I don’t know much about shepherds. Even though I grew up in farm country, everyone had cows and pigs. I know more about cowboys. Cowboys seem rough and ready for a challenge, strong and independent. I learned to rope calves from my uncle, but I’ve never held a shepherd’s crook, or carried a lamb. Just piglets. Shepherds herd sheep, finding green grass and water. The image portrays someone who comforts, protects, saves the vulnerable. Although a shepherd has to be strong to shear the sheep. King David was a shepherd, and claimed to have killed and lion and bear, without a six shooter. Then he felled Goliath with a sling shot. Are shepherds as tough as cowboys without the horse, pistols and Marlborough’s?
Shepherds are all over the biblical story. They’re the manger to see baby Jesus. Israel’s leaders are called to be good shepherds, protecting the vulnerable, guiding the nation through challenges and danger. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” laying claim to the images of Psalm 23, the one who provides green pastures, protects from enemies and predators, who watches over us. I love the image, but still…I know little about real shepherds.
How does this divine shepherd connect right now? How is God protecting us today? Is there a table prepared for us in the presence of a pandemic? Are we accompanied in the the Valley of the Shadow of death as we pass 60,000 deaths from COVID-19? If Jesus is my shepherd and I shall not want, should I still stock up on toilet paper and necessities? Does God get involved in bailouts and small business loans? Why does American Airlines and Disney, who spent billions and using tax breaks to buy their own stock, now need a bailout? Good shepherd for sure, but what about me? For all of us at First Churches, and nurses, physical therapists, teachers and social workers, and people without homes?
It is a vulnerable time. We lack the PPE, personal protection equipment. We are learning everyone has some risk, not just the elderly and people with health issues. This virus doesn’t care who you are, Democrat or Republican; faithful or godless; it doesn’t care if you said your prayers, it takes the best of us and the worst sort, it takes our helpers and healers, (200 doctors and nurses have died from COVID) those we depend on for our food supply. I don’t want to be the kind of person who fears death or evil, but…. I’m uneasy when I wake up in the morning a little congested. I fear we don’t have enough good shepherds to lead us, who would let us die for the sake of the economy, who can’t find us a green pasture from a golf course. Instead of still waters, we are told maybe we should intake disinfectant. What have you got to lose? I mostly don’t fear evil, but I do fear stupid. That’s too glib, I fear the callous indifference to suffering, which can lead me to feel like things are coming apart.
So where is God in all of this? How will God see us through? Here is what I love about Psalm 23. The Psalmist is a realist. Fear is tangible. Our basic needs matter, or we suffer. We need food and medical care right now. The Psalm doesn’t say we will never have enemies or that God will destroy our enemies. It affirms that enemies will not cut us off from God. We will not be transported from the Valley of the Shadow death, but we will be accompanied. It portrays a God who cares about our physical well-being and needs, who offers blessings in a time of distress, and courage in the face of evil, and even death. The writer doesn’t just give us theology, but uplifts us with poetry of green pastures, still waters, overflowing cups and a home in the divine we can count upon.
The Psalmist seeks to strengthen our faith, not give us magic. I think there is a crucial difference. Magical thinking expects God to change our circumstances, so we won’t have to suffer. It can be comforting to think of faith as an insurance policy. If we believe in God and pay our premium by being good people, then we will be protected from calamity. We won’t be laid off or get sick with the Corona virus, because that’s the bargain with God. Throw in a promotion, that we defy the effects of aging to be a vibrant 100-year-old, and everyone will think I’m great, and the magic is complete. But then the spell breaks, and we suffer like everyone else. It is a short step to then discarding God altogether. The magic was a lie, so forget this God stuff, it’s just the opiate of the masses.
Faith doesn’t change the world or my circumstances, so life is easier and safer. Faith changes me, so I can live in the world with love and courage. And maybe the world will change a little bit as I change. I don’t expect God to wave a wand and remove my troubles. But sometimes I do sense that God sends me wisdom or someone to help, with just the right word or encouragement.
In a few moments we will share communion, receiving the bread of life, the bread we need and drinking the cup of blessing. Something sacred happens in this ritual, even if it’s not magic. I want to give you an illustration of faith by focusing on the image in Psalm 23 of the overflowing cup. (Come with me for a moment into my kitchen.) I’m going to poor into a cup and let it overflow. Imagine that the water is the blessings of God, and you and our community of faith are the cup. Watch with me and pay attention to what you see and feel while I pour. (Let the cup fill slowly to the top, and as it overflows, keep pouring even as it runs all over the table.)
Now that is an overflowing cup! As the cup started to overflow and spill all over, what do you notice about how you feel? Did anyone laugh? Did you feel elated? Does it feel great to watch the water flow all over as a sign of God’s generous love that goes beyond all we can imagine or contain? Or do you feel uncomfortable? Did you feel something in your stomach that really wanted me to stop once the cup was full? Is it bothering you that I have not wiped up the water yet? How many of you will never let me into your kitchen? Imagine if I was using real wine!
Ok, I have to confess that our dishwasher broke a couple of years ago and dripped all over the floor and I can still see the damage, so I need to wipe some of this up. While I do that, continue to think about the experience. Is this a sign of extravagant love and generosity, or does it feel more like a mess, too out of control?
Whatever came up for you during this experience, it’s all good. I’ve had a few days to think about this faith experiment. Part of me feels so grateful that God has more in store for me that I know how to ask or imagine for myself. I often think nothing will come to me unless I have worked hard, or I deserve it. An overflowing cup reminds me that God is bigger and more generous than I may imagine. And another part of me isn’t always ready for the blessing of God’s spirit. Sometimes I feel unworthy and tell God, just give me a half a cup. That will do. Let’s not get out of control. I’m not ready to live into all that God has in store for me. I may feel like God is granting me more love or wisdom than I’m ready to handle, I’m not sure I can be responsible for such a gift. I might spill it, I might leak, I may waste it, so just a few drops will be fine, I’ll make do. I don’t want to make a mess.
Friends, as we approach the communion table, you are a cup waiting to be filled with grace and faith. Whether your cup seems large or small today, put it before God. Pray for the grace you need. What is that grace? Do you need patience, courage, forgiveness, rest, wisdom, connection? Let God fill you with the grace you need. Let God work with you. If it feels like nothing is coming right now, be patient. Grace will come. Sometimes God fills you just right, And maybe your cup will overflow, feeling too full, bringing tears welling up in your eyes. Let it flow, it will be OK. Just remember, your cup is not rigid like this one. It can grow and expand and take in what God offers you. Friends, this is the cup of blessing. Thanks be to God!