Life’s Narrow Gate

John 10: 1-10

One of the final scenes of the movie Up is of Carl, the old guy who is just besides himself, wallowing in his grief.  He lost his wife before they could ever make their way to their dream vacation, Paradise Falls.  It’s all they ever wanted.  Yet, over and over again something happens, life happens, and it never happens and then her life is cut short.  He’s a grieving man who’s lost so much and is now at wits end with the young boy and the bird that have led him down this path that he just doesn’t know what to do.  They have a big fight and go their separate ways, leaving Carl to return to his house.

But something happens at that house that he’s tried to fly to Paradise Falls with balloons.  He begins to look at albums and realizes he didn’t know the whole story.  He was so trapped in his grief and in the way things used to be, his expectations of that dream vacation, that he had lost sight of the bigger picture and realized it was time to let go.  It’s one of the best scenes of the movie because you see him start to throw out the furniture, throw out anything hung on the walls, anything that was nailed down had to go out the door and gradually the house begins to fly once again, not to Paradise Falls as he thought, but a return to this makeshift community that he had grown to love.

It’s what we encounter in today’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd as well.  It’s not the cute, stained glass window good shepherd that we have become accustomed to over the years.  If you go back to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, this is the follow up to the story of the Man Born Blind which ends up in a fight between Jesus and the Pharisees and the staunch insiders that are wound so tight that they too lose sight of the bigger picture.  They think they know it all.  They have their eye on what they think is Paradise Falls, which more often than not was doing things as prescribed in their own way, and yet they grow angry and tired of this Jesus and today is really the continuation of his response to them after he tells them they are the ones that are blind.

Like Carl in Up, as time goes on and they allow things to become attached internally, their vision becomes more narrow.  They become blinded to the true paradise falls, or in John’s case, a return to the Garden of Eden, and the challenge it is to move to such freedom in life.  So once again, even though they still won’t get it, he uses this image of sheep, shepherd, gates, and all the rest which aren’t anything we’re accustomed to in our society.  They best I can come up with is if you’ve ever been to Ireland you can see rows of small stone walls that seem to go on for miles and then every now and then there is this narrow opening.  All the images used by Jesus, though, is taking what they see as derogatory and turning it upside down.  Early followers of the way or of the Christ were often known as sheep, similar to what in our own history we’d refer to people who might live differently or look differently than us might have been referred to as in life.  It appeared that they had blindly followed something that the rest couldn’t quite grasp because of the lack of depth in their own lives.  The followers, these sheep, had been led to the garden, the pasture, this place of freedom which only has one way through, and that’s through the narrow gate.  There’s no jumping over and knocking the wall down.  You can only through the narrow gate.

Like Carl, because of the narrowness of the gate it’s nearly impossible to take anything through with you.  The shepherd literally acts as the gate by lying on the ground and leading them across to this place of freedom.  We become weighed down by our own illusion of what this paradise is that we begin to lose sight like the Pharisees and the staunch insiders.  We begin to think that things can only be done in one way and no other way.  We begin to replace paradise with the American Dream and think it’s about accumulating, the white picket fence, and gathering things that begin to leave us weighed down rather than free to roam about in this life.  But the life and the life more abundantly that Jesus speaks of in this passage has nothing to do with any of it.  We keep trying to get to paradise falls with all our belongings and all we hold onto but end up stuck in life.  The path to a more abundant life that Jesus speaks of is often just the opposite of the American way of life, not about accumulating but about letting go.

One of John’s central themes is to move to this place of a more abundant life.  It’s not easy and it does come only with a passage through that narrow gate.  The path to that more abundant life is by living a life of conversion, of an ever-changing heart that doesn’t allow itself to become weighed down by fear, worry, anxiety, and all else that a life in this culture often leads us to each day.  The great thing about allowing ourselves to enter into this life of conversion is that on some level it gets easier.  The more we learn to let go of in life the less we try to carry through that narrow gate.  What makes the sheep so smart and how Jesus throws it all on its head is that more than anything, sheep trust that one voice, the true voice.  It’s where the Pharisees and the insiders get it wrong.  They worry about how it looks and all the externals of life, but the path John leads us on through the Christ in a dismantling of our interior life, just as it was for Carl.

As we continue this Easter journey on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we pray for the awareness in our lives as to what we still try to carry with us through life.  Where are we being weighed down and are hearts being weighed down by failed expectations, hurts, fears, and all the rest.  Like Carl, and the disciples, we often learn only by going through and not get comfortable with what we think is paradise falls because the Christ promises an even more abundant life when we learn to let go, cease control, and be led through the narrow gate.  We quickly learn, as did Carl, it’s no longer about getting to Paradise Falls.  Rather, it’s about living Paradise Falls in this very moment and quite often in the life of our own community.

Being and Becoming

Ezekiel 17: 22-24; 2Cor 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34

Israel finds itself in a situation in this first reading, somewhere lost between what they have known and what’s been most familiar and their call to be the “majestic cedar” that Ezekiel makes them aware of in this text. Cedar was a hot commodity. They were considered the most majestic of trees, durable and flexible; they were great for building. So to be called to be the “majestic cedar”, Israel is being called to greatness, and in turn, you and me as well.

There’s one problem…Israel only knows what it knows, and it’s a history that carries much weight with it. Just read backwards from this passage and you’ll hear the plight of the people Israel. They’ve questioned God’s faithfulness in the past. They’ve experienced war and violence. They’ve experienced exile for years and years, and so the natural response of Israel, despite the call of many prophetic voices, is to question and doubt and get lost in the known of the past; they’re holding on tightly uneasy with taking such a risk. Once again, as we often do in our own lives when we live only with what we know, we hesitate and question this call to something like the “majestic cedar”; how can this be, after all we’ve been through and yet, again, God calls Israel to the unknown, to their deeper call.

Paul reminds the people of Corinth of the same in their lives and their relation to the community, the “body”. Like us, they too are also caught somewhere between the tension of the past and their future life. Paul tells in the words that we are most familiar, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” We have a tendency as Israel and the people of Corinth, to just keep doing what we’re doing, even if it no longer brings life and we’re aware of what it does to them and others in their community. But it’s what they know, it’s what they see, despite being called to walk by faith, to be willing to step into the unknown of where God is leading. For Paul, the eye is always on the prize, even if it is not seen and is unknown. Paul has become the majestic cedar that he has been called to and now he leads others on that same journey. He too had to learn as the prophets try to lead, to let go of the known and expected path in order to create space for the true call.

The disciples are moving towards their call in being the majestic cedar as followers of Christ, but of course, need to be taught to trust the internal voice calling them to be who they are. The end of the passage we hear today Mark tells us that Jesus explains everything to them in private. We too must ask whether we settle for the outside interpretation or strive for an insider understanding of what it means to be the majestic cedar in our lives. At this point the disciples are more concerned with what the outside authorities are saying and it makes them nervous and anxious. Maybe most importantly is the first parable Jesus teaches of the man who goes off and plants seeds. Once seeds are planted, even in our own gardens, it’s out of our control. All we can do is wait and trust that something will take shape. We can’t rush it. We can’t pull the plants out of the ground. All we can do is continue to water, nurture, and fertilize; the rest is in God’s hands to sprout the cedar tree within us. Like the mustard seed, it becomes the largest of plants with large branches and a place of refuge for the birds of the sky to dwell in its shade.

Doesn’t it sound great, in becoming the majestic cedar like people Israel? Yet, like them, we too can easily trust only the tried and true of our own lives. Our future is too often predicated on the past and becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy in our own lives that somehow it just can’t be that God is calling me to greatness as God was for Israel. Yet, little by little, and it’s always baby steps with us, we begin to let go of what was, the tried and true, all of our predictions, our lens of the past, our hesitations, the external interpretations of our lives, and all the rest that holds us back and yet we believed so hard over our lives…but now it’s just not true and is no longer life-giving. We are the majestic cedar and God calls us to be it, not simply for all eternity, but at this very moment and on this very day.

The Rumbles of the Ocean

I have now spent the better part of this week with the balcony door open in my room, despite the colder than normal temperatures in Ocean City, simply listening to the crashing of the waves on the shoreline. At times I have also sat and watched it, trying to take it all in, if that is at all possible. I was in some desperate need of time with the ocean, a faithful friend on the journey who has been most consistent. As I sat here the first night, exhausted from Easter and not much time off since Christmas, I was struck by just how worn down I was feeling, to the point that there was endless chatter of negativity that I would need to let go of or allow to pass, even if it meant it would pass as slowly as the waves were crashing. If not, I am aware how easy it is to feed those voices within, allowing them to grow into anxiety and fears, rather than trusting in the “slow work of God” and the quiet voice of the Spirit nudging along.

There’s so much you can miss by simply listening to the ocean. You miss seeing the waters’ foam that builds and crashes with the waves. You miss the erosion of the sands as it has been these days, battered against incessant waves, similar to that negative chatter and the tole it takes on my spirit and soul. You miss the unexpected, all the life that washes up on shore or pokes its head out of the waters, reminding me that there is life beyond what I see. Yet, this time I needed to listen more than observe. I needed to listen to the unknown and trust that “all will be well” and that it’s out of my hands, how they crash, the immensity of them, the erosion that takes place, none of which I can control; all I can do is listen to the known and yet unknown at the same time. It’s been so cold and rainy the past two days that I haven’t been out walking so much, to observe, rather, just listening and listening hard, and as time goes by this week, listening with a better ear, much freer of the negative chatter that was consuming me, controlling me, and endlessly needing and wanting to be fed. Yet, letting it go has allowed what should be fed to be open to hearing and listening to the waves crash, gently, yet with great force and power at the same time, washing away all that has died and opening up space for what is to come.

There’s something healing about the waters, even if just listening to them and their continuous cycle. I don’t know if I can explain it, even though I have tried to write about it, but I know deep down that words cannot even begin to suffice or explain something that is beyond head knowledge or understanding. Something was different today, though, as I ventured out and walked the shoreline for the first time in two days. I heard a noise that I had not heard before. Now there is a part of me that believes it was an illusion that the wind was playing on me as it battered the hood of my windbreaker, but as I walked along, hearing the waves crash and hit, it sounded as if there was a rumble deep within the earth as each one hit. It was similar to the way the house shakes when a heavy truck barrels down the road, shaking everything in its path, or what I’d imagine and earthquake to do to the earth, breaking a part and separating what was once one, making space for something new to break forth. That’s what I heard and experienced as I walked along today, the crashing of the waves and the deep rumblings of the ocean floor, groaning as it pushes forward the strength and the immensity of the waters, swallowing up everything in its path, including my feet which felt its bitter wrath of cold today.

Even as I wrap this up, I sit here listening. No, I don’t hear the rumbling of the earth from my room, but I know what I heard, experienced, and maybe what is happening within me since the two are but one. Somehow and in some way, the ocean has a great deal to teach, if anything, to heal us enough to break us open to begin to see just how connected we are, the larger story that doesn’t belong to us but rather we are a part of with the ocean. The negative chatter has mostly gone, thankfully, leaving me in gratitude that the ocean once again fed me in a way that was necessary, a healing balm that has enveloped me and anyone who takes the time to be one with this massive body of water. Maybe, just maybe, that rumbling wasn’t just the wind blowing through my windbreaker and not even just the groaning of the ocean floor, but the groaning within of a God who calls into the deepest part of the ocean blue, the depths of my being and soul, to a life of love, to the life which God desires.

Passing Through

Isaiah 55: 1-11; Mark 1: 7-11

Life seems to become much more manageable when you can finally accept the fact that we are simply passing through this life. We come from God and are called to return to God along the way. We are all visitors, guests, immigrants to this land making the journey home, to God. As is this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I couldn’t help but to think of my time in the Holy Land back in October because the Jordan River was one of our destinations. We visited the spot where it’s believed that Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan. The fascinating thing about getting there, though, is the drive to the Jordan. We had to pass through this long road that seemed endless at times. The further we got along on the road, you began to see large fences on the sides with signs warning you to stay off the land because of land mines. As we passed through, I couldn’t help but to be enthralled by it all that in making our way to the Jordan, to be baptized for some, we would first have to pass through old war zones, battlefields from fought wars on both sides in Israel and Jordan.

The trouble for us humans, is, that the passing through, like going through a battlefield, is often the most painful and most challenging. When we finally get there all is but forgotten or viewed through a different lens, but passing through the battlefield of life can be challenging at times to say the least. Now it may not be the battlefield of Paris or Ferguson. It may not be the battlefield of Iraq or New York, but a battle nonetheless, and one that comes at great cost, the battle that often ensues within for the life of our heart and soul. It is a battle for the right of our soul and the soul being reclaimed in its true identity, its identity in Christ.

People Israel knew it all too often in their own journey. They didn’t always understand their place and God’s and how they too were passing through this world. They took hold of the land and possessed it, attaching themselves and often finding themselves on the outside looking in through exile, exodus, even having to pass through the Red Sea. This first reading we hear this weekend from Isaiah we will again hear on Holy Saturday when we celebrate the Easter Sacraments. They are once again in that place of being outside and looking towards the promised land, longing and waiting. There is a thirst and hunger, as Isaiah says, leading them to the water to quench thirst and hunger, a loss of their identity in relation to God leaves them elsewhere longing to be home again with God, but first again this passing through, painful, as we know, in giving birth.

Just when you think you’re there and you are about to have your thirst quenched and hunger fed, we come to the bank of the Jordan River. There is that final push. Think about how upset people Israel was with Moses when he led them to the Sea, questioning and doubting where it is that they had been led, and yet, another invitation to trust that the great passage through the waters would lead to the land that was promised, a life that was and is promised. Just as we find ourselves passing beyond the battlefield of life and the one that lies within us, there’s that one more passage into the Jordan.

They say it’s like it was at the time of Jesus as we hear in today’s gospel. It’s milky white and quite murky. It’s not like the Caribbean or some other Sea where you want to just jump in. There’s hesitation because we don’t know what’s beneath. We don’t know where we’re stepping. Will I sink? Is it deep? Will I get swept away, although unlikely? All these things hold us back at the bank of the Jordan. From the very beginning of Jesus’ journey in Mark’s Gospel, we find ourselves with hesitation to where he leads because it will require trust and faith of us to take that step off the banks of the Jordan and into the unknown, even though we know it’s where we are being led and need to go. It is an immersion into the depths of our being that we must be willing to take, the Jordan of our being that identifies us in Christ.

At that very moment, the empty crib and the fullness of the crib become one in the waters of the Jordan. At that very moment, life and death become intertwined. At that very moment, the heavens and earth unite. At that very moment, our true identity is revealed in Christ. You see, when we pass through the waters of Baptism, it’s not just about membership. It’s not just about being a part of this group or another. It is a revealing of our own identity and participation in the great mystery of our faith, an outward sign, as we define a sacrament, of an inward reality, our true identity in Christ. This is not just something receive in the waters of Baptism. It’s who we truly are and the mystery we are invited into each and every day of our lives as we seek to be plunged into the depths and to be raised to new life.

As we close out this Christmas Season and prepare for these weeks of Ordinary Time, we must ask and be honest with ourselves as to where we are on our own journey of faith, as individuals and as community. Do we find ourselves still in the battles of life, fighting for the right to our soul? Do we find ourselves lost in the weariness of it all, longing and hoping as people Israel? Do we find ourselves at the banks of the Jordan River, at peace with many of our battles, passing through the many land mines, waiting with great faith and yet fear to step into the waters to be swept away and taken to new depths? Wherever we are, it’s ok because this season is our constant assurance of God’s forever faithfulness and presence among us, leading us into the depths of baptisms to reveal our true identity as sons and daughters of God, ever seeking the great Mystery of our lives as we pass through, seeking to once again experience the fullness of our destiny.