Roberta Milller made me promise to tell a joke at her funeral. Not just any joke, a particular joke, a story from her childhood. A story about a funeral, which has a set-up and a punch-line. Roberta wanted me to tell this funny story because when her time came she wanted people laughing before they buried her. She wanted people to know that she felt free and peaceful about death after a good long life that she was so grateful for. She wanted people laughing at the graveside and feeling some of her freedom about death, even to the point of being maybe a little irreverent. Roberta’s time did come. Two weeks ago Roberta died, God rest her good soul, at 100 years of age. She wanted to make it to 100, and then she said, “The Good Lord can take me.”
So, last week I had the opportunity to do right by my promise to Roberta and I told the story at the graveside service. When Roberta was a girl, she grew up on a farm outside Dayton. One day she was playing with friends in the house. They ran outside and there on the back stoop was a dead bird. A little bird – dead. The girls figured they should bury it. So, they got a shoe box and put the little bird inside and they went out and found an old tree and dug a hole. Then they improvised a kind of funeral for the bird, based on what they could remember from funerals they’d been to. Roberta’s friend jumped into the role of the pastor. She had them bow their heads and she made up a prayer. And then they sang some hymn they could remember. And then the friend stretched out her hands over the little bird in the shoe box and she said, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and … into-the-hole-she-goes!” That’s what I said, standing beside the casket holding Roberta’s body, suspended over the six-foot hole in the earth, with dozens of folks who loved her gathered close, laughing and weeping. Thank God they laughed! That was Roberta for you.
You don’t make it to a hundred in this world without a good sense of humor.
My grandma Harriet, God rest her soul, also was born in 1918, two months after Roberta. And she also died this year. On my grandma’s 100th birthday back in March there was some concern that she wouldn’t be able to blow out the candles on the cake (concern among us). She was really quite frail and weak. There were 3 candles, not 100, a One and two Zeros. And it took her a couple of goes at it. But she did it, she blew them out. And then she leaned back in her wheelchair and announced, “See! I still have some hot air left in me!”
My Grandma Harriet was also a farm girl, the youngest of seven on a dairy farm north of Minneapolis. And it’s so striking to me: both my Grandma and Roberta Miller told very similar stories about being on their farms during the Great Depression. On those farms, they ended up doing okay, even though the economy was collapsing around them, they were subsisting and doing a little better than that. It was tough, but they each told me in the same words, “I never went hungry.” Which means: A lot of people went hungry in those times. Men would come by the farms, strangers, destitute, desperate – “hobos” you’d say then, “vagabonds.” They came by the farms hungry. And both my Grandma and Roberta said that their parents would treat those men with kindness and make sure they had a hot meal before sending them on their way. My Grandma told me that her mother would always cook a little extra every meal so she’d have something to take out to whoever happened to come by with his hat in this hand. It’s striking to me that both these elder women at the end of their long lives, in the course of sharing stories with me about those ten decades of life, it’s striking that they would both focus on the same kind of story from the Great Depression. This is the kind of story told by an elder to a younger person, that says, “This is the kind of people we are. I want you to know that.” The strong values these two elder women saw as children in their parents, the kindness, generosity, and strength their parents demonstrated during very fraught and trying times, this impressed them and formed them into who they tried to be and how they tried to live, through one of the most extraordinary and brutal centuries. They wanted to be sure to pass those values on to the next generations. Values that have proven to be good and true, enduring and life-giving.
Stories, parables, these are so often the vessels by which one generation passes wisdom down to the next. Stories like these become the seeds of wisdom that pass down from the old growth to the green shoots as one generation gives life to the next and readies that new generations for their own departure from this world, so the young can grow to fill the space left by the old, and in turn nurture new life in yet another generation.
This is one reason why I love church – a multi-generational church, I should say. It’s one of the few places left in our culture, it seems, where seeds of wisdom – ancient, hard won, holy wisdom – can pass down from the old growth to green shoots. What gives life in a church is the life-giving word held in the stories of our faith, and in the testimonies of our lives.
The Bible, you could say, is like a seed bank of heirloom wisdom, ancient seeds deposited by ancient blessed generations, seeds that have given life, and life eternal. Pslam 78: ”Give ear, O my people, to my teaching. Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children. We will tell to the coming generation the glorious workings of the Holy One Beyond Name, and God’s power, and the wonders God has wrought.”
A religious community, you could say, is like a farming community which passes down the seed bank of ancient wisdom and the know-how of how to plant and cultivate these seeds. This means, I think, that like with farming there is room for innovation and adaptation as well as some cross-fertilization. And any wise community winnows their inheritance, because we do get seeds of destruction from our ancestors, as well as seeds of wisdom. But winnowing must never mean forgetting. When generations fail to honor the wisdom held by their ancestors, what can come but famine and war?
So, my friends, I believe it is a good thing that your Moderator of this church, JR VanSlyke, has hit upon the image of “Old Growth & New Shoots” for our stewardship season this fall. This dear church is in a period of generational hand-off. It’s a great time to honor the wisdom of the elders, and to be sure that’s preserved as we strengthen the growth of the younger generations.
You, know, there are still two centenarians in our congregation. Next month, God willing, Carroll Adams will turn 103, and Elsie German will turn 107. They are both people who have lived according to very strong and wise values. And they are both people with a good sense of humor. Carroll Adams’ shared with me a saying of his grandfather’s which he has kept with him and tried to pass down. His grandfather was a Quaker minister. “Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s after you know everything that you actually start to learn something.” Carroll is full of these kinds of little seeds of wisdom.
“Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s after you know everything that you actually start to learn something.” … That’s one of the reasons why our younger generations are such a gift. They are so eager to learn, and to figure things out when it comes to God and truth and goodness and justice. There is such an eagerness to challenge the world as it is and to live passionately on behalf of the world as it should be. They’ve got their eyes out for the hypocrisy that needs to get winnowed out. They’re so hungry for what is truly enduring and life-giving. What is the Good News we have for them?
Let’s be sure the good seeds of the truly Good News get passed down. Let’s be sure the ground is well fertilized and well-watered and gets good light and air.
In all of this, remember, it’s best not to take ourselves too seriously. Jesus’ parable of the seed (Mark 4:26) reminds us that we’re not the ones to make seeds grow. The work of the church must be humble and good humored about the fact this it’s God that makes things happen in God’s way. The seeds that Jesus’ farmer planted didn’t grow until he falls asleep! But, he knows when it is time to plant and when it is time to harvest.
Thank you for the ways you are listening for what God’s seeds of wisdom are needing in this season. And, as always, thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and into-the-hole-she-goes.
(Delivered Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla. By Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)