There are events and people in history that we consider great. There’s the Great Depression, Alexander the Great, The Greatest Generation, The Great Wall of China, The Great Gatsby—maybe not so much that last one—but you get the gist. We associate particular events, people, even places with the word “great” because they mean something more or they were a game changer, something that reshaped our world at least for a time. That’s why I have taken to calling this moment in our history, The Great Pause.
For a period of time the whole world stopped or at least it pushed the pause button. At first, I thought about calling this the Great Time-Out—because in essence we all put ourselves into time out, we sat in our rooms and thought about what we had done. We went from fear to anxiety to acceptance to impatience in a matter of six weeks—that’s a whole lot of emotions in such a short time. But thinking in terms of pausing versus time-out seems less judgmental and a more positive approach.
Even as our metaphoric DEFCON threat levels bounced up and down, we continued to make choices that might benefit ourselves and others, at least health wise. But the longer we stayed inside and distanced from one another, the more our economy began to feel the effects of neglect and disuse. Now we are in the midst of struggling between these two choices and trying to figure out how we live in a world that can be both economically and medically healthy. Do we stay at home and watch our current economic system dive over a cliff or do we risk re-opening to salvage what we can of the economy and yet risk the lives of our friends and neighbors? There is risk in both scenarios and no perfect, much less clear, path forward.
We are hungry to go back to church, to socialize with friends and family, to break bread together, to get back to normal, or at least a new normal that involves more than work, home, repeat or simply home, home, home. But in this moment of The Great Pause, I wonder what we have learned about our old routines, our over-scheduled children, our ever-present social obligations? Are they as fulfilling as hanging in the backyard with your kids avoiding their math homework? Or as joyful as walking your dog and passing neighbors walking their dogs, kids riding bikes, people doing yoga in the park? Has the opportunity to slow down given you the excuse to let go of things that weren’t that satisfying anyway?
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the sheepfold and how those who enter it might influence the sheep. He alludes to those who climb in by any way other than that of entering through the gate as thieves and bandits. Often, I think we hear this as a condemnation of people who might lead us astray from Jesus—clergy and pastors who are really charlatans or snake oil peddlers in the guise of evangelists. That’s probably not an inaccurate reading of these scriptures, but I think that when we limit our perspective to the obvious, we lose sight of all the other thieves and bandits that rob us of our time, our joy, our hope, our righteousness in leading a life centered on Christ. Those thieves and bandits are not necessarily people, they might be things like the busyness of life that draws our focus from God and even from one another into our own demands, expectations, and productivity. Its easy to allow achievement, job performance, even entertainment to become the thief that comes only to steal and kill and destroy: Stealing our time together as families and friends; Killing our joy, our health, our passions; Destroying the things we have labored to achieve. That thief can be known by another name—a name that holds no sinister threat and yet is easy to fall victim too—distraction.
In this moment of The Great Pause, we have been given an opportunity to do what we do best in a pause—stop and think. Growing up, my mother would encourage me to pause a minute before I spoke, especially in response to someone. That fraction of time, gave me a chance to find clarity and an awareness that what I said had consequences. In that small pause before communicating what I was thinking, I had the chance to frame things in particular ways—editing my words before they fell out of my mouth and discovering what I truly believed, not simply thought I believed. The pause took some of the emotion and ownership out of the picture so I could be more honest with myself and those around me.
As I think about The Great Pause we are currently experiencing, I wonder how much of our preCOVID-19 life distracted us from what we truly believed in? How much noise did we fill our lives with so that we could not hear the shepherd’s voice calling us by name? If I know anything about the evil one, I know that his primary strategy is to distract us from living into what we truly believe, it is to distract us from God. Instead of loving our neighbor like ourselves, we are distracted into believing we have to take sides—even if the sides are as silly as whether or not we are Alabama or Auburn fans. Instead of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, we take advantage of one another—especially our charity and generosity—so that we ensure our own needs, desires, and wants are met regardless of what someone else’s might be. Instead of centering on God for our help and salvation, we put our trust in money or power. Instead of faith, we find ourselves motivated by fear. Instead of living a life of abundance, we find ourselves hoarding not sharing as we buy into the world’s definition of scarcity.
The Great Pause is an opportunity for us to remember those things which are fulfilling and nurturing to the abundant life that Christ offers us. They are the things that are true and good and beautiful—not on the surface, but deep below the surface. They are The Velveteen Rabbits of the world who are clutched so tightly during pandemic and easily discarded once it is over. But they are the things that are truly real.
The apostles understood what was truly real. The church they offered to the new converts, the first church so long ago in the early days of Jesus’s resurrection, spent time together in the temple, broke bread together and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. They praised God and enjoyed the goodwill of one another. What are we yearning for when The Great Pause is over? Is it simply to go back to the rat race, scurrying around with little purpose or choice, distracted by the honking of car horns, the blare of sirens, the constant noise, noise, noise? Or might we desire something a little bit more?
We have gone astray like sheep due to our many distractions. This pandemic is not a punishment. That is not who God is. But it is an opportunity to pause for a time. To examine what we have been given. To define who we are as children of God; as sheep who know our shepherd, who hear his voice, who go in and come out and find pasture. Because the Good Shepherd cares for his sheep and only ever wants us to love and choose him above our many distractions. Amen.
Easter 4A: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, May 3, 2020
Rev. Candice B. Frazer