“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Many of you who live in Gloucester may have heard the story of the confrontation near Goose Cove earlier this week. For those who haven’t heard the story, here it is – at least as I understand it. A young mother with her 7 month old baby in a stroller were walking down Washington Street when they encountered an older woman coming in the other direction. The older woman was displeased that the younger woman was not wearing a mask and a verbal altercation began. Both had their phones – the older woman was taking photos of the younger woman; the younger woman began recording the older one, who at one point in the altercation took a good sized stick out of her pocket and threw it at the young mother and baby.
The stress of our public health crisis is clearly getting to some of us, like this older woman. We can be befuddled in the grocery store when we are trying to make sure we are going the right way down the aisles. We can stiffen up or glare at someone who we sense has come too close to our personal space. And if we have reached a tipping point trying to manage the stress of our present lives, we can erupt with impatience or anger over slight inconveniences that two months ago would not have bothered us at all.
This is not the abundant life that Jesus offers.
Today Jesus proclaims, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” What did he mean? What might his words mean for us today? Here are a few ideas.
Theologian David Lose writes, “Abundant life always manifests itself as a response to whatever seeks to rob the children of God of their inheritance of life, purpose, and joy.” Remember before Jesus tells us he comes to bring abundant life, he also gives a warning, “The thief comes only to kill, steal, and destroy.”
Jesus gives us a model of sacred leadership – its purpose is for the good of the sheep, for the good of people. This is in stark contrast to leaders whose purpose is only for themselves – thieves who take what they can get from the sheep, leaders who care nothing for the people, but only for their own interests. Everything about who Jesus is and who he calls us to be is for the sake of relationship – our relationship with God and our relationship with others. Embraced by the love of the Good Shepherd, we can look beyond our own interests to the needs of others.
Abundant life grows when our purpose is beyond ourselves, when we devote ourselves to the good of others. Abundant life grows when we name and counter those forces – both within ourselves and beyond ourselves – that are merely self-seeking, self-protective and worse yet, violent and destructive. And this is made possible when we make space in our lives to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd in prayer.
As Christians we are called to examine our responses to this public health crisis. To what extent are we merely being self-protective? To what extent are we acting out of our care for others? How can we keep these potentially competing impulses in check? It can be helpful to remember that our mask wearing is not intended to protect ourselves, it is intended to protect others from us. Our social distancing isn’t just so I won’t get sick – it’s so that enough of us can stay healthy that we don’t overwhelm our fragile health care system – most especially those hard-working, devoted, courageous health care workers who are putting themselves at risk for the rest of us.
How we think about the measures we are taking can make the difference between becoming people who are locked in fear and people who want abundant life for all. As the challenges of living with social distancing continue, it’s not surprising that we are wearing down. We may be feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, impatient and even angry. As Christians, we are called to notice when these feelings arise and rather than give in to them, to take a breath, turn to the Good Shepherd, to help us respond with love. At such a time as this, having a prayer life that enables you to know the intimacy of God’s love for you can help give you the spiritual strength you need to cope, and perhaps even grow from this time.
One of the fascinating nuances of today’s Gospel reading is that Jesus says that as the Good Shepherd he goes ahead of the sheep. This is not how most shepherds work. Perhaps some of you saw the video of the Good Shepherd from Italy that I sent in yesterday’s email. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so. It will likely help open up the meaning of today’s gospel for you even more. And it’s just a delight.
With the help of their trusty sheepdogs, if a shepherd wants to direct the sheep he or she usually does so by driving them from behind. In contrast, Jesus says that he goes ahead of us. In other words, this is a way of saying that we can look ahead to our future and know that God is waiting for us there. We need not be afraid of what’s to come. Again and again in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I go ahead of you.”
In this liminal time, this in-between time, when we don’t know when these physical distancing measures will end or what our future lives will look like, we can take heart. Jesus has gone ahead of us. The Risen One makes a way for us. Trusting that this is true, we need not be distracted by what may come, but can be more present to how God is with us now.
Opening up to God’s presence in this moment, the only moment we can ever meet God, we might discover a deeper meaning for ourselves and for the world during these liminal days. Especially when we are feeling threatened, it’s important to remember that we have a shepherd who is always looking out for us. To really hear how Jesus is with you and leading you, it’s important to take time to be simply quiet in prayer – this is how we can hear the Good Shepherd’s voice.
Another aspect of what it means to have an abundant life is that we are known by and know the shepherd. The source of our abundant life comes from being in relationship with the Good Shepherd. Here is where the image of Jesus as Good Shepherd is so beautiful. The kind of relationship we are offered by Jesus, is one like the relationship between shepherd and sheep. It is one of deep intimacy. How do we know this?
A shepherd knows every sheep not only by name, but by a distinctive nickname, like “Little One” or “Bashful.” Think about it – the people who call you by a nickname and whom you call by a nickname are those who are closest to you. It’s reflective of a tender relationship. I For example, the world may have known my brother as Dave, but the family called him, “Dukie.” Today’s gospel suggests that God relates to us in that way – with an abundance of warmth, tenderness, and knowledge. Likewise, we are called to know God this closely. Abundant living grows out of a warm relationship with God that develops when we are devoted to time with God in prayer.
I’d like to imagine that the two women who had an altercation near Goose Cove would not have done so if they actually knew each other; if they knew each other’s stories and stresses; if they knew each other by name. But this is what a consciousness of self-protectiveness does; it does not see the other person as worthy of care; all that it can see and feel is fear.
It is precisely to help us to live beyond fear that Jesus comes as Good Shepherd. As a shepherd knows the sheep over time, the sheep develop a strong sense of trust in the shepherd. The sheep can be at peace in the protection of a shepherd who truly cares. To live an abundant life is to trust that we are cared for, that we are part of a flock, part of a community where mutual care is at the heart of who we are. Knowing, deeply knowing, through a life of prayer that our God is worthy of trust can help us navigate these challenging times with greater peace and security.
The Good Shepherd is responsible to make sure that the sheep’s needs for food, water, and security are met. It is at the heart of the call of the Christian life, that we are to reach out in love whenever these needs are not being met or are threatened. This is why as a community we support the Open Door, the Action Shelter, the Grace Center and Family Promise. It also means that whenever the basics of life are threatened that we are called to speak up and try to make changes.
As Rev. Brooks Berndt points out in his book, “Cathedral on Fire: A Church Handbook for the Climate Crisis,” all of us share in the gifts of life: air, water, soil, sun, and the plants that provide us with food – all gifts of the creation that none of us could live without. To live an abundant life means that it is also a part of our Christian calling to do all we can to care for the earth. There is no life for any of us beyond this current crisis if our common pasture, the earth, is not healthy. And as challenging as this time of physical distancing is, it is showing us that changes in human activities are good for the planet. We are discovering that we are capable of changing our lifestyles. Though we missed the early signs that a pandemic was coming our way, we can not afford to miss the signs of the climate crisis that are already here; we can not wait any longer to address the threat of the climate crisis if we want the rest of our lives and the lives of future generations to be abundant.
In this culture, we are likely to mistake the term “abundance” for prosperity. The vision of the Good Shepherd is not one in which some people are protected and enriched at the expense of others. It’s a vision that includes everyone gathered, cared for, and united in peace, well-being, and love. An abundant life “has more to do with what’s in our hearts than what’s in our hands.”
Embraced by the love of the Good Shepherd, an intimate love that we can know through prayer, may we not live in self-protective fear, but in self-giving love. Amen.