“Ehhhh wooly wooly!!”
“Ehh wooly wooly!!”
Eh wooly wooly is the call that used to ring forth from the mouths of shepherds at Shepherd’s Field farm in Philippi West Virginia when they were calling the sheep to come in from the pasture. I say used to because this farm, an intentional community of households who share land and have in various seasons participated in the life of Philippi Mennonite Church, one of our Conference sibling congregations, is not currently in the sheep business and so when this sound spills out now, rolling over the hills and down towards the pond, it is a memory, an echo of the days when the fields were home to many sheep that, upon hearing the call: eh wooly wooly, would come running! Bobbling, bumbling, and jostling each other all the way up the hill, passing through the gate from one field into another or perhaps winding their way into the barn where grain, spilled generously into a trough, would be joyfully gobbled up.
My sister, Minnette, and her husband Chad have been part of the Shepherd’s Field farm family for more than 20 years now. They raised 2 kids in a house on the hill beside the pastures where sheep roamed. They have hosted our family many times for weekend getaways and holiday family gatherings. And it was them, who taught my child to call the sheep in from the field by yelling “eh, wooly, wooly” when he was just about 2 years old.
At 2, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be a voice of influence and power on your own, so when you are invited to join in the call of “eh, wooly, wooly,” and have large creatures come running towards you, it is an impressionable moment. For several days after arriving home from a visit to Aunt Met’s farm, we heard a small voice wandering around our home calling: “eh, wooly, wooly!” over and over again.
This memory came flooding back to me as I have been sitting, for several weeks, with the John 10 text that was read today. I was pondering the statement that Jesus says about how sheep follow a shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice. The text then goes on to say that the sheep won’t follow strangers, will instead flee from them, because they don’t recognize the voice of a stranger. I was curious about that and reached out to my sister asking her if she thought that was true to the nature of sheep – that sheep will respond to a familiar voice and flee from a voice they don’t recognize.
She responded with:
“[Sheep] will be curious if anyone comes with food. Not sure the voice is the only component. They come more quickly to the familiar. So for ours Eh, wooly, wooly was the familiar part regardless of the voice. It comes from a longer relationship [that] establishes [a recognizable] pattern [through which] they know that [that] call will usually bring them a reward of some sort, preferably food.”
My sister has been in relationship with me long enough to know my patterns and ended her text with: “working on a sermon??”
As I pondered her response about the sheep, I latched on to the reflection that it is relationship that invites something to become familiar and recognizable. In the case of the Shepherd’s Field sheep it was a relationship that nurtured connection and crafted an association with goodness. A repeated interaction of presence that led to life-giving opportunities.
To be clear – not all relationships are healthy and life-giving. Some are more like thieves and robbers who do not show up for life-giving connection and nurture; instead they thrive on misdirection and creating chaos and division. Which is what Jesus is at work trying to point out and redirect in this moment of our story. You see this poetic explanation of sheep and shepherds and thieves and robbers doesn’t pour forth out of the blue. It comes in the middle of a dialogue that started, for us, back on week 4 of Lent when Mick preached about the person who was born blind and had their vision restored after they washed off a mixture of mud and spit that Jesus had placed on their eyes.
In the book of John, this story actually starts at the beginning of chapter 9 when Jesus’ disciples asked him whether the person’s blindness was a result of the person’s sin or their parents’. From that moment on in the conversation, Jesus is focused on redirecting the perspectives at play for everyone involved. This isn’t about sin at all, he says, this moment, every moment, is an opportunity to participate in God’s desire for life-giving nurture and connection for all people.
From there the interaction swirls around in questions and conversations between Jesus, the disciples, the religious authorities, the person whose vision was restored, their parents, and the community at large. There are arguments about who healed the person, how it happened, what power source was behind the healing, about the actual identity of the person who had their vision restored, was it okay that healing happened on the sabbath, and on and on questions swirling around back and forth – the authorities, for the sake of salvation, attempting to maintain a grip on order, power, and control and Jesus, for the sake of salvation, hard at work inviting them to let go.
Jesus resorts to metaphor. To shepherds and sheep – an image most of us can wrap our heads around even if we have no experience actually shepherding or being sheep – we can understand that Jesus is pointing us towards nurture, care, connection – towards relationship. And by including imagery about thieves, robbers, and strangers Jesus specifically guides us towards active relationship that focuses on that which is life-giving.
Metaphor can only go so far. So it’s not really surprising that there is still confusion. Jesus pauses, realizing that they were not grasping what he was saying takes another approach:
“The truth of the matter is I am the sheep gate.”
Wow. Well done, Jesus, this metaphor is a lot less confusing?
Now Jesus is a shepherd and…a gate.
How is a person a gate?
It’s here at this part of the text that I initially desired to run away from preaching this week. Jesus as a gate – and especially as a gatekeeper – has far too long been used by churches as a standard for justifying exclusionary practices in the name of Jesus. Jesus as a gate has been used more like Jesus as a barricade – keeping out those who don’t fit into a tidy image of God’s kindom that has been crafted under the guise of salvation in order to maintain a sense of order, power, and control.
Are you beginning to sense the irony here?
In this passage, which has been so often used as a sort of litmus test for salvation, we actually encounter Jesus attempting to help a community understand that salvation isn’t about getting things right and maintaining order and control. Salvation is all about actively participating in bringing God’s love and justice into the world through acts of presence, connection, and relationship. Salvation isn’t something we aspire to for ourselves for the future – it is participating and making space for all to experience life to the full, here and now.
If we go back to the text and look again, Jesus as the sheep gate isn’t a barrier. In practice a gate is the opposite of a barrier – it is an opening in a barrier that allows for movement. So again, Jesus as a sheep gate isn’t a barrier, or even a one way right of passage.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be safe—
you’ll go in and out and find pasture.
Jesus as a gate is about the holy work of breaking down barriers that prevent the fullness of life. Jesus as a gate is making space for the possibility of life to the full. For those on the margins, in need of a community, a gate is an opening, a space of welcome and embrace. For those in harm’s way in whatever guise it might take, a gate is a pathway to shelter and rest. For those experiencing a dry and weary season, a gate is an invitation to a new space, to rejuvenation, or possibly transformation. For those experiencing seasons of surplus and bounty, a gate is an opportunity to extend hospitality, justice, and joy to others. A gate is a threshold, a liminal space where the Holy draws near, ready to accompany us in whatever comes so that we might experience life to the full.
And life to the full doesn’t mean we’re always living on lush and fertile ground – You’ll go in and out and find pasture – pastures being spaces of life-giving sustenance. Those spaces shift over time, what once was full of sustenance may no longer meet your needs, or perhaps an unexpected space opens up that surprises and transforms you. Jesus teaches us to play with metaphors so feel free to consider what your pasture is like right now and whether you are in need of a gate to something new or perhaps this is a season of sustenance for you. The invitation to experience life to the full is an invitation to ebb and flow with the twists and turns the journey takes. Life to the full means authentic life, full to the brim with layers, complexities, valleys of death, and banquets of delight. Life to the full means that we are never alone in the midst of the layers, complexities, valleys of death, and banquets of delight. Life to the full means that no matter the path, the Holy is with us on the journey as we travel towards ever new opportunities of life-giving sustenance, healing, and wholeness.
Listen again to the words of the Psalmist who celebrates life to the full in Psalm 23:
God, you are my shepherd—
I want nothing more.
You let me lie down in green meadows;
you lead me beside restful waters:
you refresh my soul.
You guide me to lush pastures
for the sake of your Name.
Even if I’m surrounded by shadows of Death,
I fear no danger, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they give me courage.
You spread a table for me
in the presence of my enemies,
and you anoint my head with oil—
my cup overflows!
Only goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in your house, O God,
for days without end.
Perhaps Jesus himself was leaning on the familiarity of these words from Psalm 23 as he shared this metaphor of shepherds and sheep gates with the people gathered around. People he was inviting to join him in the holy work of shepherding by showing up with and for each other, extending acts of nurture and care, and committing to the life-giving power of connection and relationship.
As followers of Jesus, we too are invited to be shepherds of the holy, willing to accompany each other on the journey, no matter the twists and turns, being present with and for each other as we seek the gates that open to create space for God’s love and justice to flow so that all might experience life to the full.