Taize Prayer: God of all the living, enable us to surrender ourselves to you in silence and in love. Surrendering ourselves to you does not come easily to our human condition. But you intervene in the deepest recesses of our being and your will for us is the radiance of a hope.
Monday Psalm 23:5 You Prepare a Table before me
So far, Psalm 23 has taught us a great deal about God and about ourselves as humans. Psalm 23:1-2 teaches us that God’s relationship to creation, including humanity is one of giving, and providing. God graciously creates and provide the pastures and waters that are the conduit of his peace and his restoration of us as his servant-children. Psalm 23:3 teaches us that to follow God (Christ) is to advocate for justice, to side with the marginalized. Psalm 23:4 openly admits that our participation in God mission of creating and giving will lead us to trials. If we are truly following God, we will be the David to the Goliath that is violence, war, poverty, racism, and the brokenness of humanity. It challenges us because it clearly suggests that right relationship with God necessarily involves the risk and sometimes painful experience of having our faith, our beliefs, and even our sense of self, challenged and changed by our relationship with the poor and eye-opening experience of learning about the trials they face and the systems that oppress. If we have not accepted these risks, can we accurately call ourselves disciples of the living God.
Psalm 23:5 circles us back around to God’s gracious providence once again. If we have taken the risk of the path of justice/righteousness, what we loose, will be restored. To be invited to the table of the Lord is to regain the honor and status that was lost to us, or denied us as we became the brothers and sisters of the poor, the abused, the downtrodden. The path to the Lord’s table is not paved with personal piety, the acceptance of orthodox christian concepts, or ‘belief.’ It is paved with the intentional actions of mercy, justice, service, sacrifice and reconciliation. The feast table of God represents the land of canaan that Israel eventually reached after many years of sojourn, which was dangerous and costly. It represents the bread that Elijah miraculously provided for the widow of Zarephath, who could not feed her family due to the neglectful and abusive political powers. So the table represents both God’s gift of safety and security for those who have struggled and suffered and sacrificed in God’s name, and it represents God’s honoring of and active care for those who ‘loose their life’ so that others may have life.
Those who dignify those who are denied dignity will be honored by God. Those who care for the ignored will be in turn, provided for abundantly by God. It’s easy to talk about God’s everlasting love and care, but what do we say/do for those who, having never experienced that love, have doubts?
Tuesday Psalm 23:5 in the presence of my enemies
I do struggle a bit with this verse. It certainly seems to suggest that the feast table set for those faithful to God by maintain justice, even the valley of the shadow of death, is not only a table of honor and security, but also a table at which the honored for faithfulness can vaunt their ‘righteousness‘ in full view of those who did not walk the path or created obstacles and resistance for those on the path. That may be what the Psalmist intended, but I think that a more responsible and complete interpretation of the meaning of this phrase is found by looking at the other table stories, especially the stories of Jesus.
In the gospels we are often reminded that Jesus sat at table with ‘sinners‘ and that he ate with Pharisees as well. It is clear to me that Jesus was uniting both oppressor and oppressed at the table. I don’t think it too much to assume that the purpose of these meals was to challenge both oppressor and oppressed to have personal contact. It is easy for us to judge harshly and incorrectly any person whom we can force into a group; welfare recipients, the homeless (drunks), undocumented workers, muslims... the list goes on and on. Jeorg Rieger, quoting and paraphrasing Jacques Lacan writes in his book Remember the Poor, ‘“the poor”’ do not exist.‘ By that he means that labels are tools that allow us to remain distant from and disconnected from, ‘the other’ whose existence or presence disturbs us. But, when ‘the poor,’ ‘the welfare recipient’ interrupts our life with personal presence we begin to identify with them. They are no longer a label, but a person very much like us. Then we are challenged with the realization that their status as ‘less than’ us has less to do with their character flaw and more to do with how society & the political system presents, portrays and treats them.
Kathryn Tanner reminds us in her book The Politics of God that all God’s creatures, (she focuses on humanity, and my one criticism is that she does not acknowledge the value of non-human creatures) deserve respect. All creatures are God’s creation. All of us ‘stand’ before God as equally ‘good’ as created creatures, and as fallen creatures, due to our free will which allows us into relationship with God, but does not coerce that relationship.
In short, the table is a place where the distinctions we have created are acknowledged, uncovered, and then bridged by the presence of Christ. So the table is not a place where the oppressed become oppressors, but instead a place of reconciliation, grace, and the realization of that which unites us as humans/creatures, we have been named ‘good’ by God. Have you had an experience in which you bridged a gap that existed between you and one of ‘the others?’ What groups present the most challenge for you at the table of Christ?
Wednesday John 21:12 Jesus said to them,“Come and have breakfast.”
The specific feast/table of Christ that we read about on Sunday in concert with Psalm 23:5 (and in which there wasn’t actually a table) was the meal Jesus shared with the disciples after his resurrection as told in the Gospel of John. Yesterday we talked about the challenge of the table set by God, as it, when viewed through the life and ministry of Christ, was a table in which strangers, oppressors, and oppressed, were brought into contact with one another. Thinking benevolent or empathetic thoughts about ‘the other’ is easy. Unfortunately that is as far as many Christians go. The table of Christ is a life, belief, assumption and behavior challenging event.
In the story from John, the challenge deepens although the grace may be even greater. In yesterday’s story God grace at the table brought diverse people together, united wealthy and poor, elite and expendable in a new family, the family of those called good by God. This is the only identifier that matters and it leads to relationship of trust, service, sharing and care which subvert the previous distinctions. But in todays story from John, it is not just a conceptual or ideological divide that is bridged, it is personal hurt, pain, abandonment.
Jesus invites the disciples that had abandoned him and specifically Peter, who had denied knowing, following and supporting him. I think it is safe that at this table enemies were present. I realize that we are not told that Jesus thought of them as enemies, but if we were treated as Jesus was, I believe we would want revenge and not a picnic.
Based on Jesus’ statements throughout various gospels, in which wrongs were to be forgiven, slapped cheeks turned without responding with a slap, enemies prayed for, etc, I think this meal gives us a vision of reconciliation. The world of violence, of warfare, torture, along with personal betrayals, infidelities, and cruelties is turned upside down at this table. Only, as I said earlier this week, it is not simply the same players playing different roles in the same game, oppressed becoming oppressors. At the table the system of hierarchy and oppression is overcome as the crucified one invites his betrayers to sit at table with him.
Jesus does not respond to their betrayal and desertion with anger, vengeance or violence. Instead he gathers them for a meal, which would most certainly remind them of the meal he shared with them just a few days earlier, and at which, according to the Gospel of John, he anointed them with the Holy Spirit, so that they might continue his ministry as his empowered representatives. If we read on in this post-resurrection meal story, his conversation with John is to urge him to leave his nets once again and take up the calling and anointing that Christ has bestowed upon him before the desertion episode.
To be anointed is to be reminded that we are chosen, called and empowered to continue Christ’s ministry. We are his ambassadors.
Thursday Psalm 23:5 You anoint my head with oil
At the funeral service at which we both mourned the loss of and celebrated the life of Christy Hall, we heard about the way that Christy carried out the ministry of anointing in her life. She wrote supportive letters to her pastor every week. She wrote cards and letters to her friends and those who worked to assist her to care for herself. She bought presents and paid complements. She embodied ‘anointing.’
The 23rd Psalm reminds us of the great challenge of being a follower of God. We are called to sacrifice all in order to walk the path of justice, even when that leads us to join the ‘plebs,’ the ‘expendable,’ the ‘other,’ in their own suffering. This call and anointing demands much of us. But it also reminds us that it is not just the acts of great sacrifice, advocacy and risk that follow God. It is also in the simply acts of encouraging, appreciating, thanking, & complementing others that we walk the path.
It must be remembered however, that the table is the place where the alienated and the enemies sit together. So to truly carry out our calling, as anointed ones, to anoint others, that mission will not only include those whom it is easy to complement. It will also include reliance on the Holy Spirit to empower us to uplift the fallen, to see in them what God sees in them, which is potential, a beloved child, who may not now be precious and honored, but whom may be, could be, if they were believed in, supported and reminded of their value to God. That is a difficult challenge to take. To love and encourage those who are different, who are other, who do not live into the image of God.
Each day, if we pray the 23rd Psalm, we are reminded that despite our own sin, brokenness and failing, we are also anointed. God values and honors us, trusts and believes in our potential if we would simply leave behind the path of the world and follow Her path. Each day, through the 23rd Psalm, we are reminded of our value despite our brokenness. If we are blessed with this healing and encouraging reminder, how can we deny that anointing to others?
So the task is foremost to be more intentional about thanking people, complementing people, appreciating and encouraging people.
But the path then leads us to encouraging, supporting and uplifting those who have fallen, who continue to fall, who do not know how to make good safe decisions, who have been so scarred by a life of addiction, homelessness, poverty, violence, that they cannot believe that anything they do matters.
And that begins, not with charity for the poor and dispossessed and oppressed. It begins when we follow Christ and create relationship with them.
Where will you begin?
Friday Psalm 23:6 I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long
I know that we are most accustomed to reading this or hearing this with the ending ‘forever.’ This week I want to focus on the other possible ending which you read above, for it reminds us that the 23rd Psalm is not the promise of individual destiny in ‘heaven’ if we believe. Instead, it teaches us what the life that God created us for and called us to looks like. The house of the Lord, the comfort, empowerment and peace of the house of the Lord is not just something that happens after we die. It can be experienced (in part I admit) in this life when we risk the path described in this Psalm.
This sunday we will explore the ‘good life’ as defined by American culture and how this contrasts with the ‘full life’ that is described in Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 redefines some things. First it redefines how we describe life. God has not called us to a ‘good’ life so to speak, if that is defined, which I believe it is, as immediate satisfaction, buying whatever our hearts desire (whether we can afford it or not), doing what we want, and enjoying ease and luxury. (Even as I write that it does have a tempting pull!) But that is not what God has created us for, because a life of ease, luxury, opulence, always costs someone else. It is a passive form of aggression and oppression visited upon those who created the stuff we want and do the labor that makes our profits.
No, we are not created for ‘the good life.’ We are created for ‘a life of good,’ or ‘a full life,’ as defined by the 23rd Psalm. Ultimately, this Psalm promises, the life lived as a journey on the path to justice, even though it enters dark valleys, is a full life, a life of good, the life we were created to live, and it will result in an everlasting, resurrected life of fulfillment.
This sunday, these ideas are all illustrated in the sharing of communion, at which Christ is present, gifts are shared, reconciliation and forgiveness are practiced, all creation is anointed, including those who gather, the hungry are fed, the wealthy offer service to the poor and all are valued and honored.
Monday Jonah 1:1-3
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ 3But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
On sunday, in order to explore Psalm 23:4, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ we recalled the story of Jonah. Many of us are familiar with the part of the story of Jonah that involves his being swallowed by a great fish, resting in its stomach for three days only to be spit out again. This was a consequence of Jonah refusing God’s command for Jonah to go and preach to the city of Ninaveh.
Ninaveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and was considered and described by the prophet Nahum as a city of blood, corruption, loot and plunder. While one aspect of what offended Israel was Assyria’s worship of other gods, this idolatrous worship lead to the injustice of empire. Nahum describes not only what is wrong with the religious life, but also the political and social life of Ninaveh and its effect, through expanding empire, on Israel.
At this point in the story of Jonah we don’t know why he runs. Knowing what we now know of Ninaveh I think it is safe to assume that part of what caused Jonah to run from God was fear. God was not satisfied simply that Jonah himself lived a life of faithfulness both religiously and socio-politically. God expected Jonah to represent Israel and God by confronting Assyria with their sinful ways which caused suffering, pain and dread for many.
Joerg Rieger writes in his book ‘Remember the Poor,’ ‘In a world that is becoming ever more interdependent, few things are more important than a new understanding of the challenge of the other, not only at home but also in different locations around the world...the experience of suffering and oppression transcends national or geographic boundaries and creates more wide-ranging bonds of solidarity.’
God expects religious beliefs to influence our public lives. God expects religious faithfulness to go beyond spiritual or intellectual concepts and into actions, risky actions on behalf of the suffering. This caused Jonah to run, fast! Is the idea that religious beliefs should influence public actions a new one to you? Is the thought that we are called not just to believe in private, but to act on our beliefs publicly on behalf of the poor and oppressed, challenging. How does the call of Jonah connect with your life? What about your faith, when placed in the public realm, makes you want to run?
Tuesday Jonah 3:10; 4:1 ‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it... But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. ‘
Jonah, in the end isn’t about a whale and the man that miraculously survives in its stomach. It is about the wanton and risky grace of God and Jonah’s anger. God’s gracious love makes Jonah angry because it is not only extended to Israel that has ‘earned‘ it, but also to the Assyrians who have lived cruel, violent and oppressive lives, only to be forgiven when they seek God’s mercy. Jonah runs from the suspicion that God will not be the god he wants.
Marx, Freud and Nietzsche all in their own ways, suggested that God was a projection of human wants and needs, and therefore that God does not actually exist. The story of Jonah suggests that while the writers of the First Testament would not have agreed with the conclusion that God did not exist, the phenomenon of humanity projecting its wants and needs onto God was a very real and potentially dangerous reality. They were critical of other peoples and religions that projected oppression and violence onto their ‘gods’ as a way to justify their empire, but they could also be critical of Israel’s similar actions. This is the real purpose of the story of Jonah. It reveals the fact that we all, some extent, make God into an idol, a projection of, and justification for, our own opinions, assumptions, and ideologies.
Sadly there are many examples of this. Christopher Columbus used the Christian faith to justify the colonization of the ‘New World’ he discovered. Both the North and the South in the Civil War assured themselves of justification and victory by claiming God to be on their side. Politicians in the United States have used Bible verses and theological concepts to deny Global Warming. And these are just a sample. Even more sadly, the church itself has done the same thing. Eusebius, the early church father, justified the rule of Constantine with appeals to the Christian Faith. Faith was used to justify the crusades and Hitler used appeals to the Christian faith in his condemnation of Jews. In our own experience we see in our nation and rapidly expanding across the globe a form of Christian faith, the wealth and prosperity gospel, in which the cultural creed of the 80’s and 90’s ‘greed is good,‘ was and is baptized and proclaimed. Faith in Christ will bring financial and material success and security.
Jonah’s experience of God is not comforting, sympathetic or understanding. God is demanding and challenging. Perhaps in the modern American Christian experience, this is the most prevalent form of making God an idol, which is making God a kindly passive grandfather.
Wednesday Psalm 23:4 even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
Because the setting in which we most often hear the 23rd Psalm is a funeral, we automatically and naturally understand this verse to refer to the literal end of life, for loved ones, or for ourselves one day. While I do not wish to suggest that this is not a legitimate application of this verse, I think that when read in connection to the rest of the Psalm, this verse applies to more than just a literal death. It applies to life as well, especially the life to which we are called when we follow Christ.
Last weeks focus verse, [the Lord] lead me in paths of righteousness/justice for his names sake, allows us to understand the daily life lesson in the hear and now, of Psalm 23:4. When we allow ourselves to be lead by Christ, to obey, as he did, God the Father and Creator, go where Christ went, to the poor and oppressed, and do what he did, serve them, become one with them, advocate and defend them, a new understanding of Psalm 23:4 comes to us. The pursuit of righteousness or justice, is not always an easy task. It is risky and costly. The lives of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer both exemplify for us, the meaning of this verse. It does not apply primarily, I believe, to literal death, or to the troubling and traumatic events that simply sometimes happen to us. It applies primarily to the cost of following Christ, of joining with and advocating for, the oppressed and the suffering people that we find. Both King and Bonhoeffer accepted great risks and experienced a traumatic toll not only in the sacrifice of their lives, but in the sacrifices they offered of their daily lives.
As I have said, I don’t believe that this psalm applies only to literal death, so I do not believe that we are ALL called to make the exact sacrifices that King and Bonhoeffer did. But their stories do exemplify the point of this verse. When we allow Christ to lead us on the path of righteousness/justice, we will experience loss, their will be risks and costs. Psalm 23 is terribly honest about the cost of discipleship, of being faithful to God in a world that does not honor or obey God.
The story of Jonah illustrates what the first ‘death’ may be, the first cost, and that is the ‘death’ of faith, the death of our most dearly held beliefs, desires, the death of the ‘god’ that we have made of God. The valley of the shadow of death is the phenomenon in which we experience something that causes a shaking of our foundational beliefs. The story of Jonah suggests that in order to grow in faith, to grow into the image of God that we have been created with, to grow closer to God, we may need to experience this kind of death. In order to fulfill the vocation to which we have been called to by God, to participate in God’s mission in the world, which is to rescue the poor, we may indeed need to experience the shadowy valley.
Thursday Psalm 23:4 I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Yesterday’s verse took us to the challenging heart of the 23rd Psalm. When we are drawn by Christ into the mission of God, we will experience loss. Perhaps the first loss will be the loss of the beliefs, the faith, the ideology, that has made sense of the world for us and helped us feel comfortable and safe. It could also be the loss of habits, strategies, ways of interacting with others and being in the world, which also kept us safe, but which were also, ultimately sinful, not in concert with God’s will and way for those who follow and obey God. There is no use denying the challenging nature of discipleship as Psalm 23 describes it. When we follow God in Christ on the path of justice, sacrifice will be a part of the journey. To ignore this and avoid this, ultimately is the choice NOT to follow Christ at all. Faith becomes a technique of comfort, but it is not faithfulness to God.
Having said that, the verse we considered on Sunday closes with a return to the graciousness that began the Psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd... he leads me to green pastures and restful waters...he restores my soul.’ The psalm begins with such abundant graciousness because the path of righteousness/justice that is faith and belief in Christ, will, when followed faithfully, fully and passionately, lead to the experience of loss. ‘I fear no evil...your rod and staff...comfort me,’ is a reminder of the gracious and loving activity of God in the world. Those who accept the cost of faithfulness and obedience, even though they experience loss, will also experience God’s loving care, God’s abundant creativity, will be restored.
‘Fear no evil,’ does not mean that we will never experience trial or trauma. It promises that trial and trauma will not destroy us. ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it...’ we read about Christ, the living word, in John 1:5. Psalm 23:4 promises the same for us when we allow the light of Christ to be reflected through us. When evil comes our way, all that we need to survive it, to meet it with dignity, courage and steadfastness, all that is required so as not to be overcome, to be defeated, to be forced into apathy or defeat, will be given to us by God. And, what is lost in that encounter, will be restored.
‘Fear no evil’ also serves to remind us that when we accept and face with trust and courage, the death of our faith, our beliefs, our desires, our assumptions, that the result will not be the horror that we feel it will be. If we face, walk into, lean expectantly, humbly, longingly into that loss, it will not leave us with less, but instead, lead us to more. More, not in terms of power, authority or strength, but more in terms of courage, peace, faith, and relationship to God and to others, especially the poor and oppressed other.
Friday Psalm 23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
This verse troubles me to be honest.
It seems to suggest that when we walk the path of righteousness/justice, when we accept the trial and trauma of the path of justice and experience the loss of status and security that it brings, ultimately, we will be vindicated by God and have the chance to gloat before those who resisted us, hurt us, tore us down, treated us with derision and disrespect.
I understand and appreciate the idea of vindication, of the restoration of our dignity and of our status as God’s faithful children. That is vitally important. But I find the idea of gloating over those who resisted, shamed, treated us with disrespect, troubling. Ultimately to me, this does not sound like God’s brand of justice. Instead of creating wholesome community, it sounds merely like a reversal of order. The oppressor becomes oppressed and the oppressed the oppressor. I get how tempting that sounds. I’ve got some bullies from my high school days that I would enjoy a reversal of roles with. But that isn’t actually the Kingdom of God. That isn’t the ‘new thing‘ that the prophet Isaiah promised God was doing. It’s the same old thing, but with different actors. Hierarchy and oppression remain the system, but with different actors and agents.
So, even if the Psalmist meant it that way, how should we interpret it so as to understand and apply it faithfully to the larger message of the word of God?
I would suggest that we interpret this feast of justice, security and status in the light of the feasts that Jesus created and hosted before and after his death. He ate with the wealthy and powerful as well as the poor, the sick and the socially unacceptable. All were at the same table. He shared a meal with the disciples who would betray and abandon him. He would gather them together, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee for another feast of reconciliation and empowerment after his resurrection.
That is how we should understand the table in Psalm 23:5. It is not a table where roles are reversed but in the same old game of hierarchy and oppression. Instead it is a new game, a new way of relating to one another. It is a table at which the oppressed are given renewed status before God, and a table at which the oppressors are confronted by the sin of their actions, but then recreated, instructed, empowered, to be the humans God created them to be. It is a place in which all are restored to dignity, both those oppressed and those who lost their dignity through oppressing. That truly is a new thing. That is justice in the realm of God.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.