In Monday’s post, I discussed some of the more common problems with funerals; it provides background for the homily I summarize in today’s post. In it, I tried to teach on what I think are the central themes that should be emphasized in Christian funerals. I do not necessarily preach every word you see here at every funeral, but I do address these basic themes.
The homily I typically give at funerals is broken into three main parts:
- Praise of the divine goodness of God – At every liturgy, funerals included, the first and primary work is the praise and worship of Almighty God, who has been good to us and through faith has saved us. It is appropriate for us to render praise and thanks for the gifts that the deceased received from God and to properly acknowledge, with respect, some aspects of his or her life.
- Prayers for the deceased – Too often, on account of universalism (the notion that all men are saved), prayers for the deceased (and for the dead in general) are often neglected; the dead are inappropriately assumed to have been “promoted” to Heaven immediately upon death.
- Preparation for death – Many people today are not properly preparing for death; they do not live as though they must one day render an account to God and are destined to be judged under the law of freedom.
No homily I have ever preached has been perfect and neither was this one. It merely represents my own meager attempt to teach more fully on the many truths regarding death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell that are too often neglected in funeral masses today.
I preached the following sermon on Nov. 11, 2013, at the Funeral Mass for James Cade. The audio recording is a little more than twenty minutes long. The following is a rough transcription:
Introduction – Joan, Robert, Joseph, and all who are here for our brother James: I first of all share with you my condolences at his passing. I know that he had a battle with cancer. I know how he fought to live. He certainly wanted to see his son’s (Joseph’s) wedding, and thanks be to God, that took place. And I know all that Robert said to me about the great love for all of you, unto the very end … and the kiss goodbye. It was a beautiful sign of his love for you (Joan) and his family.
I. Praise of Divine Goodness – We come to gather in this church today, and the first thing I hope you came to do is to praise the Lord, to worship God. I think sometimes when we come to a funeral our first instinct is to think, I’ve come to pay my respects (to James); I’ve come to honor and support the family. And that’s all good and beautiful. But our first instinct in walking into God’s House should always be to worship, to give glory, to praise, and to give thanksgiving to God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.
There’s a lot to be grateful for, yes, even at a funeral. All of you have in your minds some things that James Cade gave to you: gifts, words of encouragement, support, even the gift of life. You all have memories and you’re grateful! But remember, as Scripture says, Every good and perfect gift, comes from above, comes from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning (James 1:17).
I certainly know that this country owes a debt of gratitude to our brother James, who served for over twenty years in the United States Air Force. We need to remember that those who serve in the military are peacemakers. Scripture says, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God (Matt 5:9). Because, you see, they put their lives on the line to make those who would disturb the peace or would rob us of justice think twice. In so doing, they preserve the peace. Scripture also says, Greater love hath no man than he would lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). All those who serve in the military, including our brother James, put their lives on the line so that you and I can live in greater security, freedom, and peace. Those in our military don’t just protect this country; they go all over the world (and I know, not without some controversy). They go there; they obey their orders; and they take care of the people in each region.
And so all of us bring with us blessings from and memories of James: all that he was to us, to this country, to his community. We remember his life of service overseas and at home, his love for God, his love for family, his more than forty years of faithful marriage. And oh, what an important witness that is today!
I know we all bring with us many great memories, many thoughts of gratitude for our brother, for all that he was and is for us.
But I also hope you will remember that whatever James had to offer, he received from God. So we are here today to say thank you, Lord. We worship you, we praise you, and we thank you. You are the giver of every good and perfect gift. It all comes from you! Everything our brother James was, came from you. Thank you, Father. We love you, we worship you, and we praise you through your Son, Jesus.
We thank you, Jesus, for dying for our brother. The greatest truth I have to say to you all today about our brother James is not about any good work of his. It is simply this: Jesus Christ loves our brother, died for him, and went to Heaven to prepare a place for him. As Jesus said to Martha in today’s Gospel, and to us here today, Your brother will rise. … I am the Resurrection and the Life, and whoever believes in me (and our brother James believed in Him) will rise!”
And so we’ve gathered today to praise the Lord.
Even our brother James’s sufferings at the end of his life are something for which we should praise and thank God. The same is true of any sufferings that you are enduring. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said, Therefore, we not discouraged. Although our outer self (our body) is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed, day by day. For this momentary affliction is producing fro us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:16-17). Even at the end of James’s life, as he suffered with cancer and the effects of surgery, I tell you that his suffering was a gift, though in a strange package!
Scripture says, in Romans 8:28, All things work together for good, to them that love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes. Notice it says, ALL things, not just the good things…but even the difficult and the painful things work for our glory, if we give them to God, as our brother did. I say this to you again, whatever sufferings he endured, they produced glory. Again, St. Paul says, This momentary afflicting is producing a weight of glory beyond compare.
And so if you brought any suffering with you into this Church today, remember that the devil wants you to be discouraged. You just tell him, “I’m encouraged! I’m going to praise the Lord anyway! Because whatever I am going through, it’s producing a glory for me far greater than any suffering I must endure. I’m not discouraged; I’m encouraged. Because whatever I’m going through, it’s productive!”
So today, I hope and pray that you came to praise the Lord. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him! And we’ve come to praise Him.
II. Prayers for the Deceased – I also hope that you came today to pray for our bother, James. A lot of times in Christian funerals today we skip a step. Very often when someone passes away we hear statements that he is “in Heaven now,” or “in a better place.” We need to be careful not to miss a step.
The Bible does not teach that you die and go straight to Heaven. Rather, it says that there’s a little “pit stop” first. The book of Hebrews says, It is appointed to us to die once, and thereafter the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Similarly, St. Paul said, We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ and render an account for what we have done, whether good, or evil, and receive recompense or punishment for what we have done (2 Cor 5:10).
All of us need to remember that when someone dies, his first destination is the great judgment seat of Christ. And brothers and sisters, that is worth praying about! I’m not planning to die today, but if I do, would you please pray for me? Because when I go to judgment, I go to render an account. I am a believer. I love Jesus Christ and I know that He loves me and that He died for me. But I need to go and have an honest conversation with the Lord. And I would ask you to pray for me. I know, then, that our brother James both wants and needs our prayers, because he has gone to that judgment seat.
What is the judgment in question for a believer? Does not the Lord say, If you believe I will raise you up on the last day? So what, then, is this judgment?
It is based on a promise the Lord made to our brother James and to all of us at our baptism. It is at the end of the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: You must be perfect as the Heavenly father is perfect (Matt 5:48). Hmm … Has anyone been able to do that yet? Me neither!
Although it may sound like a threat, it’s not a threat; it’s a promise. The Lord says that when He has fully accomplished His work in you, when His grace has had its full effect, you will be perfect. And not just humanly perfect, but with a Godly perfection!
The Lord said to St. Catherine of Siena, “Catherine, if you were ever to see a soul up here with Me in glory and perfected, you’d fall down and worship, because you’d think that you were looking at Me.” Do you understand? That is our dignity. One day we will share a perfection that is the perfection of God Himself.
If I were to die today, I would go to the Lord knowing that perfection isn’t done yet, that there are still a few things to be accomplished; I’m sure that the Lord would show me some things that still needed to be completed.
The judgment in question for our brother James is this: “James, is my work in you accomplished?” St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6).
The judgment in question for each of us will be this: Is the Lord’s work in you complete? What remains to be done? The Lord will say, “Now I will bring it to completion.” How exactly the Lord does that, I can’t say. Does it happen quickly? Does it take time? I don’t even know if there is such a thing as time after we die.
All I know is that we are commissioned by the Church and by Sacred Scripture to pray for those who have died, to lift them up in prayer. We ought to pray for the dead as they go to the judgment seat. There they have that conversation with Christ. Whatever is incomplete must be completed. For Jesus, who loves us, will leave nothing incomplete. He will accomplish the promises He gave to our brother James, and make him perfect. And for our part, we give him to Jesus and say, Jesus, we love our brother James and we entrust him now to your care.
And this isn’t just about our sins. Honestly, is there anyone here who isn’t carrying baggage with us that we know we can’t take to Heaven? I’m not just talking about sins; I’m also talking about heartaches, hurts, and regrets we might be carrying. We can’t take those things to Heaven or else it wouldn’t be Heaven! There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that says of Jesus regarding death, He will wipe every tear from their eyes (cf Rev 21:4). This is part of what we call in the Catholic Tradition the process of purgation. The Lord wipes the tears from our eyes: sorrows, regrets, rough edges of our personality, the effects of sin that still cling to us. The Lord takes good care of it all. He wipes the tears and purifies us with holy fire.
Now whatever James brought to the judgment seat, if he had any tears still in his eyes, that’s between him and Jesus. But we pray and we say thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. We give you back our brother, whom you gave to us. We give him back to you with love and prayers. We call upon your mercy and judgment and ask you to bring to completion anything that was incomplete. We do this, knowing by faith that You are rich in mercy. And so we have hope and confidence as we make that prayer.
III. Preparation for Death – I want to say one final thing today. I asked you to make sure that you came to this Church to praise the Lord and pray for our brother James. I am also going to ask you to pray for yourself, and to ask you this: Are you prepared?
Now please know that I say this at every funeral. I call it my “Come to Jesus talk.” I do it because I often meet people at funerals that I never meet anywhere else. I don’t know everyone’s walk and where they are in it.
I want to use this opportunity to tell you this powerful truth. Our brother is teaching us even now; the Lord is teaching us. I’m not going to dress it up in any way. I’m just going to say it, plain and simple:
You are going to die. Yes, you are going to die. And you don’t get to say when. You might be thinking, I’m planning to live a good number of years more, preacher; I’ve got it all figured out. Listen, I can’t promise you the next beat of your heart! I did check before Mass and the roof is in pretty good condition, so it probably won’t crash in during the funeral, but really, I can’t promise you anything. I can’t promise you that you’ll live to see the end of this day. Sometimes we say, “I’ll take care of that tomorrow.” But tomorrow isn’t promised.
I hope and pray that each one of you has given your life to Jesus, that you’re repenting of your sins, that you’re serious about preparing for your own death and your appointment at the judgment seat of Christ.
And even if you don’t need to hear what I am saying, there are others here who do. There are just too many people today who are not serious about their spiritual walk. They’re running around as if life is just some big game. They’re not thinking about their destiny to appear before the judgment seat. They’re not praying. They’re not reading Scripture. They’re not growing in their faith. They’re are not going to Mass on Sundays. And many of them are stubbornly locked in very serious and unrepentant mortal sin. They are not going to be ready! I pray that is not true of anyone here, but if it is, I simply say, Turn to Jesus. Repent. Give Him your life.
Pray every day. Some folks tell me that it’s hard to pray, or that they don’t know how to pray. Well do you know what you’re doing when you say that? You’re already praying! But don’t tell me, tell God. If that’s where you’ve got to begin with your prayer, say to Him: “Lord, I don’t like to pray. I struggle to pray. Prayer is boring.” Tell Him whatever you need to tell Him. Prayer isn’t reading words that somebody else wrote that you don’t mean. Prayer is talking to the Lord and telling Him what’s going on in your life. Prayer is paying attention to God.
I hope that you read Scripture every day and study the teachings of the Church. Brothers and sisters, there is too much stinking thinking out there for us to believe that our minds will be anything but polluted if we don’t cleanse them every day with God’s Word and the teachings of the Faith. Some folks say its hard to understand Scripture. But there are so many aids available: “My Daily Bread,” “Magnificat” magazine. Some folks even get the Word sent to their cell phones each day along with some commentary. You say, “I can’t figure all that out.” Well, then, get a fifth grader to help you set it up! But somehow, get with God’s Word every day. After all, we seem to be able to find time for everything else.
I also say to you, get to Church every Sunday. I hope that you all have a church that is home to you. I hope that each one of you is in God’s house every Sunday. God is worthy of our praise. For us not to praise Him displays an egregious lack of gratitude. But also, we need to come to God’s house so that we can be instructed and then fed with the Body and the Blood of the Lord. Jesus says, If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). Some people say, “Oh, I watch the Mass on TV.” But you can’t get Holy Communion through the television. And you can’t get real fellowship. If you don’t have a church you call home, please find a parish and go to Mass there. Receive Communion every Sunday, provided that you are in a state of grace. God put it in the Ten Commandments: Remember to keep holy the Sabbath. He knows that we need it!
If you are aware of any serious or unrepented mortal sin in your life, I beg of you, repent and call on the Lord’s mercy. Some folks tell me, “I’m in such a mess that I don’t know how to get out of it.” Go to the Lord and talk to Him about it. Say, “Help me, Lord!” But please, do not go on calling “good,” or “no big deal” what God calls sin! The Lord says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).
Too many people today say, “I will not be told what to do. I will not be told what is right and wrong.” The one thing that God can’t really save us from is that kind of pride, because with it we don’t want to be forgiven. And so again I say to you, be urgent about it. I hope that no one here today needs to hear this, but then tell someone who does.
No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, and yet no one warned about judgment and Hell more than He did. Many people today are dismissive about judgment and Hell. They say, “Jesus would never do that.” But Jesus told us over and over again that there will be a judgment, and it’s not so much about what He decides, but what we decide through the way we live our life. Jesus says this: Here is the judgment in question, that the Light has come into the world, but many prefer the darkness, because their deeds are sinful (Jn 3:18). So there is a judgment coming. The Lord warns us in parable after parable. I simply ask you to be ready.
I know that many of you are solid and strong in your faith. Thanks be to God for that. That is His gift. But if anyone here needs to hear this message, please listen! As an ambassador for Christ I cry out, be reconciled with God!
Summation – So today, we’ve come together first of all to praise the Lord. Thank you, Lord, for our brother, James Cade. Thank you for all he did. Thank you for all he was and still is. Thank you, Lord. We praise you. You are the giver of every good and perfect gift.
We also pray for our brother: Receive him now, Lord. Receive him into your mercy. If there are any struggles or sins he brought with him to the judgment seat, purify him, Lord. Cleanse him of that; wipe every tear from his eyes. We give him to you, Jesus. We know you’ll be good to him because he had faith in you.
And to ourselves, we say it’s time to get ready. I’m going to die and I don’t get to say when. Do I need to repent? Do I need to pray? Do I need to prepare more? Do I need to be more serious? Please, Lord, help me to get ready.
The greatest way to honor our brother James is to imitate his example and get ready to meet Jesus. The very last food that James received was the Eucharist. In the Catholic Tradition, this is called the viaticum, which means “I (the Lord) am with you on your way (via tecum).” Our brother did not leave this world on his own; he went with his guardian angel. But Jesus led him with that viaticum. He led James across the valley of the shadow of death with His rod and staff to give him courage. James went with the prayers of Mary and all the angels and saints, to be led toward paradise. The Lord has had that honest conversation of judgment with him.
And now we simply say, thank you, Lord. Thank you for your love for our brother, James. Take good care of him now, Lord. We pray for him, and we ourselves keep watch over our own souls. Amen.