ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 7, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
A SAFE PLACE
Acts 2: 42 – 47; John 10: 1 – 10
During the 12thC the hot trend in monastic architecture was to build one’s monastery on a mountain cliff. These were tough monks; when they chose isolation from the world, they meant it. One of the most remarkable of these is the Meteora Monastery in Greece which is built at the top of a rock pillar 400 meters (1200 feet) high. During construction and for centuries thereafter (until the 1920’s when stairs were cut into the rock face – I guess the monks were so isolated they missed the invention of the staircase) the only way to get goods or people to the monastery was by rock climbing or in a large basket attached to a single rope which would be pulled up by several strong men. A story is told of a tourist who visited the site. He got in the basket accompanied by a “guide monk”. As the men at the top started to pull the heavy load with all their might, the basket swayed in the wind. Halfway up the cliff the tourist noticed that the rope was old and frayed. Looking down he grew quite anxious. Hoping to relieve his fear, he asked the monk, “How often do you change the rope?” The monk replied, “Whenever it breaks.”
A friend of mine, who is a therapist, frequently notes that “people need to feel safe”. Liminal experiences or transitions can challenge our sense of security. Commuting from home to work can be nerve racking, especially if you travel the 401. Being in a plane that’s landing is often an experience of stress, followed by relief. Life transitions are even more destabilizing. Graduation is followed by the anxiety of getting a job. New parents wonder if they’ll raise their baby well. The newly widowed worry they will never adjust to the loneliness. Changes in the traditions of a congregation are often greeted with emotional apprehension ranging from mild resistance to absolute panic. This angst is one reason many congregations never change (and a leading cause of ecclesial death.) Spiritually we also want to have a sense of security – we want to know God will take care of us; we want to know what we need to do to please God and we want to know we will one day go to heaven where we’ll once again see everyone we love. We worry about the attacks of Satan and wonder if our strength and our God are great enough to ward them off. Knowing our own weaknesses, we may not trust ourselves; what if we fall off the wagon of salvation and can’t get back on? Doubts can also affect our spiritual security – we know Jesus is the way, but what if we’re wrong?
Jesus also knew people need to feel safe. His image of safety is a sheep fold. During the day, shepherds in Israel would take their sheep to good pasture, which wasn’t easy to find in a desert country, so they could pass the day eating, resting, growing chubby and playing – doing all the fun things sheep were created to do. At dusk they’d lead the sheep home to their pen where they’d be secure for the night. Within the fold there was little chance of them wandering and getting lost. Surrounded by the strong stone walls, the sheep could sleep safely tucked away from wolves and thieves. Cuddled up together, they’d be warm in the cool night air. If there was an unexpected noise, an unfamiliar smell or the voice of one trying to imitate the shepherd, the sheep would bleat, scurry around warning each other and huddle together in the middle of the pen. But the sheep were not left to fend for themselves. Their shepherd was right there too. The shepherd who had a personal bond with each sheep just like we would have with a pet. The shepherd named each sheep and the sheep knew and responded to the shepherd. They trusted him and he looked out for them.
Using this metaphor as a way of describing God’s relationship with us, Jesus warned against “stranger danger”. There were false shepherds – thieves and bandits who were out to “steal, kill and destroy” the sheep. I’ve always taken that as a reference to Satan; like a wolf in sheep’s clothing the evil one comes to annihilate us. Reading more carefully, Jesus refers to the thieves as “all who came before me” (John 10:8). So who are these bandits? In this context (and John had just described the interrogation of a healed blind man by the Pharisees) Jesus was referring to spiritual advisors, false teachers, self-appointed prophets and religious leaders who were in a position to speak with guidance and authority but because they just don’t get “God’s world, God’s way” they lead people into the ways of sin, death and destruction. These people weren’t necessarily Satanic but if their intention was to do damage, they were evil. Many were simply spiritually misguided and arrogant so Satan could easily use them for his destructive purposes.
The passage gets a bit convoluted when Jesus starts to describe his role. On the one hand he implies and later says, “I am the good shepherd” (vs. 11), on the other hand he says, “I am the gate.” (vs. 9). This sounds like a case of mixed metaphors until we remember a good shepherd would sleep in the doorway of the sheepfold guarding and protecting his beloved sheep. At the same time, “I am the gate” (or “the door” as it is also translated) is a peculiar claim. I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves as a door and I probably wouldn’t take it as bragging if I did. Yet a door is an interesting image so let’s explore this a bit.
A door implies there’s a passageway. In Matthew, Jesus advises, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (7:13). While it’s tempting to take the easy road, there is a passageway leading to life; one we miss if we try to cut corners or jump the wall. Jesus claims to be the gateto that passage. While others may lead you through another gate – a gate of death, Jesus leads you through a gate to find, not only safety, but “abundant life” (John 10:10).
A door is also a boundary; boundaries protect. We have doors on our home which protect us not only from intruders but also from the elements, from bugs and mice and threats of every kind. Jesus is the boundary for our community – our fold; as we listen to and follow him, he keeps what is harmful or destructive from getting into our midst, robbing or hurting us, making life miserable or setting up a permanent residence.
A door offers flexibility. Even in prison, doors open and close; they allow us to go in and out. While they protect us, they also are our passageway to freedom. As Jesus said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). In the pasture we eat, rest, grow and become the people and the community God created us to be.
Doors are also liminal places. The word liminal means “threshold”. As we cross a threshold we pass from one place or reality to another. Something changes. We are no longer, literally, in the same place. So although we may not pay attention to it, doorways are disorienting places – we have to adjust ourselves to where we’re going and re-orient ourselves to a new reality. Spiritually speaking once we come to Jesus and cross that threshold we’re in a new reality – one of abundant life and freedom. That’s why the process of coming to faith can be disruptive to our souls; it can feel very stressful as our world view changes, as we change and as we open ourselves to being in a different way – to being free, safe and fully alive.
Finally, most door are objects and need someone to move them, except in the case of a living door, like a shepherd. And so we have a bit of a paradox – the Good Shepherd, Jesus, is free and able to act independently without our intervention. Yet as a door, he positions himself in such a way that he invites our involvement. Do we open the door? Do we go in and out and find pasture? Do we enter this abundant life? In part, the answer is up to us – what will you do with the door that is Christ?
As we consider Jesus, the door who is both our safety and our freedom, we need to remember also that a sheepfold isn’t a place for a single sheep. If a sheep is on its own it’s because it’s sick and could contaminate the flock. Sheepfolds are communities – safe communities where sheep feel secure and content. When following the shepherd out into pasture, the sheep still flock together. In light of this and of our call to be Christ in our world and to one another, we’re invited to be involved in the Good Shepherd’s work of creating a safe community. So we each need to ask – what can I do to make this sheepfold we call St. Stephen’s PC a safe place for others? In Acts 2 we’re given a description of the earliest church community. These are its qualities: The early Christians devoted themselves to study and to growth in understanding, in faith and in character. They ate together in fellowship; this was not only a way to be together, it was also a way to care for one another, especially those among them who had less. The breaking of bread is also a reference to sharing together in The Lord’s Supper – they remembered the death of Jesus that was the core of their faith and community and so they were strengthened by this mystical communion with Christ. They also prayed, not only for one another but with one another. Prayer was a central, communal action which created an atmosphere of care and safety. They took the concept of communal life seriously. The rich shared with the poor as they had need; no one clung to their possessions and wealth was used for philanthropy not power. They met together often – day by day, spending as much time together as possible. They worshipped together. They were happy – not resentful, impatient or snarky with one another. They had generous hearts towards one another and goodwill towards everyone. They accepted each other. It’s no wonder that, “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (vs. 47). People are drawn to gather in places that are safe and life-giving. As the Church we understand people need “to feel safe”; it’s our congregational work to be a place of safety. After we ascend the mountain, we become the people who pull the rope and bring others up. None of us arrive, nor can we bring another safely to the heights, on our own. When Jesus is our shepherd and our gate, we dwell in safety and we become a safe place for others where together we can blossom and grow, find freedom and live the abundant life that only Jesus gives.