Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fourth Sunday in Eastertide – Seventh Sunday in ZOOM Church
May 3, 2020
‘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 Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
These must be the most consoling words we know. They live in layers inside us, from our first encounter with them as children, perhaps as a memory-work assignment, and then at various times in life. Very often we hear them at a funeral, and so the words take us to old complexities of loss and comfort. Some of the images and phrases still come to us as everyday expressions – we imagine lying down in green pastures, and beside quiet waters. We picture the valley of the shadow of death, the table prepared before us, the cup that overflows. Tradition says that the psalm was written by the shepherd boy David, as he wandered out in the hills alone, long before he rose to power and circumstance as the king. And even in this boy, we can see the depth of serenity that trusts utterly in the goodness of life. He believes that he will be fed and protected and guided.
In lectionary on Thursday morning we were comparing notes about life under pandemic restrictions and someone remembered another story in 2nd Samuel about King David, toward the end of his life, and a second Goliath. In yet another prolonged battle, the giant Ishbibenob, one of the sons of the giant Goliath, determined to kill King David. But one of the captains came to the king’s aid, and dispatched Ishbibenob. Then David’s men said to him, you are not to go out to battle again. We need you alive. So, we imagine old King David, in lockdown, like us. For his own sake, but also for the sake of the others. Perhaps wishing he could be out there on the battleground, perhaps frustrated with inactivity, and fretful. A cantankerous old king. Or perhaps he became philosophical and remembered his days as a shepherd poet. Perhaps he took out his lyre and sang his old psalms. Sought the old serenity.
In this time of lockdown, a lot of people are waxing philosophical – and discovering new ways to find serenity. Some are just funny and silly, some wondrously creative – you may have seen poems and prayers and clever memes, art re-creations and beautiful works of music and theatre. The Met is keeping opera lovers busy and there is a boom in marble-racing. We have seen choreographed vacuum-cleaning and had a personal tour of the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands. Ian Brown reported yesterday in the Globe that the famous sportscast of two Labradors eating breakfast has been viewed 10 million times. And we have benefited from all this inventiveness here in church, too, as David and Rebecca have found ways to have our soloists sing together even while apart.
And some of this is just to pass the time, and simply survive the tedium of being cooped up, and overcome some of the loneliness and anxiety that are a part of our worrying season of pandemic. But part of it is more than that – part of it is that this strange time has said to each one of us: you need your soul restored. There are signs of psychic exhaustion all around us. Spiritual depletion. And at the same time a slower pace – a bracketed time to reflect and ponder, to dig a little deeper into memories, and to touch base with the soul that lies underneath our usual busyness. Paradoxically, the pandemic is the right moment to seek the deep goodness of life. Its true abundance. It is a time to ask yourself what it is that might restore your soul, and to wait for an answer. To listen for the voice of the shepherd that Jesus promised we would hear. In this COVID 19 season, we know that we are indeed in the valley of the shadow of death, we are in the presence of our enemies, surrounded by uncertainty and fear, and yet our faith tells us to look for the table that is set before us. We are to consider the cup that runs over. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your lives, says the voice of the shepherd, and for this we give God thanks.
Photo: May Sunset – S. Jennings