“I Am the Gate”

(sermon 5/7/17)

*Mar 24 - 00:05*

[Jesus said,] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, 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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”

=====

Back in the day in Presbyterian history, churches didn’t always serve Communion very often. In some cases, they only did it once a year, sometimes in big gatherings like this:

presbyterian communion outdoors

 And many times, before you could take part in Communion, you had to be examined by the Pastor and Session, and questioned about your beliefs and actions, and judged to be sufficiently theologically sound and morally pure to be worthy of participating in the sacrament. If you passed muster with them, they gave you one of these:

scottish communion token

This is a Communion token. These were little coins; sometimes they were round, other times they were rectangular, or oval, made out of lead or pewter or sometimes copper. As for size, the oval ones were about the same size as an elongated penny. Presbyterian churches used these, mostly in Scotland and Ireland, but also in England, Canada, some in the U.S., and even some in Australia and New Zealand, in the early- to mid- 1800s, although some churches continued to use them into the early 1900s. On Communion Sunday, you’d show up with your Communion token and present it to a person at the door; if you didn’t have a token, well, no Communion for you.

Could you imagine if we still did that? Could you picture Eddie R______ standing at the door taking tokens, and chasing away people without them? Or maybe now, in the 21st century, everything would be electronic. Maybe we’d all have cards like a TARC pass with a bar code, or a Metro Card for the New York subway system with a magnetic strip, or maybe something like an EZ-Pass transponder or an app for your phone. And on Communion Sunday, you just swiped your card or scanned your phone to get through a turnstile at the sanctuary door. And when your worthiness credits were running low, you could recharge it – maybe go to the church website and take an online quiz about your faith and practices, and get a few more credits added to your account. Making sure you’ve got enough in your account before Holy Week, when you’ll be doing Communion a lot.

Well, all kidding aside, the whole idea of restricting Communion to that degree, having some kind of wall around any aspect of participating in the full life of the church and having some kind of checkpoint, some kind of gate imposed upon it, and requiring Communion tokens and all that, was a quaint bit of Presbyterian history; in my opinion, not one that we should be particularly proud of. But I think there’s something about that weird little part of our history that relates to the gospel reading that we heard today.

This reading is actually a part of a story that had started in the chapter before this. Just before this passage, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. That sounds like a good thing, even a wonderful thing. But there was a problem with this particular healing, because Jesus happened to heal the man on the Sabbath. No one was supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and according to the religious leaders, healing someone met the definition of work. So they criticized Jesus, even hinting pretty strongly that he’d been sent by Satan, and not God, because surely no one from God would violate the Sabbath.

For his part, Jesus fired back at them, telling them that they were sinning by using their authority as religious leaders by setting up all these restrictions and rulings and limitations, like the one that would prevent doing good deeds on the Sabbath, that aren’t God’s intention at all, and imposing those burdens on others. They’d set up their own gate, with themselves as the gatekeeper, judging who was righteous, who was worthy of getting through the wall they’d built around God. Based on their beliefs, even the blind man that Jesus had healed was a sinner because he’d been born that way. According to them, if a person was blind, or had some other illness or infirmity, it was because God was punishing them for some sin in their lives; they weren’t living good lives, and their illness was evidence of that. It was an erroneous, mistaken belief in Jesus’ time, and unbelievably, some people still make that kind of claim today, when it’s even more erroneous and disappointing because now we know better, or at least we should.

In this part of Jesus’ answer to those religious leaders that we heard today, he rejects all those other ways of defining who’s worthy of being considered God’s own. He rejects all those restrictions and limitations and additional requirements that people would use to set themselves up as the judge of who’s worthy of God’s love and acceptance. He compares people who do that to thieves and bandits trying to climb over the wall and steal the sheep, the people, that rightly belong to God, the shepherd. Jesus says that he himself is the gate, not them. He is the one who provides access between the shepherd and the sheep; God, and the people of God. It’s through him, the gate, that God comes to us, and that we come to see and recognize God. It’s through him, the gate, that we and God can move outward, together.

What does that mean, though, that Jesus is the gate – the access point, the conduit, to seeing, and knowing, and following God? How does that work? How do we get through that gate – or more appropriately, how does God get through that gate to us?

Based on Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, I think that it boils down to a pretty simple set of things:

When you look at Jesus’ life and teaching, do you see what God must be like? When you look at Jesus’ actions, do you see what God’s will is? Do you understand more clearly how God wants us to treat one another? When you look at Jesus, does the good news that God loves us and is with us become clearer to you?

I believe that that’s what Jesus means when he says he’s the gate. Through him, we come to know God, and be able to follow God, better. Nothing less, and nothing more. I believe that when we try to add more than that to Jesus’ claim of being the gate, when we try to limit or restrict access to that gate, when we try to add things that a person has to believe or do in order to have access to that gate and the God who is accessed through it, then we fall into the same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, and so many other religious leaders right up until the present.

We human beings are very good at devising complex theologies, ways of understanding God, and we have a lot of different theologies regarding how Jesus acts as this gate that creates access between us and God. Some of those theories are good; others not so good. Some of those theories, in my opinion, are downright harmful. We have Confession after Confession after Catechism after Catechism, many of which were the source of the questions that had to be answered by those poor, sweating Presbyterians who just wanted a Communion token. Now there’s nothing wrong with theology and theological discourse; I love it, and it’s important for us to consider our faith in depth. Still, the great theologian Karl Barth, who himself wrote volume after volume after volume of brilliant, but incredibly dense and complicated theology – including a lot that dealt with this issue of Jesus being the gate – was asked near the end of his life if he could sum up the single most important theological conclusion he’d come to understand, and he answered simply, “Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I think the way Jesus is the gate between us and God is something equally simple – in looking at Jesus, can we see God more easily? In looking at Jesus, can God be present with us more deeply? Despite all of our efforts to make it more complicated, it really is that simple. I think it’s really remarkably easy – even easier than EZ-Pass.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Doors and Walls (sermon 5/11/14)

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Listen to this sermon here:

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, 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. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

*****

There’s a great poem by Robert Frost called “Mending Wall;” maybe you’ve run across it at some point. In the poem, Frost describes walking along the stone wall that separates his field from his neighbor’s one Spring, him on one side and the neighbor on the other, and as they walk, they pick up and reset the stones that had come loose and fallen out of the wall in one way or another over the Winter. And as they’re going through this annual ritual, it dawns on Frost to wonder why they even need the wall at all. Maybe it would make sense, he says to the neighbor, if they had livestock that they needed to keep fenced in, but they don’t. Their land is all in trees, and it wasn’t like his apple trees are going to wander over and bother his neighbor’s evergreens. In spite of all of Frost’s reasoning, the only answer his neighbor offers up is to repeat the old line, “good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost is feeling a little ornery, and he keeps pushing through that answer and asks *why*that’s true, or if it’s even true at all – and he points out that even nature seems to dislike walls and tries to dismantle them, as they can see at the end of every Winter freeze cycle.

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, every wall does have two sides, an inside and an outside, and along with that, they can be put up to make it clear that you’re being kept out of someplace you want to get into – maybe a football stadium, or some trendy nightspot. Or, they can be put up to keep you in someplace you want to get out of – like the old Berlin Wall, or even a boring business meeting, maybe.

Today’s gospel passage is about walls too, and especially about the door through a wall. It’s actually part of a longer conversation that Jesus is having, and in the very next snip of this conversation beyond what we heard today, he talks about being the Good Shepherd, who leads all of us, his sheep. But before he says that, he says what we heard here that he’s actually the gate, or the door, that we, the sheep, will flow through out into the freedom and what he calls the abundant life, which is waiting for us just outside the walls that have us penned up and confined.

It’s a pretty important distinction that Jesus makes here as he paints this word picture, in terms of how we understand our faith. We aren’t on the outside of a wall that he’s going to lead us through, into some smaller, more exclusive place. He says that we’re penned up on the inside of a wall, and he’s leading us out into the abundance, the wideness and openness of the outside that God wants for us. It isn’t like getting into the country club; it’s more like a prison break.

Some of the stones in this prison wall that Jesus wants to be the door out of are things that we have little or no control of – being the victim of poverty, disease, discrimination. And some of those stones, those obstacles to God’s abundant life, can be emotions – feeling unloved, unlovable, unworthy of God wanting anything good for someone like us. But then again, a lot of those stones are put in place by our own hands. We try to redefine abundant life as simply having more stuff, and we prioritize our lives accordingly. So some of the stones in our walls can be things like bigger houses. Nicer cars. Fancier clothes. Newer technology. Heftier bank accounts. PBS did a documentary once, tracking how over the course of the past century, advertising for consumer goods shifted from talking about the quality or features of the actual product, and moved toward claiming that just having the product would bring you a better life. That it would bring you the kind of personal fulfillment and inner contentment that in the past, people had sought out and found in religious faith, or involvement in charitable work, or similar things.

That documentary was right, and we all fall for it, all the time. Really, just turn on the television. It seems like half the ads we see are just depictions of fit, trim, happy people who never seem to have to do anything to earn a living, but somehow they’re still dressed in the hippest clothes, have all the latest tech gadgets, and live in a McMansion, but they’re almost never there because they’re always out running a marathon or working out at the health club, or eating in the trendiest restaurant. The point of the commercial is that this is the real definition of a full, meaningful, abundant life, and these people have it – and they have it because they use this company’s product – and usually, until they splash the brand name on the screen for the last two seconds of the commercial, we don’t even know what they’re selling!…but we’re pretty sure we want it.

They aren’t selling a product; they’re selling a state of mind. They’re selling a kind of fullness of life that in the end, they really can’t deliver. Culturally, the abundant life became a commodity that we can supposedly get on amazon with a credit card and a mouse click.
To buy into that message – that redirection, that redefinition of abundant life away from the way God defines it, and trying to achieve it in our own way, is to have been misled by the thieves and bandits that Jesus talks about in this passage. They jump over the wall that’s already keeping us from the wide open spaces and abundance that’s waiting for us on the other side, and then they hand us the stones and mix the mortar to make the wall even higher.

The great news for us is that no matter how high that wall gets, and no matter whether someone else set the stones or we did it ourselves, Jesus is still the door through it all. And he isn’t talking about leading us out into that life sometime later, when we die. Yes, there’s something even greater waiting for us in the future, but through Christ – by understanding God by looking to Christ, and putting what we see into action in the way we prioritize things and live our lives – we can know that amazing, liberating, good life – the *real* abundant life – right here, right now.

Before Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he’s the Good Door, and when we go through that door, out into the fullness of God’s kingdom, we see how much bigger and more expansive this thing really is, compared to just our own personal experience of it. Out in the openness beyond the wall, our faith and our very understanding of God, starts to be changed, deepened, by all the other sheep that Jesus has led out there along with us, all of them created in the very image of God as much as us. The poor grandmother from China. The HIV-positive child from Honduras. The unconventional Pope from Rome. The gay Evangelical from Wichita. The grieving widow from Ramallah. These Confirmands, who are going through this door today, too.

Of course, human nature being what it is, it seems like no sooner do we go through this door, leaving our walls behind us, than we start looking around for stones to start building walls all over again, to separate ourselves into clusters of people like us from those who aren’t, as if God actually cares. Walls to line out rich from poor. Urban from rural. White from Black from Asian. Liberal from conservative; Mainline from Evangelical. Presbyterian from Methodist from Lutheran from Baptist from Catholic. Out of discomfort, or maybe worry about how the experiences of all these other sheep in Jesus’ flock might change our own preconceptions about God, we start to build walls to separate the apple trees from the pine trees, when they’re really all God’s trees.

Robert Frost’s neighbor said that good fences make good neighbors. I suppose that maybe, sometimes, they might make good neighbors. But I know they don’t usually make good Christians. And I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus calls himself the door through a wall, and says “Follow me, all of you – forget about the walls and come on out here to the other side, where God wants you, and where the life is truly good!”

Thanks be to God.

*****

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’