Meanderings

“Is God a Lover?” – Psalm 23

If as Billy Graham popularized, the preacher is speak with
the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, then my life has been
very interesting. Consider the following:

  • A television preacher suggests that killing the leader of
    another country is an appropriate response to their disagreement with the
    policies of our country.
  • We see the wrath of a storm sweetly named Katrina pass over Biloxi, Gulfport, and New
      Orleans. 90,000 square miles of destruction are left
    behind.
  • Our United Methodist sisters and brothers in Mississippi in Katrina’s path have lost at least 15 churches, a retirement home, 2
    community centers, the Seaside and
    Gulfside Assemblies.
  • Katrina aftermath has us bickering about who thought inside
    and outside of the box, whose imagination failed, whose responsible, who failed
    to act promptly, and what do we do next.
  • Overnight our nation lost the chief justice of our supreme
    court. I am already anticipating the storm that is brewing to our north.

This next week in Bishop Reuben Job’s A Wesleyan Spiritual
Reader
we will pay attention to the subject of "God as Loving Parent." I gave our
administrative assistant the sermon title “Is God a Lover?” last week in the
face of a Christian leader calling for violent action, but the storms of life
that have raged around us still beg the question: Is God a lover?

Today we turn to what has come to be one of the best loved
chapters from the church’s prayer book – Psalm 23. 19th century preacher Henry
Ward Beecher said of this psalm:

The twenty-third psalm is the nightingale of the psalms. It
is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, O, it has
filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart
can conceive. Blessed be the day on which that psalm was born (as quoted in
William L. Holladay, The Psalms through Three-Thousand Years,
Augsburg-Fortress: 1993, page 363).

Let us turn and let this nightingale sing as we say
together:

  1. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
    he leadeth me beside the still waters.
  3. He restoreth my soul:
    he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
  4. 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.
  5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine
    enemies:
    thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
  6. 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.

Eugene Peterson in his translation The Message says it this
way:

  1. GOD, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
  2. You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
  3. True to your word, you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.
  4. Even when the way goes through Death Valley,

    I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.
    Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
  5. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my
    enemies.
    You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.
  6. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.
    I’m back home in the house of GOD for the rest of my life.

Let’s spend a few moments asking what we can learn of God as
a loving parent in this psalm and across the scriptures. First, take note that
we enjoy knowing the Lord is My Shepherd. In our time we are tempted to believe
that God only loves a select group of worthy people. I notice that when I am
tempted this way I always draw a circle just big enough to include me, while
leaving those I am not sure about on the outside. We desire the six-course
dinner in the presence of enemies. We desire to be able to stick it to an
enemy. But in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus reveals that he will be
a Good Shepherd that seeks the lost sheep. He leaves us comfortable folks in
the wilderness while he seeks the least, the last, and the lost.

Second, Jesus teaches us a revolutionary name for God. Jesus
is asked by the disciples to teach them to pray.  Jesus said begin this way, “Our Father in
heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). We translate that Aramaic word “Abba”
as Father, but the colloquial nature of the word implies words like papa or
daddy – whatever you called your father. And yet there is a tension introduced by Jesus.

God, the Holy One of Israel, whose name is given to Moses as
YHWH – I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be there when you need me – this
four letter word (scholar’s use the word “tetragrammaton”) was not to be spoken
aloud. The vestiges of this understanding remains in language patterns where we
say “gosh” and “golly” in order to avoid speaking God’s name in vain. But hear
Jesus, yes God is holy and his name is hallowed, BUT call your Father in
heaven, “papa” or “daddy.”

Third, our present understanding of God as Father is further
clouded by the shift in the role of fathers as the industrial revolution
unfolded in history. Humankind knew fathers often went to war and left home for
an extended duration, but the notion of the Father God absent from our daily
lives crept in our understanding with the disappearance of our fathers from the
farm for 40-50-60-70 hours a week work in a factory or office. In the Victorian
era we began to identify the Father as one who set creation in place and gave
that creation laws to follow. We began to think that only our wanderings
through the fields and forest glades could lead us into his presence.

God will not let this inadequate notion of fatherhood to
stand unchallenged. There is another thin but powerful thread running through
scripture that reveals God’s mothering presence. I use the word mother in a
measured sense this morning – the sense of what we stereotypically call
motherhood in our time. Let me point us to several places in God’s story to
hear again of God’s protective love.

  • Boaz commended Ruth for her faithfulness in standing by
    Naomi and says to Ruth, "May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may
    you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have
    come for refuge" (Ruth 2:11).
  • Guard me as the apple of the eye;
    hide me in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 17:8).
    Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge;
    in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by
    (Psalm 17:8, 57:1, also see Psalm 36:7, 63:7, 91:4).
  • Jesus said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the
    prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to
    gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and
    you were not willing" (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34).

The tension of God as defender and refuge, our notions of
father and mother, are embodied in my prayers with my children each night. I pray that God will place “a hedge of
protection around them” and “shelter them under the wings of grace.” Scripture
teaches us that God is a shepherd who can provide a six course dinner and hold
the enemy at bay while we enjoy the meal. We learn that God is hallowed and
that we can call God papa or daddy. Finally, our notions of God’s fatherhood
are not limited to what we fathers do. No, our Father God will shelter us under
wings of refuge and like a hen gathers her brood under her wings, Jesus desires
to gather us in. Paul says it this way:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor
rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor
depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the
love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).

Yesterday my family gathered to celebrate with friends and
our extended family my parents Golden Anniversary. My journey with Bill and
Annette Bingham has run the gamut. Moments of celebration at accomplishments
and moments at the kitchen table that still cause me to squirm. Moments of
tears about the struggles of an older brother trapped by mental illness and
moments of laughter as my children learn just awful things about their
dad.

Last night as I pondered the day, I gave thanks to my Father
in heaven that the Holy One, the great I AM, loves me more and dreams bigger
dreams for me than my mom and dad ever have … and that’s saying something! Our
God invites us to the table to feast together. Will you come and linger in the
presence of our loving Father in heaven?