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.
One of the most popular posts on this blog over the last year was A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service. I preached it at our annual All Souls service at the end of October last year, and it has regularly been one of the posts found on Google searches. It seems to be something people need.
This weekend is the All Souls service for this year, and here I am posting tonight’s sermon. I hope people find this helpful, too.
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Verse 4)
Tonight, we gather as people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, we are still walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We have lost loved ones dear to us – some after a good, long life, some to cruel diseases and some far too young.
In walking through this darkest of valleys, we sometimes expect that at the time of bereavement we shall plunge into the darkness, but then we shall slowly climb out, bit by bit. The remarks of friends and acquaintances who naïvely expect us to have recovered after a length of time betray this unrealistic idea. I often remark that the experience of grief and bereavement is more like ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.
And it often starts before the death. Those of you who have been alongside a family member or a dear friend who received the news that the doctors could do no more know that your grief started early. Something similar is true for those of you who witnessed someone descend into Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. You have a double bereavement: first, you lose the person, and later, you lose the body.
There is a number of emotions that we can go through in these seasons of our lives. One is denial. It can’t really be happening. I don’t want to believe this is happening. Or, it doesn’t feel real. Wake me up from this nightmare. This is just a TV show, right?
Or when we realise it is real, we turn to bargaining. Maybe we can strike a bargain with God. ‘Lord, if you’ll heal my loved one, then I’ll do things for you.’ It makes me remember the old Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’
in which she sings,
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
And maybe when God doesn’t sign up to the bargain we offer him, we move into anger. Anger with God. Anger with doctors. Anger with our loved one, if they did something foolish. Reading recently how Steve Jobs refused potentially life-saving surgery for his pancreatic cancer at an early stage, I wonder how his wife and children have felt.
Finally, we get through to some form of acceptance. We know our loved one is going to die, or we accept that yes, they have died. We start to rebuild our lives, knowing they will never take the same shape again, because the one who has gone has left a hole no-one else can fill. It was uniquely their shape.
Given that these are typically the kinds of experiences we are having, how can I recognise Psalm 23’s affirmation that ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’?
I mean, how is God with us? We tend to assume he is remote, in heaven and far away from us. That leads us to think he doesn’t care. However, if he were with us, wouldn’t things be a bit different? The Psalmist didn’t know God physically with him, but he did have a sense of God’s presence in life, that he described as being like a Palestinian shepherd, with his rod and staff. The rod was a club that was used to fend off wild beasts and the staff was the shepherd’s crook, used to guide and control the sheep.
For Christians, admittedly centuries after the Psalmist wrote, the answers to these questions come into sharp focus in Jesus. In Jesus, God did not stay remote from us. It is not simply true, as the song says, that ‘God is watching us from a distance.’ In Jesus, he came up close. He lived in poverty and powerlessness. He died young. And it was an unjust death.
And Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, as he called himself, has a rod and a staff. A rod to beat away our enemies, and a staff to guide us.
It may seem absurd to claim that Jesus beats away our enemies when we are in the presence of what the Bible calls ‘the last enemy’, that is, death itself. The Christian hope is in Jesus not only having swallowed the bitter pill of death as we do and on our behalf, it is also that he was raised from the dead. And while that seems an absurd claim to many today, it is one we back up with strong historical evidence. From it, we hold the hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that we shall all be raised from the dead one day, at the end of history as we know it. Because of that hope, even this worst of all enemies cannot have the final word. Death may win a battle and cause us immense suffering and pain, but it cannot in the end win the war. Through our tears, we have this hope, and in that sense the rod of Jesus beats away the enemy of death in the final analysis.
We also get to experience his staff, his shepherd’s crook, guiding us. Jesus, from his involvement in creation to his bringing in of a new creation in his resurrection, is the one who guides us in hope through the tragedies of death and suffering. He becomes our example of how to live in the face of the certainty of death and the hope of resurrection. How? Let me go back to that Kate Bush lyric:
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
We may not be able to make a deal with God, but ‘to swap our places’ – that actually is more realistic, strange as it may seem. The Christian hope is about the Son of God who chose not to stay in the glory of heaven but take on human flesh in poverty and suffering. It is about the One who on the Cross ‘swapped places’ with us so that death might be defeated and we might be forgiven our sins. Handing our lives over to the One who brings us forgiveness, defeats death and shows us how truly to live is to find him whose staff guides and comforts us throughout life.
So wherever we are in our grieving, I commend a life of trusting Jesus to you. Trusting him doesn’t exempt us from the trials of life and death, but in his birth he is with us, in his death and resurrection he beats away our enemies and his life, death and resurrection we find his pattern and guide for living.