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 Sermon Easter 4, yr c, 2016   -   Psalm 23  Quiz time! Complete the following…The Lord is my Shepherd…. Chances are last time you heard this psalm was at a funeral…and chances are when you say it from memory you say the King James Version.  Chances are that Psalm 23 evokes feelings of reassurance, comfort and peace…and chances are you associate it with death, eternal life and the hope Christ brings. But, If we think about it, the Psalms were written before Christ’s incarnation.  The Psalms have a very Jewish origin, and Psalm 23 is a no different.  It is a call out to God in times of trouble, not as promise of eternal life, but for survival in this life.  A call to God in the midst of enemies watching us, even while walking through the deepest, darkest valley…we rely on our shepherd. As city folk and Christians…we have a tendency to focus on a pastoral shepherd…we imagine Jesus the shepherd…surrounded by fluffy sheep in an idyllic setting…very calm, comforting and full of warm fuzzies. However, in ancient times shepherds were also associated with Kingship, rather…Kings were associated with shepherds.  The King, not only of Israel, but also Samaria and other countries were referred to as Shepherds of the people. Responsible to the tending and protection of their people, their flock.  It was up to the king to make sure all his people were cared for, safe, well fed and protected from their enemies. To say the Lord is my shepherd…is in part to say…the king is not.   It is a political statement, a statement of allegiance. And the psalm itself is less about rescue from death or the life after death…an association we get, I’m sure, from all the funerals that have this psalm…rather, this psalm is about life!  About how to live your life in the midst of a troubled world, and not just your life as an individual, but your life as a people of God…as a community.  After all, no one believes the King is there for their benefit alone, but a king…a shepherd … a sovereign… is there for the governing of a community.             So how does our understanding of this very familiar psalm change if we move from an understanding of Psalm 23 from a psalm of comfort for the individual at time of death…to a psalm of trust for a community in times of trial? Well firstly, God in ancient Israel, had many names.    Elohim- one of the first we see in Genesis… Yahweh-   the great I AM…the name God named himself. El Shaddai –God almighty…sovereign God...powerful God. And the one we see today...Jehovah…The Lord… The one who is truly ruler supreme…rules like a shepherd. The word shepherd evokes for us a pastoral scene from an old painting… complete with lambs frocking and Jesus the shepherd lounging on the grass. But for the sheep…they don’t really care if the scene is pretty.  Green pastures mean food in plenty, open fields where predators can’t hide and one can eat one’s fill without fear.  The terrain in Israel can be quite rocky, full of cliffs, rocks and scrub.  The lush and fertile valleys are between dry mountain ranges and the Negev desert.             In a land where is limited fodder for livestock…a good shepherd brings his sheep to lie down in an abundance of lush grass and near still waters.             Our shepherd will always make sure that we are sustained…fed, as a community, by word and sacrament…the grass and water of our spiritual lives.  These are the things that bring us strength when we gather as a church, as a community to be fed, nourished.  Restored, all the way down to our souls. The Jewish concept of soul was more like the breath that filled Adam when God breathed life into him…the soul is what gave each person life…personality…passion.             In terms of community…what we hear in the psalm, it that we will lack nothing and that includes the restoration of the soul of our church.  That life giving spirit, the driving passions, that Holy Spirit that breathed life into creation animates us to be the body of Christ.  So that we can go where God and Christ lead us. Our God is a good shepherd.  Helping guide us, leading us in our lives path.    The kings of Israel, and in fact, our modern equivalent don’t always lead their people to food and water, safety and security…indeed too often it is just the opposite.  People in our own province here in Manitoba don’t even all have access to clean safe water…and it seems to be only in the last few years that the Canadian society cared at all or paid the injustice any mind.             God our shepherd not only ensures that we lack nothing…but that the life we live as a church is not doomed to be a purposeless one.  Our shepherd leads me in the paths of righteousness… we just have to choose to follow. Not the easy path, nor the quickest path, or the most popular path…but the righteous path.  The path that leads to restored relationships… the path that leads back to Godly relationships.  A path that can indeed be challenging and difficult, but as we have already heard, our shepherd will provide for us and ensure we lack for nothing along the paths we are called to walk.  Paths that bring all of humanity into right relationship, with each other, with God, with the Earth.              This is not because we are so very important…or even because it is needed so very badly.  Rather, God provides, leads, and restores because that is who God is.  God is a good shepherd…it is God’s identity.  After all…we know that God…Christ…will give his life for his sheep.  These are times when we too often feel surrounded by deep darkness, by fear.  One of the terrible things that we are seeing in our culture today is the spreading of a culture of fear. Fear and terror, it is not only in our politics and culture, and in our churches too.  In the psalm we are reminded that God, our good shepherd carries a shepherd’s staff to pull us back when we endanger our selves and protect us from what evils present themselves.  However, God also carries what the King James calls a rod, but could be more accurately translated as a sceptre.  It is a reminder that the shepherd is also king.  God reigns…we live in God’s kingdom… and in God’s kingdom we need not fear.  God has provided for us, sustains and restores us and rules with both the scepter of authority and the pastoral crook.  A source of comfort and strength and with blessing.             Oil and wine in the bible are symbols of festival and celebration, of consecration and blessing, symbols of sacredness and holiness.  We, the church, are the hands and feel and head of Christ doing God’s work in the world.  If we read Psalm 23, as the church, then we are the head that is anointed for ministry, for priesthood, for kingship…we are heirs with Christ and a priesthood of all believers.  God has blessed us in abundance…so much so that our cups are full to overflowing.  The many challenges that the church faces are swept aside in the Goodness and mercy God our Shepherd king provides. The words goodness and mercy are not full enough to describe what God blesses us with.  The word for goodness here is that same word that God used to pronounce creation good…God separated day from night and it was good, created animals, birds, people and all things and they were good.  This isn’t simply nice…but good to the core, truly satisfying and life giving goodness.  And mercy… not pardon…not forgiveness, but hesed a Hebrew word best translated as God’s unique loving kindness.  And when we read that this goodness and mercy will follow me…that too is a mistranslation. God’s goodness and loving kindness will pursue me all my long days.  God is the good shepherd…and in all the best of ways God will pursue his church.   Running after us with goodness and loving kindness, ready to bless and fill us with God’s own abundance. Ready to dwell with us, in God’s own house.             Because of the funeral connection and the link with John’s gospel passage ‘in my Father’s house there are many houses’ we often think of this house as heaven.  However, Ps 23 has a distinct focus on how to live in God’s kingdom now…how to follow our great shepherd now…in our time and in our place.  Originally the author likely meant the temple in Jerusalem…the people of God in the house of God…worshiping all the days of their life.  The temple in Jerusalem was understood as the house of God, because it was literally where God was believed to live.  It was his house and he was always home.  Our understanding of God’s dwelling place has changed, and don’t worry we won’t be locking you in here all the days of your life.  What our psalmist is telling us is not that when we die we will dwell in God’s house….or that we will live in the church forever…but that we, as a church live out our lives in God…surrounded by God presence.  Psalm 23 over and again speaks to us of God’s loving kindness, God’s abundant provision, the lengths that God goes to to guide us to be with God, to be in right relationship…pursuing us with goodness.  So that we can experience a life lived in and with and overflowing with God…our king and our shepherd. And as if to drive the point home, you might not have noticed by Psalm 23 begins and ends with the Lord.  The only time God’s name, his identity is named outright is in the first and the last verse.  God’s kingdom…our lives … the church begins and ends with God.  Our king and our shepherd. amen