After the early service on Sunday, someone came up to me and said, “Faith is really a good place to die from!” How’s that for a marketing phrase? Wouldn’t they just be breaking the door down if that word got out?!
She was making reference to a memorial service the day before for one of our beloved, active members who had died earlier in the week after living for a long time with cancer and finally dying from the effects of the disease on his body.
I will blow my (our) own horn a little and say that we really do funerals and memorial services well here. We spend time with the family talking about memories of their beloved who has died, in conversation about scripture that may have been meaningful to them or to the survivors or that would make some special connection with their own life of faith. We talk about favorite hymns, and hymns that the larger church sings, hymns that may open a window of meaning for the service we are planning.
While there is always sadness at a funeral or memorial service, we plan so that the hope of resurrection predominates. What we plan is in direct contrast to what our culture demands that a memorial service should be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that they want the service to be a celebration of the life of the deceased. That has become the cultural norm. And that is defiantly not what we do.
I’m not really that interested in an anthropocentric celebration of a broken life, however virtuous it may appear on the surface. What the church is called to do is celebrate the life that God gives in Christ. So, we hold up the promise of God given in baptism, now fulfilled in death.
The church – in contrast to the culture – will rightly call attention to how God’s love shone through the life and work of the deceased. In this instance, Bill was not only regular in worship attendance, but was engaged in nearly every Monday evening bible class I’ve taught over the past 10 years. We shared a lot of time together and over the course of years developed a common language for talking about faith, our brokenness, and God’s goodness and promises in Christ. Bill also held a deep concern for the poor and that the faith be transmitted to the next generation. And he was actively involved in a few of our ministries concerned with those very things. So, even though I could rightly give thanks for the pastoral relationship and the ways in which I got to know Bill, my job last Saturday was not to proclaim Bill, but to proclaim resurrection. No virtues of the deceased count a whit in death. And the fact that I as pastor was close to Bill will get him no chits at the pearly gates.
No, what we celebrate is the promises of God, repeated over and over, day after day through life and now made complete in death. That’s why we can have a spirit of joy in the midst of grief and look to resurrection when the signs of death are all around us. It’s why we can sing our Easter alleluias even as we stand at an open grave.
AND it’s my job to remind those who are gathered in their black mourning clothes that we don’t have to wait until we die to live in resurrection. By virtue of our baptism that’s the way we get to live each day.
Brother Bill, whose body we laid to rest knew that. He lived that. Bill lived in the midst of resurrection even as his body was being taken over by disease.
So, because that’s what we celebrate, I suppose it’s true: Faith Church in particular and the Christian church in general – they are pretty good places to die from.