Death brings out the best in people.
As I feared last week, the family chose Saturday to hold the funeral. They would not be persuaded, and no other option was good enough. Why? Because they said so. It wasn’t a time that overlapped our evangelism event, but it was so close — most, if not all, of our evangelism people would also be at the funeral. Can you imagine coming to a church event and being welcomed with tears? Yeah. And again, refusal to move.
Then, I hear through the grapevine: If I mention that this woman who died was a sinner, her brother will punch me in the face. Heaven forbid I say what every single person knows. The woman who died knew her Savior, and her Savior knew her. I have no hesitation to say that she is in heaven. However, I must acknowledge that she was a sinner. She struggled in major ways. To not acknowledge this is to not only “simply” allow the popular funeral heresy of saying she was a good woman, but also to speak a lie that would offer no comfort.
Incidentally, this is no idle threat. This same man is known for his violence.
The father calls. Someone’s mentioned the death on Facebook before the entire (quite large) family could be notified. The family is upset. Father says he heard it was a member of the congregation. I contact the person, hop on Facebook…. It’s not that person. And now I’ve ticked off someone who really didn’t need to be ticked off. Family’s threatening to leave the church over the offense. (I found out who it was – and it wasn’t the accused at all. Dealt with it, asked for the post to be taken down for a few days until everyone could be notified who needed to be.)
Oh, and a member of the family calls the church president to lodge a formal complaint about me, because I wasn’t allowing the funeral to happen. Apparently. As a result, this family member asked for my resignation.
I am incredibly thankful that my church president recorded the complaint, called, and told me about it with a roll of the eyes. He didn’t take the complaint seriously – or, rather, said that the person wasn’t complaining about anything real. It is so amazing to have backup.
Oh, and all this happened within about twenty-four hours of that last post I put up.
Wednesday arrives. We gather for the last mid-week Lenten service. Through some minor miracle (God’s pretty good at those!) I’m not preaching tonight. I get to worship with my people. At the dinner beforehand, an occasional member approaches me. “Pastor, can I talk to you?”
I go with this member to speak in private. “I did it,” this member tells me. “I took your money.” Tears roll down the person’s cheeks. “I’ll return it. I’m so sorry.”
About two months ago, $500 of my family’s money vanished. We were pretty sure who did it; we know who has had access to our house. Because of my vertigo and the sheer busyness of the season, we hadn’t done a whole lot to address it yet.
But now, here is my member. I offer an embrace. “I forgive you.” Their body trembles against mine.
We are restored to one another.
Wednesday, I meet with the dead woman’s parents. I brace myself.
Miraculously, they choose not just “appropriate” hymns… but excellent hymns I would not expect from them. “The Lamb,” “Amazing Grace,” “Abide With Me,” and “God Be With You Til We Meet Again.” And the reading? Mark 16:1-8. Easter dawn.
The person who complained about me? Calls up the president and retracts the complaint. There’s no apology… but there is a retraction. I’ll count it as a win.
A member of the congregation comes up with an effective way to postpone our evangelism event. I call up the father. “We’ve found a way to postpone the event. Would you like us to do that?”
“Well… then it would allow the congregation to be with us, right? Yeah. That would be best.”
Now, no more conflict in the scheduling.
Saturday morning. The church is more packed than I’ve ever seen it – even more than for our hundredth anniversary. Her family is massive, and they’ve all come. Her friends were numerous; they’ve arrived to pay their respects. Most of the congregation is present. Nearly every single teacher from her son’s school is here.
This woman… her broken life led to many sins. She struggled in so many, many ways. Yet when we spoke the confession of sins every Sunday morning… she meant it. She did not lie when she said, “I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good.” I saw the tears that often flowed as she spoke.
And what’s more, I saw more tears when I said, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
She clung to that forgiveness because she knew she was a sinner. She knew her only hope wasn’t in her. It was only, only, only in Jesus.
And she shared that. She invited people to join her in church to hear about Jesus. More than a few people she didn’t invite. She told them, “You’re coming with me.” And now, God has used the death of this saint to reach so many more.
And he blessed me with the opportunity to speak law and gospel to them all.
I spoke of her sins. I didn’t list them. Why would I? They’ve been removed from her as far as the east is from the west. Yet, I acknowledged her struggles to be able to point: Jesus died for sinners like me. Like you. Like her.
I spoke of Jesus rising again, and because this woman was united with Jesus in his death by her baptism, she will also certainly be united with him in his resurrection.
After the funeral, the brother who threatened to punch me…. Hugged me. “Thank you, pastor,” he says through his tears.
Either he wasn’t paying attention or the Holy Spirit used God’s Word to touch his soul. Either way, I’ll count it as a win.
This is where the Gospel shows how important it is. If I had tried to talk about how good this woman was, people would think me a fool or a liar. If I spoke about how much she deserved, well, I’d have to talk about hell. (Incidentally, the same is true if you tried to do that about me. Please, if you’re ever in charge of my funeral, don’t talk about me except as an example of a sinner that Jesus died for.)
But in the Gospel, I can talk about her with truth and without fear. Yes, she was a sinner. Yes, she is in heaven. Jesus died for sinners.
And here I have certain hope: I will see her again. Right now she’s rocking out in heaven. And I will join her and all the saints that have gone before: My grandfather. My father-in-law. The many I have buried here. And I pray some that will see me and say, “I’m here because God used you to share the Gospel with me.”
Look, I’m not going to lie: This was a stressful week for me. I am not sufficient for this task. It was more than I can handle.
It was not more than God could handle. He carried me through. He solved every dilemma to his glory.
And I pray that my death, whenever it should come, brings him glory. Because it’s not about me. Look, make my funeral all about Jesus. He’s the hero in my story, not me. And I pray that my death is nowhere near stressful for whatever preacher receives that assignment.
Brother, just preach Jesus.
Even if some idiot threatens to punch you for it.