Whoever said, “Dead men don't tell tales,” wasn't sitting in my Stockton, Calif., pastor's office 25 years ago when I received a phone call from the director of the local funeral home.
The call began as the typical inquiry I get from funeral homes asking if I can officiate the funeral service of someone unknown to me. When I told the director that I was available, he offered more details about the deceased.
The man had approached the funeral director a few months prior and made plans for his flowers, casket and music. There is nothing odd about prearranged funerals, except this man came to the funeral home alone, making a modest prediction.
“Don't expect a crowd.” In fact, likely as not, he predicted an empty chapel.
On the day of the funeral, I arrived carrying a short sermon outline tailored to what I expected to be a handful of mourners. The director greeted me with a business-size envelope containing a funeral record and my honorarium.
We then took our seats on the front row, where we sat wondering aloud how it might feel to approach life's end, yet expecting no one at your funeral. With every creak of the old chapel, I shot an over-the-shoulder glance looking for tardy mourners.
No one was coming. It was apparent that we were not on the set of “It's a Wonderful Life.” I shuddered thinking how the whole scenario tripped everyman's fear — the fear of having no one care whether you were alive or dead.
At 15 minutes past the hour, I stood, thanked the director, and began walking toward the door.
“Aren't you going to preach the funeral sermon?” he asked.
“Right!” I said, waving a sarcastic hand at the empty chapel.
“The man paid for a funeral. He should get one!”
I protested mildly, but the experienced director became insistent saying that the man should get everything he requested.
So, with a breath of resignation, I took my spot before empty pews and preached a novice sermon about God's love for everyman.
The man's predicament reminded me of the biblical parable from Matthew 25 about a king who entrusted three servants to make investments on his behalf by giving them an amount roughly equivalent to three months' wages. Apparently the king had a reputation for rewarding people by letting them keep their heads.
Two of the servants did well. One man doubled the king's investment and another increased it by half. Both were rewarded with their own kingdoms.
However, the parable focuses on the third man. Fearful of his king, he buried the treasure so as not to lose a cent. When that servant offered the king only his original principal, the Scripture implies that the king executed the man.
Since dead men don't tell tales, I won't presume to say that the man I buried was just like the man in the parable. However, it did seem that both of them sought to live their lives without risk. At the end of the day, their lives ended in a lukewarm funeral that was both silent of criticism and silent of praise.
I've done many funerals since that day — some for saints and a few for scoundrels. But this man's story has always served to remind me that life is not without risks, and those who seek to avoid risk are often sentenced to a solitary life.
This is certainly not the way I want to live, and I'm convinced that it's not the way God wants his investment returned.
Norris Burkes is a chaplain, syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” You may leave recorded comments at 608-9715, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit thechaplain.net.