Monday, November 10, 2008

The Funeral Sermon From Hell

Fellow Traveler was downstate today, to attend the funeral of her childhood-best-friend's mom. Back when FT was a mischievous young beanpole growing up in the baby-boom Detroit suburbs, Mrs. W was a "Kool-Aid mom" -- the kind of no-nonsense but child-friendly mother whose home was a frequent gathering place for neighborhood kids.

Mrs. W had spent the last couple of years in the twilight world of dementia. In recent weeks she'd stopped eating; was getting IV nourishment and palliative care, but beginning to slip away.

FT went to visit Mrs. W not too long ago. She'd expected to spend some quiet time saying goodbye to someone unconscious and unresponsive in a hospital bed. She was shocked to find Mrs. W in a chair, in the cafeteria -- not eating, but seeming to enjoy the activity around her.

"Well," noted Mrs. W as she gave FT a head-to-toe, "you're certainly a lot meatier than you used to be."

So it was important for FT to attend this funeral -- for her friend, and for the memory of Mrs. W.

I got a call from FT midday: "You would not believe the funeral I've just had to sit through," she exclaimed. "It was awful. And the pastor was Lutheran."

Oh, geez, I thought. I've been to my share of awful Lutheran church services over the years, but I hate it when my partner the newbie experiences Lutherans Gone Wild. It's like having to explain crazy Uncle Al at the family Thanksgiving dinner.

"He didn't say 'Jesus'," FT continued. "He said 'JAY-SUS!!!' He was yelling. He said that anyone who wasn't baptized was going to hell -- that Mrs. W was saved because she was baptized, but the rest of us would be going to hell if we weren't baptized. He was pounding his fists on the pulpit. And we was going on and on about JAY-SUS and Lazarus and 'I AM'...he was out of control. And he had nothing to say about Mrs. W; nothing about her life. My friend said she wished you could have been there and officiated instead."


I'm trying to be charitable here. I'm trying to think about the pastor -- someone who'd only met the deceased a couple of times before her death; someone speaking to an unknown assortment of mourners with widely varying Christian backgrounds, trying to frame this experience in a meaningful way for them.

Nope; can't do it; can't be charitable. What in hell was this guy thinking?

A funeral is not a time to rhetorically dope-slap mourners into what we deem correct theology or praxis. It's not a time to aim a theological Uzi at a captive audience and frag them.

What it is, in my own humble layperson's opinion, is a pastor's opportunity, and privilege, to communicate both the depth and breadth of God's grace and an invitation to hope. And it's a special opportunity and privilege in a context where mourners are not high-commitment "church people"; how cool is it to be able to preach the Gospel to people for whom it's not a kind of comforting white noise of familiar Scripture verses and pious platitudes, but who might actually be startled to hear that God loves us, means us well and sticks by us no matter what, not because of who we are but because of who God is, and that this departed sister of Christ has not reached an end, but rather a beginning of "the life that is life"?

I'm just sayin'.


cheesehead said...

I'm sorry she had a lousy funeral sermon. May she rest in peace.

I think you memorialized her and celebrated the Hope that we all look forward to right here on your blog.

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

Wonder if he preached like that in seminary preaching class.

seethrough faith said...

and sayin' it well. Good call :) sorry for your friend tho' - as you said what was he thinking

Choralgirl said...

Yep. Gotta say, I'm with you.

Beth said...

Yipes is right. Funerals are (should be) about grace, gospel, Good News. I'm sorry that FT didn't experience this but I'm glad she's got you to proclaim (and live) Jesus' love with her.

stinuksuk said...

What a shame that is was not a better good-bye filled with hope and grace.
It brings to mind LH's mom's funeral (my MIL) in a rural town in Central IL. Her pastor was on vacation, that interim was gone, and another Lutheran pastor from another rural town did the funeral. It was right after the Kennedy plane crash, he must've been told one son was a Lutheran pastor whose wife was a Presbyterian pastor. It's always unnerving to do a funeral for someone you don't know, but he went on and on for 45 minutes about tragedy and the Kennedy plane crash. I was waiting to hear words of hope and grace which were not forthcoming and my heart went out to LH and his one brother - a buddhist who because of the funeral (amongst other reasons) will never come back to his Lutheran faith!!! The girls (my SIL's) stepped out of the car at the cemetery and said they had been coming up with adjectives to describe the service, "Ghastly, horrible, just awful" were the few they shared with us.
Not a way you want to say good-bye to your Mom, even if the relationship had been rocky.
I was aghast as well for my family.
May FT remember her friend's Mom well in her heart and that in Christ those who mourn will be comforted, if not through the officiant, then through one's friend's and family, and the peace Christ gives.

Crimson Rambler said...

I am appalled too...and at the thought that perhaps (some of) the family wanted it that I have experienced.

Anonymous said...

That really is appaling. So are so right.

And the ELCA wonders why it can't pick up new members and is losing the ones it has.

I'd go further than what "proclaiming softly" said and just declare that this does not reflect well on whatever seminary granted him that MDiv.

LutheranChik said...

A small consolation is that he wasn't an ELCA pastor; he was WELS. But even so.

Sisterfilms said...

I am so sorry for the loss of what sounds like a spunky lady, but am glad you were able to celebrate her life on your blog!

Unfortunately, your story reminds me of one from my family: the funeral of a cousin who died from kidney failure, in her 40's, a complication of her alcoholism. The ELCA Pastor, who had barely known her (although she was a member of his church), preached a sermon of blame - on her for "drinking herself to death", as though alcoholism isn't a disease - with her 8th grade daughter sitting in the first row. It was so horrific that I left absolutely stunned.

But, I am happy to say that my Grandmother's funeral by another ELCA pastor, who knew her only in her "fading time," gave a very nice (brief) sermon that didn't try to give any answers, just tried to celebrate her life. I guess with pastors, like anywhere, you win some you lose some.

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

Don't necessarily pin this on being WELS. We had a difference of opinion with the WELS pastor at a close relative's funeral. One family member wanted to speak in the service, but that was verboten, not negotiable. That person was hurt by this. But it turned out that the pastor's motivation and the family member's motivation were exactly the same: The funeral should celebrate the Grace of God, not how "good" the deceased was in life. The sermon was a wonderful example of the grace of God. I've since looked askance at lay people getting up and saying nice things about the deceased during the service, as it can get out of hand.

PamBG said...

My belief is that a funeral is about (not necessarily in order of theological importance):

1) Remembering the deceased.
2) Saying good-bye to the deceased.
3) Committing the body of the deceased to God.
4) Worshipping God in whatever appropriate form. For an unchurched family, this usually doesn't mean a full-out 'Isn't God's grace totally amazing?' sort of service but rather an assurance of the goodness of God. For believers, the 'Isn't God's grace totally amazing?' services can be really good but I think that the family should also be given instructions to grieve because an awful lot of Christian families think that they shouldn't.

-C said...

I may not agree with some of the comments here about what a funeral is supposed to be, but I would like to comment on this statement:

"What it is, in my own humble layperson's opinion, is a pastor's opportunity, and privilege, to communicate both the depth and breadth of God's grace and an invitation to hope."

Not only is it opportunity and privelege, it's also an issue of responsibility.

Just a thot (from this former Lutheran)

Christopher said...

Here at seminary we recently had to do a funeral sermon. The policy was basicly "you've got Law layed out in the coffin preach gospel."

Pastor Julia said...

Wow. Just read your post. I preached my first funeral on my (Lutheran) internship in January of this year. I was surprised at the number of people who came up afterward (not "regular" church people) and said, "That was so nice. All about God, Jesus and L. I'm glad you didn't say anything about hell."

I felt a little stunned because it had NOT occurred to me to preach about hell. (Well, it occurred to me to NOT preach about it.) Anyway, these people had some bad funeral experiences and definitely had been scarred.

In my opinion, God's grace should surprise the hell out of us. (Especially at a funeral).

LutheranChik said...

"God's grace should surprise the hell out of us." I love that line! I might have to steal it!

Anonymous said...

If I am not a sinner - why do I need gospel? Gospel means nothing without the law. It can't be assumed that people know.

Yet it needs to be done in a tactful and respectful way, "Aunt Sally knew she was a sinner. She confessed that truth of Scripture when she knelt at this communion table. Yet our loving Lord reached out to her and you through his grace."