Week 1: You lead me beside still waters . . . you anoint my head with oil . . .
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Psalm 23; John 10:1-5
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Who are you? Where do you come from? Where do you belong?
People all over the world are sending their DNA to a number of companies, hoping to find out who they really are. Your DNA can tell you the percentages of your ethnic roots, say where your earliest ancestors lived, even follow the movement of your family around the world. There are rich and diverse cultures and languages, a tapestry of racial and ethnic identities among the humans that God has made and placed here. People seem to want to know where they fit in, that they belong to a family.
But in the 23rd Psalm, which we’ll be focusing on all Lent, we have a promise of belonging that’s made to all the people of the earth. Whatever your DNA tells you about where you’ve been and who your ancestors are, you – and all creatures – belong to the God who made all things.
When Moses heard a voice in a burning bush, that voice identified itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors.
Moses belonged to the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of those ancestors spoke, calling him to go to Egypt and free God’s people. But when Moses asked for a name, so he could tell the people who sent him, God moved beyond a family god. God said, “I AM WHO I AM.”
This name, which sounds like breathing in and out when spoken, became known to Israel as the name of the one true God who made all things. The God who spoke to their ancestors actually was the God of all nations. Throughout their Scriptures God made this claim. In an age where most gods were seen as tribal, national, belonging to one people, one ancestry line, remarkably the God of Israel said, “I AM WHO I AM,” I am existence, and all creation belongs to me.
Israel was God’s chosen people, not for their own sake, but to witness of this true God to all peoples.
David, the Shepherd King, begins Psalm 23 with this true name of God.
Singing of belonging to God as a sheep belongs to a shepherd, David named the name of the God Who Is. We sing “the LORD is my shepherd,” because in English we follow the Jewish practice of not naming God’s true name aloud. We substitute “LORD,” in small capital letters, to remind us of the name behind the word.
But it is the God whose name means existence, being, “I AM WHO I AM,” whom David called Shepherd. Not a tribal god, not a god that belonged to one country or people. In naming “I AM” as Shepherd, David did a profound thing. He offered to the whole creation this God as Shepherd.
When you pray Psalm 23, sing it, you claim this Shepherd for yourself.
So when you trace your DNA, when you remember your great-great-great-grandmother and where she came from, remember this: even before the earliest of your ancestors walked on earth they, and you, were in the mind and heart of God.
In our world that is fraught with racial prejudice, nationalism and hatred of people who look or speak or dress or behave differently, this is a powerful truth to remember. We can’t and shouldn’t avoid the hard conversations, the careful listening to those who have been oppressed and still are harmed because of their race or culture. We rejoice in the diversity of cultures and languages and races that God delighted to create on this planet.
But our best hope for going forward is also remembering that the true God, “I AM WHO I AM,” is God of all peoples, all creatures, all creation. The God who led David to green pastures beside still waters, providing all David wanted or needed, this God desires green pastures and still waters, abundance, for all creation.
In these still waters, we are reminded of our baptism.
Obviously David didn’t know baptism. But we can’t help but be drawn to that image and remember the waters that claimed us as God’s own. But do we claim in our Baptism that we are somehow God’s special ones, we alone are loved by God? We can’t. It goes against everything Scripture says about how the God named I AM loves and cares for the whole creation.
Now, David didn’t know our baptism, but he did know about anointing. Samuel poured oil over his head, anointing him king. He was set apart as God’s anointed, which in Hebrew is “Messiah.” In Greek, “Christ.” And there we find our answer.
3,000 years later we still anoint heads with oil, setting people apart as God’s anointed ones.
After the washing of baptism, oil is placed on the head, claiming this person as God’s Christ for the sake of the world, just like David. Just like Jesus himself. And in this psalm, David remembers that gift: “you anoint my head with oil,” he says. This isn’t a random line. This is David’s recalling of his being sent as God’s witness in the world.
And that’s our truth. Baptism is our anointing for service in this world, not a sign of our special favor with God. In baptism you are made God’s Christ and sent out to proclaim God’s good news.
I AM WHO I AM is your shepherd, and now sends you out to witness to all.
That’s the grace of your calling. You belong to the one, true God, who provides you green pastures and still waters. But that same true God longs for all the creation to find green pastures and still waters. Hope and life. Food and shelter. Love and welcome.
Your Shepherd has anointed you and called you to tell the whole world in all its diversity that they belong. That whatever their DNA might say about their past, their deepest DNA is that of the God who made all things. That God, their Shepherd is, as Jesus claimed, no stranger, but the One who knows their name and loves them forever.
Let us go forth, wet once again with the water of the font, and living in our anointing as Christ for the world. It’s time to tell the creation the good news of their Shepherd God.
In the name of Jesus. Amen