Homily for Ellen Goodwin’s Memorial Service, November 15, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Job 19:21 – 27aJohn 10: 1–5, 7, 10
Psalm 139: 1 – 17

Ellen Safford Goodwin

November 7, 1922 – November 6, 2013

There is a custom in Episcopal churches, and maybe in congregations of every denomination, to maintain a register that keeps track of funerals.  We list the name of the deceased, along with the person’s date of birth, date of death, cause of death, and burial place.  When someone very old passes away, instead of recording the particular illness that led to death (such as heart disease or cancer or whatever), instead we often write, very simply: “full of years.”  I like that gentle phrase: “full of years.”  We give thanks that Ellen died peacefully just before her 91st birthday, surrounded by family members, full of years. 

We knew Ellen in many different ways, and each of you here brings your own memories.  She was your beloved wife or your mother.  She was your mother-in-law or grandmother, your aunt or cousin, your colleague or co-worker, your sister in Christ or simply your friend.  All sorts of memories fill this room, and a great deal of affection, for what we treasured about Ellen was not that she lived to a ripe old age, but that she lived those years with such verve, such vitality.  Ellen was not only full of years – she was full of life.  So much of what she did, so much of who she was, was about living life to the full. 

When I think of Ellen, I picture a woman in motion, her beloved George close by her side.  I picture the two of them bending down, hard at work in a garden, or I imagine her reaching for a vase and arranging an armload of flowers.  Ellen seemed to me to be someone who knew who she was, and who liked who she was, a forthright woman with a sense of inner dignity and natural authority, yet able to size up a situation with a twinkle in her eye.  It seems that Ellen had a rascally sense of humor: her daughters inform me that she was an inveterate and unrepentant cheater when it came to playing games like Red Light, Green Light with the grandchildren.

Ellen delighted in life and all its beauty.  She loved the inner circle of her family and friends.  She was passionate about children and food, about flower gardens and music.  Her zest for life also extended outward to the big wide world – to public service and volunteering, to engaging in big issues like feeding the poor and building housing for the homeless.

I never talked privately to Ellen about her faith, but her family tells me that she found her own way to the Episcopal Church when she was a kid.  She joined a teen youth group and she got herself confirmed.  As far as I can tell, it was always important to Ellen to be an active member of a Christian community.  For years she served as choir director of First Church Congregational, right around the corner; for a long time she was a dedicated member of Second Church in Newton; and when she and George moved back to Amherst in 1986, they began worshiping here at Grace, where she served on the Altar Guild and worked with George on the flower gardens, and, along with her husband, generally became an essential and much beloved part of our parish family.

The God that Ellen worshiped was a God whose lively presence among us was made visible in Jesus, the one who announced, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  If you want to go looking for Jesus’ mission statement, if you want to search for a single sentence that summarizes and crystallizes what Jesus came to do, you can’t do better than to absorb what he announces here: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – or, as some translations put it, “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  

Christianity – like every great religion – is all about coming alive.  It is all about finding the path and the practices that set us free from living small, and fearful, and self-centered lives that are overshadowed and undergirded by the fear of death.  Christian faith tells us that in a sense we have already died.  Our death is already behind us – we have been baptized into Christ’s death, and so we have died to our small story and our small self, died to a life that is centered on nothing more than “I” and “me” and “mine.”  We have died with Christ and we have risen with Christ, so we are connected to something greater than ourselves – we are joined to the divine life that will never die. 

Ellen knew full well that the divine life we know in Christ has no beginning and no end.  It does not begin after we die.  It does not start beyond the grave.  It is given to us in every moment, right here and now, and we glimpse it, don’t we?  We sense it.  We feel it flow through us every time we love generously, every time we speak a kind and truthful word, every time we gaze with gratitude at a flower or a child or any part of this marvelous gift of a world, every time we renew our intention to heal or to be of service or to lift a burden from someone else’s back. 

Being fully alive in Christ means knowing that we are deeply loved – and not only by our family members and friends, if we are blessed, as Ellen was blessed, to have such a stable network of support.  Being fully alive in Christ means knowing at a deep level of our being that, no matter what, we are intimately known and loved by God.  Quickly or slowly, as we mature in faith, we come to realize, as the psalmist says, that “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; */ you know my sitting down and my rising up;/ you discern my thoughts from afar.  You trace my journeys and my resting-places */ and are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-2).  God is the Holy One who sees us and knows us and loves us, through and through.  The more we come to trust in that love, the more we dare to believe that really and truly we are God’s beloved – the more we are set free to love other people well, to live with joy and a sense of purpose and meaning, to become seekers of justice and healing, of reconciliation and peace. 

Back in the 2nd century, a theologian named Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is a person who is fully human, fully alive.”  Doesn’t that remind you of Ellen?  She was certainly fully human and she was certainly fully alive.  In her presence – in her vitality, her self-confidence, her generous self-giving, her joy, above all in the way that she was so thoroughly herself – I dare to say that we glimpsed the glory of God.  I give thanks for her life. I give thanks for the God who sent her to us and who received her home at her journey’s end. 

I hope that each of us here will live a long life and will die peacefully and “full of years.”  But even more than that, I hope that each of us will do what Ellen did – in whatever way is right for us, in whatever tradition we belong to.  I hope that we will welcome into ourselves the divine life that longs to be made visible and tangible and real – and that we too will live and die full of life.