By: David H. May, Rector
It amazes me how quickly the big advertising agencies switched gears in the middle of March and started making commercial reflecting how our world had changed on a dime. I think I saw the first one maybe a week after we all started staying put. It was a commercial for a big mobile phone company reminding us that they were there for us to keep us all connected. The commercial was a series of employees assuring us that they were there and I remember I got a little choked up at their sincerity. Since then, most commercials take into account this different world we’re living in. But not all of them. There are still a few pre-Coronavirus commercials mixed in. When I see one of them, with crowds of people in a ball park or big groups of people in a window replacement store, happily mixing and mingling and shaking hands or hugging, it’s jarring – I feel like I’m looking at a world I remember, sort of. It’s disorienting because it’s only really a couple of months ago. But it might as well be an age ago.
So just a little time watching television these days gives us a glimpse of who we were and who we are now. When I see those pre-quarantine commercials, I wonder how can we ever get back there? Or even, can we get back there? I don’t know. Maybe we can’t. But even if we can’t, we will go forward.
I think what’s so challenging about thinking about the way forward is just how out of control we are; everything is a moving target. This isn’t a problem that we can just overpower. I wish it was a problem like a nail that I could just hit with a hammer. But a hammer is not what we need with what we have been given to do. We’re told to be still, keep safe, stay home, take care of each other, think of how your life affect someone else. What we are facing calls for a different kind of strength, a different kind of power. The kind of power this Sunday asks us make our own and hold close. Today is the Sunday that is often called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. The collect and the Scripture readings for this Sunday have a lot to say about how we go forward from where we are now, even if where we are right now is quite literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Here the prayer of God’s people today: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads….
Because we know his voice, because he knows us each by name, he leads us.
One of the things I’ve heard repeatedly over the year, of course, is that hearing God speak is something that happens to other people and they’re probably crazy, or that is the kind of thing that happens to people in the Bible, not me, or you have to be some kind of a spiritual giant and they usually seem sort of weird and I don’t want to be weird. I don’t buy any of that. I think God has created us with precisely the capacity to hear and know him, to see him. The great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner said that we human creatures are ‘radically open to the transcendent’. God gave us taste-buds to taste the strawberries that will be coming into season later this month and eyes to see how green the world is right now, and a soul to hear the Good Shepherd calling us by name. Rahner’s words are a fancy way of saying that God has made us precisely so that we can hear God, whether in something like words or the sense that somehow your soul knows that God has drawn near or those moments when you are given eyes to see with love. Frederick Buechner once said, “pay attention to things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near”. You know his voice. Even if it’s through the face of a telephone worker in a television commercial saying, “I’m here and will keep being here” and something about that is God showing you our shared humanity. Well, why not. Do you really want to miss the chance to hear the Good Shepherd calling you by name?
To be honest with you, I think I have heard our Good Shepherd speaking now more than I ever have before. I think that has everything to do with the degree to which we all have had to let go. Because we are so uncertain, because we do feel vulnerable as a people in ways I can’t remember, because there is no nail to hit, maybe this radical openness to transcendence God has given us is really open.
One of my favorite images of the church, the place where the Good Shepherd is speaking, is one that I discovered when I lived on the Northern Neck. In the fall, where I used to live was smack dab in the middle of one of the great migratory routes for birds in North America. I remember being outside one day and I heard them before I saw them. Honking. And the honking was overlaid with a sound like rushing wind. That sound was the sound of powerful wings beating the air. And then I saw them – a great flock of geese. This was a noisy group and you could hear them talking to each other. I don’t know but I think they are telling each other: you can do it! We’re almost there. Keep it up! We’re right behind you and not going anywhere!
Geese are surprisingly large birds, upwards of 20 pounds sometimes. Their normal cruising speed is about 40 miles an hour, but if they get alarmed the whole group can clock out at about 60 miles an hour. The group I saw that day was low-flying, probably getting ready to land for the night. But they’ve been spotted at altitudes of up to two miles up in the air if you can imagine.
One of the most beautiful things about geese in flight is the way they form up into a distinctive flying V. Any NASCAR fan knows why they do that. It’s the same reason cars race bumper to bumper at places like Talledega or Daytona. They are drafting off each other.
The lead bird in the flying V breaks up the air ahead, and the following birds tuck into a kind of vacuum and don’t have to battle so much air resistance and can move ahead with less effort. But unlike Talledega, geese don’t line up, they fly slightly to the side so they all can still see forward.
The lead bird is usually a large experienced cob who’s made this trip many times. Pretty regularly, though, the lead bird lets out a distinctive honk, and switches places with a goose further back for a rest. The new lead bird takes a turn breaking up the air for the others. They are able to do this without losing speed or time. And in this way, geese journey safely together, sometimes covering distances as great as 4,000 miles.
Who knows how many miles we have to go. But we go because the voice of the Good Shepherd is calling you each by name. Your soul knows his voice urging you on, urging on one another, giving each other heart: keep going. I am with you. I call you by name. I will lead you through the valley of the shadow of death.
We are led by love himself. That is the different kind of power, the different kind of strength we need. Your soul know. We are led by love. By the King love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine for ever. Amen.