week. In that story, Jesus heals a blind man but the Pharisees do not believe it. Instead of celebrating that his man had been healed, they accuse him of being a fraud and a sinner, and they accuse Jesus of breaking Sabbath law by working and healing on the Sabbath.
In part, Jesus’ words – this figure of speech, as John puts it – is aimed at the Pharisee who had far greater concern for their own standing and power than they had for people in need. They cared about themselves and not the sheep. But not the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd wants the best for the sheep – the best for us. Jesus came to give us abundant life, meaningful life, life overflowing.
Jesus also speaks of those who are not completely committed as far as caring for the sheep. Hired hands are not willing to confront danger or sacrifice their own security and well-being for the sake of the sheep, at least not in the same way as the shepherd, because the sheep belong to the shepherd.
We know this to be true – we have all seen it. Barbara Brown Taylor (in Bread of Angels, p. 80-81) told a story that illustrates the point very well. Her husband Ed had been out duck hunting all day on the river with his friend Tommy. They had a good day and it came time to pack up and head home. They pulled the front of the boat up on the bank and made a couple of trips carrying equipment and guns and decoys back to the car.
On their second trip back to the boat, however, it was gone. They saw it floating gently down the river. So they ran along the riverbank, trying to catch up to it, getting scratched up by the underbrush, but the closer they got to the boat, the closer the boat moved toward the main current of the river.
It became obvious that somebody was going to have to jump in and swim to the boat. And guess who did? “It wasn’t my boat,” Ed said, but he did help by cheering Tommy on.
A good shepherd is one who has a bottom-line bond with the sheep. The text speaks about being the owner, but you can own something without having legal title. We can talk about owning up to something, or owning our feelings. And we can have a depth of responsibility to another such that it is an abiding commitment.
Now this can get tricky, because we know that responsibility for another can become over-responsibility. We may be counseled against getting too involved in other people’s problems. For one, it’s none of our business, and then there is the whole issue of boundaries. When we are too invested in solving other people’s problems, too willing to rescue others, it can hurt both. It can keep the other person from taking responsibility for their own life and while we might enjoy being the hero, it can be a heavy burden. In the long run we are not doing ourself or the other any favors.
This can all be true, but the fact is we all need someone in our lives who will absolutely be there for us. Somebody who, when the boat is floating down the river, won’t hesitate to jump right in and go after it. That is not co-dependence or over-identification with another; this is self-giving love. That is the love that the shepherd has for us and the love that the shepherd teaches us.
Now, there is another question that may arise from this story. Well, maybe several more, but one more for this morning. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” Where did that come from?
To go back to the door image: to say that Jesus is the door is to say that Jesus is the way, the path. This is similar to his saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
If Jesus is the way, then he is our model. To enter through the door is to follow Jesus’ way. And what is Jesus’ way? His is a way of love, of compassion, of self-sacrifice, of humility, of grace. To say “we are the only real Christians” or “we are the only faithful people” seems to me to do violence to Jesus’ way.
When Jesus says that he has other flocks not in this fold means at the minimum that we don’t have all the truth and we are not the only faithful community. It is important to know that by the time John wrote his gospel, there were a number of Christian communities who were not necessarily all alike. It’s enough for us to do our best to follow Jesus’ without judging the way others follow. Jesus is our door to God, and we don’t need to use this door to keep others out.
This morning, we might think about our church doors in a slightly different way. We are gathered in through these doors so that we might connect with the love and grace and strength and care of the shepherd. The doors are to be open doors – ready to welcome other sheep.
But the doors work both ways, and after gathering, we are sent out by the shepherd to follow the shepherd – into the neighborhood, into our schools, into our jobs, into our homes, into the world. And what are we called to do? Wesley Frensdorf, an Episcopal bishop in Nevada, said that he dreamed of a church in which “all sheep share in the shepherding.” That’s our calling: to care for and love and protect and guide and teach one another.
The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, just the last in a long line of mass shootings, has brought about a lot of conversation - some much-needed national conversation as well as a lot of individual converstions. Marissa Schimmoeller is a 9th and 10th grade English teacher in Ohio. She dreaded going to school the day after the Florida shooting. And sure enough, a student in her class asked, “Mrs. Schimmoeller, what will we do if a shooter comes in your room?”
She launched into her pre-planned speech, but then she had to say the hardest part. “I want you to know that I care deeply about each and every one of you. I will do all I can to protect you, but being in a wheelchair, I cannot protect you the same way that an able-bodied teacher can. If there is a chance for you to escape, I want you to go. Do not worry about me. Your safety is my number one priority.”
Imagine having to say that to your class. Her words slowly sank in. But then, slowly, another student raised her hand. “Mrs. Schimmoeller, we have already talked about it. If anything happens, we are going to carry you.”
Those students understood. WHen we are following the Good Shepherd, all sheep share in the shepherding. Amen.
Thanks to William Willimon’s meditation on this text in Pulpit Resource, April-June 2005, p.13ff.