I Shall Not Want

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We continue our look at Psalm 23 this morning. And as we do, we are expanding on this image of God as shepherd, as provider and protector. I remember as a child being utterly baffled by this phrase: I shall not want. It was as though the writer was saying, yes, the Lord is my shepherd, but I want nothing to do with that. Why in the world would you ever say something like that?

All I needed was a little more sophisticated understanding of language to get at its real meaning. And other translations put it in a way that is probably less confusing: I lack for nothing; I have everything I need; I will never be in want. If the Lord is my shepherd, then all of my needs are taken care of.

Fair enough: we often give voice to the idea that everything we have is God’s gift to us. But do we really believe this? I mean, really and truly?

I’m reminded of the story of a man named George who was struggling, looking for work, barely making ends meet. And that was when he heard a sermon on tithing, that is, the practice of giving ten percent of your income to support the work of the church. For some reason, the message struck home that day of all days. Given how little he was making, he figured, “well, what’s the harm in living on less?” So he began to tithe.

Soon, his luck changed, and he landed a steady job with good income. He continued to tithe, figuring his fortune had something to do with the practice. And as years went by, he rose through the ranks at his company until he was making a seven-figure salary. It was miraculous, given where he had been just a few years prior. But suddenly, a tithe seemed like an impossible amount to be giving away. So he scheduled a meeting with the pastor, saying, “I just don’t know how I can keep tithing. Given how much I’m making, this ten percent has just gotten to such a level that it’s just a real hardship.”

The pastor thought for a minute before she said, “Well, I can certainly see how this would be a problem. I tell you what: let's take this to prayer.” They bowed their heads, and she said, “Lord, you hear our cares and provide for us. Bless George in all of his labors. He is having a difficult time tithing with his new salary. I ask, Lord, that you would reduce his salary so that he can tithe again.”

Don’t get me wrong: I do not think that there is a connection between our generosity and what God gives us. I don’t think that giving away material goods leads to personal wealth. If you’re interested in that kind of approach, it’s called the Prosperity Gospel, and there are plenty of churches and pastors out there willing to sell you that bill of goods.

What I tell folks who are interested in finding out about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is simply this: we have no membership dues. There is no minimum giving requirement. After all, if we really believe that grace is a gift freely received, how can we possibly, in good conscience, turn around and charge for it? In my opinion, that would be nothing short of hypocrisy.

That said, I do think that the approach of tithing can be a good standard against which to measure your own giving. Let me ask you this: How much do you away give compared to what you take in? What percentage would it be? Five? Fifteen? Less than one? Or do you even know? Have you ever calculated it? And what would happen if your income increased? Would you give more, or would your giving stay about the same?

The point that lies behind all of this is summarized best by Jesus in our lesson from Luke this morning: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In other words, how we use our money says something about who we are. Christian writer Jim Wallis puts it this way: “Budgets are moral documents.” Are we OK with that? How many of us would be willing to say that our finances are an accurate picture of our values and ethics? How many of us could point to our household budget as a moral document?

Enough money talk?

Fair enough. I’ll be honest: it makes me squirm. When I see how forthrightly Jesus talks about money – and how much he talks about money – I begin to see why he might have run afoul of the powers that be. Look at what he advocates! Sell your possessions? Give to those in need? What kind of madness would this world be if we took Jesus at his word, running around loving enemies and turning cheeks?

The truth is, Jesus’ teaching is simply an extension of the moral compass he was born with. The stories and lessons of the Hebrew Bible, of Deuteronomy and the Psalms, were the ones he was raised on, and the ones he took seriously enough to believe might actually be true. Remember his first moment of public teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth? He read from the prophet Isaiah about the year of the Lord’s favor, about the giving of sight to the blind, of good news to the poor, of release to the oppressed and the captive. And then he went on to say, in effect, “Now is the time to make this promise of God all true!”

“What? You don’t really believe that stuff, do you? That’s just what we tell our children so that they’ll behave and grow up to be good, nice folk. But when they’re old enough, they’ll understand how the world really works. That’s when they’ll get that these ideas are nice and all, but completely unrealistic.”

But let’s take a step back to our Deuteronomy lesson. I think it’s key to understanding the rest of our conversation today. The Hebrew people have spent four decades in the bleak desert between the slavery of Egypt they have left behind and the promised land of Canaan that lies before them. And Moses wants to make sure that they understand what is at stake in all of this.

God has freed them. They yearned for freedom, cried for it, and God delivered them. In the midst of the barren desert, God gave them provision: water from rocks, meat and manna from the heavens. God kept them safe from snakes and scorpions. And now, they are preparing to take hold of unprecedented favor. Water flows. Springs well up out of the ground. Trees and crops grow in abundance. They will never be in need. They will eat and drink their fill. And in return, they will keep up with what God has asked them to do.

And yet, it is clear that temptation is right around the corner. Because as they thrive and prosper, as their possessions increase, there lingers the possibility that they will forget God’s role in all of this, that they will become arrogant and think themselves self-sufficient. There is a good chance that they will begin to think, “I am responsible for my own prosperity. I have earned it by my own toil, my own blood, sweat, and tears.” And in fact, that’s exactly what happens. It’s not long before the nation dissolves into the same petty politics that mark every other nation in the region. And after a brief stint with prosperity, it is exile that becomes their watch word yet again.

Are we any different? If we prosper, do we see this as a result of God’s good gifts? Or do we see it as the work of our own hands, our own power and ability to produce?

Or can we even make such an easy “either/or” distinction? Our reading from Deuteronomy ends with these simple words: “Remember the Lord your God, the one who gives you the ability to prosper.” Prosperity does not mean that we wake up one day with our baskets full when they were empty the night before. Prosperity often means hard work and toil. Where in the world do we think we got the ability to do all of that hard work and toil? Did we come to that all by ourselves? Or has there been a guiding force in our life, working through our experiences and our relationships, to mold us into the kind of people we are and the kind of people we hope to be?

Friends – or, if the Lord is our shepherd, may I call you “my fellow sheep”: I want to leave you with this thought today. I encourage you to think about the journey that has led you to where you are. And I also want to make it as clear to you, as I possibly can, something that I’m pretty sure you already know, but might choose to forget: you did not get here all by yourself! Remember the path you took to get here. And remember the guiding hand that led you here. God is your shepherd: you will never be in want! May we all live as though we actually believe it.