Easter 4, Year A
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, comprises the leadership of the Episcopal Church, and meets every three years. I have had the pleasure of participating in the last three. Each diocese sends 4 clergy, 4 lay people and a bishop. This allows every diocese to have equal representation. It also creates a fairly large group. There are about 800 clergy and lay people in the House of Deputies. A flimsy wall surrounds the 800 people so those who are not deputies (and therefore are not voting) have to stay on the outside. Once you are inside, it is a hodgepodge. There are people from all across the world. It really allows you to see the diversity of the Episcopal Church.
The last time I was there, our deputation was right next to the Diocese of South Carolina. At the time, South Carolina was very close to deciding to leave the Episcopal Church. Because most of us knew that, we were all watching them pretty carefully and for the most part going out of our way to be kind and welcoming. There was another deputation near them that was known to be fairly liberal, so I was especially curious about their interactions.
The Gospel reading for today tells part of the familiar story of the Good Shepherd. Jesus refers to himself as both the Good Shepherd and the gate that the sheep enter through. This passage comes right after Jesus had a pretty major altercation with the Pharisees. He had cured a blind man and this created a huge disagreement in the community about where Jesus got his power from. The Pharisees were trying to prove that he was not a man of God. Things did not end well. Following this disagreement, Jesus told a story about bandits and thieves who tried to steal the sheep and strangers who tried to lead the sheep astray.
It is natural for us to assume that these bandits and thieves might be the people who Jesus was disagreeing with. In some ways, we can find the imagery of a gate…of separation, comforting. It’s us against all those bad guys lurking around, trying to steal our book of common prayer, our church property and even our people. It’s us against those thieves and bandits.
When John wrote this Gospel, the Christian Church was not yet established. There was a contingent of Jewish people who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They did not yet see themselves as a separate group. They were not trying to break off and create their own church. They saw it as a natural progression for the Jewish people, and in time all Jews would come to know Jesus as the Messiah.
But in the meantime, the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah were in the minority. They must have felt the pain of separation, the pain of being ostracized by a group that was essentially their family. Therefore, it must have been very important to them, that they be right, that they be on the inside of the fence this time.
I do not believe that was the way Jesus thought. Jesus did not see groups. He saw individuals. Jesus could see into the depths of each person’s soul. Thus when Jesus referred to himself as a gate, it is not a gate that divides. It is a gate that welcomes. There were two different kinds of sheep folds in this time period. One was the large communal sheep fold in the village. These sheep folds had good fences and one very strong door or gate. They were safe places for the sheep and the shepherd.
But shepherds liked to take their herds out in the warm season and they would not necessarily return to the village at night. In those times, the shepherd had to create a more rudimentary sheepfold. Instead of having a door with a key, there was just a small opening. Therefore, to protect the sheep, the shepherd would lie across the opening. Anyone, or anything that would go in or out, would literally have to go over the body of the shepherd.
That is how Jesus acted as a gate. It was not simply a matter of dividing some sheep from everything else; it was about being the point of entry into the community. Every individual would come by, or over Jesus. People were not judged by what group they were part of, where they were on the spectrum of conservative or liberal. It was about knowing the underbelly, the soul of each person coming through.
There are a lot of fences in the Episcopal Church now. There have been for some time. Of all the General Conventions that I have been to, this seemed the most amicable, although that might have been because most of the people who were upset had already left. Everyone in that gated area knew that there was a good chance South Carolina would walk out and not return. As the days went by, more and more of their deputation left. By the last day, their table was empty.
I think we have to be careful about how we use the gates in our communities. We do not have the shepherd with us…not literally. We can’t always know for sure if what we are doing is what he would want us to do. What I know is that he would want us to leave our doors and gates wide open. There might be someone standing at the gate, but that person should be someone who would be ok with the underbelly of the individual.
We might think that we do not have to worry at St. John’s about things that are going on in the national church. Perhaps not, but I believe each individual church deals with some of the same challenges. We get so nervous about protecting ourselves from what is outside of us that we lock our doors and welcome people with caution. We would not want someone to walk all over us, would we? Yet that was exactly the model that Jesus was displaying. The sheep walked right over the shepherd. It was one of the reasons that the shepherd knew the sheep so well.
I am not advocating having our usher lie across the entrance of the church. That would make people a little uncomfortable. I am just trying to figure out how our community can not only be welcoming to the outside but also be ok with the underbelly of one another who are already here.
A couple days into the convention, someone I knew from the liberal deputation turned to one of the priests from South Carolina. She shook his hand and said, “I’m really glad you are here. We need people like you in our church to give us balance. If you leave, it will throw us off balance.” I found this fascinating because I knew the person who was talking was gay and in a partnered relationship. She would not be allowed to serve in South Carolina and she knew that. But he still wanted them to stay with us in the fold.
Maybe instead of just worrying about who we are letting in, we should also consider those who feel so different and alone, that they think they have to leave. That is why it is so important that we know and love the underbelly. Because once you really love someone as Jesus loves each of us, it’s harder to let them go and it is harder for them to go. The church should not be an easy place to exit, not because we lock you in, but because we are committed to loving one another even when we are so incredibly different, even when we occasionally mistake one another for the thief or the bandit.
There is no room in the Kingdom of God for thieves and bandits. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The thieves and bandits only come out when we are stingy with our love. Because then we are the thieves and bandits. Let us not be stingy with our love.