The Gate

January 11, 2004



(1/11/04) The Gate (John 10:7-10)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

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Today is a wonderful day here at University Congregational Church. There are two things that make this day special. First, we celebrate communion, which we do only four times each year. Communion and baptism are the only two sacraments recognized by the Protestant church. Since a person can be baptized only once, I am glad that communion is a recurring theme in the life of our congregation.

The other thing that makes this day special is the fact that it is the day of our annual meeting. Most congregations have annual meetings of one sort or another, but for Congregationalists, the annual meeting has a powerful significance that just doesn’t exist in any other denomination. When our religious ancestors came to this land aboard the Mayflower; and when the former Separatists and Puritans from the Church of England established the Massachusetts Bay Colony and started building churches, they founded this denomination we call Congregationalism.

Even today, most denominations remain under the authority of some sort of hierarchy—some system of church leadership that makes sure member churches are worshipping the right way. Our congregational forebears refused to fall under the authority of either king or pope. They refused to establish layers of authority with bishops and priests enforcing the rules. They insisted that God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, was capable of speaking through the people of a congregation. They insisted that the congregation alone would make its rules, hire and fire its leaders, and create the proper forms of worship. Hence the name: Congregationalism.

The heart of this new system of religious polity was the annual meeting. It was then that leaders were chosen—elected—by the members of the congregation. It was then that the people of the congregation determined if the minister they had called was living up to his call.

It this sounds a bit familiar, it should. The Constitution of the United States, written some 150 years after the founding of Congregationalism by the Puritans, was based largely on the constitutions of those Congregational Churches from the colonial period of American history. So we should take some justifiable pride in our religious heritage.

Now, we can do this without looking askance at any other denomination. After all, every denomination, even the greatest, has its share of skeletons in the closet. If our heads start getting too big, we should remember that we are the folks who hung the Quakers in the New York City, and killed off the witches in Salem. But let’s not leave our ancestors on a sour note. The majority of people who came to the aid of the captives from the slave ship Amistad were Congregationalists, and during the Civil War, Congregational Churches served as primary stopovers on the Underground Railroad. We were also the first of the major denominations to ordain blacks and women.

We really do have a great history, and today is the day we celebrate our theological roots. I hope all church members will remain in their pews after the service as we conduct the annual meeting. For those of you who are not members, or who are visiting, I hope you will have a cup of coffee and wait for us in Fellowship Hall. The elected boards of this church do a great job of lining out the church’s business, and we usually make it through our annual meeting in five or ten minutes. It’s not that we’re apathetic—quite the opposite. Our system of governance allows for any signs of discord or dysfunction to be addressed and resolved through the course of the year.

And if you’re thinking, “Why can’t congress work that way, if that system is built on the congregational ideal,” I don’t have the answer. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that there is an even greater spirit at work in this place than in the hallowed halls of Washington.

And now I will do what every good preacher is taught never to do. I am simply going to change course. Since this is the day of the annual meeting, I wanted to dedicate some time this morning to the historical roots of Congregationalism. But I also wanted to talk about a wonderful story I recently discovered regarding the passage we heard read from the lectern this morning—the passage about Jesus being the gate for the sheep.

Preachers are supposed to be masters of transitions. We’re supposed to be able to go from one subject to the next with such smooth skill that nobody notices when we change subjects. Everything just flows beautifully. The sermon runs its course like a gentle river. Well, friends, it looks like we’ve come to a waterfall, because I just couldn’t devise a smooth transition between the historical roots and structural organization of our church, and that passage from the Gospel of John. So having now fallen headlong over the waterfall, let’s start rowing down this river.

I will read an expanded version of that passage we heard read from the lectern, but first, I want to provide a little history of sheep-herding in first century Palestine. We are accustomed to seeing American westerns where cattle are herded from behind. But in the Middle East, both two thousand years ago and still today, the shepherd leads the flock, going in front of it. After a day of grazing, the shepherd leads his flock into a valley, near some source of water, where the flock spends the night in a sheepfold.

The sheepfold is something we have all heard of, especially if we’ve read the Bible, and it is something that Jesus and the people to whom he told his story would have been quite familiar; but I was completely unfamiliar with sheepfolds. And then, several weeks ago, I was reading a 50 year old book by Leslie Weatherhead called The Autobiography of Jesus. In that book, the author gives a wonderful description of a sheepfold, and his description made the story we’re examining this morning come alive for me like never before.

So allow me to describe a sheepfold. I will quote from Leslie Weatherhead’s book: The sheepfold consists of four high, rough walls surmounted by thorns fixed along the top so as to keep out the thief and the robber who might climb up some other way. In one of the walls, the one nearest the stream that threads its way through the valley, there is a space a little wider than a man’s body. The shepherd, preceding the sheep, stands in that gap and faces outward, and he calls his sheep to him by name as they come toward him over the hillside. The author continues, One of the most impressive and lovely things you can still see in Palestine is the way in which, if two flocks of sheep intermingle while the shepherds are chatting or eating, a shepherd with the utmost ease can separate them without any use of dogs or of chasing the sheep about. He stands a little above them on the hillside and simply calls to them by name.

Weatherhead goes on to describe the process by which the shepherd allows the sheep into the sheepfold. As the shepherd stands in the gap—the gateway—the only opening in the sheepfold—he inspects each sheep. He makes sure there are no thorns or briars stuck in its fur. If the sheep has been bruised on its head by a rock or by butting another sheep, the shepherd massages oil into the bruised head. (Remember the 23rd Psalm, which reads, “Thou hast anointed my head with oil.”)

After a sheep is inspected and cared for, the shepherd turns his body sideways in the opening to the fold, and like a gate, allows the sheep into the fold. Leslie Weatherhead’s narrative explains what happens next.

Now all the sheep are folded. The shepherd does not rely on any temporary hurdle or gate to close the entrance. He builds in the gap a huge fire, with himself on the inside, near the sheep. Then, crouching over the fire, he eats his evening meal, watching over his flocks by night. Finally, having made up the fire, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with his feet to the fire he lies down near the sheep… The shepherd may rest, as the sheep do, in perfect safety. Wild animals may be in evidence. Indeed the cry of the hyena and the jackal and even the wolf may still be heard. But wild animals are terrified of fire. They cannot jump the high walls, crested with thorns, and in the gateway between the wolf and the sheep is not only the fire, but the body of the shepherd.

Tomorrow at dawn the shepherd will lead them out again, and in that rhythm they spend their days going in and going out. But in every experience the shepherd is with them.

And now, with that wonderful image of the shepherd and the sheepfold fresh in our minds, I want to once again read those words of Jesus from the Gospel of John:

Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… I lay down my life for the sheep.

Isn’t it amazing how much those words come alive when we manage to put ourselves in Jesus’ world? I had read that passage countless times, but until I understood how the shepherd stood in the opening of the sheepfold and used his body like a gate, I didn’t have a real mental image of what Jesus was saying.

We could delve into all the imagery in that little passage and spend a lot of time there, but instead, as we prepare our hearts for communion, I want to look at one line—one idea from the passage. The line reads, Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Like many of you, I tend to build up a wall of defense when I hear passages about “being saved,” simply because so many people have turned the Christian faith into a shallow and judgmental game—the Save Your Soul Game. The game is won, of course, by believing the right things about Jesus, and by insisting, against all logic and reason, that the Bible is literally true and in all cases the infallible word of God.

But we should reclaim this notion of being saved—of salvation. I refuse to surrender the notion of salvation to those who have turned it into self-centered assurance that their practice of religion is the only one pleasing to God. Salvation is not just a private matter. Salvation is a communal matter. We are saved—healed, transformed, reborn—when we lose our fear and live life for something greater than ourselves.

The Christian life involves both going in and going out. We must go in to our quiet places and meditate and rest and refresh ourselves; and we must go out into the world to live good and fearless lives based on the strength we’ve found. We must go into the fold with other sheep and gain confidence from the strength we find together; and we must go out of the fold and be witnesses of what God’s love has done in our lives.

The Christian life is a life of going in and going out. The Christian life is a life of balance. It is now, as we celebrate communion together, that we enter fully into the fold, knowing that the presence of Christ we find in this moment will be with us in our going out.

I remind you that at University Congregational Church, we celebrate “Open Communion,” meaning all present are welcome to partake: young and old; baptized and unbaptized, Christians and those from other faith traditions. Jesus welcomed everybody to his table, so we certainly welcome everybody to ours.

Let’s join our hearts in prayer:

We give you thanks, God of majesty and mercy, for calling forth creation and raising us from dust by the breath of your being. We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.

We remember with thanks the prophets and teachers you sent to guide us, and thank you above all for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, who revealed to us so perfectly the beauty and power of your almighty love.

And we give thanks for the presence of your Holy Spirit, in this place and time, which unites all of those present to one another and to Christ. May your spirit be present upon this food and drink, as surely as it is present within our hearts, as we partake together.

In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

We recall that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, after the supper, he took the cup, raised it, gave thanks and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.”

(The Body of Christ)

(The Blood of Christ)

Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.