My grandmother, my dad’s mom, passed away this past week, and I was honored to give the homily at her memorial service this weekend.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There is a picture that hung over Mamaw’s TV in her house at 1000 Golf Course Road. It hung there as long as I can remember. I remember seeing it vaguely as I ran through the den to the backyard to catch lizards and climb trees with my cousins. When Kimberly and I would pretend to be horses, I’m sure we would neigh and whinny below it as we made our way up and down the hallway, through the den, into the kitchen, and around the living room to the front door and back down the hall again. In the many hours I spent sitting in that big recliner watching the Hallmark version of The Secret Garden on VHS, I’m sure I must have glanced up at it when my attention waned. It was there, all the time, by the gold clock and the framed pictures of loved ones, across the way from the bookshelf filled with Readers Digests and paperbacks. The picture was hanging there when we unwrapped our presents at Christmas. It was there when we played Uno and Skip-Bo around the table for hours on end. It was there when we waited expectantly for Mamaw to finish whipping up her famous mashed potatoes, eager to have a steamy helping dolloped onto our plates.
The picture had been there as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until a few years ago when she told me the story behind it. It’s a portrait of a wooden fence that’s leaning slightly crooked, situated in a large green field over a clear blue sky. Mamaw told me she got the picture because it reminded her of her childhood. “How so?” I asked.
“Well,” she told me, “When I was 7 or 8 I had to walk 3 miles to school every day. And I had to walk across this big field, and there was a bull who lived nearby who would chase me.”
“He would chase you?!” I asked, eyes wide. “What did you do?!?!”
“I would run! But first I had to come to a gate, and open it, and then I would enter the field. You had to lift the gate up and pull it to close it.” She paused. “The gate in the picture is just like that, can you see? It’s leaning, and it looks like you have to lift it up and pull to close it. So that’s why I got the picture. Well, one day, I went through the gate, and I saw an older man standing there. And I was frightened at first, because I thought I might be in trouble for walking through his property. But he said to me, ‘Are you going to walk through here every day on your way to school?’ And I nodded yes. And he said, ‘Well you wait here at this gate and I will walk with you. Don’t walk through unless I’m here.’ And so I did. Every day, I went to the gate, and every day he was there waiting for me.” She paused again. “And the bull never came after me after that.”
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
The Good Shepherd comes to us in many ways. For Mamaw, that old man who met her at the fence when she was a little girl led her through a dark valley. We all have had our shepherds- who have walked us when we needed it, who have held our hands and led us across our fields, who have kept the bulls from charging. We thank God for those people. And if Mamaw were able to share something with us today, I think she would tell each and every one of you thank you for the ways you have shepherded her, and for all the ways you allowed her to shepherd you, too. Because we are all, at the end of the day, just trying to make our way across the field. And we’re thankful for all the ways the Good Shepherd has shown up through the faces of loved ones and strangers. Today we thank God for those people who were there for Mamaw throughout her life, a kind smile here and a sturdy hand there. A willing help, a steady shoulder, the healing touch of nurses and doctors in her last days. We give thanks, because we know that God has called and created us to be together, to be for each other, to carry each other, and in our best moments, we are exactly that.
We are able to be exactly that because he has already been- indeed always is- exactly that- the kind smile, the sturdy hand, the willing help, the steady shoulder, the healing touch, and, we believe, in the very end, the kiss of peace and the welcoming arms of love. He is the Good Shepherd, and he has laid his life down for his sheep. And by his life we find our way through death into resurrection and life everlasting.
Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for God is with us. God has always been with us, and always will be with us, even to the grave, and even beyond the grave, in that time and space where cherubim sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
So we give thanks this day that we serve a Shepherd who follows after us even as we wander astray, forsaking the 99 sheep to find us when we’re lost. We give thanks that God walked with Mamaw as God does with us, during the good days and during the dark days, during the days when we giggle like school children, and during the days when the bulls come charging after us. We give thanks that we follow a God who is so un-flustered by our enemies that he sets up a banquet feast right in their presence and invites us to sit down and stay awhile. This God is steady, and unflinchingly faithful, and always and everywhere good. It is because of this that mercy and goodness can follow us all the days of our lives- indeed, beckons after us like nagging cats, even when we pay little attention. God is here.
We may not always notice it. Like the picture, hanging there quietly day after day, our Good Shepherd does not clamor around noisily, angling for attention. But he is there, as we weave in and out of our days. “I am the gate,” Jesus said. “By me if anyone enters in she shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes not but for to steal and to kill and to destroy, but I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Today we celebrate the goodness of the Shepherd as we remember the life of his beloved child Pauline. And we trust that by his goodness, she has once again been met at the gate and ushered through it. Surely goodness and mercy has followed her all the days of her life, and she will dwell in the fields of the Lord forever. Amen.