St. Paul tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God. And yet, tuning in to the Gospel, it’s evident we often feel otherwise. Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. Believe in God, believe also in me. His words admit our hearts are often troubled, in some way separated from the hope of love.
This reading from the Gospel according to John, commended on the occasion of a burial, has a short title in some editions of the Bible: it’s called Jesus the Way. No verb at all. The idea is that the way to heaven isn’t finally ours to do or achieve; that none of us quite knows how or where that way aims us. Which is to say, we’re all a little lost: not sure where we are, where we’re headed, or what to do about either of those realities. We’re lost, and some of us happen to know it.
I think my mother knew she was lost. And I think her lost-ness made it hard for her to ever feel like she belonged. At the same time, I think being lost means she, of all people I’ve ever known, was entirely fit for heaven because she needed it. Heaven is for the lost, the utterly lost. As our gospel suggests, the disciples were also lost when Jesus opened the subject of his own death and dying. He tells them they know the way there, and the disciples speak for us when they ask, How can we?
How can we? is why we do things like burials, and why we say prayers over the dead. In our own tender approach to an answer — an answer more hope than certainty — we name before God the hope that we are entirely fit for heaven (made for it) by way of proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In his own words, hard on the heels of naming our helplessness, Jesus says, I am the way, the truth, and the life. It sounds like Christmas on its way to Easter, like this day leaning into the mystery of eternity.
My mother loved Christmas more than Easter. It was where hope began. One of the great liberation theologians [Oscar Romero] had something to say about Christmas. He said, Christmas only comes to the poor, to those who need someone to come on their behalf. In the deepest sense of our poverty, my mother was right there, leaning into the hope of a savior, daily in need of somebody to come on her behalf. And so many did!
I think here of the friends who came on her behalf, and came often. Naming only the most recent, I think of Claudia and Dottie. I think also of Adalene, and in remembrance I think of Don Perry, and so many others who tried to be light in her darkness. Thank you: you were part of her Christmas because you were Christ to her.
Ultimately, though, what burial throws us back on isn’t Christmas, but Easter, and the hope of something ultimate to come on our behalf. And here again, I think my mother was especially fit for heaven. She, of all people, knew she needed something so big and so far beyond her. She yearned for that mystery, and it’s her yearning (a yearning that knew no bounds for something big, really big, to come on her behalf) that aims us all this day to the hope of eternity.
My mother didn’t come to church much (in her later years hardly at all). And the few times I sat with her in church over the last twenty years, I was always struck by her convictions. You see, she wasn’t one to pretend to something she didn’t have. She knew we all wear our best face, but that somehow in church, God knows us as we are, so we might as well be ourselves, even there, especially there (to her way of living it). Whenever it was time to say the Confession or to ask God to forgive us our trespasses, she flat wouldn’t do it. She knew she had things she couldn’t work through, mysteries of her own, and she wasn’t going to pretend she’d mastered them when she hadn’t.
My deepest memory of her in church though doesn’t come from her later years. It comes from a longer time ago, back when Christin and I were children, back in the day when women still came to church with little white lace doilies on their heads, ostensibly to cover their hair because St. Paul told them to. They might have piles of special-occasion hair going on up there, but they still wore a little white circle of lace on top, as if to say, Yeah I know my hair’s showing out, and I know it’s pretty, but I also know I’m here, sitting in church, and that’s what really matters: I’m here, God, so take me as I am because I need you.
What I remember about my mother is this: she didn’t wear a white doily. Instead she wore a black mantia. It was a wonderfully dramatic veil: black lace all the way to her shoulders, the sort of thing Spanish women wore. I figure she was aiming for the glamor-girl-come-to-church look.
I also remember what happened when it was time for communion. The priest would lift the host to break the bread, and sitting next to us, our mother would lift the church bulletin to her mouth to blot her lipstick. She’d bite its folded edge and roll her lips in together. If you were to open that bulletin, and I often did, you’d see what she could do to anyone in the parish hall after church. You’d see the beauty of kissing.
The imprint of her kiss looked like a tiny map made of wax with little red roads all connected together, not going anywhere in particular or heading everywhere at once. It looked out of order. If you looked close enough, though, you’d see a little piece of the world there, not made to last, but born and living, and full of hope.
I’m guessing it was pleasing in the Lord’s sight: my mother going up for communion veiled in black with her blotted lips, and I’m guessing even then, our Lord knew her as someone familiar with grief, someone who needed somebody to come on her behalf. I’m guessing God loved her then, and loves her now in ways that will always exceed our own.
So, while not always someone who felt she belonged in church or anywhere, she was without doubt someone fit for heaven, someone who yearned her whole life for the outbreak of joy beyond us. If you knew her well, you could hear it in her laughter: a laugh too big for the room, always aiming for the room next door. In the bigness of her laugh you could hear the hope of eternity. Our lives ripple with it. Our obsessions occasionally mask it: a bone-deep yearning for someone to come on our behalf on the last day.
Today my sister and I bid your prayers for our mother. For Barbara. We ask that you remember the laugh too big for this world; the hope underneath her despair; the sign that our Lord is always coming again in the countless friends who come on our behalf; and finally, the way, the truth, and the life of Christmas leaning into Easter all the way to heaven.
At the burial of Barbara Ferguson Perry (1 November 1932 – 22 June 2014), The Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Huntsville, Alabama, 26 June 2014.