Texts: Psalm 23 (The Lord’s My Shepherd) * John 10:10-18 (the Good Shepherd) * Video of the complete service
One week ago, on April 25th, more than 75,000 fans crowded into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for an Australian Rules Football game. It was the biggest crowd to attend a sporting event anywhere in the world since March 2020.
One day before that, on April 24th, 50,000 fans crammed into Eden Park stadium in Auckland to enjoy a concert by the New Zealand rock band Six60; and this was the biggest crowd to attend a music concert anywhere in the world since March 2020. At both events, masks were not required; physical distancing was not possible; and no one was worried because there has been virtually no community transmission of COVID-19 in Australia or New Zealand since last spring.
And so, I continue to dream of Auckland.
One year ago, I published a blog entry on the church website called “Dreaming of Auckland.” Last March two days after Mill Woods United decided to close the church building in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I started a daily blog to stay in touch with the congregation and to express some of what I was feeling. From March 18 to April 14, I posted one entry a day. After that, I added a post only occasionally, and one of these — from May 13, 2020 — was titled “Dreaming of Auckland.”
This was on the eve of the relaxation of public health restrictions in both Alberta and New Zealand. On May 14 last spring, New Zealand went from its second most stringent level of restrictions to its second most lenient one. The country had endured almost total lockdown for 33 days, from March 26 to April 28. From April 28 to May 13, it lived with a relaxation of those rules. The period of even more relaxed restrictions, which began on May 14, ended on June 8, 2020 when New Zealand declared that it was COVID-free. On that date, it dropped all restrictions other than at the border, a status it has retained for most of the eleven months since.
In last May’s blog post I compared New Zealand to Alberta. New Zealand is less than half the size of Alberta but is more populous with about 5 million residents to Alberta’s 4 million. Last May, New Zealand had counted 1500 cases in total and 21 deaths from COVID-19 while Alberta had counted 6,300 cases and 118 deaths. In the year since then, Alberta’s numbers have risen to 190,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,000 deaths while New Zealand has logged another 1,000 cases, almost all of them caught at the border in mandatory hotel quarantine, and another five deaths.
Last May, I dreamed of Auckland, the biggest city in New Zealand, because it was clear the country was on its way to eliminating the virus, while Alberta had not yet adopted elimination as a goal. I was pleased when Alberta’s total number of known active cases got as low as 330 last June but frustrated when the number ballooned to 21,000 active cases in December; and now as May begins, this figure is at an all-time high of 22,000.
But are my dreams unfair? Can one really compare New Zealand to Alberta? In Friday’s Edmonton Journal, columnist David Staples expressed contempt for the idea that COVID could be eliminated in Alberta by writing “if only there was a way to move Alberta off a crowded, busy continent to an isolated corner of the Pacific Ocean.”
I agree with Staples that the island status of New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore has played in a role in their success in eliminating COVID.
But the list of 85 countries that today have no community transmission of COVID-19 includes many that are not islands, including Vietnam, Zambia, Rwanda, and China.
The key difference between jurisdictions with lots of new cases and those with no new cases is leadership, I believe; and it is leadership that connects my reflections on COVID-19 with today’s readings about the Good Shepherd. In many places in the Bible, its authors imagine human societies as flocks of sheep who need a leader. In the 23rd Psalm, Jehovah is imagined by the author as a shepherd. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd.
New Zealand has more sheep per capita than any other nation in the world. But that is not why I discuss New Zealand on Good Shepherd Sunday. I do so because in an emergency like a pandemic, I believe we crave leadership like that exhibited for the past 15 months in New Zealand and in countries that followed a similar path.
The Good Shepherd is usually imagined as a singular being – Jehovah in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus in the Greek New Testament. But that is not how I imagine divine leadership. The gospels contain stories about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of a singular figure, Jesus of Nazareth. But the most important thing about them for me is how they point to the Risen Christ, which is a spiritual reality living within each of our hearts. Christ may be a good shepherd, but this is a shepherd we follow not just from behind, but from within our own hearts and in a beloved community that reminds us to see the Risen Christ in everyone we meet.
Social emergencies like a pandemic call on everyone to do our part – to listen to experts, to stay out of crowded indoor spaces, to reduce our movements, to wear a mask, to wash our hands frequently, to get tested if we exhibit symptoms, and to take the first vaccine offered to us. But eliminating the virus requires leadership from governments; and unfortunately, governments are not usually shaped by the compassion, humility, and truth we associate with the Way of Jesus.
This past year, I have been so impressed by the public health leadership exhibited by frontline nurses, doctors, and support workers; and by scientists, researchers, and the developers of vaccines. I have also been cheered to follow news about governments that strike me as competent, compassionate, and rational like the ones led by Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, by Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, and Moon Jae-in in South Korea. Unfortunately, I have also been disheartened by what I perceive as a lack of spirit and speed and an inability to learn exhibited by so many other governments, including in Canada.
When governments are impervious to adopting best practices from other countries and are too scared to act quickly on the recommendations of public health experts, we might wonder where to turn; and I think Psalm 23 and John 10 can help. Some of the kings of ancient Israel exhibited wisdom, but most of them were disasters, as detailed in the books of the Bible. Regardless, the Psalmist was comforted by a sense of divine support and providence.
In the time of Jesus, some of the Roman emperors may have been competent enough. But most of them were corrupt and cruel. Happily, regardless of the competence or corruption of governmental leaders, we can always touch base with the Good Shepherd inside us and between us.
Looking for spiritual guidance within ourselves while seeking discernment, support, and agency in a beloved community of faith is key. Doing so can remind us that regardless of how badly we might be affected by an emergency like a pandemic, we are all children of a Loving God and it is to this Love that we all return.
Most of us hope and expect that vaccination will end the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada this summer. But even if this comes to pass, there are even more daunting social crises like climate change that can only be tackled by governments and international cooperation.
My prayer is that we will use our experience of the Good Shepherd — the inner Christ who connects us to Love — to cheer and comfort us during the pandemic even as we work with others to pressure governments to become more competent and compassionate so that this broken world can move closer to the abundant life that Jesus proclaimed.
May it be so. Amen.
Preamble to worship
Friends, we gather today at what we hope is the peak of the third wave of the pandemic, although it is hard to know when a wave will peak. What we do know for sure is that the increasing number of cases in Alberta in the last two months has discouraged many of us, and that it is leading to social turmoil. The question of what can be done as we continue to pray that vaccinations will bring the third wave to an end is hardly a settled one. Everyone might agree on the need for good and steady leadership, but there is no consensus on what such leadership looks like . . . which brings us to today’s theme.
Today is called Good Shepherd Sunday, something the church marks every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter. Except, this is the fifth Sunday of Easter. So, we are one week late; but I imagine this is OK with the community.
On every Good Shepherd Sunday, the Lectionary directs us to hear a reading of the 23rd Psalm, usually referred to by its first line, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and to a short passage from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. Today, we will hear the 23rd Psalm in a hymn sung as an anthem by Wendy, Jennifer, and me; and hear a reading from John that includes the verse in which Jesus refers to himself as The Good Shepherd.
I use this occasion to return to the question of leadership that I explored over eight Sundays last summer and fall. In an oblique way, this morning I wonder if what we need during a pandemic crisis is a Good Shepherd.