Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
When I was in England on pilgrimage to Canterbury, we walked across many fields separated by gates. The gate was a pause, a nod really, to the lines of demarcation that separated one field from another. But if you took away the fences there was only one field that went on and on and on right into the sea. The presence of the gate gave us pause to stop and rest and check the map; and in this way was a guardian, if you will, compelling us to care for ourselves. The gate was sort of a check against our own ambitious walking. The gate was an imposed limitation that, in a sense, protected us from ourselves.
Today I want to talk about ambition and how it can be transformed, through Jesus, from relentless seeking to a labor of love.
Peter, in his first letter, calls the gate “the guardian of our souls” which implies that our souls need to be guarded. This begs the question: from what do our souls need to be guard from? And the answer seems clear enough: ZOMBIES. The gate protects us from zombies. Let me explain: this is, by the way, a metaphor that hopefully will become clear as we move through this sermon.
For those us unfamiliar with zombies there are a few things you ought to know. First, they are scary. They are scary because they are relentless, single-minded, creatures bent on the consumption of human beings. Their obsession with people is so singular that they will do anything to get one, even if it means their own destruction. They are pure ambition in pursuit of that which they believe will make them whole. So, zombies are scary because WE are the singular object of their relentless obsession.
But what makes them even scarier is that when they achieve their goal of getting a person, instead of having their souls returned to them, their emptiness just spreads like a pathogen stealing the soul of whomever they bite. And when that human is bit everything that is natural and instinctive about him/her vanishes, and they become singularly that thing which differentiates them from all other animals that roam this earth… pure ambition, drive, and single-mindedness.
As Peter Rollins writes in his book The Idolatry of God: “Humans are infused with a drive that places the rational calculation of an action, measured against pleasure or pain into question, causing a person, at times, to cast off social constraints or even self-interest in pursuit of that which they believe will make them whole.” Zombies are Rollins’ metaphor to express pure human drive without any constraint.
And so, zombies pursue what they believe will make them happiest. That may sound creepy to us, but that is what pure ambition does; it relentlessly pursues that which one believes will make them happiest. Maybe you’ve met a zombie or two along the way.
This pursuit of happiness looks different for everybody. For zombies it is people, but for us it may be fame, money, family, status, victory, holiness, and the list goes on. What drives everyone toward the pursuit of their happiness however, is the feeling that there is something missing, that there is a gap between what life is and what life could be.
Within every person there exists this nagging voice of protest: something is missing, something is missing, something is missing… I could be happier. Squirrels don’t have this internal protest. Pelicans don’t have this internal protest. Moose don’t have this internal protest. Only humans have this internal protest and so, we are driven, even if it drives us over a cliff.
The thief in the Gospel today is a zombie of sorts. It is his drive that takes him up over that fence and into the sheepfold in pursuit of that which he believes will make him happy. And yet, as we all know, even if he gets in there, and gets a sheep, and takes it out, and sheers it to make the coat he wants, while he’ll now have a coat the gap remains, and the fleeting friendship with happiness quickly moves down the road beckoning him to chase her again.
To which Jesus’ response is: Don’t chase her. You don’t have to. There is no need to climb over the fence because you are a shepherd, not a thief. You own these sheep. They are yours. You don’t need to steal them, just call them by name. They will follow. No ambition is required. You don’t need to muscle your way over the fence, grab a struggling sheep, throw it over the fence, climb back over the fence, jump down the other side, run after the sheep, catch it, wrestle it to the ground, tie it up, and sheer it. You don’t need to do that. Just come on in. Call the sheep by name. They will happily give you their wool. God wants you to have a coat.
What? The disciples are like, What? We don’t get it.
So, Jesus tries again. This time he is very specific: I am the gate for the sheepfold. Whoever enters by me will be saved… saved from what? Zombies. That is to say, from the obsessive desire to fill that gapping chasm, by doing whatever we have to do to gain, obtain, and control that which we believe will bring us happiness.
Jesus saves us from that, and by doing so Jesus saves us from ourselves. In that way, Jesus acts as the guardian of our souls. The pen is not what keeps us safe. Thieves can climb in and climb out. The gate is what keeps us safe. As Jesus says: the gate allows us to come in and go out, and to find pasture, which is whatever feeds our souls. And yet, the gate also is the barrier against the relentless ambition that drives us unto death.
As Peter Rollins further notes in The Idolatry of God: “The Gospel is not the freedom to pursue what we believe will make us happy. The Gospel is the freedom FROM the pursuit of that which we falsely believe will make us happy” (p. 80).
The Gospel, in other words, frees us from that dictatorial internal voice, that loud, obnoxious internal protest that drives us to the grave. The Good News of the Gospel is its claim that the void, the gap that we sense doesn’t actually exist, just like zombies don’t actually exist. Jesus smashes that illusion, so we can have life and have it abundantly. The Gospel is the Good News that tells us we are whole and full and complete just the way we are!
Jesus smashes the illusion that we are broken from birth with a stinging truth: that the people who came before him to give us tools to fill the gap were thieves. Why? Because they were working under the false premise that something was wrong with humanity, and as a result they were handing out remedies for a pathogen where there was no disease. Jesus says: No remedy required; just a gate; a gate that gives us pause to stop, and rest, and consider the journey.
Now you’re going to argue with me, if you are at all self-aware, that, indeed there is this feeling of incompleteness inside. And I agree with that. That is a real feeling. That feeling has a name: it is called freedom, and freedom is a gift given to us so we can know the greatest force of the universe which is love. There is no love without choice, and there is no choice without freedom.
How do we make this adjustment, from a relentless pursuit to a labor of love?How do we turn our work from ambitious toil to gracious gift? We pause at the gate. We can come in, and we can go out, and we will find pasture, freely…but we only know love if we develop the discipline of stopping at the gate.
Just as the gate keeps us from walking to exhaustion, the Christian disciplines are an inoculation against relentless ambition. Daily prayer, Sabbath, weekly worship, fasting, tithing, pilgrimage give us pause. They aren’t the answer, they are just what causes us to stop at the gate. And it is there we realize the love of God. It is there we realize that there is no gap between our lives and God’s love.
God has always loved you. God has loved you from the very first moment God thought of you at the dawn of creation. God has loved you since the moment you were birthed into this world. God has loved you since the day you became a conscious little being. And God loves you right now.
And we are free to respond however we like; but if you’d like to respond by moving from relentless ambition to a life full of love, consider stopping at the gate, and thanking the guardian of your soul.