One of the great joys of being a pastor is being able to preach funeral sermons. To be given the task of looking death square in the face and publicly saying, “Where is your sting?” is one of the pleasures of pastoral life that has no comparison. Only proclaiming the Lord’s resurrection on Easter Sunday can even come close to the honor pastors are given in preaching after the death of a saint.
No where can a person see the theology of a church so clearly as they do at a funeral. I hear all the time from people, “I went to a funeral at <insert name of local Arminian church here> church, and you wouldn’t believe what they said! Not one word about Jesus!” I have finally figured out why this is.
Arminians teach that we are able, by our own reason and strength, to make a decision to abandon sin and follow Jesus. So why do Arminian sermons not talk about Jesus? Because Jesus is not the certainty of salvation. As I try to teach my people, in Arminianism you are ultimately responsible for your salvation. If you decide, if you commit, if you give your heart to God, then you are saved. The next step is to rid your life of sin. As the old Amy Grant song says, “I have decided, I’m gonna live like a believer, turn my back on the deceiver, I’m gonna live what I believe.” How can one be certain that their loved one was a believer? By their actions, of course. If they were strong enough to decide to follow Jesus, their works will be the proof of their salvation. While this is true to an extent, ultimately, works are all that are left for the Arminian. So, the sermon comes out as a testimonial to their many works. The ultimate result? “Hansel was saved because he was a good person.”
For the Lutheran, the funeral sermon is always (or at least should always be), “Hansel was saved because of Jesus death and resurrection.” And yet there is more to it. A good funeral sermon will look to the faith and life of the dearly departed as an example. Their faith is an example for us of faith in the face of death, their life an example of a life lived in God. The Augustana teaches not only the doctrine of vocation, but a proper reverence for the saints. So, every funeral sermon I preach follow this basic outline:
Hansel was a Christian.
We should follow his example of faith and life so that
We too can be saved by Jesus (like Hansel was).
Each saint who dies will give provide different examples of the faith and life of the Christian. Each sermon will be individually tailored to reflect the personality of the person. But the message will always be the same.
At my last funeral, some people actually complained to one of my members that the sermon was all about Jesus instead of the dearly departed. They are not non-Christians. The considered it arrogance that we couldn’t’ just spend a few minutes talking about the dearly departed. I spent the whole sermon talking about the dearly departed. But I talked about him as an example of faith in Jesus death for his salvation. Just as I do for every funeral sermon I ever preach. Which is what “Hansel” would have wanted. Which is what every Hansel whom I have ever buried would have wanted. And every Gretel too, for that matter.
Lutheran sermons are a great joy to preach, because they are not about our silly little works which would end were it not for Christ. They are about Christ and his work, which makes our works endure.
To me one of the greatest privileges and highest honors of being a pastor is preaching funeral sermons for the saints.
PS. For the best example I’ve ever seen of this type of preaching, see Dr. Scaer’s memorial sermon for Robert Preus back in ’96.