Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 4, 2007

2007.11.04 “Church at the Passages of Life: Death and Resurrection”

Central United Methodist Church

“Church at the Passages of Life: Death and Resurrection”

John 11: 17 – 27

Rev. David L. Haley

November 4th, 2007 (All Saints)

Every Sunday morning, my alarm clock goes off at 6 AM.  It is set to the classical music station, WFMT, and at 6 AM on Sunday morning the program that comes on is “With Heart And Voice”, a program composed of English choral music. Last Sunday morning, they played the music of All Saints.

As I lay there in the dark, listening to one of my favorite hymns — For All The Saints”  — I thought how descriptive it was, me laying there in the dark, thinking of the dear departed who now live in God’s glory.  Like the hymn says, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”

Conventional knowledge says that it we who are alive who reside in light, and the dead — they reside in darkness. But it is the premise of our faith that those who are dead reside in God’s glorious light, to whom the light in which we live is as darkness.  “For God is light,” said St. John, “and in God there is no darkness at all.”

We comfort ourselves with this on this All Saints Sunday, with my sixth and final sermon on “The Church at the Passages of Life,” about the major ways the church impacts our lives at some of the most important times of our lives.  Today we look at the final rite the Church performs for us — The Service of Death and Resurrection — and its importance — if not for us — for those we leave behind. 

Because a funeral service is not so much for the dead, as it for the living.  As Garrison Keillor once said, “They say such nice things about you at your funeral, it makes me sad that I’m going to miss mine by about 3 days.”

So my purpose today is not so much to talk about the metaphysics of death, as it is how the church ministers to us – and to our family and friends — at this difficult time.

It is not something we mortal human beings like to talk about in polite company, or in any company, for that matter.  We don’t like to contemplate our own death.  And yet, the truth is, every human being who has ever lived has died, and we will too.  It is life’s final passage.  How much better that we approach it thoughtfully, intentionally, and hopefully, rather than as a surprise, with its burden falling on others.

As a paramedic, I sometimes went to a house to find a person dead, and then looked around at all their things, all their unfinished projects and prized possessions, and thought — who will now take care of this?

  On the other hand, as a pastor, rarely have I felt the privilege of being a Pastor more humbly and hopefully than when I stand before a crowd of mourners and say, as the burial service says, “Though we come together at a time of grief, acknowledging loss, may God grant us grace, that in pain in we find comfort, in sorrow hope, and in death, resurrection.”

        The ministry of the church can start before death, if you will let me know.  Though — because of the way we die, it is not always possible — it has been a sacred experience through the years to be present at the deaths of loved parishioners.  If you have ever been present at a “natural” human death, you know that it is — like birth — one of the most awesome experiences of life. 

One of my favorite prayers to pray at such a time is this one:

“Go forth ____, on your journey from this world,

in the love of God the Father who created you,

in the mercy of Jesus who died for you

in the power of the Holy Spirit who keeps you.

May you dwell in peace

and may you rest in the presence of God.”

        Between the time of death and the time of the funeral is the time of preparation. Anyone who’s been through it knows how hard it is to deal with practical details at a time when it’s most difficult to do so.  That’s why it’s so much better to do it before hand, and take the burden off others. In addition to the practical details, of whether you want to be buried or cremated, whether you want a funeral or a memorial service, and where you want to be buried or interred, I would be happy to work with you as to what you would like to happen at your service, should that day come.

        Did anyone see the PBS Frontline special last week, “The Undertaking,” about poet, author, and undertaker Thomas Lynch?  I highly recommend it if you get a chance to see it, because it shows people gracefully, thoughtfully, making such plans.

When it finally comes to the funeral or memorial service, what makes a “good” funeral — if there can be such a thing?  “A good funeral,” says Thomas Lynch, “is one that gets the dead where they need to go, and the living where they need to be.”

I have always thought what we do at a funeral is summed up well in the opening words of the funeral service from the United Methodist Book of Worship: 

“. . . We gather today to praise God and to witness to our faith together as we mourn the death, celebrate the life, and commend into God’s keeping, ______.”

“We mourn the death.”  A funeral service can be a sad and difficult time.   It’s OK to cry and grieve; that’s the way we’re made.  In fact, I’d have to say that most other cultures are much better at it than us; for some reason, we believe we have to be so stoic. 

        In 1992, in West Chicago, I assisted, as Police Chaplain, in the funeral service of a 21 year-old police officer killed in the line of duty.  It taught me something about how human we are, when I saw some of the most veteran and hardened police officers I know, crying inconsolably.  I’ve been to the funerals of firemen and Marines, and I can assure you it’s human to cry and mourn, even for the most hardened.

Not only do we mourn, we “celebrate the life.” 


        Traditionally, it was family and friends who did that.  Then it passed into the hands of “professionals”, both undertakers and clergy. We went through a time when clergy did all the talking and everybody else remained silent. 

        I confess, I have found it difficult to do that well. You almost always running the risk of doing it badly, either exaggerating or understating.  I have always liked the story of the widow who got up during a Pastor’s eulogy, walked to the casket, looked in, and said, “I just want to make sure that’s my husband you’re talking about.”

        I personally have appreciated the return to more communal services, where family and friends get a change to talk, and share what made a person so loved and special, not only in words, but photos and videos.  I appreciate what Thomas Lynch said about this trend as he experienced it, as an undertaker:

“I watched the meaning change, of what it is that undertakers do: from something done with the dead, to something done for the living, to something done by the living — everyone of us.”

        And because most of us die at a older age, I try to keep in mind and remind those present that we remember, not just the 95 year old whose frail body lies in the casket in front of us, but an entire human life: a child, a young adult, with loves and losses, heartbreaks and hopes, accomplishments and failures.

Many years ago there was a documentary on older Americans and poverty, and in it, 88 year-old Elizabeth Holt Hartford expressed what most of us feel, as we age:

“You see me as an ancient old woman, but I want to tell you something. This is me inside here. I haven’t changed.  I’m just stuck within this broken old body, and I can’t get out. It hurts me, and won’t move right, and it gets tired whenever I try to do anything.  But the real me is not what you see. I am a prisoner within this decaying body.”

Something we need to keep in mind at funerals, as well.

Finally, at funerals, we “commend our loved ones into God’s keeping.”

That’s why we read some of our favorite Scriptures: 

– the 23rd Psalm, about passing through the valley of the shadow of death – “Thou art with me.”  

– Or hear St. Paul say, Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (2 Corinthians 5:1)

– Or hear Jesus say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.   If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  (John 14: 2 – 3)  “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. (John 11: 25)

– Or hear the blessed words of the Revelation of St. John: “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their  God; they will  be God’s peoples, and God will  be  with  them; wiping every  tear  from  their  eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21: 3 – 5)

And that’s why we pray those classic prayers of committal:

“Since his/her spirit has returned to God who gave it, we therefore commit _____ body to its final resting place — earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust — looking for the resurrection in the last day and the life of the world to come.”

        I probably remember almost every funeral service I’ve ever done.  There are many that stand out, one particularly.  A young couple in my church had a child born with a rare genetic problem.  When the child was several months old, I got a call in the middle of the night, from one of my fellow paramedics, that the child had just died a SIDS death, and the family was in the hospital ER. I went there and embraced the sorrowing parents.  With tears in our eyes, we did what we had not yet had time to do: we baptized the child.

        In a few days, there was a funeral service.  And a few days after that, Michele and I met the parents at a forest preserve near their house, where we scattered the child’s ashes onto the ice of a frozen pond, awaiting the springtime — that though we could not see it — we knew was to be.

In gratitude, they gave me this candle [show candle]: to be lit at the difficult times of my life, in remembrance.   I pray that the ministry of the church to them — through me and the entire congregation — was as encouraging to them as this candle — this light in darkness — is to me.

Yes, as the hymn says:

“We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

Alleluia, alleluia!”

So live, that when death comes, it will not find you unprepared.  I have included in your bulletin your homework:  “Your Obituary.”  Write your obituary as you would like it to read; then live into it:



______________ died today at the age of ____.  

She/he is survived by ______________________________ . . .

She/he will be remembered by _______________________ . . .

Mr./Mrs./Ms. ______________ was noted for ___________ . . . 

She/he was the type of person who ___________________ . . . 

His/her significant accomplishments included ___________  . . . 

At the time of death, she/he was deeply engaged in __ ___  . . .

Make it happen!


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