A sermon preached at the Memorial Service of Helen Louise (Jerry) Mackenzie
Psalm 139; II Corinthians 4:7-12,16-18
It is hard to know what to say. Jerry Mackenzie has been a part of this neighbourhood and this congregation’s life for sixty-three of her one hundred years. What do you say? Do you try to summarize all that she has done and been in a few short paragraphs? It is not possible. And what scripture should we read? Perhaps she left a note, an instruction, a suggestion. But, no, instead Jerry simply said: “Ed will know what to say.” I will? On such occasions I feel utterly inadequate. Thank God for the lectionary which teaches us the song to sing today - namely Psalm 139.
Psalm 139 is a psalm of wonder at God’s intimate knowledge and care: “O God, you have searched me and known me ... You guard me from behind and before.” It is a daring psalm that claims God’s presence in the experience of absence: “Where can I flee from your presence ... If I say, ‘Let the darkness cover me and my day be turned to night,’ even darkness is not dark to you ... for darkness is as light to you.” The 139th Psalm is a song of identity. It reminds us that we are not the product of our parents and grand-parents but are, instead, children of God. “It was you who formed my inward parts; you fashioned me in my mother’s womb.”
These are words that need to be spoken today, looking back over the century of life that marked the blossoming of the flower of the field named Helen Louise Mackenzie. This is what Jerry came here to be reminded of Sunday after Sunday. She came to remember that she could place her trust in the God who had made her and who would not abandon her. It was not that such faith came easily to her. Whenever she had her pastor over for tea or took him for lunch she would not only regale with stories and inquire about the congregation. In most every conversation she would also wonder aloud about some deep ache, some real sadness, some fractured relationship. She was, I think, expecting and hoping that I would know what to say.
You cannot live for a century without knowing both great wonder and great grief. Jerry has known both. The bold claim of Psalm 139, the bold claim of biblical faith, is that the same God who creates the wonder and beauty can be trusted to carry you through the grief and trouble. This is the good news revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel treasure that Paul says we carry in clay jars. The clay jars of the ancient world are the disposable, recyclable containers of their day. Paul is saying that our bodies, our buildings, our institutions are akin to cardboard boxes. They are containers that are valuable not in and of themselves but because of the precious treasure that they carry.
This precious treasure - this awesome good news - is the impossible possibility that God’s goodness will be revealed, that our grief will be healed, that forgiveness will lead to reconciliation, that death is even now being overcome by life. Such news is powerful. It enables endurance, courage and energy in the face of pain, suffering and trouble. As Paul says: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed ... So we do not lose heart.” This is what I remember most vividly about Jerry. In the face of suffering she did not lose heart. She laughed. She smiled. She got up. She got out. How does Paul put it? “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” This renewal is the good news for Jerry on the other side of death. It is also the good news for you and for me here, in the midst of the afflictions and perplexities of our own lifetimes. This gospel message is the power of God to make new beyond all expectation. It is the presence of God in the midst of absence that cannot be explained and yet cannot be denied. It is the eternal goodness of God that endures when all that is temporary fades away. It is the treasure that is ours to carry and to cherish in our time as Jerry has done so faithfully in hers. May it be so. Amen.