A Psalm of David
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Sermon. April 25, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
Our focus today is on Lectio divina, which is Latin for “holy reading.” This is ancient form of prayer that is based on a slow and careful reading of Scripture. Focusing on one Scripture passage we go through a four stage prayer process.
The four stages of Lectio divina or holy reading are: Reading, Meditation, Prayer, and Contemplation. We will look at each of these stages. Then we will apply the Lectio divina process to Psalm 23. Psalms are a great resource for this form of prayer.
The first stage is Lectio, Latin for reading. We read the passage slowly. As we read slowly we seek to savor each word the way we would savor each bite in a fine dinner. In our constantly on, ever rushing, too much to do in too little time world, we slow down to the speed of deep prayer.
As we slowly read, a word or phrase may catch our attention. This is one way that God’s Word is speaking to us. It is helpful to read aloud, speaking and hearing God’s Word. Reading slowly, we listen to hear God’s voice.
We open ourselves to listen as God’s Word as we slowly speak, not for information but for transformation. When a word or phrase catches our attention or stands out, we stop.
Sometimes we might only read one verse in a passage. In fact, a daily holy reading of the six verses in Psalm 23 might take us a week or more. Sometimes we will read several verses before coming to a word or phrase that causes us to stop.
The second stage is Meditatio, Latin for meditation. We meditate on the word or phrase that caught our attention. We slowly read the verse several times. We ruminate on the word, phrase, or verse.
We let God’s Word embrace our being through repetition and reflection. If the first stage is like taking and savoring each bite of food during a fine dinner, in this stage we chew on the text. Ancient Christians likened pondering God’s Word to an animal chewing its food.
As we chew on the word or phrase that has spoken to us we explore what it saying and the ways it connects to our lives.
What emotions, challenges, opportunities, problems, joys, experiences, or wonder comes to the surface?
In the third stage, Oratio, we talk with God. Oratio is Latin for prayer. As Cyprian, an Early Church theologian from the 3rd century put it, “In Scripture, God speaks to us. In prayer we speak to God.”
Thelma Hall in her book, Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina speaks to the shift from reading and reflecting to the third stage of prayer:
“It is when the love of God touches our heart that we are drawn into the next level: Oratio, or prayer. All else has been preliminary, for this is the real beginning of prayer.”
We talk with God with a “prayer of the heart.” We have been reflecting on the way the word or phrase has touched our hearts and now we ask to the Holy Spirit to guide us into a deeper understanding. We connect our lives to God’s Word in prayer.
We move into the fourth and final stage, Contemplatio, which is Latin for contemplation. We are silent. We rest in God’s embrace, not doing, just being. We close with a prayer of thanksgiving.
Now we turn to applying Lectio Divina to Psalm 23. We are halfway through this sermon so we will be focusing on only one verse. The goal here is not to provide a verse-by-verse commentary on Psalm 23. Rather it is to model the process to encourage you to try Lectio Divina. This can be on Psalm 23 or another Scripture passage.
I will focus on verse 4 of Psalm 23:
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.”
I read verse 4 slowly. The whole verse resonates. The phrases “darkest valley,” “fear no evil,” “for you are with me” stand out. I feel the need to go deeper.
I read verse 4 slowly several times. I connect to a time when I walked through a darkest valley. A time when I faced an evil. A time when I felt God’s presence with me, comforting me.
This was in the fall of 2006. I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I can remember the urologist telling me how sorry he was as he shared the results of my Cat – scan. There was a mass throughout my left kidney. And also a spot in my lung. He offered to do the surgery, which he said he had done a few times before, or I could go to Fox Chase Cancer Center that had a surgeon who performed several of these surgeries each week. I elected to go to Fox Chase.
The surgery took place about five weeks after the initial diagnosis. A very long five weeks. Then, at the surgery the cancer collapsed as the kidney was removed. Although the scan has indicated that it was stage 4, it was actually stage 1A.
There was another waiting period. Six weeks of recovery.
After recovering from surgery there were more tests to see if there had been any spread to my lungs. It was determined that the spot had been there for years and was of no concern. And the spot never changed through several years of follow up Cat – scans.
For my meditation on Verse 4 what stands out especially is how I very much felt God’s presence throughout this experience. How I felt comforted by God’s presence during this time.
I most definitely consider cancer to be an evil. I ended up going to see my oncologist at Fox Chase many times over several years, first every three months, then six months, then annually. I’ve also been a pastor for a number of years. Cancer is an evil. And every cancer journey is different.
I know that cancer can bring fear. Fear of not knowing what might happen. Fear when we know the outcome will not be pleasant.
I also know that God is my shepherd. That God’s presence was with me during this walk through a darkest valley. That God’s shepherding (God’s rod and staff) comforted me.
As I meditate on Verse 4, the walk through a darkest valley, and God’s comforting presence with me during this difficult time, I am led to pray.
I give thanks to God for God’s presence during my cancer journey. During the uneasy weeks between diagnosis and surgery, during recovery and additional testing, and during the years of follow up.
I give thanks to God for my health and well – being. That we are given two kidneys and can function with just one.
I give thanks to God for the empathy my cancer journey gave me. Empathy that has deepen my ability to be a minister to others.
I stop and listen to God. I open my heart, quiet and still. In silence I breathe deeply.
With each breath, the gift of life. With each breath, the presence of God. I am humbled. I am thankful.