In 2007, I had the opportunity to go to Dar es Salaam to report on a meeting of the Archbishops of the Anglican Communion. But our dog Alice had lived for several months with a debilitating illness, and my spouse was afraid that if I left, Alice would die. Sure enough, as soon as I had my bags packed and was out the door, Alice turned her head to the wall and refused to eat. It was clear that we needed to have her euthanized. But I was in Africa. So we called a friend to be with Jill and Alice when the vet came. That friend was Mary Elizabeth.
Because Mary Elizabeth was someone you wanted to have with you when your sweetheart was continents away and your dog was dying. Mary Elizabeth had an ability to be with people just where they were without expecting them so be something else. She had a tremendous ability to love both people and critters.
In recent years, many of us have been planting milkweed and eagerly watching monarch butterflies grow from egg to caterpillar to cocoon and hopefully to beautiful butterfly. Mary Elizabeth took this on in a typically determined and grand way. She read up on them, and discovered all the perils that await young monarchs from birds, bugs and bacteria. So Mary Elizabeth turned her home into a mini Monarch farm. Monarchs in their various stages of development lived in different boxes and containers all across her dining room table. In the wild only 1 or 2% of monarch eggs become butterflies. Mary Elizabeth beat those odds, watching over hers until they were ready to go out into the world and even having a convalescent facility for those whose wings failed to fully develop. In fact, her last announcement from this lectern was a request for donations of milkweed to feed her last butterflies.
Mary Elizabeth believed in beating the odds. As we have heard, when she took over Santa Maria Urban Mission it had just moved to a new location but was little more than a place to give handouts. Mary Elizabeth saw the possibilities in the lives of those who came and turned the mission into a place where those who are served may also serve, a place where young children can get a headstart in life and where Spanish speakers can learn English and the cultural skills they need to flourish.
When she came here to St. Benedict’s as our second rector, this building was not here. We were meeting at the Community Center and we were in disarray. In fact, we were at each other’s throats. Mary Elizabeth believed in the possibility of healing. She promised to love us and love us she did, with great determination, and against great odds we, like the monarchs, grew.
Bringing this building from Camp Roberts was a bold move. It was also an expensive one and for a while it didn’t look as though St Benedict’s would survive the financial strain. But Mary Elizabeth did not give up. Even when the diocese declared that St Benedict’s was unsustainable and should close she prayed and looked for a way forward. She did not give up.
Mary Elizabeth did not give up.
In 2005 she decided it would be best for her and for the church to take early disability retirement. But she continued to be fully involved in the life of St Benedict’s, especially bringing us together through community and social activities – games nights, movie nights and lunches together. As the decades of living with rheumatoid arthritis began to take a serious toll on her body, Mary Elizabeth kept going through every setback with determination and cheerfulness. She regularly shared her understandings of the God who walks beside us in our difficulties with members of the healing ministry team and with all of us in her sermons. She talked of God as both our companion on the journey and our journey’s end.
She became for us a symbol of perseverance and inspiration. As JW who lives with chronic pain says, “I’d look at her and think if she can do it, I can.”
In her final sermon, Mary Elizabeth talked about process theology and said that rather than God deciding our fate,
“God is constantly, continuously interacting with each of us… to offer us options that would help us fulfill our potential, that would be lifegiving not just for ourselves.. but for all; …[and] when God has offered you the options for your life, depending on what you decide… you either expand those possibilities or you limit them further… because God doesn’t go against our free will, God takes that into consideration… and God is changed by us, by each of us and our decisions.”
Mary Elizabeth was a woman who changed God. And she changed us. Her legacy lives in us.
Mary Elizabeth made choices that were life-giving even as her choices became constrained by her physical frame. She chose, in the words of Isaiah, “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” And I think, again quoting Isaiah, that we may truly call her “an oak of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”
Today we have gathered both to honor Mary Elizabeth’s memory and to give her to God. For many years we have cared for her, even as she has cared for us. For her beloved husband John, her children Matthew and Laura and her sister Margaret, that caring has been intense at times. Today we turn that caring over to God. It is time to put Mary Elizabeth where she already is and always has been, firmly in the care of God the eternal One, her companion on the journey and her journey’s end. We put her into God’s care, knowing that death is not the end but that she will rise again.
Today and whenever we gather in eucharist, we know that we are worshipping with the angels and with the communion of saints – those who have gone before us. As we share the bread and wine, symbols of the deep mysteries of our faith, we can be sure that Mary Elizabeth is especially present with us, as are all the saints of this congregation and beyond.
So today, as we share our memories and stories we are starting the process of re-membering, of putting back together, Mary Elizabeth in our hearts where she will live into eternity.