A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 11, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Growing up, my family didn’t do much on Mother’s Day. I don’t know how much of that was my father’s disinterest in corralling the kids into doing something or my mother’s resistance to the commercialization of – well, anything. For whatever reason, we didn’t do much on Mother’s Day. A side effect was that I never learned the history of Mother’s Day – its radical, feminist history. Since then, I’ve learned.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

In the years leading up to the Civil War, West Virginian Ann Reeves Jarvis began organizing ‘Mothers’ Day Work Clubs’ to help improve health and sanitation through women’s education.[1] “An advocate for peace, Jarvis spent the Civil War years treating wounded soldiers and after the war threw herself into her faith by teaching Sunday School in the final decades of her life.”[2] Still, she never lost the dream of having a national Mothers’ Day.

Julia Ward Howe

In 1870, after the carnage of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Julia Ward Howe penned “A Mother’s Day Proclamation”:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

“Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

“In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”[3]

Howe’s version of Mother’s Day, an occasion for advocating peace, “was held successfully in Boston and elsewhere for several years, but eventually lost popularity and disappeared from public notice in the years preceding World War I.”[4] It was Jarvis’ daughter, Anna, who picked up her mother’s vision and began petitioning politicians to establish a national holiday. “Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations – like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association – picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law.  Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.”[5] And thus, today is the centennial celebration of Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

Tony Campolo is a well-known speaker, one of those speakers who I’ll quote from time to time in a sermon. As a result, he has spent much of his career on the road. This meant that his wife Peggy was the one at home bringing up their two children. Sometimes she would travel with Tony and end up engaged in conversations with accomplished, impressive, influential people.

After one such trip, Peggy confided to Tony that sometimes she found herself feeling intimidated by these encounters. Tony suggested she find some way to express how she values what she does. Well, not long after that, Tony and Peggy Campolo were at a party. A woman ask Peggy in a rather condescending tone, “Well, my dear, what do you do?”

Tony Campolo overheard his wife say: “I am nurturing two Homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in order that they might become instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia God envisioned from the beginning of time.”

“Oh,” the other woman said: “I’m just a lawyer.”[6]

In Jesus day, if anyone had a right to say, “Well, I’m just a …” it was shepherds. Their job was important, but they didn’t have social status. That’s why the angels’ announcing the birth of Jesus first of all to shepherds was scandalous.

Mosaic of Jesus the Good Shepherd, found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy.  Fifth century.

Mosaic of Jesus the Good Shepherd, found in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy. Fifth century.

Yet “the shepherd” is a central theme in scripture. David, the runt of his family of brothers, is off tending the sheep when Samuel selects him to be king of Israel. Psalm 23 uses a shepherd as the central image for God. And one of the most important images of Jesus for the early church was Jesus as the Good Shepherd. (This mosaic from a Christian mausoleum is from the 400s).

Our gospel lesson today is leading up to the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” The metaphor Jesus uses in today’s passage is a strange one. You may recall that in John’s gospel, Jesus makes several “I am” statements. There are echoes of Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush when he was first called to challenge Pharaoh. There, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God says, essentially, “I am … who I am.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus says things like, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the vine,” and “I am the resurrection and the life.” And here in this passage, Jesus says, “I am the gate.”

He was talking about sheep and about how they follow their shepherd. At night, in order to follow the shepherd into the sheepfold, the sheep need to go through the gate. And in the morning, in order to follow the shepherd into the pastures, the sheep need to go through the gate. The ones you can trust, Jesus says, are the ones who use the gate. The ones who come in some other way are thieves and robbers who seek to destroy and kill.

“I am the gate,” Jesus says. “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

I’ve got to admit, I’m not sure I totally get what Jesus is saying. But let’s play with this image for a bit.

I’ve read[7] that George Adam Smith, the 19th century biblical scholar, once told about an experience he had while traveling in the Holy Land. He came across a shepherd and his sheep and started talking to him. The man showed Smith the fold into which the sheep were led each night. It consisted of four walls, with a way in. Smith asked him, “This is where they go at night?”

“Yes,” said the shepherd, “and when they are in there, they are perfectly safe.”

“But there is no door,” said Smith.

“I am the door,” said the shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and he wasn’t speaking in the language of the New Testament. He was simply explaining how he did his job.

Smith looked and him. “What do you mean you are the door?”

“When the light has gone,” said the shepherd, “and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.”

I read this and was reminded of times I’ve been a leader at a youth group overnight, worried more about the sheep wandering out than the wolves wandering in, and I thought about the times I picked the bed closest to the door.

If we take that image of the shepherd as the door, if we take that image of the shepherd as the gate to the sheepfold, we may get a sense of what Jesus was trying to say. The gate literally divides the sheep from danger, even death. It is also a passage to safety.

John says that the thieves and bandits are the Pharisees, but they could just as easily be false prophets, bad clergy, drug dealers, or advertisers who promote unhealthy body images. Jesus’ point is getting clearer: beware of those outside the gate who would call you away from life. Get inside the gate before you die to something that is not God.

So what’s starting to develop for me is an image of the Jesus followers walling themselves off from the outside world, separating themselves from the evils. But I don’t think Jesus is calling his followers to a physical separatism. I don’t think he’s urging us to totally separate from the world. The image of the gate has sheep not only coming in to the safety of the sheepfold, but also going out to the dangers of the fields so they can eat. The sheep go out into the world.

The separation that Jesus is making is the difference between living life and living death. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The question this scripture asks me is, Whose voice are you going to respond to? Who are you going to follow? Am I going to follow Jesus, responding to his voice that calls me by name? Or will I allow other voices to influence me? Will I allow pretenders to lead me astray?

Or do I listen only to my own voice? Do I go it alone? Will I try living without a shepherd (or a flock, for that matter)?

Following Jesus’ voice exclusively is a tremendous challenge when we live in a society of options. Every day more options are created that threaten to kill the spirit and harm the flesh. We clamor for the latest whatever because it promises new pleasure, or status, or to relieve our fears. If we get it we find that the pleasure is short-lived or there is already something newer to replace it or that it doesn’t live up to its promise, or that we are just as anxious as before. So we clamor for the next whatever. We become something less than sheep when we listen to another voice, when we follow a thief.

Likewise, when we try to go it alone, we disconnect ourselves from the source. I know the temptation to try to live without a shepherd. Apparently one of my earliest complete sentences was “I want to do it myself.” We like to think we’re independent, that we don’t need to rely on anyone or anything else. Of course, that’s just another lie that destroys and kills.

Jesus invites us to cross the threshold to enter the place of safety and peace of a life protected from those who would steal, destroy, and kill. Those who use this gate find pasture and peace, possibilities and purpose. Those who use this gate will live abundantly, valuing those things that are truly valuable, holding important those things that are truly important.

This is what it means to say, “The Lord is my shepherd”:
To recognize the need for a shepherd.
To live secure under the watchful eye of the Good Shepherd.
To listen for his voice and follow his lead while steering clear of all that lies and kills and destroys.
To take the Good Shepherd’s love into your heart and then to share that love in the world.




[1] Antonia Blumberg, “Mother’s Day Is Steeped In Radical, Religious Feminism,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/07/mothers-day-history_n_5280493.html (updated 8 May 2014; accessed 9 May 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julia Ward Howe, “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother’s_Day_Proclamation (accessed 10 May 2014).

[4] “History of Mother’s Day,” The National Women’s History Project, http://www.nwhp.org/news/history_of_mothersday.php (accessed 10 May 2014).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “The Radical History of Mothers Day,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/radical-history-of-mothers-day_b_3259326.html (posted 11 May 2013; accessed 10 May 2014).

[6] Adapted from an adaptation by James Moore, “Collected Sermons,” from a story told by Tony Campolo, quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 6 May 2014.

[7] In an email from eSermons.com that I received years ago (at least 6).