An Ash Wednesday Meditation
Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
In John’s gospel, Jesus is known for making pronouncements. In the other gospels, he spends a lot of time teaching, or speaking in parables. But here, he just announces things that are seemingly disconnected from the action going on around him. They aren’t disconnected, of course. This is a very complex piece of literature. But at first glance, it seems disconnected.
“I am the Good Shepherd.”
This is one of Jesus’ “I AM” statements in John’s gospel. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the vine, you are the branches. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world.
Many of the “I AM” claims are ambitious, to say the least, and caused their own set of problems for Jesus. Resurrection and the Life? He will have death threats in full force after he makes that claim and brings Lazarus back from death, which we’ll hear about Sunday.
Jesus uses these familiar pictures we have of God to give us a new way to understand his death and resurrection. By laying down his life for his sheep, Jesus makes clear that his crucifixion is not an accident or a tragedy. It is what Jesus chooses to do for his flock. He is not a victim. In John’s gospel, he marches to the cross with determination. And his actions are not to be controlled by his followers.
And, if Jesus is the Shepherd, then the role of the sheep today’s lesson is being played by….us.
We enter Lent with the reminder that we are sheep.
Another one of Jesus’ I AM statements in this gospel is “I am the gate for the sheep”. It isn’t the most popular of the I AMs. I don’t see it very often painted on the walls of church nurseries. Jesus holding a sheep, sure. That’s an image.
Jesus as the gate? If you google an image search for this, there are lots of Jesus in the clouds, welcoming people through the pearly gates. Less pictures of Jesus on his hinges, opening and closing as the sheep come and go. It isn’t our first image for Jesus. I am the gate.
One thing about gates, they aren’t walls. Jesus does not say “I AM the Wall”. Jesus is not a barrier between people, built to divide. Jesus is the way we get past our barriers, through our walls.
“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
There is safety from the thieves, bandits, and wolves on one side of the wall. On the other side of the wall, there is life. Pastures, still waters, a big world to explore, and hillsides on which to gambol about playfully.
Think of how much of our lives are spent building barriers to divide, to keep out the danger. What, or who, we see as dangerous may change every few years, but our instinct to keep danger “out there”, somewhere else, away—that instinct remains.
Yes, there are real and legitimate ways to mitigate risk and danger. I wear my seatbelt and I don’t text while I’m driving a car.
But here’s the thing. There is nothing that any of us could do to remove risk entirely. Jesus never promises that. Jesus never commends that to us. Jesus is not a wall that keeps us from the dangers of life. Jesus is a gate. We come in and go out and find pasture. In that pasture, we may face wolves and bandits. It’s also where life happens.
We gather on Ash Wednesday to enter the season of Lent. And the lesson on Ash Wednesday is that we come from dust and to dust we shall return. It is a night we acknowledge our own mortality.
Last year, you might recall praying for my friend Scott Hauser, a pastor in his 30s in Pennsylvania who was facing cancer. He died almost a year ago. And the way he died reminded me how to live—to treat each day as the best day. It doesn’t mean we pretend bad things don’t happen. It means the bad things aren’t the only things.
On Ash Wednesday the year before he was diagnosed with cancer, he shared a picture of his infant son with the sign of the ashes on his forehead and wrote:
“There is no part of your life that is not touched by death, and there is no death that cannot be redeemed by the blood of Christ.”
And so we go into the shelter of the sheepfold at times. And then we go out through the gate and back in to the one wild and precious life we have been given, where each day is the best day, even with wolves and bandits.
Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Everything happens for a reason, and other lies I’ve loved”. In her 30s she was diagnosed with colon cancer after it had metastasized. Her son was an infant. Four years later, she’s living with incurable cancer that treatments are keeping at bay, for the moment. She told Terry Gross on Fresh Air this week how she felt when she woke up after surgery, when she had her tumor removed:
“But like all of a sudden, I realized how incredibly fragile life is for almost everyone. And then I noticed things … that felt like a spiritual – I don’t know – like gift.
It’s like you notice the tired mom in the grocery store who’s just like struggling to get the thing off the top shelf while her kid screams, and you notice how very tired that person looks at the bus stop. And then, of course, all the people in the cancer clinic around me. That felt like I was cracked open, and I could see everything really clearly for the first time.”
I’m grateful for her reminder to be aware of my fellow sheep. It can be easy to center in on our own lives, and their struggles and joys. It’s a gift to see everything clearly.
How do we want to live our lives? At the end of our lives, what is it that we don’t want to regret? If we’re putting all of our better days at some distant point in the future while we sit safely in the sheepfold, afraid to go through the gate, we run the risk of missing our wild and precious life. If we forget our mortality, our status as sheep, we run the risk of forgetting that every day is the best day.
This is the first time since 1945 that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have landed on the same calendar date. And on one level it might seem strange to talk about love and death on the same night. On another level, though, the only thing stronger than death is love. And love is what gets us through the valleys of the shadow. Not romantic love, necessarily, but the love of God that leads us to love in ways that breaks our heart for the people with whom we journey through life.
Jan Richardson’s Blessing for the Brokenhearted includes these lines:
Perhaps for now
it can be enough to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
is to love still,
as if it trusts
that its own
is the rhythm
of a blessing
begin to fathom
but will save us
May our hearts be broken open this night as if Jesus is the gate, letting out the love and fear we want to contain, control, measure out. Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He calls us out of our sheepfold, to green pastures, to lives with hearts broken open in love.