Have you heard the joke about the three folks who went to Heaven? A teacher, a garbage man and a lawyer all died and stood there before the Heavenly gate. St. Peter informed them that, in order to get into Heaven, they would each have to answer a question.
So, St. Peter asked the teacher, “Name the ship that sank after hitting an iceberg.”
The teacher said, “That would be the titanic.”
St. Peter let her through the gate quickly.
St. Peter then looked at the garbage man and thought to himself how he smelled so awful. He wanted to give him a harder question to make it more difficult to get in, so he asked him, “How many people died on the ship?”
The garbage man surprised St. Peter when he said, “1,228.”
“That’s right!” St. Peter said. “You may enter.”
Then, St. Peter turned and saw the lawyer standing there. He looked him square in the eyes, thought to himself, and said, “Name them.”
I have to tell you when I first read this text this year, the part that hooked me was the image of Jesus being the gate. I’m a person who “thinks” in images, and the first image I had when I read “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come I and go out and find pasture” was a large, wrought iron gate, covered with ivy. It was a beautiful gate, but the thing that bothered me was that the gate, in my image, was locked. I wonder how many of us have this initial image of a locked gate. I wonder, when you heard the text, was your image of the gate locked or unlocked? Something to reflect on…
That’s the wonderful thing—and sometimes the frustrating thing—about parables. Folks came to Jesus all the time, and Jesus never seemed to give straight answers. I know it was frustrating for some folks, who wanted a more literal, straightforward answer or rule. I always think that pretty much the only straightforward rule Jesus gave was love your enemies and love your neighbor, and so many seem to want to ignore those. They have always been difficult, for over 2,000 years now.
But parables are such wonderful opportunities for spiritual formation because they don’t do the rich, hard, soul work for us. We are called to participate. The word “parable” literally has to do with “throwing alongside,” as in taking a particular story that seems straightforward, and throwing alongside a much deeper, surprising meaning. They are designed to make one think, reflect….more deeply practice and embody one’s faith practice.
The temptation, of course, in our world of “easy Christianity” is to re-literalize them, to strip them of their deep significance and use them as proofs for our own loaded agendas.
Take today’s Gospel text itself. Jesus gives this wonderful description of being the shepherd and the gate. I really wrestled with these two metaphors, so I took my own Bible study to one of our parish’s resident groups of spiritual wisdom keepers: the amazingly wonderful folks at Lanier Village Estates. On Wednesday, we shared a group Bible study where we explored these metaphors.
It turns out that Mrs. Tollie Davis’ daughter actually raises sheep. And, she shared with us how the flock of sheep really will only follow her daughter’s voice. They are drawn to her when she comes into the pasture and calls out to them. That is such a beautiful image of our own relationship to God—and God’s to us: God calling out to us and our knowing God’s voice…the invitation to follow Christ.
And we reflected together on the image of Jesus as the gate. Some of us did have the image of a closed gate, and others had the image of a gate that was wide-open.
Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
I shared with them that there is this impulse to see the “gate” more in line with the joke I mentioned earlier, with “getting in” to be really difficult. As if God were trying to trip us up or purposely exclude some people, to come up with purposefully difficult questions—apparently with a grudge for lawyers! As if God were even some kind of saboteur who wanted to pull the rug out from beneath people who were seeking salvation. As if God would tolerate abiding by our standard of social stigma and exclusion. As if God operated out of a space of scarcity rather than abundance.
So I wondered with my friends at Lanier Village: how are we to understand Jesus as the gate? And, with Mrs. Carolyn Kokenge and others, we stepped together into the sensitive space around why does the gate feel closed sometimes in our own lives? And that’s when I saw Mrs. Claudine given a gentle smile and point toward her own head. She offered: “When we think the gate is closed, we think that because of our own limited perspective. Maybe it is because we are struggling to be aware of God’s Presence in our lives.”
And, that’s when the link between the two metaphors of Jesus as shepherd and gate became clear for us: the gate seems closed to us when we have failed to deeply listen for the voice of God in our lives, when we have, somehow, drifted away from the Shepherd’s guidance. Rather than give us any bit of anxiety, we should celebrate the deep truth of this parable, that the great Shepherd who calls out to us and seeks to guide us, is actually guiding us into the fullness of Himself, through his own life, into the fullness of our own being, of God’s purpose for our life. As our Baptismal reminds us, we are guided by the Spirit of Christ as we are transformed into the fullness of Christ’s likeness.
Needless to say, I have found a space for continued conversation at Grace…with the wisdom of our elders right here among us!
Friends, this is the beauty of parables. We can enter into them as we let them enter into us. We are invited to open ourselves up to deeper insights, bringing our struggles, our doubts, our fears, our joys, our agenda, our hesitation—whatever—all of us.
But this is “hard work” if you will. The truth of Jesus, the invitation to the fullness of the life of the Spirit isn’t found in simple slogans and ego-driven agendas.
The spiritual life indeed feels sometimes like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. And there’s always the temptation to grasp for control, to reach out and assert ourselves. And, when that happens, well, maybe the gate does start to swing shut a bit—but not by God’s own doing.
Every time I reflect on parables, I think of Billy Collins’ poem on how to read a poem. You may have heard this, but listen again and see if you can catch a glimpse of the grace we’re talking about here:
Billy Collins: Introduction to poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
(from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996).
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham | Easter 4, Year A | John 10:1-10 | May 11, 2014