Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 21, 2013

2013.04.21 “Fear No Evil” – Psalm 23

Central United Methodist Church

Fear No Evil

Psalm 23

The 4th Sunday of Easter

April 21st, 2013

                              The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

                              He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

                    He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul;

                    He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.      

                              Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

                    I will 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 runs over.

                              Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

                    And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

                                                            Psalm 23, The New King James Version

What a week it has been, requiring of us the full range of our emotions!  Whatever we were facing going into the week, it was reduced to irrelevancy by the Boston Marathon bombing.  And then – last, and relative to the others, least – there was our wet weather, from which some of us are still drying out.

Just a week ago, many of us were grieving the death of Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, whom has been my “go to” guy for movie reviews since I came to Chicago in the early ‘70s.  On the Monday before he died, when he announced the return of his cancer, I seriously thought about writing him a letter to say thanks. But then, he said he wasn’t going anywhere.  Turns out he was; the next day he died, the loss of another of Chicago’s originals.  There aren’t many left.

Over the weekend, I was in mourning after the death of my friend of 37 years, down in Memphis. Outside of my own family, Earl Major and his wife Mabel were two of most loved friends I’ve had in my life.  I miss them tremendously.

Then, on Monday came the Boston Marathon bombings. The advantage and disadvantage of modern media is its immediacy: it puts us into the middle of the action. For me, who spent almost two decades as a first responder running into disasters, it pumps me with adrenaline when I watch those videos; I wish I could be there to help. I commend the courage and skill of all those who immediately responded. It is often a signature of professional bombers to rig a secondary device, specifically to maim and kill first responders. Fortunately these were not professional bombers, though at the time nobody knew that, so their courage in responding was courageous.

What gets us all, of course, is the senseless tragedy of it. We mourn those who lost their lives: Martin Richard, 8; Krystle Campbell, 29; Lu Lingzi, 23; MIT security officer, Sean Collier, 26.  And so many who lost legs, which will change the course of their lives.

Martin Richard, age 8

Martin Richard, age 8

Krystle Campbell, age 29

Krystle Campbell, age 29

Student Lu Lingzi, age 23

Student Lu Lingzi, age 23

MIT Security Officer Sean Collier, age 26

MIT Security Officer Sean Collier, age 26

What’s always amazing are the stories that come to light in the wake of tragedy. This picture, for example, of Jeff Bauman, Jr., who would lose both legs below the knee. Running along beside him (literally pinching closed his femoral artery to keep him from bleeding to death) is the hero in the cowboy hat, Carlos Arredondo. In 2004, upon the news that his Marine son had been killed in Iraq, in grief and anguish tried to set afire the van of the Marines who came bearing the news, and in the process, set himself on fire. After that, his other son – unable to bear the loss of his brother – committed suicide. Carlos quit his job to work for peace and to bear witness to the cost of war. He was there for that reason Monday, handing out flags, and ran into the scene to help, helping save Mr. Bauman’s life.  (Note:  Mr. Bauman had no health insurance, so a fund has been established to help him meet the considerable expenses. The Facebook page may be found at: https://www.facebook.com/supportjeffandfamily )

Jeff Bauman, Jr with Carlos Arredondo and first responders

Jeff Bauman, Jr with Carlos Arredondo and first responders

Newlyweds Patrick & Jessica Downes

Newlyweds Patrick & Jessica Downes

There was the story of newlyweds Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky Downes. Jess is a nurse from the West Coast; Pat was a Boston College graduate and Cambridge boy; the two of them together, were selfless and warm, cherished by their friends. They were caught in the blast, and were taken to two separate hospitals; each wound up losing a leg. By Thursday, their story as told in social media had so moved people that $300,000 had been given to help with expenses, probably much more by now.  As someone noted, just when such horrible acts make you doubt the goodness of people, the outpouring of caring and generosity convinces you of it.

After the bombing came the investigation, followed by the release of pictures and video, which spurred the suspects into action, which led to their pursuit, the killing of one of them and the eventual capture of the other. Already, a picture of the dead body of the dead suspect has been leaked onto the internet, which some have rejoiced over, as an image of justice. The other suspect is in treatment and custody at the same hospital as some of his victims. I am thankful they captured him alive, because only he can answer the biggest question that remains, which is “Why?”

During all this, here in Chicago – where weather often seems to be public enemy No. 1 – we had our own problems, torrential rain and flooding.  Some of us are still drying out.  If you didn’t flood this time don’t smirk; as we’ve all learned from experience, next time it may be our turn (again).

After such a week, what we may all be left with is a deep sense of fear and insecurity.  After such a horrific event, it seems like we never know, when and where and in what form disaster is going to happen, whether in schools or streets.  It is sometimes the case – as it was with those who were victims Monday – that we can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Should that ever be our misfortune, or the misfortune of those we love, may God give us the wisdom and courage to do the right thing, may God give us the strength and faith to get through whatever happens, and – dare I say – may God give us forgiveness for those who have done evil.  The only alternative is to go through life angry and embittered, which the victims – especially those who lost loved ones, or limbs – will surely be tempted to do.  I would, wouldn’t you?

After such a week, at such times in our lives, one place we can turn to seek wisdom and courage, strength and faith, are the Scriptures, especially our favorites. And one of our favorites that we hear from this morning, our old friend, Psalm 23.

Psalm 23 is a meditation on the place and role of God in our lives. It employs not one metaphor, but several: God as shepherd, God as guide, God as host, all of which are deeply meaningful to us at various times in our lives.

After the week we’ve had – which is nothing compared to the week the people of Boston have had – the aspect of Psalm 23 I want to focus on today is how Psalm 23 assures us that even when the dark nights, difficult weeks, and deep valleys of our lives come, even there, God is with us.

In a sermon several years ago, Leonard Sweet pointed out that part of the power of Psalm 23 comes from its use of two key words: though and through.

My namesake, David, the innocent shepherd boy to whom Psalm 23 is attributed, knew that there is no “if” to the reality of obstacles and problems in life, that there are dangers lurking around every corner. He knew that even when we are led by God in the paths of righteousness, even those ways lead through eventually lead through valleys of darkness. So he did not say “if,” he said “though” I walk through the valley of the shadow.

Every one of us has a valley; we’ve either been through it or going to go through it. Some of us have a valley we were born with, such as poverty, or abuse, or disability. Some of us, born into green pastures of plenty, dig our own valleys, through drugs or alcohol, violence, ignorance, prejudice, only to name a few of the ways we do that.

But while we walk the valley (or try to run it), Psalm 23 teaches that even there God is with us. And though” none of us gets through life without walking the valley, God does not intend for us to stay in the valley forever. The valleys are places to pass through; not resting places, rather passageways to new life. We can walk through our problems; we can walk through our sorrows; we can walk through our pain. What Psalm 23 promises is that, in all these journeys, the Lord walks with us.

The late Robert McAfee Brown once wrote, “Whatever the status of evil in the world, I know that the only God in whom I can believe will be a God found in the midst of evil rather than at a safe distance from it; suffering evil rather than inflicting it.”

We believe that was the meaning of Jesus on the cross: an image of God who is with us, bearing the sufferings and pains of the world, including the hurts of our scared, scarred souls. For Christians, the cross becomes the symbol of God with us, especially in times of suffering.

Leonard Sweet also pointed out this: “Though” and “through” are the same word, except for that letter “r”, which makes all the difference. It’s the letter that can turn your “though” into a “through.”

In American Sign Language, “r” is made by crossing the middle finger over the index finger. But crossed fingers have a history that far pre-dates American Sign Language.

Today, crossed fingers mean something very different. When we place them behind our back, they mean that we don’t mean what we’re saying. When we hold them in our lap, they mean we hope something will or won’t come to pass.

Back in 1994, Russ Chiodo was Director of Emergency Services for Beaver County, PA.  He was the person in charge of picking up body parts from the 132 people who died on the ill-fated USAir Flight 427, which crashed on its way from Chicago to Pittsburgh on September 8, 1994. When asked what it was like to bag body parts with no human faces left, Chiodo confessed the sight that affected him the most: “The thing I’m not going to be able to forget for a long time is finding a hand with its fingers crossed, as if for luck.”

But before crossed fingers came to mean those things, they meant something else. It was Christians who invented “crossed fingers.” And they had nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with trust in God.

In the first centuries of the Church, when Christianity was illegal and Christians were persecuted, believers found ways to communicate their faith in subtle ways.  Accompanying a greeting or farewell, crossed fingers were a code sign, identifying Christians to one another as “people of the cross.”

This is what the crossed fingers of the letter “r” still mean to Christians today, and it is the difference that turns a “though” into a “through.” Though we may walk through the valley of darkness, we are not alone, for God is with us. We walk through the valley with the Crucified One, who suffered and died for our sake.

Even after such a week, even at those times when fear and insecurity threaten to get the best of us, we can say: “I fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Say it with me: “I fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Amen.

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