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The Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2012
The Psalm: Psalm 23
Sermon: "Though or Through"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those
who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Though or Through
Back in the first century B.C., the world was largely unexplored, unknown, and unmapped. Mapmakers had to have some way of portraying those areas of the earth that were as yet unexplored, so they symbolized these regions by drawing in dragons, monsters and large fish. The message was clear. Uncharted territories were frightening, fearsome places. Terrors lay buried there. But, as many maps declared, “There be Treasures” as well.
One story from that time tells of a commander of a Roman legion. Caught up in a battle that took him into the territory that the mapmakers had represented with their monsters and dragons, he was uncertain as to whether to forge ahead into the unknown, or turn back into the known, which would also be a retreat. He dispatched a messenger to Rome with this urgent request: “Please send new orders. We have marched off the map.”
We are now marching off the map. Today we find ourselves in uncharted places as we march off the technological map, the environmental map, the political map, the economic map, the demographic map or virtually whatever map you can think of.
How can we possibly hope to navigate through all these uncharted realms; at least with any sense of our own selves still intact? Our Scripture readings this morning answer that question. They speak of the Shepherd who guides us, and they point us to the Twenty-Third Psalm; as it’s been called, the six longest short verses in the Bible.
The power of Psalm 23 comes from its use of two key words: though and through; the same word except for a single letter “r.” As we shall see, it is this one little letter that makes all the difference in the world. It is the letter that can turn your “though” into a through.”
David, the shepherd-king, knew the truth behind that first word “though”; there are real dangers in this life. There was no “if” about the reality of life’s obstacles and problems for him. Psalm 23 candidly faces the inevitable. It proclaims not “if” but “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Life isn’t all loaded tables, overflowing cups and green pastures. Sometimes our hair isn’t anointed with oil, but grimed with dirt. Sometimes we’re not lying in green pastures, but running just ahead of the prairie fire. Sometimes we’re not resting by the shore of still waters, but struggling to stay afloat in the raging tide.
Every one of us has a valley. Some of us have a valley we’ve been given at birth: a valley of poverty, or abuse, or disability. Some of us, born into green pastures, immediately proceed to dig our own valleys of shadow: through drugs, violence, ignorance, or prejudice. The psalmist accurately describes such of us as ones who have, as the King James Version puts it, “digged a pit…into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves.” (Psalm 57:6) (Say that one three times fast!)
But, while we are “walking” (note: the text doesn’t say we can “run” the valley) the “valley of the shadow,” God is with us, and this God who is with us, bears with us, bears all the sufferings and pains of the world and the hurts of our scared, scarred souls. God is with us in whatever we face. For the Christian, the Cross is the symbol of the agony endured by both the creation and the Creator.
Though none of us gets out of life without walking the valley, the Psalmist makes it plain that God does not intend for us to sojourn there forever. The valley of the shadow is something we go through. Valleys are not resting places or destinations, but passageways. We can walk through our crises. We can walk through our sorrows. We can walk through our pain. We can walk through our mistakes and failures. Because, what God promises us through the Twenty-Third Psalm is this: in all these valleys, He will walk through with us.
“Though” and “through” differ only by one small letter; the letter “r.” In American Sign Language, Ameslan, “r” is made by crossing the middle finger over the index finger. But crossed fingers have a history as sign language that far predates Ameslan. In the first centuries of the Church, when Christianity was wholly illegal and Christians were vigorously persecuted, believers found ways to communicate their faith in subtle cues. We’re all familiar with the sign of the fish, for instance. Accompanying a greeting or farewell, though, crossed fingers were also a code sign identifying Christians to one another as “people of the Cross.” The crossed fingers were a mute symbol for the Cross of Christ, and the redemption Christ’s death on that Cross brought to all people.
Today, crossed fingers usually mean something very different. When placed behind our backs, they mean that we don’t mean what we’re saying. When held in our laps, or up beside us, they mean that we are hoping something will or will not happen. We are wishing for luck. But when those first Christians first used “crossed-fingers,” it had nothing to do with luck. Those crossed fingers had everything to do with trust in God.
This is what the crossed fingers of the letter “r,” the difference that turns a “though” into a “through,” still means for you and me today. Though we walk in the valley of the shadow, we are not alone. Our shepherd is with us. Walking through the valley with us is the one who suffered as we suffer, and died as we die to draw us to God: Jesus Christ, the Crucified, our Savior. Reach out to him. He is with you. No matter what, he will bring you through.