Russell E. Saltzman knows a bad funeral sermon when he hears one.
In fact, after the graveside committal service of this Lutheran pastor's own father, he took the pastor who spoke there aside and "told him his pastoral practice 'sucked.' I may have said, I don't remember, a few other things laced with phrases picked up in the course of my earthy Germanic upbringing. Later, by email, I apologized for the vividness of my language. I regret having made that apology."
Russ's purpose in collecting some of his own funeral sermons into a book may not have been to show others how to preach excellent homilies in such situations, but I hope lots of pastors (and others) read his new book, Speaking of the Dead: When We All Fall Down, so they can learn exactly that.
But first, a disclosure. Russ asked me to read this book in draft form and make suggestions. I didn't find much to suggest, but I did do that review (for no fee) and Russ has acknowledged my role at the beginning of the book. For that reason, you may discount my praise of this book if you want, but that would be a mistake.
The great value of this book is that it shows clearly that the author understands the purpose of a funeral in the Christian tradition and he understands the gospel. (For another excellent book on this subject, read Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.) More than that, Russ knows that the questions of theodicy -- asking why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is good -- are the open wound of religion and yet must be addressed honestly.
Perhaps Russ grasps all of this so well because, as he acknowledges in one of these sermons, he spent years as an atheist or agnostic -- years of anger "because God did not exist."
So, for instance, when he preaches at the funeral of a man who died in a motorcycle wreck, he is able to ask directly, "Why wasn't God riding that motorcycle with Zach?" And then to describe a profoundly Christian response to that difficult question -- a response I won't paraphrase here.
But I will give you an example of Russ's willingness to ask and answer hard questions:
". . .how does death serve God's purpose? The answer -- biblically and theologically -- is it does not. This is why God must promise to restore all that death claims. The promise of God is to destroy death, the final enemy of God's creation. There is the Good News. But it must be said so we can hear it in our lowest moments. It must be spoken at a funeral."
We Americans live in a death-denying culture. And we pay a steep price for that stupidity because the truth is that we'll never understand our own life until we understand our own death.
And that's what this book of terrific sermons helps all of us do.
The bonus here is that in addition to these sermons Russ has included a handful of essays that ran originally on the website of the publication First Things, for which he writes a regular column.
So if you fear death, fear even thinking about the subject, take my advice: Walk through the valley of the shadow of it to learn about it but do it with the rod and staff of this book with you. It will comfort you.
(By the way, in a four-week "Wednesdays Together" series at my church, Second Presbyterian, the first four Wednesday evenings in October, Russ will be speaking about how the Bible came to be. Details will be on the church website closer to the series. Or e-mail me if you want those details now.)
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ANOTHER VICTIM OF VIOLENCE IN IRAQ
As Islamic State militants drive Christians from some sections of Iraq, those misguided thugs may well be destroying the last vestiges of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Foreign Policy reports here. You may be aware that although Hebrew is the language of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament was written in Greek. However, there are smatterings of Aramaic in the New Testament, including words from Jesus on the cross. And there is a bit of Aramaic in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures. In any case, it's always sad to see a language on the verge of extinction.