On April 7, 2013, the congregation of Jermain UMC paid tribute to a great lady – Margaret Howard Perry. A member of Jermain for more than 87 years, she is now approaching the 100-year milestone. To be absolutely sure that she, her family, and community know how much she is loved and appreciated, we decided to celebrate her amazing life and ministry before it would be considered a memorial. Margaret is a kind and loving person who has always put God and church above the things of the world. She is wise and humble, a model for all Christians and the people of Jermain UMC and the White Creek community. Margaret, we salute you!!
The service began with this Call to Worship
We come to God this morning with grateful hearts for his precious gift of aging, which we see so beautifully in our dear sister Margaret Howard Perry. With grace and dignity she has shown us all a strong faith full of wisdom, and the godly example of a lifetime of love and hospitality. Margaret, this morning we honor you with this special day of Thanksgiving and celebration for 98 years of life devoted to God, Jermain Church, family, friends, the community of White Creek, and a faith in God that has supported you and been witness to those around you for almost a century. We love you and we hope you will enjoy your favorite hymns and a message that not only conveys our love for you, but also God’s love and blessing for you and all those who live such a long and faithful life.
Read on to enjoy my sermon…
Many of you know that my grandmother lived with us from the time I was nine years old until long after I had finished college, got married, and moved away from home. I think that I have also mentioned that she was difficult, set in her ways, and very critical. Her sister, whom we called “Auntie,” was totally opposite – sweet, gentle, kind, and never said a negative word that I ever heard, except to tell her sister to “Be nice!” How many times I wished that Auntie was my grandmother – she was the ideal – what everyone hopes their grandmother will be like AND the kind of grandmother I decided many years ago that I would be.
The first time I spoke with Margaret Perry, more than 6 years ago, I thought, “Wow, she sounds just like Auntie.” Then I met her in person and it was like my dear sweet Auntie had returned. I have to admit that, through the years, I had let my negative experience with my grandmother affect my feelings about live-in grandparents and even the way I felt about the elderly in general. She had been my only grandparent, as her husband died when I was a year old and my father’s parents died when he was 3 years old and I felt slighted. Most of my friends had 3 or 4 – at least 2 – grandparents and I knew I had missed out on something special.
Over the years, I have had a change in heart for 2 reasons:
- I have met and grown to know and love many very special elderly folks , and
- I have become an elderly folk myself.
Now I know that not all old folks are set-in-their-ways-crotchedy-and critical. Many more are like Auntie – sweet-loving-caring – and like Margaret. Besides, even though I always knew that we should honor our mothers and fathers, I soon discovered that Scripture also tells us that older persons should mentor younger ones and that younger ones should honor and respect older adults. There are several verses in Proverbs that remind us that the older adults, especially those with graying hair, are wise and knowledgeable from living long lives and that it is prudent for the younger ones to listen to them and learn from them.
Yet today, our society seems to push aside older adults, viewing them as useless, feeble, and unable to care for themselves or make decisions for themselves. They are no longer the “beautiful” people that advertisements say they must be. They are thought to be depriving younger people of medical care and so we hide older adults away in nursing homes and adult facilities so we don’t have to think about them.
Scriptures show us a whole different society. The Bible is full of examples of people who lived full and active lives and who continued to serve God well into their later years in life. Many of the most renowned characters in the Bible were well into their elder years, and God was still calling them out for ministry. Abraham and Sarah began their family in their older years. Moses was in his 80’s, and his brother Aaron older than he when God called them to take the Israelite nation into the Promise Land. Naomi was a widow and older woman when she decided to go back to her former homeland and saw a grandchild born who would be part of the ancestry of Jesus. Paul was well into his older years when he became a missionary and traveled extensively, starting new churches. Simeon and Anna, in their elder years, were faithful to watch for the birth of the Messiah and were blessed to live long enough to see Christ. Fishermen started second careers. Timothy’s grandmother was an influence upon his ministry.
Remember, Jesus promised us abundant life — not one necessarily free from aches and pains, but one that can be rewarding and full of joy, and for many years to come. And many of us here in this room are living long and abundant lives but we also keep saying, “what we need is more young people.” And that’s OK, because I think that’s the natural order of things. We’re all getting older and can’t do as much as we used to, but I have another thought about that. A friend told me once that he had been to a new church. “We sampled it,” he said. “We sat kind of in the back, and it was fine but we didn’t go back. There were just too many gray heads in there.” I said to him, “You know, those gray heads are a good thing. They’re veteran leaders. They know where they’re going. They know how to get there, and I’ve found that I want to go with them – I want to be wise like them – like Margaret.” I like being a “gray head” – I like knowing the words without using the book. I like knowing all the hymns; in fact, I thought I knew most all of the old traditional Christian hymns until I met up with Marilyn and Margaret and Maurice – I have learned so many of these dear old hymns and each time we sing them, I can see the light of recognition and joy on the faces of our “gray heads” as they slip into them like old, comfortable blue jeans. Remember when your mother would buy you the darkest blue, stiffest jeans in the world, and then she wanted you to wear them without washing them first. They were miserable – scratchy and hard until you had broken them in, and then they felt just like those hymns – nice and comfortable.
So there are some good things about being older, even though being old has become a rather nebulous measurement. In the United States being older is kind of a function of the Social Security system. You now become eligible for Social Security when you are 66; of course it was 65 until I started to get close. It’s kind of an imaginary line that’s been moved throughout the years and they’re eventually going to move it up to 67. But, while our financial old age is measured by that movable milestone, we have moved it even further. I remember when 70 was really old; in fact, in many industries, 72 was considered the mandatory retirement age but my father was still going strong, fixing taxes and keeping books until he was 79. More and more we hear about 100-year birthday celebrations and tributes like this one for an almost-centenarian. I didn’t ever think I wanted to live to be 97.7 years old until I met Margaret but if I can do the last segment of my life as she has, I will be happy to live as long as she has, to love as much as she has, to watch as many of her offspring be born, grow up, and bring more life into the world as she has, and to look around the room and see that not only am I the oldest person in the room, I am a far sight healthier than most of them. Watching Margaret deal graciously with her fading eyesight, weakening lungs, and the other challenges presented by a body that has withstood almost a century of this world, I feel blessed to know and minister to her. One of the longest sentences I have ever heard from Margaret was uttered on the day I became your Pastor. She said, with characteristic sincerity, humor, and honesty, “If there’s anything we don’t like, you’ll be the first to know about it.” Even though a woman of few words, her gentle wisdom has informed and inspired me, her consistent presence at Bible Study, Church services, and any other activity of this congregation has impressed me, and her smiling face has warmed my heart almost every week in the past 6 years. The only time we miss here here on Sundays is when she’s off gallivanting around the country – So when her spot in that pew is empty, it is a big hole in my Sunday.
Today is mostly about Margaret but I would not be doing my job if I didn’t point out that our Scripture for today was carefully chosen to remind Margaret and all of us of some essential truths about God and aging:
- God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and assured the people of Israel that “even when you turn gray, I will carry you.” No matter how old we get, God will continue to love and support us.
- The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that from Abraham, “and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” God used some of the most elderly in Israel to carry out his plan of salvation and many of the most faithful of our age are well past middle age.
- The story of Zacchaeus, the vertically-challenged tax collector, illustrates that Jesus does not base acceptance on physical stature. God loves and accepts us no matter what we look like, what we’ve done, or who we are; he only cares that we want to meet him enough to move past all that – even to climb a tree to get to him. Zacchaeus also reminded me of Margaret.
There are many more encouraging words in Scripture for Margaret and all who find themselves on the high side of the aging process. You have each received a devotional aid to keep as you move through the remaining years of your lives. On one side is a daily devotional that I imagine Margaret might do every day – you can just insert your own words. On the other side, you may notice that the background picture I found entitled “God Smiles” and it seemed to me a perfect backdrop for God’s words of love for his aging creatures. Will you join me in the responsive reading that I hope will bring you peace and maybe even a smile, this and every day:
Leader: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).
People: We pray that the long years will be good years.
Leader: The glory of youths is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair (Proverbs 20:29).
People: Give us strength and experience.
Leader: Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life (Proverbs 16:31).
People: Day by day, we strive to be more holy.
Leader: Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (Proverbs 23:22).
People: We who are parents teach and nurture in love.
Leader: So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come (Psalm 71:18).
People: Help us to always tell the story of Jesus and his love.
Leader: In old age they (cedars) still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap (Psalm 92:14).
People: Let the world look past the wrinkles and see the soul. Give us the grace to let our souls be worth seeing.
I invited Margaret to join me at the front of the church as the worship ended with this Prayer of Thanksgiving and Blessing for Margaret Howard Perry.
Margaret, we thank you for sharing your life with us, for your veteran leadership in our church, your hospitable home where all are welcome, your wisdom which you have shared with everyone, your love, and your faith in God, the church, and yourself, all of which you have shared so freely. Your life is an example to the rest of us and we are proud to be walking alongside you in this journey. Your life is a witness to God, an example to me, to all of us, and to the world. I personally thank you, as everyone here does, for letting me walk with you. I hope that my journey will be as honorable as yours and someday, I hope to be walking where you are, waiting for the pearly gates to open and welcome me home, where we will all finally be together again. Let us pray.
God in heaven, we give you thanks for Margaret, for her sweet disposition, her strong faith and leadership in Jermain Church, her hospitality, love and care for family, her good humor, generosity, and wisdom. Thank you for giving her to us for all these years and for those still to come. Bless her, dear Father, with an even longer life, good health, more and more grand-offspring, and a strong faith that will sustain her throughout what is yet to come. Give her much love – your own and ours, that she will feel loved for the rest of her days and then some. Fill her with the peace that comes from knowing that the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus, has won the final victory over death and assured her of a room in your heavenly mansion. In his name, we pray. Amen.
Susan Bowman, the “LadyFather” has written a book on her experiences in the ordained ministry. Aptly named “Lady Father,” it is slated for re-release in the near future. Subscribe now to receive a publication announcement and check out Susan’s Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ladyfather.