If your church follows the lectionary, last Sunday was "Good Shepherd Sunday", when we read Psalm 23 and sing some songs about us being God's little lambs (lutherancalendar.org is a great resource if you're looking for more on the lectionary). It is striking that the Gospel reading for this day from John 10:11-18 misses the beginning of the chapter, where Jesus says, "The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him" (John 10:3-4). This is an important part of the picture of Jesus as Shepherd and us as his sheep: we need to get out of the sheep pen.
Now don't get me wrong, sheep pens are great. We get to baa out our favorite songs, listen to the greatest stories, even eat some bread and have a sip of wine. We get quality time with other sheep, and we are safe. But it's not where we are supposed to stay. Jesus isn't running a factory farm. Actually, Jesus said he is bringing us out of our sheep pen. We can love our churches (wait, I mean sheep pens) all we want, but if we don't get out and follow the Good Shepherd, there is a lot to lose. I have thought of three ways our faith is hindered by living out our spiritual lives only in the sheep pens.
1.) Little pebbles become big problems. When every sheep is doing its business in close quarters, things get messy quickly, and what would have been fertilizer in the fields becomes hazardous to our health. In other words, our minor issues get blown out of proportion when we spend all of our time around the same flawed individuals, buried in "church business", and never get out into the real world. The little messes we inevitably make can become catastrophic to relationships. Someone might do something offensive, and all of a sudden someone else is "never coming back to this terrible place!" There are wolves out there; why should we worry about a little sheep mess? When we step out into the spiritual world beyond our church and start walking through the valleys of the shadow of death, we stop worrying about the outspoken or judgmental person in the pew. There are people with big problems in their lives, and if we allow it, the interpersonal conflicts we are able to conquer with our fellow Christians can help prepare us to help others navigate the problems that might pop up in their lives.
2.) Fellow sheep quickly become competitors. There are limited resources in the sheep pen, and competition naturally arises. In our churches, when we focus only internally, we can begin to see ourselves in opposition to each other, rather than being on the same team. We start to worry what will get cut from the budget, what ministry will "get" someone to volunteer. Families stop showing up, half-starved, because they can't compete anymore against the "more mature" Christians. However, when we leave the sheep pen, we see that we shall lack nothing- there are green pastures and still waters galore! We can even enjoy life with our fellow Christians. We can go out together (remember that Jesus sent out his disciples in teams), finding joy and peace in the mission "field" God has placed before us. When we spend all day out and about, coming back at the end of the day can be a unifying and joyful process of encouraging each other. God gave us fellow Christians for our contentment, not competition, but we must leave the sheep pen to see it.
3.) We are not following the Shepherd. Every morning when the sun rises, the Shepherd wakes up and moves out of the opening to the sheep pen (remember, the shepherd is the door). And he walks away from the sheep pen. If the sheep stay behind, they are disobeying the Shepherd. Worse than that, they are missing out on the security and true relationship that comes from following the Shepherd everywhere he goes. And there is no more door to their sheep pen- that means they are trapped if true danger comes! We are not following Jesus if we live out our Christian lives only within the confines of our church building. Maybe this seems obvious, but I think we all get caught up in what happens between four walls. It might seem to be safe, but we are only safe when we are with Jesus. While it is light, Jesus is leading us, to new pastures, to new waters, to new flocks (and the same, tried-and-true places as well). We witness to the world when we confidently go out into the world, living by faith in every corner of our lives.
Our churches are wonderful places, God-given refuges in our fierce and carnivorous world. But they are not meant to be permanent prisons from which our spirituality never departs. Our safety is where the Savior is, and you can find him in the dark places, rescuing lost sheep. You can find him celebrating successes, mourning losses. You can find him on the mountain, willing to give up his life for wayward, confused sheep like you and me. And as we return at the beginning of each week to our sheep pen, for nourishment and fellowship, we will come to an even deeper appreciation of the church and community with which Jesus has blessed us. Jesus is calling us and bringing us out; he has promised that we will dwell with him forevermore- let's follow where he leads.
Do you see any dangers in not leaving the sheep pen, in practicing your faith only in the confines of church? What are the blessings that come to your mind, as you live out your faith in Jesus everywhere you go?