Pastor’s Approach: Funerals

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about funerals, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category tab.

When someone dies, loved ones – family and friends, neighbors and church members – need space to grieve, to remember the deceased, and to give thanks to God for their loved one’s life. A church funeral service is an important part of the grieving process that may also include a visitation at a funeral home, family’s home, or at church; a reception where friends and family gather to tell stories through laughter and tears; a public act of memorial, such as planting a tree or donating a park bench in memory of the deceased; and any one of many other possible acts of grieving and remembering the deceased.

The Funeral Service
The Christian funeral service is a chance to come together to hear God’s promises for the deceased and to take comfort that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not even death (see Romans 8:38-39). In the Christian funeral service we remember the baptism of the deceased by draping the remains of the deceased in white, the color of baptism and resurrection, and splashing the casket or urn with baptismal water. We hear from Holy Scripture words of God’s comfort and promise – comfort for those who grieve, and promise that the deceased is in God’s everlasting care. We sing such promises in hymns and/or hear them sung in a solo music.

Holy Communion is celebrated, as we believe this sacred meal to be a mystical gathering of God’s people – from the past, present, and future – around our Lord’s table of grace, mercy, and life. The deceased, and all those who have gone before us in faith, are truly in communion with us as we share in this sacred meal. Only in cases where significant portions of the funeral gathering would not receive – ie, if a large portion of the family is not Christian or cannot receive Holy Communion in a Lutheran Church because of the teachings of their faith – would we consider not celebrating the sacrament.

At funeral services we give thanks to God for the deceased and commend the deceased’s remains to God’s care. One or two remembrances (eulogies) are shared in the service, about 3-5 minutes each. If additional people would like to speak about the deceased, the reception is a very appropriate time to do this. In the sermon I strive to weave stories of the deceased into the story of God’s saving and gracious work in the world, and so in this way to tell the story of God by, with, and through the story of the deceased. A prayer near the end of the service, said with a gesture blessing the deceased’s remains, asks God to gracious receive the deceased into everlasting care.

Funeral Service, or Memorial Service?
A funeral service is one at which the remains of the deceased are present, and is often held within four to eight days of death. A memorial service is very similar to a funeral service, though the remains of the deceased are not present. Though there is no religious teaching in our faith that requires funerals to be held within a certain timeframe (as our Jewish sisters and brothers traditionally have the funeral within a day or two of death), funerals taking place within a week of death give family and friends a meaningful and timely opportunity for grief, prayer, and mutual comfort. Memorial services are held at a later date, when funeral services are not being held closer to the date of death, or when the funeral is held in one location and a memorial service is desired in a different location.

Services need to be scheduled with the church. Though the church and the pastors have schedules that are generally flexible, there will be times when other church events, pastors’ vacation time, or other extraordinary circumstances would prevent the church or pastors from being available at particular dates and times. In these rare circumstances, we should work to find another date for the service, or seek out another location and/or another clergyperson for the service.

Full Body Burial, or Cremation?
The Lutheran church teaches that cremation is a perfectly appropriate way to care for the deceased’s remains. Remains are appropriately buried at sea or in the earth, giving a dignified final resting spot to the deceased. Burial of remains – cremated or not – often takes place immediately following the funeral service, but may also take place at a later date.

Make Some Plans
I encourage everyone to consider making preparations for their death – medical plans, financial plans, legal plans, and yes, funeral plans. If there are hymns or readings that are your favorite, or that you believe would give comfort to your family members upon your death, write those ideas down. Come and meet with me to talk about your funeral, or that of a loved one. I work with surviving family members to make appropriate selections of Scripture and hymns for a funeral, whether or not the deceased has given us any indication of their preferences for a service. Nonetheless, your notes – given to the church office, or left at home in an accessible place – will bring comfort to your family and help us honor you in an appropriate way upon your death.

Looking ahead: At some time in the fall, I will offer a workshop on funeral planning.

It’s a Matter of Equality

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (Common English Bible)

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

Saint Paul writes:

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,

but it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

It’s not that we want you to have financial difficulties, BUT …

There’s always a but.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul asks the Christians in Corinth

to continue their commitment to financially support the church in Jerusalem,

which is poor and struggling.

The Church at Corinth, located in a bustling city that was a commercial and cultural crossroads,

was better off than their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem,

and so Paul asks those with more to support those with less.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties …”

Yes, you can hear it in his voice.

Paul knows that what he is asking could put some pressure on the church and its people,

that the Christians in Corinth have had some of their own problems to deal with,

including a congregation that itself was careless in its divisions between rich and poor

(Just read 1 Corinthians to see how Paul blasts the church there

for having some come to the Thanksgiving Meal and eat and drink

until they are full and drunk, while others leave hungry).

Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t let the challenges that the Corinthians face

get in the way of his asking for and expecting

their continued generosity toward those less fortunate.

Paul knows the Corinthians can do more.

And he knows that the Christians in Jerusalem are in such a dire situation.

After all, Paul says,

“it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

A matter of equality between one’s surplus, one’s abundance,

and another’s deficit, another’s need. Equality.

In our country we have a commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom,

to self-reliance and independence,

a libertarian streak that runs strongly through our American blood,

and which fuels, I believe, so much of the innovation that our country is known for.

Yet, frankly, what Saint Paul writes in today’s reading stands somewhat in contrast

to that independent, self-reliant streak we’re so known for in our country.

For Paul writes not of a self-reliant Jerusalem church that can pull itself up by its bootstraps,

or of a self-reliant Corinthian church that keeps what it has to itself,

but instead he writes of the interconnected relationship between the two.

In other words, Paul writes, “You need each other.”

All who are in Christ are of one body, he writes elsewhere,

and if one part of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

Any of you who have ever had a bad ankle, or a bad back, know this.

A hurt in one part of the body makes the rest feel pretty miserable.

And so, Paul here is drawing attention to the fact that

there is a part of the body, over in Jerusalem, that is suffering right now.

The present surplus of the Corinthians, he writes, can alleviate the present deficit of others.

The other day I was talking with a homeless woman,

and she asked why God let all this happen to her – losing her job,

losing her house, medical problems, and so forth.

I responded simply that God is not doing this to her,

but like Christ on the cross, God is suffering alongside of her,

and that it is human sin that has created a situation in which she finds herself.

Because, let’s be honest friends, there is plenty of abundance in this world right now,

here, there, and down the street,

there’s abundance that can alleviate the needs of others.

If the people of Saint Paul, the people of Ramsey County, of Minnesota, of this country,

if we all wanted more homeless shelter beds,

or if we wanted more affordable housing, we could do it.

We found half a billion dollars for a 65,000 seat football stadium,

but we can’t find money for additional homeless shelter beds?

It’s because we don’t want to.

In 2005, former Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern wrote a book together called,

Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith.

In this book these two former Senators – a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat –

said that we don’t have a food shortage in the world.

We don’t have a food problem at all. Instead, what we have is a distribution problem.

Yet the truth is, we don’t have a distribution problem, either.

You can purchase a Coca-Cola in nearly every corner of the world.

We’ve got distribution down just fine.

So what we really have is a problem of the will. We just don’t want to do it.

Because making sure that food was available for all people in the world

might make certain costs rise, might cut into the profits of some merchants

or into the tariff-protected markets of some industry groups,

and might make things more difficult for those of us who live in relative abundance.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,” Paul writes,

“but … but it’s a matter of equality..”

We have the resources in the wealthiest darn country in the world.

We have the abundance. We have the surplus.

But do we have the will to seek, to create, some sort of greater equality?

Paul the Apostle calls us, in faith, to find the will to seek such an equality.

 

Shifting from Paul the Apostle to Paul the Pastor, for a moment,

let me say this: few people in my life have I known

who are as committed to the needs of others,

who are as committed to this sense of quality, as is Pastor Paul Hesterberg.

In my first year here at Grace, I have seen him work tirelessly with and for those who have so little.

From making sure that we have food and gas cards to distribute,

to driving people to doctor’s appointments and court hearings,

to sharing articles with me and with others about matters of concern

for the poor and hungry, to helping folks out in many different ways,

Pastor Paul is committed to this equality about which Saint Paul writes,

to sharing some of his own abundance with those in need.

Pastor Paul has been a role model for us, a caregiver,

a living commitment to those things to which our Lord himself is committed –

feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising up the lowly, caring for the lonely.

His commitment is one that leaves a legacy among us,

a legacy that we will do well to carry on through existing efforts of care –

such as the food collection for Merrick Food Shelf

that the Social Ministry Committee is coordinating –

and even the creation of new ministries of care and love and outreach

that will help us live into Saint Paul’s calling for us to work for a greater equality

between our abundance and our neighbor’s need.

 

Dear friends, as we celebrate Independence Day this week,

let us not revel in our own individual liberty,

for soldiers didn’t die at Lexington and Concord,

at Brandywine or Germantown, or in the cold winter at Valley Forge,

they didn’t die for individual liberty …

but they died for a nation, for a people to live in freedom, together.

They died to create “a more perfect union.”

Freedom is not just personal or political,

but rightfully – and faithfully – understood,

freedom includes not just freedom from overseas royal tyrants,

but freedom from want, freedom from suffering, freedom from abject poverty,

and freedom for the chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Together we live into this freedom. Together we share in the abundance of this land and,

as Christians, together we live into the freedom we have in Christ Jesus,

free to give of ourselves as Christ himself gave,

free to give out of what we have, to provide for the needs of our sisters and brothers,

so that there might be greater equality, and greater freedom, for all.

Amen.

Lawn Decor and Lucky Charms

I recently stumbled upon Christian symbols in places where I wasn't expected to find them.

Exhibit A

The other day we bought a box of Lucky Charms cereal for our children.  We rarely buy sugary cereal for the kids, but this day we did.  I was fascinated to notice all the charms and symbols in the cereal … including an ichthus.  Of course, the ichthus is an ancient Christian symbol.  From wikipedia:

Lucky charms Ichthys can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It compiles to "Jesus Christ, God's son, savior," in ancient Greek "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ", Iēsous Christos, Theou Huios, Sōtēr.

  • Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for "Jesus".
  • Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστὸς), Greek for "anointed".
  • Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for "God's", the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos, Greek for "God".
  • Upsilon (u) is the first letter of uios (Υἱὸς), Greek for "Son".
  • Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for "Savior".

This ancient symbol representing an early confession of faith in Jesus Christ has ended up, nearly 2000 years later, alongside horseshoes, arrowheads and shooting stars as a "Lucky Charm."

Halloween lawn cross

Exhibit B

Several houses in our neighborhood have crosses on their lawns – and no, they are not celebrating their faith.  Clearly the hot item at the Halloween store this year is a gray and black, worn-looking faux grave marker in the shape of a cross.  What better way to scare people and celebrate ghoulishness than to place a cross on your lawn!

[Of course, there is a clear connection between Halloween and the cross, for our current practice of Halloween is rooted in an older practice of All Hallows Eve and the commemoration of the faithfully departed on All Saints Day.  Yet that connection has all but been severed, resulting in a festival of sorts celebrating all things scary and ghoulish … and the cross, somehow, is seen as fit for fright.  Of course, the cross and all it represents is terrifying – the sin and brokenness of the world on full display in the murder of God's own son – but that meaning is hardly captured in the triviality of a Halloween lawn ornament.]

 

—–

So the main symbols of our faith have become cereal shapes and cheap Halloween lawn ornaments.  Sigh.  I guess this is what happens when our religion, once established for centuries as the central cultural, political, and social force in Western society, wanes in relevance.  Its symbols get caricatured to the point of meaninglessness, tossed among other trinkets in a cultural grab bag. 

I find these "uses" of our religious symbols regrettable, but I'm not necessarily complaining or pointing fingers.  It is what it is – a sign of the times in which we live … times in which our symbols are reduced to lawn decor and lucky charms, and our faith struggles to be more than a spiritual trinket.