Monday, May 8, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Walls and Gates

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 7, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can hear a podcast of the sermon on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Now, ever since Donald Trump started his successful run for the presidency, walls have suddenly become a big deal. I mean, I doubt that there’s anyone here this morning who hasn’t heard that the President’s plan to build not just a wall, but a great and impenetrable wall along the Mexican border. Now that’s what he’s promised, in fact as recent as last week.

And without getting into whether or not this is good or even makes sense, the idea of a nation building a wall is hardly new or exciting. I mean, the history of the world is just full of walls. For example, there’s Hadrian’s Wall, built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian across Great Britain. And then there’s the first Great Wall, you know, the one in China, finished during the Ming Dynasty, measuring 5,500 miles. And how can we forget the Berlin Wall, a concrete barrier build by the East Germans that completely isolated West Berlin from the rest of the country. And of course, for basketball fans among us, there’s John Wall of the Washington Wizards, who scored 24 points Thursday evening in leading his team over the Boston Celtics, but y’all already knew that. And so, I think I’m safe in saying, there are walls all over the place.

And with the exception of John, these walls all have the same purpose. You see, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about illegal immigrants from Mexico or blue-faced Picts from Scotland, nomadic tribes who wanted to conquer an ancient country or East Berliners who wanted to buy a modern washer/dryer, all these walls were built either to keep something or someone in or to keep something or someone out.

But I’ll tell you, I don’t think this is unique just to these famous barriers. As a matter of fact, I really believe you could expand this purpose to all walls. That’s just want they’re suppose to do. But you know, even though that may be exactly what you want to see happen when you build it, this keeping in and keeping out business can really get you big trouble if you don’t also build into that wall at least one gate or door. I mean, no matter how great the wall is at fulfilling its purpose, there are probably some things that the folks on the inside want to send out, right along with stuff they want to get in. You see, if you don’t put in some kind of portal or entryway, you’ve got to live with what you’ve already got. And for that reason, I’ve never seen a wall that didn’t some kind of gate.

Of course, right now I’m talking about physical walls; but let’s face it, those aren’t the only kinds of walls we build. For example, I think we’re constantly building emotional walls, you know, to separate ourselves from people we may not know and protecting ourselves from all the pain and disappointment that comes when we open ourselves to someone else. In fact, that’s one kind of wall a lot of us are really good at building. And then we also built walls that I think you could call intellectual, because we sure don’t want to expose our brains to any idea, to any thought, to any opinion that we don’t already have just like we don’t want to expose our ideas or thoughts and opinions to the scrutiny of folks who may know more than us. And so we build intellectually walls. But that’s not all. I think a lot of Christians also build walls that are spiritual, and they do it by defining their church and their faith and their relationship with God so narrowly that, if you aren’t willing to buy everything they’re selling, you will never find a home with them. I’m telling you, that’s a wall too. And so, even if we’re not stacking bricks or pouring concrete, we’re still building.

And we’re still hoping that our emotional and intellectual and spiritual walls do exactly what walls are suppose to do: to keep things out and/or to keep things in. And even though that’s actually pretty understandable, I mean, give me a break, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in our world, when we build these of barriers, often we forget to put in that one thing every physical wall has, and I’m talking about a gate. You see, I think we can become so concerned about protecting what we feel and what we think and what we believe, we leave no access to anything different. We leave no portal or entryway to the world around us. And I’ll tell you, I believe we do it so well, in other words, we’re so successful separating ourselves from everyone and everything else, that we end up being left to live with only what we already have. And as a result, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, we become stagnant, ignorant of anything that’s new and improved. And we become complacent, assuming that what we have is all there is. But maybe worst of all, we become isolated, which means that when we really need emotional support or when we’re forced to recognize that some of our assumptions are
wrong or when we realize that some of those beliefs we’ve carried with us from childhood just don’t make sense in an adult world, I’m telling you, when that happens, well, let’s just say, we’re in big trouble, if there are no gates in our walls.

And you know, for that reason, I think this passage from John is really important, because in it, Jesus was talking about walls and gates along with something else. Now, based on what happened right before these verses, Jesus was talking to this bunch of Pharisees, Jews who were so focused on the law that they couldn’t see anything else. I guess you could say this has become their wall. And as chapter ten begins, they were ticked off that Jesus had healed a man who’d been born blind, because he’d done it on the Sabbath, you know, their holy day, something that for them was much worst than cutting your grass on Sunday. Anyway, it was to them that Jesus said, “I tell you for certain that only thieves and robbers climb over the fence instead of going in through the gate to the sheep pen. But the gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and he goes in through it. The sheep know their shepherd’s voice. He calls each of them by name and leads them out. When he has led out all of his sheep, he walks in front of them, and they follow, because they know his voice. The sheep will not follow strangers. They don’t recognize a stranger’s voice, and they run away. [John 10:1-5] ...I tell you for certain that I am the gate for the sheep. Everyone who came before me was a thief or a robber, and the sheep did not listen to any of them. I am the gate. All who come in through me will be saved. Through me they will come and go and find pasture. A thief comes only to rob, kill, and destroy. I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.” [John 10:7b-10] Now that was exactly what he told them.

And like I said just a little while ago, I think this has a lot to say about the kind of walls and gates we construct around ourselves. As a matter of fact, as we build our walls, particularly those that are emotional and intellectually and spiritual, I believe we need to remember two very important things about who Jesus was for them and is for us.

I mean, first, remember that Jesus said that he was the gate, and for me, that’s a reminder that it’s important for us to open, open in our feelings and our thoughts and our beliefs and open to both receive and to send. And this is why I believe that’s true. You see, because Jesus is the gate, our gate, he must want us to be connected to the world around us. Remember he didn’t say he was the wall or fence, he said, “I am the gate.” And because of that, he couldn’t want us to crawl up and hide, stagnant and complacent and isolated, believing that being vulnerable is the same as being weak and that it’s dangerous to expose to others your feelings and thoughts and beliefs. Instead, because he’s our gate to the outside, he must want us to be open to folks that we might have ignored and to ideas that we might have avoided in the past. You see, at the very least, he must want us to crack the door just a little bit so that we can receive emotional support when we feel sad while at the same time we can offer it when someone else feels lonely and so that we can learn all kinds of things we don’t know while at the same time we can communicate to others a lot of stuff they may have never heard and so that we can have our beliefs shaped but also tested by ideas from the outside while at the same time we can share our message to those who are desperately looking for something they can trust. You see, Jesus must want the feelings and the emotions, the thoughts and the opinions, the beliefs and the values to flow in and out. And although it may seem a little scary, this is something we can do, because we know that Jesus is the gate; therefore, we can trust that we will be protected. You see, we can trust in him; therefore, we can believe that we will be safe. And I’ll tell you, that’s really what faith is all about. I mean, faith isn’t about being static and stagnant. It isn’t about being comfortable and complacent. And it sure isn’t about being alone and isolated. No, faith is about trusting that what Paul said to the Romans is true: “In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us. I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” You see, we can open ourselves emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, because Jesus Christ is the gate. That’s one thing that we can see in this passage, but not the only thing.

You see, in this passage, Jesus not only said that he was the gate, he also said that he was the shepherd who leads the sheep out and who “...walks in front of them, and they follow, because they know his voice.” And I’ll tell you, because he’s the shepherd, I think we need to be ready to follow Christ out into the world. And that’s the second thing that this passage reminds us. You see, that’s what Jesus does for us; he leads us out: out from behind our walls, out from our little comfort zones, out from those safe places we’re often scared to leave. And he leads us out, so that we can see the world, a world that, according to Christ, God loves and sent him to save, but just as important, so that the world can see us. And you tell me that’s not important. I mean, isn’t the message of Jesus Christ something the world needs and needs right now? My gosh, even if it doesn’t result in everybody becoming a Christian and attending services and contributing to the church (which would be nice), don’t you think the world needs to hear that, in God’s sight, what’s most important isn’t about becoming powerful and it isn’t about indulging self and it isn’t about having the most? Rather, it’s about helping the least of these who are our brothers and sisters and sacrificing for others and remaining humble. Doing that is really what has the greatest value. I ask you, as we live in a world that seems to put such a huge emphasis on arrogance and acquisition and accumulation, don’t you think a lot of the issues we face would be reduced if we could factor a little love, a little compassion, a little mercy into the equation? And you know, isn’t that what we’re called to do, and I’m talking about as folks who sincerely love God? Remember, after his resurrection, Jesus was talking to Peter. And after asking Peter three times if he loved him and hearing the same answer, Jesus told him to do these three things. He told him to “feed my lambs” and then to “take care of my sheep” and then to “feed my sheep.” And this is something we can do physically and emotionally; we can do it intellectually and spiritually. But I’ll tell you, we can only do it, if we decide that we going to follow Jesus, our shepherd whose voice we know, through the gate, away from the walls, into the world. And for me, that’s the second thing we can see in this passage.

But of course, even if we do, that doesn’t mean that we’ll no longer need walls. No, walls really are important, because, for a variety of reasons, there are some things we may need to keep out just like there are some things we may need to keep in. And I think that’s true whether we’re dealing with stuff that’s physical or with feelings and thoughts and beliefs. But having said that, I think we also need to recognize that it’s probably a mistake to build a barrier without some kind of portal, doing that only leads to stagnation and complacency and isolation. In other words, every wall really needs a gate.

And here’s the good news. Since Jesus said that he is our gate, we can be open to the world, trusting that he’ll protect us. And since Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us flock out, we can decide to follow him out into the world, sharing who we are and what we believe by the words we use and the lives we live. And if we do, in my humble opinion, that would be making the very best use of both the walls and the gates.

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