May 3, 2020
John 10 1-10
What a time to be reading the most familiar of psalms. The six verse message of Psalm 23 written by David after Goliath was killed around 1044 BC brings relevance to our faith in 2020. Blessed with both good health and safe shelter, I’ve been tending to my home, my lush garden, old friendships , dusting off cupboards and attic spaces where I found the old Bible story book I had to read as child. Mother had me reciting this psalm at the bedside. So in some ways. Sito’s invitation to share today was a bit of a dusting off of my own soul.
Who does not find this psalm comforting?
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want ...
This can go two ways
I shall not want for anything ….. I will lack for nothing
Is Jesus a shepherd I would rather not want to follow? I think I know the sound of His voice, but His call can feel like more than I want. To follow this shepherd means walking into pain, both my own and the world’s.
Given that I spend lots of time with dying folks, attending funerals is well, recreation. Just ask Nolan. I would rather go to a memorial service than a wedding anytime.
Psalm 23 is often required reading as it assures a promise of basic provisions at times of despair and loss.
Green pastures (food) and still waters (hydration). After consulting with to my residential shepherd (photo), sheep prefer open fertile fields and water that is not moving.
The image of the Valley of Death makes for good funeral material.
However, the psalm has less to do with death and much more to do with life. Being led into right paths is about RENEWAL, preparing a table of plenty is about ABUNDANCE, anointing our heads with oil speaks to our CHOSENNESS and PRECIOUSNESS. So blessed that we should never fear evil or pandemics or heed the advice of dangerous politicians who tell us to drink Lysol. GOODNESS and MERCY will come when we dwell with God and for God.
For the last two years, I have worked closely with a person who lives with a true awareness of God’s goodness and mercy. Samantha Yakuba is an organizer of Ghanian women who provide care for older adults. Since I have been at IONA as a geriatric nurse manager, I refer exclusively to her small company as I have witnessed time and again their exquisite care and gentleness healing very isolated folks with love. I sometimes feel like a yenta match making a client of mine with one of her aides. Large nursing agencies attempt to lure my services with glossy brochures and corporate lunch dates but I am not fooled. I don’t tolerate the exploitation of immigrant workers who are paid minimum wage, given no benefits or time off. Of the 22 patients served this year needing home support, over $390 K has been directly rewarded to the providers of care. Goodness and Mercy are something I have come to believe in as a conduit of sorts, as a connector of good care.
God has been faithful with provisions … green pastures, still waters. I have learned the plight of immigrant aides on the frontlines of caring for seniors, the relentless dedication, their sacrifice and the transformational care they deliver to my clients. It is not uncommon for the caregivers to sit on the family pews when we attend funerals. They literally become family. Oh, I forgot to mention…Samantha’s caregiving collective, in case you need quality care, is called The LORD IS MY SHEPHERD
The pandemic has revealed to us all the invisible workforce of millions of caregivers: Aides and nannies in particular who labor with dignity and love behind doors of private homes for our elders and our children. It is the work that makes everything else possible because it makes it possible for all of us to go out and do what we do every day, knowing that some of the most precious aspects of our lives are in good hands. This invisible and undervalued work we refer to as “help,” not as employees, is now very visible and valued. Just ask any parent with kids at home or adult children trying to manage parents with dementia. Maybe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform and renew how we care for ourselves.
EVERY day 10,000 people turn 70 and with medical advances, we need more care than ever. Between child care and elder care, economists predict that care-jobs will be the largest single occupation in our whole workforce, mostly women of color.
As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reminds us, we need to pay women what they are worth, not what they are desperate enough to accept. I quote AOC when nursing agencies reps take me out to lunch.
Rosalyn Carter, bless her heart, once said,
There are only four kinds of people in the world
Those who have been caregivers
Those who are currently caregivers
Those who will be caregivers
Those who need caregiving
CARE connects us all. This we have learned in the last two months.
With Mother’s Day approaching next Sunday, imagine your mother or someone who “mother-ed” you into being, who showed you care in such a way that you felt a sense of God’s abundance. A person who made you feel cherished — somewhat how a Shepherd may feel about his sheep. Someone who you followed into “green pastures.”
The late great Bill Withers, composer of Lean on Me, who recently died, was born into abject poverty in the hollows of W VA where his daddy was a coal miner. His parents split and he went to live with his grandmother — his shepherd — maybe the person who he had in mind when he wrote the lyrics
Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on
Imagine the ways that this tiny virus, a microbe, has changed the behaviors of nearly 8 Billion people worldwide in a month.
In this disorienting time, we have been re-oriented by a virus to
Increase our care for one another, (We wear masks to protect another not ourselves)
Increase understanding of who we love and who loves us
Increase our awakening to our mortality
Increase our compassion for total strangers
CARE connects us all. COVID has unleashed the caring majority!
Fred Rodgers said, “Look for the helpers…You will always find people who are helping. “I think Mr Rodgers was asking children and adult viewers to look for LOVE where you find helpers/givers of care. In the realm of God, there is a capacity for human connection. We are not realizing it is our ONLY true hope for SURVIVAL. Scarcity and austerity are not meant for human beings.
Let’s turn now to the John, Chapter 10 passage to get a closer glimpse of Jesus’ teaching to not simply worship Him but to FOLLOW Him, to become His sheep. In her recent documentary Revolution of Love, Dorothy Day also did not want to be a saint; she wanted to be emulated, followed for her work in the world.
From the simplicity of Psalm 23, things start to get a little confusing in the Gospel reading this week. Jesus is multi-tasking. He is Shepherd, Gatekeeper and Gate alike One thing that is abundantly clear: We are the sheep.
It is almost too obvious to point out, right?
Jesus is the shepherd,
We are the sheep
Jesus is the gatekeeper,
We are the sheep
Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold
And still, we are the sheep
What could be simpler? But of course remembering that we are the sheep in this illustration also entails remembering what we are NOT
For instance, we are NOT the gatekeepers. It is simply not up to us to decide who is allowed in or out of the sheepfold. Not up to us to determine which sheep “belong” and which ones are the “other”
The Good Shepherd assured us they belong to him, too, and he will bring them along in due course. “I have other sheep,” he says in verse 16, “who are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
It’s hard to be certain of the original identity of those “other” sheep to whom Jesus refers here. Perhaps they were Jewish Christians who believed differently than John’s own Christian community. Perhaps they were Gentiles. Today, I would suggest they may be conservative Republican “one issue” Christians.
The Good Shepherd’s flock — so well-loved, so well-known by Him — is followed by this little note about the Shepherd having “other sheep.” On occasion, I have felt like the “other “ sheep in this community as I attempt to negotiate community commitments with motherhood, baseball, guide dogs and sailing the Chesapeake. But the good folks of 8th Day understand full well that they are not the gatekeepers nor are they the gate. That role belongs to Jesus.
Thank Goodness for that!!! For the purpose of a well-secured sheepfold is, after all, safe haven in a dangerous world. It protects sheep from thieves and predators and saves them from their own foolishness.” I am grateful to be part of the flock despite my own sense of “otherness.” I suspect many of us have doubts not only about “the other sheep” not in this fold but also about our own place in the Good Shepherd’s flock.
Jesus does not say that we are in or out of the flock depending on our ability to believe but the exact opposite.
Jesus says that our ability to believe depends on whether we are in or out of the flock, and there is good reason to believe we are IN, if only because we are sitting right here looking at our Zoom flock this morning .
There is actually a tremendous freedom that comes from the realization that we are a bunch of sheep. For instance, it is not our job to wrestle to the ground all those thieves and bandits we are warned about here. That is the Shepherd’s job. Our responsibility is to LISTEN ATTENTIVELY, to make certain it is indeed the Good Shepherd’s voice we hear and then to FOLLOW where he leads us. These days there are many voices — some experts, some imbeciles. Listen for the voice that speak to love and compassion, Listen for Jesus voice in those who speak (Andrew Cuomo).
It’s simple … Well, not really. But being part of this community surely helps.
I want to give a brief shout-out to our community who adjusted to our new-normal way of being church. The efforts and talents from you all to make it possible is really remarkable. Many churches simply have empty sanctuaries, online preachers, with paper faces pinned to the pews. We have living creatures, young, old, Santiago, Nathan, Perkins in our Zoom gathering which, for me, defines worship.
Finally, what moves the faithful to believe? What make the sheep follow? Could it be our collective awareness of the Good Shepherd’s love for his flock? In the last two months of lockdown, we have been moved by stories and reasons to believe. Iona was slammed with requests the first week we closed mid-March. Over 300 shut-in seniors requested prepared meals and groceries.
The pantry was empty. An appeal was made to the community and over 200 carsfull were delivered. They are still sorting it all. Target kicked in thousands of rolls of TP. What about the teachers who are finding ways to connect to their students, having story-time on neighborhood lawns, or dogs being trained to deliver groceries to doorsteps or corona-virus detection. Or my country cousin who always wanted to be a nurse; she called me early on about how she can apply her sewing skills to make masks: She just sent 350 to NYC and Baltimore.
Amidst the endless, daily mortality updates, exhausted health workers, crumbling social and economic systems, what new learning has the COVID pandemic taught us about humanity?
Have we not become aware of …the earth? our families? our elders? our home and communities and open spaces, playgrounds and places we love to gather? Are we not more aware of how much life means and how mortal we really are? As people of faith, there is a restored human consciousness. After decades of divisions, maybe there really is no “them,” only “us.” The possibilities of both destroying and saving our world shifted off its axis is now. Maybe there will be a reset to the value of government? Maybe our wellbeing, our health and liberation are all bound up with each other? Can we all finally agree that we are SHEEP of one pasture?
Psalm 23 describes a way THROUGH the Valley of the shadow of death as not the end of the story. This is a “through-time, ”a disorientation of what we know. It is not “not-knowing” that feels like suffering. I personally do not do well in liminal space.
But that is not the end. Could the world be about to turn?
Walter Brueggemann simplified Psalm 23 as this:
Orientation, disorientation and then reorientation
Could this pandemic be about re-orienting us? Historians like Ken Burns are releasing amazing documentaries of past American periods of great courage and strength… founding National Parks, breaking the color barrier in baseball, WW2 and works programs of FDR, This is a time of re-set. Humans adapt to change. Humans re-orient.
Hey there, fellow sheep. Here’s the Good News: Jesus is the Gatekeeper, the Gate and the Shepherd. If you are having trouble hearing his sweet voice, remember you cannot follow a shepherd all by yourself. You are stuck with this flock, or some flock, and everyone knows that sheep are … well … sheep. They are hard-wired to follow. They/we panic easily and feel safest together and refuse to be pushed. We are social creatures really. Sheep actually eat in groups and need to have a visual link to one another to graze. They and we do not adhere well to social distancing.
I like that sheep stick to a flock. It is there where the Good Shepherd can be found. This makes it our best bet not only for survival but for joy and for “goodness and mercy for all the days of our lives.”