glory of god

glory of god

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Choosing the Better Part: A Funeral Homily for Joyce Elliott

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ Luke 10:38-42

I have to start by saying that perhaps like many, or even most, of you I am still in shock that Joyce has died. I am expecting to see her in church, working with the altar guild, in the office photocopying, or calling about this or that. It will take a good long while, for me anyway, to process this new reality. I will always treasure my memories of Joyce and will hold her in my heart—seeing her in her sparkly pink sweater, smiling brightly, bringing joy and love and care. And just as importantly, bringing her delicious Scandinavian almond cake to every church function. In many ways, she was like Emmanuel’s mother, grandmother, and aunt, all at once. 

As fast as everything has happened over the past few weeks, I also know that this is as Joyce wanted it—not us feeling loss as we do, but she being free from the health issues that made life so challenging and took so much from her in the last few years. And we know that she is reunited with the great love of her life, Ernie. Not a day went by, I think, that she didn’t think of him, and long for him—sometimes just the mention of his name made her well up with tears—of sadness I suppose, but also of love. In her last few weeks, seeing Ernie again was her greatest hope and anticipation. So, we can be happy for Joyce and Ernie—partners in life and now in eternity—even as we are feeling a little disoriented by this sudden change in our lives.

This morning’s gospel reading focused on two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany—friends of Jesus. Probably among his closest friends. It’s not one of the usual choices for a funeral, but I like it, as it tells of women of faith. Women a lot like Joyce.  Now, at first, one might think of Joyce as being more like Martha in this morning’s reading. Busy doing things. Rushing around. Making certain everything is perfect. Maybe a little anxious that every gets done as it should.

Whenever I hear that gospel I always sort of imagine Martha—the busy one—starting out subtly, making a little extra noise in the kitchen, banging pots and pans to get her sister’s attention and lure her out of the living room. It’s only after Mary doesn’t get the hint that Martha breaks a glass, blows up a little, and finally asks Jesus to intervene. I suppose we could see Joyce that way, women of the church often see themselves as Marthas—we even have a Martha stained glass window—with a small beehive depicted, the women of the church buzzing around, getting everything ready, as Joyce did week after week on the altar guild, and as church secretary during the 1980s and 90s.

But, of course, she was more than that. Because, like Mary in the gospel, Joyce also knew the importance of stopping to listen. Building and sustaining relationships were important to her. Knowing our stories was important to her. Somehow Joyce always seemed to know every detail about people's lives. Not in a gossipy kind of way, but in a concerned and caring way. Whenever I saw her, she was always asking how I am, how my family is—my mother in particular. Even when she wasn’t feeling well herself or in the hospital, she wanted to know about others. David and John shared that trips to the grocery store would typically include their mother striking up conversations with other customers in the check out line—people she had never seen before and might never see again. But she wanted to know them. She liked people. In fact, she loved people. With all of our gifts, with all of our mistakes, just as we are.

Time and again, like Mary of Bethany in the gospel, Joyce chose the better part, which can never be taken from her, or from us. That better part was opening her heart to us in love—whoever we are, wherever we are. And when you think about it, that is her greatest gift and legacy to us—her open heart. Well, that and the almond cake.

Nearly 8 years ago Joyce was one of the first parishioners I met. She made a point to welcome me to the parish—with the almond cake. Libby Berman and Anne Minton, the interim priests who preceded me, both said the same thing. They weren’t able to be here this morning due to family obligations, but they asked me to share how important Joyce’s welcome was to them, too. Over the years she shared details about the church and the town; more than once she guided me when I was lost, and of course, she offered lots and lots and lots of opinions. Usually when one such opinion was coming, or maybe a correction to something stupid I may have done, she would start with: “Now Matthew…” That was always a clue. Though, her most important opinion, which she reiterated often, was “it’s impossible to please everybody.”

Having been the church’s secretary for over a decade, working with 5 different ministers over the most tumultuous period in the church’s history, at least in the 20th century, she knew that better than just about anyone—it’s impossible to please everyone. Given that history, you’d think she would have stories to tell. And she did a little. But she never talked about rectors she didn’t like, or parishioners she didn’t like. Joyce’s guiding principle, so far as I could tell, was to like everyone. And to simply meet and accept us as we are. Joyce chose the better part.

My favorite Joyce story is of my first few months here at Emmanuel--in November 2008. She was having surgery at the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital and she called her whole family together prior to the operation. And by prior, I really mean prior—in the pre-op room. David and John and John were there, and me too—all crowded around her bed. At 7 in the morning or whatever it was. Always being a little nervous or anxious, she wanted prayers, just to be sure. I anointed her forehead, we prayed, and we talked.

And then, the surgeon came in to check on her. He probably made the mistake of asking if she had any questions. Because she did, but not about the surgery. She asked him: Did you sleep well last night? What did you eat for breakfast? She told him that she didn’t want any joking or silliness going on during the procedure. I think she even told him what kind of music she approved of and what kind she didn’t. If he was going to take her life into his hands, those hands had better be ready. We were all there together, until the very moment staff wheeled her into the OR. Of course, she came through just fine. After that, we were bonded for life. My great love of anything Swedish—expect lutfisk—that probably helped, too.

Like Mary of Bethany in this morning’s gospel, Joyce’s life was a life of faith. She believed in the steadfastness of God. She believed in the love of God. She believed in the power of God. While, like Martha in the gospel, Joyce was sometimes anxious about the many details of life, she was never anxious about the life of faith. Nor was she anxious about what comes next, on the other side of eternity. In fact, she looked forward to it, in faith and in hope. And, you know, it is that same faith and that same hope that draws us here together, and that allows us to commend Joyce to God, in the fullest, most certain confidence, that she is safe in God’s arms, that she is secure in God’s heart, that she is loved with the deepest, most all encompassing love possible.

We believe that because as Christians, we believe in the power of God. We believe in the power of the resurrection—both the resurrection of Christ 2000 years ago, and the resurrection that God continues to unleash in the world in our own lives. We believe, as Joyce believed for 81 years, that hope is always stronger than fear and that life is always stronger than death. This is the faith that sustained her, that gave her hope, and that led her to face the last weeks in strength, in courage, and in steadfastness of spirit.

The last time Joyce was here in church was for the Easter Vigil and tomorrow is the Day of Pentecost. It seems appropriate somehow that it is during this Easter season, this season of resurrection and new life, that Joyce that made her journey deeper and closer into the heart of God. Obviously, we would all want her to be here with us still. For more visits, for more joy, for more love, and definitely for more almond cake. But we also know that Joyce is now at peace. She is where she needs to be. She is finally, and fully, set free from all that constrained her, from all that made life hard over the last few years, and she is living at the heart of God, with Ernie, whom she loved so deeply.

So, we are called this morning to say goodbye. Not for ever. But for a while. Knowing that Joyce is safe. Knowing that she is at peace. Knowing that she is at home. Knowing that like Mary of Bethany, Joyce has chosen the better part that can never be taken from her. We miss her. I miss her. But our comfort, our consolation, and our hope comes in knowing that for Joyce, today and every day, is a bright Easter morning. For Joyce, today and everyday are days of joy and not sadness. They are days of life—eternal, abundant, resurrection, Easter life. And to that, what can we say but “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

I would like to close by offering a prayer—in honor of Joyce and Ernie both—in Swedish. And then I’ll read it in English, too. Let us pray.

Käre himmelske Fader. Vi tackar dig för att du genom Jesus Kristus har skänkt oss det eviga livets gåva. Hjälp oss att tro hålla fast vid att ingenting kan skilja oss från din kärlek. När vi mister någon, som står oss nära, hjälp oss då att ta emot tröst från dig och dela den med varandra. Vi tackar dig för vad du gav och genom Joyce och Ernie. Åt dig överlämnar vi oss som vi är med vår saknad och vår skuld. När rätta stunden är inne, låt oss då få dö i frid och se dig ansikte mot ansikte, du vår frälsnings Gud. Amen.

Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you that through Jesus Christ you have given us the gift of eternal life. Help us to hold fast to the belief that nothing can separate us from your love. When we lose someone close to us, help us then to receive consolation from you and to share it with each other. We thank you for all you gave us through Joyce and Ernie. We commit ourselves to you, as we are, with our longings and our faults. When the right time comes, let us die in peace and see you face to face, O God of our salvation. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

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