It wasn’t until I was sitting in the sanctuary at the parish where I spent my final year of seminary that I had a realization that I think most Christians have much earlier in the life of their faith. The choir stood in their blue robes with their music binders balanced upon their hands and began singing one of the more beautiful anthems that I’ve ever heard. It caught me by its beauty, but it wasn’t until I heard the words that they were singing that I felt tears begin to prick the corner of my eyes. “The Lord is my shepherd,” the familiar psalm began, but this anthem setting written by Bobby McFerrin reframes the content of the psalm, and for the first time I understood why it was a psalm that brought comfort to people in their darkest times. I distinctly remember as a young Christian, that I struggled to understand why Psalm 23 was such a source of God’s comfort in the face of death. The valley of the shadow of death never sounded like a place where there could be much joy, and to have a table set before me in the presence of my enemies sounds like a very counterproductive wish, especially when grief and death weigh heavily upon our shoulders.
We have a joke around here at Christ Church, and I’m pretty sure that Father Steve has mentioned it in a sermon before, that Psalm 23 seems to come around when we need it most. I know that I needed to pray through Psalm 23 this week, to put Bobby McFerrin’s setting on repeat, and to settle into the truth that captured me that day at St. John’s Church in Maryland. I needed to remember that in this world we will consistently and constantly be surrounded by death, and that it is only the comfort that we find in God that is a true balm to our despairing souls.
Perhaps I needed to pray through Psalm 23 this week because the amount of death that surrounds us is so much more abundant that we can even contemplate. And I’m not just talking about the death of physical bodies, though those tragedies are great and unbelievable, but I’m also talking about the other little deaths that surround us every time we pick up our phones or turn on the news or listen to the radio. Every week seems like it has a month’s worth of news and a year’s worth of hate, and it seems that death is always a part of the story. Because it’s the little deaths of our communal hope, the death of our trust in each other and in the societies in which we walk, the death of compassion for those who struggle in a way that differs from our own. This week I needed to pray through Psalm 23 over and over and over again to remember that when I see death and hatred rage across my screen, whether it is from someone I love or from someone I’ve never met, that death is never the end of the story.
Praying through Psalm 23, as my prayers found their home in the tears that fell this week, I remembered the most pressing truth that we have as Christians. The most pressing truth that I can ever imagine is that we know that, even if death is always a part of the story, death is never the end of the story. Death is never the end of the story for our physical bodies, and it’s not the end of the story for our hope, our compassion, and our faith. Death is never the end of the story. It wasn’t the end of the story for Christ on Good Friday and it’s not the end for us today in the middle of October in 2020. My friends, there is honestly not a lot that I can say with certainty about the world right now, but one of them is that death will never, ever, be the end of the story.
As I sat in what felt like the valley of the shadow of death this week, I prayed through all of our lectionary passages set for today and I was struck with the complexity of standing in the looming shadow and to hear Paul proclaim in Phillipians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” If you have ever walked through any great grief you know that there will always be people who say something that feels as tone deaf as you might hear Paul’s words at first blush. These words can sound like toxic positivity, being positive at the sake of harming those who are in real pain. But Paul’s words are not written from the comfort of his couch to a group of readers abroad. The words of this letter are written from prison to a group of faithful, young Christians who are themselves being persecuted. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” is not about ignoring the very real and traumatic pain of this world, it is a reminder that death is never the end of the story. This exhortation is not one that pushes us to focus on the good in our lives, but is a reminder that very often the only thing upon which we can firmly stand is the deep and abiding hope and joy found in the resurrection. There is nothing on this earth that will save us from all the little tiny deaths except for this truth.
My siblings, I have no idea how we will make it out of this valley of the shadow of death if we do not ground ourselves in prayer. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world, yes, but before we can step out into the world we have to remember that God is always near, and because God is always near, death is never the end of the story. This week my own prayers brought tears, they brought joy, they brought insight; I have prayed in silence and I have prayed in hard conversations. Your own prayers might look different than mine, or they might look different than they ever have before, but I do know that the only way forward is prayer. Pray without ceasing, pray with sighs too deep for words, pray in the hope of the resurrection. Pray. Pray. Pray. And go out into the world this week knowing that as we stand praying in the shadows that the Lord is near, and that death is never the end of the story.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via livestream on October 11, 2020 for Proper 23A.