Life, Abundantly.

It is not unusual that I can describe in detail one of the paintings that was at my childhood church that depicted Jesus leading a sheep. And although it looked more like a pastel, 1980’s watercolor than the grandeur of our Christ the Good Shepherd stained glass window above the altar here at Christ Church, it was still significant to me. It’s significant not because it evokes tender thoughts about how I sought out the good shepherd when I was lost and afraid, but rather it reminds me of how confusing I found the imagery of Psalm 23 in my youth. I just could not understand how it provided comfort, and every funeral where it was read, sung, or recited only added to the confusion. There was something lacking for me in the pastoral imagery of this beloved psalm, and something that I felt that others were missing, in part because “thou sets a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” never sounded like deep comfort to me.

I held on to this confusion about Psalm 23 until I heard Bobby McFerrin’s setting of this beloved psalm, and then something in me clicked. Perhaps I had never really been lost until that point, or maybe I hadn’t really known the valley of the shadow of death yet, but upon hearing the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, MD sing the psalm to this setting, I suddenly very deeply understood why Psalm 23 is such a source of comfort and grace. This is the setting of the psalm that was used for my ordination to the priesthood less than three years ago, and if it feels like we just heard Psalm 23, it’s because we did, on Lent 4. And as Father Steve talked about in his sermon that day, Psalm 23 always has a way of showing up when we most need it, and I’ll add that it always shows up when we need it, but we may not always know that we are in need.

Psalm 23 shows up again today in our lectionary, and I imagine it comes around again so quickly in part because the lesson from our gospel today picks up where the gospel lesson from Lent 4 left off; perhaps it shows up again to remind us of the tender compassion of shepherd, and also to remind us of the lavish care that is afforded to us when we follow Christ. Six weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the blind man from John, and our gospel passage today picks up as Jesus begins to discuss why this healing is a sign that he the one from whom salvation will flow, and he does it with this slightly confusing sheep-shepherd-gate metaphor. The fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always the Sunday in which we hear about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but in this passage from John, it isn’t clear if Jesus is the shepherd, although he does describe that sheep won’t follow a stranger’s voice, but only their shepherd. But he follows that by asserting that he is the gate for the sheep; that it is through him that salvation and abundant life is found.

Since every fourth Sunday in Easter focuses on the Good Shepherd this is one of the images that gets a lot of pulpit time; it also gets lots of confusing treatments and mishmashes conflating one gospel with another. Here in John, though we don’t get Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but rather as the gate. This passage has been interpreted in many ways over the centuries of Christian tradition, and one prominent interpretation is that Jesus is the guardian of the saved, that Christ is the heaven’s bouncer keeping out those who don’t follow our understanding of Christian teachings. But when I read that Jesus is the gate, I see Christ as the path and entrance to safety and care. When I hear of Christ as the gate, I understand that to follow Christ is to be invited into the compassion and tenderness that we hear in Psalm 23; I don’t hear an exclusionist understanding of the after-life. And frankly, I find it troubling when folks read a passage like this and automatically assume that they are the insiders and that “the others” are the ones who are thieves coming to ruin their perfect faith, but more importantly, I don’t think that this passage about the afterlife.

I think that Christ is talking about our lived reality, right now; that it is not some future prediction that all will be well once Christ comes again, but that God is inviting us to an abundant life, right here and now. That to follow Christ, to go through the gate, is to step into a way of living this embodied life with the kindness and conviction of the one whom we follow. To follow Christ is to have an abundant life, not one that is barely surviving and thread-bare, but one that is full and thriving.

The abundant life is certainly one that can be painted as a life of ease and wealth and devoid of pain, but this is not abundance, not really. Our lives as Christians are not promised to be lacking in discomfort or to always be overflowing with material blessings, but rather that in following Christ we are able to access an abundance that is not present without a cruciform life. When we let our lives be shaped by following the way of the cross, we are invited to have life, and to have it abundantly. But, my friends, God’s abundance is less like a Mary Poppin’s bag full of endless entertainment and pleasure, and looks more like pruning a plant; when a plant is cut back, with the old, unfruitful leaves cut off, there is more space for the plant to grow and be fruitful. This is the abundance that God invites us to. Christ is not the gate to abundant life where you will never experience pruning or pain, but one where, when you follow Christ, you will have more compassion than you thought possible, or more willingness to love your neighbor as yourself than you would without it, that you know God’s peace that truly does pass all understanding.

Because the opposite of an abundant life is not a difficult life, but rather a life of scarcity. A scarcity mindset is one that is built upon the false belief that this life is a zero-sum game, and if another gains and succeeds, then I will not be able to; if others have more than me, then there won’t be enough to go around.

When Jesus talks about the thieves that come and steal away the sheep, I don’t think that he was alluding to folks who believe differently than we do, but that he was talking about belief systems that demand value be placed upon what you can produce rather than your beloved, created wholeness; a belief system based upon scarcity that steals and kills and destroys our hope. A belief that God’s abundance isn’t for everyone, and I mean everyone, and a belief system that takes away our faith not only in each other, but in the greater good and the real hope of the resurrection.

What we see here on this Good Shepherd Sunday, is that God is inviting us to an abundant life, and that abundance will be focused on others, it will be focused on the marginalized and the downcast. There are times when this won’t feel like abundance; there are times when this will feel like we have less than others. But when we are able to see each and every person as one created in the image of God, deserving of love and respect, then we will be able to know what the Good Shepherd meant when he promised an abundant life. The abundance to which we are invited is an abundance which runs away from a scarcity mindset and from a life that is self-centered, because when we follow the one who is the gate, we are able to rest in the knowledge that God’s care and compassion are sufficient. They are sufficient for us to not only have life, but to have it abundantly.

A sermon delivered via livestream to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Easter 4A on May 3, 2020.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s