Among all the disciplines for which seminary prepared me well, preaching funerals was not one of them. Like distinguishing law from gospel, balancing the gathered’s desire for eulogy with my charge to preach Gospel is an elusive art. Of course, it may not matter at all as no preached word communicates as effectively as putting the dead into the dirt, but if it matters then I offer this as help to whomever might be helped by it.
Maybe even the Shepherd will use the preached word to find.
Text:Psalm 23 – Funeral Homily for Warren Smith
My first funeral sermon 16 years ago flopped.
“It didn’t sound like you knew him at all” a worshipper told me on the way out of the funeral home chapel.
“Uh, I didn’t know him at all” I replied.
I didn’t know then- they don’t warn you in seminary- that most lay people consider it the mark of a good funeral sermon when the preacher sounds like he knows the deceased.
When it comes to funerals, lay people don’t usually judge whether I’ve proclaimed the Gospel or done a good job unpacking the scripture text or pointing to the promise of Cross and Resurrection.
For funerals, it’s a good sermon only if the gathered can shake my hand at the door and say “It sounded like you really knew her” or “You really captured him.”
Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people don’t care whether or not I speak of the Shepherd or proclaim that the Shepherd is Good.
Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people want to want to hear about the one lost sheep not the singular Shepherd.
They want to be assured that I know the person whom they’ve lost.
They don’t think they need to be reassured that the lost member of the flock is known by the Shepherd.
So, consider yourselves assured.
After 13 years here, I know Warren- not as well as you, but I know him.
I know, because he told me, that both of us grew up in Ohio and, by the grace of God, both of us got out of Ohio.
I also know- maybe for that reason- I was Warren’s favorite pastor, and I know Warren well enough to know that he knew I’m sufficiently vain that knowing I was his favorite was sufficient to make him one of my favorite parishioners.
I know Warren loved woodworking and genealogy and Huntley Meadows Park but not like he loved Becky and Brady and Matthew.
I know Warren would anticipate a joke and start to guffaw at the mere mention of Dennis Perry’s name in one of my sermons.
I know Warren loved carving and drawing and antique tools but nearly like he loved Megan and Kylie and Adam and Carina and Quinn.
I also know that after having sung in the church choir for so many years worth of Sundays, Warren had certainly heard this song from Israel’s hymnal as much as me.
And I don’t know but I suspect that, like me, Warren had heard these lines about “thy rod and thy staff” recited or prayed or sung so many times in worship he no longer heard the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it.
“The Lord is my Shepherd…”
To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep.
A lamb even.
I don’t know if Warren was one of those grandparents who got addicted to playing Farmville on Facebook; nevertheless, Warren spent enough Sundays here at church to know that lambs are lame.
Sheep are stubborn, and I’m sure his wife Becky would attest that stubborn doesn’t describe Warren at all.
Sheep get lost.
Sheep fall into valleys.
Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.
Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd.
Warren wasn’t like that at all. Warren was a director (at the VA). Warren wasn’t a lamb in need of direction. Warren loved Native American history. Warren would know. There aren’t any stories, epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs.
No, sheep are stupid.
By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves.
To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep.
And to hear that you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes.
Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless.
Sheep aren’t like other animals.
Sheep aren’t like asses. Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth. Sheep don’t bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don’t pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don’t lead a wagon like horses do.
Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets to earn their worth.
The only real work- if you can call it work- a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.
If you measure animals’ worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness.
It’s worth isn’t in the work it does; it’s worth is in who it is as the creature made it to be. It’s worth is its wool and its meat.
So Psalm 23 is an odd, offensive song to hear on a day given over to commending Warren to God. Aren’t we commending him to God based on the good, worthwhile work Warren performed in the time given to him? Aren’t we commending him for the many ways he was not like a sheep but a goat?
Or an ox?
Besides being a father and a husband and a grandfather and a neighbor, Warren served in the Air Force and worked for nearly 40 years at the VA and then volunteered his work at Huntley Meadows Park. Isn’t that what we commend today?
Warren wasn’t a sheep at all, was he? Warren worked with his hands in his shop. Warren worked with his voice in the choir.
Warren wasn’t like a lamb at all; Warren earned his worth through his work- his love toiled on behalf of his neighbor and his God. Isn’t that what we commend about him today?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ way of responding to the disciples’ attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in importance. The parable is his answer to their question “Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?”
Jesus doesn’t answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked.
No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus’ story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd’s finding.
The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don’t need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset.
How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it- much less for admission- is your lostness?
Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (that’s what the header in my Bible calls it) isn’t really about the sheep who gets lost at all.
The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost.
All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd.
The sheep doesn’t search out the flock.
The sheep doesn’t scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold.
The sheep doesn’t even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd.
And once it’s found, the sheep doesn’t even so much as repent of its getting lost.
We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd. It’s not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It’s about the Shepherd’s work of finding.
It’s about the Good Shepherd’s gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death.
The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only “work” the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word.
The Shepherd though gets all the good verbs in the story, including the last ones where the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.”
As if- it’s our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God.
Sheep are strange.
They can’t carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can’t bear a Samaritan’s friend to safety.
The only “work” sheep do is to trust the Shepherd’s voice.
And as God’s frightened flock- that’s our only work to do today too.
Here in the valley of the shadow of Death, I invite you to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for us God forgets our sins in the darkness of our graves.
Trust the Shepherd’s voice when he tells you that his cousin John was right: he is the Lamb who bears all our sins away such that in the House of the Lord God remembers our iniquities no more.
Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing.
Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there’s not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable.
Trust the Shepherd- for if its not about our worthiness, there’s absolutely no need to worry about our place in the house of the Lord.
All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life.