Grace and peace be with you all. Friends, what a privilege it is to be here today with you—Betty’s family and beloved community. With grief and gratitude, we remember Betty—her warm smile, her listening way, her quick wit, that sparkle of mischief that was so often in her eyes, her deep care for people and community, her passion for justice, her ministry, her devotion to family. Like all of us, Betty had her imperfections. And at the same time, there was a wholeness, a completeness about Betty. She was, as Evan’s song puts it so beautifully, “right on the inside.” Today, as we celebrate the blessing of Betty’s life, and all that she gave to each of us, may we also lean on and learn from her steady, quiet, deep, and humble, faith.
In one of our last conversations, Betty repeated something I remember her saying quite a few times. She said: “The presence is always there. Every once in a while, I just say, ‘I’m glad you are still with me.’” Betty felt the nearness of God viscerally, with each breath she took.Betty’s God was the God of Psalm 139. Not a God-in-control, but a knowing God. The knowing of God described by the psalmist is not a judgmental, invasive surveillance. God’s knowledge of us is warm and intimate. It is wonderful, too wonderful for words. “Most Gracious God.” Jerry and the kids said that Betty always began her prayers that way, that if Betty had a hashtag that would have been it.
Our knowing God, our most gracious God, according to the psalmist, delights in the utter uniqueness of who we each are, how we think and move and speak. Our knowing God sees our fears and flaws, and loves us all the more for how we survive and grow through them. God accompanies us faithfully, with relentless care and comfort, especially when we find ourselves at the limits of our own knowing—as we study the mystery of our own existence, our inmost thoughts and inward parts. When we travel to the farthest limits of the sea, (the sea being a symbol, in Hebrew thought, of the chaotic abyss) and as we inevitably make our bed in Sheol, the land of the dead.
“The presence is always there. Every once in a while, I just say, ‘I’m glad you are still with me.’” In that same visit, Betty went on to remember a formational moment in her life. She was a child, 9 or 10 years old. In Sunday school, in the congregational church she was raised in, the minister was teaching the children the Lord’s prayer. He was discussing what it means to be able to address God as “Our Father.” Betty’s own father had abandoned the family when she was very young, and she felt his absence acutely. In that moment in church, she said, she realized that she did have a father, and she was like everyone else. That thought was an immense comfort, a mighty revelation. And ever since that day, she knew that she was never alone.
I’ve been thinking about how, just as the church lovingly formed Betty, Betty lovingly formed the church. The last conversation I had with Betty ended like this: I told her “We love you”—we, meaning the First Church community. She simply replied, “That’s a strong love.” When she graduated from seminary as one of the only women in her class, she could not find a long-term pastoral position—most congregations were simply not ready to have a female pastor. She did her first interim position at Sauk Center, and found her calling to interim ministry. I think about all the congregations and people Betty served, how her presence must have opened them to more fully receive and honor the leadership of women. It’s powerful and moving to ponder how Betty helped the church evolve so that the women who came after her could find our place in ministry. I thank our most gracious God for Betty’s ministry and for the strong love that both consoled and compelled her through all of its joys and challenges.
In our Gospel passage, presence requires a mutual commitment. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” God shows up for us, and we show up for God. Creator and creation depend on each other. Jesus offers the image of the vine and the branches as a way of expressing of how we are all inter-connected. Abiding in love, being complete in joy, is not a static state. It is about experiencing the flow of energy between ourselves and others and God. Betty spoke to me often about her journey of coming to trust in the presence, to abide in the presence. Her difficulty with breathing in her later years, especially, taught her that idea that we have control over our lives is an illusion. And the experience of understanding so clearly that she was not in control taught her to let go to rest in the peace and connection of the presence. The Psalmist says it this way: “I come to the end. I am still with you.”
John O Donahue, in his poem, “On the Death of the Beloved” says this:
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Besides us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
Friends, may we know and trust and live from the presence that holds us. The presence that supported, inspired and emboldened Betty through all her years, the presence that continues to bind us together with Betty, and all the beloved ones who have gone before us, even now. Amen.