Sunday, May 11, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Caring Shepherd and Gracious Host

Alleluia! Praise the God of Provision
John 10:1-10; I Peter 2:19-25; Psalm 23


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In our country, and in many countries around the world, this day is 
celebrated as Mother’s Day.  On the church liturgical calendar, in addition to it being the 4th Sunday in the season of Easter, it is also designated as Good Shepherd Sunday.  That means every year, for those churches that use the lectionary texts, Psalm 23 will be read and even sung, using one or more of the many hymns based on this familiar Psalm.  In addition to Psalm 23, the gospel reading is always from John 10, “the good shepherd and his flock”, and different parts are read each year.  These two passages provide us with the overall theme for today that our God is a God of Provision.  Our God shepherds us through danger or whatever darkness we are encountering, and leads us to something more, something deeper, abundant life.  Even as I say that, and believe it, from my own experience, I am aware that when  we are in the deep darkness or valley, we aren’t sure we are ever going to get through it and we are not sure what or how there could be abundant life after it.  Yet we trust it to be so.  We trust in the God who makes that promise, who keeps that promise, even when we don’t understand how is will come to pass!

Psalm 23, our primary text for today, is probably the most familiar passage in the Bible and most beloved text.  It is requested for weddings.  It is used at memorial services and funerals.  It is read by chaplains in the hospital/retirement centers, at the bedside of patients who are dying or in critical condition.  Many of us memorized this psalm, usually in the KJV, when we were young, therefore, we, too, have most likely repeated it, prayed it, when we were afraid, alone, depressed, desperate, anxious. 
The image of God as the Good Shepherd, taken from the gospel reading, is one of the earliest and most favorite images painted by the first Christians.  That image of the Good Shepherd was a comforting one to me as a young girl. I was afraid of the dark and the sound of the windows that rattled in the old PA farmhouse where I grew up, especially in the cold winter when the winds howled and I was alone in my bedroom.  My parents bought me a night light that had the famous painting of the Good Shepherd on it by the German artist, Bernard Plockhorst.  It helped me feel safe and not alone to see the light shining through that image.

The power of Psalm 23 that begins, The Lord is My Shepherd, lies in its simplicity and serenity, the beauty of its words.  Yet the imagery, the rich metaphors give rise to a variety of interpretations that draw on all kinds of life experiences and tap into our imagination. So even though there is simplicity, there is also complexity in determining what is actual a figure of speech and what is actual fact, since more of the time there is an intertwining of the two.
The Psalms are full of metaphors and Walter Brueggman states in a little book he wrote years ago, Praying the Psalms, that, “these metaphors need to be accepted as metaphors and not flattened into descriptive words.”  A metaphor is something said to be something else that it obviously and literally is not!  They are concrete words (shepherd) rooted in something real and visible (sheep, shepherd, shepherding), but yet enormously elastic giving full play to imagination in stretching and extending far beyond the concrete reference.  The meaning of the metaphor is determined not only by what is there but by what we also bring to it out of our own experience and imagination.

In Psalm 23 two intimate metaphors are used for God in this psalm of trust; the caring shepherd and the gracious host! (words used in Waltner’s Psalms commentary).  In the opening verses the poet or psalmist confesses faith in the provision that a shepherd makes for his flock and the provision that God makes for his flock, those under his care.  Yet behind this picture of serenity in the opening verses, there lies the possibility of danger and distress in verses 3-5.

1.)  Caring Shepherd  - we know in Israel’s culture the ways of sheep and their shepherd were familiar to all.  The duties of the shepherd’s vocation were provision and protection for the flock, so they did everything they could to see that was carried out.  They  led them in the right direction, took them to the appropriate places for food and water, they checked them out for sores. They were responsible for their safety and well being.
We also know that in OT culture and Hebrew thought the image of the shepherd did not originally refer to God’s relationship with the individual but rather with a group of people, a community, the people of the Covenant.  Psalm 23 is unique in that this is a very intimate and personal statement of confession and a declaration of commitment of trust by an individual that the Lord is the trustworthy center of life, in whom nothing is lacking.  He will care for my needs, green pastures, quiet waters, restoration and he will see that I head in the right direction.  A good shepherd knows that his work involves not just walking and leading over grassy hillsides, but also rough, rugged, treacherous ravines, when extra care is needed and special attention to safety and security is important.
Though I walk through the valley of deep darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me!  Your rod and staff comfort me.

Pause to reflect on this first metaphor:
If we hear what Brueggman says about reading/praying the psalms with its metaphors, then we can ask what is there in this metaphor and what do we bring to it out of our experience and imagination?
1.) Vs. 1 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Other translations::I have everything I need” (Good News), “I will never be in need.” (CEV) How do we understand this verse?  We know there are people who are not provided with everything they want, but also some people don’t even have what they need.  Is it speaking only of spiritual needs.  How do we wrestle with the realities of needs and wants and understanding of God’s provision, when it seems like not everyone has basic needs provided?  How does your context help you to understand this or does it leave a big question?
2.)  How does this image of a very serene, pastoral setting apply to us now in our context?  Is it idllyic?  Surreal?  Is it just the simple beauty of the words combined with the serene image that calls us?  appeals to our hectic and busy lives where there is too little green space and very little silence and too much noise?
3.)  Maybe the heart of the Psalm is verse4: Though I walk through the valley of darkness (through the valley of the shadow of death), I fear no evil for
 you are with me!
What dark valley have you experienced?  Has it been a valley of the shadow of death?  Has it been a valley of deep depression, of fear, of grief, of disappointment? What provision was there for you, if any? Have you ever used this verse as a mantra, a chant, a reminder, that no matter how dark the valley, that God will shepherd you through the danger, through the valley, through the depression ?  Have you ever shared this with another person who was experiencing the ‘dark night of the soul’?  Maybe the key is to see that God’s Provision is best described as God’s presence!  It doesn’t mean that God’s provision for us is that we will have all of our wants and needs met, but that on the journey and even through the dark valleys, God’s presence is with us!!  The Lord will shepherd us through the dangers, not necessarily keep us out of darkness or out of danger or free from illness.  The Lord accompanies us all the way!

Gracious Host -in verse 5, the metaphor changes to God as Gracious Host!  The image is still one of desert life, but unlike the sheep, shepherd imagery it is about hospitality, another important aspect of their life and culture. The shepherd treats the guest in his tent with utmost respect, extends hospitality.  Now the psalmist is thinking about God becoming the host who extends hospitality to all.  He is possibly thinking about how often God has prepared a table for him, a feast, a banquet, and honored him as guest, even in the midst of enemies!
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
1.)  What image of hospitality and table fellowship comes to your mind?  How has God set a table before you and invited you in?  If we bring our life experiences and our imagination and not limit ourselves to a precise and exact meaning for table, where does it lead us?  
2.)  If we prepare our food, extend our table, open our doors, invite people in, what will that look like?  And what do we do about that part about the enemies?  And who might they be for us?
3.)  “You prepare a table before me”...  If we approach metaphors as Brueggman suggests, then “table” does not mean simply what the speaker in Psalm 23 means, but allowing our own experiences and imagination come into play, recalling, remembering all of the ‘good tables’ at which we have ever sat, the experiences of joy, of deep sharing, of delicious foods, of breaking bread, of sharing cheese and wine or coffee and shoo-fly pie.  Preparing a table and sharing hospitality, being a gracious host, can happen on your back deck, in the park with a picnic basket.  It can be the Yalla class at Thursday night supper in the Fireplace room or small groups gathered around tables, a coffee klatsch at the nearby coffee shop or fellowship meals across from SPI students or college graduates.
What tables of fellowship come to your mind?  What experiences of joy or pain occurred?  What difference in your life did it make and was your relationship with the others changed by your gathering at table?  Eating and drinking together at someone’s table creates a bond.  There is an old saying that says, “We don’t really know another until we’ve put our feet together under the same table.”

Psalm 23, familiar as it is, continues to teach us, continues to comfort us, continues to remind us that our God is a God of Provision.  We come to the reading of it, reciting of it, singing of it with different and new life experiences as we age.  What it meant to us when we memorized at age 12 will be different from how we experienced and understood the meaning as a young adult.  Reciting it by the bedside of a loved one who is dying or to ourselves when we are frightened takes on a different meaning from when we simply sing one of the many hymns or when we read Psalm 23 on a poster.

Caring Shepherd and Gracious Host are only two ways of thinking about the metaphors in this passage.  Both can provide us comfort and joy in our living. 
Psalm 23 expresses God’s abiding presence through life as well as in the experience of dying..  God’s provision is God’s presence.. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.”  The promise of the comforting presence resounds in Jesus’ later words from Matt. 28, “Lo, I am with you always.”

(Time for Anointing)

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