I Am The Gate, But You’re Not Going to Like It

This week I’ve found myself thinking about boundaries and barriers.

You hear a lot of talk in the church about healthy boundaries—they’re so important.

And we have now found ourselves in a position of having to observe endless physical boundaries.

We stay at home, we wear masks when we go out, we observe six feet of social distancing—we have to stay separated not just for our own safety but for the safety of our community and its most vulnerable members.

But as you’ve seen on the news, there are some people who are tired of those restrictions and are demonstrating for the government to suspend them.

A lot of people are experiencing serious financial hardship because of the lockdown.

It’s a confusing and frightening mess.

Well, we are in luck because Jesus’ central metaphor in his teaching today is a fence, a boundary, a barrier. So let’s go to the scripture together and ask to be taught, to be healed, to be loved.

What we notice first is that of all the Good Shepherd Sunday texts (years A, B, and C) this gospel is by far the most abstract.

Jesus clearly has something he wants to communicate to us, but his layers of symbolism are so dense that it’s difficult to understand what he means beyond the obvious.

In fact, John even tells us outright that this one is going to take some drilling down: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Traditionally this text has often been used as a means of exclusion.

Jesus says, “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.”

People have used this saying to enforce false boundaries to shore up their own power, labeling as the proverbial “thieves and bandits” anyone who is “unorthodox,” whether that means you have the “wrong” gender, sexuality, race, doctrine, belief, politics, liturgy, etc.

“Not everyone is going to get saved,” is the message the powerful take out of this text.

“Jesus doesn’t love everyone,” is the subliminal but far more honest attitude underlying the pious concern for being “correct.”

Today we need strong literal boundaries for public health, but what I fear is happening is we are letting that fight over them and the other results of this virus reinforce the unfair boundaries in our hearts.

The farther we are driven into anger, fear and woundedness, the harder it is to see any shades of subtlety.

When we feel threatened, we sink into black and white thinking very quickly. All shades of gray are rendered invisible by our primal drive for security.

Everything becomes very rigid, and suddenly we love Jesus’ image of the sheepfold with the gate that is going to keep some people out because by implication it will keep those of us “on the inside” safe.

We will have a holy and secure isolation from “those people,” who will no longer be a threat.

In this circle-the-wagons mentality, everything and everyone becomes rigidly locked into place.

We imprison ourselves and everyone around us into roles of “good guy” and “bad guy.”

There is very little freedom in that place, and very little love.

So let’s go back to the gospel. When we first read it, especially if we are feeling vulnerable, threatened and longing for security, all we see is walls, barriers, boundaries, separation.

That’s what a fence with a gate is, right?

I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “I am the gate.”

He’s not trying to keep people out, or even allow “us” to stay safely in.

Nor is he trying to make us feel like we’re not good enough to be let in, to join the insiders inside the sheepfold.

Stop and think for a moment.

What is the purpose of the gate?

It is precisely to create an opening in the fence.

It is precisely to allow travel through the wall.

It is a means of liberation, not a means of exclusion.

I think that when Jesus says, “I am the gate,” it is his way of inviting us both in and out.

He is telling us that he is our way to safety, to entering a restful place where we know we are loved and protected.

But he is also telling us that we will need to go back out through that gate into the world, even if it is a completely different world than the one we knew before.

We’ve all started to get the hang of quarantine life.

I’m settling into to it so solidly that it’s hard to imagine ever leaving my apartment again sometimes.

But Jesus tells us that once physical safety measures have been observed, we’re going to have to break out of our comfort zone and go back out into a strange new world of challenges and stumbling blocks.

We’ll all be starting from scratch together, trying to figure out how to live together without reigniting the pandemic.

We might expect that of Jesus—that he would tell us that we are safe but that there is more to life than safety.

We could understand that he does promise us sanctuary but he also expects us to go back out and do the good work we are called to do, knowing that it may sometimes end up with us feeling battered and bruised.

We’re not in a place to do this yet—it’s not safe and we would do more harm than good.

But what will our ministry look like when we do return to more physical and in-person work?

Will our healthy physical boundaries, which we need and should continue to observe, paper over the real barriers of racism and classism that have been thrown into such sharp relief in this crisis?

Where Jesus really gets subversive is when he calls himself the gate.

He’s not just saying, “There is a gate in all your carefully constructed self-isolating walls.”

He’s saying, “I am the gate in all your carefully constructed self-isolating walls.”

It’s this stealthy undermining means of salvation that is utterly brilliant.

Because that means that everything that we have labeled as a barrier between us and “people not like us” is actually Jesus.

Everything we have set up to protect ourselves mentally is actually our very means of being called out into a life of adventure, possibility, and yes, strife and conflict.

And those careful, subtle psychological walls we’ve placed between ourselves and others?

Jesus is the gate.

He’s made himself a secret entrance into our hardened hearts, and all kinds of scary people are going to get in.

When we fully understand that Jesus is the gate—Jesus is the entry point into all change, depth, struggle and love—it’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.

As Bishop Lee of Chicago says, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.”

I was listening to Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land and he tells a story that struck me deeply.

He speaks of walking across a moor with a friend who had four dogs.

As they walked, three of the dogs would run out across the moor, leaping over creeks and chasing rabbits and joyfully exploring their environment.

But one of the dogs would only run in a small circle right in front of his owner.

No matter now many miles they walked or how far afield the other dogs went, this dog would only run in a tight circle very close to them.

Martin Laird asked him why, and he replied, “This dog was kept for his entire life prior to coming to me in a very small cage. His body has left the cage, but his mind still carries it with him. For him, the world outside the cage does not exist, and so no matter how big and beautiful the moor, he will never run out across it. I bring him here so he can breathe the fresh air, but he’s still running circles in his cage.”

What I’ve realized about myself this week is that on a good day, when I’m feeling confident and happy in God’s love, seeing the glory of God’s people and God’s creation all around me, gray is beautiful to me.

I set aside the comforting security of black and white thinking and dive into the shadowland between.

Gray is possibility, opportunity, the treasure hidden in the field.

I can handle and even appreciate nuance, subtlety, ambiguity and the uncertainty that is the foundational characteristic of faith.

But when I am exhausted and afraid, not only can I no longer see the shades of gray, I no longer want to.

I am the dog who carries the cage with him out onto the moor.

I think I’m keeping myself safe, I think I’m obeying the rules, but really I’m my own jailer.

I’m refusing to see the open gate in my heart.

I’m refusing to see Jesus.

We’re going to have to carry the cage of social distancing and other public health measures for awhile going forward.

But we decide whether our hearts remain caged or run free, free to love, to forgive, to serve.

I know Jesus is patient with my willful blindness.

He says to me, and to all of us, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Sometimes I wish there were no gate.

Sometimes I wish the barriers and boundaries I’ve placed around my heart were bulletproof and siege-resistant.

But before long God reminds me that that aching hole in my heart, where insight and possibility and all of these people, beautiful, flawed people, keep sneaking in—that is the very presence of Jesus who brings me rest in green pastures, beside the still waters.

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