In my forty years as a pastor I visited many people in their last years, months, and days. Many of these people were in nursing homes, or were shut-ins in their own home. For some, my monthly visit would be their only visitor. These people, who at one time were busy raising families, farming the land, running businesses, and travelling the world, were now limited to life in a single room, with nothing to look forward to except three meals a day and bed-time.
But many of these folks still had two life-long friends always there to keep them company and give them strength; the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. People whose minds were long ago darkened by dementia, or who were comatose in the last days of dying with cancer, would still oftentimes be able to join in with at least a few of the familiar words of these old friends. And if not that, otherwise motionless hands would squeeze my hand or try to fold themselves as the words were spoken by me. I would say other prayers, and read other verses, but always, also the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Many people told me that they said those words every day as part of their own devotions.
Speaking of the Dead is a book of funeral sermons by Lutheran pastor Russell Saltzman. In the following two sermons from that book, he describes the importance of those two old friends to two men he visited. (American Lutheran Publicity Books, 2014, pages 121-3 and 127-9).
Funeral for Leonard Ehlers, January 10, 1998, Stover, Missouri:
As a child of mortal parents, Leonard has become a victim of his inherited mortality. From the day he was born, it has been true and evident this day would come – this day, when family and friends would gather and return him to the earth. Because he was born of mortal parents, the cycle of mortality has come to its final outcome.
Leonard, of course, is not the only child of mortality. We all are. The death of Leonard reminds us of that. I too am a child of mortal parents and someday I shall die. It is the one thing about being human that we cannot escape.
We are born to die. And we know it. The Book of Job speaks of our situation. “Only a few years will pass before I go on the journey of no return. My spirit is broken, my days are cut short; the grave awaits me” (Job 16:22). What Job knew, so we all know.
I visited Leonard at the nursing home. Some days he would talk. Some days he would not. Some days he had no idea who I was. Some days, I’m convinced he thought I was Pastor Rode, with whom he did not have the happiest relationship. Some days he was back driving the milk truck.
Some days we would share Holy Communion. But I had to take him through every step. We’d come to the Lord’s Prayer and I’d ask, “Can you say it with me?”
He’d say, “I think so.” And we would say it: sometimes together, sometimes he would repeat the phrases after me. And always – without fail, there was never an exception – he would weep, and then he would ask me if he had said it right.
We are the children of mortal parents and death is the outcome of our lives. We know this.
But the Christian knows something else as well. The Christian knows that through the water and word of Baptism, we already have passed beyond the boundaries of death. Death is not the last word to be spoken over our lives.
“Our Father, who art in heaven” we pray. We are the children of that Father. Time and again though his 88 years, Leonard said those words. In three years I knew him, he never said them without tears.
Today we have all the symbols of death around us. Everything we see reminds us of death: the casket, our somber faces, even the flowers soon to wither and die. Death, which is our inheritance from mortal parents, is very vivid.
Only one thing stands against death, one thing only: The Word of God. All that’s left to us is that Word. “Our Father in heaven,” spoken through Jesus Christ.
When the day of our death comes, when we are stripped of our life, our breath, only one thing will remain, only one hope will abide. And that hope is the promise of Christ, spoken by our Father in heaven, whose children we are through Christ.
Funeral for Ora Casdorph, March 31, 1997, Stover, Missouri:
This is a difficult sermon for me to preach, difficult because I did not know Mr. Casdorph well at all. I visited him a few times at the request of his sister, my friend and parishioner, Mabel Schupp.
For the little bit of time I did know Mr. Casdorph, he was struggling with health problems, which made any conversation difficult. But I have learned some things about him– two main things.
Toward the very end of his life, so his daughters tell me, the Twenty-Third Psalm became very important to him for some reason. He would ask to have it read to him, and ask again when finished.
I also learned that the last six years of his life, maybe years before as well, had been restless years. He could never find a place to be at home.
It was like that since he sold his farm. He moved three times in these six years. I think he would have moved again had he been able.
I’m wondering what he found in the Twenty-Third Psalm that was so important.
It is a treasured passage of course, a psalm rich in poetic imagery.
I shall not want… My cup runneth over… The valley of the Shadow of Death… Goodness and mercy shall follow me.
These are vast promises, deep promises that touch hearts and stir souls. But I have a guess— only a guess – as to which promise he may have latched on to the tightest.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
We are speaking here of a restless man seeking his rest, are we not? What better promise could he find than the promise of a final home, a home that is his forever?
Like I said, that is only a guess. But it doesn’t matter if I am right or if I am wrong. The important thing to remember is this: Mr. Casdorph will have his home in the house of the Lord.
And it will be his by God’s gift forever.
Psalm 23 (King James Version):
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.