Does God care: the Good Shepherd in a pandemic

03
May

Scripture: Psalm 23; John 10: 1-10. Nigel Bunce

 

In this time of COVID-19 pandemic, we ask ourselves “Does God care?” or “Why did God let this happen?”  It can be hard to square these questions against the loving and caring shepherd that today’s Scriptures provide.  But perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

Good Shepherd Sunday

Picture from https://concordiaandkoinonia.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/sermon-good-shepherd-sunday-51114-text-st-john-10-1-11-concordia-lutheran-mission/

Each year, we read from the part of John’s Gospel where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. Importantly, Jesus also calls himself the gate to the sheepfold. Out on the hillside, the shepherd lay across the entrance to the sheepfold at night, to protect the sheep from predators.

A focus of John’s Gospel is what Jesus calls eternal life. We explored this idea in Lent, in the stories about Jesus meeting Nicodemus and a Samaritan woman.  Today, we see this idea again.

At the end of the reading, Jesus calls himself the only shepherd, the only one who can save the sheep. He came, he says, so that all who enter by way of himself “will have life and have it abundantly”.

The Lord is my shepherd

We always pair the reading about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with Psalm 23, The Lord’s my Shepherd. God, says the psalmist, leads the flock. God does not drive them, like a sheepdog. The key idea in this psalm is that God is with the people in good times and in bad. In the green pastures. Beside the still waters. But also, in the valley of the shadow of death.

How very appropriate this year when we must walk in a valley where death is so much on our minds. COVID19 seems like a plague of Biblical proportions. We are all fearful for our own health, and especially for the health and safety of those we love who are at risk. Those in long term care homes. The frail. In my own family, my brother in law Colin, who has a weakened immune system because of cancer treatment. 

How these Scriptures tie into this time of COVID-19

Nevertheless, we can’t help but ask these questions. Where is God in the midst of diseases like COVID19? Where was God a weekend ago when so many people were senselessly killed in Nova Scotia? Why do even righteous people have to suffer? Doesn’t God care? These doubts go back thousands of years. Bishop Linda addressed the question “Where is God?” by reference to the book of Job in the May 2020 issue of the Anglican Journal. As she noted, Job had to realize that God the Creator is ‘other’ than humanity.

When I preached on the story of Job, I quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people. Rabbi Kuschner wrote his book in the aftermath of the death of his 14 year old son to disease. Most of us would like to believe all three of the statements below, whether we apply them to Job or to us and our friends.

A: God is all-powerful and is responsible for all that happens in the world.
B: God is just. The good prosper and the wicked get punished.
C: Job is a good person.
This works when everything is going well – for Job or for us. But not so much when something bad happens to a good person. Then it seems that either God cannot be all-powerful, or God is not just.

Does God care? or the question of luck

Does COVID19 mean that God is doing a poor job of running the world? The truth, of course, is that God does not micro-manage the world. We have to realize that who gets infected and who doesn’t; who succumbs to the disease and who gets better – are largely questions of luck.

This is very uncomfortable for us to accept. Luck, whether of the good or bad variety, means that we are not in control. Social distancing and self-isolation can tips the odds somewhat in our favour in the case of the present pandemic.

To use Bishop Linda’s phrase, we have to realize that God the Creator is ‘other’ than humanity. Protecting Nigel Bunce from disaster is not God’s job. God’s job is to rejoice with Nigel Bunce when things go well, whether by luck or good management. And to comfort Nigel Bunce when his life ‘s journey takes him into the valley of the shadow of death. Put another way, how God chooses to run the world is God’s business. It isn’t mine.

Is COVID-19 a punishment for human sins?

Of course, some preachers will offer a different explanation. God sent COVID19 into the world as a punishment for human sin. On that reading, all natural disasters can be explained that way. That explanation clearly posits God as all-powerful. But definitely not just, because there’s no evidence that those who get COVID19 or die from it are especially sinful.

Writing recently in The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt quoted Pastor John Piper, Chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. Piper said, “God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin.” Merritt struggles to make sense of how supposedly Christian people could shrug their shoulders at mass death and heap pain on the grieving.

As Michael Coren wrote in the May 2020 issue of the Niagara Anglican, Piper’s view depicts a vengeful God who is so cruel as to hurt people indiscriminately. That God is too uncaring to punish only the worst sinners. Of course, fundamentalist preachers would respond that we are all sinners. We all deserve punishment, and are only saved if God graciously sets aside our sins (justification).

But I have said before that this isn’t my theology. That vengeful and sadistic God may appeal to some Christians. But not to me.

Does God care?

Edward Simmons addressed the question “Does God care?” in a recent article. He noted many instances where the Bible seems to be inconsistent on this matter. For example, Psalm 23 follows right after the desperation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For me, that dissonance is not a problem, because the Bible was written by many different authors. They simply understood the role and nature of God differently. 

COVID-19 (and other natural disasters) make us think hard about this question.  It jolts us out of our comfort zone with a cuddly Jesus who always protects his sheep.  But I believe that we each carry within us a spark of the divine. So that when we commit to follow Christ, our commitment is really to “Let me be as Christ to you” in the words of the hymn.  

In that context, i want to end by paraphrasing the way that Simmons concluded his article. Our behavior in this crisis should reflect the way that God is present. It happens whenever we trust God for these things we can’t control, and try to act responsibly and caringly towards those around us. First Responders and other front-line workers brave personal danger to save and help others. Yet every one of us can act as God’s representative in small or large ways. So let’s not ask God to prove divine care for us. Instead, let’s get busy as agents for a caring God.