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.

Freedom

Acts 2: 1-11; I Cor 12: 3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

This feast we celebrate today, Pentecost, whether known or not, ranks in the same category as Easter Sunday and yet it never quite has the same flare and excitement that Easter brings. It’s the bookend of the season, it seems that we’re winding down, and then it’s Pentecost. As hard as it is for us to begin to grasp what we celebrate on Easter and the mystery of life and death, Pentecost is probably at least a hundred times more difficult and misunderstood. We can’t see this Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit. Heck, most times we’re probably not even aware of this Spirit. The Spirit is something we just can’t seem to get our minds or hearts around. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t carry the same weight.

As human beings, possibly our greatest obstacle to the Spirit is our need or desire to control. We love to control our own destiny and our lives. We even at times love to control other people’s lives. We know the Institution of the Church is no different. We like to keep order and control. Yet, this Spirit we speak of seems like chaos and disorder. The Spirit makes we speak of seems out of control. And so we find ourselves so often in between. We have the desire to control and at the same time the desire for the Spirit to set us free, the freedom that we know deep-down is what we’re called to in life.

It’s where God invites, leads, and meets us in our lives and always has. The chances of always living in the Spirit is probably nil. There’s always that ego of ours that wants to control. It’s what Paul confronts with the people of Corinth in the second reading today. This, for some, would be the beginning of the culmination of this letter. He’ll go onto to write about the metaphor of the body and then the section we’re all familiar with on love. But here he is today speaking about the one Spirit that comes in many forms. Yet, as I said, it’s coupled with people in power who want to control and dictate. He criticizes them for thinking and identifying gifts by ranking them, as if some were better than the others. That’s not the case for Paul. Paul works on leveling the playing field, especially when he speaks of the metaphor of the body, that all are necessary for the life of the community. One is not more important than the other. When they work together rather than against one another, the community will flourish and grow.

But it doesn’t come easy and we’ve heard the challenges that the early communities faced in Acts of the Apostles all season. They seemed to be in this constant tension of control and the freedom offered by the Spirit. There is some need for the structure that they were creating until it begins to stifle. We’ve heard the conflict and confrontations that they faced, even between Peter and Paul, seeming to pull in different directions, and yet, in the middle of it all lies this tension. It’s where God continuously led them to struggle with their differences. In the end, they are set free even with the structure to create something new by learning to let go and trust in the ever-gentle call of the Spirit leading them to something new. The community grows and flourishes rather than getting stuck and dead to sin.

And so we end where we began, then, with the Easter Gospel from John. There they are, the disciples locked in the upper room as we had heard on Easter. Desiring to be free and yet controlled by their fear. What seemed like an enormous task ahead of them only became daunting because they thought they had to control it. Then there is the moment of freedom. Jesus breathes life into them, entrusting them with the Spirit and freeing them from sin. In this moment of intimate encounter, their hearts will begin to open and crack and life will begin to change.

As we celebrate this great feast, the feast of the birthday of the Church, we gather now looking back at this season and the moments of growth and change that have called us forth. In the tension of life and death, individually and as community, the Spirit is forever at work leading us to the eternal. Yeah, we will always want to control. But that gets old after awhile. We begin to get cranky with life. We become cynical and begin to feel as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders. So often, in a moment of weakness, our desire for control begins to break down and we are led to something new, a different place that we may not even know. The box we had put ourselves in, others in, and for that matter, put God in, begin to break down, and like a strong driving wind, life begins to change, the way we see begins to change. That’s the Spirit at work in our lives. We pray for that Spirit to not only come upon us but to break into our hearts and to free us from our need to control and be set free to live life more fully, a life filled with the Spirit.

Heart of the Community

Acts 2: 1-11; 1Cor 12: 3b-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23

There may be no better time than this weekend to recall that quote that says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” As we celebrate Pentecost and the closing of the Easter Season, it is today that we celebrate and rejoice in that power that comes down upon and dwells within the life and community of disciples and among us. Yet, of the Three Persons of the Trinity, a community in and of Itself, the one we mark today, the Spirit, is probably the most misunderstood. Maybe it’s because we can’t see the Spirit within. Maybe we truly do fear that power of the Spirit that even allows us to be beyond measure. Maybe, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we just don’t trust it.

Today, though, we celebrate that sending of the Spirit onto those disciples in that locked room on that Easter day. How comfortable we can become in the confines of that locked, upper room, the upper room of our heads where fear, anxiety, and the need to control have a tendency to take over, leaving us with doubt that life can be anything different. And yet, this Spirit comes upon them pushing and nudging them out of the confines of this locked, upper room into the far reaches of their hearts, where the fire of God’s love and mystery reside and ever so gently tries to direct our lives as it did that early community.

Their vision, as we have heard throughout this season from Acts of the Apostles is to become the heart of the community, which is why they face so much resistance from the leaders, who tended to rule with fear and control. Just as it was for them, even our vision statement here at the parish is the same as that early community, “to become the heart of the community.” It was no easy task in Acts and we hear the many growing pains throughout this season. The more they learned to trust that Spirit working among and within them, the more the community began to grow and change and come alive. As time goes on that vision begins to unfold for that community as it does for us.

Of course Paul was a part of those original journeys and he took that vision with him to the many different communities he visited, including Corinth whom he writes to in today’s second reading. Paul saw the immense power that this community had, and yet, like us at times, those gifts were often used against rather than for the good of the greater community. They saw gifts from a hierarchical perspective but Paul sees all the gifts as necessary when they are directed outward to the common good. He believed in that vision of becoming the heart of the community and desired it for the people he encountered.

But we still have these disciples locked in the upper room in today’s Gospel which we also heard on the Second Sunday of Easter. Here they are as Jesus breathes life among them and into them by the sending of the Spirit. They are left with a choice as we so often are, remaining locked and bound in the confines of fear, anxiety, and control, or to forgive, to let go, to live from the immense power that exists within each and truly become the heart to all people, accomplishing the mighty acts of God. Yes, it may be a painful experience allowing that Spirit in, but until we do, this great mystery will continue to nudge and push us along, not to squash that great power in our own insecurity and what we believe to be our inadequacy, but rather to break in and set us free to live a different life, to live a life moved by the Spirit.

As we celebrate this great feast of our faith, we pray today for that Spirit to continue as it did 2000 years ago to come down upon us and within, nudging us out of the locked, upper room of fear and anxiety, to a life, that at first may seem “out of control”, but nonetheless, a life being lived from that power so that we too may live with mystery, out of the confines of our fabricated worlds, driven out by the Spirit to truly become the heart of the community and participating in those mighty acts of God!