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Sneak Peek: How to Preach a Funeral Homily

It’s weird to admit. I get it. It sounds a little, shall we say, macabre.

But here goes: I actually kind of like doing funerals.

Okay, a lot of pastors like doing funerals.

There’s the captive audience, the getting to hear ourselves talk, and sometimes there’s even free fried chicken and banana pudding involved.

So maybe it’s not that weird.

But after three years of full-time ministry and exactly forty(ish) funerals under my stole, I can say that I like doing funerals for a different reason: I like placing the deceased person’s story within the broader story God has been writing since the beginning of time. I like funerals because they present an opportunity to be creative—to lead those present into the world of the Bible and help them find themselves there, too.

Let me explain.

When I’m asked to do a funeral, sometimes I know the dearly departed, and sometimes (maybe over half the time), I don’t.  So I sit with the family and ask some open ended-questions like, “what was their childhood like?”

“How did they meet their spouse?”

“What’s the one story you always tell at family gatherings about them?”

And,“what role did faith play in their life?”

And for an hour or three, I just let the family talk while I take as many notes as I can.

Then I tell them what I see as my role in this whole thing.  My job, I say, is to tell the story of God—to tell the story of God’s relentless love and tireless chasing-after-us-even-when-we-run.  Of creation and new creation. Of death and resurrection.  And my job is to place the story of their loved one within this broader story that has been going on since “in the beginning.”

This is the fun part.

I read over the notes and pray.  Then pray some more.  Usually, a biblical story or passage comes to mind.  Sometimes though, just a word sticks out and I run with that.  I challenge myself to not use the “normal” funeral passages or the suggested readings in The United Methodist Book of Worship, at least for the homily.  And I allow the Spirit to give me a passage from Scripture that helps tell the broader story of that person’s life.

I have to say, I secretly relish the looks on the faces of the front-row-family as I begin the homily portion of the service.  I especially love it when the expression is slight confusion.  Tears are dried for a moment as heads cock to the side, their owners asking, “where is she going with this story about Ruth?” or “why is she reading from Nehemiah?!”

Because at first, their stay-at-home mom known for her lemon pound cake has little to nothing in common with the most famous Moabitess of all time.  And they can’t see how a minor prophet’s story could possibly shed light on their grandfather’s death.

But the thing about the stories in the Bible is that they’re our stories, too.They’re stories of imperfect, complicated people trying and failing and yet, by the grace of God, being used to witness to the love of God in the world.  Their lives tell the story of God’s redemption and grace upon grace.

And so do ours.

After attending a funeral I preached, a pastor friend (snidely?) remarked “you can’t not present the Gospel, can you?”

No, I can’t.

Because to me, this is good news.  This is very good news.  The Gospel is not just that Jesus died to take away our sin and make us clean-happy-pure people, but that God came to redeem us in our mess and to include us in the work God is doing to mend all of creation.  

It’s difficult to eulogize a life in twelve minutes or less: to summarize decades of experiences and relationships.  To comfort a generation of family members trying to make meaning from an unexpected death.  Or to un-burn years of bridges.  To mend broken hearts.

But the Good News is that the stories of our mundane, regular everyday-ness are as much a part of God’s story as the greatest king in Israel’s history. That work done in homes and classrooms and jobsites in middle America 2,000 years after Jesus are as much miracle as any healing done by Peter’s shadow.  That the Good Samaritan is alive and walking around disguised as the elderly veterinarian or nursing-home-bound centenarian.

That our stories are part of something bigger that has been going on since God spoke it all into being.

So our lives are more than just a few years of work and family and our contributions to church potlucks?  Yes.  Our lives are more than accomplishments and accolades? Absolutely.  Our lives are more than just setbacks and screw-ups? Yep.

This is the hope we have, anyway.  This is the hope we declare at a funeral and every time two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name.  That this is not all there is.  And when we enter into the strange world of the Bible, we find who God is, and who we are too.