23rd Psalm - the one titled “My Shepherd is the Living Lord”, the earliest published hymn in the English language. But we aren’t there quite yet. We know the 23rd Psalm well, but not that well. It comes again as a holy guest, even a holy stranger, with a new Word, a Living Word. It comes as a guest because it is not the 23rd Psalm that we host this morning but the Good Shepherd who stands among us, who speaks to us, who leads us, who restores our life.
That is the first thing to notice about the 23rd Psalm when we read it today. We know how it begins: “The LORD is my shepherd”. Because the word LORD is capitalized we know that the Hebrew word is not Lord but the famous tetragrammaton “YHWH” - the four consonants of the name of God: “Yahweh. It means something like “I am up to what I am up to.” This One who promises Abraham and Sarah an impossibly blessed future, who leads Moses and the people out from under Pharoah’s thumb, who sends prophets of terrible judgment and then of wild hope is so awesome that the name is not to be spoken, instead always capitalized as LORD.
Then along comes the gospel of John with Jesus’ naming himself “I am ... I am the Bread of Life, the Bread of Life, the Gate, the Resurrection and the Life, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Vine and - yes - the Good Shepherd.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18). Not the shepherds of Israel who are judged unworthy by Ezekiel. Not the political and religious leaders who are corrupt, misguided, seeking power at the expense of the poor. No, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. A shepherd who dies for the flock. It is the reason that this image, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is the one that is found everywhere in the ancient catacombs. The saints buried there, our baptised sisters and brothers, trust Jesus to guide them safely through their earthly - and heavenly - pilgrimage because he knows the way. He has gone ahead. He has died to save. It is not a typical model of leadership. You won’t find many management books on the shelf at Chapters or online at Amazon that advise this as a path to success: become a leader and die. That is what the good shepherd is, of course. A leader. The pharoahs, emperors and kings - the leaders - of that world are called the shepherds, the pastors of their people.
When we recite “The LORD is our shepherd, we shall not want” we are making a daring claim. We are announcing the gospel that Jesus Christ is our leader and that in his death and resurrection we have received everything we will ever need. I used to imagine that to say “I shall not want” was to say I don’t want anything more - no more dessert, no more stuff, no more than I already have. But, of course, the Psalm is making a much larger claim. It is teaching our souls and minds and hearts and bodies that the one thing - the only thing - we need is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. To know him, to follow him, to be included in his flock is everything. We don’t need anything else. Do you hear how odd that sounds in a world of consumption and acquisition? We live in a cultural sea that teaches us from an early age to need more. To be fulfilled we need more things, more time, more security, more happiness, more friends, more. Or so we imagine. But then comes the 23rd Psalm and we sing “Jesus Christ is our good shepherd and we do not need anything else.”
Notice how odd this proclamation sounds even to the first people who procaim it. There in the fourth chapter of Acts Peter is preaching a jail house sermon in Jerusalem (Acts 4:5-12). He quotes from Psalm 118. You know Psalm 118. It is the same one you sang in my absence here on both Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. It is the one that includes those beloved verses: “This is the day that the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24). But, there, right before those verses is this one, quoted five times in the New Testament (making it one of the most quoted passages from the Old Testament): “The stone that the builders has rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Ps118:22). And then the Psalm sings: “This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). Do you see? The whole edifice, the Temple of the Lord, the Church itself is constructed on a stone that good stone masons who know their trade reject as out of square, no good, a reject for the garbage dump. Yet, in God’s foolish wisdom it is the rejected one - the crucified Shepherd leader who is abandoned by his own flock - who is to be the cornerstone and keystone, the foundation and the culmination of the new day, the new future that is coming in his life beyond death.
Jesus Christ - the cornerstone who was and is rejected. This Lord is our Shepherd, our Pastor, our Way. We don’t need anything else. Really? Wow. It may happen to be Good Shepherd Sunday because fifty years ago at Vatican II it seemed a good idea. But today it is also by God’s providence that we arrive on Good Shepherd Sunday. At the corner of 8th and Tolmie our friends from four other west-side United Church congregations - Trinity United, Knox United, Dunbar Heights United and West Point Grey United - are gathered for worship together. With them we are wondering about the way ahead for The United Church of Canada in Kitsilano, Dunbar, Point Grey, UBC and the University Endowment Lands. Where is the Good Shepherd leading us? What will faithful, sustainable, vital flocks of Christian disciples who name themselves The United Church of Canada look like in five or ten or twenty years? What are we to continue? What must die? What is being born in our life together?
There are no obvious answers to these questions. There are no quick fixes. That is the reason that we are meeting together, taking counsel together and praying together. Today the 23rd and the 118th Psalms sing a daring reminder into this conversation: "Jesus Christ crucified is our good shepherd, our leader through the trouble ... The stone that the builders rejected is the chief cornerstone.” The church that God is constructing in Jesus Christ will not look like the one in our worldly dreams. The church that God is creating is being built on the foundation of One who dies and takes our vision of success with him to the grave. Jesus invites us and our dreamworld to die with him. He promises to lead us “through the valley of the shadow of death”, death to the way we want to construct the church. That is one thing this congregation has been learning over three decades. We have been learning that when you no longer own a piece of property called a church it doesn’t actually matter. You find a place to worship. You rent it for a few hours a week. Then you meet wherever you can - in offices, kitchens, restaurants, living rooms - because the Lord is our Good Shepherd on the other side of the sale of the building we used to call the church. It turns out we don’t need anything else. And when VST one days says “We’re sorry, but we cannot rent you the Chapel of the Epiphany anymore” we will be sad. We will wonder where to meet. Then, next week, we’ll find a place to gather. And we’ll sing “The Lord is our shepherd, we don’t need anything else.”
But you have noticed that we are not with our four neighbouring congregations this morning. Our elders thought it wise on this occasion to send our regrets. They said that on this Good Shepherd Sunday we need to be together as a flock, a small flock of the Good Shepherd. It is just a month since the pastor - the local shepherd - was hospitalized during Holy Week. Though we knew this kind of thing might happen it still came as a shock to the system, a reminder of what we learned one year ago. In fact, it is one year to the day since my family doctor told me that I had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and amyloidosis. In that moment my future plans, dreams, expectations all came unglued. And so did ours. We could no longer count on my physical health. What kind of pastor could I be for you and among you? How would we get through whatever is to come?
Now we find ourselves at Good Shepherd Sunday. What a way to mark our anniversary with a cancer diagnosis, singing “The Lord is our shepherd, we don’t need anything else.” In the process, we are discovering that our journey through loss is actually a journey into life. Loss of building. Loss of health. So many other losses we name as Good Friday endings. The losses bring anxiety and grief. Yet the losses turn out to be a journey into life, life in which we discover that our only need is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. We don't need anything else but to be accompanied through loss to life by the Good Shepherd who leads us on a safe path even through the dark valley of death's shadow.
Perhaps, though, you have not yet met the Good Shepherd. Or perhaps you have met him but he is now nowhere to be found. Or, perhaps, we all still long to meet him out ahead, at the dawn of the long promised Easter Sunday of newness. Some of us are deep in Good Friday grief. Others are hanging on by their fingernails to a determined hope on what seems an endless Holy Saturday. To these the promise of the 23rd Psalm that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” must sound trite, as if goodness and mercy are two little puppy dogs nipping at our heels. Not everyone is lucky enough to have goodness and mercy as pets on a short leash. In fact, many haven't seen much goodness and mercy for a long, long time. But the word is not “follow”. The Hebrew is clear. Every Jewish Bible agrees. The word is “pursue” as in to chase, to hunt down and to finally find: "surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me, chase me, hunt for me all the days of my life."
The seeking goodness and the pursuing mercy of God takes human form in Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd who tracks the lost into the far land of grief and ache where souls wander consuming those things which do not give life. Even churches become addicted to comforts that are no comfort, soothing themselves on substances that bring death instead of life. We find ourselves prodigal children. Orphaned. Lost lambs. Until we meet him already here, seeking us out in the wilderness, the stone who the builders rejected. Jesus knows rejection. He inhabits the land of grief and ache where souls wander alone. He is the Good Shepherd of the lost and low, the outcast and the orphan. His goodness and his mercy seeks, finds and welcomes you home. Here. Now. Do you see? "The Lord is our shepherd. We don't need anything else." Amen? Amen. But not only here and now, also then and there. Then when we will say farewell. There where death will have its way. Even then and there we will know the faith to proclaim, the One to trust and, yes, the strong song to sing: “The Lord is our shepherd, we don’t need anything else.” Amen? Amen!