This is my next to last (or penultimate) sermon at MCC United Church of Christ.
I want to share this week, lessons that my life have taught me and hope that they may be useful to your own spiritual journey.
The imagery of gates is used in today’s reading of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And that the gatekeeper opens the gate for his sheep. Jesus continues on: He calls his sheep by name and leads them out, and the sheep will follow him because he knows them by name. But the disciples don’t get it. So, Jesus explains that he is the shepherd and that he is one who enters the gate as the shepherd. Jesus continues by saying, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and pasture.”
In other words, Jesus is the gate of salvation, the entrance for the sheep and for other sheep who do not belong to his flock. Before I try to unpack the image of Jesus as the gate, I want to talk about a major frustrating but ultimately rewarding spiritual experience that happened to me more than thirty years ago. It shaped the direction of my life and gave me the freedom and the grace to move in unexpected ways.
I made a Zen Buddhist retreat at the Spencer Abbey, A Trappist monastery—under the direction of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a very stern and non-smiling Zen teacher. In a private audience, he gave me a mind riddle or koan to figure out. He took his walking step and hit the floor and said: “You hear the sound: God hears the sound. How do you experience God? Go and meditate.”
Zen Roshis give mind puzzles such as the sound of one hand clapping or show me your face before you were born. In my return audience with the Roshi, I answered, “God is the between….” I thought that was not a bad answer. But the Roshi said, “No, go meditate.” All weekend I tried to answer the mind puzzle, but failed. The Roshi kept stating, “Too much thought.” At the end of the weekend, I went for a final meeting Sasaki Roshi, and I confessed I did not know. He smiled and said, “In the sign of the cross, how do you experience God? Same answer…” The question became life search: “How do I experience God? Where is God?”
It would be years before I experienced an answer. What Sasaki Roshi was doing was pushing me beyond word and concept to direct experience of God. He jolted me out of conceptual understanding to a path of grace, awakening me to new possibilities and openness. This questioning search is different from a calculating mind. A calculating, rational mind is always resisting, trying to find an argument based on its preconceived ideas and opinions. What did I learn? What is the answer?
I am ready to share my answer. Listen to the description from South African theologian Albert Nolan, it is pertinent to my experience:
The inner work of personal transformation is like a creative work of art rather than like a planned step-by-step journey along a mapped-out of road. There is no path that is forever fixed…It is, rather, what Meister Eckhart calls a “Wayless Way.”
The answer is the Wayless Way in which I learned to become open, inclusive, and attentive to life within me and around me. Eckhart’s metaphor of the “Wayless Way” recognizes that all people are called to God; God is inclusively available to everyone, but each person’s journey is distinct from others. You and Christ determine your trajectory of the Wayless Way and the possibilities are limited by your imagination and lack of mindful openness.
I was accepted at Harvard University to follow the Wayless Way of Christ as I engaged in Buddhist Studies. There I became a Buddhist Christian and discovered the path of compassion. Christ preached, “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” (Lk. 6:36) And Buddha and his followers taught the path of compassionate action. Compassion was the path of grace for myself. I realized that Jesus, God’s Christ, was greater than the church and even greater than Christianity. Christ was found in other religious traditions, and I found myself open to follow the Wayless Way, a path with no fixed direction that I could map out. It was the path of the Spirit opening, awakening, and transforming through grace. I learned that when Jesus spoke of taking up your cross and denying yourself, Buddhism stressed letting of ego-centeredness. Both stressed other-centeredness or interrelatedness of grace. The Wayless Way was enriched and widened beyond my imagination. The Wayless Way is openness to God’s grace here and now! My answer is to the koan is mindful openness to the risen Christ.
Matthew Fox understands the spiritual dimensions of grace surrounding us as creativity.
Creativity is intimate because it is most truly, spontaneously, and totally. It is also intimate because it is the Spirit through us in so profound a way that Eckhart says God “becomes the space where” we want to act….it is a place, a space, a gathering, a union, a where—wherein the Divine powers of creativity and the human power of imagination join forces. Where the two come together is where beauty and grace happen and, indeed, explode. Creativity constitutes the ultimate in intimacy, for it is the place where the Divine and the human are most destined to interact.
The answer was “mindful openness” to be found in each incarnated moment, in sound of a walking stick and experienced every time I made the sign of the cross. God was neither the sound nor the sign of the cross. But God was experienced in the momentary sound when I experienced it with a heart of prayerful awareness or was mindfully present in making the sign of the cross. prayer. Buddhists names this Buddha nature, and I name it God’s presence.
Mindful openness has guided me to a progressive vision of God’s inclusive love and Christ’s radical inclusive ministry of unconditional love in the open table. I find God’s grace in the most unlikely places as I become aware of Christ’s presence. My mission has been and is find to find God and Christ in everything.
The koan that Christ gave me for my life is today’s gospel saying. “I am the gate.” But in reality, it is the koan Sasaki Roshi gave me. While my Catholic tradition as youth claimed: “There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.” I intuited that it was wrong. “What about faithful and good Protestants?” The Protestant answer that there is no salvation outside of Christ also presented a problem to me. “What about good non-Christians who live such moral and faithful lives than many Christians?”
That original koan that Sasaki Roshi propelled me into doctoral studies at Harvard, and it was through everyday experience of the classroom with non-Christian brothers and sisters that I mindfully realized Christ was not a gate excluding other people of faith. Later I celebrated eucharist as a Catholic priest, and a Hindu female student and a Japanese Buddhist student came to communion. As a priest, I was supposed to deny them her communion because they were unbaptized and non-Catholic. But how could I deny any human God’s grace? It was not mine to deny but only to make accessible. So, I began to practice an open table.
My experience of the Wayless Way was so involved in coming out as gay after ordination. I hid who I really was from all except God and Christ. I found acceptance as “beloved” of God. God loved me as a gay man, and I was an original blessing and creation. As I came out, my family and church told me that I was excluded from God.
However, I continued to find Christ as God’s unconditional love for me as a gay man as I discovered Christ’s love for non-Christians. It was there as God was found in the sound of the Roshi’s stick. Once I opened myself; my life was complicated with Frank Ring, another Jesuit. And I fell in love with him. I did not know what to do. “How could I be a priest serving God’s people and love Frank?” I struggled with this life dilemma, and I realized that it was the same koan that the Zen master gave me. In prayer and discernment, God answered my open mindfulness consistently over a year, “You called to be both priest and lover!” And I left the Jesuits to follow the path of Christ as both priest and lover. I lost friends and family over the decision to follow Christ in the gay community. God becomes the space where I wanted to act and live. The result is that you have no idea where you will end up in following Christ: North Hollywood 13 years ago and now Petaluma.
I hated the 1980s and early 1990s because they were saddest and most painful years of my life. Along with many here, I experienced loss on an unparalleled scale, hundreds of friends to HIV/AIDS. I loss Frank and my brother to AIDS on the same day. What did the churches do? Few cared for the people I loved; many of the churches turned their backs on people living with AIDS. Where was the compassionate Christ? Not in the churches that turned their backs on gay men living and dying with AIDS.
I found the sound of the walking stick striking the floor in the undiscovered grace and heroic love in the lives of many who died of AIDS and those who loved and cared for them. I was one who loved and cared. Christ was found with suffering ignored by many Christians. Meister Eckhart’s words –“God becomes the space where we want to act.”—became real. God becomes the space where I responded compassionately and fought for my brothers. I joined ACT UP, and I realized that ACT UP was more a real church than Christian churches. It was God’s space, and I chose again to act in God’s space of compassion. Members of ACT UP fought for justice from a spirit of compassion and love for their friends and loved ones. Outsider space again was where Christ was present. I was open to discovery of the presence of Christ outside the church. I wrote Jesus ACTED UP in four months out of anger at the churches and compassion and love for Frank, my brother Bill, and my many friends whom churches excluded. Never have I been so intensely and passionately inspired than during those four months of writing.
When I first came to MCC Greater St. Louis to do a workshop, I attended service. I heard the MCC invitation to the open table. It was the joyful invitation of the loving God who was present in the sound of the Roshi’ s stick, which brought me to study other religions and see the grace of God within them, which, in turn, helped me to realize the grace of God in my coming out and love, and which helped me to hear MCC’s open invitation at table and become a MCC clergy. It was the on-going discovery of God’s presence.
The invitation to the open table each Sunday deepened my understanding of the radical inclusive message of Jesus and his ministry of compassion. I led to a wider vision of God’s inclusiveness of the Earth and envisioning the community of life as part of our church.
Jesus Christ is indeed the gate of divine inclusiveness and unconditional grace. But the living Christ is not a narrow gate as many want the Christ to be. Jesus Christ is the gateless gate—the divine and inclusive space where we want to live and act. In other words, Christ is the gate whose infinite width and inclusive openness is beyond human imagination, whose love and compassion are boundless, and whose presence is universal and found in places of exclusion. Many non-Christians hear the voice of the shepherd, and they enter the same gate as you and I but travel a different path.
In todays’ scripture Christ announces, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and pasture.” I want to paraphrase a Zen koan to end:
God has no gate,
A thousand roads lead to God.
When people pass through Christ the gateless gate,
they freely walk between heaven and earth,
they walk the path of God’s inclusive grace,
ever infinite, widely inclusive, and unimaginable discoveries
outside all boundaries.