Leaning Towards Grace

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

John 10:1-16                       May 7, 2017

I was tiring of removing from our yard the lovely remnants of dog and cat visitations and so I decided to build a hedge fence. It worked to keep out the dogs, but the cats simply welcomed it as a protective hiding place and visited our yard with their gifts as often as before. I conceded to the cats.

We build fences and walls for at least two reasons. The first is to keep undesirables out of our space. The second is to keep potential migrants in. Neighbours on our street are building a two-lot fence that will allow their children and animals more space to run about on both of their adjoining properties while keeping them within their yards.

And so—there are good reasons for fence-building, but these reasons can quickly take an ugly turn when “alternative facts, ”prejudices and political gain form the motive. I have experienced two ugly walls. On my visit to Israel and Palestine, we saw the wall literally divide towns right through the middle and in the process divide families. While this security barrier helped to reduce suicide bombers, the wall was built not along the UN-recognized border, but deep into the occupied territory of Palestine.

The second ugly wall was in Berlin. I visited East Berlin before the wall came down. There, too, the wall had divided families. I entered the subway in West Berlin where the tunnel was colourful, the lights bright and the people in good humour. As the train passed under the wall, the tunnel became dark and drab, matching the mood of the East Berliners. Fear and suspicion loomed large. When the wall finally did come down, West Berlin was a bit overwhelmed by the migrants, but eventually, reunited families and towns began to heal the painful rift.

We’ve also had some ugly fences in Canada, when we forced many ethnic minorities, in addition to the Japanese, into detention camps. We used to have a virtual wall around every reserve in Canada, when Indigenous people could not leave the boundaries of their reserve without receiving a pass from the authorities. This restricted their ability to sell crops, to find work off the reserve, to hunt and trap or simply to travel and visit people outside of their reserve.

Our church has also had fences at one time in our history. Some Christian denominations practice what is called the fenced table. This means that only those who are members of their church are allowed to partake in communion. We used to have a virtual fence where only those who were visited by elders and received their communion cards were invited to receive communion. The original intent was to make sure that people had confessed their sins and were worthy to receive the body and blood of Christ.

I may have told you the story about the ordinand who was settled in Newfoundland in his first pastoral charge. When the Sunday came for the celebration of communion, he was devastated when no one came forward. It appeared as if the people had turned against him, not considering him worthy enough to give them communion. As he sat in his office after the service, wondering if he should submit his resignation, a wise elder knocked on the door. The ordinand tearfully admitted the visitor and the elder explained that no one ever came forward for communion, because no one dared to believe that they were worthy enough to receive it. It had nothing to do with the minister. The people had constructed their own fence of unworthiness.

Even after the United Church discontinued use of the communion cards and pronounced that it offered an open table to any follower of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, it still struggled with inclusion. In the 1980s, the United Church had a remit to decide whether or not children could come to the table. Up until this point only adults and those confirmed could take communion. The remit allowing children to receive communion passed. I was serving a 3-point rural pastoral charge in Saskatchewan during this time and they argued that no one fully understands the meaning of communion. Children will understand a part of it, and adults will understand other parts. Perhaps children will know better than anyone what it means to be included or excluded from sharing in the body of Christ.

Many families struggle with fences. Should we invite that problematic family member to the next family event? Who should we include or exclude? Does our natural tendency to protect our loved ones limit our ability to love generously? Or, conversely, does our inability to honour boundaries betray our loyalty to our loved ones? These are not easy questions. If we can be honest about our motives we might find wisdom in our decisions to construct or deconstruct family fences.

What about our personal virtual fences that we build? Do we consider ourselves not worthy enough, not good enough? How does this fence of unworthiness hold us back from fuller participation with our families, with our church, with our work place?

Jesus spoke often about boundaries and loyalty, inclusion and exclusion because his was a divided society of the privileged, who were in allegiance with Rome, and the majority, who were impoverished. There were slaves with no rights; women had varied rights depending upon their ethnicity. Jesus often sought to break down these prejudiced divisions. In our gospel lesson, he says that there are other sheep of other folds whom he also invites into the household of God. He was breaking down the barrier of religious affiliation.

Whenever Jesus was confronted with exclusive boundaries and harsh judgement, he usually leaned towards grace. Gordon Zerbe, a biblical scholar here at CMU, translates grace as generosity. Jesus is generous with an inclusive love that says to each person, “you are worthy, just as you are. You will make mistakes, but that doesn’t change your inherent worth as a beloved child of God.” Our gospel lesson quotes Jesus as saying, “I have come that my sheep might have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus’ grace is overflowing with generosity.

When I am faced with a difficult decision about fences and boundaries, I try to remember these teachings of Jesus and lean towards grace. Sometimes the fences need to stay up. Duty of care requires boundaries. But I’ve found that, when I’m defensive, I tend to protect more than I need to, and in the process of putting up fences, I limit love.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the need for fences to protect the sheep. He calls himself the good shepherd, but he also calls himself the gate, which is a bit curious. He makes himself part of the fence that can open and welcome or can shut out.

There was a biblical scholar who was doing some research in the Middle East. He came across a Muslim shepherd, who was not familiar with Jesus’ teachings. The shepherd showed the scholar the penned-area where he kept the sheep each night. The scholar was a bit puzzled: “How can the sheep be safe when there is no gate?” “Ah, but there is a gate,” replied the shepherd. “I am the gate. Once all of the sheep are herded into the pen, I then lay across the opening. No sheep will step over me and any predator will first have to deal with me.”[1]

Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus did shut the gate on some. He said no to those who came to kill, destroy and steal. But even then, he did all he could to lean towards grace, even at the expense of his own life. Jesus assured the one robber who was crucified with him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-4a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel#sthash.FBuh4cN0.dpuf