Gloria Tweten sermon

March 18, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Gloria Rave Koop was born in Seattle on October 12, 1930, the third of four children born to Susie and Abraham Koop. And Gloria was the last remaining member of her family. So that now, with her death, dies also every memory retained from that home, from that sacred space where they were formed together as a family, where Gloria was formed as a woman, to become the mother, the grandmother, the neighbor, the friend, the host we knew and loved and whose memory and inherent dignity gather us together today.

She was raised in the midst of the Great Depression, with dirt floors, felt through the holes in the soles of their shoes, patched with cardboard from the tops of cereal boxes. But whatever hardships the Depression forced upon them, it was not her nature to make a big deal about it, to keep rehearsing her woes. It was her life. And in that life, she found life, and celebrated life, and was dignified by life.

A life that soon included Delbert (Del) Tweten, whom she met at Roosevelt High School and married in 1950; a life that soon brought children in quick succession: Kirby in 1953, followed by Frank and Tim, and then by Michelle and Elizabeth.

A life that was, in fact, documented by Life Magazine, in a 10-page photospread in August 1955: “The 80-Hour Week.” I have no idea how Life found Gloria (but it did!) and she became the face “of the 34 million American housewives, the largest, hardest-working, least paid occupational group in the country.” (There’s a copy of it in the narthex, up on the counter.) It’s a fascinating, somewhat subversive article, that shines a bit of reality into the June Cleaver mystique of the 1950’s housewife, showing just how exhausting and messy life with toddlers can be. In picture after picture, Kirby and Frank are fussing and resistant and getting into trouble. It is, in fact, the reality of what every parent deals with. And that was the point of the article. The Twetens just happened to have a photo documentation of it, published nationwide.

But what Gloria said in various ways throughout the article, has a ring of authenticity to it, rooted in the character of the Gloria we knew: “I wouldn’t change it for anything.” As chaotic and wearying as the toddler years can be, there is a richness in it, at least for those whose hearts are given to love. As Gloria’s was. A love that remained active and vital until the day she died.

Remembering his mom, Kirby said, “She was always there for us. Always had time. Right up to the end,” he said, “she was always engaged, vibrant, paying attention to everyone. She always knew everything that was going on in everyone’s life.”

Dela Starr agreed, who only knew Gloria in these past few years – how Gloria embraced her daughter Ary, shopping with her for a meal, taking her swimming, inviting her into her home for pizza and decorating the Christmas tree. “Bottom line is this,” she said, “Gloria has never met a child she didn’t love.”

Of course, it was a love that went beyond just children. Her neighbor, Mary Ann, remembers how natural and fitting it was when Gloria took it upon herself to have a gate installed between their yards, so they could move in and out of each other’s homes with ease.

I can’t speak for every family member, what everyone’s relationship looked or felt like, but what I see in these stories, what I feel through them, is this fundamental value and craving we humans share, to belong. As much as we each have individual autonomy and worth, so do we need to belong to one another, to belong to a home, to a family, to a community. And ultimately, to a God, and to all that God is joined, which – of course – is without end. We, in our individuality, need to know we belong as an essential part of this universe. And it is love, only love, that can assure us this is true. That we do belong.

It was love that brought this final assurance to Gloria, who – fallen from a stroke, alone on the floor of her home – was found by Kirby. And as their eyes met, her terror turned to ease. She was not alone. She was found. She was loved. And all would be well.

And in the handful of days that followed in the hospital, largely unconscious – but still alive, still part of this world – she received so many of you, coming and assuring her of this final, elemental truth: “You are loved. You belong.”

That was how I saw her last, this Gloria who’d been such a regular part of the rhythm of life at St. John’s: seated right back there in her pew at the 8 o’clock service, always a lady, always keeping her poise, always wearing lipstick. And, during the pandemic, she with other parishioners, always bringing sandwiches, every Friday, to be shared at a shelter in Tacoma with those experiencing homelessness.

What a fitting final offering from Gloria, whose life with Del orbited so much around the restaurant trade – to hospitality and the richness of a shared meal.

It started in Rainier Valley in 1968 with Zesto’s Drive-In. And I have no idea what stamina it took for so many more restaurants to follow. But next came Scotty’s in 1970, Tacoma Avenue’s Harvester, followed eventually by EBrowne’s Star Grill in Tacoma, The Sportsman Restaurant in Bremerton, The Harvester, here in Gig Harbor, Johnny’s Dock in Tacoma, and Tweten’s Lighthouse in Port Orchard.

They loved “The Show” – that buzz of when the restaurant’s hopping and everything’s going as it should, chaotic, but alive! And she was part of it all, doing the books, greeting customers. Right up to the end, so long as the Harvester was still in the family, she loved to dress up on a Sunday and volunteer as host. She was too vain to wear her glasses, so she’d make mistakes ringing up the bill. But the point was this: she was still there, still welcoming people, still independent, still part of the show.

And if not at the restaurant, in her home. Why does a 90-year-old woman still shop at Costco?! To have enough food to feed everyone, and then send them home with the extras! Just like she’d always done. From the beginning. Her sister-in-law, Anne, remembers: “In the early years of family gatherings, there were no tv’s. There were no dishwashers – which was a lot of work for 20 to 30 family members. On Thanksgiving, whoever was preparing the turkey, was up at 3 am, as it took all day to cook a turkey. The women did the preparation, cooking and clean up, while the men sat in the living room sharing their one drink after dinner. Del was the only male exception.”

But it was always hospitality.

And in her way, her table became an icon of sorts, a kind of lived reality of Psalm 23 – of God’s bounteous table and overflowing cup; this picture of God’s perpetual welcome, of our belonging, of our safety in God.

For so it is in this life. Our hearts are restless in their craving of God, of knowing that ultimate source of our origin, of our true home, of our eternal belonging.

But in this life, for whatever God’s reasons, we don’t actually see God. Or know God’s touch. What we see – what we feel in God’s stead – are these proxies of God, these fellow creatures who, in their way, show us the face and heart of God in a way we can know as true.

And for those who are fortunate, it is our mothers through whom we most experience this proxy of God. After all, none of have ever seen Jesus face-to-face. We don’t know what he looks like. We’ve never related to him in any tangible way. And we are tangible people.

But we do know our mothers. By God’s sovereign will, they’re the ones in whose bodies we were formed – the first to hold us, to gaze at us lovingly – God’s partner in our creation. And if Christ is in her, and she in him, then it was through her particular self that Christ made himself tangibly known to us.

They aren’t perfect. They aren’t equal to God. But they are God’s unique and sacred gift to us, the one whose love we know. And that real, known love, becomes as God for us.

And it is this message – this hope, this testimony – that lies at the heart of Ed Sheeran’s song, “Supermarket Flowers.”

“A heart that’s broke is a heart that’s been loved,” he sings.

“So I’ll sing Hallelujah. You were an angel in the shape of my mum…

“And when God takes you back, we’ll say ‘Hallelujah,’ you’re home.”