By: Rev. Naomi King
John 10:27 My sheep know my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
Oh, would it be true that religious life could acquire us a free pass on times of despair and great grief! But this week’s lection is a reminder that not even all the blessed and singing choirs washed in the blood of the lamb get there without enduring trials and tribulations (Revelation 7:14).
In the midst of such pain, we commonly pray for miracles – to turn back time before the car accident, to send that bullet into a tree, to see a dying child restored to health. Living in the valley of the shadow of death stinks; the spiritual abattoirs of our lives cause us to wretch, groan, and lose heart. Here under the reek of spoiled blood, we commonly fear not that this shadowed time will kill us, but that we will survive it.
What a blessing to have the practices returning our awareness to the fact that the Comforter of All is right with us! What wondrous love indeed, for these days of disorientation and despair, these troughs of fallow courage, these sloughs so murky and fouled we cannot begin to imagine wonder or beauty again.
We meet the people of Lydda in such a time (Acts 9:36). Here’s a people who thought no one would be taken from their midst. They believed everyone would live to see the judgment of the world. Not perceiving that judgment as apart from time and simultaneously part of every day, the folk of Lydda are bewildered and grieving not just at Tabitha’s loss, but with a deeper sense of betrayal of the holy promises. This growing sense of such betrayal gives rise in part to the visionary epistle called Revelation, and 7:9-17 is supposed to be a vision of assurance: yes, children, there will be trials and tribulations, but in the end, beautiful singing and clean clothes. You just know people are truly weary when clean clothes are part of the vision of restoration. This is a young-in-faith people, unsure and developing a sense of the shepherd’s voice, calling, calling them home (John 10:22-33).
So here are the frightened, confused, betrayed people of Lydda, before John’s epistlolary Revelation, new in their faith, living in truly desperate times, bewildered and frightened. And who’s the closest apostle to help? The Great Dispatcher sends….Peter.
Peter’s rep changes over the ages, but this is still early on. Sometimes he gets great results, a real miracle worker, and fiery communicator. But then he has that, y’know, little issue of denying Jesus en route to crucifixion, not once, but three times. Hot-headed, easily intimidated (Paul chides him about the whole food thing, coming up next week), fallible, wavering Peter. The Great Dispatcher sends to a people in the midst of fear, people wavering, the great symbol of likewise wavering. Peter gets another chance to redeem his reputation; Lydda has someone attending them who understands what’s going on. Just imagine what it would have been like if Paul had gone. Or Andrew. Not a terribly pastoral set of choices.
Peter arrives, and, having learned some of his lesson, doesn’t start talking except to pray. I imagine he’s on his knees, wondering about the promises made, his own grief at Tabitha’s demise, his own questions, old questions but with a fresh edge, cutting and quick so that Peter is surprised again at this new wash of fearful disorienting grief and despair. I wonder if he prayed the Twenty-third Psalm as a way to reorient himself, reconnect his senses with Abiding Love.
Sometimes miracles do happen. The people of Lydda get theirs. They’re given a little longer to develop a deeper faith. This is the natural order of being: we grow our faith by degrees, in fits and starts. But sometimes we aren’t given that respite. Sometimes terrible things happen and we have no choice but to grow right then and there. Blessed are the prayers and visions of assurance to help us limp through those labyrinthine depths of the soul.
I can no longer trust people to know the Twenty-third Psalm by heart; it used to be such a staple, and with some crowds, I still can. Gathering after a great loss, in the wake of senseless violence, numbed, afraid, unsure, I draw us together with this ancient prayer of assurance. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. (Psalm 23: 1-3a) Since so few know the words by heart these days, I repeat it phrase by phrase, and invite people along. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Ps.23: 3b-4) In the beginning of this process of journeying through the killing fields, the ways of the Comforter calls us to one another begin to become real. Hands reach out, heads lean against another’s shoulder, tears come. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Ps.23: 5-6) Our visions of assurance provide the next stage in reorienting us to Abiding Love. The shepherd calls and we answer (Psalm 23, John 10: 22-33).
Drawing ourselves back to the awareness of our blessings and moving aside the clouds of despair, it is a while before we sing hosanna again. But one day, a smile, a ray of sunlight, a bird taking flight unfurls our spirit bit by bit. We are different, transformed by the experience, and also affirmed in the Abiding Love that guides us, that tucks us in at night, that calls us, that offers, after all that bloody stinking messy tribulation, a change of clean clothes. Amen.
- Which apostle do you wish you were more like? Which one do you think you are most like?
- What are the stories and images you have about Peter?
- When have you wavered in your faith? How did you reconnect with the holy?
- When you have experienced great loss or tribulation, what helped you through?
- What prayers and songs comfort you in times of trial?
- If you sing one of those songs with your study group, what feelings come up for you? What stories? Where do they connect with the Bible? Your liturgical life?
Comfort me, holy one, in this time where I do not know how to go on, or what to do. My lips speak your name, but they are cold and listless. Soften my heart and show me the way in these melting tears, through the caring embrace of your called community. Help me find my way back to you, to your voice, to your quiet, to your music, to your abiding love. I do not know how or where or why or when. I wait. I wait. I wait for the shepherd, listening here in the stillness of my soul, warm hearts around me, compassion bearing me up, breaking open, discovering here this cup, here this oil, here this calling home. Amen.