Psalm 23 is an old favorite psalm for many of us. I’d say of all the psalms it’s by far the most popular choice for funerals – and for good reason. The image of God as a shepherd leading us is very comforting. And the poetic reassurance that God is with us – even in the valley of the shadow of death – makes days like this one easier to bear.
But I think that Psalm 23 is a particularly fitting psalm for us to read today as we remember our dear sister Elaine – because, in many ways, Elaine perfectly embodied this psalm.
This psalm was written by someone who was no stranger to the ups and downs of life. The author knew what it was like to have his cup running over with blessings, and he surely knew what it was like to see his cup of life being emptied out. And yet, through all this, the psalmist still finds plenty of reasons to praise God, still finds God worthy of faith. Elaine had faith like this. I only got to know her for a few months, but I was always impressed by her faith – the kind of faith that can only be built over nine decades of life in relationship with God. She knew the blessings of a good life, and yet she also knew its hardships: she had buried parents and grandparents, siblings, a daughter-in-law, and her husband Elmer, and especially at the end, she struggled with the illness that eventually claimed her life. But she knew that God was faithful and that God would provide, no matter the circumstance. As I spent time with her in her final days, she always had a word of praise for God on her lips, and she simply prayed that God’s will would be done.
Elaine had a fine appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. She had a love for green, growing things. As Carol wrote in her memories of Elaine, she could just never bring herself to throw a plant away. She and Elmer were farmers for their whole life together, and when Elaine wasn’t out in the field, friends and neighbors were used to seeing her out working in her beloved gardens. She scattered Elmer’s ashes in the fields they had tended together, and she herself will be returned to the gardens she loved so much – earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. And so to me, it seems incredibly right and fitting that Elaine placed her faith in a Lord who would lead her to green pastures and beside still waters.
Elaine lived with a spirit of gratitude for all that God had given her. And more than anything else in the whole world, Elaine was grateful for her family. Elaine was very proud to be a Wolta. The very first conversation I can remember having with Elaine was when she marched into my office, introduced herself, and said that she bet I’d never met anyone else with the last name Wolta before. And she was right – and she was delighted to tell me the story of her unique family name. I got to see many of your faces and hear all of your names long before today. Elaine would recite the name and location and occupation of every single member of her family to me, almost as if she were reading a kind of sacred text. She was so proud of you all and loved you so much. And when she and I talked about today, she didn’t care all that much about which hymns would be sung or even about which particular scriptures would be read – her thoughts were with all of you. Elaine knew that her death would leave a great gap in the lives of everyone who knew and loved her. And her prayer was that you might find some of that faith that she embodied – the psalmist’s faith – to help you face days like this one.
And so here we are, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone we love – even when they have lived as long and as full a life as Elaine did. The separation of death is always most painful for those of us it leaves behind. But there is something important worth noting about Psalm 23 – something that is true of the entire witness of scripture – and that is that the psalmist assumes that there will, in fact, be shadows and evil and death. We are never promised that God will keep bad things from happening to us. But we are promised that God will be with us. In every moment of life, whether we are overflowing with blessings or we feel ourselves being emptied out, God is with us, rejoicing with us, weeping with us, comforting us and blessing us.
And even more than this, we are promised that the death that separates us now will not have the last word. God is with us even now, reminding us of the promise of life overcoming death that each of us received in our baptism. Today, we hear this promise in the words of Paul: “We have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Just like the author of Psalm 23, Paul acknowledges the reality of death – as all of us must do – but he plants our hopes squarely in the death and resurrection of Christ. Even though we know that one day we all must die, we live knowing that even death is no match for our God of life.
Death will not have the last word. We have been united with Christ in death and in life, and “we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” Our faith in Christ is the source and strength of all our hope.
For all of us gathered here, who knew and loved Elaine, perhaps the best way to honor her legacy is to hold even more tightly to this faith – the faith in which she lived and died – faith in a living Lord who promises us victory over the grave, a Lord who comforts us in the valley of the shadow of death, a Lord who even leads us beside green pastures and still waters, who restores our soul.
And so, with the psalmist and with our dear sister Elaine, we can confidently proclaim that surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life and we shall all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.