St. Paul’s Congregational Church

April 26, 2020 – Easter 4A

Acts 2: 42 – 47; John 10: 1 – 10

Even though we are three weeks into the season of Eastertide, our lives still feel like one long Lenten discipline of social distancing, fighting illness and mourning the loss of so many, don’t they. Even as we proclaim the truth of Easter resurrection, we still feel like Good Friday’s shadow looms long. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is faithful. But we’re still feeling so trapped – in our homes, isolated from family and friends, away from our so familiar routines – in talking with some of you this week, as we’ve realized it’s been 6 weeks since we’ve been together in person in worship, since our children have been in school, since we’ve seen grandchildren, since so many have been working at home, since it’s become a major production to get groceries – time feels like it has both dragged and sped by – how often have I heard and said myself – I have no idea what day it is. We feel like we’re trapped – and there’s really no sign that things will change any time soon – and so many of us are mourning the loss of loved ones and friends, worried about friends still on ventilators, long lines at food banks, shortages of supplies. And, for me, the conversation about going back to “normal” brings its own fear and anxiety and frustration. I need a break, don’t you?


This is Good Shepherd Sunday – I want to experience the still waters, feel my soul restored, to feel comfort even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Don’t you? Of course we all do. Friends, it’s through God’s grace that we have these scriptures to ponder today in our lectionary.


The passage from John is a tough one for many – it’s often been used as a means of exclusion – to enforce false boundaries to shore up their own power, to label others as “thieves and bandits” – and, worse still, seeming to give off the message “Jesus doesn’t love everyone”. Well, we know that’s not true, don’t we. But it’s easy to fall into an “us” and “them” – to view the sheepfold as a safe place for the insiders – a circle the wagons mentality that keeps us safe – but there’s certainly little freedom there and very little love.


When we first read this passage, especially if we’re feeling vulnerable, threatened, all we see are walls, barriers, boundaries and separation. That’s what a fence with a gate is, right? But is that what Jesus means when he says, “I am the gate?” I don’t think so.

What’s the purpose of the gate? It’s to create an opening in the fence – it’s to allow travel through the wall. It’s a means of liberation – not exclusion. When Jesus says, I am the gate – isn’t it his way of inviting us both in and out? Isn’t it a means of liberation? Isn’t he telling us that he is our way to safety, to entering a restful place where we know we are loved and protected? Isn’t he also telling us that we are called to go back out through the gate into the world? Isn’t it his invitation to leave safety and security, sanctuary, and go back out into a world of challenges and stumbling blocks, to go back out and do the good work we are called to do, knowing it may sometimes end with us feeling battered and bruised and afraid and sad?


He's telling us, I am the gate in all your carefully constructed, self-isolating walls. He’s telling us, I will not leave you. He’s telling us, follow me to the green pastures on the other side of the wall.


Those careful walls we’ve placed between ourselves and others – everything we have set up to protect ourselves is actually our very means of being called out into a life of adventure, possibility, and yes, sadness and conflict – Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the entry point into all change, depth, struggle, and love – it’s both terrifying and exhilarating, isn’t it. There’s an old saying, “God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.”


Think about that.

God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way. Wow.

If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. If that doesn’t give us hope, I don’t know what will.


And, you know, I can’t help but think about the blessing we have to be gathered online for worship – we’re outside of the walls – of our lovely building – but we’re still the church. I wonder if our buildings help protect us from being called out into that new life of adventure, possibility, and of course yes, sadness and conflict. None of us would have chosen to be outside our walls this way but maybe this too is another gate Jesus calls us through. We are reaching people who have never come into our building. We are reaching people who haven’t been in our building for a long time, for whatever reason. We have been forced to use our creativity, our talents to gather to worship God in new ways – we wouldn’t have chosen this. And the reality is when Iah, Angela, and I first explored remote worship, there was some sense that there are lots of other opportunities for remote worship on Sunday mornings – did we really need to do this too?


Well, we did walk through the gate – we are tapping into a creativity perhaps we didn’t know we had. And that’s a good thing. And the fact that so many of us are reaching out to others to check in is a good thing too. Maybe we’re providing the rest, the green pastures, the still waters for our neighbors and even strangers in ways we never dreamed possible – perhaps in the same way the early Christian community did as we read in the passage from Acts.


Kate Huey writes, “We can draw parallels between that first-century church and the church of the twenty-first century, pulling out our church newsletters to find the activities by which we too strive to devote ourselves to study, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. This is how most of us have traditionally experienced church: through various gatherings of people, in person, engaged together in these pursuits. That is, until now, until the dramatic interruption, the sudden stilling of our life together, in community.


One of the concentric circles around the core of suffering caused by this pandemic is the harm done to our ability to gather, to congregate as one would expect congregations to do. The need to quarantine and social-distance (a new verb?) by life-saving necessity over-rides our desire to come together, for we are social beings by nature. Our faith life expresses and embodies that deeply human need and aspiration, but these times call for flexibility, creativity and commitment from church leaders, pastors and lay leaders alike, including the people who are not (at this moment) in the pews but are still, in very real ways, a people, a church, a "gathered community" that simply has to find new, alternative ways to experience "the ties that bind" us as one.


More than one observer has asked whether this time of "enclosure," as I call it, might be experienced by many of us as a time to stop, take stock, and begin afresh (one day, we hope in the not too distant future) in our shared life so that those "things" we are about actually nourish rather than consume us. Many people are taking this time to consider ways we might make major changes, not small ones, in the way we live, both individually and communally.”


And on a side note: maybe we’re providing rest, green pastures, still waters for our earth as well as we observed the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week:

When we see that the air over New York and China and India is clearer, the waters in Italy are cleaner, the animals are ambling through formerly congested areas...don't we feel a pang of both guilt and longing for the world to be more at rest, for the earth to be less taxed, by the way we humans live? If we followed the example of our ancestors in faith, sharing more and using less, significantly so, how might this terrible time yield unexpected wisdom and blessing?


The challenge is in front of us and all around us – will we follow Jesus through the gate, as individuals and church?

Please, let’s all remember those profound words: God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us far too much to leave us that way.

If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. If that doesn’t give us hope, I don’t know what will.


I pray we trust our Risen Savior to lead us and to walk with us on this journey through the gate enough to let Him take us where we need to go – into a new, transformed normal. We’re all in this together – so may it be. Amen.

ABOUT US

We are a United Church of Christ located in Nutley, New Jersey. 

ADDRESS

10 St. Paul's Place
Nutley, NJ 07110


(973) 667-4812 

 

info@stpaulsuccnutley.org

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