Sermon for Jennifer Starling February 14, 2019

Jennifer, herself, selected the readings we just heard read.   She selected them for her brother’s funeral eight years ago, and we used the same readings for her father’s funeral in 2017.  Having had the privilege of visiting Jennifer two or three times, I understand why she liked these scriptures.

I first met Jennifer at her father’s funeral and, knowing she had the same disease that took the life of her brother and father, and knowing that she, herself, was a hospice patient, I was surprised that she was so composed and, well, charming.  I know that some people are good at putting on a front – but she just seemed to accept things for what they were.  I hoped from that meeting that I would be have other opportunities to visit her.

I did, and I learned that she was not just putting on a front.  Jennifer was an extremely positive person.  I worked in hospice before becoming a priest, and where we liked to use the phrase, “living until we die” to describe what we can do if we live in the moment. That is precisely what Jennifer did.  She accepted her limitations and continued to be involved in life anyway she could.  She was intelligent and engaging.  Her faith may have been a bit unorthodox – but Holy Week and Easter were important to her.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited and found her watching ice skating.  I joked that if I did a spin, I’d be so dizzy I’ll fall on my face.  She preceded to explain how a skater, like a dancer, could do the spins without getting dizzy.  That is when I learned she had been a dancer.

On my last visit, I arrived and found Jennifer in her hospital bed with her mother sitting on one side stroking her hand and her nurse sitting on the other side holding her hand.  A lifelong friend of her mother – and hers, EA, had greeted me at the door and led me into the room.  EA had a seat at the foot of Jennifer’s bed.  Jennifer was surrounded by the best life has to offer anyone – love.  I sat with them for a while.  EA showed me Jennifer’s ballet pictures.  She was stunning – poised and beautiful – clearly a talented dancer.  Seeing these pictures made me appreciate her all the more.

I later learned that in her younger days she was the source for fashion advice at work, and because of her love of clothing, she keep a scrapbook of the outfits she admired most.  Kaye told me that even when she was no longer able to go out of the house, she continued to pick out clothing to wear for the day that matched.

As I said, Jennifer was one who lived her live to the end.  What I appreciated about all this, is that this remarkable dancer, this beautiful lady did not focus on what she could no longer do – she focused on doing what she could.  And because of this, her true beauty continued to shine.  That is what I saw when I met her at her father’s funeral.

Jennifer put so many of us to shame with her positive attitude in the midst of her personal struggles.  Her attitude, reflected in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:

Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  That was Jennifer.  She was not one to be filled with, “what if’s” or “if only’s.”  She did live one day at a time refusing to let her disease define her.

I truly admired her.  In the prime of her life she was involved in theater as a stage manager, in dance as a ballerina, and fashion, as an informal fashion consultant to co-workers and friends.  She was a movie buff and she and her brother, Ren, quoted lines from movies to one another.  Jennifer and Ren lived together for a while before his death.  When I visited Jennifer, she and her mother talked freely about Ren and the fun that had together.  A love of movies was a part of what they shared in common.

Jennifer was not only a loved movies, she knew the actors and could tell you who won what awards in what year and for which movie.  It was the same with figure skating.  She knew the skaters and the judges and could explain to her mom why one jump was better or worse than other.   Kaye was evidently a bit like me – I’m clueless as to how judges score a jump.  I’m just in awe of the fact they don’t get so dizzy they fall on their faces like I would . . .

Jennifer was one of those people who liked to do things her own way.  She attended an all-girls Catholic High School in California where she was on one of her school’s three competitive Academics Team. She likely would have been on the top team, but she strategically placed herself in the middle by deliberately making B’s in some of her classes.   When she went to SMU to major in dance, she like to hang out with the seminarians – this was likely the reason for her unorthodox faith.  She switched majors to Art History and then, after she graduated, she worked as a secretary where she was the office’s fashion guru.

She liked what she did, and worked until she was no longer physically able to continue.  She remained independent as long as possible, but as her disease progressed, she accepted her limitations and continue to enjoy life.  She was always cheerful.  She selected the passage from Lamentations, because, I believe she had internalized its beginning:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning . . . he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

Jennifer did not blame God for her afflictions, because she did not focus on her limitations.  She approached every new morning as a testimony to God’s never ceasing love.

Jennifer also selected today’s gospel for us, who are left to grieve our loss: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’”  Easier said than done.  I had only a few opportunities to visit with and get to know Jennifer, but I will miss her.  Whenever someone we love dies, our hearts are troubled.  Even Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, and he went to the tomb to raise him from the dead!  So how can Jesus say to his disciples – speaking to them of his impending death, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”?  Jesus is not telling them to pretend it everything is fine or to deny their emotions.  Jesus is telling them that death is not the end, for Jesus is going ahead to prepare a place for them, for Jennifer, and for us where we can dwell in the abundance of God’s steadfast love.

Let us pray.

Grant, O Lord, to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that we may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those we love.  And this we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.