The Open Door
A couple of years ago, we decided it was time to build a fence in our yard. We decided to embark on this endeavor because we had picked up a dog – a puppy at first, but she grew up to be a dog, and we wanted enclosed area for her where she could run and play safely, in our back yard. We wanted a fence to keep her safe inside. Now in the interests of full disclosure, I need to say that the fence hasn’t been totally effective. She has managed to escape to freedom a couple of times – she’s a resourceful dog, and a little adventurous. And to be truthful, I don’t think she is entirely convinced of the necessity of fences. In her ideal world, there would be no need for gates, because there wouldn’t be fences. But still, the idea behind the fence was to create a place of safety – and as you might imagine, when we were designing the fence, there was a lot of talk about where would be the best place to put a gate. There was those in the family who thought it ought to be on one side of the house, and others who thought it ought to be on the other side. At least one person thought there should be two gates – one on each side – but that person was voted down. Too much work. But of course everyone was agreed – there has to be a gate. You can’t have a fence without a gate. Without a gate, there would be no way in and no way out.
“I am the gate,” Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson this morning. “Whoever enters by me will be saved… and will go in and go out and find pasture.” It seems strange to those of us who are used to calling Jesus a shepherd, the Good shepherd, actually. How can Jesus be a shepherd AND a gate? (we actually got a small picture of how that could be possible in our children’s message this a.m.) We focus usually so much on verses about the shepherd that we don’t think about what it might mean to say that Jesus is a gate or Jesus is a door. And what it means is that Jesus is, like the gate, a way in and a way out.
But I suspect that we mostly think of him as a way in. We mostly think of him gathering us together like a shepherd does, and ushering us into a place of safety, a place of refuge in this dangerous world, and shutting the door behind him to keep us safe. Don’t we? If Jesus is a gate, we think of him as a gate into a refuge, like our gate keeps our dog fenced into our safe back yard.
But the scripture says something unusual, something that makes me wonder a little about that fenced in area, that safe area that Jesus is keeping us, that gate that keeps the sheep in and the wolves and the bandits out. The scripture first says that the sheep will come in AND go out and find pasture. The gate is not just a way in. It is also a way out. The gate is a way into a place of refuge and a way out into the world.
And Jesus says something else, at the very end of the gospel lesson: “I came that they have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus is the gate that leads us into safety and refuge and Jesus is the gate that leads us out into the world – but most of all Jesus is the gate to life – abundant and overflowing, piled-up like Christmas boxes under a tree, like snow in January.
Abundant life. What does it look like to you? The prosperity preachers would have us believe that an abundant life is full of things – that an abundant life means that the faithful will be blessed with wealth, with material abundance. An abundant life is one in which life is smooth sailing, there are no bumps in the road, where we find meaning in what we are able to accumulate and collect. But for Jesus an abundant life has an entirely different meaning.
Here is what an abundant life might look like:
Just the other day I heard a black Baptist preacher give a testimony about his life. He talked about growing up poor in the south – in a family of 13 children, and how they didn’t have much. He talked about his dream of going north – where there would be more work, and more respect. He said it was like the promised land for him. He thought – I’m going to go north as soon as I graduate from high school. He said that he could have gone many different directions in his life – he recognized that he had a lot to be angry about, and that his anger could have led him in different directions. He told us about when he started wearing an armband that said “Black and proud/say it loud” – and a teacher told him he had to take it off. He wouldn’t. The teacher said that he would beat him until he took it off. But he still wouldn’t take it off. The teacher beat him – but he didn’t take the armband off. And he told us that somewhere along the line – probably from his family – he learned something important. He learned that God was for him. “God is for me,” that what he said. That was the power that allowed him to take a beating and still keep that armband: “God is for me.”
Do you know what the title of his testimony was? “Abundance.” Abundance – is knowing that God is for me – despite the circumstances. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. That’s what Jesus says.
Here’s another example of abundant life:
It’s the story of the man who was born blind. Do you remember? It’s the story right before our lesson today; it’s in John 9. Jesus heals a man who had been blind from birth – and there is nothing but trouble after that. The religious leaders are offended, they say because Jesus did his healing on the Sabbath. I think it might be just as much that Jesus doesn’t fit into the nice safe categories that they have created. He can’t be controlled. The religious leaders grill the man born blind about his experience, and the end result is: they throw him out of his place of worship. And they close the gate behind him. He’s locked out. And this has been a source of life, of community for him, until then. This has been his refuge, his sanctuary.
And yet, Jesus comes along and calls himself “the gate.” He calls himself “the gate" or "the door” for those who have been locked out, kicked out, who no longer have a place of refuge in the world. Only he is the Open door, not the closed and locked door. He is the door where the sheep come in and go out and find pasture. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the door is open for outcasts to find refuge, to the hungry to find food, to the lonely to find community, to the dead to find life. Jesus is the open door to abundant life – for everyone who needs to know that God is for them.
I want to tell you a little more of the preacher’s story. He told us that he did graduate and go north. He found work there, but he also found that people used some of the same words about him that they did in the south. He got some of the same treatment in the north. But he continued to believe that God was for him. He decided to go to college, and he became a teacher. Before he became a pastor, he was a teacher. He kept going and kept going, because he believed that God was for him. And he even was the principal of a high school for a time. And do you know? He ended up hiring the same man who had been his teacher and who beat him up when he was a student.
That’s the thing about Jesus’ abundant life. It’s not just abundant life for me: it’s abundant life for you, too. It’s not just an open door for me – it’s an open door for you too. Jesus’ abundant life looks a lot like the picture of the early Christian community as it’s pictured in Acts – a community of prayer and worship and devotion to the apostles’ teaching – and sharing. Jesus’ abundant life is a life of open doors and open hands and bearing each other’s burdens. Jesus’ abundant life is one where we come in and go out – out into the world where Jesus is opening his arms in welcome to the least and the lost, the broken-hearted and the hard-hearted, the beat-up and the blind. The gate opens two ways – and the abundance is for us and for the whole world, the world that God loved so much, the world that Jesus came to heal.
You know, I think again about the fence we built two summers ago, a gate of safety, to keep our dog inside our yard. And I remember one day last spring – I was having some back problems and I was told that for awhile, I couldn’t walk the dog. But I wanted to try to walk a little, to strengthen my back. So I left her in the yard, and I started down the road. And I had not gone very far – actually only a little past our house, when I turned around and saw her running after me – following me.
Now you might say that she was being a bad dog. But I say that she was just anticipating the time when there would be no need for fences or for gates, when God’s kingdom, God’s abundance will fill our hearts and fill the world.
In the meantime, let us go out with much joy, following our shepherd through the open gate, and sharing God’s abundant love. AMEN