Sermon ~ Sunday, May 7, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
The Gate and gatekeepers
John 10: 1-16
The Dixfield Congregational Church is where it all began. I had spent the summer of 1986 doing some pulpit supply In early November I got a call to fill in at the church in Dixfield. At the end of the service they asked if I was available for the following Sunday, which I was. At the conclusion of that second Sunday’s service, old Jim Convery offered me a proposition which I accepted and lead to almost 6 years of pastoral ministry with that congregation. The Dixfield Congregational Church was known as “the Church on the Hill.” Its steeple could be seen for miles. To reach the steeple required climbing four levels of stairs and ladders after which you emerge through a trap door out to the bell and then you could step out onto a three foot wide walkway around the steeple. The view of the Androscoggin River valley and Dixfield was encompassing.
The story I was told that lies behind the church’s location is that there were two factions in the congregation (imagine that!) One wanted to build the church in the village where Hall Hill Road leaves Main Street forming a wye. The other wanted to build the church up on the hill overlooking the town. The huge split granite foundation stones were purchased and awaiting the final decision when the hill top contingent took it upon themselves to move the granite blocks in the dark of night so that by the time morning arrived the foundation stones were in place.
It is a beautiful spot for a church building with one little caveat, it was essentially inaccessible for anyone with physical mobility concerns. It sits on bedrock (which the Bible says is a good thing!) so there is no basement. The hill dropped away from the church on all sides so that when I mowed the grass I lowered the the old Lawnboy mower down on ropes! So there was not enough room to put in a A.D.A. approved ramp. It would have required more switchbacks than the Pikes Peak Auto Road.
Try as we might, while I was there, we could not come up with a resolution to this access problem. There were those who just did not have access the church and its worship with us.
Todays’ gospel is about shepherds and sheep and things that perhaps seem disconnected from most of us in our 21st century world. Jesus speaks first about the nature of a sheepfold, the place where shepherds kept their flocks overnight, safe from the dangers of the night. It was in the sheepfolds where the shepherd would care for his/her sheep and they would get to know the voice of their shepherd in the shared protection of the sheepfold’s walls.
“[The shepherd]calls his own sheep by name,” Jesus says, “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 sheepfold was a place of welcome, of community, but more a place of safety and rest in the care of the shepherd. As He often did Jesus was speaking in analogy or parable form and as often happened the Pharisees didn’t get it so Jesus tries another approach.
“I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” And again in verse nine “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
And in v. 10, “I came that they may have life,” Jesus says, “and have it abundantly.”
Jesus says he is the Gate! The way in . . . and the way out! The access point, the one through whom we pass in order to find safety and respite. For the religious leaders who got it this time and who assumed that they set the criteria for who had access to the benefits of God, this not added not only to their frustration but anger as well.
Think about gates for a moment. Some gates are made to keep people or things in: children in the playground, pets in backyards, livestock in the pasture. Other gates are there to keep us out: gates at the ends of long private drives, gates around businesses, gates around properties. A garden gate draped with flowering vines can welcome us to enter a place of beauty and peace. Gates surrounded with razor wire send a very different message!
There are gates, then there are gatekeepers. These are those people who monitor the gate, deciding who gets in, who has access to what or whom. Watch dogs and security personnel are the most obvious gatekeepers we might think of, but what about the person who stands between you and your next promotion?
What about boards and committees with excess power and influence?
How about folks who say “we don’t do it that way around here” or “you don’t belong here” because of what you believe or who you love, the color of your skin or your gender or your age?
Notice though, Jesus doesn’t say he is a gatekeeper! He is the Gate itself, inviting “whoever” to enter, and “be saved,” (safe). He allows easy access, in and out, safety , and life.
The Gate, the way to intimacy with God.
The Gate, to the place of welcome, security, freedom and rest. Jesus says to the Pharisees and any others listening, that he isn’t about restricting or stealing or harming but about offering life – and this in abundance! Life that is sweet and whole and full!
I wonder about this easy access . . . do we find it or offer it in our own lives, in our own church? I wonder about this kind of unfettered welcome where folks can come and go, where abundance is what life is all about.
There are lots of churches where multiple gatekeepers obscure the welcome of the “Jesus gate,” plenty of places where folks who don’t fit the theological, physical, or spiritual mold aren’t invited in. Making churches accessible to the physically handicapped is a great challenge for many of our old buildings, it can be nearly impossible to invest enough money so that all can physically come into our buildings.
But our churches can be inaccessible in many other ways as well. Have you ever visited a church where it felt like there was some sort of invisible barrier? It has been called to my attention the many ways we limit people’s access to our faith communities, even to God. We abbreviate things in the bulletin (We say to save space and paper?!) so that only those who “know” get the message. (we getting better you probably noticed some time ago that we now have the words to this thing called the Doxology and the words that we use for the Lord’s Prayer.
We say “Everyone is welcome,” but we often do not say where we’re meeting or if we do how to get there or what we’re really about. We give lip service to wanting everyone to feel “at home” but we don’t really mean we want homeless people,
or sexual minority people,
or people who are more conservative or more liberal than us,
or deaf or blind people, or people who speak another language teaching our children and serving as church greeters and officers, do we?
If we are open to these, then we need to ask ourselves: “How will these people know they are welcome here?”
And if we are not open to them, we need to ask: “What is it about their presence that we are afraid of? What causes us withhold the welcome of Jesus to them?”
“I am the gate,” Jesus says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture (refreshment, relaxation, peace, rest). I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Easy access, a genuine welcome, abundant living.
May we each hear this word of welcome and may our faith be lived in such a way that we grant easy access to any and all who seek the Jesus gate and with it, abundance of life!
I am glad to report that the Dixfield church has resolved their access concerns. It required buying the small house just to the north of the church and tearing it down and this gave them the space and distance to put in the A.D.A. ramp to the back door of the church.
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