It’s time for our annual All Souls service, where we invite back all those for whom we have conducted funeral services. Here is what I am going to be sharing tomorrow evening:
If you were here last year, you might just recall that we also built a lot of the service around ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ (Psalm 23) on that occasion, too. Why do it again this year?
Well, apart from a lapse of memory on my part (called, failing to check my records), it’s an opportunity to look at these much-loved words in a different way. What does God offer us in this Psalm? I offer to you four gifts of God:
The first gift is that God provides:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (Verse 1)
I was still living with my parents when my grandmother died. We belonged to a church where to be a white European was to be in a minority. Most of the people were West Indian or West African. When we suffered our family bereavement, those friends from other cultures than our own treated us as one of their own families, and did for us what they did for others. They turned up on our doorstep with ready-made meals to take the strain off us. Some insisted on doing the ironing for my Mum. They provided for us, so that we had time and space to grieve, in the midst of all the arrangements we had to make for the funeral.
Most of us gathered this evening are not in the first throes of bereavement. We are months, or even years, down the line. But our grief is still there, even if it expressed differently now. But we still need those people who will be attentive to our needs, because the grief can pop back into our lives without warning too many times. Maybe equally, because of what we have been through, we can be available to do this for others.
There is a second gift in this Psalm, peace:
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul. (Verses 2-3a)
We talk of our loved ones being at peace, but if we pay attention to ourselves, we are far from at peace. We hope that if our loved ones are no longer suffering, then that will give us some reason not to scream out in pain.
But even if that is what has happened, we still face our loss. Our lives will never be the same shape. I don’t go for explanations that time is a healer.
But what I do buy is the kind of peace that comes from trusting in God. Not that such trusting either is always an easy serenity: sometimes (rather like some of the other Psalms in the Bible) it involves questioning God, and even anger. It’s the kind of trust that beats its fists against the chest of God, only to discover that we are being held in his arms like small children while doing precisely that. It is the peace that comes from knowing a God who is big enough to cope with our pain and our anger.
The third gift is God’s presence:
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (Verse 4)
Again, this can seem unlikely to us in bereavement: God is present with us in our grief? Didn’t even Jesus cry out while he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet the death of Jesus is the very reason we can count on God to be with us in ‘the darkest valley’ or ‘the valley of the shadow of death’.
Right now, my sister and I are having to deal with elderly and increasingly frail parents. Our heads tell us they need to go into care, but our hearts say, “Please, anything but a care home.” As we walk through this dark valley which doubtless will become darker still, we are encouraged by those who say to us, “That’s what I had to do, and I felt exactly like you do.” In other words, it’s the people who are with us now but who have gone through the same experience who are the most help to us.
I suggest to you that this is why God can help us. The God who embraced darkness, who knew suffering and grief, can come alongside us in the worst places that we walk, too.
The fourth and final gift I want to share with you is that God prepares:
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever. (Verses 5-6)
This is the language of feasting. The table being prepared is a banqueting table; the reason for anointing someone’s head with oil is that it was an ancient Middle Eastern custom to do that for honoured guests at feasts.
The psalmist had human enemies; the enemy we share in common is what St Paul called ‘the last enemy’, namely death. As enemies scorn and mock us, God prepares those things which will honour us instead. So God is preparing a great feast after death for all his people, when we who embrace Jesus can laugh together that death – which once taunted us so cruelly – has been destroyed. Even now, God is laying the table, setting the places, warming the plates, cooking the finest foods and opening bottles of vintage wine.
And so let me close these reflections with the words of a Celtic blessing:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May He bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.