It was the summer of 2017. Following graduation from seminary, we packed our bags and moved from central New Jersey to coastal Georgia. Everything was new for us. It was my first call as a pastor. It was a new church, a new state. Sam was only a couple of months old, so we were still weary from lack of sleep. The climate for sure was new for us. Coastal Georgia – even on an island – is a blazing inferno from May through October. The heat and humidity are unrelenting. Even on our hottest days here in Michigan, at least the nights bring some cooler temperatures. Not so in Georgia. We’d have almost daily afternoon thunderstorms. Our northern sensibilities anticipated that the rain would bring relief, but we were wrong. The rain just brought increased humidity and even more sweating. We bought our first home when we moved to Georgia. It was a modest home, but it fit our family of four. My in-laws helped us move into the house. One of the first mornings we were there, my mother-in-law was eating breakfast. Out of the corner of her eye she spied a three-foot long green snake on our back patio. She’d only seen snakes like that in zoos, but here was one on our patio. She looked up from her breakfast and asked, “Where did you move to?” Snakes like that don’t show up often in the Chicago suburbs. As we settled into our new home, I set to work on our landscaping. The previous homeowner had done a fair amount of work to make sure there were beautiful plantings in the front, but as the summer moved along, the annuals overheated and died. I had to learn how to deal with plantings that were entirely different from those I knew from Michigan and Pennsylvania. Now, our home in Georgia had no garage. We had a front door and sliding glass door in the back. Those were the only entrances to the house. The sliding glass door had a latch, but there was no way to unlock it from the outside. So, I went outside to work on the flower beds. Jess had put Sam down for a nap, and she and Annika came out front to see what I was up to. I had left the front door open, but they closed it. Click. The door locked behind them. And there we were – the three of us – outside of the house with no key and a baby napping inside. We didn’t know our neighbors yet. We didn’t know a locksmith. We were freaking out. After a few moments of sheer panic and just a little bit of anger (Why did you close the door without having your keys on you?!?), I decided to see if we happened to leave any windows unlatched. I went to the window on our front porch, and I had no idea how to remove the screen. My default with anything mechanical at that point in time was to just use brute strength, so I was able to pry the screen out, bending it all up in the process. To my relief, our front window was unlocked – who knows how long that had been the case? Weeks? I pushed the window up, threw my body through the window, and unlocked the front door. Sam was asleep the whole time, but never did I go outside again – even to get the mail – without carrying my keys with me. This is the closest I’ve come to being a thief, and believe me, even as I was trying to jimmy the screen out, I was just waiting for the cops to pull up and accuse me of home invasion. It dawned on me as I was putting this sermon together that I wasn’t the only pastor who had to break into a home that year. Bob, the pastor I served with, was on a sabbatical and at a friend’s mountain home in North Carolina. He was spending a couple of weeks there by himself. One day he went on a walk and the door locked behind him. He was in the middle of nowhere, didn’t have his phone, and couldn’t find anyone to help him. Eventually he found a ladder and a small window on the second story where he could break in. I guess our church had no idea their pastors had such skills for burglary! In the end, I guess neither of us were thieves. Certainly, our intentions were good, but that’s not usually the case. In reality, thieves are trying to take things that aren’t theirs. They lessen the lives of those from whom they steal. In John 10 Jesus talks about sheep, shepherds, and thieves. Just before our reading, Jesus has healed a man who has been blind since birth. He did this on the sabbath. The Pharisees have witnessed the way that Jesus flaunts their understanding of how to please God, and so they get into a lengthy exchange with Jesus about what he’s doing and about whether or not it’s OK before God to do these things. So, this whole teaching about the sheep pen, sheep, shepherds, thieves, and gates revolves around a controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders. Jesus begins, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (John 10:1-2). Now, given how frequently the Bible talks about sheep and shepherding, I think seminaries would do well to have an entire class devoted to teaching future pastors about this practice. They might even do well to give pastors an internship on a sheep farm. (The very term “pastor” is related to shepherding, by the way.) So, allow me a few moments to point out what Jesus is up to with this teaching. Let’s start with the sheepfold. What is it? Well, some nights the shepherds would bring their sheep back from grazing to a rough enclosure made from stones or briars. These were not privately owned by each shepherd, so several shepherds and their flocks would use the sheepfold at the same time. These sheepfolds were a way of protecting the sheep at night from predators looking for a meal. Since there are sheep from several flocks in one place, an obvious question comes to mind: How could the shepherds separate their flocks in the morning? I mean, after all, most sheep look awfully similar, don’t they? Jesus answers my question quite directly in his teaching. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Sheep know their shepherds voice, and when the shepherd calls, they respond. Whether they are in a sheepfold or getting water from a well, flocks in the Middle East are frequently intermingled. One commentator notes, “In fact, in the Middle East to this day, you may see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arrive at a watering hole around sundown. Within minutes these different flocks of sheep mix in together to form one big amalgamated flock. But the various shepherds don’t worry about this mix-up because each shepherd knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his own distinctive whistle, call, or play his little shepherd’s flute in his own unique fashion, and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust.” Jesus continues, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). So, the shepherd calls and the sheep follow. Sheep want the shepherd leading from the front. Now, a herd of cattle needs to be prodded from behind, right? The cowboy drives the cattle where he wants them to go. Sheep need a leader. That’s really what the entire 23rd Psalm is all about – a day in the life of a shepherd leading the sheep. The shepherd leads the sheep to place of provision – green pastures, still waters. The shepherd leads them even when things get dangerous – the darkest valley. The good shepherd, a term Jesus will use for himself later in John 10 leads the sheep to a place of flourishing. In this parable, Jesus is the shepherd, and we are the sheep. What does this mean for us today? Jesus’ role is still to lead us to those places of provision and to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. Our role is to trust Jesus and to follow him. In a time when little feels secure, fix your eyes on Jesus. He’s still leading us. He cares for us. Jesus is not a cowboy, driving us from behind to places we don’t want to go. He’s the shepherd, leading us to places of flourishing. We are in a time that feels far more like the darkest valley than the still waters. There is no doubt about that. The worst thing we could do in this time is wander in our own way. Fix your eyes on the good shepherd. He cares for you – deeply and everlastingly. Those things that try to keep you from following your leader are like the thieves that try to break into the sheepfold. They will harm you. Their intentions for you are bad. Fix your eyes on Jesus, for he is the good shepherd who will lead you through even this. So, the shepherd leads, but he also protects. It appears that Jesus is mixing his metaphors in our passage. How can Jesus be the shepherd but also the gate to the sheepfold? I mentioned that these sheepfolds were enclosures made of stones or briars. They have an opening, but there is no gate in the opening. So, how do the sheep stay safe when there is an obvious way for thieves and predators to access them in the sheepfold? The answer is simple. The shepherd is the gate. After the sheep enter for their rest, the shepherd lays down across the opening. The shepherd’s presence across the entrance scares off predators and keeps the sheep from wandering. The shepherd protects the sheep. Friends, we are sheep who really like to believe that absolute freedom is best for us. This season of the government having a heavy hand on our lives has been really hard for us because it has removed a lot of autonomy from us. We can’t just go where we want to go. We can’t just do what we want to do. I have yet to encounter a single person who is thrilled with our present circumstances regardless of their political convictions. As Christians, our freedom always comes with responsibility – a responsibility for our neighbors’ well-being, a responsibility for the care of God’s creation. Freedom for the Christian is never absolute, and, quite frankly, freedom for the Christian is only found in submitting our lives to Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Freedom is found in following Jesus. Following Jesus means we take his lead. Following Jesus means that there are things we shouldn’t do. Freedom only comes in trusting that Jesus is our leader, our shepherd, and our protector – that his word to us leads us in the manner that is best for us. Our passage closes with this line from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). We are conditioned to think that any limitations put on our lives necessarily lead to a lesser life, but that is flat out not biblical. Jesus lays it right out there for us. Do you want a full life? Give your life to me! Do you want to flourish? Follow me! Do you want to be fully human? Learn from me! Jesus is the good shepherd. He leads us to flourishing. He protects us through difficult times. He has come that you – yes, you! – may have life and have it abundantly. In this season where we can’t do all that we want to do, perhaps there is an opportunity for us. Perhaps we have the space in our lives to do a check-up on how we’re doing in following Jesus. When Jesus takes the lead in our lives, we will have life and have it abundantly.