Lemme tell you about a paradox.
A paradox is two seemingly opposite things that come together in a surprisingly true way. If you’re familiar with some of Jesus’ sayings, you’re familiar with paradox because a lot of them fit into this category. Like, “whoever wants to be first must be last” (Mark 10:44) – that’s a paradox. And “whoever wants to save their life must lose it” (Mark 8:35) – also a paradox.
But “paradox” in the Christian faith isn’t restricted to an isolated few of Jesus’ teachings; it applies to the unexpected pairings that we discover frequently in this Christian life.
Here’s one I’ve found since becoming a pastor: funerals are uplifting.
Before I took my first church, I figured that the ministries of grief, death and dying would be among the downers of the job. Kind of like conference paperwork or committee meetings that last longer than an hour: stuff you’ve gotta do because it’s part of this gig. What I discovered almost immediately is that funerals do not fall in the same category as committee meetings and paperwork. They’re more like one of the best parts of the calling.
I haven’t done a ton of funerals, but I have participated in a good variety of them – enough, I think, to give my point legitimacy. I’ve done funerals for deaths that were very expected and also completely unexpected. Some funerals were the result of illness; a few were horribly accidental. Some were for the old and some were for the young. Several were for people I had never met before; one was for someone I’ve known all my life.
At every one – no matter the circumstance – I can attest to this strange sense of hope and joy and peace. In a few cases it was bursting out, unable to be restrained. We celebrated someone’s liberation from sickness, someone’s healing beyond this life. Or we gave thanks for a long life well lived and someone’s relocation to a room in God’s house. Other times that uplifting element was quieter. Maybe the circumstances of the death were complicated. Maybe the circumstances of the life were complicated. Even in these funerals, though, there was a lurking hope that couldn’t quite be overshadowed by the cloud of grief. There was a belief that, even if this life brought disappointment, there was something beyond this life that would not disappoint.
This sounds wrong, I know, but I almost look forward to funerals. Let me be clear: I am not rooting for anyone to die anytime soon. I’m just saying that it’s a tremendous honor to sit with families in their grief; it encourages my faith when we gather for worship and declare that, through Christ, our hope, joy, and peace were not defeated by death – not on the cross, and not ever.
Funerals are uplifting.
That’s weird, right? I know it is. It’s a paradox.
Not unlike our Scripture for today.
It’s a familiar one: the 23rd Psalm. It’s known by Christians and non-Christians alike, and do you know why? Because it’s read at funerals. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (v. 4). Right? That declaration of God’s provision for us even in death is perfect for a funeral. In fact, I’m pretty sure Psalm 23 has been read at every funeral I’ve been a part of.
But Psalm 23 isn’t just a funeral psalm. It’s also an Easter psalm. That’s why we’re reading it today; the lectionary chooses Psalm 23 for the fourth Sunday of Easter. That traditional church calendar is on a three year rotation, and most Scripture passages just show up on just one day of one of those years. Not Psalm 23 – it’s designated for the fourth Sunday of Easter every single year.
It’s an Easter psalm. It’s a funeral psalm. It’s a paradox.
The psalm itself even sounds kind of paradoxical. It comes in three movements:
First, a peaceful scene with green pastures and still waters.
Second, more tumultuous times involving death valleys and enemies.
Third, a promise of God’s goodness and love forever.
But remember: a paradox is a pairing that sounds like opposites but there’s actually something shared in common. These three movements are not as different as they might seem. There’s a thread running between them:
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
God is our shepherd, the one who protects us and provides for us. Sheep aren’t very bright, so they need to be herded toward green pastures so they have food to eat. Sheep aren’t very good swimmers, so they need to be led to calm waters to drink without getting swept away. These pastoral images are peaceful, it’s true, but they’re actually about a shepherd providing the basic essentials for a flock – essentials without which they would die.
4 Yea, 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.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.
The Hebrew word sometimes translated “death valley” and other times “shadow of death” is complicated, a mixture of words for “shadow” and “death.” The resulting image is powerful: a bad place, a long desolate stretch of life. Evil is present but God is still our shepherd. Enemies are present but God is still providing the basic necessities like a meal to eat. God provides.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
God is with us in every day of our lives. In the vast unknown of the future, God is already there with that goodness and mercy. God has a house and there’s a place for us in it.
The three movements of Psalm 23 are different, but they have a common thread binding them together:
In the basic day-to-day needs of life, God provides. In the face of terrible threats, God provides. Every day, all the time – “The Lord is my shepherd.” This is the truth that makes funerals surprisingly uplifting. It’s also the truth at the core of the Easter story. In life, in death, in life after death: God provides.
In every good paradox, there is a surprising connection between opposing parts. Life is like that, too – especially this life of faith where we lose our lives to save them and become last in order to be first. Our life is full of opposites… but with a surprising common theme.
Sometimes, life feels like a quiet pastoral scene. Our loves are uncomplicated. Our joys comes easily. Our incomes are secure. Our futures are without worry. Our daily needs are being met and we are content.
Other times, life feels like a death valley. Our loves are complicated. Our joys come infrequently. Our incomes are undependable. Our futures are without guarantee. Our lives are filled with shadows and evil and enemies.
Both peaceful times and challenging times are a part of life, but Psalm 23 tells us that in any circumstance:
The Lord is our shepherd, whether we need someone to simply keep us fed and happy or someone to use a staff to protect us from danger.
This week may find you in that green pasture or in that dark valley – or maybe you have a foot in each place. Whatever the case, I challenge you to pray Psalm 23 three times every day. Pray it as a funeral psalm. Pray it as an Easter psalm. Pray it as a reminder that everywhere from the mountain tops to the valleys of our faith:
Image Credit: http://www.thisclassicallife.com/