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.

Evening Presence

Luke 24: 13-35

Every year at Easter, Time magazine does a cover story in some way pertaining to God. This year’s cover story was entitled, “Let There Be Night”. The author made the point that if you want to even begin to understand this mystery of God, you must be willing to go into the dark. She says that from the time we are little kids we are taught that light is good and dark is evil and we spend much of our time trying to avoid it, and we fear it, and over centuries have even projected that fear onto people who have different color skin, it’s so embedded into us all our lives. Yet, she says, you must go there and how often it is there that trust can begin to grow.

As much as we hear the stories of Jesus prior to the Resurrection, much of it takes place in the light of day. All the healings and teachings often take place during the day and in the evening goes off to pray and goes to the Garden prior to his death, and yet, all that time in the light and the disciples can’t quite grasp who he really is. It’s so often beyond them.

But these post-resurrection stories are quite often just the opposite. Many of them take place at night just as the new day dawns where it’s still mostly dark or even in today’s story on the road to Emmaus, there is a gradual movement towards evening time and the setting of the sun. As a matter of fact, their eyes aren’t “opened” until the evening! They had plenty opportunity to believe and trust. They’ve heard the stories. They’ve gone to the darkened tomb themselves, and yet, it’s not enough. Somehow it’s still beyond them and so they go back and their eyes are prevented from recognizing him. Why? Because they are still weighed down by their own darkness of grief, lost hope, shattered expectations, wondering if any of it really matters, broken relationships and dreams, and for the most part, now walking towards a dead end in life only to encounter a stranger along the way, a stranger that takes the lead to the end of day, evening falls on that first day of the week. Jesus always walks along. Darkness remains a total mystery and something to be feared. And yet there’s a burning within that pushes them to invite Jesus to stay, to invite him into their darkened home for a meal, a moment of deep intimacy where break is broken.

On this, the first day of the week, during the dark of day, Jesus present, these two disciples finally become present to the Presence, their eyes are opened, and all that was once lost has now been found. In a moment, all that weighed down was lifted and they hurry out, in the darkness, to cast light on all that had taken place along the way. The One who did not avoid the great darkness of death, but rather goes to reconcile life and death, light and darkness, now finally leads these disciples with a renewed sense of vision. Peter remarks in his speech in the first reading today that not even the “throes of death” can hold him or them back and separate!

My friends, we pray, “let there be night,” even if it means sitting in a darkened room for a while and looking at things in a new way, confronting the fear. We know what it’s like when there is darkness…we stumble, fall, feel anxious, and so on, and yet, as it is for the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, journeying from day to evening, holding onto all that prevents us from seeing, but where we can also become present to the Presence, our eyes can be opened, and we begin to see life in a new way, a renewed way, where all can be one, light and dark, and even, as this season reminds us, life and death.