The Foolish Things Spoken At Funerals

Text: Luke 17:11-17

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

People say a lot of different things when death strikes. 

Sometimes we can’t help it.  

When death strikes, our nerves can cause us to talk a lot. Other times, we try to fill the quietness of death with meaningless chitchat – how’s the weather, did you watch the Vikings, aren’t those property taxes too high, and so forth. In other words, we don’t like silence. Death and silence make us uncomfortable because we live in a world that is busy and noisy. And so, we many times find comfort within the busyness and noise, especially when it can distract us from painful things like death.  

But what about the silence at a funeral? What do we say? 

As a pastor, I have no shortage of incredible stories, stories ranging from the deceased speaking to a relative the night before their funeral, with a message that needed to be shared from the pulpit to the deceased apparently showing up at a funeral service embodied in a fly. Yes, the deceased’s spirit was supposedly within an insect.  

Now, believe it or not, I am not very bothered or upset about these misguided and outlandish stories, because more often than not, it is the result of grief. You see, grief can do a lot of things to a person. And so, I am never too hard on parishioners, especially when they are crushed by the pain and sorrow of grief. It kind of makes sense when you consider the effects of grief.  

But what I am bothered by is what pastors say - or don’t say - at funerals. In other words, Christian funerals should at least be somewhat similar to the funeral that Jesus attended that one day in the city of Nain.  

In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus went to a town called Nain with His disciples and a large group of people. That day, though, as they approached the city, He was met by a funeral procession. Long story short, a man had died, leaving his mother all alone. And so, when Jesus saw this mother in her grief, He came right before the dead corpse and spoke. 

But what did Jesus say?  

Actually, let us take a moment and identify what Jesus did not say.  

Jesus did not say to the woman, 

“Here, here now. I heard that your son was a good man. I heard that he was a good employee and volunteered to help the poor. I heard that he was good at telling jokes and making people feel welcomed. I heard that he made a good barbeque and could really swing that good ol’ baseball bat.”  

No, my friends, our Lord certainly did not say that.  

But, perhaps, our Lord said something like this, 

“Dear woman, don’t worry, God needed another angel. Be comforted; your son is now looking down upon you with a smile. In fact, we better not mourn but we should instead celebrate his life. We shouldn’t focus oo to much on death, for that makes people uncomfortable. Instead, we should think about those good qualities and his achievements. We should keep things light.”  

My friends, no, our Lord certainly did not say this either.  

So, what did our Lord say that day?  

Jesus was filled with compassion, the kind of compassion that grabs hold of the gut. He was filled with compassion for the woman, which resulted in Him touching the dead body and saying, 

“Do not cry. Young man, I tell you: Get up.”  

And just like that, the dead son sat up and began talking. And Jesus, He presented the son back to the mother.  

Dear friends, let me be very blunt. Pastors sin against their flocks, and those grieving when funeral services put the deceased at the center stage. The pastor sins grievously in a funeral service when the words he uses are directed solely toward the dead person’s personality, qualities, and achievements.  

Now, this may sound a bit harsh. But truth be told, nothing is more unsympathetic, cruel, or unloving than to make a funeral exclusively about the deceased. The reason why? The person is dead, and nothing of the deceased person’s personality, qualities, and achievements can do anything about that. Sure, remembering a dead person’s personality is good, but it can’t raise the deceased from the dead. Celebrating a dead person’s qualities can make one feel proud, but it can’t make the deceased sit up out of the coffin. Making everyone aware of a dead person’s achievements is certainly impressive, but it can’t pull the deceased out of a grave. 

Does this mean that we shouldn’t mention the deceased at all in funerals? 

At a previous church, once upon a time, I heard through the grapevine that a family from a recent funeral was quite upset with the funeral sermon. They were telling everyone that Pastor Richard failed to mention their loved one. (Let’s call him Jimmy) Immediately, I felt terrible and condemned. That is until I looked at the sermon. When I counted, I said Jimmy’s name 18 times. Yes, 18 times.  

So what was the issue?  

The issue quite simply was that Jimmy wasn’t given center stage in the funeral or sermon. The words that were spoken were not about Jimmy, but they were about Jesus, who was and is for Jimmy.  

And so, to the point; at funerals, we do not talk about the deceased, for that does nothing about the sting of death. Rather, we talk about Jesus, who conquers death for us and gives us everlasting life.  

At Nain that day, Jesus told the woman not to cry. He did this not to be unsympathetic or a jerk – toughen up old lady. No, with Christ, death was not the end for her son, and death is not the end for us at our funerals as well.  

At my funeral, if you live longer than me, I beg you to show compassion to my family. And then, shut the casket and say, 

“Matt Richard was a poor damn miserable sinner. Ah, but Matt Richard is also one whom Christ has redeemed not with gold or silver but with His precious blood. Because Jesus lives, Matt Richard is one who will be bodily resurrected on the last day without sin or blemish.”

Yes, I beg you. Talk about Jesus. I am but dust. But Jesus resurrects dust.  It is not the memory of Matt Richard that will give my family comfort but the work of Jesus on my behalf.       

You see, it is only Jesus and the promise of His resurrection that can and will do anything about death. And it is only Jesus and His resurrection that grants comfort at funerals.  

So, it just does not make sense why a pastor would spend a whole funeral talking about the accomplishments of the deceased when He could be spending the whole time talking about what Jesus accomplished on behalf of the deceased.  

Perhaps a fair concern at this point is this: is it wrong to remember a person’s personality, qualities, and achievements? Absolutely not! We should pray that the Lord would bless their memory. But here is the point; this is not the main focus of a funeral.  

When that dead man encountered Jesus at Nain, Jesus was the One speaking. He was the One on the center stage. He was the One that had compassion on the woman. He is the One that gave hope to the woman. And that is what is needed in every funeral that you attend. You need to hear from Jesus in His Word. You need to hear that Jesus forgives sins. You need to hear that Jesus does not forget you in the grave. You need to hear that Jesus will resurrect you and the deceased baptized on the last day. You need to hear that just as Jesus delivered the son back to his mother that He will do the same for you and your dead loved one. Yes, Jesus will restore the dead to the living and the living to the dead. You will be reunited with all of your loved ones who have passed away in Christ. Death will no longer be able to separate you. 

Blessed Baptized Saints, just think, at the last day, Jesus will say, “Get up,” and the dead in Christ will be called out of their graves unto eternal life. All of us together in the presence of Christ will dance with new bodies while rejoicing that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the devil. We will shout and laugh and jump and giggle like little children, for Jesus called us out of death, wiped away all of our tears, and gave us life – together and forever!

The story of Nain is a clear picture of our hope in the presence of death. And this hope needs to be shared at funerals by pastors and heard by the grieving, not denied.  

In the name of Jesus: Amen. 

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