Sermon: Shepherded Through the Valley by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

November 07, 2021

A meditation shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, November 7, 2021, observation of All Saints Sunday. “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series.
Texts: Psalm 23:1-4, John 11:32-44

I don’t know how old I was the summer my Nana decided to give me a penny for every verse of the 23rd Psalm I could recite from memory. Each day of my visit, I was asked to add another verse. And the version of the Psalm I was given to memorize was the King James version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” As a little one, I was uncertain why I’d say “yay” about walking through a place that sounded scary and sad. And I had no clue what it meant to say that God’s rod and staff comfort me—didn’t understand it might have something to do with God’s justice and compassion. I didn’t know then that the King James translation likely mistook the Hebrew word tzalamut which means “deep darkness” for the two words tzal mavet meaning “the shadow of death.” But there is something in the poetry of the King James that captures something so profound, so true that I believe its deepest meaning got through to my child’s heart anyway. In fact, it is in this verse that we really get to heart of this Psalm.

The poetic phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” paints a picture of deep valleys where the light of the sun is blocked by the mountains all around, leaving nothing but shadows. In that shadowy place the Psalmist says “I fear no evil”—not that there is no evil, but there is no need to fear. Why? Because “Thou art with me.”

In the places of our lives that are overshadowed with fear, uncertainty, confusion, pain, and grief that brings us to our knees, our God is with us. Perhaps amid a life-threatening diagnosis for yourself someone has shown up so that you weren’t alone. Or maybe when a loved one is awaiting test results, is critically ill, or has died, you’ve experienced a person just being there with you in whatever state you’re in, tacitly giving permission for you to be however you needed to be…available to do something or nothing, to talk or to be silent. In my experience, the “being there” is the most important thing. The Psalmist experienced God in just that kind of way. In this verse, the writer shifts from talking about God the shepherd, to conversing with the Shepherd who is with them and who will guide them through the valley.

In such deep darkness, finding our way over the mountains or through the valley can feel impossible. We can’t imagine ever feeling the proverbial warmth of the sun again. In that space, there are sometimes persons in our lives who know just how and when to gently remind us that the shadows need not be our dwelling place forever, those with the sensitivity to understand how to nudge us to shift, to take a step. And God is like that sensitive friend who nudges us at the right time. The Good Shepherd doesn’t desire that we remain in the places of suffering, pain, and grief.

Of course, it is part of being human to travel those paths—at least if we have any love within us. We will find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death at one point or another because human life is fragile and precious and it hurts when we witness the suffering of someone we love or when we come to our end or when one we love dies an earthly death and is no longer part of our experience here. Jesus wept at the pain of death and at the suffering that death caused for those he loved. For those grieving the loss of a child, a partner, spouse, parent, sibling, dear friend, it can feel like we are shut up in the grave with the one we love because so much of us is connected to them. I know some persons who really struggle to not allow their whole lives—their identity—to be defined by the loss they have suffered. For many others, to contemplate moving out of the shadows of grief feels like dishonoring the one we love; we may worry that we’ll forget or lose them if we move out of the valley.

Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that this is “why the Jewish calendar asks [the faithful] to pause five times a year, on the four holiday seasons and on the anniversary of a death, to remember those whom we have loved and lost. It is a way of giving us permission to go on with our lives without having to fear that we will forget, that we will leave precious but painful memories behind.”

Our annual All Saints celebration is one of those days in our Christian tradition, a time to give thanks and to remember those whose lives have enriched our own. It is a sad time, particularly for those whose grief is fresh, but also for all of us as we think about how much we miss our loved ones.

But it is also a time of joy for the profound gift of loving and being loved, of learning from and being inspired by those we remember. And this day, as Kushner suggests, can be a reminder that we can go on with our lives, that we aren’t forgetting our loved ones. We have permission to live, to allow God to help us move through the valley and step into a new stretch of our life’s journey nourished by the love we’ve received from the saints of our lives. Think about how you want your loved ones to live following your own departure from this life. Isn’t it a beautiful gift to imagine that your life can inspire others to keep loving when its hard, to keep going when the shadows are long and the terrain rocky and steep?

Rabbi Kushner observes that the author of the 23rd Psalm was one who “knew from personal experience what it feels like [to be] in the valley of the shadow. But…also knew that the valley is a temporary lodging, not a permanent home…[They came to learn that God’s role is not to protect us from pain and loss, but to protect us from letting pain and loss define our lives. The psalmist turned to God and God worked a miracle. The miracle was not that a loved one came back to life. The miracle was that the psalmist found their way out of the valley of the shadow. And that is a miracle.” Because to step out of the valley of the shadow of death is to receive new life.

In our Gospel today, Jesus came to the place of death and grieving. He was present with his dear friends and shared in their pain. And he did a miracle that revealed the power of God’s love to bring life out of death, new creation out of the place of grief. Jesus calls all of us out of the place of grief and shadows. Not when others thought it was the right time, but when God knew it was the right time.

As we remember this day, calling the names of those we love and see no more, may we also hear Jesus calling our names, inviting us and giving us grace to honor the loves we have known by moving out again and again into a new day, feeling sunlight on our face, facing the future unafraid. Because the Lord is our shepherd, and even when we journey through the most painful places we need not fear, for our loving God is with us, we are assured of God’s justice and compassion and, while the shadows grow long and threaten to overtake us, the promise, always, is that morning is coming. And “joy comes with the morning!” (Ps 30:5)