Phyllis (Timmie) Parker Funeral Sermon

June 1, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Every life has its own beauty.

Every life has its own potential to see and experience and to know itself as precious, as belonging uniquely to this world, to one another, to God.

It’s true of all of us. And it was certainly true of Phyllis Timmons Parker.

Did anyone actually call her “Phyllis?” I don’t know. Surely, at some season, she must have been “Phyllis.”

For three of you, she was always, “Mom.” For others, she was, “Aunt Phyl.” For many of you, she was, “Granny.” For us, in Gig Harbor, at St. John’s as long as I’ve been here, she was always, delightfully, “Timmie.”

And one of the beauties that was distinctly Timmie’s, was the gift of place. Her whole life was spent living in exceptionally beautiful places. And she knew this was gift. It formed her and shaped her. It fostered within her a distinct ability to see the world around her, and to watch it intently, poised to discover within it glory upon glory, and to delight in it.

She was raised near Arcata, California on her family’s ranch in redwood country, part of the timber industry. Though she moved away from it when she left for Oregon State, it remained in her forever – a sacred place she carried in her spirit for the rest of her life. It’s where she and John chose to be married. And she carried tangible bits of The Ranch with her to Gig Harbor. The wood paneling above her fire place is made of redwood planks from her family’s ranch. The coral rocks her mother collected for her rock garden in Arcata, Timmie carried with her to become part of her garden here.

As she was dying, these were some of the gifts she was urgent to pass on: her rocks! Like the ebenezer of the Old Testament – that rock that stood as a stone of testimony to the ancient Hebrews – Timmie’s rocks became a testimony of their own: “I came from my mother, I came from the land we lived on, and now as I’m going away, keep these rocks, and keep me – and my story and my heritage, my garden, my family, my land.”

And part of the fascination these rocks held for her was that they came to California as ballast in ships crossing the Pacific from Japan. I always got this sense from her when she spoke of them, that they had a story all their own, a story that she was grafted into – these rocks that grew as coral, these living organisms beneath the sea, then crossed the sea to land on her shores, to be brought to her garden, where she could plant tiny succulents on them, and tend to them. There was, in Timmie, this profound sense of gratitude and duty to belong to this earth and to participate in its life, in its wellness, because of its inherent dignity.

And her home, here in Gig Harbor, was also a place of profound beauty, perched just at the entrance to Wollochet Bay, with its garden, its beach, its views of the water and the shores beyond it. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, she was a stewarded of this land in the purest sense of the word: delighting in it, fretting over it, working it, climbing down the banks to rip out Scotch broom, killing the moon snails so she could save the clams.

And as its steward, she always wanted to share it – to bless others as it had blessed her. How many walks along the beach with her grandchildren, poking among the rocks to see what was to be found? How many walks with John? How many encounters with Jane and Roger Scott, walking down from their home? How many walks with Alberta Jones during the isolation of Covid? How many times did she make the call to someone: “There’s a big minus tide tomorrow at 11:30. Come and walk on the beach.” Come and discover. Come and feel and see and delight in this good land – in this good life.

And when she knew her days were ending, it was to this home – to this land – she wanted to return, to complete her journey there, surrounded by her family, in their family home, with its views looking east, over the waters.

It became, I suppose, in its way, as a sacrament of the Bible’s promise of that Promised Land, “beyond the crystal sea” where God dwells in majesty. On the night Timmie died, Bridget and her daughter sat out on the deck, looking up at the night sky, and saw a massive shooting star shoot out over the waters – a sacrament, too – of Timmie’s journey, a journey both ending and beginning, leaving this life – this world – to strike out anew. For this we know of God and all God’s creation: nothing is static; nothing stays the same; nothing is lost; everything is dynamic and alive, forever growing, forever becoming, forever giving its life to nurture another; forever leaving one stage behind to step forward in what is to be.

This is the way of God and all God’s creation.

And for us, who belong to the church – who come to the church day after day, year after, to pray its liturgies, to celebrate its sacraments – it is to immerse ourselves in the substance of this one basic message – this one basic hope – that God is with us in this life, in all its goodness and all its sorrows, and that God will triumph in this life with life and life and life again. And so the church is filled with symbols of this message; signs of this hope:

[Pointing to Timmie’s photo and urn, and to the paschal candle beside them]:

Christ was with Timmie as a young child; Christ is with Timmie in her dying and returning to dust; Christ is resurrected from the dead and bringing Timmie with him.

[Pointing to tabernacle and light]

Christ has died with us; and Christ is with us – the light of the world, the bread and the wine, the body and the blood.

[Pointing to the cross]

On that cross where Christ gave his life, he did not die alone. God, the Father, God, the Son, God the Holy Spirit, the three forever one, one with each other, one with us, one with the world.

[Pointing to the altar flowers]

These flowers were all brought in love, from our gardens, tributes to Timmie, now sanctified in this space as sacraments of our being the body of Christ together, united by God’s Spirit, each blossom now radiating its own gospel of hope: the calla lily of one member’s wedding bouquet, now become Timmie’s bouquet as she discovers herself the bride of Christ; the iris from another’s garden, planted by her father who’s already gone before us in death, now blooming with Timmie in the garden of God; these dried hydrangeas, picked from her own garden that she saw blooming with her own eyes last summer; now become a sign of her death, yet still belonging to the whole.

[Pointing to the altar]

The altar itself, the table of God’s welcome: Come, my beloved, and eat with me – the Heavenly Banquet has begun, where Christ is our feast and Christ is our host and all are invited, the dead and the living, at one table, as one people, one with each other, one with God.

This is the mystery of our faith – not “mystery as a thing unknowable,” but “mystery as a portal” – an opening, a stepping stone, an entrance – into that ultimate reality our hearts sense is real, and crave to know, a craving that was awakened in Timmie in her later days.

It was, as her granddaughter Tarelle observed,

in the last 10 + years of Granny’s life (really since Papa passed), [that] this inner world of hers blossomed in a new way. She became in touch with her Celtic roots and began to view everything as living, as a part of creation… observing and loving God’s creation with immense joy and detail.

That’s what I saw in her, too. Always a watchful and curious person, her attentiveness led to wisdom, for what she was finding was God – and God everywhere! Some people find God in the big things – the big ideas, the big cosmos. Timmie found it in the tiny things (tiny, like her!): tiny plants, tiny details. The closer you look, the more you see, with wonder. She was always looking up words, fascinated by them: their etymology (where the words came from), the precision definitions. She was endlessly curious about what could be found by looking closely.

But let it also be said, lest we travel too far down the road of hagiography – of painting too saintly a version of a sinner just like the rest of us – people who delight in precision can likewise delight in demanding precision from others. I, certainly, was on the receiving end of such high demands. There was a right way for the altar guild to function, which meant a right way for the rector to govern that guild – a standard I never really lived up to.

But, to her credit, and to the credit of her ongoing spiritual formation, her quest for precision was just as keenly turned towards herself. In the last few years she developed a fascination with the Seven Deadly Sins. There was a certain pleasure, I suspect, simply in the discovery of them and the ability to remember what they were, and – when lying in bed, awake in the middle of the night – to employ her little pneumonic devise to recall them, one by one. But it was more than that. he recalling of them became an ongoing exercise of moral inventory, turning her eyes inward: watching, studying, looking to see, “Where am I missing the mark?” And paired with that, her growing faith, “Where is God loving me? showing mercy to me? Welcoming me, despite my weaknesses and failings?”

And, I must say, in light of this moral introspection, that it was interesting to me, in her last few days, that there was a certain story from her youth that she kept telling. I don’t remember all the details, but it happened with her best friend, Eleanor. They’d gone out to eat and splurged on a bottle of wine (or sherry or something like that), but they hardly drank any of it. But they were also too cheap to abandon it, so they snuck it out in a folded umbrella. And they were going to a concert (or the symphony or something like that) and the bottle fell out and rolled around and made a huge racket, and they scurried away – abandoning the bottle or any identification with it.

Why that story? Why, at the end of life, with any number of things to be said, was that the memory that kept coming back, and was told with such delight and amusement? Clearly, it was a memorable moment – of youth, of friendship, of being alive, of breaking the rules and the laughter that comes with it.

But I must say (as a priest, presiding at her funeral, and preparing to return her to the earth), how much I love this notion that the story she was holding onto at the end of her life, was this memory of grasping onto that bottle of wine – to keep hold of the good stuff – but it got away from her and they ran away from their crime.

But now, today, at the end of this service, we’re going to carry Timmie’s ashes past the baptismal font, where her eternal life was promised her long ago; through those Resurrection Doors, and into the garden. We’re going to return her ashes to the earth, then add John’s ashes with them, and then we’re going to pour the consecrated wine from our altar into the grave with them, with the same words they’d heard so many times at this altar: “Timmie and John, the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”

The wine is theirs forever. The life of Christ is theirs forever. Their sins, their failings; their lives, their deaths; their blood, Christ’s blood; their funerals, their banquets; Christ’s resurrection, their resurrection…

Nothing is lost. All is gathered. All is loved. For God shall be all in all. This day, and forever. Amen.