There is a tradition at Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square, Boston, to have special prayers for those who will be running the Boston Marathon; after all, the church sits just a couple of hundred yards from the finish line. The day before this year’s marathon, the rector, the Rev. Samuel Lloyd, told some gathered runners, “You may think the church is beautiful now, but the next time you see it, it will look like the Kingdom of God when you are coming in your exhausted state.”
On April 15, Trinity Church did look like the Kingdom of God, despite the shaking of the foundations by two bombs that killed three people and maimed and injured hundreds of others. Trinity looked like the Kingdom of God standing Boston-strong in the midst of chaos.
But the Kingdom of God was seen not just in a building but in a people – the people who ran to help even before the second explosion went off. That’s the Kingdom of God in action.
We haven’t really experienced a week like this since the attacks of 9/11 – first it was Boston, then it was the explosion that leveled the town of West, Texas, and finally, poisoned letters sent to government officials. And even though the bad guys have been found and will face justice, these events leave us shaken. Again.
In writing to his congregation, Lloyd said, “The goal of terrorist is to leave people feeling people frightened and make them reactive and concerned about their safety, feeling vulnerable. While Bostonians are very strong, resilient people, there still is something that has shaken them. What is our answer to the terrorists? The 23rd Psalm may be the best antidote we have to this attempt to scare us into being people we don’t want to be.”
If you think about the 23rd Psalm at all, you may think of it as the overused psalm of funerals, one designed to bring comfort and solace, which it does. But today I want to think about it as a text made for the terror of our time, as suggested by blogger Timothy Simpson. We can get so caught up in the pastoral images of the psalm that we ignore the vivid way it describes the world today: though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
It’s easy to forget – maybe because we want to – that we have been down this path before. In July 2005, the city of London was under siege from a series of terrorist bombings. No place seemed safe. But then a surprising thing happened. The slogan “We are not afraid” began to pop up everywhere. Pictures were taken and posted showing people posing with their own handwritten signs to the terrorists. We are not afraid.
This generation was showing the same grit their grandparents showed during the London blitz, when the city became the focus of devastating bombing during the Second World War. The catch phrase then was “Keep calm and carry on.” And they did. In 2005, it was, “We are not afraid.” And now, in our sister city, it is “Boston strong.”
All of this is a reflection that every day we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Every day. But wherever that walk takes us we shall fear no evil. Why? Because you, Lord God, are with me. Everywhere. Every day. In every circumstance.
Simpson blogged, “The Psalmist doesn’t deny the reality of evil, nor its capacity to wreak havoc. But the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance in the face of this real threat – No Fear. Not because the FBI is already on the scene. Not because enhanced surveillance methods will allow (us) to identify the perpetrators more quickly and effectively. But rather because ‘you are with me.’ ”
It’s the core claim of biblical faith, of our faith in Jesus. Remember that one of the names of Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us. We sing about that at Christmas time, but this is a song for all seasons. God is truly with us and for us. Because we live in a world that is fallen, there are people who are literally bent out of shape by sin – who become less than the image of God and who aren’t content until they bend the rest of us out of shape.
But that isn’t the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is to stand up to the evil of the world and say, “We are not afraid.” Why? “Because Jesus, you are with me.” Because Jesus always has the last word. This Easter season is the last word – life and resurrection – not death and despair.
Jesus never told his followers that being with him and in him would be protection from the dangers of the world. In fact, at the Last Supper, he told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” And then he added these words, “But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
And we saw that in action in Boston. When the explosions went off, people ran in to help the injured. There was act upon act of grace under fire as strangers went to help the injured. They were acting under the spirit of the original First Responder, Jesus Christ. “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” Those weren’t words so much as actions, as people did all they could to help those in need.
In such actions, we saw the last words of the 23rd Psalm acted out: “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.” Where evil raised its head on Monday, goodness and mercy followed to put the flames out. Never forget that in the battle of good and evil, it is never a level playing field. Goodness always wins out because God wins. That is the story of Easter. God wins.
Keep calm and carry on. We are not afraid. Boston strong. Fear no evil – for you Lord God are with me. Now and always. And in that we see the Kingdom of God here on earth.
THE REV. DR. CYNTHIA TAYLOR IS THE PASTOR OF CHURCH OF THE HOLY COMFORTER IN MARTINEZ.