Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them. Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
Good morning, St. Francis’ church. I’m glad to be with you in worship again, grateful to God for each one of you and the Christian community in this place. I give thanks to God for bringing Father Mark and his family to us, and for an emerging vision of God’s hopes and dreams for you as followers of Jesus, called to love and serve others as he so richly loves us all.
We’ve just heard, in a mere ten verses of Scripture, two striking metaphors for the way Jesus relates to us and to our world: First he says, “I am the door,” through which we can walk and find salvation.” And “I am the gatekeeper,” who calls us each by name and leads us, going out ahead of us. Our opening prayer this morning comes from the very next verse in the Gospel of John in which Jesus adds yet another metaphor, in the same sheep/sheepfold motif. He says “I am the good shepherd, one who lays down his life for the sheep.”
To begin, let’s remember what it means to speak in metaphors. The word itself stems from Greek, meaning “to carry something across,” or “to transfer.” A metaphor is a word or phrase used to describe something by comparing to an essential quality of something else, to see something or, in Jesus’ case, someone in light of those essential qualities. Even those who read the Bible as the unerring, literal truth of God understand the biblical use of metaphors. Jesus isn’t, in actuality, a gate or a shepherd, or light, or bread, or any of the metaphors the gospels writers use to describe him. But when we look at him in light of the essential qualities of those things, we gain greater insight into his nature and his presence.
And so to think of Jesus as a door, metaphorically speaking, we must presuppose the existence of a fence or wall, something that separates and divides. For a door serves as an opening, a passageway from one reality to another. We move through gates. So Christ comes, using this metaphor, as a door—an opening a passageway through whatever would separate us from one another and from our true selves.
Walls and fences serve an important function: they protect us from danger. We understandably fear what might happen to us should we venture past the safety of our walls or allow the unfamiliar in. Some of the walls we build are physical; some are relational; others are internal, deep within our psyches. It’s important to remember, however, that we are not born with walls. We come into the world behind whatever walls our families and culture have constructed, and we must be taught to abide them. Some of those walls, perhaps most, are essential for our safety and survival—the ones that keep us clothed and housed against the elements and protected from forces that would do us harm.
Others walls, however, are rooted in fear and prejudice and cause more damage in themselves than anything we might face on the other side of them. There’s a good deal of angst in our country these days, rightfully so, as we consider the walls that divide us. Some say our division is unlike anything we have experienced in our history.
As a student of American history, I have my doubts about. It’s clear the notion of our being the United States is one we have struggled with at every step of our relatively short existence as a nation.
When our sons were in high school, they loved performing in musical theatre, and the head of the theatre department had a reputation for choosing new and rather daring musicals for high schools students to perform. In our younger son’s final year, the musical chosen was Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. I remember being disappointed at first with the choice. Not that I’d ever seen South Pacific but as a true American I didn’t let my ignorance keep me from having a strong opinion about it. In my defense, what songs I did know didn’t exactly advance gender relations: “There Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”
But I soon I realized the brilliance of the music director’s choice. I had no idea how courageous Rogers and Hammerstein were in 1949 in raising the issue of racial prejudice. For in that otherwise upbeat musical there was one song that stirred the nation–do you remember? You Have to Be Carefully Taught:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught…
to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made
and of those whose skin is a different shade.
You’ve got to be carefully taught…
before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven, or eight,
to hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
The outcry against this song was immediate and fierce, particularly in Southern states, where in response to the touring version of South Pacific, some legislators called for outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow and contrary to the American way of life.” Rodgers and Hammerstein were pressured to remove the song, but they remained adamant in keeping it in, willing to risk the entire enterprise for its sake.
When Jesus offers himself to us as a door, these are the kind of walls he’d like us to walk through—the ones that divide us in destructive ways, that create unspeakable hardship for some while others remain oblivious, that allow us to live in gated communities of isolation and ignorance. Of course the best thing would be to tear the walls down completely. But notice Jesus doesn’t come saying, “I am as a sledge hammer.” He comes instead as a door, a passageway, a place of meeting—inviting us to cross over into terrain we fear and learn to engage those who are different from us.
For without doors of passage and the relationships that are possible when we pass through them, suspicion builds. When we don’t see other people face to face, they develop, as one person said recently, “mythical horns” in our minds and become, over time, less human to us. From behind our walls, it becomes easier for us to blame them for things that aren’t their fault and see them only through the lens of what they represent to us, rather than the full and complicated human beings they are, just like us, on our side of the wall.
So when I think of Jesus in this way, what that does is encourage me is to become curious about the people I would otherwise keep in caricature, and to pay attention to the ways my speech and actions reinforce harmful divisions. And I hear him call me out into places of authentic encounter.
I wonder if you feel that call as well, and where he might be leading you.
There are other walls, too, not simply on the outside, but inside us as well. Again, we aren’t born with walls. Infants and young children have no such protection, no sense of separation between them and the outside world. Part of the task of creating a healthy ego—a sense of “I”—involves building a wall of separation between us and others, so that we learn, over time, where we end and another person begins, and establish our own core identity. This is good and essential wall building.
Yet there is another kind of internal wall that, while initially self protective, becomes harmful to us over time. It’s the wall we learn to hide behind, whenever we perceive it’s not safe to be real, to let others know who we are. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Most people live lives of self impersonation, never showing up in this world as themselves.”
It’s a risky thing to do, to be ourselves in the world, to let ourselves be known, and to allow others to do the same. For that kind of connection to happen, we need to create what the Quaker writer Parker Palmer calls “circles of trust,” places where we can learn the hard work of listening without fixing or judgment, of speaking our truth without foisting it on others, of allowing space for our true selves to emerge.
If there is a door of Christ within us, that’s where it would lead us to, a sacred space of trust. In that space, we have hard internal work to do, soul work that involves learning how to take responsibility our own life and destiny, to face what Palmer calls “the demon of jealousy” that causes us to fear that another’s success will mean less goodness in the world for us, and to learn forgiveness, of others and oneself.
What we need to look for and be open to, it seems to me, are the unexpected options, the unforeseen possibilities that occasionally cross our paths. In them may lie the kernel of grace that can move us forward without necessarily having to dismantle everything we’ve built up over a lifetime to protect ourselves. Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish Secretary General to the United Nations in the 1950s, was known for his ability to mediate between highly polarized and conflicted nations and groups within nations. He had a saying, “There is always a third way.” Whenever we are stuck in all or nothing extremes, there may be another option, something we don’t as yet see, that can move us forward. There may another door.
Jesus also refers to himself, moving onto the second metaphor, as the gatekeeper who calls us by name and whom we follow because we recognize his voice. I’d like to spend the time I have left pondering that mystery with you: how can we hear Jesus speak to us, call us by name, and lead us where he would have us go?
I have spent most of my adult life trying to put this experience—that of hearing the voice of God, which for me speaks most consistently through Jesus—into words. I do so, recognizing the need for caution and humility here, given how easily we afford too much or too little authority to the voices both within and without. Yet I do believe that God speaks. God speaks, from within, in the still, small voice, to borrow Elijah’s language, and without, as St. Patrick said, “through mouth of friend and stranger.” The problem, of course, is that there are many voices, loud and soft, voices that conflict or agree, affirm and challenge, rise up in confusion or blend in harmony.
There will always be great mystery, the paradox of tremendous effort and sheer grace associated with discerning the voice of God in our lives. Occasionally, God speaks with undeniable clarity, through flashes of insight within or through the voice of another. These moments are rare. More often than not, when seeking to hear God’s voice, we are left, as with all important things, to consider multiple voices and consider the perspectives they bring. From there we reach our imperfect conclusions.
Yet I believe Christ speaks to us as much or more in the multitude of voices as he seems to when we hear one voice clearly. We are especially close to God when we acknowledge all the voices within and around and remember that with God, there is always a third way, a way of trust that in the midst of all we hear and understand, something of the divine will filter through. For there is something of God’s voice, when we hear it, that rings true, even when it surprises us or makes us uncomfortable. It’s that ringing trueness we strive to hear—the voice of God that connects us to our own voice and strengthens it, and gives us the spaciousness to allow other voices their due. If we can pay attention to the options that unexpectedly present themselves and listen to the many voices around and within us for that which rings true, we stand a good chance of finding the gateway toward our true selves and our place in the world, and hearing the voice of the One who comes to show us the way.
Let me leave you, then, with a word of encouragement and gentle admonition, if I may be so bold, to listen. Listen for the voice that rings true, that calls you to know and show up in this world as your true self, and that allows you to reach others beyond the walls that separate.
Dare to trust that God is doing more than half of the work here, wanting to reach you with words of consolation, guidance, asking you to trust him as both your door and gatekeeper, as your way and guide along the way.
I invite you to pray with me, if you feel so moved:
Lord, I give you thanks for the ways you offer yourself to us as a door, a passageway to what matters most in ourselves, in relationship to others, and in our world. Help us to trust you when you call us out beyond the security of our walls. Help us to recognize your voice. Amen.