When Nora Gallagher, a writer who lives in Northern California, was in the process of discernment, pondering whether she was being called to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, her priest sent her a card with a picture of a shepherd carrying a child, captioned, “Get off my back, Jesus.” Inside, echoing an idea from a poem, he wrote: “Is the Hound of Heaven hounding you?”
I hasten to add that in many cultures and folk tales, the hound is seen as a messenger of death and the devil. But it was the poem, written in 1907 by Francis Thompson, that turned that idea on its head.
Here’s a portion of it that gave us the idea of the “hound of heaven,” the counterpart to the devil in the form of God, who chases away all evil.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years….
I hid from Him, and under running laughter….
From those strong feet that followed after
But with unhurrying chase/and unperturbed pace
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy/they beat….
And the poem concludes: Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He – Whom thou seekest.
So today, when you hear me talk about the “hound of heaven” pursuing me, and you, and all of God’s own beloved children, please hear the image of the friendliest dog imaginable. Hear this: that God chases after us to catch us up to him in love, and grace, and the everlasting goodness and mercy that the Twenty-third Psalm promises.
Each of our readings for today shows me, and show you, God as the giver, and God’s people, the fruits of God’s creation, responding to both the giver and the gifts. And the psalm for today is arguably our most familiar and most beloved of the entire collection, one we have committed to memory without even meaning to. So as the words glide along our tongues, as we give voice to our deepest feelings about the one who made us … what are we missing? What just floats right on by as we are enjoying the respite of those green pastures?
Well, a couple of things stand out, really. The main point, though, is the Hound of Heaven, who is, in truth, hounding me, and hounding you, and hounding … well, all of us, really. Every last sheep.
Most of the translations of Psalm Twenty-three render the closing verse as:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
It almost makes it sound tame, doesn’t it? Like a well-broken pet who has been taught to heel on a leash, God’s goodness and God’s mercy will trot alongside us until we die. But it’s actually The Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible from Dr. Eugene Peterson, who comes closest to the original Hebrew. He writes: “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.”
Because the verb used in Hebrew is raw-daf. It translates as: chase, pursue, persecute. It’s a verb that translates “to hound,” meaning to track a scent until what once was lost has now been found.
“Is the Hound of Heaven hounding you?”
And the answer is always: Yes. The answer is that God, the Holy Hound, is chasing after me, and you, and everyone, really. He is tracking after us so that he can pour out all of his blessings upon us. And yes, he is persecuting us, but in a good way, in a totally Godly way, in a way that only God can.
Psalm Twenty-three walks us through the valley of the shadow of death with complete freedom from fear of evil, because God is with us. Even in the presence of my enemies, God is spreading a feast before me.
And it is after that feast is spread that we get the reminder. The hound of heaven is chasing, pursuing, tracking – and persecuting. What does this mean?
Let’s lay it down next to the Gospel lesson for today, the parable of the King’s wedding feast. Murder. Mayhem. And yes, persecution! A wedding guest cast into the outer darkness for a dress-code violation! And all because the guest refuses the gracious hospitality of the host. How often do I, do you, turn aside the gifts and blessings that come from God because they are disguised as something that we really don’t wanna do?
The shepherd calls me, the shepherd calls you, the Hound of Heaven persecutes us, digs at us, paws at us, won’t leave us alone, until we get it. And what we must “get,” what God urgently wants us to understand is this: To follow this God is to follow in a world where God’s goodness and mercy are so often scorned. To walk in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake puts us at odds with everybody else. And, not so coincidentally, at odds with a culture that insists that we are inadequate unless we consume and buy and get. “The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want.”
“He restores my soul” can also be translated as: “He returns my life to me.” He gives me back my life. And that is not a petty gift. It’s not a gesture. It means everything. It means that we agree to let the Hound of Heaven chase us down, to track after us, to invite us to live by the words of Deuteronomy: Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.
And when we do that! When we let God chase after us, it’s a little like being joyfully tackled by that big old friendly dog who just wants to play and love and call forth out of us all the blessings that you have and I have, that we all have, to share with the whole world.
“Life is a banquet,” as the saying goes, “and most poor folks are starving!” Instead of letting ourselves starve at the wedding banquet – or at the banquet that God lays out before us, in the presence of our enemies – what happens when we respond with joy, and with generosity, and with all the love we have to give? When we let the love of God pursue us – and catch us.