For the congregation of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA. The scripture text I was working with is Psalm 23 in the King James Version.
If there ever was a year when this Blue Christmas service is needed, 2020 definitely would be it!
This has been the year of the mask, the Purell, the hand soap, and toilet paper shortages. Too many people have been sick and far too many have died from COVID…from friends, church members, uncles, aunts, cousins, people’s moms and dads. COVID has wreaked havoc on our lives…changed the way we shop, go to school, do our jobs, even go to church. And in an almost too cruel twist of fate, this viral pandemic has collided with the ongoing struggles in the nation over race and racism. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry describes it, these times are our midnight hour, which is the darkest hour of the night.
These are the times for Psalm 23.
This one is probably the most well-known of the psalms. And this version…the King James Version…is the classic form of the psalm. In fact, my practical theology professor…the Rev. Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard…told us to memorize this rendering of the psalm. She told us it will be important because in any ministry we might have, we might find ourselves in a hospital room with grieving Christians from another denomination and this is the version of Psalm 23 they will want to hear. It is words of comfort.
It is a song of reassurance.
It is the one that tells us the eternal truth: God is with us at those moments when we feel adrift in a sea of grief and can only sing the blues.
“The Lord is my shepherd…” The psalmist uses the imagery of the shepherd leading and encouraging the flock along still waters. I’ve seen shepherds at work when I was on a trip to France with my spouse. It was a small village, and the shepherd was moving the sheep along a street heading toward the pasture on a mountain. The sheep were pretty content to follow him…except when they would stop to snack on the flower beds of some of the houses. Then the shepherd would drop back, encourage these hungry sheep to keep moving along, not with a beating but with a guiding nudge of his staff. Eventually, the flock arrived at a fountain in the middle of the town square, and he let them take a drink before they continued their journey toward the green pasture of the mountain side.
Shepherd, for the psalmist, has additional meaning beyond the shepherd of sheep. Many a biblical scholar notes that the kings of the ancient world were called shepherds of their people. It was thought that the job of the worldly leader was to guide and direct the populace with the same skill as a shepherd. So, to say that the Lord is my shepherd once again places God as the true guide and authority to lead one along and restore the life force—the soul-- to a place of resting and feasting.
Before we get to the banquet table in the psalm, we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. The Hebrew for this description is “deep darkness,” a sense of danger and death. This is the midnight hour of the psalm. This type of darkness is one that can leave us frightened for the lack of being able to see our way out of our troubles. And yet…the psalmist tells us “I will fear no evil” because God is there and remains present even when we haven’t asked.
God keeps gently guiding us through this dark spot.
God is there with the food bank worker distributing bags and cans to families in need because COVID forced parents out of their jobs.
God is there with that nurse checking on patients in the intensive care and emergency room and being one of the only people able to hold the hand of a person struggling to breathe.
God is with the scientists and medical researchers who have put their skills to work to get us a vaccine.
God is with us to keep us moving toward the psalmist’s vision of the banquet table, where we will be beyond the things that trouble us, where we will lay down those things that keep us divided and bring us to the other side of pandemics. Because even when it is midnight, stars of bright light poke through the gloom to remind us that God is nearby.
To keep Christmas in this Coronatide it’s important to not only keep looking for those lights, those signs of God’s presence in the acts of kindness of others, but to remember that we can be those lights to one another. “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Lord will lead us through our valleys to a day when we will again feast together.