By Daniel J. Webster
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” The words of the Psalm 23 are familiar to many. Those words are being recited or sung throughout Episcopal and other Christian churches last Sunday. The readings are about the Lord or Jesus as the good shepherd.
Yet many people will be afraid to go to church. Or they will refrain from taking communion or passing the peace with a handshake because of the fear that has gripped nations because of the spread of a virus.
The collect or opening prayer at Episcopal Sunday services asks God to “grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”
Where are we led in the face of such paralyzing fear, illness or even death? We have some examples.
In 1878 Memphis, Tennessee was hit by an epidemic of yellow fever. A group of more than 100 Anglican and Catholic nuns led by Sister Constance heard the voice of God calling and felt they needed to stay in the city and care for the sick and dying. Constance and her companions are commemorated on the Episcopal Church calendar on September 9. They are known as the Martyrs of Memphis. Only two of the sisters survived.
So many people died there or fled, Memphis lost its designation as a city. It took 14 years to regain the population and its city status.
Several centuries earlier some unnamed followers of Jesus living in the Roman Empire were singled out for their unselfish response to a plague that killed millions.
It was 160 C.E. Roman troops returning from the Near East brought with them an illness never seen before by Galen, the emperor’s physician. The disease spread from Greece to Rome to Gaul. Some medical historians believe 2,000 a day died in Rome. As many as a third of the population in some regions were killed. Total deaths in the 15 years that the plague rocked the empire have been put at 5 million.
Galen was among the many who fled to the countryside. But in his notes about the plague he had some interesting observations about one group of people. The followers of Jesus heard a call to heal or at least alleviate suffering. Many did not flee the cities but felt called to stay.
“[For] the people called Christians . . . contempt of death is obvious to us every day . . . They also include people who, in self-discipline . . . in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a level not inferior to that of genuine philosophers,” as quoted in Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief (Vintage, 2007).
Galen did live to write about it. Many of the unnamed followers of Jesus did not. There are those who even today will say Galen was smart to flee, to live another day. But there are those who see their baptism in Christ as dying with Christ and living into a new life. That life can also lead to the death of the body.
But if we hear the voice of the shepherd calling us, assuring us, that death cannot kill us just like it did not kill Jesus, then our answer will be to heal, alleviate suffering, calm the fears, comfort the anxious.
We are an Easter people. We live in the light of the resurrection. We are the Body of Christ witnessing to that resurrection every day. Nothing can kill that.
The Rev. Canon Daniel J. Webster is canon for congregational development in the Diocese of New York and Vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Montgomery, New York.