“In the Presence of Enemies”
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Romans 12: 9-21
Psalm 23 is a Psalm for tough times, and one of the things that can make our lives tougher is our enemies. And any of us who live our lives with purpose and passion will have enemies. We will. Winston Churchill, who sat in the third pew here to worship on Christmas morning of 1941, once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Eddie Cantor, on the other hand, said about someone who tried hard to always be inoffensive: “He hasn’t an enemy in the world but all his friends hate him.”
The Bible talks about enemies and adversarial and antagonistic relationships a lot. Lots of stories about enemies in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau whose parents raised them to become lifelong enemies. David ended up with his mentor King Saul as his enemy and his son Absalom who became his enemy. Jesus had lots of enemies.
I suspect tough times can make our lives more adversarial and antagonistic. Twice over the past month I have been subjected to pedestrian rage. I’d never experience anything like it before this past month. I think it is a sign of the times.
Once somebody pushed me out of his way, hard. I felt it for the next day or two. Then the other day someone intentionally tripped me.
Now, I will admit I am a particularly obnoxious pedestrian, and I can sort of understand why I irritate people. The other day, when somebody tripped me, I was wearing dress pants, a dress shirt, a tie, and running shoes. Doesn’t that just look stupid? I was dressed that way, walking fast, deep in thought, oblivious to my surroundings, and this guy tripped me. I didn’t know what happened. I apologized to him, but a woman who saw what happened told me that the man had intentionally tripped me, I assume because the way I was dressed and the way I was walking just irritated him.
Tough times, I’m afraid, can make our lives more antagonistic and adversarial. Increase the hostility in the air. Increase our enemies.
The 23rd Psalm has something fascinating and perplexing to say about enemies.
In the last section of the 23rd Psalm the metaphor changes. The first four verses use the metaphor of a shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. It suggests that the Lord shepherds us the way a good shepherd cares for his or her sheep.
But the images of the last two verses of the 23rd Psalm are based on the metaphor of a host or hostess…hosts and hostesses, who welcome you into their homes, prepare a table for you, feed you. They anoint your head with perfumed oil, which was a gracious practice of the time. After you had walked through the sandy desert, your face would be red and raw, and the oil would sooth it. If it had been a sweaty walk, the perfume might be helpful as well.
They keep your wine glass full – your cup overflows. They welcome you to dwell with them in their house as long as you want to.
So the metaphor for the Lord in this last section of the psalm is the Lord as a host or hostess.
The good host feeds you. He or she prepares a table before you. But then the psalm says this strange thing: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Now, what does that mean?
There are those who think it is a statement about reconciliation. That it means the Lord prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies so that we might sit down together, negotiate our difference, and become reconciled.
Nice idea, but I don’t think this is what the psalm has in mind, and I’ll tell you why. If you translate the Hebrew literally, what the line really says is: “You prepare my table before me in the presence of my enemies.”[i]
It doesn’t really say that the Lord prepares a table; it says the Lord prepares my table – a table for me – in the presence of my enemies. The Lord prepares my table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Rabbi Harold Kushner says that it sounds as if the psalm is saying “Not only does God supply me with a lavish banquet; what is even more pleasurable is that all these people who don’t like me will see how God treats me and realize that I am God’s favorite. It is the attitude of the man anticipating his high school reunion and saying to himself, Wait until those guys who made fun of me and those girls who wouldn’t go out with me see me drive up in my Mercedes.”[ii]
Let me say that I don’t think whoever wrote this psalm would have been above such feelings. I don’t think the congregation singing this psalm in the temple would have been above such feelings.
I served a congregation once that stretched my patience. It was a tough bunch. Lots of pinching.
I had a minister friend who, whenever I expressed my frustration, always had a quick answer, answers which I thought, frankly, were usually shallow and glib. Don’t let it bother you. Just work around them. Don’t be reactive.
As fate would have it, he later ended up as pastor of the same group of people, and then he would call me up to talk about how hard it was. I want you to know that while I was on the phone with him I was sympathetic, supportive, caring and warm. But as soon as I’d hang-up the phone, I’d say: “Yes! There is a God!” And he wasn’t even really my enemy.
Vindication is sweet. What is sweeter than vindication?
Isn’t that one of the things people throughout the ages have longed for from heaven – vindication? The last will turn out to be first and the first will turn out to be last. When she finds out she will be the mother of Christ, Mary sings: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 52-3) Jesus tells a story that says the beggar will end up in paradise and the rich man who would not share the scraps from his table with him will end up in Hades. (Luke 16:19-31)
He prepares my table before me in the presence of my enemies. Vindication.
I look forward to meeting some of my clergy friends for tea in heaven…all of those folk who are so sure they understand the Bible better than me. In heaven when they find out they are wrong. I’ll be sympathetic and supportive and caring and warm as we talk, but afterwards I’ll say: Yes! There is a God!
Of course, Jane thinks there may be one or two things I will find out I am wrong about, too. Maybe.
Vindication is sweet. Are these feelings wrong? I don’t know, but I am pretty sure that the writers of the psalms and the singers of the psalms shared some of the same feelings.
But I actually don’t really think this is what the psalm is trying to say either. I don’t think this line of the psalm is really about vindication. I just don’t think vindication, as sweet as it is, is powerful enough to be what this psalm is talking about. I think it is talking about something much more powerful.
Here’s what I think it is: I think the psalm is saying that the Lord prepares my table before me in the presence of my enemies, the Lord anoints my head with oil in the presence of my enemies, the Lord keeps my cup full and overflowing in the presence of my enemies so that I don’t have to focus my life on my enemies. The Lord gives me a full, rich good life so that I don’t have to fixate on my enemies. I don’t have to be bitter and angry about my enemies because I have a good life that I can focus my energies and attention on.
One of the things tough times can do is help us to relearn what is really important in life. The Washington Post says that seed company seed sales are up anywhere from 30 to 75 percent.[iii] There are a lot of us who have turned off our TVs and begun digging in the soil. I think that is a good thing.
psychologist from the
It all depended on the way the parents handled it. Dr. Conger says:
Youngsters "weren't terribly bothered by not having a lot of stuff. What bothered them was when their parents became angry and irritable and withdrawn. Similarly, children whose parents maintained strong community ties did much better over time than those who were not as embedded in their communities, says Elder, Conger's research colleague.
"Kids whose parents were connected to church, school and civic organizations lived their lives the same way," he says. "Those involvements really predicted what they were going to do in their lives and how successful they would be."
Tough times can remind us of what’s really important in life and what isn’t or they can make us bitter and angry at others who we blame for our tough times or who we resent because they have it better than we do.
The Lord gives me what I really need…my table…so I don’t have to be bitter and angry about the things others have that I don’t. It is my choice, either to enjoy my table or to be resentful about my enemies.
You know, if we focus our attention and our energies and our juices on our enemies they will grow stronger. Whatever we pay attention to in our lives will grow. If we focus on our enemies, they will grow. If we focus on our tables, they will grow.
I think that is what Psalm 23 is saying – that the Lord blesses us so we don’t have to live adversarial, antagonistic lives.
Don’t worry about the people who think they are right and you are wrong, enjoy your table. The Lord has prepared a fine table before you. Enjoy your table.