The Relocation of Desire

A Sermon on the 23rd Psalm

“Have you ever had a musical tune run through your head, and it just won't go away?” That's the question a professor raised in one of my very first seminary classes. Many of us acknowledged that yes, this had happened to us. “As you grow into your life and ministry,” he continued, “pay attention to the hymn tunes that pop into your head. And when a hymn tune arrives, go and look up the words that go with it. The words may have something to say – indeed, God may have something to tell you in that hymn.”

Hymns have been called the people's theology. Hymns are also poetry, set to music. We have just sung (At 10:30 we will sing) a poetic 20th century text set to a 19th century tune, just before hearing part of the Good Shepherd story from the tenth chapter of John's Gospel. Each year on this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season, we hear a little bit of the story of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. And every Fourth Sunday of Easter, every single year, we pray the 23rd Psalm. Today's, there's little chance of missing this famous poetic image of God as our shepherd. It's stuck in our heads.

Someone, a “no nonsense” kind of guy, once told me that he just didn't like poetry. Period. Perhaps his resistance has something to do with the fact that poems, like psalms, tell the truth, but they tell it slant, to use Emily Dickinson's helpful metaphor. Poetic meaning tends to be indirect, not head-on. There is, of course, nothing like the clarity of an essay or a recipe or a policy manual. But there are parts of life that are far more poetic than prosaic, times and places when the truth “must dazzle gradually,” Dickinson continues, “or every man (and woman) be blind.” There's more than enough truth in the psalms to blind us. Maybe that's why we usually get just a little bit of God's truth – only a few verses – in each Sunday's Psalm. Maybe that's all we human beings can handle.

These are, of course, the very Psalms of David. David, a forebear of Jesus, was a shepherd boy who got to play and sing his psalms for King Saul. Long before our own Book of Common Prayer, David's Psalms became a prayer book. And those shepherd-boy psalms were helpful to the king, because David wrote them in a real, earthy style, using words that people actually say to God in moments of anger or praise, lament or joy. The Psalms communicate the internally conflicted life that all human beings, even Jesus, actually live. “What would Jesus pray?” The Psalms. From the cross Jesus prayed at least part of Psalm 22 – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The next psalm Jesus, a faithful Jew, would surely have known, in their numerical order, is Psalm 23. My wife Eyleen thinks that it is in the middle of these two Psalms, 22 and 23, that we work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling, our whole life long.

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that the Psalms describe the divine kind of no-nonsense “counter-world,” in opposition to our own, “closely-held world.” Our world, he says, is marked by “anxiety, greed, self-sufficiency, denial, despair, amnesia and faithlessness.” The Psalms, however, create a world in which we find “trust, abundance, God-dependence, truth-telling, hope, memory and God's faithfulness.” The Psalms help us, in Dr. Brueggemann's phrase, to “relocate our desire” – our desire toward God, rather than a desire to run from God, to something else (from a lecture at the 2012 CEEP Conference). We could say that this is what the Good Shepherd does: the Good Shepherd loves the sheep and helps them relocate their desire.

The Bible, simply put, is all about desire – God's desire for God's people. If we lived in Bible times, the Lord God, our Shepherd, would be looking for us. Chasing after us. Following us. Tracking us, wherever we may try to go. In our own time, God is still on the lookout. My favorite image of a shepherd tracking one of his sheep comes from another seminary memory. Frank Griswold had just been elected Bishop of Chicago, and he was visiting me and my family, as our Episcopal shepherds tend to do. We had just finished lunch and were on our way out a door that opened onto a green space where children liked to play, when suddenly, my then-toddler son John bolted outside, ahead of us. The bishop was right behind him. It reminded me of those “I'm..going. . .to. . .GET YOU!” moments from my own childhood. It was a moment when “pray” and “play” were all wrapped up together. It was a moment when I got to see my chief pastor be truly pastoral, a shepherd shepherding my little sheep of a son.

God knows that all of us, like sheep, tend to wander. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, says another little bit of poetic hymn wisdom, prone to leave the God I love; here's my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above (Robert Robinson, found in hymn # 686, Hymnal 1982). The Good News is that God will never stop searching for us until we relocate our desire, until we give in and come on back home. But we do not always give in to our God, at least not willingly or easily. Sometimes, our hurt, our loneliness, our anger is too great for us to believe God would love us enough to chase us down. But sooner or later, we see how we, like sheep, can be, well, stubborn. Listen to a part of Psalm 73: “When my mind became embittered, I was sorely wounded in my heart. I was stupid and had no understanding; I was like a brute beast in your presence.” Here's what comes next: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. . ..Whom have I in heaven but you? And having you I desire nothing upon earth” (vv. 21-22; 23 and 25). Another Psalm describing desire that has been relocated is the 42nd: “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.”

The Good Shepherd desires to be with us and loves us so much, that he lays down his life for us sheep. No matter how lost we get, we don't really need anything else, when we learn to let God's goodness and mercy follow us forever. When we learn to experience God's unconditional desire and love for us, through our Good Shepherd Jesus, we begin to see that, as today's Epistle puts it, “we (too) ought to lay down our (own) lives for one another” (I John 3:16). It takes, however, a lifetime to learn these things – how to receive God's desire for us, more and more; how to express our own need and desire for the Good Shepherd's love, more and more.

Someone who may well have grown to understand the Shepherd's love as expressed in the 23rd Psalm is Wendell Berry. On Monday he delivered this year's Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor our government gives for “distinguished intellectual achievement” in the humanities. Best known for his essays and novels and his fierce criticism of our country's corporate-industrial economics, one of Berry's more quotable quotes is, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” A Christian and third-generation Kentucky farmer, Berry first became popular as a poet.

Sometimes, it's not music that gets stuck in your head. Sometimes, it's words. Like the words of a poem. One of Wendell Berry's poems embodies, for me, a 21st century understanding of the 23rd Psalm. It's called “The Peace of Wild Things.” I've asked someone else to read this poem for us. As you listen, think of your own need for green pastures, your own longing for still waters. Think of your own valley of the shadow of death. Think of the Good Shepherd, who is looking for you, ready to chase you down. Just listen to these words – and dare to relocate your desire toward God.

Read 'The Peace of Wild Things'

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 29, 2012