Thursday, March 10, 2011

Funeral of David Woods

Often when I take a funeral it is for a person who died at the right time and then right place - at the end of a long and productive life, when death comes as a familiar and expected, if not entirely welcome friend.  And it’s easy under those circumstances to make the funeral a celebration, and to rejoice together over happy memories and acknowledge everything that the one we have loved has passed down to us.  Other times, death comes unexpectedly, tragically, and we can only console one another with the knowledge of God’s love that has welcomed home the one we didn’t want to lose.  And it’s like that with David, in fact with the three funerals this family has gathered for at St Michaels over the last six months, Shirley, Helen and David, siblings who have left too soon, with too much unfulfilled and unexpressed.  The third time in six months that we have gathered together the grief of this family and seen in the faces of its younger members the pain of losing another respected and loved elder, the knowledge of losing a relationship that should have been able to grow and deepen over the years, and the wisdom and love that parents and grandparents and uncles and aunties need to and should be able to pass on to younger people.  The third time in six months we have gathered together the grief of what was originally 10 siblings, and seen in their faces what it means to lose one who knew you from your earliest days, who knows your stories and who shares your memories.  The third time we have been forced to reflect on why Noongar people continue in this wealthy country to die too young, to reflect on what sort of message we are sending to the younger members of this family, and perhaps to wonder how we might tell the story of this family in a way that will give inspiration and hope, as well as pride.  To give thanks for the strength of a family that holds together and supports its weakest members, and to reflect on how this family can commit itself to creating a new story of self-respect and pride and responsibility for one another - so that we no longer have to keep gathering here to farewell its middle-aged members dead a quarter of a century before their time.

Where can we find hope in a life cut short leaving so much unfulfilled and so many promises unkept?  There are, I think, two narratives of hope – two stories that intersect here today, and both of them tell us something about hope.  And the first story is the story of this family itself.  It is a story that – I admit – I have only glimpsed over the years and never fully understood – a story of pride in who you are, the pride of Noongar people who have endured generations of family separation and loss of country, loss of opportunity, generations of being seen as second-class citizens in your own country, the country that you belong to and from which, for generations, you have been forcibly removed.  To have endured as a people and as a family is remarkable.  To have endured without a burden of bitterness, and with the ability to laugh and love, and to welcome someone such as me into your family at such a personal time – is remarkable.  To have endured with the generosity of spirit that I have come to recognise in you – is remarkable.  But to acknowledge and undertake the task that lies ahead of you as a family, the task of imagining a future in which young Noongar people grow up with an education and find meaningful work, the task of letting go of self-destructive patterns and ways of coping so that young people can see that you believe in them and in their future, so that young people can model themselves on you – this is a task that takes courage and commitment and love – but it’s a task that your history tells you you are strong enough and proud enough to undertake.  To walk away from here today with the commitment that no more members of this family will die twenty five years before their time is an undertaking that will honour the lives and deaths of Shirley, Helen and David – and an undertaking that will honour the future promise that you see in the faces of your children.

The second narrative of hope comes from our faith in God – a faith that is never more clearly on display than in times of hardship and grief.  Although we grieve for David we can be glad that his life now rests with God, and trust that the God who creates us in love will complete his loving purposes for David.  As Christians we don’t presume to understand this, we don’t know anything about the fulfilment that lies beyond this life, but we believe that the universe makes sense.  We believe that the love that brings the whole of creation into being, including us, that this love does not abandon us in death.

The psalm we read from this afternoon, psalm 73, tells us something about the mystery of life where so much seems unfair.  Where not everybody has the same life chances, where bad people can thrive and good people are defeated – and like so many of the psalms, this one doesn’t use especially polite language to express to God a sense of frustration and even anger at the unfairness of life.  Why, the psalmist says, did I even bother to try to live a good life?  Has it been for nothing that I have put up with all this heartache?  And then the psalmist remembers – that through everything, God is with him.  Through the whole of this life, our sufferings are God’s sufferings too, because this is the God who is committed to travelling with us through thick and thin.  This is the God who receives us after this life into our true heavenly home, the home that Jesus tells his disciples about in the verse that I read to you at the beginning of the service.  God’s love – which in this life we do experience through the love of family and friends – is the one constant and the one promise that we can rely on, and the guarantee by which we can have confidence in commending David now to God’s care.