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I Shall Not Want

Lessons: 1 John 3:16-24; Psalm 23


When my daughters were little, every now and then they’d come down with “want-itis.” Want-itis was what we called the affliction of wanting too much. “I want an American Girl Doll. I want another American Girl Doll. I want sparkly Dorothy shoes. I want a Beanie Baby. I want, I want, I want…” Want-itis. Few of us are completely immune from want-itis. So when I hear in the King James Version of Psalm 23, “I shall not want,” my first thought is, “Everybody wants something.”


But the psalmist isn’t saying he’ll never desire anything. As much as we’re attached to the King James Version of this psalm, a better translation of this verse is, “I lack nothing,” or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, “I don’t need a thing.” “I have everything I need to live a healthy, peaceful life.”


What do we need, really, for a healthy, peaceful life? In 1943, Abraham Maslow created a pyramid with fives levels of human need. The theory is that our needs at a lower level have to be met before we even can begin to think about the next level. Maslow put our most basic physical needs at the bottom of the pyramid: air to breathe, food, water, sleep. If these physical needs are met, then the need for safety and security kicks in. Then belonging and relationship, then the need for respect, and finally, if all these other needs are met, a person can begin to tackle the peak of the pyramid – what Maslow calls “self-actualization”: the desire to become everything that we’re capable of becoming.[1]


Needs, wants, self-actualization – these are pretty hard to tease apart in our culture, where wealth equals success. An American businessman took a quick vacation in a coastal village in Mexico. He went down to the pier to buy fresh fish. There, on a small boat, he saw a weathered fisherman with several large yellow fin tuna. The businessman complimented the man on the quality of his fish, and asked how long it took him to catch them. The man replied, “Just a little while.” The businessman asked why he didn’t stay out longer to catch more fish. “I have enough to support my family’s needs.”


“What do you do with the rest of your time?” the businessman asked. The fisherman answered, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, write a little poetry, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play the guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.” “You should spend more time fishing,” said the businessman. “You could make more money and buy a bigger boat. With the profit from the fish you could fit into a bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually you’d have a fleet, and you could even open your own cannery. Then you could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, where you’d make more connections and expand your enterprise.”


The fisherman asked, “How long would all this take?” The businessman calculated. “You could do it in fifteen, maybe twenty years.” “Then what?” asked the fisherman. The businessman beamed. “That’s the best part. When the time is right you’ll announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public, and you’d be very rich. You’ll make millions!” “Millions?” marveled the fisherman. “Then what?” The businessman smiled. “Then you could retire, move to a small coastal village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take siestas with your wife, write poetry and stroll to the village in the evenings where you’ll sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”


Now, this is a cute story; it has some insights about what we need and want and what it means to be self-actualized, but it doesn’t really address the complexities of meeting the needs of the world in our global economy. Amazingly enough, this morning’s beloved, several thousand-year-old psalm does.


“God is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” Not everyone can say this truthfully. Last Tuesday night, about 300 folks, including 20 or so from our congregation, gathered at a vigil and press conference to consider what’s next for our friends who use the Friday night REST shelter, because the REST program comes to an end this week. We know people who don’t have what they need in terms of food, shelter, safety, and security. And it’s not just folks who use the shelter. Every Sunday we sit alongside people who are looking for work or on a fixed income, one paycheck or one relative away from being on the street.


So is there a way that this verse – “I have everything I need” – can be true for everyone? Because if there isn’t, this psalm might feel like a cruel joke to those at the first couple of levels of Maslow’s pyramid, including the half of humanity that lives on less than $2.50 a day.[2] You can understand why this verse, in particular, might be met with skepticism, even anger. I can picture someone saying, “I have all I need? That’s easy for you to say.”

The answer comes in the very first line of the psalm. God is my shepherd. We’ve heard this line so many times that we miss its power. God is my shepherd, says the psalm, and then it lists all the things a shepherd provides for the sheep. The shepherd provides the basic necessities of life – food (“green pastures”), drink (“still waters”), and protection (“right paths”). In short, the shepherd “keeps me alive,” another way to translate “God restores my soul.” In the second section of the psalm, the gracious host also provides the basic necessities of life – food (a table), drink (“my cup overflows”), and protection (“you anoint my head with oil”) – leading to a situation of safety and security, or in short, life as God intends.


That’s what the psalmist is talking about here: life in accordance with God’s character and God’s intentions. God wills life for all; God actively works for life. The beginning of the last verse might better be translated, “Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” So in contrast to busy and industrious North Americans, who are inclined to view life as an achievement – we make a living, we say – Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift.[3]


Life is a gift. A gift from the shepherd. Even though the psalm is spoken in the first person singular, we all know that the shepherd cares for the entire flock. It is perfectly appropriate for this one individual, the psalmist, to sing a song of gratitude and trust for what the shepherd provides. It is not appropriate for any one sheep – for any one person – to assume God has singled out one individual or one group of individuals for the abundance of God’s gifts.


What if we lived as though, “God is our shepherd”? What if we lived as though God is our shepherd over and above all the other possible shepherds, over and above all the other powers and authorities that might claim our allegiance? To declare, “The Lord is my shepherd” is like saying, “The Lord is my shepherd – you aren’t.” Who the “you” is in “you aren’t” depends on who or what is oppressing us. So – who or what is oppressing us? Consider Thomas Merton’s assessment of American life: “Even though there’s a certain freedom in our society, it’s largely illusory. Again, it’s the freedom to choose your product, but not the freedom to do without it. You have to be a consumer and your identity is to a large extent determined by your choices, which are very much determined by advertising. Identity is created by ads.”[4]

Which brings us right back to the needs verses wants conversation. We are bombarded with advertising coming at us from every direction, telling us we really do need a new car every few years; we really do need clothes that are not just functional but fashionable, we really do need the next version of the iPhone. It’s not surprising that our society is characterized by what Alan Greenspan once called “infectious greed.”[5]


Maybe greed is claiming our allegiance, even oppressing us. Consider this: The organizations that keep track of hunger statistics agree that the world produces enough food today to feed everybody.[6] That is staggering, isn’t it? There is enough food to feed everybody. Hunger today is not caused by a lack of food but by the fact that some people don’t have the money to buy food.[7] The problem is not supply. It’s distribution. We live in a world in which the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population now owns more than half of the world’s wealth.[8] That is just appallingly broken, and as a result, this distribution/supply problem applies to everything. Clean water, medical care, housing, quality education, justice. The problem is not supply. It’s distribution.


We live in a world where there is enough for everybody. The shepherd has provided enough for the basic sustenance of life. That is how “I shall not want” can apply to everybody. God is not the problem. We are.[9] As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

Today is Earth Day. The way God provides for us is through the gift of this precious planet. Our greed is destroying God’s gift. The stuff we consume – from food to knick-knacks – is responsible for up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.[10] Rising consumption is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and making it even harder for the world’s poor to meet their basic needs.[11]


Psalm 23 challenges us to ask, “Do we believe God is our shepherd?”[12] Do we trust it enough to live it, to respond to God’s gifts of life and this earth not with infectious greed, but with infectious gratitude? The psalm doesn’t tell us we won’t face hard times, pain, enemies, even death. But do we trust that we have all we need to meet them all? Do we trust enough to swim against the tide of consumerism, to share what we have, to care for this planet? How can we, the church, help each other, and our children, and our neighborhood, build this trust?


On Tuesday night at the vigil and press conference, we heard from an impressively articulate ten-year-old named Dylan. He’d served with Children for Change in our kitchen and Duncan Hall at the REST shelter. He talked about discovering that the men at the shelter really weren’t very different from him. He’d learned from one guest, a former NHL hockey player, that you can go from success to homelessness in the blink of an eye. He didn’t use religious language and that’s okay. He chose to love. As the First John passage tells us, love isn’t words, ideas or feelings. It is action. Love is touched by the very real misery it sees, and looks for ways to alleviate it. Love seeks to know and understand the experience of the other person.


Dylan's transformation came about because of an opportunity we provided, right across the patio. It is a transformation many of us have experienced, as well. As REST comes to an end, our challenge as a congregation will be to seek other means of being transformed by love, other ways to offer opportunities so our neighborhood can be transformed by love along with us. Other ways to practice trusting the profound truth that God is our shepherd, and that there really is enough for all.


God is our shepherd. May it be so you, for me, for us. Amen.


© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.


[2] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats, updated 2013. In addition, at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.


[3] J. Clinton McCann, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/25/2010.


[4] Thomas Merton, The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1997), p. 110.


[5] Alan Greenspan is quoted in Phyllis Tickle, Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 18.


[6] https://www.worldhunger.org/about-whes-hunger-notes/; http://www.fao.org/wsfs/world-summit/en/?no_cache=1.


[7] Frederick Kaufman, “Let Them Eat Cash,” in Harper’s Magazine, June 2009, http://harpers.org/archive/2009/06/0082533.


[8] Robert Frank, “Richest 1% Now Owns Half the World’s Wealth,” November 14, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/14/richest-1-percent-now-own-half-the-worlds-wealth.html.


[9] Dean Snyder, “I Shall Not Want,” May 17, 2009, http://www.foundryumc.org/sermons/5_17_2009.htm.


[10] Suzanne Jacobs, “Consumerism Plays a Huge Role in Climate Change,” February 24, 2016, Grist, https://grist.org/living/consumerism-plays-a-huge-role-in-climate-change/.


[11] Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, quoted in Hillary Mayell, “As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says,” National Geographic News, January 12, 2004, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0111_040112_consumerism.html.


[12] Psalm 23 is referred to as a psalm of “disorienting trust.”

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