“I Shall Not Want”

Psalm 23

Right off the bat, the conflict of the ages ensues as Moses the shepherd takes on Pharaoh, first of a long line of what can only be called beast-kings. Lest you think I’m being overdramatic, remember that ancient shepherds fought bears and lions to protect their sheep. Moses vs. Pharaoh could teach Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader a few tricks. This is good versus evil on a cosmic scale.

Start with Pharaoh, the Dark Lord of Egypt. Scripture says that all Egyptians found shepherds abhorrent. In context, this probably means that wandering nomads with herds of sheep were not welcome in the agricultural lands of Egypt. In my spiritual imagination, I see Moses and Pharaoh as polar opposites.

The people bow and scrape and cry, “Pharaoh is my Lord.” On the other hand we have the faith of Israel, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This is the liturgy of abundance over against Pharaoh’s liturgy of scarcity. We all live either in an economy of abundance or an economy of scarcity. One is based on faith and the other on fear.

Pharaoh is the story of humanity walking in darkness, cast into the market world of violence and dog-eat-dog. Pharaoh is a metaphor for the beast kings that would rule our lives. The Pharaoh we meet in Exodus was the Lord and leader of the breadbasket of the world. He advanced the claims of the nation against his own people, achieving a monopoly on land and food. If you have seen one pharaoh, you have seen them all. They all act the same way in their greedy, uncaring, violent self-sufficiency.

Pharaoh embodies raw, absolute, worldly power. In the end, the peasants are so “happy” they ask to be owned by Pharaoh. People will go against their own self-interest if they are scared enough. “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”

Pharaoh has all the food, all the land, and all the money. He has total power. Yet the story lets us in on Pharaoh’s secret. He is consumed with anxiety. The richest man in the world, the most powerful politician in the world, is haunted by nightmares of scarcity. He is afraid that he will not have enough.

Remember his dream. Seven ugly thin cows came up out of the Nile and ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then seven ears of corn, thin and blighted swallowed up the seven plump and full ears of corn. Pharaoh is tortured by the liturgy of scarcity.

The one with the most is anxious in the most irrational ways. His fear leads to self-destructive politics that go against his own needs. Unrestrained power becomes destructive and eventually destroys even the most powerful king in the world. It is an ugly world that appears wealthy and glitzy and full of fun but beneath there is the awful fear that there will not be enough and so neighbors are left out and the poor are neglected and each looks to his own self-survival. This is the liturgy of scarcity in a land of abundance.

The good shepherd offers us the liturgy of abundance. He guides us, directs us, helps us, and gives us a feast of abundance. He calms our restlessness with still waters and green pastures and right paths.

The Lord is my shepherd. At first glance this seems an irrelevant piece of Scripture better left for funerals than the rough and tumble ways of real life. What use do we have for a shepherd? But, hold your horses, shepherds dominate the Scripture. Is there any life left in shepherd as metaphor? Jesus thought so. He reached back into the Old Testament and said, “I am the good shepherd.” The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. So who needs a shepherd? That would be us Lord, with our restless, anxious spirits, standing in the need of prayer. That would be us Lord standing here lost and confused, bewildered and scared. That would be us Lord standing here thinking there will not be enough for everyone when we live in the richest nation in the world. We could use a shepherd because, sheep, after all, wander off and get into more trouble than you can count with a calculator. Sheep can get lost in an elevator. Sheep need a shepherd even when they don’t know it.

The key word is Lord, YHWH, the name of the God of Israel, the one who makes heaven and earth, who liberates and heals and commands. It means king, sovereign, lord, authority, power. A shepherd was one tough cookie in the Old Testament world.

Shepherds had to be every bit as terrifying as the beasts of the night. Sheep, after all, need protection and so do Christians because the world is ruled, according to Daniel and Revelation, by “beast-kings who want to destroy all those who are witnesses to Jesus’ triumph over the powers that would falsely rule the cosmos.”

Moses had that staff – the rod of God. Amazing and powerful actions come from that rod. No wonder the 23rd insists, “Thy rod and thy staff” they comfort me. David was tending sheep when he got the call to be king. Shepherd-king has always been there in our faith. David took on Goliath. Before David faced Goliath he gave Saul his resume: “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.”

Pile up the images. The shepherd God provides food and water in abundance (green grass and still waters). The shepherd God provides safe passage (right paths and through the valley of death). The shepherd God wipes out oppression from all enemies and lets freedom ring, the shepherd God provides a safe refuge that stops all fear and gives the weak and sick time to recover, the banquet set in the presence of enemies ends hunger and offers satisfaction, the shepherd God guides through the passage from life to death to life again and gives us abundant life. The reason goodness and mercy follow us is that God is goodness and mercy and God is always present with us everywhere in every moment whether at home, at church, in the hospital, or the nursing home. God will not come to your funeral because you will not be there because you will have been resurrected and God is the God of the living and not the dead.

Living with the good shepherd leads to “I shall not want.” This is a stunning claim because wanting is what we do, what we have been trained to do. Wanting is how Pharaoh gets his hooks into us. There’s one word that makes it hard for us to say, “I shall not want”: STUFF. We are stuffocolics. The rich man ran out of space to put his stuff so he said, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” George Carlin, “That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!” When we wake up and see an empty space in our home, we have to go out and buy more stuff. And we are territorial about our stuff: I don’t want you touching my stuff. As we get closer to retirement we have to get another place to put stuff. How many of us have houses in Florida and I bet we all have stuff at the homes of our children. And when we get tired of some of our stuff, we take it to a Saturday morning garage sale. But before we get home, we buy some stuff that other people are getting rid of.

We are all on the one-way “Want More” Train flying down the tracks faster than a bullet and with no brakes. There’s nothing ahead but the deep belief that only unlimited consumption can save us. We have to buy stuff or someone will be out of a job. Perhaps you have a dog as a pet. Your dog is the only pet in the house, but when you feed him he “wolfs” down his food. He eats so fast, gobbles up his food with such rapidity that it almost makes him sick. He does this even though he has never missed a meal and has always had plenty to eat. Why does he do this? Canine historians, did you know about these people, say that this is a trait that goes back millions of years when food was scarce and when there was a kill, a pack of dogs would gather and gobble up as much food as possible. Your pet is acting out the evolutionary behavior his ancient ancestors taught him even though it is no longer necessary. That’s our story.

The good shepherd gives us the gift of abundance that turns our lives of entitlement into lives of humility and gratitude. The shepherd is the giver of the most extravagant dinner party in history even surrounded by enemies. We can stop being afraid that there will not be enough. This image has to warm the hearts of all Baptists for we are God’s meeting and eating folk.

The way of the good shepherd is the alternative to the cruel world of Pharaoh based on wanting more. It is the world of sharing and giving generously. In the sharing of the bread and cup we realize that God has given us everything we need. It is the proclamation of abundance and the enactment of abundance. Isn’t that an amazing turn of events? Instead of getting more, we give more and the more we give the less we want and generosity becomes the way we shape our economic relations. We will stop worrying about people getting stuff they don’t deserve. God has given us all we need. Therefore we can now honestly say, “I shall not want.”

Imagine that you wake content each morning, at ease. Imagine looking in the mirror and saying, “I shall not want.” If we can imagine it we can do it. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Today, by helping one another we can offer an alternative to Pharaoh’s world of scarcity. We can show the world the good shepherd’s abundance and together we can proclaim the liturgy of abundance:  “I shall not want.”