The scripture for this sermon is from John 10:1-10.
Jesus said, I am the gate. The gate Jesus has in mind is the gate for an enclosure of sheep. Farmers in Jesus’ day penned their sheep next to the house, with only one entrance into the pen, the gate. We start understanding this metaphor by thinking about what gates do. When I was six someone left our gate open allowing George, a beagle mix, to escape the yard. We didn’t know George was exploring the neighborhood until a neighbor ran to our house to tell us that he had been hit on the next street over. As a family, we ran and picked up George’s body from the street and carried him home, where he died. Gates protect what is inside the fence from what might be outside the fence.
Gates also are the way you get inside the yard to receive that protection. They are the only legitimate way that is. Thieves and bandits might jump the fence, Jesus says, but only those who are supposed to be in the yard, sheep and shepherds come through the gate.
Gates are the way to be led out of the yard. Not in a mad dash alone, like George made, but being led safely by the Shepherd. Sheep and dogs don’t want to live all of their life simply in a penned space. It is through the gate that they find greener pastures, still waters, and red fire hydrants.
Jesus as gate is primarily concerned with the life of the sheep. This I am statement is focused on us. Jesus came to bring us life and life abundant. We don’t become sheep by passing through the gate. We are all made in the image of God. We are sheep on either side of the fence. Passing through the gate is a way to live the life we have already better. Better in the gospel of John and the letters of John means closer to God, trusting God’s love and being in a community, a flock of people committed to love like God.
The gate is meant to keep sheep in and thieves and bandits out. Just before this teaching, Jesus identifies thieves and bandits as religious leaders. Bad shepherds harm the sheep by leading them away from God and not to God. Bad shepherds, false religious leaders don’t have as their primary concern the abundant life of their sheep, but have their own power and prestige as their primary concern. The gate is not meant to keep out sheep. Jesus wants to gather the sheep. It is meant to keep out bad leaders.
In chapter 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. Without a social safety net, the man was forced to spend his life begging for food and living on the very margins of society. The religious leaders of his village justified his poor treatment by teaching that his blindness was proof that he was cursed by God. Jesus healed him, which enraged the religious leaders, because it poked a hole in their theory. If God had wanted him blind, why would God allow Jesus to heal him? They drove the healed blind man out of the village, God didn’t heal him, they said, it was the devil. The religious leaders, the bad shepherds didn’t take care about the well being of one of their sheep, the blind man and even kicked him out of the flock. Jesus, the good shepherd found the blind man and invited him through his gate and into his flock, where he would be celebrated, loved and valued.
Made in God’s image, we are all sheep. God’s hope is that we all find our way through the gate to be near Him always. Applying this metaphor to our life today can get tricky. The front door of our church is not the gate. The baptismal font is the gate. We invite all people into our church and treat them like God meant for sheep to be treated, whether they are Black, White, Brown, Middle Class, Poor, purple hair, white hair, piercings, pearls, Muslim, Hindu, tatted or wearing steel toed boots. In this flock, they find people saved by God’s love and committed to mutually loving each other. Welcomed warmly, God’s hope is they discover the joy of being loved, and pass through the gate to join our flock and find abundant life with us. The front door of our church is not the gate. The baptismal font is the gate.
On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof walked through the open and unlocked doors of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He made the thirteenth person in a weekly evening basement bible study. The just turned 21 year old white man was unknown to the other twelve African Americans, but he was welcomed warmly and encouraged throughout the bible study to share and be heard. He disagreed openly with their interpretation of scripture, but they listened to his ideas and let him speak. Toward the end of the study when they started to pray, Dylan Roof stood up and pulled a 45 caliber Glock handgun out of his fanny pack and aimed at one of the oldest participants, an 87 year old woman. Her 26 year old nephew stood up and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I have to do it. You people rape our women and you are taking over our country. You have to go.” Our flock loves. The nephew dove in front of his aunt to protect her and became the first to be shot. Dylan Roof reloaded his handgun five times, killing nine people in a matter of minutes. He shouted ugly racial epitaphs throughout the bloody carnage.
This is not a story of the gate being left open and George being hit on the next street over. Dylan Roof is a broken, troubled young person, full of racist hate. He entered the church intent on killing black people. The flock gathered recognized Dylan Roof as a sheep, like all of us. They welcomed him and loved him. The sheep he killed were enjoying the abundant life of God’s love as they welcomed him warmly with the same grace they had received. They are still enjoying the abundant life of God’s love today, too. The sheep from Emanuel AME in Charleston that survive are struggling to share that same love by publicly announcing their forgiveness of Dylan and privately I am sure trying to live out that forgiveness. Their ability to love even in the face of hate is what abundant life looks like. When we pass through the gate we find life.
Jesus is the gate, that welcomes his sheep into the flock. There were all sorts of opportunities in the story of Dylan Roof that could have kept him from this horrific, hate filled violent act. One of them though was not locking the gate. The only one kept out by the gate are those who want to lead the sheep into death. Religious leaders who teach that God is not about love, are those who lead us to death. Religious leaders who lead us away from God will lead us to death. Pass through this gate, the baptismal font, and live life better as a sheep. Better means closer to God, trusting God’s love and being in a community, a flock of people committed to love like God. Amen