A funeral sermon on leaving a legacy
Earlier today, I officiated the funeral service of James William Walter. Serving his family in this small way was an honor. The following is a transcript of the service including my sermon.
Welcome and invocation
I want to thank you for being here today. It’s Saturday. It’s cold outside. You could have found a million reasons to stay home, but you didn’t. You came here to honor Jim and support his family, and I commend you for that. The Bible says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Thank you for helping Betty, Mark, Cindy, and this entire family bear their burden of loss.
I hope we can accomplish four things this afternoon during our brief time together. First, I want us to honor Jim’s life and his incredible legacy. Some of that legacy is sitting right here on the front row.
Second, I pray everything we say and do will encourage Jim’s family. May we lift them up and give them strength with our love.
Third, I hope we are motivated to remember our own mortality. Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecc 7:2). According to Solomon, it’s better to attend a funeral than, say, a birthday party. Why? Unless we are reminded that life is short, we won’t be inclined to think about the things that really matter. We’ll just keep doing what we’ve always done as though we’ll continue doing them forever. The sad truth is, however, life is a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes (Jas 4:14). What then? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves and, of course, pursue an answer.
Last but not least, may we honor God as we honor Jim. Without him, we would have nothing. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (Jas 1:17). One of those good gifts, by the way, came in the form of a man by the name of James Walter. There is no telling how many ways God blessed you through Jim. All glory be to God.
Let’s pray together.
Heavenly and merciful Father, I humbly beg for your peace, a peace that surpasses our understanding. May your Spirit, the great Comforter, fill the hearts of Jim’s family and friends. Renew their minds to remember your promises all over again. Though sin destroys the body, you have given life through Christ your Son. You have promised not only paradise when our time on this earth is over, but also that you will even restore our bodies before it’s all said and done. By your grace, your children will be totally and thoroughly redeemed. We thank you. We praise your name. In Christ, I pray. Amen.
“I come to the garden alone,” says the song we’re about to hear, “while the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.”
C. Austin Miles wrote those words a little over a century ago. According to his great-granddaughter, he didn’t write this song while sitting in a garden. The words came to him as he sat, and I quote, “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window.”
You don’t need a window to hear the voice of God. There’s a reason the apostles could pray and sing praises while trapped in a Roman dungeon. Nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39). As believers, God dwells in us and we in him. If only we listen, we can hear God.
I suspect Jim heard God’s voice many times throughout his eighty-five years. Quietly fishing, for instance, in Wisconsin, Canada, or anywhere else— Fishing is a great activity for hearing God. How many times did Jesus escape the crowds of people, including his own disciples, to be alone for awhile, to pray, meditate, and listen? It’s much easier to hear the whisper of God once we get away from all of the other noise and distractions.
Jim was relatively reserved. I can relate. I’m rather introverted myself. The thing to understand about quiet, reserved people is that we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about others, especially people we love. That’s probably why Jim was so sensitive and compassionate. God gave him a heart and mind to listen and take notice. He loved to read which is further indication that he liked to absorb the world around him. He took it all in so he could distill the information and respond in meaningful ways, ways that would benefit his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, and anyone else.
God walked with him and talked with him, and he listened.
Let’s hear “In the Garden”.
[“In the Garden” by Selah plays.]
Old Testament reading
A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:1-6)
Keep in mind, David penned those words at a time when his enemies were trying to kill him. The possibility of losing his life was real, but he could still say with absolute confidence, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. I will fear no evil, for God is with me” (Ps 23:6, 4). If God is for us, who can be against us? (Ro 8:31).
God’s goodness and mercy followed Jim all the days of his life (Ps 23:6). That’s not to say things were always perfect. We can’t expect perfection in a world corrupted by sin. Even so, God graciously gives his children many, many wonderful moments, memories we will always cherish.
For example, Ms. Betty, for the better part of a week now, I’ve been thinking about your evenings with Jim as you sat in your recliners, reading the Bible and praying together. That is a powerful and beautiful image. That is the model of a successful marriage if you ask me. Ashlee, Joshua, all of the grandkids, great-grandkids, look to the example of your grandparents. Not only have they lived at the feet of Christ, they went together.
Of course, others here can tell you much more about Jim than I can, so I’ll turn things over to Cindy. Then, Mark and Ashlee will follow.
[Cindy, Mark, and Ashlee speak.]
[“If You Could See Me Now” by Don Moen plays.]
Amen. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2Co 4:17). As the song says, our trials here cannot compare with what God has prepared for those who love him (1Co 2:9).
New Testament reading
I’ve read from the Old Testament. Now, I’d like to read a passage from the New. The book of Hebrews says:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)
Even before I was a pastor and started preaching funerals, I’ve always thought a lot about death. Maybe that seems strange, but the Bible doesn’t think so. It reminds us over and over and over again that our life is fleeting. It won’t let us forget that we could die at any moment. It doesn’t want us to forget. It doesn’t want to us think we are forever bound to this depraved, dying world. Our existence here is temporary, and the Christian disciple rejoices at that.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:22-24)
In addition to death, I also think about my legacy quite often. I wonder what kind of legacy I’ll leave behind. I suppose that’s natural once you’ve had children. You can’t help but wonder, What will my children think of me when I’m gone? How will they describe me? What impact will I have had on them?
Hebrews 11, from which I read a moment ago, contains a list of faithful men and women of the Old Testament. It chronicles how each of them trusted God even though they had no tangible evidence that his promises were true.
Abraham, for example, obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise (Hebrews 11:8-9). In other words, Abraham left the comfort and security of his home to live in a strange place with strange people because God said, “Go. Trust me.” In fact, Abraham is mentioned more than once in Hebrews 11, exemplified as a man of great faith.
A few years ago, thoughts of personal legacy were running through my mind as I studied the book of Genesis. As I was reading about Abraham’s life, I started to think about his legacy. What kind of legacy did Abraham leave behind?
When we think about a man’s legacy, we have a bad habit of thinking about physical things. I want to write a bestselling book before I die. I want to create a successful business. Okay, so let’s think about the physical things Abraham left behind.
Abraham never had a building with his name on it. He never had a building. He never constructed or ruled a vast empire. To the contrary, he lived in tents his whole life, moving from one part of Canaan to the next with an occasional excursion into Egypt. According to Genesis, the only physical landmarks he left behind were his grave and a series of altars he built to worship God.
If the next generation had searched for Abraham’s legacy in things that could be seen, all they would have found were stone testimonies to his faith in God.
Jim was a successful businessman. He started International Crafts. He opened JB Express Mart. He was a hotel auditor at Ramada Inn for fifteen years. As a former hotel auditor myself, I can tell you the hotel business doesn’t survive without the guy who runs the reports and checks the daily transactions each night. Jim was also an avid reader. I, too, love to read and suspect there are shelves and shelves of books in Ms. Betty’s house. Those books are like paper-filled trophies. Jim’s friends would probably see them on the shelf and think, Wow. He’s read a lot of books. What an accomplishment.
But those parts of Jim’s life, as important as they were, don’t lend themselves to Jim’s real legacy as much as his faith.
Abraham was successful in business, but the book of Hebrews doesn’t mention it. He was victorious in battle over stronger armies than him and his servants, but the New Testament has nothing to say about it. In the end, those things don’t matter. Faith in God, however, will matter for all eternity. If all we leave behind are a few crudely constructed altars to God, we leave behind a legacy worth more than all the wealth and fame in the world. We leave behind a legacy that’ll ring through all eternity.
Brother Jim fought the good fight (2Ti 4:7). He finished the race. He kept the faith. And there was laid up for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, has awarded him (2Ti 4:8). And he leaves behind a series of God-honoring altars where he worshiped and trusted his Creator and Savior. May we all strive for such an incredible legacy.
Holy and righteous Father, we do not deserve your loving kindness, but you give it nonetheless. You were pleased to pour out your wrath against our sin on your Son, Christ Jesus, that we might be saved. You have held out your gracious hand to us, a stubborn and disobedient people, that we might trust you for eternal life.
Lord, we thank you for your grace. We thank you for the ultimate sacrifice of your Son. We thank you for enabling us by your Spirit to believe and follow you. We thank you for the life you give. We thank you for the gifts you share. We thank you for family and friends. We thank you for Jim.
Once again, Lord, I ask you to be with this family now as they continue to grieve. Let their sorrow be tempered by joy and hope. And may they never forget the faithful life of your precious child, Jim, who now dwells in your home forevermore. In Christ’s name. Amen.
This last song doesn’t need an introduction. The church has sung it for 240 years, and I imagine we’ll sing it for many generations to come.
[“Amazing Grace” by The Tenors and Natalie Grant plays.]
May the grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.