On his 76th birthday, my friend Tom died. We had enjoyed a warm relationship that went back ten years to the building of a major addition to his church (Lutheran), he as chairman of the building committee, I as the builder’s representative. My wife and I attended his funeral in the church that he had helped to plan and that I had helped to get built, even down to the details necessary for funerals. I once heard a pastor say about funerals, “This is where the Lutheran Church shines.” Our expectations were high.
As we entered the nearly-full nave, we heard a piano being masterfully played. Tom had a rich baritone voice, and he had done a lot of solo work, some in our church. The pre-service music consisted of songs he had sung over the years, concluding with “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the pianist did the music more than justice. The service began as the pastors processed. “Christ is arisen!” the senior pastor proclaimed. “He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!” thundered the thrilling response. We heard the comforting words of Romans 6: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into His death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” “It wouldn’t have been a proper funeral without those words,” I thought, and looked forward to hearing more.
Then we sang “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore,” a song that seemed somewhat out of place at a funeral service. But I thought that perhaps it was one of Tom’s favorites—he had probably chosen it himself, and it had a pleasant melody, so why not? There were still more readings: from John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” and from Revelation 21, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…” The pastor then asked us to join him in reciting the twenty-third psalm, a very moving experience, as the packed church said the familiar words from the King James: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…”
After “On Eagles Wings” the pastor began: “Every place I look around in here, I see Tom.” So did I. We had worked together for two years, as he led, directed, pushed, and cajoled the building project into completion. It was fitting to begin there. Tom had left his mark in that very place in many ways. The pastor continued for a few minutes then said, “It would be a comfort to me, and I’m sure to you, if anyone would like to say a few words about Tom.” He then left the pulpit.
After hearing those profound words of Scripture, was this to be the comfort we were to receive? One after another, people got up and “shared”: some from the pews, some stepping to the front, one person speaking from the pulpit, another even leaning on the altar as he spoke. (We were even treated to two “encores.”) A few were serious, but it seemed that most of the sharing was supposed to make us laugh—comic relief, rather than comfort for grief. I remember but one person who talked about Tom’s faith and none who spoke of the hope of the resurrection, not even the pastor. The proceedings had a “one-upmanship” quality, as it seemed each speaker tried to outdo the previous one. (Upon reflection, this sharing seemed more a “roast” than a eulogy.)
After a full half hour, the sharing mercifully ceased. I expected that the pastor would continue, wrapping things up with the proclamation of the Gospel, but he merely thanked the folks for their words, and the “sermon” was over. Not even an “Amen.” The service continued with the singing of “Borning Cry.” After the prayers the words of committal rang out: “Acknowledge, we beseech you a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming…” The service over, pastors and family left the church as the pianist began a vaguely familiar rhythmic tune. At first I thought it was a Gospel hymn or a praise song—another of Tom’s favorites? But then it hit me! It was no praise song. It was “Lida Rose” from The Music Man! The funeral recessional!
Driving home, I felt sadness and disappointment, even embarrassment, and, I have to admit, just a little anger: We had all been cheated—including Tom. We were made to feel comfortable, not comforted. We heard a lot about Tom, but little of Christ. Sentimental stories had replaced bold proclamation. The sharing, the joking, the laughter were but a smokescreen that concealed the reality of sin and death. An opportunity to proclaim the faith had been lost, and the good news devalued, rendered unrecognizable, pre-empted by shtick.
“Everybody wanted to preach,” observed my wife. How true! By inviting “sharing,” the pastor had vacated his pulpit and turned the funeral service over to the attendees, surely including unchurched friends and relatives, and cheated them out of a clear message of the Gospel and its hope in the Resurrection. Exchanging proclamation for idle chatter and the Gospel for silliness, he had traded the preaching office for the role of emcee. By abandoning his pulpit and exchanging solemn ritual for casual sharing, the pastor had effectively muted the sweet message of the Gospel in the face of death. An anonymous Episcopal priest has said it well: “The casual approach undermines the scriptural content, particularly the horror of death. And by undermining the horror of death, it undermines the promise of the Resurrection.” (Touchstone Archives: Rites & Wrongs of Passage)
This was not the first such service I have attended, nor was it the worst: imagine an invitation to say the “sinner’s prayer,” or a university fight song as recessional. It’s becoming all too common. Pastors – young, old, new, and well-seasoned – need to remember the words of Augustana V: “So that we may obtain this [saving] faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted…” Stick to the basics, and do not shy away from the realities of death and life, devaluing the Means of Grace. Can faith be “obtained” when they are so trivialized? To abdicate the pulpit this way is a dereliction of duty, a violation of the pastor’s vows. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation…” That’s what it’s all about—as stewards of the mysteries of God, pastors, that’s what you’re all about.
Soli Deo Gloria!
W. I. (“Joe”) Strieter serves as an elder at Shepherd of the Valley LC in Perrysburg, Ohio, and is a lay member of the Ohio District Board of Directors.