Coming Home

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On World Wide Communion Sunday (October 2, 2022), we considered the curious imagery of Jesus as the “gate” or the “door”.  Our scripture reference was John 10:1-10 .

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Not long ago, my wife was away for a few days and I was, well, bored.  You might ask, “How bored were you, Dave?”  I’m here to tell you that I was so bored that I decided it was time to clean out the closet that housed our tape collection.  If you’re under the age of 25, I don’t mean that we have a set of duct tape, some masking tape, and some electrical tape. No, I’m talking about the mix tapes that we made in the 1970’s, and the VHS recordings from the 1980’s.  Yeah.  I was thatbored.

And as I was gleefully pitching these tapes into the rubbish I found one that my mother’s handwriting had labeled, “Christmas with Mom”. I put it in the cassette player (yes, we still have one – don’t judge me!) and heard my father’s voice announcing to his mother – my grandmother – that the whole family had gathered for Christmas dinner, but we were missing her.  So for about 25 minutes, the tape records our family dinner on December 25, 1982 – the first year that Sharon and I were married.  As I listened, I could picture the room in which we had gathered – because we always sat in the same seats!  I heard my mother and dad, and my sister – all of whom have died – talking about other people who weren’t there anymore.  We talked about things we used to do, like getting up really early on Christmas morning; and we talked about things that we always did, like making oyster stew the night before.  That tape brought me home again.

“Why Does He Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners?”, Sieger Koder (d. 2015)

This morning, we join with the church around the world in celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Sharing the bread and the cup is the closest thing that we, as a gathered community, have to a “family dinner”.  Just like that day forty years ago, many of us are sitting where we always sit.  We’re thinking about people who aren’t with us anymore.  We are remembering some of the other times that we have shared this space and these elements.

On this world communion Sunday, I’m thinking about Family Dinner as we gather to explore the third of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in the gospel of John.  Perhaps you were here when we read the last two: “I am the bread of life” and “I am the light of the world.”  Wow! Aren’t those grand, sweeping, eloquent statements of Jesus’ identity?  Can you hear the power and the poetry that oozes from them?

But today? “I am the gate” (or door)?  What’s that about?  How are we to learn something of who Jesus is, and who we are called to be, when we hear that Jesus is comparing himself to a gate?

 I have to say that, as a pastor, there is something that I really love about the beginning of John 10.  The gospel writer starts this chapter with a story about a time when Jesus started to spin out a pretty wild metaphor.  Listen:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Jesus starts talking, and there are a lot of moving pieces here! We’ve got (at least) a thief, a bandit, a gatekeeper, a shepherd, who knows how many sheep, and the suggestion, if not the presence, of strangers.  So Jesus runs this past them, and looks around, and says, “Do you get that?”  He is met with blank stares.  Crickets.  “Message failed to send”, perhaps.

Verse six reads, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”  I love that verse.  Jesus is saying things that don’t make sense to the people to whom he’s speaking.  Fantastic! Even I can be like Jesus.

It’s only after he has this convoluted story about thieves and gatekeepers and sheep that Jesus cuts to the chase and says, “Look, fellas, it’s me.  I am the gate.  I am the door.”

At the end of the day, what do sheep want? They are looking for a place to gather and to rest in safety.  Anyone who cares for sheep will provide that for them – albeit in different ways.  In the urban areas, where the towns are established, the sheep would be led to a fenced structure, or a pen, or even something like a barn.  Upon entering, the shepherd would simply close the door.  And in more rural areas, where the sheep spent the days grazing in the open pasture, a shepherd would find a cave, or simply construct some sort of simple enclosure using rocks, branches, and so on – anything that would make it inconvenient for the sheep to wander out or an intruder to find their way inside.  Then the shepherd would lead the sheep through the opening into the cave or enclosure.  Once the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lay down and sleep in the entryway – the shepherd would become, in fact, the gate.  Any predator seeking an easy dinner would have to go through the shepherd; any sheep that might be prone to wandering off would similarly have to step over the same.

Can you see that central to this image that Jesus is describing is the idea of being in relationship?  Both the sheep and the shepherd are known and recognized.  The gate, or the door, is the means by which those sheep come to know whose they are.  The function of the structure, whether it’s a permanent enclosure in town or a circle of rocks in the wilderness, is the same: to create a sense of “home” for the sheep.  The gate is the means through which those sheep enter their “home”.

Can I ask, what does “home” mean to you?  Where do you belong?

Years ago we were finishing up a youth activity and a young man stood up and stretched and said, “Well, I suppose I ought to go house now.”  His friend corrected him – “You mean ‘home’, right?”  But the first kid said, “No, I said what I said.  I have a house.  There is a building where I keep my clothes, and my mother is often there.  There is usually a parade of other people in and out of that building.  But that building doesn’t mean anything to me.  I don’t feel safe there.  I don’t feel like I belong there.  It’s not ‘home’.  It’s a house.”

What is “home” to you?  How do you know when you are where you belong?”

In Robert Frost’s wonderful poem “The Death of the Hired Man”, we meet Warren and Mary, a rural couple who discover that Silas, the itinerant laborer who often comes around their neck of the woods, has returned to their farm after a prolonged absence.  Warren is fed up with his worker’s inconsistency, and remembers the other times that Silas has left him hanging after skipping out too soon.  Mary, on the other hand, recognizes that this is something new.  Listen:

‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:

You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’

‘Home,’ he mocked gently.

                                       ‘Yes, what else but home?

It all depends on what you mean by home.

Of course he’s nothing to us, any more

Than was the hound that came a stranger to us

Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.’

                                      ‘I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’[1]

Later in the story, the reader discovers that Silas has a brother in town – a wealthy, well-connected man.  Yet we understand that Silas chose to die at Warren and Mary’s house, and not his brother’s place.  There is a sense of judgment and shame connected to the brother, and Silas feels safe and secure at Mary and Warren’s home.  Silas comes to the place he knows he will be welcomed, and the place where he is known for who he is.

In what ways is Jesus “home” to you?  Are you able to experience welcome and acceptance in this place?  Are you able to be your true self here, secure in Jesus’ love for you?

Every single day, each of us looks for life in some fashion.  Often, the things that we think will lead to our joy or amusement wind up hurting us and costing us significantly.  Jesus, though, promises us “abundant life”.  Jesus invites us to a place that is free of shame and fear, characterized by security and worth.  We are called to walk with him into this place of rest and peace so that we might know the kind of life for which we were made.

My friends, I hope that you know something of this kind of intimacy and belonging with Jesus.  I hope that you have found in him – and in relationship with this congregation – a sense of security and purpose.

You may have read in our newsletter that administratively, this is the time of year when we’re called to reflect on our membership in the congregation.  As we gather around the table that has been set for us this morning, I wonder… Do you need to take a step closer?  Is it time for you to align your faith and your calendar by becoming a member of this church, or by volunteering to serve as an officer or in one of the ministries here?

Or maybe, your reflection on your sense of connection to this body might provide you with an invitation to connect with someone who is not here now, and for you to find a way to invite them to come back home in one way or another.  There is something that is rich and powerful about the image of Jesus as he stretches himself out across the place where we’ve come to find safety and security and rest.

And yet there is something else for us to consider as we think about Jesus as the “gate” or the “door”.  It is, of course, amazing and worthy of praise to think about the fact that he secures a place for us, and offers us welcome, safety, and even definition.

 Yet it is clear that the sheep were never intended to remain in that enclosure 24/7/365!  Sheep that are held in a pen day and night will never know the kind of abundant life that Jesus is talking about in this passage.  Rather, it’s clear: Jesus invites us in, and Jesus leads us out.  The gate keeps us safe from prowling bandits who would threaten the safety and security of the sheep inside the enclosure, and that’s wonderful.  And yet the same gate is also the means by which the sheep are freed from the monotony and drudgery of isolation and stagnancy.  Jesus brings us in, and nurtures us, and protects and feeds us – and then leads us out into the world wherein we are invited to participate in life that is abundant.

The call of the Christ as the “gate” or the “door” is not for those who would belong to him to find a place in which we can hide out from all of the evils of the world.  We are not granted some magical place of escape and fantasy wherein everything is perfect.  Rather, when Jesus says that he is the gate, he is inviting us into a relationship with himself and with the gathered community.  In the context of such rest, identity, and security, then, we are able to learn the ways of Jesus so that we can leave the sanctuary and live as his agents – participate in the abundant life of which he speaks – in the world.  As the body of Christ, the church is called to demonstrate first in here, and then out there, a new quality of life that is shaped by the grace and welcome that comes in and through Jesus.

We are, in fact, “home” in this space.  But we are here so that we can be trained and nurtured in our ability to live in and to live as the Love of God in the world that Christ came to save.  Thanks be to God for this invitation and equipping.  Amen.

[1] Robert Frost, “The Death of The Hired Man”, published in 1914. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44261/the-death-of-the-hired-man

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