Burial of Mary Anne Hodgson
8 September 2012
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Old Testament: Isaiah 61:1-3
Epistle: Revelation 21:2-7
Gospel: John 10:11-16
We are proud, and rightly so, around Emmanuel Episcopal Church these days, of the children’s Christian formation program that many, many people have worked very, very hard to build up over the past 5-6 years. It’s a program that introduces children, from 3 years up through 5th grade, to the most fundamental and basic tenets of our faith, and to the way we are to live them out in worship, prayer, love, and service, through the key stories and parables of the Bible, especially those of Jesus of Nazareth . . . and in a hands-on, Montessori-inspired way that is foreign to the traditional didactic mode of ‘teaching Sunday School.’
The program is called The Catechesis - that is, the ‘instruction’ - of the Good Shepherd. I think it bears this particular name because the “I AM” statement of Jesus that we just heard, one of the appointed Scripture readings in the Episcopal Church at the occasion of a burial rite, is so basic, so fundamental to who we Christians understand God to be - and therefore who WE are called to be in relation to God through Christ - that it was and almost inescapable choice as “the first thing children ought to learn about God.”
The writer of John’s Gospel, as we heard, records Jesus as he contrasts himself with the corrupt and selfish community leaders around him: “I am the good shepherd” Jesus says to his followers. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
The distinction is clear: the one who is sub-par is the one who is there strictly for the paycheck; the one hired to do a job, whose true concerns, true interests, true passions, are directed to some other place, some other person or group; or ultimately just directed back at himself; he is the one seemingly unable to give himself fully to the protection and care of those in his charge. But the shepherd who is GOOD is, not surprisingly, the one who has an ownership stake in the sheep; the one who considers the sheep part of his own family; the one who lives and breathes every day with a willingness to give of his life - even to the point of giving every last ounce of it - for the benefit of the sheep.
Even in this post-modern world, so far removed as we are from the world of sheep- and goat-herding that would have been utterly familiar to Jesus’s listeners, we get this. Thanks to it’s beauty, it’s focus, it’s interplay of giver & taker, love & narcissism, concern for the group versus selfishness, we get it. Jesus makes it simple for us. Not simplistic. No, the reference to the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s own life, makes THAT quite clear. But yes, simple.
And so, in our children’s program, the clear, powerful, simple parable of the Good Shepherd is the anchor, the bedrock.
From what her family and I discerned of her wishes, it seems that Mary Anne Hodgson wanted to keep simple both this liturgy - this celebration of her life and of her coming to share in the very interior life of God - and the other celebrations, the other para-church liturgies of parish hall, of home and hearth, of lunch counter and civic boardroom, liturgies of blessing and gratitude that should and will go on outside and beyond this space in the coming days and weeks.
To a great extent this call for simplicity makes sense to us because of who Mary Anne Hodgson was: it does not seem, that is, that her tastes, or her preferences, or indeed her overall attitude toward life and toward relations between human beings - and relations between humanity and God - were extravagant, or exotic, or high maintenance. She could be said, fairly, I think, to have been someone who really, truly appreciated not the simplistic, but the simple, pure, most fundamental and precious things in life:
- Things like the simple giving and receiving of love and care over many years, through many joys and trials, that marks a healthy family life: many of you will have known for much longer than I how she insisted she did not marry widower Paul Hodgson in 1953, but rather married Paul and his young children: she knew from the beginning what many of us take years to learn, the simple truth that in a marriage and family, the commitment level is high, indeed.
- Things like the simple appreciation of and concern for the natural environment that is so common among those with rural roots, those who never want to be too far from forest, field, or garden: having learned about the Sandy Creek Nature Center “only” 20 years ago during my first stint in Athens, I was delighted to find out what a significant role Mary Anne played in it’s development.
- Things like the simple, deep appreciation for stories, for the narratives of self and family and community by which we come to know and understand both ourselves and the world around us; and yes, even more finely so, the appreciation for - and joy and reveling in - the very words themselves, strung together just . . . so . . . to achieve not only wisdom, but her twin sister wit: again what a delight for me to recently learn that the publisher of the little book of ‘Christmas curiousities’ I received as a gift each of the last four years was, for decades, a gifted journalist, broadcaster, bookwriter - even right up to the end, with a manuscript sitting at her bedside in Hospice House - and an all-around keeper and teller, extraordinaire, of Athens tales and history.
- Things like the simple desire for knowledge; a person gifted with that basic, unquenchable thirst for learning that marks all good students: that certainly marks high school valedictorians in any era; that certainly marked young ladies who earned a college degree in the deep South, in the mid-1940s; that certainly marks ambitious, single women who then, straightaway, took up a career in journalism and broadcasting.
- Things like the simple, unadorned worship of God, in Word and Sacrament, as expressed in the early-Sunday-morning Eucharistic worship in the Episcopal tradition - using the Rite One ‘thee-thy-thou language’ - that Mary Anne faithfully attended for decades, often known by heart and loved both by her and by so many of her generation
- Things like the simple company of good friends and family; the sharing of much laughter and not a few tears that comes when people truly understand each other, truly try to hold each other up on the long, hard journey. Many of you will have known her delight in good conversation and love of humor: it was related to me the other day how easy the jokes seemed to flow, when, for example, she donated a light for the Tower entrance to this worship space in memory of her husband, because, she said “he had never darkened the door of the church.”
- And not least, of course, things like the simple desire to be of good use to God, for the building up of God’s reign of peace, justice, and human thriving, as expressed in her numerous leadership roles in the community, in many cases participating decisively in getting groups off the ground to begin with. You know the list: the Junior Ladies Garden Club, Recording for the Blind, Sandy Creek Nature Center, the Vestry of this parish, the Auxiliary programs of Lanier Gardens and Heritage Convalescent Center . . . often working in leadership roles and always, as a friend told me, insisting on affiliating with organizations that were dedicated to community service - to a measurable impact on the people of Athens - rather than fronting for largely social purposes.
If you’ll indulge me for another moment I can’t help but share, in light of this list of ‘the simple pleasures’ by which we’ll remember Mary Anne Hodgson, a quote I came across recently on no less a source than Facebook . . . something from the pen of the great church reformer John Calvin, who is not often quoted in these hallowed halls - yes, you Presbyterians and even you Baptists out there should be proud!
Listen to what Calvin said, in the language of his own day, of course, in light of that long list of ‘simple gifts’ that Mary Anne gave to her family, to you, and to this parish, and to this community over the course of 85 years . . . and listen, too, in light of that simple truth about who God is, and therefore who we are called to be, as Jesus teaches us in the parable of the Good Shepherd:
"As God bestoweth his benefites upon us,” Calvin wrote, “let us beware that wee acknowledge it towardes him, by doing good to our neighbors whome he offereth unto us, so as wee neither exempt ourselves from their want, nor seclude them from our abundance, but gently make them partakers with us, as folk that are linked together in an inseparable bond."
My friends, as we go in peace today, let us remember how God, the Good Shepherd, who knows us and calls us by name and is ready to lay down his life for us, has bestowed numerous benefits on us. And let us acknowledge those benefits by cultivating our own gifts, our own skills and passions, for the benefit of our all those around us, neither ignoring their needs nor hoarding our abundance, with dear Mary Anne as our example. Ultimately it is about the inseparable bond we share, not because we’re related, not because we occupy the same city, not because we went to the same schools, but because, as the Psalmist wrote: “...he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
It’s that pure. It’s that fundamental. It’s that simple.
Copyright 2012: (The Rev'd) M. Edwin Beckham