6 Pentecost, July 1
A competent preacher who has won the trust and affection of a parish community through an ever-changing variety of pastoral contacts and preaching moments will bear the bitterness of a failed sermon with this consolation: they have heard me before, they have heard me on better days, they will come again, and they will listen. Years of life together and shared affection will not, however, quiet the preacher’s anxiety when the pulpit awaits a word over the body of a dead parishioner. There is but one opportunity to intone grace at the burial of the dead. The stakes are high. What should a preacher do?
There are two ways that are equally wrong and equally empty. The preacher may rehearse a life story, highlights of a biography, a series of accomplishments, all of which, especially if notable and significant, will seem as nothing in the face of death. Who cares? All we go down to the dust. What is man that thou art mindful of him? Polite nods and forced smiles will only confirm that death is the real point. On the other hand, the preacher may place the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as the central and exclusive theme of the sermon, but with the curious and uneasy suggestion that Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the actual life of the deceased. Oddly, the right readings, and the right hymns, and a decidedly theological message may leave everyone, including the preacher, saddened and deflated. What about my mother? What about my husband? What about my daughter? Should the congregation think and feel, though never say, “What is the resurrection of Christ to me or you?”
There is another way that requires the preacher’s best thought and deepest emotion. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says (John 15:5). “Where I am, there you will be also,” Jesus says (John 14:3). “I am with you always, even to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). When the preacher connects the real presence and life of Jesus Christ with the real presence and life of the deceased, the dignity of the dead is honored and even magnified with hope. Even a small life, an average life, or a life in which vices were well known can show glimpses and sometimes brilliant evidence of how the grace of the risen Lord has been shown in just this person, this life, this irreplaceable human being whom God has created and loved. The connection of the risen Lord to even the smallest or most common details of a human life can ignite hope and bring tears welling up to eternal life. Emotions will open, tears may fall, people may even laugh. Nothing is forced or fake when hope is real.
After David returned from defeating the Amelekites, he “intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan” (2 Sam. 1:17). He taught the people the Song of the Bow, and in liturgical fashion spoke: “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided”; “O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul”; “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan” (2 Sam. 1:1, 17-27).
A funeral is a cry from the depths (Ps. 130). A funeral is weeping and supplication and mourning and sackcloth (Ps. 30). It is also hope, hope that the resurrection of Christ is the redemption and resurrection of just this person. In the name of God, honor the dead. Say something simple and beautiful and true.
Look It Up
Read Mark 5:21-43.
Think About It
Resurrection from the dead is resurrection for the dead.