From my sermon for the funeral of Roger, who was once a member of my church, but had long ago moved away. I knew Roger’s brother Mike, but never met Roger or any other members of the family. Mike told me that Roger was at one time a hard worker and a good family man, but then became an alcoholic. He ruined his health and died young. And, he died alone, having angered and alienated all who knew him.
Relatives and friends, grace and peace to you from the Lord Jesus Christ. You all have many memories of Roger, and on this sad day I would guess that your memories are complicated. I know about Roger only through what I learned talking to Mike. Mike has many positive memories of Roger as a good brother, a hard worker, and a man who wanted things done right. But then there were the many bad years and bad memories, as Roger’s problems affected everyone who knew him. So as I said, your memories on this day are probably complicated– a frustrating and confusing mixture of good and bad. And your feelings are no doubt a mixture of the love you once had, and the anger and perhaps pity that you have felt for a long time.
So what should I say today? I am probably the least qualified person here to speak about Roger, but I am the one you asked to do this. I have read from God’s Word and I’ll say some prayers. I know how to do that, and I know that at times like this that is all we have left. As Peter one time said to Jesus, “Lord, where else can we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.” Peter was right. There are no other offers on the table. So, I read from God’s Word, our only source of hope and comfort.
I thought about just leaving it at that, but then I decided to say a bit more. I don’t think I should ignore what is on everyone’s mind, but neither do I want to pretend I knew Roger. I don’t want to be judgmental, but neither do I want gloss over the bad memories, and, as an outsider, trivialize the pain you might be feeling. So, I will say a few things, and forgive me if I get it wrong.
I did not know Roger, but I did know Todd, so I’ll talk about him. And this may or may not apply to your memories and what you are feeling today. Todd and I became friends in college. He was a friendly, jolly, Irish farm boy, and an all-around gentleman. Everything I said earlier about Roger could also be said about Todd. He was a good friend, hard worker, ambitious, and he wanted things done right. He became a top salesman and provided well for his family. But Todd drank too much, and over the years the drinking took over all else. He lost everything, including his health; and then he died. And his friends and family were all left with a confusing mixture of memories and emotions. And to this day whenever I think about Todd, there is still that hodgepodge of recollections; the bad memories of how irresponsible and maddening he could be when he was drinking, and, the happy memories of this cheerful and charming Irishman when he was sober.
One evening at a reunion of old friends, Todd said to me, “Let’s go for a ride.” So I drove and Todd talked, and for an hour he poured his heart out to me. He told me about the pressures of his job, about the difficult family issues he was dealing with, and, about his relentless, never-ending, discouraging, and, what turned out to be, losing battle against his addiction to alcohol. Todd wasn’t using his problems as excuses, and I didn’t say, “Yes, I can see why you drink.” He wasn’t asking for any sympathy, and I didn’t offer any. A part of me wanted to just grab him by the shirt and say, “Don’t you see what you are doing to the people you love and who love you.” But I didn’t have to say that. He knew what he was doing and it broke his heart. But he just could not stop. And I didn’t say, “I understand,” because I didn’t. And I didn’t say, “That’s all right,” because it wasn’t. It was just a mess, and it stayed that way. But I still liked Todd and I did feel sorry for him. And all I could think about was that prayer that appears so often in the Bible, that simple, but profound prayer, “Lord, have mercy.”
“Lord, have mercy.” That’s a good little prayer; one we could all pray, every day. Sometimes that is all we can say, and then we just leave it in God’s hands. And oftentimes, God leaves us to the messes we create for ourselves, and then we have yet another reason to pray, “Lord, have mercy.”
The traditional Lutheran worship service always begins with the Confession of Sins in which we pray: “Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us.” And then, God’s forgiveness of sins is announced with these words: “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake, God forgives you all your sins.”
We all have sins to confess. We all need God’s forgiveness. We all need to pray, “Lord, have mercy.” This is the pattern of the worship service, the pattern of the Christian life, and the pattern of all of life.
In a little while we will gather at the cemetery for the committal service. There, we will hear these words: “In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek comfort, but of Thee, O Lord.” Here, we are in the presence of death. But the rest of us remain, as the words say, “in the midst of life.”
And so, the Bible is always telling us that we should, in the midst of life, remember. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” says Ecclesiastes. “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy,’ says the ten commandments. “Do this for the remembrance of me,” said Jesus as he offered the bread and wine to his disciples on the night before he died.
Our hope and prayer as we remember God is that God will remember us, but that he will not remember our sins. And if we believe in Jesus, and we pray for his forgiveness, He promises us that He will indeed remember us, but not our sins. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” said the thief on the cross to Jesus, as they were both dying. And Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” And we pray the prayer in Psalm 25:6-7: “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways. But according to your love remember me, for you, O Lord, are good.” Amen.
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”