If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. We hear it at memorial services and funerals. We read it when we are going through a hard time. We remember it in the times we need peace. And often we can recite it, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.
In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. When I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they ask for this.
I’ve talked before about how I preach from the lectionary. The lectionary is a calendar of readings that most Catholic and mainline Protestant churches use each Sunday. And one of the readings for today was the 23rd Psalm. Which means that in churches all across the country today, chances are good that congregations are reflecting on this Psalm and what it means.
I think that’s fitting. Until the end of the week I was going to preach on today’s Gospel passage, but then, like all of you, I woke up on Friday to the horrible news of what happened in Aurora, Colorado. And, as often happens to pastors, I felt my sermon change.
A year ago this week, two days after they occurred I preached about the shootings in Norway and how incomprehensible they were. Today is the one year anniversary. Before this week’s shootings, I was contemplating what I said then. Speaking on the text from Romans, about how nothing can separate us from the love of God, I said:
“That’s good news for us humans who will do everything in our power to try to separate ourselves from the love of God. We are born with our hearts turned towards God and, no matter what we do or how we try to ignore it, we are at our best when we stay turned that way our whole lives. And yet we do all we can, maybe even subconciously, to create a separation and to fill it with everything in the world that is bad for us.
And we are creative. We can find a hundred ways to move away from God without even realizing it. Yet in the end, no matter what happens, God decides that separation is no obstacle. And the love of God always wins.”
A year later, again, two days later, we find ourselves in church on a Sunday trying to make meaning from something that is so hard to understand. Why would anyone do what the alleged shooter did? Who could do what the alleged shooter did? And how did we as a culture create someone who did what the shooter did?
The long and the short is that we don’t know. And the reality, as anyone who has ever lost a friend or loved one to senseless violence can tell you, is that even when the answers start to come, even when every psychological report gets released, even when every last pundit on every side of the political spectrum has spoken, we still won’t know much. It will remain largely inexplicable.
But that won’t stop us from trying. And religious voices are already in the game. One Christian pastor said this shooting occurred because we have started teaching evolution. I think his logic is a bit off there, personally. Another said that the shooting is the fault of churches like ours that accept everyone. They said the shooting was God’s judgement because we have turned from God. What’s truly scary to me is that these are not voices that no one is listening to. One quote came from Rick Warren, who wrote the Purpose Driven Life. Another came from the American Family Association, an organization with a $20 million budget and the ear of many politicians.
I’m hearing a lot of talk from Christian leaders about why they think this happened. But I’m not hearing a lot of talk about what matters most, which is where is God in the aftermath, and from where do we find grace and comfort? You see, in the aftermath of tragedy, the role of people of faith is not to cast judgement. It’s not to swoop and say, “this is why this happened” and to proclaim God’s anger. It’s not to use a tragedy as a political football.
The role of the church, and every faith community right about now, is to point to God’s love for us. All of us. No matter what. It’s to, as I said last summer, point out that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even a tragedy that we may never be able to explain. And not even death. Last summer I said:
Our job as Christians is pretty easy: be loved and love. Be loved by God, love God and one another. It’s the simplest job description in the world. And the hardest job you’ll ever have. I’ll save you some worry and tell you that you will never get a pink slip. You’ll never be let go in a round of layoffs. For better or for worse, nothing can separate you from this work because nothing can separate you from the love of God.
So here we are again, in the same place as a year ago, wondering how to do that work. How do we love, and how do we proclaim God’s unchanging, inescapable, love after such a horrible tragedy? I would submit that we don’t do it by trying to point out what we perceive to be the sins of the world. We don’t do it by jumping on a bandwagon. We don’t do it by raising our voices angrily.
Instead, we do it like this. We do it by rejecting the noisy and angry rhetoric and instead following the shepherd to the places that have already been prepared for us. We do it by taking to heart the words of a Psalm we already all know by heart, and believing them to be true.
The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It does not come from being right. It does not come from blaming the sins of others. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” It lets us say that even on the days when the evil of the world is on full display, we choose a different way. We choose a way of love. And in the aftermath of tragedy, we choose to be the voices of the shepherd from that Psalm to the whole world.
William Sloane Coffin, a well-known pastor and preacher, once preached a sermon about the death of his own son. He talked about how he couldn’t stand it when someone said a tragedy was the will of God. He refused to believe in a God who, as he put it, “didn’t go around this world with (God’s) fingers on triggers”. He told people that when his son died, God’s heart was the first to break.
The same is true of what happened in Colorado. When the first shots were fired, God’s heart was the first to break. The shepherd we follow, the one who teaches us to fear no evil, not only knows what we are going through. God is so invested in us, and in lives, that God mourns with us, and God wants for us to find a better way.
When we recite that Psalm, we find comfort in it because it promises us a better way. It promises us peace and blessings and grace. But we often forget that if we want God to be our shepherd, we have to decide to follow the path that God is leading us on. It’s not enough to say the words. We have to decide to follow. Because as much as we might want to think that saying “the Lord is my shepherd” has to do with our own comfort, the reality is that our shepherd often chooses paths for us that, though always ultimately rewarding, are often also uncomfortable and demanding.
And so, today, how do we follow a God, our shepherd, whose heart has been broken by the brokenness of the world? How do we help to create the green pastures that the Scripture promises us, not just for ourselves, but for others? How do we share our hope now in a time when many feel hopeless?
I think it starts by deciding that we will live not in judgement of the world, but in love for it. I think it starts in saying that we will choose the path of the shepherd, rather than the path of anger or fear. And I think it starts with you and I trying to mend God’s broken heart.
I’ll close with this prayer, just as I closed with it this week last year. It’s the best example of a prayer from one who truly wants to follow the shepherd that I have ever heard. And it shows us what to do now:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.