Psalm 103Psalm 139 Romans 8:31-39 John 14:1-6, 25-27 Luke 17:11-19
Jean was born to parents serving in the mission field in China. It was this fact that helped forge a bond between the two of us. Both of us had lived overseas for a period of time. Both of us had been dramatically shaped by our experiences, and we talked about how our horizons had been expanded in such a way that continued to mold us.
There is much to share of Jean’s life at this church – involvement in mission and music, her character of quiet generosity and gentle presence – there is far more than time would permit. Others, who knew her far better than I, will share their own remembrances in a moment. But for some reason, I keep being drawn back to China, to that experience which bonded Jean and me. I’d like briefly to share a story that the family here knows well, but which I think bears repeating today of all days.
Jean’s father was a Presbyterian medical missionary serving in China. A mile from town was a leper colony. The missionaries embraced these rejects of society through regular medical care and weekly worship and Bible Study. When Jean was a child, times were especially tense in the region. Anti-foreigner sentiment was high, and missionaries and their families were particular targets. They decided it was time to leave for safety’s sake, but the mission compound’s efforts to send word to the American Consulate in Canton were unsuccessful. Their messengers were stopped on the road and forced to join the rebel army.
One of the lepers volunteered to deliver the message for them, some 300 miles over brutal terrain. As a leper, he knew that no one would dare to touch him or try to stop him. After several weeks of anxious waiting, a US Navy ship finally arrived to evacuate the women and children. As the contingent made their way back to the mouth of the river, lepers from the colony arrived to direct them off the main road. Armed gangs were waiting in ambush for them, so instead they were forced to follow a circuitous journey. And at each bend in the path sat a leper, pointing, and saying, “Go that way. Peace be with you.”
The family eventually resettled in Somerset, Kentucky, where Jean’s father continued to cross the divides, racial and economic ones this time, those of the rural South in the 1930s. It was an act that caused dismay to the “good folk” in town. Jean told me these stories with pride, saying about her father, “He really was a missionary.” In other words, he lived his faith, following the gospel into places that formal society would likely call foolish, even dangerous, reaching out, embracing those beyond the care of the world, placing faith ahead of respectability, and pointing out to others the paths of righteousness.
It was in getting to know Jean that I came to recognize that these stories she shared with me showed something of her own character. She, too, carried that missionary spirit of risk and embrace, of leading folks beyond comfort zones and into places of relationship and faithfulness. She pulled me aside not long after I arrived to let me know that if the Pastor’s Needy Fund was ever low, just let her know. Her generosity was quiet, not public. When I visited her in her home and asked what we should pray for, she said, “Pray for peace. The world surely needs it.” She cared for the world, far across the traditional lines that so divide humanity. A few Sundays ago, she came to worship with much of her extended Edmunds and Lee clan. Many of us here at OPC knew it was our bittersweet moment of farewell. As I spoke with her after the service, she leaned in, pointing at the family surrounding her, and whispered proudly, “I got them here for communion!” She was a Christian, a beloved child of God, who knew the nurture of this table and wanted others to know its blessings as well.
Her final mantra those last weeks was “Everything is perfect. Everything’s just as it should be.” And last week, as we spoke at her bedside, when the cancer had turned into moments of pain and her energy began to wane, she surely knew that the end of her life was near. When I asked her what we should pray for, she said, “Pray for peace. And pray for my family.” She wanted others to know the peace that enveloped her at the end of her days. Jean, too, was a missionary.
Friends, in an odd way, while today is very much about Jean, as we celebrate all in her that was good, as we mourn loss and are honest with ourselves about our lingering sadness, today we also have an invitation to allow ourselves to be drawn beyond the character of one person and into the warmth of the grace that surrounds us all. In glimpsing Jean’s life and all in her that we admire and acknowledge today, it is perhaps then that we are brought to see something of the ministry of the one whom she followed and called Lord and Savior, the one who continued to shape her and offer wholeness for her brokenness. If we allow our eyes to be opened today, if we trust that invitation, we might just come to see something of Christ’s very self, the missionary who leaves his home of Nazareth for strange towns, the one who embraces lepers and offers them healing and faith, the one who continually crosses society’s dividing lines of race and class and religion and culture to offer that embrace of mercy.
Friends, as we gather here today, we do so confident in the truth that around this table we are ever more deeply connected by the love of God. We are confident in the hope that reminds us of one who has gone before to prepare a place for us. And we are reminded of Christ our Lord, whose resurrection gives the church hope in the face of death, and whose ministry of embrace, of crossing boundaries, of reaching out to those whom the world has cast aside, gives us our calling to be missionaries of faithful discipleship.
The way may not be clear to each of us. We might be gripped by uncertainty and doubt. But there are many who sit by the side of the road, gently pointing. May we all have the wisdom to follow, hearing those words echoing encouragement in our ears: “Go that way. Peace be with you.”