I know that too much of the time I am among those who ‘work for the food that perishes’ rather than that which ‘endures for eternal life.’
- I worry about things that in the end, do not matter.
- I check my bank account and my retirement account more often than I ought.
- I spend too much of my time on matters which are not all that life-giving.
Perhaps you find yourself there as well. And yet, from time to time I get a glimpse of what it is to actually do it all differently. As I did last week.
For this is how it was.
I was asked to officiate the funeral of a man who had been part of Opportunity House for more than thirty years.
Opportunity House works with the developmentally disabled here in our community. They provide housing, employment, and community to those among us who are often the most vulnerable. Harold had been very much a part of that community for most of his adult life. He benefited from the services offered, yes, but from what I could tell, he gave every bit as much back.
Now I had not met Harold. I got a call from our local funeral director who put me in touch with Harold’s caseworker. I spent but fifteen minutes on the phone with her getting the basics. While there was family nearby, and while some would be at the funeral, there seemed to be no interest or desire to be part of preparing for his funeral.
Now let me say, this was out of my gift or experience set. I have done hundreds of funerals but none for one like Harold and none for one where the community gathered would look quite like it did last week.
Here is how it went.
I got to the funeral home early. I had chosen my lessons — about Jesus welcoming children, the 23rd Psalm, and the urging to not let our hearts be troubled from John’s Gospel. I had written a sermon grounded in God’s promises and offering some of the details from Harold’s life which his caseworker had shared. Since I was early, I had a chance to take a look at the picture boards which had been assembled and the mementos which had been gathered. I also just stood back and watched as the people kept streaming in.
A few minutes before we were to begin, I took one of the directors of Opportunity House aside and wondered with her as to whether I should give those gathered a chance to speak. She suggested that if I was comfortable with it, I absolutely should.
And so I did. I offered an opening prayer and then I asked if anyone would want to offer a memory of Harold. The words were hardly out of my mouth before 16 hands were in the air. And I began to call on these friends, these housemates, these co-workers’ of Harold. One after another they stood and spoke of good times shared, field trips taken, meals enjoyed. They talked about his nicknames for them and more than one of the women there spoke of having been his girlfriend at one time or another. Several spoke of having worked alongside him in the workshop and what a good worker he was. Right in the middle of those who spoke one woman stood up and just sobbed. And then she sat down again.
It was beautiful. It was unpolished, authentic, and genuine. Now it is so that the funeral director had looked at me somewhat askance when I told him we would open it up for others to speak. And yet, I caught sight of him grinning in the back as one after another stood to offer their memories of Harold, their friend.
We moved forward with the service itself. I began to read the 23rd Psalm, and to my surprise, more than half the room joined in. And so I paused and invited others to say it with me if they wished. And they did. With a resounding chorus those gathered spoke those beloved, comforting words of promise.
I shared what I had for a message and the crowd joined in with hoots and laughter and sounds of recognition as they heard in my words some of the truth of who their beloved friend was.
I led in the Lord’s Prayer and most of the crowd chimed in with enthusiasm. Oh, most of the time people do pray this normally familiar prayer with me (if they know it…) but this group did so with gusto.
And then we went to the cemetery.
Opportunity House staff thought many would not make the trip half an hour away to see their friend to his final resting place, but when we arrived, we found that they did. In fact, I am not certain I have ever seen anything quite as beautiful — so much reflecting the Kingdom — as forty people or more made their way to the grave on their crutches and canes, with their braces, in their wheel chairs.
It was amazing.
And yes, all morning long I could not help but think that what I saw there were people — God’s Own Children — who surely know what it is to work for the ‘food that endures…’
- They invest their energy, their hopes, their very hearts in their relationships with one another.
- They don’t waste their time worrying about the judgment of others, but just jump right in, sharing what God has given them — as they did at their friend’s funeral.
- For many, clearly, their faith has been important to them — so much so that the words of that faith are engraved on their minds and on their hearts…
Now I don’t know how you and I translate the values of Harold’s friends into our own lives and ways of being. For this is so. Some time back a friend had a granddaughter one of whose characteristics was that she had Down’s Syndrome. Her grandma would say of her, “It’s like she is from another planet. She never, ever carries a grudge.” Indeed, perhaps there is actually something in the structure of the brain or how information jumps from synapse to synapse which makes it so that those who are disabled in this or similar ways simply process and articulate and live their values differently. I don’t know. I do know that it did me good to spend a morning with some who to the very core of their being seem to get what it is to ‘work for the food that endures: kindness, hope, forgiveness, wonder, joy, faith…’ Almost a week later I am still speaking of witnessing this gift of what Jesus had in mind. Perhaps by pausing in it this time and making time to do so whenever I can, I am changed by it as well.
- What does it mean to you to ‘work for the food that endures for eternal life?’ Where have you witnessed something like what I did last week?
- This urging of Jesus ‘to work for the food that endures’ may not come naturally to many of us. What might it mean for you to intentionally set aside ‘working for the food that perishes’ as a spiritual practice?
- In John 6:33 Jesus says that ‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ How have you known this to be so?