The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide, May 3, 2020
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Sermon Preached on May 3, 2020 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Abundant Life in the Season of COVID
This is a disorienting time – in so many ways. Of course it is, our patterns of life have changed completely. I didn’t anticipate how disoriented my sense of time would become. For us at St. Bart’s, in this strange ‘time out of time’ moment – it’s the 8th Sunday of COVID time, and the fourth Sunday of Eastertide. Adding to my confusion we have today’s texts, and I’ve spent the entire week distracted by sheep. It’s not hard to distract me right now – and you know I have a special place in my heart for sheep – so I’ve had a really tough time making myself concentrate on the text itself. (Yes, I’m blaming the sheep. It’s come to that!)
Sheep are not helpful right now – they don’t understand social distancing, and they won’t self-quarantine for the well-being of others. That’s just not how they are wired. Most of us have seen the sheep herding demonstrations at the Common Ground Fair and marveled as the border collies manage the flock. Sometimes they move the whole group of sheep across the pen just by staring at them. The sheep stick together because it increases the odds that the dogs will pick off someone else. If you’re in the flock, you’re safer. Just tuck yourself in the middle and hope for the best. Because if you’re out there alone, well no doubt about it, it’ll be you. Which is not the most comforting image at this particular moment!
Yet here we are, with this Gospel text – with all its sheep and its strange metaphors that people didn’t even understand when Jesus said them in person. Weren’t we just reading about Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection? That makes sense in these days after Easter but before his ascension. Now, we’re suddenly in the middle of John’s gospel, Jesus is still alive and is arguing with the authorities. Here’s why we’re here, post resurrection – by recounting this conversation John is addressing his own communities’ questions: What comes next in our relationship with Jesus? For those of us who weren’t there to walk with Jesus? After his death and resurrection – how do we follow him? What does that relationship look like? So John, the last of the Gospel writers, focuses on the relationship between Jesus and those of us who come along later in the story.
Quick recap: Jesus has just been called out by the authorities for giving sight to the man who was born blind. Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees about who has true authority from God. In this passage, Jesus uses a metaphor to expand his point that the Pharisees are the ones who are blind, and that they are not leading people to God.
First, he uses the image of a shepherd. In first century Palestine, sheep belonging to villagers roamed relatively freely during the day, but were confined to a common enclosure at night, to protect them from predators. In the morning, each shepherd called his sheep out of the enclosure, and they would follow him to pasture. Jesus begins his metaphor – I am the shepherd, and the sheep know my voice and they follow me.
But people didn’t understand – so Jesus extends the metaphor in a way that is incredibly confusing to those of us who aren’t Middle Eastern sheepherders. He suddenly switches to this idea of being the gate itself. Which leads most of us to wonder which one is it? Shepherd or gate? Well, it’s both. I found a description of Middle Eastern sheep herding practices that ties these two images together. The sheepfold, especially one unattached to a larger settlement or dwelling, is a circular wall of stones. There’s a small opening for the sheep to pass through. Once they’re all inside, instead of closing a hinged gate, the shepherd simply lies across the opening, so that nothing and no one can get through without going over his body first. Both the shepherd and the gate – Jesus is both.
With a fuller understanding of how Jesus is both shepherd and gate – these verses become vividly clear. Jesus, as the good shepherd, lays his life down for the sake of the sheep. That they may have life – and have it abundantly.
Our question – how do we have abundant life? Particularly NOW, in our ‘season of COVID’? There are hints in the text – if we are paying attention.
Beware of thieves and bandits who would steal us away from the sheepfold. I think it’s easy to imagine these as powerful forces which overwhelm and whisk us away. And I expect that may be how it feels for those who are confronted by forces that they just can’t control: addiction, depression, the lure of something dangerous or glamorous, anything that appears to offer a magical escape from life’s traumas.
But for the most part, I think, like sheep, we tend to nibble ourselves lost. Often not making huge choices to leave the shepherd and the flock but wandering off one small nibble at a time. In this time of distraction and isolation, what little nibble-ly things are pulling us away, one small mouthful here and another there? Self-absorption? Feeling sorry for ourselves, as if this were happening specifically and exclusively to us? Friends, there’s a difference between self-care and wallowing in self-pity. (Sheep aren’t given to wallowing.)
Remember to whom we belong. Jesus says, ‘I am the shepherd, the sheep know the voice of the shepherd to whom they belong.’ We belong to this shepherd. We belong to the shepherd and to the safety of the sheepfold, we belong in the arms of God. We belong to one another. You belong to me, and I belong to you.
We belong to Jesus, though we weren’t there to hear Jesus directly. We have to listen for the voice of the good shepherd in a different way. In whose voice do we hear the voice of the good shepherd, calling us home? Listen for the voice of the good shepherd in the voices of this community, in the concern of these friends, and in the voices of those who love us.
In this incredibly anxious time, lean into the grace of belonging to Christ and one another, and listen for the shepherd’s voice. In whose calm and loving voice will you hear the shepherd’s love resonating? And who might hear the shepherd’s voice in your own?
Obviously, the ways we go about living into abundant life are somewhat specific to us as individual sheep, but there are some which are universally important to our flock as a whole. Particularly in this time of stress and feeling apart – we need to claim our belonging to Christ and to one another. We need to remember that belonging to one another in good times and in bad is the heart of this community. It is life-giving to all of us. That sense of belonging has the strength to sustain us and others – those who belong to us whom we don’t know yet.
Together, even now, we listen faithfully for the voice of the shepherd, and hear that voice reflected in the people we have been given to love, in our relationships with one another. That voice calls us home to abundant life.
Which brings us back to the fundamental point – the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep that we may have life and have it abundantly. That’s the primary purpose of the good shepherd, to provide a path to abundant life for the sheep. For us.
Our primary purpose is to live into that, to live our lives abundantly. In good times and even more so in difficult ones. Abundant life is particular in some ways, it won’t look the same for each of us – but at its core: abundant life has time for rest, for prayer, for appreciating the beauty of God’s Creation, for spending time with those we love, and facilitating their ability to have abundant life as well.
Abundant life isn’t about abundant stuff, but abundant time for things more important than stuff: for laughter and love; art and poetry; music and dance; play and praise. While this ‘season of COVID’ is deeply tragic in the cost of lives and really frightening at times, there are some gifts being offered us as well. Many of us have more time, and all of us are being offered a better perspective… a chance to adjust our priorities and then keep the most important things in our life first in line for our time and attention. I don’t mean the heaviest things, or the ‘shoulds’ that keep piling up, or even things we consider ‘our job.’
But what matters most to our hearts. What we miss most may help us discern what those things are. Not the things we find most frustrating or inconvenient right now, but those things that make our heart ache. There – that’s the signpost. Follow the good shepherd as you move toward those things most important to your heart.
For now, abundant life might be re-connecting with people over the phone, writing notes, getting rest so you get well, curbing your frustration and trying to be patient with those around you, being exceedingly kind to everyone: those in your home, those driving you crazy in the store – everyone. Living with open hearts and deep appreciation for all those who make our lives possible, who make our lives better – our abundant lives.
It is good to be together in this flock, my sheep friends. Following the good shepherd, listening for that voice, and finding ways to speak that voice to others. Even now, particularly now. Together in our hearts, and beloved of the good shepherd, doing our level best to share that love with the world, so that all might have life, and have it abundantly.