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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Practice: In Memory of Her

A Sermon in celebration of the life of
Mary Ann Torkelson, organist and choir director
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

I’m so glad we could be together this afternoon, despite enduring tropical storm Ophelia, to honor and celebrate the life of Mary Ann Torkelson. I told her son, Brian, yesterday, that while I am unable to confidently report the shape of her heavenly form, I can imagine the earthly Mary Ann pacing back and forth on the billowy floor of heaven, worrying about all of us and what we might risk to be able to make it to the church safely.

In my imagination, she bundled up all that worry and went directly to the heavenly organ and started to play. She loved music and she loved to play the organ or piano. She said she was “just practicing” but you could tell that for her, what she was doing was more than just practicing the music she was going to play on Sunday. Much more.

“Practice” meant doing the thing you love most so that you could do it even better.

In the meantime, practicing helped her work out her worry about something. Or concern for the health status of a family member or a neighbor or a friend or a fellow parishioner. Or worry over yet another manifestation of “church politics”. Or, manage the anxiety about how to teach that particular, new, unfamiliar arrangement of a hymn that would be offered as an anthem next Sunday.


Practicing, for Mary Ann, was a form of prayer; it was an act of generosity and love.

I remember coming into the church quietly on Thursdays when I was here and she came in to practice. I won’t say I “snuck into the church” because I didn’t. I just came in through the side door, took a seat at the end of the front row and quietly listened to her practice.

I mentioned to her once that her playing sounded like prayer. She smiled and asked, “How did you know?” And then we talked a bit about what was on her mind. That happened a few times while I was here. I think she enjoyed our conversations as much as I did.

And that was the thing about Mary Ann. She was all about relationships. Music was the key to having relationships with people. With the choir, yes, but with the congregation. And, with the priest. Well, this priest, for sure. And, of course, with God.


Some leaders in the church – lay and ordained – are transactional. You do this for me, I do this for you. Mary Ann was not transactional. Mary Ann was relational. And, because she was relational, transformation was possible.


I watched her on Sunday mornings – before and/or after the church service – leading the choir through practice. I saw her, on a few occasions, offer the choir a new hymn or arrangement of a hymn and, if the choir was lukewarm and one person really didn’t like it, well, that hymn was out. That said, she also knew when it was that the choir just needed guidance and confidence and needed to be challenged.

I remember the first year I was here and we were gearing up for the first Easter back in the sanctuary after COVID. We had lots of plans to make the service simple yet simply wonderful.


Mary Ann fretted that there would not be a choir for Easter Day. I remember saying, “Mary Ann, I have great confidence in you. You’ll think of something.”

A few days later she said to me, “Have you heard Charlie sing?” I am humbled to confess that, at that time, I was so new to the church I wasn’t even sure who Charlie was. She said, “Well, anyway, I’m thinking of asking him to sing an anthem for Easter Day.”


“That’s great,” I said. “Does he sing in the Choral?” “Umm . .. No,” she said, looking away so my eyes wouldn’t meet hers, “Umm . . .Actually, he’s never sung before. I mean, not in a choir. But, I think he can do this and, if it’s okay with you, I’m going to ask him.”


Of course, I agreed. Well, I didn’t find out until later that Charlie had never sung in a choir. Or, sung in public, much less sung a solo. Charlie agreed to sing a solo for Easter based solely on two things: He wanted to sing for his new church on Easter. And, he wanted to sing because Mary Ann had confidence that he would do a good job.

There were a lot of reasons to rejoice that first Easter after COVID when we gathered back in this church to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. And, it was truly a resurrection. COVID had decimated all the infrastructure of the church: the Altar Guild, the Worship Committee, the Lectors and The Altar Servers were all newly re-organized and, was, to be honest, pretty much a pick up team situation, with last minute instructions being given at the very last second.

Nevertheless, the silver had been polished to a fair thee well. The pews were glossy with lemon oil. The grass in the church yard had been freshly mowed and the grass around the gravestones trimmed. The flowers were arranged beautifully. The vestments and altar hangings were perfection. The hymn selection was joyous. Mary Ann played her heart out on that organ.

Ah, but it was Charlie, led by Mary Ann’s guidance and the confidence she had in him, whose performance was the best sermon on faith and the power of our resurrected Lord I have ever heard. It left me slack-jawed with awe and wonder and weeping with joy at the possibilities promised by Jesus when we “love one another as he and God love us.”

Which brings us to today. The bell choir hasn’t convened in a very long time. They have come together today in memory of her. The choir hasn’t done many solos in a while. They are doing one today, in memory of her. Mary Ann’s dear friend, Bonnie Kuhn is here, playing the organ, in memory of her.


And, we are honored to have members of the Choral here with us today who are joining their voices with the voices of the St. Paul’s Choir, and all of whose voices, I am quite certain, will join with the voices of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to sing praises to The One who created us all, but especially created Mary Ann as a gift to us, whom we now return to God. We do this, in memory of her.

As Irving Berlin once wrote, “The song is ended but the melody lingers on.”

The gospel for today tells the story of a woman who, I’m sure, was a distant cousin of Mary Ann. Her name was Mary of Bethany, who did a bold and brave and generous thing in anointing Jesus with expensive oil.

When one of the disciples complained about her, Jesus scolded him and said, “She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Mary of Bethany teaches us to take a risk and pour out our love boldly, generously, lavishly, extravagantly,, wastefully.

We all knew and loved her as “Mary Ann” but her family called her Grandy. That’s the name she wanted her grandchildren to call her but over time, everyone in the family called her Grandy.

No matter. We called her Mary Ann. We all have our own favorite and particular memories of the woman we have come to remember and celebrate and honor today. Each one of those stories together tell the story of a woman to whom life was not necessarily either kind or fair, but a woman who was unfailingly generous and kind nonetheless.

Here's what I think Mary Ann would like me to say to you: Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes prayer. When you practice – whatever it is: your voice or your instrument, your art or science, your baking or cooking, your needlework or woodwork – when you practice the gift you have been given, you send up a little prayer of thanksgiving to the one who gave you the gift in the first place.

Remember that practice means doing the thing you love most so that you can do it even better. Practice, ultimately is a form of prayer; it is the risk of love that is poured out boldly, generously, lavishly, extravagantly, wastefully.


Take the risk of practicing your faith in whatever manner it has been given to you and you will not only find the confidence to continue, you will be the inspiration for someone to find confidence in themselves, to try something new, to stretch themselves and give of themselves sacrificially so that others will be inspired to do the same.

And, when you practice, do it in memory of her.


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