Sunday 22 March 2020
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. This is one of the most familiar passages in the bible. Even if you are not part of a Jewish synagogue or a Christian church, these are words you’ve probably heard before. They are words of comfort, words of consolation, words of hope.
They are also very strongly correlated for us with death and funerals. More than half of the funerals that I officiate include a reading of the 23rd Psalm. This is the text people really want to hear when they’re going through grief. Consequently, we tend to only think about this verse in the context of a funeral.
It doesn’t have to be, though. It has that one line—even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—but the rest of the psalm doesn’t seem to be about death at all. It’s about strength in a time of hardship. But that hardship doesn’t have to be the experience of grief. “You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” None of that seems to be related to grief.
The Lord is my shepherd. Being a shepherd wasn’t a particularly prestigious task in the ancient world. In the time of Abraham and the patriarchs, when a nomadic lifestyle was more common, wealth was often measured in livestock. Later, in more settled times, wealth and prestige tended to be more closely associated with the sophistication of cities.
Nevertheless, even in the time of Jesus, kings were often portrayed as or compared to shepherds. The greatest king in the history of the Israelite people was David, and he is famously described as a shepherd. It is his skill as a shepherd that allows him to defeat the giant, Goliath, when none of the trained soldiers are able to do so. The same sling and stones that he uses to fight off wolves and lions he also uses to defeat the Philistine champion. Other ancient cultures—from the Sumerians to the Romans—portrayed their kings and emperors as shepherds.
And there are some good thematic reasons to do so. What is it that a shepherd does? A shepherd protects. A shepherd provides. A shepherd guides. A shepherd protects their sheep from predators using a rod, a sling, or other weapons. A shepherd provides for their sheep by making sure that they have access to grazing lands and water. A shepherd guides their sheep with a staff, to take them to safe places where their needs can be met and protects them along the way.
Those functions are quite similar to the functions of a good king. A good king protects their people, usually with a military, a police force, city walls. A good king provides for their people. In the ancient world, this was through things like public works. In particular, it meant a system of irrigation to provide water to fields and a system of granaries to store food for emergencies. Finally, a good king guides their people. This might be through a system of laws or through public declarations.
It’s been a few thousands years since these words were first uttered, but the shepherd metaphor still has some descriptive power for how a political leader works today. We expect our leaders to keep us safe from both external and internal threats. We expect our government to set up the conditions that allow us to be provided for, including things like public works, roads, regulatory systems, unemployment insurance, Social Security. And we expect our leaders to guide us, especially in times of crisis. It’s not only through policies—though those are very important—it’s also through words and example.
We are in a time of crisis right now. It’s not just here, though. The crisis created by COVID-19 is being experienced all over the world. Political leaders—from mayors, to governors, to presidents and prime ministers—are struggling with how best to protect, provide for, and guide their people. And it is not an easy job. None of us have been through anything like this before. The few people who lived through the 1918 influenza pandemic and are still alive are over a hundred years old, and they would have been only babies at the time. And besides, this world is so much more connected, so much more complicated than the world in 1918. No one knows what to expect, exactly, or how to balance minimizing spread of the disease with the economic and spiritual consequences of social distancing.
What is more, each one of us is struggling. It isn’t easy for anyone to stay home indefinitely. It isn’t easy for anyone to deal with the fear and anxiety that go along with this crisis, not to mention the loneliness, instability, loss of identity, and even boredom.
I tend to be someone who does pretty well in a crisis. I can usually stay fairly calm, think rationally. I can maintain what pastors and chaplains call a “non-anxious presence.” But sometimes this is just too much for me. I might have a couple of good days in a row, but then they are followed by a day when I really struggle to cope.
And the struggle to cope looks different for each of us. It can manifest as depression, anxiety, sadness, anger, irritability, substance abuse, grief, malaise, and any number of other symptoms. It’s hard. And it’s hard for all of us. A lot of us feel that we are walking through the darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death, and we don’t even how much farther we have to go, when this all will end.
And that is why it is so powerful to have God as our good shepherd. Because we may be walking through a dark valley, but we are not walking through it alone. Even if we are home all by ourselves, we are not alone. God is there. God is there to protect is. God is there to provide for us. God is there to light our way and guide us forward.
In the passage today from the Letter to the Ephesians, we also hear about darkness and light. “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, so live your life as children of light,” Ephesians tells us. We’re not talking about color here. We’re not talking about white and black. Instead, we’re talking about illumination. In the dark, things are hidden. In the light, things are revealed.
So Ephesians is talking about two ways of being. The darkness is where nefarious things happen. People do questionable things when they think people can’t see. Ephesians calls the darkness unfruitful. Even if what happens there isn’t evil, it’s also unlikely to be productive, to be uplifting, to be constructive. The darkness is a place of fear. It’s in the darkness that people hoard toilet paper, because if other people knew they were doing it, they would be embarrassed.
But, we are told, that through God’s gracious presence in our lives, we are empowered to live in the light. Ephesians says, “Light produces fruit that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth.” Every sort of goodness, justice, and truth.
Although we are living in a time of darkness, a time of incredible uncertainty and fear, we can see incredible signs of God’s light. We see neighbors looking out for neighbors. We see communities coming together to overcome great challenges. We see people making sacrifices for the benefit of others.
And that’s what I encourage you to focus on this week. Be on the lookout for the fruit of light that consists of every sort of goodness, justice, and truth. Look for the ways that people are helping each other, making sacrifices for each other. And look for ways that you can do the same.
Our God does not abandon us. In times of deep darkness, God is right there with us, like a good shepherd, protecting us, providing for us, and guiding us. And it is through God’s grace that we are empowered to live in the light, to live in hope. In these times, let us put our whole trust in God, let us look for and celebrate signs of light, and let us live into the hope that flows from God’s grace.