Sunday, April 21, 2013
Image of the earliest extant picture of Jesus, painted on the ceiling of the catacombs. One might have expected an early image of Jesus to be that of Jesus on the cross or Christ crowned in glory, but instead we see the early Christians depicted him as the good shepherd.
On the third Sunday of each month, Open Table’s worship service is contemplative. We pray with scriptures, songs, and silence and usually, instead of a sermon, I offer a guided meditation. I’m including excepts from today’s service and our guided meditation on Psalm 23.
Prayer of Invocation
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23: 1-3 KJV)
Caring God, many have traveled through a difficult week. In these moments you invite us to rest here as if we were lying down in green pastures. Welcoming God, lead us now beside still waters to restore our souls—frightened souls, weary souls, troubled souls.
Prayers of Thanksgiving
The Lord is my Shepherd; I have received all I ever needed in the past.
We express gratitude for what we have received in the past. . .
The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need now – at this moment.
We express gratitude for what we have in this moment. . .
The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I will ever need—for all time.
We express gratitude for that which endures. . .
Extending the Psalm
As you silently reread the psalm, notice the shift in metaphors. God is first compared to a shepherd. But in verse 5 God is implicitly compared to something else. Some see a third image for God in verse 6. Focus on the image that speaks best to you. Why does that image of the Divine call to you? Try developing the psalm further around that particular image. Compose your own prayer that you address to this image of God.
Guided Meditation (verses 1-5)
We return to the first verse of our Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” What are the “wants” in your life? What’s your wish list—of things you desire? What’s your bucket list—of things you hope to accomplish or attain? Take a moment to write them down. (PAUSE)
The first want list is your wish list: what you want to have. The second want list is your bucket list: what you want to do or be. Now maybe, like most of us, you desire some things that are not healthy for you, and you know that, but probably your list mainly includes good desires and noble aspirations—along with maybe some morally neutral desires and some harmless if petty wants. What would it mean to be guided, not by ego, but by Love and Goodness alone, and to follow so trustingly that your wish list disappeared? This does not mean you would live without goals or direction or aspirations. But to follow God like a sheep following a shepherd is a spiritual state of radical trust. That kind of dependence upon God’s compassion is a rejection of what others tell us is important. And it allows us to live without wanting, wanting, wanting. It brings an end to envy, lust, greed, competitiveness, aggression. It keeps us from judging ourselves and defining ourselves by what we attain so that we can instead come to love ourselves for the inner Light within. Look at your wish list, your bucket list. Many of these things are not bad things. They are harmful if these things become our shepherd directing us and if they are not things of ultimate value. If we attend to the leadership of the Good Shepherd, who can lead us beside still waters, ours spirit we can be led down the right paths and our souls restored.
Now to focus on verse 4.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. (NRSV)
I imagine there have been many this week who have walked through the darkest valley of their lives—when a fertilizer plant exploded in the darkness of a Texas night, when bombs and bullets traumatized people in Boston. But you have known dark valleys of your own. The psalmist says that even in the dark times, God’s rod and staff dispel fear and offer comfort. That doesn’t mean evil things are prevented or undone. It means if we are guided by the God of love, then love can drive out fear and bring comfort. Think about a recent time when you let fear guide you. Could you have chosen love over fear in that situation? How might things have gone differently? Imagine some future situation where someone seems threatening to you. Imagine choosing love over fear because you know that God leads by love alone—and only love can bring comfort. Fear leads us to have the last word, to lash out, build walls, crush another’s spirit, feed our ego. These are choices we make when we fear, and there is no comfort there. Love alone can lead to comfort. The shepherd’s rod and staff offer steady guidance and rescue.
We read now verse 5.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (NRSV)
You are invited now to move forward to our three prayer stations through which we will explore verse 5.
- Receive an anointing
“You anoint my head with oil”
In the Ancient Near East, oil was used to heal the sick and anoint priests and kings for their special roles. While letting today’s psalm speak to you, you’re invited to come forward to be anointed with oil as a prayer for God’s healing or in commitment to God’s calling. You may speak with the pastor and quietly share a need for healing or a sense of God’s calling in your life. The pastor will then touch your forehead with oil and offer a blessing for you.
- Receive holy communion
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Some have understood the above phrase to mean that God rescues us from enemies and then blesses us to spite them. But Jesus said to love our enemies. So let’s imagine what it means to eat at Christ’s table with “enemies” present. In the Ancient Near East, those who were invited to the table were promised safety and hospitality. At Christ’s table, enemies become our guests. Let us use the shared meal today to imagine that someone from whom we feel separated is actually here and to make space at our hearts’ table for those we distrust, dislike, or disdain. Let this meal be a spiritual means of turning enemies into friends and turning bread into the body of Christ. The broken bread reminds us of humanity’s brokenness. But at the open table that body is remembered . . . re-membered . . . and we become one body. As you eat the wafer, imagine sharing it with someone for whom you seek greater compassion.
- Bring your offerings
“My cup overflows”
We exercise our faith and we practice a life of gratitude by sharing what we have. Through the eyes of faith, we see that our cup overflows and we have all that we need and more. By giving time, money, and abilities to and through the ministry of Open Table, we have the chance to support our new faith community that seeks to join in God’s work for love, peace, and justice. Your giving is an act of prayer. As you place an envelope in the offering plate, you are praying.
We turn to the final verse of Psalm 23:
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.(NRSV)
One commentator explains that the Hebrew word we translate as “follow” actually means something more like “pursue” or “run after.” Goodness and mercy are chasing us down! Goodness and mercy are not ambling along behind us but are a concerted energy directed toward us. Picture, if you will, two messengers named Goodness and Mercy chasing us down. If we can just slow down sometimes, goodness and mercy might be able to catch up with us. God’s love is pursuing us. Like a gracious parent, God calls us back home for supper. I love the final verse of one musical setting of this psalm:
Your sure provisions, gracious God, attend me all my days.
O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise.
Here would I find a settled rest, while others go and come.
No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.
The psalm ends by describing another relationship we have with God—not as a stranger, not even as guest, but as a child at home. This worship service ends as it began—with a psalm that stills our spirits so we can experience the comfort of God. Amen