In Memory of Myrtle Harris
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
October 7, 2006
Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-15; Romans 8: 31-39; John 5 24-27, 6:37-40
Jesus said: “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” –John 5:24
Today, together in this place where she worshiped God, we remember Myrtle Whitsett Harris. Many of us have come from far away, but far or near, we knew every step of the way that we were on a privileged journey, because it is one of our high privileges to honor the memory of an excellent person, and Myrtle is one of the best. To honor the memory of the excellent makes us more excellent too. (That is one of the reasons for celebrating the memory of the Saints, and that is why we shall sing “For all the saints,” at the conclusion of this service). Imagine then the honor I feel at being the family’s choice to preach her Memorial sermon.
I shall speak of Myrtle, but in accord with her wish I shall speak mostly of God. Often at these services one hears much of the deceased and little of the Lord, and even when one hears of the Lord it is difficult to tell who is the greater and more virtuous. I knew Myrtle for 30 plus years – I was her pastor (and she told me that she had a complete set of my sermons in the garage; Did I want them?) -and I know that she wants the focus to be on Jesus and not on Myrtle. So I shall take up each of the texts of Scripture and speak of her in the context of the Biblical Word. In this way I hope I can make you see the Glory of the Lord in the life of Myrtle Harris, and the beauty of Myrtle in the Glory of God.
Ecclesiates 3: 1-15 is the one text of the three that Myrtle explicitly asked for in her last weeks of earthly life. It expresses the maturity of her faith. When she learned she was soon to leave this world she asked me not to have public prayers of intercession for her because she was in God’s loving hands and so we should not be bothering God by trying to tell him his job. John her son told us that this was a trait she might have inherited from her father, who once, having overturned his pickup on a Nevada road, trapped in the upside down cab, told the people who came rushing to help him, thanks but no thanks, he’d be alright and, in any case, he didn’t want to bother them. Myrtle’s conviction that one is always and everywhere in the hands of God is the bedrock of the faith. God appoints us a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to reap, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. And let me add, on the basis of my own experience of this world and of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, God does not only appoint the appropriate time for every stage of our life on earth and beyond, He also bestows a blessing especially appropriate for every time, even the time of death to this world. So we do not look back and pine for the good things of the remembered past, nor nurse regret nor resentment, nor mourn too much, but rather we look around and ahead to see the blessing God has for us today.
Even in the valley of the shadow, and at the time of dying, we receive the blessing, Did I say “even,” I should rather say “especially” for the time of dying, of leaving, of going on, because we leave only to go deeper into the heart of the divine love. Just as we were born into this world from the mysterious depth of divine creativity, expressing itself through the mystery of sex and love, bodies making bodies, souls making souls, so we are reborn from this body, like an oak from an acorn or corn from the seed. As we were lifted from the womb so we are lifted from the tomb, by the immortal love that made us to begin with, the creative love we call God and see disclosed in Jesus crucified and raised from the tomb. Like him, so we: if we are willing to identify with him here, we shall rejoice with him there. Now you know why immediately after this sermon we shall sing, “Joyful, Joyful we adore thee!”
Now is the time to mourn, and to weep, and I advise the family to allow themselves at least a year for the wounds to heal; but there is a blessing in that too; mourning brings us close to the profound, the deep, the serious, the very heart of human love, where we are especially open to the divine love, as God meets us at the point of our soul’s greatest vulnerability and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, entering through that vulnerability to heal the wounds of today and many of the hurts of yesterday.
As we meet God in our grief we know not happiness but joy. We are not happy, we are very, very sad, and yet we sing, “Joyful, Joyful we adore thee,” and know that the joy is real, coming to us precisely in and through the adoration. We adore the God of life in the presence of Myrtle’s death, and the divine grace streams down to us on the beams of that adoration. So there is a blessing even in death and mourning, not least because we know that life is eternal, that Myrtle is not dead. (You may have noticed that I speak of her in the present tense, just as Jesus in our text from John speaks of those who have life in him). Why can we be sure of this fact?
Because the Apostle Paul assures us in Romans 8:31-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are not immortal beings as some religions teach, nevertheless our souls do not perish; not because the soul is immortal in itself, but because the immortal God loves us with an immortal love that will not let us go, never forsake us, and never betray us to non-being. God created Myrtle because he wanted someone unique to love. God’s love is faithful forever, therefore she shall live because loved for as long as God lives and loves. Myrtle knows this, better now than before, but she showed how well she understood this fact of life when she told me not to bother God on her behalf.
She told me that in the depths of chemotherapy she sometimes felt that her body was already dead and that she was hovering in a realm of opaque consciousness. (She also told me that during her first course of chemotherapy she was mostly unable to pray or read the Bible, but that she could repeat the Jesus prayer of the Orthodox Church, which I had taught her in our Bible studies. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner” is the prayer, and with that prayer Jesus came and comforted her. My mother died in 2001 and yesterday was her 92nd birthday. I went to Skylawn cemetery to be with her, and I thought of Myrtle. I remember mother told me too of entering that state that Myrtle described and then willing to come back to this world for one more bit of unfinished business, usually to welcome me on one of my periodic visits. The point is that that there is a soul that by the recreating love of God goes on after this body is finished, that the soul, which is the internal dialogue that goes on in all of us, includes among all the human words, the Word of God that created all things, and so in that inner dialogue, in the soul, we can hear the word of God that called us into being from the womb calling us like Lazarus from the tomb. “Myrtle, Come forth! I created you because I want you always to be there for me to love. You shall be as long as I AM.”
I have mentioned the mystery of creativity in sex and procreation. I remember vividly the first time I felt my mortality; as a rugby player I had gotten the dangerous impression that I was indestructible; but when at the ripe age of 26 I held my first child, Ruth, I felt a change in life, away from indestructibility. Why did I suddenly feel so vulnerable? The arrival of the next generation alerts one to the fact that one must move on and eventually move out; but look what one leaves behind. One cannot fail to wonder and rejoice at the strength and beauty of the family that Myrtle and Bill co-created. What a blessing they are! Giving oneself in and to ones family might fleetingly make one feel diminished by that giving; but the opposite is the truth; children and grandchildren are expressions of ones soul, living witnesses to the good substance of life, miracles of love, declarations of the divine. In them God says, “I love you so much that I am using you as an agent to extend my creation, to multiply the moments of my joy as from your womb come all these lovely people.” They are here, and Myrtle is in their genes, and in their memories, and in their midst, forever.
(I have often reflected how sensible the virtually universal the cult of ancestor worship is. Right beside my mother’s spot in Skylawn, is a Chinese grave where people gather to share a meal with the deceased. We just place flowers, which is a meal for the deer, but I cannot begrudge them.)
By now you have understood what I meant when I said I wanted to talk about God first and about Myrtle as she fits with God, and by now you also see that she fits very well. She is an exemplar of all that I am trying to say about life and death, God and the soul. This is a rare situation; a pastor who for thirty years was her spiritual guide; a woman whose life was exemplary in Christian virtue, and a time when they meet each other at the place of parting and passing on, and an opportunity for that pastor to share with others the faith that he and she shared on earth. It is a profound joy for me to tell you of Jesus Christ and his resurrecting love in terms of the gracious life and noble death of Myrtle Harris, who better than most people I know, including myself, lives that Christian life, and lives it forever.
It is told of Tallulah Bankhead, a movie star of yesteryear, who was known for her acerbic comments in meetings, that once she was heard to whisper in a stage voice, “There is less going one here than meets the eye!” We have all been at in meetings like that, but let me assure you that a meeting with Myrtle was always the very opposite of that. With Myrtle there was always more going on than met the eye, and if you looked away too long you were likely to find that she had done you some great good while you weren’t looking. In that she was simply obeying the Lord’s injunction not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and to look to God not to humans for reward of good deeds.
I have tried to put into words the witness of a Christian life; we all know that in these matters actions are unequivocal while words can be unconvincing. I trust that here at her death, through these stumbling words, the actions of her life will become a testimony to the truth of God, the divine love, the immense grace, the profound joy, and the eternal life. I trust that these bedrock truths of human life and identity will become overwhelmingly credible again to all of those who hear, as her life made that God glorious in the eyes of so many, through all the changing scenes and in all the times assigned.
So, Myrtle: thank you for 30 years of love and friendship. Thank you especially for supporting me when I was pastor of this church and you were Moderator. Thank you for the example of your life, which made it easier to believe in Christ. Thank you for the inspiration of your dying. Thank you for making this time of mourning a time of joy, and thank you for so living in this world as to make God glorious before our eyes.
And now, we turn our eyes upon our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen, Lord of life, Truth and Way, whom you see more clearly now than we. Remember us Myrtle as we remember you. Remember us Lord Jesus, as you always do, while we here worship and adore you, and hang upon your promise,
“Truly, Truly, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment but has passed from life to death.”
“Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee…”