A sermon based on the 23rd psalm preached on April 21st, 2013 following the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the explosion in West, Texas.
It has been a deeply troubling week in regard to the news. Two heart-wrenching tragic events — the bombings in Boston, and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas — caused death and suffering for so many people.
In the immediate aftermath of both of these traumatic events, as we watched from a distance our hearts ached for those whose lives had been so badly broken.
It is human nature at such times to ask, “Where were you God? How could you let such things happen?”
There are no easy answers to such questions. We can say that God gives us freedom and this is a consequence of freedom, but still we wonder, if there have been times in which God has stepped in, why not this time?
In the lectionary, the 23rd psalm is assigned to be read on this particular Sunday. Instinctively, we turn to its familiar verses for comfort.
In my reading this week about the 23rd psalm I was struck by something I had never noticed before: There is an affirmation at the very center of this psalm – one short phrase. There are 26 Hebrew words that precede this phrase, and precisely 26 that follow it. It is as if the entire structure of the psalm has been designed to emphasize the single affirmation at the center of the psalm. The phrase is this: “For Thou art with me.”
It is the same truth at the heart of the Gospel: Emmanuel – God with us.
That in Jesus, God has come among us, to share this life with us.
Years ago the adult son of William Sloane Coffin was killed in a car accident in the midst of a rainstorm when his car slipped off the road and into the Boston Harbor. Afterwards, reacting to people who referred to his son’s death as being “God’s will,” Coffin spoke these words in a sermon.
“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.”
God is with us; and that means that when our hearts break, God’s heart breaks as well.
When we’re looking for signs of God’s presence at times like these, it’s helpful to remember the words of Fred Rogers.
“When I was a boy and would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
And so this week our hearts have been inspired once again by the acts of compassion and courage of those who, close at hand, instinctively reached out to help, in some instances putting their own lives at risk.
The 23rd psalm asserts that because God is with us, then this can be said as well: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” There were more deaths and injuries caused by the explosion in West, Texas, and yet the events in Boston were more troubling, because they involved the presence of evil — of human beings willfully choosing to inflict excruciating pain and grief upon others – people who had done no wrong to those who left the bombs.
When evil appears, fear arises within us. There is a threat to our bodies – to our life in these mortal bodies. Instinctively we recoil.
But what is often overlooked is that it’s not only our bodies that are threatened; our souls are threatened as well.
Soldiers who’ve been to war testify to this fact. It is not only the physical wounds of war that must be healed; spiritual wounds must be healed as well. The soul must be restored. That’s what the beloved psalm is describing when it speaks of the tender care of the Good Shepherd: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.He restoreth my soul.”
What do we mean when we speak of this mysterious thing we call the “soul?” Here’s my definition: Our soul is the capacity within us to love – to love specifically in a manner that resembles the kind of love God has for each one of us.
Love is the one thing that never ends. And that is why we speak of the soul as being immortal. But Jesus made it clear that the possibility exists of losing our souls. He said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his soul?”
The words of the 23rd psalm comfort us, but they also challenge us in regard to how we will respond to evil. There is a choice to be made: will it be fear, or love that will define us as we move forward in life? A heart that is full of fear cannot love. In first letter of John we read, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love…” (1John 4:16, 18a)
Make no mistake, we will continue to struggle with fear throughout the course of our lives. But if we claim the Lord to be our shepherd, then we must also declare our intention to move towards a deepening life of love by declaring: “I shall fear no evil.”
It was moving to witness the determination expressed by the people of Boston that they would not let fear of terrorism force them into retreat from life. The Boston Marathon will be held again next year, you can count on it. They declared this knowing there is no way to guarantee that people with evil intent won’t manage once more to commit violence as the community holds its great celebration. They are choosing to not let fear rule their lives.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” This side of heaven, there will always be enemies present. But life is like a feast set before us — good gift meant to be enjoyed, shared and celebrated.
When evil appears before us, a choice must be made between light and darkness, hatred and love. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness can not cast out darkness. Only light can cast out darkness.” If we hate evil more than we love the good, we have become, in the words of William Sloane Coffin, simply damn good haters.
Evil begets evil. Violence begets violence. Jesus recognized this; he offered himself as the sacrifice that would break the cycle of violence. It is not easy this path Jesus calls us on when he bids us to follow him. His words run against the grain of human nature: “I say to you, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27)
Little eight-year-old Marty, killed in the Boston Marathon bombing is not honored in his death by allowing a spirit of vengeance and retribution to take hold within us. In Marty’s own words that he wrote on a poster board, “No more hurting people. Peace.”
Unless we turn and become like little children, Jesus said, we will not enter the kingdom of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) In order to offer peace to this world, we must first possess peace ourselves. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14: 27)
The peace the world would give cannot sustain us; it is too fragile – too dependent on things going the way we want. The peace of Christ passes all understanding, for it is rooted in heaven.
The Good Shepherd is here now, waiting to restore our souls, waiting to give us the gift of peace that we can in turn offer the world.
I want to finish this morning by having us listen to a song composed and sung by Bobby McFerren, based on the words of the 23rd psalm, and dedicated to his mother. As you listen, let the Good Shepherd lead us beside the still waters; let Christ’s peace come into you. (Song is heard.)