Jeannette’s was in many ways an Advent life. So it is appropriate that we would have her memorial today. Not only because today would have been her 83rd birthday. Not only because St. Nicholas day was so important to her that she started gathering goodies for stockings months in advance. But because we are firmly into Advent. And Jeannette’s knew how to wait. Jeannette knew her calling from birth. She baptized her dolls in the bird bath and played church with her sister and cousins. She was born to be a pastor, and she knew it. And by some peculiar grace, no one told her as a child that this was impossible. Whether they didn’t think she was serious, or whether they didn’t know her aspirations, no one told her that girls couldn’t be pastors, and so she never questioned it. At 18, when she graduated from high school, the adults asked her, inevitably, “what are you going to do now?” And she answered in earnest, “I’m going to be a pastor.” And they laughed. Which must have been devastating and heartbreaking and not a little humiliating. But perhaps that was a kind of grace, too. Because to tell a small child something is impossible is to shut it down, often for good. Small children believe what we tell them, and they internalize it. But to tell a stubborn teenager that a thing is impossible, well, that is to plant a seed. To tell a teenager that they cannot do or be something is to assure that it will happen. Especially a stubborn teenager, as I can only imagine Jeannette would have been. And so, in the face of this news, that she “could not” be a pastor, that she could not be the thing that she already knew herself to be, Jeannette began her waiting, even as she began her public ministry. She taught in Lutheran schools in St. Louis and Indianapolis and Minneapolis; she served in the administration at Concordia Seminary and then at Christ Seminary – Seminex; she went to Papua New Guinea and Chicago. And she waited. She took classes along the way, and she preached every chance she got. She preached to seminarians and to pastors and to bishops, she preached at hymn sings and worship services and fundraisers. She preached every year on her birthday, St. Nicholas Day, today, December 6, and she waited. In 1984, she finally received her ordination at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis. The ministry that had started 45 years earlier, with a bird bath in the back yard, was formally recognized that day, after years and years of waiting. Jeannette’s was an Advent life. A life in waiting.
As frustrating as such a life sounds, this is exactly what today’s gospel reading calls us to. Watchful waiting. An active kind of waiting, like Jeannette’s ministry. Waiting done in the knowledge of and hope for what is coming. Waiting in a promise. Living as if that promise were true.
The readings that we have heard today are not your typical funereal texts. They are Advent texts, and they fit this Advent season. While most of the world is already diving headlong into Christmas, we Christians come to church specifically to remind ourselves that it is not Christmas yet, not yet, not yet. So we read passages that remind us that the main thing that we know is that we don’t know. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, we don’t even know approximately where. We don’t know any of the specifics about this expected arrival. All we know is to expect it. And for some reason, we have decided, as a capital-C Church, as an entire faith tradition, that this idea of waiting in expectation, this pregnant pause in the otherwise hustle and bustle life, is important enough for us to spend an entire month, 1/12 of our worship time, just waiting.
Because God has promised to be active. God has promised to rend open the heavens and come down, as Isaiah asks. But the promise didn’t end there. 2000 years ago, God did rend open the heavens and come down. But not in fire and fury, not in majesty and might, not as we demand God to be. But as a baby, in a manger, in a backwater corner of an empire. This is how God chose to dwell among us, in the tent and tabernacle of a human life, fragile and vulnerable. This is how God chose to redeem us, in the life lived for others, and the death died for others. This is the story that God has been weaving down through the millennia, the story that Jeannette’s life was joined to in her baptism. The story of the living God, who draws us forward into God’s promises. It is an Advent story. Because it has already happened – we have seen it in the cross and in the empty tomb. God is at work redeeming the world and turning it to new life. It is an Advent story, because it is happening now – we live it, we experience the daily rising to new life, the forgiveness that frees us to forgive others and love others and work for justice and make beautiful art and music and poetry and to be who we have been made to be. It is an Advent story, because it is still yet to be. The world is not perfect and there is work to do and we are still longing for God to rend open the heavens and come down. And so we wait. And we tell this story, the story of God’s activity, the story of our salvation, so that our Advent lives, our lives of waiting, might also be Easter lives, Resurrection lives, lives lived in light of the end of the story.
I have many stories of Jeannette that I would like to share. How she would delight in inviting a few people over to her house, the ones she knew would disagree just enough to make things interesting, and then she would grease the wheels with well-timed and well-mixed drinks, and just the right comment to get things started, and then she would sit back and listen as her guests sparred about theology or current events or history or all three. Or about how Paul says he learned grace from her, because before he met her, he had never experienced grace from another human being. I think her children will probably have more stories to share about her family life, and many of you already know the stories about her professional life, so I think I will share just one more story, personal to me, about the few years that I knew Jeannette.
The first time I met Jeannette, it was Advent. Well, not exactly. It was the 4th of July, but I was 7 months pregnant, so it felt like Advent to me. I had just moved to Missouri 6 days earlier, and started my first call 4 days earlier. Everything about that moment was pregnant to me: the possibilities of a new home, the uncertainties of a new career path, the expectations of a new call, and the very literal gestation of my third child. In many ways, I was adrift and anxious and in need of a friend. Of more than a friend. Of something as solid as Jeannette proved to be. I don’t know if she sensed it in me, this need for a helping hand, but she immediately scooped me up and made me her project. She and Paul invited me to their Tuesday morning lectionary study group, and there I met the colleagues who have supported me through personal and professional crises. Jeannette and Paul took charge of my maternity leave, too. Paul preached and presided for my congregation for those 6 weeks, and relieved me of those worries. And over the next several years, Jeannette was my cheerleader, encouraging and inspiring me to continue in my call through those first difficult years, the years when I came to realize that this life is an Advent life, an already/not yet life, a life of growing into expectations and possibilities. as I figured out what it meant to be a pastor and a mom and a wife and a human being. She was always ready to boost my spirits with a kind if cryptic word. In fact, almost the last thing she said to me was, “When you came to Washington, a lot of people weren’t sure about you. I wasn’t sure about you, either. But now I know you’re exactly what that congregation needed.”
Anyway, about 6 months after we met, I think Jeannette came to realize that her public ministry was drawing to a close, and she began to clear out some cupboards. She gave a me a few items as she went, mostly cleric shirts she didn’t need anymore. But one day she gave me an item that has become one of my most cherished possessions. If my church were on fire and I had to grab two items from my office, I would grab my ordination stole and the gift that Jeannette gave me. It was her home communion kit. A simple affair, nothing fancy at all, just a small black kit with four solid plastic cups, a small bottle, and a stainless steel paten. Probably not more than $30 to buy one new on amazon. But it is precious to me. Because when I use it in my ministry, I think of all the saints who have gathered around that tiny little portable Table, and how that tiny little Table is a part of the huge Table that welcomes us all. It is a tiny little foretaste of the feast to come. A reminder of the end of the story. And now, every time I share communion with someone using that little kit, every time I visit a hospital room or a homebound person and we take the body and blood of our Lord together, I will remember Jeannette and her ministry to me and to so many others. I will be reminded of how we all come to the Table as beggars, longing for the heavens to be rent open, not knowing when the hour will come. But at that Table we receive the promise, that when the hour comes, whatever the time, it will be dawn, and the tomb will be empty, and we will stand together, side by side, with all the saints. Until then, we live Advent-Easter lives, waiting and watching, because we know the end of the story.