Before we embarked on this strange voyage of mandatory social distancing, we all had some fairly conventional ideas of how to be a community of Christian believers, and what is generally involved in being a parish family particularly here at St. John in Waynesboro. Most of you have called this place home for some time now, having moved to the valley half a lifetime ago or more, for work, for love, for a fresh start, putting down deep roots, paying a mortgage, contributing to the DNA pool and the local workforce, raising a family, making a life, making memories, gathering with friends around abundant tables, enjoying rich conversation, music, dancing, going to the movies, the theater, to sporting events, to church, at times to give thanks, to rejoice, and to make merry, at other times to ponder, to remember, and to mourn.
By comparison, I’ve only lived here a short time, although I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. But the significant experience of community life and family and church has always involved actual personal interaction. And in this current landscape ravaged by a deadly virus we don’t yet know how to fight, we face the challenge of redefining what makes community and family and church, because our lives cannot simply go back to what was before. Otherwise we would have learned nothing. We run the risk of living a mere shadow of the life we once knew, taking frequent trips down memory lane yearning for the past, lamenting the present, loathing the future. In effect, we would not be living at all. We would be passing on new opportunities and crying over spilled milk.
Now in those years immediately following the resurrection as the community of Jesus’ disciples gathered around the Eleven and began shaping their unique identity apart from their historical roots and their adherence to the Law of Moses, they soon discovered they would have to leave so much behind. They would lose their place among family at home and at worship in the temple and synagogue. They would be regarded with suspicion by people who once were friends and acquaintances. They would enjoy a new freedom from the strict observance of dietary laws and other details of the Law. But there was no returning ever to that old life. Instead they now had to live as second-class citizens under constant threat of persecution and danger.
And their whole structure of community life was a big mess as well. If any among them had any civic standing before, all that had now gone out the window. They were excluded from leadership, decision-making, and every social engagement. Their preferences and opinions no longer mattered. Their children were probably no longer welcome to hang out together. It was complete and extreme social distancing.
They also had to establish new structures for leadership and daily life, even reinventing society from the ground up, all the while dodging landmines and hostile fire, open aggression and bodily harm, mistrust and public scorn, without a shred of protective gear or defense. All they had was the boundless love of God and the promise of life everlasting. Easily, they were at an immense disadvantage.
So how is the church called to shepherd God’s people in this unfamiliar new environment? Do we just go back to doing as we did before? Do we regard the current crisis as a blip on the radar, with no far-reaching consequences to inform our attitudes and actions for the future? If we learn nothing from this life reset, we may as well be throwing away opportunities to proclaim the Gospel anew and blazing new trails. Actually, every life reset should have forced us to adapt and adjust ultimately for the good of the church’s mission, from the scourge of slavery to the scourge of clergy sex abuse. As usually happens, we are caught off guard. And in the scramble to minimize any damage, we lose our focus. Higher church leadership may have access to a wider pool of talent and resources. But we are just as smart. We can learn what works for our community and our parish family. We have some access to talent and resources. We might stumble and struggle. But the brave new world isn’t going to conquer itself.
Filled with courage and confidence in the Holy Spirit, Peter raised his voice and addressed the crowd. “Know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Peter’s testimony and his arguments must have been quite persuasive because about 3000 persons were added to their number that day. Does our message resonate? Is it persuasive? Does it invite? Does it bring them to Jesus? It’s not just about catching up with new technology. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that one day I’d be on YouTube. It’s more about discovering new and better ways to reach out to hearts and minds and continue to engage and nourish those who come to us eager to be fed.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads the flock entrusted to him by the Father. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name. They hear his voice and they follow him. As a parish family here in Waynesboro, we are a small part of that much larger flock. Jesus alone is our shepherd. He alone calls us by name, and him alone do we follow. It is a simple image with deep meaning. The focus is Jesus our shepherd, not us the sheep of his flock. The shepherd leads the sheep who know his voice and follow him. Do we recognize the sound of our shepherd’s voice? How do we help others recognize it so they too will follow him alone? We all have important roles as secondary shepherds, all of us who are pastors, parents, godparents, and teachers. Jesus is our one true shepherd. One of our highest priorities is to help others to recognize his voice so they follow him.
“I am the gate for the sheep,” Jesus says as well. A gate allows or hinders access to the sheep. Our shepherd is the ultimate steward of those in his care. As co-shepherds with our shepherd we work together to guard the flock from destructive influences, error, and sin. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” How can we help each other access this life that Jesus wants to give us in abundance?
Our life together is more than busy work and meetings and fundraising. The parish staff does more than fill out paperwork and run programming. Liturgical ministers don’t just fulfill functions at Sunday mass. Catechists do more than teach the religious curriculum. Those who staff the clothes closet and food pantry do more than clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Our sewing ministry does more than make vestments for church and facemasks for first responders. We need to keep doing all that. But in this strange and challenging time, we cannot keep doing as we’ve always done. We need to explore new and relevant ways to draw others to Jesus, our Good Shepherd. He offers us abundant life. We cannot offer anything less.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020