Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Sermon at the Celebration of the Life of Stephanie Freel

St. Paul wrote, “No wonder we do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

For the last nine years Stephanie Freel knew she had a significant health concern.  In my limited experience, people in this position tend to live life differently than the rest of us.  It is easier for us to go through the rhythm of the day and the week and the month and the year somewhat removed from the reality of our own mortality.  That was not an option for Stephanie.  While she surely did not grasp that this day would come so soon, she knew it would come one day and she knew that that day could be any time.  As a result, she engaged life more intentionally, more focused, more with the sense that no moment should be wasted because there is no assurance that another moment is guaranteed.  Not that she wore all of this on her sleeve, but it was a driving and renewing force in her soul.

In his book To Bless the Space between Us, John O’Donohue writes about how death walks beside us from the moment we are born and that from time to time, for a brief time, we see its face.  He writes of the blessing this reality can bring to our lives, praying…

That the silent presence of your death
  would call your life to attention,
  wake you up to how scarce your time is
  and to the urgency to become free
  and equal to the call of your destiny.

That you would gather yourself
  and decide carefully
  how you now can live
  the life you would love
  to look back on
  from your deathbed.

While of course Stephanie would never have wished to leave us so soon, I have the strong sense that she, looking back now, is pleased with how she lived each and every day she had.  That her life was called to attention is a great gift to each of us who knew her.  It is a witness to what each of us should and can do with the time we have. 

Some years ago Stephanie heard this passage from Khalil Gabran’s The Prophet and it spoke something to her:

“You would know the secret of death.  But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?  If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.  For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

“Opening your heart wide to life” is an apt description of how Stephanie lived hers. 

I was never very good at math, but perhaps this equation will redeem me:  S.D. x O.G. = Q.L.  In other words, (S.D.) Suddenness of Death multiplied by the (O.G.) Outpouring of Grief tells you everything you need to know about (Q.L.) the Quality of a person’s Life.  What I see here this morning – Stephanie’s husband and daughter and parents and brother and extended family and neighbors and friends and church members and clients and colleagues and fellow partners in the various other activities, organizations, and endeavors she was involved in is a deep, trustworthy, and indisputable record, that Stephanie opened her heart to life in a way that was rare, wonderful, and extraordinary. 

I will always remember Stephanie for the way she blended two marvelous, distinctive qualities: moxie and kindness.  Moxie: she was a force of determination with opinions, ideas, and values that were set in stone (and occasionally shared without warning!)  Kindness:  Raise your hand if you ever received a note from Stephanie thanking you for something or praising you for something or offering comfort or encouragement when you were facing a challenge.

Moxie and kindness.  Before the service, Stephanie’s mother shared some memories she wanted me to share.  Apparently the family moved around quite a bit when Stephanie was a child.  Each time they moved into a new home, before the boxes were even unpacked, Stephanie canvasses the neighborhood, knocking on doors, trying to find new children to play with.  That is moxie!  When Stephanie was just five the family lived in a house that just happened to be located at the mailman’s noon day stop.  Once he delivered their mail, he sat in his truck and ate his lunch.  Well, Stephanie decided she would go out and eat her lunch with him.  So every day, the two of them would have a picnic under a tree.  That is kindness.  Years later the family tracked down the now retired mail carrier and not only did he remember Stephanie, but he said their lunches together were the best part of his job.  Moxie and kindness.  Stephanie combined both by taking on the interesting project of making cakes for friends and family.  And we are not just talking any cakes, we are talking elaborate creations!  She made a fire truck cake pulling a sail boat for her brother, a Hogwart’s Castle for her nephew, and a cake of a mountain complete with a running stream and kayaker for another nephew.  That is moxie and kindness!

Thomas said to Jesus, “We do not know where you are going?  How can we know the way?”

Those who attend church here at St. Paul’s know that I read poetry each day as a part of my devotional practice.  For some time now I have been making my way through the collected works of R.S. Thomas, an Anglican priest who lived and wrote in Wales over the course of the last century.  A few days ago I encountered a poem he wrote titled The Word.  Like all of you, when I first learned that Stephanie was gone I was overcome with different emotions: shock, sadness, and fear were easy to identify.  Still, the name of one feeling eluded me until I read Thomas’ poem:

A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
  [human].’  And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveler, letters
  took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word ‘lonely’.  And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those wailing at life’s
window cried out loud; ‘It is true.’

‘Lonely’ is a pretty good word to describe what a lot of us are feeling in a very deep place.  There is something extremely isolating about losing someone dear and I think that is why we feel so compelled to come together.  It is why so many of you have made such an effort to be here this morning.  You want to convey to Stephanie’s family and to her friends and to yourself that we are not alone.  We who are lonely seek community as a response to grief.  And just as we hold that the communion we will share in a few moments is a foretaste of a heavenly banquet we all one day will enjoy, so too this community we become at this moment is an echo of the Communion of Saints – a community to which Stephanie now belongs. 

It strikes me that this day is a day when reality and mystery dance together.  When I say mystery, I don’t use the word in the sense of a “Who don it?”, but rather in the sense of an awareness of being touched by something from beyond. 

Reality: Stephanie died because a medical condition for which she was seeking help got her before answers could be found.  Mystery: She lived her life with fullness and grace defiant of obstacles in her way.  Her courageous and glorious example is a witness and inspiration to each and every one of us.

Reality: A sudden and unexpected death catches each of us unaware and takes us to a dark and lonely place; a place of shock and fear and sadness.  Mystery: And yet as we come together we experience anew light and hope and joy and gratitude and strength for the road ahead.  These are gifts that come from being in community.

Reality:  This morning we are gathered in a building dedicated to the memory of a person who, 2,000 years ago, was nailed to a cross, executed, and buried.  Mystery: Three days later that person overcame death and rose victorious from the grave.  He promises new life to all who put their trust in him and makes his presence known at gatherings like this.

We who follow this person, who take his name and call ourselves ‘Christians’, know what it is to dance with reality and mystery.  We know what it is to mourn the loss of one we love while at the same time rejoicing in the life she had and affirming that she now dwells in a place eternal in the heavens.  As the writer of the reading we heard from Wisdom put, our faith is this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”

Stephanie, I pray you ease and speed in your journey to a new place.  Thank you for all that you have done and been.  You are loved.  You will be missed.  You will not be forgotten.  It is so hard for so many of us to let go of you.  One day we will meet again. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Force of Living Water

“The water that I will give will become... a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In last Sunday’s gospel Jesus drew on the image of wind to convey a spiritual truth.  Today’s reading draws upon another basic element – water.  Jesus launches into a conversation with a woman who has come to a well to draw a day’s supply.  He is thirsty and asks her for a drink.  This simple request launches a lengthy conversation that covers a wide array of subjects.  At one point Jesus proclaims that he is the source of Living Water and that whoever drinks of him will never thirst again.

Thirst – and we are talking deep thirst – would have been a common experience in that region in that era.  It is still a common experience in many parts of our world today.  Our access to clean drinking water, as well as the abundance of beverages of choice, is a blessing we could easily take for granted.  I was so pleased last year when we rallied together to raise nearly $2,000 for the creation of family wells at remote locations in other countries.  We understood the connection between clean water and quality of life.  It is nice to know that somewhere two or three families or farms or small villages have a way to satisfy their thirst because of our Lenten offering from 2013.

As I meditated on today’s lengthy gospel lesson I kept thinking about a slightly different property of living water.  Not only does it quench thirst, but over time it also has the ability to break down, break through, and smooth out what stands in its way.  Erosion.  Images of erosion vary from the glorious splendor of the Grand Canyon to washed out sections of road on the Outer Banks after a tidal surge.  Have you ever walked barefoot in a steam of rushing water and felt the smooth rocks beneath your feet?  Over time, moving water has worked away all their rough edges. 

Not long ago I watched a cable documentary that tried to determine the origin of Noah’s flood.  It theorized that after the last ice age a huge body of water covered most of central Canada and the upper Great Plains.  All of this water was held back by dam made of ice.  When that blockage gave way, the water rushed forth at an enormous rate in volumes we can scarcely imagine.  It raised ocean levels worldwide by a significant amount; creating the English Channel, the Black Sea, and other bodies of water we take for granted.  Water literally changed the face of the earth.

I think this is a helpful way to look at the encounter Jesus had with the woman at the well.  Think of all that it broke through, moved away, and reshaped.

·   Men did not speak to woman, but Jesus engages this woman in conversation.

·   Jews did not speak to Samaritans and vice versa on account of long-standing ethnic hatred, but Jesus foregoes all of that.

·   Moral objections are raised – the woman has had multiple relationships – and they are swept away.

·   Questions about the practice of religion are brought up – where is the right place to worship? – and dismissed.

·   That the woman came to the well alone at about noontime indicates she was an outcast in her community.  She was not welcome when all the other women normally gathered in the cool of the morning at the well.  And yet, she leaves her conversation with Jesus, returns to the village, and tells everyone about what she has found.  She is reconciled with the people who have pushed her away.

·   The villagers come to the well to meet Jesus and decide to invite him to stay in their town – something that was unthinkable at the time.

No obstacle, no barrier, no impediment can stand in the way of Living Water for long.  Eventually the water will overcome it and make its way toward its eventual destination.  From this encounter we learn that the destination of the Living Water that is Jesus looks like this:

·   It is a place where people find the true and living God not because they are good enough, but because God is gracious beyond all measure.

·   It is a place where broken relationships give way to a reconfigured community; a community where Jesus is always a welcomed guest.

·   It is a place where each person is respected regardless of age, gender, class, ethnicity, or moral integrity.   

To live in this kind of place is never to thirst again.  It is a world we are moving toward inch by inch, choice by choice, carried on our way by the gushing flow of Living Water.

I have enjoyed the brief mediations in this year’s Lenten Devotional from Episcopal Relief & Development.  March 17th’s entry was written by Moses Deng Bol, a bishop from the South Sudan.  He described how in that part of the world “women are the marginalized of the marginalized”:

Official government statistics say 98 percent of women in the region cannot read or write.  Although a few girls go to school, most will not complete their education.  They will likely be married off for a dowry.  The dowry may be paid in stolen cows, a practice fueling current tribal conflict in South Sudan.

The bishop goes on to note:

Yet we rely on these same women to provide food, manage our homes, and raise our children.  They are such a central part of our society, and, I think, these women are the key to unlocking a better future for South Sudan.

March 19th’s devotional described how an association of women in southwest China, empowered by a microloan, have come together to create better lives for themselves and for their community.  They are now at a point where they are making a profit and using this money to provide better care for the elderly, for children, and for poor families.

These stories, among many others, evoke for me the image of Living Water as running water that removes barriers and overcomes obstacles on its way to a good and godly destination.  I am looking forward to making a contribution to efforts like these at the end of Lent as we collect change for micro-development projects.  Just as last year’s effort addressed water as thirst, this year’s work focuses in figuratively on ‘water’s’ ability to transform.  It is a tangible way that you and I can be connected to Jesus the source of Living Water.

Today I am most mindful of the final barrier that Living Water will overcome, the barrier of death itself.  Death is the great darkness in the future that each of us must face, and with the sudden passing of Stephanie Freel, that darkness seems especially close today; not only to us, but to our children who have lost a Sunday School teacher and mother of one of their own.  Our faith is that nothing – nothing – nothing – can stand it the way of the gush of Living Water, not even death itself.  We rejoice that Stephanie has been welcomed to that place were she will never thirst again even as we recognize that a different kind of water pours forth from our eyes in the form of tears. 

Today I am grateful for the power of Living Water to overcome all things on its course to a Holy Destination.  And I pray that the One who was thirsty as he sat beside a well so long ago will come to us and comfort us with a Living Water we so desperately need.

Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become... a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”