Sermon for Sunday, October 9th, 2011 || Proper 23, Year A|| Psalm 23
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“The King of love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am His and He is mine forever.” I’m so glad John chose that as our sequence hymn, because it’s my all time favorite. It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 23—the appointed psalm of the day that we chanted just a few minutes ago. At the offertory we’ll be hearing the Howard Goodall version of the 23rd Psalm— some of you may recognize it from the BBC television series, “The Vicar of Dibley.” It too is one of my favorites. And finally, at communion we’ll sing, “My shepherd will supply my need,” the beautiful old Isaac Watts interpretation of this psalm.
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea– we’re not singing these various renditions of Psalm 23 just because I happen to love them, which I do. We’re singing them because I’m hoping that by hearing what is probably the most familiar psalm in the Psalter in a number of different ways, we might just hear something new and unexpected in something very old and perhaps, predictable.
After all, the 23rd Psalm is one that many of us grew up memorizing in Sunday school. It’s one we often associate with funerals and memorial services. In fact, those of you who come to the memorial service for Karen Ford tomorrow will hear a refreshingly colloquial interpretation of this age-old psalm, which will be read by Karen’s dear 94-year old mother.
But today I’d like to invite you to hear Psalm 23 in a new way, and in a new context, too: In the context of our economy, our culture, and our faith. And I’d like to begin this “new hearing” by looking at the first line of the psalm…the one we’re all so familiar with that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” and ends with (congregation: ‘I shall not want.’)”
Exactly. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Hebrew is actually better translated, “I shall lack no good thing.” But hold that line in your mind’s eye—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” and let me juxtapose it against a quote I read this week from the late Steve Jobs, brilliant founder of all that is Apple and is good. Said Jobs, “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Now, I happen to be a big fan of Steve Jobs. But when I read that sentence last week after just meditating on the 23rd Psalm, I have to tell you it caught me up short. “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Note he didn’t say people don’t know what they need until you show it to them, he said people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
And that was certainly Steve Job’s brilliance—creating things we didn’t know we wanted until he showed them to us and then suddenly we couldn’t live without them. I’ll be the first to admit I’m still coveting an iPad2—and I never even got an iPad1.
But in a larger context, isn’t that also the axiom on which our economy depends—that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them? Isn’t that what advertising is all about? Products—things—material goods –are no longer bought and sold because we need them to flourish as citizens in a free society. Products, things, material goods are consumed compulsively by the overwhelming majority of us simply because we want them. And 90% of the time we don’t even know we want them until someone shows them to us—whether that someone takes the form of a slick ad, a pretty store window, or the guy next door. We don’t know we want these things—this stuff– until someone creates the want in us. And then how free are we, really?
Preacher and theologian David Lose writes,
“We are encouraged at every turn to want. To want more stuff, to want nicer stuff, to want lots of stuff. We live… with an imagination dominated by a pervasive sense of scarcity, far more aware of what we don’t have – and therefore should go out and buy – than what we do. No wonder so many people are unhappy. We are consumed by what we lack instead of grateful for our abundance. We are driven to get “more” instead of content to celebrate “enough.”
I don’t know if you’ve been following the nascent “Occupy Wall Street” movement or not, but something about it intrigues me—this self-professed leaderless collection of the unemployed, the underpaid, and the un-heard…disaffected 20-somethings, union members, environmentalists and untold numbers of other so-called special interests who are simply fed up with the gross economic inequality that keeps this country free in name only for far too many of her citizens. They protest against Democrats and Republicans, against Congress and the President, against consumer and corporate greed, against the widening chasm between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.
And I could be entirely wrong, but my sense is that this unorganized and ill-defined movement of protesters isn’t going away any time soon. That, in fact, this is just the beginning. Because as Steve Jobs said, “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And people want what is fair and just. People want this country to be a model of a free society for the whole world. People want to be free from want.
But a free society requires free people….people free from the kind of fear, ambition and insecurity that are the downfall of so many; people free from the kind of self-interest, hardness of heart, moral ambivalence, and do-nothingness that are the root causes of social and economic injustice. It takes more than the right to vote, to protest, and to be religiously observant to make a free society. A free society requires free people…people free to value virtue and wisdom over money and power; free to love one another with compassion and seek the common good. A society is free when its people are free to thrive and to flourish and to grow into the fullness of being that scripture tells us is God’s greatest desire for his crowning achievement—us.
And that can only happen when we are free from want—not because we’ve managed to acquire all the shiny new toys we want, but because we want what matters, and so lack no good thing.
But remember a lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. A lot of times people don’t know that what they want is not more money and more stuff, but a meaningful relationship with God in Christ. A lot of times people don’t know that what they want is not a gated community and a tax break, but a web of relationships based on the reality that we are all members of the same human family created and loved by God equally. A lot of times people don’t know that what they want is not to be led by the politician with the biggest campaign war chest, but to be led by the generous Shepherd who can guide them along right pathways and be with them even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of social, financial, or even physical death.
A friend of mine recently gave me a little book on the 23rd Psalm by a Methodist minister named Charles Allen. Allen tells this story—and maybe you’ve heard it before—about a very successful man who came to see him after the doctor who’d been treating the man for anxiety and depression suggested he might want to talk to a minister. So Allen talked to this gentlemen for a while, then he took out a pad of paper and wrote a “prescription” for the man to read the 23rd Psalm prayerfully five times a day for seven days—in the morning, after each meal, and at bedtime. And there was to be no cheating: Just like a prescription drug, this prescription had to be taken exactly as prescribed. Allen writes that this man, and many others, has been profoundly changed by this “prescription” of his:
“That prescription sounds simple, but really it isn’t. The 23rd Psalm is one of the most powerful pieces of writing in existence… It is a pattern of thinking, and when a mind becomes saturated with it, a new way of thinking and a new life are the result.”
As long as we allow ourselves to be defined as consumers, and think of ourselves as consumers, we will never be free from fear-based want. You and I know this. But you and I also know that what really matters cannot be bought or strived for or consumed–because you and I know that the Lord is our Shepherd, not Wall Street or Madison Avenue. You and I know that we need not fear, that we want for no good thing, that, in fact, our cup is already running over and we are free— free to value virtue and wisdom; free to love one another with compassion and seek the common good; free to thrive and to flourish and to grow into the fullness of being that scripture tells us is God’s greatest desire for us.
But a lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. So go. Share what you have in Christ with others, and show the hurting people out there what they really want. And then invite them in.