John 11:38-44 (NRSV)
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
On this All Saints Sunday, I’m going to preach a funeral sermon that never got preached for a woman named Peggy Ann Lester, whom none of you knew, but who is one of my favorite, newly anointed saints. Peggy was a friend of mine and of my family’s for the last 35 years or so, who died this summer with no fanfare and no funeral – no obituary, even – which is what she requested. So I’m praying she won’t mind what I’m about to do.
See, back in the early 80’s, Peggy showed up for the first time to Providence Lutheran Church where my dad was the Pastor in Toledo, Ohio. She showed up after having been in jail and thumbing through the Yellow Pages to find a church. She had had a rough night – and a rough life – up until that point, and was looking for something even she wasn’t sure about at the time.
I don’t know all of the details about her previous life and some of what I do know isn’t rated for Sunday morning worship. Suffice it to say, she was abused in all the ways by many of the men in her own life as an adult and by some of the men in her mother’s life as a child. Peggy was in and out of jail – and other places of ill-repute – often enough that she kept a change of clothes in her detached garage on Toledo’s eastside, so she wouldn’t infest her home with whatever she may have picked up in those places along the way.
She drank too much… smoked like a chimney, without apology… and swore like a sailor, too. (She actually swore better than most sailors, I imagine.) And I loved her for every bit of it.
I loved her, too, because she was all of those things – she had all of that history – and by the time I met her and got to hear some of it, she was also the most faithfully passionate follower of Jesus I’d ever met. In fact, she was such a Jesus freak by the time my parents started inviting her over to our house for dinner and special occasions that I thought she might just be one of those kinds of Christians. (A Jesus freak, I mean. As her pastor, my dad convinced Peggy to “fall in love” with Jesus instead of all the losers, married men and so-and-so’s she was hanging around with and it worked to such a degree that she started telling people that Jesus was her boyfriend.)
Anyway, Peggy began to participate in Bible studies in our typically traditional, straight-laced, suburban Lutheran church, listening and learning and asking hard questions in ways that only Peggy could. She wasn’t one to temper her language or hold her tongue, no matter who she was talking to, or in what context. She could leave a circle of little ol’ Lutheran ladies in a state of shock with an F-bomb over coffee during a Sunday morning Adult Forum. But they were shocked as much by her fluent cursing as they were surprised by the faithful truth and spiritual wisdom she could communicate with those words. (It’s was her own kind of spiritual gift, really.)
Eventually, Peggy went back to jail, too – but this time to lead Bible studies there, based on all she’d come to know and believe about God’s love for her and for the prisoners, for the sick, for the outcast, the abused, the poor, and all the rest. And, now that you all have some idea in your head about what Peggy might have looked like, here’s a picture of what she actually looked like.
So, Peggy’s on my mind this All Saints Sunday because she died this summer, July 8th to be exact, but we didn’t find out about it until a couple of weeks ago, when some of our mail started to get unceremoniously “returned to sender” by the United States Postal Service. (She wasn’t online, never had an e-mail address, and talking on the phone was hard after a stroke and hip replacement surgery in the last few years, but I’d send her my sermons each week in the mail and newsletters, too.)
And she prayed often, if not daily, for this congregation, because of it. She was even here once, when we dedicated the building and I’m 99% sure she smoked a cigarette in the women’s restroom.
Anyway, Peggy didn’t want a funeral – there wasn’t any money for that and there weren’t many people who’d care to come, or be able to make it, she thought. Her mother was long gone and her sister died about ten years ago, so her only wish was that her ashes be scattered, dumped, buried – whatever – on her mother’s marked grave. Whether that’s legal or kosher or normal or expected, Peggy really didn’t give a … “you know what.”
My point – and goal, in this funeral sermon that wasn’t – is to pay some measure of tribute to my friend and spiritual mentor. My prayer is – as with any funeral sermon – that we realize the truths we speak and the promises we remember are as much for us as we believe them to be for the saints who have died. And my hope, too, is that we all might learn some of the things a life and a faith like Peggy’s has taught me:
…I learned that the Scriptural command to show hospitality to strangers is no joke. (You know the one about how you might just entertain an angel without knowing it?) Only God knows what might have become of Peggy – the fun, faithful, foul-mouthed angel so many may never have known – if my dad hadn’t chased her out the church doors that first Sunday morning, invited her back, and remembered her name when she had the nerve to show up again.
…I learned that SAINTS come in unexpected ways and shapes and forms a lot of the time – and that they’re staring back at each of us when we look in the mirror, even on our worst days.
…I learned that we are not the sum of our sins. Nor are we to let any one of our sins get the best of us. Our sins – individually or collectively – are never enough to keep God from finding and transforming what we, the world, and even the church and its people, suggest is too far gone to find and redeem.
…I learned that it is God’s grace that makes a SINNER a SAINT, and that it’s our job to recognize that and to treat people with love, respect and hope because of it.
…I learned that it is God’s grace that makes a SINNER a SAINT and that it’s our job to recognize that and to be grateful for our own saintly status and calling because of that truth.
…I learned that sometimes our saintly calling means asking hard questions and speaking even harder truths – sometimes with a purple word or two, if necessary – for the sake of grace, justice, fairness and love.
And from Peggy I learned to hope – against all common sense and good reason – that God’s love wins at all costs, and that it is that kind of love – big and wide and deep enough – that draws all the SAINTS who are on our minds and in our hearts this morning, together into one, big, beautiful heaven that is and will be ours, by the grace of God.