A Sermon for the Service of Celebration of the Resurrection and Thanksgiving for the Life of Margaret W. Smalzel|| January 17th, 2015 || Corinthians 13: 1-13; “After Work” by John Oxenham; A Reading from The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot ||The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Margaret the way most of you did. By the time I was called to St. Stephen’s, the hateful disease of Alzheimer’s had already taken hostage this brilliant woman whose intellectual curiosity was matched only by her profound commitment to—and identity in—meaningful and compassionate service to others.
When I asked Margaret’s daughter, Kate, not what she wanted people to know about her mother, but what she thought we needed to know about her mother—in other words, what was absolutely essential to her mother’s core being— Kate didn’t even have to think about it. “Being of service,” she said. “Being of service was hugely important. She said it and she lived it. It was one of the guiding principles of her life.”
Then Kate told me a remarkable story that perhaps some of you have heard, about a walk she took with her mother not long ago. By this time rarely verbal, much less cogent, Margaret said seemingly out of nowhere, “I don’t think I’m going to be around here much longer.” When a startled Kate asked her mother what she meant by that, Margaret replied, “I can’t figure out what to do, how to be of service…so my time must be up.”
I’d like to invite you to pause here with me for a moment to think about this, and to drink in those words: “I can’t figure out how to be of service, so my time must be up.” It seems so many in our world today wouldn’t dream of our time being up until we’d reached some kind of milestone of personal fulfillment—like having accomplished a certain professional success, or achieved some kind of personal satisfaction, or simply having “gotten all we could get” out of life. As a culture, we’re so all about getting.
But here’s Margaret, “at the end of all her exploring” (to borrow a phrase from the T.S. Eliot reading we heard earlier) and despite even the effects of Alzheimer’s, Margaret’s still all about giving…all about serving, helping, contributing. It’s not that there’s nothing left for her to get out of life—she doesn’t even think that way. It’s that from her perspective if she can’t give—if she can’t be of service to others—life has no purpose for her, no meaning. Witness the poem by John Oxenham she chose for this service:
“Lord, when Thou seest that my work is done
Let me not linger on…
…A workless worker in a world of work.”
It wasn’t that Margaret had, by her estimation, outlived her usefulness. I think it was much deeper than that. I wanted us to pause here because what I think Margaret was saying to Kate in the garden that day was really very theologically and existentially profound. I think the message that Margaret gave Kate with her words, and gave to so many others with her life, was the very same message God gave us in the words and life of Jesus: That we are created—each of us— to love and to serve others. This is who we are, who we are created to be. And it is only in loving and serving others that our true being– our real identity as God’s creatures—is to be found.
This is our salvation—discovering, and living into, that paradox. If you want to find yourself, Jesus teaches us, lose yourself. If you want to get anything, give up everything. Want to help yourself? Help others. The key to self-fulfillment? Self-sacrifice.
You can see then, that Margaret was a very wise woman.
And Margaret was a follower of Jesus. As such, she understood death to be not the end, but the beginning of life…”the return to where we started, yet knowing the place for the first time.”
“Just bid me home,” the Oxenham poem continues, “and I will come right gladly. Yea, right gladly will I come.”
Margaret is indeed home now, home and alive in the fullness of Divine love—all curiosity satisfied, all questions answered, all brokenness healed, all yearning fully sated. For she sees now, no longer in a mirror, dimly, but face to face. And she knows now, not only in part, but fully, even as she has been fully known.
Until reunited in the world to come, may we honor her life with our lives, in service to others. And may we never forget that faith, hope, and love abide—these three. But the greatest of these is love. Amen.