Good Shepherd Sunday Easter IV 2020 Year A
Many years ago the congregation at St.Mary’s Dalmahoy built a sheep fank in their church garden. It was designed to be the place where ashes could be interred. The fank was built before my time as Rector and it took me a while to ‘get why’ they had built such a feature as a last resting place for members of the congregation. In fact it was years later, when I re-read today’s readings that I finally understood the reasoning behind the design. It was the words where Jesus describes himself as; ‘the gate for the sheep’ that gave me the clue I needed.
On first reading today’s Gospel is rather strange. Jesus talks more about being the ‘gate keeper’ of the sheepfold or fank, than he does about being the shepherd of the flock. We usually have some idea of what Jesus the 'Good Shepherd’ looks like but the idea of Jesus as the gatekeeper or the ‘gate for the sheep’ is more difficult to comprehend. What, I think, Jesus is saying is that; it is through him that we enter the Kingdom of God. We need to go through Jesus to come closer to God and that it is the same Jesus, who once we are in; will guard and protect us from the temptations and dangers of the world.
A sheep fank or fold is a place of protection. It is not a place that the sheep (us) permanently reside in but a refuge in the darkness or in times of danger that we can retreat to for protection and care. It is a place where we can be looked after.
Jesus’ first followers and listeners would have been well aware of the dangers that life held and how they all at times needed a place of security. Sheep on the hillside could be prey to all manner of predators both human and animal and this analogy would have been very powerful to them. There could be many things ‘predators’ that might lead them away from the ways of God.
Life is a risky business and we all need places of refuge to retreat to in order to reflect, recover and re-charge our batteries before we feel strong to re-enter the world. As the gate keeper Jesus shepherds us in, guards us, cares for us and then once things are safe again, leads us out to face the world with all its joys and woes. This image of the shepherd Jesus is a strong and powerful one. For Jesus is portrayed as a protector and leader who is at once both strong and caring. It is his voice that leads us back in times of need and which also soothes us. Jesus is always there ‘looking out for us’.
This is perhaps very poignant for these strange times during the ‘Covid19 Lockdown’. Things can seem to be unfamiliar and scary and we need a place of security in which to hide away for a while, until our confidence returns. It is in Jesus that we can hide and it if Jesus who will strengthen us and guide us forward and we will go forward once we remember that we do so with Jesus at our side. He will never leave us unprotected or alone, even if we cannot sense his presence he will be there.
The sheep fank can also act as an ikon of the church per se. The church can be seen as offering a haven of calm, peace and security in a busy and uncertain world. It is not however a place to ‘run away’ to in order to hide because the shepherd is always there waiting to move us on and out once the dangers have past. The sheep pen can ever only be a temporary ‘holding bay’. For if the pen is seen as permanent it will become a place of stagnation and Jesus calls all of us out into the world as his witnesses not into the church as his slaves.
A good sheep fank or church needs to be a place where we can be challenged to explore and learn new things about God and each other. A place where we can have a degree of security and support to go ‘beyond our ken’ and to discover more about what it means to follow the ways of God as a Christian. A healthy church is one that is like the sheep fank, always open and welcoming but at the same time always a place ready to leave.
I know now years later and understand more fully as to why Dalmahoy chose the sheep fank as a resting place ‘peaceful and secure’ (to quote our funeral liturgy) for the ashes of loved ones departed. The sheep fank offers a resting place but a resting place that is only temporary until Christ returns and calls us forth.
For us Jesus is no bandit or thief climbing over the wall of the sheep fold, he is the shepherd guarding our spiritual well being. He knows us by name and recognises us by sight; he leads us out into new pastures and is our protection against the storms. He really is our loving and good shepherd.