Old Words For a New Day
Text: Psalm 23:4: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."
This was supposed to be a sermon on a section of the gospel of John about plain speaking. That, at least, was the plan. But there are times when circumstances speak plainly to you the need to change your plans. New occasions teach new duties, and we have all lived through a week that calls for a moment of reflection on other things.
It is difficult to comprehend how different the world seems since the last time we gathered in this space. We have lived for more than a decade in an age of terrorism; we have waited in lines at the airports, and I’ve even gotten used to the completely bizarre requirement to show my passport at the border with Canada.
But to see on our television screens the images of streets we know so well being clouded by the smoke of bombs, to be part of a whole metropolitan area locked down and kept virtually under siege, to see the streets of Watertown patrolled by every sort of military vehicle short of tanks—it feels like a completely different world from the one we were in just a week ago.
Probably most of you know that I am not especially fond of the lectionary. Most of the time there is at least something in the lessons appointed for the day that in my own prayer I sense has an idea or a challenge to offer us. Sometimes, to be very honest, any connection between the readings appointed for the day and our own circumstances as a community feels forced.
But then there are times—and they are rare, but they do happen—that the lectionary hits a home run.
This morning is one of those times.
There could hardly be a more appropriate moment for us, for churches all throughout the Christian tradition, to be gathered in their communities this morning to hear these words: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
These words have comforted people of faith for thousands of years. They are not words of victory, but instead words of quiet confidence. They are not words of vengeance, but of assurance. They are not words of triumph, but of trust.
This week when I looked again at the lessons appointed for Sunday, I was overwhelmed by a coincidence of imagery. It was of the canyon of buildings that line Boylston street, looking west down the marathon route, in that video we saw over and over again, enough times to be able to divide it into the moments before and the moments after the world we once knew ended. And in that image, bright with the afternoon sun of Monday, I saw as clearly as I will ever see the valley of the shadow of death.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For you are with me,
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Except in the image burned into our minds, no one is walking. Everyone is running. The marathoners, and then the amazing, truly amazing, police officers, and then everyone, everyone is running to help.
In these tragic days we have lost four good and innocent people to what we can only describe as the presence of malevolent evil. We cannot never compare sorrows, and we know that while we have been living through these days another calamity has befallen a whole town in Texas. Their loss is real, too.
But the loss we have known is not just of innocent people. It is of our own innocence. It is of our sense of safety, not just in our own streets, but in the hearts of our fellow citizens.
This morning there is on the website of the New York Times a photograph of a child standing in the intersection of Laurel and Dexter Streets in Watertown, taking a photograph herself—of a bloodstain on the pavement where Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a violent shootout. It is hard not to feel that that little girl has lost nearly as much as a young boy who might have been her classmate who stood on Monday along the finish line.
We say by faith that we are called to be witnesses of God’s love in the world. But it is not a loving world. That is why the message of the gospel is so urgent, and that is why the work of true disciples is never easy, and never safe.
We are given an example to follow of a life that was lived in exactly that way, in the life of Jesus. And from that example we know that having the discipline and the quiet confidence that we hear in the words of Psalm 23 takes a heart always open to God’s will. It takes a constant awareness of the presence of God in our lives—not as a sort of drop-in from time to time in church, but as a constant, abiding conversation in every moment of every day.
When we do that we become more and more transparent to God’s love in us when seen by other people. But that will not mean that they will love us, or welcome us, in return.
It may mean that people who have needed so much to feel included or heard or accepted or loved will feel that possibility for the first time. But it may also mean that people whose hearts have already made a home for violence will find in us easy targets.
In this same week some of our elected representatives decided against making it harder for people to have access to the means of violence. That was a story that barely got into our minds this week—the defeat of gun-control legislation in Washington.
No matter what view you might have of that, though, the perspective of the Christian gospel would be that when you address the problem of violence in that way you’re dealing with symptoms and failing to be serious about causes.
Because violence lives in the human heart, and all of it, all that we have seen this week that robbed us of lives and innocence, all of it springs from there.
So the victory we are promised, the claim of our faith that good will triumph in the end—what that means is that more and more human hearts will be converted, will be drawn away from the appeal of violence as a means of making change, or getting revenge, or even seeking justice. And that will happen because the power of love, and of people called by love to follow that hope, will eventually bring those hearts out of the darkness of fear and hate and into the light of acceptance and community.
That is the victory we will have in the end.
But this is not the end. We don’t live in the end. We don’t live anywhere near the end. And so our task is difficult, and dangerous—and incredibly important.
If we believe Professor Pinker, we are moving closer to the end. He says we are becoming significantly less violent as a species, even though there are vastly more of us than ever before. Professor Pinker is by no means man of faith, but we would look at that and say it is evidence of the power of this message of ours to make profound change for the good in this world.
Even so, as we go back out into that very different world, strengthened by our time together here to do the work of disciples in a world that knows more keenly aware of fear than fellowship, we have to remember some first principles.
We believe in God. We believe in a God of purpose, a God who has a plan for the unfolding of history.
We believe in a God who has so ordered the world that there remains the reality of evil, and its dwelling place is in the human heart.
We believe in a God who has given us the tools with which to overcome evil. But it takes work, and it takes doing things that don’t always come easily or naturally. We say that we are made in the image and likeness of God, but we know that job must only be partially done. God has given us the tools to recreate humanity so as to close out the space for evil in human heart. Our task is to continue on toward that, because that is God’s plan.
So we believe in God. But we do not believe in magic. None of this will not happen because we wish it were so. It will not happen because we ask God to make it happen. God has asked us to make it happen. When Jesus says “follow me,” that is what he means.
We pray because our prayer opens us to God, and that openness itself directs our steps and strengthens our hands to do this work. We pray because the Holy Spirit working in us can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine. But we do not pray because we believe God will solve this all for us. God has left the solving, the healing, the loving, to us.
So there is still hope in all this fear. There is still light in this darkness. It is what brought about that incredible sight of people, not just police but everyone, running toward the sound of the blast and the sight of blood. Running to help the injured, running to comfort the dying.
And it was the sight and sound of many faiths gathered together on Thursday morning, bearing witness in their own scriptures and their own images to the greater power that is the power of compassion, and the true freedom that comes from the bonds that tie us together in community.
One more coincidence of images stays with me from this. It is that photograph you may have seen of that young boy, Martin Richard, right along the barricade, waiting anxiously for his father to finish the race. Crossing behind him in the photo is an older boy, wearing a backwards white baseball cap. It is almost the last image we have of the world we knew before all this happened.
When I saw it I remembered those lines of Yeats, almost pleading with that boy to change not just his fate but ours:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
That is the world God chose not to abandon, but to save. These are the people Jesus came, not to condemn, but to love back into relationship. These are the hearts we are meant to serve, and by God’s grace to change, so that we and all people may fear no evil. Amen.