We are here to celebrate the life of Wilma Carney. It is always appropriate for loved ones that we engage in such efforts, but Wilma’s passing is a bit unique. She was what I generally call a first generation feminist. She worked on the Manhattan Project. She flew airplanes at a time when women, especially southern women, did not do such things. She worked at both Vanderbilt and Baylor Medical, the former sending out letters of recommendation—really, letters of “you idiots better hire her quick”—unsolicited before she and John had even moved. She spent thirty plus years as a legislative assistant. She was a mom, a grandmother, and great grandmother. And we owe her a debt of gratitude and our right to mourn her passing her at Advent. She is among the last of her generation to pass from glory into glory. If you are a woman, if you are a man who loves a woman, if you are a man who came from a woman, or if you are a man who loves your daughters, you owe Wilma a prayer of thanksgiving and a thank you. Wilma crashed through barriers and glass ceilings that make it possible for the women in our lives to do whatever they want. More amazingly, she did it at a time when a woman’s place was in the home. I can only imagine the societal pressure placed on this southern belle; and I can only imagine the inner strength and peace that allowed her to do what she did.
Before we begin the homily in earnest, though, I need to offer an apology. The lady that earned my apology, unfortunately, is not here. But she may speak to Pat or Sally in the days or weeks or months to come. Ladies, you may get a “what the heck was wrong with that priest at your mom’s funeral?” I need to explain. As all the family knows, I attended the wake last night. They thought I was just being a nice priest. In reality, I was trying to get a sense of the life of Wilma. I did not arrive at Advent until after Wilma had been moved into assisted living because of her dementia. That means I did not get to meet the real Wilma. The Wilma I met had been ravaged by that terrible disease and all that comes with it.
In clerical circles, there is no greater honor than to be invited by a family to minister to them at the time of a death of a loved one. Doing this, as you all might imagine, is far more effective and powerful when we know the deceased. I needed to hear those stories to be a better pastor to y’all during this time.
In any event, a friend of one of the daughters and I got to talking. I asked if she knew what Wilma did for a living. That’s when she said she did not and that she was friends with either Pat or Sally. That was a good answer. She was here for her friend. Unfortunately for me, she found out later and came running up to me, and this is where she earned my apology. “Father, Father, I found out. She was a legislative in the State Senate for 30 years!” As Adventers know, and some in the family, I am the Episcopal Church Fellow for Human Trafficking. I serve on a committee assembled by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. I just learned that our timing was bad. If Wilma’s path and my path had crossed twenty years ago, assuming me in possession of the knowledge I have now, can you imagine the havoc we could wreck against evil?
That was my face. A face of “Ugh! Why could this not have been different?” A rail, if you will, against God. As I lay in bed last night, though, replaying stories and events from the funeral home, searching for a homily, it was clear she did not understand my face. In fact, she backed away and avoided me for the rest of the evening, at least in my mind’s eye. Whether she thought I hated legislative assistants, politicians, or whatever, I clearly disturbed her. Pat and Sally, I am sorry that I did not explain my face to her last night. Hopefully, in the days ahead when she reaches out to see how you are doing and has something to tell you, in a concerned voice, you can laugh how my tennis shoes clashed with my mint green shirt and explain a bit when she chokes at that. But I am sorry if I cause any difficulty for you or for her. My only thoughts with respect to your mom was what could have been.
I know in the Order of Worship it said now was the time for a homily. As we were putting the service together, I must confess I had no idea how I would ever come up with a homily. As you all now know, I did not know the real Wilma in life. Pat and Sally are all grown up and moved away from Advent. Prior to Monday, I was kind of worried about placing Wilma’s story in the great meta-narrative of His redemptive story. Now, I really want to switch to a full blown sermon. Last night gave me three wonderful sermon illustrations, and I am dying to share them all with you. But, I recognize that brevity is also a cherished virtue. So I will stick to a homily and mention the sermon.
I learned last night that Wilma was a huge fan of ballroom dancing. She had years and years invested in dancing. Talk about a practical skill. Many of you will not know this, but one of the ways in which the Eastern Orthodox tradition speaks of the Holy Trinity is that of a perichoresis, a holy dance. In explaining how the Trinity works, such theologians point to a dance between the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son. As we stand on the sidelines, we can only see the dance close to us. As they weave and move around the room, we are able to see one better than the others. More amazingly to such theologians, the entire work of Christ was to help carve out a place for you and for me and for all of God’s people to join in that holy dance. Such theologians would stand before us reminding us that all of Wilma’s practices and all of Wilma’s competitions are now perfected in heaven. As we celebrate her life here and mourn her passing, she is already reunited with John and all those who went before her in faith and is waltzing in that holy dance!
I also learned last night that Wilma was big into feasts. OK, technically, she was really into the desserts that followed the feasts, but she felt obliged to prepare or eat the main courses before settling in with her favorite desserts. I guess it’s a southern lady thing? We laugh, but I remind Adventers all the time, part of the reason I wear a clergy shirt that matches the season of the Church, we are called to THE FEAST, the Great Wedding Feast. And if our Lord out of nothing can create nebulae, majestic mountains, sunset lit skies, starry nights, beaches, the vast expanse of interstellar space, Wilma, or you or me, can you imagine the quality of the food that He will be serving when He welcomes all His children home? If the loving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son so lavishes food on his found child, how much better will our Father, who is infinitely more amazing than the loving father in that parable, fete us! Yes, as we gather here to celebrate her life and to mourn her passing, her Father in heaven has welcomed her to that wonderful feast, probably told her she could head right to the dessert table, but mentioned that she might like to try some of the other foods first.
Of course, after last night, there was really only one place I could go and tie it into the readings. I tell Adventers, actually I tell nearly every Christian that I encounter, that the best sermons people will ever hear are how we live our lives. Sure, preachers can sometimes inspire hearers, but we are limited to those within range of our voices and to the length of time we spend preaching. Each of us, though, gives a sermon in our daily life and work. Do we live our lives as if we believe Jesus is raised from the dead and will one day return? Do we mouth the words on Sunday, but then testify that we are the biggest hypocrites? Do we, recognizing our own hypocrisy, repent when we sin against God and others, thereby reminding others of the forgiveness available? How we live our lives testifies to those inside and outside the Church whether we really believe. Wilma, thankfully, lived a life that testified to her faith in God.
Sally and Pat had a book of letters at the funeral home last night. Really, it was an album of letters detailing some of the life of Wilma, and it really only represented a snapshot. There are a couple boxes of these types of correspondences. I was drawn to the thank you cards in the back of the album from the constituents of the various senators for whom she worked. Dear Senator So-and-so, I wanted to take a moment and thank you for the wonderful work of your staffer Wilma Carney. She cut through the red tape that had stifled me for weeks in just a few minutes. Dear Senator So-and-so, I wanted to thank you for the work of your staff, especially Wilma Carney, for making sure my father got the Veterans benefits which he was supposed to get and which had proven nearly impossible for us access because of paperwork. Dear Senator-So-and-so, I wanted to thank you for the wonderful response of your staffer, Wilma Carney, in getting the proclamation passed for my grandmother. On and on and on go these cards. And in these cards you see a picture of the life and struggles of people throughout the state of Tennessee. Granddaughters struggling to get grandfathers to a Veterans’ hospital for care that they earned in service to our country, mayors thankful for a proclamation of their citizens’ work or service, marginalized people thankful for her shepherding of a particular legislative bill, the powerless stymied by the inertia of state government – those were the people she served! I see the lightbulbs going off. Yes, she was an advocate who modeled her life and witness after THE Advocate, her Lord Christ.
Job’s story is well known to us. He is sort of the poster child in Scripture for everything going wrong and still keeping his faith. What we may forget in superficial readings is that Job was inspired by the Holy Spirit and included in Scripture by the Holy Spirit to counteract that human tendency to think that, when things are going well, God approves of what we are doing and, conversely, when things are going poorly, God must not really love us. The circumstances of our life do not necessarily testify to our relationship with God. Sometimes, evil people seem to go unpunished. Sometimes, good people seem to be punished. Think of Wilma’s life.
I did not know her until dementia had ravaged her mind and forced her into assisted living. The Wilma that I met was not the polite, but determined, Southern Belle that many of you knew and loved and respected. I met the Wilma that was changed by that horrible disease. She was angry, short, and quite simply not herself. How do I know? Those letters thanking her bosses for her advocacy testify to me about her life. Who she was in her core was the lady and advocate described by those grateful people. On this side of the grave we might think God cruel for allowing a disease like that to ravage her mind. On this side of the grave, we might think God indifferent to her plight as that disease took her from us piece by piece, day by day. Job, and by extension Wilma’s life, reminds us that this is not all there is.
Though she might not have been able to articulate it late in life to me, I have no doubt that she longed for that Advocate so described by Job. For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last He will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes behold, and not another. Her testimony to us through her advocacy are a true incarnational ministry. Looking in from the outside, we might think she suffered unjustly. But, as Wilma’s life testimony reminds us, she understood God’s call on her life by virtue of her baptism in to His death and His Resurrection. No doubt, were she here to speak to us now, she would share she bore more than the cross of dementia. Perhaps God used her condition to reach some of you. Maybe He used her suffering to reach a caregiver. Perhaps He only used her suffering to remind us of the truth that our outward appearances do not speak to the relationship of our hearts to God. Like the poor, like the widowed, like all the marginalized, God loves us all incredibly! He loved us so much that, when we were separated from Him by virtue of our sin, He came down from heaven, tented among us, ministered among us, and reconciled and restored us to Him! And though I did not know the Wilma that many of you knew; her life’s testimony, her life’s sermon, is one of belief in the truth that her Lord would one day have her stand before Him, The Advocate for her, who longs to be the Advocate for me and for you when we in our time pass from glory into glory.
Pat, Sally, and the rest of the family: I do not mean to paint an unrealistic picture in our minds of Wilma. I have no doubt that as her children you no doubt saw other sides of her life—children and families have a knack of drawing those sides out of us, as you each know by now, too. I have heard how some bosses might have considered her a thorn in their side. No doubt some constituents would speak to her failures, at least from their own perspective. I have no doubt that Wilma made mistakes, that she sinned against you and others, and against our Lord. But Wilma’s overarching sermon, her overarching testimony in your lives, is one of belief in that her Advocate would one day raise her up to see His face. All her life was to prepare you for this moment. As we come to the end our journey with her in this world, we mourn with you, we cry with you, we rail at the loss, we long for the “what could have been’s,” just as does her Advocate our Lord Christ. But even here, as our liturgy reminds us, we make our alleluias.
That same God who raised Jesus from the dead offered the same hope to Wilma. And even now, as we prepare to return her body to the ashes and dust from whence it came, we are reminded that this advocate is with The Advocate, dancing, feasting, reunited with John and other loved ones who shared their faith with her, looking on in expectation that one day all of us who claim her Lord Christ as their own Savior, will spend eternity with her sneaking desserts from that magnificent table, whirling joyfully on our feet around the ballroom of the Heavenly kingdom, bathed in the light and glory of the one who fashioned us, in that place where there are no tears or sighing.
I began this homily reminding us all that she was in that vanguard of first wave feminism, that she opened doors for women in this country that were, before she crashed them, closed to the women of generations who came before her. My prayer for you her family, for all of us who called her friend, is that we would, one last time, let her serve in the vanguard and lead us to that heavenly kingdom where she is this day, beholding with her own eyes The Advocate after whom she patterned her life, and Whose life and death gave her purpose and hope!
In His Peace,