Many years ago I was driving an old bus with a friend. He had gutted a 40 year-old highway bus, wired it with sophisticated recording equipment, and turned it into a mobile recording studio. I was a roadie for him and was driving on our way to a recording job. This was one of those old vehicles that had loose steering. I could move the steering wheel back and forth several inches to keep it corralled between the lines.

narrow brideUp ahead I saw a sign that read, “Narrow Bridge.” As I approached the bridge, I saw that it was indeed a narrow two-lane bridge with traffic coming from the other direction. I watched a car approaching me and saw the there was very little clearance on either side of the car. And here I am in a bus.

I immediately tightened up. My hands gripped the wheel, my arms tensed, I leaned forward, and I began fidgeting the wheel back and forth trying to keep it in the middle of the lane. We made it safely across the bridge, but the constrictions of the situation caused me sudden anxiety and a kind of vigilance I would not be able to maintain for long.

But consider the other extreme. Supposed you approached a sign that said, “For the next 100 miles, no guardrails, no lines, no speed limit, no rules.” That would quickly become the most chaotic and dangerous stretch of road in the country.

Boundaries too narrow lead to a nervous, constricted journey. The lack of boundaries leads to chaos.

This image came to mind as I was preparing a sermon this past week. Nestled in the middle of one of Jesus’ teachings about God as shepherd and gatekeeper is an interesting verse about “abundance” that we too often misinterpret.

In John 10, Jesus is talking about sheep, the shepherd, gates and gatekeepers, thieves, and such, and after a few minutes he realized his listeners were baffled. Too many metaphors.

If I had been the teacher, I would have gotten defensive, I would have apologized for being so obscure, and I would have tried to explain myself. Not Jesus. He said, “Let’s try this again,” and began with more metaphors, again about sheep, shepherds, doors, thieves, and hearing voices.

Then along comes verse 10 where Jesus states that as the shepherd, he came not only to protect the sheep from predators, but he came to give them life, abundant life.

This one verse about abundant life is often pulled out of context to stand alone. We like the sound of “abundant life.” The King James version, the one I memorized as a kid, reads, “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly.”

As a child this verse was easy for me to understand. I had the privilege of growing up in a family where abundant life meant a carefree life. I had a bicycle, a baseball glove, and brothers and neighbor kids to play with at any time. I felt safe at night without even realizing I felt safe. I was delightfully unaware of the financial, health, and family worries that kept my parents awake at night.

As a young adult working as a youth minister, an abundant life meant being joyful. I saw it as my job to live up to the chorus, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” I had a job that was meaningful to me, a lovely wife, and a bright future. However, over time I realized I had to settle for acting joyful about as often as actually being joyful. That definition of abundant life wore out. An abundant life had to be base it on something more than how I was feeling.

I suspect every person has redefined “abundant life” several times over the course of their lifetime.

The use of the word “abundantly” has complicated this verse for Americans, because we typically associate abundance with stuff. We are people for whom bigger is better. We rent storage facilities for the stuff that no longer fits in our houses. We tear down small garages and build bigger garages for vehicles bigger than we need. We insist on walk-in closets for the clothes we don’t wear.

The prosperity gospel we hear from TV preachers is all about this verse. Even the commentaries I consulted for today’s sermon compared abundant life with an airline upgrade to first class. Still the idea of bigger, better, more comfortable. Jesus can’t possibly mean that kind of abundance.

The crowd standing around listening to these words as they were first spoken were people who lived and worked in this agricultural and sheep herding community. Their families had lived off this arid land for generations, and they weren’t going anywhere. These folks did not have the option of being wealthy or of accumulating lots of stuff. Their opportunities were limited to what the land and their hard work provided. No amount of effort, planning, or good luck was going to make them wealthy.

Going back and putting Jesus’ words in the context of his teachings about sheep and shepherds and thieves and gates reveals something different.

shepherdThe sheep were under the vigilant and caring watch of the shepherd. During the warm season, the flock stayed out on the hillside for days at a time. Each night, they followed the shepherd into the makeshift fold, an enclosure made of rocks and branches with an opening through which the sheep came in and out. There was no door of any kind, so when all the sheep were in, the shepherd would lie down in the opening and sleep. No sheep could get out or predator get in without stepping over the shepherd. The shepherd was the door.

During the day the sheep wandered the hillside in search of more grass. If they wandered too far off, they were in danger of being attached by any number of predators in that region.

For the sheep, an abundant life included the protection of the sheepfold and the freedom to graze. If they stayed confined in the fold, they would soon starve. If they wandered too far away, they put themselves in danger.

Could it be that the kind of abundant life Jesus refers to includes an expansiveness of mind, of spirit, and of action as well as guardrails and guidelines to keep us from wandering too far?

This was a revolutionary idea for his listeners. The Jews of that time lived cautious and restricted lives under the critical eye of the religious leaders. Virtually every activity of the day was evaluated as contributing to one’s worthiness or unworthiness before God. The Pharisees interpreted Jewish law, and they judged a person’s spiritual cleanliness. They were concerned about obedience for the sake of obedience.

Jesus said, “I didn’t come to destroy the law. I came to fulfill it.” Strict obedience to the law is not the goal. The goal is to live well, to live abundantly, to experience the presence of God. The law is to guide, to circumscribe, to provide guardrails that both challenge and protect you.

We don’t tell our young children to stay out of the street because we never, ever want them to go into the street. No. It is to protect them in the moment and to gradually teach them to observe, to learn and understand the risks, to make wise judgments, particularly for those judgments are theirs alone to make.

Time after time Jesus defied the strict laws imposed by the religious leaders, but when he was challenged, he always referred to the higher spiritual law that put people and their relationship to God and others above adherence to rules.

Jesus pushed the guardrails back particularly for those who were ignored, oppressed, or most vulnerable. That has significance today.

We are in a weird place in our country. With the many dangers and unknown forces in our world, we are being encouraged to draw lines, build walls, exclude those we do not understand, limit the freedoms of those who are different. This may be politically expedient, but as Christians we must consider what such actions means in the light of Jesus’ teachings and example, not filtered through the political agenda of either political party.

One group Jesus was drawn to was the sick, lame, blind, infirmed, those who were outcasts of society because of some physical limitation. In that day, according to the law, tragedies befell people because of something they did wrong. Physical disabilities were seen as divine punishment for something. Such people had no chance of entering the temple or being seen as acceptable in the eyes of God. They were religiously and literally “untouchable.”

Every time Jesus showed pity, spoke to, touched, or healed someone in that group, he was violating a whole bunch of Jewish laws. And yet he said, “This is the reason I came.” The person is more important than the rule.

Jesus also focused on women. In that culture women were little more than possessions, and by virtue of their gender, had many more hoops to jump through to be considered spiritually clean and worthy. Respectable Jewish men did not speak to women in public. A woman was to touch no man but her spouse. An unaccompanied woman was not to be in the company of a group of men, nor could she enter the temple on her own.

Jesus violated all these rules. He touched women, they sought him out and touched him. He spoke to them in public, he invited them into the temple, and he even commended a prostitute who entered an all-male banquet and anointed and washed his feet. All scandalous moments.

Jesus did not redefine the role of women in this way because he was gallant or nice. It was his way of demonstrating that the person, male or female, is more important than the rule and deserves to live fully.

So what might that mean for us, God’s sheep, this morning? By portraying himself and God as the shepherd and the door, Jesus dispelled the image of God as vengeful, as easily irked, and as punishing. Instead, God is vigilant, protective shepherd, far bigger, more compassionate, more inclusive, and more forgiving than we can imagine, even when we wander too far from the fold.

Our challenge is to live expansively, to show compassion beyond our comfort, to include beyond our understanding, and to forgive those we’d prefer to judge. Damn, that’s hard.