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Jesus is Our COVID Nurse

A sermon on John 10: 11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash]

The first two sermons that I preached to this congregation were on texts that referenced shepherding imagery. In one Jesus referred to his listeners as “little flock.” In the other, he told a parable about a lost sheep.

In both sermons, I basically avoided talking about the shepherding imagery as much as possible, because… it just has no connection to our lives. For a metaphor to be helpful, it has to open up layers of understanding that come from familiarity with the thing or experience being referenced.

And when it comes to defending sheep against wolves in the wilderness or laying down to sleep at the opening to the pen at night … that’s not anywhere near most of our realms of experience.

But when Good Shepherd Sunday came around this year, I started wondering, what metaphor would be relatable for a 21st century middle class suburban church? What protective role is familiar enough to offer a meaningful depth of comparison? And immediately, I knew: a front-line healthcare worker.

This past year has made us all deeply aware of, and I hope grateful for, the dedicated work of health care professionals, who have consistently put their own lives on the line to care for the desperately ill through this long, hard pandemic. Many of the workers who have borne the brunt of the risk and labor in this time are not high-paid doctors. Rather they are nurses, respiratory therapists, physician assistants, lab technicians, and hospital cleaning staff. These are the caregivers who have held the hands of the dying, or arranged facetime calls with family members prohibited from entering the hospital, or wept from exhaustion and stress when finally collapsing in hotel rooms where they slept to keep their families safe.

Far from the “hired hands,” in Jesus’s teaching, who flee from danger, these workers have run themselves ragged so that they can care for the ill and dying. In their commitment they offer us a powerful image for the promise of protection the good shepherd metaphor originally conveyed.

So what if, instead of trying to connect with the image of the Good Shepherd today, we could hear Christ say to us “I am the COVID nurse.” Perhaps we could understand in a new way, how Jesus has committed to standing with us against the fears and dangers of our lives. That promise is not for a vague, theoretical protection against the fantastical threat of wolves; it is the promise to don inadequate PPE and work a twelve-hour shift in the ICU to battle for our lives against the very real threat of a devastating virus. In other words, it is a commitment to be with us in facing the dangers that threaten our actual lives. To stand against the insecurities and fears that wake us up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. To never abandon us, no matter how hopeless we feel, because the role of protector for Jesus is not just one task among many, it is his deep calling and promise.

Jesus is our COVID nurse.

It’s a metaphor that gives us relatable access to the comfort and assurance of this week’s readings, but that is not all. It also calls us to attend to the challenges in this gospel… to hear the ways that this gospel resists the boundaries that try to define who has access to protection. If Jesus-the-Good-Shepherd has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” then Jesus-the-COVID-nurse has other patients who do not belong to this insurance plan… or to any insurance plan. He has patients with pre-existing conditions (including socially-judged conditions like smoking and obesity), and patients whose citizenship status is irregular, and patients whom triage policies might identify as a poor use of limited resources.

But the thing is, Jesus does not have a scarcity mindset when he commits to our care. He is not worried about profits or gatekeeping systems or insurance fee schedules. His commitment is to healing. In reframing this teaching according to our 21st century metaphor, perhaps we can hear Jesus explain:

“I have patients who do not belong to this HMO, but they also need my care. I must bring them respirators and medication, and they will be healed by the treatment I offer. So, you will all survive, and understand your common humanity in a new way, because you have all received my care.”

With Jesus as our COVID-nurse we can begin to release our grip on boundaries and systems that promise to protect our interests by keeping the limited care for us. Because, if Jesus is our nurse, we don’t need those boundaries. We don’t need to guard our privilege from those who simply want to share it. He never runs out of ICU rooms, and he never gets exhausted, and he won’t care any less for us because he sees and responds to someone else’s need.

Which, of course, reminds us of the limit that all metaphors for Jesus’s work eventually run into: human parallels are… only human. As heroic as front-line healthcare workers have been throughout this pandemic, they cannot make the promise that Christ makes to “lay down his life in order to take it up again.” They don’t have the power of resurrection, and they don’t always have the power to decide whether or not to lay down their lives either. In far too many tragic cases, our hospital heroes have literally laid down their lives for their patients and been taken by the virus.

And for some, there was precious little choice to be made. For many medical staff, and for other front-line, low-wage essential workers, the pandemic forced them to choose between continuing in a hazardous job that put them at risk, or failing to pay the rent or to buy food for their families. And sometimes they paid the ultimate cost.

As we recognize the heroism of these public servants let us not turn them into Christ-figures whose lives we demand as the cost of our freedom. Rather, let us hear in the metaphor of Jesus-our-COVID-nurse a call to love in the same way that he loves. Our epistle reading today exhorts us to do just that: “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). The apostle, further, calls us to love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).

Jesus has shown us what love in truth and action looks like. It looks like a Good Shepherd who knowns and cares for his sheep, and like a COVID-nurse who fights the fear for his patients.

That is the love that holds us… the love that keeps us safe and promises us a future, and the love that empowers us to do the same for others. It might not be as picturesque as the pastoral image of Jesus in a flowing white robe cradling a fluffy lamb over his shoulders… but it is so much more real. It is real enough to handle whatever fear or pain our real lives hold. And it is strong enough to not only shelter us, but also to call us into sharing that same love.

Thanks be to God.


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