Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Gate

Acts 2:42-47 Psalm 23 1 Peter 2:19-25 John 10:1-10

• The Bible means different things to different people
• The Bible means different things at different times to the same people
• The Bible is ancient literature written for an ancient people of an ancient time
• The Bible is hopelessly out of touch with today's reality

Each of these statements is substantially true just as each of these statements is substantially incomplete. We all bring something different to the table, and we all walk away from that same table with different opinions but with a common knowledge. It does not make one "right" and the other "wrong". It is just an acknowledgment of the certain reality that we are all geared a little differently just as we are all spiritually gifted differently. At a core level, however, we all have the same basic need: to be loved and accepted - AND - to know we are safe.

Some have endured hardships many cannot even begin to understand, but we try to pretend we do. We mean well by trying to pretend we can speak to such hardships. When we do this, however, we tend to dismiss the past experiences of others by glibly suggesting they need to "move on" or "get over it" because, after all, we did - even though we should admit (at least to ourselves) we do not share the very same experiences. Our greatest failure in trying to pretend, however, has little to do with the way we were raised or how rough we think our lives had been. Our greatest failure is, generally speaking, a profound lack of acknowledgment and ignorance of the so-called "cultural divide", that which defines our differences.

Missionaries have the toughest job. It is a mistake, however, to restrict such thinking only to those missionaries who venture into the deepest, darkest jungles to try and bring the Gospel to a people who had no previous knowledge of Christ. They go to such primitive cultures whose practices are so strange to us so as to be inconceivable. Very generally speaking, we believe "they" need to be more like us, "they" need to think like we do, and "they" need to believe and practice exactly as we do. BUT - we tend to forget that one does not always need to travel to another continent to find people and practices that are polar opposites to our ways of thinking, believing, and living. We can simply go across town - or even right across the street.

It never occurs to such well-meaning missionaries, both foreign AND domestic, that to insist that the subjects of our missionary work need to disavow their own culture, their ancestral practices, and their traditions is an insult of the worst kind and immediately throws up a virtually insurmountable barrier. It would be like someone coming to any one of us and trying to tell us that our parents or grandparents - whom we believe to have taught us well, whom we admire and respect - were really just ignorant and that they taught us "wrong". How many of us would stand for this? Immediately the "cultural divide" becomes the Grand Canyon!

The very reason why missionary work is so difficult and clearly not for everyone is that missionaries - in order to be successful - must necessarily learn the language, customs, courtesies, and practices - and dangers! - of a culture they choose to enter into. It can be spiritually dangerous to enter into a foreign culture, but it is necessary if those within that culture are going to be spoken to and ministered to - rather than spoken "at" and ministered "at".

A good analogy would be the work of a firefighter who would selflessly enter into a burning home to rescue someone. The firefighter would not stand outside the house and yell at those who are trapped inside in the vain hope that they would come to their senses in that moment of desperation and panic. Rather, the firefighter - having been adequately trained and properly equipped - assumes that those trapped inside are really trapped and will need to be led out, maybe even carried out.

The important element of such an analogy, however, is not just the selflessness of the firefighter who would disregard his or her own safety for the sake of someone else. The important element is the burning house. The firefighter cannot pretend the burning house does not exist and the firefighter cannot wish away the fire, but must work from within that dangerous reality in order to save those who are trapped inside.

In much the same way, the Shepherd does not only stand at the gate and call the sheep, though Jesus does say that "He calls His own by name"; but He also "leads them out" (vs 3), clearly indicating He first had to go in to them. After He has "brought them out" He "leads" the way, as St. Peter points out, by "leaving you an example so that you should follow in His footsteps" (1 Peter 2:21).

Modern religion, especially the many different and seemingly conflicting Christian denominations, is very hard to embrace because with the best of intentions to "shepherd" a people and make disciples - as we all are commissioned to do - we have inadvertently created rules, regulations, processes, borderline superstitions, "magic potions", and "magic prayers" (ok, maybe a little over the top!); demands imposed on the unbelieving and unsuspecting to insist on a particular, acceptable behavior BEFORE we will accept them. I would like to believe our Wesleyan Methodist tradition has put up no such barriers and maybe "officially" we have not. Practically speaking, however, we have done so and still do according to regions and cultures.

There will always be conflicts between us according to personalities, cultures, backgrounds, etc., and there should be no fear within these conflicts because there is still an overarching commonality among us: we are all mortal humans with the same basic flaws and weaknesses but with the same need to be loved and accepted - and to KNOW we are loved and accepted.

Let us be clear, however. No one is suggesting - nor should they suggest - that Jesus is "a" way. He is clearly "the" Way. He is "the" Gate through which we must enter, and He is "the" Shepherd who will lead us. Like the heroic firefighter He has already come to us in the "burning house" of our humanity; now it is up to us to follow Him in HIS Path, in HIS Righteousness, to HIS God and Father ... not our own path, not our own righteousness, and certainly not to a "god" of our own making.

There is only one "Gate" through which to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; there is only one "Gate" through which we will find the greener and more enduring pastures. Others will try to show us alternatives, choices more to their own liking, practices that divide a flock rather than unite. Practices that seek and promote individual comfort and personal satisfaction without regard for the well-being of the whole flock, and disregard the few among the flock who just don't see it "that" particular way but are nevertheless headed for the same Gate and following the Voice of the same Shepherd.

So let us put aside those things that define us as a denomination and instead embrace those things that define us as a people; a people ultimately being led to the same Gate by the same Shepherd to the same God. Precisely how we arrive at the Gate, by whatever practices or beliefs, is not nearly as important as that we do finally arrive at the ONE Gate by the gentle hand of the ONE Shepherd to the ONE Destiny that is of and for the people of the Lord.

In the name of the One Father, His Son, His Holy Spirit. Amen.

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