April 26, 2021
The following is a homily I delivered in 2020 on this same gospel reading, John 10:1-10
I would like to address two topics this morning. First, I will share the story of a disobedient child. Second, I will impress you with my knowledge of sheep enclosures.
Once upon a time, 1973 to be exact, there was a 13-year-old boy. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call him Rick. (OK, the story is about me.) My friends and I would often play football in the back yard. Occasionally, the football would end up in the neighbor’s fenced-in yard. I would quickly climb over the neighbor’s chain link fence, retrieve the ball, and return the same way.
After doing this repeatedly over the course of time, the neighbor’s fence began to show signs of wear, actually bowing a bit at my preferred place to climb. The neighbor came to our house one morning and very politely asked my mom if she could please tell me not to climb the fence. I was welcome to retrieve my football, she just asked that I go around to the other side of the fence and enter through the gate.
Mom passed this message along, putting the neighbor’s message in her own very clear directive: “DO NOT climb over the neighbor’s fence – use the gate.” Then she added for emphasis, “Do you understand me?”
I don’t remember my exact response, but I am guessing I told her I did understand, and then as soon as she turned her head, I likely rolled my eyes at the unfairness of the demand. Go through the gate? I have to walk all the way around the front of their house and enter the gate on the other side of the yard? That would take forever. Then I likely thought to myself how unreasonable adults were; wondered why this was such a big deal; assessed the neighbor’s fence and determined that the damage to it was minimal; and ultimately decided that the adults would eventually forget about this and I could resume my normal fence-climbing activities.
Fast forward about one month. My parents weren’t home. A couple of my older siblings were in the house. A few of my buddies came over to play some football. At one point during the game, of course, the ball ends up in my neighbor’s yard. I started to make the trip around to the gate when I paused. Mom was not home. I determined if I climbed the fence at a different spot, a spot out of eyeshot of the neighbors, I could be in and out of the yard before anyone was the wiser.
I chose a spot near the corner of the fence to make my move. I pushed my right foot into the chain link and quickly threw my left leg up and over and landed on the other side. It wasn’t a clean landing. I staggered a bit, unusual as I was a skilled fence climber. Apparently, as I threw my leg over, I had hit a spot right above my ankle on something. I looked over and saw the top of a jagged decorative fence corner that appeared to be covered in fresh blood. I looked down at my leg and saw my pant leg soaked in blood. This was not good.
Fast forward again, I remember sitting in the emergency room after receiving 23 stitches. My leg was wrapped from the bottom of my foot to mid-thigh. My mom, with tears in her eyes, kissed me on the head, handed me a set of crutches, and asked, “Well, was it worth it?”
Now, on to sheep enclosures – in particular, sheep enclosures during the time of Jesus.
There was one type of enclosure that was communal. Several local sheepherders could bring their sheep to the enclosure to leave overnight, allowing them to join their families for dinner and sleep in their own beds. A guard was paid to stand at the wooden gate and watch over the sheep. It didn’t matter that the various flocks would all mix together, because, as we know from scripture, sheep can discern the voice of their master. Jesus said multiple times in the gospels, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” In the morning the shepherds would come, offer their distinctive calls, and their sheep would follow them.
There was another type of sheep enclosure. This type was out in the countryside, used more by traveling sheepherders. The walls were of stone and there was no gate. The shepherd himself acted as the gate. He would sleep on the ground in front of the opening, able to wake and jump up quickly if problems arose with his flock.
Which brings me to today’s gospel, and this passage from John. Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.” Anyone attempting to enter the enclosure other than through the gate did so for selfish reasons.
I climbed the fence because it suited my needs. I didn’t care what rules existed for entering the neighbor’s yard. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. My neighbor had not said, “You cannot enter my yard.” She had simply given me directions on the appropriate way to get there. However, I could not be concerned with the needs or expectations of others. Taking a shortcut was easier.
In the same way, Jesus said someone entering a sheep enclosure other than through the gate, by “climbing over elsewhere”, was a thief. A thief has selfish intent. Rather than earn the money needed to purchase a sheep, he takes a shortcut – taking the sheep of another. It is not possible for a thief to enter through a guarded gate. He would be held accountable by that guard.
Ultimately, the gospel story is not about footballs or sheep. It is about gaining access to heaven. Access to heaven goes through Jesus. In fact, Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.”
It is important to note that in both of the gospel quotes I shared with you, Jesus used the introductory phrase, “Amen, amen, I say to you…” What does this mean? It means that it is a point of emphasis for him. What he is about to say is the truth; it is important. It could easily be translated as, “Listen carefully” or in question form as my mom asked, “Do you understand me?”
Listen carefully – the gospel offers us a simple truth: Jesus is our one way in to heaven. He is the gate. There are no short-cuts
When it comes to our faith, we need to put in the work. It is often difficult work, but we can’t look for ways to cut corners or jump fences. We are the only thing keeping us from heaven – our own selfish motivations, our own desires to pursue what we want rather than what is being asked of us.
Or, it is possible we are not hopping the fence out of selfishness at all, but rather out of fear. We would rather not face the gatekeeper. We fear being held accountable, afraid to lock eyes with Jesus and share with him how we’ve lived our lives.
However, Jesus is just like my former neighbor. He is not saying, “You cannot enter my yard; you cannot enter heaven.” He is simply giving us directions on the appropriate way to get there. Jesus wants us in his yard! While serving as the gate, his desire is not to block us from entering, but to welcome us in.
Picture this heart-breaking scenario: After living a life of selfishness and shortcuts, we show up at the gates of heaven and are denied access to eternal life. Jesus, with tears in his eyes, kisses us on the head and asks, “Well, was it worth it?”