Psalm 139:1-8Psalm 23 John 14:1-6, 25-27
Many who knew Carrene Redfern knew of her strong feelings about inclusive language. This was true about language concerning people that reflected a truer understanding of the place of women in society, where words like “mankind” are replaced by “humankind”. This was also true about expansive language, language about God, that shies away from using personal pronouns like “he”, words that may unintentionally indicate that God’s very self has gender preferences. Much of the latter comes about simply because of the limitations of language. There is no gender neutral pronoun in English. And to use “it” to talk about God, well, it just doesn’t seem to fit the personal nature of God we know in Jesus.
This care of language was something that Carrene and I share. Ultimately, if we believe in a God who spoke and thus brought the world into being, then we, creatures made in God’s image, need to take care of the way we speak, because it helps form our realities and perceptions. At the same time, when we take a new set of lenses to old, familiar passages, in Scripture, for example, we may see them in new ways, even if the words remain unchanged.
I met Carrene even before I came to Oglethorpe. The congregation had called me as pastor, and there was a reception held at the Hawthornes’ home so that Elizabeth and I could meet the leaders of the church. The nominating committee was there, as were the elders and their spouses. Carrene, as President of the Presbyterian Women, was there as well. Even though we didn’t talk for very long, she left no doubt about where she stood on the issues of the day, be they theological or political. It was a wonderful conversation, and it, no doubt, fed my energy to return to OPC a few months later.
In the interim, Carrene suffered a stroke. By the time I was installed as pastor, she was unable to come to church, which she sorely missed. I visited her several times in physical therapy. We still had wonderful conversations. And I saw the progression as she slowly came to terms with the reality that she was not going to be able to live on her own anymore and would need to move down to Jacksonville to be closer to her sons Steve and Bob. She did return to worship here one more time, her last Sunday in Atlanta, and a group from the church took her out to lunch. It was a touching time, a bittersweet farewell.
I spoke to her a couple of times on the phone down in Jacksonville, while she could still do that. And our members kept up with her as well, by phone and mail, and in person. Linda Morris and Georgia Gunter, two of our members, visited her several times, including one visit not long before she died. And as they met with her, they took the time to help plan today’s worship service, as Carrene chose hymns and Scriptures that meant a great deal to her. And I am deeply grateful to you both for that. They, and I, struggled over how to honor her commitment to gender equality with Scriptures that were written 2000 years ago, and yet still speak to us in life-altering ways today. Their visits, in short, are church at its best; the distances don’t matter. The discomforts of moments like illness and death are nothing compared to the comfort of Christ’s binding Spirit. Nothing separates us from the love of God, the one who knits us in our mother’s womb and guides us beside the still waters.
It is that closeness, I think, that lies at the heart of what we do in memorial services. It is one thing to grieve in private. It is another altogether to come together in public worship, in sorrow for what has been lost, in celebration of a life that has passed, in sure and certain hope of a resurrection which lifts us beyond despair and into a place of gratitude and peace. And when we do that as a church, we honor the image of God each one of us bears from our birth and proclaim that each and every human life has dignity.
I’m convinced that it is this idea that formed Carrene’s passions for global peace and justice. Her energy in Presbyterian Women, her support of ministries like AMIS that welcomed the stranger, the search for equality through the use of words. All of these yearn for something in the earthly which points toward the heavenly, something in the temporary which points toward the eternal. And all of them point us to a deeper truth not only about Carrene, but beyond that and toward the center of God’s character: God desires us to draw close. That is at the heart of the lessons we have read this morning, whether it is God’s presence at the farthest ends of the earth or in the shadows of death. It is the very meaning of incarnation, the reality and revelation of God that we know most vividly in Christ our Lord. It is the search for that closeness that honors the very thing that God desires for us.
There are many stories that I have heard over the last few weeks from Carrene’s friends and family. My favorite is probably of the time she went to pick up her son Bob at PDK airport, and as she drove onto the runway to meet the plane, she rear-ended a Lear Jet with her car. Her insurance rates went up, I am told, which isn’t surprising. But it was a helpful reminder to me that I should check my policy carefully for airplane collision coverage.
In all the stories that people shared with me, though, it was a thought that both of her sons, Steve and Bob, told me which stands out. She was immensely proud of the two of them, of their careers, and of all they have achieved. And we pondered over that together, wondering if this was somehow tied up in her passion for equality for women in the workplace. She was a fierce individual, and yet, given the nature of the times and the reality of the family situation, she sacrificed in order to provide for the two of them as best she could. So maybe it was that their careers were a way for her to live vicariously what she had always wished for herself but could never grasp.
Maybe so; but maybe, maybe we get another glimpse of that image of God imprinted on Carrene’s soul; and not on her soul alone, but on each of ours. Maybe it was through her parental expression of pride that we can begin to understand and embrace God’s passion for us and for our well-being. God, whom Jesus called Abba, sees each one of us as precious children. God desires that we thrive. And as the church, as the body of Christ, God lives through us and what it is that we do. The Spirit is alive in the world, moving through us and with us, to bring about God’s reign of justice, of mercy, of grace, and of peace.
May that peace, which Christ gave to the disciples and gives to each one of us, continue to still our fears and calm our troubled hearts. And may we, so taught by the Holy Spirit, continue to strive for God’s desires in this world.