FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies…” Psalm 23:5.
The Twenty-Third Psalm is one of the few biblical passages retaining some currency in contemporary American culture. Though most people have some vague concept of what a “Good Samaritan” is, what it means to “burn midnight oil” or why you might call someone or something a “pearl of great price,” few know the parabolic context of these terms anymore. But the psalm remains in the public consciousness as a whole. It is one of the few scriptures to which nearly everyone resonates. For that reason, it was one of my staples for the many funerals I did over the years for people I never knew, who had no connection to my church and whose families had little or no faith background. It forms a point of connection, an opportunity for bringing the comfort of the gospel to people unfamiliar with the language of faith. If they know nothing else about the Bible, the Psalter or the Gospels, they know that the Twenty-Third Psalm is a poem of comfort and consolation.
Nevertheless, its popular appeal should not be taken to mean that it is in any way glib, shallow or simplistic. The comfort afforded by the psalmist is not to be equated with mere safety, security or escape from earthy misery somewhere in the sweet by-and-by. The green pastures and still waters lie along paths leading through dark valleys inhabited by enemies and the threat of death. The way by which the shepherd leads the sheep is not free from evil, but the shepherd’s presence dispels all fear such evils might otherwise inspire. That is the core confession of the psalm: God is the Good Shepherd who is with the sheep no matter were God may lead them.
Those of us urban/suburban folk frequently stumble over the shepherd/sheep imagery. For the majority of us, the closest we have ever gotten to sheep is the petting zoo. In the biblical world, sheep were not cute, cuddly little pets. They were commercial commodities. The good shepherd defends the sheep from wolves because his livelihood depends on their survival. He needs to get them to market. From there they will go to someone’s table. Just as the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep will be called upon to lay down their lives for the Shepherd. John’s gospel is clear on that point: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” John 15:20-21. Being Jesus’ sheep and following him as your shepherd is not all sunshine and happiness. To the contrary, it is daily taking up the cross he carries.
It is in this context that I consider the captioned verse about the Shepherd preparing “a table in the sight of my enemies.” However the psalmist may have viewed this verse, disciples of Jesus cannot interpret it apart from Jesus’ command to love our enemies. “If you love those who love you,” says Jesus, “what credit is that to you?” Luke 6:32. Love is easy between neighbors with nothing between them but white picket fences. It is a good deal more difficult across culture war battlelines and harder still across hostile borders behind which there are people who would kill me if they got the chance. But Jesus would have us love even these enemies and do good to them. Luke 6:35
I don’t know about you, but if I have to love my enemies, I would prefer to do it from a distance. I would rather not be in the presence of people who think my transgender friends and family are “mutants,” “freaks” and sexual predators as some public figures have recently done. I don’t want to be in the company of people who throw about racial slurs, make a point of visibly packing their guns and ramble incoherently about elite cabals of Satan worshiping pedophiles. I can feel a degree of compassion for these folks, try to understand them and pray for them, but I do not want them anywhere near my table. I must confess that part of what drew me here to the Outer Cape is the near absence of such people. To be sure, you would probably find a few if you turned over enough rocks, but not in the numbers that allow them to organize marches, disrupt our town meetings or attempt to censor our school libraries. That sort of thing takes place in other communities far away from mine and I like it that way. If absence does not make the heart grow fonder, at least familiarity does not breed contempt.
Love, however, does not reside in a gated community. It is always found in the public square conversing with self righteous religious leaders, harlots, tax collectors and old, cowardly white guys like me who just want to be left in peace. Jesus makes quite clear that his disciples are to be fully in and participating with the world God sent him to save. Following Jesus means going to places where you will not be welcome, speaking truths your audience might not want to hear and engaging with people who do not like you and might even wish you harm. That is dangerous work. It can get you nailed to a cross.
Dangerous as it may be, there has hardly been a time when peaceful engagement with persons we regard as hostile is more urgent. The divisive power of hateful ideologies currently being enacted into law throughout the country, the carnage in Ukraine threatening to spill over into the rest of Europe and the frightening military brinksmanship between the United States and China cry out for the better way of being human Jesus taught us. The world needs a community capable of living peacefully in the presence of enemies-without fences, walls or barbed wire to protect it. To be one of Jesus’ sheep is to be as vulnerable as the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
I can think of no better example of such a life than that of Charles Eugène de Foucauld de Pontbriand (1858-1916), the French priest recently canonized by Pope Francis. After a brief military career and some time spent exploring Morocco, Foucauld joined the Trappist monastic order. He was ordained in 1901, after which he traveled to the Algerian Sahara where he settled with the intent of starting a congregation among the Berber people, an ethnic group indigenous to the Maghreb region of North Africa. He was unsuccessful in this regard. In reflecting on his lack of success with traditional missionary methods, Foucauld adopted a new apostolic approach. His witness consisted not in preaching sermons, but through living a Christlike example. Taking the name, “Brother Charles of Jesus,” Foucauld lived with the Berbers as a humble guest with the chief objective of learning rather than teaching. In order to become more familiar with the Berbers, he studied their language and culture for over twelve years. He collected hundreds of native poems which he translated into French. He censored nothing in the poems, and never changed anything that might not conform to Catholic morality. Foucauld managed to win the love and trust of these people brutally victimized by colonialization and understandably suspicious of him and the church he represented. He also educated his own people on the beauty and sophistication of Berber culture. His life was dedicated to being an ambassador for Jesus Christ, seeking reconciliation and peace.
Foucauld paid the ultimate price for living in the presence of those who were, in terms of blood, soil and nation, his enemies. His life of peacemaking ended on December 1, 1916, when he was assassinated at his hermitage in the Sahara. One might conclude that Foucauld’s mission was foolhardy and ended in failure. One could say the same about Jesus of Nazareth-except that God raised him from death and raises up the fragile bonds of friendship his disciples manage to build across human divisions in fractured and violent world.
Here is a poem by Rebecca Seiferle that speaks to the fear we harbor toward our enemies causing us to dehumanize them and driving us to seek their destruction. Yet if one reads between the lines, perhaps the poem also beckons us to consider that there might be an alternative.
Love my Enemies, enemy my love
Oh, we fear our enemy’s mind, the shape
in his thought that resembles the cripple
in our own, for it’s not just his fear
we fear, but his love and his paradise.
We fear he will deprive us of our peace
of mind, and, fearing this, are thus deprived,
so we must go to war, to be free of this
terror, this unremitting fear, that he might
he might, he might. Oh it’s hard to say
what he might do or feel or think.
Except all that we cannot bear of
feeling or thinking—so his might
must be met with might of armor
and of intent—informed by all the hunker
down within the bunker of ourselves.
How does he love? and eat? and drink?
He must be all strategy or some sick lie.
How can reason unlock such a door,
for we bar it too with friends and lovers,
in waking hours, on ordinary days?
Finding the other so senseless and unknown,
we go to war to feel free of the fear
of our own minds, and so come
to ruin in our hearts of ordinary days.
Source: Wild Tongue (c. 2007 by Rebecca Seiferle; pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Rebecca Seiferle is an American poet, translator, and editor. She taught English and creative writing for a number of years at San Juan College. She has also taught at the Provincetown Fine Arts Center, Key West Literary Seminar, Port Townsend Writer’s Conference, Gemini Ink, and the Stonecoast MFA program. She has been poet-in-residence at Brandeis University. She lives with her family in Tucson, Arizona where she teaches at Southwest University of Visual Arts. You can read more about Rebecca Seiferle and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.