A New Table is Set (Reflection on Psalm 23)

The Dinner Table by Henri Matisse, 1897.

 

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—they protect me.
You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.
Psalm 23 (CEB)

Psalm 23 could be one of the most recognized verses in the whole of Scripture. Definitely up there with the ranks of John 3:16. The issue with these familiar verses is that they can become overly sentimentalized and domesticated. Or, in other words, they stop shaking us up. While I’m okay with the Bible being used to help and give comfort in times of need, I am much more of a fan when it forces us to see the world in a new way. I find myself to be much more inspired by its words when it challenges my perceptions and pushes me to try and see the world from God’s perspective not my own, limited and admittedly selfish perspective. With that said, one line in this Psalm today shined through in a way that I had not considered before.

You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.

Whenever I heard this verse talked or preached about, I felt like it was always taught with a twinge of gloating. Like, “Look at this beautiful table God sets in spite of being surrounded by enemies.” Or, even as a triumphal table set in front of defeated enemies. Those images just did not jive for me as I read it this time through. I started to think about various tables elsewhere in the Bible to see if I could let the Bible lead me to an image. What tables set with food are important in the Bible? Especially those that happened to be set near some enemies. It did not take long before my mind began imaging the Passover tables of the Israelites set in Egypt. On the eve of their deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites eat a humble meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The blood of the lamb was painted on their doorposts to mark houses that the Lord would “pass over”.

I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:12-13 (CEB)

The Passover table was one set in the midst of enemies. It was not a table of gloating or victory, but it was probably set with a bit of fear and humility. It was a table set to signify the freedom from slavery God was about to lead his chosen people into. Even today, Passover celebrations are typically marked by solemn reflection on the memory of the first Passover. There are no fireworks like July 4th. There are no rousing nationalistic hymns or songs. Just the foundational phrase…

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.

From thinking about the Passover meal, I also began thinking about Jesus with his disciples at the Lord’s Supper. This was the last meal he was to eat with them and by all accounts, it was most likely the Passover meal. Here, there is definitely a table set in the presence of enemies. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were outside conspiring how they might kill Jesus. The Roman authorities were warily watching all the Passover celebrations, expecting an uprising. And, right there in the room with Jesus, is his betrayer. This is a table truly set in the presence of enemies. However, this is not a triumphal table for boasting. Instead, it’s the table where Jesus proclaims.

“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Luke 22:19-20 (CEB)

It’s at this table where Jesus points to the sacrifice he is about to make. It is at this table where the salvation of the cosmos is brought into focus and opened up to all. The bread and wine are offered to all around the table.

Betrayers, deniers, boasters, sinners and deserters one and all.

The Passover table Jesus sets in the presence of his enemies is one of sacrifice, not glory. The table is one of community not division. The table is set for all regardless of who they are, what they have done, where they are from and where they are going. At the first Passover, one did not necessarily have to be Jewish to be “passed over.” They just had to be around a table, in a house signified by the blood of the lamb.

In this Psalm today, “You set a table for me right in front of my enemies,” does not have to mean God sets us a table to gloat over our enemies. Maybe it means that God has set us a table so that we might invite our enemies to sit with us. Maybe the table is set not for exclusion but for inclusion? At God’s table, there is always an open chair which we might invite someone to join. Jesus demonstrates that the table is set and offered to enemies just as much as to friends.

The broken bread and common cup are shared with all who are willing to take a seat.

This podcast/sermon by Jonathan Martin definitely helped inspire my blog post today. I recommend you take some time to listen to it.
Everyone is Welcome at the Table

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Reflection on Psalm 107:17-22

Some of the redeemed were fools because of their sinful ways.
They suffered because of their wickedness.
They had absolutely no appetite for food; they had arrived at death’s gates.
So they cried out to the Lord in their distress, and God saved them from their desperate circumstances.
God gave the order and healed them; he rescued them from their pit.
Let them thank the Lord for his faithful love and his wondrous works for all people.
Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and declare what God has done in songs of joy!
Psalm 107:17-22 (CEB)

I love when I’m reading Scripture and I have to stop and go back to make sure what I thought I read is what was actually written. It’s always good when Scripture can surprise and unsettle you. We can get pretty stuck in our understanding and interpretation of what we “think” Scripture should say. Today’s Psalm was one of those moments for me. Specifically the opening line of today’s reading.

Some of the redeemed were fools because of their sinful ways.
They suffered because of their wickedness.
Psalm 107:17 (CEB)

Did the Bible just call people who were redeemed fools? Aren’t the redeemed the good guys? Let me check out the Hebrew behind that. Surely the translators could have chosen something nicer than the word “fools.” The Hebrew word behind “fools” is אֱוִיל which is pronounced like “evil”.

Things aren’t getting any better.

If you keep reading, you realize that the redeemed are fools because of their own actions. Some kind of wickedness led to suffering, lack of appetite and impending doom. They got what they deserved, they reaped what they sowed, or (as Paul wrote in Romans) “they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies” (Romans 1:27, CEB).

Then, as any of us might do, these fools, “cried out to the Lord in their distress.” But, rather than letting them rot in their own mistakes, God saves them.

No payment.

No guilt trip.

No quid pro quo.

No expectations.

No extra divine judgment or punishment.

God immediately sends the order to rescue them and they are redeemed. I have this image of a special forces, or A-Team like, squad of angels waiting and when God gives the go ahead, they drop in and rescue these “fools” from their troubles. While their troubles were self-inflicted and reasonable on account of their wickedness, this does not stop or hinder God from healing them when they cry out to him.

There is no fool beyond the scope of God’s redemption.

No matter what we do, how righteous or unrighteous we are, God’s redemption and salvation are available for all those who are willing to cry out to him. This can seem trite and simple, but it’s true. Statements like this are often stated for the benefit of the “fools” so that they know God’s offer is always open. However, the people who need to hear and realize this are the devout followers. Those who, often because of their devotion, add restrictions, list provisions and effectively try to narrow the scope of salvation.

Those who would say, “Yeah…but…” when the open offer of redemption is presented.

Instead, what this Psalm seems to be saying, is we need to let God do the saving. Let’s let God set the provisions and open the door as wide as it can go. Once people are in, let’s not set further weight and restrictions on their shoulders. Instead, we should, “Let them thank the Lord for his faithful love and his wondrous works for all people. Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and declare what God has done in songs of joy!”

Lent is the perfect time to check the foolishness in our own hearts. We could learn a lot from the thanksgiving and praises of those “fools” saved from deaths door and suffering on account of their own choices. Let’s take the time to listen and hear their stories.

Maybe the foolishness in some of our own devotion might get illuminated?

Maybe we’ll realize a need to cry out from the spiritual corner we’ve painted ourselves into?

Maybe we’ll see the desperation in our interpretations?

So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things…Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life?
Romans 2:1 & 4 (CEB)

Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 19

Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.
One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known.
Of course, there’s no speech, no words— their voices can’t be heard—
but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.
God has made a tent in heaven for the sun.
The sun is like a groom coming out of his honeymoon suite; like a warrior, it thrills at running its course.
It rises in one end of the sky; its circuit is complete at the other. Nothing escapes its heat.
The Lord’s Instruction is perfect, reviving one’s very being.
The Lord’s laws are faithful, making naive people wise.
The Lord’s regulations are right, gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure, giving light to the eyes.
Honoring the Lord is correct, lasting forever.
The Lord’s judgments are true. All of these are righteous!
They are more desirable than gold—than tons of pure gold!
They are sweeter than honey— even dripping off the honeycomb!
No doubt about it: your servant is enlightened by them; there is great reward in keeping them.
But can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong?
Clear me of any unknown sin and save your servant from willful sins.
Don’t let them rule me.
Then I’ll be completely blameless; I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you,
Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Psalm 19 (CEB)

The opening verses of this Psalm set the theme of creation shouting about God’s glory. Instead of my usual reflection style, today I’m just going to leave you with a poem. St. Francis of Assisi wrote his Canticle of the Sun in 1224 and carries very similar themes. Take some time to read both and compare. How are they similar? How are they different? How do they talk about nature revealing God’s glory? What should our response be? Feel free to leave a comment (here or on Facebook) with your responses and feelings.

Canticle of the Sun
by St. Francis of Assisi

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 22:23-31

Brass figures from the Bible by Hans Teppich, n.d.

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—stand in awe of him!
Because he didn’t despise or detest
the suffering of the one who suffered—
he didn’t hide his face from me.
No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.
I offer praise in the great congregation
because of you;
I will fulfill my promises
in the presence of those who honor God.
Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
I pray your hearts live forever!
Every part of the earth
will remember and come back to the Lord;
every family among all the nations will worship you.
Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
he rules all nations.
Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
will worship him;
all who are descending to the dust
will kneel before him;
my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
to those not yet born,
telling them what God has done.
Psalm 22:23-31 (CEB)

One of the greatest things about the Bible is that, at its core, it’s all about the little people. Now, I don’t necessarily mean our friends who find themselves in a lower height percentile. I’m talking about people who find themselves outside the circles of power in culture and society. People we might consider minorities, outcasts, exiles and the ostracized

If you need further proof, just head towards the front of your Bible. Once there you’ll realize that the foundational story is about a group of slaves. These are people pushed to the outskirts of society, people despised and detested, people who suffer under the heavy foot of oppression and who have no voice.

And yet…God hears their cry. God acknowledges their voice. God calls them “my people.”

It’s not so much the great and powerful God concerns himself with. Sure, there are great kings in the pages of Scripture. But, often their stories are cautionary tales of the allure of power. They all, in some form or another, turned their backs on God for their own purposes.

And, in doing so, turned their backs on the marginalized.

God warns the Israelites in Exodus 22:21-23, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” It’s comforting to know that God hears your cry when you are the oppressed and mistreated. However, it’s just as easy to overlook the oppressed and mistreated when you feel safe, secure and strong. This will become the greatest rebuke God levels against the kingdoms of Israel and Judah through the prophets.

No wonder they are rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek!
To be sure, their evil deeds exceed all limits, and yet they prosper.
They are indifferent to the plight of the orphan, reluctant to defend the rights of the poor.
Shouldn’t I punish such acts? Declares the Lord.
Shouldn’t I repay that nation for its deeds?
Jeremiah 5:27-29 (CEB)

Lent is a time when we have the opportunity to identify with and listen closely for the cry of the oppressed. We are called to enter the wilderness, to fast, to feel the pain of hunger and of want. Honestly, most of us in Western society (especially those of us who are white and male like myself) are RARELY if ever marginalized and oppressed. We are blessed beyond our comprehension and rarely feel the sting of injustice. Maybe Lent is a time for us to try to tune our ears to hear the cries of the oppressed. Rather than walling ourselves off from, ignoring, or instructing those who find themselves at the bottom of society we should take the time to hear their stories.

One time St. Francis of Assisi was in Rome for a pilgrimage, he noticed all the poor begging outside the gates of St. Peter’s. He did not just walk by, he did not just drop a few coins, he did not call the authorities to clear them out and he did not hand them information on how to find meaningful work.

He immediately sold everything he had and sat down to beg with them outside the great basilica. St. Francis heard their cries, he heard their stories and they became his people.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

God hears the cries of the oppressed, will you?

Lenten Lectio: Reflection on Psalm 25:1-10

Coventry Cathedral (1956-62) by Basil Spence.

I offer my life to you, Lord.
My God, I trust you.
Please don’t let me be put to shame!
Don’t let my enemies rejoice over me!
For that matter,
don’t let anyone who hopes in you
be put to shame;
instead, let those who are treacherous without excuse be put to shame.
Make your ways known to me, Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth—teach it to me—
because you are the God who saves me.
I put my hope in you all day long.
Lord, remember your compassion and faithful love—
they are forever!
But don’t remember the sins of my youth or my wrongdoing.
Remember me only according to your faithful love
for the sake of your goodness, Lord.
The Lord is good and does the right thing;
he teaches sinners which way they should go.
God guides the weak to justice,
teaching them his way.
All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful
for those who keep his covenant and laws.
Psalms 25:1-10 (CEB)

Here we are again, the season of Lent has kicked off and we begin our (hopefully) introspective and reflective journey towards Holy Week and Easter. Some of you were marked by ash crosses on Wednesday and many of you have decided to fast from something during the 40 days of Lent. Some may not give up anything and there are some who have given up everything. Those who do fast may give up some kind of food, some may fast from a technology, some may fast from being selfish and some may fast from simply saying “Yes” to everything.

We will all be walking very different journeys and very different paths during Lent.

In verse four of this week’s Psalm the psalmist writes, “Make your ways known to me, Lord; teach me your paths.”

Lent is a time for us to look at the path we’ve walked and reevaluate if it’s the path God wants us on. It’s a time to ask potentially hard questions. What has hindered us? Are we on the right path? Do we need to change course? What might be in our lives that is misleading and misdirecting? Where can we open up to bring more light and perspective on our path? Who might we need to invite on our journey or who might we need to part ways with?

Sometimes we give something up. Sometimes we try something new.

What’s important is that we look at our lives.

Not our neighbors.

This section of the Psalm ends with, “All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful for those who keep his covenant and laws.”

Sometimes we are walking closely with someone but most of the time we are all on very different paths. Lent is also the time to acknowledge that my path is not your path. As long as we are both on a journey that honestly desires to find God’s path and direction, then we’re doing this Lent thing right. If we spend most of our time expecting others paths to look like ours or having a laundry list of expectations, then we are doing Lent gravely wrong.

Lent is a 40 day journey through the wilderness towards the cross.

And, as the ancient Israelites learned, there are many ways through the wilderness.

“All the Lord’s paths are loving and faithful” for those who earnestly seek God to, “teach me your paths.”

May we seek to walk and learn God’s path for our life and may we honor the journey of our neighbors.

Reflection on Psalm 111

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh, 1884.

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh, 1884.

Praise the Lord!
I thank the Lord with all my heart
in the company of those who do right, in the congregation.
The works of the Lord are magnificent;
they are treasured by all who desire them.
God’s deeds are majestic and glorious.
God’s righteousness stands forever.
God is famous for his wondrous works.
The Lord is full of mercy and compassion.
God gives food to those who honor him.
God remembers his covenant forever.
God proclaimed his powerful deeds to his people
and gave them what had belonged to other nations.
God’s handiwork is honesty and justice;
all God’s rules are trustworthy—
they are established always and forever:
they are fulfilled with truth and right doing.
God sent redemption for his people;
God commanded that his covenant last forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name!
Fear of the Lord is where wisdom begins;
sure knowledge is for all who keep God’s laws.
God’s praise lasts forever!
Psalm 111 (CEB)

It’s pretty popular to wonder and question what the importance of the Church is in today’s world. Often, people are thinking about the shrinking attendance, dilapidated buildings, scientific proofs, and seeming disconnectedness from the larger community and culture. While all of these may be true in one way or another, I think this this Psalm highlights one of the most important responsibilities of the Church. This psalm begins with the phrase, “I thank the Lord with all my heart, in the company of those who do right, in the congregation,” and then proceeds to proclaim some of the wonderful works that the Lord has done.

One of the greatest responsibilities of the Church is to proclaim, praise and acknowledge the works of God.

The Church needs to proclaim (with heavy doses of humility, compassion and love) how God has worked in the past, how it sees God working now and prophetically speak God’s work in the future.

What’s unique about this Psalm from many of the other Psalms is the relative vagueness of the recounting of God’s work. Often, other Psalms will retell, quite accurately, the Exodus story or other important stories for Israel’s history. While many of those stories could be echoed here, the Psalm does not explicitly state what it is recounting. This gives the reader some flexibility with the application of the Psalm.

That’s right, I said flexibility with the application of this Psalm. I think we can get a little anxious in the Church when we start talking about flexible interpretation and application of the Scripture. But, I think that’s exactly what this Psalm is asking us to do.

It’s inviting us, inviting the people of God, inviting the Church, to join into the conversation of Scripture. The Bible as a whole recounts how God has worked with people and the world through nearly 3000 years of history. It is the Church’s responsibility to not only retell the story but to enter the conversation and tell new stories and new workings of God within the congregation and to the greater world.

Retelling the old stories is great, we need history and tradition to anchor us. But, the Church also must to be able to tell the new stories of the People of God. Remaining relevant is not so much about programming, lights, smoke machines, modern worship music, or catchy sermon illustrations. We must be able to tell new stories, apply our lives to the conversation in Scripture and open the world’s eyes to how God is living, acting and moving amongst them even now.

As the psalmist writes, “God’s praise lasts forever,”. We need to be able to add our stories to the other 3000+ years of stories and reasons to praise God.

Reflection on Psalm 62:5-12

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oh, I must find rest in God only,
because my hope comes from him!
Only God is my rock and my salvation—
my stronghold!—I will not be shaken.
My deliverance and glory depend on God.
God is my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
All you people: Trust in him at all times!
Pour out your hearts before him!
God is our refuge! Selah
Human beings are nothing but a breath.
Human beings are nothing but lies.
They don’t even register on a scale;
taken all together they are lighter than a breath!
Don’t trust in violence;
don’t set false hopes in robbery.
When wealth bears fruit,
don’t set your heart on it.
God has spoken one thing—
make it two things—
that I myself have heard:
that strength belongs to God,
and faithful love comes from you, my Lord—
and that you will repay
everyone according to their deeds.
Psalm 62:5-12 (CEB)

With this Psalm we sort of continue our theme of God’s glory from some of the previous Psalms we have looked at recently. This one is not an enthronement Psalm because God is not being portrayed as King and there are no mighty deeds being recounted. Instead, in this Psalm, God is depicted as a place of refuge, safety, dependence and strength. Comparatively, the Psalmist does not put a lot of hope in fellow humans. “Nothing but a breath…nothing but lies” and not registering on a scale sounds similar to the exasperated words of Ecclesiastes.

The Psalmist then points out that violence, robbery and wealth should not be trusted. Let’s dig a little deeper into those words because I think there is a more poetic tie between them all that the translation does not quite make clear. The two Hebrew words behind “violence” and “robbery”, while different, carry similar meaning. “Violence” or עֹשֶׁק (osheq) in Hebrew can be also translated as oppression or extortion. It’s image is of something being taken by force or deception. “Robbery” or גָּזֵל (gazel) can also be translated as plunder. Again the image is of something being taken by force. And finally, “wealth” or חַיִל (chayil) can also be translated as strength, power, and in a positive sense as virtue. So, there seems to be an underlying image of “strength” and even gaining an advantage over a another by exercising one’s strength or possibly even virtue, valor or recognition. It’s easy to point out when violence and robbery have occurred through evil and deceptive practices.

But, what about those who have attained some measure of success through virtuous means? Can an advantage be taken when no laws are broken or when even no malice is intended? Can wealth/power/influence obtained through virtuous means still be used in unvirtuous ways? How might rising to the top of the social/economic food chain change one’s perspective towards those who are at the bottom?

The Israelites in Egypt were initially welcomed and defended as Joseph’s family. But, once time and memory had passed, Pharaoh and those in control began to see and treat them as slaves.

King Solomon created a great kingdom that was (according to the account in 1 Kings) the wonder of the surrounding world. There was great trade and great wealth flowing through the tiny kingdom of Israel and many powerful people came to observe the glory of Solomon’s Temple and Palace. Yet, much of that wealth was built on the backs of Israelite workers and slaves. The pressure was so great that the kingdom would split after Solomon died.

The Psalmist seems to be turning a wary eye to that kind of success. The kind of success/wealth that is either obtained through violence or may breed violence and oppression in order to defend and maintain. Even when it is defended in the name of “virtue”. While these things may seem appealing and fruitful in the world’s eye, there is reason to be suspicious. The Psalmist, instead, points our gaze towards God who should be the source of our security and protection.

Deliverance comes from God..not through force, armies, wealth or even virtue.

True strength belongs to God, and the Psalmist is encouraging us to draw close to God and to let God’s strength be our strength.

When we draw close to God, we draw close to his steadfast/covenantal/unfailing/everlasting love. Which is not deceptive, is not a lie, and has the weight to tip every scale and right every ship that would threaten to throw us out of balance.