They said it was going to be a retreat. I was skeptical. Retreats offer spiritual exercises and spans of quiet time designed to nurture insight and to encourage renewal. By contrast, our weekend together was shaping up to be a blood-letting.
The vestry and clergy of our large suburban parish gathered at a Methodist Conference Center for what was billed as a time of visioning led by a highly-paid consultant. Along with our polo shirts and Bermuda shorts, some participants dragged along seething resentments and others smuggled in poorly concealed anxieties.
Tensions between the rector and the lay leadership had been mounting since before I had arrived as a newly minted priest the previous summer. A couple of assisting priests and I were loyal to our rector.
We recognized that he struggled with administrative tasks and delivered sloppy sermons. His vision for the parish was vague and uninspiring. And yet, we loved him. He was deeply kind and nurturing, generous and good-humored.
The morning unfolded with two increasingly rocky sessions. The unstated agenda among a strong core of the vestry was to announce their disappointment with the rector’s performance. There was bitter acrimony in the air from the beginning. The message was clear. The rector was incompetent and the consultant’s fee was an exorbitant waste of money.
At the lunch break, members of the vestry stalked directly to the dining hall. Along with the other assisting clergy, I loitered with the rector. He had taken a beating. We wanted to make sure he still had a pulse and to reassure him that we still loved him.
As I emerged from the cafeteria line and looked for a place to sit, I noticed the vestry sitting at a large round table. I made my way there only to see that all the seats had already been taken. Every head turned my way. Some faces bore an embarrassed expression. Others uncertainty and mistrust. A couple of people gave me the stink eye.
No one offered to make space for me at the table. Somebody muttered that they were all about to leave anyway. There was some awkward shuffling, but nobody moved.
Finally I said, “Don’t worry about it. I can just sit right over here.” I sat alone at an adjacent table.
This memory came back to me when I read a very different dining hall story by my friend Diana Butler Bass.
Early in her Freshman year at college, Diana carried her tray into the school’s vast dining hall searching for a place to sit. The room was filled with unfamiliar faces and the chatter of people already in comfortably established groups.
Then someone she had met at Orientation called out for her to join her. When Diana got to the table, she saw that all the seats were taken.
As Diana began to turn away to another table, her new friend started pushing plates aside to make a space for her. “There’s always room for one more,” she said. (Grounded, p. 240)
There is always room for one more. But we do have to make space for her. For them.
I had known each of these vestry members before that wretched retreat and awkward lunch experience. We liked each other well enough. In fact, I had grown close to some of them. All of them were good, kind, generous people. And yet, they couldn’t make room that day.
As I look back on it, I realize that all of us come to a place where making room for one more seems not only unattractive but downright hazardous. So, we build walls. Walls to protect us from them. And we shrink and wither, neglect others and diminish ourselves with the very barriers that we thought would make us safe and strong.
So I guess it should come as no real surprise that Jesus identifies himself as a gate. The Church calls the fourth Sunday of Easter Good Shepherd Sunday. We read different portions of John’s tenth chapter every year.
Preachers and teachers invite us to imagine Jesus as a gentle shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. Kitschy artists and artisans could not have asked for a better subject. Sweet Jesus carries each of us as his precious lambs.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but the Good Shepherd narrative includes the odd, unromantic image of Jesus as the gate in the sheep pen. He says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:9) Jesus is more interested in gates than he is in walls.
We build plenty of walls. That’s our problem. What we need is a gate.
Many of us remember the adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And maybe you’re thinking something like that right now.
That phrase came to many of us from Robert Frost’s familiar poem The Mending Wall. And there’s an irony—and perhaps a fearful resistance—at work when we recall it. You see, we’re either unwittingly or deliberately recalling it out of context.
As my friend Diana Butler Bass reminds us, the poem deliberately and artfully calls the virtue of building walls into question. Listen the first line of Frost’s poem: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
As the two men collect and stack the tumbled rocks, one man begins to wonder about the wisdom of such a wall in the first place. After all, a pine forest grows on his neighbor’s land. An apple orchard grows on his. They are building the wall just for the sake of separation. Pines and apple trees don’t pose a threat to one another.
The second man utters the phrase about fences and neighbors unreflectively. It’s what he learned as a child, I suppose. He remains untroubled by his neighbor’s musings. His words fall upon deaf ears.
And yet. There remains something that doesn’t love a wall. The frozen rain and the shifting earth, the burrowing rabbits and the frantic beagles never stop their work. Ragged gates keep tumbling open by a force that neither neighbor can resist or eradicate.
The question is only this. Will they have the courage to pass through that gate? To welcome others as they pass through? Or will they scramble again and again to shore up their walls?
Jesus doesn’t say that he is the sheep pen. He is the gate. The gate through which the sheep can come and go.
Later in the chapter he adds, “I have other sheep that do no belong to this fold.” And yet he wants one flock. Not a confederacy of separate sheep pens. Those many folds—all of those us and them divisions maintained by the walls we build—will become one flock only if the sheep pass freely through the gate.
So, as you sit at your comfortable place at the table, remember that it’s actually not your table. It is Christ’s Holy Table. It might seem full to you. But Jesus sees things differently. There’s always room for one more. You might just need to shove some of your plates aside to make space.