From a funeral sermon I gave several years ago.
I Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up.” LeRoy was an expert at that, wasn’t he? He was a pleasant man, witty, quick to smile, and always had a friendly word to say; and oftentimes, it was a word of encouragement. Not long after I became his pastor, LeRoy expressed his appreciation for something I had done, and then said, “You are in my prayers every day.” He repeated that several times over the years. In what he said and in what he did, LeRoy was a great encourager. I know many of you were also encouraged by his kind words. “Therefore,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another and build each other up.” That is the verse I think about when I think about LeRoy.
As I thought about this sermon, I also found myself thinking about a pastor I knew several years back. He was serving the parish in a neighboring town, and we became good friends. His name was Pastor Schmidt, and as you might have guessed, he was of German descent. He was German through and through, and proud of it. He spoke German, he had studied in Germany, and he even served a congregation in Germany for a while. And, he was old school German, strict and severe, and not the type who would be too concerned about hurting anyone’s feelings if he had something that needed to be said. He once told a group of pastors that when he does funeral sermons, he always makes it a point to say something bad about the deceased. Well, the rest of us thought that was an outrageous way to go about it, but of course, he did not care what we thought.
Pastor Schmidt didn’t care much about other people’s feelings, but he cared a great deal about theology, and he had a good theological reason for this unusual approach to funeral sermons. “After all,” he said, “don’t we believe that we are all sinners, and that Jesus died to save us from our sins? Why then, when someone dies, should we pretend that they were without sin? Just when the person needs Jesus the most, we try to act like they were so good they did not need him at all.” He was right about that, of course, but none of the rest of us agreed with him that it was necessary to go into anything specific in the funeral sermon.
LeRoy was a really good man, but he was certainly not perfect; none of us are. But it can help us in our lives to recall from the lives of others what they did get right. And LeRoy was a great encourager. He was a good example of what the Bible says we should be in that way.
But Pastor Schmidt was right in the way he talked about linking sin and death. “The wages of sin is death,” says Romans 6:23, and that is simply a restatement of what the Bible had been saying from the very beginning. Way back in the third chapter of Genesis, God said to the first two human beings after their first sin, “Cursed is the ground because of you, so through painful toil you will eat of it all your life. It will produce thorns and thistle for you, and… by the sweat of the brow you will eat your food; until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and unto the dust you will return.” ‘Dust to dust,’ it says, and so we will say out in the cemetery in a little while. But that tragic judgment from God did not come until after the sin. “The wages of sin is death,” says the Bible.
I asked Mary what had also been asked by many of you, “What is the cause of LeRoy’s declining health?;” just as now we might ask, “What was the cause of his death?” What we are looking for when we ask that is a medical explanation. “Well,” Mary would say, “the doctors have not called it Alzheimer’s Disease, and, even though he does have Parkinson’s disease, that doesn’t explain all of his troubles, so the doctors really don’t know exactly what is going on,” and so forth. There did not seem to be a complete and precise diagnosis.
Sometimes we can say with certainty what the trouble was. Well, we say, we know it was a heart attack, or it was a stroke, or it was cancer. But even when we can’t say with certainty what the medical reasons were for a loss of health and eventual death, the Bible makes no mistake about the root cause of every death. We die because we have sinned, and if we are to live again, there will have to be a Savior. The rest of that verse from Romans that I quoted earlier says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Wages– that is what you earn, and by our sin we have earned death, says God’s Word. But the gift that we have been given is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.
Even the best of us fall far short of what God demands of us and hoped for from us. But even the worst of us are offered his grace and every blessing, now and forever. As it says in that most familiar and best-loved of all Bible verses, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosever believeth in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.
–Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
1 Thessalonians 5:11a — Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.
Romans 6:23 — For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Genesis 3:19 — (The Lord God said), “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
–Ancient ‘Jesus Prayer’ based on Luke 18:13