Beyond Our Wants

Beyond Our Wants 

Robert Hoch

Psalm 23

Acts 2:42-27

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore, MD

May 7, 2017

In contrast to the way our psalm begins – “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” (1) – our sung refrain turns the noun, “shepherd”, into a verb: “Shepherd – prod me, guide me, lead me, push me, shove me – shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” As in, perhaps the composer felt that many of us are still hounded by wants and stalked by fears. . . .

We pray to God; we call God our shepherd; we shall not want. But maybe sometimes we need God to be a verb, to shepherd us, rather than a noun only, our shepherd. Maybe we are aware of the way in which scarcity, or fear, or hunger, or greed nips at our heels, or sometimes the way anxiety will launch itself at us from a shadowy, hidden part of our souls.  It happens in the most ordinary places. Standing beside a magazine rack, sometimes the so-called “perfect body” on the cover will lunge at you, snapping at a fragile body image. Or looking at the budget at the end of the month, doing the deadly math, as the numbers count out the relentless advance of poverty, always getting closer – it suffocates laughter, it smothers liberty, makes a mockery of justice. And it comes quickly. . . .

 Shepherd me, O God,

beyond my wants,

beyond my fears,

from death into life.

It’s a perceptive recasting of Psalm 23 and it may lead us to revisit this text, to gain its wisdom for our daily life – where we feel as if we are pursued by wolves of scarcity and roaring lions of greed.

That’s not how we usually hear this text, in the heat of the chase. Typically, this psalm serves as the idyllic poem included at the end of life, when all our struggles are done. But apart from that moment, they seem too far removed from our daily existence to merit much practical value.

But, over this past week, as I’ve lived with the Twenty-Third Psalm, I’ve come to see it in a different light. Maybe this psalm isn’t as idyllic and at peace as we initially imagined. And if so, it may teach us something about God’s way of keeping us alive.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. Consider the verb, radaph, translated as “follow” in the NRSV at the end of Psalm 23: “Your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” Sounds soothing, doesn’t it? Like a Bassett Hound, padding along behind you, a dog smile panting with canine affection.

I like Bassett Hounds, but it might too domesticated for this verse. According to one scholar, we’d be better off translating the Hebrew radaph as “pursued” – “God’s goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life.” In the larger context of the Book of Psalms, this verb shows up in the settings where the singer is being hunted, stalked, entrapped by an aggressive, and relentless predator:

  • “The enemy pursues me and overtakes me” (7:5);
  • “[The enemy will] pursue and seize that person whom God has forsaken” (71:11);
  • “The wicked . . . pursued the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted to their death” (109:16)

That’s the larger context for this verb, to pursue, and it informs how we might hear God’s love and goodness – it is in hot pursuit.

How about its immediate context? Readers will often put Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 together, as if Psalm 23 answers the complaint of Psalm 22.  Psalm 22 begins with the complaint: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 23 concludes with the assurance: “God’s goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”[i] If Psalm 23 gives us the sonorous sound of a sheep in an oasis of green pastures and still waters, Psalm 22 bleats with the alarmed voice of the sheep under attack. The psalmic sheep of Psalm 22 faces lions, as they roar, mouth open to devour.

Rescue me, deliver my life from the power of the dog – the dog that pursues. . . .

Shepherd me O God,

beyond my wants,

beyond my fears,

from death into life.

 The sheep of Psalm 23 might still be panting from the chase – but it’s sense of security is returning.

The psalmist uses the language of animal husbandry but by verse 3, we know we’re not talking about the care of animals, but the care of our souls: “He restores my soul.” Which is the “Sunday morning” exit most of churches will take. But I think it’s the wrong exit or at least it’s not the only exit.

Read closely, and you will see that the text mixes these two things, animal husbandry, which was based in village economics, and the restoration of our souls. Here’s a clue: the shepherd metaphor was often used for political figures who were charged with caring for the economics and politics of their communities. Often, they did a lousy job. Not unlike today. But what is unusual and striking is that the psalmist proclaims the Lord as his shepherd.

No king. No president. No congress. No Federal Reserve. No DOW or NASDAQ. No Consumer Index of Confidence. The Lord – the Lord provides the politics and the economy that keeps us alive, both body (shelter, meaningful labor, safe neighborhoods) and soul (psychological health, marked by thanksgiving, personal integrity, ethical conduct, and strength to face down adversity). It goes back to the story of the Exodus: God delivers the people of Israel out of a predatory, killing economy into a life giving promised land. It’s that mixing of business with religion that caught the attention of M. Douglas Meeks, a systematic theologian. Back in the 1990s, he wrote a book entitled, God The Economist. And when I came across it, I was intrigued. God the Shepherd, I get it. But God the Economist? It might strike us as an odd way of talking. It seems a little too worldly. Alan Greenspan? Adam Smith? God? That’s not what Meeks means. God isn’t religious about the Wall Street Journal or Adam Smith. Instead, in speaking of God as the economist, he names the way religion and economics share a common vocabulary: redemption, debt, trust, savings – all these economic words have a theological root.

But we’ve experienced a dramatic cleavage between the two, as if economists talk reality and ministers talk divinity – ships passing in the night, we seem to speak different languages. But Meeks reminds us that the root of our word economics isn’t with Adam Smith but with oikos, or household.[ii]

The picture given to us by Acts is a picture of oikos, the household of God: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had needs” (45). Acts gives us a picture of a theological economy – which keeps us alive.

So, perhaps Meeks would probably be okay if we were to paraphrase Psalm 23 this way:

The Lord is my Economist. I shall not lack anything.

My Economist makes me lay down in sustainable habitats;

My Economist leads me to an environmentally protected

water supply;

My Economist keeps me alive by giving me a living wage, affordable

healthcare, opportunities, and a safe place to call home.

My Economist leads me in paths of ethical consumption,

for his name’s sake.

Even though I shop and work in the total darkness of modern

capitalism,

with lions of greed devouring everywhere,

I will fear nothing.

For you are with me. Your law and your justice –

they comfort and they guide me.

You prepare the richest budget for me,

Every quarter full of thanksgiving and of song,

whether it is a bowl beans or a festive table loaded

with the finest things,

I rejoice.

In the presence of my enemies,

in the presence of those who would gloat over my failure,

who would say that the market rules,

in their faces,

you prosper me

and my wellness increases.

Truly, my Economist pursues me with his goodness and love for the

world.

And I will dwell with the whole household of God –

all God’s children –

now and forever. Amen.

That might be the theology of Psalm 23 — Rob Hoch style — but it’s too good to leave to theology. Let it form our living, the truest form of theology I know.

So, to begin . . . first, this Psalm reminds us that while God may move us, not all that moves us is of God. Wolves of fear and scarcity move us — we run, yelping to the safest neighborhoods. But if God pursues us with love and goodness, it’s not so much where we go but with whom we go that matters. And if you go with God, you go as beloved, not frightened, hungry, forsaken shadows of your true selves.

That changes the dynamic. And it also compels us to discern the source of our movement – are we being moved by a sense of who we are and whose we are? If it’s fear of bankruptcy that motivates our utterances and decisions – either as a congregation or as a people — then I would say that the wolf of scarcity has already overtaken us.

God may move us, but not all that moves us is of God – we are sheep of God’s fold and we recognize the shepherd’s voice because he leads us into life, and life in abundance.

Next thing — God doesn’t call us to “like” one another but to love one another. That includes enemies – fine in the abstract, in theory, but in this psalm, it’s not only an idea; it’s a context. We’re feasting in the presence of our enemies.

Ellen Charry, an Old Testament scholar, underlines the ambiguity of the preposition, “in the presence of my enemies.” Does it mean at a nearby post, where the singer’s enemies are watching? Or perhaps the singer eats with his enemies, at the same table? Could it be that their status as enemies has been subverted by the table of God’s radical and providential grace?[iii]

I’m not sure where I am in terms of “in the presence of my enemies” – there are a lot of churches out there that would like to see First & Franklin fail. They keep predicting it. And they can point to some numbers – mainline liberal congregations are in decline. Including this one. They say you can’t celebrate LGBTQ people – you’ll die as a congregation. They say you can’t love who you were created to love – that’s a sin. They want us to fail. They don’t believe in our marital politics. They don’t believe in a reign of God politics, where God liberates us from killing economies to a living economics.

I want to see us grow –but, if I’m honest, part of me also wants to grow — in the presence of our enemies. Preaching a living wage, affordable healthcare, and a living God — in their faces. I want to feast at the table of Jesus’ inclusive love – and I want them, our enemies, to salivate with envy, I want them to foam at the mouth with their hateful slogans. I’d love to have them come out here one Sunday and picket us with signs and slogans and slurs. And at the end of the service, we’ll bring them lemonade and tell them that they are loved by God . . . and we’re not far behind. Or . . . it could be, that it means we have been reconciled, that are being reconciled, that we will be reconciled. That something or Someone is moving us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, beyond categories of friend and enemy. Pray for your enemies, bless them and do not curse them, says our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, God may not answer all our wants, but God is faithful to give us strength for all our needs. A pastor had been visiting a member of his church, Anna, who was in the hospital with a terminal diagnosis. During their visits, he would pray; or sometimes she would pray. As time went on, the disease progressed. Her strength began to ebb. And one day, when it came time to pray, she stopped him: “Pastor,” she said, “I don’t think I’m going to get better. Let’s say we skip the prayer for healing today? I just want you to pray for the Lord not to leave me. That’s all I need now – the close company of God.”

Cancer, hungry as always, overtook her body, but it did not turn her hope from her redeemer. Her pastor, still a sheep in God’s earthly fold, says that she died 25 years ago. Anna’s prayer instincts continue to instruct him in his love of God.[iv]

As she prayed, so we pray today . . .

Shepherd me, O God,

beyond my wants,

beyond my fears,

from death into life.

 

Amen.

[i] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “Psalms” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

[ii] M. Douglas Meeks, God The Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

[iii] Ellen Charry, Psalms 1-50 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).

[iv] Peter W. Marty, “Prayer Without Answers” in Christian Century (April 3, 2017) access on 12 May 2017 at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/prayer-without-answers.

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