You don’t have to be in church or synagogue every Sunday to know those words. Even the least religious of the Jewish and Christian people who share the book of Psalms knows those words. Whenever there is pain, whether the loss of someone we know personally or grief about a national tragedy, we turn to the 23rd Psalm again and again.
Earlier this week, as I tried to process what had happened at the Boston Marathon, I opened the lectionary, the calendar of texts we use each week, to see what the texts were today. And there was Psalm 23, with those words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
It almost seemed too easy. Deep pain, and those familiar words. It was as if it couldn’t be any more simple. Like a band-aid that we could just easily put over the pain.
But life’s not like that. And neither is faith.
I’ve been thinking about that this week. We have connections to Boston in this church. Some of you are from there. Others of us have spent a lot of time there. And even last Sunday we had a visitor here in our pews who was getting ready to run the Marathon the next day. And at least one of you was the finish line when the bombs were detonated. One way or another, it touched us.
I know that block of Boylston Street. I was married on that same block, in a church that is now considered a crime scene. I proposed to Heidi there too. It’s my favorite place in Boston. As seeing it in smoke on Monday felt like being punched in the gut.
Then, on Thursday evening, I was back there, or as close as I could get. I went to hear Heidi preach to her home congregation about what had happened. Unable to go back into their own church yet, they gathered at another to pray and to sing and to ask “why”.
And “why” is the question on all of our minds this week. It was certainly on mine on Thursday afternoon when I walked down to the barricades that blocked off Boylston Street. At each intersection police and National Guard stood by. Flowers and flags and notes were left. Chalked messages to a city in pain lined the roads. And crime scene investigators dressed in white suits still combed every inch of the street.
And it was so quiet. That’s what got to me the most. Those streets are normally so busy and loud, but that day the only sounds at those barricades were muffled whispers and the noise that empty water cups still on the streets from the Marathon made as they were blown down the street by the wind. It took my breath away.
I think in times when that happens, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.
And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.
We need to hear about that Lord who is our shepherd. But, especially in times like this, we also need to hear that we are more than sheep.
Now, not to be mean to sheep, but they aren’t the smartest animals. They sort of just follow the herd until they’re scared, and then they’re known to panic and run away. Really, if you’re trying to find an animal to emulate, sheep aren’t the way to go.
Instead, we are called to follow God, to follow the true shepherd, in a different way. Not as a part of a scared flock that reacts with panic to what frightens us, but as a group of beloved children of God who keep our focus on that shepherd. Who keep our focus on the teachings of our faith, and on the one who truly wants for “goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives”.
And sometimes that’s hard in times like this. Times when we are afraid of the way the world seems to be going. Times when acting out of our fear and pain and anger, all of which are justified, is easier than acting out of our faith.
That’s already started happening this week. On Wednesday, before we had any inkling who the bombers were, a medical doctor in Boston was physically attacked by a man who screamed obscenities and hate at her. The reason? She was Muslim. Apparently the man who hit her while yelling about terrorism didn’t understand that he was terrorizing an innocent woman.
And then yesterday, after an outpouring of anger and profanity directed towards them, the Embassy of the Czech Republic down in Washington actually had to put out a press statement clarifying for us all that Czechs and Chechens are in no way the same thing. In a haze of anger, a lot of people apparently hadn’t stopped to make the distinction. My guess is that they also hadn’t stopped to think that attacking a whole country as somehow responsible for the actions of two young men who didn’t even grow up there wasn’t so helpful either.
This is, of course, not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Back in World Wars I and II some German-American churches reported being vandalized by those who held them responsible for American deaths in the wars. It didn’t matter that often their own sons were fighting for our country. All some people saw was a different culture with a different language, and that difference was all they needed to justify their hatred.
It doesn’t matter if it’s 1941 or 2013. It’s all the same. It’s all about the fear and anger that blinds us to Christ’s call to us. It’s all about taking our eyes off of the shepherd and putting the teaching of our faith on the back burner.
The other piece of Scripture we read this morning was from First John, and it was a letter to the early Christian community. The writer tells those earliest followers of Jesus that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
It’s good advice to us too. As we stand at our places of greatest fear and questioning and pain, as we stand at the barricades of crime scenes, as we stand with our pain and anger, those words tell us what to do. They tell us the answer. Christianity is not an easy religion to follow, and this passage reminds us of what Christ told us: choose love. Choose the way of the shepherd. Because it’s the only way we who follow Christ can transform the ashes of something so horrible into something more.
I’ve seen so many calls for vengeance or hatred this week. So much pain and anger and fear combined with ignorance to make the situation worse. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because we are called to something better. We aren’t called to follow the herd. We’re called to follow the shepherd.
Standing at the barricade on Thursday, I looked to my right. There were two trucks, driven by police officers from New York City, who had come to Boston to give their Boston Police brothers and sisters, their perpetual, mostly good-natured rivals, some food and water and support. Because they knew what it was like to hurt, and they chose love instead.
And down on Newbury Street I saw two women writing in chalk on the sidewalk. They wrote simply, “We are very sad.” And then they turned to me and asked, “Is it okay?” And then they explained that they were from Brazil and they didn’t speak English very well but they wanted to write to the people of Boston and let them know that they were sorry. Because they knew what it was like to hurt, and they chose to love instead.
And today in Dorchester a friend of mine, an art teacher who is friends with the family that lost their young son, invited people to join her on the Savin Hill Beach in memory of the lives that were lost, and to paint their hopes for what that young boy named Martin had asked for after Newtown: “No more hurting people. Peace.” Because she knew what it was like to hurt, and she chose love instead.
And one night this week in Texas, while they were mourning just like the rest of the nation, a group of volunteer firefighters got a call, and they put on their bunker gear. Even though they knew they might lose their lives. And some did. But even before then, when the call came through, they knew what it was like to hurt, and they chose love instead.
You and I, we know what it’s like to hurt too. Because at sometime in our life we have each been badly hurt. But we come here each Sunday because, on some level, we want to choose love instead. And we want to choose to follow not the herd, but that shepherd who promises us that we can walk through “the valley of the shadow of darkness and fear no evil”. Because we know there is a better way.
Brothers and sisters, if we are going to turn to those familiar words in times like this, we have to do more than recite them. We have to want the Lord to be our shepherd, even when anger and pain and fear are easier. Especially then. And then we have to follow. Amen.