Two Dogs, a Beer, a Funeral, and Jesus
I had a hard time seeing the sign for the turnoff - not only was the setting sun blaring into my face through my car's windshield, but this was the kind of place that GPS didn't know about. I had paper directions. The last time I used paper directions was when I printed them out from MapQuest at a university computer lab.
I was headed to a funeral service. I'm not sure that service is the best descriptor. A service denotes order, specific function, and an agreed upon liturgy. This...funeral didn't have any of those elements. But it did have hurting people, and I do hold one simple conviction as a pastor if I hold any: hurting people need to be loved.
While my little sedan huffed and puffed its way up the steep, pock-marked dirt driveway, I had to deftly maneuver this way and that to keep from hitting one of two barking and baying dogs that were heralding my presence for anyone who needed to know within barking distance. One was a younger pit bull; the other was an older lab.
I would find out that the pit bull belonged to the deceased - a young man, a hard-working blue collar type who had a bit of a drinking problem that pitted him up against the law more than once. It wasn't the drinking or the dirty jobs or the hard living that took him - it was cancer. The great leveler.
The family of the deceased painted a picture of this young man's life that spoke loudly. One was in sweatpants, one wore a NASCAR jacket, one was in a stained undershirt and athletic shorts. These people were the kind of folks that didn't the capacity to be anything but who they were. It didn't matter what pomp and circumstance or social norms expected. They weren't having it. It didn't matter that I was wearing a tie and that my polished brown shoes had other brown debris across them now.
We gathered in the "sanctuary" - an old tree looking over a clearing a few hundred feet from the driveway. It had been a special place to the deceased. The pit bull liked that spot, too.
I said a few words. I read a scripture or two. I said a prayer. I felt silly in my tie. I had the inclination at a point to rip it off and undo a few shirt buttons - you know, in solidarity. But I didn't do that.
Maybe I should have.
Then it was over. One of the surviving brothers dropped the tailgate of his pickup and slid out a plate of store-bought sandwiches, a box of assorted potato chips, and a cooler full of Bud Light.
"Reverend...you want a beer?"
Now, I'm an ordained Wesleyan minister. If that doesn't mean anything to you the long and short of it is that we don't drink out of a certain principle. Drinking in moderation isn't something we condemn as sin, mind you. It's more of a "set an example" sort of deal.
Let me be honest: I did want a beer.
Not because I'm an alcoholic - or whether I have or don't have any thoughts on Bud Light. I wanted a beer because it felt like 'the right hand of fellowship' from these folks. I wanted a beer because the offer of a beer from these people was a polished 'welcome' mat, a membership card. It was saying, "We accept you. You're one of us."
It reminded me of Jesus' attitude toward the world. In no uncertain terms he made it clear that he came on behalf of the people, not to condemn them. It seems to me that Jesus' mission was never about creating more and more religious barriers to suggest what groups of people get 'in' and what groups of people have to stay 'out.' He explicitly condemned this practice, in fact.
Maybe in the smallest, most modest way God was giving me a chance to break down a barrier. These people - who lived 20 minutes outside of town in the hills of northeast Wyoming, who smoked and drank and wore sweat pants to a funeral - would have never set foot in a church to have a funeral. They never would've spoken to a pastor and shared their grief with one. They never would've turned to the Scripture for relief or to a faith community to encounter Jesus through his people.
See, through the great mercy of Jesus Christ, these people become our people. We should love others (especially those that seem unlovable) as much as God loves us - and that's a whole lot. As a church, we want people to know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Not just a part of something bigger, but invited to take part in the very mission of Jesus - seeing people redeemed to the good life, the gospel life, which lasts here and into death and into the life that comes after death.
The reality of this resurrection changes our behavior in its current form. We become people of unity, of brother- and sisterhood, women and men of solidarity now. Today. Here. One author, N. T. Wright, puts it into perspective in his book Surprised by Hope. He writes:
“People who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.”
Maybe, if we spent more time as a church living out the resurrection - pouring into each other's lives, loving each other relentlessly, encouraging each other's faith to grow and stretch and dream bigger - we'd put down the stones and scoffs of Bud Light funerals and put on Christ.