Sermon: Tell Me What You Really, Really Want by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

October 10, 2021

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 10, 2021, the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. “Prepare the Table with Justice and Joy” series.

Texts: Psalm 23:1, Mark 10:17-31

A story is told of a minister who sat at the hospice bedside of a woman near death and, failing to find his own words, began to recite the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” The woman stirred and summoned the energy to whisper, “But pastor, I do want!”

I imagine there are many for whom this will resonate. The woman in the story wanted to be made well, to get to experience more of the life and love and relationship that she would be leaving behind. Does Psalm 23 teach that we aren’t supposed to want like that? What does “I shall not want” actually mean?

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book on the 23rd Psalm entitled The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm is one of my companions for our journey over the coming weeks. Rabbi Kushner points out that the familiar Elizabethan English used in the King James Version doesn’t mean “I shall not desire anything.” Kushner says “the intent of the Hebrew is more accurately captured by more recent translations, with words like ‘I shall lack for nothing’…[or] ‘The Lord is my shepherd, what more do I need?’ The issue of whether I desire things beyond that is beside the point.”

Last week, I noted that the image of God as a good shepherd lives deep within the spiritual imagination of our religious ancestors. And the memory of God leading the Hebrew people out of slavery and providing manna in the wilderness folds into that image of a faithful, ever-present God who guides us through and provides for our needs. When you read the story of that wilderness time, you see that the people struggled to appreciate manna. They remembered all the food back in Egypt, the land of their captivity and, well, they wanted that. But the thing is, God led the people out of slavery and into freedom and made sure they had what they needed to survive. It is understandable to want spiced meat and vegetables and not a mystery substance likely scraped off a tree. They didn’t get what they wanted but they did not want for sustenance. 

Let’s be clear: God is not a genie in a bottle; God is not an ATM; God does not exist to give us our way right away, but rather to guide us in God’s way that is discovered in an unfolding kind of way over time. God doesn’t just give us what we want, but works all day long to help us receive and share the good we need.

Also, it is common and perfectly OK to get angry at God about the way things are—in our lives or in the world around us. We can have feelings about how creation is created, how humans have free will and choices, how everything experiences cycles of birth, growth, diminishment, and death. We can shake our fists at the heavens because of suffering and strife. We can cry out saying, “If the Lord is our good shepherd, why do we want for peace, for justice? Why do we want for an end to poverty, pandemics, and environmental degradation?

Perhaps you’ve heard the one about a human who asks God, “Why do you allow poverty, suffering, and injustice when you could do something about it?” And God replies, “I was about to ask you the same question.”

We can have feelings about what we have or how things are, but God has in fact given us all we need. We have been given this beautiful planet, created in ways that are intricately interconnected and interdependent. The planet, well-tended and respected, provides all we need to thrive. We have also been given one another—a wonderfully diverse human family—each one with unique talents, skills, gifts, and insight. We are made to live in community, to care for one another and to share with one another and, in so doing, assure that all have what they need.

Perhaps it helps to think about it this way, when the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want…  Because if we are being guided in God’s way of life, we will be good stewards of the earth and grow healthy food that can feed hungry bodies instead of some other bottom line. When the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want because we will understand that we are one human family, created to care, share, and provide for one another. We will both desire and choose in ways that assure ALL have what they need, that ALL have enough. Together, we can be the answer to prayer. 

As I prepared these reflections for today, I received an email from the Poor People’s Campaign that said: “As those with power and wealth continue to debate whether our nation has the resources to meet the needs of all of its people – with talk about debt ceilings and budget and infrastructure bills – we will continue to denounce the lie of scarcity amidst great abundance, and keep building our movement to end poverty once and for all.” 

You will likely have encountered at some point along the way, the idea of a “scarcity mindset.” A scarcity mindset perceives there isn’t enough time, money, or other resources for what is needed. It can be in response to a true lack of sufficient resources. Certainly there are those who do not have enough money or support to thrive. Others may have enough or more than enough but still maintain a scarcity mindset out of fear. “What ifs” can really do a number on us. What if I lose my job? What if someone in my family gets sick? What if, what if, what if can lead to fearful obsession with not having enough.

In either case, the focus on the need to have more money or to protect our money affects our overall perspective and our literal brain function and, as a result, our choices and actions.

In our Gospel text today, we encounter a rich man who was clear about what he wanted. He wanted to figure out how to inherit eternal life. The man is functioning within a market economy mindset: “What will it take to get this other thing that I want?” Jesus’ response is to recite the last six commandments of the Big Ten. He doesn’t name the first four—which have to do with our relationship with God—but rather, focuses on the last six, which are all about our relationship to our neighbor.  And Jesus edits one of the commandments—evidently just for the benefit of this man before him.  In verse 19 of our passage, instead of “you shall not covet” Jesus says, “you shall not defraud.” 

The thing that made folks wealthy in Jesus’ day was to own property, so we can assume that this rich man had lots of property. Folks gained more wealth by acquiring the land of debt-defaulting neighbors (foreclosures?); therefore, it is also reasonable to assume that those who had lots of property had gained that wealth at the expense of the poor. In fact, the Greek word for “defraud” literally means “to keep away from someone, to deprive, to take away what rightfully belongs to someone else.” To follow the commandment as Jesus presented it would mean that the man has to give back what doesn’t really belong to him (Brueggemann’s definition of justice)—that he would have to acknowledge that the goods of the earth are unequally distributed and then do something about it. Jesus calls the man to do just that, to let go of what he doesn’t need, and to follow Jesus. The man refuses, the only time in Mark where someone refuses to respond to Jesus’ call.

This story not only impacts the life of the man who walked away from Jesus, it impacts the larger community as well. As one scholar writing about scarcity mindset says, “When we feel that money and goods are scarce, we start to think of our neighbors and fellow citizens as competitors rather than teammates united by our shared humanity. When we believe that the economy is zero-sum, we also come to believe that helping another person comes at our own expense. Helping our fellow humans escape poverty, debt, and misery becomes a disservice to the wealthy, rather than an expression of compassion and justice at the foundation of a society of equally free and valued people.”

Scarcity mindset makes us believe there is not enough to go around. But that’s simply not true. There is enough if we don’t destroy or squander earth’s resources. There is enough if we share what we have. There is NO REASON that children in this country or any of our siblings should be going hungry or not receiving healthcare or having access to clean water and secure housing. If we wanted to invest in solutions to care for the poor, the planet, and the common good as much as we want to focus on spaceships and weaponry (just two examples), the creative, innovative brilliance present all around us would figure out how to get things done and there would be enough money to make it happen. 

If the Lord is our shepherd, we will want to do everything we can to assure that ALL have what they need, that ALL have enough, that ALL have a place at the table. 

We can blame God for whatever…or allow ourselves to get caught in a scarcity mindset… or we can give thanks that God has given us one another, this beautiful world, and all sorts of ways to tend and mend, to care and to share. As we think about preparing a table here at Foundry that draws the circle wider and makes sure that all have enough, just think about the abundance that is among us and all around us. Some of the best tables I’ve ever experienced have been potlucks, when people all bring their best dishes to share. If each one of us simply contributes what we can, if each one of us brings out very best to the table, there’s absolutely no reason we should struggle to exceed our goal and have the resources we need. As we continue to build relationships and partner with others in our city, we will find ways to assure that there are not two cities—one that has enough and another that doesn’t—we will find ways to house our neighbors instead of evicting them from their tents—we will find ways to assure that all our neighbors’ needs are met. The Lord is our shepherd, so let’s not only really, really want to prepare a table that leaves no one wanting, let’s do what it takes to get the job done.