Sermon at the Funeral Eucharist of Ann Margaret Young Simón
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Psalm 23; 2 Corinthians 4:6-12, 16-18; John 10:11-16
For two thousand years, Christians have used the language of first century Palestine, the homeland of Jesus, in our worship. And thus, farming and herding images abound: from seeds, vines, and trees, to doves, fish, and sheep. And so, it probably comes as no surprise that the image of a lamb is prominent in our collective memory, an image used to describe those who are counted as members of the flock, the community, of Jesus. Indeed, in the commendation of the dead which we will hear at the end of this liturgy, we will commend dear Ann as a lamb to Christ the shepherd.
But, of course, Ann was never a wee little lamb but rather a woman blessed with remarkable energy and many talents: an artist, a teacher, a staff member of the Episcopal Church, a mother and grandmother, a lover of music – a woman marked by a sense of her own agency in the world. After all, one does not move from city to city, as did she, without a good measure of resilience. Perhaps, then, the juxtaposition of that woman with the image of a lamb might seem incongruous. And yet, the prospect and the reality of aging, diminishment, and death can weaken the strongest among us. By their nature, lambs need guidance and assistance from the flock, from the dogs who bark for the safety of the lambs, from the shepherd who will guide to good pasture, to a place of rest and refreshment. Only the arrogant claim that they need no help, no assistance, that they can “do it” on their own. Perhaps, then, we can hold these two images together at the same time: the strong, resilient woman and the lamb cared for by her loving children.
My sister, Rebecca, is a gifted artist who has created Christmas Nativity scenes for members of our family, scenes that bear her good sense of humor: an angel holding a glass of champagne, toasting the birth of the Christ Child; a shepherd smoking a cigar; a wise man offering the newborn infant a gilded box overflowing with dollar bills. Not long ago, I asked her if she would create one or two shepherds as young women.
“Women?” she asked me, a bit perplexed by this request. Yes, I said. Evidence has emerged over the last fifty years that there were young women who worked as shepherds at the time of Jesus and, indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures speak of women who tended flocks of sheep.
But to be a woman and a shepherd was no great honor. One lived in the hills with the sheep, not in one’s home with other humans. One was exposed to the elements, to cold rain and hot sun, not sheltered by a roof. And a shepherd, male or female, would begin to smell like the sheep. If you do a Google Image Search with the words “good shepherd,” what appears are romantic paintings of Jesus clothed in a bright, white robe – which is nothing but a fantasy: to care for lambs meant and still means that one is liable to be wearing messed up clothing. And, as we have just heard in the gospel reading, the duty of the shepherd is to protect one’s family of sheep from predators and, if needed, to let one’s body serve as the shield that guards the defenseless flock from an assault.
Of course, who among us would not want to know that we are protected from the insults and injuries of this world by someone who has our very best interest in mind? Who among us would not want to know that we are cared for by someone who will not be put off by our smell, by the messes we make in life? Who among us would not want to be held in the arms of someone who gazes upon us with nothing but love, with nothing but compassion?
How blessed are we, then, to give thanks to our good shepherd for the life of Ann: named in this service as a lamb, a beloved member of the flock, the company of people we call the Body of Christ, this community of Christian faith and life. How blessed are we, then, to give thanks to our good shepherd for life of Ann, a shepherd in her own right: a good shepherd to her children and grandchildren, and to the many children who in this parish and in others were touched by her imagination, her artistic gifts, and her gentle guidance.
Trusting lamb and clear-eyed shepherd, we hold these two together as we give thanks to God for Ann, a woman of loving service, a quality so rare in any walk of life, and yet a quality of life, a way of life, so desperately needed in the world today. In the gospel reading for this day, Christ the good shepherd says this:
“I know my own and my own know me.” How wonderful, then, must be that reunion in which Ann, clear-eyed, sees the One who knows her and offers her nothing but the embrace of love. For this we can only say, Thanks be to God. Amen.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.