When I looked at the lectionary readings for this week, I had lots of difficulty choosing to share from which of the four passages. The one passage, which speaks to me most, is Psalm 23. However, looking back at the sermons which I had shared in the past, I have touched on Psalm 23 twice already, which means I have been in FCC far too long, and have rotated through the lectionary readings (which operates in a three year cycle). So I was wondering if I am to share on this psalm, would there be anything new that I can bring to you? The answer may be no, especially for those who have been attending church services for a long time and heard this psalm preached many times over. But I ask for your patience for the next fifteen minutes or so.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
The author of this psalm is David, and unlike many of his other psalms, which are either prayers, or full of complaints, this is a very comforting psalm. David was a shepherd before he became king, and in remembering how he tended to his sheep, he sees god as a shepherd tendering to his followers. Though the time in which the psalm was composed cannot be determined, it was suggested that David wrote this psalm after he became king and in the later part of his life.
I guess it is easy to write a psalm like this when you are the ruler of a kingdom, surrounded with the splendor of riches and honors. It is like this rich person, after gouging on sharks fin and fois gras, telling a poor chap how he wish he can just have a bowl of plain porridge with kiam chye. So how do we identify with Psalm 23, if we are still struggling to etch out a living, or to maintain our relationships, or to care for our sick loved ones, or to find our purposes in life? Even if we do have things set up for life, could we live happily in our own cocoons when we see the bombings at the Boston marathon, or the fire explosion at the Texas fertilizer plant, or the recent earthquakes in China, Japan and Iran.
If you look at this short psalm of six verses, which would you think is the heart of the psalm? If you are tired in body and spirit, then you would like verse 2 which is about lying down in green pastures and being led to still waters. If you are facing difficulties in your life now, then verse 4 on God being our comfort even when we are walking through the darkest valley will speak to you. If things are going well in your life, then verses 5 and 6 would appeal to you. This is the beauty of the bible, that each of us can get different things out of it depending on where we are in life. However, the key point of Psalm 23 is actually verse 1: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. There are only two negatives in Psalm 23. “I shall not want” and “I will fear no evil”. Yet, as humans, we are prone to doing just those things the Psalmist says he will not do — living in fear, and wanting what we do not have.
What exactly does “I shall not want” mean? Does it mean to not desire anything? Does it mean that as Christians it is wrong to want the big house, the nice cars and clothes, the latest toys and gadgets, and the job that brings in the money to sustain our desired lifestyle of holidays and good food?
This interpretation of this word “want” in this case, is actually not the modern meaning of desire, but rather,meaning I shall not lack. Lack, as defined in the dictionary, is:
1. To be missing or deficient
2. To be in need of something
So the psalmist is saying that with the Lord as our shepherd, we shall lack nothing in life, and we will be taken care of, just as the shepherd takes care of his sheep. Do we have the confidence to say that: I shall not want. Not “I will not want”, or “I do not want”, but “I shall not want”. There is this strong assertion in the word shall, it is like saying “I must not want”. Do we trust god to be our Jehovah Jireh, our provider who will supply us with all our needs?
There is a Chinese saying that goes: 比上不足，比下有余。Meaning that when comparing with those who have more or are better, we will find ourselves lacking, and when comparing with those who have less or are worse, we will find ourselves having more than enough. Who do we find us comparing ourselves with? Those who have more, or those who have less? Do we always find that we do not have enough in our lives, and this not enough could refer to physical things, or it could refer to non-physical things like love, discipline or spirituality. Or do we acknowledge our privileged lives, just by looking around, we do know that we are already very blessed with many things that we may have taken for granted?
We have a place to worship, where in some countries there is no freedom for expressing their faith. Most of us are here on a full stomach, where there are millions starving in the world. We live in a safe and peaceful country with no natural disasters.
There is nothing wrong with wanting all the things that we want, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether what we want, is what is deficient, and actually what we need in our lives? And will we be contented if our needs are not aligned with what we desire? Will we be happy with our meals in the hawker center, though we may want to be eating in the restaurant?
It is difficult, when we live in a society of excess, a society that encourages us to want more: more money, more power, more knowledge, more status, more sex, more fun and more pleasures. And we pursue these things relentlessly because we fear that we will be disadvantaged or left behind, or we will be missing out if we do not have more of these. In a way, we can say that we are trying to improve our lives, but when will we stop? Whenever we have reached our target, do we ever say it is enough, or do we set ourselves another target to achieve? When does this process ever end?
This quality to have and be more is especially prevalent in the lgbtq community, where the effort we put into making ourselves better seems to be filling the deficiency that we feel that we are not good enough because of our sexuality. What other deficiencies or needs in our lives do we try to fill? Do we try to be funny or be a joker because we lack confidence in our looks? Are we generous to others because we want to be liked? Do we read a lot and consume knowledge so that we can hide our sense of insecurity?
Do not confuse having less with being less, having more with being more, or what we have with who we are. Who you are, who I am, in god, is enough. We do not need to have more, or be more. This was the message that was shared in the women’s retreat in March: that we are all god’s beloved. God loves us for who we are. We do not need to be prettier, or more buffed, or richer, or smarter, or more funny. God loves us for who we are: our imperfect, broken selves (with our anger, our insecurities and our weaknesses). And because as we are, we are enough in god’s eyes, we ought to be enough in our own eyes and in each others’ eyes. So there is no need for us to have more than what we have now, or be more than who we are now.
God will give us rest, god will restore our soul, god will guide us, god will comfort us, god will satisfy our needs (and more) and god will bring us home. Everything a person will need is covered for in this psalm. So what more shall we want? The challenge for us is to see that we have already been given enough, and that we should share what we have with those in need. How many of us have wardrobes bursting with clothes and shoes, and yet still want more clothes or shoes? How many of us while eating lunch will start thinking about what to have for dinner? How many of us are saving for the next big item to purchase, be it a vacation, a new IT gadget or a car? We do not have to wait till we have what we think is more than enough for us, before we are willing to give away some of what we have. We do not have to fear that by giving things away, we are depriving ourselves.
I am glad to see that the choped food for the needy movement has been started in Singapore (as a response to the suspended coffee movement in Europe). Basically, you are supose to go to a hawker or coffee shop stall, pay for a few meals in advance, and ask the stall keeper to give these pre-paid meals to people in need. It does not require big donations, but rather shows that in small ways we can give to those who are unable to have their basic needs of being fed met. As a church, in the midst of all the fund raising to prepare for our big move next year to One Commonwealth, how do we ensure that we can see beyond our own wants and needs, to those of the larger community outside of these four walls?
The two greatest commandments are recorded in Matthew 22: 37-39.
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
To love God is to obey God, and be god’s hands and feet on this earth. To love our neighbor as ourselves, is to see the other as a beloved of god, no matter how hard this may be. I shared with the ladies a little tip when I face difficulty seeing others as the beloved of god, especially when I am driving and the person cuts me off. For you, it maybe a nagging parent, or a demanding boss, or an unreasonable partner or friend. We take the verse from John 3:16,
For god so loved the world, that he sent his one and only son…
Whenever you feel or think that you cannot see the other as the beloved of god, substitute “the world” with the other person’s name. This also works when we cannot see ourselves as god’s beloved. When we are in doubt, substitute “the world” with our own names.
I would like to share a story to end today’s sermon:
An anthropologist proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit under a tree and told the kids that who ever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run they all took each other’s hands and ran together. They reached the tree together, and then sat down together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the fruits for himself they said: ”UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”
May we indeed realise that as a community, “I am because we are”