Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Sister in Christ Goes Home

Recently the death occurred of Mary Clark, a much loved parishioner of St Luke’s Kingston upon Thames. It was my privilege to preach the homily last Friday at Mary’s funeral Mass. I have been encouraged to share it with you here as a tribute to Mary, and in thanksgiving to God for her life, witness and ministry.

(5th June 1928 - 5th April 2016)

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is hard for me to preach at a Requiem Mass on the day of a funeral for someone like Mary Clark and not find myself transported to that cave on the island of Patmos, where St John the Divine and those with him lived in exile, at a time when it was very difficult and dangerous to be a Christian.

The beginning of the Book of Revelation – the last book of the Bible – describes itself as an unveiling of Jesus Christ. It records a series of visions that St John received as he and his little community were – as it says – “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). That, of course, is “code” for celebrating the Sunday Eucharist in honour of the Lord’s resurrection, and in fact the Eucharist – the Mass – is the key to interpreting that last book of the Bible. In the first chapter, St John falls down before Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, revealed in all of his risen glory. Jesus then gives him letters for the seven Churches, messages which are deeply relevant for the whole Church in every time and in every place. The last of these letters is to the Church in Laodicea, which the Lord complains is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, and he says to the people there (in Chapter 3 and verse 20):

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

These are the words of the risen Jesus to a lukewarm Church (and how the lukewarm Church of today needs to hear them and respond to them!). But down through the centuries these words have also moved many people as individuals to open up their minds and hearts – their lives – to this Jesus who knocks at our door, so that we might know him, not just as our Lord and God in general, but most importantly as our personal Saviour, our dearest Friend and our Companion on the way.

I begin with this picture because no-one who knew Mary could ever doubt the reality of her walk with the Lord. It WAS a very personal and intimate matter. It was a relationship of love, a relationship that was nurtured by her growing up in the High Cross Congregational Church at Tottenham in which her family were deeply involved. The minister during the war years was Norman Cocks who – unusually for the time – combined a very structured liturgy with his evangelistic Non-conformist preaching and teaching. A childhood friend of Mary, Dr Jean Bradley from Chichester, believes it was due to his influence that several of the younger people of the congregation – including Mary and Jean – eventually became Anglicans.

(In fact, Norman Cocks went from Tottenham to become the Australia and New Zealand secretary of the London Missionary Society, and was himself ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Tasmania in 1970. One of the quirky things about my being asked to preach at Mary’s funeral today is that as a young man in the early 1970s I actually heard Father Cocks - who was well known - preach at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney! He died at the age of 91 in 1996.)

Mary went to Crouch End High School, a half-mile walk from Wilmot Road through the park to the 41 bus route before a 3 to 4 mile journey, which she must have done alone from an early age. She and Jean shared the same piano teacher who taught them in their homes; they shared their love of bike riding, their membership of the church guide company, and their enjoyment of playing tennis.

Jean says that when she was a student she and Mary would meet from time to time, queuing to go to a theatre, or to concerts such as the Proms and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. She remembers that in the late 1950s Mary visited her in Bournemouth for a weekend in her new, dark green Morris Minor. Mary’s first car, affectionately named Eliza, was an older model which she had owned for several months before discovering that it needed oil as well as petrol! At about that time they had a couple of holidays in Cumbria in the Lake District staying with family friends.

Marina first met Mary upon joining the staff at the University of London Library at Senate House. After work on summer evenings they played tennis. Mary was a very good player, and Marina admits that she was terrified at those first serves!

For several years, winter evenings saw both of them at theology courses. Then, after completing her librarianship qualification, Mary began external courses for a Diploma in Biblical and Religious Studies. She was awarded the Diploma in 1964. She went on to gain a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the University of London in 1972 - a very great achievement.

But, says Marina, it wasn’t all study. They managed to fit in theatre and music, and wonderful holidays, especially to Hay on Wye, staying in Major Bentley’s house in the village of Clifford - very close to the “Town of Books.”

For those near the back of the church today I must point out Alan’s amazing flower arrangement here in front of the lectern, built around the theme of books and libraries, in its own way an eloquent tribute to Mary and her interests.

Eventually the joy of retirement came. No more heavy tomes to lift and carry about! But just as Marina was about to move here from Acton, Mary met someone in Kingston who had been helping the Sisters of the Church in the library of their Convent at Ham. Would she like to help? Mary and Marina met Sister Robin and were put to work at once - work that they enjoyed for many years, with interesting visits also to Nashdom Abbey and Alton Abbey.

Mary’s faith journey might have begun in what many Church of England people would once have called rather snootily “Nonconformity”, but it came to fruition in the fulness of Anglican Catholicism. For many years Mary has been a dear parishioner here at St Luke’s, though living a fair distance away (by English standards!) in Surbition. During that time, in addition to Sunday Mass, she and Marina have made their way together to the Tuesday and Thursday Masses each week, and they cared for the parish bookstall. They shared a real devotion to Our Lady, and loved to visit Walsingham on pilgrimage, coming also to the monthly Saturday Walsingham Mass at St Luke’s. Mary and Marina have been known to the parish family here as devout women of prayer, lovingly reaching out to others. They have always been loyal to the parish, especially in difficult times, and they have given much greatly appreciated support and encouragement to the clergy.

Marina gave me some notes to help with the details I have shared today. I return now to the top of the first page to read her opening lines, for they are a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Mary:

“Many people meeting Mary for the first time always mention her instant friendship making them feel at home at once.”

Quoting Robert Browning (1812-1889), Marina goes on to say:

“What a thing friendship is!”

Then, in the words of Alexander Pope (1688-1744): 

“In every friend we lose a part of ourselves, and the best part.”

And from the 19th century Sunday School hymn by Albert Midlane (1825-1909) “There’s a friend for little children . . . ”, Marina quotes the line 

“A friend who never changes, whose love will never die.”

Of course, that’s a reference to the love of God which comes to us in Jesus, as we heard in today’s First Reading (Romans 8:39). But it is just as true of his love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) with which we love one another. And it is Marina’s special tribute to Mary:

“A friend who never changes, whose love will never die.”

I began with the last book of the Bible, and the risen Jesus knocking on the door of our lives, and remarked on the way that Mary opened that door in her youth, and over so many years knew personally the Saviour’s love, forgiveness and grace. But just a few verses further on, at the beginning of chapter four, St John the Divine sees another door . . . this time a door through which we gaze in wonderment today. St John writes, 

After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne!

As the vision unfolds, we see the throne, we see the twenty-four elders clad in white garments, we see flashes of lightning, the sea of glass, we see the Lamb – Jesus in the power of his sacrifice – we see the golden bowls of incense which – it says – are the prayers of the Saints rising to the Lord; we see the martyrs who have shed their blood for Jesus, and we see the great multitude which no man can number, singing

a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation . . .” 

Then St John looked up again. He tells us . . .

I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

Later on in this vision granted to St John in his cave on the Island of Patmos, during that little Sunday Mass, there is the woman in heaven clothed with the sun, the moon beneath her feet and with a crown of twelve stars around her head, the woman whose Son, Jesus, is the king of the nations. 

And a few chapters later, as the vision reaches its climax, there is the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, the new city of God, the heavenly Mount Zion, adorned as a Bride for her Husband. Every tear has been wiped away; pain and sorrow are no more; the redemption of the world by the precious Blood of Jesus is complete, and all things have been made new. And it says, in words that we will hear just before receiving Holy Communion today, “Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).

All Christians more or less believe in that vision. But for so many of our brothers and sisters it is just about the future. 

If, however, like Mary, you have not only opened the door of your life to Jesus and know him as your Saviour, but you have gone on to discover the fulness of the Catholic Faith and you worship the Lord in the Catholic way, you know that the boundary between this world and the heavenly worship is strangely blurred. You know that time loses its significance when we gather at the altar and pass through that door, that same door that was opened to St John the Divine. You know that the Mass takes us BACK through history to Calvary where we stand on that hill with Blessed Mary, St John and St Mary Magdalene as Jesus bleeds for the salvation of the world – your salvation, my salvation, offering his eternal Sacrifice. But you also know that at the very same time the Mass transports us INTO THE FUTURE through that open door into heaven, where – led by this same Jesus, our great High Priest, whose risen body still bears those wounds (which are now glorious), and who nourishes us with his Body and Blood in the Blessed Sacrament – we join with the angels, the saints, the people of God from every time and place, our departed loved ones being made ready for the fulness of heaven’s glory, AND MARY CLARK, in the worship of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. As the letter to the Hebrews says, responding to Jesus, we have already come to the heavenly Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:20-22). As St Paul says to the Romans, nothing – not even death – can separate us from his wonderful love (Romans 8:38-39).

So, we come before the Lord today with hearts full of gratitude for the mystery of his love revealed in the life of Mary Clark. As Mary did so often, and as St John did in that unlikely cave on the island of Patmos, this morning – right now – we gaze through the eucharistic veil into the world of God, the angels, the saints, the glory of heaven. We enter through that door in this Mass! And we are moved by the poignancy of this occasion to open OUR hearts afresh to that same wonderful transforming love, thankful for the promise that he who began a good work in you and me will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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