Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Burying Sinners and Saints

There's an old joke about a young pastor called to a small town church many years ago. In the town were two notoriously evil brothers, who were also rich and powerful. They used their money and power to great advantage, until one day one of those brothers died. 

The surviving brother came to the new young pastor and said, "I want you to preach my brother's funeral. And if you will do it, I will give your church one million dollars." 

Stunned, the preacher was about to say yes, when the man added, "But I have one condition. You have to say that my brother was a saint."

"What?"

"Say, 'he was a saint'--the very words! Do that, and I guarantee your church will receive one million dollars."

The preacher, though new in town, knew the brothers' reputations, and was hesitant. He also knew how little the church had in its accounts, and what that money would do for repairs and the work. He asked if he could think about it for an hour or two. The surviving brother agreed.

One hour later, the preacher said "I'll do it."

On the day of the funeral the preacher took his place in the pulpit. He began, "We are here to remember and bury a man you all know. He was a scoundrel in every conceivable way. He was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. If there was a way to do wrong, he would find it. And if you ever thought he was doing something good, it was only a ruse to trick you. Yes, he was a very bad man. But compared to his brother, he was a saint!"

In my calling, I've buried a few sinners along with quite a few saints.

I did more than my share of funerals last year, and have already done a memorial service in the first week of 2017. Thinking back over these services in the past year, they were all for professing believers, most of whom were well known to me and gave clear testimony of their faith in Jesus. 

I don't get very many calls like I used to when I was in California from funeral homes looking for a minister to do a funeral or memorial service. Those were very interesting events. The reason I'd get the call was that the family wanted a "minister" to perform the service, but they were not "church people" in any meaningful way. This meant that I would meet a family for the first time during a very difficult moment, and they would have as little idea of what to expect from me as I did from them.

I would be thanked for coming, and then be assured that, while the deceased hadn't been to church in years, he (or she) was a "fine Christian" who followed the golden rule, was a good family member, and was kind to pets and strangers. I would often try to move the conversation toward the gospel. At first it was to see if the deceased might have, at some time in life, heard and acknowledged it. But it was also to see if anyone in the family had any knowledge of it. Occasionally I would see a knowing look or glance, often followed up with a whispered conversation that told me I had a gospel ally in the family. More often, there were just blank stares or polite nods, and then we would move on to the service planning.

Why would I do these services? Honestly, it wasn't for the dead. They were gone and I had nothing to offer them. It was for the opportunity to preach the gospel in the service to the living. Strangely, even though the "guest of honor" may have had nothing to do with God, mourners have an openness to consider eternal things that seldom is seen outside of funerals. I found that I could divide a service into two parts: the first was a remembrance of the deceased, and then I would say something like, "as a Christian minister I've been asked to lead this service for you, and I wouldn't be doing what I should if I didn't offer some words of comfort and hope to you who are here, even as we all realize that someday we will be facing our own end." I'd go to the scriptures and speak of God's love, man's sin and alienation from God, God's holiness and justice and what that means for sinners, and how God's mercy and grace have opened the way of forgiveness and life: not through performance but through a person--Jesus Christ. I would pray for those grieving, and ask that God would not only ease their sorrow, but draw them to His offer of life.

What was amazing to me was that in those settings I never was criticized for "preaching"--in fact, families uniformly were grateful. I don't know why, and I can't say that I know of anyone who was converted then. But it was an open door I was glad to take.

Harder were those few services where relatives expected me to tell them that their rebellious, hard-hearted, recently deceased relative was running around heaven having a grand time. I still remember one service where a rather well-known rebel-hearted youth died in an accident of his own making while intoxicated. He had made no secret of his rejection and mockery of faith. I followed the format that I outlined above, never speaking ill of him, but not pretending he was something he was not either, and was thanked by many--but not by the family. In fact, I received an incensed call from a fire-breathing grandma who could not believe that I hadn't told everybody what a saint her grandson was. The burial, which was scheduled for the day after the funeral, would proceed with a different minister! 

This all came to mind recently as I was preparing for the memorial for a real "saint"—a lady who had lived over 90 years and manifested her faith through her life. I use the term "saint" in its biblical meaning--a believer, yes, but an obvious believer. No need to wonder if she understood truth, or believed it, or lived it. Having met her almost 40 years ago, and having been her pastor for over a decade, I know her faith, and so I could speak with confidence about her continuing future life and joy.

I've had a string of these kinds of funerals of late, including this dear woman’s husband, and just a few weeks before, a member who was a retired missionary and continuing friend. I am blessed to do them. For in such cases, I can recount their lives--not perfect by any stretch, but faithful. I can not only speak of their profession of faith, but their examples of faith. I can tell or hear stories that remind me of how God used them, when they were willing to be His instruments. And I can once again remind those in attendance that God's promise to saints is that absence from this body means being present with the Lord. When I leave these services I am prodded to consider my own path of faithfulness, even as these brothers and sisters take their place in Heaven's great cloud of witnesses to the faithfulness of God.

What kind of encouragement will your funeral be? What kind of words will be said? How will those who know you remember you? What mark that will count for eternity will you leave? Will your preacher have to work hard to come up with good things to say, or even worse, will he have to simply offer remembrances of a life past and then preach the gospel, without ever drawing the connection between the two?

In one of those services for an unbeliever, I used a little liberty I drew from the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31--you can take time to read it right now if you don't know it). I said to the audience, "If _______ were able, I think he would speak to you right now in the strongest terms to turn to Christ and believe!" I'm not positive that's true, but if Jesus says in a story that someone in Hades had that impulse, I think it might be a fair supposition in other cases, too.

As you go about this day, don't assume you are guaranteed any more of them. And realize that when you leave this life for the next, your story will be told. I hope it will be a story of faith realized.