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Looking for a Way In or a Way Out?

Sermon – 4/17/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 10:1-10

[Sanctuary Choir finishes a song]  Amen.  I'm blessed in so many ways, I tell you.  I do nothing but worship on Sunday mornings.  I go from one worship service to the other, and the beauty of both of those worship services is the music.  It's such a rich variety -- when you do nothing but go from one service to the next, and when you have one style of music, then a different style, and then we get Linda and John [piano & organ] rockin' out here with our opening hymn, and then the choir with such a wonderful piece.  It's such a wonderful blessing.  And that particular piece, an arrangement of Southern Harmony, is one of my favorites.  In the first service we had a different 23rd Psalm that we sang that has become one of my new favorites.  So, thank you.

The text this morning is from which all of this music comes -- not just the 23rd Psalm, is somewhat familiar though less familiar than the second half that I'm not going to read.  But the first half of this shepherd imagery from the 10th chapter of the gospel of John, verses 1-10: 

‘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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly'.

This being the urban culture that it is I don't have a lot of sheep stories like the Rothauge's who raise sheep.  I've got a quarter of one of their sheep in my freezer at home.  But other than that, I don't have a lot of sheep stories J.  

I do have some gate stories.  The one that originally came to me as I was thinking about this passage was my experience of getting into Mac Court when Ernie Kent and I were freshman.  He had a different way of entering into Mac Court than I did, you understand.  But it was on that great, memorable weekend Duck fans here all remember in 1974 when the undefeated UCLA Bruins were ambushed in Oregon after 4 years of not losing a single game.  Back to back they were defeated first by the Beavers (we have to give them credit for that) and then came here on Saturday and there was this sense of vulnerability as Duck fans were just so anxious to have their turn at the great & mighty Bruins of John Wooden with Bill Walton as their center his senior year. [Photo copyright Sports Illustrated]

I was at that door at 8:00 a.m. The game was at 3:00.  The door opened at 12:00 noon.  There were 30 or 40 people there before me when I got there at 8:00.  There were 4,000 students behind me, all trying to get in at the same time, pushing up against the door and they couldn't open the door.  And they finally got one open and all 4,000 of us were headed for that door.  And I'm sure the entire offensive and defensive line of the football team was right behind me, shoving!  It was an incredible experience of getting in.

But the image that actually came to me this morning that I wanted to share with you is a totally different one.  And that is of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.  In 2003, I was on this wonderful pilgrimage in Turkey that many of you helped finance (thank you very much), a great experience with Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg.  We stopped off in Berlin on the way home because I'm in the neighborhood, why not.  I used to live there, for 3 years, hadn't been back since 1981, so this was an opportunity now 22 years later to go visit some old friends and see the old places.  

The very first place I went to when I got to Berlin was the Unter den Linden, the street that goes through the center of Berlin where all the great palaces and public buildings are, that was in East Berlin when I was there.  I walked down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate.  The Brandenburg Gate was built in 1791 by Friedrich Wilhelm II as a tribute to peace.  It was a great symbol of Prussian pride in Germany.  At that time when he built it, only the royal family, the Emperor and his family and immediate entourage were allowed to go through the gate which was the western entrance to the city at that time.  Today it is the geographical center of Berlin and really the heart of the city in many ways.  So only the Emperors could go through.  When we were there, Judy and I were there, no one could go through because it was right on the dividing line between East and West and the gate itself was just on the other side of the line for what was then the Russian sector.  The Reichstag is on the other side, just a 1/2 block away from it, in the Western sector.  In 1961, of course, the wall went up and it began right there at Brandenburg Gate, literally in the middle of the night they built up that wall and then ceased all traffic going through down Unter Den Linden.  

So I never got the chance to walk through and to see that Gate up close.  We could only look at it from afar over the wall, from both sides.  It was totally closed off, the "no man's" zone.  So here was my opportunity to come back.  Now as you may remember, in December of 1989 that wall literally came down, something Judy and I never thought we'd see in our lifetimes.  That wall came down, and if you remember the scenes of the jubilation and crowds coming out and people dancing on the wall, that was at Brandenburg Gate, most of those scenes we saw on the news.  That was where all the celebration as this whole city came together for that incredible celebration in 1989.  So here now I was, 14 years after that event, walking down Unter Den Linden to Brandenburg Gate and for the very first time walking through that Gate and I have to tell you I was choked up, overcome with emotion.  Having lived in that city for 3 years and knowing so many good friends and knowing what that meant to the Berliners, as well as to all of Germany, to have that Gate opened up again.  I can only imagine what it must have been like for the citizens of that city in 1989 when that happened and the emotion of being overcome with that.

And so today, the Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of that Prussian pride, and Hitler tried to use that as a symbol of military victory, is now a symbol of German unity.  And all people can now walk through the Brandenburg Gate.

I tell that story because I want us to reflect this morning on this image of Jesus as the Gate.  Typically we read this passage and we immediately focus on the image of Jesus as the shepherd, you know, the Lord is my shepherd and we have all this wonderful music written for that.  I couldn't find any hymns about Jesus the Gate!  Artwork -- we have all these wonderful paintings and images of Jesus as the good shepherd but not as the gate.  And I think maybe that's too bad because we have lost the meaning of the metaphor, and its significance as a result, by focusing only on the good shepherd image.

And it is an important image that has significant implications for us today in our increasingly multi-cultured society.  Gates and doors are access points for us.  An entry.  Think of the checkpoints at airports, think of the border entry in Mexico or Canada as you come into the country.

Gates and doors provide a way of separating those who belong and those who do not.  They can be very inviting or very foreboding.  I'm curious -- how many people came in through the church today by our front door, which is literally designed to lift you up into the sanctuary of the Lord?  That was quite intentional by the architects of that era.  How many came in through that front door, to be lifted up?  And how many came in through our tunnel door in the back -- than dingy entrance that takes you down into the dark?  Of course that was never intended to be an entrance into the church, but we bought the parking lot behind it and now that's become a major entrance.  How many came in across from the Thai restaurant, where there's food?  How many came in through the choir door?  Or through the office door that goes through the garden area that Mildred and others maintain so well?

You see there are many entrances into the church, aren't there?  And they all have their own metaphor in their own way that might speak to us.  Doors can be symbols of hospitality or of imprisonment.  I remember my first experience in prison -- as a visitor, in case you had any doubts! -- I've actually been in several different ones, including here at the Lane County Jail, but that first time when you enter in and those steel doors close behind you with this 'clang', it's a very chilling experience.  You can only imagine for those who have spent time of what that is like.

Interesting to see what types of messages people have on the doors of their homes.  Those signs that are very inviting -- "Peace to all who enter this house".  Or just instructive -- "Please remove your shoes".  Or very selective -- "No solicitors".  Someone told me their favorite one was the welcome mat in front of a home that said "Huskies".  You think about that -- where you wipe your feet, right?!  Obviously a Duck fan.  We have all kinds of messages in our own homes.  

When I was taking a tour of the Lamore Naval Air Station in California where Navy fighter pilots are trained I was up in the tower overlooking the air field and needed to use the restroom.  Someone sent me down the hall.  So I go down the hall and I come to the first door and it says "Enlisted".  I'm not an enlisted person, so I go to the second door and it says "Women".  And those were the only 2 choices.  I stood out there in the hall wondering which is worse, impersonating an officer or a woman?!  What choices do you have when the only two offered to you exclude you?

Think about the doors and entrances into the wider church and how many times our doors exclude people.  The black church exists today because people of color were not welcome in white churches for so many years.  We exclude them as if that would exclude them from the realm of God.  But the presence of the black church today is a witness both to the failure of the church as well as to the radical inclusiveness of God's realm that includes and welcomes all people.  We couldn't keep those folk out.  Metropolitan Community Church was founded in the '70s in Los Angeles because homosexuals were not welcome in most churches in this country.  And so a new denomination was born that gave the message you are welcome here.  And now Metropolitan, one of their congregations rents a chapel from us, and I've long been convinced that that church has been very small in our community precisely because that situation is no longer the same.  We have so many churches -- like our own -- that is very welcoming and inviting, and includes gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people.  You see we couldn't exclude those folks, we can't keep them out.  So Metropolitan Community Church in and of itself is a witness of God's inclusive love in the realm of God.  

Here is the point that is lost on most readers of the gospel of John today, that is very clear I think to John's readers in the late first century:  the doors of the synagogue were closed to Christians by the time the gospel of John was written.  Now be careful when you hear that -- do not fault the Jews for that exclusion for it was both necessary and understandable.  Necessary for Christian identity to develop and for Jewish identity to be maintained.  Understandable given the emphasis of Christian proclamation on Jesus as the messiah which required a significant reinterpretation of the very concept of messiah that was different than traditional Judaism.  By closing the door of the synagogue to Christians in the latter half of the first century, Jewish leaders in fact did Christianity an enormous favor -- making the mission to the Gentiles a necessity rather than an optional luxury.  

And there's a couple of lessons we can take from that I'll just note briefly.  First of all, that whenever one door is closed God opens another door.  Many of us have had that experience.  And secondly, that Christian anti-Semitism, which began as a response to those closed doors of the synagogue, was terribly misguided in the first century and is horribly morally and theologically wrong in the 21st century.  For now I simply want to note that it is within this historical context, when certain doors to the God of Israel were closed, that John provides us with this message of Jesus as the Gate.  The point of access to God's home.  Which like the Brandenburg Gate, you see, is now open to all people.  That all now can come into God's sanctuary, are welcome in God's home, in the realm of God.

This is the point, then, I think, of Jesus' words:  that the synagogue was not the door then, just as the church is not the door today, to the realm of God.  But rather that Jesus Christ is the door, the gate, the means by which anyone can come into the realm of God.  

Now that statement can sound very exclusive, for traditional Christianity has viewed Jesus as the ONLY gate, the only door into God's fold.  The idea that there are other doors, many ways into God's realm, while gaining popularity in our diverse culture, seems to be in direct conflict with scripture and forcing us to make a choice -- do we go with the trends of society or do we choose scripture?  But I refuse to play that game.  I don't believe it's an either/or choice, but more of a "both/and".  For these seemingly opposite viewpoints need not be contradictory.  

When Hitler tried to use the church for his Nazification program, there were those that resisted.  In 1934, Karl Barth and other leading theologians wrote the Barman Declaration, which formed the basis of the confessing church and the theological justification for the resistance to Hitler's program.  The first statement in the Barman Declaration is:   "Jesus Christ is the one word of God which we have to hear and obey in life and death".  In other words, Jesus, not Hitler, is our Lord.  

Donald Dowd from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia sums it up when he says:  "To know the Lord Jesus as the only door to the Kingdom of God is to be free from Lordship of deified emperors, national fuehrers, political programs, and a whole host of demons who want to hold us bondage to their image of the realm of God".  In other words, to follow Jesus as Lord means when politicians or T.V. preachers claim that God speaks through them, we can stand up and say 'No, God speaks through Jesus'.  

To follow Jesus as Lord of our life means that when the Speaker of the House says we should hold an out of control judiciary accountable for allowing Terry Schiavo to die, we can stand up and say 'who chose you to be the final arbitrator of life and death decisions, rather than Christ?'.  To follow Jesus as the door to abundant life means that the free market, private accounts, personal wealth, is not the ticket to happiness or the common good.  Nor is personal gratification through drugs and sex and fame and power.  To affirm Jesus as the only door to the abundant life with God is to deny all these others means as false attractions which promise much and deliver little.  

You see that's a totally different thing that denying the validity of other faiths.  And the peril of any analogy is to take it too far.  And in this case, to use it to support a rigid, doctrinal exclusivism, such as that which provided the basis for the past sins of the church -- the witch hunts, the pogroms, the inquisitions and crusades against infidels and heretics for which we are constantly repenting, and need to repent in this day.  I note later in this passage, in verse 16, Jesus says that he has sheep not of this fold.  Which provides the necessary corrective for that kind of religious exclusivism that can be terribly harmful to the biblical vision of God's all inclusive love.  

Thus the emphasis of the analogy should not be on Christ as the only entrance, but as the access to those who otherwise would have none.  

Now there is also a reverse side of this image of Jesus as the Gate that I think we overlook, and that is the image of a door or a gate as an exit.  We were saddened with the news this week of that fire in Paris at a hotel, 20 or so victims, most were low-income who had been sent there for temporary housing.  And as is so often the case with that kind of story there was only one exit, and it was blocked by the fire.  

To call Christ as a gate or a door is to affirm that Jesus also provides us with an escape from destruction, from the powers of this world that would destroy life.  An exit, you see, can be just as necessary to abundant life as entrances.  

Twelve-step programs begin with a recognition that addictions are essentially a spiritual issue.  And so the first 3 steps of any 12-step program are first of all to admit that you are powerless over the addiction.  Then to affirm that there is a greater power beyond yourself.  And then third to turn your will and life over to this higher power.  

Now we know that higher power as Christ.  Others may know it by another name.  But as that door that enables people to escape their destructive habits.  Christ as the door to abundant life also offers an escape for those who are obsessed with their own unworthiness and sin, trapping them in a neurotic fear that God is out to get them.  Martin Luther advised us to 'sin boldly', for it is more pleasing to God if we make mistakes while living fully than to remain paralyzed by fear that God will punish us for every little sin.  

To be free to go in and out of the sheepfold, out into the pasture as this analogy is used, you see, is to not be trapped by sin or fear or guilt.  To know that we have been given that freedom to let go of those things that hold us, that bind us, to that sin.  Thus Christ is not only an entrance to that which is good and wonderful, but also an exit from that which is destructive and harmful.

The means by which we can be liberated from all kinds of oppression, from physical, and social and political to spiritual, you see, is through Christ as that gate.  That we might find in Jesus not an escape from life, but an escape from death to life in all of its fullness.

So this then is the good news.  When we are trapped, walled in by the destructive powers of this world which destroy life, Jesus is that gate which offers to us liberation and new possibilities of life.  Not just to us individually, but also to the world.  And when all other doors to God are closed to us, Jesus is the gate to God's loving realm, where all who come seeking life and peace are welcome.  

What kind of door do we have?  I pray it is one that truly is open to all.


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