People want out of the sheepfold
People want out of the sheepfold. This is one of the first things that strikes me about today’s gospel reading. We’re in the middle of a pandemic during which we are spending a lot time at home. People are starting to get stir crazy. And we’re starting to see protests break out both in the US and Canada in which people are demanding precautions are lifted so they can go get a haircut. Many of these people identify as Christians and they often use religion as the reason all of us should be released from the sheepfold protecting us from harm. The argument is something like, “Jesus wants us to be free. Therefore I should be free to get a haircut.” The hidden assumption here is, “And you should have to go back to work and cut my hair.” Not only do these people want out of the sheepfold, but they want to force everyone else out too.
One problem with this argument is that for Jesus, freedom is about being freed by grace, God’s unbounding love, freely given. Freedom from God is more than just access to the free market. It’s more than just getting the economy back on track, as important as that is. We think about the question: who is God setting us free to be during this time?
The irony of the answer is that sometimes in order to be free, we need to be bound. Bound to our love of one another that we either stay home or maintain physical distancing until the time health experts decide we can ease restrictions. Martin Luther writes in an essay titled Freedom of a Christian that the Christian is both most free of all and most bound of all. Freed by grace in order to lead a life of service to God and neighbour. I want to talk a bit about each side of this coin, how the Christian is most free of all and most bound of all in the context of the sheepfold.
Christian is most bound of all
Let’s begin with why the Christian is most bound of all. What does it look like to be bound during a pandemic? Sometimes it looks like physical distancing, at times we leaving our little sheepfolds in order to get groceries or go for a walk. Some people are essential workers and need to work closely with others whether in healthcare or grocery stores for example. Some of you are checking in with one another if anyone needs groceries or medicines.
We think about the work of the Shelbourne Community Kitchen and its voluneers delivering food to people who are hungry, including accessing the dry and cold food storage downstairs. We think about social workers serving people experiencing homelessness.
I think about protections for people who do not have a home, who are camping in parks and boulevards. People living out of vans and campers. Some people have been moved into motels. Others are facing eviction.
I ran into one young man in my neighbourhood who just as COVID-19 restrictions were introduced was facing eviction. He said he had come up with a plan to play his rent, but the landlord had already served him an eviction notice. I saw him again just the other day on the street and asked (from a safe distance) if he found another place to live. He said that in the end he appealed and his landlord was unable to evict him during a pandemic do to government protections. Having a well functioning society with rules and regulations that protect the vulnerable is another way we live into our freedom as Christians. Whether we have rules and regulations in place to protect the vulnerable has a lot to do with how we understand power. Commentator Lindsey S. Jodrey offers one interpretation of our gospel reading from John in terms of power. They argue Jesus is disrupting the dominant narrative of power talking about the gate and shepherd. The Roman emperor and other powerful leaders in Jesus’ day imagined themselves to be the gate or shepherd protecting the people, when in reality they often protected the privileged and wealthy. Meanwhile the vulnerable lived precarious lives with little security.
By contrast Jesus as a peripatetic preacher without a permanent home calls himself the true gate. Someone with little social and political power has come to protect the vulnerable, the very people who the powerful neglect. How do we see examples of this disruption of power or lack of disruption today? We think about the different ways different levels of government are responding to the pandemic. Who qualifies for assistance and how much? We are thankful people who have been laid off or whose small businesses are struggling are finding financial reprieve.
Thinking about thieves and bandits, sometimes we wonder about where the money is going with some of the large bailouts some industries receive. Are these millions or in some cases billions of dollars going to offset lost wages of workers or are some of the funds being diverted to wealthy executives and paying out shareholder dividends? How much of that money even stays in Canada with multinational companies? Knowing where our tax dollars are going and who is benefiting is also part of our Christian duty. As Christians we are bound to ensure public moneys are distributed justly.
Thinking about people demanding they receive a haircut or that schools reopen. Who is being demanded to work? Who is being placed in a position of risk?
Christians are most free of all
There is also the flip side of Jesus taking this risk for us. Jesus becoming the true gate sets us free. We talked about why Christians are most bound of all. Now let us talk about why Christians are most free of all. Freedom is all about grace. We receive grace inside the sheepfold.
Right now what I hear most of all from people is a yearning for grace. People want freedom to fail. Despite our yearnings to be as productive as possible during the pandemic, I hear from students and people who are working about a lack of focus. It can be hard to research and write dissertations when there is so little external motivation, not being able to meet up with fellow students and supervisors in person. No working in the library or at a research carrel. So too with people missing working in an office environment and instead there is a blending of work and home life that can be difficult to keep separate. I know I value the privilege of working in the church office when possible, given our ability to physical distance in relatively large spaces with few people. Those of us monitoring homeschooling feel at times we are losing our minds as kids work through any number of intricate on-line assignments that all need to be recorded and uploaded to the cloud.
Some people think they should be picking up a new skill or devoting time to a cherished hobby, but are tired from endless time on-line or team meetings on Zoom.
Others have lost their jobs or were hoping to find a job maybe even for the first time after graduating, and feel stymied by an economy that is partially on sleep mode.
Friends, let us be kind with ourselves and one another. There will be times we lose our patience or struggle with despair or depression. And that’s okay. God grant us the courage to seek help when we need it, and to lend a hand when others need a hand to be lifted up.
Each one of us deserves to be freed by grace. This is not something earned, but freely given by God. Grace isn’t measured by productivity, how much we pray, or how good a person we are. It’s about God’s unceasing love for us, no matter what. Let us rejoice and be glad with this freedom in Christ.
As Christians we are most bound of all and most free. Bound to serve God and one another. Set free by grace. During these times, feel the expansiveness of grace grant us a chance to catch our breath, to feel loved, trusting we are enough as children of God. Amen.