The Military Precision of the Gospel

Just when I think the ministry can’t throw me a new challenge, this happens:

Last week I had the honor of presiding over the funeral of a dear man who served our country in WWII. As part of the country’s thanks, he was entitled to be buried in a national veteran’s cemetery. I’ve had three other experiences with these types of cemeteries, but each one is slightly different depending on the organization. Briefly, this is how it usually goes:

Everyone meets at a precise time and lines up according to the coordinator’s specifications. At another precise time, the cemetery coordinator leads you either to a sheltered location or the grave (usually the former). Military honors commence, the flag is presented, and the preacher gets the nod to continue. We do the Christian side of the service, commend the departed to Christ, thank the Lord for the resurrection, and go to lunch. Standard issue funeral. 

True to form, everything happens with military precision at these cemeteries. In the past, I’ve had plenty of time to perform a full funeral service and committal. Last week, we thought we had thirty minutes, which is more than enough without the music.

However (insert suspenseful music)… 

Immediately before we were led to the sheltered area, we were informed that after the flag ceremony we had (wait for it) 5-7 minutes.

Wow. 5-7 minutes would barely get past the readings at an average pace. I felt bad for my friends, whose father we were honoring. They were told something different, or there was a miscommunication … I don’t know, but it couldn’t be helped. You don’t argue with the military, and the next family for the next veteran was waiting in line. So, thinking that the full service I had planned would take upwards of twenty minutes, we refrained from passing out the bulletins. I asked the son, “Which would you rather have: the liturgy or the homily?” Without blinking he said “homily,” probably not because I’m such an amazing preacher (I am though) as much as the homily’s ability to connect the gospel personally to the departed. Good choice.

And so, off we went. Taps, flag, presentation, salutes. Beautiful. The man gives me the nod, and I hustle to the front.

Invocation, Romans 6, another reading, and “Grace to you and peace …”

The excitement isn’t over. Near the end of the homily, the coordinator stepped out to the side so only I could see him with the professional posture and, well, serious military look that told me my time was almost up.

Say Amen. Have them stand. I’m flipping frantically through the unused portions of the service to get to the prayers, internally thanking God that I’ve done so many funerals I practically have the collects memorized. “We give you thanks for the earthly life you bestowed on our brother … by the death of Jesus Christ you destroyed death … by his rest in the tomb you sanctified the graves of all your saints … because he lives, we will live also, and neither death nor life will separate us from the love of God in Jesus … taught by our Lord and trusting his promises we are bold to pray …”

Finally found the page. “Now may God the Father who created this body, may God the Son who redeemed this body, may God the Holy Spirit who sanctified this body to be his temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh. Amen.”

Benediction. The man steps up and says, “This concludes the services. Please immediately return to your cars.”

Phew. Two thoughts: 

  1. I feel bad that the family was surprised in this way, and that we couldn’t have the entire liturgy we were expecting. But they understood, and were good sports as we rolled with the punches.
  2. You must be able at a moment’s notice to get to the heart of the gospel with military precision. You never know when all you have is 5-7 minutes. Kind of like life, right?