“We do not want you to be uninformed or confused, brothers and sisters, about those who have died” wrote St. Paul to his small community of faith in Thessaloníki probably 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. “And we do not want you to grieve as others do who have no hope,” he continued. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring to him all those who have lived and died by faith.”
In times like this, I hang on to those words. Not only do I cherish them in my heart and find them to be a source of incomparable comfort, but they offer me a pattern for living into authentic Christian grief. And I have to tell, when my sister in Christ, Kathy Arzt, passed from this life to life everlasting last week, I was rattled. I was surprised and unnerved. Don’t get me wrong, I knew her death was coming – we had talked about it on and off for nearly five years – but I had just been with her the day before and she didn't look like she was ready to let go.
I mean, the night before she’d eaten some prime rib and that very morning enjoyed a poached egg. Yes, she was on a journey that was drawing to a close, but man… I wasn't fully prepared for it to arrive so soon. “In the blink of an eye,” St. Paul wrote elsewhere, “we will all be changed.” And he was right. As his forbearers in faith once noted, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born… and a time to die.” For me, and maybe for you, it just came like a thief in the night no matter how emotionally and spiritually prepared I thought I was.
So this morning, as we return thanks to God for the life, death and gift of life eternal that the Lord has shared with us through Kathy Arzt, I want to simultaneously celebrate the fullness of her humanity and faith and do so in a way that helps us grieve as authentic Christians. Because, grieve we must, NOT as those who do so without hope – in ignorance or confusion about God’s grace – but as those who know and trust that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core of God’s beloved creation. God’s promise is that through Jesus we shall all be brought home into his loving embrace forever.
Jesus told his first followers – of whom we are in debt – “do not let your hearts be troubled – trust in God – and trust in me.” That’s what the word believe really means: trust. It isn't doctrinal nor is it abstract, ok? Back in my more cocky days I used to ask young teens in confirmation if that “believed” in that stool. (PUT A STOOL IN FRONT OF THE COMMUNION TABLE.) They often thought I was crazy so I would ask them: What is the point of this stool? “To sit upon” they usually replied. So, do you trust that stool to hold you up? I continued. If you do, come over here and sit upon it!
THAT is what trust means: not abstract, idealized theological concepts, but rather embodied acts of obedience. So when Jesus tells us to trust God rather than let our hearts be troubled, he’s teaching us about how we are to live and act and think. That’s St. Paul’s point, too: grieve as those who trust Christ’s resurrection.
That’s how Kathy lived – and trusted – she knew from the inside out that when this realm was over, it wasn't the end of the story. “If I go and prepare a place for you,” Jesus said, “then I will come again and take you to myself.” She counted on returning to Jesus. She spoke to him constantly in those later days about returning to his love for eternity and being embraced fully by his gracious love. And now she has gone home – where for Kathy there is only love and healing and light in the presence of the Lord. It hurts us that she is gone – we feel empty – and well we should. She was a powerful and significant personality, right? There was nothing meek or retiring about Kathy Arzt.
I remember the early days of getting to know her: outwardly what I saw was a bold and commanding professional woman who dressed for success, knew her own mind and wasn't afraid to tell you what she was thinking. Truth be told, at first Kathy intimidated me: she was a force of nature who didn't pull her punches. She wasn't cruel, just forceful and I knew from the get go that I didn't want to be on her bad side. So, let’s be honest, with a personality that big, you can’t help but miss her now that she is gone. That’s part of our authentic Christian grieving. But it isn't the END of the story.
Because over the last five years I saw Kathy take all that bold strength and courage and love that was truly a gift from God in its time, and practice turning it over to the Lord so that she might have the strength to find her way through the reality of her cancer. It was a hard road taking on that cancer – there were times of agony and total darkness – times when she made the words of the Psalmist her own: Out of my depths I cry to you, Lord; hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy as I await your love.
Some of you here today – including her beloved, Bill – heard those cries. You held her in her agony, wiped away your mutual tears when none of the pain meds touched her suffering and endured an aching darkness and despair. How many times did Kathy tell me that in those moments YOU became Jesus for her: she called some of you her saints because you sat with her and comforted her when nothing else helped. In faith, hope and love, you waited upon the Lord with her and gave her the only thing any of us really have to give another: our presence, our time and our love.
And after the pain was over, she rejoiced for the love you shared with her in those horrible hours. So I want to say out loud that over the past five years I saw Kathy bring all of the strength and power she once used to raise a GREAT family – and I mean a GREAT family Stephen, Tessa and Bill – all the power and pizzazz she once used to become a professional woman of depth and integrity – all that power that on the surface used to intimidate me – all that power to become a disciple of Jesus who trusted and lived into his resurrection even when she could only feel his death on the Cross.
Kathy had faith. Somebody once said, “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. FAITH is for those who have already been there.” And Kathy had certain been there and back. “Yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… what? THOU art with me, Lord. THY rod and thy staff they comfort me. Man, Kathy HAD faith. Faith – trust that the Cross is at the core of creation – grieving as authentic Christian who are not ignorant of God’s love in Jesus Christ is about letting go of what we think we know and letting God be God. In Eugene Petersen’s reworking of St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to us: You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. Theologians call this the Paschal Mystery – the great reversal of God’s love – where the end becomes the beginning of blessing.Towards the end of his earthly life, St. Paul put it like this: God told me that ‘My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness.’ That is why I now boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Today I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong by God’s love.
Over and over again I saw this ripen in Kathy. About a month ago, when she was down in Great Barrington I stopped by to see her at about lunch time. She was eating like a horse that day and when she saw me, she greeted me, waved me and said, “Don’t mind my bald head and don’t be upset that I’m cursing like a sailor these days. Just come on in, it’s good to see you.” I was in awe – she was radiant – and I don’t mean just figuratively – I mean the radiance of God’s loving presence was pouring out of her. And when I told her this she gave one of those hearty bursts of belly laughter and said, “James, everyone is tell me this. Well, I just know it isn't ME!” (In my weakness, Lord, you make me strong.) She said two other things that afternoon I will carry with me forever.
First she said, “James why did I spend all that time and money on makeup and clothes and hair dye? Now I’m bald as a cue ball and my skin looks about 150 years old, but I feel more beautiful than ever before.” And who was I to argue with one in communion with the Lord? She was right: totally radiant and vibrant with life even as she was dying.
Second she said, “I’m ready to go now. I don’t want to – I would much rather be able to see Paula's baby – but that may not be up to me. I am at peace with God and whenever He’s ready for me, I’m going home.” And after a knowing pause, she laughed, put her hand on my chest and said, “Bless you – just make sure everyone knows that I’ll be pulling for you in God’s presence. It’s ALL going to be ok.” I almost wept but kept it together until I got back in my car.
In Kathy’s Bible, this passage from I Peter was marked with special importance:
Since Jesus went through everything you’re going through and more, learn to think like him. Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want. You've already put in your time in that God-ignorant way of life, partying night after night, a drunken and profligate life. (How many times did she used to say: Thank God we lived before the days of social media?)Now it’s time to be done with the old ways for good. Listen to the Message. It was preached to those believers who are now dead, and yet even though they died (just as all people must), they will still get in on the life that God has given in Jesus.
Kathy Arzt lived by faith – by trust – by love born of Jesus from the inside out.
She cherished her babies Tessa, Steph and Bill like a Momma Lion, treasured her grandchildren – Paula and Jonathan, Lexi and Victoria, Ryan and Sean, Fiona and Bodie- with an intensity and gentle humor that only Nonnie could make real – and loved so many of us in all our broken beauty that we can’t help but feel empty even as we give thanks to God that he pain and suffering are over.
And oh did she loved her man Bill. For 44 years she loved that man like there was no tomorrow. She loved him in ways that were holy and human, sacred and sensual all at the same time and brought heaven and earth together. They would laugh and love like nobody's business - and it was a wonder to behold. On the day she passed from this life, as Bill knelt by her bedside and prayed and wept, after a time Kathy opened her eyes, whispered softly, "I love you" and let go as she was accepted into the arms of everlasting light. Oh, did she love that man.
After her first series of operation – and treatment – and recover, Kathy and Bill used to faithfully come to our midday Wednesday Eucharist. It was a quiet little time of talking about Scripture and our lives, prayer and sharing the body and blood of Christ around the communion table. Time and again she would say: I know God has some-thing important for me to do now that I am getting well. I know it my heart. I just don’t know what it is.
Over the years we talked about just exactly what this special ministry might be – Bible study for lay people? Visitation? What? And I have to tell you, that in the end it was none of those things. Or maybe all of them and more. Because I can say with certainty now that Kathy’s last special act for the Lord was sharing her presence with us – her vulnerability, her suffering and her love in a humble and honest way. Because when she was weak, she empowered us to reach out beyond our comfort zones in love and trust God in ways that have changed us forever. Kathy helped us become weak so that God could become our strength.
Now, before we hear from the Arzt family, I'd like you to pray with me the last prayer I shared with Kathy in this life: the Hail Mary. She and I used to joke that we were some of the most renegade Congregationalists around because be BOTH loved the Blessed Virgin Mary and called out to her in prayer often. So, perhaps you can join me and then we'll sing what we often shared before Eucharist:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy woman Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the time of our death.
In life, in death and life beyond death, Kathy Arzt was a gift from God: Alleluia...