Sheep Stealing

A Reflection on John 10:1-10

We want an abundant life, and we want it bad. Of course we do. No one wants the limited life. And because we want it so bad, because we are so hungry, because we are so ready to be satisfied, we are easy prey for the traveling man selling miracles in a bottle.

“Step right up!”

His wagon is parked to the side of the road; with a few adjustments to its railings he turns it into a makeshift stage. He hops up, coattails swaying in the wind, mystery in his eyes—the performance is well rehearsed, polished—lethal.

“Fix your eyes on the miracle in the bottle.”

We fix our eyes.

“For the ugly there is beauty is in this bottle. For the poor there is fortune in this bottle. For the lonely there is love in this bottle. For the mediocre there is talent in this bottle. For the old and infirmed there is time in this bottle.”

We haven’t blinked.

“In this bottle there are no limitations, no disappointments, no hard luck—in this bottle there is only what you want, and what you want in abundance.”

The bottle will cost you of course. You don’t think the traveling bottle salesman is in it for you do you? No—he’s a thief and a bandit; he’s here because he knows that each of us will give something for what that bottle promises. The currency will look different; we’ll sell our souls in many ways, but in the end what we give up is always the same. We give up our allegiance to the one who brings us real abundant life.

I’m tired of it. But I don’t have the wisdom yet.

The man with the bottle is like those kiosks in the mall selling the “as seen on TV” products. I have to stop—just for a moment. If I don’t everyone will have an attachment to hook on their vacuum cleaner to cut their hair—and what will I have? Everyone is going to have rock hard abs because they wore an oversized girdle that shocks flabby tummy muscles until they vibrate into a six-pack—brilliant!—and I’ll still have flab. And I’m noticing that there are a few bare patches on the old head-lawn these days. I’m going to need that can of Ronco spray on hair. For all I know the top of my head looks like a cratered asteroid—it’s better to keep the unknown turfed over.

You can watch them all on TV (we fix our eyes). I’ve never seen so much for so little. They only want a little; let’s give just a little (we haven’t blinked). If it works half as good as advertized it’s worth twice what their asking. It has no limitations; there will be no disappointments, no hard luck. It’s all I ever wanted—and in abundance! Have you ever seen such a sure thing?

In verse 7 of John 10 Jesus tells them again. Again. He tells them again because they didn’t get it the first time. Again, and again, and again. What does he tell them?

“So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits.’”

Sheep stealing—I’ve seen it happen—mostly in the south where pastors take on celebrity status. The life of crime begins with a free breakfast at the local greasy spoon, a discount haircut, a good deal on a used Chevy, a nomination to the school board. The love of the people is so intoxicating. Their churches turn into sprawling campuses; their faces are plastered on billboards and the sides of buses. Finally they hit it big—Sunday AM television—seen across fives states in the enviable 8 AM time slot. Attendance at their Sunday morning service triples in two years. Nobody notices of course that all the churches within twenty miles simultaneously take a ten percent reduction in membership.

Why does it happen? Because all those people watching 8 AM Sunday morning TV fixed their eyes and never blinked. The ‘as seen on TV’ was just what they wanted. They went to their own church at 9 wishing their pastor was a little more ‘type A’, a little more flashy, a little more entrepreneurial.

“All our guy does is visit the shut-ins, volunteer at Mercy Soup Kitchen, and spend time with the felonious youth. What we need around here is that preacher on the television.”

Sheep stealing! Be careful—pastors are good salesman too, and we recognize the power of a miracle in a bottle. We are tempted to be peddlers of the gospel, because we know you congregants are hungry consumers. Be careful—there are some whose interest in the sheep has less to do with the sheep and God, and more to do with their taste for mutton.

“I am the sheep gate”—arguably the most unusual and un-poetic of all of Jesus’ famous “I am” statements in the gospel of John. We warm right up to “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world” or “I am the true vine.” “I am the sheep gate”!? The what?

Would you believe he says it again? This time it’s John 10 in verse 9. He says it again.

“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.”

It’s confusing. We recognize John 10 as the “good shepherd” chapter. He says that in verse 11—“I am the good shepherd.” Nobody recognizes John 10 as the “I am the sheep gate” chapter—even though he says it again and again.

It might help you to know that there was a time when shepherds and sheep gates became one. It didn’t happen in the village. When food was plentiful and the sheep could be pastured close-by the flock returned at night to the shepherd’s home. The sheep fold abutted the side of the home, and at night the sheep entered the walls of protection through a single gate that shut secure and the shepherd rested on his own bed. When food became scarce the shepherd was forced to take his sheep into the wilderness, far off from the village, too far to return each evening. Over the years shepherds constructed sheep folds scattered around the wilderness for the nightly protection of the sheep. These community sheep folds did not have gates—just an open enclosure for the sheep to walk in and out. To keep the sheep safe in the night the shepherd lied down across the threshold, making sure that everything in the fold remained there, and everything out of the fold remained there. The shepherd—the good shepherd—became the gate.

“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.”

All your life you’ve waited for the day when you’ll hear the jingle of the wagon and a traveling man will arrive with a miracle in a bottle. Affixed to the bottle will be a label reading “The Abundant Life”—that’s good branding. All your life you’ve waited for the day when the kiosk will display the one thing with no limits, no disappointments, and no hard luck—as seen on TV. And all your life you’ve met nothing but thieves and bandits, selling you snake oil, and Ronco hair in a can.

Timothy Hill died when he was struck by a car while riding his bike to school. Last night Shannon and I spent the evening at Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch in Riverhead as the guests of John and Catherine Moore for a Black Tie and Boots Ball. I wore a red striped tie, and no boots—I can be that way. Don’t worry—Shannon wore boots. The ranch came into existence after Timothy died, because Timothy who grew up with foster children in his home, always dreamed of such a place. His parents, Jerry and Fern, made it happen in his memory. At one point last evening Jerry and Fern got up to tell the story of the Ranch. I’d heard it before—many times actually—but it seemed to me different this time. Jerry and Fern have been at this for a lot of years. The Ranch opened its doors in 1980. Since then it has been 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. Over 1,000 troubled youth have called the Ranch home. The West Islip Church of Christ has supported the Ranch out of its outreach budget from the moment the Ranch opened until now. Many of our members served on its board of directors. Barbara Gibbons was heavily involved—as was Don Bayer and others. It is quite a history.

Yes, Jerry and Fern have been at this for a lot of years—and last night, well, it showed. They are not young anymore. Fern has had her share of health problems. These major fund raising events are stressful and taxing. Recalling your own personal tragedy over and over again—those things aren’t easy. Last night they talked about what the Ranch will be ‘after’—after they are gone. They spoke of the charitable trust they established. They did so while looking out over the heads of all their guests toward the seventy acre campus that is their life’s work.

You couldn’t help but wonder, as you listened to Jerry and Fern’s testimony about the faithfulness of God in reaching the lives of wayward youth, how death could turn into such abundant life. And there was no jingling cart and traveling salesman, no hard selling informercial. This was following the calling of Christ. They took tragedy, brought it right up to the sheep gate, and said “help us, we have nowhere else to turn.” And that sheep gate swung wide open, and took them into the safety of the fold—along with 1000 other boys who also lacked the abundant life—all God’s sheep that someone stole along the way.

Why are you so surprised? The offer has always been there. Turn off the TV. Listen. Again and again he told you.

“I am the sheep gate. I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

We all have tragedy that seems to rob us of life. We all have choices to make in the aftermath. What will you choose? The miracle in a bottle? The snake oil? The televangelist? Ronco hair in a can? Opening a home for at risk boys? What do you think will give you your life back? What will give you an abundance now that you have lost it all?

There is one lying down at the gate, putting himself between you and all that hurts, and showing you how you can be a servant to others and find life from death. It’s the hope of Easter. Won’t you listen to your shepherd? Won’t you enter in? Here is life—here is life abundant. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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4 Responses to Sheep Stealing

  1. Shannon Lugdon says:

    Going to my Shepherd and seeking refuge not just for myself but also bringing many others with me – love it!

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