I came across this sermon from last year. One of the realities for me is that Covid has disrupted so many of my routines, such as they are. It’s from the Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020). The county I live in: Essex County, NJ, is experiencing losing ground in the management of Covid, which is so immensely discouraging. I found this reminder of how and what I truly believe to be helpful to me as I sit with the disappointment and frustration of these days. Perhaps it will be helpful to you, too.
Today’s Gospel is, I think, as confusing perhaps as the disciples originally heard it when Jesus was with them. He’s talking to them about being the shepherd who sends them out, then gets ahead of them, then brings them home, and is their safe place to be. And they’re not getting it. Jesus then says, “Okay. I’m the gate. If you come in with my love, through my love, by my love, you will be okay. And I am the only one who can offer that love. It’s not the other people who say, ‘Come and follow me.’ It’s me. My love is different than all love.” And, as far as we can tell, because of the way the Gospel passage ends, they then understand what Jesus has been saying.
So, this week, it’s an interesting Gospel in that if you were to call most people who are familiar with the Christian scriptures and say, “Tell me some of the ways we describe Jesus,” I’m willing to bet not too many of them would say, “The gate.” It’s an odd kind of image. And yet, it’s an image that can make complete sense. I came to that realization just the other day, actually. I went out for quite a long walk and I was praying with, and thinking about, this Gospel. On my way back, I came up the Church Street side of the building, so came around onto Main Street. And right at my side is the beautiful, tall wrought iron gate that surrounds most of our campus. Then there was a big double gate that opens onto the driveway. Next to those gates, we have a rainbow flag that says, in huge white letters, “Welcome.” It also says, “These doors are open to all.”
In that second, I realized that this image of the gate as a place where we can enter and be welcomed regardless of who we are or where we come from, what we’ve done, is an apt image for how we’re invited into this love of Christ. This image of walking through and into it gave me goosebumps in that moment. Then, as I was walking further and I’m going over to the rectory and happen to look back at the gate, because now this image of the gate suddenly made sense to me, I realized that sometimes we close those two huge swinging gates. This is an image of the gate as a defense, an image of protection. We do that usually to keep the preschool children safe when they’re out running around or on their bikes. I realized that that is also a part of what Jesus offers. That when we accept the invitation to enter into this love that is unconditional and beyond our wildest dreams, it is a love that will protect us.
It’s funny, it’s as if the gates close behind us and then immediately open up for the next person. When we wander off, as sheep are wont to do, the gate opens again and we’re welcomed back. This sense of being present and protected, to be safe, with Jesus, in Jesus, because of Jesus, strikes me as image that we desperately need in this time. We need it for ourselves, because we need to know, as topsy-turvy as our life is these days, as frightened as we are because this virus is dangerous, that even with all of that, the love Jesus has for us is unconditional, and it will comfort and protect us, even if it’s not in the ways that we can imagine in any given moment. It isn’t a guarantee that bad things won’t happen. It isn’t a guarantee that we won’t get sick or die from COVID-19. It isn’t a guarantee that the financial implications won’t hit us hard at home, maybe even in our refrigerators.
It’s not that kind of safety. But it’s the safety and comfort of knowing that if we can still our minds, if we can look for a moment of grace, if we can seek an awareness of the presence of God with us, that does change things. It brings us to a place where, even in the midst of whatever is happening, good, bad, or indifferent, quite we can feel okay some place deep inside, knowing that when all is said and done, it’s God’s love for us, it’s Jesus’ willingness to live with us and die by us, that will give us whatever it is we need to deal with whatever it is we face. There’s safety, there’s security in that. It’s like the security of a toddler who knows the safest place to be the most annoying kind of tantrumming and demanding, why, why, why, why, why kind of toddler, is with the people who love you most. Kids know that.
I can remember when my kids were young, people would say, “Your kids, they’re so well-behaved. We love having them around.” I’m like, “You know my kids are Sean, Kevin, and Kathleen, right?” Because my experience of them wasn’t always the same as others’. I love them to death, you know that, and they know that too, thankfully. But the reality is home was the place to bring the fear. Home was the place to bring the confusion. Home was the place to bring the frustration and the bad behavior. Because home was always the place where love would trump everything else.
That is the love God has for us. It is the love that will trump everything. There always comes a time when the nastiness and the anxieties and the frustrations of life settle down a bit and you can look back and say, “Huh. Either it wasn’t so bad, or I had more to get through it with that than I thought.” That is part of what Jesus gives up as the gatekeeper. When we step into this love, when we step into this security, when we step into this safety, we’re stepping into a way of living that gives us the freedom to fight, to wrestle, to be frustrated, to misbehave, to be terrified, and not have that change anything about the love and the abiding presence of God, with us, in, and through all things.
Jesus as gatekeeper, may be my favorite image of him. Before it probably had been Prince of Peace. But now it may be the gatekeeper. I hope that, for you, this image can make some sense, can give you some comfort, that you can visualize Jesus’s arms wide open saying, “Come here. Come be with me. Because wherever you are, I am going with you, I am behind you, and I am ahead of you.” Wherever we go, whichever direction we turn, Jesus is always there for us and with us.
Copyright 2020 The Rev. Paula J. Toland