Funerals are not “fun” like Superbowl parties. But they steer pastoral ministry through some of its most vivid scenery, connecting pastor with members at a depth seldom otherwise reached.
I had hardly learned the names of my first congregation’s elders when I realized that most everything I did as a pastor could be done better by somebody else – even somebody else in my smallish congregation. I could offer counseling but not like the clinical psychologist. I could preach with passion but not quite like the motivational speaker. I could teach Bible and theology but not like the seminary professor. I could manage and administrate, but nothing like the MBA executive. I could visit the sick, but nurses added pain relievers to their compassion. I could provide a shoulder to cry on, but at least a few members preferred the ear of a favorite bartender.
However, I discovered along the way that when it comes to funerals, a minister-substitute would not suffice. Upon the death of husband or wife, mother or son, the survivors desperately needed to hear from and feel the touch of a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
At times like that, folks were encountering that great, invincible enemy they had denied into non-existence most weeks of the year. The illusions of invincibility and immortality all crashed in upon them after a car accident or a cancer added a notch to Death’s belt. The vulnerability and sheer sadness of the bereaved caused them to throw open the doors of their homes and hearts. And the ensuing hour or two spent visiting in their home and then the service of resurrection brought teary eyes, not drooping eyelids.
While we would often eulogize the deceased, the focus of the service was this pastor’s sermonizing on the death-defeating, resurrected Lord of all. I would proclaim his good news as clearly as I could. The congregants’ body language told me that many of them were getting it. Many were getting it more clearly than they ever had, since they were now hearing about God’s glorious end to the story at a time when the rest of the story looked so dark.
Their forced acknowledgement of death prompted them to seek a vision of eternity.
So it is during holy week. For those who gather with us in the pews from Passion/Palm Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry is tinged with dread over what we know lies just a few days down the road. The Maundy Thursday’s sharing in the Lord’s Supper carries an extra vividness as we remember our way back to the upper room and the ensuing garden sojourn. The darkness of Good Friday – expressed so graphically in a Tenebrae service or other liturgical expression – overwhelms. And the silence of Saturday haunts.
Then comes Sunday.
Easter’s glory rises with a bright sunshine – regardless of what the local meteorologist forecast the day before. And the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection— enhanced by hymns being sung with extra oomph, thanks to those holiday visitors — blows the darkness of death away.
Then again, the resurrection doesn’t drive the memory of darkness out of mind. As widows and widowers all experience, Easter’s joys still bring back tears of longing for the life partner whose void never has been filled. Blessed is the worshiper whose pastor seizes on the moment to proclaim the victorious resurrection of the Savior without letting the pain of the cross fade too quickly from the rearview mirror.
Jesus came not to pretend death away but to embrace its isolation, to suffer its pain, and to give life through it. His resurrection is today’s post-funeral reception, or, more specifically, it makes the post-funeral reception one that can be filled not just with fond memories but also with hope for a bright tomorrow.
Like a funeral, holy week shocks us out of our invincibility and feigned immortality, and it introduces us to resurrection, if we will allow it.