(March 31, 1923-Oct. 16, 2007)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo, North Dakota
Sun. Oct. 21, 2007
Luke 2. 29-32, John 14.1-6
In the Name of God, Father+ Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
To begin this afternoon, I am going to share with you a bit of scripture that we did not read today. This scripture is from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and it can also be found in the Evening Prayer service in the Book of Common Prayer. We also call this scripture—this prayer—“the Song of Simeon” or the Nunc Dimittis.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, *
according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, *
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Now, this scripture was very important to Helen. It was so important to her, in fact, that she had the first line of this scripture inscribed on her gravestone.
“Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”
At this moment, it is there, on her stone in the cemetery outside Dawson, Minnesota, where we will bury Helen’s ashes tomorrow morning.
Now for those of us who knew Helen Johnson, that word Servant carries deep meaning. The idea of servant is important for understanding who Helen was. For those of who knew and loved Helen (I am happy to include myself as one of those people), we might not imagine her at first glance as a servant.
This was, after all, a strong-willed and very independent woman. One knew where one stood with Helen. If she liked you, she loved. If she didn’t like you—God help you. I am very fortunate to have been one of the people Helen liked. And I got to know her very well in these last several years. And I know she liked me and loved me. And I liked her and loved her in return. And because I knew her and liked her and loved her, I can tell you that the word servant does in fact fit Helen. In fact, it is probably the best word we find to describe who she was and what she did.
Of course, we could use a word like saint. But I know that Helen would hate that word to describe her. I can just hear her poo-pooing me and saying, “I am no saint! Don’t you dare call me a saint!” But servant. That was a word she was proud to bear. Servant of God. She was a true servant of God. She served God and she served her Church—the Episcopal Church,
We live in a time when we hear a lot about leadership. We see book after book published about being an effective leader. I just got back from Wisconsin yesterday and even there, I had a workshop in effective church leadership. It seems everyone these days is called to be a leader. Of course, if everyone’s leading, no one’s following. Helen would have seen right through to that quandary.
Because Helen understood fully that to be an effective leader, one has to be an effective follower first. One has to be an effective servant. And to be a servant, one must learn to do the work that needs to be done.
Helen worked hard at this church. For years, she coordinated the luncheons after the funerals. Since I invariably either presided or assisted at many, many of the funerals that have been done here over the last eight years or so, I can tell you, from first hand experience, that Helen was a true servant even when she was leading and coordinating. I can’t tell you how many times she came up to me, waving her finger at me, and prefacing something she was going to say with “Jamie, I have a bone to pick with you…” But what she ended up saying was not nagging or complaining. It was always an effective suggestion on how things should be done.
In her spiritual life, as well, we found a woman who truly was a Servant of the Lord. On Tuesday, our dear Helen departed from us in peace. And her life was summed in the words of the Nunc Dimittis—the Song of Simeon—in more ways than we might ever fully understand. I can tell you that Helen could express with all honesty those words “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, [O Lord]. She saw things and understood things as most us of could not. She had definite thoughts about her faith in God.
God was there—waiting for her in that other world that was separated from this one by a very thin veil. And with God, in that place, was her beloved Doug.
Earlier this year, in our Bible Study, Helen asked me,” What do you think it will be like there? What do you think it will be like in heaven?”
I said, “Helen, I don’t know. But I have faith that it will be beautiful and amazing and more incredible than we can even imagine.”
She then asked, “Will Doug be there?”
And I said, “Yes. He will. He will be waiting there for you when you awaken in that place.”
And tears came to her eyes and she smiled and she nodded and she said, “Yes, I know he will be there. He will be there waiting for me when I wake up in that place.”
One of the first memories of I have of Helen was visiting her in her condo in Moorhead back in the fall of 1999. I gave her a book of my prayers—prayers that I wrote—prayers that she would tell me for years afterward that she cherished and loved. On her coffee table that day, there was another book. That book was The Next Place by Warren Hanson. She told me that day how important this book was to her and how it helped her in her mourning of Doug and in her hope for what was awaiting us in the Next Place. Over the last few years, when we talked about heaven and what was awaiting us, we would often come back to this book. And every time we did, she would smile and nod and say, “Yes. The Next Place. It’s a children’s book, but it’s also a beautiful book And it’s a book I think we might need on a day like today. So, I’m going to share it with you. And I highly recommend it to you—go out a purchase a copy of it, because it is lovely.
The Next Place
On Tuesday morning, Helen awoke in that Next Place and the first people waiting for her there were the Lord she loved and longed for and served and, of course, Doug.
In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus talking about his Father’s dwelling place and the Mansions that exist there. It’s not hard to imagine that the place Jesus talks about is very similar to the Next Place of Warren Hanson’s poem. It is, beyond doubt, a place so incredible we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around its reality or its beauty. Like Helen, all he can do is hope in it and know that it is there, just on the other side of that very thin veil. What an appropriate place for Helen Johnson.
For her, today is a glorious day. She is in that next Place—in that place of beauty. She is fully and completely herself. She is truly perfect. For us, it is a sad day because we will miss Helen. For a while, we will not be able to see her.
But for now we can lives in the example of Helen Johnson. We can go on, as servants of the Lord and of each other. But we can look forward, as she did, for that day when we, as the Lord’s servants, will also depart in peace. And when we wake up in that Next Place, the first thing we will see will be the Lord we have loved and longed for and served. And Helen will be there as well to greet us along with all our loved ones. And it will be more beautiful and lovely and gorgeous than we, in this moment, can fully understand.