Nothing shall separate us
Homily for Reverend Elder Jean White's funeral service - November 19th 2010
Reverend Elder Nancy Wilson
Today – people in the US, in particular, are joining with us simultaneously, on a conference call, following the liturgy, the readings and this homily, in solidarity. These are mostly MCC clergy and partners who knew and loved and worked with Jean for decades. My partner, Paula Schoenwether, regrets not being able to be here in person, and sends to all of you her deepest condolences and love.
So, let us pray: God, who is the healer of broken hearts, Holy Spirit, our Comforter, and Jesus, Friend of the outcast and oppressed, unite us around the globe at this very moment. Embrace Mary and her family, friends; MCC South London, MCC clergy friends and so many who come today to mourn, and also to celebrate the life of Rev. Elder Jean White.
Jean wanted me to preach an inclusive gospel message. She didn’t want us to go on and on about her, though, I probably will do some of that.
I love the passage from Romans we heard today. It is often read at funerals, and so rich and deep with meaning. For those who have been or felt separated from God or each other, the good news that “nothing shall separate us” is the powerful message for us, here, today.
That passage in Romans comes at the apex of the epistle itself. Paul builds his case relentlessly, about the embracing, amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ, who died for us “while we were yet sinners.” One of our tasks in MCC has been to redeem the label “sinners” – to say that lgbt people are not some special class of sinners, but to be a sinner is simply to be human, to be one of those for whom Christ died. Claiming the label “sinner” is not meant to make us hate ourselves, but to claim that we are available for that amazing grace and love, to be open to it, not above it.
Paul paints a picture of Creation groaning to be complete, to be reconciled, at one, with the Creator. He makes assurances like the one in Romans 8:28, “for we know that in all things God works together for good with those love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” And, surely, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Jean loved the message and ministry of MCC. It was her life; though, she had rich life beyond it. She never separated who she was, as an MCC pastor from all the other roles in her life.
Jean was the Matriarch of MCC in the UK and all of Europe, of MCC South London; and the devoted mother of a generation or two of MCC clergy and lay leaders. She was iconic. She was the first to tell our Elders and leaders, our churches, that they had to look beyond themselves to a whole world that needed liberation and hope. She was the one who in the days before the internet, wrote thousands of letters to those hungry for a word of hope, who answered thousands of phone calls, and traveled tens of thousands of miles, risking health and safely and life itself. The loss of Jean White in this earthly life impacts people all over the world today.
And, she was also the woman who “held court” at the commons most days, getting to know and comfort and befriend a host of people who came there to walk their dogs, have some coffee or tea, and just be themselves. They were Jean’s other congregation. The times I went there with her, I was so aware of how much that was also a sacred space of community and healing. Isn’t that true, Jackie Kelly?
She strove to live an undivided life – being who she was everywhere. She had lived a divided and conflicted life earlier, and was grateful to be beyond that and into a new, whole way of living and being. She was glad to be out, and free.
She was a proud auntie, a friend, a sister. She loved children.
She suffered, in her body, in this life, not only at the end. That suffering also shaped who she was, in trying to accept limits, or overcome them by resisting and pushing through. It made her more aware of the sufferings of others, and determined to alleviate it.
She was strong, resilient, persevering to the utmost. You never had to wonder if she approved or disapproved of something you had done! And, she could be vulnerable. She made mistakes, and owned them. She loved, and she experienced the hurts and pains of all who love. Mary, she loved you and hated most of all to leave you, it was the hardest part of dying. She trusted you with herself, with everything. We want you to know, Mary, that you can count on us, a community spread out over many miles, who will be there for you in every way you need us.
She valued honesty and loyalty; she was curious, loved to learn and grow; she loved music and worship in MCC. She loved all kinds of people, those who deserved it and those who didn’t. She did not like drawing attention to herself, or a big fuss made over her.
Jean loved to laugh. One of my favorite stories includes Rev. Elder Jeri Ann Harvey. It was around the early days of the inclusive language controversy. Jean and Jeri Ann were roommates at a conference, and they had been up late talking with several clergy about the issue. Finally they went to sleep, and in the middle of the night, Jean bolted up out of bed, saying, “Jeri Ann! I have just heard the Lord say, ‘I am that I am!’”
To which Jeri Ann, sleepy and a little irritated, said, “Jean, that was my clock saying, ‘It is now one am’! “
Jean White was an MCC clergy person. There are so few of us in the world, but with a strong showing here, today. She was one of us. It was her strongest connection and identity over the last 32 years. We are a “special breed,” MCC clergy, and we need each other. We cannot afford to be “separated” from each other. She wanted me to tell you that. Whatever separates us is so much less important than what unites us as we, on a daily basis, build the beloved community wherever we are.
Jean believed in eternity. Like me, she was not always sure of the specifics. The older I get, the more I believe that whatever heaven and eternity are, it means we will not be disappointed. Maybe that’s all I know about it today, and that is enough!
To honor Jean, we must honor who she was, and what she valued:
We sing, “All are welcome,” but we know that is still radical news, still our calling, those of us who are MCC. If we think this is old news, in the church, it is not! It is fresh, needed terribly, in so many places. People here in London, and in so many place in the world are hungry for a Jesus that Jean knew. . .are all really welcome in our churches today? In an increasingly post-Christian world, a post-Christendom world, does it matter if all are welcome if the church has so betrayed its core values that no one cares? Who will build the kind of beloved community that will offer the healing and life-saving power of God’s boundless love? Around the world, a very conservative Church continues to be a perilous place for our communities. Today, when HIV/AIDS still stalks so many communities and countries, can we still be the Church with AIDS, and the Human Rights Church for a new generation?
To be in community is to learn to forgive and be forgiven, to act in ways that are redemptive and restorative. To turn from the ways that hurt ourselves and others. To go the extra mile. To love and care for each other, to lift each other up, to believe the best about one another. Love transcends every barrier. It “tears down walls and builds up hope.” Love is more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is a verb, it is about how we treat one another, ourselves, our communities.
Finally, Justice is not a hobby, or an add-on, it is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus and Justice go together, they are undivided, they cannot be separated. Jean was a pioneer in rights for women, as well as lgbt people, and so many others. Justice is at the heart of Jesus’ command for us to love one another. Justice is love in action. If people are to be drawn at all to the church today, it will only be because the church risked itself for justice, for liberation.
Jean White was my friend, my sister, we shared 14 years on the Board of Elders of MCC together, and 32 years of friendship. We shared many adventures together. We were in each other’s homes a lot over more than 30 years, but, mostly, like so many of you, we were in each other’s hearts, even when we did not see each other for a long while.
May her memory be for a blessing. May we be better for having known her; and inspired to make the inclusive gospel that she embodied our passion as well.