The Lord is my Frontline Worker
Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Readings: 1 Peter 2:18-25; John 10:1-18
We’ve all had to give things up recently, but some sacrifices are greater than others. You may not sympathise hugely with me, for example, that I cannot play golf on Monday mornings. Or with sports fans that they cannot endlessly watch live football, or endlessly talk about yesterday’s game. Or with your friends who never turn on their video on Zoom for fear you’ll see their greying roots. We know that in the grand scheme of human suffering, these are small potatoes – mind you, in the week before lockdown, there weren’t even small potatoes in Morrisons.
But we also know that some people are making genuine sacrifices, in income and prospects; in not being with those whom they love; and in serving our society through their work. On Thursday last week, many of us held a minute’s silence for key workers who have died of the coronavirus. By Thursday, that figure was over 100 health workers alongside other transport and key workers in the UK alone. Around the world, not least in China, Italy, the USA and Ecuador, the death toll includes many people who had been treating patients with Covid-19.
Within that minute’s silence was lament, that this disease is so powerful, and that our ways of treating the virus are so limited. Some may have wondered before and beyond the silence how God could allow this to happen. Is creation not good? Is God not loving? Do we not believe in God the Father almighty? Or does our silence simply echo a deafening silence from heaven?
In theological conversations online, I’ve heard people saying with confidence that God is in charge, that despite this pandemic we believe that God is sovereign, that God’s control is unchanged. I confess that’s not where I start. It reminds me of the story I read recently told by Victor Frankl, the psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz.
My daughter at about six years of age asked me the question, “Why do we speak of the good Lord?” Whereupon I said, “Some weeks ago you were suffering from measles, and the good Lord sent you full recovery.” However, the little girl was not content; she retorted, “Well, but please, Daddy, do not forget: in the first place, he had sent me the measles.”
Measles, HIV, coronavirus. Different eras have different fatal outbreaks, and Christians’ default position is often to reassert the almighty power of God, barely registering the fundamental problem with that, noticed by a six year old girl. Instead, we’d do better to acknowledge the freedom in nature, the randomness of mutation, the power of natural selection, and the pervasive effect of competition, within and between species, such as ducklings, herons and crows. God’s creation can be pretty ugly, and far from harmonious. And if we modern people didn’t know this before, we do now, as we recognise the sudden, shocking, destructive power of a microbe.
So where is God if not pushing the levers from above? Today’s readings in the lectionary don’t tell us exactly where he is, but they do tell us who God is: and that is a shepherd. It’s a metaphor, of course, one built out of a pastoral society, where flocks of sheep and goats were ever-present and of fundamental importance to the economy, providing meat, milk and wool, religious sacrifices, and as a sort of bank, a living investment. Caring for the flocks was vitally important, and over and over, God is compared to a shepherd.
But what kind of shepherd is he portrayed as? As an extraordinary one. We heard that Jesus said: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Indeed, in this short passage he says five times that he lays down his life.
Peter, in his letter, reflects on Jesus’ life and death, and focusses on Jesus’ suffering. Christ suffered for you… When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered he did not threaten. And again, the image which Peter uses for our relationship with God is from the flocks around Galilee. For you were going astray like sheep but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
And this is a shepherd who laid down his life before religious and political power, who was laid out on a cross, and laid to rest in a borrowed tomb. As Oscar Romero, the archbishop from El Salvador assassinated in 1980, said: The shepherd does not want security while they give no security to the flock.
If we take these passages seriously, the Shepherd who lays down his life, the lamb who is sacrificed, the Guardian who is put to death, we surely have to see God’s power through the prism of his love. God’s power to create, to heal, to bring to life is not a bare statutory instrument: it is always and completely shot through with love – the love that creates, the love that lets be ribonucleid acid, proteins, virions and coronaviruses, the love that gives freedom to nature and to human decision-making, the love that cares for all creation, the love that undergoes pain and shortness of breath, the love that gives itself up to mortality, the love that lays down – for the other.
There are sheep not far from St Andrews, beyond Morrisons, or past Balgove. We might see them on a bike ride. But shepherd is not the first image that may come to mind for how divine love cares for us today. Who is it today who are caring for the many who are needy, taking risks, sometimes even laying down their lives? Who else but frontline workers? And so, I have taking the liberty of recasting the 23rd psalm for our times. This is not scripture, and a tiny bit silly, but please bear with me.
1. The Lord is my frontline worker; my needs will be looked after.
2. He delivers food, and serves me in the supermarket:
she ensures that my home has clean water and a steady power-supply.
3. She treats me and nurses me when I am ill:
he drives public transport; he cleans before and behind me.
4. Even though I face a disease without cure, which may lead to death, I will fear no evil:
for you are with me; your open pharmacy, your patrol car and counsellors they comfort me.
5. You lay out rules for my safety in the presence of an unseen enemy:
you re-supply soap and sanitiser; my cupboards overflow.
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I shall dwell, at home and online, in the presence of the Lord for ever.
The image of a health worker in PPE is a visual form of this. I was astonished when I saw this picture online. Arms outstretched, as if laying down one’s life on a cross.
We are not all frontline staff. And no-one is called to be a martyr in this situation. We should expect our key workers to be as protected as possible from infection. But we are all called to care. As Peter says in his letter: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered, leaving you an example. Our vocation is to follow Jesus, to be shepherd-like in our way, to be salt in society, light in darkness. We may not all raise £30 million like Col Tom Moore, but we can make a difference, in calling a friend or family-member who may be struggling, in delivering shopping, in an email or card, in a smile when passing safely on the Lade Braes, in sewing a gown or a mask, in praying for someone in need. And we are called to make sacrifices, from golf to travel, from missing the May Dip to leaving that last packet of flour to someone who really needs it. Everyone here will have unique ways of being involved in the world.
So God may be our frontline worker, frontline workers may be Christ-like, and we may be called to share in God’s ministry to the world. But we can’t quite finish there, as if the Shepherd’s life is only laid down, and Jesus remains crucified. This is the season of Easter, and our faith is always with hope.
This is perhaps the hardest thing for many people about lockdown: there is no end-date. I confess I’ve been more than a little gloomy at thoughts of social distancing going on indefinitely, into next semester and beyond, at the possibility of no Strictly Come Dancing. But this is something Christians should have practice in. We are Easter people who are waiting, nevertheless, for the world to be set to rights, for new heavens and new earth to come, for all to be well, all manner of things to be well. We wait for Jesus’ promise of abundant life to be completely fulfilled. We wait for goodness and mercy to follow us so closely there’s no room for the evil we fear. We wait for the Shepherd who laid down his life to take it up and bring us with him into a new creation.
I make no apology for concluding with a quotation I’ve used recently in another sermon. Nothing else I’ve read quite captures our hope at this time than these words by Terry Eagleton:
It is the assurance of being loved that enables one to take the risk of faith, a faith that in turning its face to the future melts into hope.
The Lord is our frontline worker. He has laid down his life in love for his world. He calls us to share in that loving care. And he invites us to melt into hope for the overflowing joy which will run over.