Text: Psalm 23
Theme Verse: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)
When all hell breaks loose in your life, what do you hold onto? What grounds you in such uncertainty if anything at all? The 23rd Psalm is perhaps the most recognizable passage in all of Scripture. Many memorized those 110 words as a child and, for some, it is the final thing their memory is able to hold onto when their time on earth comes to a close. Do you need some grounding in your life right now? The Shepherd’s Psalm may be a good place to start.
reader : Rick Bohls
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
My middle son, Dane, is eight years old. He was only sixteen months old when we moved here so you’re the village that has raised him. Whether that’s credit or blame is yet to be determined. He’s as sweet as they come – a sensitive and loving spirit, quietly curious about the deeper things of life. He asked me something last Sunday at lunch that he’s never asked before. He looks at me and asks as casually as can be: “How’d you feel about your sermon, dad?” “Oh, well, Dane, one can never be sure, you know? Sermons have as much to do with the hearer as they do the preacher. And the Spirit of God is really responsible for any transformation of course.” My stammered response must have had him convinced I wasn’t so sure about the sermon so he offers this, “Do you think the baby dedication saved it?” We dedicated little Miller Buell at the first service last week. I smiled and had to ask, “Why do you think that?” Dane says, “People love baby dedications.” I could only respond, “Yep. I think Miller saved it.” And he probably did. We do love the presence of new life, don’t we? There is something innocent and pure and hopeful about the whole thing. Like, maybe he won’t make the mistakes I’ve made or maybe she’ll grow up and save the world from the mess that seems to be ever present. It’s a foundational moment, one where we wonder if we can build a life on something solid again.
I’m finding this to be such a time in the world. No matter what side of things you are on about any given matter of the day, there seems to be universal agreement that everyone’s a bit on edge – a little fragile and sensitive and catty and concerned about what’s happening in the world. Truth is… we’ve been here before. In the first century B.C.E., much of the world was unexplored, unknown and mostly unmapped. Mapmakers of the day had to have some way of portraying those areas of the earth that were not yet explored – Google Earth wasn’t around, remember. Mapmakers symbolized these unexplored areas with images of dragons, monsters and large fish. It certainly made for a clear message – uncharted territories were frightening, fearsome places. Michael Jackson’s Thriller immediately started playing any time you crossed the boundary line into those territories. Terrors lay buried there. But – most of the maps also declared, “There be Treasures” as well (and I can’t help but say that like a pirate for some reason). One commander of a battalion of Roman soldiers was in a heated battle that drove him into an uncharted territory that mapmakers had represented with their monsters and dragons. Uncertain about forging ahead into the unknown but not wanting to turn back into previously known territory which would also mean retreat, the commander dispatched a messenger to Rome with this urgent request: “Please send new orders. We have marched off the map.” 
Friends, we are now marching off the map. And we may see monsters and dragons and large fish and fear this unknown territory. I don’t pretend to have the answers and there is not a baby dedication today to save the sermon. What do we do? I have some sense that such instability calls for some stable forces in our lives. A line shared last week that several of you have held on to was this: “It is easy to irritate people. It’s much harder to influence them.” We humans have some knee-jerk tendencies… some more knee focused, some more jerk focused… but knee-jerk reactions nonetheless. We want action and we lash out first with the deadliest of all weapons – our tongues. Little kids can draw you into this tendency. The child gets going and going, ranting or whining or something, and that clacker in your head is going off and then the tongue is pulled from its holster and the firing begins. One mom recently said to a group I was in that she was trying to stay extra calm with her toddler one morning. Her daughter was just emoting all over the place and the mom said through strained eyes and voice: “I hear emotions! I hear emotions. Please give words to those emotions.” I’m hearing a lot of emotions in our world right now and most of the words we’re giving to the emotions are bully words of the playground – not productive words that project anything constructive. We have marched off the map.
I wonder if some of the new orders we’re looking for can come from the living tradition of our faith. Such won’t always come as fast as we might like but they’ll be something we can build on if we take them seriously; if we let them soak into our souls again so that we can move ahead faithfully. I say, “Again,” as for many of you, the words we build on today are familiar. The twenty-third Psalm is a great-grandma sort of Psalm. It’s there, arms open to the great-grandchild with no expectation other than an accepting hug, some delight, and a little soul encouragement. This is probably why this Psalm is the most requested passage to be shared at memorial services. It doesn’t skip over the pain of the world but also gives way to the promises of God to lead us through it all. Some of you probably memorized this scripture as a child. I’ve known of some who start every day of their lives by reciting this passage. It is a prayer, a mantra, an offering of spirit to open their day to God. I know families who reach out their hands to one another any time it is read – a connective reminder of a loved one who had these words read at their memorial service. There’s a foundation-building comfort that comes in claiming the promise of this Psalm. Some have called it the six longest short verses in the Bible because of its richness; it’s fullness, packed into a few short lines. It tells us something deep about who the Lord is. What does it mean to you?
We could dissect each line and there’s some gift in that to be sure but I wonder if we can consider two key words in particular found in the 23rd Psalm: though and through. Same word except for the single letter “r”. There really is a big difference for it’s a letter that can turn your though into a through. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. No ifs, ands, or buts about it; we will face this though. The shadow side of life – the hard stuff; the gritty stuff that we’d just assume pass on politely when it comes our way.
The Rev. Owen Chandler is a friend and colleague who serves as Senior Minister at a church in Tucson, Arizona. I got to see him this week as I spent time in prayer with the leadership team of the Bethany Fellows, a ministry that supports young ordained clergy just out of seminary. Owen was a Fellow back when I was as well. This Sunday will be his first Sunday in the pulpit at his church in about fifteen months. Owen is a chaplain in the army reserves and he got called up and deployed to Iraq to serve in that combat zone at Thanksgiving 2015. He left behind a wife and three kids under the age of six. He just got home and coming home is sort of sensory overload for him and his family. It was fascinating to hear of his experience – I hope he’ll write a book about his time there. Perspective changes pretty quickly. When he talked about the ministry he did there, he said, “People get intentional about their faith pretty quick in a war zone.” He said he could have a deeper conversation with a soldier in twenty minutes about their faith than a parishioner in his church in twenty-years. Lots of shadow-of-death walking in those places. And he admitted the rush of flying in a Blackhawk helicopter at night into a new territory even as he said there are a lot of terrible things that happen to the mind, body, and spirit of people when it comes to war. He said, they would move in and take over a village peacefully but there’d be a few pot shots fired their way from the shadows. Then they’d move to the next village and a couple more pot shots fired their way and then the US battalion would just wipe out the whole village: men, women, and children. Owen said, some of the guys would say, “That’s the way it should be.” Others were quite distraught. And Owen would talk with them about moral bankruptcy. These realities create the post traumatic stress realities of our men and women who come home from serving in war and we need to help create spaces for them to process things. Owen believes the reserve bases in the States have little to no care from churches who could reach out to help the necessary healing among those serving in that capacity.
It is clear to me that Owen had a voice the troops respected. They listened to him; primarily because he listened to them first. There were people from every possible city and culture and background you could imagine – some faith, some without faith, didn’t matter. Owen was there for them. “I’m the only soldier the Army allowed to be empathetic.” Owen was awarded a bronze medal for his care of some 2,600 of our people serving in Iraq. Owen led the effort to build The Resiliency Center at their base. The Center was a partnered effort of care and renewal for the spirits of our troops aimed to give them hope and an outlet when despair and suicide seemed to be the only way out. This Center was the first of its kind. And it’s saving lives. Owen is home but his spirit is torn because the mission continues. When asked “What’s one thing you’d like people to know about your experience?” he replied, “That it’s still going on.” Now Owen is mostly a pacifist but doing ministry in the trenches – caring for the souls of people walking the “thoughs” everyday – is one he remains passionate about.
If you think about it, the fact that there’s a shadow of death portrayed in this Psalm insinuates that there is the presence of a light source. Owen said these prayers grounded him every day. No matter who you’re trying to help every day in your world – and that should be part of our everyday, being a blessing to someone else – you’ve got to stay grounded or you’ll fly off the handle. Influence takes time and care and empathy. Understand the valley another is walking through before you try to correct them because you’ve got something figured out that you know they need to know or think or do. If Owen can do that in a warzone, surely we can honor each other in our own community.
Truth is, every one of us has a valley of some kind. It may be addiction or abuse of some kind. It may be violence or ignorance or prejudice. It may be debt or a health issue or that of a family member we’re trying to convert his or her though to a through. It’s hard and there’s no way around that. And it’s a walk, sometimes a painfully slow walk. I wish you could run through it, you know, “Yea though I run through the shadow of death…” but it’s a slow pace. I saw this posted somewhere recently that speaks to this truth: “When God wants to make a mushroom, he does it overnight, but when he wants to make a giant oak, he takes a hundred years. Great souls are grown through struggles and storms and seasons of suffering. Be patient with the process.” Someone will remind me after service as at least someone always does, “It’s not as easy as it sounds.” And I always respond, “I know. It’s not.” When you’ve gone off the map, it’s hard. Richard Rohr says that the meta-narrative (or the over-arching story of the faith in Scripture) is that “I was lost but am being found.” And it’s hard being lost. It’s terrifying and we get all defensive because our world gets upended and we don’t know what to do.
I came across a quote from the organizers of the Yellowstone Half Marathon. It says, “It feels good to be lost in the right direction.” I just keep sitting with that line and thinking about what it means. I assume they are talking about losing one’s self in the beauty of creation all the while running with purpose toward some finish line. There’s a sense of being lost and in the process of actively being found in the very same experience. These quotes are coming up on my feed these days because I’m planning to run my first half-marathon this summer. There. I’ve said it and you can hold me accountable to the goal. Some of you know my wife, Carrie, is a serious runner and I’m trying to get lost in her joy and so I said, “I’m in” and we picked a memorable place to do it. We were thinking Yellowstone but as the timing and such has come to pass, we’re going to run The Grand Tetons Half-Marathon in June. Another beautiful setting. It has its own quote to ponder. “I don’t care how long it takes me, but I am going somewhere beautiful.” What a spirit to hold for each of us as we walk through the shadowed valleys. The promise of God is that we are going through it… through the though to someplace beautiful. Through the though… that little “r” is deeply important.
I took American Sign Language when I was in elementary school. It was a little after school class that didn’t last terribly long but just taught some of us the basics. I can still recall the alphabet and a few words but it’s similar to my piano skills – I can play some of the Maple Leaf Rag from finger memory but that’s pretty much it. In American Sign Language, do you know how the letter “r” is represented? You cross your middle finger over your index finger. Go ahead and try. That’s the letter “r”. What’s fascinating about this is that this was an important sign far before ASL came into being. As the Church was taking off in the first centuries of her existence, Christianity was illegal and persecution was common. Believers found ways to communicate their faith in subtle ways. Whenever they were greeting someone or saying goodbye, they would flash crossed fingers as a code for Christians identifying themselves as “people of the cross.” It was a silent symbol representing the redemption of Jesus’ though of the cross. Today we may think about crossed fingers as a symbol of good luck but the Christians who first gave meaning to the symbol knew it had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with trust in God.
The map you are holding right now might show some dragons and monsters and giant fish out there. There may be some sense that you’ve totally marched off the map into new and uncharted territory. There will always be some uncertainty in such times and so we are left to ask, “What are we building our lives on these days?” Is it fear? It is anger? Is it hatred or disgust or panic or judgment? Is it emotion? “I hear emotions!” Or… is it a foundational faith? Steady… secure. The psalmist says, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The honor of God is at stake. “He restores my soul.” This can be translated, “I come to life again.” I will go through dark valleys, but I’ll trust and honor God… and… I will come to life again. I will be restored. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Friends, this Psalm is a firm and worthy foundation from which to build our lives together. It puts seasons of life in perspective. It calls for mutual respect and empathy. It may take us a while to get there but I know we’re going somewhere beautiful. In a time where there are few unified voices, I wonder if we might join our voices together to offer this psalm as a prayer of solidarity with one another and with our call of the cross to love sacrificially, serve faithfully, and live graciously. If you’re inclined, take the hand of someone(s) close to you and join me with your voice, the sharing of the 23rd Psalm…
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 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. Amen.
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 Halford E. Luccock’s “Marching off the Map and Other Sermons” is credited for this story though my source was from Senior Writer of Homiletics Online, Bob Kaylor, who utilized the map metaphor as well as the comparison of though and through in his 1995 work, “The Six Longest Short Verses in the Bible.” I adapted those two illustrations for this message.
 A quote from Adam Hamilton’s Facebook post the prior week.
 The ASL piece ties into Kaylor’s though/through motif.