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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The Outsiders’ View

Acts 13: 14, 43-52; Rev 7: 9, 14b-17; John 10: 27-30

There’s no denying that the early community in Acts goes through some serious growing pains in their time. I think it’s a good reason that we hear from Acts every Easter because it can assure us we’re no different but also remind us that change is real and the challenge that accompanies it is hard. Paul finds himself in that place today. I do think it’s also good to keep in mind that until the day of his own martyrdom, Paul considered himself part of the Jewish faith. Of course it eventually all splinters and Jews and Christians go their separate ways, but for Paul and the early disciples, that wasn’t the reality.

We hear that tension in the community today. How do we grow and how do we move forward is not only the question of Acts but it’s a question we must always ask ourselves today. There are always obstacles to those questions as there was for Paul. He saw no reason why this message should not be spread to the Gentiles. Again, keep some of our biblical knowledge at the forefront of our minds, there’s no denying that there was also a mutual mistrust and dislike between the Jews and Gentiles. Quite honestly, that still exists to this day. Paul, though, now finds himself part of this religion, as we would eventually call it, with people that considered themselves the chosen people, in some ways in a privileged place before God. That’s a tough place to be and even tougher for Paul to break through if there’s going to be change, considering he, himself, would be considered an outsider. He comes later to the faith.

With all that said, the stage is set for today’s first reading. There is this continued tension between insiders and outsiders and who, for whatever it’s worth, is worthy of this message that Paul speaks. The insiders feel it’s exclusively for them and everyone else is shut out. However, Paul feels otherwise. Now he eventually isn’t going to stand for it. He simply wipes the dust from his feet and goes on his way. But he faces the jealousy of the people and threaten his life in the process. They have no regards for him. He’s not one of them if he thinks that way. But if you know anything about Paul, it’s taken him time to get to this place when he has his own conversion experience. He encounters Christ crucified on the way to Damascus. He’s blinded and then begins to see life in a new way. He no longer looks at life from this place of privilege or better than, he now begins to look at life from the place of suffering and his own encounter with the cross.

Although we really don’t hear it in today’s gospel, Jesus is under much scrutiny himself at this point. The very next lines in the gospel the people are picking up stones to throw at him. He too, of course, is an insider to some extent but not from the place of privilege. He comes from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, son of a carpenter, and not from Jerusalem. He already has that going against him, along with the fact that he was just with the Samaritan woman and eats and gathers with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Everything about this guy makes him an outsider. And now here he is in John’s gospel referring to them as sheep. The people who consider themselves in the place of privilege before God are now referred to in a way that links them to the the Gentiles, the Samaritans, and all other outsiders isn’t really going to go over all that well.

So here they are, the outsiders, trying to turn things on their heads and change the vision of the people of themselves and God. Both of them had this uncanny ability to be self-critical. Paul, certainly of himself, but also about the followers and the early communities. He had a way of turning it back on them which only infuriated them all the more and will lead to these splits. It’s hard to change those who consider themselves insiders and in a place of privilege because they don’t think they’re the ones that need to change. It’s so often not about an encounter with Christ but their own agenda. That’s a hard place to be. But Paul models it so well for us in our own lives. It comes down to fear and it comes down to our judgments. We all know that it typically doesn’t hurt the other. Our fear and judgment hurts us much more because it holds us back and makes us stuck. It becomes our sin. No one knows that better than Paul. He murdered. He persecuted. But in his moment of conversion, he begins to realize it’s not about the others that have been excluded, it’s about himself and what he had hated about himself that needed to change. That’s where Christ crucified meets him. That becomes one of his greatest gifts. The one who was on the outside becomes an insider with a critical eye but never forgets what it’s like as an outsider. It’s why Pope Francis often says about going out to the fringes. That’s where we’re changed, otherwise we turn in on ourselves and get stuck.

Change is the reality of our lives even if we don’t like it while it’s happening. It’s especially hard on those who come as insiders and consider themselves in a place of privilege. Quite honestly, all of us here are prey to that kind of thinking. We are the people Paul is critical of in those early communities. However, if we only look through that one lens we don’t grow. Paul, and certainly the Good Shepherd who too was Lamb, invites us to change the way we view our lives and the world, not from the place of privilege, but from the Cross. Today we pray for that awareness in our own lives, to have that self-critical eye of our own blind side and were we exclude in our own lives, either in community or individually. It will reveal our own fear and judgment. But like Paul, it’s where Christ crucified meets us to open our blinded eyes to a new way of seeing, from the place of the Cross. They are the ones that have survived the time of great distress that we hear of in Revelation today, who persevere in the face of adversity, surrendering their place of status and privilege, to become a new creation in Christ.

Reconciling the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Acts 4: 8-12; IJn 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we hear from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel and his account of the the Good Shepherd, on what we call, Good Shepherd Sunday. Yet, for what we know of this image, which is probably the most prevalent in all of Scripture, it often seems to stand at odds with Jesus and even the words, good and shepherd seem to be more in conflict than anything. However, Jesus manages to pull together these seemingly opposing opposites and identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.

In the gospels, when Jesus is confronted by the rich young man he even questions him in calling him good. His reply is, “God alone is good.” And the shepherds, well, we know how unfaithful they have often been from David right on down to the shepherds who become the chosen ones of the incarnation that we hear at Christmas, because they are seen as suspicious, dangerous, involved in risky business, at times thieves, and even to this day, some who live in isolation from the rest of the community because of how they have been labeled and looked down upon and so often living down to that level.

Yet, Jesus says I am the good shepherd. Jesus manages to reconcile the good and the shepherd of our own humanity, and through the Crucified Christ now raised from the dead, is salvation, the kingdom, brought to fruition in the life of the community. It’s the debate that Peter finds himself in today. Now this is nothing new for Peter. He’s been in this situation before when him and the other disciples question Jesus in the gospels about those who are being healed by others than the “chosen” ones. Now he’s in a different position. Now he knows in his very being, Christ crucified, now raised from the dead, as more than just an event but a reality in his life and that of the community. He pretty much tells them the details of the healing of the crippled man really don’t matter. How it happened or what took place. What matters is that he was healed and can now be with the community in the fullness. It was and is through the power of the Crucified One now raised that we believe he has been healed. As a matter of fact, it is only through Christ that we seek and find healing, forgiveness, reconciliation. The Christ goes to the place where we have been isolated. Christ goes to the place where there has been hurting. Christ comes into the world and appears to the least, the shepherds in the fields, to offer a message of hope in the midst of the their lives.

But Peter had another issue to deal with and one we deal with in our own society and culture. He emphasizes that salvation and the breaking in of the kingdom comes in and through Christ. Yet, so often they were led to believe that it came through the Emperor or the political leaders of their day. We know from Herod that it was more out of fear that leaders often rally the troops. If we wait for leaders to bring healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we will be waiting for quite some time.

Now we find ourselves as a city facing some deeply-seeded hurting going on these days and for the past weeks and it is us, the believers, as it was in the early community with Peter, who are called to be love to the community and this city. If we reduce everything to politics, we find ourselves in ongoing situations like this one, with hurt leading to more hurt, divisiveness leading to more divisiveness, and trying to prove one’s right and one’s wrong. As it was for Peter, we’re missing the point. We’re missing the point that it is healing that needs to take place. We’re missing the point that it is reconciliation that needs to take place. We’re missing the point that it is forgiveness that needs to take place. It is Christ crucified, now raised from the dead, that comes and brings reconciliation. Christ reconciles the good and the shepherd. It’s Christ that reconciles the shepherd and the sheep. It’s Christ that reconciles the good, the bad, and ugly of our own lives. For it is only in Christ in our own lives, that when healed, we no longer have to respond to violence with more violence, but rather with love. We are God’s children and so we are as John tells us in the Second Reading.

There’s a lot of good in our lives and city, but there’s also, at times, a lot of bad and ugly that takes place. We find ourselves as reactionaries more than responders of love. Christ, the Good Shepherd, comes to the place where we have been and have isolated in our own lives, to love and comfort, to seek out what has been lost and can now be found, just as he did with the shepherds. As we celebrate this Good Shepherd Sunday we gather mindful of the heavy burden of hurt and pain in our lives, our community, our city, and certainly our world. We’re not called to fix and solve. On this Good Shepherd Sunday we are called to reconcile as the Great Reconciler did and continues to do in our lives and world. It doesn’t matter how it happens for this mystery of healing and reconciling is within and yet beyond each of us. We are called to manifest God’s love to our community, city, and world, by being the wounded healers, reconcilers, and forgivers, for it is that that we witness to by our very lives in trusting the Good Shepherd, leading the ewes with care, devotion, and great love.