Scripture: John 10:1-10
Today we honor and celebrate the women in our lives that have greatly impacted us. We call this day in America, Mother’s Day, but that term although is very important does not always cover all the women in our lives. There are some whose mothers have not been their greatest influence and instead were influenced by their grandmother or aunt. And some have not bore children but have been very influential in the lives of many young ones in their communities. Women are very important to the development of both boys and girls. They teach differently than men, they play differently than males; women have a different perspective that is vital to the development of a child. I say this in a holistic sense, not just the physical development, but also the emotional, and spiritual development of every individual. That is why we honor women. That is why in the Friends church we have always counted women as equal in all areas of life. I would have to say the people I have learned the most from in key areas of my development have been women. Edith Williams was my pastor when I fell in love with the Friends Church; she is the one that taught me the history and basic beliefs of Friend when I was just beginning to understand what it meant to be a follower and Friend of Jesus. Lois Smock was my Sunday School teach when I was in college, I was her only student and we spent hours in study of scripture and she helped me through the roughest time spiritually that I had faced, and also helped me find clearness when I first felt the urges to ministry. I remember one Sunday Lois told me that she really felt I was going to enter into the ministry and possibly be a missionary. I had not laughed harder than I did that day and I think she had a very good laugh as well, but a few months later I was sitting in an airport waiting to board a plane heading across the ocean to Ukraine.
Now those women were not my mothers, my mother has always been encouraging in ways that are difficult to put into words. My mom would teach us but always seemed to allow us to make the decisions on our own, and then let us face the consequences of those decisions what ever they may have been. She would always encourage me to try harder, work harder, never to settle for something second rate, but in the same process she taught me to be responsible. My mom, and my grandmother are some of the funniest people I know, many of the most memorable teachings that they have given were their responses to poor decisions I have made. Some might not find the words spoken as encouraging but those that would judge do not know my mom or grandma, because our family has always had a very dry sense of humor and the most profound thing both my mother and grandmother have said was, “Well that was pretty stupid wasn’t it.” And then they would enter into assisting me in figuring out how to redeem the situation.
Although we honor mothers this day, today is more than that; it is the day to celebrate the women who have helped shape us into who we are. Those people became closest to us know how to talk to us in ways that will reach right into the very depths of our hearts and then pull out the greatest good. They have the ability to look past the quirks and see the spark that brings us to life. These people are the ones that we look up to, they are the ones we wish to please, the ones we honor and seek to make proud. Yes often it is our mothers, but there are others.
I want us to consider the way your mother spoke to you. If your relationship with your mother was not the greatest I want you to consider another very influential woman in you life that helped you become the man or woman you are today. I want you to consider what words they would us to direct and encourage you down the path that has brought you here today. Consider the ways they spoke, reacted, and taught you. You can still hear their voice clearly while you think back. Those influential people are the ones that Jesus often uses to teach us profound things about the nature of God.
When Jesus spoke of God, He often used relational terminology, saying things like Father to direct our attention to the intimacy and honor in the family structure. In the culture of that day the father was the most important figure in the family, it was the father that provided for the family, the father was often the teacher, as well as the spiritual leader of the family, and the father would provide encouragement to the children through personal blessings. In the rare case of a divorce in ancient times, the children did not go with the mother but they stayed with the father. To be without a father was the greatest sign of poverty and were the ones that the religious were often called to support. But cultures have changed as time has progressed, as the culture has moved away from an agrarian society and become more urban in setting the father has spent less time at home so the importance of the mother has risen greatly in the lives of children, especially that of boys. This cultural shift can limit our understanding of what Jesus says when he makes use of the term Father in scripture. In today’s culture it may be more accurate to the spirit of the words of scripture to replace that term with mother, because they are often the most influential and relational figure in a child’s life.
Jesus would also use agricultural references to illustrate the relational aspect of God. When he looked and lamented over Jerusalem He said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37 NIV) These illustrations in that time and place carried greater weight than they do today because as we have moved away from the agricultural culture into an urban culture we do not quite understand the relational aspect of animals, and how they respond to their surroundings. Some today, if they were honest, would not know what Jesus was talking about without doing some research, because they have not had the privilege to observe chickens and chicks interact.
Probably the most memorable agricultural illustration Jesus used was that of the relationship of sheep to the shepherd, which we read about today. This is a very important illustration because like Father, a sheep without a shepherd is a sheep that will not survive. Sheep were one of the first domesticated animals in human history, they have spent so much time under the constant care of humans that there is very little survival instinct left in them. Sheep need a shepherd like an infant need’s its mother. It is the shepherd that leads the sheep to the feeding grounds, it is the shepherd that leads the sheep to the source of water, the shepherd is the one that calls a sheep away from danger and protects them from the threats of the predator. Sheep do very little on their own, in fact a sheep will put its head down, begin eating, and will follow their mouth from one blade of grass to the next until it is totally lost. It is the lost sheep that is then stolen, or devoured.
Jesus uses this illustration because humans like sheep need the social network of others around us. We need the voices calling us and directing us as we walk through life. But again we do not always understand what Jesus is saying because He is speaking in terms of a culture that we do not live. Even the contemporary sheepherders of today do not raise sheep in the same way as they did in the first century. Today we employ the use of fences and dogs, in the first century they did not have the technology to produce various types of wire, so the sheep needed constant supervision. At night they shepherds would gather the sheep together into holding pens, which were usually roofless enclosures that would have a narrow opening and walls all around. The shepherd would lead the sheep into the pen or fold, and would use his rod and staff to inspect the fleece and skin for potential problems, as the sheep would walk by. When they were all safely in the fold, the shepherd would tend to the various injuries and when the sun went down he would sleep in the opening keeping the sheep in and potential threats out. During certain times of the year the shepherds would lead the sheep to more rigorous folds, that had higher walls and more security because as the fleeces became fuller, the threat of thieves trying to obtain the wool while the shepherd slept increased. The sheep were so accustomed to this routine of entering the fold every night and exiting every morning, they would often not move until the shepherd called for them. Since sheep would not move to follow a stranger’s voice and since the shepherd was in the gate, the only way to steal a sheep was to hop over the wall and then lift the sheep out.
Day in and day out for centuries shepherds have done this same thing. Year after year the sheep follow the voice of the one that leads them. When they hear a voice they do not know they run away, but the voice of the shepherd calmed them. The people understood the idea and concept of the shepherd in the first century, this is nothing new to scripture because David often would refer to God as his shepherd. What they did not understand was the context that Jesus was speaking in. Jesus was saying these things to the religious leaders of his day. He spoke these words after he gave sight to a man who was born blind. And when the leaders began investigating how this thing happened, it became clear that Jesus was attracting more of a following than the most prominent religious leaders of the day. Because of this the man that Jesus healed was driven out of the synagogue out of the community and Jesus then told them that they where the ones blind. So he uses this illustration saying that these leaders and teacher were not shepherds but thieves. They were not looking after the sheep but taking them away from the fold of God.
This is pretty steep and serious charge. Through their teachings if a person did not follow them exactly they could be totally removed from the community. In that culture to be removed from the community was to be removed from God totally, there were not other options, if you were not part of the synagogue you were equal to a gentile, and not welcome in the temple. If you were not welcome in the temple you then could not be forgiven of your sins and were damned to Hell. That is what the blind man was facing when he chose to follow Jesus. But Jesus turned their teachings around on them and said no you are the ones that are the thieves you are the ones that are keeping the sheep out of the fold of God. “I am the Gate,” Jesus says. Jesus is the one that stands guard, watches over, protects, and nurtures the sheep. Not the leaders, not the teachers, and not the priests. Jesus goes on to say, “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.”
This brings us to some very touchy situations. The religious leaders Jesus is speaking to were the ones that were keeping the faith pure. They were the righteous ones. They were the ones that had all the answers and held the keys to interpreting the laws. Yet Jesus accepted the one that they rejected. Jesus says whoever enters by me will be saved. They put conditions on acceptance into the community yet Jesus opens the gate and calls out to the sheep.
I want us to again reflect on those women in our lives that have help shape us. I mentioned that they would often reach deep into our hearts and pull out what is good, that they would look beyond our quirkiness and see the spark within that could be fed until we become fully alive. They, like Jesus, look at us in love. They may not like what we do but they continue to provide encouragement every step we take. Often our mothers are like our shepherd, they lead and guide us for a while but eventually they release us, and we must listen for the voice of God on our own. But what voices are we listening too?
We sitting here today easily become like the religious leaders that Jesus called sheep thieves. We are the keepers of the faith, but are we listening to the voice of the Shepherd or are we letting other voices enter in. I spoke of two women that were very important to my own faith; they each were active ministers during two fundamental periods of my life. One taught me about Friends, and she spoke about how Friends would seek and listen for the voice of God to direct them to speak and act in their lives. That act of listening for the voice of God is at the very heart of our faith. But how do we do this? How do we remove the distractions from all around us and just listen to the direct guidance of our shepherd. We enter into the rhythm of life that Jesus taught a life of worship, prayer, and service. But some times we cannot remove all the distractions and at times we may feel confused and that is where we need the encouragement of friends to help us find clearness. Gently listening and urging us, encouraging and questioning us until we feel we have the answer from God.
There is another lesson to learn from the shepherd. When I was working on the farm we raised livestock but cattle are not the same as sheep. Cattle are driven where sheep are lead. Cattle are pushed and prodded along, and sheep are called. There is a difference; one is forced the other is encouraged, one is controlled the other is guided. Parents, and others that mean the most to us guide us and encourage us to become complete. Jesus does not force us to become His followers, he does not demand us to adhere to rules but he calls us to a life of completion.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends. I encourage each of us to remember our mothers. Remember how they encouraged us and guided us. If there is pain, ask the Spirit to help you forgive and to see them through His eyes. I also encourage us to consider the Shepherd. Are we listening to His voice or are we listening to the voices of our culture? Are we hearing his calls or are we like the Pharisees trying to control our own lives and the lives of those around us? Let us also consider how we can become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, living the love of Christ with others.