Sunday May 3,, 2020
4th Sunday of Easter - 2020
A Warm Place
INTRODUCTION: Doors and gates are, of course, rich in symbolism. Yep, across cultures and throughout time, points of entrance like gates and doors have always been more than just ways to separate people in their homes and businesses from the surrounding world.
In assorted religious traditions, for example, doors and gates have often been seen as a symbol for new beginnings. They are passageways, in other words, from one world into another.
Apparently, even as far back as the Egyptians, doors were believed to serve such a purpose. The tombs of kings, queens, and other well-to-do folks, for example, often had doors carved inside of them that were meant to magically provide passage into the afterlife for the deceased.
And then there are those folks that like to interpret dreams. Tell them you’ve had a dream with a gate or door, and they’re likely to suggest you are in the midst of some major transformative experience. So doors and gates have long been symbols of things like change, growth, and entrance into a whole new world.
And Jesus….well, he also talked about doors and gates too, right? Except in his case he actually liked to refer to himself as a kind of gate. “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep,” says Jesus. To which he then adds, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
From a well known passage where Jesus also refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, most scholars think his remarks were directed at religious leaders who liked to put on a good show when it came to caring for people, but in practice really didn’t.
For even in Jesus’ time religious hucksters and shysters existed. Yep. Just like some folks today that like to wrap themselves in religious talk and flashy displays of piety, there were those that did the same thing even 2,000 years ago. Jesus calls them thieves and bandits who don’t enter the sheep pen by the gate, but rather furtively climb over the fence for the purpose of leading people astray and taking advantage of them.
In Flannery O’Conner’s short story called Good Country People, Mrs. Hopewell is a genteel southern woman who is visited one day by a smooth talking country Bible salesman named Manley Pointer. Of course, by the time the story is over, the Bible salesman has used his flashy religious talk as a pretense for taking advantage of both Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter.
And so it went even in Jesus’ day. No wonder he goes out of his way to remind people that he is the good shepherd and, a bit oddly, the gate for a sheep pen.
But that said, maybe it isn’t so odd that Jesus should refer to himself as a gate after all. For doors and gates, depending on whether they are opened or closed, say a lot, don’t they?
Come across a closed and locked door with one of those little rectangular signs on it that says, “No solicitors!” and it’s hard to get a warm, fuzzy feeling, right? Knock on that same door and then listen as assorted latches and bolts are turned before the door can be opened and the feeling of not being wanted around only grows.
But come across a door that is open, or that even has a nice window to see through if only partially, and it’s a different vibe, isn’t it? There’s a welcoming component in such cases. Those who come to the church office frequently know that the door to my office is often left opened. Admittedly, that storm door which really sticks can be an impediment, but the main door is usually ajar.
And I do that for two basic reasons. First, I just like being able to look outside. But second, it’s my own effort to be welcoming and hospitable. An open door says something, I think. Is leaving my door open sometimes work? Yep - especially when I can clearly see one of our regulars from around town we often help walking down the sidewalk toward my door. (“Darn! I wish I had shut my door!” is usually my first thought when seeing such folks.) But I still make the effort.
But if there is anyone who’s life was an open door, well, it was clearly Jesus’, right? For Jesus, as we all know, welcomed everyone. Whether sitting down at a table for a meal, or calling people to follow, Jesus made sure everyone knew they were invited and wanted.
Latches on doors didn’t need to be turned and there weren’t any signs telling certain people to bug-off. Nope. Jesus rolled out the welcome wagon 24/7. So if Jesus was a gate, as he liked to describe himself, he was a gate flung wide open.
Of course, given the current state of life, the notion that we should be welcoming and hospitable is especially hard one to enact, right?
For obviously, prudence, safety, and concern for other people’s health currently requires us in all aspects of our lives to be a bit guarded. Yep. Both physically and metaphorically, closed doors are pretty easy to come by these days. After all, to my sadness and everyone else’s, we’ve been holding closed worship services now for weeks. So to be welcoming given the current climate is hard to know how to do.
But even more importantly, I think, is the risk that long term we might feel the need to increasingly shrink our lives more and more. For assuming social distancing and the need to be cautious are things that will be with us for a while, well, the desire to turn more and more into ourselves is only going to increase.
So now more than ever, it seems to me, we need to be exploring and thinking about the need to be hospitable - in whatever forms and shapes that might take in the future. For even when it isn’t easy or convenient, being welcoming and open with our lives still needs to be one of the hallmarks for people of faith like us.
In his latest book The Second Mountain, the op-ed columnist David Brooks writes about Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson. Living in the Washington, D.C. area, their son Santi had a friend named James with a home life that was less than ideal and who often went to bed hungry.
And so every now and then, Kathy and David would have James stay the night so they could feed him a proper meal. Well, James started asking if he could bring another friend with him for dinner, and then that friend asked if he could bring someone else, and before long the Fletcher/Simpson household was full of a bunch of hungry kids gathering for a shared meal every Thursday night.
So according to Brooks, if you go to their house on a Thursday night, there will be roughly 25 to 30 kids smashed around a table having dinner. Four or five have even taken up permanent residence in the Fletcher/Simpson household because their home lives were so bad. They laugh, tell jokes, and share both their struggles and joys as a group. It is an amazing enactment of hospitality and friendliness.
Or as David Brooks’ daughter put it one night after joining him for the Thursday evening meal, “That’s the warmest place I’ve ever been in my life.”
CONCLUSION: Well, the world needs warm places right now, doesn’t it?
Even though I am unsure what those places should look like or the form they should take given the state of things, we’ll have to figure it out. Because being welcoming and hospitable is way more than just a minor component of life for people like us. Nope. For as those who follow Jesus Christ, that open gate, being welcoming and hospitable, even now, is still essential to who we are.
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.