March 21, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
When my daughter Stacy was on the Alfred-Almond Track team, she had a T-shirt that read, “You know Track and Field is not your sport if you stop at each hurdle waiting for someone to open the gate.”
If we go by today’s Dexter Time, we would have to conclude that Dexter is not made for track and field. (For those listening to this as a podcast, I refer you to our Youtube channel and the video of this service.)
There are of course, other dogs for whom a closed door is only a momentary inconvenience. My sister, Sandy, had a dog that learned to paw at a door knob until it turned, and would let himself in and out of the house; they had to keep the doors locked even when they were home. I remember Ellie Riber telling me about a dog of theirs who would go into their garage and open their car door by squeezing the handle between its teeth. It would then climb onto the back seat for a snooze not caring that the dome light was on and draining the car battery. And of course, there is my other dog Cody who doesn’t hesitate to climb over, push under, or throw his entire body against a gate in order to get through it. Cody views obstacles as personal challenges and he doesn’t know the meaning of surrender.
Now, I have to confess that I practiced Dexter Time with Dexter yesterday to make sure he would react the way I wanted him to. For the hidden treat test, you are supposed to hide the treat under a tin can, but I didn’t have a can so I used an upside down thermos because I figured it would be easy for him to push it over. (I wanted him to pass that part of the test.) I put a treat on the floor, placed the upside down thermos over it while Dexter watched, and then I encouraged him to get the treat. He sniffed around the bottom of the thermos for a second, then sat back and looked at me waiting for further instructions. I encouraged him again, with the same result. I spent the next several minutes showing him the treat, covering it with the thermos, and encouraging him with enticing tones to retrieve the treat but each time, he would sniff very carefully around the bottom of the thermos and then sit back and look at me as if to say, “I’m sorry but there seems to be a thermos covering my treat.” I finally concluded that I would have to come up with an alternative plan for the test (hence, the paper towel) so I said to Dexter, “OK, never mind. Release,” giving him the command that indicates training is over. As soon as Dexter stepped away, Cody, who had been watching the whole time, streaked past me, slammed the thermos aside, and gobbled down the treat. I imagine he had been thinking with great impatience, “Don’t be such a doofus, Dexter! Just tip the thing over!”
For dogs like Cody, a barrier is only a temporary impediment to be breached as soon as they can puzzle out a way forward. While Dexter will stay immobilized by the flimsiest of barriers, Cody will test every fence for gaps and push against every door and gate to find its weakness. And I have to admit that as much as Cody’s personality makes for a challenging dog, his persistence in breaking through barriers is a trait that I appreciate in the people with whom I live. I’d rather be surrounded by people who do not sit patiently if a door closes between us but will try their hardest to understand what went wrong and find a way forward. And I would rather live in a society with people who don’t hunker down behind closed gates but who, like Cody, will use their intelligence, ingenuity, and persistence to find ways of breaching the barriers between people and opening doors between hearts.
That is, after all, what our Christianity is all about. When Jesus described to us God’s vision for the world, he told us about a society in which people work to open doors between one another. He said that in God’s world, forgiveness is the standard way of doing things instead of being an exception to the rule. The word grudge, he said, doesn’t appear in God’s dictionary. In the world of God’s desire, brothers and sisters who in their human frailty may sometimes hurt one another, will confess their mistakes and work to seek reconciliation and find ways past their differences. God envisions a world where people of different ethnic groups, classes, political affiliation, gender identification, and religious persuasion don’t eye one another with suspicion and blame one another for their problems but persist instead in looking for beauty and joy in the diversity of the human spectrum. Opening doors, breaking down walls, finding paths between hearts — this is the central message of Jesus’ call to us, and if I were to create a T-shirt for Christians, it would say, “You know discipleship is not your thing if you stop at each hurdle, waiting for someone to open the gate.”
In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus shows us the danger of refusing to open the door to others. He says, “There was a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table….” Day after day after day after day, the rich man walked by that closed gate between himself and Lazarus and never thought to open it. When the rich man died and went to Hades, he begged for Lazarus to come to help him, but Lazarus could not, Jesus says, because a great chasm had become fixed between them. Where did that chasm come from? It was of the rich man’s own making; it began the very first day he refused to open the gate to Lazarus’ suffering and it grew larger with every refusal. The longer doors stay closed between people, the rustier the hinges get. Over time, our assumptions about others become more ingrained; over time, we repeat old patterns of interacting and they become habitual; over time, we stop believing that anything new is possible and we become trapped in our own little worlds thinking only of ourselves and unable to imagine the concerns of others. The rich man never figured out that if he had lifted his eyes to meet the eyes of Lazarus and had unlatched the gate between them, he would have saved them both.
Now, I know that we often resist opening doors because it admittedly also opens all kinds of questions. Maybe the rich man refused to open the gate to Lazarus because he was afraid of the complications that opening that door would bring to his life. It’s easier to ignore people in poverty than to struggle with the problems of income inequity and commit yourself to finding solutions. If we open the door to reconciliation with those who have hurt us, does that excuse the hurt, we wonder? How do we open the door to an enemy without opening the door to being victimized by that person? Is Jesus’ open door policy an anything goes policy? What about accountability? What about restitution? Does holding the door open to people who have harmed you in the past just invite them to take advantage of you again?
These are all legitimate questions for which there are no easy answers. It’s easier to shut the door on someone who has hurt us instead of doing the messy emotional work of figuring out a way forward that will be healthy for both that person and ourselves. It’s easier to shut the door on transgendered people than to cope with the change in world view that acceptance of non-binary gender identities entails. Those are hard questions and hard changes to make but I would suggest that Jesus knew that our natural inclination is to take the easy road, the familiar road, the comfortable “this is the way things have always been and I would rather live with injustice, division, and bigotry than have to face those tough questions” road. Jesus confronted our easy comfort with the status quo by opening doors that no one had opened before to force us into discomfort because he knew that the only true peace and life for us is one that takes a chance on a messy future. Our faith preaches that the only way to new life is through the cross.
“You know discipleship is not your thing if you stop at each hurdle, waiting for someone to open the gate;” but discipleship is our thing: it is the commitment that we have made to Christ because we trust in his word that it is the only way to meaningful life. Jesus calls us not to be doofus’s like Dexter stymied by a gate (as sweet as he might be) but to be more like Cody: to use all of our ingenuity and persistence to figure out how to open the doors between us. Is there someone that you haven’t talked to in a long time because of harsh words you once exchanged? Can you look Jesus in the eye and say that you have really tried everything you can to reconcile with that person or are you just sitting there hoping that someone else will open the gate for you? Are you working with this church, with your community, or with the many wonderful organizations around the world who are trying to break down the walls of poverty and open doors for the oppressed, or are you just sitting behind your locked door like the rich man of Jesus’ parable while the chasm between yourself and others grows larger and more impassable?
We are the disciples of Christ, called to open doors, unlock gates, and find paths to the hearts of others.
Author and preacher Fred Craddock tells of a man he met in the coffee shop of the town where he had just started his pastorate, and when he introduced himself to the man, the man said bluntly, “I don’t need the church. I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.”
Fred said that over the years, he would run into the man in town and the man was always friendly enough but would invariably end the conversation with, “I don’t need the church, Fred. I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.”
Then one year, the man went through some difficulties that apparently caused him to reflect on his life because to Fred’s surprise, he showed up one Sunday at church. After the service, he approached Fred and asked if he could be baptized. The man went on to become a pillar of the church, giving generously of his time and inspiring others with his dedication. After awhile, Fred finally got up the courage to ask him, “Remember before you came to church what you would always say to me; that you work hard, that you take care of your family and you mind your own business?”
“Yep” said the man. “I said that a lot.”
“So why did you start coming to church? What made the difference?” Fred asked.
The man smiled and said, “I didn’t know what my business was back then.”
Discipleship is our business; it is our thing. Opening doors, breaking down walls, finding paths between hearts — this is Jesus’ call to us, and as his disciples, we will we trust in his promise that opening gates is the way to true life.