This comes to us from our very own Courtenay Evans, who preached this Sunday for Buck Mountain Episcopal Church.
This past January I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Israel on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land alongside thirty other “pilgrims” from Christ Church. We visited the various holy sites- from the Church of the Nativity to the banks of the Jordan river to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion ….each and every site brought scripture a new meaning and this concrete reality that Jesus was real, Jesus really existed! Yet, when I returned home, when friends and family asked me about the trip, my first remark was never about a holy site seen, but rather how as a group, we each “shepherded” one another and how as a group, we all took care of each other. As we walked over cobblestones, I remember watching three pilgrims assisting another to ensure she would not fall; with various food intolerances, many kept checking in with me to ensure I was eating enough. Another member fell sick with a stomach bug and the nurses and doctors in our group flocked to his side.
And today, broadening to life amid the global pandemic, we see the shepherds among us. The shepherds, who, are making extraordinary sacrifices to care for us all. The doctors, nurses, medical professionals, grocery store workers, food pantry and shelter coordinators- all working the front lines to heal or to ensure our basic human needs are met. The community members delivering groceries to the elderly, the individuals sewing facemasks, the musicians providing songs of comfort and even, the millions across the globe heeding the important advice to stay home- an act of love to protect the most vulnerable. In a recent Atlantic article, the author highlights this extraordinary moment in our history, where collectively, we are standing together as a species, as a community, where many are acting selflessly to protect the welfare of the human family. A rarity in our modern life. The shepherds among us- those making great sacrifices to collectively care for strangers, for community, for future generations, for the health of the world.
In our Psalm for the day, Psalm 23, the psalmist writes: “The Lord is my shepherd.” God is our divine shepherd. We encounter God as shepherd frequently in the Old Testament. As example, in Ezekiel we learn that God himself will search, seek and rescue his sheep from all corners of the earth on the stormiest and darkest days. So what does it mean exactly for God to be our shepherd? In the book, Mysteries of Faith, author, Mark McIntosh provides us with explanation. A shepherd loves and cares for his flock on a full-time basis. A shepherd actively seeks out the lost sheep in order to bring them home and a shepherd is a guide; a shepherd guides his sheep to food and water. In Isaiah 40:11 we read, “Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, hugging them as he carries them, leading the nursing ewes to good pastures.” To green pastures. The gentleness and tenderness in these lines, God gathering lambs in his arms and hugging them as he carries them brings so much comfort- particularly during these current times of COVID-19 when we find ourselves walking through the darkest valley amid great uncertainty.
After being diagnosed with an incurable cancer at age 35, Kate Bowler, a historian at Duke Divinity School, wrote a best-selling memoir, exploring our humanness amid these dark valleys. In a recent interview by the New York Times regarding our current world, Bowler notes the pain that we are experiencing as we collectively face the fragility of life. She notes that a pandemic is not a judgement, as COVID-19 does not differentiate between the worthy and the unworthy. And for Bowler, these moments reveal God’s extraordinary love for us. She further writes that while in isolation, we are learning the gift of interdependence. The more we are separated, the more we realize just how much we need each other. Bowler states: “We’re allowed to be beautifully, stupidly needy right now. We’re allowed to FaceTime people and be like, I feel like a mess, and all I want to do is be loved.”
What Bowler describes reminds me not only of this great realization that we need each other deeply, but also reminds me of our great need for God, our divine shepherd. The image of God as our shepherd infers that we are his sheep and grants us greater insight into our human condition. From a Christian perspective, as sheep, we are incapable of looking after ourselves, we continually go astray, and we lack self-sufficiency. As we have become keenly aware amid this pandemic, we are powerless and fragile, grasping to regain control over one’s life, but to no avail. Yet, even so, we may find hope. Though we walk through this valley of the shadow of death, we are told to fear no evil, for God is with us.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture…..I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus, our good shepherd, sacrificed his life for the safety of his sheep, for the safety of the whole world, for the safety of you and I. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have already entered the gate of salvation where death has been conquered and life prevails. As we feel like lost sheep amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we can find great comfort knowing that God came into the world in Jesus Christ in order to find us and bring us home to him with a tenderness and love that is always everlasting. And as we read in John 10:27 -28: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they will follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
We are being held in the tenderness of God’s hand so as we walk through this dark valley, we can trust that The Lord is our shepherd and that He is with us, with his rod and his staff and guiding us to still waters with a goodness and mercy greater then we can even imagine. And as I think back to my trip to Israel and the shepherds among us amid this pandemic, I can’t help but believe that God, our divine shepherd, was and is working through each and every one of us, loving us as we love each other, and granting us greater insight into the promise of this abundant life. Amen.