Sermon by Prof Adriaan van Klinken – 22 March 2020

Notes from the sermon by Prof Adriaan van Klinken – 22 March 2020. You can see the service on our Facebook page

Readings:

Bread? Finished.
Rice? Finished.
Pasta? Finished.
Long-life milk? Finished.
Tinned food – tomato, beans, chickpeas? All finished.
And of course, toilet paper. Famously finished.

Everyone who has been to a supermarket in the past 10 days or so has seen the empty shelves.
People have been hoarding like crazy. Trolley after trolley after trolley.
The shelves in the shops are empty. The cup boards in our kitchens are full.
That is, for most of us. Not when you are a nurse and spent a long day at work, only to find empty shops at the end of your shift.
Not when your cash is limited, and you can’t afford buying food for weeks ahead.

If the Britons once had a reputation for keeping calm and carrying on, that reputation has now gone.
In the years to come, psychologists will be discussing this panic buying, the anxiety and fear it reflects, and whether or not it is irrational.

On the first Sunday of church closure because of the corona crisis, the lectionary gives us Psalm 23 to read.
Usually, in our services at All Hallows we skip the Psalms.
But in situations like ours today, the book of Psalms – basically a collection of prayers, confessions, and meditations – appears to articulate and address the anxiety and fears that many of us experience, but it also offers us comfort and hope.
In particular Psalm 23, one of the most well-known psalms in the Bible.
Take that opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
A statement of faith that directly counters the tendency for stock piling and panic buying that we have seen in the past days, also in ourselves.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing.”

The image of the Lord as shepherd is a popular one in the Bible.
It is particularly dominant in the books of the prophets such as Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel – texts that date back to the period in which the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon.
Exile meant that their flock was scattered all over the place.
Exile meant uncertainty about the future – would they ever return to their God-given land?
Exile meant existential questions about their existence as a people, about their identity, about adjusting to new circumstances or longing back for the past.
Exile caused fundamental anxiety and despair.
In that context, prophets kept alive the promise of God. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited part of the land. I will feed them with good pasture. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34: 13ff)

Psalm 23 can be seen as a response to this prophecy. It expresses the faith of the people of Israel that yes, this prophetic word will come true:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.

When we read and sing this Psalm today, we join a choir of people throughout centuries, who have claimed these words to express their faith and hope against all odds.
The words of this Psalm come alive to us, again.
They give us hope in these days of despair; comfort while we spend our days in self-chosen or forced isolation;
they bring relief while we may feel ill or worry about symptoms of the virus; they reassure us in the midst of uncertainty about our future.

In our gospel reading Jesus is depicted as the good shepherd who truly cares about his flock – going to the extreme to show love for his sheep, even protecting them with his own life.
Jesus is contrasted to someone who is hired, paid to look after the sheep but does not own them, and therefore is not invested in their well-being.
As soon as a wolf shows up and attacks the sheep, such a hired man will run away, trying to save his own life.
But Jesus goes to the very end – risking his life, showing deep care, true commitment.
As the good shepherd, Jesus did not even hesitate to touch people who suffered from one of the infectious diseases of his time, leprosy.
I’m not sure whether we should follow that example literally today, but we should follow it in the spirit: physical distancing does not mean social distancing.
Let’s keep looking after each other, support and care for one another, in our church community, in our neighbourhoods, in our city.

Our reading from John is highly appropriate for this period of Lent.
It reminds us of the extent to which Jesus cares for his people, us included – caring so deep that it costed him his life.
But our reading also anticipates the reality of Easter, as Jesus says: “The reason why my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.”
Because of Jesus’ suffering, his death and resurrection, we as Christians know:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
because you are with me.

In Jesus, God is with us, whatever we go through.
Even in these days of corona-crisis, when many of us suffer from anxiety, struggle with uncertainty, feel isolated, fear for our health, our jobs, our future. We are not alone.

Instead of constantly watching the news for the latest developments and updates of this crisis, can I suggest that this week we read Psalm 23, every time we are overwhelmed by what is happening?

No panic buying and stock piling, not even the multi-billion government plans to save our economy from collapse, can give us the reassurance that God offers us in Christ:

I am with you;
I prepare you a table of abundance;
my goodness and love will follow you all the days of your life.

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