Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 11, 2014 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
“Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open”
As many of you know, my mother and father had a lot of children.
There were ten of us all together.
And my parents made a valiant attempt to contain us in the fenced in back yard of our small Cape Cod style home by installing a swinging metal gate between the back of our house and the front of our detached garage.
When we were small, the gate was supposed to keep us in the yard and out of trouble.
The gate didn’t have a lock, and the latch was easily reachable by a child. The gate itself was made of chain link, which made it easy to climb over. But we didn’t dare try.
One look from my father – and the sound of his booming voice telling us to get away from the gate - was enough to keep us well penned in.
Except for my brother Nicholas.
Nicky had a knack for escaping through the gate and getting himself into all sorts of trouble.
When he was 3, he climbed over the gate, got into the garage, found a hammer and a bucket of nails and proceeded to hammer a row of nails into the garage wall – all the way around.
My father spent hours pulling those nails out.
And because they were hammered at shoulder level for a 3-year old, it made for backbreaking work.
When Nicky was 4, he got out through the gate again, and wandered into the front yard where my father was planting a row of small hedges.
Nicky watched for a while and then decided that he would help by grabbing a hedge and handing it to my father to plant.
My dad was actually glad for the help. It kept him from having to get up and down, and it kept Nicky out of trouble.
This father-son system worked well, as my father would simply reach back take the hedge from Nicky, plant it, and then move on to the next one.
It wasn’t until they reached the edge of our property that my father noticed he was planting a lot more hedges then he remembered buying.
It was then that he realized that each time he planted a hedge at his end of the row, Nicky would run back to the beginning of the row, pull an already planted hedge out of the ground and run back and hand it to my father.
When he was 5, Nicky escaped through the gate yet again and this time wandered around the side of the house, where my father was painting the trim around the windows.
My dad had just set down his brush and an open can of green paint and had gone inside to get a drink when Nicky came along.
(you know where this is going)
Sure enough, he came out and found Nicky slathering green paint all over the side of our WHITE house.
My father looked at Nicky, who had green paint running down his arms and all over his clothes, and did what any 1950’s era father would do – He picked him up, went inside, and handed him to my mother.
My mother put Nicky in the bathtub and spent an hour scrubbing the paint off of him before dressing him in clean clothes and sending him to his room. But it wasn’t long before Nicky found his way back outside and was through the gate again.
My father was now at the top of a ladder painting the trim on the upstairs windows, when Nicky appeared below and startled him. The ladder shifted, the paint can fell, and green paint poured out all over the top of Nicky’s head.
After each of these daring escapes, my father and mother blamed each other for not watching Nicky close enough and for allowing him to get through the gate. They both had their hands full and each had assumed that the other would be the gatekeeper while the other was occupied.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I have to say, “Mom, I’m on your side on this one.”
When we consider the gospel text we heard this morning, with its talk of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, the Gate, and the Gatekeeper who keeps us from wandering astray – it’s easy to get so caught up in the competing imagery that we like the disciples may wonder what message, what truth, Jesus meant for us to learn from it.
Some of us gravitate towards the comforting image of the good shepherd who guides us and pens us in when necessary, because we believe at our core we’re mischievous children or wayward sheep who will inevitably stir up trouble in the world if left on our own.
Some of us hear the word “sheep” and shake our heads in disgust.
Because being compared to a sheep in our culture is not a good thing.
Sheep are thought to be stupid animals. They follow blindly. They don’t think for themselves. They seek to blend into the herd rather than stand out as individuals.
Others still have taken this gospel passage and turned it into a gate itself –
a litmus test that determines who is favored by God and who is not.
It is here that Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
This is the gate that some followers of Christ use to separate the redeemed from the damned, the insiders from the outsiders, the sheep from the goats.
But when we get caught up in the imagery in this gospel passage and imagine Jesus as a parental shepherd, or a gatekeeper for mindless sheep, or as the gate to salvation itself that is accessible to only a few, we miss the key words that Jesus speaks to us that make up the heart of the gospel itself.
In the last verse of this passage, Jesus says,
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
Jesus came to bring us life – abundant life.
He came to free us from the fear of loss and suffering and scarcity that causes us to hold tight to our love and our generosity.
He came to call us each by name and to lead us OUT of the sheep pen and into the green pastures of the world.
He does this by showing us a better way to live.
A counter cultural way to live.
His commandment to love our neighbor, and love our enemy, and love God as much as we love ourselves IS counter cultural.
It was counter cultural in the 1st century and it still is in the 21st century.
Many of us struggle to love ourselves, let alone extend that love to our neighbor, and our enemy.
But the gospel, the good news, keeps reorienting us back to this point.
It really is all about love. It really is that simple.
But it is so hard for us to do.
Which is why we keep getting stuck on the idea that God must be as fickle and as stingy with love and grace as we are.
To be otherwise, is just incomprehensible to us.
There’s a story making the rounds on the internet about an African tribe that has put into practice what many of us find so difficult to do –
They’ve learned what it means to be generous with love and grace.
In this tribe, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe assembles and surrounds them.
For two days, they tell the person all the good things they have done.
The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as good.
Each one of us desires only safety, love, peace and happiness.
But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, we make mistakes.
This tribal community sees those mistakes as a cry for help.
They unite then to lift up the person who has done wrong, to reconnect them with their true nature, to remind them who they really are, until they fully remember the truth that had been temporarily disconnected: "I am good."
In the internet accounts of this amazing ritual, the tribe is not named, and there is some question as to whether the story is factually true, but it is true in the same sense that our story of the Good Shepherd is true.
Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
God created this world so that we may have life, and all the joys and sorrows that come with it.
And the only way we’ll experience that life is by leaving the safety of the pens that keep us contained and restrained and head out into the pasture.
The Good Shepherd is there to lead us, and as long as we follow the sound of his voice – his teachings and the example of his life he has left with us – we won’t wander too far astray.
There’s a motivational poster that some of you may have seen that has a picture of small dog running free in a grassy field – The camera catches him mid-stride with all four feet off the ground and a look of pure joy on his face. The caption on the poster says, “Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open.”
Jesus IS the Shepherd and the gatekeeper – he is the one who opens the gate, calls us by name and leads us out into the open pastures of the world.
Jesus is also the gate–but not in the way that many of us imagine him to be. He is not a gate that swings open and closed to let some in and keep others out - rather he is a gate in the same way that a harbor serves as the gateway to the ocean.
Just as water flows in and out of the harbor carrying our boats and allowing us to experience both the great expanse of the ocean and the comforting stillness of the harbor, God’s love flows in and out Jesus, and carries us along with it.
If we want to experience and conceptualize what God’s love can accomplish and CREATE and BE when if flows through a human being, we need only look at Jesus.
At the way he lived his life using love as his guiding force,
and at the way he died doing the same, seeking not revenge but forgiveness.
Jesus is a conduit, a gateway to God.
In him we experience the love and the life that God offers freely, and abundantly to us all.
May we all be encouraged to live each day as if someone left the gate open.
Knowing that on any given day this kind of freedom is going to lead to trouble for some. Some of us won’t be able to resist the urge to pound nails into the garage wall and others will wind up with paint cans dumped on their heads.
But Jesus calls us out through the gate nonetheless.
With the instruction that we LOVE each other and offer grace to one another, just as God offers it to us.
Jesus came so that we may have life – not a penned in life where we hold tight to our love as if it were a scarce commodity, but an abundant life –
where we lift each other up,
and serve as wide open gateways for God’s presence in our world.