Walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

I’m not sure about you, but I really needed to hear the words of the 23rd Psalm this morning.  We’ll read it again on Good Shepherd Sunday—the 4th Sunday of Easter, 6 weeks from now—but it’s a balm right now, at a time when the world as we have known it slips away and we don’t know how to respond.  I’m grateful for this “psalm of sustenance,” as one commentator put it, in a time when nourishment for our souls seems nearly impossible to find.

Let the words wash over you as we hear them again: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures  and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Read the lessons designated for today.

Often when we encounter difficult times we try to downplay them, and that’s what we often wish for others too. We might hear, “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you think.” Or “There must be a reason God is doing this, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Or my least favorite of all, “God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.”  The darkness in these cases is sugarcoated or ignored or dismissed, or we’re made to feel that this is somehow our fault.  That we’ve done something wrong to deserve this.  Sometimes we hear this outright from others; sometimes we tell it to ourselves.

Which is exactly how our Gospel lesson opens. “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, since he was born blind?’” Who’s at fault? Since this guy can’t see at all—and it’s been his entire life—surely someone must have done something to make God so angry. So who was it? Him or his parents?

We like looking for causation to help make sense of the darkness.  We think if we can figure it out, then we can feel better about ourselves, that we’ve done the right thing and someone else hasn’t.  And not only that, but our actions keep us safe from God’s striking at us, while that other person messed up.

But notice Jesus’ response: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. Rather, he is in the darkness so that the works of God might be revealed in him.”  He is in this state of blindness in order that he might be a testimony to the glory of God to the world.  So that he can show that God isn’t the one causing the darkness, rather God brings light to it.

What I love most about this Psalm is that God as the Good Shepherd doesn’t keep us from the darkness—no one can promise that—but, the Psalmist tells us, God remains with us.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.”  God walks with us through the valley no matter how long it lasts.  The valley could go on for miles and miles, and God remains by our side—never downplaying the severity of what we are experiencing—providing comfort and protection and sustenance through it.  God abides with us.

Our beloved regular supply priest, Christine Whitaker, sent me an article this week from the New York Times written by Kiley Bense. In it Ms. Bense describes researching her genealogy, and uncovering information about her grandmother’s early life. Her grandma was born in 1917 in Philadelphia, and lived through the flu pandemic of 1918. In the fall of that year when that virus swept through the country, Philadelphia experienced a shortage of nurses—due in part to World War 1—and there weren’t enough people “to treat and minister to the sick, whose numbers were growing rapidly.” The shortage was so severe, “an official cautioned, ‘[It is] now a matter of life or death.’” So the Catholic archbishop there called on the nuns of that city “to leave their convents and take up posts caring for the sick and dying across the city.” 2000 of them responded to that call. 

They didn’t have training or any experience, but they signed on for 12 hour shifts caring for the ones who needed them most. They described the work they did tending to thousands of sick men and women in that city, washing linens and bringing food, placing a cool cloth on someone’s forehead, bringing blankets and comfort to another. At the end of those horrific 6 weeks 23 of the sisters had died, but they had saved many, many lives.

Ms. Bense can’t help but remember this work given the pandemic we are currently living in. She writes, “While most people have no reason to fear the coronavirus, we have a responsibility as a society to protect and care for those who do have reason to fear it. The sisters’ quiet, determined selflessness is what is needed now, and what we will need more of in the weeks and months to come, not only from doctors and nurses but also from ordinary people, who will be asked to alter their daily lives in ways both large and small, giving up comfortable routine for the sake of the vulnerable, and helping to patch over the constellation of individual holes in our ragged social safety net.”  

She concludes, “One hundred years on, the work of the sisters provides us a model to follow and aspire to in this uncommon time: one that presses us to look for ways to support our neighbors rather than shrinking from them, to acknowledge our fears but to find courage in the strength of our communities, and ultimately to put others before self.”

She’s suggesting that we take our place alongside the Good Shepherd.  That we not allow the darkness to overwhelm us, trusting that God provides us with sustaining comfort, and then share that consolation with others.  We can, with God’s help, make it through this time, not fearing any evil, knowing that the way is so much less harrowing when we walk it together. When we do, God’s glory can be revealed to the world.  May it be so.  Amen.

Photo Credit: christian.grelard Flickr via Compfight cc

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