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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Memorial Service Meditation: "If Everyone Lived Like Rachel, We Could Change The World"

Yesterday we celebrated the "commencement"
of Rachel Anna Stoltzfus, 91, who graduated
summa cum laude from this life May 13, 2017.
Rachel Stoltzfus and her late husband Robert made a profound impact on the lives of dozens of international students for whom they provided lodging and hospitality over many years.

Yesterday a number of them shared their stories at Rachel's memorial service, one of the most moving experiences I've had in a long time. 

The following is my meditation at that service, held at the former location of the New Covenant Church of which Rachel and Robert were charter members:
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Welcome to this special service in memory of a truly unforgettable woman, Rachel Stoltzfus. She is an inspiring example of how great saints can come in small packages, an illustration of how God has chosen the quiet and un-acclaimed people in the world to confound and put to shame the lofty and the mighty. As in the the Magnificat announced by Mary, God scatters the proud and haughty ones, and has exalted the lowly, the meek, those who will indeed inherit the earth.

I feel blessed and honored to have been this woman’s pastor over the past couple of decades, and now to celebrate with you this commencement ceremony in honor of Rachel Anna Stoltzfus, who graduated summa cum laude (with greatest honor) as a part of the God's great class of 2017. Throughout her life she quietly and faithfully served so many people in so many ways and over so many years.

In the “Heroes of Faith” chapter in the Bible (Hebrews 11) we are given examples of numerous ordinary persons who, by faith, accomplished something that put them on God’s honor roll, the lesser known and the well known alike, people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and others. The passage ends with “It would take too long to recount all the stories of faithful ones who trusted God for a better future than they experienced in this life, of whom the world was not worthy", or as another translation has it, "they were too good for this world.”

Today we add our sister Rachel to that growing list in God’s story, people who are to be commended for a faith—not so much a faith based on believing certain things in spite of the evidence, but as Clarence Jordan once put it, a faith that acts in faithful ways in spite of the cost or the consequences.

And Rachel reminds me of the words of another text, the one that encourages us to not be so concerned about an outward beauty associated with lots of jewelry, or fashionable clothes or regularly permed hair, but a beauty that comes from deep inside, the charm of a gentle and quiet spirit. Rachel was beautiful in every way (just look at the photos in your program!) but in terms of an inner beauty, she was truly a knock-out. 

She wasn’t just some nice and submissive and passive person, but impactful in a very special and powerful way. In fact, the more I thought about doing this little meditation, the more it struck  me how much the world would be literally transformed if everyone lived like Rachel.

Think about it.

What if everyone welcomed strangers and foreigners and international students like Rachel and Robert did? What if all of us, like her, wouldn’t care whether our house looked like a page from Better Homes and Gardens? What if we lived as though what really mattered was not how well a home is furnished, but how well our hearts were furnished to be open to simply loving people, no matter where they were from, no matter whether they were Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist? Or if anyone needed a welcoming meal, or a room to stay in, and if we had one available, they would be warmly loved and well nurtured. That mindset would change the world.

And if we all lived and loved like Rachel, there would be an end to ugly church splits, to hate speech, to harsh words and hurtful gossip, to unspeakably awful wars and violence of all kinds. We would be experiencing the kind of shalom God envisioned when the world was first  created, a world in which nothing is marred and nothing is missing, where God’ will is being done here on earth in and among us, as it is in heaven. It would be a world in which people were prized above possessions, where no one was ever left to starve or be without clothes or shelter, where there was no competition for attention or praise or high honor, but a simple life of devotion to loving God and to loving every neighbor as oneself. 

That’s Rachel. And hers was never a piety for piety’s sake, but a life of prayer and of hymn singing (she loved singing, and knew more hymns by memory than most of us know, period) and of church fellowship that kept her focused, not just on a heaven in the sweet by and by, but on bringing more of God’s heaven-based blessings to bear on earth in the here and now. 

And what if we all were as careful in the stewardship of the earth as Rachel, on her little demonstration plot around her house just a stone’s throw from here? What if we, like her, took time to grow more things to harvest and preserve and share with others, and to till and enrich the soil and whatever it produced, carefully caring for fruit trees and berry bushes and grape vines as she did? And what if we were to reuse, recycle, reclaim, make do in such a way that we, like her, would leave an almost invisible carbon or any other footprint? Surely if everyone were the kind of earth steward Rachel was, the planet would be spared the threat of global warming, the air would be pure, the water clean, the oceans teeming with life. She left the world, and the earth, a better place than she found it.

To some, she might have seemed thrifty to a fault, so careful was she not to waste even the tiniest bit of table scrap that could be composted or that could be food for some bird or animal or human being. But as focused as she was on being thrifty and sparing in her spending, this wasn’t at all about hoarding up more treasure here on earth for herself, but about being able to be truly generous with what she had. As an example, sometimes when she did have some things that needed to be taken to the landfill, she would accept my offer to add it to whatever I was taking to dispose of. But it was always hard to do anything like that for her that she didn’t want to compensate me for it, to help pay for my gas or for my time. Thrifty but generous. 

Sometimes it’s easy to think pessimistically about the world’s future. And if its survival depended on the policies of generals and politicians and prime ministers and presidents, that future would be dark indeed. But God continues to entrust the earth’s future to ordinary people like you and me, like Rachel and Robert, like the everyday saints who faithfully and quietly keep on doing what’s right, who consistently do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with their God and share generously with others, just like Rachel. 

It's good that the future of the world isn’t just left to the world’s scientists and PhD’s and its preachers and its prophets, but on those everyday people whose wisdom runs deep and who in a stubborn and quiet way become a preserving salt, a persistent light, a transforming leaven that outlasts and outshines every other force in the world. 

So as we say our farewells to Rachel, let’s make sure her wisdom, her ways, God’s ways, Jesus's ways, live on in us, wisdom being a way of loving and living that we can look back on, as we are doing with Rachel’s life today, and celebrate as genuinely enduring and satisfying. 

From the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible:

Listen as Wisdom calls out!
she cries aloud,
Listen to me! ...Choose my instruction rather than silver,
    my knowledge rather than pure gold.
For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies.
    Nothing you desire can compare with it.
...Listen to my instruction and be wise.
...For whoever finds me finds life
    and receives favor from the Lord.

And from the New Testament: 

The wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

Thanks be to God, and to Rachel for that demonstration of wisdom that results in a radically transformed life, and one that could literally change the world.

According to Jesus, life's "Final Exam" is like a kind of multiple choice test, as in “I was hungry and you… a) fed me, b) ignored me or c) outsourced the task of feeding the hungr to the Salvation Army.” 

In Rachel’s case, the answer was clearly “a”. Check.

The same with the following items in the "exam":

I was thirsty and you… gave me water. Check.
I was a stranger and you… invited me into your home. Check.
I was cold and without shelter and you… clothed and housed me. Check.
I was sick and in prison, and you…visited me. Check.

To those the King will say, "You've passed the finals." "Come you blessed of my Father, into the  new heaven and the new earth prepared for you from the creation of the world.” Along with people everywhere who have first experienced God's mercy and grace, then spend the rest of their lives as channels of it.

So it is with joy that we commit our sister Rachel into God's everlasting care and to her eternal reward. And in is in light of Rachel's motto of “only one life, it will soon be past, and only what’s done for Christ (and to the least of these) will last,” that we close with these words, 

“So then, dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
AMEN
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The family buried the urn with Rachel's remains next to her husband's at the Weavers church cemetery after the noon reception. There we affirmed Psalm 23 and received the following Irish blessing:

May the blessing of light be with you--
light outside and light within.
May the sunlight shine upon you and warm your heart
‘til it glows like a great peat fire,
So that the stranger may come and warm himself by it,
and also a friend.
May a blessed light shine out of the two eyes of you
like a candle set in two windows of a house,
bidding the wanderer to come in out of the storm.
May the blessing of rain--the sweet soft rain--
fall upon your spirit and wash it fair and clean.
May it leave many a shining pool where the blue of heaven shines, and sometimes a star.
May the blessing of earth--the good, rich earth--be with you.
May you ever have a kindly greeting for those you pass 
as you go along its roads.
May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.
May the earth rest easy over you when at the last you lie under it.
May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

from An Irish Blessing, a Photographic Interpretation, by Cyil A. and Renee Travis Reilly
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