May 3, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
10th Graders – Today was supposed to be your confirmation day. We didn’t forget. We know you and your families didn’t either. There should have been a celebration this morning. You should be wearing a carnation, and lining up for your picture, and nervously reminding yourselves of the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
And all of that will happen. It may be a ways off, but we will find a time and a way to allow you to affirm your baptism and receive the promised gifts of the Spirit. Your parents will still be extraordinarily proud of you, your mentors will beam, and some of your pastors will cry a little bit. It will still be beautiful and good, but it will be delayed, and that’s a bummer. Once, many, many years ago on another Good Shepherd Sunday, I was confirmed at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Barnhart, Missouri, and I wish that were happening for you today. I’m sorry.
I read a very sweet story the other day[i]. Frances Fuller [ii] writes about a friend she walked with for over ten years. Her friend’s name was Lois. (I told you it was sweet.) Lois was determined to walk to the end of their road each day, where there was a gate, and then turn around to walk back. She claimed the walk didn’t count unless you touched the gate with your hand before turning around. Her dog even learned to touch the gate with his nose each time they walked.
After Lois’s husband died, she walked the path less frequently, and started losing her way. She became increasingly confused. She’d lock herself out of the house. She’d call and ask what day of the week it was. Once or twice, she would ring neighbors doors and simply say, “I need a hug.”
Sound familiar? No longer set in the daily routines of walking to the end of the road, no longer able to see loved ones, no longer sure of even what day of the week it is, we, like Lois, can feel lost. Sometimes we wish we could just knock on the door of a friend’s house to say, “I need a hug.”
I feel like many of us could use the guidance of a Good Shepherd these days. The missed milestones, the postponed weddings, the delayed confirmations and graduations, the empty schedules, and the long silences can lead us to feel as if we’re lost lambs who have taken the wrong path. We miss the flock. We miss the sense of abundance. We miss the embrace of those who love us.
Frances Fuller wrote the article about her friend Lois to say to her readers, “It’s okay to feel lost. It’s okay to feel angry or disappointed or frustrated or anxious.” I think the Gospel of John would add, “Jesus, our Shepherd, our Gate, knows that we’re hurting.”
Even those of us who have never lived near a sheep farm can feel something touching in this image[iii]. Jesus is the Shepherd, whose voice the sheep know. Jesus beckons us back to places of protection. Jesus calls with a reminder to be safe, to rest in the assurance that God is with us. He brings us into the sheepfold and guards us from voices of deceit and destruction. Jesus warns us against the thieves and bandits who would try to sneak in, to tell us the gatekeeper doesn’t have our best interests at heart, to persuade us to escape the shepherd’s care.
Have you been getting the spam emails encouraging you to try some new bogus cure? Have you seen the angry demonstrators who claim the authorities are unduly punishing us when they tell us to shelter in place longer than we want to? Have you joined in the chant for relaxing the burdensome restrictions even though we know the rate of disease is still rising?
False messages climb in through side doors and whisper to us through the cracks in our confidence. Bandits try to convince us that the longer this goes, the less meaning life will have for us, that love won’t survive, that we’ll fall apart and be an uncaring, unreceptive, greedy bunch of sheep, never caring for our neighbors. Thieves try to persuade us to believe pandemics and fear and feeling lost or forsaken will get the last word.
But Jesus reminds us that the Voice of a Good Shepherd never misleads us with false promises or empty threats. There are times and seasons for staying inside the fold, and sometimes the storms outside last a long time, but our Shepherd comes that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
Then, like the shape-shifting way Jesus always seems to use in the gospel of John, he switches up the metaphor halfway through the conversation. First he’s the Shepherd, then he’s the Voice, but by the end of the paragraph, Jesus is the Gate itself. “I am the Gate,” he claims, “the very way into the assurance of God’s love. I am the opening in your fear and anxiety. I am the way through to abundant life. Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
We sometimes are led to believe that it’s a very narrow gateway, and we’d better follow Jesus or we’ll never receive God’s mercy. In fact, I think there are plenty of thieves and bandits who use fear and condemnation as a means to persuade us to worry about God’s embrace of us.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to offer us a skinny one way ticket that we have to get right or we’ll be lost forever. Rather, he opens the way to God’s love and frees us to move in and out of the sheepfold. There is life for us in the exploring and in the discovery. There is abundance of goodness to which Jesus continues to lead us. There is not an admonition to get it right, but an assurance that Jesus is already showing us all the love God has for every sheep.
Throughout his life, Jesus invites us to experience life in fullness, to stand in pools of healing, and draw from the well of life, to drink water as sweet as wine, to unwrap grave cloths and be restored into community, to enter into perpetual life by the gateway of openness, compassion, and abundance. Jesus doesn’t just tell us what we ought to do, Jesus lives abundantly for us, and becomes the way to unfailing life.
His early followers looked for ways to experience that abundant life after his ascension, and they found it by living his way, in lives of generous openness and care for one another. This incredibly radical description of community in the book of Acts which Mark read for us[iv] paints a picture of how his flock lived out his message. They shared their resources. They dedicated themselves to prayer. They looked for ways to connect with each other. They studied scriptures and the apostles’ teachings together, and curiously, they broke bread at home.
Can we be that kind of community? Can we be that kind of community even during a pandemic? Can we find our way through the goodness of the Gate? It’s a challenge, certainly. We can’t physically be together. We can’t join our voices in praise in the ways we’re accustomed. And right now, we can’t stand at our neighbors’ homes and ask for a hug.
But we can see our daily paths as leading us to and from the Gate of life, and we can intentionally reach out to touch the gate each day. We can strive to find ways to study and pray together. We can even find ways to connect to those we don’t see, calling and writing and trying to stay in touch with one another. If ever there were a time to respond generously to the needs of others, certainly when 30 million Americans are without work, we can think of ways to share our resources with those in need. And once again this morning, we may even try to find ways to break bread in our homes.
For no matter how awkward or strange it may feel, Christ, our Gate to abundant, full, ever-flowing life, will be here with us, not to keep us out, but to be our way through, and to open us to live for others.
Our Muslim neighbors around the world are 10 days into their observance of Ramadan. I can’t hear it in my neighborhood, but I understand some of you are hearing the calls to prayer throughout the day from where you are sheltering. For those of us who grew up hearing church bells across our neighborhoods, it can be an oddly reassuring sound, as it can signify for us that down the street, or across the world, people are pausing to pray, are stopping to call for God’s presence to be apparent, and to invite God’s ways to be known in their lives.
What if five times every day for the rest of this Easter season, that is the rest of May, we paused from what we were doing to pray, too? Perhaps we could use Psalm 23 as a guide for our prayer. Maybe we could recite it as we washed our hands, in case we’re getting tired of singing the ABC song.
We could pray the 23rd Psalm[v] and remember that God is our Shepherd, guiding us along right pathways through this pandemic. Even though we feel as if there’s so much we lack, we could remember that we really do have what we need. We could remember that God is leading us beside the still waters on our daily walks, and encouraging us to turn off the distractions, to quiet the voices of worry and distress, and to lie down in peace at the end of the day.
Maybe we could remind ourselves that even though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, God is with us. God comforts us, anoints us with hope and patience, and sets a table for us in the midst of our isolation and fears, disappointments and setbacks.
Maybe we can remember those young people who missed the rite of Confirmation on this Good Shepherd Sunday, but who have never been outside the Shepherd’s care, and who, with all of us, are being ushered in and out through a Gate of Hope, Patience, Care, and Reconciliation.
Maybe at those moments when we can no longer remember what day of the week it is, or when we only wish for a hug, we can listen for the swinging sound of the gate at the end of the path, and know that God is still restoring our souls, leading us into abundant life, and pursuing us with goodness and mercy, all the days of our lives.
May God affirm all of us in our baptismal promises today, assuring us that we are being guided through the way to life. Thanks be to God. Amen
[iii] John 10:1-10
[iv] Acts 2:42-47
[v] Here’s a beautiful depiction of Psalm 23 to stir your imagination. https://www.facebook.com/samantha.beach.77/videos/3788695872691/