May 3, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, May 3, 2020 in Easter, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

May 3, 2020

John’s Gospel is unique in that Jesus offers seven “I am” sayings. Today he says, “I am the gate.” We recall God had self-revealed in the Hebrew scriptures as “I am”, like a name or more correctly, God’s identity. Only a few days earlier people challenged Jesus for saying he had seen Abraham rejoice, as Jesus couldn’t possibly be old enough to have known Abraham. Jesus says to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” On Jesus’ lips we hear these words to mean, I am in the eternal now. So Jesus becomes the authentic realization of the object of the metaphor. In his feeding the five thousand he says, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus enters our world and draws us into himself. Today he’s talking about salvation itself, and we hear, “I am the gate.”

In the first letter of Peter we just heard “…by his wounds we are healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” It’s another key to why the church informally calls this ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’ The Shepherd metaphor is used in three of our four readings today, and yet his declaration here is, “I am the gate.” That gate is the passage point in the sheepfold’s wall or fence, allowing them both in and out; the gate swings both ways. Jesus is present with us in both our coming in and our going out. He invites us into safety and shelter our rest, we know we’re known and loved, protected. Then in our going out he leads us, reassuring us by his voice that he is with us as we move from secure sanctuary into a world of obstacles, problems, trials and peril. Jesus in both, because much as we might wish it, our lives aren’t lived only in safe seclusion or with defensive walls around us. Our going out into that world means serving others, being present, spreading his love and good news.

The gate is an odd metaphor right now. I’ve talked to many of you who are not allowed to leave senior residences, or worried to leave home for fear of vulnerability. Remember the gate is merely a spiritual metaphor. We know we often serve others more by staying in, keeping distance, using barriers when we go out, —more than by literally crossing thresholds in ways that put others at risk, either by going out or bringing it home. Essential workers count on us to minimize exposure. So letting Jesus take us ‘out the gate’ to serve in times like this means staying in, being careful and considerate about such things, writing notes to those without internet, calling those who are bored, frustrated and lonely, being patient with those you live with, reaching out so one’s loneliness meets another’s – and we are both comforted by Christ with us. This is a time we should physically stay home and yet can spiritually get moving! Grow, pray, practice.

Our metaphorical walls are attempts at self protection, and we build them well. A defense when people might get too close, isolating us when we want to be all about ourselves, or self-pitying, ignoring the world around us. Then Jesus comes along and says he’s the gate through our walls and fences! The gate in our well-built insulated hearts. Jesus is the one who pierces those defenses and calls us by name into our lives; adventures, possibilities, and even into its messiness and problems. He is the gate because all of that carefully constructed defense against our worst fears is the means by which Jesus helps us. I came across one colleague’s commentary (The Rev. Whitney Rice, also an Episcopal priest) who said, Jesus “has 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 the saying goes, ‘God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.’”

Rice tells a story from Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. (It is a book on journeying deeper into the silence of God and negotiating the whirlwinds and struggles, walls and boredom, which though difficult also help draw us out of our own spiritual silence. It’s a wonderful read.)

Laird speaks of walking across the 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 how 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. 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.”

It can be hard to break safe patterns of staying within the fold, the cage, since we’re at ease in the familiar security of a world we know, divided between safe and good on the inside, scary and vulnerable on the outside. On the other side of the gate there is potential for those hard things, yet also the possibility of good things. It’s a world of varying shades of colors, not just black and white, good and bad. Our faith needs to be tempered and informed by all those experiences. The shepherd knows there is a right time for each; times we need to come in for rest and sanctuary, times we take courage to go through the gate to growth, work, challenge, that spiritual gate is where we find new possibility dwelling. When we live too much in the emotional sheepfold’s safety and only for ourselves we are like that dog who carries the cage onto the beautiful moor with him. Rather than finding endless security, rest and safety, refusing to trust Jesus as our gate out to new life, will cage our hearts.

Following the sound of his voice we follow him who revives our souls, as the psalmist says. With us in the valley of the shadow of death, he’s the one leading us to green pastures and to still waters. That table spread with food “in the presence of those who trouble me” is about leading us to let down our walls and break bread with those called enemies in earlier translations. They too are on the other side of the gate, and God calls us to trust that in doing so our cup runs over, goodness and mercy are beside us.

In Acts we heard how after the resurrection the apostles were out in the world baptizing, teaching and sharing fellowship, breaking bread, distributing all they had as any had need. Then spending time together in the temple, eating their bread and praising God in their homes. Jesus was with them in spirit, and was their gate. Jesus is with us here and now, today as our gate.

Lately many of us feel rather ‘caged’ by this virus, and challenged by protocols that serve to keep each other in safety – and so this is the time to open ourselves to ways of being free from the usual things that fence us in, and search for gifts in all of this, and I know you have been doing so. Not only are we tired of zoom meetings, we’re sick of asking and answering “How are you doing? So push yourself to have deeper conversations with people than “how are you doing?” Here are a few from a recent article one of you sent me:

  • What part of your shelter-in-place residence have you come to appreciate the most?
  • What’s the easiest part about the quarantine?
  • What problem—either yours, or something more global —do you wish you could solve?
  • What’s something that you miss that surprises you?
  • What’s something that you don’t miss that surprises you?
  • What’s the last thing you experienced that made you laugh, or cry?
  • What times of the day or the week are hardest? Best?

Think about Jesus saying “I am the gate” and imagine what he shows you both inside and outside your sheepfold. Follow and listen to him in different ways; try something creative; I love Jenny painted last week while she listened to the service. Read a part of scripture unfamiliar to you, a book on faith or prayer. Explore something that opens your heart to growth, like the enneagram, the Daily Office of prayers in the Prayerbook or online, write your own prayers, stories, poetry. Pray your thanksgivings each day while you walk, even if it means pacing your apartment! For Jesus says to you, “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 [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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