Even though he is dead

Updated: Feb 10



Harlan Leistikow helped me to write his funeral sermon. Here is the story of how it happened.


 

This morning I want to let you in on a little pastoral secret. Some sermons are easier to write than others. This is true for Sunday morning messages; it is also true when it comes to funerals.


Why am I sharing this with you? It's because Harlan sure made my job easier today.


Let me show you what I mean.


There is one chapter of the Bible that I turn to again and again. It’s a chapter I cling to personally. It’s a chapter that I also use frequently as a pastor. The chapter that I’m referring to is Hebrews 11.


Hebrews 11 is all about living by faith—and dying by faith. As a matter of fact, the word faith is found 27 times in this one chapter—Hebrews 11.


Hebrews 11 is about the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us—these witnesses remind us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the beginning and the end of our faith.


Hebrews 11 contains many great sentences, including this one: "And by faith, he still speaks, even though he is dead."


Hebrews 11:4 is referring to Abel. It could just have well have been talking about Harlan.


Harlan’s faith still speaks today. This isn’t a cliché, and I can prove it.


 

Much of this service was planned by Harlan. This includes the hymns.


Harlan kept copies of our Sunday morning bulletins. From time to time, he tore a page out of a bulletin containing a hymn that he loved. As a matter of fact, he did this with 8 different songs. (Sorry, Harlan, we had to pare this down just a bit!)


He was clear about which hymn he wanted sung last this morning: How Great Thou Art.


I’m not exactly sure what Harlan loved about How Great Thou Art. This much I do know. Harlan spent lots and lots and lots of time outside. Remember, he was a mail carrier for 41 years. Perhaps he was struck by the vivid creation imagery embedded in hymn. I would guess, though, that it may have been verse 3 that meant the most to Harlan:


 

But when I think that God, His Son not sparing,

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in—

That on the cross my burden gladly bearing

He bled and died to take away my sin;

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,

How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,

How great Thou art! How great Thou art!


 

Harlan’s faith also speaks in another part of this funeral. Judy, you found one of the notes that he made for this very occasion. On it, Harlan wrote 1 Corinthians 15:54-58.


"When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.' 'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."


The apostle Paul concluded with this admonition: "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."


Harlan now rests from his labor. Even though he is dead, his faith still speaks to us today.


Harlan loved Portals of Prayer. This daily devotional guide has been used by millions in the decades since it was first published. One devotion in particular made a big impression on Harlan; so much so that he tore it out and saved it, inscribing the following note at the top of the page: HL Funeral Service.


I would like to share the devotion that Harlan treasured, and wanted us to hear today.


 

So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12


TIME FLIES


When I was a child, summer seemed to last forever. High school freshmen can hardly imagine how soon they will graduate. Parents see things differently. Children are with us and too soon are off on their own, beginning new lives. And so it goes.


Days can seem long, but the years fly by, as if only a dream. Just as surely as the grass rises up in the morning, it fades and withers. And so wisdom teaches us to number our days. Wisdom reminds us to make good use of the time we have, to keep our eyes on that which is eternal.


But Christians, while sentimental, are not gloomy. Thanks to our Lord’s death, the wrath of God has been taken away. Thanks to our Lord’s resurrection, we shall one day rise from the grave and live forever.


We do well to remember that the end is near. We are mortal. Made from the dust, to the dust we shall return. Yet we will live with God, who lives from everlasting to everlasting.


 

Harlan’s faith speaks to us, here and now, today.


Harlan was here to worship one last time in December. By this point, his legs, which had logged so many miles delivering the mail, were failing him. He had recently fallen at home. Despondent, he cried out to Judy, begging to be able to go to church. Judy, by the grace of God, you were able to make this happen. We didn’t realize that it would be the final time. Soon afterwards, Harlan entered the hospital; an inoperable tumor was discovered.


Over the New Year’s weekend my family and I traveled to Iowa to spend some time with our extended families. Meanwhile, Harlan was transferred from Woodwinds to the Ramsey County Care Center. Harlan asked to see me. He hungered and thirsted for righteousness. He wanted to receive his Lord’s Supper. The problem was, I was 325 miles away. Yvonne Green was able to make arrangements with Pastor Steve Benson at Eastern Heights Lutheran. Pastor Benson visited Harlan that same Sunday afternoon, bringing to him the body and blood of his Savior.


I returned to work from my vacation a day early. I had a funeral to prepare for—Bud Frank’s. I called Judy to see how Harlan was doing. Not well, she said, adding that he wanted to see me.


And so it was that I visited Harlan early in the afternoon on that fateful day, Wednesday, January 5th. Throughout the visit, Harlan’s eyes were half-closed. I read a devotion by his bedside. Judy asked him if he had heard me. Harlan didn’t say a word; instead, he gave a big thumb’s up. Before leaving I shared one final Word of God with him. A word spoken through the prophet Jeremiah during some very dark days for God’s people: "I have loved you with an everlasting love."


Later, I found out that Harlan took his final breath not too long after I left.


 

Harlan has now joined the great cloud of witnessed who went before him. He has joined the likes of Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, Moses and David.


They have much to teach us about the art of living by faith. Let me close by returning to the book of Hebrews. Chapter 11 spills over to chapter 12.


"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."


"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the beginning and the end of our faith."


Harlan’s faith still speaks to us here this morning. After all, his hand had a large part, a very large part, in putting together this worship service.


Keep the faith. Just like Harlan.


Amen.

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