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Sunday, April 30, 2023

Reflections given by the Rev. Dean M. Aponte-Safe

Sermon for ECI, John 10:1-10

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace from God our Creator

and the Human One Jesus the Christ. Amen.


         On Wednesday as I was working in the church office, I caught a clip on social media of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaking before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green, was interviewing her. She was serving as a witness during a hearing on school closures that had been prompted by the spread of COVID-19. Congresswoman Greene asked if she was a mother, and Weingarten responded that she is “a mother by marriage”. Greene clarified that she was not actually a “biological mother” and later said, “The problem is, people like you need to admit that you’re just a political activist, not a teacher, not a mother, and not a medical doctor.”

         And that set off in me a fierce ire. Her dismissal of Weingarten’s lived experience felt so incredibly callous and unnecessary. Because it is yet another reminder of all the ways in which a Christian, straight, white, wealthy, nuclear family is superimposed as the norm in this country. It is another demonstration of how our beliefs can close us off to the needs, realities, and hopes of others who share space with us in our families, communities, and larger societies. As if we needed one, it is yet another reminder that the system of domination still rules in this nation. After my initial anger wore off, I felt a wave of deep sadness as I recognized how profoundly we are prevented from truly seeing one another, valuing one another, and lifting one another up.

         This Gospel story is one that has indeed lent itself to Christian supremacist thinking. In my college campus ministry group, I heard this story as exclusive and supercessionist, concerned with who is in and who is out as a part of God’s flock. In my family’s conservative circles, this is used as a baseline to define who Jesus will save and those he will not: if they follow their shepherd and go through the gate. This story has a history of being used as a gatekeeping tool.

Jesus’s description of the good shepherd is rich with imagery and characters: in ten verses, we have a sheepfold, a shepherd, a gate, and a whole host of thieves and strangers and bandits that stand in the way of green, verdant pastures. Jesus describes to his listeners the role of the shepherd – as one that calls to their flock, and because the flock knows their shepherd’s voice, they follow them through the gate and into the pasture. Jesus urges discernment here – that there are thieves and bandits who will try to use their voices to persuade the flock to follow that will result in danger and harm – he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

         John 10 takes place in the context of Jesus’s teachings and sayings to his disciples and to the gathered community around him as he is trying to describe the coming kin-dom of God. In and through these narratives are questions and assumptions by the Pharisees and other religious leaders and scribes of his day seeking to denounce Jesus’s words and teachings as incompatible with the religious order of the day: he is, in their view, speaking blasphemy and mistruth. At the end of our story for today, if we read a little bit beyond, the people are divided because of his words as they say, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Again – dismissing Jesus’ words on the basis of their experiences and beliefs.

         As we can see – we can read this at face value and see all of the ways this text is used to dismiss others. So much of this story has been rooted in scarcity – of following the narrow way. But I don’t think that’s truly what this passage is about. That’s not its aim nor goal – not really. This passage isn’t about the stinginess of God nor the walls we build around ourselves to protect our bodies and hearts and interests. I think that there’s another way to read this story that we would do well to consider. I think it’s important that we remember that gatekeeping isn’t our job. Jesus describes himself in this passage as the gate, not us. This story is about creating avenues and pathways for abundance of life, and the function that the gate serves is something you go through to get to those places of flourishing. This story highlights the persistence of life: about thriving in places that are precarious, life that never denies the realities of pain, and robbers, and thieves of joy and heart, but still holds on to the possibility that nourishment, protection, and rest are possible.

         My friends, this is my question to us all today – what might our country be if rather than gatekeeping – against access to safe abortion, thinking that if a black boy is on your porch the only suitable response is to shoot the child dead, against denying the reality and care of our mothers, against providing life-saving gender affirming surgery for trans youth, and on and on – we chose to be gate-openers? What if, because we follow Jesus the Christ known as the Good Shepherd, we agitated and moved our communities to spaces freedom and belonging, away from the systems of domination that seek to demean and, in many ways, kill our bodies and spirits?

         Namibian poet and pastor Zephania Kameeta echoes the agitations of God’s shepherding in her rewriting of the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd;

I have everything I need.

He lets me see a country of justice and peace

and directs my steps towards his land.


Even if a full-scale violent confrontation breaks out

I will not be afraid, Lord,

if you are with me.

Your shepherd's power and love protect me.


You prepare me for my freedom,

where all my enemies can see it;

you welcome me as an honoured guest

and fill my cup with righteousness and peace.


I know that your goodness and love will

be with me all my life;

and your liberating love will be my home

as long as I live.


         This is the work that Jesus urges us toward today: that admist the places where bandits and thieves lay in wait, we continue to build movements and guide our flock through the gate toward freedom and new possibility. It is this adamancy and persistence of a different way, a more inclusive and just way, that led to Jesus’s denouncement and eventual death by the hands of the state. And even yet, we see that life finds a way through every time we hear the words, “This is my body, given for you. Take and eat.” And because we have seen life that persists, we have the joy of sharing what is possible with others. Where others see who we are not, when others believe that they determine the rules of acceptability and what-is, might we show them today what Jesus shows us: that the gate us unlocked and wide open, inviting us to freedom. May it be so, dear church, and may you be well. Thanks be to God. Amen. 


Blessing of the Gate, from Jan Richardson

Press your hand

to this blessing,

here along

the side

where you can feel

its seam.

Follow the seam

and you will find

the hinges

on which

this blessing turns.

Feel how

your fingers

catch on them—



the slightest pressure

sending the gate

gliding open

in a glad welcome.

Wait, did I say

press your hand

to this blessing?

What I meant was

press your hand

to your heart.

Rest it over that

place in your chest

that has grown

closed and tight,

where the rust,

with its talent

for making decay

look artful,

has bitten into

what you once

held dear.

Breathe deep.

Press on the knot

and feel how it

begins to give way,

turning upon

the hinge

of your heart.

Notice how it

opens wide

and wider still

as you exhale,

spilling you out

into a realm

where you never dreamed

to go

but cannot now imagine

living this life




Sunday, March 19, 2023

Reflections given by the Rev. Dean M. Aponte-Safe

Readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, John 9:1-41

     Looking through my Facebook memories over the last few days, I have been reminded of how much our world has changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my previous congregation, in early March of 2020, ministry looked bright. Our congregation’s Parish Events Committee was anticipating hosting several community service days, we were poised to invite a mental health expert to host rural mental health nights with our community, and we were looking at inviting my college choir to come and sing as a part of our 150th Anniversary celebration later in the year. I remember when my congregation’s councils made the initial decision to postpone in-person worship, we all believed at that point in time that we would be back in our sanctuaries by Palm Sunday to walk through our Holy Week together. If only we could see what was coming. As a pastor and human being, I realized how COVID exposed so many fault lines and anxieties in our society and in our congregations. How quickly the simple act of loving our neighbors by masking or getting our vaccines would become politicized, and we would be divided into the categories of sheep and those who knew better or did their own research. In my former congregations, one of them chose a much more cautious approach, their perspective informed by the reality that half of my council worked for Mayo Clinic. In my smaller congregation, we were only closed to in-person worship for a matter of months before reopening.

As COVID has impacted congregational dynamics, it has also impacted families and communities. Several of my conservative Christian family members, since the beginning of COVID, have gone down extremist political rabbit holes to the point where our relationships have all but disintegrated, and I think it’s really interesting, as I love them from afar and reflect on this from afar, how much their in-group norms shape how they are able to see and perceive others. And, I have become more and more aware of how my bias and perception shape my view of them – which, overall, stays in a very negative space.

      I think what is most interesting is all the ways in which sight plays into this text. The question of what we choose to see and to not see. Today, Jesus is walking along with his disciples, and they encounter a blind man. His disciples presume that this man’s blindness is because of moral defect or fault, as they ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” After some back and forth with his disciples, Jesus kneels down to the ground and makes mud with his saliva and spreads it over the man’s eyes. He instructs this man to go wash in the pool of Siloam and there his sight is restored. What’s interesting to me in this passage is that there isn’t much time spent on the miracle itself – what carries more weight, at least to me, is the community’s response and the way that they respond to the healing. We find in the community’s response a great deal of caution and resistance – a desire to not believe and to not trust in the miracle as it unfolded.

      It begins with the neighbors who are around the newly-sighted man – they doubt that it is even him who was healed. Upon his insistence – “I am he” – they questioned how the miracle happened. Later, the Pharisees come onto the scene. Pharisee comes from the Aramaic word perishayya, which largely means separated or separatist. They devoted themselves to the laws of the Torah and placed a high emphasis on ordinary people practicing the rules and rituals of purification, not only the Temple priesthood. The neighbors bring the healed man before the Pharisees, and their primary concern is that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, proclaiming, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Some of the Pharisees are divided – there is disagreement among them according to their purity code, as they ask “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And needing even further confirmation, they bring in the parents of the formerly-blind man, and they ask them how their son’s sight was restored. They do not answer for him, instead asking that they speak to him themselves.

      When I read this story, I often wonder at the intensity of the community’s resistance to the blind man’s healing. Why do they feel such a need to silence him, or render him invisible? Perhaps they saw the undoing of their neat understanding of law and structure in Jesus’ act of mercy. If the man’s blindness wasn’t a punishment for sin, then what does that mean about how the world works? This could have happened, realistically, to anyone – and that’s a reality that law and obedience and purity can’t determine. The legalistic approach with which they encounter the blind man speaks not only to how the community refuses to see his worth, but it also prevents them from seeing the fullness of God’s love and power at work – and I think that is the cautionary tale of this story. When we come to things too rigidly, we miss out on the ways that love and belonging can empower each person in our midst. We miss out on the ways in which vulnerability, tenderness, and curiosity can help us to truly see one another.  Yehuda Amichai writes of this in his poem, “The Place Where We are Right”, where he writes:

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.


      My friends, today Jesus asks us – in the context of our communities, what do we see? How do we see, or not see, our neighbors and their particular struggles? How do we work to honor one another and the stories we bear and the miracles we have seen? There are so many ways in which the rules and expectations of our society limit our ability and our desire to connect with one another or inhibit even our ability to see one another as fellow human beings. Today, Jesus reminds us that by opening our eyes to one another we are saved from the callousness of not seeing. Jesus reminds us, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” Might we this day work to make more space for one another – so that in what we carry, both our struggles and our joys and our convictions – we might truly be seen. May it be so, dear church, and may you be well. Thanks be to God. Amen.


In gratitude, service, and love - 

Pr Dean