A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
March 16th, 2023
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
It will come as no surprise to any of you who knew her that today’s liturgy, the songs and readings, the things we’ve included and not included were carefully planned and documented by Betty some decades ago and carefully filed and waiting for this very day and this very moment. For instance, she asked that there be no remembrances offered today, and probably better that she did. Were we to ask all those who meant something to Betty or whose lives she changed and the organizations she blessed or supported, to speak here today, we’d be here long into the night and through the storm outside into tomorrow. Alas, as our preacher and officiant today, I will be our only speaker from here on out, and so I will do my best to bridge the role of preacher with memories and stories of Betty. With apologies to Betty, today would not be complete without some kind of remembrances shared, without tales of Betty’s life and legacy. But, to talk of Betty, I need to start here in this church.
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church passed it’s 140th birthday without much fanfare or remark during the middle of the pandemic. Like so many events and mile markers overlooked or uncelebrated, during the lockdowns, this anniversary went mostly unnoticed. But, for more than 140 years this church has existed in this city as a beacon of outreach, welcome, gorgeous liturgy, and spiritual nourishment, a community that “seeks the Holy”, as our former organist and choir director Jim Frazier wrote so beautifully in our excellent parish history book – where for generations folks have “[i]n worship, in service, and in community” sought the divine. Betty Myers was one of the chief advisers of that parish history project For All the Saints, and indeed she should have been, after all, she lived more than two thirds of that history, and was a member for over half of it! Her life’s experiences, dollars, time, and energy flow through the chapters of our life as a faith community, and her legacy and love are evident in the very brick and mortar, being and ministry of this people called Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church! In her way, Betty Myers was one of those who sought to make meaning of life, shape the world for the better, and as we pray each week in the Collect of Saint John’s, sought to “show forth” her service to God in service to others.
Jim Frazier writes of this church, “We do not join it by having the right credentials, by paying dues, or by knowing the right people. Some may be rich while others are destitute…But all are saints. And together they constitute a congenial mix of …folks who cherish knowing that they all belong.” And, belong she did. Over the decades Betty served in every conceivable way at Saint John’s, teaching Sunday School to the children of the church, serving on the vestry multiple times (her notes here were inconclusive, was it three or four times?) always as liaison and chair of the Music Commission. She was also President of the Churchwomen, Editor of the parish newsletter, the Evangelist, served on the search committee for multiple organists, including only 5 years ago when we hired our current director of music, Mr. Richard Gray, 25 years on the Altar Guild, and on and on the list of roles goes. Betty loved this church so much.
She also quite notably loved her family. All of it. With a fierce pride. To visit Betty, which I did on so many occasions, was to find oneself surrounded by pictures and memorabilia of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Betty delighted when her sons Bruce and Peter brought wives Anne and Karla into the family, and delighted even more as the family grew. Perhaps lesser known to those of us outside the family, but Betty was named Mamie by Betty’s eldest grandson and that name was how the family knew her.
Betty’s son Peter shared with me as I prepared for today that apart, of course, from her family, Betty had two great loves. The first was, as already noted, Saint John’s, and the second was Macmahan Island, Maine. “But” says Peter, “she would have never discovered the latter without the former.” It was one of my predecessors, the Reverend Bill Mead, who in 1962 asked the Myers family to visit him and his family on the small island where he had served as chaplain for several summers. The Myers fell in love with the island, bought a cottage, and have been part of that community for 61 years. When Jesus assures his disciples, as he does in today’s gospel, that he goes to prepare a place for them, that in his father’s house are many mansions, I wonder if Betty picked this text for her funeral imagining that in God’s house there might not be a mansion for her, but a lovely cottage amidst the pines along a craggy shoreline. You might think Betty, known for her cocktail dresses and perfectly coiffed hair, as out of place hiking the boulder strewn trails or piloting her Boston Whaler along the windswept beaches of coastal Maine, but you’d be wrong. Betty had no trouble getting her hands dirty, whether in her garden in the back yard along Edgecumbe or at the Cottage in Maine, or rolling up her sleeves to help her church or favorite charity raise money to further the mission of serving others.
Betty’s service to God and others grew out of her love for beautiful things – whether the flowers in the backyard, or supporting the music of Saint John’s, the MacPhail Center, or our two local orchestras, Betty loved art and song and a beautifully set table. She took seriously the apostles’ words in this afternoon’s epistle to the Philippians, when he says “Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest…whatsoever things are lovely …think on these things.” And, Betty wasn’t content to think on these things herself, she wanted them to be shared and experienced by others, which is why, most likely, she spent so much time considering the music that would be played and sung at her final service. She asked there be no remembrances and no communion – let the words and poetry of the simple funeral liturgy and the soaring beauty of the music, the sumptuous interior of Saint John’s, the stained glass and the carved oak, the beautiful tear streaked faces of a gathered community of saints, let that be communion enough.
Betty was, as most of you know, an Anglophile and a lover of the traditions of the church. She was a reluctant adopter of what we Episcopalians affectionately still refer to as the “New Praybook”, having been published as it was as recently as 1979! And, so you have likely noticed the selections today favor that former prayerbook from 1928, and the cadences and language of that older tradition. When I arrived at St. John’s a first time rector and barely in my 30s, Betty confessed that she had her doubts that a youngster like me might be up to the task of leading Saint John’s or respecting the traditions of the church. But, I was relieved to get the benefit of the doubt after chanting my first traditional (or, Rite I as we call it) Evensong. And Betty told me she thought I’d do alright. Betty had already lived and served at Saint John’s through 5 rectors. She knew full well that the people who make this place their home are the ones who shape its legacy and form its ministry. So it was that I was deeply moved when I read that she had selected an older prayer to be included in the intercessions that follow in a moment. It says,
“Remember thy servant, O Lord, according to the favor which thou nearest unto thy people; and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, she may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom…”
Betty was a part of this faith community as one of our longest serving and longest living members. She belonged to this faith community, and we belonged to her, and together we served, however imperfectly, the needs of the world and one another. Now, Betty, we commend you to almighty God, where we believe you are moving from strength to strength in “the life of perfect service”. Rest in peace, dear Betty, and just as you were one of the saints of this church, may you be welcomed now by all the saints in light.