In the more than twenty years that I’ve been in the pulpit, my mom never heard one of my sermons. She said, half jokingly, that she didn’t need her kid preaching at her. Today, though, I want to share the sermon that she told with her life… to share with you the message of hope, patience, and faith that she has shared with me throughout my entire life.
My mother wasn’t sure what was going to happen after she died. We had that very conversation two weeks before she was suddenly gone from this physical life. That talk was like nothing I’ve ever experienced because, you see, when she asked me “What do you think happens after we die?” she wasn’t looking for reassurance. She wasn’t looking for pat answers. She wasn’t asking me to make any promises. She was inviting met to engage in the question in a profound way.
We agreed that there is something more than this realm. We agreed that the story can’t be told in the span of a single physical human life. We didn’t say it exactly in that way, but I think we agreed: these nearly 80 years that Judith Bellack lived were merely an overture to something more and perhaps better. I say perhaps because my mother loved her life. She loved taking care of her family. She loved encountering new people and new ideas. She loved unexpected adventures. I don’t know if she could imagine something quite as good as this life but she was willing to entertain the notion that it might exist.
And yet, we also agreed that, when all is said in done, we really don’t know exactly what that means. Physicist Edward Teller summed it up in this way: “When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
In her life, my mother taught me that faith is a special kind of courage—one that allows us to look into the darkness and acknowledge and be grateful for the light that has surrounded us.
And so my mother died with courage, and, more importantly, she lived with courage and a willingness to be unflinchingly honest and to engage with curiosity with the world and with the people she met. In that same conversation that we talked about what happens after we die, my mom said to me: “You girls can do whatever you want in terms of funeral, just don’t make a big deal out of it.” I asked, “What if we want to make a big deal out of it?” Her reply? “Well, I’ll be dead so I guess I can’t stop you.” Honest and funny…. these are the two words that came to me again and again as I thought about what to share today.
In my mother’s life, she taught me to always be honest, even when it was hard—and to always be loving, even when its hard. Love, I learned, is not a four letter word or a sappy sentiment that you say. Love is a verb—it’s what you do every day. Love shows up. Love is practical. Love is abiding. When I lived in New York, I was a single parent and Claire was 18 months old. One Sunday night, I fell on some black ice and broke my elbow. Thirty six hours later, my mom was on my doorstep ready to drive me around and change diapers, and do everything that I couldn’t do with one hand.
In my mother’s life, she taught me that is nothing more important than family, both those born to us and those we have chosen to bring in. She taught me that we need to strive to be there authentically for each other. Nothing would have made her happier than to know that all of the people she loved most, her husband, her daughters, their husbands, and her grandkids came together to do this service. Nothing would have pleased her more than knowing that her life had touched so many others.
As Mallory shared, my mom loved her grandchildren the way every grandparent should—with complete and unmitigated foolishness. She created traditions that carried us through holidays, vacations, and life events, giving both ritual and shape to the time that we spent together.
When I saw her with her grandkids, I often wondered where the mother I had grown up with had gone—she taught them how to spray whipped cream into their mouths directly out of the can, she filled the pantry with whatever snacks were the favorites of the day, and she, along with my dad, showed up at grandparents day at school, ice skating competitions, graduations, school plays, and anything where she could see the kids in action.
The woman who covered the back deck with bowls of water colored with food coloring so that Claire could play with making colors was not the woman that reminded me daily in grammar school to brush my hair and pull up my socks. For me and my sister, she showed up trying to be the mother we needed, and for our kids, she was the grandparent she thought they deserved. She was that kind of wife, and that kind of friend and that kind of employee.
In my mother’s life, she taught me to speak my truth and listen to truth that other’s have to share. She taught me to see new and different people as a chance to be changed, to learn and to grow. She would start a conversation with anyone, anywhere.
Her habit of smoking (and understand I am not suggesting that anyone take up cigarettes) gave her an opportunity to hang out and meet new people. I have found her speaking to everyone from new mothers to homeless people. She got to know military veterans and refugees and business owners. She came back from every outing talking about the people she met. She always wanted to know their stories and to learn what they had found out about the world.
I am blessed because, for a little more than half a century, I had a mother that taught me to believe. Because of her love, I have been able to imagine the even bigger love that God has for us. I have been able to build a relationship with a God that knows me the way a shepherd knows his sheep. I have come to know a God that searches me out and calls me by name.
Because of her ability to create tradition and togetherness, I have been able to enter into the communities that I love and serve with a trusting and open heart. I have been able to welcome whoever shows up, knowing that there’s always plenty to go around—whether what’s needed is food, or time, or understanding.
Because of her intellect and curiosity, I have learned to ask hard questions and to live with the realization that we can’t always know the answers. I have learned to hope for what I cannot see and to be patient in waiting for it.
In the past two weeks, I’ve found it hard to believe that my mother is no longer in this world. And that realization has been easier than I imagined. I know that sounds strange but in some ways it makes sense. You see, my faith has taught me that who we are, our very essence, cannot be contained by our physical bodies and the short span of time that we are live.
We are more than that—and so, I believe that my mothers story, her wisdom and her love, continue. It continues as we comfort one another by sharing stories. It continues as we continue to tell the truth to each other, and to listen to each other. It continues as we embrace the times that life makes us laugh.
Death may be the end of a chapter, but it is not the end of the story. The love is still here. The knowing and being known still exists. The story has just begun. It’s a story about love, faith, joy, and trust–and it’s a story that never ends.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on Saturday, March 9 on the occasion of the Celebration of Life of Judith Bellack.