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Saturday, September 27, 2008

"They know the sound of my voice"

A Sermon preached for the Celebration of the Life of
Betty Black Williams
September 27, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
John 10:11-16

When I think about celebrating the life of Betty Black Williams, of the seven metaphorical images St. John reports Jesus used to describe himself, the one of the Good Shepherd speaks dearest to my heart.

Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me . . . and they will heed my voice."

Betty Williams was, in her own unique way, a leader in this church. She led quietly, in the background, as the President of the Altar Guild for over 20 years. It was she who made certain the altar hangings were changed for each liturgical season; that there was a fresh loaf of round, crusty bread and an antique bottle of wine on the altar and that the Meditation Garden was set up for the all night Vigil on Maundy Thursday.

She also tallied the pledge cards during Stewardship Season and made sure that everyone who pledged received a box of pledge envelopes and a card to acknowledge their pledge.

And, it was one, Betty Black Williams – with her blessed husband, Powell in tow – who made the runs to Costco for the paper towels and toilet paper for the church, and tissues and small bottles of Poland Spring water for her rector who takes allergy pills which sometimes make her mouth drier than her nose.

Betty did all these things quietly and unassumingly AND, make no mistake, she had “a voice.” I would hear her even before she came into my office: “Elizabeth,” she would say to announce her entrance. It was important to note the tone of her voice because that told you what the next 15 or 20 minutes of your life would be like.

She never raised her voice – but she did, on occasion, raise her eyebrow, and when she raised her eyebrow, you knew someone, somewhere, was in trouble. I once had a conversation with her in the sacristy – her ‘home away from home’ – which, other than my office, is where we had most of our important conversations.

Someone had just come in and pulled my last, poor, tired nerve. Betty just laughed, that laugh that told you that it wasn’t really funny, but if you didn’t laugh you would scream and probably be a danger to yourself or another person.

I said that I had a lot to learn from her, Latina from the North that I am and Southerner that she was, about containing my emotions. “Do Southern women ever lose their temper?” I asked her in exasperation.

She allowed a small, sly smile to lift the corners of her mouth and said, “No, Southern women do not lose their tempers. We just burn the carrots.” If you want to know how often Betty lost her temper, just ask Powell how many times ‘burned carrots’ were on the menu at home. I’m thinking, not too many.

Everything in this service speaks in Betty’s voice. Yes, there are purple vestments in today’s liturgy. Yes, white is the color of the Resurrection and purple is the color of the Season of Lent.

Those of you who are liturgically astute are, perhaps, wondering about this, and you would be right to do so. However, these vestments were purchased about six years ago when Betty had her first serious operation.

The Altar Guild and I decided to use part of the money of a bequest we had received to purchase a proper Lenten Array and to honor Betty’s contributions to this church instead of waiting to memorialize her.

They are beautiful, aren’t they? Let the liturgical police come and fine me heavily for using them, but she loved them and it’s what she wanted and I’ll suffer the cost.

The last time we readied the church for Lent, she looked at the altar, pointed to the fontal and said, “When it’s my time . . .,” and said nothing more. She didn’t have to. That’s all I needed to know about what to do today.

Even so, her favorite season was Christmas, and we will sing a Christmas Hymn together, after we celebrate Eucharist together.

The 84th Psalm, which we recited together, and the hymn we sang just before the reading of the gospel was also Betty’s voice, singing the praises of her “home away from home” where she found sanctuary and peace in “this lovely dwelling place.”

There are others, many others who have heard Betty’s small, quiet voice, which was often larger than our own lives. I’m going to ask two people to come forward, Bob, her son-in-law, and Robin, a daughter of her own heart, to give voice to their stories of Betty.

Betty Black Williams was one of a kind and part of a generation of women who came through a time of incredible change in our country and in the world. To give but one example, this is a woman who listened to music on 78s and 45s, then tape cassettes and 8-Track tapes, then CD’s and iPods.

Just let those images sink in for just a second and you will begin to understand how small the world once was and how large our personal worlds once were. Paradoxically, the world has become a “global village” and our personal worlds of sound have been reduced from a large 78 record to a small iPod which can contain an entire library of 78 recordings – and, with greater clarity of sound.

This is a woman whose life was filled with paradox. She lost her mother at a very young age and, soon after, a father, but she knew, instinctively, how to be a great mother and parent.

One of the highest accolades I heard from her daughters as well as the women who were her contemporaries and the husband of her heart for over 50 years was this: “She was my best friend.”

Betty Black Williams was a great friend to many. Her loss leaves a huge hole in our lives, a heavy emptiness that cannot be filled and, at times, feels unbearable to carry. She has followed the voice of The Great Shepherd and now rests eternally in her arms, a sheep of his own flock, a lamb of his own redeeming.

Never doubt, Betty, that you will be terribly, terribly missed. I will miss the sound of your voice just outside my office. I’ll miss the sound of your laughter, especially the wicked laughter we sometimes shared rather than be a danger to ourselves or others.

I’ll especially miss the way you would throw your arms around me and hug me. No rector or pastor has ever known such unconditional love.

One last thing: The only argument – well, no, it wasn’t exactly an argument but a disagreement – Betty and I ever had was about the candles. She hated waste, so she would recycle the candles.

She would, occasionally, set out previously used candles on the altar and in the pew candles. I would come into the church on Saturday evening, as is often my wont, and frown when I saw them, and then silently replace them. When I would come in to the 10 o’clock service, they would often and just as silently be replaced.

Betty, you have probably noticed that there are new candles at the altar this morning. I am a proud graduate of the Betty Williams School of Pastoral (albeit ‘Southern’) Theology.

I don’t burn the carrots, but I have burned new candles – but not because I have lost my temper. I burn these new candles to the glory of God and in your honor. Even now, I can see that small smile lifting the corners of your mouth.

I will miss the sound of your voice, my dear, sweet friend. I will listen for it when it is time to make my way to Heaven.

Rest well in the arms of Jesus, Betty. God knows, you deserve it.

Hear the voice of Jesus as he says to you, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done, indeed. “

And, let the church be united in one voice and mind and heart say, “Amen.”


Scott R. Davis said...

Very nice testimony of your saint in your church. May you be blessed in your services as you remember Christ and all your saints that you served you well.

David@Montreal said...

dear, dear Elizabeth
the people of St. Paul's Chatham are truly blessed to have you as their priest and friend
- and don't you forget it!


Brian R said...

There are a few times when I am glad I was not allowed to be priested. I do not know how I would be able to conduct a funeral for someone I knew so well and admired/loved. Blessings on you for these wonderful and comforting words. Your parishioners are indeed blessed.

JCF said...

A lovely tribute: may she rest in peace, and rise in glory!

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Love the business about the purple linens. Only a "Queen of the altar guild" could get away with such a request!!!! Us mere mortals? Screw it, we'd get white no matter what color we like! (wink)

Our own Queen of the altar guild story happened at a funeral about a year and a half ago. The deceased was a woman expert in "all things Piskie". Our own queen of the altar guild left the prep for her funeral to one of the princesses. Imagine the Queen's shock and dismay when she saw the casket covered by a spare suprafrontal instead of the pall! Of course, the funeral had already started, it was too late to do anything. Our Queen could barely sit still during the funeral. I could barely sit still b/c I was laughing my ass off inside and trying not to appear inappropriate to the mourners. Hard duty, that was!