Reopening our doors

Homily, Requiem for Jennifer Gilnett

September 24, 2014
Passage: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 42:1-7; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 35-38, 42-44, 53-58; John 14:1-6
Service Type:

She was a gracious, perfectly coiffed, natural blonde who brought the best scones to staff meetings. She comforted an anxious friend with a simple word of sound advice: “Just close your eyes,” she said. Her friend did so, and her anxiety was soothed. She attended to every detail for her husband’s birthday parties, and guests saw immediately the depth of her love for him. She created and supervised award-winning publications that revealed the beauty of SPU to the world, and she zeroed in on the difference between an en dash and an em dash, jotting down in her precise handwriting the tiny correction. She wove her faith into her work, brightening her reflections about the school she loved with a quiet confidence in Christ Jesus. A natural godmother, she brought young people to her Lord, from Fremont to Oxford. You can hear her laughter echoing down the hallway, so you know she is in that room beyond you.


We strain to hear that laughter, for in all of our rooms now, solemn and soaring like this one, or dwelling places as ordinary as an academic office, we grieve the absence of that laughter. We want to be in the dwelling place where she is.


Yet in the ache of her absence, we encounter the Good News of Jesus Christ, who was taken from his friends one fateful night, long before they expected to lose him. (And they never expected to lose him in the way that they did.) We encounter Jesus today in John’s Gospel, in which he commands a serene, all-knowing presence: in a way, Jesus in John is perfectly coiffed, like Jennifer. He knows and has accepted what his friends do not: that his dreadful death is a path to glory; that his humiliation on the cross is the exaltation of God’s tremendous love.


But his friends—and I believe all of us here can understand this in our gut—his friends simply want him to stay with them. And though they won’t get their wish, they do hear this reassurance: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”


Here at the center of our story of faith, on the most fateful and wondrous night of Jesus’ exaltation into glory, at this most climactic and dreadful moment, we find a man saying goodbye to his friends. And his comforting words to them are not that he is simply “going to a better place,” or that he will somehow be “at peace” or “at rest.” His is not the usual reassurance we hear when a beloved is leaving us. No, there is more work to be done: he goes to “prepare a dwelling place” for us, a dwelling place in the bright presence of God.


What a relief that vision must be for Jennifer, who was many things in the midst of her friends, but was not known for being at rest, at her ease, reclining passively. Is it wrong to imagine that even now, separated from her beloved companions by the thin yet fearsome line of death—that even now, she is working hard to prepare a place for us?


Is it too much to expect her to remember the scones?


Jennifer shared with her beloved Kim a scholarly kinship with C.S. Lewis, a forbear in our Anglican tradition—we might call Lewis one of our “doctors of the Church.” When he was devastated by the untimely death of his wife, he couldn’t shake the idea that our beloved dead are not quietly content in God’s presence, but that they also grieve, they also long to be in a dwelling place with us.


Lewis’s wife Joy was not timid, not reticent. Maudlin remembrances would not honor her ferocious personality, or the ferocity of grief that her absence inspired. He likened her to a sword, writing this in the midst of his grief: “[She] was a splendid thing: a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.”1


Well-meaning friends would politely avoid such ideas and try to comfort Lewis with the timid assurance that his wife was ‘in God’s hands.’ This frustrated him until he finally found a way to make sense of the idea. He wrote, “‘She is in God’s hands.’ That gains a new energy when I think of her as a sword. Perhaps the earthly life I shared with her was only part of the tempering. Now perhaps [God] grasps the hilt; weighs the new weapon; makes lightnings with it in the air. ‘A right Jerusalem blade.’”


Is Jennifer a gleaming sword, sharply flashing in the hand of God, as death is swallowed up in victory?


She is just as easily a friend in a hushed theater, speaking a word of comfort to her anxious companion.


She is just as naturally a subtle writer, grieving alongside her frightened and confused community in the wake of senseless violence.


She is just as lovingly a friend and spouse who never shied from a culinary adventure, transforming a birthday party into God’s mountaintop feast.


A sword in God’s hand, or a friend just beyond our embrace, Jennifer lives in God’s presence—God’s sometimes terrible presence. She knows what we strive to understand: life with God cannot be a blissful, eternal vacation, because God wants to be among those who grieve. The same Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel is found weeping for his friend, and finds his voice most poignantly when he bids his friends farewell.


God wants to be among those who grieve. God, whose glory found its fullest expression on an instrument of death—God still sends Jennifer out and among those who grieve. She prepares a dwelling-place for us, and we for her: in life and in death, we care for each other. And we make preparations for one another to dwell in the merciful embrace of God.


1 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pp. 33 & 49.