Every time we gather for our morning prayer service, we listen to Psalm 23 as our scriptural anchor. Reading the Psalm seemed appropriate when we began morning prayer on Zoom as the pandemic was rising. All of us felt anxiety, uncertainty, worry about our wellbeing, as well as our friends’ and family’s wellbeing, and our congregations’ and nation’s wellbeing. We were living in an uncanny time – getting used to face masks, safe distancing, shopping at odd hours, worrying about the food chain, and monitoring every change in our health – could that cough mean the onset of COVID, could that fever or shortness of breath mean soon I would be on a respirator ? I remember beginning a daily regimen of walking up the 40 steps from the Craigville parking lot to the hamlet of Craigville as a daily test of my wellness.
We have read this Psalm for over 13 months in our short morning prayer service. It was a talisman that got us through George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, spiking pandemic, a contentious election, and violent insurrection in the Capitol. It soothed us when we couldn’t see family at holidays and had to visit our grandchildren at a distance or through a window.
Psalm 23 is an all-season Psalm – it was a written in a time of challenge. You can tell that the environment is dangerous – we hear of enemies lurking outside the campsite and walking through the shadow of death. Risk and threat are real and can’t be denied.
Yet we also hear of green pastures, still waters, a feast, and dwelling in God’s house forever. We feel the presence of someone looking out for us, someone who will risk their lives to face off with our enemies and comfort us when we are afraid.
There are some things we just can’t avoid, and the Psalmist knows it: we can’t deny or go around these inevitabilities – what Judith Viorst describes as necessary losses. We must go through them -right through the valley of the shadow of death, the aging process, grieving children growing up, friends and loved one’s passing – times when darkness hides the light. The Psalmist knows what it means to be afraid and worry about the future – his own, his family’s, his nation’s and his faith’s.
And yet, darkness and worry are not the whole story – this is a Psalm of gratitude and confidence that shouts to the darkness – you cannot win! That shouts to the pandemic, life will go on. That faces the future, our aging and mortality, knowing that we will dwell with God forever more.
In our 225th year, I have thought about the changes that this congregation has faced – I wonder about the grief and uncertainty when young men went off to fight in the Civil War, I wonder if the church thought we’d make it through the pandemic of 1918 and World War I, I wonder how people felt on Sunday morning December 7, 1941 when they came to church just after hearing about Pearl Harbor, or returning home from church to see news reports of Bloody Sunday when civil rights marchers were brutalized on the Pettis Bridge, I wonder how they and perhaps some of us or our parents felt in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, families split over the Vietnam War, or after 9/11 or the Marathon Bombing (just two weeks before I preached my candidating sermon in 2013)…. I am sure that some of our ancestors – even some here today – took solace in Psalm 23.
These days, in the midst of new dimensions, of change, we put our concerns in the larger circle of God who has never abandoned us – we trust that God is with us, the good shepherd, looking out for us as persons and as a congregation…With that confidence, we can be hopeful, compassionate, active, and plan for a future. God has given us a future and hope in the darkest valley and we – who are already in God’s House – will dwell in the house of God forever.