Below is the homily I preached at the funeral of the widow of the priest that sponsored me for ordination.
Burial Homily for Gay Hadden Watson
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine, July 25, 2015
By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
Jesus says a remarkable thing to his disciples. (John 14:12). He says to them, greater things than I have done you shall do. He has healed the sick. He has fed the multitudes in the desert. He has driven out the evil spirit and set the captives free. He has raised the dead.
Yet he says to his disciples – greater things than I have done you shall do. And this prophecy has come true. Think of the millions that have been helped through the ministry of Christian hospitals. People forget that hospitals are a Christian invention. Millions also have been helped and healed by the ministry of Christian prayer often working hand in glove with the practitioners of the healing arts. Think of the millions of poor that have been fed and people of all sorts who have been liberated from addictions and depression and other oppressions of the spirit. Think of the worldwide effort to eliminate slavery – heroically led by Christian disciples such as William Wilberforce and John Newton – the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. Literally millions upon millions of captives have been set free.
The lame walk and the blind see not only literally but figuratively. People who have been limping through life – they find Christ or better Christ finds them – the church enfolds them – embraces them – they become part of the community of the Holy Spirit – of Christ’s body the church where the lifeblood of his sacrificial love comes through the whole body –and people who have been limping through life begin to walk and run. The prophet Isaiah says that they who wait upon the Lord will rise up as on eagle wings. They shall walk and not tire. They shall run and not faint. People who have been blind to the reality of God – to the significance of eternal and holy things – now see a whole dimension to life they could not see before. Their eyes are opened to see who God is, who Jesus is and to recognize the Lord in the stranger at the door.
And the dead are raised by the millions, as people who are dead in their sins without the knowledge of God and without hope for this life or the life of the world to come discover new real and abundant life – a new life with God and with their neighbors that begins now and which the grave cannot hold.
We are here today to give thanks for the life of Gay Watson and to renew our hope in Jesus Christ the Lord and our faith in the resurrection of the dead in the life of the world to come.
One of the things that we can give thanks for is that Gay completely identified herself with this great work of Christ that he does through his disciples.
Given her family background and the schooling and the social circles with which she was well acquainted, Gay could have married someone with tremendous prospects by the world’s standards. She fell in love with and married a seminarian soon to be a mission priest and spent the best part of her life supporting his ministry and making a home for her husband and sons – a home with enough love and welcome to extend to include the people in the parishes they served. Many, many people were blessed by that warmth and welcome and genuine Christian hospitality and I am one. I shall always be grateful for it and for the many kindnesses that Father Watson and Gay showed to me.
I run into a lot of people who been very successful and around midlife they are looking for a change. They are looking now for significance rather than success. I think Gay chose significance right from the start. She knew she was choosing a sacrificial life. She had clergy in her family. One of her relatives was a Bishop. She knew it would be a life of real sacrifice. There was of course financial sacrifice. Clergy salaries are a bit better now – though still modest by worldly standards.
I remember being in Aroostook County with Father Watson and going to hear a talk on eligibility for food stamps with a view to helping our parishioners and realizing that we were probably qualified.
There are other sacrifices the rectory family makes. If you live in a rectory you have 100 landlords – some of whom think it is their personal mission to keep an eye on the rectory family. You live in a fishbowl. While the parish can be a wonderful support and web of Christian friends for the rectory family – nevertheless, original sin strikes everywhere – and the rectory family can be the victim of great unkindness and of an unfair judgmentalism. It is part of the cost of the ministry. Nobody I think would volunteer for this scrutiny. Some flee from it – unwilling to stick it out and take the good with the bad and soldier on and do their duty. Gay stayed the course.
Some of the sacrifices that the clergy make are quite visible. Some are invisible. The same is true – especially true for rectory families. There are many invisible sacrifices the rectory family makes that make the ministry go and today is a good day to feel the weight of those sacrifices and to give thanks for them – to ask the good Lord for forgiveness and healing for what has been endured that should not have had to be endured and to look at the fruit of that sacrifice.
To be part of what Christ is doing – the greater things that he is doing through his disciples – is to make an investment of Christian love in others not knowing the fruit – not knowing the ultimate significance.
Monica was a widow, and strong Christian. Her son was not. He was a brilliant academic with a playboy lifestyle. She prayed for him every day. She showered him with motherly affection. She prayed for decades. He became St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of all times.
To be a Christian and to practice the Christian faith and live the Christian faith is to be involved in a ripple effect and you don’t know where the ripples will end. We do know this – St. Paul in the course of talking about the resurrection says – that nothing done in the name of Christ is ever done in vain. We will not know until we get to heaven the full effect of our efforts that look so small and seem so defeated in this life. Our sacrifices are not in vain. God uses them in his plan to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.
I don’t like it when preachers talk about themselves but I am going to talk about myself for a moment as a way of talking about the impact of the witness of Gay and Father Watson.
It was through Gay that my wife and I were introduced to Father Watson. I had a lot of trouble getting ordained. I was stopped one time. Another time a rector forgot to turn in my paperwork. I had a seminary degree but no strong advocate for my ordination. During the summer after I graduated from seminary my wife and I were shearing sheep in Nova Scotia. We sheared sheep for a woman named Ann Priest. She was a well-known New York actress who owned Blue Island in Nova Scotia. We went out to Blue Island and sheared her wild island sheep. With the door to ordination closed, my wife and I had decided to go back to farming and had bought a farm in Presque Isle, Maine. When Ann Priest asked us what we were going to do after the summer shearing, we said we were going to Presque Isle. Oh, she said. The wife of the rector there was my roommate in prep school. I will give you an introduction.
Ann and Gay talked. Gay and Father talked and before I ever arrived in Presque Isle Father Watson had talked the Bishop of Maine into not closing St. Anne’s mission in Mars Hill because he had the vision to place me there. So let me give you a progress report on one life that was touched by the warmth of the rectory in Presque Isle.
I am now 34 years ordained. I have served 8 churches including a cathedral. I have preached well over 1000 sermons – celebrated the Eucharist more times than that – presided over countless baptisms marriages and funerals. I have obtained a PhD in pastoral theology from Boston College. I have authored four books. I have been a seminary professor with direct teaching of over 500 students. Several of my students are now bishops in Africa. One of my students has started a seminary in Brazil and another teaches at a seminary in Africa. One of my students is leading the renewal and turnaround of a major historic New York City parish. Many of the students that I taught are serving the kinds of places the Watsons served their whole life, places clergy are not standing in line to serve. Who can know where it will end? None of it would’ve happened without Father Watson. Father Watson would not have happened without Gay Watson. And this is just one life they touched. There are many more. Gay’s life was in many ways humble and quiet but it was a life of great significance.
We give thanks to God for all of it.
We did not pretend that Gay was a perfect person. One of the great consolations of the faith is that our hope ultimately does not rest on our accomplishments or our virtues.
Our hope is in the mercy and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ the Lord. We cling to that and rest our hope in Him and we commend our sister to that never failing love and mercy, knowing that he will bring to perfection the good work begun in her. Amen