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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Theodicy, The Good Shepherd and Resilient Hope - 05/03/2020

John 10:1-10

(Jesus said) “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Not too long ago, I felt compelled to speak to the issue of what’s called Theodicy. Theodicy is the idea that God has done something or allowed some awful thing to happen as a punishment for someone, some group of people – or in the case of COVID-19, all of humanity.

I had been hearing and reading many comments that in some way or another surmised that COVID-19 and the deaths it has caused –244,229 (Worldwide deaths as of the morning of 5/3/2020) people so far – was God’s will and God’s way of punishing all of us for our failures, our poor church attendance, our lust for stuff, the way we can use the bodies of others to increase our power.

As much as I would love to see more people in church – as much as I’d love to be at church – I think we have to push back on this kind of mindset. And that can be a challenge … especially in light of some Old Testament stories. We get hung up on the way they often characterize the God-Humanity relationship as one in which God’s people try to uphold our end of the Covenant (see the 10 Commandments), but we invariably screw it up and then God gets really mad and punishes the people. (It’s like the armies of Mordor bearing down hard on our fruitless efforts for Covenantal perfection.)

Accounts of giants, smoldering nations, parted seas or trumpets loud enough to topple towers: Our 21st century-wired brains really want to read these stories like we would read history books on the American Revolution or European Colonialism, the automotive industry.

It’s important for us contemporary students of the bible to remember these stories were written in another time by people of God whose brains were wired for a another time. The world wasn’t completely absent of technology and amenities. But most lived primarily by the light of day, often at the mercy of nature, definitely by the grace of God. Wisdom and people of wisdom were valued as we value consumer reports, crowd sourcing and guidance from the CDC and state health officials. And storytelling often operated in the places where we are more likely to employ research and testing and peer-reviewed reports.

Consider the book of Joshua, which includes some of these rather alarming stories of brutality attributed to God. We might struggle with how to understand these stories of war and conquest in the light of the way God is shown to us in Jesus.

How does the beginning of the Gospel of John, for instance – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4, para.) – line up with something like this from the 11th chapter of Joshua?

“So Joshua took all that land … He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. … all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Joshua 11:16-20, para.) “(One way to handle this glaring inconsistency is to see the book of Joshua) itself a kind of extended (folklore), written several centuries after the events it describes in order to answer the question: How did Israel get control of the Promised Land? The answer is a simple one: Yahweh did it, with Joshua as the principal human leader. … The account of the conquest, then, like other (folklore), is a kind of fiction, and its message is theological rather than historical...” (Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament, A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures [2006, New York, Oxford University Press] 205ff)

These stories are the attempts of ancient people to puts words to their relationship with God. The story of Joshua is written by and for the Israelites, so of course they claim God was on their side in battle, but they come around to the real point of the story through the folklore … that they are a people who will continue to worship the one True God who brought them through the wilderness. And they will build community in the Promised Land based on the Ten Commandments.


A fierce battle general is not the only way our ancients understood God. The God of steadfast lovingkindess is as a much a part of their stories. When Joshua took over for Moses, God said to him: “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

That is the God our Risen Lord holds up as the most satisfying and true way for us disciples to understand God.

Now God, being our complicated, known and unknown God is also a very creative and agile God. And so, even though I hope you will feel emboldened to push back at the idea of a God who wills COVID-19 on God’s people, we are also wise to remember that God is going to use whatever situation we find ourselves in to bring about balance, justice, healing and, above all, deeper relationship with us.

That kind of God activity is what I found myself thinking about following a Zoom bible study with the Confirmation Class. I had asked how we might connect this of story Jesus the Good Shepherd and the Gate to what we are experiencing right now.

Kate Mattson was quite perceptive when she said that we are like the sheep being gathered into our safe places. As both Shepherd and Gate, Jesus will protect us and lead us out again when the danger has passed.

It is very much like we have been gathered into the sheepfold, as Kate pictured. And right off the top this is a comforting analogy. I think most of us have acknowledged the vulnerability we grapple with in this pandemic – our lives, the lives of others, our livelihoods, our dreams and aspirations, it’s all vulnerable.

So I think there’s comfort in knowing we are gathered in by the Good Shepherd, who also endlessly looks after the ones not gathered. This Good Shepherd of ours is also the gate, literally laying down his life for the flock.

And if the Good Shepherd is caring for us in this way now, there is no reason to fear that will not continue when that day comes that the gate is fully opened again. That God-promise of Good Shepherd care, plus human ingenuity and resilience points to a bright future, doesn’t it?

And being gathered in has inspired other questions too. As we are gathered into this sheepfold with Kate and all our others siblings in Christ, it makes me wonder about what God is working on with us and through us in this situation to bring about balance, justice, healing and, above all, deeper relationship.

And I don’t know about you, but despite the vulnerability I feel, despite the lack of clarity and the challenges of being quarantined, that God-imagined future into which the Good Shephard will lead us excites me and fires up my hope.

My niece Kelsy wrote something this week that I thought gave this kind of hope some words. So, with her permission, I’ve used it as the basis of a closing prayer for this reflection. Let us pray,

God of all the generations, we long for the day when we will tell yet another story of you and your people. A story of a deathly time from which you freed us. Of a day when the (gates) were finally opened, metaphorically and physically, and the people felt again. They felt love and spread love. They felt sadness too, but collectively. They felt fear, yet preached reassurance to one another. The people felt again, this time as one. And the world was as joyous as juncos arriving on the spring breezes. We pray for a vaccine. We pray for safe passage for all your children until there is a vaccine. We pray for that day the Good Shepherd opens the gate wide and leads us into community again. Amen. (Based on “Jocund” by Kelsy Gonyea, May 2020)

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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