The Unlocked Gate
Good morning, Grace. This is the Sunday traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We read Psalm 23, and we are always reminded of the green pastures and still waters to which Jesus leads us. It is there that Jesus revives our soul and guides us along right pathways for his name's sake.
For me, growing up, green pastures and still waters were found at my grandparent’s house in San Jose, California. That house was bought with my grandfather’s G.I. home loan and was situated on the border of a massive prune orchard. Much later, the town of San Jose and the surrounding area would be known as Silicon Valley, but at that point, in the late 1940s, it was called the Valley of Heart’s Delight. It was called that because of its thousands of acres of blooming fruit trees, and its year-round beautiful weather. It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was also quite neighborly.
My grandparents had three sets of neighbors, one on each side, and one in the back. On one side was Vicki and John, on another side was Joan and Pete, and in back was a single woman named Marge, who had been widowed as long as I ever knew her. And, at least for the first several years of my childhood and adolescence, everyone was welcome in and out of each other’s yards.
Each of the neighbors had a different kind of fence and gate. Pete and Joan had a five-foot-or-so high solid fence that you could easily look over to have a conversation, and their gate had a handle on the outside so you could enter easily from my grandparents’ side. John and Vickie had a slightly higher fence that you couldn’t see over, also with an outside handle, but that was a handle they could lock from the other side. Finally, there was Marge, whose fence separating her yard from my grandparents’ yard was a low, white picket fence, hardly three feet tall, with a waist-high gate and a little latch you could reach over and flip up to unlock.
Over the years, my sister and I gravitated toward Marge’s house the most. Marge was always baking cookies, and we wandered over there to pick up the persimmons and guava that dropped from my grandparents’ trees into her garden. Marge always had at least two big old dogs that would keep her company and wander around her backyard. They weren’t exactly trained guard dogs, but they could protect her, and definitely scare off someone with their bark if they needed to.
As my grandparents and their neighbors grew older, the use of fences and gates shifted. Pete and Joan, with their five-foot fence, became more isolated and withdrawn. They weren’t exactly turning the neighbors away, but they came to “prefer their own company.” My grandparents and my sister and I rarely saw them in their later years, and when we did, we would exchange polite hellos. Then something happened with John and Vickie, the ones with the lockable handle on their gate. At that age, I didn’t completely understand fights between neighbors, but it led to them first removing the handle from their gate and then sealing the gate off completely. My grandparents didn’t talk to them for the last decade of their lives.
Marge was the exception. Her sense of welcome never changed. Marge smoked, and ate badly, and was overweight, and eventually her son moved in with her to help take care of her. And yet, she outlived everyone except my grandfather. When I was taking care of my grandfather in his last few months, I’d take him over cookies Marge had baked for him, using the same little waist-high gate that she had never locked. She died peacefully in her home with her son at her bedside.
I was thinking a lot about my grandparents’ neighbors’ gates when considering this week’s Gospel. Our Gospel reading might seem like a long time ago at this point, but you might remember having a sense of confusion, even exasperation, with it. Like many passages in John, it can seem obscure or cryptic. Let me go back to the first few verses:
“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.”
And now, I love what comes two verses after, which I think sums up what many of us are thinking at this point: “they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
So, is Jesus the gate, or shepherd, or the gatekeeper? It’s a passage that’s full of mixed metaphors, and it’s possibly extra-confusing to us because this is Good Shepherd Sunday, where we read the beloved Psalm 23, which starts with “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want.” It also doesn’t help if you read literally just one more verse after today’s reading, verse 11, where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
One thing I think we should remember is that none of these Gospel readings are happening in isolation. You can think of today’s reading as the end of a longer, multi-act story that actually started in our reading from about six weeks ago, when Jesus healed the blind man. That launched a whole, long discourse between the Jesus and the Pharisees, with Jesus saying over and over again that he has come to bring eternal life to everyone.
Just as Jesus was telling the Pharisees that the healing of the blind man was a new way of living into eternal life, he is telling them in today’s Gospel that he is inviting everyone into a safe pasture where even a man born blind is welcome. He’s bringing everyone who was once separate together through the gate of himself, offering abundant life for all. “Whoever enters,” he says: “whoever.” Not just a select few; Jesus lets in all.
Grace, Jesus is the unlocked gate that lets all in to experience abundant life. “Whoever enters by me will be saved,” he says, “and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And when they come through the gate, he is also there to meet them as the shepherd of Psalm 23. He answers the question we asked earlier by saying, I am both. If I am both human and divine, I can certainly be both the shepherd and the gate. This was one of the great lessons of the last book we read in our Wednesday night group, Freeing Jesus—Jesus can be many things, including the shepherd and the gate.
Jesus, as the shepherd and the gate, invites everyone in, everyone whom the dominant culture—and sadly, even some churches—have decided should be kept out of the shepherd’s pasture. I’ll say it again: Jesus invites everyone in. Still, LGBTQ folks and people of color find themselves even today walking up to locked gates and gates that have been sealed shut. Some of it is active hate, the twisting of Scriptures by unchristian Christian churches who think gay and trans and queer folk are an abomination. This is happening today, right now, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, by people who claim to be followers of Jesus. It is not happening, and will not, happen here at Grace.
Some are left outside the gate because, like my grandparents’ other neighbors, those who would have opened the gate have, over time, come to prefer their own company. It’s not just that they don’t open the gate, they no longer come to the gate at all. They’ve passively withdrawn into the comfort of the familiar—familiar people, familiar places, familiar ways of being church. I’m also happy to say that this is not happening at Grace. We are slowly but surely venturing into the unfamiliar and the new. We are keeping the gate open, and new people and the Holy Spirit are rushing though, bringing Pentecost early because there’s no reason to wait.
And just as a passive withdrawal can be a subtle way of keeping gates closed, there are groups besides our LGBTQ siblings and siblings of color who find themselves subtly shut out. We might have to work a little harder to identify them and open the gate to them. I was reminded again this week of those among us who are single, or not part of a traditional family, either by choice, or like my grandparents’ neighbor Marge, through being widowed. Sometimes we think of church as primarily being a place for families; I know I’m guilty of this when I say things to others like, we’ve added three new families at Grace! But many of our siblings find themselves journeying alone, for many different reasons, and they, too, are looking for an unlocked gate. Just this past Wednesday, the Church of England, our mother church, issued a report called “Love Matters,” which affirms that “single people must be valued at the heart of our society” and noted that Jesus was single.
Once we’ve opened the gate to everyone, our queer siblings, and people of color, and those who are single, and many more that we will keep naming, our job isn’t done. Just like Marge’s big old dogs who barked out when someone showed up who wasn’t supposed to be there, once we’ve opened the gate to those who have not been allowed in before, we are called, along with Jesus, to protect them. We shout out in justice to protect them, not just because we allowed them through the gate, but because they should have been let through the gate from the very beginning. When others threaten our brothers and sisters who are entering our gate for the first time, we bark out like guard dogs because everyone we’ve let in deserves to be protected as equal children with an equal right to sit around the table of God.
This past week I’ve had the privilege of visiting, at some length, some LBGTQ folk and a person of color who live right here in Wayne County. I’m going to tell you straight up: they don’t feel especially welcome in Wayne County. There are many times they feel afraid. However, they made it clear to me that they aren’t going anywhere—they know it’s important to be here, both for themselves and for the community, and for the others like them who are coming. And they are coming. They are waiting for gates to open—gates of community, and belonging, and protection, and love.
Our calling as a church that follows Jesus, is to welcome them heartily in, through Jesus the gate to meet Jesus the shepherd. Grace, we are that church, and we are going to be even more of that church. You know, there are beautiful moments in the life of a priest, moments I hear about from other priests, moments where the things you’ve been reading and studying and praying about come to life right in front of your eyes. This week, while I was here at the church, I looked out the sacristy windows, past our new ramp, and watched as our own Dan Bayly started to build an actual gate.
This gate will connect the parking lot to the west side of our property directly to our courtyard through that fence that’s standing there now. It won’t be waist high, but it will be a gate that swings wide on Sundays to allow those who need to or want to enter our church through the ramp to park in that parking lot. Watching Dan remove the section of the fence that will be replaced by a gate felt like an invitation to imagine a future of wide-open welcome that is coming soon because there’s no reason for the Holy Spirit to wait. I invite you at coffee hour to look out at that future gate and imagine that future welcome with me.
Grace, let us build gates that are welcoming, and protecting, and invitations to worship, and learn, and laugh, and play with each other. Let us shout out with justice when we see people threatening God’s children who are coming through those gates. Let us keep our gates unlocked and let us keep waving people in. Let us never withdraw into preferring our own company. And let us invite others to join us beside still waters, where our souls are revived, and we are guided along right pathways for His name’s sake.
In the name of Jesus, the open gate through which all are welcome and find revival.