Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Community Lenten Service, 2020

MACA Ecumenical Service, 2020
First Baptist Church, Massillon OH
John 10:1-10

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When I was a child, there was this particular book my friend and I would read to each other all the time.  It was called “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” and was kind of based on nothing but the creativity of the writers, but presented as an explanation for why people in a particular culture have shorter names these days.   The basic plot goes like this.  In a society that honored elder sons, the first child gets a name with a dozen or so difficult words in it, while a little brother might have  a name like, Joey.  So, this one older boy has a ridiculously long name starting with Tikki Tikki Tembo, and one day he falls into a well.

The little brother runs to get help, but by the time he gets to his mom, he’s so out of breath that he can’t say the entire name, and the mom won’t listen until he says it properly, out of respect for his elder brother.  This pattern repeats with other characters until eventually, the man with the ladder (who keeps falling asleep while the younger boy tries to say the name) comes and rescues the older brother, whose name then gets shortened so that things like this don’t happen again.

I was reminded of this book when thinking about this Gospel reading.  (Because that’s how my brain works, apparently.)  Jesus begins with a multilevel metaphor: "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." And then we hear, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

And I picture Jesus just looking at them and hearing the sound of crickets.  So, Jesus lops off a few sentences.  “So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.”  A little shorter and simpler.  But do they get it?  We can’t really tell.

Just to be sure, at that point, I think Jesus would’ve done well to just point at himself and say, “GATE.  That’s me.  The Gate.”

We often get distracted by lofty words and carefully constructed metaphors, and the Gospel of John certainly gives us those.  But sometimes, it’s best to cut through all the poetry and just make the point you want to make.  GATE.  Jesus is the Gate.  Don’t be distracted by all the words that surround the main point.  Jesus is the gate.

But we also get distracted by the distortions.  Jesus comes to us today, saying, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits.”  Like the sheep in his analogy, there are all sorts of other voices coming at us, voices other than the voice of Jesus.  Voices that offer theological, social, and political twisting of the main message.  But, as Jesus said, his sheep “will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  I know that we cannot help but look at shiny objects, or to turn our heads toward the loudest voices, or be distracted by the threat of someone climbing over the wall into our pen.  At which point, we need for Jesus to point at himself and say to us, “GATE.  I am the Gate.”

And notice what Jesus says about the gate.  The gatekeeper opens the gate.  He doesn’t say anything about closing the gate.  And this is important.  In fact, this is the most crucial thing about this text: Jesus is the Gate that gets opened.  This metaphor only really takes off when you consider what a gate does.  A wall keeps you out; a gate lets you in.  A fence keeps us separate; a gate brings us together.  A barricade makes us enemies; a gate allows for friendship. 

Walls and fences and barricades are all meant to keep us separate, to keep us isolated, to keep us from reconciling our differences.  Jesus is not a wall.  Jesus is not a fence.  Jesus is not a barricade.  Because Jesus is the Gate.

The gate is the exception in the wall.  The gate is the solution to the fence.  The gate is the joy in the barricade.  Jesus is the Gate.  And the gate has one purpose:  TO LET YOU IN!  The gate is not part of the wall, because the wall and the gate stand opposed to each other.  They serve completely antagonistic purposes. 

As someone recently wrote on twitter (which is a terrible way to start a sentence), “When a door closes, open it.  That’s how doors work.”  And, sometimes, this word gate is translated as door.  And we get the same idea when we consider a building.  All around us in this room there are lovely walls, and beautiful windows.  And they look great and all, but you cannot enter God’s sanctuary through the walls and windows.  You need the door.  The whole point of the doors is to let us in.  We tend to think of doors as the thing we lock to keep people out.  But that is not the purpose of doors.  Those doors on our churches are a reminder that this is how you get in.  This is where you find Jesus.

Throughout history, church doors were painted red for different reasons.  Of course, there is the connection to God’s chosen people putting lamb’s blood on the doors so that the angel of death would pass over them.  But since the time Christians began building churches, the doors have often been painted red to signify a place of sanctuary: no harm would come to one who was inside these sacred walls.  And there is also a tradition, in Scotland, of painting your house door red after your mortgage has been paid off.  When you think about it, all of these apply to us, gathered here at First Baptist Church tonight.  We come into God’s sanctuary, knowing that the debt of sin has been paid; we have been claimed as God’s own children; we have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb.

But, of course, that gate and door stuff is all just a metaphor.  And a powerful one at that.  Still, we know Jesus isn’t really just a gate or door, letting people in, and then getting locked at night after we’ve all left.  The metaphor gets left at the door . . . as it were.  Once we’re gathered together, Jesus meets us somewhere else.  The place where he has promised he would be.  This is my body.  This is my blood.  In the holy meal we share together, Jesus meets us in this place.

But you know what else doors do?  Doors and gates let us out as well.  As we heard in this Gospel text, “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  The gate allows us entry into the sanctuary, where we are fed and nourished in Word and Sacrament.  And the gate also allows us to go back out into the world, following the voice of Jesus.

The churches of Massillon have served as places of refuge, places of hope, and launching pads for God’s people to go out into the world proclaiming the good news of salvation to all who will listen.  May God give us the ears to hear and the wisdom to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd as we leave this place tonight, and call us safely back together wherever Jesus is present, in this city and beyond.


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