Rev. David Hockett's Meditation at Susan's Celebration of Life

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First let me say how sorry I am to you Mark and Thompson, Carla and Cindy, Verne and Tommy and family.  I pray God’s peace and grace upon you today and for presence of the risen Christ, whose burden is light, to be among you in the days ahead.  We love you all as family.  And to you Christ Church and friends, how you are in our prayers for the loss of your pastor and more importantly your dear friend.  The way you have loved, and supported, and cared for this family is truly a sign of the Kingdom and I pray for healing and strength as you continue to serve this community.

Daughter, sister, aunt, competitor, mentor, colleague, teacher, guide, Tarheel, Scrabble champion, sinner, saint, pastor, shepherd, fighter, joyful servant, mother, wife, beloved child of God, friend.  And the list could go on, we could do this all day.  How do you begin to sum up such a life, how with mere words can you capture Susan?  Now some of you have tried thanks to the wonders of social media and church websites you’ve been able to express your love and support to Mark and Thompson, you’ve put in your own words how you remember Susan, what she meant to you, what you are grateful for, and those have been just beautiful to read.  And I want to encourage you to continue that work, to name your grief, to bear witness to your faith, to tell the stories.  That kind of memory is a gift.  Frederick Buechner says, “When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”[1]  So remember friends, and tell the stories, they are one of God’s gifts for a life well-lived.  Over the past several days I’ve done my share of remembering and of course thinking about how to tell the story, what words to use to honor Susan, to express gratitude to God for her life, words that will capture something of who she was and is.  And I must tell you that one word kept coming to mind, resurfacing.  One word that I think just might capture the truth and help us think about how we are to live the gift of our lives beyond today. 

In an article that appeared in Christian Century several years ago Greg Jones, who is the former Dean at Duke Divinity School writes, and I’m paraphrasing, “Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience.  This metaphor means that we are artists of our behavior, the artists of our own lives, so that God’s reaction to us then, instead of being morally judgmental, where God looks at our lives and calls us good or bad, instead God’s reaction to us is more like the reaction of one appreciating fine art in which God looks at the artwork of our lives to see the beauty therein.”[2]  A bit like a parent’s reaction to a child’s wonderful refrigerator art.  I share this with you because in my search for words today I came to the realization that surely when God beheld the life of Susan Norman Vickers, God caught his breath, and said “now that is beautiful.”  There are a lot of words we can use, I know, maybe words that for you fit better but that’s the word I’m clinging to today, the word I’m holding out for my friend…beautiful, just beautiful.  Susan’s life was beautiful because it was a life that radiated the glory, the grace, the love, and the beauty of God.  Her life was beautiful because it reflected the image of Christ to others.  And my friends this world needs that kind of beauty, that kind of life.  This world needs the beauty of God’s presence and Susan was a living reminder that God loves us and God is with us.  What an example of how to live – imagine if we all did what Susan tried to teach us and live lives that are beautiful to God?   

I was appointed to Christ Church in June of 1994 and there began a beautiful friendship that has shaped my life in so many wonderful ways.  One of my first encounters with Susan occurred shortly after I learned that I would be coming to Christ Church.  I had stopped by the office to meet with Ken Carter who was departing Christ Church for another appointment.  Ken had already moved most of his office which was the nice big office with windows right across the hall from George Thompson.  As a recent seminary graduate and one excited about his first full time church assignment I remember thinking this is nice.  A good view, lots of shelves for books, and I left looking forward to the day when I would occupy that little corner of God’s world.  A few weeks later I returned to meet with George and plan for my transition.  As I rounded the corner to the Senior Pastor’s office I walked right into Susan, dressed in her overalls, bandana around her head, rolling a hand truck loaded with books down the hall and into my office.  She had this look on her face that read something like, “Welcome to Christ Church.”  It was beautiful and so typically Susan.  If it had been anyone else I think I might have been offended but with her it was like she was doing me a favor.  She just had that way about her that made you feel at ease, comfortable, genuinely loved.  Whether she was kicking your behind on the tennis court or throttling you in whatever card game you might be playing it didn’t matter because it was Susan. 

I know it sounds cliché but she really did have this way about her that made you believe that in the moment you were the most important person in the world and whatever issue, or problem, or news that you were sharing, that it was the most important thing she had heard all day.  And it wasn’t an act, friends that’s a real gift and a sign of God’s presence in someone’s life, that ability to listen deeply.  It’s also to me a sign that Susan was in the right vocation, that she really did hear God’s call and that she was in her heart, in her DNA a pastor, a shepherd, a holy friend.  Her life was beautiful because Susan had as the gospel reading says, taken Christ’s yoke upon her shoulders and she wore it well.

You know was equally effective and gifted as a pastor to youth and as a pastor to adults.  She could move from a youth gathering, to a Council meeting, to a Disciple class, to Stephen Ministry, and on to a youth retreat without missing a step.  My friends it is a rare individual who can stand equally well in those very different worlds, and many of us pastors struggle to be effective in one area of ministry.  Susan spoke both languages fluently and moved seamlessly from one context to the other.  It was a beautiful thing to behold and a real gift to this Church and to God’s Kingdom.  I don’t think we can begin to number the lives that she touched, and the ripple effect of that throughout families, and communities, and generations.  I think she understood, as any good theologian and pastor does, that in Christ our lives are much more than the sum of our years.  This is because the ministry of Christ, the work Susan gave herself to, is of eternal significance.  Whatever we do for God has no end, but will be gathered up in the fullness of time and will become a part of God’s Kingdom that endures forever.  

Susan was also a gifted preacher, a biblical preacher in the best sense of that word.  She inhabited the text in a way that was like putting on your favorite shirt.  Her sermons made you feel like you were sitting at the kitchen table and she was inviting you into a conversation that began ages ago.  It was comfortable and accessible but never sentimental or simplistic.  Susan’s sermons were at once eminently accessible and yet profound having grown out of the crucible of her own experience.  I learned a lot about preaching by simply listening to her, and watching her be with people in worship.  I learned that what matters most is that preachers need to honestly struggle to live what they say and Susan did and it was beautiful.   

But even more I’m simply grateful, as I know so many of you are, for her friendship.  Susan was a holy friend.  One of those kinds of friends where even if you haven’t seen one another in a while you can simply pick up the conversation where you left off.  And that’s the best kind of friend.  She was loyal, present, caring, authentic, and honest.  I always appreciated the fact that Susan would tell you the truth.  Both as a pastoral leader and as your friend.  Not many people can do that or will do that.  But having a friend and a leader who can be honest is a real gift.  And Susan had that rare ability to see beyond all the ridiculousness we often hide behind and to simply name what was really going on.  And again, she could say the most difficult things, things you didn’t want to hear, things the church maybe would rather avoid, and it could be like getting whacked upside the head with a 2x4, but it was done with such humility and such compassion and genuine concern for making things better, that you were grateful.  You were grateful because you knew with her that she was speaking the truth in love.  And that’s beautiful.

In a world of so much ugliness, and pain, and hurt, and dishonesty, and self-centeredness, Susan embodied the beauty of grace, and joy, and genuine care, and generosity, and love.  She embodied Christ.  And she is gone from us far too soon.  Now, there’s a lot of bad theology around illness and death.  And I hope I don’t offend anyone but I want to say cancer sucks.  It just does.  Cancer is not a part of God’s good plan.  I acknowledge with the apostle Paul that all creation is groaning, awaiting the day of its redemption.  The whole creation is somehow out of line with what God intends and that includes these bodies of ours that are susceptible to disease and decay.  And I do not believe for a moment that God gave Susan cancer in order to teach the rest of us some life lesson.  Likewise, I don’t believe God needed Susan in heaven.  I believe that God is heartbroken by the pain, suffering, and death of even one of his children.  I believe in the God who in Christ Jesus came in the frailty of flesh, became like us in every way, suffered and died a death just like ours, and bears in his body the wounds of a broken humanity in order that we might be healed and made whole.  I believe in the God who wipes away every tear, who is making all things new, and who in Christ has begun the journey to that day when death, and mourning, and crying and pain will be no more.  And while cancer is certainly not a beautiful thing, Susan’s witness, her hope, her faith, in the midst of it certainly is. 

We used to joke around that if you were near death and in the hospital or hospice or at home you didn’t want Susan to come pray with you.  Because, inevitably shortly after she would visit and pray with you, we’d get a call in the office that the person had died.  So when I had some minor surgery while we were here I asked Susan not to come to hospital and pray with me.  While we joked around with her about this I think in reality it was a good thing.  She sort of gave folks permission to let go, she put them at ease, and trusted them to God’s care.  Always thinking about others and always the planner, Susan didn’t want to die on Mark’s birthday, and she didn’t want to mess up the start of a new school year, and she wanted to avoid Sunday which is always a busy day for the church staff.  So I think a little over a week ago, in one final act of pastoral care, she prayed herself into the arms of God.  Beautiful in life, beautiful in death, now well, and whole, and alive, in the presence of the beauty of the Lord.  Well done my friend.  Amen.           

[1] A Long Day’s Dying, Frederick Buechner.

[2] “Ordinary Beauty. Everyday Blessings.”  The Christian Century, June 28, 2005.