Fourth Sunday of Easter 2020
The scriptures today express resurrection hope and invite us participate with God in co-creating courageous and generous communities. We are called as people of faith to accept the joyful and messy work of belonging to communities that hold us accountable; that challenge us to keep learning, that love us unconditionally and strengthen us through times of difficulty.
The capacity to create community is being challenged as we are forced into physical or spatial distancing during this Corvid-19 Pandemic. We are called connect and serve one another according to the heart of Jesus – as today imaged in today’s gospel – and do it imaginatively and relationally with tenderness, forgiveness, strength and protection rather than with patriarchal or macho qualities such as aggression, domination, control, and condemnation. The 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich, in one of her prayers says: All shall be well. All shall be well. Every manner of thing shall be well. Appropriate today in the midst ofCOVID-19 as we read Psalm 23. There are words of comfort in times of uncertainty, sorrow and loss and courage when afraid. When we look at all the changes in our lives and our world, and acknowledge the uncertainties of our future; when we see the statistics of cases and deaths that sometimes seem to be more about graphs rather than real people, when so many people are losing jobs or income, we do not need more information, answers or instructions about this pandemic but words that remind us that there is a way forward when feeling helpless, concerned, powerless and fearful. We never walk alone.
Pope Francis, in a TED talk said: ‘Solidarity is a term that many wish to erase from the dictionary…….. It is a free response born from the heart of each and everyone….. When one realizes that life, even in the middle of so many contradictions, is a gift, that love is the source and the meaning of life, how can they withhold their urge to do good to another fellow being? In order to do good, we need memory, we need courage and we need creativity………Yes, love does require a creative, concrete and ingenious attitude. Good intentions and conventional formulas, so often used to appease our conscience, are not enough. Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face. The ‘you’ is always a real presence, a person to take care of.’
Marginalised people are familiar with gates, doors, barriers and blockades. Many people slip shyly beneath the ‘All Are Welcome’ into our churches hoping not to be noticed though hoping for a word that dissipates they alienation they feel. And how many have slipped out as quickly and quietly as they entered? The good news today is that the only one authorised is Jesus to say who is in – not religious leaders, politicians, radio and television personalities who shun the work of co-creating healthy and just communities and attack asylum seekers, Indigenous people, Muslim people as well as gay and lesbian people? Could we not include those who withhold the sacraments to certain people?
Thinking of sheep as dumb, dirty and easily dismissed and manipulated, a book I read some years ago came to mind. Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, in A Monk in the Inner City, writes of pigeons as pets of the poor who share stale bread from soup-kitchens with them. They are constant companions to the homeless and, like the poor, they are shooed away from every public park and square. Wherever the poor gather, one finds flocks of pigeons. I have taken to feeding them at workplace and also residence and I think of them as being excluded like all those we could label poor. Now these pigeons have been joined by Ibis, Magpies, Rainbow Parrots, Cormorants as well as the ever present stray cats. Pigeons are so ordinary and commonplace. The only attention they get is to be treated as nuisances. As with last Sunday’s gospel in Luke (Emmaus story) we can find beauty and wonder when we discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. Kownacki writes, “If you look, really look, at anything, even one pigeon, you will fall on your knees before its beauty. The same holds true for each person in the soup kitchen line. As one definition of contemplation attests, ‘It’s a matter of taking a long, loving look at the real.’”
Jesus distinguished between God’s approach to people and that of the religious leaders. We have even seen Pope Francis criticised for his inclusive teaching on the mercy of God. Jesus’ concern was not so much about keeping burdensome rules and regulations but to facilitate relationships that enable people to work together and live life to the full.
Each of us is called to a ministry, a service, to care, to protect [shepherd] God’s ‘little ones’ or vulnerable ones to an abundant life. The biblical view of ‘shepherd’ has both a spiritual and political component. It is not sentimental but about relationship and about justice-making. It is serious, dangerous, and challenging. Jesus shows us that it is about commitment to the welfare of the other and rejecting the images from business and industry that even the Church can buy into. Sheep for Jesus were not just a commodity that produces wool or meat!!
As the world is more and more globalised, the gospel calls us to work towards a globalisation of compassion and care. But in recent times despite the globalisation, individualism is often more evident. If our fragile earth is suffering today, it might be because the captains of industry with their vested interests want to keep us from knowing or being aware that we are not monads or just individuals but part of one humanity. Our value does not depend on our ability to purchase or consume. This planet is the ‘good shepherd’s’ field of work and ministry, and we are meant to be tenders of creation and of one another. We are intimately bound to earth and all its passengers – including the animals
Living as Jesus has shown us means we do not walk away from danger. Jesus can, as we saw in the gospel last week [Emmaus] come alongside us and ‘reroute’ our journey. He takes us back into reality …….. not Emmaus but to Jerusalem. Jesus identified with the weak and vulnerable. There is no substitute for personal involvement with people on the receiving end of injustice. It means seeking ways to ‘be alongside’ and available in some lively way. It means being open to being ‘taught’ by victims and the people who are disadvantaged because they have experiences we will never know. It means receiving from them, not just finding way we can fix their lives. Our understanding and compassion can be nurtured by our involvement, walking with, listening to, and taking sides with.
The movie, Of Gods and Men touches on the life and witness of Dom Christian De Cherge, OCSO, prior of a Trappist Abbey in Algeria. Whilst prior, Islamic insurgents sought to purge the country of all foreign influences. This threat forced Christian and his fellow monks to discern whether they should leave or stay and continue to be with their Muslim neighbours. All except one were kidnapped and murdered. With the decision to remain and inevitability of death, Christian wrote a Testament to be read after his death where he anticipated possible responses to his death and to shape the way others would view the decision to remain in Algeria:
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.
The more we learn about sheep, the more powerful Jesus’ metaphor becomes. Despite the perceptions and descriptions of sheep, they are still incredibly valuable to their owners – as we are to God
The disciples were not teaching dogma in their preaching. That did not lead to conversions. What they did was to spread the contagious state of grace – or ‘the contagion of Jesus’ as Sebastian Moore wrote in his book.
The truth about the shepherd is not about the quality of sheep. Protection and love and concern is not based on how the sheep look, feel or behave. These are not the basis for belonging in God’s world. They were created by systems of control and domination. The voice of the one who lays down his life for us is always saying: ‘you matter’; ‘you belong to me’; ‘you belong.’ Do we not only here the voice of Pope Francis?
Compiled by Claude Mostowik, msc
Director, Missionaries of the Sacred Justice and Peace Centre
President, Pax Christ Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia [NSW]