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.

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Resurrection Is

John 20: 1-16

If you were in this church either Thursday or Friday you know that it looks much different this morning than it did then, when we began the Easter celebration. One of the things that struck me here, more than any other place I’ve been, in those days, was the empty tabernacle because it’s unlike any other I’ve seen. We’re kind of used to the golden tabernacle that when it’s opened you can see pretty much all that’s there. But on Thursday night as I sat in the front pew, spending a little time reflecting, I was mesmerized by this one because it’s dark inside and from where I was sitting almost seemed endless. It was like looking into the night sky and if I were to put my hand in there it would just go on forever.

As I was preparing for these days and trying to read and listen to as much as I could about John, looking for new ways to preach these gospels, some of his images in the story of Mary Magdala, in its fullness, began to surface when I saw that empty tabernacle. For John, the Resurrection narratives, the first of which is Mary Magdala who goes onto witness the resurrected Christ by herself, become the fullness of the promise at the beginning of the gospel, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It culminates at this narrative in particular, but not limited to Jesus nor Mary Magdala, nor ourselves for that matter.

The first image John will go on to use is that of the garden. This all takes place in the garden. Mary will mistake Jesus as the gardner and gardens appear several times in John’s gospel, just as it does in the front of our altar today, and with good reason for John. Even the garden in the passion is different than in the other gospels, but now, even creation partakes in the resurrection narrative. What John tries to create in this image and symbol is a restored Garden of Eden. That this eternal Christ, now resurrected, restores all of God’s creation to it’s fullness and wholeness. For John, creation too has something to teach us and even goes through it’s own gradual conversion from the changing of seasons, if we can allow ourselves to listen to it and reverence it in the way John displays in this resurrection narrative.

But there’s still that empty tomb, and even for us the few previous days, the empty tabernacle. If you know anything about Israel’s history, you got to know that the Temple was destroyed and rebuilt probably more times that we can count. In that temple, beyond the garden, was the holy of holies, which it’s sacredness was only seen by particular people. There was something beyond the veil that was to be seen by those with sight. Think about what many see when they visit a grave like Mary, Peter, and the other disciple do. We often see death, we see end, we are often caught up in our grief, shame, loneliness, like that endless interior of that tabernacle on the days leading up to today, but today is something different, at least for Mary. For Peter and the other disciple, who are so caught up in their grief and shame, mourning the loss of Jesus, they flee the scene and return to the locked upper room out of fear. But Mary will stay behind and through her tears begins to see something very different and things begin to change very quickly for her as the scene progresses.

Now don’t be foolish into thinking that somehow this event takes away the suffering of the world. We all know it doesn’t. But that also isn’t John’s point and why he is the Easter gospel. For John, it’s all about the process of conversion and moving to a life of joy. For John that path was in stark contrast with the Pharisees and Sadducees as we heard during Lent. For them, they had reduced God to an intellectual construct, just as we often have for centuries as well. Think about our own experience of God and faith. We want scientific proof, we want facts, we want it all proven for us. But that’s the thing, as Mary teaches us here, I can’t and I know nothing I say could change someone’s mind. How Mary stands in contrast has nothing to do with intellect. For Mary, she shows us the way to a lived experience of the Christ must come through the heart. She will weep and then she will hear her name said by the Risen Christ, Mary. From that moment on her life is changed forever. She doesn’t need the other disciples to tell of what they have known or anyone else for that matter, for Mary her heart was moved to tears and her eyes were opened, no longer an endless abyss in the tomb, but a resurrected Christ and an invitation to a new life for Mary. Even the fact that it comes not just with tears but in the hearing of her name is a lesson John tries to teach. Think about how he speaks to his mother at the beginning of the gospel where he calls her woman. It’s not being nasty to her. Rather, she too is invited into the same process. When Lazarus hears his name, he comes out. When Mary Magdala hears her name, she comes out and is changed forever.

For John, as we heard in the weeks of Lent and will now hear for the next fifty days, our lives are about the invitation to conversion, to a change of heart so that we too have an experience of the promise that he gives of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Like many of the characters in his stories, we know it happens over time and gradually. It’s sometimes much easier to live with the grief, guilt, shame, and absence that we experience in our lives than to allow ourselves to be opened to something new and a lived experience of the eternal Christ, who has been, is, and always will be. Just as the garden, the tomb, Mary, and others are transformed, so can we. It’s the Easter promise. Just as I said on Good Friday that we must look at that day through the lens of Easter, today is no different. Resurrection is and we must look at Easter through the lens of Easter otherwise it loses its power.

We pray for that conversion in our own lives and to notice the moments when Christ is inviting us into the lived experience of our faith. Just as it was for Mary, it’s change our lives forever. A lived experience of the Christ, who was, and is, and always will be, changes us in ways like none other. If this Christ can do what has been done in and through others, just imagine what this same Christ is trying to do to us at this very moment. We, all too often, have pushed the whole experience of resurrection to some life after this one, but what John reminds us is that Resurrection is. And at this very moment, God calls our names and is preparing our hearts to be changed once again and forever.