With Jesus, life-changing things happen around tables: acts of service, eye-opening teaching, prayer, and sacramental transformation. Boundaries get broken for the sake of justice. Community forms and dignity is restored to those once excluded. The “table” might be on a hillside or in an upper room, but wherever the people gather with Jesus, people are nourished — body and soul. The well-known Psalm 23 paints a picture of the table that God, our Shepherd, prepares for us. It reminds us that God provides for us, even in times of challenge and danger. God prepares and invites us to the table, nourishes and connects us there, and anoints us as beloved and called. We are part of the family, part of God’s work of love and mending in the world.
“Pursued in Love…Always”
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, November 21, 2021. Reign of Christ and Consecration Sunday, “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series.
Texts: Psalm 23, Revelation 1:4b-8
Over the past seven weeks, we have been guided by the Lord, our shepherd, in Psalm 23. And on this last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, the last Sunday before Advent, and the day often celebrated as the Reign of Christ or Christ the King, we receive the final verse of the Psalm. The familiar-to-many King James Version reads: “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.”
Years ago I learned that the verb translated “follow” is more intense in the original Hebrew: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me…” This is not only an image of these graces passively lurking about or showing up here and there. It’s that God’s goodness and mercy “will run after me and find me wherever I am!” It strikes me that this is where we began the journey, with the ancient image of God, not as a conquering king, but as a humble, strong, shepherd and the affirmation that God is with us, no matter what.
When I was a teenager, our youth camp worship would use “sing along slides” to guide our singing of a variety of songs, including pop songs. As I prepared for today, meditating on this profound promise of God’s loving presence, I was transported back to evening worship in Miller Hall at Canyon Camp and again heard God in the distinctive form of Cyndi Lauper’s voice: “If you're lost you can look and you will find me/ Time after time/ If you fall I will catch you, I'll be waiting/ Time after time.”
The Lord, our shepherd pursues us, time after time, wherever we are and no matter how we got there. And, if we are willing to follow, God’s goodness guides us into places of beauty, green places of nourishment, still places of peace, places where our soul may be restored; God’s goodness guides us on roundabout paths that get us where we need to go, guides us through the valleys of life, makes sure we eat something when we are overwhelmed with fear, danger, or grief, and tenderly loves us, anointing us as valued and called.
An important word in verse six is the word translated “mercy,” in Hebrew it is hesed, and usually is translated “lovingkindness.” Rabbi Harold Kushner thinks of it as “unearned love.” Unearned love. God’s goodness and unearned love pursue us… What an extraordinary challenge to the culture in which we live.
The common wisdom is that nothing in the world is free, that we have to look a certain way, act a certain way, have certain things to be loved. We have to have this to get that. How many children are taught—implicitly or explicitly—that they are bad, wrong, worthless, unlovable because they don’t meet their parent’s or teachers’ expectations? How much energy flows into trying at every age and stage of life to earn or prove or buy our worth and lovability? How much money gets made by clever people who exploit our insecurities with the lure of “miracle” products and schemes? How often do lives full of potential get coopted and corrupted by gangs—on the streets or in the lunch room or in the marbled and paneled halls of power? The exploitation in all these things depends on human insecurity, on the lie that any one of us is unworthy of love, goodness, and mercy.
And when everything we’ve tried still leaves us feeling unloved or devalued, we can fall into all sorts of destructive things. Our own insecurity can trigger an impulse to knock others down so we can stand over them, our boots on their necks, to feel bigger or like we have some power. Our own insecurity makes us turn on ourselves in self-loathing and on others with envy and resentment, all out of self-defense for our wounded hearts. Whether or not you figure out how to navigate the worldly macro or micro accounting of earned interest in who you are, it is a struggle to believe that there is any such thing as unearned interest, unearned love. In this world, the relational economy is so often quid pro quo, based on exploitation, or simply governed by run-of-the-mill human brokenness.
But God’s economy is altogether different. The Lord, our shepherd—as we’ve been singing these past weeks—is the king of love not the king of empires or courts or councils or turfs. And the Kin-dom of God doesn’t require three forms of legal documentation where all the names exactly match for entry. Because God knows your name and loves you and wants to be close to you! Kin-dom economy with a shepherd in charge is truly different than what we’re used to. Jesus didn’t test people’s theological knowledge or work history before giving them food. Jesus didn’t pay the latecomer less than the first to clock in. Jesus didn’t play with the devil’s shiny advertisements for comfort, prestige, and power. Jesus didn’t do violence or execute people, Jesus allowed himself to be publicly executed so that we might finally recognize that buying “peace” or “justice” with another human life yields neither peace nor justice. Jesus didn’t raise an army, Jesus raised lives. Jesus embodied God’s love and revealed again and again that only love has the power to bring about the healing that will truly set us free.
The Lord, our shepherd, pursues us not to blame or test or bully us. God pursues us because God loves us and wants to be with us, to help us, to give us what we need to live lives filled with beauty, meaning, justice, and joy. God’s love for you and for me is absolute and it is unearned. God, in love, is always present, always reaching out and waiting for your heart to open wide to receive the overflow.
As the sheep of God’s pasture, as citizens of Christ’s Kin-dom, we are taught that we love because God first loved us. All our acts of goodness and lovingkindness, all our acts of justice and unearned love, all our acts of generosity and care, all our acts of praise and thanksgiving are in response to God’s abundant grace. As we, like a cup, receive and are filled with God’s goodness and unearned love, we overflow in acts of gratitude, justice, and joy.
Because God prepares the table for us, we prepare the table for others. And, by God’s grace, our offerings will create the best “pot luck” ever! By God’s grace overflowing in generosity, we will set a table with love of God and neighbor as the centerpiece, a table that is anti-racist, fully inclusive and affirming, creative, committed, courageous, and full of friendship, support, and laughter; we will set a table big and wide enough so that everyone has a place. On this Consecration Sunday, we’re reminded that God gives us everything, holds nothing back, pursues us in love, time after time, so that you will have life and so that we as the people of God called Foundry can prepare the table with justice and joy. What will you return in gratitude?
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