Today’s reading comes from the gospel of John, a gospel quite unlike the other three. Where Mark has roots sunk deep in the soil, John has branches that brush the moon and stars: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God, all things came into being through the word … and the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the eternity of time falling into rhythm with a heartbeat; Jesus is the infinity of the universe captured in the span of a man’s limbs. And in John, Jesus calls humanity to look beyond our noses to see the grand sweep of what God is doing.
Today’s passage is a perfect example. Jesus is in the midst of an argument with a group of Pharisees—an unusually strict sect of Jews—concerned with adherence to the distinctive Sabbath laws of the Jewish faith. But rather than quote scripture back at them, or engage with their argument in any way, Jesus instead launches into a lengthy metaphor which points toward the majesty of God’s action in the world. And he does this by talking about sheepfolds. It is a remarkably involved image; he talks about himself as a shepherd and about the Jews as sheep in a sheepfold. And if that weren’t enough, Jesus says enigmatically “I have other sheep that do not belong to this sheepfold”. This image of a sheepfold is worth diving into because, while sheepfolds would have been familiar to those who grew up in first century Palestine, not so much for a guy like me who grew up in 20th century Chicago. But luckily enough, I know exactly who to talk to about what a sheepfold is: my wife Heather.
What many of you don’t know about my wife (and would never be able to guess) is that she spent half a year working as a shepherd. I don’t mean a figurative shepherd; I mean a literal herder of sheep, 300 some odd Icelandic sheep to be specific. It was something that she did after college, on a sheep farm in the Berkshires. Actually, to call this operation a farm is not accurate, because the men who owned the flock of sheep that Heather herded didn’t own any land. They did own a large number of sheep, true, but no land. So they would move the flock around between different fields owned by neighbor farms, fields that were being allowed to lie fallow for a season. Having the sheep graze these fields meant the landowners didn’t need to mow, and the sheep would helpfully fertilize the fields with manure.
The whole arrangement worked great, in theory. But there was one critical piece of sheep herding equipment that Heather and her sheep did not have: a sheepfold. A sheepfold is a walled enclosure with walls about three or four feet high. The idea is that you can put all your sheep into the sheepfold and it would help to protect them from all manner of predators. And it does so in a very clever way. In Jesus’ day, the sheepfold was there because of the threat of wolves. For Heather it was coyotes. You see, you would need a really REALLY high wall to keep coyotes from being able to get into the sheepfold. But the wall of a sheepfold doesn’t need to be tall enough to stop coyotes from jumping over it, it just needs to be tall enough to keep the sheep from jumping over it. And sheep can’t jump very high. A sheepfold keeps a flock safe not by keeping predators out, but by keeping the sheep in, by keeping the sheep together. Sheep in a sheepfold can’t be scattered. Old sheep and sick sheep and lambs can’t be singled out by predators because the enclosure isn’t that all that big, so the shepherd or the guard dogs can protect the whole flock all at once.
But poor Heather had no sheepfold, no sturdy stone wall, just a weak portable electric fence that the more motivated sheep would constantly break through to go off and pursue their sheepy dreams of greener pastures. On one occasion, this meant that the whole flock broke loose and ran off into a nature preserve. These unwitting sheep did not understand that the fence stopped them from going into the nature preserve because it was filled with quicksand. Did you know there was quicksand in the Berkshires? I sure didn’t. They lost some of the sheep and had to rescue some of the others, but rescuing sheep from quicksand is, itself, a pretty likely way to get oneself sucked into quicksand. All that trouble, because they didn’t have a good sheepfold.
Sheepfolds work exactly the same way today as they did in Jesus’ day because although human beings have changed a lot in 2000 years, sheep haven’t. Sheep are pretty much the same. Everybody listening to Jesus spin this metaphor about sheepfolds would have understood all too well the value of keeping a flock of sheep together and the danger of having the flock scattered. But while many of Jesus’ listeners did herd literal sheep, Jesus is not talking about sheep. Sheep are a metaphor for human beings and the sheepfold is a metaphor too. It is a metaphor for culture, a metaphor for religious ritual; sheepfolds are a metaphor for the shared faith that bound the people of Israel together, forming them into something larger than themselves. Like a sheepfold, that shared faith was important, the people’s faith helped to bring them together in the face of hardship, their faith prevented them from being scattered when the wolves were at the door.
The Jewish practice of sitting Shiva is a perfect example of how religious ritual can be positive and life giving in hard times. After the death of a loved one, it is natural to want to withdraw from other people, to be alone with your grief, to not have to face and accept condolences from those for whom the loss does not mean as much. But the Jewish practice of sitting Shiva means that just at the moment when you might want to isolate yourself, you must accept visitors in your home for seven days. Rabbi Harold Kushner in his seminal work When Bad Things Happen to Good People describes the importance of this practice: “letting people into your home, into your grief, is exactly what you need. You need to share with them, to talk to them, to let them comfort you. You need to be reminded that you are alive and part of a world of life”. This is the same basic rationale behind a wake, or a viewing, or a parade of neighbors dropping off casseroles. In the face of loss or tragedy, one of the most important things religious traditions can do is to draw people together, to encourage people to be with one another.
Shared religious practices are what Jesus was talking about when he utters the very strange words “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. Remember that he is speaking to a group of Jews, Pharisees in particular, people who placed particularly strong value on the traditional community practices of the Jewish faith. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that his message of God’s love, his ministry of mercy cannot be restricted to the Jewish nation alone. The Pharisees believed that they had a monopoly on divine truth, that they alone knew how to approach God properly. Others were free to join them in that strict path, but theirs was the true path. Jesus’ message to the Pharisees was that no one set of religious ideas can contain and define the action of God in the world, not even the ancient faith of the Jews. And I believe that Jesus’ message to the church today is that no one set of religious ideas can contain and define the action of God in the world—not even Christianity.
I am a Christian, and I believe the testimony of the gospel of John that Jesus is the Word of God, that he is the creative principle through which all things came to be as well as the logic by which the universe is ordered. I believe that Jesus Christ is God. So it is ironic that my love for Jesus makes it easy to fall into the same mistake of the Pharisees, that idea that the truth of God belongs to me whereas precisely the opposite is true. It is easy for me to think that my own beloved practices—baptism, communion, the holy scriptures that I love—it is easy to think that my own faith encompasses the truth of God. But in those moments, the living God whispers, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. And thank God, thank God that my own ideas do not exhaust God’s truth, thank God that my own faith journey does not exhaust the pathways to the Holy, thank God that the love of the divine is greater than the span of my imagination.
But hear this: acknowledging that God speaks in more ways than I am capable of understanding is not the same as abandoning the faith that guides my life and through which I experience God. Remember that Jesus speaks about the faith of the Jews as being like a sheepfold. And remember that a sheepfold is an entirely positive image, one of protection and unity and permanence and strength. Our faith is a sheepfold that can keep us from being scattered in the face of threats. It was the shared faith of the people of Israel that kept them from being scattered by oppression and slavery. Neither could the abuse and misrule of corrupt kings scatter them, they were not even scattered by prolonged exile in a land that did not know their God.
And our shared Christian faith has done things no less important and holy. When a terrible tornado hit Rochester Minnesota in 1883, it was the shared Christian faith of the Sisters of St. Francis that inspired them to partner with two doctors with big ideas. Together, a group of nuns would revolutionize the health care system and create the first modern hospital in what would become the Mayo Clinic. And it was our shared Christian faith that emboldened Polish Christians under Nazi occupation to shelter Jews even though by doing so, some would walk into gas chambers with their brothers and sisters. The Christian faith allows us to do great things because the Lord’s prayer brings us comfort in the face of chaos, and because confession helps us see where we have strayed, and because communion strengthens us to attempt what might seem to be impossible. It is because we know that the God we worship is greater than the scope of our imaginations that we as Christians are free to follow God without fear. Yes, God has sheep that do not belong to this sheepfold, but that doesn’t change the fact that this sheepfold belongs to God.