Here is the text of a sermon I preached for a parishioner. She was 90 years old. Her name was Joyce. It was a beautiful occasion. I've long held that the funeral rite of the Episcopal Church is our most beautiful liturgy. I think that in it, we have the church's strongest proclamation of what it's about and also it happens at the time of our lives that says most strongly what will happen to us. Those two items coming together powerfully makes for good liturgy. Here's the sermon:
Funeral Sermon for Joyce Brown
June 25, 2016
2 Cor. 4:16-5:9
Joyce was a walking paradox. She was always reticent at first and then you couldn’t get her to shut up. She was, for the last several years, quite frail, but always present and on the go, under her own power.
Her family was kind enough to send me some of Joyce’s poems and I found one that gives us insight into her loquaciousness. “Silence is Golden, or so they say. Alas, I’ll be poor then for many a day, for talk I must or else I’ll bust, I really can’t help being made that way!” And, so you know, Joyce ended this poem with an exclamation point.
A few months ago when Joyce turned 90, during the service I gave her special attention which she of course tried to deflect, saying, “Oh no, oh no!” Then she stood up and gave a speech.
But don’t you know that these little speeches, they were always about the community and how much they cared for her. The same thing happened a few months ago when she left the women’s retreat. Just before her departure she held forth for ten straight minutes, after saying that she didn’t know what to say. Joyce’s self-deprecation was in her own way an honoring of those around her.
Joyce wasn’t all about being shy, and then over-speaking. She was also unusually spry for her age. A while back at St. Martin’s we had a Palm Sunday procession through our neighborhood. It was a very chilly morning and more than one person, a fraction of Joyce’s age, declined the long, cold walk. But Joyce did the procession. Yes she brought up the rear along with us priests and her friend Fran, but she did it. I was so worried about her over that broken pavement but she never missed a step.
Joyce was a paradox: Small and frail, but large and strong; never wanting to make a fuss, but always making a fuss.
And Joyce’s faith is a paradox. Here we are at the commemoration of a death, and we talk about life. We worship a God who actually died, and yet we proclaim his ongoing and enduring life.
These first two readings which Joyce chose for us to hear on this occasion are all about the paradox of life in God, that even in death, we shall be alive in God. Even our mortal bodies which are subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can be, in the audacious words of the patronal saint of this parish, “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” This is what God has always been after, to swallow up everything into his loving life. And we here today are a testimony to that life and love that Joyce lived and embodied.
The other funny thing about our paradoxical faith is that God has hidden God’s self in the creation. This means that the world is fundamentally sacramental, that we can use our bodies and our need to create signs and symbols and poetry, to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch God. Joyce knew that, Joyce knows that. In fact, Joyce gave us the gift of God’s presence by being so weak and making such a fuss; that was Joyce, but it was also God that we served and put up with.
Another of Joyce’s poems addresses her knowledge that God can be found anywhere.
Through the glass windows, spread in grace,
You see the world while in God’s place,
It is a wonder to behold, bringing feelings, peace untold,
God’s own nature there to see draws prayers from the soul,
That beautiful tree.
On the tree outside the church, Jesus on a limb doth perch,
And as he swings his sandaled feet, He looks inside to see us meet,
Of course you say, you see him not, be still be sure he’s not forgot.
This poem may sound to some as radical or even anti-institutional church, but I don’t think so, it’s simply the musing of a faithful woman who knew that God is not contained in the church. The church is not the custodian of God, but merely the gathering of those who have been shocked by God’s love and we are trying to figure it out. After all, as Jesus says in our gospel reading, the fold of those under God’s call is much much more broad and inclusive than most of us would be comfortable with. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” He’s talking about us, he’s talking about that person you hate, he’s talking about the one you think is beyond love and respect. God loves that one. So what are you going to do in light of that reality?
This is the paradoxical God that Joyce believed in, loved, and participated in: that life has swallowed up everything, that God can be found, if you look, and that the church is not the custodian of God, but instead is the aftermath of this loving, life-giving God.
That’s what I wanted to say to you today, that was me preaching the gospel with some help from Joyce. But I wanted to end with a story and poem of my own, all about Joyce.
Last year we had what we call an instructed Eucharist, it’s when we take a look at what we do in worship and answer questions so that we can more thoughtfully engage in our worship. At one point I talked about how it takes so many people to make it all work, from the hours of preparation of the preacher to the staff lining up all the volunteers, the readers, the one who composes the prayers, the altar guild in making everything right, even the little lady who launders and starches the linens; it takes many many people to pull off the congregational, corporate worship of God, this all happens by, with, and through our bodies which God has filled with his Holy Spirit! It was pretty good!
At that moment, Joyce’s shaky white arm shot up, shyly. “Yes Joyce?” I asked. She answered, “The. Linens. Are. Not. Starched.”
What do I know? Those linens are nice and crisp, but they aren’t starched, apparently starching makes linens less absorbent or something. Joyce used to come into the sacristy to retrieve the linens used in our Eucharistic meal. As time went on she declared that our sacristy was too busy and that she didn’t want to get knocked over. So she used to wait in the front row after the service and someone from the altar guild would deliver the soiled linens to her in a ziplock bag. Joyce would then take those linens home and wash them by hand. I heard that Joyce would even take the water in which the linens were washed outside and commit it to the ground, such high respect did she offer the elements of our sacrament.
Here is a poem I wrote, soon after meeting Joyce and learning about her small service to Christ’s church:
She was British, there must be a story there,
About how she came to the States.
She had always worked in the background,
At Church for decades.
Her, now, papery hands,
Had rinsed Christ’s blood from the linen.
She takes them home to rinse.
To commit Christ
To the ground: Burying him, again, and
Again, and again.
Unaware that he has stowed away,
Under her fingernails.
Thank you Joyce, thank you for your irascible, loving spirit. Thank you for showing us God. God bless you and keep you and through the mercies of God rise again in glory.