Great Stuff Found on the Web — Funerals — “Everyone a Preacher”

November 30th, 2011 Post by

I found this on facebook; on Scott Diekmann’s Stand Firm blog. Scott talking:

 

The following post is written by my good friend Joe Strieter. He addresses a topic that isn’t brought up all that frequently, the funeral, and specifically the funeral sermon. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Joe’s insightful comments, on this, the First Monday in Advent.

 

On his 76th birthday, my friend Tom died. We had enjoyed a warm relationship that went back ten years to the building of a major addition to his church (Lutheran), he as chairman of the building committee, I as the builder’s representative. My wife and I attended his funeral in the church that he had helped to plan and that I had helped to get built, even down to the details necessary for funerals. I once heard a pastor say about funerals, “This is where the Lutheran Church shines.” Our expectations were high.

As we entered the nearly-full nave, we heard a piano being masterfully played. Tom had a rich baritone voice, and he had done a lot of solo work, some in our church. The pre-service music consisted of songs he had sung over the years, concluding with “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the pianist did the music more than justice. The service began as the pastors processed. “Christ is arisen!” the senior pastor proclaimed. “He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!” thundered the thrilling response. We heard the comforting words of Romans 6: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into His death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” “It wouldn’t have been a proper funeral without those words,” I thought, and looked forward to hearing more.

Then we sang “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore,” a song that seemed somewhat out of place at a funeral service. But I thought that perhaps it was one of Tom’s favorites—he had probably chosen it himself, and it had a pleasant melody, so why not? There were still more readings: from John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” and from Revelation 21, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…” The pastor then asked us to join him in reciting the twenty-third psalm, a very moving experience, as the packed church said the familiar words from the King James: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”

After “On Eagles Wings” the pastor began: “Every place I look around in here, I see Tom.” So did I. We had worked together for two years, as he led, directed, pushed, and cajoled the building project into completion. It was fitting to begin there. Tom had left his mark in that very place in many ways. The pastor continued for a few minutes then said, “It would be a comfort to me, and I’m sure to you, if anyone would like to say a few words about Tom.” He then left the pulpit.

After hearing those profound words of Scripture, was this to be the comfort we were to receive? One after another, people got up and “shared”: some from the pews, some stepping to the front, one person speaking from the pulpit, another even leaning on the altar as he spoke. (We were even treated to two “encores.”) A few were serious, but it seemed that most of the sharing was supposed to make us laugh—comic relief, rather than comfort for grief. I remember but one person who talked about Tom’s faith and none who spoke of the hope of the resurrection, not even the pastor. The proceedings had a “one-upmanship” quality, as it seemed each speaker tried to outdo the previous one. (Upon reflection, this sharing seemed more a “roast” than a eulogy.)

After a full half hour, the sharing mercifully ceased. I expected that the pastor would continue, wrapping things up with the proclamation of the Gospel, but he merely thanked the folks for their words, and the “sermon” was over. Not even an “Amen.” The service continued with the singing of “Borning Cry.” After the prayers the words of committal rang out: “Acknowledge, we beseech you a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming…” The service over, pastors and family left the church as the pianist began a vaguely familiar rhythmic tune. At first I thought it was a Gospel hymn or a praise song—another of Tom’s favorites? But then it hit me! It was no praise song. It was “Lida Rose” from The Music Man! The funeral recessional!

Driving home, I felt sadness and disappointment, even embarrassment, and, I have to admit, just a little anger: We had all been cheated—including Tom. We were made to feel comfortable, not comforted. We heard a lot about Tom, but little of Christ. Sentimental stories had replaced bold proclamation. The sharing, the joking, the laughter were but a smokescreen that concealed the reality of sin and death. An opportunity to proclaim the faith had been lost, and the good news devalued, rendered unrecognizable, pre-empted by shtick.

“Everybody wanted to preach,” observed my wife. How true! By inviting “sharing,” the pastor had vacated his pulpit and turned the funeral service over to the attendees, surely including unchurched friends and relatives, and cheated them out of a clear message of the Gospel and its hope in the Resurrection. Exchanging proclamation for idle chatter and the Gospel for silliness, he had traded the preaching office for the role of emcee. By abandoning his pulpit and exchanging solemn ritual for casual sharing, the pastor had effectively muted the sweet message of the Gospel in the face of death. An anonymous Episcopal priest has said it well: “The casual approach undermines the scriptural content, particularly the horror of death. And by undermining the horror of death, it undermines the promise of the Resurrection.” (Touchstone Archives: Rites & Wrongs of Passage)

This was not the first such service I have attended, nor was it the worst: imagine an invitation to say the “sinner’s prayer,” or a university fight song as recessional. It’s becoming all too common. Pastors – young, old, new, and well-seasoned – need to remember the words of Augustana V: “So that we may obtain this [saving] faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted…” Stick to the basics, and do not shy away from the realities of death and life, devaluing the Means of Grace. Can faith be “obtained” when they are so trivialized? To abdicate the pulpit this way is a dereliction of duty, a violation of the pastor’s vows. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation…” That’s what it’s all about—as stewards of the mysteries of God, pastors, that’s what you’re all about.

Soli Deo Gloria!

 

W. I. (“Joe”) Strieter serves as an elder at Shepherd of the Valley LC in Perrysburg, Ohio, and is a lay member of the Ohio District Board of Directors.






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  1. Pastor Steven Schlund
    November 30th, 2011 at 12:48 | #1

    I heartily concur with this article. I once allowed “sharing”, albeit after the service was over, but the results were the same. The tear-filled testimonies of sadness and loss ripped open ever wound I had attempted to heal with the Gospel in the sermon. And, since it was after the service was over, it was the last word the congregation heard before leaving.

    Now, I tell people (especially if they ask for a time of sharing) that the visitation time is a great time to share stories about the deceased. It is a great time to laugh, to cry, and to remember. However, when we enter the sanctuary, we give God the final word to say which is the Gospel – the only word that can comfort and heal our grief and sadness.

  2. #4 Kitty
    November 30th, 2011 at 14:19 | #2

    I attended my cousin’s funeral this summer. The service was everything you would expect from an LCMS congregation until….
    Somebody (at the end of the service) walked up and read a “poem” which was written specifically for the deceased. OMG… It rhymed, and rhymed, and rhymed and rhymed again some more and seemed every once in awhile to invoke the cadence of “Twas a Night Before Christmas”. During which time, I was praying that either she or myself would be immediately struck by lightning and put out of our misery.

  3. Johannes
    November 30th, 2011 at 14:34 | #3

    It’s beginning to look as tho this post has the potential to open us up to lots of “sharing” about “sharing.”

    How post-modern! And on BJS, of all places, too!

    Johannes

  4. Brad
    November 30th, 2011 at 15:13 | #4

    Just makes me wonder, if Lutherans won’t be Lutheran, who in bloody blazes will be?

  5. donna
    December 1st, 2011 at 23:51 | #5

    Yeah, I’m a woman pastor loving, ELCA, evolution believing, contemporary service attending BJS troll- but I have to say, this article is dead on. You have it 100% right.
    It is alright to acknowledge that people are in pain and might want to talk about the deceased, but the point of a funeral is to hear the gospel. You don’t have to waste your time tallying up the departed’s strengths and good deeds because they will never be enough. Our loved ones deserve Hell, just as we all do- and we know it. The funeral is to proclaim that Christ died and rose to give our loved one/all of us, life in Heaven and to praise God for that. That is why we go to funerals. That is why funerals exist.
    The “sharing” portion at funerals seems to meet a need for people- but does so at the cost of the proclamation of the gospel. It does neither justice to smash them in together, and actually does severe harm when it suggests that our human grief is as important (or more important) than the resurrection.

  6. George
    December 2nd, 2011 at 22:43 | #6

    So true. I have always had a policy of allowing at most 1 person to speak at the funeral. I mostly ask them to speak at the luncheon/family get-together afterwards. The funerals of my most dedicated members have been far superior because the family let me do my job. They knew me and they knew I knew the dearly beloved deceased. They weren’t interested in making everyone listen to themselves. They wanted to hear from the Lord, and I was blessed to bring God’s word to them.

    Whenever possible, I encourage the family to have three services — a short “wake” (I live in a catholic area) at the visitation, which focuses on grieving, a full funeral (with communion if possible) which focuses on the resurrection, and a committal which gives closure and wraps it all up.

  7. December 5th, 2011 at 11:25 | #7

    @George #6
    Oh boy.
    1) I make sure there’s always a sermon, always a declaration of the Gospel that Jesus Christ, Son of God, died and rose and that his death and rising gives hope for sinners. To do otherwise is to neglect the preaching office.
    2) I have a practice of letting families decide if they wish comments and who gets to comment. I had some very good advice before my ordianation: the Gospel is always the last word. That almost always works–with one exception–so far in 12 years. A man who had not finished his story decided to come up right at the start of the prayer of commendation to finish it. Thankfully Barb, the widow, is such a forgiving soul.
    Pax, John

  8. December 6th, 2011 at 05:31 | #8

    When I was a vicar at a little mission, my organist’s father-in-law died and they wanted me to do the funeral with his pastor (Baptist) and his neighbor (a Pentecostal pastor). I asked my circuit counselor what I should do, because I wanted to be able to blame him and not take responsibility for my own actions. (This was long before Yankee Stadium.) Bless his heart, the CC told me it was a difficult decision that I had to make. I let the Baptist and the Pentecostal do their thing, while I attended very closely with my organist. Together we got to hear how her father-in-law was not dead, but still lives on. “Just look at all his children and grandchildren and even how much they resemble him! Just look at how strongly we still feel him in our hearts! Yes, he still lives!”
    There was not a word of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ until I spoke at the reception afterwards in his home. All his family had been painfully polite to me, despite the anger they felt at me for refusing to participate officially in their loved one’s funeral. As I was leaving the packed little house, all eyes were on me at the front door, politely saying good-bye, while their eyes betrayed pain and hostility. I took that opportunity to thank them all for being so kind to me. “I want to be sure you know that I have no doubt that your loved one is in heaven with our Savior Jesus Christ. But it’s not because he was such a good man. We’re all sinners who fall short, but he is in heaven today because Jesus Christ paid for his sins on the cross.” That was the first time a roomful of Baptists and Pentecostals gave me a hearty “Amen!”

    My point is that I brought real healing to that family in their grief by refusing to officiate at their loved one’s funeral. Thank God I had such a wise pastor in that Circuit Counselor!

  9. Rose
    December 7th, 2011 at 13:31 | #9

    Here’s a related idea:
    We read the Will aloud; why not the Testimony?
    The Last Will and Testimony were once both read aloud.
    It would be wonderful to hear the deceased’s testimony at the funeral.
    Let’s all be sure to write one.

  10. December 8th, 2011 at 22:40 | #10

    My testimony: A beggar who received in his cup what he never deserved – Christ’s blood and righteousness.

  11. Rev. Loren Zell
    December 9th, 2011 at 08:27 | #11

    I have a simple rule as the pastor of my church. I am the called minister of my church. Therefore I am the one responsible for what message comes from the chancel, from which God speaks to his people. Therefore, others do not speak during a worship service of this congregation.

    Many of the comments are right on but may have missed one small point. These eulogies, whatever form they take minimize our sin problem. From God’s point of view we are unloveable, that is there is nothing good in us that God would desire us. But in His great love, God who is rich and mercy has accomplished salvation and offers this to all. But the eulogy minimizes God’s love and work of salvation and makes us “loveable” , at least in the eyes of the congregation, when in fact we are totally just the opposite, objects of wrath.

  12. Susan
    December 12th, 2011 at 15:12 | #12

    We recently attended a funeral service of a friend at a former lcms congregation. Not only was the family allowed to speak from the lectern reading Scripture, but also gave a lengthy walk down memory lane. If that wasn’t bad enough there was no Gospel reading and the pastor that gave the funeral “message” assured everyone they had their memories of their dear loved one to hold on to.
    Afraid not, Pastor, memories fade, but the Word of the LORD stands forever!

    The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.” Isaiah 40:8.

    Fortunately, our pastor surprised us by attending the funeral and sat with us. When the funeral was over he asked me if I was okay. I replied, “I’ll be okay, but don’t EVER give me a funeral like that!” He quickly reassured me that, “it won’t be ANYTHING like that!

    Thanks be to GOD!

  13. Iris
    May 24th, 2013 at 20:55 | #13

    Warning, contrarian view here. Refusing all personal reflections sacrifices a rich opportunity to teach the gospel. It’s the moment when tears always flow, hearts break open, and there we are confronted with mortal loss. Use it! He was a great man? It didn’t spare him death or the need for salvation. She was a mother who loved immeasurably? Let’s talk about the even greater love waiting for those who accept Jesus into their hearts. Your pain is so great you can’t speak through your tears? Jesus didn’t weep because Lazarus died; he wept because the people doubted his vow to raise Lazarus.

    Those who can adapt and build on the powerful emotions at hand can reach hearts.

    I would not personally be proud of engendering pain and resentment in relation to a funeral service for a member of my church family or anyone else.

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