Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Saints and Holy Laughter

Funeral homily preached at the Burial Office of Evelyn Lawrence, November 11, 2011.

I remember an Easter Vigil service at which the bishop was visiting this church in North Carolina.  It was his custom to mention the clergy by name and to thank them for their ministry.  This could not help but sound route at times: Thank you, Father Soandso; Bless you, Mother Soandso.  But when he came to one rector, the usual politeness gave way to a much, much richer moment.  Instinctively, the people knew that polite words would not be enough for this priest.  The bishop sensed it, too.  He smiled broadly.  “And Timothy,” he said, “What shall we say of Saint Timothy?”  The people erupted with the laughter that happens when truth has been spoken.

That image and that instinct have been recurring in my soul the past few days.  Though Evelyn would be the first to roll her eyes at her being called a saint, the people know better.  Evelyn Lawrence had the quality of cloth soaked in holy oil.  Not on account of any perfection, but precisely because she knew her flaws; the humility with which she shared them.  Not on account of her having it all put together, but precisely because she knew and lived into her deep, abiding need of God.

What shall we say of Saint Evelyn?

Now, her grandchildren tell me Evelyn wasn’t always this way.  That’s not a dig on Miss Evelyn, either.  It’s a point the family wanted very clearly to make: that the St Christopher’s family because the place where, for the last thirty years of her life, Evelyn found room to live the life of faith.  Not just words on her lips, but in deeds, in her life.  

Even two days ago, when we spoke, Jennifer and Natalie wondered out loud if the St Christopher’s family knew the full extent to which Evelyn loved, valued, and was grateful for the holy friends this place provided.  My response was that that was quite a thing to suggest, because Evelyn was so beloved of our parish family.  Her pew cushion was revered by all of us, even in her absence.  Jennifer and Natalie nodded, but stood by their assertion.  I believe it.  So those of this parish, please hear it again: Evelyn loved you with a gratitude and love that ran all the way down.

Evelyn’s family remember her adventurous spirit and courage.  Her adopting a child even as another was leaving the home.  Her immigration from her home in Jamaica, first to the east coast, then to Portland.  In these things, Evelyn displayed determination and direction.  Indeed, her candor and determination conveyed a strength and made her easily readable to others.  If you didn’t like what Evelyn had to say, you at least knew she believed it was the most loving thing that could be said.  And if you knew her long enough, you learned to trust that.

My own time with Evelyn is marked in my mind by two things: that she never let me leave without making me promise to “kiss that dear sweet child of yours.”  And that as often as I asked her how she was doing, her answer was always: “I am thankful.”  

I am thankful.  Thankful for the family she had; thankful for the things she enjoyed; thankful for the change to have enjoyed the things she could no longer enjoy.

Today we are thankful that Evelyn enjoys the nearer presence of our Lord; that hers is the company of saints and angels in heavenly realms, and that the resurrection morning broken open by Christ, what we called that first, uncertain Easter in dark predawn hours, now belongs to her as fullness of light.  She is found, this morning, completely in Christ’s story.  Her joy and our Lord’s are made complete.  

We are thankful.

The image of Evelyn’s entering the presence of the Risen Lord makes me smile a little bit, because the story of Evelyn’s entering the presence of this church is so widely known.  She had just relocated to Portland.  As one raised in the Anglican tradition, she came to this church, but was understandably suspect of how she would be received as a Jamaican woman in deep South Texas.  She snuck out early for three weeks, attending service, but leaving before the final prayers.  A while later, as she told it, she was at a doctor’s office when the doctor abruptly called out the his wife: “It’s her!  This is Evelyn, the woman who keeps running from church.”  

Dr. Long catching the one who always snuck out early.  Evelyn, afraid she wouldn’t be accepted.  She laughed at how wonderfully wrong she turned out to be.  St Christopher’s became her home, where she lifted up her song to the Lord, and where she knew and loved many friends.

I smile at her story because there are so many who wonder if they can be accepted by God.  Will there be room for me?  Is the kindness there real - and for me?  Be not afraid!  Evelyn - relax!  He’s got you.  And to you, also, he’s got you.  There is plenty of room for God’s People.  Plenty of room in the People of God for saints like Evelyn and us:

"Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?  She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world."

And she laughed with the angels, Miss Evelyn did, the laughter that happens when truth has been spoken.


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