Where abundance is
I was fortunate to study the Gospel of John with Professor Gail O’Day, an eminent, passionate scholar of this Gospel. As a teacher, she’d walk around the room, sitting on the edge of a table occasionally, using her hands to emphasize a point, asking questions and directing us back and forth to different stories or settings or themes so that we would be able to see the Gospel as a whole while focusing on particular stories and texts. She really wanted her students to engage with her and you could see her frustration when folks were bent over taking notes instead of entering into the conversation. Of course, everything she said was like a divine revelation and we didn’t want to miss a single syllable so we furiously took notes anyway. She was like a weaver picking up the threads of a tapestry here and there, showing us how this red thread runs through these stories and this gold thread runs through those and if we weren’t looking, we’d miss the beauty of it, and she didn’t want us to miss that.
When we got to Chapter 10, the one we read from every year on this Fourth Sunday in Easter that is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, she wanted us to understand two things.
First, the things that Jesus is saying about himself in this chapter, that he is the Good Shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold - he is not saying them in a vacuum. This discourse is directly related to the story before it, the story of the man who had been born blind who Jesus had healed on the Sabbath and who was then kicked out of the synagogue because the leaders of the synagogue didn’t want to believe that the work Jesus did in healing that man came from God. This text is commentary on that event. The man was pushed out of their community and so Jesus pulled him into his community so that he no longer had to beg or live in darkness or be in fear. The synagogue leaders were bad shepherds and in contrast, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And so we have this beautiful image of the one who calls us by name, who looks for us when we are lost, who watches over us, but it is an image rooted in the real experience of a person in a difficult time and place.
And the second thing she wanted us to understand was that the phrase “I came so that they may have life and have it abundantly” is really Jesus’s mission statement. It’s the very core of what Jesus is about. He came to bring life, abundant life, to those who were abandoned, led astray, kicked out, suffering. In shepherd and sheep language, that abundant life is spoken of in terms of still waters and green pastures, and sheepfolds that are safe from wolves, and gates that invite sheep in during dark times and also open out into all the good things of life - ample food, water, shelter, companionship - abundance during the day.
The story of Jesus as told by John is full of examples of abundant life. Remember the wedding at Cana where the wine was overflowing, and the feeding of 5000 on a mountainside with baskets of bread left over, and the catch of fish so big that the disciples couldn’t even haul in the net. These stories feature literal abundance.
But there’s more to abundant life than big numbers. Our attitude is an important part of living a life of abundance as well.
Obviously life in a time of pandemic is smaller in scope that what we are used to. People are suffering losses of all kinds, from not being able to be with family and friends to not being able to go to school to the cancellation of important ceremonies like weddings and graduations. For some there’s a loss of income, or job security; for others, loss of community. And still others are fearful about their health as the virus continues to spread through our town. It’s easy to feel that this is not an abundant life we are living, but one of being deprived, of scarcity (why is it still so hard to find toilet paper, and what’s up with the chronic shortage of garlic in my grocery store?).
But again, there’s more to abundant life than just having a lot of things and a lot of options.
I have a cousin who has two middle school aged girls. They are usually very active - sports, academics, plays, parties. But their mother posted this week that this time of sheltering at home been a surprisingly beautiful one for her girls, who have time to read, and instead of fighting, they cook together and even do chores happily because they have stepped off the hamster wheel of being over-scheduled and are experiencing their days deeply instead of rushing through at warp speed. Their life, while much smaller in scope, has become abundant life rooted in love and companionship and community with one another that is bringing them all joy, even while they are aware of the difficulties of life for others.
I also sometimes watch and pray with the Dean of the Canterbury Cathedral in England on YouTube. The clergy at Canterbury are not able to film inside the Cathedral, but they have found all kinds of lovely little spots in their homes and surrounding gardens instead. The dean always has a seat for himself and also has another nearby (for us, of course) which on some days is occupied by one of the Cathedral cats. One time he took us into the “chick house” and held several newborn chicks as he reflected on the Gospel story. Often there’s a pot of tea on the table. Just imagine - he is normally offering services inside one of the great Cathedrals of the world with a first-class sound system and lighting and of course the most beautiful space around him. Imagine his sadness that he cannot serve in there, he cannot pray in there, he cannot gather with his people in there, cannot sing in there or hear the beautiful organ and choir, cannot experience the majesty of a church that is drenched in centuries of prayer. What a huge loss that must be! But now he is offering prayers in other spaces, places full of life and beauty. We hear the birds singing and see the leaves unfolding on the plants week by week. He invites us in to pull up a chair, pet the cat, have a cup of tea, admire the chicks and in that place also pray for the dead and the dying and all who are displaced, diseased, discombobulated and to hear again the stories of Jesus and his life-giving work. He is showing us life abundant even in the face of loss, even in a time of fear, even in a world of uncertainty.
Professor O’Day was killed a couple of years ago by a brain tumor. I still have my class notes and her books which sound so much like her when I read them. Her passion for Jesus and the way John told his story come through on the printed page. I still remember our conversations. I learned much from her. But perhaps the best thing she taught me was that when Jesus talks to those gathered around him, he’s talking about real life. Not just theology, not just churchy stuff, although that’s certainly there. But for Jesus real life was about experiencing abundance, which is not the same as having a lot of stuff. For Jesus love and beauty and community and even salvation are not commodities. They are not ever going to be scarce, not ever going to run out. Abundance is everywhere and is both overwhelming (like the wine and the bread and the fish) and also found in every day life in every day things (like tea and chicks and cooking with your sister).
So in this time when we have to greet one another by Zoom instead of in person, to stay at home instead of traveling, we are still called to recognize the abundance that is part and parcel of our life in God, to recognize abundance in place of scarcity and then to share, the best way we can, God’s love in the world. For some these days, that has been sewing masks, for others keeping vigil with the dying, for some making sandwiches for the Hope Center, and for others, calling a lonely friend.
This is a hard time and there is a lot of discouraging news and great suffering and loss. I do not wish to make light of that. But we are still called to live abundantly, to pay attention to our lives and the lives of others around us in order to see the abundance that is ours every day and to share it in love for the healing of the world as we try to follow Jesus through this hard time the best we can.