Fourth Sunday in Lent, rcl yr a, 2020
1 SAMUEL 16:1-13; PSALM 23; EPHESIANS 5:8-14; JOHN 9:1-41
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.
When I was taking a bit of break from full-time ministry to write my PhD, something curious began to happen to me: I began to feel apprehensive, and to worry more, about my own mortality. Which was a bit odd, because even though I wasn’t a young many myself, universities are institutions full of youthful vigour, and at a real distance from death.
As I think back now, I was far less apprehensive and anxious about my own mortality when I was in parish ministry. My church was elderly enough that I was doing a good number of funerals. I had funerals down pat. Death had, in many ways, become a routine part of my life. I was no longer sheltered from the mortality of others, and as a result, I wasn’t sheltered from my own mortality. The thought of my own death was much less of a burden to me. I experienced far less paralysing fear. And I was free in many ways to minister to others, people gripped by the unexpected death of a loved one, or people facing their own imminent death.
* * *
We don’t know much about the life of St. Hesychios the Priest. His teachings, though, are preserved in Philokalia, a compendium of wisdom on prayer. So we know he practiced the kind of prayer he called “watchfulness.”
For St. Hesychios, watchfulness can mean closely scrutinizing unwelcome mental images. It can mean freeing the heart from all thoughts, and keeping oneself profoundly silent and still, in prayer. Watchfulness can be the Jesus Prayer: the repetition, with the breath, of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
But it’s the fourth type of prayer that I find the most startling. According to St. Hesychios, another type of watchfulness, the fourth kind of prayer he speaks of, is to always have the thought of death in one’s mind.
At the time I was doing all those funerals, I stumbled onto this way of prayer. I couldn’t help but reflect on my mortality, and the mortality of others—it was simply where I was in life: in a place of keeping death in mind.
We are, now, most certainly in a time when death is on our minds. We might want to avoid it; but our circumstances are such that the whole world has changed because the threat of death is upon us. And I’m having my own moments of anxiety and worry about this.
But if St. Hesychios is right, the thought of death is not something that must be avoided. Rather, to have the thought of death on one’s mind is a strange opportunity to come closer to God. And I would add, that as we come closer to God, we would come closer to one another as well.
* * *
A more strict translation of Psalm 23 would read, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.” And at a time when there is much we might feel worried about, the more general “darkest valley” can be helpful. Some of us are worrying about our finances over the next while; others of us are worried about our mental health. There is plenty to worry us.
The promise in Psalm 23, though, is that even though the darkness threatens, ours is a God who comforts the distressed: “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”
Myles Coverdale, through a creative translation of Psalm 23, gives us as Anglicans the more familiar words, “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 hope that’s a comfort, today. They are words of honesty: death, sometimes, looms over us. It’s ok to admit that.
But if St. Hesychios is right, and I’m sure he is, it’s not only ok to admit that death looms over us. It may even be good for us, there may even some spiritual benefit to holding our mortality, and the mortality of others, before us.
St. Hesychios, the Psalmist, and Myles Coverdale would remind us to be honest. We don’t read, for example, “though I’m tempted to think of my own death I’m gonna try and avoid it, Oh God help me avoid these thoughts because that would make me more comfortable.” Not in this Psalm. The psalmist, and those of us reading along, knows where we are: we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
But the psalmist also knows that there is more yet; we are not left alone in the valley: “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.” And so the Psalmist reminds us of God’s promise: God is with us. God comforts us. Even in the face of death.
* * *
Psalm 23 ends with two reminders. The first is that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all the days of our lives. So the promise of presence and comfort is not simply an otherworldly promise.
And this helps us to know what it means to be the people of God: if our God is a God of comfort, and we are God’s people, and that this comfort comes in the present, we would be a people who brings comfort to others.
(It’s worth saying that this comfort of God’s is given by God’s rod and staff; that is, this is a kind of comfort that can come with some poking and prodding, and even getting pulled directions we might not want to go!)
Nevertheless this is, for us, a time of offering comfort to others, in a very real way. So I‘m thrilled to see so many of you calling one another, and making sure others are being cared for. And I’m thrilled to see that some of us are taking time to offer comfort, through the resources of our kitchen, providing food to St. John’s Kitchen.
I would also commend each of you to offer other comforts: be reconciled to one another, be kind and truthful; serve and love one another as you have been served and loved by the God who serves and loves.
But this goodness and mercy of God, that follows us all through the days of our life, is connected in that final verse to the knowledge that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Our Lord Jesus is the one who lived, died, and lived again for us, and who by this invites us into his life in the present, through serving one another; and who, through his work on our behalf, in trampling down death by death, bestows life to those in the tombs; the one who, by overcoming death by death, invites us into the life that is to come.