Funeral Homily for Phyllis Raney

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April 06, 2019

The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

That is St. Paul, from his first letter to the Corinthians. Scholars estimate that letter to have been written “in the late winter or early spring,” 55 A.D. The last supper Paul describes had taken place twenty-two years earlier, at that same time of year. When a story is written down while people remain alive who had witnessed the original event, we say it is written in “living memory.” That can stretch to more than eighty years. Most if not all of the New Testament was written within living memory of Jesus.

Concerning Phyllis, I am going to start with a story some of you have heard, of something that happened, involving her, not quite a quarter century ago—still easily in living memory. I wrote it. I remember it, and I am still here. So is one of the two principal participants, the other being Phyllis. The story begins at a celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is how the last supper lives in sacred memory, which it will do forever.

One Sunday morning at St. Margaret’s church, Janie McDonald arrived early to prepare the flowers on the altar. I use the term altar loosely; St. Margaret’s was meeting at that time at Cinema City, Breckenridge Village, where our altar consisted of a standard folding table suspended on a board raised on packing crates, covered by a bedspread. Janie stood by while the altar crew put the thing together.

Janie, unbeknownst to anyone, was in a grim state. She was upset, pained, frightened. The date was October 22, 1995. Janie had dreaded that date for years.

This has to do with Janie and her father. Janie and her father shared a birthday – September 22. How delightful it had been for Janie’s father to receive a baby daughter for his birthday. Growing up, how much fun it had been for her to share that birthday with her Daddy. The birthday was emblematic: they were close in every way. They looked alike and seemed to feel and think alike. All their friends in Stuttgart knew Janie for her Daddy’s girl.

On October 22, 1968, Janie’s father committed suicide. Their ages at the time were symbiotic: Daughter was 14, father 41.

On September 22, 1995, Janie had arrived at 41. A countdown started. October 22 would be the day she reached the age her father’s life had ended. She dreaded it. How would she feel? What would she think? What would she do?

It was a Sunday, so she came to church. She prepared the flowers because she had been assigned. That duty done, she took her seat for worship. You know the rhythm: Sing, pray, sing, listen. Sing, listen, pray, sing. Pray, come forward for communion.

At the theater, we received communion standing. Lines formed up both aisles. You came; hands extended, received the bread, then stepped to the right to take the cup. I was serving bread at Janie’s aisle. Phyllis was at my side that day, administering the chalice. Neither of us had any inkling of Janie’s state of mind.

“The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven. Amen.” Janie took the bread. She stepped and turned to take the cup. “The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”

Wine flew all over Janie.

I didn’t see it happen. Neither Phyllis nor Janie could say how it happened. Phyllis recalled that her cup was low. She had scanned about for an acolyte to fill it. Janie had reached to take the cup. Before she knew it, she’d been splashed. Wine dripped from her face and hair, soaked her dress, and stained her shoes.

This wine was blood. Phyllis was mortified. She bent to try to wipe the wine from Janie’s shoes. Janie turned away in horror. She had come to church distressed. She went home in trauma.    

Early the next morning, Janie received a call from Jane. Jane Hunt had been Janie McDonald’s best friend growing up in Stuttgart and had lived with her through the aftermath of her father’s suicide.

Jane was calling because she had had a dream involving Janie. It was most disturbing. Janie’s hair had always been conspicuously blond. It was a trademark. In Jane’s dream, Janie’s hair turned black. Jane awoke disturbed. She would check on Janie.

Jane: “Janie, are you all right?”  Janie: “No, I’m not.” She told Jane what had happened at church. Janie felt she was about to fall apart.

Jane called me. I said bring her in. Jane and Janie came together to my office, where Janie told me about her father, and his suicide, and her birthday, and the wine.

Janie was shaken. Literally, she shook. For years she had looked to this October 22 in fear that her sympathy for her father might drop her into the compulsion to follow in his footsteps. It wasn’t only what he’d done, but what she might do, that had put her in this state. She feared she was in the grip of something.

What did I make of that? Janie tells me I was reassuring. I guessed she would not go so far as to take her life to complete a mystic loop. But of course, I was concerned. Her distress and fear called for serious attention. I wanted her to “see someone.” “Who?” she asked. “Phyllis Raney,” I said – who had held the cup from which the wine had spilled. Phyllis was often my first suggestion for counseling referrals. Whether I saw a further reason for suggesting Phyllis in their experience with the cup, I can’t recall. Probably, I did.

Janie agreed to call Phyllis that morning, to find when Phyllis might be available to see her. Janie called. Phyllis answered. Coincidentally, a client had only just called to cancel for that afternoon. See you at three o’clock.

Janie arrives at Phyllis’ office. Come in, sit down, can I get you a glass of tea. Janie opens up, pours out. She tells Phyllis about her father, about their birthday, about their closeness, about all that had been in her mind and heart as she had come to church the day before. October 22 was her day of infamy.

Phyllis went to goosebumps. She lost detachment. To Janie’s complete surprise, Phyllis interrupted her and began to talk about herself. Phyllis told Janie about her own life and her own father. Phyllis’s natural father had died when Phyllis was quite young, (an infant). Her mother had married a second time, a kind and loving man. This is the man whom Phyllis had known as father. She told Janie how close they were, and how she missed him…

Janie wondered to herself: Why are you telling me this?

Phyllis told her. Phyllis, too, had come to church distracted yesterday. Her heart, too, was troubled, as she administered the cup. She, too, had been thinking about her father. October 22 was the anniversary of his suicide.

In a dark room, someone had snapped the shade. Light poured in.

I will finish that story in a minute.

If I were ranking my all-time list of fun parishioners, Phyllis would easily make the final four, while also being among the most faithful. For decades, I sent people to Phyllis for counsel. We taught classes on marriage. To clients and friends in trouble, she was wise and gracious. As to politics, she was more conservative than your average shrink. As to dinner conversation, she was a laugh a minute—unless you were her chef or waiter. For them, satisfying Phyllis was an uphill climb. That may have been an understatement.

Sunday mornings, Phyllis would not be deterred from coming to church, partaking of the Eucharist. Bad cancer was not near enough reason to make her miss. She came, she prayed, she went to class and paid attention.

Some years ago, before I came here as Dean, I got an email from Phyllis with a question about the resurrection. In a Sunday school class, the leader had minimized its importance—and maybe disavowed it, except as a metaphor for our inward spiritual renewal. Phyllis didn’t like that and wanted to know what I thought. She knew who she was asking and wasn’t surprised when I got on my soapbox. Like the Declaration of Independence matters to the birth of the American republic, to Christian faith the resurrection matters. If Christ was not raised, and I am speaking literally, our faith in God has missed the mark entirely. The goodness of God is thrown into agonizing doubt, and so is God’s power to deliver us from sin and evil. The doctrines and practices of faith are not isolated silos; they are a web of intricate connections. Amputate the resurrection and that web dissolves. Something like that is what Paul had in mind when he said that if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are pathetic. I gave that speech to Phyllis. She had heard it before and liked it, which is why she’d asked.

One day Janie McDonald asked me what I thought about the wine. I took her to mean how would I explain it -- the wine getting out of the chalice in Phyllis’s hand and on to her, that quarter century ago?

I put it this way. Let’s take the date, the wine, the dream, the canceled appointment, the connection these two women had, of which they had been unaware, and of which they had only been made aware through this series of events. Let’s consider the result. Janie was lifted from despair to wonder… October 22 has forever after acquired a second meaning that hints, to say the least, strongly of redemption. What do I make of that? 

Listen to Jesus’ promise to his friends, as his death loomed imminent:

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me…and those who love me… will keep my word… and I will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them…

“We will come to them and make our home with them.” He means God and himself in the Holy Spirit.

What do I think? I think I’ve told you a ghost story that happens to be true. The ghost in question is the Spirit from on High who, as promised, had made our young church his home. We built it, and he came.

This Tuesday morning, I went by to see Phyllis. After I left the room I called Janie who had been wanting to go see her. I said. “Janie, this is Chris. I think its time.” Janie was in Stuttgart visiting her sick mother. About two hours later I answered my phone. It was Janie calling me. She had hurried back to Little Rock and was with Phyllis and a hospice chaplain bedside. Janie was there when the chaplain called the nurse. The end had come.

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