Powerful Witness (May 9 – 15)

Sunday, May 15
Fourth Sunday of Easter

Weekly Theme
Powerful Witness

Weekly Prayer
Shepherd of all, by laying down your life for your flock you reveal your love for all. Lead us from the place of death to the place of abundant life, that guided by your care for us, we may rightly offer our lives in love for you and our neighbors. Amen.

Weekly Reading
Psalm 23

God is my shepherd, I shall not want.
God makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside still waters;

God restores my soul, and leads me in right paths
for the sake of God’s name.

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 God my whole life long.

All readings for the Week
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Focus Questions

1. What are “all the good tables at which you have ever sat”?

2. Would it be difficult to hear this text if you were living on a “diet of tears”?

3. What voices are telling us how and where to focus our desire?

4. Do we even know our “true heart’s desire”?

5. What are the “dominant version” and “sub-version” of the reality in which you live?

by Kate Huey

While it’s often associated with funerals, Psalm 23 sings of God’s tender care throughout life just as much as it provides comfort in death. Walter Brueggemann, the great scholar of the Old Testament, has  written a beautiful sermon on this psalm about a God who eases our anxiety: “The poet has discovered that things on the journey are not as they seem when God is present. We are safer, more cared for than we imagined. It is the presence of God that transforms dangerous places and tough circumstances.” We are helpless (and not too bright) sheep who can trust the good shepherd who cares for us. We’re not in charge; God is. (As my seminary professor often reminded us, “God is God, and you’re not.”)

Things on the journey: I remember a Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz many years ago, in which Charlie Brown is asked what “security” means. He describes the experience of riding in the back seat, while your parents are in the front seat, driving. You can sleep worry-free, he says, because they’re taking care of everything. Perhaps that’s a way, in our culture, to describe the feeling of utter trust and security provided by a reliable, loving, all-powerful figure – up there, in the front seat of our lives, driving the car and taking care of everything. (Of course, Charlie Brown ends with the gripping realization that the day inevitably comes when “you grow up and can never ride in the backseat again!”)

Brueggemann describes psalms of complaint, which use tears as a metaphor, and psalms of celebration, which use a feast to describe God’s goodness and power, a goodness and power that Christians experience in Jesus: “There is no gesture as expressive of utter well-being as lavish food – as every Jewish and every Christian mother knows. Thus the feeding miracles of Jesus and the Eucharist are gestures of a new orientation that comes as surprising gift and ends all diets of tears.” The table is at the heart of who we are as Christians, a community that blesses, breaks, and shares bread, a feast that remembers Jesus’ sharing long ago and looks forward to that heavenly feast when all of God’s children will have more than enough. Brueggemann again: “Thus ‘table’ does not mean simply what the speaker in Psalm 23 means, but it means all the good tables at which you have ever sat and the experiences of joy that happened there and the subsequent vibrations you have from them.” How do you think people in different situations in life might hear this psalm: as reassurance that God has given us what we enjoy, or as a promise of what we don’t have, or as a vision of the future?

In his sermon, Brueggemann suggests that the psalm expresses the intention to “refocus” our desire: “this phrase, ‘I shall not want’ is a decision made against the greed and lust and satiation and aggressive ambition of a consumer society. Our consumer society is driven by the notion that we always must want one more thing….” How much of our “wanting” comes from a need to refocus our desire, and how much comes from the failure of community to share God’s abundance?

Reading Psalm 23 in a driven, individualistic society

Brueggemann notices that the shepherd, who “leads and feeds” the vulnerable sheep, is an image full of “tenderness, gentleness, and attentiveness.” While we may think of a shepherd as a man, Brueggemann suggests that “the God who feeds and leads has maternal qualities, and in these verbs does what a mother does….” And in doing “what a mother does,” we hear in the psalm the assurance that God turns “situations of fear around into situations of joy.” In his sermon, Brueggemann notes that the shepherd gets all the verbs, and lets the sheep do nothing: “The sheep waits and receives and enjoys the gifts.” God has everything covered, all the loose ends tied up, all our needs anticipated before we even recognize them. How does this work in our driven, individualistic society in which every person is expected to take care of herself or himself? Does it sound quaint? Does it work with our approach to prayer, so often a laundry list of things we need in order for our lives to go as we think they ought?

Another scholar, John Hayes, gives us more details on what a shepherd does: “to set the table” means “preparing fields for grazing. Such activities included uprooting poisonous weeds and thorns and clearing the area of the sheep’s enemies, such as snakes and scorpion’s nests. In the evening, as the sheep were corralled, the injured or sickly ones were separated from the others and treated with oil and a curative drink made of fermented material and herbs sweetened with honey.” Why do you think our tradition gives us a metaphor for ourselves that puts us in such a powerless position, a sheep that cannot do much at all for itself? How do you think that image fits us particularly well in our day and age? Does it clash with our sense of self-determination, or does it touch our most vulnerable and fearful places, or does it bring us back to where we belong in relation to God? What heals us today – what is the “oil” and “curative drink” that our culture needs? Do you think that most people feel incapable of securing their needs and unable to defend themselves? Have we nurtured in our culture the delusion that we can do both? Is it possible that our reaction to September 11 might have been fueled by a sense of shock that indeed we couldn’t protect ourselves as well as we thought?  

From shepherd to host

We shift from the image of shepherd to that of a host who really knows how to treat a guest: there’s nothing perfunctory, nothing forced, about the table-setting or the hospitality offered. It’s lavish, and it meets the needs of the guest who may be in danger or in need of vindication before an enemy, in need of rest, comfort and healing. It’s all there, in this compact and elegant song. No wonder it is so loved and familiar, when it touches those deepest longings and needs of our bodies and spirits.  

But Brueggemann doesn’t leave it there, in a place of comfort and peace. As usual, he challenges us to read the text in light of our own situation, a world full of things we want and expect and often demand. “If the promise concerns only God’s gifts, then God becomes only instrumental to human hope, and the hoper lives in a world of commodities, which in the end give neither joy nor safety. Thus it is affirmed that Yahweh is the true heart’s desire of human persons, the true joy of human life, and the sure possibility of life lived in hope.” As we rest peacefully in the reassurance of this psalm, perhaps we might examine our hearts to see what has taken root there, what we have let ourselves long for, what paths we have wandered away from our “true heart’s desire.” We might explore the possibility that God has become “instrumental” to our hope. What does this mean about our sense of God’s awesome and providential power, and our place in the scheme of things? Is our hope just a matter of placing another order? In a way, we move between two poles: on the one hand, as loved and known individuals precious to God, and on the other hand, as sheep struggling to take our own path and expecting the shepherd to handle all the difficulties and to smooth the way. How does “powerless” feel?

Coming to meet us where we live

We read this text right in the middle of the Easter season, after a long season of Lent. In the light of the empty tomb, we’re still mindful of the valley of the shadow of death. For all humans, the tomb is not just a happy, sunshine kind of place but one of death and hopelessness. For Christians, it’s the “empty” part that matters, the promise of resurrection and hope, and new life triumphing in the end. Perhaps, then, this psalm is so loved precisely because it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of reality. It comes and meets us where we live. As Brueggemann says, “God’s friendliness and kindness will run after me and chase me down, grab me and hold me….We are being chased by God’s powerful love.” What an incredible turnaround for all of us who think WE are seeking GOD! As if it were up to us, all up to us. And the whole time, God has been with us, as the psalmist’s song assures us.

We can read the psalm privately, as individuals alone in our room, or in small groups over a grave, so often that we almost become de-sensitized to its beauty and power. But the whole church relies on these assurances, too. At the end, the psalmist’s vow to dwell always in the house of God, Brueggemann says, asserts that “the true joy and purpose of life are to love God and be loved by God, no longer alone, but in communion.” What a beautiful way to end the song! It takes us not to a private faith, just “me and God,” but a shared faith that comforts, strengthens, and sustains.

The “sub-version” of reality

Of course, that’s not what the world says. That’s not the “dominant” version of reality, Brueggemann says, but the “sub-version” of reality, the one we proclaim and count on. We may be surrounded by, bombarded by that dominant version; we may even participate in it. But underneath that version is the reality of God’s power and God’s rule: that’s where our security lies. What is the dominant version of reality that surrounds you? Perhaps, for many of us, the dominant version has been very good, very reassuring, very comforting. The sub-version might actually be uncomfortable for us; it might dis-locate us. Here the understanding of faith as trust (rather than acceptance of intellectual propositions) leads us into the “sub-version” of reality that relies on God’s goodness and mercy, not our own wits or resources. What a wonderful irony that the words “sub-version” and “subversion” are so close! How are they related in your own life, and how do they relate to the needs of your community and the suffering of the world? 

For Further Reflection

George Eliot, 19th century
It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.

Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century mystic (Matthew Fox, in The Feminine Mystic)
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green. I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits. I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.

Simone Weil, 20th century
All the goods of this world…are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire that perpetually burns within us for an infinite and perfect good. 

Ashleigh Brilliant, 20th century English cartoonist and author
All I want is a warm bed and a kind word and unlimited power. 

Charles Schulz, 20th century cartoonist
I cannot fail to be thrilled every time I read the things that Jesus said, and I am more and more convinced of the necessity of following him. What Jesus means to me is this: In him we are able to see God, and to understand [God’s] feelings toward us.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.