Take a breath and give thanks.
At a funeral, your first task as preacher has been accomplished for you, namely gathering the attention of your hearers as one with you. It is the person whose death has called you all together who is your erstwhile partner in proclamation.
When the saints gather for the weekly assembly on Sunday, the minds of those who enter the place of worship are scattered in as many other places as their number. But when they enter that same place to celebrate the life of a sister or brother in Christ, all minds are riveted to the same reality — death, that of the one who draws them together and, to a significant degree, their own.
With the first task accomplished, it is much easier to move to the next. It is not to share your thoughts about death or your reflections on the life of the one who died but to move the hearers’ “death focused minds and hearts” immediately to your text.
Since the strength of preaching is its textual foundation, the text should not be marginalized as if it were a pop-up on your computer screen interrupting what you are really trying to say. This is especially true at funeral services when people are eager for you to make bold affirmations of faith.
Paul clarifies the objective by sharing his hope with the church at Philippi: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10). As believers are joined to Christ in baptism, so also is the reality of being joined to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ affirmed in this proclamation.
The unbreakable bond (being joined to the life, death and resurrection of Christ), which God established through baptism with the deceased, needs to undergird everything you say.
Without a lectionary to dictate, the choice of text is yours — a choice influenced by the life of the one you celebrate. There are many that serve well; both those commonly and uncommonly used.
Often-used does not equate with worn-out. Centering on one phrase from familiar John 14:1-7, 27, “I go to prepare a place for you…” allows you to:
- call to mind places where life was shared with the one who died;
- address the reality that death has brought everyone to this place against their will;
- affirm that since “[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:39), this “death gathering place” is by grace transformed into a “life giving place;”
- underline the reality that there is no place one can be cut off from the presence and the promise of life in Christ.
The choice of an uncommonly used text can also speak to the reality of grace and the life situation of the one who died. For example, Isaiah 40:1-11, with its unparalleled power in describing God’s gift of returning home from exile, renewed the hope of hearers at the service of a refugee. Because of war, this refugee had been forced to live the majority of his life in a country not his own. The texts for this time are unlimited.
A funeral sermon is not a eulogy, which it too often becomes. Rarely does the preacher know the person who has died in the way of those whose lives were closely linked to hers/his. Allow a representative of the family to offer remarks prior to the readings.
Remember the commendation. In our Lutheran liturgy, you will be calling this person a “sheep of Christ’s own fold, a lamb of his flock,” but also “a sinner of Christ’s own redeeming.” As important as it is not to ignore the gift (i.e. the one who has died), primary emphasis must be placed on the Giver.
Where the sermon does get personal, it becomes baptismal. As alluded to above, a funeral sermon is a baptismal homily much like 1 Peter. The lives you speak of are two. Baptism begins a journey of Christ and the believer. The journey is one — ministry/life to cross/resurrection. The movement of the gospels dictates the movement of this pilgrimage — Galilee/ministry and life to Jerusalem/cross and resurrection. The two are one.
Though we avoid euphemistic language, such as “passed” in place of “died,” the image of “making one’s final journey” is faithful to the pilgrimage language of the gospel. It is a completion of the baptismal journey. We say to the newly baptized in the baptismal liturgy, “you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Allow Paul to speak: “Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). Allow John the Divine to speak: “See, the home of God is among mortals…he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:3-4). The truth about heaven is the truth of the promise that renews hope, which Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
As the sermon is set in the context of worship, everything you do can support the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.
Lastly, funerals beg to be Eucharistic. The communion meal gives the first experience of resurrection. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come. We see and ingest the risen Christ in the forms of bread and wine. We anticipate seeing Christ face to face in the presence of all the saints who have completed their final journey.