Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November 15, 2015 The 23rd Psalm: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

November 15, 2015
Psalm 23

As we continue our three weeks in the 23rd psalm, we come to verse 5 – Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  In light of what took place in Paris this weekend, they are timely words.  We live in a world full of enemies, as has always been the case, unfortunately.
Hear, again, the 23rd Psalm –

1 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 forever.

Why would the psalmist bring up the subject of enemies, and what does it mean that God is preparing a table before us in the presence of our enemies?

1.  It reflects God’s desire for reconciliation.
When I read the 23rd psalm, this verse, to me, seems to come out of nowhere, and seems out of place.  In fact, for a long time when I read the 23rd psalm at funerals this verse seemed so out of place that my temptation was to leave it out, or at least mumble my way through it.  Who wants a mention of enemies at a funeral?

But perhaps this verse should be clearly enunciated above the others, because if there is one lesson we should learn by the end of our lives it is that we shouldn’t reach the end of life without making peace in fractured relationships, and not just with family and friends, but even with our enemies.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I want to nurture my hurts.  I don’t want to let them go.  I want to return hurt for hurt.  I want to plot some revenge.  But I also remember the words of Confucius – Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

What does revenge really accomplish?  I know it may bring some level of satisfaction for a few moments, but does it really solve anything?  What does it accomplish to hold onto a hurt?  What does it accomplish to nurture a hurt, keeping that wound ever fresh and tender?  What does it accomplish to maintain the brokenness in a relationship?

The heart of the gospel is reconciliation.  This is one of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus – to bring reconciliation.  Jesus brought reconciliation between humanity and God, but not just between humanity and God, but also among humanity.

As Jesus taught his disciples about love, it was always the type of love that exceeded the typical kind of love that we find in our world.  The type of love most often found in our world is a reciprocal love.  Reciprocal love is when we love those who do, or will, love us in return.  Reciprocal love is a transactional love because it depends upon whether or not a person’s love is returned by another.

The love of Jesus, however, had no such conditions.  In fact, the love of Jesus had no conditions whatsoever.  It couldn’t be broken.  It was never rescinded because of something done by another person.  It was not conditional upon another person returning the love.  Jesus simply loved all people with no restrictions, no conditions, and no expectations of being loved in return.  That is an amazing type of love, and is what the Scriptures define as agape love, which is a divine love.  It is best exemplified in the words of Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount, in Matthew 5:38-48 –

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is one of the primary reasons why I believe so strongly in the church. I need to be in a place where I will find not only comfort and encouragement, but also some difficult truths.  And one of those difficult truths is that I need to love my enemies.  I don’t have a natural inclination to love my enemies, I can tell you that, and I doubt that most of us do.  But if I want to be like Jesus, I need to hear what Jesus was like, how he lived, and how he wants me to live. 

2.  Reconciliation asks us to step across the divide.
I think this verse could be read in a couple of different ways.  It can be understood in a human or a divine manner.  Perhaps David meant that his enemies would have to watch while he feasted at God’s great table.  It could thus be a taunt – God is preparing this bountiful table before me and my enemies are there to watch me enjoy it.  They get to see my blessedness but not partake in it.  David was not always forgiving of his enemies, and that could have been his attitude.  But God’s definition of this verse would be different.  In God’s view, it is a banquet table around which are seated enemies, and in God’s kingdom perhaps what he is doing is seating enemies together at the table in an effort to have them work out their differences and bring about peace, so they will become former enemies.  It becomes that step across the divide of brokenness – God has prepared this bountiful table for me, but he has also invited my enemies, and we are called to sit down together at a meal and work out our differences.

Henry Hitchings has written a book with a premise that actually supports that view.  The book is Sorry!  The English and Their Manners, and in the book, Hitchings traces the development of manners to the ancient days, when dinner tables often hosted enemies.  There were kings of different countries, or a collection of tribal leaders, or other competing groups who would come together around a dinner table to work out treaties and other important matters.  At those dinners, people tended to have very sharp knives, swords, and other weapons, so codes of conduct were developed as a way of regulating violence.  Every meal became an opportunity for violence to break loose, but they came together to talk.

God asks us to step across the divide of brokenness and take part in his ministry of reconciliation. 
We cannot live in this world without the kinds of experiences that drive wedges between people.  We cannot live in this world without suffering hurts, conflicts, and betrayal.  But we cannot let those experiences dictate how we will respond and how we will live.  The standard by which we are called to respond is the words of Jesus on the cross – Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).  Wow, that’s tough, isn’t it?  Can you imagine that level of grace and reconciliation?

3.  In God’s kingdom, there are no enemies.
Why is it so hard for people to work out their differences?  Why is it that humanity must continually repeat this endless cycle of violence and retribution?  Beginning with Cain and his murder of this brother Abel, humanity has been on a long, painful descent into violence and hatred. 

We live, sadly, in a world where so many people are defined as enemies.  There are people who consider us enemies simply because of our nationality.  Others may consider us an enemy for other reasons.  And when someone considers us their enemies, it’s a natural response to consider them an enemy in response.  And it’s not just from one nation to another, but among our own society.  We hear an increasing amount of language that reflects how we see others as our enemies because they have a different point of view politically, religiously, or in some other arena.  The church is the body of Christ, and thus should reflect the nature of Christ, but in some corners of the church world we hear words that are more representative of division and rejection than reconciliation, unfortunately.

Jesus had enemies, obviously.  His teachings so enraged people they put him to death.  But Jesus did not name anyone as his enemy.  What Jesus did was to show a different way.  We generally want to do one of a couple of things when it comes to our enemies – we want to flee, but they remain our enemies and stay so in our hearts and minds; or, we can fight them, in which case we take on their character.

This verse is a mirror – it shows the ugliness and the hatred and the hurt and all that is broken about humanity.  We like to polish ourselves up with beautiful theological language and use these great clichés but deep down there is a different reality.  When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, that is, not a cliché; that is a cold, hard truth. 

I am often amused that people think I have a good memory because I don’t often refer to my notes while preaching.  I write a manuscript each week and also make a “cheat sheet” of notes that I carry around with me, and I scan those notes on Saturday and early on Sunday morning.  But trust me, my memory, in general, is not very reliable.

But I do remember some things, even when they go back a lot of years.  I remember all too well the times I walked down the hallway in high school and felt the anger and shame as someone made fun of me and embarrassed me in front of others.  I can remember even back into elementary school to hurts I suffered.  I imagine you have a good memory for such events as well.  Do you remember when someone took credit for something you did at work?  Do you remember when someone said something about you that wasn’t true?  Do you remember the hurt someone inflicted on you?

It’s a hard truth that God is asking for reconciliation, and that he asks us to step across the divide of separation, but when we do so we take on one of the greatest of God’s characteristics.  Jesus asked us to love our enemies.  Our tendency is to wish to destroy them. 

Tanya and I attended a dinner with a group of her coworkers some years ago, early in the month of December.  Twelve or fifteen of us gathered at the home of the owner of the business.  It was an interesting mixture, in terms of faith.  We were a combination of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.  The hostess asked me if I would offer the prayer of blessing for our gathering and the meal.  We have some differences in our prayers and I asked her what she was expecting from me, in terms of my prayer.  She graciously said, just pray how you would normally pray. 

It was fascinating to gather around that dinner table and talk about our faith and other topics, especially when, in some places, such a gathering could not occur.  In too many places, people who are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim are considered enemies, and a gathering for dinner would be impossible.

What humanity has been doing, for the most part, has not been working.  The revenge, retribution, violence, and hatred has only given us millennia of revenge, retribution, violence, and hatred.  It would seem that, after so many years of the same results, humanity would understand it’s time to try something else.  We should try another way, and that would be the way of Jesus.  May it be so.

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