I had a funeral this week. Over the years I have had many, many funerals and they have taken me into the homes of many diverse families. I have sat before grieving people who have laughed and cried through the stories they have shared of one they have loved and who has died. There have been young people, whose premature deaths are heartbreaking and sad. There have been middle-aged people, still far too young and then elderly people who have lived long and well and whose time has come. Some have journeyed through serious illness and others died suddenly. In these experiences I have been humbled by the humanity and loveliness of the people.
So it was again this last week. Ordinary people who live with deep shock after their partner, mother and daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly. These people are humble and ordinary people who work hard. They aren’t names that we would know but, like most of us, anonymous to most of society. They are people who work hard to get ahead and struggle with the world around. Most of the extended family are country people who look and feel out of place in the city. Many were less educated in terms of reading, writing and arithmetic than their city-dweller relatives but they are people who know their way around the bush, the land, tractors and machinery. They are skilled at working the land, fixing things with whatever is available and getting on with the work. Their education and skill is different and their capacity equally significant.
In terms of social status, these people and the one whose life they celebrated would not rate highly. They aren’t the wealthy, the powerful or the outstanding in any particular field. They would probably be a bit stand-offish when confronted by those who appear more sophisticated. Most were a little out of place and even awed when they entered the church at Ebenezer. They were lost when I asked them did they have a Bible reading they would like read at the service. In all, these people were salt of the earth, ordinary people. They are formed by the culture in which they live and believe many things they are told. They have self-respect but also know their place in the world. Most of them would know nothing of the church and rarely think about God. If they did they mostly believe that God has little or no interest in them because the church has made this clear at some of the significant moments of their lives. I suspect that in the funeral they were waiting for the ‘religious bit’ and thinking they would get an earful because, sadly, that happens at some funerals. They didn’t. I recognised that in the person whose life they were celebrating there was the face of God. She was an ordinary woman who struggled with life and had times of great success and joy. She was one who embraced experiences of wonder, of family moments, of hard work and seeking to better herself. She was one who gave of herself for the sake of others and couldn’t do enough to help another person. In this funeral her life was celebrated and her love remembered and praised. She will be missed, dearly missed, by those who shared life with her.
In celebrating this unique and beautiful life I recognised, as I have on many similar occasions that I am on holy ground and a witness to a life that was very significant even if only celebrated and remembered by the relative few ordinary people who filled the little church at Ebenezer.
This image lingers as I read the gospel for the week (Luke 14:1, 7-14). In it Jesus speaks to religious leaders, people of power, authority and possibly wealth. They are people who are respectable and looked up to. He suggests in strong tones that they seek the least important positions in public places and feasts. Then they will not be shamed or embarrassed if someone more significant and worthy is invited to sit in the best seat. The host may even invite them to a seat with more honour and they will be honoured.
On the face of it, Jesus could be assumed to suggest that we all secretly seek to have ourselves honoured through false humility, to play games with cultural rules. Jesus’ words, however, are meant to cut across the games people play, games that seek to elevate our sense of importance before others. Jesus has no interest in who is greatest, most powerful, has the most toys or believes themselves important. He is more concerned with the reality that true greatness comes through genuine humility, not self-deprecation but humility. It lies in the actualising of love for God, others and self, of reaching out in genuine compassion, with genuine interest and generous acceptance of another. It is about relationships built upon equality and mutual respect that enables us to look into the face of another and see the face of Jesus reflected back. Genuine love is life-giving to us and the other as it embraces each into life of God.
This story opens us to the recognition that within God’s gracious community none is greater or least. We are all human beings and children of God. We are all unique, significant and therefore have infinite value. The particular cultural determinants of importance and significance disappear in the inclusive community of grace in which we live and grow as God’s people. Under God’s Reign all are valued and worthy.
In the church, as much as in wider society, the temptation is to compete with others for importance or to cling to power and feel ourselves more (or less) worthy. Many churches come unstuck when people grasp power and lord it over others. In many churches there are those who are more and less respected. There are those given more importance and prominence and those who are cast to the side. Such importance is too often tied to the secular notions of authoritative, positional power, wealth, social status based on education, career or honoured position, or traditions and family origins. When people claim ownership of churches or other organisations, families or communities, and dominate those others present, dysfunctionality ensues. I confess that having seen a few churches dominated by an individual or particular people who claim authority and who dictate what will or won’t be, it is fatal to the church. God’s way is the opposite and when we engage humbly and with love towards one another, sharing each other’s gifts, skills and offerings we become so much more effective and Christ-like. When we elevate some above others a false dichotomy ensues resulting in division and conflict.
This week Windsor Church celebrates 200+ years of welcome, witness and worship and we will remember that when humility and grace, generous and inclusive love and mutual respect characterise our life together, God will be present, we won’t have to prove ourselves and we will be an oasis of peace and hope for the world. May God open our eyes to graciously receive one another with mutual respect, love and peace.