Many of us in the life of the church know about something called the lectionary. More properly the Revised Common Lectionary, it is a repeating, three-year cycle of appointed readings for Sunday morning that sets out what we'll hear in worship from week to week. It's something shared by a great many denominations in the church, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, on whose Ordo Lectionum Missae it is based.
There are good things and bad things about the discipline of the Lectionary. Because it has a kind of automaticity to it -- we could figure out today what the lessons will be on a Sunday in November 12 years from now -- once in a while it's hard to relate the readings we hear to the place at which we find ourselves. Sometimes it's hard to find in any of the four appointed readings (one reading each from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalms, Epistle and Gospels) something that speaks to our moment or our condition.
But sometimes, either by sheer coincidence or the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit, the readings that were appointed long ago for a Sunday we are living through could not possibly be more appropriate.
Such a Sunday will happen this week, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Because the psalm appointed to be read is Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me besides still waters,
He revives my soul,
And leads me along right pathways for his name's sake.
The text of the 23rd Psalm contains some of the most familiar words of comfort in countless languages, to people of Jewish and Christian traditions alike. They are words uniquely effective of communicating to people of faith the abiding presence of God's love, not just in times of joy and celebration, but also -- especially -- in times of loss and grief.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I shall fear no evil;
For you are with me,
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
I doubt very much that the runners coming down the last yards of the Boston Marathon, along the cavern of Boylston Street, imagined themselves for even a moment to be in the valley of the shadow of death. Nor would the people of West, Texas have imagined that they lived in the shadow of destruction so great that the explosion that caused it fooled seismographs into thinking a small earthquake had struck.
Yet, as the author of these lines well knew, that shadow casts a pall over us more often than we know. We never live far from the need for assurance that there is something more meaningful, more powerful than the sorrows we encounter in this vale of tears, something that will give us the strength to overcome despair when it seems poised to overwhelm us.
You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
You have anointed my head with oil,
And my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In my tradition, and many others in the Christian church, these words are most familiar to us from the moments we gather to mourn loved ones we have lost to the mortality of our physical bodies. This Sunday, when we gather for the morning's worship and hear them in their appointed place, we will both take comfort from the renewed assurance in these words of God's continuing love for us -- and send them forth as a prayer to those who have been lost too soon through an act of evil or the misfortune of accident.