Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Holy Week begins next Sunday with Palm Sunday, and then Easter Sunday the week that follows. During these past few weeks of Lent, we have been looking at the “I AM” statements of Jesus. These statements are found only in the Gospel of John. All of the Gospels make certain Christological claims, but John is perhaps the clearest. For in using this “I Am” language, Jesus is making the claim that he possesses a unique unity with God. He applies the Divine name to himself using certain metaphors: He calls himself the true vine; the way, the truth and the life; the bread of life; the light of the world. In our passage today, Jesus says that he is the Gate and the Good Shepherd.
In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he has Juliet utter the now-famous line: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What is in a name, indeed? It is a deep question; and, frankly, I haven’t a clue. But if someone has ever forgotten your name, or if you have ever forgotten someone else’s, then you know what an awkward thing that can be.
When I started out in ministry, I went around to the various community groups that we ministers are expected to go to – the ministerial alliance and that sort of thing. There was a real tall fellow who was the executive director of one of the non-profits, the food bank. And at one of the gatherings, he introduced himself to me and gave me his business card. In the course of the year that followed, we happened to be at two other ministry-related events. And both of those times, he introduced himself to me and gave me his business card. And I thought to myself, “Wow, I must really leave a lasting impression!” Three introductions and three business cards, and he probably still couldn’t tell you who I am.
Sometimes we are the offenders, rather than the offended. We go to introduce someone, but we can’t remember the other person’s name. Or maybe someone speaks to us, and we haven’t seen them in a long time and we don’t recognize them. Some people don’t really change all that much over the years; others change drastically. I’ve been away from my hometown now longer than I was there when growing up. And when I go home for a visit, occasionally I’ll run into someone from school or maybe a friend of my parents’, and I haven’t a clue who the person is. They remember me, but I don’t remember them.
It’s a mystery how all of this works. Some people we’d like to forget, but can’t. And others, well, we’re left wishing we could remember. And we blame it on our poor memory, or information overload, or our age. All of these things have a role. But according to Richard Harris, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, it’s not your brain’s ability that dictates how well you remember people’s names, but how motivated you are to learn them. Professor Harris said, “Just about everybody has a good memory for something because people are interested in different things… A lot of people have the idea that remembering names of people is just hard and so they haven’t really worked at it very much.” So, he made a habit of learning all of his students’ names by the end of the first week of class.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus speaks of a shepherd who knows his own sheep by name. The text offers us an interesting combination of two short statements about the gate to a sheepfold and about the shepherd. Jesus says that he is a shepherd who leads his sheep out to find good pasture; the sheep know his voice and will follow wherever he leads. He is also the gate (or door) through which they pass in order to find abundant life, but he quickly returns to the image of the shepherd. On the surface these seem to be two unrelated images – shepherd and gate. But, commentators tell us that in many cases the shepherd was in fact the gate (or door) to the sheepfold. The sheepfold (the pen) was usually surrounded by a stonewall with openings, and the shepherd would lead his flock into these enclosed areas to graze and then stand, sit, or lie down in the opening to keep watch over the sheep.
Sheep are not the brightest of God’s animals. I’m no expert in animal intelligence, but sheep have the reputation for being rather dumb. The prophet Isaiah says, and Peter quotes in his first letter, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned to our own way.” When the Bible calls us sheep, it’s not paying us a compliment. We get lost and get ourselves into trouble. But as dumb as sheep are, they remarkably know the voice of their particular shepherd. So, it is the shepherd’s job to protect the sheep, to look after and care for the sheep.
Most of us these days don’t spend much time thinking about shepherds and sheep. But sheep and shepherds were a common feature in the ancient world, and still are in parts of the Middle East. So, it is not surprising that images of sheep and shepherd are found throughout the Old Testament. The Prophet Ezekiel provides some of the imagery that Jesus uses. In chapter 34 of the book bearing his name, he distinguishes between the bad shepherds and the good shepherds. The bad shepherds were those rulers and leaders who trampled the people in their quest for power and wealth, who fed themselves instead of the sheep. The bad shepherds failed to seek after the lost and the strayed, and they ruled with force and harshness instead of kindness and mercy. In the face of their wrongdoing God promised, through the prophets, to be the people’s good shepherd. God will rescue them and gather them up, seek the lost, and bring back those who had strayed. God will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. Along with this good shepherd who will right all wrongs and restore the people, we have perhaps the best-known image of the shepherd from the 23rd Psalm. The Lord, who is our Shepherd, gives food and comfort to his flock. The Lord’s goodness and mercy are always with his flock as he leads them safely home.
For Christians, one of the enduring images of Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd, which has inspired countless works of art. In fact, three of the earliest depictions of Jesus come from the catacombs of Rome. In these images, Jesus is looking after his sheep or holding a little lamb. This shepherd Jesus knows his sheep individually and calls them by name. This shepherd Jesus guides and protects and provides throughout all of life, from the beginning of life’s journey to the very end.
Susan Andrews recalled the time when she was a student chaplain, which is a terrifying experience they put us aspiring members of the clergy through for our training. Andrews was assigned to the cancer ward of a psychiatric hospital for the destitute where, as she put it, “certain death added an extra layer to the human despair.” One day she entered an isolation unit to find a man who hardly seemed human anymore. His arms and legs were nearly consumed by gangrene, sweat poured from his shaking body and a horrible odor emanated from him filling the room. “Dear God,” she thought to herself, “what can I possibly say to this man?” Her prayer was answered when she spontaneously began to recite the Lord’s Prayer, then the twenty- third psalm. As she spoke the familiar words within that putrid room, she watched the man before her change. He stopped shaking. He looked into her eyes and began to speak the words with her. “In that moment,” she writes, “he traveled back home, back into the rooms of a long-lost faith. When this child of the covenant died an hour later, he had been welcomed by a loving God who had never left him.”
We affirm our faith in the Good Shepherd whenever we say this prayer at the close of a funeral, when the whole flock commends a person we have loved to the eternal care of God:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant
Acknowledge, we humbly pray,
a sheep of your own fold
a lamb of your own flock
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
Even in the most difficult times we have courage, because we know the Good Shepherd is there with us. As Paul says in Romans (14:8), “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
More than a century ago, a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Damien went to Hawaii, the island of Molokai, to minister to those from whom people hide their faces, those who suffer the terrible disfigurement of leprosy. For a long time, his parishioners were reluctant to accept him. They had seen others come and eventually leave in disgust. Why would this man be any different? Their mistrust eased as Father Damien steadfastly continued in his effort to minister to their needs. He was not completely accepted, though, until the day he contracted the disease himself and so became one of them. That Sunday morning, he addressed his congregation as “fellow lepers.” He would no longer minister to them from the “heights of holiness” but from the “depths of the disease.” The healing ministry was filled with a spirit of mutual understanding.
Jesus says (v. 9), “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” Jesus offers salvation, healing, wholeness -- abundant life in this life, eternal life in the life to come, for those who trust him. And we can trust him, not merely because he stands at the heights of holiness, although he does. But we can trust him because of the depths to which he was willing to stoop for us. As our Good Shepherd, as our Gate, he laid down his life for us. When the forces of evil – the wolves of this world – came after him, he did not flee. No, we are told in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Jesus was not looking forward to suffering like some masochist. Remember, in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus obeyed his Father’s will and went to the cross for us. He held nothing back when he gave up his life for us. That’s how we know we have a Good Shepherd.
In this life, we need a shepherd and guardian for our souls, because there is no way we can make it home without a shepherd. There are too many things that can lead us off the paths of righteousness. How many times do we hear, “Everyone’s doing it, so it must be okay”? or “You deserve this or that…” And we can tack our name onto those rationalizations, because many people are calling us by name. But, we must remember, most of those voices are not the voice of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” He said the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep listen to his voice.”
So, who is your shepherd?
 “People Forget Names Because They Don’t Care” by Alexis Shaw (ABC News, June 21, 2012)
 “At Home in God: Psalm 23,” by Susan Andrews, The Christian Century (April 14, 1999).
 Russell F. Anderson, Lectionary Preaching Workbook. (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., 1996), p. 149