Pointing to Jesus In Our Life and In Our Death

1Two weeks ago, a beloved older man in our congregation passed away. John Lehrer had been a faithful member of this church for over 30 years, and had served in almost every kind of leadership role possible. Most recently, he oversaw the 70+ volunteers who help serve communion at our services every week of the year, and this was a huge role. That ministry falls under my supervision, so John and I got to know each other pretty well.

John was also one of my dad’s best friends. He was absolutely crushed when my dad passed away four months ago, and had told me so. He helped serve communion at my dad’s funeral, and had sent me several notes to check in since then.

I had the privilege of leading the music and preaching the homily at John’s funeral, and the audio and transcript of what I said is below:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:1-6 ESV)

As we stand, let’s bow our heads and pray.

Father, this morning we gather with grief in our hearts over the loss of a man we all love. But we know that you love him more than we do. And we know that not even death can keep us from your love, and so while we grieve, we have hope. Because we know John is more alive now than he has ever been. This is all because of your Son, Jesus. And we thank you for the way to eternal life that Jesus has opened for John, and for us. Open our eyes to see Jesus more clearly and fill our hearts with your peace, we pray. Amen.

Let me begin first by saying to the Lehrer family, extended family, friends, and guests, how much this church loved John. John was a very special man to us all. We thank you for sharing him with us, and we are honored to have you here today, as we give thanks for his life. And we grieve with you.

Jeanne and John, we are so sorry for your loss. This church is here for you. Not just today – as you can see – but in the weeks and months and years to come. This church doesn’t just love John, but we love you too. And I hope you know that.

In the past week, since John’s death, as his family has begun to get different affairs in order, and go through different files, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that John had left very specific instructions for his funeral. Very specific.

He wanted “Amazing Grace” as the processional hymn, and so we sang “Amazing Grace” as the processional hymn. He wanted “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the very end. And so — John… — we’ll sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the very end.

Not only did John request the specific songs we’re singing this morning, but he also requested particular people to be involved. Coleman and I made the cut, and we were both deeply honored to be asked.

John had asked for Tory, our senior pastor, to officiate, and Tory is so incredibly sorry to be out of the country on his sabbatical and missing this service. I know he’s sent his condolences to you, Jeanne and John, and I know Tory is thinking of you this morning.

But John made one other very specific request – and that was for my dad, Marshall Brown, to have a substantial role in the service. Sadly, that isn’t possible, as my dad preceded John into heaven by about three and a half months. So, it is truly an honor to stand here in his place, and while I don’t know exactly what my dad would have said, I think I have a pretty good idea.

Jeanne, John, Lehrer family, extended family, guests, and Truro family, believe in Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Follow Jesus.

Believe in Jesus
In the very first verse of the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled”.

Now, if this was some sort of Hallmark Card that someone picked out in the “bereavement” section, with a picture of a rainbow and a dove, we’d be tempted and justified to throw that thing in the trash. “Let not your hearts be troubled”? How in the world am I supposed to not let my heart be troubled?

Here’s how: Jesus continues, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

So we turn to Jesus in belief. In the face of grief, loss, mourning, what-ifs, if-onlys, I wishes… We turn to Jesus in belief. We don’t turn our brains off, or our hearts off, or sweep our very real pain under a rug, but we simply believe. And when we turn again to Jesus, even this morning as we come face to face with our own mortality, Jesus speaks his peace into our hearts.

John knew this peace. How else could a man walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the kinds of sorrow, the loss of a son, the trials and pains – and health scares of recent decades – without crippling fear, or uncertainty, or despair?

It wasn’t because of how strong he was. Or resolute he was. Or resilient he was. It wasn’t him at all. It was Jesus! Jesus was John’s peace. Jesus was John’s comfort. Jesus was John’s security. It wasn’t John. It was Jesus.

So we don’t turn inwardly this morning. We turn outwardly. We look to Jesus. That’s who John pointed us to with his life, and it’s who he’s pointing us to in his death. We turn again to Jesus in belief and he speaks his peace to our hearts.

So we also…

Listen to Jesus
In this passage from John 14, Jesus is speaking to his disciples. Jesus speaks words of reassurance, words of eternal hope: Verse 3 says “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is in the business of speaking to His disciples.

John Lehrer knew this.

He listened to Jesus. He knew Jesus was speaking to him. And sometimes that meant people thought he was crazy.

John sat in my office one day and told me a story of a time he was outside in front of his house, when, and I quote “The Lord spoke to me and told me that two Mormon Missionaries were about to walk up, and that I was to confess Jesus as my Lord and Savior”.

Apparently John had this experience more than once. Of Jesus speaking to him.

Was John crazy? I don’t think so. I think he was a disciple of Jesus. And Jesus speaks to his disciples.

One of the songs John asked for (that we weren’t able to fit in) was an old Baptist song called “In the Garden”.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Jesus walked with John, and he talked with John.

And John wasn’t crazy. In fact, he was right most of the time.

And I owe a debt of gratitude to John for how he listened to Jesus.

When I came to Truro as Director of Worship and Arts two years ago, it had been two and a half years since I had seen my dad. And it wasn’t for lack of my dad’s trying. I had been hurt, I had created a distance, and I had allowed my heart to become hard.

John and my dad were “best friends”. And one day, John approached me in the office and said “Jamie, Jesus spoke to me this morning, and told me to tell you that you need to have coffee with your dad”.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It exposed my un-forgiveness. But, you know what, soon enough I had a wonderful coffee with my dad at the Starbucks over here on Lee Highway last September. And a month or two later I did again. That was the last time I had a face-to-face conversation with my dad.

And this week, I realized, if it hadn’t been for John Lehrer, I don’t think I would have had that precious opportunity.

John believed in Jesus, and knew his peace.

John listened to Jesus, because he was his disciple.

And John followed Jesus.

Follow Jesus
After all that Jesus had said to his disciples about not letting their hearts be troubled, and him going to prepare a place for them, and coming back for them, they still didn’t get it. Thomas said: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

They didn’t get it.

They wanted to know what to do. Where to go. They wanted a system.

And we’re no different.

We want a system to get to God. We want to know what to do. What rules to follow. What not to do. What not to say. What to say.

How to earn our way in. How to work our way up. We want a system!

Systems make sense! Systems work! Systems can be followed!

John knew all about systems. He had managed huge budgets – he liked to remind people – of BILLIONS (with a “B”) of dollars.

And he brought that electrical engineering / systems-minded approach to his role here at Truro. He oversaw and coordinated our largest pool of volunteers here at Truro, our Lay Eucharistic Ministry. We lovingly refer to these people as “LEMs” (not to be confused with lemmings), and they are organized, scheduled, positioned around this room, and administrated with one of the most genius systems I have ever seen.

Two days before he died, John sent a reminder to all the LEMs scheduled for the month of August. And in early June, he sent a schedule through the end of 2016. And totally unsolicited, he emailed me the two “master files” for the LEM ministry, with contact information, who serves in what positions, who has what preferences, and who can serve at which services. John knew all about systems.

But John knew that following Jesus wasn’t about following a system. It was about knowing and following a person.

Thomas and the disciples didn’t get this. “…Lord, how can we know the way???”

Jesus responded to them – and he responds to us – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If we miss this, we miss everything.

John isn’t in heaven because of how good, or clever, or nice, or generous he was. He was all of those things, but it wasn’t enough.

John is in heaven because he knew Jesus. And he had placed his trust in Jesus alone. Not in a system, not in his own goodness, and not in his own righteousness – but in a PERSON. In Jesus himself.

There is simply no other way this morning has any business being hopeful.

Without Jesus, this casket, and the burial plot at Fairfax Memorial Park, have the final word. But death does NOT have the final word.

JESUS has the final word. And Jesus says I AM THE WAY. I AM THE TRUTH. AND I AM THE LIFE.

In the last book of the bible, Revelation, chapter 1 verse 18, Jesus says “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”

THAT’S the kind of Savior we can stake our eternal destiny on. That’s the kind of person who has the right to say to us “Let not your hearts be troubled”! That’s the kind of Savior worth believing in. And listening to. And following. Up until our final breath.

John knew this. John lived this. He pointed to Jesus with his life. And he’s pointing to Jesus in his death. May this be our legacy as well.

Amen.

Gospel-Centered Songs for Funerals

Last week, Catherine and I had the privilege of leading a few songs at the funeral of a wonderful lady we both knew at the church where we met and married. Joan Gepford knew and loved Jesus, so while we mourned her death, we rejoiced in her life and the hope of heaven.

Choosing songs for a funeral is a difficult task. Some funerals are harder than others, particularly when the death is unexpected or the person did not appear to know Jesus. But every funeral is hard, and every person attending is experiencing some level of pain and sadness. Many do not feel like singing at all, some are not Christians, some are seriously questioning God’s goodness and/or existence, and people from a variety of churches (with a variety of repertoires) are in one room.

I don’t know why God didn’t heal Joan Gepford of cancer and allow her to hold her newborn Granddaughter. But I do know God is good, God is faithful, and that Jesus is  “the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in (him), though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25).

That’s the good news of the Gospel – and that’s what the songs we sing at funerals should declare. Here are some suggestions for congregational songs and solo songs:

Congregational
Beautiful Savior (All My Days) by Stuart Townend

  • “I will trust in the cross of my Redeemer. I will sing of the blood that never fails, of sins forgiven, of conscience cleansed, of death defeated and life without end…”
  • “I long to be where the praise is never-ending, yearn to dwell where the glory never fades: where countless worshippers will share one song and cries of ‘worthy’ will honor the Lamb”

In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

  • “No guilt in life, no fear in death, this the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny…”

The Power of the Cross by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

  • “Oh to see my name written in the wounds, for through Your suffering I am free. Death is crushed to death, life is mine to live, won through your selfless love…”

There is a Higher Throne by Keith and Kristyn Getty

  • “Before the Son we’ll stand, made faultless through the Lamb. Believing hearts find promised grace, salvation comes…”

Before the Throne of God Above by Charitie Lees Bancroft, Vikki Cook

  • “One with himself I cannot die. My soul is purchased with his blood. My life is hid with Christ on high, with Christ my Savior and my God.”

It is Well with My Soul by Horatio Spafford

  • “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me so say ‘it is well, it is well with my soul…” “…Christ has regarded my helpless estate and has shed his own blood for my soul…” “…my sin not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more…”

Amazing Love (My Lord What Love is This) by Graham Kendrick

  • “Amazing love, oh what sacrifice, the Son of God given for me. My debt he pays and my death he dies that I might live…”

Rock of Ages Cleft for Me

  • “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling; naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace; to Thy fountain, Lord, I fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”

Jesus Paid it All

  • “And when before the throne, I stand in Him complete, ‘Jesus died my soul to save’ my lips shall still repeat…”
  • The new bridge by Kristian Stanfill says: “oh praise the One who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead”.

I Will Glory in My Redeemer by Steve and Vikki Cook

  • “I will glory in my Redeemer whose priceless blood has ransomed me… who crushed the power of sin and death, my only Savior before the Holy Judge, the Lamb who is my righteousness…”
  • “I will glory in my Redeemer who waits for me at gates of gold. And when He calls me, it will be paradise, His face forever to behold…”

Crown Him with Many Crowns

  • “Crown Him the Lord of life who triumphed o’er the grave, who rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save. His glories now we sing, who died and rose on high, who died eternal life to bring and lives that death may die.”

Solo
It is Not Death to Die by Henri Malan, George Bethune, and Bob Kauflin

  • “Jesus, conquering the grave, Your precious blood has power to save. Those who trust in You will in Your mercy find that it is not death to die.”

Hide Away in the Love of Jesus by Steve and Vikki Cook

  • “Come hopeless hearts, do not despair, hide away in the love of Jesus, for ten thousand joys await you there, hide away in the love of Jesus. Hear Him calling your name, see the depths of His love in the wounds of His grace. Hide away.”

There is a Hope by Stuart Townend and Mark Edwards

  • “I stand in Christ with sins forgiven, and Christ in me, the hope of heaven…”
  • “Through present sufferings, future’s fear, He whispers ‘courage’ in my ear. For I am safe in everlasting arms, and they will lead me home.”
  • “There is a hope that stands the test of time, that lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave, to see the matchless beauty of a day divine when I behold His face! When sufferings cease and sorrows die, and every longing satisfied, then joy unspeakable will flood my soul for I am truly home.”

I’m sure I’m leaving out a number of other gospel-centered songs that work well at funerals, so please feel free to share any I’ve missed.