The heavenly banquet
Surely … there is not a better-known, more comforting passage in the Bible than today’s Psalm. In fact, Psalm 23 is so well-known, I’ll bet that many of you could recite this passage by heart:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
he leadeth me beside still waters;
he restoreth my soul.
OK, so I learned this Psalm in the King James Version.
This 23rd Psalm promises us a “heavenly banquet,” that God has prepared a great feast for us. This banquet captures my attention; I want to get there! But first, we have a dark valley to contend with.
I wonder how many of you, like me, have recited Psalm 23 like a mantra, recited this psalm to ward off evil. When the mammogram or biopsy came back positive. When the marriage failed or a parent was at death’s door. When the job and the last of savings was gone.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil;
The truth is, we fear the dark valleys of life. We fear these valleys even when we are not actually lost in them. Yet.
I remember all too well the first time I heard a group of people invoke Psalm 23 together. I was a member of the Church of St. Clement here in Alexandria at the time, 17 years ago. (That was in 1997, to save you having to do the math.) Our church had rented a bus and had gone to Philadelphia together to attend a General Convention Eucharist service together. And when the bus dropped us off at the Convention Center, there was a gauntlet of protestors, each with truly ugly signs, each from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Some of the signs and all of the people told us that we would burn in hell for being Episcopalians—among other reasons—telling us that God hated us.
Over the years I have heard other comparisons between the “valley of death,” as the King James Version calls this fearful “darkest valley.” I know Black people who’ve come face to face with burning crosses and men in white pointy hats. These are older Black people. The younger ones encounter their own “valley of death” while being stopped for “driving while Black,” or sometimes even just for “breathing while Black.”
As much as I wish such fears were historical, were groundless today, I know that they are not. There really are dark valleys, scary valleys, out there, if not in this life, then in the darkest valley of all, the one between this life and the next life. Every person has their own dark valleys.
However, Psalm 23 reminds us all that we do not walk alone.
I will fear no evil;
for you are with me… [and] comfort me.
As Christ-followers, we know that God actually came in the flesh, came to be one-with us. God doesn’t let us walk this dark valley of life alone. Even King David, who wrote this Psalm millennia before Jesus the Christ was born, knew that God was with us all along. Even the EXISTENCE of God comforts us.
Just when I am all comforted, though, I learn that God prepares a table, a banquet, a heavenly feast “before me;” not just for me, though, but a banquet in the presence of my enemies and in the presence of those who trouble me the most. I have finally reached the “heavenly banquet” in this psalm when I discover that I might not like the guest list.
Long ago, my own pastor called the Westboro Baptist folks “Jesus in a most troubling disguise.” At the time I had enough trouble envisioning my enemies at the great feast as invited guests, without seeing them as the host of the banquet. “If Jesus was in those folks,” I thought, “Jesus had hidden himself well.”
I’ve gone on and on about the Westboro Baptist folks—I can’t in good conscience call them a “church.” I’ve done so as an example. And because the Westboro folks have troubled me greatly and scared me at many points in my life. Recently it has become trendy for people in our churches and even in our secular culture to reject the Westboro message of hate, and to form a human shield around their protests, especially their protests at funerals. One of my favorite counter-protest signs reads, “Live your life so that Westboro Baptist Church will picket your funeral.”
There’s another reason, though, why the Westboro folks came to mind right now. Fred Phelps, the founder and leader of the family cult that is Westboro Baptist, died a week or so ago. And this is where my faith gets tested. I wonder, will Fred be more surprised to see me in heaven one day, or me him?
You see, God has anointed our heads with oil—each of our heads who claim Jesus as their savior—and has filled our cups and our hearts to overflowing. Fred and Jo are both sheep in the shepherd’s flock, sheep of God’s own choosing. Fred and Jo, like sheep, each stray in our own directions, away from the shepherd. Of course, being human, I claim Fred’s straying is far worse than my straying, and vice versa. Isn’t that what each of us do when we are far from the green pastures and still waters?
But I do hope and pray that Fred is in heaven, at that great heavenly banquet, saving a seat for me. Because if Fred is in heaven, then surely there is truly “a wideness in God’s mercy,” a wideness that will allow us each to dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
Who will be YOUR table-mate at the heavenly banquet?