Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
This has been a week in which we have been gripped by momentous and tragic news. A bombing of the marathon in Boston with scenes of horrific injuries and the manhunt that followed. An industrial explosion in Texas that flattened buildings and lives. A devastating earthquake in China. We gather here shaken, aching, asking, praying. Gathered here we witness a baptism. Little Luke Vincent is baptised in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is marked with the sign of the cross as a follower of Jesus Christ. Hands are laid on his head as we pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. On first glance, it appears so insignificant when compared to the week’s headlines. But look again. See the promise of God’s hand at work - receiving, blessing, transforming, healing. This is the drama of the sacrament of baptism. Here, in ways beyond our knowing, we die to the ways that lead to death and are born to the way of life revealed in Jesus Christ.
This is the reason, Luke, that you are at the centre of our congregation’s life today. It is the reason this sermon is for you. We will place a copy in the envelope with your baptismal certificate and, one day, years from now you will find it. In the meantime, we will entrust its message to your godparents - Ben and Ruth, Adam and Anna. They will show you the pictures and light the candle and tell you about the day when your identity changed. Because today you are no longer only a Foged and an Eriksson, no longer simply a Canadian but now, crucially, a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian.
It so happens your baptism takes place on the Sunday of the Christian Year known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It is the Sunday in Easter when we read the Twenty-third Psalm. And so this beloved psalm is now, in a special way, your psalm. Perhaps, like many before you, you will learn it by heart. Perhaps, one day when you are an old man, having lived a long and rich life, you will teach it to your grand-children. Perhaps, along the way, you will discover it is at once a simple and yet complex poem. Life is like that. Simple and yet complex. Christian faith is like that, too.
Let me show you what I mean. The first verse of your psalm is simple and it is complex: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Start with LORD. You can see it is in capital letters. This is odd, isn’t it. It is a clue. It is a code. It is a reminder. The psalm doesn’t actually say “Lord.” It doesn’t say “God.” It uses four consonants “YHWH” which stand for the name that Moses hears from a burning bush when he asks who is speaking. It is an odd name because it is not a noun. It is a verb. It can be said in any tense - past, present or future. It is the verb “doing.” It is not a generic word like “God.” It is the odd and specific name of the God met in the biblical stories you are learning. The psalm is saying that our God - your God - is the God of Abraham and Sara, of Isaac and Jacob, of Moses and Miriam. And this God is not some far away, mysterious source of life but an active participant who is “doing”, who is active, who is present.
But notice we do not say the name, we do not add the vowels to those four consonants so that we say the word “Yahweh” - “I am doing things” - out loud. Our ancestors have passed down to us the tradition of replacing the sound of God’s name with the title “LORD.” It reminds us that the God who is close at hand is also beyond our knowing. And when Christians hear the word Lord we think of the way in which the God of Abraham and Sara takes on human form in Jesus, our Lord. We have only said two words in the psalm - “The LORD” - and already you can see that this faith is, at once, simple and complex.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” My. I. This is a very personal song. Christian faith is a very personal experience. Each of us is baptised individually. Each has gifts to be shared, pains to be healed. The song sings us into a personal relationship with the Lord. This is the gift you receive today, Luke. When you are most alone you are not alone. Your song teaches your soul that you are connected to the Lord. Yet do not be mistaken. When we say words like “my” and “I” in the church we also mean “ours” and “we”. You are growing up in a world with a great deal of individual freedom. You will have opportunity to discover your own identity and to be yourself. But this can be very misleading. We are easily caught up in group-thinking without realizing it, all in the name of individual choice. This is how advertising works. It convinces us we are making our own choice and just happen to be doing so along with millions of others. Today your godparents have given you the gift of life in this community where they and we are hoping and praying that you will discover that you are a beloved and gifted individual. With you, we will discover our identity together - the identity of a people who take the lead from the LORD.
This is what it means to say “The LORD is my shepherd.” It means to say we take our lead from the God we meet in the Bible, the God who enters the world in a manger and whose power is revealed through the cross and resurrection. Shepherd is the Bible’s word for leader, president, king. When we call Jesus Christ we often forget we are adding the title “King” (or substitute “Boss”) to the name Jesus. We are saying that our primary identity is not found in our passport or in our surname but in our baptism. This is the reason today is such a big deal for us and for you. We can think of no greater gift to give you than life lived as a follower of Jesus. We realize you may come to disagree with us. We know from our own experience this is not an easy life. We know you may choose to follow someone or something else. More than a few of us have left and tried other ways of life before coming back home. You may, too. Always remember, though, that there is no way to live without being a follower of somebody, of something. In one way or another all of us our followers. It is important to be careful in choosing who, or what, to follow.
It is the reason we find the paradoxical language of Christianity so powerful, so convincing, so beautiful. In the reading from Revelation that is the other text for the day of your baptism we discover that “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd.” Whenever Christians speak about Jesus we find ourselves having to use paradoxical language. Jesus is the Lord who washes feet. Jesus is the triumphant Messiah crowned with thorns. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who is a sacrificial lamb. We speak in this way in order to continually remind ourselves that Jesus is an entirely different kind of leader. He is at once out ahead, forging a new path and yet also at the rear, tending the lame and lost. We have named the leaders of our congregations “pastors”. It means “shepherds”. But sometimes - maybe even often - we have forgotten that Jesus is present in our community as both shepherd and lamb. I do not know how to portray this for you. Sometimes I think that being a follower of Jesus is like participating in a large circle dance or a long line dance in which it is difficult to tell who is leading and who is following. In Christian community the closest followers of Jesus - the ones whose lives and words learn to fully embody his dance step - become leaders, whether they know it or not, whether or not they are named “pastors”. The followers become the leaders. The lamb becomes the shepherd.
This brings us to the end of the simple, complex first line of your song: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It means that in the community of those who take their lead from the LORD nothing else is needed. With the God we meet in Jesus Christ we have all we need. This has always been a crucial message. In your lifetime I expect it will be even more important that there are communities who dare to live this song. You are being born into a world where our craving for more is leading to great trouble for the planet. We can hardly believe it will be possible to live with less. You are being born into a church that is afraid it will die if it loses its buildings and structures and old ways of life. We can hardly believe the church will survive. Yet the song we are passing on to you, the faith we pray you will come to cherish, is a deep long-term reminder that when the LORD is our shepherd we do not need anything else. It means that when the LORD is our shepherd we are in a community of care, where gifts are shared and manna is received. It does not mean we have no needs, no wants. To be human is to need to be fed, to be loved, to be challenged, to be needed. To be fully human means to be one of the flock whose shepherd seeks the lost, prepares a banquet and welcomes home. Welcome to your home, Luke.