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Fourth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “I AM the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7). “I AM the good shepherd” (John 10:11). These are not throwaway lines in the gospel of John. They are like an open door. We are meant to step to the threshold and walk into newness of life with God. Seven times Jesus uses the phrase ego eimi, “I AM.” He connects his identity with the great I AM—Yahweh—whom Moses encountered in the burning bush. Moses took off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. It was the beginning of a great adventure.

I AM the gate, Jesus said. Step up and walk through. I AM the Good Shepherd. I lead you to a new land. You might think Jesus mixed his metaphors. How can he be both a gate and a shepherd? It helps to understand an ancient sheepfold was like a pen without a gate. Once the sheep were safely inside the shepherd laid down in the opening. His body literally became the gate to the enclosure to protect the sheep from harm. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said (v. 11b).

What’s more, sheep belonging to different shepherds could be mixed together in one sheepfold. You’d think that would create a problem when it came time to leave. Yet upon hearing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep sorted themselves out and followed, because they had trust in the care and compassion of their particular shepherd.

In life many things can bring us to the threshold between old and new. Whether by tragedy, or by accident, or by choice, there are times we all find ourselves betwixt and between, confused, disillusioned, or uncertain. It’s no surprise we don’t particularly enjoy this in-between space. Yet, truth be told, this is among those times when we are most open to learning, most humble, most hungry for grace, most open to searching and looking behind an open door.
Moses turned to look and see the burning bush he had only just glimpsed from the corner of his eye. He was ready for change. If there is a silver lining to these pandemic days it is that we are all standing on a threshold. Once again Jesus is an open gate. May grace abound.

Clinical therapy, twelve-step groups, and everyday spiritual practices like praying, meditating, singing, walking, reading and retreats are aimed at getting people into this in-between space and keeping them there long enough to learn something essential and new. St. Francis, Julian of Norwich (whose feast day is this Friday), Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives on this threshold, on the edge, or periphery of the dominant culture. “This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing.” (Richard Rohr, “Between Two Worlds,” Daily Meditations, 4/26/20)

American author and poet Wendell Berry (born 1934) affirms this wisdom in a poem he entitled, “The Real Work.” He writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As these weeks and days of staying at home string out and blur together, we may be tempted to close our borders and lock our gates—let false shepherds and thieves come offering versions of security that have nothing to do with the abundant life of Jesus.

Media marketers know how keenly we seek fulfillment and purpose and how much we’re willing to sacrifice to acquire it. High-concept advertising campaigns promise to sell you what today’s gospel offers for free. How often will we play out the same fairy tale to discover we’ve traded treasure for magic beans? We paid good money to acquire the abundant life and all we got was pair of sneakers, coffee in a paper cup, or a phone that’s out of date the day we bought it?
Jesus said, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. Standing on the threshold between our pre-covid and post-covid life, we realize again our old ways have brought us further and further into death. Essential workers keep the wheels of commerce turning while exposing themselves and their families to the virus without access to healthcare which, in turn, effects families staying at home. The poor are poorer. The rich are richer. The oceans rise. The planet warms. Entire species disappear. Are we tired of being cheated yet?

Jesus has opened the gate. ‘Look not through human eyes but through God’s eyes’ (Kahlil Gibran). Look through your shepherd’s eyes. Venture out by way of the Jesus gate to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

Jesus the gate opens to abundant life. “Abundant living is a matter of walking through the right doors.” Standing on the threshold between what was and an unknown future is a time filled with grace, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. Yet this feeling of vulnerability and openness is what allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.

Abundant life passes through the grace of God. Jesus is the gate that protects me. He is the door that opens beside still waters. Jesus the good shepherd unlocks my heart and frees my captive mind. He leads me into green pastures. He restores my soul. Let not your hearts be troubled. Set your sight on Jesus. Turn your eyes aside to see as Moses did. Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Let this be the beginning. Jesus the gate stands open. Jesus the Good Shepherd is ready to go.

Easter Sunday A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

That first Easter, the women went before dawn prompted by grief, and returned from the tomb quickly, propelled by fear and great joy with good news for the disciples. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen, indeed.)

Let all things living rejoice. In our gospel all things living includes everything that there is. The line between animate and inanimate is broken. Stars swoon at Jesus’ birth, rocks split at his crucifixion, and earthquakes and angels announce Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew signals Christ’s death and resurrection makes a difference to the natural world, to history, and the whole cosmos.

The earth is alive and proclaims God’s glory. While we have been closed in Springtime is going full tilt. The dead and frozen earth is giving way to new life. Lovely yellow Daffodils now decorate the lawn in front of church. (You’ll have to take my word on that. We posted pictures on Facebook.) Trees and shrubs have started to bud. Am I imagining it—or is the sky noticeably brighter and bluer? Staying at home is giving the air a chance to breathe. It’s one small hopeful sign of a future without internal combustion engines.

Our ancestors have proclaimed the cross and resurrection are the pivot point upon which all history turns, the fulcrum by which God leverages our destiny, the epiphany in which God’s loving character is revealed, and the light which illumines our path into the fullness of life. But resurrection doesn’t come easily for most of us. Our death is transformed in Christ, not avoided. The way of Christ is death and resurrection, loss and renewal. If we are being honest, this comes as a disappointment to most of us, because we want one without the other, transformation without cost or surrender, blue skies without economic sacrifice. We shout hosanna on Palm Sunday and alleluia at Easter while each day, the planet dies a little more by our hands. Violence tears gaping holes in the fabric of our community. Brazenly unrepentant human greed still wants more despite having taken the profits of the last 40 years for itself. Easter dawn breaks again this year in a Good Friday world with its message of hope.

Into your hands, your body, your spirit Christ sows good seed meant for the salvation of the whole world. Let the natural world teach you about the power of death and resurrection and about kind of life we are given in baptism. “Very truly,” Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

The early twentieth century Catholic artist and writer Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) wrote that as “Christ was in the tomb; the whole world was sown with the seed of Christ’s life…the seed of His life was hidden in darkness in order that His life should quicken in countless hearts, over and over again for all time. His burial, which seemed to be the end, was the beginning. It was the beginning of Christ-life in multitudes of souls.” It was the death of death.
“The core of the mystery is transformation. Not a magical replacement of the old with something new, but an innovating change from deep within, of that which is rising toward fulfillment and completion. Suffering and death is somehow integral to the process.” This Holy Week—in song, word, ancient rites, and prayer—we have entered into the mystery that lays at the heart of the universe. The new rises through the old. Our sins, our mistakes, our frail bodies, our histories, events, relationships, tragedies, senses, memories, intellects, and imaginations are brought to fulfillment when they are buried in grace. (Suzanne Guthrie, At the Edge of the Enclosure)

As the angel said to the two Mary’s at the tomb, “Do not be afraid.” Have you ever noticed how often Good News in the bible is preceded by the little sentence: “Don’t be afraid?” “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, your wife Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John.” “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” “Don’t be afraid, shepherds. I bring you good news of great joy that shall be to all people.” “Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife. Her baby is from the Holy Spirit. Name him Jesus; he’s going to save all people from their sins.” “Don’t be afraid,” the angels say before they deliver the good news, you are a child of God.
Resurrection pointed the first Christians to a new vision of nature and its possibilities. Death and resurrection lead us to embrace a larger vision of God’s work in the world. Resurrection is not a violation of the cause and effect laws of nature, but a revelation of the deeper realities of life. (Bruce Epperly)
Alleluia! Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia.) So, what now are we to do about it? The poet Mary Oliver instructs us on living life this way: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it. The poet Wendell Berry famously advised, “So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
[humankind] has not encountered he has not destroyed.” (Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front)

We are called to practice resurrection. Practice resurrection so all things living—all thing—rejoice. Practice resurrection with new ears and eyes. Practice resurrection and give thanks to God. For today we are called to be resurrection partners, to roll away the stone, and to open new pathways for the thriving of all creation. We are called to be God’s celebratory companions—to rejoice in birth and rebirth and say “yes” to life in all its mystery and beauty. Alleluia! Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.)