Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Two Funeral Sermons

February 28, 2015  Burial Office
Geraldine Goessler Egerman
October 26, 1924 – February 20, 2015

Jesus speaks to his disciples in the 14th chapter of St. John:  “Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  This is the night of the Last Supper, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for Jesus and for his friends.  Seems right to remind ourselves of this context and setting, as we light the Paschal Candle and dress the church with white Easter paraments, even here in the early weeks of Lent. 

The tension, the contrast, of Lent and Holy Week, the Cross and the Empty Tomb, so deeply in the heart of the Christian story and of our Christian life.  Thinking in this Lent 2015 how much Gerry and St. Andrew’s friends enjoyed visiting around our East End congregations for the schedule of Lenten Dinners and preaching services.  Strong and serious themes of this season, yet with the bright smile and conviviality that were so much a part of how she faced the world day by day.  When she was getting ready to go to the Willows after her surgery a few weeks ago she said one of her goals was to get back home before March 24, when St. Andrew’s would be hosting the dinner and service. 

At church or I suppose at bridge, with family, friends, with her neighbors at the Park Lane.  A day like today and this season, of rich texture and meaning and substance.  She seemed to know everything about style, always composed, in a way that seemed almost effortless, gracious, dignified.  But that bright style on the outside opening to an amazing depth of brilliance within.  Intelligence and wit.  Her ability to detect and to see right through whatever was phony or pretentious or untrue.  A person who had her—well, let’s say “her distinct opinions.”  And utterly undisturbed and uninfluenced by any need to fit in.  She absolutely didn’t mind to say the thing that no one else was saying, to be a party of one. 

Self-contained and self-confident and at home in her own skin.  And so generous and kind, and with such a sharp and penetrating sense of humor.  And so genuine.  And at the same time so tender and affectionate.  One member of our St. Andrew’s congregation wrote to me about how Gerry had always seemed so graceful and elegant.  She said that she reminded her of someone who could “civilize a wild beast and invited it to tea and teach it French.”  And yet, this friend, who is very involved in our children’s ministries here, and with young children, goes on, “I always thought to myself, when I saw her, that I would like to be like her one day when I have slowed down enough to enjoy people instead of running after children or to appointments. Her hair always upswept in a classic chignon, never in so much of a rush that she couldn't talk about the "angels" with affection and pat me on the arm.” 

To know Gerry, was to know someone of such a kind and generous heart.

Which takes us back to Jesus on that night of Holy Thursday.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there too.

It is very much for me an honor and a privilege to share this morning in this service for Gerry.  As we are all of us pausing for a moment to reflect on her life.  To share in the sorrow of loss with all of you, Sally and Ralph and all your family and friends.  As we offer together the prayers of the church, not just as we say the words but as we gather the faith and life and witness of the whole Christian family and offer the deepest knowledge and desire of our hearts to almighty God.  As we hear the words of scripture, the psalms, the lessons, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is talking to his disciples about something more than what we might call our religious opinions and theories, our interpretations, our theological positions or understandings of various issues and concerns of the day.  Gerry had her opinions about a lot of these things, in the church and in the wide world.  But this isn’t about score keeping or whether any of us or all of us would agree or disagree with any of that.  What Jesus is talking about is a deeper kind of knowing.  The kind of knowing that we talk about when we say that a child knows his mother.  It’s about relationship, connection.  About the word we use in the Church with real meaning and sincerity: about faith.  About being in relationship with God deeply and securely.  “You know where I am going, and how to get there, because you and I are going to the same place, returning to the same home, to that mansion that the Father has prepared for us.”  To hear him again, Jesus, as Cortney has read for us, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there ye may be also.”

And St. Thomas—who later gets called Doubting Thomas.  But he’s the one who has questions.  And it is because of the question that Jesus then opens the door.  “I am the way, the truth, the life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”  And we are left this morning, as we remember Gerry and lift her up with love and prayers in the midst of so many memories, we are left with this word.  “I am the way.” 

The Funeral Sentences from the ancient prayers of the Church, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  So many people have said “I can’t believe Gerry was 90.  That doesn’t seem possible.”  All her energy and vitality.  I remember really the first time I met her, as she hosted one of the parish dessert meetings to welcome the new rector and his family back in the summer of 1994, and it certainly doesn’t seem to me that she aged a day in the more than 20 years since then.  But a reminder.  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is.  There is a line in the Psalms, “Lord, let me know my end, and the number of my days.”  But of course we never can know. Every day is a gift.  To live that way.

The course of prayers appointed when a person is near death is a reminder of baptism. At the beginning, so importantly, the prayer and assurance of pardon.  Forgiveness.  In her earthly body Gerry may not have been able to hear these words, but in the fullness of the life of the world to come, these words were spoken and heard in the reality of her mind and heart and soul.  “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come.  May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”

Now certainly in the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this morning, with the sadness that there is in the separation from a mother and grandmother and great grandmother and aunt-- and friend—what we all have to be about is to learn to live every day of this precious life in the love of God and of one another.

Jesus said, in my Father’s house are many mansions.  If it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.  You know where I’m going, and I am here to show you how to get there too.  “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord.  He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Gerry was such a great supporter and cheerleader for music at St. Andrew’s in so many ways over so many years, and as we reflect on our memories and give thanks for her life, we would hear our Organist and Choirmaster Peter Luley present this musical offering as a tribute to her.

March 2, 2015  Burial Office
Melissa Elizabeth Schnap Marsh
October 3,  1953 - February 26, 2015

Again,  grace and peace.  In addition to the words of scripture that we have just heard from Romans 8 and Psalm 23 and John 14, I’d like to add a bit more.   First from Isaiah, in the 55th chapter, verses 6-13:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 
 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 
 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. 
 "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. 
Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD's renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed."

And second from the Revelation to St. John, in the 22nd Chapter,  John is given the vision of the New Jerusalem, the City of God:

 “Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads.  And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.”

There are so many things in my heart and I know in all our hearts about Melissa this afternoon, as we come together to remember her, to give thanks for who she was, as the person God created her to be, to give thanks for what she shared with us.  And to hear in our reflections and especially in the readings of scripture and the great prayers of the church the larger and stronger word of faithful Christian witness—so deeply ingrained in Melissa’s life and important to be proclaimed here.  That neither life nor death nor any power in heaven or on earth or under the earth can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  That he knows us each by name, and that in him we may with confidence look to a victory over every evil and every wrong and every power of death and the grave—and to life, and eternal life.

I first met Melissa when she came to me to apply to serve as a field education intern, to satisfy the requirements of the Master of Divinity and Social Work joint program at the University of Pittsburh and  the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.   We talked together about her special interest, which of course was deeply grounded in her own life story, about how the companionship of the ones she called “God’s critters” had such meaningful impact in the social and emotional and spiritual life of individuals and families, young and old.   

And out of that insight and interest such a very rich ministry grew here at St. Andrew’s, as Deacon Chess has mentioned already.    So many families blessed through her counsel and prayer at the death of a beloved pet.  Praying and talking with children.  Sitting with elders who had given up beloved friends because of the necessities of nursing care.  Encouraging and assisting some who without her help might not have been able to keep and care for their pets.    And all of it coming together in our annual St. Francis Day service, from which these little songs have come today.  Where the great vision of Isaiah and of John in the Revelation and of Paul in Romans opens a window to a renewed creation in all its fullness and abundance.  Our hope.  What is sometimes called a “creation spirituality,” and a love of God expressed in so much of the stories about St. Francis, about whom Melissa preached several times.  The saint who called the animals his brothers and sisters.  All with the same heavenly Father. 

Jesus says in John, “in my Father’s house are many mansions,” and as I allow that imagery to come to mind this afternoon there is in the center of that great mansion of hope and promise and love a roaring fire in the fireplace, a beloved dog resting quietly in its warmth, and certainly a cat or two along the windowsills.  As Susy reminded me the other day, when Melissa would be asked if these beloved cats and dogs would be there with us in heaven, she would reply, “it wouldn’t be heaven without them.”  As a licensed layreader Melissa was one who could assist and lead non-sacramental services in the Episcopal Church, and of course the St. Francis Day service was the one time each year when that ministry was center-stage. 

So very touching and meaningful to me that she requested to be buried wearing the scarf that is the vestment  of that ministry—the traditional plain tippet in her case ornamented with all the decals of the passengers on Noah’s Ark.  The kids attending the service always loved to see that.

Melissa was a person of compassion and strength, and certainly as M.J. McCarty and Joan Morris and others of you who have worked with her in the Off the Floor Pittsburgh ministry have seen and can testify over many years, and as we see and know in her call and vocation as a social worker and counselor.  A friend, co-worker, fellow parishioner-- a daughter, a sister, a wife, a step-mother.   And with much love to you, Ray, reflecting more than 30 years of marriage--and to you, Richard, her beloved brother.  She was a complicated person of many challenges, some of which she overcame, others of which she went into battle with every day, and one day at a time.  A person of edges and texture,  strength and courage, of vulnerability and fragility.  Serious and at the same time so very funny, with such an authentic, deep smile and laugh.

We all will have our memories.  And this afternoon we would hold those memories together as we remember most of all and simply a saint of God, redeemed by Christ and sustained by faith in him—and inspired by the strong vision of God’s goodness all around even now, as a sign of all the goodness that is to come.  It would be such a gift for her to know that as we remember her today we also would seek in our own lives to catch that same vision, to know God’s love in Christ, and in all the world, and with all God’s “critters.”  All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.   Indeed, may she rest in peace, may she rise in glory, and may Light Perpetual shine upon her.

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