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10.02.16 The Good Funeral John 11:1-27 Sermon Summary

by on October 3, 2016

Fewer and fewer of us attend funerals these days, and the ones we do attend aren’t very good. But if we don’t do funerals well, we won’t live well either.

Summary Points

  • Reasons why funerals have fallen on hard times
  • The failures of the alternatives
  • What good funerals do

One of the reasons funerals have fallen on hard times is because we so rarely attend one. Mostly due to medical advances and the diaspora of families, we’ve created the first “non-death” generation. A person can reach 40 or 45 years old without ever attending a funeral. The result is that we’ve lost our understanding of the purpose of a funeral.

Added to this is that churches were willing to turn over the end-of-life rites to professional funeral directors, and that the funeral industry became over-commercialized. And though personalization of funerals helped overcome impersonal cookie-cutter liturgies, funerals became very expensive and people began to wonder if it was all worth it.

Two other reasons funerals have fallen on hard times have to do with mourning. On one hand, we were overdosed with mourning, trying to compress into one afternoon of praying, singing, scripture reading, and commemoration the long journey of grief. It was ineffective in its ambition. But on the other hand, we became underdosed with mourning. In our reaction to mourning overdose we fail to allow mourning at all.

In experimenting with the alternatives the last 20 years, I myself have participated in funerals which have left me increasingly troubled, restless, disoriented, and feeling unresolved. While studying this from a theological and pastoral perspective, I find Thomas Lynch’s summary of Thomas Long’s work an accurate description of my experience.

In place of funerals—the full-bodied, full gospel, faith-fit-for-the-long-haul and heaving lifting of grief events our elders were accustomed to—what has evolved, especially among white suburban Protestants, is a downsized, “personalized,” user-friendly, Hallmarky soiree: the customized, emotively neutral and religiously ambiguous memorial service to which everyone is invited but the one who has died. The dead have been made more or less to disappear, cremated as a matter of pure function and notably outside the context of faith. The living gather at their convenience to ‘celebrate the life’ in a kind of obsequy-lite at which therapy is dispensed, closure proclaimed, biography enshrined, and spirits are, it is supposed, uplifted.

Long and Lynch, a Presbyterian theologian and Catholic funeral director, have been leading me to look for something better. I remember a hospice chaplain’s urging a group of us pastors to have a solid philosophy about death, for without that, we don’t have a philosophy about life. Part of that whole equation is the good funeral.

The good funeral is primarily one of movement. A good funeral moves us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The good funeral moves us in our grief, and grief is a spiritual journey. When we experience loss, we have to adjust to the absence of what is lost for the rest of our lives. That adjustment takes time, and time is something through which we move. And movement implies embodiment. The Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ are all embodied movements in time. They are also all spiritual journeys. The good funeral serves to start our spiritual move through grief.

One of the first ways it does that is by slowing us down. I remember last year trying to get home from an evening meeting at the church in time to see my children before they went to bed. On the last turn towards my house I was stopped by a funeral procession for a fallen police officer. It was slowly going throughout the city and must have been about a mile long. At first I felt inconvenienced and resentful. But it did slow me down enough to reflect on this officer’s sacrifice and upon my own life. As part of a good funeral, it slowed me down and moved me.

The good funeral moves us emotionally. When we experience loss, we may feel shock, anger, numbness, confusion, and despair. Jesus’ disciples experienced this. When their friend Lazarus was reported sick, and Jesus delayed his return to Judea, he informed them that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Refusing to accept this, the disciples responded that it was good for a sick person to rest. They were confused, and Jesus had to speak plainly to them about Lazarus’ death. That was when he started to move them to Lazarus’ burial place in Bethany.

After getting it, one of the disciples expressed despair, saying, “Let us go with Jesus and die with him in Jerusalem.” And Lazarus’ sister Martha expressed anger: “Had you been here, my brother would not have died.” She also expressed faith and hope by continuing, “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.”

Like a good funeral, Jesus moved all these disciples from their first emotional response to death towards peace. It may take a long time to arrive at peace, and we may not remain there for long periods, but the good funeral reminds us that we are on that journey. This is why Jesus reminds the disciples that there are twelve hours of light during which to walk, and so we can begin the journey of grief with Jesus.

The good funeral moves us spiritually. Starting from the “sting of death,” the good funeral points us towards victory of life. Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will never die. Of course they will die. Martha died. Lazarus died (again). Even Jesus died. So he must mean something else.

Before he said this to Martha, he said, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” It’s the distinction between something being really true versus actually true. We actually will die, but we really won’t. What Jesus is saying is that those who believe in him will not really die because, before they actually die, they will have really lived. And it is this real life that lives on, this real life that is lived with Jesus. Which is why Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” And she responds, “Yes, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” which is to say, “I believe you are the fulfillment of our hopes and God’s promises. Following you gives my life direction, purpose, and meaning.” Living according to this faith, even in the face of death, is what a good funeral calls us to do. That is the spiritual movement.

And a good funeral moves us physically. It reminds us of the recurring truth of scripture, that “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, see also Job 34:15, Psalm 104:29, and Ecclesiastes 12:7) To do this, the good funeral moves us from the waters of baptism to the dust of the earth. In water, we are baptized into Christ’s death, which gives us confidence to return to the dust, for we are also baptized into Christ’s resurrection.

The reason John tells us that Lazarus was in the tomb four days is because it was believed that the spirit lingered around the body for three days. As still happens today, people can be pronounced dead only to resuscitate within a few days. But by the fourth day, everyone knew that Lazarus was actually dead.

As in the raising of Lazarus, the good funeral helps us acknowledge death, and one of the most effective ways it does so is by physically moving the dead body to the dust of the earth with the hope of resurrection. When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

As we heard recently, Jesus’ resurrection was seen as the beginning of the general resurrection. Dying and returning to the dust of the earth is the most powerful symbol of our hope of this general resurrection. But what Jesus is saying is that we don’t have to wait to actually die before we really live. The good funeral also reminds us of this truth, by moving us physically from the presence of our loved one, to their memory, and to our hope for them. Or in other words, from living, to thanksgiving, to anticipation.

We need more good funerals, for they launch us on the spiritual journey with Christ. They point us to more than life after death; they lead us with Christ to life before death.

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