A sermon preached at the Memorial Service of Bernice Balfour
Bernice was crystal clear. On the day before she died we said good-bye and she told me three times: “Keep it simple, Ed.” It reminded me of all those Wednesday mornings when a group of us from University Hill Congregation gathered - often in her home - to catch up on one another's lives, to pray and to discuss a passage from scripture together. The group met weekly for thirty years. On many occasions I recall Bernice saying something like: “When we first read the passage today I wondered how in the world we could spend an hour talking about it.” Bernice often professed to not understand the scriptures, to wonder about Christianity. Yet, for those of us who were privileged to experience her companionship in this congregation over the past sixty years, she has been a living testament to a life of faithfulness. She kept things simple, in the best sense of the word. I remember how often Bill Taylor would remind us in those Wednesday morning sessions that the word we translate as “faith” in the New Testament (in Greek “pistis”) is less about “belief” and more about “trust.” Bernice knew about trust. You could trust Bernice. I think that was, at least in part, because she had been cultivating her capacity to trust in God Sunday upon Sunday, Wednesday upon Wednesday, decade upon decade.
In the notes she made years ago concerning a Memorial Service, Bernice asked that we read the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. They are, on first glance, simple texts lying at the core of Christian faith. But it doesn’t take long before they reveal that simple does not necessarily mean easy. “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This is a daring claim. In an era when we never seem to have enough - enough stuff, enough security, enough happiness - this core song of deep and abiding trust in God forms a people that is not needy, not acquisitive, not fearful. Instead, such a people become known for their resilience, their stability, their generosity. Of course, it is not always true that the people who sing this ancient song live its way of life. But Bernice regularly embodied the life of one who is learning to trust in the grace - in the providence - of God.
There were a number of hymns that Bernice suggested we sing today. They were on a few different pieces of paper. Today’s three hymns were the only ones she included in each list. If Bernice did not always understand the sermons on Sunday she regularly loved the hymns. The opening hymn today - “How Great Thou Art” - is a reminder of the 23rd Psalm. It locates our lives in the great compassion of God. This is no simple thing in a world that is regularly blind and deaf to God, assuming that such simple faith is foolishness. Yet notice the hymns we are about to sing. Both speak of the wisdom of the way of life lived by those who place their trust in the God met in Jesus Christ: “Make me a channel of your peace.” “I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” Bernice not only loved singing these hymns. She loved living them.
And then there is the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer, placing the work of forgiveness and of reconciliation at the heart of the Christian life. This is simple Christianity but it is not easy Christianity. Make no mistake. Christianity is a tough faith and a challenging way of life. No one who becomes a follower of Jesus lives it to perfection. In truth, we only discover how to live the forgiving life of Jesus out of the forgiveness we learn to receive.
We made a lovely discovery on one of those Wednesday mornings. We were reading the verse: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Someone remarked that this cannot be true. All one has to do is to pay attention to the stories of those whose lives are marked by anything but God’s goodness and mercy to see that the Psalm is mistaken. But then, on closer inspection, we noticed that the Hebrew word often translated as “followed” is really the word “pursued” or “chased.” It is a word associated not with tagging along but with hunting for and searching out. God’s goodness and mercy are not two little puppy dogs nipping at one’s heels. They are the hounds of heaven, seeking out souls that long to be caught up in the compassionate embrace of God. A few years ago, when Bernice had to let go of her independent living - selling her car and moving out of her apartment - she was despondent. Yet, somehow, even in her sadness Bernice knew she would be alright, she would rebound, she was resilient. In the midst of those difficult days it was she who reminded me: “Remember, surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.”
This is what Bernice is telling us today. It is the simple, powerful, beautiful Christian witness she leaves us. She may not have ever fully understood but she somehow knew that God can be trusted even in the valley of the shadow of death. How providential that this New Year’s baby died and was born to eternal life on Easter Sunday, the great new day of all creation’s rebirth. Even yours. Even mine. Thank God.