Preaching to Remember Those We Never Knew

I came across the following passage, yesterday, as I was reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The novelist is describing a memorial service for her protagonist’s private school teacher and mentor.

“Johnson went on and on, giving an equal amount of eye contact to every third of the congregation with the mechanized surety of a sprinkler system, most likely having learned this from a course, How to Give a Mesmerizing Sermon, with its concepts of Bringing Everyone In and Evoking a Feeling of Togetherness and Universal Humanity. The speech wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t at all specific to Hannah. it was teeming with She Was a Lights and She Would have Wanteds, mentioning nothing of her real life, a life that Havermayer and the rest of the administration were now all deeply afraid of, as if they’d secretly discovered asbestos in Elton House or found out Christian Gordon, St. Gallway’s Head Chef, had Hepatitis A. I could almost see the paper on the lecturn filled with (Insert Deceased’s Name Here) (see, #8).”

Pastors all know the challenge of speaking uniquely into the lives of people at such services. This is particularly true when the deceased is not well known to us. We do a little sleuthing so as to uncover one or two anecdotes that can personalize the sermon, but if we are honest, most of us take a template approach to our sermons in such cases.

The saliency of this issue struck me with some force given that shortly before reading the afore-quoted passage, I received the real life news that my wife’s much-loved grandmother had died and that I am being asked to perform the memorial service later this week. The family wants me to perform the service because they know me, because they know I cared about my wife’s grandma, and because they know they can trust me to speak authentically about that love. I expect that it will be a meaningful service for those reasons.

All of this lead me to think about some of the many other funeral sermons I have preached for those I never knew. I did my best to tell the stories, and to personalize the event, but it always felt a little artificial. I was telling someone else’s stories and those who attended well knew that I didn’t truly know what I was talking about. They appreciated the effort I made to reflect their loved one, but given that I didn’t know the deceased, it didn’t always have the needed spark.

I’m wondering what we might be able to do about that. I do think we should still work to personalize things, as much as possible. But I also think that we should not try to speak as if we know the person we have never met. There are other ways, I think, to spark the needed authenticity. We can speak with passion, for instance, about the sense of mortality that we all feel whenever someone dies. It’s like the quote from John Donne, “don’t ask for whom the (funeral) bell tolls. It tolls for you.” I don’t need to have had a close personal relationship with someone to have an authentic response around their death.

People want to hear us talk about things that are real within us. We need to get close enough to the situation to be able to reflect an honest and helpful response. We need to let the death effect us, whether we knew the person or whether we did not. When people die, they leave a hole. As Donne said, “we are not islands unto ourselves.” The death of one diminishes the experience of us all. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves get close enough to be touched a little by that truth. Those who listen to our sermons will sense it if we do. It will help them and they will appreciate it.