Saturday, October 31, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Margaret Helmers

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 31, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Margaret “Peg” Helmers
Isaiah 35:1-10
Matthew 6:19-21; 25-33
John 14:1-6a

The Priority of Love

Even after two thousand years the passage I just read from the Gospel of John has lost none of its power. The setting is the Last Supper and there is a sense of urgency as Jesus says good-bye to his friends.

At the Last Supper Jesus knows he has only a short time left to teach his disciples. And what he wants to teach them is the priority of love. Jesus teaches them about the priority of love in his actions and in his words.

Jesus teaches them about the priority of love when he gets down on his knees and washes the feet of each of his disciples.

After he’s finished Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

As this lesson about the priority of love was beginning to sink in, Judas leaves to betray Jesus and then Jesus tells the disciples that he will be with them just a little while longer.

Jesus tells his friends, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Right to the end, Jesus is teaching them about the priority of love.

Of course, it’s hard for the disciples to accept that Jesus is going to die. In the midst of their sadness and fear Jesus promises them death will not break the love they have for one another. Jesus promises that he is going ahead to prepare a place for them. Jesus tells them that they know the way to the place where he is going.

In his confusion and despair Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And Jesus says in reply, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

In the Last Supper, once again Jesus teaches the disciples about the priority of love.

Not right away, but after Easter when they realized that Jesus has conquered death and after Pentecost when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples follow Jesus’ example and go out and live lives in which love is the priority.

Peg Helmers was a person of deep faith, someone who trusted that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Peg Helmers was a person who expressed her faith just as Jesus hoped his followers would, not so much in words but through the priority of love.

Peg died on July 29, which on the church calendar happens to be the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany.

That day I remember thinking that the story of Mary and Martha tells us something important about Peg and the life she lived. The story of Mary and Martha and the life of Peg Helmers tell us something important about the priority of love.

Do you remember Mary and Martha? Along with their brother Lazarus they were very close friends with Jesus. There is a famous story about the two sisters in the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus is visiting Mary and Martha. Martha is trying to be a good host, so, as Luke politely puts it, she was “Distracted by her many tasks.” Meanwhile her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching – and not lifting a finger to help her sister.

Finally Martha can’t take it any more. She complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Pretty reasonable request, right? But Jesus says to 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.”

Often people interpret this story as the world is divided into Marthas – the doers and Marys – the spiritual. But that can’t be right because we’re all called to be doers and to be spiritual.

This story of Mary and Martha is really about priorities – of staying centered on what’s most important in life.

It’s a story about the priority of love – love of Jesus and love for one another.

And Peg was certainly a person who understood the priority of love.

Peg’s life was centered on her faith, her family and her friends.

Many of you here today know better than I do the life of loving service she lived. You know the loving service she offered to her family, her friends and her church.

In our conversations her mind would often look to the past – growing up in Springfield, visits to grandparents in Manhattan, studying math at Rutgers, her marriage to Carl and especially raising Kristin, Carl and Peter in Florham Park.

She loved the beauty of God’s creation – and we can hear that love of nature in the lessons the family selected for today’s service. Here at Grace Church that love of beauty and nature was expressed in her longtime service as a flower arranger. And she was not just a flower arranger but also a teacher of others. So, although she is no longer here to decorate the altar, those she taught continue her tradition of service.

She loved her family dearly. Many times she expressed her gratitude that her three children had turned out so well. She missed her late brother John, an Episcopal priest. Although, she reminded me just about every time, “We called them ministers, not priests.” She cared deeply about her brother Charles and relished the weekly phone conversations with Lura down in Florida.

And Peg was a loving friend. In the little living room of her house where we usually met on the end table there were two framed photographs – one of Al Dolan and the other of Ginnie Brandt.

It was a privilege to get to know Peg in these last years of her life. They were not easy years. It was a time of illness, pain and setbacks. Some setbacks were bigger than others. It was traumatic for Peg when she could no longer drive. It was hard for her accept that she needed help to take care of herself.

But through it all she never forgot the priority of love. When I would visit we had a little routine. I’d ask how she was doing. She’d admit to being in pain or being frustrated that she couldn’t do the things she wanted to do. But then she’d look at me and smile and say, “But, I can’t complain.”

And then I’d say, no, she could complain a little.

Once that was out of the way, she would turn the attention away from herself and ask how I was doing, how things were at the church, and if I had seen Al recently.

Right to the end, Peg never forgot the priority of love.

Peg’s long journey has come to an end, and she is in the place prepared for her by Jesus, experiencing the fullness of God’s love.

For us, however, the journey continues. The life and teaching of Jesus call us to the priority of love. The life and example of Peg Helmers show us that it really is possible, here and now, to live a life in which love is the priority.