There is so much richness in the lectionary for this week that it is hard to know where to start. What strikes me in the texts for the third week is that both Psalm 23 and the story of the Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41) have very little to do with one another and yet in the end they both point us towards holding fast on to God even when that seems irrational and all else is seeming lost. In the depths of these texts I sense that there is a calm center—the welcoming of God, Godself—in the midst of the chaos that surrounds the central character of each text.
I doubt I will ever forget a seminary afternoon I spent in Psalms class taught by Dr. Kristin De Troyer, an amazing scholar and teacher! This particular afternoon we were looking at Psalm 23, and going through it line by line examining the poetic stress and how the word pairs worked to enhance the meaning of the text both in translation and in Hebrew. A text that has almost come to seem cliché jumped out at me. As Professor De Troyer took us through this text it became clear that it was not only not a simple text, but also that it was far from the pastoral text the images depict. This is perhaps one of the most familiar texts in the Western world. “The Lord is my shepherd…” The words themselves are so calming to even think. (Although I must admit that after encountering the Vicar of Dibley series I found myself giggling every time I heard the opening of this Psalm because it had become such a lead into comedy for me. But I digress…) However, as I think back to that day in seminary, in the long warm conference room, I think of how sad it is to me that this text is so misunderstood and so misused. As the professor unpacked the word pairings of the text and went through the images of the text with us in view of its ancient origins, it came alive for me in new ways. Professor De Troyer led us on a discovery that this text is one of flight and seeking refuge. The table which God is said to prepare in this text is not just a meal table, not a welcome table but rather the alter in the tremble where one might seek refuge—the one place that a hunted or chased person may find refuge, for no army and no official could lawfully seize a person who had to the ram’s horn on the altar of God. And not only is the text one of safety for the person in peril, but it is also one of vindication.
I thought on that day, how strange it is to use the text of Psalm 23 as a text for the time nearing death. It seems to me that the context of death is the one in which Psalm 23 is often used. I remember thinking to myself on that day in seminary, that I would uphold the integrity of the poetics of the text and not use it in the context of death because in my class I was learning that really the text is more appropriate to the situation of the immigrant running from immigration officials than it is for the death bed! But such can be the arrogance of pure academic scholarship mixed with inexperience. As a chaplain I quickly learned that despite the meanings unearthed by the poetics of this text, the fact that this text brings meaning and comfort to people in various situations but particularly at time of great illness and approaching/at death cannot be ignored. As a poet, it first pained me to use this text in the context of illness/death. However as chaplain—and even as a poet—there is something more important than intent to tend to. There is always at the heart of all matters the meaning and care for others that must be considered. In my experience as a chaplain I have learned that even people who are not religiously affiliated will ask for Psalm 23 to be read at time of death. It has become easy, both for the scholar and the poet within, to allow my poet self to read Psalm 23 in the context of illness/death. This is true not only because it is caring to read something that has meaning to those who request it at these times, but also it is true because of the death/dying process itself. The death/dying process itself is one of letting go of all we love—be it things, people, places, and how we identify ourselves. In this sense the death/dying process is one of seeking refuge in the only place we have left to turn when all else falls away—God, or our understanding of the sacred. In some small way Psalm 23—which is really more about refuge from the world than death—is in a way one of the perfect and most simple texts to turn to for reassurance, whenever we need it, and often that is the time close to dying.
The paradox of this struck me this week as I taught Sunday School to the four and five year olds—and Psalm 23 was the text for the week. Here Psalm 23 was in no way connected to ideas of death and dying, there was no thought given the notion of fleeing for one’s life or seeking refuge, but rather the image of the shepherd became the focal point for discussions of care, compassion, and God’s love for us. It was a bit odd I admit for the hospice chaplain to be teaching Psalm 23 to a group who, God willing, will long outlive me. But it was also a moment in which I found wholeness. For, as we first learn Psalm 23 (particularly if we know what a sheep is only though books and we have to learn what a shepherd is) we learn that God is present with us at all times and that God cares for us through others who feed and tend to us when we are sick. There is omnipresence, we are never alone. God holds fast to us so we may hold fast to God.
By now you may be thinking that at the outset I mentioned this was also the case in the gospel for this week, in the story of the man born blind. Well it is. This is one of the “healing stories” in the gospel, and generally I find these complicated and problematic. This story from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, however, is one that important and liberating to a point. It is in this text that Jesus clarifies for all those around that sin is not the cause of disability for Jesus says “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed through him” (John 9:3). This is very liberating to people with disabilities because it separates sin from disability, in the words of Jesus, and long before science would show this to be true. Rev. Dr. Kathy Black points out that this healing story is different than others found in the gospels because whereas other healing stories end with the person with disabilities being integrated back in the community, in the case of the man born blind Jesus’ healing of the man results in his being expelled from the community. (A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Abington: Nashville, 1996, 72-73.) The blind man’s encounter with Jesus and his healing lead to controversy within his faith community. The man not only proclaims the work of Jesus to his community but he also calls Jesus a prophet! Like a good shepherd, Jesus seeks out the man when the community expels him and then the newly-sighted man accepts Jesus as the Son of Man. The healed man held fast to his experience of God, even when he faced losing his community because of it, and Jesus came to him there.
Whether we struggle with fault/blame, change, leaving, or how to approach the other this Lenten season let us hold fast to God with the hope that God holds fast to us as well.