Scott Gunn: A Sunday sermon in the time of coronavirus -- We are never alone

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In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I grew up in rural Iowa, so I spent time around farms and farmers. Because of this, I was pretty well-versed in growing corn, beans, and wheat. I knew a little about cows and pigs. But my agrarian upbringing did not feature sheep and shepherds.

Whenever I read in the scriptures about sheep and shepherds, my instant mental image looks like a postcard.

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There are fluffy, glistening white sheep standing on perfect green grass against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. Looking at that postcard image, you’d think that being a shepherd is a good gig.

At the entrance of a movie set tourist attraction in Rotorua, New Zealand, this flock of sheep was curiously looking at anybody passing by. At safe distance they starred right into the camera, before a car scared them away.

At the entrance of a movie set tourist attraction in Rotorua, New Zealand, this flock of sheep was curiously looking at anybody passing by. At safe distance they starred right into the camera, before a car scared them away.

But being a shepherd in biblical times was far from a high-status, desirable occupation. They were likely caring for someone else’s sheep, so they were on the hook if a sheep were lost or killed.

Shepherds worked outdoors, even when the weather was not good. They had to face down predatory animals to keep their flock safe.

Sheep are also not known for being the most clever animals on the farm. They need to be herded around for their own good. And sheep are not like the fluffy stuffed animals we see sometimes. They are dirty, and they don’t smell very good.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” It’s so familiar, we might miss what it’s saying. The opening of Psalm 23 is so lovely, so lyrical. And yet it is a bit shocking.

Comparing God Almighty to a shepherd is to say that our loving Creator gets right down in the thick of it with us. God faces danger with us. God braves the storm to be with us.

And what about the sheep? To compare ourselves with sheep is to say that we need God. We need to be herded and guided. We need protection. We need to be watched over. We are not all that great.

In our fear and in our confusion, God is with us. We are never alone.

Psalm 23 is the assigned psalm for many churches this weekend, and I could not be more grateful. It’s just what we need to hear at this moment in our common life.

Many of us are stunned, trying to keep up with daily news about the coronavirus and the necessary changes to our lives.

We might be terribly afraid, both for our own well-being and the health of those we love. And here we get the reminder we need. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

In our fear and in our confusion, God is with us. We are never alone.

Even when we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we need not fear. I do not read this as saying nothing bad will ever happen to us. Rather, this is divine assurance that in our trials and tribulations, God is with us. We are never alone.

The earliest known images of Jesus Christ, created 200 years or so after his death and resurrection, depict him as a shepherd. Jesus is often seen standing among sheep with a lamb on his shoulders.

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Jesus is not shown in those ancient images wearing glittering robes, nor is he seated on a throne. Instead, the savior of the world is standing in humility among sheep, literally picking up and carrying the most vulnerable of his flock.

That’s how it is with us. As we stay in our homes, perhaps gripped by fear, we should know that Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, will pick us up and carry us in our moments of greatest need.

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We know that God does not idly sit by and watch us suffer. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…” Jesus Christ lived among us, knowing every pain and sting of humanity, even death itself.

Our God is not distant and uncaring, but comes near to share our pain.

It’s not wrong to be afraid. That’s a healthy response to the threats we face. But we can, by God’s grace, face our fears so that our hearts and our lives are ruled by hope and love, not by fear.

On the third day after his death, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, showing the triumph of God’s love. As Easter reminds us, God’s love is stronger than hatred, stronger than imperial armies, and stronger even than death.

Because Jesus has destroyed death, we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death — or face the spread of the coronavirus — knowing that, in the end, God’s love is stronger than our fears and stronger than anything we might face.

It’s not wrong to be afraid. That’s a healthy response to the threats we face. But we can, by God’s grace, face our fears so that our hearts and our lives are ruled by hope and love, not by fear.

We should take care to stay at home to slow the spread of disease, for that is how we can love our neighbors. But in our homes, we should remember two lessons that the Good Shepherd shows us.

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God’s love, in the end, is stronger than whatever we face.

We are never alone.

Amen.