Last week, I had the honor of officiating at a graveside funeral. It was simple. The family wanted only the simplest form of funeral – no sermon, no eulogy, just the scripture, the prayers, the commendation, the committal.
The woman whom I buried never joined my church – but she was an active worshiper there for many years. She always sat in the back, listened, prayed, learned, sang. She was quiet, private, often leaving before the final hymn ended. As it turns out, I hadn’t seen her in a long time, due to the COVID pandemic. When I heard she died, I was honored that the family wanted me to officiate at the funeral, and I was not surprised they wanted something so simple.
The funeral was on the day we Lutherans call Maundy Thursday, known to many as Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, the beginning of the holiest time of the church year, the “Three Days.” If I’d had a “church” funeral that day, held in the church building, with all the bells and whistles, the organ and the luncheon to follow, I would have been beside myself with anxiety. But this funeral was simple; my role in it was so important, yet so simple. I simply read the words from the ancient yet timeless funeral liturgy, words that have been written and rewritten, translated and updated, by liturgical scholars over the centuries. I felt holy and useful. The service felt holy and useful. And the weather – the weather was outstanding. Seventy-eight degrees, sunny, a light breeze, and no humidity to speak of. The kind of day we so rarely get in Pennsylvania. It was a remarkably simple, elegant, and meaningful way to begin the Three Days.
We read from Ecclesiastes and John. We recited Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed for comfort for the mourning, and hope for the distressed. We thanked God for the chance to know this woman, and prayed for God to welcome home a sheep of God’s own flock, a sinner of God’s own redeeming. It was a good service. A good farewell. A good honoring of a life, a good celebration of the resurrection.
And then you spoke. After the service ended, the family was milling about, chatting. One or two people thanked me. And then you were introduced as a neighbor of someone in the family, and you wanted to say a few words. My first thought was, “Oh. I guess someone wants to share a eulogy after all. Oops. Guess I forgot to ask that.” No. You didn’t have a eulogy to share. You wanted to share something very different.
You spoke about heaven and hell. You said with utter conviction that there really is a heaven, and there really is a hell. You said how you know that this dear woman was in heaven because she had accepted Jesus, but that you didn’t know where the rest of us at the funeral would be heading. You told everyone gathered there that we had to make a choice – that we had to make the choice of where to spend eternity. You told us that God is real, but that God doesn’t decide our final location, we do. You told us that “God is not against you, God is for you.” You invited, encouraged us to turn away “from what the Bible calls sin.” You invited, encouraged us to pray right then, at that moment, with you. You told us what words to say in order to, at that moment, accept Jesus into our heart, and thus avoid an eternity of hell.
I was so sad to hear these words you spoke. You spoke them with such conviction, such confidence, such certitude. You really wanted what’s best for all of us gathered there, I know. You really wanted us to make the right choice in our lives so that we would pass the test, and receive the reward. I truly believe you meant no malice – on the contrary, you had our best interests at heart. But your words made me so unutterably sad. Because I believe you are so misguided. I believe your faith is so misplaced. I believe your attempt to help in this way simply leads to more despair, and to trust in a very small and petty God.
I turned away while you were speaking. I just looked into the distance. I didn’t want to hear it, and what’s more, I didn’t want it to appear that I approved of it. I was the one in uniform, the one called to represent the historic faith, and I wanted to make perfectly clear, in a subtle way, that I was not with you on this.
I thought of interrupting you. I thought also of going to talk with you afterward. But I decided that that was neither the time nor the place. A funeral is not a place to get into a theological argument. A funeral is not a place to proclaim how much better my God is than yours. But I also believe that a funeral is not a place to threaten people who are trying to find comfort, to threaten them with everlasting hell if they don’t act or believe a certain thing. And that’s what I believe you did. You encountered these people at a tender moment, a vulnerable moment, a moment where they may have been questioning some things about their lives. And you threatened them. And what’s worse, you threatened them in the name of God.
But I didn’t say any of that to you, for a few reasons. For one, it didn’t seem like a good moment. For another, I didn’t think you’d listen. I didn’t think there was any chance that my words would accomplish anything, except possibly to make you believe that I am a lost soul who needs to turn to Jesus. And for another, I am afraid of confrontation. I was relieved that I found good reasons to keep my mouth shut, because it was easier.
But I had, and still have some questions for you. I know that you, the real you, are not reading this. But I hope that someone is reading this who needs to hear it. I believe that I need to say it. So I will ask these questions of the rhetorical “you”:
- You said that God doesn’t decide where we go after death. You said that we decide. Really? Was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross really not enough? Are we more powerful than Christ, that we can prevent his grace from reaching us by failing to make the right choice? Or does God need our permission to provide grace?
- You said with great confidence that there REALLY IS a heaven and there REALLY IS a hell. How are you able to say that with such conviction? Isn’t that, like everything else in our belief systems, something that you have to take on faith? Have you seen proof of these things? St. Paul wrote, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Do you have clearer vision of these things than Paul?
- You said that God is “for you, not against you.” Yet you made it sound like God is rather neutral, really. If you take God’s side, then God will reward you. If you don’t, then God will punish you. Makes God sound rather quid pro quo to me. How is that God being “for us”?
- I could never send my son into hell for any reason, even if he rejected me over and over again. I might mourn for him, I might discipline him. I might feel some melange of anger and despair, but I could never, ever send him into everlasting torment. Even if he told me he never wanted to see me again, I would never send him into everlasting torment. What parent could? Yet the God you described would do exactly that. If God is loving, might God not give us yet another chance after death? Or do I have more compassion than God does? It seems to me that if my vision of God exhibits less compassion for me than I do for my son, then perhaps there is something amiss with my vision of God.
It just made me so sad. What a sad view of God. What a petty god you described.
I know I need to be more humble. I know I need to acknowledge that I might be wrong about what I believe. Perhaps you are right; perhaps God is the way you described. But I will be honest with you: I do not believe the God you described is worthy of my worship or my faith. A God who distributes rewards for praise is not worthy of it. I live in hope that God is bigger, better, more awesome than that.