I had my first funeral here about a week ago, which is not the same as my first funeral. I had my first funeral here, and for some reason, it brought back to me the memory of my very first funeral, when I was a newly-ordained and installed pastor in rural South Dakota.
I remember that I was installed on a Sunday morning in worship, and that there was this big potluck afterwards, and some of my family had come to the celebration. We worshipped and ate and opened presents from the congregation, and my family all went home. The next morning I went to the nearby town to open a checking account, and I stopped in at the hospital because I had heard about a parish member who was gravely ill. I stopped in to see him and to introduce myself. One of his granddaughters were there. I think we had a brief prayer.
Early the next morning I got a call from the funeral director. I remember being a little confused. I wasn't used to anybody calling me "Reverend" yet. I remember trying to find my way to the funeral home and later to meet his family. I was still finding my way around the community, the gravel roads, the farms, the kitchen tables, and the people.
Darwin wasn't a farmer, someone from the church told me, as if that explained something, or anything. To this day I can't remember what he did for a living, but I remember this: he wasn't a farmer, but he was a gardener. He grew food, but not for a living. He did it for love.
He grew food, and he grew a family. That's what I remember. And I remember that I had my first funeral at the little country church before I had given a Sunday sermon anywhere, and the whole community came out to hear "the new preacher" and stayed for lunch afterwards. I remember that a couple from the congregation sang duets, and I remember that I took my preaching text from John 15 -- about God the gardener, and Jesus the vine, and and what it means to die believing that our lives bear fruit. It's not in the list of the most common funeral texts, and I don't know where I got the idea to preach on it except for the fact that Darwin was a gardener.
I don't remember every funeral I preached, but for some reason I remembered that one. On a Friday morning when I had been a pastor for all of five days, I had my first funeral, for a gardener named Darwin. Then I went home and fussed about what I was going to preach about on Sunday, as if I had any idea.
It was so long ago.
So I had my first funeral here about a week ago, for a woman I had not had the chance to meet, a woman named Odessa. I am still finding my way around here. The landscape is different; there are no gravel roads, but there are winding ones. But there are still kitchen tables, and people to meet, and lives that are hidden still bear fruit.
Odessa was not a farmer, or a gardener, either. She married and worked at ordinary jobs, some of them hard. She bore two children and did beautiful handwork, and her life was hidden with Christ in God.
I didn't think to preach on John 15 this time. I'm not sure why. It still applies. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. We till our little patch, and God works in us in mysterious ways, until the end of time.