Our comforting Shepherd for pandemic timesEaster 4, Good Shepherd Sunday May 4, 2020
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- Pr. Sebastian
Psalm 23, which we sang in paraphrase with the hymn:
“The King of Love my shepherd is” a few minutes ago,
is perhaps the best known and best loved, of all the psalms,
a mainstay of funerals, and one that many people have memorized.
Psalm 23 talks of God as a Shepherd and a banquet host,
who is a comforter, protector and benefactor,
while we go through our valleys of darkness.
The psalm talks of deliverance after distress
(and the timing is really good for today,
as it seems we’ve turned the corner on the pandemic in the last week,
at least locally, and there is hope ahead,
shown for example in the re-opening of some business sectors tomorrow.)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
God is a source of comfort, not just in theory, but in real situations,
like what we are in today.
For the majority of us, we are not in want.
We are OK, all things considered.
For some however, like those in prisons, detention centers, shelters, and long-term care, this may of course not be true.
There is want, this must be acknowledged,
and this is something to lament, to pray about, and to work to change.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
Leads me beside still waters
And restores my soul.
In this time of trial, we long for this comfort, to be held in a mother’s arms,
we long for walks along quiet streams and ponds,
we wish we could linger in parks, and laze about on green grass.
This all-encompassing pandemic destroys our soul
with its consuming anxiety,
it destroys our soul with our loss of income or sense of purpose,
or connection to our loved ones.
But God wants to restore our soul.
He wants to soother our troubled spirit.
What restores your soul these days?
perhaps it’s daily walks,
Or taking more time to prepare food, or bake cakes or bread,
Maybe it’s extra sleep,
Time for prayers and devotions,
Or playtime with children,
laughter during videoconferencing or
In these times where our soul feels restored, even just a little bit
we need to say a silent prayer of thanks to God.
And yea, even though I walk through the darkest, scariest valley
I fear no evil.
Because you are with me!
God accompanies us through our deep, frightening days,
God is with us, holding our hand, whistling a tune.
If we just stop and listen, and feel and sense,
God can often be found in these perilous valleys of life’s existence.
In the days and weeks of terrible distress or suffering,
where the shadow of death seems to be everywhere,
in non-stop media coverage, in conversations with our loved ones.
The most frightening part of this pandemic for me was the first two weeks,
back in Mid-March,
where it seemed like we were sliding down into a deep and terrifying hole.
Important decisions needed to be made quickly
and it was all so uncertain and weird and strange.
But then for me, I gradually stopped worrying and learned to accept
what was to come.
God gave me the ability to breathe deeply again,
God gave me the grace to resign myself to the new situation,
and settle into this new normal,
so that I am fortunately relatively comfortable.
It was a deliverance for me,
because I definitely know those first two weeks were not sustainable.
It was quite frightening, and very stressful.
How has this valley of the shadow of death been for you these past 8 weeks?
You prepare a table in the presence of enemies.
In the face, in the presence of this virus, our enemy,
We may be afraid,
We may be anxious,
But we can soldier on,
Because God will do it all!
God will provide a meal,
Which is the place of peace and harmony
(which we of course miss so dearly,
whether it is the Lord’s Table at a Worship Service,
or else a meal with extended family).
We long to give thanks and recognize that we are special,
as God’s children, invited to the table.
And that we are pursued by goodness
(and not by our enemies, whether microscopic or not.)
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
Which perhaps ties into this attitude of gratitude,
that we need despite this pandemic!
It still is important to breathe out a “Thank you God”, every so often.
Just like how in my phone chats with many people:
who tell me “all in all, I’ve got it good”
esp. by comparison with people less well off
(or looking at those in East Africa now threatened also with a plague of locusts).
There is hope for the future, we need to remind ourselves,
For all the days of our life.
What I think is amazing about this psalm is that we can imagine
that the writer, the Psalmist himself, faced some tremendous stress,
and probably had gone through a terrible time to be able to write the words he did.
a) One could imagine particular stressful issues he was facing.
For one, he probably faced the pressure of not having enough,
Not having enough to eat, or drink,
Not having adequate shelter,
or not having enough money.
b) The writer also must have had experience of being in a symbolic dark valley, a time of deep distress,
perhaps like experiencing the loss of a child,
Maybe they lost their home or their job, or their spouse died.
One might imagine that the writer even had been in mortal danger,
maybe they were a soldier in a battle, fighting real-life enemies.
Perhaps their situation of conflict was less dangerous,
a disagreement with a neighbour over a property line for example,
or an abusive boss.
What makes this psalm so poignant for us today is that the personal experience of the writer links up so well with our own stress and distress these days.
And we have a whole host of challenges for May 2020:
-Parents struggling to home-school their children
-families with a lot more screaming going on, whether parents or kids
-the increased burden esp. for working mothers, juggling their career, zoom meetings and childcare
-People anxious about illness (or who have parents or loved ones in long-term care)
-some are worried that they will get sick and have to go to the hospital
-many have deferred medial appointments
-even negotiating everyday tasks safely is a stressor, such as pumping gas
-what used to be a relatively enjoyable outing, like going shopping,
means trying to avoid people in supermarket aisles,
like a giant PacMan game.
We lament the enforced productivity (despite decreased mental health) of some workplaces
We lament the loneliness of seniors and those in quarantine or vulnerable groups who can’t have visitors and whose everyday routines are mind-numbingly boring.
Particularly difficult also is the strain on families who have lost a loved one, and who cannot gather to say farewells, to mourn, to comfort one another and to make plans.Meanwhile we hear news of increasing numbers of speeders on our streets, domestic violence, mass shootings and threatening protests of angry people against lockdown restrictions.
Most of us have never experienced war, famine, or extreme want,
But these days we are tested to the limits with stress, and deprivation
(and no, I’m not talking just about the lack of a haircut,
or the fact you can’t get your favourite doughnut).
Life has been turned upside down.
We are in the valley of the shadow of death.
We’re struggling to get by.
Yet amidst this situation, as we say and hear these words from Psalm 23,
a funny thing happens.
The Psalm offers “cool refreshing peace found in knowing and celebrating who God is and who we are.” (Jeff Paschal)
The twenty-third Psalm is a soothing balm for our discomfort and dis-ease at this time.
It turns our gaze away from ourselves,
And helps us remember that none of us is self-made,
or completely independent.
And especially during this pandemic we see our need for others,
and our need for God!
For God is “the one who meets our need, makes us rest,
slows us down and restores our very being” (Paschal).
We are dependent on others, and this virus reminds us,
for example how your children or neighbours bring you food,
or now supermarket workers put it in your trunk.
We need all these essential workers.
We are not self-sufficient.
We need other human beings in this pandemic time.
And we need God too, just like how sheep need their shepherd.
There’s a video I posted on our Facebook page of this shepherd,
who is alone on a foggy day.
And then suddenly he calls out and gradually all his sheep appear out of the fog and come towards him.
It’s a pretty neat image of how
God calls us and will lead us through this foggy and uncertain time.
If we can just imagine, it, picture it in our mind’s eye,
how God is tapping us on our shoulders and saying,
“I’m here, let go of your worries,
Let go of your sorrow,
Experience the calm I have to offer,
Don’t worry, lay all your worries and cares at my feet.
Come, take this abundant life.”
God provides goodness and mercy to us.
God grants our need,
Gives us rest, leads us in the right way of living,
And pursues us with goodness and kindness.
God is a comforting, loving, accompanying presence,
Giving us deep peace amidst these troubled days.
As we exclaim with all our heart:
The Lord is my shepherd. Amen.
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