FOR ONE DEAR SAINT

It was most fitting that just two days after All Saints Day I had the honor of conducting a memorial service for my dear Aunt Ruth. My mom’s older sister, Ruth lived 97 wonderful years, and she lived them with zest and courage to the end. This was what I said about her at the service:

As the oldest of Aunt Ruth’s nephews and nieces I always thought I had an extra special place in her heart. I dared to believe that because I had seniority my memories of her unconditional love and zest for life were unique. Boy was I wrong. After we got the news of her death there was such an outpouring of love for her that I was surprised at how wide and deep her influence. When I thought about it I realized of course that it shouldn’t have surprised me. Her love of life for 97 wonderful years was so contagious that it affected everyone who came into contact with her – not just in her generation or mine, but in great nephews and nieces, grand and great grandchildren. I wasn’t special to Ruth, everyone was!

Let me share a few things from her fan club, aka her nephews and nieces: “Remember a lady who every reason to feel sorry for herself, but never let her handicap and painful suffering slow her down a bit. (Ruth had polio as an infant and walked with a pronounced limp all her life.) She was sassy, feisty, and tough as nails! But also one of the most caring, compassionate, and inspirational people I will ever know.”

Another said, “A lot of good memories of spending time with her and Uncle Fran in Lima. She taught me to sew and love of gardening.”
And another: “One summer we made curtains and a Roman shade for my room at Bowling Green. Because of Aunt Ruth I have made my own curtains nearly everywhere I have lived. She also knew a whole lot about growing flowers and taught me lots of her tricks.”

My own fondest memories of Ruth go way back to the farm near St. Johns. I’d stay out there in the summer before I had any competition from all you younger cousins. Dave (Ruth’s son) and I would play in the woods that was a little way down the road literally till the cows came home – because it was our job to bring the cows in for the night. In reminiscing about Aunt Ruth this week I had an ah hah moment. I used to get horribly homesick as a kid anytime and anywhere I went. It didn’t matter where – at Grandma and Grandpa Sawmillers, Boy Scout camp. It was awful. But what I realized the other day is that I never got homesick at Aunt Ruth’s – and that’s because I always felt at home there.

Her hospitality is legendary. And that never changed. My son and I visited Aunt Ruth in 2010 when she was “only” 89 years young. We didn’t want to impose on her so we offered to take her out for dinner the one night we were there and surprisingly she agreed – but she was having none of that the next morning. When we got up there was enough bacon and eggs on the stove to feed a multitude. That was the visit when she also told us about the rattle snake she had killed recently in her garden.

I’m not sure where Ruth’s name came from. There don’t seem to be any other women named Ruth in the family genealogy, and that’s cool because she was indeed one of a kind. But I am struck by the similarities in Ruth’s life with those of Ruth in the Old Testament. That biblical Ruth is famous for what she said when her widowed mother-in-law Naomi suggested Ruth should go back home to her own people instead of going to support Naomi back in Bethlehem.

That Ruth was stubborn too, and loyal and compassionate. She said, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me if even death parts me from you!”
Wherever Aunt Ruth needed to go for those she loved she went – to Lima, to Georgia—I’m surprised she didn’t move to Iran when Dave and Sue were there! She was there for Fran for all those years even when he didn’t know she was there. That’s love and devotion that we and the world need to learn from her.

She was an inspiration to us all. When I throw myself a pity party because of my aches and pains and all the things my body won’t let me do anymore, all I have to do is remember this feisty little woman who never let any of her challenges stop her from being the greatest daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, great grandmother any of us have ever known.

She got that love in return from her kids and grandkids – especially from Sue and Dave who cared for her in the last few years and preserved for Ruth and her faithful dog Heidi the independence and freedom that living in her own house provided – way beyond when that was easy or convenient for her caregivers.
I think Ruth’s great niece Laura said best what Ruth meant to all of us. She wrote this tribute right after we learned of Ruth’s passing.

“I don’t even know how to explain how much she has meant to me my entire life. This woman, this amazing woman, was a rock for me. I could talk to her about anything; she was only a phone call away. She loved me the way a person is supposed to love another, without judgement, without criticism, and with her whole heart. I loved her with every ounce of my being, and there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for her.

This resilient woman, who overcame so much in her life, lived so much longer than anyone expected, was so much more to me than a Great Aunt-she was another grandmother to me. She was truly someone who didn’t let anything get her down; she found a way to see the bright side of things no matter what. She was an inspiration to me, of how to live your life, she was always kind to others, never knew a stranger, always offered a helping hand, even if it meant just sharing her vast knowledge. I was unbelievably fortunate to have been able to spend time with her throughout my life, to listen to the little lessons she taught me about life, cooking, gardening, and being a great person. I know that now, she is up in Heaven, with Uncle Fran, tending to the gardens, feeding the birds, and is able to do all the things that age had taken away from her.”

Laura’s words resonate for me in so many ways. Aunt Ruth was like a second mom to me and to so many others. Today we celebrate Ruth’s long and wonderful life, and we thank God for all she was and always will mean to us. We thank God for giving us Ruth, such a wonderful gift to teach us about life, and we give thanks that she is now beyond the pain and suffering of this life in the eternal arms of your loving God.

PRAYER: Loving God, as Ruth welcomed all of us into her home and her heart, we pray now that you will receive Ruth into the arms of your mercy. Raise this dear saint up with all your people. Receive us also, and raise us into a new life. Help us so to love and serve you in this world that we may enter into your joy in the world to come. Amen.

When I was driving home after the graveside service I realized I didn’t say what I should have at the cemetery. I’ve done over 150 funerals in my ministry, but I’m still learning. Maybe it’s more personal because I buried my own father and mother-in-law earlier this year, or maybe it’s because Ruth was such an important part of my life. Or maybe it was because Ruth’s two young great grandsons were at the cemetery and I wasn’t sure I said the right words for them to hear.

I said the tried and true words we usually say at a time and place like that; that the body returns to the ground but we commend Ruth’s spirit to God. I said, “Today we have to let go of Ruth’s hand, but we know God has hold of her hand and God will never let go.” Those are good words, but they border on pious platitudes. What I wish I had said is this, “We’ve celebrated a great and wonderful life today but this part is still very hard. I remember a bitter cold January day many years ago when we buried Ruth’s grandmother. I was a teenager then, but I still remember my grandmother Sawmiller standing there by the grave crying. It was the only time I ever remember seeing her cry. And she said, “I don’t want to leave her here.”

It’s taken me almost 60 years to figure out what I should have said then and what I should have said last Saturday at Aunt Ruth’s grave. “She’s not in that box. She’s not in that grave. She’s right here in the heart of everyone she loved and who loved her back. Her spirit is alive and well in every memory we share, and those memories and her feisty spirit will never die as long as we keep them alive.”

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Story/Sermon on Mark 10:17-27

I want to try something different this morning. This sermon will be in the form of a story I’ve written based on this text from Mark’s Gospel. In particular the story deals with the rather shocking response that Jesus gives to the man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We expect Jesus’ questions about keeping the commandments, but after the man assures Jesus that he’s done what the law requires all his life we come to verse 21. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So here’s my story:

“I’m afraid I won’t live to tell this tale; so I’m going to write it down.” So begins a journal entry by Marion Browner. I found his journal, a small spiral notebook, sealed in a zip lock bag as I was walking along a Martha’s Vineyard beach. It had apparently been washed ashore by the tide.

The entry dated March 23 continues: “My bed banged into the wall and jolted me awake this morning—seems like a year ago. My first thought was, “Oh, no, an earthquake!” But then as sleep cleared from my head I remembered where I was. I’m still not sure what happened. Our ship must have hit an iceberg or another ship. I don’t know and probably never will.

Obnoxious fog-horn alarms started blaring and mass confusion erupted all over the ship. My stateroom was three levels below the evacuation deck and it was difficult to get up there. Everyone was jamming the passage ways in a state of near panic and the ship was listing rather badly to port. I started out of my room once and heard someone yell that we were taking on water. Fearing we might have to abandon ship I pushed my way back against the flow of the crowd to my room and tried to decide what to take with me. I began throwing some things into a duffle bag—extra clothes, this journal, and a novel I’m writing. Part of the novel was in my laptop, and I hated to lose it. I had just broken through my writer’s block and had done some good writing on this cruise. So I decided to take the computer and put it and my duffle into a carryon suitcase. It was a bit heavy but I couldn’t bear to lose that good work.

I struggled through the crowd of passengers and found pandemonium on deck. It was still dark and cold and the early morning fog made it even harder for crew members to organize the evacuation of the ship. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as everyone jockeyed for position, trying to get to the lifeboats. I’m not sure what happened in the next few minutes, but I finally found myself in a small life raft with several other people and we were quickly lowered over the side into the water.

The cold north Atlantic sloshed over us as we struggled to keep ourselves upright. One man was washed out of the lifeboat, but someone else (I later learned her name was Susan) was able to grab his hand and hold on till the rest of us could pull him back in.
By the time we stabilized ourselves and got our cold wet lifejackets on I realized I could no longer hear other voice. We had drifted away from the ship and the other lifeboats. An hour or two later when the fog lifted there was nothing to see but water—water all around us and ankle deep in our boat.

We are a bedraggled crew: Susan, the lifesaver when John went overboard, is a strong, athletic-looking woman. It turns out she really was a lifeguard in her college days at Duke, and although it wasn’t obvious in the soggy sweat suit she was wearing she is now a professional body builder. Lucky for John—she was probably the only one in the boat strong enough to save him.
John is a CPA for a Madison Ave. conglomerate, an uptight, obsessive-compulsive type. If exposure or thirst doesn’t kill him, having his Brooks Brothers suit ruined probably will.

There are three others in our boat: Brandi, a beautician and wannabe model from New Jersey; Phil, an art museum curator from Montreal, and Carlos, who turned out to be a Roman Catholic priest from Philly—but you would never have guessed it from seeing him in his dripping bathrobe and pjs.

That makes six of us altogether, and the lifeboat could accommodate up to 8 normally, but we are far from a normal crew. In the first few minutes after we realized we had drifted away from the others I knew we had a serious problem. I’m sure most of the others did too, but no one wanted to talk about it.
The lifeboat was still taking on water—in part from the waves washing over the sides, but mostly because we are overloaded—not with people, but with baggage.
I wasn’t the only one who packed before jumping ship. All of my fellow refugees were clutching bags of odd shapes and sizes; and when I pointed out that we really had to lighten our load or we were going to sink, I met with great resistance.
Susan, the body builder, had brought several of her smaller weights with her and was already beginning a limited version of her regular morning workout. The weights are obviously expendable, but after one look at the ease with which she did one-handed curls with a 20-lb. weight, no one was going to tell her so.

John the CPA had a brief case full of important business contracts he was working on, and from the way he was clutching it to his chest like a security blanket, it was obvious he wasn’t going to part with it without a fight.

Brandi had a large suitcase and a matching makeup bag. When I asked her what was in them, she said her make-up, jewelry, clothes, and her portfolio of modelling portraits. She was just beginning to explain why she couldn’t afford to replace any of it because she was only working part-time and none of it was insured when Phil yelled something about what a waste that crap was and lunged across the boat at Brandi. He managed to throw the make-up bag overboard because Brandi couldn’t hold onto both pieces of luggage at once. She would have gone in after it, but Susan grabbed her. So instead Brandi went after Phil and tried to get even by throwing his baggage overboard too.

Phil had a large rectangular package, obviously some kind of painting. He told us later, after the scuffle, that it was a Renoir that had been in his family for generations. But Brandi couldn’t have cared less about art or family heirlooms at that point! She was furious and did her very best to give Phil and his priceless painting a salt-water bath. I thought they were going to capsize us all before order was restored, once again enforced by Susan. We were all relieved when everyone was seated again, but what we failed to notice at the time was that in the struggle the corner of Phil’s picture frame had made a small puncture in the skin of our life raft.

When everyone calmed down a bit I tried again to initiate a rational discussion of which baggage was expendable (hoping no one would notice the suitcase I was sitting on). Everyone of course thought their own prized possessions were more valuable than anyone else’s. Compromise seemed hopeless. Everyone was simply banking on our being rescued before the lifeboat sank of its excessive cargo weight. The best suggestion anyone came up with was to take turns bailing the water out of the boat.

When we started looking for something to bail with we realized that we hadn’t heard a word from one member of our crew. Nobody much cared, except we didn’t know what Carlos had in the small, worn leather bag he had brought with him. We didn’t know yet he was a priest either, but that became very obvious when he showed us the rosary, chalice, Bible and bottle of holy water in his bag.
Phil said sarcastically, “Well, at least he can give us last rites, but this cup will work great for bailing.” Brandi objected and grabbed the chalice from Phil. “You can’t use that, it’s holy!” she said.

Father Carlos smiled and spoke for the first time, “I can’t think of anything holier than saving life. It’s OK Brandi,” he said, making the sign of the cross and handing the chalice to Phil, who started bailing immediately. Carlos continued, “And if we ration this holy water very carefully for drinking it may keep us all alive for a day or two. These other things won’t lighten our load very much, but every little bit will help,” he added as he tossed his rosary and Bible overboard.

“Father! You can’t do that,” screamed Phil as he jumped in after them. Susan did her lifeguard routine once more and fished Phil out, sputtering but empty-handed. While he shivered, John took up the theological debate questioning how Father Carlos could possibly risk doing anything to alienate God at a time like this?
Carlos was still amazingly calm. “At a time like this,” he said, “unless the word of God is in your heart the Bible won’t do you much good anyway. I’m scared too, John, but our situation reminds me of the time someone put a life and death question to Jesus. The six of us are like the man in this story – we want more than anything to be saved. You see, this man asked Jesus, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He was a very good man, but Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Jesus told the man he needed to sell what he had and give to the poor.

The man had a lot because he was very rich. But Jesus knew he needed to let go of what was keeping him from really giving his life to God.

There was a deafening silence in the boat, except for the sloshing and scraping of Phil bailing water with the communion chalice. Finally Susan said, “You mean we need to throw this junk overboard, don’t you Father?” But before Carlos could answer John declared, “I’m not giving up contracts until these two broads give up their weights and make up and Marion gives up that suitcase he’s been sitting on! Those things can be replaced, and what good is a stupid painting when your life’s at stake?
Everyone was ready to gang up on John and throw him overboard, but Fr. Carlos intervened again, quietly. He said, “You know, the person in that Bible story goes away full of sorrow. He wasn’t able to let go of his possessions either, and then Jesus says, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The last page of the journal was scribbled, like Marion wrote it very quickly. As best as I can tell it says: “I think Fr. Carlos was beginning to get through to some of us, but Susan screamed just then because she noticed the tear in the lifeboat. It must have just gotten bigger and the air is rushing out pretty fast. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone’s throwing their stuff overboard now. I just hope it’s not too late…”


Let us pray: O God, what must we do to be saved? Remind us it’s never too late to give ourselves to you. Speak to us the assurance that grace is a free gift, and that there is nothing we can do to earn it. It is difficult to enter your kingdom because it is so hard for us to let go of our security blankets.

In this moment God, help us to honestly confront the idols we worship:
Be they idols of pride in our looks, or in our strength, ability, portfolios, education, status or power.
Help us throw overboard the material possessions – the new cars, X Boxes and fancy toys, our designer clothes and ever-present electronic devices. Unburden us of whatever holds us back or slows us down on our walk with you, O Lord.

Give us strength to win the battle with the demons of coveting, of our pursuit of houses that are bigger and nicer than our neighbor’s, goals that consume us and keep us from seeing the Gospel truth of how we need to live as Jesus followers.
Let us put away the idols of faith in our own achievements or self-righteousness as ways to save ourselves, ideologies and doctrines that divide instead of unite us.

Help us to see clearly Lord how those idols threaten our relationship with you, and our way to eternal life itself. Please give us strength to let go of those idols before it’s too late. We don’t want to be like the person who came to Jesus. We don’t want to go away full of sorrow because of possessions that posses us, but may we go away rejoicing, like camels, who freed of their burdens can slip through the eye of a needle.

We offer these prayers because we know that with you all things are truly possible. Amen

Northwest UMC, October 14, 2018

Mary Elizabeth Cade Hoover, November 2, 1917-March 5, 2018

Some thoughts on transformation from this life to the next from a grateful son-in-law:

Nearly twenty years ago Mom Hoover accepted me and welcomed me into her family just as she did so many of us. She was an inspiration and joy to know and love and her generous, faithful life has left an indelible and wonderful mark on everyone who knew her. Her passing reminded me so much of two of my favorite descriptions of what human mortality means to a mature Christian like Mary.

When he was 80 years old someone asked John Quincy Adams how he was Adams leaned on his cane and said, “I’m fine, sir, fine! But this old tenement that John Quincy lives in is not so good. The underpinning is about to fall away. The thatch is all gone off the roof, and the windows are so dim John Quincy can hardly see out anymore. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if before the winter’s over he had to move out. But as for John Quincy Adams, he never was better.”

Mary Hoover has moved out and moved on, and she has never been better. Her perishable body has put on the imperishable.

One of my other favorite descriptions of a peaceful passing from this life to the next is this meditation from a class I taught several years ago on “Aging to Sageing.” The meditation compares our life to that of a leaf on a tree. It describes the budding and growth of the leaf in spring and summer and then changes and autumn colors, and then describes the approach of winter this way: “You know some day a wind will come to release you. But this thought does not frighten you, for though you are a leaf that is not all you are. You know you are also part of the tree. The tree gave birth to you—it sent you forth to absorb the sunlight and help it grow. You are not just a leaf, but part of a magnificent oak tree. Soon your work will be fulfilled. It will be time to make room for new leaves that will bud next spring. In letting go, you know you are not abandoned. When the time comes, you will float gently down to the ground. You will become part of the soil that feeds the tree. You will find yourself changed and you will take on a new form, but you will still be part of the tree of life.”

Mary’s leaf may have fallen, but her spirit and compassion and wisdom will live on forever, and because of that we are smiling through our tears. In her life and death Mary taught us what it means to live faithfully even in the very presence of death. Because like St. Paul we know:

“ When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:54-56)