Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
As a young boy, I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. My closest friend was a classmate of mine from kindergarten, named Thomas Arnold, but we all knew him as “Tres,” because his full name was Thomas Arnold, the third, named after his father and after his grandfather. Like so many boys at that young age, Tres and I were inseparable, spending the night at each other’s houses, riding bikes, getting in trouble together at school.
When I was ten years old, I moved back to Houston, and was sad to be moving away from Tres. He was my best friend at the time. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back now, I remember Tres had a temper. He would get angry, and sometimes would become inconsolable. At those times, I remember not understanding his anger, or why he felt the way he did.
As years went by, Tres and I gradually fell out of contact, and rarely, if ever communicated once we were in high school. We had new friends, new schools, and new driver’s licenses. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I went back to Phoenix, though not to see Tres, but rather, sadly, to attend his funeral. Tres, I learned, suffered from a severe depression that drained him of life, and inflicted him with a sense of despair. It was a despair so heavy, that for Tres, there was only one way to escape it.
Almost twenty-five years later, and as a parent now, I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like for his parents. Out of that experience, though, Tres’ mother emerged a changed woman. Because even in the hell of that experience, she discovered that she was not alone – that God was with her.
Her awareness of God’s presence echoes that of the author of the twenty-third psalm, who writes “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” I have heard from many people that their greatest fear is not dying, but being alone. We are wired to be connected with one another – it is in our DNA.
We desire and want authentic friendship that is not based on who or what others want us to be – we want people to be connected to us for who we honestly are. When I pray the words of Psalm 23, and say “I fear no evil for you are with me,” for a long time I have understood the “you” to be God. And it surely is.
But as I read the psalm now, I understand the word “you” differently. Yes it refers to God, but it also refers to you (pointing). It is a prayer for companionship. Because we are with God when we are with each other. That’s called solidarity – we find ourselves drawn into God’s life when we are drawn into the lives of others, friends, neighbors, and strangers.
Tres’ mother and father stumbled into a valley of death. The author of the psalm knows this world. There is no promise here of life without enemies or evil. Instead, in this very valley, surrounded by enemies and death, God builds a table. – a place for fellowship and communion, for being with God and one another. Around the table, that is where God happens.
As a church we practice a stubborn hope, the stubbornness of building tables wherever we find ourselves – no matter how precarious our lives, we do what God does: make room for people at the table so that they too may grow into eternal life. That’s what the church is: a table where all are welcome to sit and rest in God’s love.
In the valley Tres’ parents found themselves in, they built a table. His mother, Kimball, was later ordained a Deacon in the Episcopal Church where she now serves in Arizona. She continues to practice resurrection through her work as a grief counselor, working with parents and children who have faced unspeakable loss. She is to those people experiencing unimaginable pain an icon of God’s presence in the darkest valley, a reminder that no valley is too dark for God.
Today you might find yourself in a dark valley. If so, look around, because I guarantee someone has been in that valley before you. That person has built a table in that valley, and there is a seat with your name on it. And at that table all are welcome to eat and drink God’s life in that place where there is no need to fear any evil, for God was in the valley long before you ever arrived. AMEN.