When I was growing up, my best friends’ family had a farm just a few miles outside of our hometown. And they raised sheep. I spent a lot of time out at their farm, and sometimes I would get to help take care of the sheep. There was, of course, the matter of making sure the sheep had water and enough to eat. And, periodically, they would have to move the sheep from one pasture to another, to give them plenty of grass to munch on. My friends’ parents would open gates and move around their electric fences. And then we got to do the fun part: in the absence of sheepdogs, my friends and I would actually chase the sheep around, trying to get them to move from one enclosure to the other. To me, at the time, it seemed like being a shepherd would be a really fun job!
But that is not at all what being a shepherd looked like thousands of years ago, when Psalm 23 was first written. Back then, being a shepherd was a tough, dirty job. There were no neatly fenced in pastures to keep their sheep in. Instead, a shepherd wandered with his flock of sheep through the steep hills and rocky wilderness of ancient Palestine. He stayed with his sheep night and day to protect them from predators. And the sheep’s lives totally depended on their shepherd guiding them through rough places to find clean water and good pasture.
That is the image of God that our psalmist is painting in Psalm 23. God is like a good shepherd, willing to do anything to keep the sheep safe and fed. And like a good shepherd who is willing to get his hands dirty, God stays with us, even in the hardest, messiest, most painful moments of our lives. God is with us. God never abandons us nor leaves us to our own devices; instead God wanders with us into the wilderness and helps guide us to places of safety and peace.
And that is especially good news for us today. We are gathered here to say goodbye, and to commend our brother Terry Pospisil into the loving hands of his creator. And as much as we are gathered to give thanks for his life, we have also come together to grieve the pain of his loss. We are wandering together through the rocky wilderness of grief. And this journey is made all the stranger by the reality of life in the shadow of a global pandemic. Yet even so, even now, God our good shepherd is with us.
Terry was well-loved by those that knew him – especially by his family. I have gotten to hear so many wonderful memories of Terry from you all: his many nicknames and the nicknames that he gave to others, the sleepovers he hosted for the grandkids, the vacation adventures you went on to Yellowstone and to anyplace with mountains, the way he cared about others more than he cared about himself. He was a man known for his iconic laugh and for his kindness. And, spending time with you all, it’s easy to see how much you loved him, and what an important piece of your lives he was. And now his place at the table is empty. It’s strange how that emptiness, how the absence of someone, can weigh so heavily on our hearts – especially when the loss is unexpected.
Grief is a heavy burden to carry. But it’s not one that has to be shouldered alone. This is a journey that you are all walking together. You can support each other – keep telling Pos’s stories, laugh with each other, cry with each other, be there for each other on the hard days. And you can also take some comfort in our reading from Matthew. Just as Jesus spoke these words to his first followers, he now says them to each and every one of us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
For years, our brother Terry carried the burden of ongoing illness. But now he has laid his burden down. His battle with illness is over, and his journey through this life is done. And we must now trust in the sure and certain hope that our good shepherd has led Terry to a place of peace, to a place where he can rest at last.
And we too can rest in the hope of all that God has promised to us: that even though we have been parted from Terry, that this parting is not the end. Death does not have the last word with God, but life. God does not abandon us to grief or to death, but instead comforts us, and raises us up to new life. No power in creation is stronger than God’s love for each and every one of us. The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
God is our good shepherd in this life and the next. God will help us to find our way through this wilderness of grief. And God will lead us all safely through the valley of the shadow of death, to green pastures and still waters. And we can be certain that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life. And with our brother Terry – and all the other saints that have gone before us – we will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever.