With Jesus, life-changing things happen around tables: acts of service, eye-opening teaching, prayer, and sacramental transformation. Boundaries get broken for the sake of justice. Community forms and dignity is restored to those once excluded. The “table” might be on a hillside or in an upper room, but wherever the people gather with Jesus, people are nourished — body and soul. The well-known Psalm 23 paints a picture of the table that God, our Shepherd, prepares for us. It reminds us that God provides for us, even in times of challenge and danger. God prepares and invites us to the table, nourishes and connects us there, and anoints us as beloved and called. We are part of the family, part of God’s work of love and mending in the world.
“Humble, Strong, Sure”
A reflection preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 3, 2021, the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series. World Communion Sunday.
Texts: Psalm 23:1a, Mark 10:13-16
“The Lord is my shepherd.” These five words hold so much. Because the Lord, our shepherd, holds you and me and the whole world.
An image comes to mind from my travels to the Holy Land at the beginning of 2020. It is of a young Bedouin boy, his arms filled with just one sheep. As our group traveled around Israel and Palestine, it was powerful to see the Bedouin shepherds with their flocks on what looked like mostly dry, rocky hills. The images of the 23rd Psalm took on new meaning the more I observed the landscapes from which that Psalm emerged. Much of the terrain is dangerous, weather unpredictable, water and food sources hidden or scarce, predators always around. Shepherding can be dirty work, dangerous work, exhausting work, lonely work.
The ancestors of the Hebrew people were all nomadic, moving with their flocks to find sustenance, sometimes in the broad, green valley of places like the Galilee, and in times of drought, further afield. And that memory persists in the spiritual imagination of the tribes of Israel, the memory of the shepherd doing whatever was needed to tenderly care for and protect each little lamb. Our spiritual ancestors imagined God not as a king, but as a humble shepherd. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “To say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ is to say that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world…But despite it all, we can get up every morning to face that world because we know that there is Someone in that world who cares about us and tries to keep us safe.” //
It is a primal thing, the yearning for someone to make us feel safe in a dangerous world and cared for in what can be an everyone’s-too-busy-to-care, impersonal world. We humans try to get those needs met in all kinds of ways, some of them healthy and others, not so much. Even the best humans at some point along the way will hurt, disappoint, or not be present with us when we need them. But what we are offered in our faith tradition is assurance that the Lord, our shepherd, is present with us every single moment of every single day of our lives—and present with patience, compassion, mercy, and love, no matter what mess we may have made of things. The good shepherd is always with us trying to protect us and lead us to the things that nourish, sustain, and bless our lives.
A good shepherd also seeks out those who are in dangerous places, the wounded ones, the ones who’ve been led astray. It doesn’t matter how or why they are where they are, the shepherd still cares, will find them, and attend to their needs. Each and every sheep is cared for; all are loved and worthy to be scooped up and held. Jesus modeled this with the little children whom others would have ignored or excluded.
When we are safe and secure, we may forget. But when we find ourselves wounded or lost or being pushed aside or excluded, the promise is that God will remember us and draw near to help. We will be among those enfolded and held in the shepherd’s humble, strong, sure arms.
A day ago, I noticed that a colleague with whom I went to seminary, Rev. Otis Moss, III of Trinity UCC in Chicago, is starting a new sermon series entitled “I am Not Okay.” It struck me in a deep place as resonant with my own thoughts of late. A couple of weeks ago, in my midweek “Ponderings” on Facebook, I shared reminders about how our current experience of prolonged struggle of various kinds through the pandemics of 2020 and 2021 are taking a toll on every one of us. The stress and confusion and isolation is landing on our bodies and souls in some kind of way. And we may forget that how we feel or react in any given moment right now is likely affected by this larger reality. We may forget—because it’s been going on so long—that human systems are not MADE to sustain these levels of uncertainty, danger, and trauma for such long periods of time. My message was a simple reminder that it’s OK to not be OK and an encouragement to be gentle with ourselves. We need to remain aware of the context we’re in and be mindful of how we’re reacting to things. Because I don’t think anyone is really OK right now; I don’t think we’re “fine.”
The new series we begin today, is a journey through the 23rd Psalm. Every week through November 21st, the sermon will take a line from the Psalm as the focus for study and reflection. We will have opportunities to reflect on the ways God has brought us this far through these challenging years and to commit our support for what God will do in and through Foundry in 2022 to help us care for others as God has cared for us, to prepare the table for others as God has prepared the table for us.
We begin with the simple, profound assurance that the Lord is our shepherd. We will discover as we journey together through our study of Psalm 23, that its primary message is not that we’ll be free from the experience of pain or loss or difficulties in our lives. But rather that we will not have to experience anything in our lives alone. Because, as John Wesley affirmed in his dying breath, “Best of all, God is with us.”
The Psalmist wrote from a deeply personal place of relationship with God. But let’s be very clear. This Lord is not just “my” shepherd or your shepherd or Christians’ shepherd or Jews’ shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd and the shepherd of all. God has the whole beautiful, broken world in God’s hands. As we prepare to gather at the table God has prepared for us on this World Communion Sunday, I think about that Bedouin boy shepherd, arms full. I think about the Bedouin shepherds I observed, guiding their flocks through dangerous terrain to find sustenance, sometimes in unseen places. I imagine God as our shepherd, arms full with all the people in all the places all around the world gathered at the Communion table prepared by God. I think of all those who gather around different kinds of spiritual “tables.” I think about all who are suffering or lost, those whose suffering is hidden to others, those whom others ignore or devalue…I think of all these who are watched over and sought out by the Lord, our shepherd, who is determined that not one should be lost, that none will be excluded from the compassion, love, care, and grace of God.
As we draw near to the table God prepares for us, a table where we are nourished in forgiveness and in love, remember that at this table we are created and called to be the Body of Christ for the world, to follow in the way of the good shepherd who labors in love to tend for each and all. Today, I encourage you to really listen to the words of the Great Thanksgiving prayer. Let’s gather at the table today, with all God’s people everywhere, and truly give thanks for the bounty of love, mercy, and grace God has showered upon us all; let’s give thanks for the encouragement and nourishment to keep going; let’s give thanks for the grace to participate in God’s work of love and justice and compassion; let’s give thanks for the humble, strong, and sure presence of the Lord our shepherd.