“I Am The Gate,” But You’re Not Going to Like It
They say you preach the sermon you most need to hear, and today I’m definitely writing from a place where I need to hear a good word.
Every week I talk with two colleagues about the lectionary texts and we brainstorm sermon ideas together. We had a good conversation and came away with a solid direction on how to work with John’s gospel this week.
My week turned out to be busier and crazier than I anticipated, and it’s only now, on Friday afternoon, that I’m getting to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be.
And by today, rather than the confident theologian I was a few days ago, I’m finding that I’m the one who needs to receive a message of grace and hope.
A former parish of mine had some tough news this week, and along with being very sad for them, it brought up all my emotional unfinished business around my time there.
I honestly thought I had laid a great deal of that to rest, but life has a sneaky way of reminding you of your feet of clay any time you start to really get comfortable and secure.
So let’s go to the text 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 have sometimes taken 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 I find myself reflecting on a time when I was enforcing boundaries in the way I thought was right, and some other people were challenging those boundaries in a way they thought was right.
We ended up calling each other “un-Christian” and our relationship broke apart.
We each insisted we were the rightful gatekeeper and the other was the enemy, the thief and bandit.
The result was disastrous, and I know we all carry our wounds from those days even yet.
What I think I realize more consciously now is that 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.
But what I’m also realizing is that when we get some time and distance from a conflict, it’s easy to go to the other extreme.
We realize that we could have acted differently, we realize that the other people were only human beings doing the best they could, and we try, in a Holy Spirit-driven quest for integrity, to take mature responsibility for our own part in the breakdown.
But the risk is that now we’ve concretized everything in the opposite direction.
Now your former opponent is frozen in place as the “good guy,” and you’ve nailed yourself down as the “bad guy.”
We’ve made some progress, but we need to go further.
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.
It is his invitation to leave safety and security and go back out into a world of challenges and stumbling blocks.
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.
But 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 is actually Jesus.
Everything we have set up to protect ourselves is actually our very means of being called out into a life of adventure, possibility, and yes, strife and conflict.
And those careful 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 said in his consecration sermon, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us 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 hurting, 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.
But 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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