It could be that having been ordered to stay in our homes for almost two months, with no real end in sight, has made me a bit cranky. It could be that the tidal wave of illness, death, and suffering bearing down on us has birthed rising anxiety and fear. It could be the slow realization that having lived in this “new normal” will mean our old “normal” will be forever tainted and will never fully be restored has brought a sense of grief or despair. Whatever the feelings and emotional responses we are having to this pandemic, they are creating a lens or a filter through which we interpret everything – including Holy Scripture.
For me, the initial lens or filter through which I have been reading Holy Scripture has been one of bitterness, resentment, and grief. Take today’s lessons. This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is colloquially known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The lessons on this Sunday every year give us images of pasture, protection, and pastoring. And yet, this year, my initial response to the readings were resistance. I am not emotionally ready to be cradled in the arms of a Good Shepherd. I am not mentally ready to hear that Jesus wants us to have life, and have life abundantly. I am not spiritually ready to hear about the post-Pentecost community gathered, breaking bread, spending time together in person in the temple and in homes, growing in numbers day by day. I am not emotionally, mentally, or spiritually ready because hearing those wonderfully affirming things makes me realize how far from reality those things feel right now.
Of course, Church has not always been that way. In fact, Church used to be exactly those things. Throughout my life, Church has been the place where the Good Shepherd, where Jesus, has been the comforting figure who brings me into the fold, who knows me by name, whose voice brings assurance and confidence. Church has been the place where I have found a community of people who make my life whole – a people who teach me about love, about calling, and about what family really looks like. A little over a week ago, when over thirty of us gathered around our cars, seeing each other’s faces for the first time in months, as we prepared to drive to parishioners’ homes to sing Happy Birthday wishes, I was stunned at how powerful the feelings were of just seeing those beautiful faces, of having a glimpse of why this community has been so incredibly meaningful in my life, of remembering the comfort of being together. The experience was a shock of love, care, and affection that opened up the gaping hole in my life I had so carefully covered up to protect myself from thinking about what I was missing in this pandemic.
So, does Scripture have any chance with us to be redeeming, restorative, and refreshing when our emotions are so raw? Is there Good News today? I have begun to realize in order to allow Scripture to have that power for me, I have needed to switch glasses. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter in almost every year in memory, this Sunday has been about rose-colored glasses. We talk about the Good Shepherd romantically and abundance superficially, we sing our favorite psalm, and we gather round and cozy up together. But today, I hear Jesus inviting us to take off those rose-colored glasses (which he would have hated anyway), and slip on some clear glasses. In those clear glasses, we can look at the community gathered in Acts and not imagine a loving community gathered and growing and peacefully breaking bread together. Instead, scholars remind us the post-Pentecost community represents “different regions, speaking different dialects. Some may not have shared the native languages of others, in spite of a shared Jewish faith. There would have been distinct food preferences and different levels of financial security. There would have been different prejudices to navigate, different interpretations of Torah and different political proclivities.” And for those in charge of making the bread, those numbers growing day by day represented increased stress and strain, not jubilant joy.[i] I imagine the chaos of that time was not unlike the chaos of sheep gathered into a fold – a noisy, messy, resistant bunch that the loving Shepherd had to prod, yank, and shove into said fold.
With new glasses, we no longer look with jealousy on that early gathered Christian community or that chaotic, smelly sheep fold, but instead begin to see commonality. Just like the early Christian community trying to make her way through the chaos, we too are making our way through chaos. We are overcoming technological hurdles, welcoming strangers from all over the community and the globe in our worship, and finding community even in our isolation. Our gathering now is weird and awkward and frustrating. But our gathering is also encouraging and life-giving and hope-making. And as we watch people’s names pop up on the screen and as we see comments of reassurance, we see beauty in this particular community, we see hope percolating up despite us, and we see that even as life feels stripped of all goodness, the Good Shepherd is indeed offering us life in abundance. This week, the Good Shepherd is not some picture-perfect stained-glass version of a Shepherd with a lamb gently hanging over his shoulder. This week, the Good Shepherd is standing beside us, his arm cocked over our shoulder, shaking his head with us at the immensity of this crazy reality, and simply giving us a reassuring, unspoken smile, and a nudge into some abundant life this week. Thanks be to God.
[i] Jerusha Matsen Neal, “Commentary on Acts 2:42-47,” May 3, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4443 on May 1, 2020.