Between the Valley and the Mountaintop

Good Shepherd

[This is my sermon manuscript from yesterday. I promise I wont make it a habit to share sermons in this space. I just felt compelled to share this particular one in hopes that it may bring a word of comfort and perhaps challenge to others as it certainly did for me while I was preparing it].

It has been a difficult week for many! On Monday two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. Three people have died 183 others were injured. Throughout the week we have been bombarded by images. We now know that two brothers from Chechnya – one of them now dead after a shootout with the police – were responsible. The younger brother has since been taken into custody. We probably have heard by now that one brother was a med student, the other an engineer and heard much made of at least one of the brother’s ties to Islam. You may have read the same interview I did with the boys’ uncle in which he stated “It has nothing to do with them being Muslim. They’re losers”

Elsewhere, 12-15 people have died in Texas after a fertilizer plant exploded.  Among those confirmed dead are 6 firefighters and 2 paramedics. Homes and businesses surrounding the plant have been leveled. You may have heard that there has been a series of sexual attacks in Delhi India that have created outcry. It began on December 16 with the gang-rape and murder of a Delhi student. This past week there was the kidnapping, sexual abuse and week-long captivity of a 5 year old girl. Local police have been accused of a cover up and of bribing the family to keep silent.

Closer to home on Tuesday night, a total of 63 people became sick and 13 were rushed to the hospital after a leaking of hazardous materials at the Aspen Surgical building in Caledonia. And perhaps less fatal but nonetheless quite serious for many families already struggling financially, the rains have beat down upon us this week in West MI, leaving the basements of many homes and businesses flooded. People who can’t afford it are paying thousands of dollars in repairs for new sub pumps, damaged vehicles and other losses. Perhaps God’s people could use some comfort this week!?!?

The 23rd Psalm. It is perhaps the most instantly recognizable passage in all of scripture. In the early church catechumens were asked to memorize this Psalm by heart before their baptism. Saint Gregory of Nyssa has a famous prayer based off of this Psalm that begins:

“Where are you pasturing your flock, O good Shepherd, who carry the whole flock on your shoulders? (for the whole of human nature is one sheep and you have lifted it onto your shoulders).”

Indeed friends, this image of Shepherd has brought comfort and delight to the people of God for centuries upon centuries. In John’s gospel this image for God is applied to our Lord where it finds new and ultimate meaning as Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is an image that covers stained glass windows in Catholic cathedrals, in Baptist chapels and in churches everywhere in between across the globe.

If you are like me you may have a collection somewhere of programs from funerals of those close to you. I have several of these: my friend Tim from childhood who died in his early 20’s of liver cancer; my friend Ryan from seminary who died in his early 30’s after a battle with alcoholism and my mother who also died far too early at the age of 50 from a rare neurological disease. They all have Psalm 23 on them somewhere. In our times of mourning and confusion there is great respite in the image of green pastures and the reminder that it is God who restores the soul. Even in the darkest valley we can find comfort in God.

Before I learned to read, like most children, I memorized. Parents and teachers often use picture books because before we learn our ABC’s or all of the rules of grammar, pictures can prompt us to remember a story. I remember well the first two stories that I memorized. The first was curious George rides a bike! I read this with my own children recently. As I read the words and matched them with the pictures memories flooded over me.

The second thing I memorized was the 23 Psalm, not from a picture book but from my mother reading it to me out of her King James Bible. I think the reason I was able to memorize it was because of association with the evocative imagery: the green pastures, still waters, the valley of the shadow of death, a rod and staff that bring comfort, a table surrounded by enemies and an overflowing cup! And of course, God as our shepherd as we navigate through it all. Like the catechumens in the early church, I was committing this Psalm to memory. I want the tradition to continue on past me; I want these same types of experiences for my own children.

But sometimes the words and the images they are associated with become so cemented in our minds that it can be difficult to hear them any other way. We might misunderstand important details or pass over them all together. It is good and important for us as a people to find ways to hear the words of the book that we love anew so that we do not grow stagnant in our faith. And so that our children will continue to live it and commit their minds, hearts and imaginations to it as we have sought to do ourselves.

The notes in my Spiritual Formation study Bible ask what we can say of this Psalm that is so beloved and at once so familiar. The notes encourage the reader to write a paraphrase of the Psalm for an urban setting. Illustrator Tim Ladwig has done something like this. Only he has kept the English translation we are familiar with intact and offers fresh visuals from a child’s point of view in a modern urban neighborhood. The Lord is my shepherd: the children wake in a joyful, loving home. He guides me in paths of righteousness: the children are seen having fun with friends on the playground and receiving attention from their teachers. The still waters become a pool for a child to play on the street. It is a powerful and beautiful retelling.

But sometimes even our very best attempts to hear something anew and fresh are hindered by our old misconceptions. I would like to draw your attention to one picture here. It is the picture for: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” The children are seen eating at a warmly lit and inviting table full of good food while outside the window in darkness the menacing figures “the enemies” are seen looking on with envy and empty bellies.

Tim Ladwig Psalm 23

If you are like me perhaps you have had a similar mental picture for this part of the passage as well. After all David was a mighty warrior, a man of battle. If we look at commentaries for this passage some of them note that there was a custom in the Ancient Near East that during war if a soldier touched a house of a civilian they would be invited in for a meal and a place of respite. Enemies if they honored the tradition could look but not touch. Commenting on this image of a table set in the midst of one’s enemies one commentator says:

As David’s enemies head out for battle, a lone figure walks to the top of a small hill in plain sight of the entire army. Calmly he spreads a mat on the ground and arranges a meal upon it. Just in case anyone fails to recognize him, he smiles and waves to the crowd on one arm before reclining and enjoying his meal… He refuses to run he knows victory is at hand.

This is a strong mental picture. It is admittedly similar to the one I had in mind as a child. It seems to be what Tim Ladwig has in mind in his re-imaging. And it is an image that is not without some validation in the Psalms and the rest of the biblical witness. We know David was a man of battle. We know in other places throughout the Psalms there are cries to be delivered from the enemy and pleas for enemies to be destroyed. So why shouldn’t we interpret this as assurance that – if not today then one day – our enemies will surly look upon us with envy as we wave smugly from afar and find our vindication? I think we know why. Even if we have trouble at first expressing it. It has to do with the way this Psalm is different than many other Psalms. It is the same thing that compels us to read this Psalm at funerals. But what might that be?

Most commentators are agreed on this: this Psalm is different. While there are many other Psalms from the perspective of David or some other individual, most of them begin with serious complaints. Like Psalm 3: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me.” But Psalm 23 begins and ends with Thanksgiving. It is thanksgiving through and through for what God has done as a shepherd and as a host at the table. While there are other individual and communal Psalms of thanksgiving, many of them are still saturated with images of battle and enemies being violently overthrown. Like Psalm 27: “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh my adversaries and foes they shall stumble and fall.”

So what is so different about Psalm 23? I think intuitively we know. Even if we can’t quite articulate it. It is what drives us, I think, to read this Psalm at funerals. Psalm 23 is not only a Psalm of thanksgiving and trust; it is an eschatological Psalm. That is, it is a Psalm of the good work God has done and will do as the God who directs and gently calls forth good from creation, a God who will establish peace once in for all in a world once full of evil and violence. It is about God’s ultimate vision for the world we live in. And if we pay close attention, one of the places this becomes most clear is in the image of the table.

Food is tremendously important in the Bible. The scriptures envision food at the beginning and at the end of the human drama. In Genesis 1:29 we find that every plant yielding seed and every tree bearing fruit has been given to human beings for food. In Revelation we find ourselves caught up in the wedding feast of the lamb. And in between food is often a foretaste of what God is doing and will do in the world.

• In the wilderness God fed the children of Israel with manna
• In the Passover feast deliverance out of the hands of Egypt is remembered
• At the Festival of Weeks or Pentecost and Feast of Booths first fruits or portions of harvest we offered to God and then the people feasted.
• Priest would eat in designated places the meat of sacrifices offered to God
• And one we sometimes forget: feasts were had when peace or a treaty was made with enemies!

In Genesis 26 Isaac made a covenant with his enemy, the Philistine King Abimelech. Isaac had lied. Like his father Abraham before him he tried to pass his wife off as his sister in an act of self-protection. Eventually he is found out and banished by King Abimelech. But when they reconcile we are told Isaac “made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths; and Isaac set them on their way, and they departed from him in peace” (Genesis 26:30-31). Isaac now knew what it meant to have the Lord prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies.

We see something quite similar between Jacob and Laban a few chapter later in Genesis 31. Laban was Jacob’s uncle/father-in law. Jacob had worked tending Laban’s land and flock for 7 years to win the hand of his daughter Rachel. But after the wedding feast, the wine and the darkness had set in, Laban switched his older daughter Leah for Rachel. This begins a 20 some year game of back and forth deception between Jacob and Laban. When finally they reconcile we find these words: “Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, ‘Gather stones,’ and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap…. Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, ‘The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other (Genesis 31:45-49) After feasting in the presence of God Jacob and Laban are now bound to each other in a way neither blood nor marriage could bind them. Jacob now knew what it meant to have the Lord prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies!!!

So too David – who is traditionally seen as the author of Psalm 23 – knew this type of reconciling meal in the presence of his enemies. After being many years of being perused by Saul, and after the death of Saul and war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner Saul’s cousin and commander of Saul’s army comes to David, makes peace and defects Saul’s kingdom to David. 2 Samuel 3 reads: “When Abner came with twenty men to David at Hebron, David made a feast for Abner and the men who were with him. Abner said to David, ‘Let me go and rally all Israel to my lord the king, in order that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires.’ So David dismissed Abner, and he went away in peace (2 Samuel 3:20-21). And David knew what it meant to have the Lord prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies!!!

The book of Isaiah is pregnant with expectation for the peace that only God can bring. In Isaiah 2 the prophet prophesies about the day that people from all tribes and nations stream to the mountain of the Lord. The day that swords are beaten into plowshares and war is no more, the day God judges among the nations and enemies are made friends. This image of the nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord is picked up again in Isaiah 25, where food is a sign of the peace God will establish: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.” This is a feast for all people. All tribes. All tongues. All nations. People who once were enemies. It is a feast God is preparing!!! This is a table prepared in the presence of enemies. Enemies who are now reconciled!!!!

Now perhaps if you are anything like me, in addition to checking the news this last week you have also checked your Facebook feed. And if not you have certainly had discussions with family or friends about the many tragic events of this last week. And perhaps you have heard something like this “I hate evil acts like this. When we find out who did this (and we will) we should just destroy them, and any faction they are part of. This is disgusting.” These were the words of one of my friends on Facebook Monday, just hours after news of the bombing was released. Many have lashed out at the Muslim community in general. Others have demanded to know who is responsible for the “incompetence and regulation failures” behind the explosion in Texas and the less fatal leak of hazardous materials here in West MI. People are demanding justice and some are calling for all out retribution against these public enemies. These laments are not unnatural, unexpected and certainly not unprecedented in the biblical witness. At one point in Israel’s history – in a very different Psalm than the one before us today – during their captivity in Babylon, the Psalmist records what is perhaps one of the most terrible prayers ever prayed, “ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Perhaps the parents of the little girl in Delhi know this kind of rage and anger, this call for an eye for an eye that perhaps only a parent can know.

Perhaps this week you have not been so tuned in to public events in Boston or Texas or India. Perhaps your home has been unaffected by the hard rains. Perhaps you have been distracted from the news because you have had some drama of your own to deal with. Often, as was the case with Jacob and Laban, our enemies are those closest to us, maybe even family. Perhaps it is a mother or father, husband or wife, a blood sibling or our sister or brother in Christ who has offended us and left us with a wounded heart. While we may not find ourselves calling for violent retribution, more than likely we all at one time or another have said in our anger Oh just go away, or drop dead, or go to hell. Even if flippantly, and under our breath surly we have said of our brother or sister as Christ warns not to do in his mountain top sermon, “Oh you fool!”

Friends, I am not here today to admonish anyone for getting angry at injustice or personal drama and hardship. And when we hurt and when we are angered it is only natural, nay it is right that our laments find our way into our prayers to the one who is our rock, our comforter, indeed our Good Shepherd. He is the same Good Shepard that shows up in our Psalm today! The same Good Shepherd that Gregory of Nyssa said “carries the whole of human nature on his back.” He is one with the same God who prepares a feast on the mountain of the Lord envisioned by Isiah, a feast that reconciles enemies, the feast is served on the mountain of the Lord, the God of Jacob. While inclusive of all peoples there is only one God who can establish such peace. This we believe is the God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ: the true manna in our wilderness, the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover feast, the Lord of Pentecost and the giver of all good and perfect gifts, the priest who offers the ultimate sacrifice. Yes he is our good shepherd! But he is also our host and our food as we approach The Table of our Lord together.

His table is a foretaste of the feast that is to come. This is not a table from which we wave with a coy smile or disdain at our enemies. The good shepherd who sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies is the same Good Shepherd who challenges us to love our enemies. He is the same Good Shepherd who says in the Sermon on the Mount do not call your brother or sister “fool” in your heart. The same good Shepard, who says before you give your offering go be reconciled to your brother or sister.  While we wait with expectation for the feast Isaiah declares God will establish on the mountain, we still live much of our lives in the valley of the shadow of death. But the table at which we feast is a taste of the banquet that is to come. Here there is power to turn our prayers of lament into songs of praise. Here there is power to reconcile brother and sister. And here there is power to turn our prayers for the destruction of our enemies into empathy and even love. It is a table at which we are called to forgive and if possible be reconciled to our enemies: near or far. Public or family. Threat or mere annoyance. Right here – somewhere between the dark valleys we go through on weeks like this and the mountain of celebration, peace and reconciliation that is to come. The mountain that God establishes in Christ, our good shepherd. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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