February 11, 2007

Psalm 23; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

When my father went out to eat, he typically asked himself the same question as he flipped through his billfold in search of a tip for the waitress. “Did she refill my water glass whenever it was empty?” That was it. Dad, I must add, never neglected to leave a tip of some sort, regardless of the quality of the food and service—he was a generous man. But it remains true, nonetheless, that the condition of his water glass overrode other considerations when he ultimately settled on an amount. If the server paid careful attention to his glass and refilled it when necessary, Dad always noticed. “Isn’t she a wonderful waitress,” he’d remark, and the amount of the tip went up accordingly.

I must confess that, to some degree, I have adopted my father’s tipping tendencies. I notice full and empty glasses. I left an unusually high tip some time ago when I had lunch with some friends at a local Tai restaurant. I ordered their pineapple curry chicken—my favorite—but opted on this occasion for the “hot” rather than the “medium”, which I typically select. As a curry lover, I never give any thought to the “mild!” Two or three bites into the meal, my mouth was on fire, and I drank a glass of water without coming up for air. Within seconds, the waitress refilled my glass. And then again. And again. Finally, after moving through this cycle three or four times—guess what? She left a pitcher of ice water by my plate. Trust me. She did not go unrewarded.

Filled glasses are a part of our culture. We don’t want empty glasses staring up at us, do we, or our mugs running dry? We like to know that there is always one more swallow to wash down the final bite of rice, pizza, or, should good fortune strike, calves’ liver. We want the complimentary glass of water with our meal and we scan the menu for bottomless cups of tea or coffee and free refills of Coke or Pepsi. We want…overflowing cups.

An overflowing cup was clearly on the poet’s mind here in Psalm 23 as he expressed his unwavering trust in God. Having likened the Lord to a middle-eastern shepherd who guides, protects and provides for his sheep through both good and bad times (vv. 1-4), the Psalmist now compares God to a gracious, middle eastern host living in a tent somewhere out in the wilderness. When weary travelers somehow stumbled upon his tent, the owner became a host who customarily provided his visitors with food, water and shelter. So it is with God, who as a gracious host offers food to satisfy our hunger, perfumed oil to ease our weariness, and water to quench our thirst. The table is set, the oil poured, and…the cups filled to overflowing. God, the Psalmist declares, blesses his people with an overflowing cup.

An overflowing cup. Think about it. It is vital, I suppose, to distinguish immediately between an overflowing cup and an overflowing commode. Both overflow, but for entirely different reasons. A commode, as you well know, overflows because it is backed-up. It is clogged with dirt, excessive toilet paper or other unwanted debris—Bill Cosby mentions a time when he tried, unsuccessfully, to flush an entire woolen top-coat down the toilet!—and it therefore malfunctions. A commode overflows, not because of a generous outside source of water, but because of its own internal brokenness and blockage that prevents the water from flowing freely. And when a commode overflows, the results are never pleasant. An overflowing commode spews out dirty water and grime that creates work and frustration, not joy and refreshment, for other people.

There are, of course, people like that all around us. In fact, every one of us either is or was an overflowing commode. People whose spiritual lives are backed-up, their pipes clogged with filth and unwanted debris. People who spew out dirty water that often causes pain for other people, dirty water that leaves a mess for others to clean up. Jesus spoke of such people—over-flowing, backed-up commodes—in Matthew 15:19, when he said, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” Such people need to have their pipes cleaned and the dirt removed. They need a drink of living water and a piece of the bread of life. They need a transforming kiss from God, and they could be changed by the purifying and shaping work of the potter. Without the water, bread, kiss, and hands of the potter, they remain backed-up, overflowing commodes.

But that is hardly the image intended here in Psalm 23:5, is it? For those of us who drink the living water, eat the bread of life, receive the kiss of God, live in personal relationship with Christ, and remain in the hands of the potter, what follows quite naturally is this final image or symbol—we are like overflowing cups at the table of a middle-eastern host.

Such a cup, first of all, tells us something about ourselves. It is obvious—it hardly needs to be said—that the cup is incapable of producing its own water or other drink—it cannot, regardless of how hard it may try, fill itself. Instead, the cup overflows with liquids poured into it from outside. What the cup must do, then, is acknowledge its emptiness and allow the host to fill it.

This is, at times, easier said than done. Cups like you and me often find it easier to hide our emptiness than to admit it, don’t we? We’ve learned over the years that other people prefer full cups to empty ones, so we act as though we have it all together. We are seemingly bubbling over, fully alive and in need of nothing. But in reality, we are empty—we know it and others do, too. The cup, after all, cannot fill itself. We must remain open and, through such experiences as prayer, study, corporate worship, fasting, keeping Sabbath and fellowship, allow the host to fill us.

This symbol, furthermore, tells us something about God. This God of ours, the Psalmist tells us elsewhere, owns enough flocks and herds to cover all of the surrounding hills. In fact, everything that moves—all the nations of the world—belongs to him (50:10-11; 82:8). Yet he makes no attempt to either hide his vast riches or spend them solely on himself. He doesn’t fill the cup half-way, as though he were attempting to serve ten people with a 12-ounce can of drink. He doesn’t ration the water as though the well would soon run dry. God willingly—joyfully—shares his water, not to mention coffee, tea, juice and milk, with everyone who enters his tent.

I’ve been, as I’ve mentioned on other occasions, the recipient of middle-eastern hospitality many times. Middle-eastern hosts always provide water with meals, and they typically offer some sort of juice or other cold drink along with it. After mealtime, coffee and tea are served. Regardless of the drink, however, you can anticipate a virtual endless supply so long as you are ready for more. If you have had enough, you signal the host through one of several rituals. You might, for example, leave a small amount of liquid in your cup or glass when you are finished, a sign that you are satisfied. Or, depending upon the setting, you might hold your empty cup upside down and shake it, a symbolic way of announcing that your thirst has been quenched. If you simply keep drinking and leave your cup empty, the host will continue to pour and pour and pour.

God, this symbol reminds us, is like that host. Whether it is a picture of a vat bursting with wine, a barn exploding with grain, or a cup overflowing with water, God pours into his people the very best of who he is and what he has. Our problem, of course, is not that we drink too much—we don’t. Our problem is that we are either satisfied with too little or we let other things and other gods try to fill our cups. God offers us peace and joy, but we want money. He calls us to meaningful, life-changing service—to join him in redeeming the world—but we want high-powered jobs. He longs to fill us with his Spirit, but we worry about food, clothing and drink. And he offers to fill our cups to overflowing, but we settle for a sip or two. “Ask,” Jesus said, “and it will be given unto you.” Call out to God and see if he is incapable of satisfying even the deepest longings of your soul. So long as we keep our cups open and available to him, God will fill and refill them. He is a remarkably gracious and generous host.

And finally, the symbol of an overflowing cup tells us something about the needs of other people who inhabit our world. God fills our cups, in part, to quench our own thirst. But he fills our cups so generously, it seems, so that we might begin to fill the otherwise empty cups that others hold in their hands. On various occasions when I ate at the table of middle-eastern hosts, the food and drink came in quantities far too large for either me or the other guests to consume. Without fail, the host insisted on sending what remained along with me. I was to give the food or drink to someone else. I was to extend hospitality to others.

So it is with God, this symbol reminds us. The blessings of God are not to be horded or kept to ourselves—they should spill out everywhere we go. We fill our goat-skin containers with water from the overflow, get up from the table that he set for us, and share with others as generously as God, our host, shares with us. We are called to offer food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, release to the captives, freedom to the addicted, peace to the tormented, hope to the weary and love to the lonely. God fills our cups to overflowing, and the overflow runs out to bring refreshment to a dry and thirsty world.

Caravan—a journey together into spiritual growth. Water—we are spiritual beings invited to shift our focus from the physical pleasures of this world to the things of God. Bread—we need the genuine spiritual food that only Jesus Christ provides. Kiss—we are transformed by a personal relationship with God through Christ. Clay—once kissed by God, we are increasingly molded by the potter into the image of Christ himself. And finally, an overflowing cup. The same God who loves us and transforms us fills us with his Spirit—and with peace, joy and love—and enables us to reach out and touch the hearts and minds of those around us. And through it all, we who once sought for meaning and contentment in the pleasures of this world now find our appetite and thirst more than satisfied at the table set for us by God himself. God, we soon discover, keeps our glasses full. God, my dad would remind us, is the consummate waiter—the ultimate host.