An Open Door
An Open Door
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
May 3, 2020
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
What will be the image for our own age, the age of pandemic? Maybe it will be the image of a healthcare worker, just off his shift, his already tired face still lined with the oval mark of an N-95 face mask, at one and the same time a badge of honor and a sign of the toll of this virus on first-responders.
Or maybe it will be bizarre, as in pictures of people protesting lock-down and the odd juxtaposition of those who remembered to bring their assault rifles but neglected to wear a face mask. It just seems odd. If you had enough presence of mind to bring a rifle, would you not have the same cognitive capacity when it comes to personal protective equipment of a non-lethal variety?
Another candidate might be images of the shuttered business, community centers, libraries . . . I was actually in the theological library at the very moment the librarian came to my table and told me that I would need to leave. That was about six weeks ago. Six weeks ago, the librarian walked to the table where I was sitting and said that in 20 minutes, the library would be closed to all users. I had just twenty minutes. I jumped up and quickly went through the stacks, pulling volumes on Matthew, Acts, John, and the prophet Isaiah, Psalms, until I had books stacked up to my chin and a little bit higher so that I could weather the coming storm. Other people’s uppermost instinct was to hoard toilet paper. Your pastor’s was to hoard biblical commentaries. Come to think of it, that might be bizarre as well! Plenty of biblical scholarship, armed to the teeth with books.
But, honey, do we have any toilet paper in the house?
No, but we’ve got plenty of commentaries!
In all seriousness, the closed-door feels like a real candidate. Not long after the state locked us down, I went through Mt. Vernon, just taking pictures of the different signs people had posted; there was one sign that voiced hopefulness to every twenty that were not hopeful. We’ve been going to a park about twenty minutes from here. And it’s been opened but even there, in various bizarre places, it’s been closed. So, for example, a frog pond, no bigger than your dining table, is closed. At one point, somebody had gone through the trouble of wrapping yellow police tape around it, as if to seal off this particular space.
I’m still trying to figure that one out. But maybe it’s a symptom. The image of the closed door, restricted access, social distancing — it’s been pretty powerful as a key image. By contrast, accessibility, freedom of movement, trust, hospitality — these are deep values that are captured in the image of an open house. It’s a principle value: We keep our door open . . . and that’s just kind of assumed unless they’re locked.
Our text and our own reality right now make us think about the doors that keep us. How open are we, really? I mean, how open were we before the pandemic? Maybe the pandemic gives us reason to think not only about the literally closed doors but also the systemic doors. Doors between races and socio-economic worlds – has that door been open? Or closed? Or is it coded, so that only certain kinds of people may come and go? And what about my own state of mind? I feel sometimes as if we’re not only locked down in terms of physical movement but, perhaps, we feel that in other ways as well — as in, where and how can I get out of the pandemic? Where’s the ejection seat? Where’s the emergency exit? And there are people who tell us that all this will be over in no time. But maybe we should hear what they say with a grain of salt.
Maybe that’s why our reading from John introduces us to this image of Jesus: I am the door, or as the NRSV, the gate. Since most of us don’t have too much experience with sheep herding, the door or gate to the sheepfold may be unfamiliar. But for John’s audience, this would have been a well-known trade and a common physical feature of sheepherding. The shepherd’s fold, for which Jesus pictures himself as the door or gate, was a place of sanctuary. And it was always open to the sheep, letting them out to pasture and ready to welcome them in safety.
If we read behind the text, to the social world of John, we might guess that doors were not open but shut. At a historical level, the community in John was embroiled in a terrible family feud. The Jesus community felt as if the door of fellowship had been closed on them. They were excluded from the synagogue. John’s way of saying this, stereotyping Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews” gets to be problematic for us, 2,000 years later. Too often Christians have freighted our teaching with anti-Jewish narratives. It’s not to say that the biblical writers didn’t engage in that kind of thing. They’re human writings and they reflect our human condition, our fallibility. We don’t need to bless everything we read in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean it can’t help us think.
In that spirit, we need to recall that this is a specific historical context – John writes not about Jews per se, but a family dispute within the Jewish community that the earliest community of Jesus followers felt.
The Jesus community in John was a minority group, without much of a historical reputation. At least people in the Jewish tradition had a long-standing relationship with the Roman Empire. It’s not to say it was a happy relationship — the Roman Empire destroyed the temple in 70 CE. Unlike Jesus’s followers, the Jews had a temple, a beautiful thing that Rome could destroy. In other words, maybe precarity is relative between early Christians and Jews. The Christians felt maybe more vulnerable than their Jewish neighbors, but this was probably more perception than reality.
It feels like John may direct his ire at those who closed the door, with some justification, but that closed-door feels as if it’s been locked from the inside. John’s resurrection story, we find the disciples hunkered down, in quarantine, in a house whose doors they have locked. John 20 says that, at the beginning of the narrative of resurrection, the disciples returned to their homes. And verse 19 of the same chapter says that when they got home, they locked the door. And a week later, they were still in that house, not going out or coming in. As the narrator of John puts it, “the doors of the house were shut” — locked, shuttered even as resurrection was on the loose, opening all kinds of doors, including a tomb, and the eyes of the women who recognized Jesus.
I find that helpful . . . that when maybe I’m feeling not just locked in, but in some way, trapped by concerns that are rational, and backed up by science and yet at the same time by fears that feel irrational, and not thoughtful. Does anyone live in that house? Behind that closed window, rationally closed but at the same time irrationally locked? Behind that triple-locked door? It’s a coded door, not only on the outside but on the inside, and the password, you can’t remember it for your life? I feel that way. I feel that at least once a day, really sharply. But I’ve also found that Jesus shows up reliably, in my lock-down mentality, and I don’t know how the heck he got in but I’m grateful that he did! And it doesn’t stop there. In Acts, there’s a sense that the Spirit has blown open the door of precarity and uncertainty.
Acts tells us they were together day after day, thousands were being added to their numbers, they were sharing everything in common. Maybe that’s the accounting side of it, attendance, offering, membership. Maybe you’ve heard that about our own experience. An uptick in our numbers. Maybe a question or two about our offerings! But the real emphasis of Acts isn’t on the numbers but the character of the liberated community. Character didn’t come naturally. Instead, it was formed, through teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and the prayers. Character included awe. A capacity to quiet the soul in the presence of the holy, in the presence of the beautiful. To know that at any given moment, maybe even in an ugly moment, we can be in the presence of the holy. Do you ever wonder that when we hear or see fear or hostility in another if maybe you have, in a sense, seen their souls? It may be a soul in turmoil. And it may even take you a while to realize what you were witnessing because you were too busy feeling your own terrors and fears, but the truth is you were probably looking at one another through a foggy, dirty window, not really getting each other at that moment. But people who participate in the prayers, as you do, you can be unlocked from the narrow window of hostility, and return to that place, that feeling with the companionship of the Spirit, which groans in us for a better communion.
Soften our hearts, O God, towards those who may be our enemies. Not only as we remember them, but in anticipation of the next time we meet them.
We offer daily services of morning prayer, Tuesday through Friday, at 7 a.m. Started doing this in early March. It consists of a song, scripture readings, maybe some thoughts about those readings, and prayer, and a blessing. On Friday, before we gathered on the call, I made the mistake of reading the news, which I must do. It is rational to do so. And, yet, I felt the doors of my life closing, shuttering with dull worry. I didn’t feel like praying. My advantage is that I’m the pastor, so go figure. But if you think I’ve unlocked the doors before you have, you’re mistaken. I may come to these things as much a prisoner as anyone else. What I’m saying is that if you’re waiting to feel like praying, you’re waiting for the wrong signal. Be present to God and God will quicken your heart for the feeling of prayer. Participate in the teaching, fellowship, prayers, and in the giving.
Those practices include the speaking of words that give life and life in abundance to everyone who is quickened to hear and believe.
As we read the psalms that morning, Friday, it seemed like God’s Spirit invaded my little house with a capacious and lively choir – and all kinds of creatures, singing, things I didn’t know could sing.
Sun and moon, praise God! Shining stars, praise God! Sea monsters, praise God! Squid off the California coast, praise God!
What about those squids? Well, our own science writer, Laurel Oldach, published a fascinating piece on squid off the coast of California. This species of squid is known for its ability to change colors almost instantaneously. Its capacity to change its colors to fit its environment or communicate employs the full pallet of colors. However, scientists can’t figure out one specific question: why do squid produce such amazing colors, colors that they themselves cannot see? They don’t have the photoreceptors that allow humans to see the colors they themselves produce, which raises the question of the biological function of their light shows. Additionally, at the depths that they live, the predominant light is green. So, biologists think that maybe squid only see different shades of green, but they never see the magical light show that so delights the human eye.
Maybe we’re like the squid, in the depths, where everything seems to be bathed in various shades of green, but somehow, someway, we’re, at least potentially, producing a light show of praise.
And I’m walking down Bolton Street on Friday, with this thought, and wondering, is there a song of praise dancing in those leaves, and thinking, the trees and the hills, and the birds, if I could hear them, if I could truly hear them, if I could hear the stars at night, if I could hear the sun at midday, if I could hear my innermost heart, my deepest being, if I could hear the secret thought of my heart, the secret thought that I will keep even from myself, the thought that I will perhaps only release in my last moments, if I could hear the tadpoles in the frog pond, if I could hear . . . would it be a song of praise?
So, maybe I’m thinking differently about this shuttered world. Buildings are closed but our hearts are being opened . . . to praise we didn’t imagine existed.
Praise led to deeds, according to Acts: “And the community broke bread, sold property and gave to others as they had need.” I may not be able to eradicate hunger, but I can, with a small gift of time or money or effort, help one family enjoy a nutritious meal. A hot bowl of cream of wheat for breakfast makes children sing — and I will tell you, the happy sounds of children sitting at a table for a hot, wholesome breakfast sound a lot like praise. We may not end racial disharmony, but perhaps we can be open to the Spirit speaking through our different experiences in life, speaking a more beautiful word than our mutual fears, and suspicions. Signs of reconciliation make our hearts rejoice. I may not be the one to find the vaccine, but maybe I could sow a mask and send it off to someone. And you know, I think I’ve got some beautiful material here, it’s been in a box in my closet for years, it’s got style, it’s got color, in the 80s it was the thing, and it’s sitting in a box, a box of shadows. Hasn’t seen the light of day for ages. But color loves light. Rejoices in light. Sings in light. Dances in the light. And I think it’s just right for you. It’s not as beautiful you are, of course, but it says to the world there is more to you than meets the eye, there is more to you than fear, more to you than security, more to you. . . .
Your Spirit speaks to my spirit, as the deeps speak unto the deeps, and it sounds like praise.