The Lord is our shepherd. Do we believe it? Do we believe it and trust it enough to respond to God’s gifts of life and this earth not with infectious greed, but with infectious gratitude?
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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
When my kids were little, there were times when they’d be struck by what we called, “want-itis.” “I want an American Girl Doll. I want another American Girl Doll. I want a Beanie Baby. I want, I want, I want…” Want-itis. Want-itis is the affliction of wanting too much, too often. Few of us are completely immune from want-it is, so when I hear the psalmist of the 23rd Psalm say, “I shall not want,” my first thought is, “I don’t think so.” Everybody wants something some time. Some things we want are good: I want children to grow up feeling valued and loved. I want the unemployed to find work, and the homeless to find homes. I want the planet Earth to continue to support human life. Right now more than anything I want this COVID crisis behind us. I want quite a lot, really.
But the psalmist in Psalm 23 isn’t saying he’ll never desire anything. What he means is he is free from want – he has what he needs. As much as we are attached to the King James Version of this psalm, a better translation of this particular verse is, “I lack nothing,” “I have everything I need to live a healthy, peaceful life.”
What do we need, really, for a healthy, peaceful life? In 1943, Abraham Maslow attempted to answer this question with his famous pyramid showing fives levels of human need. Maslow put our most basic physical needs at the bottom of the pyramid: air to breathe, food, water, sleep. If these physical needs are met, then the need for safety and security kicks in. The next level is belonging and relationship, then the need for respect, and finally, if all these other needs are met, a person can tackle the peak of the pyramid: “self-actualization,” the desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming.[i]
Needs, wants, self-actualization – they’re pretty hard to tease apart in our culture, where wealth equals success. There’s a story about an American businessman on vacation in a seaside village in Mexico. He went down to the pier to buy fresh fish. A small boat pulled up to the pier. In it were a weathered fisherman and several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the man on the fish and asked how long it took him to catch them. The man replied, “Just a little while.” The American asked why he didn’t stay out longer to catch more fish. “I have enough to support my family’s needs.”
“What do you do with the rest of your time?” the American asked. The fisherman answered, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, write a little poetry, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play the guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.” “You should spend more time fishing,” said the American. “You would make more money. You could buy a bigger boat. With the profit from the fish you could fit in a bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually you’d have a fleet of boats, and you could even open your own cannery. Then you could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, where you’d make more connections and expand your enterprise.”
The fisherman asked, “How long would all this take?” The American calculated. “You could do it in fifteen or twenty years.” “Then what?” asked the fisherman. The American beamed. “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you’d announce an IPO, sell your stock, and you’d make millions!” “Millions?” marveled the fisherman. “Then what?” The American smiled. “Then you could retire, move to a small coastal village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take siestas with your wife, write poetry and stroll to the village in the evenings where you’ll sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”
This cute story doesn’t really address the complexities of meeting the needs of the world in our complex global economy, but amazingly enough, this morning’s several thousand-year-old psalm does. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want – I have everything I need.” You, worshiping with us today, may or may not feel as though this applies to you. We know it doesn’t apply to everyone. Calvary’s “Breaking the Cycles of Poverty” initiative has increased our congregation’s awareness of the desperate reality of income inequality in the Bay Area, and the COVID pandemic has put this is stark relief. Some people can weather weeks or months of stay at home orders. Some people lose their jobs. Some people live without financial security or opportunity all the time, and with income-related health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.[ii] So you have to wonder: Is there a way that this verse – “I have everything I need” – can be true for everyone? Because if there isn’t, this psalm could feel like a cruel joke. I can picture someone saying, “I have all I need? Sure; that’s easy for you to say.”
The beginning of the verse gives us a clue to what the psalmist means. “The Lord is my shepherd.” We’ve heard this psalm so often that the power of those words may be lost on us. The Lord is my shepherd, says the psalm, and then it lists all the basic necessities a shepherd provides for the sheep: food (“green pastures”), drink (“still waters”), and protection (“right paths”). In short, the shepherd “keeps me alive” – one way to translate “God restores my soul.”[iii] In the second part of the psalm, the gracious host also provides for these needs: food (a table), drink (“my cup overflows”), and protection (“you anoint my head with oil”). In other words, safety and security, the life God intends for all.
That’s what the psalmist is talking about here – life – life in accordance with God’s intentions – all for God’s name’s sake, as the psalm puts it. God wills and actively works for life. The last verse is better translated, “Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” We busy North Americans are inclined to view life as an achievement – we “make” a living, we say. But Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift.[iv]
Life is a gift. A gift from the shepherd. And even though the psalm is spoken in the first person singular, we all know that the shepherd cares for the entire flock. It’s perfectly appropriate for one individual, the psalmist, to sing a song of gratitude and trust for what the shepherd provides. It is not appropriate for any one sheep – or for any one person – to assume God has singled out one individual or even one group of individuals for the abundance of God’s gifts.
What if we lived as though, “The Lord is our shepherd”? Philip Jenkins writes, “To declare ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is to deny the claims of all the worldly seekers of that status. … It is as if the believer is proclaiming … , ‘The Lord is my shepherd – you aren’t.’” Who the “you” is in “you aren’t” depends on who or what is oppressing us. In some countries, oppressive regimes try to take the place of trust in God,[v] but what are the forces of tyranny threatening Americans? Consider Thomas Merton’s assessment of our situation:
“Even though there’s a certain freedom in our society, it’s largely illusory. Again, it’s the freedom to choose your product, but not the freedom to do without it. You have to be a consumer and your identity is to a large extent determined by your choices, which are very much determined by advertising. Identity is created by ads.”[vi]
Which brings us right back to the needs versus wants conversation. We’re bombarded with ads telling us we really do need a new car every few years; we really do need to wear the latest fashions, we really do need the newest iPhone even if our current phone works fine. It’s not surprising that our society is characterized by what Alan Greenspan once called “infectious greed.”[vii] Which is a fancy way of saying, “want-itis.”
But consumer culture is not our shepherd.[viii] The Lord is our shepherd. A few years ago, a world hunger summit in Rome concluded that there is enough food in the world today to feed everybody. Hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food but by the fact that some people don’t have the money to buy food.[ix] The problem is not supply. It’s distribution. The Shepherd has provided enough for the basic sustenance of life. That is how “I shall not want” can apply to everybody. The Lord is not the problem. We are.[x] As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every [one’s] need, but not every [one’s] greed.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown Americans how far apart we are in terms of wealth, health, and resilience. As someone put it, we have a system that rewards some with yachts and leaves others without a life raft.[xi] But out of this crisis, there’s a chance to begin to put things right, to make sure that the America that ultimately emerges is more just, more free and less fragile.[xii] This is not a political position but a theological one, because the Lord is our shepherd. We have all we need. God, our shepherd, intends that all of us have all we need for a safe and secure life.
We have work ahead of us, my friends. We don’t have a road map but smart people are thinking about income inequality in new ways, and we are working on it here at Calvary. The psalm doesn’t tell us we won’t face hard times, pain, enemies, even death, but God has given us all we need to meet them. And: we have God. The focal point of the psalm is, “Thou art with me.” The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” and that means “God with us.”
God is with us. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
May it be so for you, and for me.