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April 15th, 2017

As you might imagine, Easter is a busy weekend for a church and a pastor.  In addition to the services tomorrow, we also had a service Thursday night and I preached in the community Good Friday service.  I also have a wedding tonight, which meant a rehearsal last night.

I probably wouldn’t be leading this service today except that Joyce specifically wanted me and only me.  When she lay in the hospital the last couple of weeks, I was the only pastor she wanted to visit her.  We have a wonderful Associate Pastor named Lori who tried to help me out by visiting Joyce, and (I know this will surprise you) Joyce was a little blunt when Lori came in the room.  “May I come in?”  “No, I only want Pastor Bob.”  She told me later it was because she was feeling so badly and didn’t want to start over with someone new.

So Joyce, you got me then and you have me now on the day of your funeral.  That’s a little risky, you know, because I get the last word.  I get to be as candid as you and tell everyone exactly what I thought of you – in public!  And you can’t talk back.

Here it is.  I loved Joyce Reese.  We had a special bond.  Although I wish she had allowed room in her life for some others – at times, like this past week, it would have helped me out – I am honored that respected and loved me as her pastor.  She was prone to say things like, “I don’t do stupid.”  She respected intelligence and competence, and I take that as a high compliment.

Mind you, she wasn’t as fond of me either when I was a new pastor.  She had been active in church before I came, even singing in the choir.  But it took ten years and a few family funerals, including those of her parents and her business partner, Carol Estes, for her to warm up to me and start coming to church.  I’m glad she did.  We had a connection.

As I met with Joyce’s siblings, nieces and nephews, and their family members yesterday and then went home and thought and prayed about it, I discovered three rather clear parallels between Joyce and the Gospel: accounting, family, and mystery.

Accounting.

Most people who knew Joyce Reese knew her as an accountant.  She went to work right out of high school for L. J. Dawkins, learning on the job.  It’s rather surprising in today’s world that she never earned a college degree or got her CPA license to do what she did.  When Mr. Dawkins died, she and her co-workers, including Carol Estes (a long-time member of Corinth) bought the business and ran it until Carol passed away, then Joyce continued until she retired.  Even then she didn’t fully retire; she continued to do tax returns and other accounting work for family and friends almost literally until the day she died.  She was telling her sister-in-law Carolyn where to find files at her home early this week.

It was Jennifer Collins, Carol Estes’ daughter, who first pointed out to me that it’s so appropriate we are having this service today on April 15.  She’s being laid to rest on the least restful day of the year for her over the past sixty years or so.

Then again, it’s not particularly convenient for her fellow accountants to be here on April 15.  But Joyce wasn’t necessarily all about your convenience.  Her nephew Brian Marshall shared a story yesterday that illustrated this.

Brian’s career has been with Xerox, selling and servicing copiers.  Joyce was never a customer, but he was her go-to guy anyway if she had a problem, especially a copier emergency.  The same was true of her great nephew, Josh, Pat’s grandson, if she had a medical issue because he’s a paramedic.  When Joyce needed you, she expected instant help whether or not it was convenient for you.  Malcolm got called away from his son’s ball game because Joyce needed him “right now.”

Brian was on a sales call during tax season a few years back when his mobile phone rang.  It was Joyce.  But he was in a customer’s office so he didn’t call back right away.  When he left the customer, he called her back and she was frantic and angry.  Her copier had died, and she needed him.  He was almost in South Carolina, but he high tailed it back home to check on Joyce’s copier.  As soon as he got to her office, he spotted the problem.  A flashing light on the copier said, “Please load paper.”  Technology was not her strong suit.

Brian said Joyce was like a cookie, crusty on the outside but soft in the middle.  She could be generous and kind, but also blunt and maybe too honest.  You always knew where you stood with Joyce, but sometimes that came across as harsh or uncaring.  She didn’t have a filter – whatever she was thinking, kind or not-so-kind, it came out of her mouth.

That raises the accounting question, doesn’t it?  If life is a balance sheet, did Joyce die with a net profit or loss?  There’s more about accounting in the Bible than you might realize.  One Internet site I found has an essay titled, “Accounting in the Bible.”  There are stories about financial accounting, internal control, and managerial accounting.  Another site lists Bible verses about “Accountancy,” which includes the analogy of accounting.  For example, the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 14:12, “Each one of us will give account of himself to God.”

When Joyce gives an account of herself, is God going to judge her on the crusty or the soft?  If you answer, “She was really a great person and she did more good than bad,” you might be right but you’d also miss the great Gospel principle here.  The Bible never minimizes our sin.  It doesn’t use euphemisms like “He just made a mistake” or give excuses like, “She had a rough day and she was under pressure.”  No, sin is sin.

The great Gospel principle of accounting is not that God understates or overlooks our sins.  It’s that there has been a full and exhaustive review of our books, and the balance sheet looks terrible – for all of us.  However, full restitution has been made by Jesus Christ for us, and we have only credits – his credits applied to our account.

Thus on the night before he died, Jesus can look at his eleven remaining disciples (Judas had already left to betray Jesus) and say, “Don’t be troubled.  You trust in God; trust also in me.  I’m going to prepare a place for you, and I will come back and take you to be with me.”  What, Jesus?  Don’t you know that Peter will deny you, Thomas will doubt the resurrection, and all of them will desert you that very night when you need them the most?  “Yes, I know all of that.  But tomorrow I will also suffer the wrath of God on their behalf and their entire debt will be paid in full.  The accounting principle of the Gospel gives such hope.

Family.

Joyce loved her family.  Everybody knew that about her, including her family.  She never married or had children of her own, so she lived with her parents and took care of them until they died.  She traveled with them – in the four corners of the United States from Seattle to New York to Florida to Texas, and even out to Hawaii and beyond to Australia.

Her nieces and nephews and their children were her children.  She bragged on them incessantly to clients and to each other.  When I went to see her on Tuesday before she died, I asked her point blank what she wanted said at her funeral.  Her number one answer:  “How dear my nieces and nephews are.  There’s a lot of ‘em.”  Mavin remembers going to Joyce’s office as a child, where nothing was off limits for her play.  It was a fun place to be.  Joyce also took Mavin for ice cream every Sunday.

“Family” didn’t just mean biological family for Joyce.  Many clients were like family.  She played cards at Abingdon Glen on Friday nights, and her extended family is here today in large numbers.  I became part of her family.  The thing is, though, not everyone was in the circle.  It took a while to rise to family status.  Once you were in, you were treated like family – which, as we said earlier, still didn’t spare you from the crusty outside.  But the loyalty, the generosity, the grace – you got that.  By “grace” I mean that if Joyce did get upset with you, if you were family, everything was OK the next day.

Jesus uses a “family” analogy in John 14.  “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”  The reason we chose this text for Joyce’s service is because I wanted some continuity with the services I preached for her parents and for Aunt Frances and Uncle Clarence.  I looked through those old bulletins, and chose some of the same Scriptures and songs.

John 14 was especially appropriate for “Paw” – her father, Cecil Reese.  Unlike Joyce, he was mechanically minded and could do anything with his hands.  He was a woodworker extraordinaire, so “preparing a place” for you was a good way to connect his life to Jesus.

For Joyce, the connection is not so much in the woodworking as it is in the family.  Jesus is preparing a home in his Father’s house.  He wants family to be there.  One of the ways in which Joyce’s life expresses a gospel truth is that the family doesn’t include everyone.  Jesus was not a universalist – meaning everyone automatically gets in.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said.  “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He has made a way for us to live with him forever, but we have to come through that way.

Joyce knew Jesus, and she was ready to meet him.  She told me Tuesday, “I’m ready to die.”  She told Martha Wednesday night, “Take me home.”  The home she was talking about is the home Jesus is preparing for us.

Mystery.

Joyce was an avid reader all her life.  When she was young, she and Pat would bring home an armload of library books on their trips into town.  Although she was a talker, she was an introvert and enjoyed her solitude.  She spent those quiet hours mostly with her books.  Even as a child, she would be reading or learning new vocabulary words while her siblings and friends were playing outdoors.

Joyce especially loved James Patterson’s books.  That is appropriate, since Patterson’s passion in life is to encourage reading by writing great books.  His books have sold more than 350 million copies.  Patterson writes non-fiction and romance novels, but he is best known for his thriller mysteries featuring Alex Cross, a fictional psychologist.  Joyce read all his books.

One of the mysteries to me was why Joyce asked me to include “In the Bulb There is a Flower” in her funeral service.  It was the only request she directly made about this service.  It’s certainly appropriate for today, on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, because the song speaks of the condition of the believer between death and resurrection.  We’re like a bulb or seed being planted in the ground.  The Apostle Paul makes much of this analogy in 1 Corinthians 15.  The song is also appropriate because of its reference to cocoons and butterflies.  The front cover of your bulletin is the same as we’ll use tomorrow in our Easter worship services.  The butterfly is a beautiful symbol of resurrection.

One reason Joyce asked for this song is that I sang it at her Uncle Clarence’s service.  But why did she like it enough to ask for it all these years later?  That was my mystery.  My first thought was that she liked flowers.  And, indeed, she kept a single rose on her table where she sat to eat or work or meet clients.

Among her things, Joyce also kept a poem called “Flowers.”

I would rather have one little rose from the Garden of a friend

Than to have the choicest flowers when my stay on earth must end.

I would rather have the kindest words and a smile that I can see

Than flattery when my heart is still, and this life has ceased to be.

I would rather have a loving smile from friends I know are true,

Than tears shed ‘round my casket when this world I bid adieu.

Then bring me all the flowers today, whether pink, white, or red;

I’d rather have one blossom now – than a truck load when I’m dead.

That speaks of Joyce on so many levels.  But it reinforces this we know about Joyce – that flowers/outdoors/gardening were not her passion.  Relationships were.  So why did she like this hymn which is titled, “In the Bulb There is a Flower”?

I think it might be this line:  “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery….”

Joyce loved mysteries, and here’s a Gospel song that talks about life as a mystery.  Even life after death as a mystery.  That’s exactly how Thomas thought of it in the John 14 passage:  “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  A lot of people think that way, and, as we said earlier, Jesus made his answer clear:  “I am the way.”

Mystery is another beautiful gospel word.  The New Testament uses the word “mystery” in a surprisingly parallel way to the James Patterson novels.  I don’t think Patterson’s books would be popular if the mystery remained unsolved at the end of the book.  The novel holds you in suspense with stories and clues, but eventually the mystery is solved.

The New Testament uses the word mystery in that way.  Paul says the gospel was “hidden for ages and generations,” but not anymore.  Now “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27).

The New Testament is like the final chapter of a James Patterson novel, where the mystery is revealed.  The pieces fit together and you see clearly what you had missed before.  Joyce Reese is now living the end of the book, because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

It is in this Easter hope that we gather.  As the song writer says,

 Jesus lives, and so shall I; Death, thy sting is gone forever.

He who deigned for me to die lives the bands of death to sever.

He shall raise me with the just; Jesus is my hope and trust.

Mystery solved.  Amen.

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