The other day Becky and I were streaming the movie Mission Impossible III from our Netflix account, a mindless diversion at the end of the busy day. Early in the movie, and really just part of the setup for rest of the story, a colleague of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is viciously murdered by the arch villain who will not know justice until the end of the film. So there is a funeral scene, actually a graveside service scene, the kind that Hollywood likes a lot and that have little basis in the way graveside services actually go. The mourners are gathered around the casket and the pastor is droning on about the sadness of the death. As usually happens at Hollywood graveside services, the important action is at the edge of the crowd of mourners where clandestine contacts are made and important decisions are reached. We hope that a really good chase scene ensues.
In fact, in movies the only reason to have a funeral is for the clandestine contacts and important decisions at the edge of the crowd of black-clad mourners. The preacher’s droning only provides cover for more significant things.
I have officiated at well over two hundred funerals over the years and nearly as many graveside services. I don’t know how clandestine and important have been the contacts and decisions made at the edge of the crowd, the back of the Sanctuary, the steps of the funeral home, but I am aware that other things are often going on under the cover of my droning. Likewise weddings in a world where wedding means reception and what we do at the church is the quick cover for getting the party started.
God didn’t matter one bit at the funeral of Ethan Hunt’s colleague. He played as bit a part as the actress playing the colleague who was killed in the opening scenes.
Funerals at the end of a life and weddings at the beginning of, what, a season of life together, are not as popular as they once were. Lives and relationships end and begin with no public notice, no community celebration and promises of comfort or support, no prayer for God’s comforting presence or his life-giving blessings. And even when we decide for a funeral, life celebration, or a wedding, the bar opens at six and the DJ will announce the couple at seven, if God is there, it is as a bit player. Let the pastor drone on for a few minutes, but, please, get me to bar on time.
For sure, the end of a life can be marked and the beginning of a marriage celebrated without my professional presence. But this is not about professional turf wars. It is about allowing God to play more than a bit part in our lives – on the important days of funerals and weddings and in the everyday world of common contacts and mundane decisions.
I love a good funeral and sometimes the best weddings are those where the reception is in the church basement and the beverage of choice is Hawaiian Punch with 7-Up and a scoop of orange sherbet.
At good funerals and the best weddings, God is right in the middle of things. And not just in the droning of the pastor; in the conversation of the guests, in the remembrances of a life and the hopes for a marriage.
Jesus showed up at a wedding in Cana and, if you will, at the funeral of his good friend Lazarus. Soon enough he was right in the middle of things, making sure the best wine (No 7-Up punch for him) was saved for last, and, after weeping, calling the dead man out from the tomb. He’ll still show up if we invite him (and, amazingly, sometimes as the uninvited guest).
Not having a funeral or just showing a Power Point remembrance of a few life events is a sad way to mark the end of a life. It’s emptiness when God would have been happy to fill the day with weeping and joy and the assurance of eternity. Forgoing a wedding or making the promises just a prelude to the party is a sad way to receive God’s gift of marriage. It’s emptiness when God would have been happy to fill the day with love and hope and faith.
God matters at funerals and weddings and all the other days of our lives. Yes, we pastors drone on too long sometimes, but we’re just bit players. God is the main actor, filling our emptiness with his meaning and his love.
Oh, and by the way, once in a while, an incredible chase scene starts right after a funeral or a wedding. Sometimes the gospel is preached from the pulpit and shared around cookies and punch or at the open bar. And then, for some, the great chase begins (“I fled him down the nights and down the days…”). No mission is impossible for God.