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Escape Rooms, Shepherds, and Gates

One of the last activities we did together as a family before the stay-at-home order was issued here in London was an Escape Room. If you’ve not had the chance to experience this fairly new cultural phenomenon I’ll give you a brief overview. The idea is that your group has a mission. There are clues scattered throughout the room to guide you through the mission. And, if you successfully navigate through all the clues, you will "escape" the room (or rooms) in the allotted time.  

Each room is rated for difficulty and there is always a creative backstory. The “room” we chose was a 9/10 difficulty and the story took us to the year 1944 - the height of World War II.  We were “onboard” the Steel Shark - a prized US Navy submarine, deep in the North Atlantic Ocean. As the story goes, the mission was going smoothly until, without warning, the submarine plunges into the sea. The engines had died and pressure in the cabin was quickly increasing. Without power, only 60 minutes of reserve oxygen remained. And thus began our escape room challenge.* 

Unfortunately, we failed to achieve our mission—we didn’t escape the room in the allotted time. If we had just two minutes more we would have done it, but alas we found ourselves on the losing side of the ledger for that particular room challenge. 

Life can often mirror the experience of an escape room. Obstacles are placed in our way that we need to overcome and the clock just keeps ticking, to the point that we can’t even think about anything else. 

For some people of faith, following in the way of Jesus is like navigating our way through an escape room. If we listen closely to the words of scripture, God will unlock the doors to us. If we pray the sinner’s prayer (some would suggest) with all the right words and with an honest heart, the gift of heaven will suddenly become available to us. The problem is, like the escape room experience, some will manage to unlock the door while others will fail. 

And so, when we hear those words spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel— “I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate… is a thief and an outlaw.” we can’t help but think that the gift of God is limited to those who find that “Jesus gate” and enter through it in the right way. 

Can you hear those television evangelists and street preachers speaking these words of Jesus as threat? Can you hear them warning us that unless we say the name of Jesus and bow before him then eternal damnation will be waiting for us behind “door number two”—one that may open like a trap door beneath us? 

When Jesus says, “I am the gate” so many people wrongly interpret this as—Jesus is the password (or the one that stands at the gate with a challenge for us) and we won’t be welcomed into God’s realm if we fail the test. 

I suppose that people living in Jesus’ time had surrendered to this kind of living—this kind of reality. A hierarchical world where some are welcomed through the gate while others find themselves stuck on the other side begging for mercy, fighting for their life.  

The story that leads into this one from John 10 is the story of the blind man who Jesus heals and then instructs to go wash at the pools of Siloam. If you remember that passage, you’ll recall that there was a great deal of back and forth discussions between Jesus and the religious authorities. This man’s condition prompted those in his world to create fences/barriers to keep him from experiencing the grace, mercy, and love that God longs for us to experience. What does Jesus do? He opens the gate. He tells his disciples that neither the blind man or his parents “sinned” and therefore caused this to happen. Jesus sees his need and he uses the mud on the ground to bring healing to this man—to open the gates of mercy and love to him. 

Our world is no different from the one that Jesus encountered in his life. Despite all the gains we’ve made in society, there are still people building walls, creating conditions so that 90% of the world’s population has to navigate through an escape room type scenario that is a 10 out of 10, while 10% of the people in this world are given a head start and all the answers. We live in a world with many gatekeepers. People that stand in the way of all creation experiencing the fullness of life in all its joy. In doing so, we create our own versions of heaven and hell. Ones that are not simply reserved for the life that awaits beyond this one, but ones that are experienced here on earth. 

Fear and greed—anxiety about scarce resources—are the things that prompt us to uphold this world of walls and gates. 

I like what Kabir (the 15th century Indian mystic poet and saint) once wrote about one of the problem spots when it comes to certain Christian beliefs. He wrote,  "I sat one day with a priest who expounded on the doctrine of hell. I listened to him for hours, then he asked me what I thought of all he said.  And, I replied, “That doctrine seems an inhumane cage; no wonder all the smart dogs ran off.”

When some look at this passage from John’s gospel they inadvertently begin to construct walls and cages that God (nor Jesus) intended to build. 

Listen to what Jesus says at the end of today’s reading. Jesus says, “I came so that THEY could have life—indeed, so that THEY could live life to the fullest.”

God’s realm of grace, mercy, and love—the world of abundance that God dreams of—is not placed on the other side of an escape room challenge. Jesus isn’t some bouncer at an exclusive club that stands in the way of us entering that blessed place of peace and joy. He’s not the kind of gate most people think he is. 

If you look closely at this passage and study the roots of these images that Jesus uses to explain his role in God’s dream for the world, you’ll find that Christ’s placement may surprise you. In the very next verse of the text, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Scholars suggest that Jesus was leaning on some first-century imagery in this passage. At this time, it was common for Palestinian shepherds to sleet at night by lying across the entrance to their sheepfolds, providing security for the sheep within.**

In other words, Christ is not the gate that stands between us and God. Christ is the gate that longs to keep us in the presence of God. The one that longs to keep the voices of hate, division, and judgement out of God’s fields of joy. We’re already in the pasture of God’s grace and love. Jesus longs to keep us safe and in the fold. 

God is not concerned with just one of us. God is concerned with what makes us ONE. 

The gate of God’s love is not what we think it is. It’s not designed to separate sacred from secular; blessed and not blessed; worthy of love and unworthy. 

The world that we discover in John's gospel is a strange one indeed. Will Willimon once said, “I’ve been spending a lot of time in John’s gospel, so it may look like I’m on drugs.” One of his students told him that it’s like the gospel of Matthew on LSD.  In John’s gospel, heaven is NOW. Eternal life is whenever Jesus shows up. And, when Jesus shows up, water is turning into wine... weird stuff starts happening. You’re confused. You’re excited. But all of that is in God’s hands.***

Our mind needs to shift if we’re going to see through the lens of Jesus—if we’re going to understand what the gospel writer is trying to say. The key is this… Jesus says, “I came so that THEY could have life—indeed, so that THEY could live life to the fullest.” I imagine that the THEY Jesus is referring to is all those on the outside of the gates that the world has created. All those who experience judgement and hatred. All those who long for healing but for whatever reason the world has found excuses to stand in the way of that taking place. 

As followers of Jesus, we are children of the “already but not yet”. We’re already in that realm where Christ lays at the gate keeping us in the presence of God. But we also live in the world of “not yet” where we see people (perhaps even ourselves) trapped in a world that works like an escape room where the odds have been stacked against them. 

We’re starting to see what it means to be “in this together”. We’re not there yet, but this wounded and fragile world is revealing to us the need to navigate away from this persistent world of “not yet” and open the door to the fullness of God’s grace, mercy, and love. 

What we need most is to remember—to remember who we are and whose we are. Remember those words of Jesus… “I came so that THEY (so that ALL) could have life—indeed, so that THEY (ALL) could live life to the fullest.”

That world is already available. All we need to do is open our eyes and our ears to one another. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen. 


*The escape room we visited was Escapology in London, ON
**Kabir poem from "Love Poems from God" tr. Daniel Ladinsky (Penguin Compass, 2002)
***From an interview with Will Willimon on theworkofthepeople.com

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