One of the things that I love the most about being an Episcopalian is the rhythm of our liturgical life. People often ask me how I don’t get bored doing the same thing day after day, week after week, but to be honest, I love the repetition. Saying the Lord’s Prayer again and again is calming to me. Hearing the familiar words of the Eucharistic Prayers makes me feel at home. I can’t wait until the day we get to say them together again. I am certain I’m not the only one who feels this way. Over years and decades and the course of a lifetime, these ritual actions, repeated again and again, eventually write themselves in our minds and on our hearts – they become imprinted on our bones.
I learned this truth during my first summer of seminary. One of my responsibilities during that summer of Clinical Pastoral Education was a rotation with the hospice program at a large tiered-care retirement facility. My hospice patient was a woman who lived in the memory care wing. The first time I went to visit her, I found her sitting on one of the couches, dressed to the nines, ready to welcome a guest into her home. To her, the year wasn’t 2005, but 1945. I wasn’t a chaplaincy student coming by to pray with her, but a gentlemen suitor there to take her out on a date. We talked and laughed, and I enjoyed our time together. As the summer went on, her condition deteriorated rapidly. Eventually, my visits took place in her room, where she rested in a hospital bed. As the end drew near, my colleague Peter and I took to praying and reading the Bible out loud to her. I can still remember the moment, as I began to read the King James version of Psalm 23, when I saw her lips move. I couldn’t hear anything, her voice was too weak, but I watched as she recited every word of the Psalm right alongside me. She couldn’t remember her family, her own name, or even how to eat, but these ancient words of praise in the midst of anxiety and hardship were written down deep within her.
The 23rd Psalm seems to know when we need it. It was the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing and the chaotic week that followed. It has appeared in the Lectionary during particularly trying weeks in my personal faith journey. It is always there at the time of death. The 23rd Psalm shows up in moments of hope and joy as well. It was the Psalm appointed for the feast day of Mother Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, a day we weren’t quite sure would happen in the midst of what she now calls “Not Cancer.” The 23rd Psalm is versatile. It is able to carry some heavy burdens, and I am particularly grateful that it was assigned for us to pray through today.
On this our second of what will be quite a few Sundays of “Church at Home,” after ten straight days of new guidance, new rules, and short-lived new normals, I needed the comfort of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As the news continues to remind us that no one is exempt from the “valley of the shadow of death,” I’m finding a new and deep appreciation for the “still waters.” As the need to come up with answers to questions I never dreamed of asking has threatened to overwhelm me, I am comforted by the promise of God’s cup that overflows.
The most profound lesson that Psalm 23 has taught me this week came as I scrambled to find some words to say to you on Thursday afternoon. Sitting next the water heater in my basement tool-room-slash-office, with the washing machine rumbling nearby, I pulled up my go-to preaching resources. There, on WorkingPracher.org was a post on Psalm 23 that cited James Limberg, Old Testament Professor Emeritus at Luther Seminary. Professor Limberg noted that in the Hebrew version of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after the phrase translated as “thou art with me.” Smack dab in the middle of this Psalm of comfort, the poet embedded our deepest truth, God is here. In the midst of anxiety, disruption, pain, and fear – God is there. In the midst of joy, laughter, excitement, and ease – God is there. God is always in the very middle of it all.
We hear the same message in our Gospel lesson for this morning. In the middle of the mess, God, in the person of Jesus, is there. In the middle of a debate over whether someone’s infirmity was the result of sin, Jesus was there, not to settle the argument, but to show how misguided it was. The man born blind’s problem wasn’t that he was blind. His most immediate problem was the bigotry and toxic theology that kept people from reaching out to him in love. So, Jesus stepped into the middle, got his hands literally dirty and figuratively unclean, and violated the laws of the Sabbath to heal the man. When the debate shifted and the man, momentarily restored to community, was once more exiled from his family and Synagogue, Jesus showed up again, this time to welcome him into relationship with the Savior of the world. No form of disconnection is beyond God’s capacity to show up and be present to us in our need.
In a Pastoral Directive issued on Friday, Bishop White called for the suspension of all in-person gatherings until further notice. The Bishop went on to say that we should be prepared for this to be our reality through the end of May. That’s a really long time to be apart from one another. For those of us who aren’t tech savvy and can’t livestream a worship service, who can’t feel connected when they see the likes, hearts, and comments coming up in real time, the distance and isolation from your church family can feel overwhelming. Even at home, surrounded by my own family, there have been moments this week when I have felt like the man born blind, all alone as the world swirls around me. Thankfully, those moments haven’t lasted too long, and I’ve been able to remember, with regularity, that God is here, right smack dab in the middle of it all.
Isolation is hard, even if it is what we need in this moment, but isolation doesn’t mean you are all alone. God is here. God is right there in your living room, and in this moment, the Church has a unique opportunity to be there as well. I believe that we are being called to take our role as the Body of Christ more seriously than ever, and to be right in the middle of the messiness. Committed to fulfilling our mission in new and different ways, Christ Church will be present with you, even in our isolation. The Staff and Vestry have divvied up a call list, and will be checking in with every member of the congregation weekly to make sure we stay connected. We will continue to offer worship online for those who can connect, and we are developing ways for all of us to worship God, to learn and grow, and to radiate God’s love, even as we are stuck in our houses, especially during the Holy Week to come.
Thankfully, our liturgical tradition means many of you have some go-to prayers already written on your hearts and in your bones. You can connect with the ever-present God anywhere and anytime, but in this time of isolation, as the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Christ Episcopal Church is with you. The waters won’t always be still. The pastures won’t always be green. But the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Comforter, and Christ’s Church will continue to be with you this day and always. Amen.