1 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
In 1984, Heidi Neumark became the pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church, in the South Bronx of New York. And everyday for months, she did the exactly same thing to begin her work day – she repainted the front doors of the church.
You see, each morning, when Pastor Heidi walked from the house to the church, she was greeted with fresh graffiti scattered across the double-locked, double-bolted, red church doors. Night after night, those church doors became the canvas for the neighborhood youth to vent their anger and frustration. And morning after morning, Pastor Heidi would pull out her can of red paint, and she would cover over whatever scars had been left on the door the night before.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Or sometimes it is translated, “I am the door. Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
What comes to mind when you hear those words from Jesus? I am the door. It makes me think of a barrier. Something that keeps certain people in and certain people out.
So often, I think it makes us think of exactly what the youth in the Bronx thought – who is in and who is out. And for the youth in the south Bronx, the message that double-locked, double –bolted door communicated was crystal clear – they were definitely not in.
I am the door. Whoever enters by me will be saved. It makes me think of Heaven and Hell. Especially because that word “saved” is in there. Whoever enters will be saved. And that is how we hear what it means to be saved. That those who believe in Jesus get to go through the door to heaven and those who don’t…go to hell. That in order to get in, you have to use Jesus, the door. You have to be friends with Jesus the bouncer. We’ve used this text against Muslims, atheists, Jews, and any other religion that seems to get in our way. We’ve used it to declare who is out and who is in. And, conveniently enough, it leaves us as ones who are most definitely in.
But part of that is because we have taken this story, this text, out of its context. And we know how important context is. We know that if someone takes something we say out of context, they are likely to misunderstand us. Which is why we want people to hear things the things we within the context that they are given. Well the same is true with Scripture. And so we must always try and locate Scripture within its context.
When we read from our Bibles, we see chapters and verses. Sometimes we even see little headings that tell us what the next section is about. But when these stories were first written down, there were no chapters and verses. We’ve inserted them. We’ve decided how the story should be divided up and separated.
And so when we see that today we are reading the gospel of John chapter 10 verse 1, it is easy for us to think that something entirely new is beginning. A new story. A new sermon from Jesus. But this chapter directly follows the previous chapter – chapter 9. And believe it or not, they are connected. John’s original audience would have read chapter 10 right after reading chapter 9. Therefore, we can’t read chapter 10 without knowing what happens in chapter 9.
And in fact, many of us already know what happens in chapter 9, because we just heard it a couple of weeks ago. Do you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man. He put spit and mud on his eyes. And what we learned in that story is that it is more than a story about a miraculous healing. But rather it is also, and perhaps more so, a story about inclusion and exclusion. Because the man was born blind, he was viewed as sinful and unclean. People assumed his blindness was punishment for sin and therefore he was kept on the margins of society. He was excluded. Then Jesus heals him so as to bring him back into the fold of society. To include him. But then he gets kicked out again because he won’t rat out Jesus. But finally, Jesus goes once again to find him. To once again include him.
It is at this point, that Jesus begins speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes, the ones who excluded the blind man. And that is where we get our text for today. So what happens when we read our story for today in light of the story of the inclusion and healing of the blind man.
Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and Scribes – the excluders – and Jesus begins by painting an image of a fold of sheep in their pen. He talks about thieves and bandits trying to steal the sheep, and finally, Jesus speaks plainly, saying, “I am the gate.” I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved.
Remember our tendency is to hear this as being about who is in and who is out. About Jesus as a barrier or a bouncer. But also remember that is exactly what the Pharisees and scribes were doing in the story of the blind man. They were the deciders about who was out and who was in. So when Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes, “I am the gate,” perhaps what he is saying is, “I am the gate. Not you.”
In relation to Jesus, the blind man who is outside to the Pharisees is really inside in relation to Jesus. Jesus saying, “I am the door,” is a statement of grace over what we so often hear as a statement of judgment. Inclusion over exclusion. Jesus says to his own religion – you don’t get to decide. I get to decide. And based on the story of the blind man, Jesus seems more interested in being a door that lets people in rather than a door that keeps people out.
Jesus says, I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved. Before we make this a text about heaven and hell, we should ask: what was salvation for the blind man? Salvation was not the future hope of getting into heaven. Salvation for the blind man was the present hope of being given sight. And in regaining his sight, he was saved from a life of isolation, marginalization, begging. Salvation for him was being welcomed back into the community. Inclusion over exclusion.
And finally, if we need one more example of how this text is not about getting into heaven, Jesus says, “(The sheep) will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus is a door that swings both directions. Letting people in and letting people out. He is a door that welcomes the community into the fold, into the people of God, but also sends the people of God out into the community. The world that God loves so much.
Every time pastor Heidi repainted the door, she simply reaffirmed what the youth thought. This door is a locked barrier that keeps people like you out. And it continued to be a barrier. And it continued to be graffitied each morning.
Until Pastor Heidi changed something. Finally, Heidi ran out of red paint. And with it, she ran out of patience. She was tired of her daily morning chore. So she changed something. Instead of repainting the door, she asked the teenagers in the neighborhood if they wanted to be part of an art class. Soon enough, young artists starting coming through those doors of the church, to listen to Bible stories and then to illustrate them in paint on those front, formally red church doors.
“Week after week, the youth painted their hearts out on those front doors. It was a joyous, messy process…(soon enough, there was a) parade of feet that daily passed by, feet of people who stopped to look, to check out what was going on, to offer compliments and suggestions, and to inquire about the church. There has never been another stroke of graffiti on those doors.”
It wasn’t until Pastor Heidi made the church doors a canvas for the community, instead of a barrier from the community that the vandalism, the visual protests, began to stop. As soon as those doors became doors that opened both ways – letting the community in to be the people of God and the people of God out into the community, suddenly abundant life was created for that South Bronx neighborhood.
And that is exactly what Jesus, the gate, the door, seeks – abundant life. I came so that they might have life and have it abundantly. For Jesus, all of this is about abundant life, full life, new life…now. Salvation in the form of grace over judgment, inclusion over exclusion. In this life.
And what greater example do we have for that than the story of Mother’s Day. I want to introduce you to two people: Ann Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe. Both are viewed as the women who started Mothers’ Day. Around 1858, Ann Reeves Jarvis took it upon herself to meet the needs of her community in Virginia. She began Mothers’ Day Work Clubs that sought to improve the health and sanitary conditions of their community. Together, these Mothers’ Day work groups sought to help the community provide the best possible care for its children. But then the Civil War began to break out. And suddenly, the community became very, very divided. Divided between the North and the South. Between the Union and the Confederates. And so the mission of Ann Jarvis’ Mothers’ Day Work Club shifted. Now Jarvis urged her clubs to be neutral parties and to provide aid to both Confederate and Union soldiers. “Under her guidance, the clubs fed and clothed soldiers from both sides who were stationed in the area. When typhoid fever and measles broke out in the military camps, Jarvis and her club members nursed the suffering soldiers from both sides.” And then after the war ended, Ann and her Mothers’ Day club members planned a “Mothers’ Friendship Day” for soldiers from both sides of the Civil War and their families to help the healing process and to promote reconciliation.
A few years later, in 1870, Julia Ward Howe wrote what is now know as the Mothers’ Day Proclamation, which was a call to action that asked women to unite in promoting world peace. In her proclamation, she wrote: “Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts…We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.… Let (the women of this country) solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace…In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held… to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
In other words, the work of Ann and Julia, the women who started Mothers’ Day, was centered around reconciliation, healing, peace, non-violence among nations. Their work was about creating pathways, doors, that brought people together, rather than divide them. Opening up opportunities for peace and reconciliation. It was not about closing doors and building barriers. But opening doors. And inviting one another in.
And so on this day, Mothers’ Day, and this day when we hear that Jesus is the door – might we begin to see this image of Jesus not as a barrier or a boundary but as a pathway in which all are invited and welcomed. A door that invites people in, say to worship and rest and reflect together, but then also a door that lets people out. Out of the sanctuary and into the world seeking to be a people of God who hunger and thirst for peace and justice and reconciliation. Grace over judgment. Inclusion over exclusion. Like our mothering God, Jesus is in the business of bringing about life and life abundant here and now. May we be so brave as Pastor Heidi and Ann and Julia to live out such divine work in our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space, p. 3.
 Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space, p. 11.