Faith United Methodist Church
April 22, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Psalm 23, John 10:11-18
Prayer of Illumination (Unison):
Good Shepherd, we are the sheep of your pasture, you know us by name. We offer grateful thanks for your loving care. Open our hearts and minds to the guiding of your Spirit in our lives. Lead us in right paths, that we may serve you in truth and action. Amen.
Sermon: Table Prepared
Home. There’s lots of sayings about home. Home is where the heart is. Home is where you hang your hat. Home is where the story begins. For me, home is the smell of baking cookies or the aroma of bubbling spaghetti sauce. There’s just something about those familiar comfort foods that taste best at home. It’s nice to eat out, but at home there’s always a place at the table.
The past few weeks our worship themes have centered around home. On Easter Sunday we considered how, for Mary Magdalene, home wasn’t a place but was found in the heart of Jesus. Last Sunday we reflected on the disciples’ first encounter with the Risen Christ and how it was like a family reunion. Today, with the 23rd Psalm as our lens, we celebrate God’s provision for us, like a caring parent always saving us a place at the table.
As Methodists we know something about good food, right? As the joke goes, “A teacher asked his students to bring in an object that represented their spiritual beliefs for show and tell. On the day of the presentation, the first boy stood and said, “I am a Catholic. This is my crucifix.” The second boy stood and said, “I am a Baptist. This is my Bible.” The third boy stood and said, “I am a Methodist. This is my casserole dish.” Methodists know there is really nothing better than sharing food (good food) together.
And our practice of potluck dinners, fellowship lunches and coffee hours is biblically grounded. The sharing of food is a metaphor often used in the Bible. Psalms of celebration speak of feasts to covey God’s goodness and power. As Christians, we are a people of the table. There is a table at the center of our worship space. We are a community that blesses, breaks and shares bread together.
The 23rd Psalm is just one example of how table sharing is used to convey blessings. The words of this Psalm are so familiar to us that we often hear their comfort without really listening to what they say. The Psalmist, who is believed to be King David, writes, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” Abundance is what he’s really talking about. We can only imagine that the table prepared by God would be covered with all the finest food and drink. The Message version of the same passage reads, “You serve me a six course dinner right in front of my enemies.” The God of the Universe sets the table, prepares the food, and provides a feast.
But the Psalmist ~ David ~ did not have a romantic or unrealistic view of the world. The enemies he spoke of were not metaphorical. He knew, from experience, that there were enemies, real enemies, out there. Goliath was another. Saul was one. David encountered enemies his whole life long including, at the end of his life, his own son. And David knew that when the enemies on the outside don’t get you the enemies on the inside can. As one preacher put it, “Before us a table is set. Behind us just outside, in pursuit, are regret, fear, grief, illness, anger, guilt, anxiety and death.” (Rush Otey)
But even as we are stalked by those external and internal demons, God pursues us even more, invites us home and binds our wounds. Remember the last verse of the Psalm? “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The Hebrew word we have translated follow is more accurately translated pursue. God doesn’t just trail along after us like a lost puppy, but actively seeks us out. God wants to be with us, provide for us, fill our cup to overflowing, prepare a table before us full of blessings, and provide us a place to live in safety. The Message renders it, “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.”
I’ve often wondered why this Psalm touches us so deeply. It is so well know, even by non-churchgoers, that it is sometimes called the most popular secular Psalm. Almost everybody in our culture is familiar with it and almost every funeral I’ve officiated has included it. As Geoff McElroy suggests in his Lectionary Reflections, “It is a reminder that it is ultimately God who provides, nourishes, and comforts us in our times of trouble, and that this provision goes beyond just the immediate but pursues us all the days of our life.”
Maybe it touches us so deeply because we can sense that David really meant it from the depth of his soul. As a young boy David was a shepherd, so he knew the commitment it took to care for sheep. The Lord is my Shepherd. Later, when David was anointed as King, he knew what it was to have the oil poured over his head and change his life. Thou anointest my head with oil. And even as King, David was a shepherd of sorts, as he watched over the people of Israel at the risk of his own life. He knew what it was to go to war. He faced enemies on the battlefield and even in his own home. And he also knew what it was to succumb to the temptations of sin, to fail himself and his God. Yet, even after that he knew what it was to be forgiven. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The words of Psalm 23 are nothing if not authentic. In them we recognize the human story, our story. We can feel the depths of the valley of the shadow of death. Yet we can see the cup overflowing, the oil pouring out, the table set before us. Even as our enemies surround us, even as temptation beckons, God provides and welcomes us home. A table is set just for us, prepared for us, by our God who loves us and seeks us and pursues us even when we stray. The words of the 23rd Psalm are our words, the words of life.
If you feel moved to, I invite you to say this Psalm with me in the familiar King James Version that many of us memorized as children:
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.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Amen.