For those of you visiting for the first time, let me first extend you welcome on behalf of Jan and Jack and the rest of their families, as well as the Vestry and parish family of St. Alban’s. While we all wish the circumstances were different, we are glad that you are joining us in this hectic season to remember the life of Jan. It is becoming an all-too-common theme around here that we are laying to rest the founders and giants of this parish. I cannot remember if Jan was here from the very beginning, but that matters very little. She was one of the spiritual matriarchs of this parish.
As a new priest, I came to value her observations and opinions rather quickly. She did me a tremendous favor in the beginning of my cure. She also helped calm my fears in the beginning. At my first Annual Meeting, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. Our pledged income and our proposed expenditures on the proposed 2007 budget were nowhere near close to each other. Guess which number was higher and which number was lower! Jan marched herself into my office that next day and explained to me how this parish worked. “Father, one of the ways we discern whether we are doing God’s will is whether the funds show up. We are simple people, and we need really obvious signs. If we are doing what God wants, the money will be there. If not, it won’t be. It’s really simple. Now, you can do us all a big favor and pay attention to that. If you have us doing some new ministry and the money does not come, be sure God is really calling us to do it before you push it. Otherwise, those mistakes can really hamstring this parish. Now, get to praying!”
Jan’s solution to everything, I came to learn, was prayer. Jan was one of those in this parish who served as an Intercessor. I do not doubt that many of you here outside her family were the beneficiaries of some of her intercessions with God. I know that all of you within her family were covered by her in prayer. Her prayer life humbled me. She not only prayed almost unceasingly, but she prayed with conviction. She expected God to answer her. She would live with His answers, whatever they would be, but she always expected an answer from Him. And as she learned of various needs, she would often share with the other Intercessors. But what she most loved to hear about were God’s answers to the prayers. Whenever there was a healing or a provision or anything like that, Jan would be the first to give thanks. And whenever there was an answer with which she did not agree, she was always quick to allow God to let His will be done. She admitted that such was not always her attitude. Her prayer life had changed her. She used to be a bit more demanding that our Lord work the way she wanted him to, just like Jack did, but she had learned over the years that God’s plan or solution was usually a bit better than her own.
I must confess I had some difficulty praying about this sermon to honor her witness to our Lord. On the one hand, Jan’s life makes anything I might say sound redundant. I am not going to pretend that Jan did not have her rough edges. No doubt she fought some with her sister Ann, whom she loved dearly. John and Joel can probably name some times in their lives when she was not the charitable woman I met later in her journey, but both should know they were deeply loved and that she was incredibly proud of them. I do know that she and Jack had some good fights. Jan was human. She had wonderful gifts and tragic flaws, but she was a woman who knew she had been saved by grace. The woman that I came to know was fairly quick to apologize and repent for things she had said, was remarkably humble given that this was “her” church, and was eternally hopeful, this despite being a huge Cubs fan.
On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure. Jan often told me that she hoped I would be here to do her funeral. Every time another patriarch or matriarch passed, Jan made sure to come in and thank me for my sermons or homilies. “You have a beautiful way of balancing all our emotions. We are sad, but not without hope. The are things best left unsaid, and things best said. There is a seriousness to the situation, but you understand our humor well. You better do a good job at my funeral.” I would demur and tell her I hoped her funeral was many years in the distance. She would laugh and remind me “it’s best to be prepared always.” Given what Jan did for me, I certainly would hate to disappoint her, not that she gives a whit today about what I am preaching as she basques in the love and glory of our Lord.
She would understand, were she here, when I admitted to you that I awoke last night at about 3:30am to the image of Entwives. As I said a second ago, I really struggled with this sermon. Psalm 126 was chosen today because that is what the family and Larry were reading as she passed into glory. During her moments of anxiety the next-to-last time in the hospital ICU, I had reminded her of the truth of this Gospel passage. For you all, I needed a new way to remind you of her witness. It is the kind of image that, truthfully, I wish had come earlier. Jan was one of those with whom I could “I have this weird idea for a sermon illustration,” and she would give me her unfiltered opinion. “It’s probably best if you stay away from South Park in the future, Brian.” “I wish you would not use movies sometimes. I feel like I have to watch them when I see they are on. A lot of them are not very good.” “Yeah, that one works.” By the way, here’s a protip, never use Cubs fans as illustrative of goats in the judgment of the goats and sheep when you are preaching with Jan in the room!
As I lay in bed last night with this image of Entwives in my head, however, it dawned on me how appropriate the image is in light of our reading from Isaiah 61. For those of you unfamiliar with the Entwives, they are the female tree-creatures from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Treebeard tells the story of the Ents and Entwives to Merry and Pippin. The fate of the Ents and Entwives is a tragic tale, though it is very short in the Rings trilogy. The Ents like things to grow as they will; the Entwives seem to like things more orderly. We might say that the men liked the forest, and the women liked the gardens. Over time, as each group pursued their passions, they drifted apart. The Ents stayed in the forests; the Entwives settled what came to be known as the Brown Lands. From time to time, the Ents would traverse the river Anduin and visit the Entwives. Alas, during Sauron’s first attempt to conquer Middle Earth, the gardens and farms of the Brown Lands were destroyed. When the Ents went back to visit, the Entwives were gone. Had they moved on and not told the Ents? Had they been utterly destroyed? No one could say. And so the Ents continue to long for their lost Entwives.
The warning from a Christian perspective is clear. Neither the Ents nor the Entwives are bad creatures. They do not serve Sauron and his minions. In fact, in the great battle between good and evil in the trilogy, the Ents side with the humans, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Both the Ents and Entwives, however, remind us that we can be easily distracted by our passions. The Ents clearly love the Entwives; yet they were unwilling to leave their forests to be with their wives. One presumes from Treebeard’s story that the Entwives are similar. Though they love their Ents, they are unwilling to give up some of the orderliness that they crave. In the end, their differing passions cause them to drift apart. There is no mutual submission. There is no self-sacrifice reminiscent of the Gospel. There is no loving another as one’s self in the relationship between the Ents and the Entwives. Over time, they drift apart and are finally unable to find one another. The story of the Ents and the Entwives serves as a cautionary tale about the condition of the world. Both the Ent and Entwife would claim to love each other, but neither was willing to give up anything to serve the other. Even love, human love, is tainted by sin and selfishness. In a social media driven world, it is probably a message we need to hear a bit more often.
Our prophet Isaiah realizes just how broken we are, how bound we are to sin. The passage begins with a message about the Messiah. God’s Anointed will preach peace to those at war, healing to the broken, freedom to the captives, and comfort to those mourning. You and I and all those who call Him Lord have been given that gift of grace. But that passage preaches about more than just the mission of the Messiah. Unlike the Ents and the Entwives who have eyes and cannot see, ears and cannot hear, and hearts and cannot understand, you and I have been empowered by the Spirit of God. All of us who have been baptized into His death and raised to new life in His Resurrection have become heralds of those good tidings. To you and to me and to all who call Him Lord has been given the responsibility and the power to do all this listed in the prophet’s passage for the glory of God. We, too, have been anointed. We are called to preach freedom to the captives! We are called to share His healing with the brokenhearted! We are called remind people of the beauty He offers in lieu of ashes, of the joy He offers in lieu of mourning! We are even called to stand at the grave of a loved one and sing our song of alleluias, because we know that the lives of those who die in the Lord are not ended. We may not be able to see beyond that horizon line we call death with these fleshy eyes, but we know with certainty that our Lord has raised Jan to eternal, glorious life with Him!
We proclaim this Gospel not just with words, but with our lives. That is what makes this sermon so difficult in my own fleshy eyes. I had ten minutes with many of you. Jan had a lifetime. She should have made a way better sermon in her life to you than me this morning. Given the turnout this morning, I daresay she did as she was supposed to have done. Each one of you gathered here this morning, no doubt, has a story or three of Jan’s love and concern for you. What motivated Jan was not your need, but rather her joy and thanksgiving that the Lord had met her needs and was all too willing to meet your own. He simply anointed her in this life to reach out to you in His name. I may wear a stole and collar this morning, but she was a far better minister of God in your life over the years. Thanks to His grace, she recognized the danger that we all faced when trying to live a life without Him. All she wanted for each one of us was to feel that joy, to understand that thanksgiving that we have been saved, if only we will accept His embrace.
I suppose I did you all a disservice this morning speaking of matriarchs and patriarchs. I probably would have done better to think of them as oaks of righteousness. As we have gathered as a parish family to say goodbye to those leaders, those formative men and women in the live of this parish, we have rightly lamented their passing. Like a great tree felled in a storm, there is an emptiness in our life together. There is a hole. Shade that used to be offered is gone. Climbing limbs that were available are no longer there. Even the swinging tires have nowhere to hang. We have lost a number of our oaks in our life these last few years, and so we rightly mourn their passing.
Isaiah 61 was significant to Jan for another reason. She loved to talk about the Wedding Feast. Jan would often talk about her marriage and wedding. Sometimes, she and Jack were more Ent and Entwife. But at other times, they got it amazingly right! For 61 years and a few months, they were rounding off each other’s edges (Jan swore she did way more sanding than he!). Over the last couple years, as her health declined a bit, she began to reflect a bit more on her shared life with him. Somehow, someway, they had made it through life together. It both surprised and amazed her. But it also got her to thinking. What kind of marriage will we experience when our Lord calls us home? Jan loved her wedding dress. Heck, Jan loved most every bride’s wedding dress. But she would asked longingly, “How beautiful will my dress at the Feast be? How special will it be to make me forget all this?” She understood, perhaps on a mystical level not given to all of us, just what it meant that her Lord would bedeck her with jewels and clothe her in righteousness. Her barky skin would be replaced by the flesh He had intended in the beginning. Her leafy boughs would be replace by a glorious head of hair as He intended. She hoped she would be able to dance. She could not wait to try all of the food. And she looked forward to that new adventure. Better still, she could not wait to show off her new garments to all of you who were important to you when you arrived!
John, Joel, Ann, all her family and friends, this is indeed a bittersweet time. One of the oaks of righteousness in our lives has been called home. The forest, for a time, is not what it was. The scenery has changed. And yet, it is not without purpose or hope. Much of what Jan has been proclaiming to each of us is that we need not fear death. Our Lord has conquered death that we might live for ever. And so, while we mourn, we celebrate that this dear oak, with all our initials carved in hearts on her skin, with all her branches for shade and climbing, and her arms for wonderful holding and singing, has been raised to new life and bedecked in garment of salvation that glorifies our Lord. We look forward to that day in hope when we will all be reunited and get to marvel at her garment even as she marvels at ours!
Now, however, is the time for that which she has helped nurture in you to begin to flourish. I would be remiss this morning were I not to remind you of the purpose our Lord has for you, the purpose that she recognized in your life serving Him. Mighty oaks, with all their branches and all their shade, can sometimes stunt the growth of those saplings below. She would never have wished that, but it is, I think true. Now comes the time for some of you, who thought of yourselves as saplings in her life, to embrace those ministries to which our Lord has called you, and to begin to spread your branches and your leaves and your roots to soak up the Sun of Righteousness and to drink deeply of His life-giving waters, and become that Oak of Righteousness in the lives of those around you. Now comes the time when you begin to pick up her songs of thanksgiving to God, to take up her mantle of prayer to our Lord, and to proclaim liberty made possible through the Cross and Resurrection to all those captive and enslaved in your life, that His garden and his forest might continue to spring forth before all the nations of the world!