November 14, 2021
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, November 14, 2021. “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series.
Texts: Psalm 23:1-5, Mark 12: 38-44
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Last week, I noted that the psalmist shifted from speaking about God to talking with God. And verse five continues in that direct communication and in a very personal way. I want to invite us to draw near to the metaphorical table God prepares and to explore each part of what we find there.
God prepares a table for us…
Think for a moment about what it takes to prepare a table for others… Or think about what it’s like when someone prepares a table for you that makes you feel cared for: your needs are known, allergies remembered, favorites waiting… things have been done to make room for you and anyone or anything you need to bring with you—a partner, child, accommodation for any physical needs… A table prepared with love is filled with beauty, bounty, thoughtfulness, and reflects generosity of time and resources. Now think about what this: God prepares a table for you. Imagine that table in your mind’s eye…
In the presence of my enemies… What’s that about?
It’s not about showing off, not about “my God loves me and not you” or about winning a prize and lording it over our enemies… It’s about God’s care and protection and sustenance even in moments of challenge and danger. In the midst of things, feelings, temptations, or persons that threaten us, God provides for us. When we are eaten up with fear or worry over broken relationships, when we feel alone, misunderstood, under attack, or simply not being able to receive what we need from others, God makes sure we eat! God sustains us. God prepares the table that gives us what we need.
We may be given a listening ear. It may be a “come to Jesus” talk we’re given at the table. It might be some humble pie we need to consume. It might be extra protein to build our strength or soup to heal an illness. It might be comfort food to soothe our weary soul or broken heart. God’s table is abundant with grace sufficient for every need.
God anoints my head with oil…
In India I was invited into the small home of a new friend in the Dalit village where we stayed overnight. After being there a short time, the woman asked if she could do something with my hair. She poured perfumed oil over my head and then adorned my hair with a flower garland. In ancient Indian sanskrit, the word sneha means “to oil,” as well as “to love”—and to oil another’s hair is a tradition of bonding. What I was offered that afternoon in India was such a generous gift, an act of hospitality, a tender loving act, an honor.
In the Bible, anointing is associated with honor of a different kind. It has to do with chosenness—as a king, queen, or messiah (“anointed one”). But its more general connotation is that the one who receives the oil is simply special, designated for greatness, called to do something big.
Holy oil is used by many Christian traditions at the moment of Baptism or Confirmation, a ritual act that hearkens back to the biblical stories and, for Christians, connects us to our calling to follow God’s anointed one, Jesus.
At the table prepared for us by God, God anoints our head with oil! Us! You and me… not just one of us, ALL of us… we are identified by God as special, as those called to be and to do something big, what only we can. We are special in the eyes of God, valued and beloved. //
[move to table and pour water into chalice, overflowing to small bowl, overflowing to larger bowl…]
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil…” In these opening words of verse 5, the psalmist affirms that no matter what other people think of you or do to you, God provides for you, sustains you, values you, calls you, and loves you.
No wonder the next line is “My cup runs over!” This is a metaphor for gratitude, an awareness of the fullness of what is given. The abundance of God’s table, God’s provision, God’s grace, and God’s love is more than can be contained.
Sometimes in our lives we can get caught in a glass half full, glass half empty debate… When we’re overwhelmed and weary, the glass can seem not only half empty, but all the way empty… It’s easy to lose the larger perspective. Psalm 23 calls us back to that larger vision.
Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “Much of the time, we have as little control over the events of our lives as we do over the weather. But as with the weather, we have a great deal of control over the way we choose to see those events and respond to them. Reading between the lines, we can infer that the author of the Twenty-third Psalm did not have a life free from pain and problems. He has had to confront enemies. He has known the feeling of finding himself in the valley of the shadow of death. He can praise and thank God for all that God has done, not because life has been easy but precisely because life has often been hard and God has seen him through the hard times. If his eyes are dim with age, he thanks God that he can still see…If people close to him have died, he is grateful to have known their love. For the psalmist, the issue is not whether the cup is half full or half empty. Because he has learned to see everything in his life, including life itself, as a gift, his cup of blessings overflows.”
Kushner goes on to remind us of the story from 2 Kings 4 in which a woman begs Elisha for help because her husband has died leaving her and her children with many debts. She says she has nothing to eat, but only one small jar of oil. The prophet tells her to gather as many vessels as possible and to pour the oil out. Her children gather jars and vessels from the community and the woman pours. The oil keeps flowing until the last container is filled. Rabbi Kushner says, “Our ability to enjoy God’s blessings is more a function of our capacity to receive them than of any limitations on God’s ability to bless us.” There is no limit to God’s goodness and desire to bless us. Do we have the capacity to receive all that God desires to give?
I love connecting this verse from Psalm 23 with the story of the woman and the oil. It not only provides another example of God’s desire to provide for us, but also reminds us that when members of the community offer what they have, God’s blessings continue to flow. The communal contribution of jars and vessels allowed the oil to continually be poured out, collected, and then used for food and for anointing—to save not only the woman and her children, but to sustain and bless others! It was only when there were no more jars that the oil stopped flowing.
Early in this series, I said that there is no reason for us to struggle to sustain the ministry and mission of Foundry. There is such abundance among us. It only requires that each of us truly give as much as we can, even if it seems that our very best is just a small jar of oil or worth only a widow’s mite. Every year, I share with you that I never ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself. I give to Foundry well over a tithe (10%) of my net pay and increase what I give every year, even if it’s only a little, as my commitment to grow toward a tithe of my total compensation. This is a stretch and a spiritual discipline for me, a way of concretely putting my trust in God and demonstrating my gratitude for the overflowing gift and grace of God’s love and activity in my life and in and through Foundry.
God prepares a table for you and for me and for us as this Foundry family. The abundance of the table is amazing. There is no need for us get caught in fear about our cup being half empty. God’s blessing flows into our lives in so many ways and as we allow those blessings to overflow in gratitude and generosity, our contributions provide the means for others to be blessed in all the ways that happen through our shared mission and ministry. As we draw the circle wider, as we welcome all to the table, as we prepare a table as Foundry with justice and joy, God’s abundance will not only fill our communal cup, but will overflow. What can you offer to make it so? What will you return to God in gratitude and love? How will you help prepare a table big enough to receive all that God wishes to share?