But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. (Luke 24:1)
It’s early. It’s still dark. But I’m awake. I always wake up five minutes before my alarm. It’s how I’m wired, I guess. I might as well get up. My routine: feed Samson (my dog), start the coffee maker, walk the dog, pour a cup of coffee, grab my bible, journal and a pen. It’s time to find out what Jesus has to say today.
That’s right, he’s already up. His word is active and alive. It will easily cut through joints and marrow and speak to my heart. It might be something I’ve heard a hundred times before. It might be something I’ve never thought about before. It might be a promise I’ll need to get through the day. Or it might be one I can pass along to someone else.
Jesus is up before the women who went to the tomb. He is risen, the stone’s rolled away, the guards have fainted, and the tomb is empty (except for the linen). Maybe they can return those spices for store credit.
If you ever think you’ve go it all figured out, just remember Easter. Nothing went as expected. Yet it turned out better than anyone could have imagined! Add a bit of Easter to your daily routine and you’ll never be bored.
We had been getting ready for this funeral for three years.
That’s how long it had been since my Dad fell, his kidneys failed, and my
brother, sister and I gathered to say goodbye to him at age 92. By the time I got
there, though, he had rebounded and returned home after a few days in the hospital.
Rather than a funeral, we started making arrangements for assisted living.
Two years ago, still in the memory care unit of a very nice
assisted living facility, Dad stopped eating. Rather than another trip to the
hospital to find out what was wrong, we admitted Dad into hospice so he could
stay where he was. Once again, we gathered for what we thought would be the end
of his ninety-three year earthly journey. However, his appetite soon returned,
especially for ice cream and other desserts, and we did not need to make any
This summer, after about three days into the Dallas portion
of my vacation, I got the call that Dad had a fever that wouldn’t break, and
was less and less lucid each day. The hospice nurse predicted he would only
last a few days, if not a few hours. I quickly booked a flight as my sister
boarded a train, and we once again gathered to be with Dad.
This time was indeed different. Dad was on oxygen, was not
responsive, and indeed looked like he was at the end. My sister and I spend
three days there, watching and listening to his rhythmic breathing. We read to
him, sang some hymns, and agreed that even though this might be the end, we
would never bet against Dad recovering.
At the age of ninety-five, though, his body just couldn’t
fight the infection. No eating or drinking for days took its toll on his
strength. But not till he stuck around for another six days. I had returned to Dallas
and then home. My sister had gone home and returned over the weekend.
The call from my brother came early Monday morning, August
12. We had gotten home late, so we didn’t hear the phone buzz the first ten
times. Finally, I heard something about 4 am, and my brother confirmed that Dad
had died shortly after two, with him, my sister and sister-in-law holding his
hand. Calm, peaceful, and pain-free, accompanied by families on this side and
angels on the other. Not a bad way to go at all.
Over the next few days, my brother made arrangements for the
funeral that had long ago been planned for Dad’s long time church in Ridley
Park, PA and internment next to Mom at a cemetery in Aston. I booked flights
for my wife and I, my son, and one of my daughters who brought her youngest
That Friday (August 16), a few family, friends and church
members gathered to worship, remember Dad’s life, and look forward to the resurrection.
My son, a pastor from Dallas, my brother, a pastor from Vienna, VA and myself
co-officiated the service and all took a turn preaching. My sister played the
organ and my nieces played violin. It was a unique and fitting moment for a man
whose quiet faithfulness had left a legacy of three pastors (so far), and three
generation of faithful children, spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
When you live to be ninety-five, you outlive most of your family
and friends. Dad was the youngest of seven children. His last remaining sibling
had died some fifteen years before. Five of my cousins who were still in the
area joined us that day. About half-a-dozen members of the church who had known
Dad were still around and attended the service. A few folks from my brother’s church
and some area clergy friends also attended.
While neither my brother nor I wanted to preach at my Mom’s
funeral fourteen years ago, we both wanted to speak for Dad’s. I didn’t know
how I would feel. You never really do, until you’re in the moment. My voice
cracked just once, when I spoke of Dad, along with us, waiting for “that day,
for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
My brother Jim spoke on Dad’s favorite verse from Romans 8, that nothing can
ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. My son Adam reminded us that
even though our hearts and minds are filled with great memories, the best is
yet to come when we get to be with the Lord.
My brother and I draped Dad’s casket with the funeral pall as my son reminded us of Dad’s baptism. We took turns reading scripture. Isaiah 55:6-13; Philippians 1:18-26; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 28:1-10. We preached around some great hymns. “For all the saints,” “The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want,” “My hope is built on nothing less,” “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “Jesus lives, the vict’ry’s won.” It sounds like a lot, but only lasted a little more than an hour.
The procession to the cemetery had to navigate some
interesting interstate traffic, but we all made it. After a brief committal and
military honors, many of us gathered at a nearby restaurant for lunch, memories,
laughter and a few pictures.
I had to get my son back to the airport for an evening flight
home. My brother’s family, my sister and my family then hung out at our hotel
suite that evening. That night was much more relaxed.
And just like that, it was over. Everyone returned home safely
the next day.
I’m still trying to figure out how I feel. I don’t feel sad,
but I know I’ll miss Dad. Our recent visits weren’t much. It’s not like I’ll
miss our conversations. He typically sat and snoozed while I sat and visited
with him. I’m a bit relieved. I didn’t get up there to visit him very often,
and I always felt a little guilt about that. My brother, on the other hand, was
there every day. This will leave a bigger void for him. We didn’t shed that many
tears. Smiles and laughter predominated those last few days and the funeral
service. Dad always made us laugh before, so why not now?
Most of all I’m just thankful. I’m thankful for what he
taught me, for my memories of him, and for the faith he and Mom passed along to
Holy Saturday. For we pastors who run the entire Holy Week race, we’re coming out of the final turn on the way to Easter morning. The week has been filled with extra worship services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and a few visits to some homebound members who won’t be in worship tomorrow, perennially the biggest Sunday of the year. What do pastor’s do on that in-between day?
For me, it’s pretty relaxing. I didn’t have to get up as early as I usually do. I did a little sermon review for Sunday. Then I oiled up the valves and blew a few notes through my trumpet, just staying limber for tomorrow’s hymns. I exercised, did some grocery shopping, bought a new tie for tomorrow, got into the Easter candy, and may still take a nap this afternoon. All in all, a pretty nice day.
What happened on that Saturday before Jesus’ resurrection? Not much. It’s the Sabbath, so it’s a day away from the regular routines of work. The reality of Jesus’ death is beginning to hit those who knew and loved him. Thoughts of having to get up early to finish taking care of his corpse were on the minds of some. Fear haunted those in hiding; “Now what are we going to do?” The Roman soldiers had to work, guarding the tomb.
The one thing that we do not see on that Saturday is any kind of celebration from Satan and his demons. Why not? The Christ is dead. This should be their moment. They can run amok unhindered through creation and mankind. They’ve won. They should be celebrating. They should be planning the parade.
But they’re not. Maybe they knew. Maybe they knew that this pause in the story isn’t a good thing. When Jesus said he’d rise, the disciples didn’t get it. Maybe the demons did. From the beginning they knew who he was. And they knew they didn’t have a chance.
In a sense, much of life is Saturday. We’re waiting for resurrection, for the return of Christ. For some, it’s relaxing. Others have to work. Some are afraid. Many hope it comes soon. We’ll get a taste of it tomorrow, in word and sacrament and song, and be reminded that death doesn’t have a chance!
I went to a funeral yesterday. As I sat there before the service began, I realized that I’ve been to very few funerals that I haven’t conducted. The person who had died was the father of a member. I had met him a few times, but didn’t know him very well. I was there mostly to support the family.
The service was held in an Episcopal church. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an Episcopal church before, either. As expected much of the liturgy was familiar and reverent, the ministers did a good job, the family participated in a meaningful way.
But when it was all over, I thought to myself, “I wish it were Easter.” Why? Because if it were Easter, I would have heard an account of Jesus’ resurrection! The homily did contain a passing reference to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but nothing more. The well-intended meditation focused on the ever-present love of God even in the face of death, but lacked the impact of the resurrection. Yes, the deceased will live on in our memories and in the presence of God, but no reference to that last day when Christ will come, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised.
Though I wasn’t exactly grieving, I know that this was a tough day for the family. I don’t believe most of them had yet experienced the loss of someone that close to them, who was such an integral part of their lives.
I made up my mind right there and then that I would either read or include in any funeral or memorial sermon the account of Jesus’ resurrection from one of the gospels. If I’m doing your service, your friends and family are going to hear about the rolled away stone, an empty tomb, and angels telling you, “He’s not here, he is risen!” I cannot type, read or speak those words without feeling rush of emotion. A casket or an urn or even just a picture of the deceased may be on display before the altar. Death may have come quickly or over a long period of time. You may have had a chance to say good-bye. Or not. But you can be 100% sure that you will hear me say that the urn, coffin, vault, or grave can only hold your loved one for so long. When Jesus comes, the best trumpet I’ve ever heard (and I listen to a lot of trumpet players!) will be followed by the sounds and sights of urns, coffins, vaults and graves surrendering their dead as “the resurrection of the body” becomes a reality.
I am doing a memorial service next Saturday for a long-time member of our church. I am so looking forward to this. They are letting me pick the songs and readings. We’re going to send our friend and brother off with joy, hope and expectation!
Spoiler alert: at my funeral, you’re going to hear a Gospel Easter account (you pick one), Psalm 16, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Hymns: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Crown Him with Many Crowns, In Thee is Gladness, and For All the Saints. Hire a trumpet player. There you go. Funeral planning done. I suggest you do the same.
Several months ago I wrote about our preschool’s last graduation as we closed the door on that part of our church’s ministry. Since then, closing that door has been followed by a flood of new opportunities. As soon as we laid that program to rest, new ministries immediately sprouted and began to grow.
A team of members, both new and old spent weeks cleaning out many years of preschool furniture, toys, craft supplies and teaching materials. A new wall, buffed floors and a fresh coat of paint spawned new ministry ideas.
One area was set aside for youth ministry. Soon after, two young adults took a step of faith and offered to lead our youth ministry, which had lay dormant for a couple of years. They now have more than a dozen meeting each week, not just in our facility, but out serving in the community.
Another area was set aside for our Operation Barnabas chapter, ministering to veterans and families of military in our area. The harvest field of retired vets is plentiful in our area. A place to connect with other vets will also provide a way to connect with the local church and other services that they need.
Yet another area was set aside for our preschool Sunday School class, which is suddenly being populated with little people as the birth rate rises in our congregation and community. Two first-time teachers stepped up to lead this ministry.
Both the girl scout and boy scouts have asked to use our space, another connection with our community, and more importantly, the homes immediately around us.
The space we now have available can be used for disaster relief. We now have space usable as a secondary shelter when the primary shelters close down.
We recently got involved with helping out homeless students at our high schools. We now have some space available to expand our ministry to those families.
Over the past few years, we did everything we could to keep our school open. In hindsight, we were simply providing hospice care for that part of our ministry. From scripture, we should have known that unless a seed is planted in the ground, it remains just that. But when it is buried, it grows into something new and much more than it was before. We should have known that death leads to resurrection, not just on Easter morning, but in the life of the church and her saints.
Our most recent experience in church revitalization happened when we laid an old ministry to rest and watched as God breathed new life into that void.