A Cup that Overflows
Pentecost III (Ordinary Time XII)
June 25, 2017
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Don't those words touch most of us somewhere? I knew a couple who had a spiritual practice of saying this psalm together regularly; as he was dying, she sat next to his bed and they would say it together. At funerals I often invite the congregation to say the psalm with me, as the Pastor did at my father's funeral.
What associations does this psalm have for you?
My preaching teacher warned us against what he called "shotgun sermons:" sermons without focus or depth, but instead scattered ideas all over the place. I know, but there are so many associations with this psalm that I'm going to scatter some ideas. Forgive me, Dr. Macleod.
Most of us associate this psalm with comfort. "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" are words to get us up and going again when we feel knocked down. We may not know much about sheep and it seems counter-intuitive to think of an instrument intended to whack you on the butt as comforting, but the words do that for us anyway. I've read as much as I could find about Otto Warmbier's funeral, because I wondered if they used Psalm 23. He was a religious Jew, and his rabbi presided at the service, so I would not be surprised. Folks might have found it comforting.
Warmbier was from the close-knit town of Wyoming, Ohio. I was a pastor there for five years; a young man I baptized there was a classmate of Otto. Although the town has only 8,000 people, more than 2,000 showed up for the funeral, which is no surprise to anyone who knows Wyoming. So I don't know if they said Psalm 23, but I know they were there to comfort one another.
Another association is encouragement. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" is something that can keep us moving through dark times and even calmly facing the prospect of our own death or the death of someone dear. I sometimes think of R2-D2 rolling along through the cut in the hills of Tatooine, Jawas lurking and whispering on either side. Actually the beeps and chirps he emits as he goes sound very much as though he fears a number of evils. And they do get him.
I encourage you to go back and read the psalm slowly, savoring words and picturing their meanings. Read it in The Message or The Contemporary English Bible or another version if you need help. The controlling image through most of the poem is that of a sheep being nudged along and looked after by its shepherd. I should probably point out that there is a strong political undercurrent to the poem, since throughout the Bible the government is referred to as the "shepherds" of the people. Even though we call our spiritual leaders "shepherds" ("pastor" is Latin for "shepherd"), the Bible never refers to the priests as shepherds, but rather the King and his court. When the prophet Jeremiah lights into the government, he scolds them for failing to do their duty as shepherds.
So when you say "The Lord is my shepherd" you are, in part, saying that whoever is in charge in City Hall or Lincoln or Washington is not as crucial as people might think, because the Lord is the one who really is your guide and your hope. And that is your comfort. You and I look to God for leadership, for the green pastures, for the still waters, and to keep us on the right path.
Here's another shot in the same general direction: I think it's no accident that this is Psalm 23, rather than falling somewhere else in the Book of Psalms. The editors who organized the Book of Psalms were careful in the way they placed each poem. Some people keep a spiritual practice of praying through the psalms, and if you do that you will have a very well-designed spiritual experience. You will say, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" right after "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22) and right before "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it" (Psalm 24). From abandonment to comfort to praise: the folks who put these together knew what they were doing.
Now, to go in another direction. The image changes from sheep and shepherd; did you notice? Through verse four I'm a sheep and the Lord is my shepherd: "thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Then suddenly the image changes: in verse five I'm a guest and the Lord is my host. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." Oh, there are those "enemies" again, just as in last week's Psalm. 'Nuff said.
The host gives me a nice meal, and the host anoints me with oil (which is a way of saying welcome) and the host fills my cup so generously that it overflows; excuse me, "runneth over." I'd like this idea to be my last shot in this shotgun sermon. The LORD pours into my cup so generously that it overflows. With what?
Lemonade, wine, iced tea, beer, water… whatever beverage you're thinking of, that's good. Let it overflow, but don't stain the tablecloth. When my Book of Common Worship was brand-new and I was using it in a communion service for the first time (as I think about it, that was in Wyoming, Ohio), I took the flagon and poured the juice into the chalice at just the wrong angle: straight down. The juice hit the bottom of the chalice and splashed back out, all over my book.
We're going to sing a hymn at the end of the service in which Isaiah Jones, Jr. has us asking the Lord to fill our cup and let it overflow with love. This particular song has been recorded at least fifteen times and appears in a number of hymnals. Jones was a Presbyterian minister and served churches in California and as a campus minister at Oregon State University. We Presbyterians are a versatile people. Anyway, Jones' insight is to take this Psalm that we associate with comfort and encouragement and nudge it into becoming a Psalm for mission. "Fill my cup; let it overflow with love."
If my cup runneth over with love, what am I going to do with the overflow? How about love someone else? If the Lord loves me so much as to shepherd me through the valley of the shadow of death and to prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, then how can I not let that love overflow to others?
There's an old prayer for life's basics, in which the one praying asks God "for enough and to spare for works of mercy." That is, Lord, give me all I need for my living – the Psalm says, "I shall not want" – all that I need and some extra so that I can give it away. Let my cup overflow with resources that I can share. Let my cup overflow with comfort so that I can comfort another. Let my cup overflow with clean water so I can help bring clean water to South Sudan. Let my cup overflow with hope so I can encourage those who are beaten down. Let my cup overflow with love.
I thought about this, too. Sometimes the cup overflows with other things: sorrow, grief, anger. And sometimes the best thing to do with them is to share them, as well. Not everybody wants it. I remember going to church one Wednesday during Lent – the church I was attending at the time had a service every Wednesday evening during Lent – and one of the members asked me, routinely, "How are you?" and I said, "Oh, not so well. I'm feeling overwhelmed by too many demands…" and the like. Anyway, she turned to another church member and said, "Don't ask Bob how he's doing; he'll tell you."
She meant no harm. But if your cup is overflowing with sorrow, you may actually help someone by giving them a chance to show they care about you. I don't think that's what Isaiah Jones means in his song, but it's another scattershot that occurs to me.
My cup runneth over. Whatever the cup holds, let it overflow for the good of all.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska "Fill My Cup," text and music by Isaiah Jones, Jr. (1969), #699 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013).