Five and thirty years ago, as a young, brand new minister, I was serving three very small churches in very rural Maine, in an impoverished community … an area of Maine often referred to as Northern Appalachia.
Shortly after arriving there, I took my first funeral. A beloved and ancient matriarch had died and the small wooden church was packed, standing room only: family, neighbors, also with people I hadn’t seen before … folks from shacks and cabins tucked back deep into the Maine woods.
Toward the end of the service I invited the church to read together the 23rd Psalm. I had helpfully printed it in the bulletin. I needn’t have bothered. The instant they opened their mouths, I understood that every single person there—young and old, churched and unchurched, literate and illiterate—knew this Psalm by heart. They owned this Psalm.
The people crammed into that church lived hardscrabble and physical lives. They were vulnerable to accidents as well as illness and disease. They were far from hospitals and most had never dreamed of health insurance. They also sent a lot of their young into the armed services, and too many of them returned less than whole
But they knew the 23rd Psalm. They owned it.
You see, this Psalm, it tells it like it is. It concedes the presence and the power of death. It grants the menace of enemies and evil’s authority.
The thing about the 23rd Psalm—the great thing about the 23rd Psalm—is its smallest word. A humble, inconspicuous word folded into the middle of the Psalm. A pivot word: the hinge or fulcrum upon which the whole Psalm turns: Yea.
Yea is a word of protest, an act of stunning defiance. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Psalm 23 strikes me as a pretty good psalm for the Boston Marathon.
Three years ago Evil, Enemies, and Death visited the Boston Marathon. Evil. Enemies. Death. These insinuated themselves among us. They stalked and invaded this Marathon … the world’s oldest, peaceful international competition.
Yet, look at you! Look at all of you! Look at Boston! Look at the Boston Marathon! Look how Boston responded. How runners responded … How by acts of courage and will we pivoted, turning from death to life, from fear to fierceness, from disaster to community, from woe to yea …
Yea are the bystanders and first responders—including our honored guest, Carlos Arredondo—who ran into harm’s way (not away from, but into harm’s way) to aid the wounded.
Yea are the additional thousands of runners who vied to enter the race the year after the bombings.
Yea is a city that refused to devolve into Islamophobia, refused to stereotype and hate.
Yea is a city shaken but not defeated, struck down but not destroyed, refusing to bow or bend to Evil … denying to Evil its claim on us.
Yea is Boston’s ONE FUND. In an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in emergency fund raising, the ONE FUND collected and distributed more than $80 million to more than 200 survivors, victims, and their families.
Yea is Boston’s world-renowned Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital coaching and preparing people for life without limbs.
Yea, though I walk or run, though I roll or stumble, though I limp or crawl through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil … for God is with me
Yea is the refusal to fear evil. Yea is denying and denouncing evil’s claim on me.
The 23rd Psalm is worth memorizing … worth internalizing … so you have it when you need it.
The whole point of the psalms—of reading them, praying them, singing them, and allowing them to get inside of you, under your skin, into your heart, and on your lips— is that they speak such raw truths.
Even this gentlest of psalms names the hard truths of death, shadow, valleys, fear, evil, and enemies.
The 23rd Psalm is recited hundreds, maybe thousands of times every day in hospital rooms, at the scene of accidents, by immigrants crossing the border, in refugee camps and prisons, by soldiers in war zones, by airplane passengers, and at funerals.
It is at once a prayer and a mantra. It soothes even as it empowers.
But more than that: the words of this ancient psalm bind us to one another as they once bound together an entire Maine village: everyone crammed into a small wooden church declaring together their defiance of death.
The psalm is living proof of the community of believers that reaches back thousands of years and stretches around the globe. For here is a faith that has survived wars and genocide, pandemic and disaster, terror and accident. Here is a faith that will not fold in the presence of evil.
And so it is that I invite you now to join voices. Together, let us denounce the powers of evil, of death and enemies. Will you repeat after me?