With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lela Josephine Kuehl (6 October 1913 + 3 September 2015)
Psalms 46 & 23; verses from Romans 12; Luke 17:5-10
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Okay, I have to make a confession right off, because I know that doesn’t feel like a very complimentary ending to that Gospel reading to say, “we’re just worthless slaves.” My confession is that two Bible verses always get mixed in my mind. There’s this one, about doing the tasks that need to be done, no grumbling or questions asked, but ending with the denigrating, worthless word. Then there’s another one where the commendation is, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt25:21, NIV). That is a nicer statement; unfortunately the rest of the passage is about doing work in order to be rewarded for it, which doesn’t seem as fitting for Lela.
I wanted us to be hearing the Gospel reading about one who does the work at hand, simply taking it as the right way to live. That fits with Lela. In her great new book, she says, “when I was quite young I already knew when I grew up I wanted to get married, be a good wife, be able to cook and bake, take care of my family.” All of that food preparation, her recipes, her care not to waste, she just expected to do it. So that goes with the verses about serving a household.
We may take a similar example with the resolution to move off the farm and down to Janesville, to be closer to son Jim as he attended the State School for the Visually Handicapped. It couldn’t have been an easy decision, leaving behind livelihood and a sense of home that still continued to draw her northward even long later, to the cabin on Tuttle Lake and even now the graveyard at Manchester as her final resting place. And yet, in spite of moving away from home and saying good-byes and changing life, it seems that Lela simply figured it was the right thing to do, as she did so much in caring for Jim and for the rest of you.
Again, thinking about another transition in life, we may mark the time when Lela had to go back to paid work to support herself and keep her home. It wasn’t just that she had to do it to earn some money; she also discovered those less tangible benefits of meeting people and helping them in their needs with the Coalition for the Aging. Such characteristics name a simple, dedicated work ethic, striving to do what was necessary, not for acclaim but just because it was right.
But that also brings us, for this moment, to that other Bible verse. If we say it that Lela just did what she was supposed to do, or had to do, that doesn’t speak very well of her life. Better, she should be celebrated! It’s not often we come to a funeral service like this, marking the end of nearly 102 years, and not just the expanse of time but years well-lived. There were struggles and illnesses and various hard times she had to overcome, and still she could continue to surprise us with her resiliency. And in the end, on her last day she ate breakfast, and died peacefully in her sleep. For this woman and a time such as this, our oldest congregation member, at the conclusion of this life, the other Bible verse better fits our emotions, to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
So maybe it’s not just in my confused, mixed up mind. Maybe also in Lela’s life, we see reason to mix together these two Bible passages.
With a bit different perspective, we can also witness in her life details of the Bible reading from Romans. It seems to have good bits of Lela in it, as she lived out her faith and became an example for us. It calls for us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It encourages compassion and cheerfulness and generosity, to love one another with mutual affection. It says to be patient in suffering. These are traits we’ve been given to recognize in Lela’s personality and presence among us.
Still, Lela was honest and didn’t sugarcoat things, so I’ll also acknowledge I heard her grumble and grouse a fair amount, about living situations and such. I expect there’s no reason not to tell the truth in this moment. Really, we don’t need to say that she embodied every virtue always or that she was a perfect saint. That isn’t where our confidence needs to rest. It isn’t in how fully we’ve met the duties entrusted to us or how exuberantly we say, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
More than all the details of 101 years, of great memories and more than any of us know or even that Lela could recall, there’s one verse in the middle of that Romans section that speaks for us now. It says that we in our various roles and functions are like different body parts, each doing our own part. But all together, we are connected to each other as one body.
That’s for us now because it explains the pain we feel. We don’t just say that Lela lived long enough and did enough, that she was our right hand that served well and now gets to rest. No. Rather, because we’re joined together and united with her, we know the pain of not having that right hand with us any more, as if it’s been severed from us. If we are members of the body, this is then quite literally a dis-member-ment we suffer without Lela.
Some of that is healed in sharing stories, again literally re-member-ing.
But the larger resolution is not just that we’re connected to each other, but that the body we’re joined into and united in is the body of Christ. This is a body that doesn’t stay dead, won’t be kept in a grave. It is a body of healing and wholeness. This is a body of life.
And so, as Lela did throughout her life, we continue to trust: we are joined together in Christ. God will raise us up to new life. No separations are forever. It is joy and peace and love that last. This faith sustained Lela for her life, in the many good times and through difficulties, in all of her hard work and in coming to rest, in days long gone and to the end. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” Psalm 46 declared and Lela’s life proclaimed, “The Lord is with us.”