Monday, May 12, 2014

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall

What do you get when you cross an English major with a pastor?  Someone who reads the Bible and sees parallels to literature.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall[1].
This is the first line of a poem called Mending Wall by Robert Frost, the poet who’s probably best known for his poem The Road Less Traveled.[2]  In the poem about the wall, a man and his neighbor meet at the wall between their properties, as they do each spring, to repair the gaps that have opened up during the winter, replace stones that have fallen out, and maintain the barrier that they have built between them.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.  In this poem, that “something” is portrayed as the forces of nature, but to me it is actually someone who doesn’t love walls.  God doesn’t love walls.  Walls keep us from each other, and from God.
Something else God doesn’t want are people getting in the way of people seeking God.  Throughout the Bible those people are being challenged.  Some of those people had been appointed to lead people to God and weren’t doing their job.  They are often referred to as bad shepherds.
Jesus is the antithesis to walls and bad shepherds.  He says in John 10:9, “I am the door” and in verse 11 “I am the good shepherd.”  And he expands on that by also telling us, “I came that you might have life, a life lived to the fullest” (10:10).
It helps us to understand what Jesus is saying better if we know more about the environment in which he is speaking.  There are two aspects of that situation in Jerusalem at that time that give us a broader picture.  One is that it is Hanukkah, and the other is that Jerusalem in is the middle of a desert.
Hanukkah is the celebration that remembers a time when the Jews were trying to regain control of the temple.  When they finally did, one important task was to relight the flame that was supposed to be burning 24/7 to symbolize the eternal presence of God.  Special oil was required for this sacred flame.  God had given Moses specific instructions for preparing this oil, and the process took seven days.  They could only find one day’s worth of oil that was already prepared, but they lit the flame anyway, and that one day’s oil lasted until the new oil was ready.  A miracle.  That’s why Hanukkah is 8 days long—celebrating how that oil lasted. 
During Hanukkah celebrations in Jesus’ time, one of the scriptures that would have been read was chapter 34 of Ezekiel which chastises bad shepherds.  Bad shepherds had allowed the Jews to fall away from God and lose the temple.  They would have also read God’s promise in Ezekiel 34 that he himself come be the good shepherd.  In Ezekiel 34:16 God says, “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”[3]  And in the midst of this Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” affirming that he is God and he is the one who God promised.
The other aspect of the situation here is that Jerusalem is in the middle of lots of desert.  Shepherds taking care of flocks of sheep in this region are doing this in a desert.  It’s rough terrain.  There are lots of rocks and cliffs.  It’s hard to find water or grass.  A shepherd would have to keep the sheep from wandering off cliffs, rescue them—maybe using his shepherd’s crook—if they feel into a crevice or off a cliff, and lead them to water and to grass.  Jesus says in the midst of this, “I am the good shepherd.”  I will lead you to what you need.  I will help you find water and the way to life lived well.
Shepherds also had to bring the sheep into enclosed areas to rest.  This might be a pen with a fence, or a ravine with rock walls on three sides.  To get them there the shepherd had to show them the way in, and then sometimes the shepherd would stand or sit or lay across the opening in lieu of a gate, making sure sheep got in, and predators stayed out.[4]  Jesus says, “I am the gate,” or “I am the door.”
So a shepherd, a good shepherd, is a caretaker, making sure sheep have what they need, and making sure they stay together and don’t get lost, and don’t get eaten by predators.  A shepherd is kind of like a mom.
Isaiah 40:11 says that God “tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.”
We may have lots of people in our lives who function like a mom or a shepherd to us, who make sure we have what we need and show us the way.  Parents, teachers, pastors, bosses, mentors, grandparents, other family members, friends, people in our church, neighbors.  In a broader sense our governments are also like shepherds called to promote the general welfare, establish justice and tranquility.  Make sure we can get what we need and are protected from predators.
As you are reading this, you are probably thinking of specific people who fill these roles, and maybe thinking how that person is a good shepherd or maybe how that person is not such a good shepherd.  Or maybe thinking about how we ourselves fill these roles.  Every one of us has been shepherded by someone in some way, and every one of us is a shepherd in some way to someone.
It would be wonderful if all of us and all the people we’re thinking of were all good shepherds.  But the reality is that all of us and all of them fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  We celebrate about the ways in which we have been shepherded well, and are thankful for the good shepherds in our lives, and thankful for the opportunities to be good shepherds.  At the same time we need to have grace for all the ways in which we fall short, and ask God to help us forgive ourselves and others for all the ways in which we were not good shepherds and forgive all those who were not good shepherds to us.  We’re all human and none of us is perfect.  Even with the best of intentions, we will fall short of the glory of God.
Forgiving ourselves and forgiving others isn’t always easy.  That’s why Jesus said we need to forgive someone 70 x 7 times.(Matt. 18:21-22)  We may have to keep forgiving, and keep asking God to help us forgive….ourselves and others.
Through grace and forgiveness we move forward into the future seeking the better life Jesus offers.  We accept grace and forgiveness, and follow Jesus to a better life, a fuller life, not weighed down by our faults or the faults of others, trusting Jesus to guide us.
The way to a better life is by following Jesus.  He is the door, and the only perfect shepherd.
Something else about doors.  They can be open or shut.  I think sometimes we fall into thinking of Jesus as a door that’s closed.  Keeping out the riffraff, maybe.  But Jesus says in verse 16, “I have other sheep that aren’t among us yet.”  There are more sheep out there.  That’s why he also said, “I came to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10, Matt. 18:11)
A closed door might just as well be a wall.  Nobody can come in if the door is shut.  But we see throughout the gospel stories that Jesus was inviting people in.  He is the OPEN door.  He loves us all so much that he laid down his life in order to be that open door.
The door is open—Jesus is the door—but someday it will shut.  There will be a day when Jesus comes again and the time for going through the door will end.  And there will be no more opportunity to step through ourselves, or to show other people the door.
Maybe going through the door sounds like a bad thing to some—going into an enclosure, a pen, being confined.  Psalm 23 paints a different picture.  On the other side of the door is abundant life with the Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters, leads us to green pastures, and protects us from our enemies.
The last verse of that psalm says “Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.”  That word “follow” doesn’t quite say enough.  A shepherd doesn’t follow, he leads.  And that’s why some translations instead use the word “pursue.”  Surely goodness and mercy will track us down!  Jesus said he came to SEEK the lost.  To find them and not leave them out wandering in the desert all alone.
He is the good shepherd who calls us to enter by the door.  He is the door.
…who calls us to a better life.  He is the way to goodness and mercy.
…who calls us to forgive ourselves and others for falling short
…who calls us to help others find the door, to offer hope, to show the way to that hope.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
…because walls keep people out.  Walls divide us.  Walls keep us from God.
Jesus is the door, the open door, waiting for all to come in.
Walking through the door and being forgiven and forgiving and thankful for all of that are important.  And just the beginning.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
Jesus came to break down those walls, but like the men in the poem we can be people who rebuild them.  Who shut doors or just simply fail to open them.
There’ve been some very famous walls in our world.  The walls around the city of Jericho.  The Great Wall of China.  Hadrian’s Wall that divided England and Scotland.  The Berlin Wall.   Most of those wall have come down.  But what continues to divide us are the walls that we can’t see.  The walls of difference and misunderstanding.
You probably know the story of how God helped Joshua and the Israelites break down the wall around the city of Jericho.  There was a Sunday school supervisor who went to visit a classroom and see how things were going, and she asked one of the children, “Who broke the walls of Jericho?  And one little boy said, “I didn’t do it.”  The supervisor was dismayed that the boy didn’t know about this Bible story that she expected was already being taught in the Sunday school, and so she went to talk to the curriculum committee about it.  Someone on the curriculum committee said, “I know that boy and if he said he didn’t do it, then he didn’t do it.”  Frustrated with the lack of understanding, now the supervisor went to talk to one of the church elders and tell him what the boy said about the walls of Jericho.  The elder said, “I don’t think you need to worry.  I know this boy’s family and if he said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.  Now, let’s work on getting that wall fixed.  I’ll get 3 quotes.”[5]
It can be hard to know where we will find barriers to communication and understanding.  Where we will find walls that need to be broken down.
Even the steps across the middle of the front of the church can be like a wall between the people up above and the people down below.
If we let them, they can be barriers.
Jesus came to be the way through those barriers.  His mission and ours is to make sure the doors are open and the way is clear for each of us, and all of the people we meet outside the doors, to know God and know the hopeful, merciful, goodness of God’s love and grace.  To seek the lost sheep and show them the way.  To tell about God’s great love for all of us that came to earth in Jesus Christ.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. 
Jesus invites us all to come in.
May you have the courage to step through the door to accept your forgiveness and grace and mercy, to forgive others as we have been forgiven, and to show others the way to abundant life lived with you.  May God help you to see where there are walls and barriers that need to come down and to have God’s eyes, to see the people around us the way he sees them, as people for whom his son laid down his life, as people God loves and who God wants to know how much he loves them. 

[1] Adapted from sermon preached May 11, 2014 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Galveston TX entitled “This Way to a Better Life” based on John 10:1-18 and Psalm 23
[4] Burghe, NIV Application Commentary: John (Zondervan), 289.

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