Friday, May 4, 2007

In Memoriam - Helen Sunderland

Helen Sunderland


John 11:21-27

Our story, of course is about two sisters, Martha and Mary, whose brother Lazarus has been lying dead in a tomb for four days. The sisters were friends and one could even say supporters of Jesus and his disciples. As soon as Lazarus took ill they had sent for their friend who had frequently demonstrated a remarkable healing ministry. Jesus delays going, and is even discouraged by his disciples from going since it would mean heading into dangerous territory.

The sisters faithfully sit shiva at home with friends and neighbors, several days of mourning with family and friends, when word comes to them that Jesus is finally at the edge of town on his way. Martha was always the more assertive of the two, so she heads out to the edge of town, meets Jesus and lets him know in no uncertain terms how disappointed they are that he did not come sooner.

No matter how I try to imagine this scene, I can hear Martha virtually screaming in desperation, “Jesus, if only you had come when we called for you….if only….if only…” and trailing off into uncontrollable sobbing.

Jesus, it turns out, is quite adept in dealing with an “if only” kind of world. And Jesus has some startling news for Martha: “Your brother will rise again.”

In the world of Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Jesus there were many who believed that on the day God’s anointed would walk into Jerusalem all of the dead would rise again. There was belief in a resurrection on the last day, the day of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

This is where Jesus really gets Martha’s, and I hope our, attention. “I am the resurrection and the life….do you believe this.” At which point Martha becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed one.”

I don’t know about you, but at times like this I find myself feeling a lot like Martha. I want to shout at God in Christ, “If only….If only you were here our sister Helen would not have died.” And I suspect one of John’s reasons for telling this story in just this way is to remind us that it is OK for us to come together and be sad, even mad to lose one so close and so dear – a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a widow of some thirty years. Having spent more than a century among us, it is we who have grown fond of her presence, her love, her laughter as a permanent fixture in the fabric of our lives. We are the ones who share some of the sadness of the two sisters.

But like them, we see our sadness turned to joy: they at the moment Lazarus walks out of the tomb, we knowing that today marks the homecoming to new life Helen so richly deserves.

We are, of course, also here to celebrate and rejoice in a life faithfully lived. Helen’s was a remarkable presence among us. Had Martha been born in 1905 I can imagine her learning to drive shortly after World War II and continuing to do so to the age of 97 like Helen! Like Martha, Helen looked after others’ needs, helping others without never a cross word. When I think of Helen several images come to mind. Helen and Eddie sitting together at Holy Communion. Helen driving to the church and coming into the office to pay her pledge. Helen’s One Hundredth Birthday Eucharist. And Helen directing me to the closet to bring out the shoe box, tied with string, which held the corporal, candles and cross for home communion in her apartment at The Heartlands. Her sense of reverence and the Holy could always be sensed behind her slightly mischievous but always joy-filled smile. In the end, she knew Jesus as well as Martha knew Jesus, believing he is the son of God who is coming into the world. We celebrate One Hundred and Two years of faith in the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Helen’s faithfulness to Saint Peter’s and even more so to the Lord she so loves, and who knows her as his Beloved, can be seen as both legendary and at the same time to be as natural as breathing or simply walking to and from the communion rail week in and week out, year in and year out.

How intriguing it would be to attempt to calculate how many miles Helen has walked simply to receive communion over the past 100 years. If you were then to include the number of miles traveled to get to and from the church as well it might stretch from here to Los Angeles, or even here to the moon.

And then one might speculate as to just what it is that inspires one woman such as Helen, who, when factoring in the kinds of inconveniences and stumbling blocks life in this world deals us, to keep walking walking walking toward her Lord and her God? It is, of course, no less than the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and a willingness to follow that Spirit.

It is fitting that it is still Easter Season. It is fitting for the Paschal Candle, the Light of Christ, to be burning right beside Helen. It is fitting for the church to be decked out in Gold and White for Helen’s homecoming. Helen is already face to face with the one she so faithfully worshipped, followed and obeyed. She knows in a whole new way that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life! She now drinks from the fountain of the water of life freely and without payment. She even now is feasting on rich food, well aged wines on the mountain of the Lord of Hosts!

“It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Let us stand here in this place, where Helen has stood so many times before us, and turning to page 496 in the red Book of Common Prayer, let us in the assurance of eternal life given in baptism, proclaim our faith saying together the Apostle’s Creed….

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