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When the environmentalist and writer John Muir came to California in 1868, the first place he went was Yosemite. He loved it enough that he returned for an
entire season to work as a shepherd, taking a large flock of sheep up into the
mountains, seeking out good pasture as the snow melted higher and higher up. It was a chance to get into the high country for a whole summer…but Muir hated being with the sheep, which he referred to as ‘hoofed locusts.’ Later he made a point of showing people what sheep could do to a pristine alpine meadow, which helped lead to the designation of Yosemite as a national park – where sheep, and all livestock, were not allowed. As for being a shepherd, although he thought that they fared pretty well in his native Scotland, he wrote that ‘the California shepherd, as far as I’ve seen or heard, is never quite sane for any considerable time.’ It was not a job he was eager to take again.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and we heard in our gospel passage about Jesus as the good shepherd. We’re also today celebrating new members who have joined our community over the last year or so. So, welcome to the sheepfold, everyone! It has long been pointed out that the metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd and us as the sheep is hardly a flattering image for us – stupid animals that eat what is not good for them and wander off into danger, getting themselves into precarious, life-threatening situations. I suppose as an image for humans, I can see certain parallels. But I hope that Jesus thinks of us as more than hoofed locusts – though perhaps it’s true that our behavior does drive God nuts.

All the same, the image of the good shepherd is compelling, and has been so for
centuries. The very earliest depictions of Jesus in the catacombs, in fact, are as
the good shepherd – linking him to the shepherd king David and to earlier
scriptures of God as shepherd of our souls (like in Psalm 23). There are churches named for the Good Shepherd, and thousands of stained-glass windows with that theme. It’s popular especially in pictures and books for children, and with good reason. For all the times that I feel lost or weary or uncertain, the idea that God will guide me, feed me, and hold me tight is deeply comforting. It is no wonder that Psalm 23 is many people’s favorite passage of scripture. When we are in need of reassurance, we want to trust that God is in charge. We are safe no matter what comes. God will protect us from harm.

We’ve heard something like this before. But here’s something different about the reading we just heard from John. Today we heard the part that comes before the line where Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. In this passage, Jesus begins with ‘I am the gate.’ The shepherd comes in through the gate and the sheep hear his voice and follow him out of the fold, following him because they know his voice. When they go out following the shepherd, they find pasture. Jesus is somehow both the gate and the shepherd in this image – probably best not to press it too hard for clarity. But Jesus doesn’t say, you’ll note, that the shepherd leads his sheep into the safe fold of the sheep pen. Nor does Jesus say that he is the sheepfold – instead, he is the gate. He’s the way in and out, not the surrounding pen of safety. And he is the shepherd, who comes to the fold and leads the sheep out of the pen. In going out of the fold, following the shepherd, the sheep – us – have life abundant.
There’s been some writing about how the COVID shutdowns changed us, and
particularly how they changed things for our kids. When the world shut down, we stayed in, if we had the privilege of doing so, and so for some of us, family time became more meaningful. Whoever we included in our ‘pandemic pod’ were our people, our close ones; the rest of the world we encountered at several feet of distance, mostly online. So we lost a great deal of community of those people we hadn’t known we knew, the neighbors and store owners, the dog park people, the other preschool parents, the people who sit in different pews from us at church. No surprise that now psychologists realize that all of those so-called ‘weak ties’ matter a lot to our sense of wellbeing and happiness. Small talk and friendly smiles go further than we realize. Without all of that, the world started to feel alien and a bit frightening, full of idiots who vote differently from us or crazy violent criminals or vectors of disease. For our kids especially, but really for quite a lot of us, that state of mind has been hard to shake off and leave behind. Go out of the sheepfold? No thanks. We can see it all from here, and it’s not pretty.

But the thing is, staying in the fold isn’t so great. There’s not much to eat in the
sheepfold. Actually, there’s nothing to eat – there’s nothing to truly nourish us
and give us life. We might feel safe, but in that safety we stop living so well. We
start picking at each other, because there’s not enough to go around. We get
bored and restless. We get caught up in things that actually don’t matter very
much. Think of the pictures you’ve seen of chickens in factory farms – safe in their cages, but it’s a horrible life.

But Jesus says he is the gate, the way in and out. Jesus is the shepherd who comes to lead us out. Not to keep us here, but to take us out there, to feed us.

In our loud, dusty, amazing construction project here, we are doing a lot of work on the gates of our sheepfold, on opening our doors wide and making the way in welcoming and accessible for everybody. Once this is all done we are going to have a truly beautiful flow to these two buildings, new ways to come in and out, new spaces to gather and linger in, new possibilities on our upper floors that everyone will get to enjoy. It feels like the next iteration of the longtime mission of St Michael’s, to be a community center and hub to everyone in the neighborhood. But of course, as beautiful as this sheepfold is, and as graceful and accessible as we make the gates, our real mission isn’t about sitting inside and waiting for the world to come in. It is in going back out to the world, renewed and restored for another few days of mission and ministry in our daily life and work. Doors open wide both ways, not just in.

That’s the case for us in our lives too. God’s invitation is to step out in trust, not to stay in where it’s safe. Going out of our comfort zones, stepping out of our well-worn routines, the way we’ve always done things. Letting go of our assumptions about who people are or the way things have to be. It’s not just a post-COVID thing. It always feels risky to follow where God leads, into new places and unknown territory. Sometimes it even means going a separate way from where the flock is headed…particularly if they’re all looking at their phones as they go.

But there’s sure a lot more to see outside the sheepfold. It’s way more interesting than staying put. It’s scarier, yes. And maybe there’s the chance that we’ll mistake Jesus’ voice, that we’ll listen to the wrong voices and go blindly off in the wrong directions. But as Jesus points out, the sheep know the shepherd’s voice. The shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out, going ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. The sheep, even the stupid sheep, recognize the voice of the one who cares for them and has their welfare at heart – they’ve spent time with that shepherd, they remember that he has given them good pasture before, that they have been safe with him.

What we do here in church together, what we do in our spiritual disciplines of
prayer and scripture and holy conversation, is to learn that voice, to learn to
recognize the shepherd’s ways. So when we come to times that feel scary or risky or uncertain, we know what to listen for. We can look back at where God has led us, reminding each other of the stories of nourishing love and care in scripture and in our own lives and in the lives of others we know. We can listen to where God has carried this community through its generations of mission in a challenging world. And so we can recognize the new thing that God is doing in our lives, even we least expect it.

God wants us fed. Jesus wants for us life abundant. That’s way more than getting by in the same old same old. That’s new life, new hope, new possibilities. May we faithfully come in and go out, following where he leads. Amen.

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