Sunday, December 27, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Ann Fiske Atchison

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 27, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Ann Fiske Atchison
Wisdom 3:1-5,9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a

It’s Not About Us

Today’s gospel reading comes from the story of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It’s one of the most familiar parts of the whole Bible isn’t it? We retell the Last Supper story every time we have communion and we retell it in all of its detail and power in the days leading up to Easter.

But, although it’s a familiar and old story, it’s lost none of its intensity. We can still feel how intense it must have been in that room when Jesus gathered with his closest followers and friends.

Part of the intensity of the experience is that Jesus was running out of time. He knows that the time has just about come for him to be arrested, handed over to the authorities and to die on the Cross.

Since Jesus knew he was running out of time, at the Last Supper he tried to get across to his disciples the most important things. He knew all too well that in the past they’ve been a little thick-headed and haven’t always understood, so now is the time for clarity. Now is the time for intensity.

Jesus sums up his message with crystal clarity and burning intensity. At the Last Supper Jesus said to them, “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 that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus knows that words alone may not get his message across. Many times Jesus has told his friends that they should not worry about status and prestige and wealth, but that instead they should live lives of loving service. Now, though, was the time for clarity and intensity. Jesus got on his hands and knees and washed the feet of his friends. Through this lowly and menial act, Jesus says to his friends and followers, says to us here today – this is how you are to live. You are to offer loving service to one another.

In other words, Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Over the past six or seven weeks the Atchison family has been through its own intense experience. It’s been a privilege to be with them – to be with you – from the day after Ann’s fall and broken hip, through surgery, hopes for recovery, and the growing realization that Ann’s life was drawing to a close.

It was an intense experience but like the Last Supper so long ago, it was an experience that produced crystal clarity.

I’m pretty sure her family already knew this, but through this intense experience it became crystal clear to me that Ann Fiske Atchison really understood Jesus’ message. Ann lived her life in a way that showed she understood that it wasn’t about her. For Ann, it was always about the love and service for her family, her friends and her church.

Whenever she could, Ann attended our Wednesday morning Healing Eucharist. Once she was no longer able to drive, I would often pick her up and give her a ride to church. Each week on the short ride we would chat away. It’s only during these past few intense weeks that I realized she almost never talked about herself. Instead, much of the time she would fill me in on her family and especially she would talk about how grateful she was that all of her children helped her out so much.

During these intense weeks I saw for myself the loving bond of this family. Several times I told Whitney, Patty, Rob and Doug that this family was a textbook example of how this is supposed to happen. The way they supported one another and especially the way they showered love on their mom was an inspiration. If Ann ever doubted it, in these last few weeks she was convinced beyond a doubt that she was deeply loved.

Whenever I’d compliment the Atchison kids on how good they were being for one another and for Ann, they’d always point back to their mom and say they learned how to live, to love, this way from her. And, they said, they were just giving back the love she had given them for so many years.

Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Ann loved her family and she also loved her friends. Sure enough another frequent topic of conversation on our rides from Lorraine Road to Grace Church was her dear friend, Anita Cole. They had been very close friends nearly their entire lives. Anita had gotten sick a few years back and Ann missed her and was so concerned about her – it was a worry that she brought up often.

As I mentioned, our Wednesday service is a healing service. Each week at that service, Ann would stay kneeling at the altar rail, waiting to be anointed with Holy Oil. Despite her own dimming eyes and weakening limbs, Ann never one asked for healing for herself. Instead, without fail, she would say softly, “For Anita.”

Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Ann loved her family and her friends and she also loved her church. Grace Church, where she was a parishioner for her whole life, was the third major topic of conversation on our Wednesday morning drives through the streets of Madison.

It’s true to her character that she served the church in two very much behind the scenes, almost invisible ways. She served on the altar guild – the unsung heroes of Grace Church who wash and polish and iron and who do so much to make this sacred place so beautiful. Ann’s other major area of service was sort of at the other end of the church spectrum. For many years she was one of the money counters – the group that gathers in near anonymity to do the crucial work of counting the collections after the Sunday service.

She showed her love for this church in other tangible ways. I never knew this, but Ann paid for the restoration of one of our stained glass windows, which she dedicated in memory of her parents. If you haven’t seen it, check it out after the service. It’s the rather haunting window of Jesus reaching out his arms in invitation that’s in the back on this side of the church. When her brother Denny died, she donated a chalice and paten in his memory – sacred vessels which we use all the time and which will be used when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together in a few minutes.

Ann’s love for this church became very apparent just a few months ago. On a Friday night we had a potluck supper and invited people who had grown up at Grace Church to share some of their memories. It was a fun and poignant experience.

Ann’s contemporaries, Gene Carpenter and Don Van Court put on an unforgettable slide show with amazing photos of Grace Church from the days of their childhood. Ann was there and seemed to have a wonderful time reminiscing. She brought an artifact which she proudly showed to me and others – it was the certificate recording her confirmation long ago right here at Grace Church.

Through her life as a parishioner, Ann confirmed her love for this church through her service and her generosity – service and generosity that will live on.
Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

At the Last Supper, despite Jesus’ intensity and clarity, the disciples are still devastated at the thought of Jesus’ death. Jesus promised his friends that he would go ahead and prepare a place for them. Jesus told them, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

In despair and confusion, Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

Through her life, Ann Fiske Atchison knew that Jesus is the way, and the truth and the life. She knew that life wasn’t about her, but about the love and service she shared with others – with her family, her friends and her church.

Now Ann has gone to the place prepared for her by Jesus – the place of perfect love and service. For the rest of us, however, the journey continues.

On our journeys through life we can carry the memory and the example of Ann. Her memory and example teach us that we really can live lives of love and service. Ann’s life is a reminder that it’s not about us – it’s about the love and service we share with one another.