‘Und ob ich schon wanderte im finstern Tal, so fürchte ich kein Unglück – denn du bist bei mir; dein Stecken und Stab trösten mich.’
‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’
I don’t know about you, but these words from Psalm 23, which we prayed a little bit earlier today and which Anita read so beautifully, give me immense comfort and confidence these days. Times are hard. Times are scary. Times are uncertain. And, yes, the shadow of death is hanging over us wherever we go – and, by the way, not only during the times of COVID-19. But God is there, along the road, on the way – God, the good shepherd, leads me – I shall fear no evil, as the psalm says so beautifully.
I remember the last time I prayed these words together with others: it was just a few days before the Coronavirus shutdown, back in March (seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it?). I had been asked to preside at the funeral service of a little boy, just shy of his 5th birthday, whom I had baptized at St. Matthew’s when he was a few months old.
It was heartbreaking, to say the least. This was the first time, and I hope and pray the last time, that I witnessed the beginning and the end of a life. Yes, this little boy had been born with severe disabilities, but he was deeply loved by his parents who made sure that their child felt this love.
As it is more and more a custom now, before and after the service, a slide show with pictures of the child was shown on a screen – and these images showed a child who, despite his limitations, interacted with the world, smiling, obviously enjoying this precious and fragile life he had been given.
As his parents told me, he was a fighter, and in his own way protested the forces of death by living his brief life stubbornly to the fullest. And it was moving to find a couple of pictures from the day of his baptism among those slides, the family standing around the baptismal font, the stained glass window with the image of the angel, the women and the empty tomb in the background.
The parents entrusted their child to God on the day of his baptism. And for the baptismal verse, they chose, ‘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 paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
The parents entrusted their child to God, the good shepherd, who leads us, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
But I think the parents of this child also instinctively knew that entrusting the child to the good shepherd also meant something else: if God is the shepherd, we are the flock, a community who are led by this good shepherd. Psalm 23 may sound individualistic – the Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want and so on – but have you ever seen a shepherd who leads just one sheep? I haven’t. Sheep, be they wild or domesticated, are herd animals, they flock together. There is safety in numbers, especially when you are not the predator, but the prey. A single sheep is truly lost – and will most likely perish.
God, the good shepherd, calls us into community. We depend on each other. And I think we never feel it more than in a time of crisis. We never feel it more than when we are pretty much isolated, like right now. We are herd animals, we are interconnected – not only with the ones we love, not only with our church community, not only with friends and colleagues, but with all our neighbors: the workers in the fields and food processing plants who provide our food, the folks who stock the shelves in the supermarkets, the factory workers in the U.S. or in China or anywhere else in the world who help provide important goods, like medical equipment – and so many others. We are in this – we are in this life – together.
I expected the little boy’s funeral service to be a rather small and intimate affair, knowing that the families of both his parents for the most part live in other parts of the world and were not able to attend. But the little chapel was packed – which, to be honest, also made me slightly nervous, with Corona already spreading in Santa Clara County, where the service took place.
But the community, the flock, showed up to show their support: caregivers and teachers, nurses, colleagues, friends, and neighbors. People of all skin tones, with different cultural backgrounds, young and old. It was a community that most likely will never again come together like that, but that came together that day, despite the Corona concerns, to say goodbye to this young boy, who had touched their lives one way or another, to be there with the parents in their immense grief.
We are called into community – we are baptized into the community of all believers. It’s not just about our individual relationship with God – God makes us a neighbor and gives us neighbors who walk the road of life with us, to green pastures, beside still waters, and, yes, through the valley of the shadow of death.
The first community of the followers of Christ understood this. In today’s lesson from the Book of Acts, we heard about how the young Christian community had everything in common, breaking bread together, sharing their resources, praising God in the temple – following Christ, the good shepherd, together, listening to his voice that called them to love the neighbor and to care for them – following Christ even into unknown territory, beyond their immediate group and comfort zone, being on the way with Christ, the shepherd who always is on the move, on the way, from pasture to pasture.
And had they not followed Christ, we wouldn’t be here today – the flock, the community of Christ, sheep of Christ’s fold, listening to Christ’s voice which calls us – not to reckless exercise of egotistical freedom, but to live our freedom in him before God and in responsibility to our neighbor. Called to care for the neighbor – as we do right now as we stay home for the sake of others, for the sake of community.
We are in difficult terrain right now, a scary terrain, an unfamiliar terrain, overshadowed by death – but we can trust that Christ knows how to manoeuver this terrain.
And I believe it’s more important than ever to listen to this shepherd’s voice, the voice of one who cares for the entire flock, for the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the constant followers and the lost. The voice of the one who commands us to love one another. We mustn’t listen to all those thieves with their ulterior and sometimes sinister motives who tell us otherwise, who reason that society works best if everybody fends for themselves. If we listen to those voices, we are truly lost.
Christ, the good shepherd, unites us, his love and grace and care unite us. We may have our differences, we may all be quite different from each other, but we are church together. We are not alone. We belong to each other. We belong to Christ. And in Christ, we are one. And on the way with this good shepherd – and each other – we can trust that ‘surely, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of our Lord, forevermo
This post is also available in: German