What happens when a pastor dies? Everything and nothing.
Yesterday I went to the funeral of Rev. Ron Hodel. And while Ron would no doubt introduce me as a friend of his, I didn’t exactly view him that way. He was a mentor for me, someone I looked to for guidance and wisdom in the carrying out of this peculiar vocation. He is one that I’ve shared drinks and laughs and heart to heart conversations with over the last 20-something years. Ron and his wife Gail took my bride and I into their home when we were newlyweds, they offered us a place to stay as we were preparing to go to seminary and begin this new adventure. They were filled with concern and care not only for our physical wellbeing but for our spiritual and emotional health as well. In the end, I don’t consider Ron my friend but rather my pastor. And the death of one’s pastor is a startling thing.
The funeral service was exceptional. The historic rite carried the weight that such a moment demanded. The sanctuary was filled, the music was focused, the sermon was powerful. It was the type of service that pastors remember, quietly whispering to themselves, “When I go, this is what I want.” Now as a veteran of the pastoral office myself, I’ve presided at more funerals that I can recall. I know what it is to stand before family and friends and proclaim the gospel even as death stares everyone in the face. I know the challenge to speak of hope and life and resurrection as hearts are torn and grief hangs heavy in the air. But this time I wasn’t up front, I wasn’t standing comfortable behind my pulpit, I didn’t have the facade of the office of the ministry to keep me safe from the emotions of the day. And I was undone.
Every time I tried to sing one of the hymns, I felt this uncomfortable swelling in my throat. I would immediately stop singing as tears welled up in my eyes. I would regain control and try again, and again I would be cut short. “What they hell is wrong you,” I was saying to myself. “You can do this; you’ve sang these hymns before.” But I couldn’t, I couldn’t get through one of them. Somehow this was different. This wasn’t the death of a friend or a colleague. It was the death of a pastor, of my pastor.
As I reflect on these emotions, I think they flow from the reality of the visible church. That is, the church as we find it in this age, the good seed growing faithfully among the weeds. This church isn’t a vague or terribly elusive thing. It is located, enfleshed, if you will. It was there in the work of my pastor, in the Word that he proclaimed over and over again. No matter if the group gathered was large and energetic or small and slothful, the good seed continued to grow and at times bear fruit. The Word was being heard, the sacraments were being administered, the gifts were handed over without much fanfare and it was my pastor that was being used. He was the place that I grew to expect the proclamation, the place that I turned to anticipate the forgiveness of sins. And so, his death meant everything.
And yet, our Lord’s church isn’t constrained by the work of any single preacher. The true church doesn’t seem to care much for legacy and has a way of quickly overcoming sentimentality. I was once told that as a pastor I was just a member of the bucket brigade of a historical faith. I would take what was given by those before me and hand it on to the next. I might celebrate how I hand it on, and my task is meaningful and real, with real lives being impacted. But If I am removed from that line the Lord of the church will provide another to take that place. And it is not our lot to understand all that God has planned from beginning to end. As the wise preacher famously counsels us all, “I perceived… also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” (Eccl. 3:13)
This is true for plumbers, health workers, mechanics, and pastors. And so, there is comfort and joy that while one is now at rest from his labors, the Lord of the church continues to ensure that the good seed is sown, watered, and cared for even as it struggles to grow amidst the weeds. This Sunday will come, and the Word will again be proclaimed. Confession will be heard, absolution given. The bound will be set free as the body and blood of Christ continues to establish the fellowship of his people. And the death of a pastor, even my pastor, won’t stop the work of God.