Earth day was this past week and today is Earth Care Sunday, recognized by our denomination as a day to remind ourselves that God appointed us as stewards over creation. This is why much of our liturgy is centered around the beauty of God’s creation. In scripture we find that a lot of nature is used to describe the majesty of God as well as God’s all-encompassing love for us. A good example of this is Psalm 23, which the Neitrings just read. God is compared to a Good Shepherd who safely leads his flock to green pastures and still waters. When I think of shepherding, I think of this tranquil scene from Psalm 23, where sheep are grazing on lush green pastures by crystal clear streams of water babbling along a rocky shore. There would be a gentle breeze and blue skies filled with white fluffy clouds that of course look like sheep. The shepherding lifestyle in Jesus’ day, however, was not always that peaceful. It could actually be pretty dangerous. For starters, it’s a nomadic lifestyle. A shepherd, the flock, and any hired hands are constantly on the move to make sure their sheep have enough grass to graze upon. This is more and more difficult to do the closer one gets to winter. When pastures surrounding a shepherd’s village are no longer able to sustain multiple flocks of sheep, shepherds must lead their sheep further from their village in search of larger pastures. In later months of the year, it’s inevitable that a shepherd and their flock find themselves so far from home that they have to spend the night in the middle of nowhere out in the wilderness. This exposes the sheep and all who tend them to dangers such as thieves, wolves, and other wild animals wishing to prey on them. To help each other out, shepherds would construct enclosures made of rough uncut stones so that when shepherds and their sheep inevitably found themselves out in the wilderness and far from home they’d have a safe enclosure to spend the night. Notice there isn’t a roof, but the walls would be high enough to make sure any predators wishing to grab a sheep would be kept out. But just to make sure (and if any were available) there would be thorns placed on the top of the walls to deter anything or anyone from trying to jump over the wall. Also notice that there is no door. This is because the shepherd would lay in that spot so that he would be the first to encounter any threat that tried to enter into the enclosure through the front door. This is what Jesus meant when he said I am the “gate for the sheep” earlier in verse 7. He literally becomes the gate for his flock. Jesus is making an analogy to real life. He is familiar with shepherding techniques of his day and so is his audience. Those listening to him would understand the comparisons Jesus makes between himself and a shepherd. So Jesus as the gate, is not only the protector, but also the very entryway into the fold of God. I once agreed to marry a couple where the bride had grown up in the church, but the groom did not. The groom asked me if I could not mention Jesus in the homily as doing so was in his words “too exclusive” and may result in offending some of the guests at their wedding. And he was right. To be a Christian is to believe in the “exclusivity” of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. The only way to God is through Jesus. Not because Jesus wishes to exclude people from God, but quite the contrary. In Jesus we see the lengths to which God will go for all. In Jesus we see what God is willing to do for his flock. He was willing to put himself in harm’s way to the point of giving up his own life to show the world just how much God loves us. In Jesus and only in Jesus do we have the full expression of God’s love for us. We see God’s love for us in how Jesus was willing to go to the cross. We see God’s love and power in how Jesus was raised from the dead and conquered death. There are those who say there are many paths to God, but choose Jesus because they believe he is the “best” way to God. Can you, however, think of another way to God that involves someone (1) who is God (2) who is willing to suffer to the point of death (3) who is able to bring themselves back to life? If we truly believe in the Bible as the word of God then we believe in who Jesus says he is, as well as in his death and his resurrection. In this passage Jesus is talking to a crowd of Pharisees. Most Pharisees owned sheep and either took care of them themselves or hired someone to take care of them — hence the hired hand reference — so they would have been VERY familiar with the shepherding imagery. A shepherd that is invested in the flock will do anything to protect the sheep. A hired hand however, while they may like the sheep, are not as invested in the flock and therefore aren’t as willing to put themselves in harm’s way for them. At the first sign of danger the hired hand runs away leaving the flock to fend for themselves. As a result the sheep scatter and are separated from the rest of the flock, making them vulnerable to any lurking predators. The Pharisees were probably frustrated with their own hired hands who didn’t really care for their sheep in the same way they did. But now Jesus is showing that they are like the hired hands instead of faithful shepherds walking alongside God’s people. They were not attending to God’s people as well as they could have been. Furthermore, none of them can do what only Jesus as the good shepherd can do. While Jesus is the only way to God, Jesus himself is not exclusive. He is always looking for other sheep to add to the fold To quote Earl Palmer, a Presbyterian pastor, He is the only door. Therefore, racial tests for entry or nationalistic, tribal tests are against the parable. The only test we know is how we stand with Jesus Christ himself. This is the only criterion.” While there is “one flock” this does not mean “there is one sheepfold.” The flock of Jesus Christ is diverse. It contains different denominations, worship styles, languages, cultures, races, socio-economic status etc. We may be surprised or we may not even agree with who is added to the flock, but it’s not up to us. It is Jesus who gathers and protects his flock, not us! It is Jesus who seeks the lost, Jesus, not us, who includes. It is not our place to exclude anyone! While that is a beautiful picture of what the body of Christ is supposed to look like, I recently heard some discouraging statistics about the church. For the first time since the 1930s when they started keeping track of religious affiliation, a poll from Gallup found that less than 50% of the American population are members of a church. That number correlates with declining attendance in worship. It’s safe to say that the pandemic has not helped these numbers either. Now there are many reasons for why people are leaving and why younger generations no longer view church as a priority or even as a need. One compelling argument I’ve heard for why younger generations are no longer a part of the church is not because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ, but it’s because they do. From their perspective, however, the church has failed to follow Jesus Christ. Many have come to realize that the churches they’ve grown up in have yet to take seriously just how radical Jesus was. They don’t see the church following in Jesus’s footsteps by not just serving, but standing up for the poor, orphaned or the oppressed or the marginalized. Based on that perspective many feel they have to leave the church in order to truly obey and follow Jesus. I’m not saying that we here at First Pres are guilty of that, but I do think that we and every church need to consistently do a self check of sorts, and ask ourselves: “Are we truly emulating the radical and inclusive love of Jesus Christ?” In other words, are we truly following the Good Shepherd? In all of the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd he always leads his flock from the front. He’s always ahead of the flock. He’s not poking or prodding us from behind or from the side. He calls out to us to follow him and we have the choice to follow or not follow his voice. Jesus was and remains a divisive figure, which means following Jesus is not always the most comfortable route. Right after Jesus gives this beautiful metaphor of himself as the Good Shepherd willing to die for his flock, we learn in the next verse that many thought Jesus was demon possessed because of the outlandish things he said, such as himself being God. But when we follow him we will find safety, green pastures, and still waters – rest for our souls. And not just for ourselves, but for others as well, whose hunger and thirst may not look exactly like ours, but who are nevertheless just as in need. In need of a Good Shepherd who not just gives, but is our hope in the midst of our broken world.