Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?
When we lose someone we love, we feel an emptiness inside. Death of a loved one or a good friend leaves a hole in our heart that feels like it will remain forever and, in fact, it will. A part of our life was occupied by that relationship and when it’s gone, there is a void left not only in our hearts but in our lives. Time was spent in the relationship; you did things together while enjoying each other’s company. The loss of a special and irreplaceable friend leaves a vacancy that nothing can fill. We gather in assemblies like this to deal with that hole!
Not to fill the hole, nor to patch it. Jesus warned us about that, reminding us that when we sew a patch on an old garment, there is the risk (almost a certainty) that the patch will pull away and a worse tear result.1 No, we don’t fill the hole; we handle it in a different way.
There was a woman whose husband died; in fact, he was murdered. Most people, I suppose, would have disposed of the clothing he was wearing when this happened, but not this woman. She carefully laundered the white dress shirt he was wearing, soaking it, bleaching it, getting out all the blood and dirt, making it as white as she could get it. Then she began to sew on it, not patching the hole left by the weapon that killed him, but embroidering around it. She improvised, experimenting as she went on. She embroidered her memories: their courtship and their marriage, their first home together, vacations they took, the births of their sons, their adventure parenting the boys. She worked with love and care, and each year on the anniversary of his death she would wear the shirt. Because life goes on, she embroidered the memories she wished she could share with her absent husband: their sons’ weddings and the births of their grandchildren. One of her sons, the father of the first grandchild, asked if the shirt could be his baby’s christening gown and a family tradition was born. Each grandchild was baptized in the memory shirt and then Grandma embroidered the baptism into the shirt.
The murder’s knife had put a fatal hole in her husband, an unpatchable hole in that shirt, and an unfillable hole in her heart. She could not mend her husband’s wound, but with her love and her skill, with her memories and with the rest of her life, she added beauty to the hole in the shirt and treated the pain of the hole in her life.
And that is why we do this, why we assemble together when a loved one or a good friend dies. We have a hole in our lives, a hole we share, a hole we can deal with together, embroidering as we share memories. What are your memories of Sue Potterton? I have many from the past 15 years; those who have known her for more of the five decades she was an active member of this congregation and of this community will have many more.
My stitching in our corporate embroidery would include question marks. Frequently, when Sue wanted to know something, she would say to me, “Eric, may I ask you a question?” It became a joke between us as I would kiddingly say, “No,” or respond, “Yes, but you’re only allowed one and that was it.” At a meeting this past week, one of the participants turned to me and said, “May I ask you a question?” and I was immediately and sadly reminded of Sue. My stiches would also include the lilacs that Sue brought to us in the church office in large bunches every spring; I’ll miss those lovely flowers this spring.
And, of course, there would have to be a church bus because that was the ministry Sue most often performed, providing transportation to Esther _______, to Virginia ________, to Benjamin ________, and (I’m sure) to many others unknown to me. There is a poetic irony that we are celebrating Sue’s life on a morning like today with the sort of weather she wouldn’t have even tried to get to church in! Many the Sunday morning I would receive a call from Sue saying, “I’m just not going to drive in this weather today” and reminding me of all the people who wouldn’t be at church because she wasn’t doing so!
And there would have to be the emblems of Church World Service, of Blanket Sunday, of the United Thank Offering, of the CROP Walk, of Church Women United, and all the other special offering ministries that Sue coordinated. We are taking the unusual step of receiving an offering at a requiem this morning and will dedicate it in Sue’s memory to the Blanket Sunday fund-raiser which is currently in progress throughout the church.
What are your memories of Sue?
We gather to share those memories and to embroider them together to address the grief of loss, the pain of the hole death leaves in our heart. We gather here in this place because God joins us in that endeavor; God shares our pain and loss and joins us in the work of embroidering. Margaret Silf, in her book Roots and Wings: The Human Journey from a Speck of Stardust to a Spark of God, wrote that God is an embroider who has been working on our lives from the very beginning:
“God the Embroiderer” is about making connections – interweaving fibres of infinite colours, linking two points, again and again into a living network that will reveal a picture. God “embroiders” the neural connections in your brain, and together these neural connections shape a unique mind – your mind. My mother embroidered by carefully placing connections of coloured thread in exactly the right positions. God takes the multi-coloured fibres of your unique and personal experience and places them in exactly the right positions to shape your mind. But my mother’s embroidery, though beautiful, was static. God’s embroidery is dynamic. It lives and grows and changes day by day, under the influence of every new experience and impression. God, surely, knows what this mind, in God’s hands and God’s time, can become – a reflection of God’s own mind, a reflection of the deep web of wisdom that holds all creation in being.2
God has been embroidering our lives from the beginning and God joins us in embroidering comfort at the end of life. In God’s hands the embroidery of our grief and of our memories of Sue and other departed loved ones becomes a part of that eternal “deep web of wisdom that holds all creation in being.”
On the last great day, on the mountain of the Lord, the prophet Isaiah tells us, God will host a great banquet for everyone. God will particularly comfort those who mourn, he “will wipe away the tears from all faces.”3 God comforts us and dries our tears now, for as John reminds us, “we are God’s children now.” On that last great day, God the embroiderer will not only comfort us, he will change us, although “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”4 We will see that “deep web of wisdom” fully and clearly in all its embroidered beauty when we are raised up on the last day.5
The medieval rabbinic poet Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra who lived in 12th Century Spain wrote a prayer poem about the holes in our lives entitled I Have a Garment. I will close with it:
I have a garment which is like a sieve
Through which girls sift barley and wheat.
In the dead of night I spread it out like a tent
And a thousand stars pierce it with their gleams.
Sitting inside, I see the moon and the Pleiades
And on a good night, the great Orion himself.
I get awfully tired of counting all the holes
Which seem to me like the teeth of many saws.
A piece of thread to sew up all the other threads
Would be, to say the least, superfluous.
If a fly landed on it with all his weight,
The little idiot would hang by his foot, cursing.
Dear God, do what you can to mend it.
Make me a mantle of praise from these poor rags.6
This is why we do this. We gather and we look forward to that last great day. Again and again, we gather as grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters, fellow students and coworkers, friends and fellow parishioners die and leave holes in our lives. We gather and we share our memories and we comfort one another, relying on God our Father to wipe away our tears, counting on God the embroiderer to mend the grief of the holes in our hearts,
to give [us] a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.7
This is a homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at a Requiem Mass for Susan H. Potterton held on January 13, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are from those approved in The Book of Common Prayer for the Burial of the Dead: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-2; and St. John 6:37-40. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 Matthew 9:16 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Margaret Silf, Roots and Wings: The Human Journey from a Speck of Stardust to a Spark of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids:2007, page 71) (Return to text)
 Isaiah 25:6,8 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 1 John 3:2 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 John 6:40 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Isaiah 61:3 (NRSV) (Return to text)