Someone pointed out to me that we have now all been in this lockdown for longer than a season of Survivor. For some of us, I imagine it is beginning to feel exactly like a season of Survivor.
This week, especially, I heard from people about their anxiety, and stress, and just how much the situation is wearing on them. All of this is understandable: life suddenly changed without any time for us to prepare. The toll of trying to keep up with our kids’ schoolwork, or not seeing the grandchildren except at a distance – these burdens are weighing on us. We’re running out of shows on Netflix. Our spouses are getting on our nerves. Going to the grocery store in a mask is getting on our nerves. Not knowing when this is going to end is getting on our nerves.
This is the moment when we must take a breath.
Our second lesson tells us to endure – to keep going even if the stress of life feels unjust. The lesson reminds us of the suffering of Jesus, so much greater than our own. It is also a reminder that in the past, human beings – our own ancestors – have also endured much worse – wars, depressions, a more deadly pandemic. They came through it. And so will we. Human beings are resilient – the gospel has endless examples of this. We rise again, we heal, we start over.
In our gospel, Jesus reminds us that there is only one path through the gate of grace: it is through the Shepherd, who cares for the sheep, who tends to them, who seeks out the ones who wander away and then leads them back to the gate. The thief, on the other hand, comes to steal and kill and destroy; he cares nothing for the sheep, but only for himself.
What is the meaning behind these words from Jesus? How can they speak to us now, at a time when we feel trapped behind a gate not of our own making?
To understand the gospel, we need to think about what Jesus represents: kindness, love, patience, forgiveness, and generosity. He was kind to the Woman at the Well. He showed love and patience to the disciples. (And we have to imagine that they got on one another’s nerves too – travelling together for weeks on end.) Jesus taught forgiveness with the prodigal son and demonstrated it when the disciples were too afraid to stand with him when he was betrayed. He generously found a way to feed the people at the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
This is the way that Jesus describes. It is the gate he opens to his sheep. Jesus promises us that these actions and qualities and choices will lead to comfort and peace.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in, and go out and find pasture.”
Who, then, is the thief? Over the years, this has been taken to be the charlatans and false prophets. This gospel has been used to suggest that there may be no other gates in other grace-centred religions and faiths, which attitude runs counter to the very lessons of tolerance that the gospel teaches.
In truth, don’t we know this thief personally? If we are honest, don’t we recognize him or her? The one who cuts corners, who acts with wrath, and destroys what is good? It is us: we are our own thieves. We rob ourselves of the grace of the gospel by acting out of anger or cutting corners to serve our own ends. We steal hope, we kill love, and we destroy kindness with our own actions. Yet, when we try to take a shortcut over the gate, we find nothing on the other side but emptiness.
The lesson of the gospel is always this: we always get another chance. We can shed the role of thief, recognize what we have done wrong and return to the gate, and Jesus will let us in. Ideally, we will get better at choosing the right path to God, the straighter path. More likely our path will get us there by a crooked, wandering route. That is the human way; if we always travelled the straight path, we wouldn’t need the lessons of the gospel.
So yes, these are difficult times. The inner thief in us just wants out; I am sure he or she gets their way more than any of us would like. But we can lament what we are missing out on right now, or we can contemplate the gate that Jesus opens for us.
We can recognize the way that life has slowed down so we can think about what is important to us. We may appreciate the time we have to reach out to new friends or call our relatives more. We might savour the small moments – enjoying our children playing, basking in nature.
Around the world, people have been posting pictures of what they call the Corona Sky. They are beautiful pictures of clear blue skies and sunsets without the contrails of airplanes streaking across them. The fact that they are missing something makes them whole again.
So it can be for us. Resist the temptation of the thief inside you. Look to the gate that Jesus offers. In what we are missing, we may become whole. In these days when life has been stripped of some of its rush and noise, we may see more clearly. In the clear sky, we may see beauty.