Summary: A "generic" message based on Psalm 23 that easily accomodates a variety of situations. Pastors will find that adding personal notes about the deceased is easy to do. This sermon may be particularly helpful when conducting a funeral of someone the minister did not personally know.
Psalm 23 Funeral Meditation
by the Rev. Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
For centuries the Twenty-third Psalm has been one of the most treasured passages in all of Holy Scripture.
It is among the most familiar, so much so that even people who are not religious or very knowledgable about Scripture recognize these words.
They are among the most comforting, often being quoted in times of trouble or distress, and almost always being read when we gather in our Sanctuary for a funeral.
There are many images in this psalm which hold particular meaning.
One image comes from the verse, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
It would be so wonderful if God would simply promise to us that we would never go through difficult times. But we do go through great and terrible difficulties all of the time, and God constantly warns us of these dangers and difficulties in His Holy Word.
St. Peter wrote in his first letter (1 Pet 4:12) “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”
The Bible constantly tells us that there will be difficult times in life, and Psalm 23 voices such a warning. It does not say, “God will keep you from danger,“ but rather it describes that there will come times, and they come for all of us, when we feel like we are walking through a dark, dangerous valley -- a “valley of the shadow of death.“
But what the Word of God does make very clear is that as we move through such times, God is with us. God is there to comfort us and sustain us.
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for YOUR rod and YOUR staff comfort me.
God is frequently described in the Bible as being like a shepherd who cares for and tends to a flock of sheep.
The rod is used by a shepherd to ward off evil and to direct the sheep as they walk. The staff with its large crook at the end serves to support the sheep’s body when it crosses a dangerous chasm. The Lord protects, guides, and supports us. He does not send us through the dark valley with a cheery promise to meet us again on the other side. He goes with us every step of the way.
In recent days, Suzie could certainly have talked about how she had been through such a “valley of the shadow of death.” But she was never alone. Not only did she have her family, she had the Holy Spirit of God at her side, like a shepherd who kept close watch on her.
A second image in the Twenty-third Psalm to which I would call your attention is this: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Years ago I met a veteran of World War I. He had fascinating stories to tell, and one of them was about a battle that had taken place in Europe. He was an American, but he had actually enlisted with the British army and was fighting in the war for quite some time before most Americans. He was fighting on a stretch of land for days on end. Both armies seemed to be at a stalemate. It so happened that the battle continued into Christmas Day. The fighting stopped, and all was quiet. Late in the morning, the German officers raised a white flag and moved toward the British lines and under a flag of truce, conferred with the British officers. After extended conversation, the two armies agreed to pool some of their food together for a Christmas meal. The soldiers of each side joined together and ate together, and sang a few songs together that had different words, but common tunes.
If you know anything about that period of history, you may remember that these armies hated one another. Americans especially hated Germans with a deeply racist attitude. But there they were, eating together at a table, or at least on the ground, in the presence of an enemy.
The veteran said after that, it was hard to go back to fighting the next day. Because they had shared food together. They had sang songs of Christ’s birth together.
He said he had glimpsed a time in the future when all of them would be together in heaven, and all their earthly conflicts would disappear.
The third image in the Twenty-third Psalm which I would lift up today is this: Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. The end of our journey through life on earth is to be with God forever. In baptism we are made members of the household of God already, and our destiny is made secure through faith. Sometimes the journey is filled with joy, and sometimes it is very sad and lonely. Yet the promise that God has already given us eternal life with him sustains us in our journey and gives substance to our hope.