Despite the autumnal colors outside, with you all here, with the church so full, so buzzing with life, it looks and feels a lot like Easter. But then, today really is a lot like Easter, as we celebrate life, and in particular, the new, abundant, and eternal life in Christ that God offers us all in the power of the resurrection, and today, especially, the abundant, eternal life Wendy and Tristan will be drawn into through baptism. Today they sacramentally join the mystical Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints.
But, this is not always an easy life you are joining, Wendy and Tristan, being united in such a powerful way to people you love. Because on this side of eternity life is transitory, even as it is forever and lasting in God. During our baptismal preparation, Jason—Tristan’s dad—shared that when he and his brother Adam were young they came to the realization that the older ladies here who hosted coffee hour probably wouldn’t live for ever. They wondered, after these ladies died, who would make the delicious lemon cakes they so much enjoyed? That’s why parish cookbooks are important, and even more so, sharing stories and recipes and most of all love, so that it all lives on, even after we have been drawn deeper into God’s life and heart.
Today, we get to share some of those stories. In the last year, 10 Emmanuel parishioners have been drawn into the deeper life of God. I’m not sure if any made lemon cakes, but they were wonderful people: Barbara Smith, Joyce McLeod, Bill Hausrath, Brian Dale, Eveline and Burl Whelchel, Edie Coflan, Bob Bent, Olga Packard, and Ginny Climo. We also said goodbye to John Cook, son of Wallie and Cindy, and we celebrated the life of Bob Russo, husband of Linda.
I wish there were time to reflect on all of them, to remember Edie’s art, Brian’s scientific brilliance, and Ginny’s service as parish secretary. But that would take all day, with so many stories. So for now, I’ll focus on the four I knew best—Barbara and Bill, Olga and Bob—who were most active in the church’s life lately, and were lifted to heaven by the prayers of this community that they so loved, and that so loved them in return.
Sunday mornings always began with Barbara Smith. She was a fixture at the 8:00 am service, sitting in the second row, alongside Midge Roberts. Barbara was part of a group of ladies called “the church mice.” They were behind the scenes leaders, serving on altar guild and Sunday school, hosting events and the like. Her friend Midge’s death was hard on Barbara—even more were those of her daughter Karen and her husband Tom. But, she kept these cherished family and friends, saints of God, alive in pictures and memories all around. On her den wall was a photo of Tom, dashing in his merchant marine uniform, and on the side table a photo of herself and Midge in lawn chairs, smiling just as on Sunday mornings. Most poignantly, a beautiful tree was planted in the backyard to the memory of her daughter Karen, who died so young in an automobile accident.
Unfortunately, the last years were hard for Barbara. She lacked energy and was in and out of the hospital. On one of my hospital visits she really wasn’t having a good day. To help her perk up a little she had a few sips of her favorite beverage: Fresca. She said it was what gave her pep. (I had no idea that at home Barbara actually enjoyed Fresca with vodka!, as her daughter Janet shared at her memorial service). Then we talked some about her life. I asked her specifically about her life as a kindergarten teacher. She so much loved those children—when they were young, and when she ran into them after they had grown. Nothing delighted her more, knowing that she had a lasting and positive impact in people’s lives.
So I asked, “Barbara, did you ever have disciplinary problems with the kids?” “Oh yes,” she said. “If they were misbehaving, they had to leave the fun table, and go read quietly by themselves.” Then she said, “That probably wasn’t such a good idea. Because I wouldn’t want children to think of reading as a punishment.” So many years later, Barbara was still reflecting on how we learn and grow. How wonderful it must have been to have Mrs. Smith not only as a teacher, but as your very first teacher setting you on the path of a lifetime of learning and growing.
Anyone who knew Bill Hausrath, even just a little, soon became aware that he was a product of a bygone era. Bill read, usually history, far more than he watched TV. He walked pretty much everywhere, usually dressed in a jacket and tie, and he understood that we don’t really need to spend each and every minute checking our smart phones. In fact, he probably didn’t know what a smart phone was, since he didn’t even have an answering machine.
Over about 50 years as a parishioner Bill served in nearly every major leadership position here, except, directress of the altar guild. He was superintendent of the Church School, then a vestry member, Senior Warden, treasurer, vestry member again, junior warden, and finally vestry member yet again. Eventually, he retired from the vestry service after 30 years. But only for one year. Because after a few months he missed it so much that wanted back on again. So, we elected him at our first opportunity. Balance returned to the Force (the obligatory Star Wars reference for this sermon).
None of us had even an inkling of Bill’s extraordinary contributions beyond Emmanuel. I knew that he was a faithful alumnus of Clark University in Worcester. But not that he had donated $500,000 to fund a doctoral fellowship for students studying the Armenian genocide, in memory of his beloved wife Agnes, and her family that suffered during the genocide. And although we knew that he occasionally went to the Armenian church in Chelmsford, we definitely had no idea that he was, as the priest there said at Bill’s funeral, “an ABC—Armenian By Choice.” And that when he went to services he took part in processions dressed in fancy vestments. I so much wish we had known, I wish we could have talked to Bill about it, or even gone with him.
I always felt that Bill was my quiet, wise adviser, a Jedi master of sorts helping me grow into my job, and helping us all grow into the parish that God wants us to be. The latest of Bill’s contributions shine down on us at this very moment, quite literally, in the fancy new lights that now grace the church. He never saw them first hand, but I like to think that through them Bill is still giving us light and helping us to see the possibilities that God holds out before us.
Bob Bent was among the first parishioners I met, as he was on the search committee that called me here—so he’s partly to blame. Once, in my first few months, Bob mustered the courage to tell me that my sermons were too long. (This one probably falls into that category, too—sorry Bob). That was bold, and kind of funny, coming from a guy raised as a Baptist! Sue told me that after several years of attending both Episcopal and Baptist services after they were married, one really long Baptist service—at least two hours long—convinced him that the Episcopal service was where he needed to be.
Bob was never confirmed in the Episcopal Church, though. I suspect so that he couldn’t be elected senior warden (he did serve as Junior Warden, which had fewer requirements). But Bob didn’t need the hands of a bishop to demonstrate the depth of his faith and dedication—not only to Emmanuel, but to the whole people of God—serving meals at the Reading Senior Center and Bread of Life dinners in Malden, and as a crossing guard, helping kids make their way to school. How special to start your school day with a greeting from Bob—a guy whose heart was so big.
On days when Emmanuel hosted the Bread of Life dinner, Bob used to take his truck to a bakery in Woburn to pick up mountains of baked goods—it had to be the truck, because a car would require two trips. That’s, of course, before he got down to the real work making shepherd’s pie for over 100 guests. If you figure that Bob cooked every other month, for thirty years, that’s 180 dinners. Then multiply by 100 people served, and you get to 18,000 meals. What a life of faithful discipleship.
Bob was the general of the Bread of Life kitchen. And his field marshal was most certainly Olga Packard, keeping things organized, assigning tasks and making sure the dinners moved along. In fact, even in the hospital, having just come out of brain surgery hours earlier, Olga was planning new recipes for Bread of Life dinners, while also thinking of the kids in parish, wanting to make this year’s gingerbread house party even more special.
One of the first things I learned about Olga was that she was the first woman to serve as Senior Warden, from 1979 to 1981. And so in the parish archives we have lots of old photographs and many of them include Olga, almost always she surrounded by men in suits—never with the ladies of the parish. Whether it’s pictures of building projects, fundraising committees, or the vestry, Olga is there as a lone, strong woman—one who paved the way for so many others, and always in her signature high heels.
The night before Olga died I went to her house at about midnight. Tobey, Kimball, Neysa, and I gathered in her bedroom. Olga was unconscious, but surrounded by stories of her life, by Big Band music, and by lots of prayer. After a while, I said, “I think Olga would want us to have tea.” So, we went downstairs, pulled every kind of baked good from the fridge, and at 2:30 am, for about 45 minutes we enjoyed tea, celebrating Olga’s long and wonderful life, and entrusting her into God’s heart. But, you know, Olga always wanted to be in charge. So she waited until about 10:30 in the morning, after church had ended and the congregation she had loved had a chance to lift her up in prayer one last time, finally sending her into God’s arms.
In school, in church, in shops and at tea we meet the saints of God. Nowhere is that more true than right here at Emmanuel. Nowhere more so than in these saints we remember and celebrate this morning, whom we miss, but who are shining on us, as we, like them, strive to be saints of God ourselves—not only in ages past—but here and now, today and always. How fortunate we have been, how blessed to have known them, and to have been loved by them.
And, it is into this very same call to sainthood, into this same life infused in Christ, that we will baptize Wendy and Tristan in a few moments. They are joining their lives to Bill’s and Olga’s, to Bob’s and Barbara’s, to Brian’s, Joyce’s, Edie’s and Ginny’s. They are joining the whole Communion of Saints across time and space, those sitting next us this morning, those we hold in our hearts, and those whose stories we don’t know.
Because in baptism, we are all saints of God—sealed as Christ’s own forever. Not without our mistakes, failings, and limitations, for sure. But, always drawn together into a new, resurrection, Easter life. What’s more, as we have heard this morning in the stories of the saints we have known, there’s no one right way to live into this life. It can be through making dinners or teaching school, through business acumen put in service of others or as a school crossing guard. It can even, as the song says, be as a soldier, a doctor, or a shepherdess on the green. There is room, and a role, for each and everyone of us. What we do is not nearly so important as how we do it—filled with the grace, the love, and the song of God.
They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.
May we all be those saints, today and always, and for all eternity.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD