Picture a sheep pen. A sheep pen - or, “sheepfold” - is an enclosed area, with a wall or fence around it. The fence would be made of stones or, maybe, large sticks. At one end there would be a gate - an opening - in the wall.
Jesus said whoever climbs over the wall is a thief or an outlaw, but the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd. The shepherd leads the sheep, guides the sheep, knows them all by name. The sheep follow because they know him and trust him.
Jesus described this analogy to a group of people that included some Pharisees and other leaders of the temple...but they didn’t understand. They just muttered, “What is he talking about?”
It’s nice to know I’m not the only preacher who has had that kind of reaction.
So Jesus reworked the metaphor. “OK. Imagine that I am the gate of the sheep pen. You come into the sheep pen by way of me.
“Some people try to get in by climbing over the wall, but it doesn’t work out for them. You can only get in by coming to me. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will find wholeness. Whoever enters through me will find happiness.”
An article I read online pointed out that today is “Good Shepherd Sunday, which is a favorite for many pastors and parishioners alike.”
If I were a rural person in Jesus’ time, a metaphor involving a sheep pen would make perfect sense. It would be a familiar image.
And if you were a rural person in Jesus’ time, I wouldn’t have to describe a sheep pen to you. You would know.
But I am not a rural person - not in ancient times, nor modern. I tend to avoid these sheep stories. A little to pastoral for me, a little too rural. I’m a city boy. I know more about bike corrals than sheep pens. I love hiking in the mountains, I can recognize a number of native plants, but I know very little about raising farm animals.
I’m one of those people who go to the county fair and look at the farm animals and say, “I don’t get it. Why is that animal better than that one? Let’s go get a churro.”
Actually, I don’t say that either. I try to avoid fried foods.
To be honest, county fairs are kind of boring to me.
Just like scriptures that talk about sheep.
But there is a message here worth paying attention to, so let’s figure this out, together...
After Jesus reworks his metaphor, it becomes apparent that the inside of the sheepfold represents the kingdom of God. Keep in mind that the kingdom of God is not just some heavenly realm we go to after we die; the kingdom is now, it is at hand, it is the beloved community in which we can dwell right now if we know the way. It’s where shalom dwells. It’s where people find contentment, happiness, satisfaction.
That’s the sheep pen.
And when Jesus talks about people trying different ways to get into the sheep pen, he’s talking about people trying to get into the kingdom of God. He’s talking about people trying to get into the kingdom of shalom, the kingdom of peace, the kingdom of true happiness.
Think, for a moment, what it would be like to live in that sheepfold. Think about what it would be like to live in a world of happiness.
What would that look like? What is happiness, for you?
It’s an important question. Everyone says they want happiness. Everyone pursues happiness. Yet, strangely, the effort most people put into finding happiness leads them in the wrong direction.
To figure out what we’re doing wrong, we first need to know what happiness is.
We know what happiness is NOT. Happiness is not anxiety, or worry, or loneliness, or fear, or envy…Right? If you want to be happy, you need to be free from these negative thoughts and feelings.
What else? What would you need to get rid of in order to be happy?...
Now let’s talk about what happiness IS. What is happiness? It is peace. It is contentment. It is having enough for today, and trusting that you will have enough for tomorrow. It is love and fulfillment. It is healing and wholeness. It is knowing that, no matter what, all will be well.
That’s happiness. But how do we get there?
Advertisers know that the best way to sell their product is through happiness. Advertisements work to convince you that, right now, you are NOT happy. Right now, your life is not complete. Right now, you are unsatisfied with life.
Yes you are.
BUT, if you buy the product they are trying to sell you, THEN you will find happiness and satisfaction.
That cellphone you have right now: it doesn’t have all the newest features that you need in order to be happy. That’s last week’s phone. If only you had this new phone with all its modern features; then your life would be complete. Your life would be whole. You want proof? Just look at the smiles on the faces of these people using their new cellphone. Does your cellphone make you smile like that?
Maybe you thought you were happy before you saw the ad. But once you saw it, you realized: you’re a loser. Your life is incomplete. There’s no way you could be happy without that new phone.
Here is one way that a sheep analogy DOES make perfect sense to me: This week, on Monday, the Mirriam-Webster dictionary added a new official word: sheeple. They define sheeple as “people who are docile, compliant or easily influenced.” Then they used the word in a sentence, as dictionaries often do: "Apple has debuted a battery case for the juice-sucking iPhone, an ungainly lumpy case for which the sheeple will happily shell out $99."
It doesn’t really matter what the advertisers are selling: phones, soda, cars, clothes, prescription drugs… the message is the same. If you want to be happy, buy our product. And you, too, can be part of the sheeple.
So you buy the product. And guess what? It makes you happy!
But only for awhile.
That happiness doesn’t last. Drinking a coke today isn’t going to make you happy tomorrow. Buying a new cellphone today isn’t going to keep you happy when the new model comes out next week.
Things like this bring temporary happiness, but that happiness quickly fades. Studies have shown this. The happiness from buying a new product is fleeting.
So trying to find a lasting happiness by buying products like these is like trying to enter the sheep pen by climbing over the wall. That’s not the way to happiness. That’s not the way to life in the kingdom of God.
You may be buying a product, but you’re trying to steal happiness. You’re trying to enter into a happy life, but not by way of the gate.
Jesus is the gate to happiness. Or, as he puts it, “I came so that all may have life, a life of abundance, a life lived to the fullest. I am the way to this life.”
Jesus tells us how to live in order to find true happiness.
Jesus never said anything about the size of your house or upgrading your appliances or dressing fashionably or buying a new gadget… That’s because things like these are not the path to happiness.
Jesus did talk about helping the least of these… helping orphans and widows, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, welcoming the outcast…
How do such things make you happy? Well, it seems that you will never find true happiness for yourself until those around you find true happiness.
If you live in wealth but your neighbor lives in poverty, how can you be happy?
If you have rights and freedom, but those same rights and that same freedom are denied to your neighbor, how can you be happy?
If you have clean water to drink, but your neighbor’s water is polluted or poisoned, how can you be happy?
How can you be happy if your neighbor is not?
We are connected to one another in ways most of us do not understand. Astrophysicists know this. Theologians know this. Philosophers know this. But most of us fail to truly grasp this concept.
We are all interrelated. We are all one. What affects one person anywhere affects us all.
Cain thought he’d be better off without his brother Abel. Cain thought he’d be happier without his brother.
So he killed him.
When God asked about this, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. This is the way to happiness, according to Jesus.
Cain thought he would be happy after he killed his brother, but that happiness never materialized. Cain tried to find his own path to happiness, but it only made life worse for him.
Jesus’s path to happiness is different than the path shown to us by society. It’s not the path to happiness shown to us by advertisers, or economists, or the government, but it is the way to happiness according to Jesus. And it is the only path to a deep, lasting happiness.
The way to happiness according to Jesus involves forgiveness. It involves honoring one another. It involves working for peace. It involves acting honorably. It involves gratitude. It involves love - even love for one’s enemies.
Jesus’s way to happiness is easy, because it doesn’t require you to go out and get anything. You don’t need any-thing to be happy. You don’t need a new car, a new phone, new clothes… You don’t need to go to a fancy restaurant and post pictures of fancy meals on your instagram page… You don’t need to be anything other than the person God created you to be.
But Jesus’s way to happiness is also hard, because it’s not mainstream. It’s hard, because it involves going deep within yourself. It’s hard, because cultivating happiness within yourself does not happen overnight. We want instant happiness, but happiness must be cultivated like a garden. Buying a new phone or anything else is quick and easy compared to doing the inner work that is required to grow in love and happiness.
But true happiness will not be found by climbing over the wall. Happiness will only be found if you enter through the gate.