Preached Sunday, November 5, 2017
All Saints Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
This All Saints Sunday, I want to tell you the story of one of our saints, who joined our church family just two years ago.
A few weeks ago, on September 19, 2017, Shelly Kennedy-Leonard showed me who she was. Shelly called me at the beginning of September and told me that she wanted to see me. I had been waiting for this phone call. Diagnosed with a terrifying cancer diagnosis at the end of July, I had been trying to check in and give space at the same time.
Shelly texted me on the day we were supposed to meet and asked me to come to her house in Lancaster. I arrived at 10:00. As she applied make up expertly (even with contouring) on her living room couch, she told me the story of painting her living room.
“Matt and the kids were all away, so I painted the whole thing myself. It lightened the whole room. It looks like a magazine now with the contrast wall! I must have had cancer the whole time, but I didn’t know it. Isn’t that crazy?”
She told me what the living room used to look like, that she has so many regrets now about living with a “depressing” brown living room for so long, about trying to make it somehow better by adding rugs and decorations instead of just re-painting it. “Why didn’t I do this long ago?” She mused. “It could have been beautiful all this time!”
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
She showed me the hundreds of cards she had received since her diagnosis, hung up around the entry way so she could be “literally surrounded by the love of her friends.” She said, “Can you even believe all of these cards? I can’t believe how much love there is out there for me. This is the thing that keeps me going. My favorite card is the one from the Davises. They weren’t too hand-wringing, they just told me they’d bring baby goats over to my house! That’s the best. People bring me things every day. T-shirts, socks, books about making cancer sexy, because I’m doing this thing, you know? You gotta make this funny. I’m so lucky to have all this love. I wouldn’t have even known the power of all this love if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. I just can’t believe how much love there is.”
After the home tour, Shelly told me to follow her car because she had more to show me. I followed her to Drumlin Hill in Lancaster, where I had never been. We got out of the car. It was a drizzly day, but Drumlin Hill was one of the most breath-taking sights I have seen in Massachusetts.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Shelly brought me to the edge of the path up the hill, and pointing up, told me that she came there almost every day, with different constellations of her family or the dogs, or by herself to pray.
“This is the place where I feel close to God. I go to the top of the hill, and I’m sure I can feel God’s presence all around me; surrounding me. I come here for prayer and quiet…the kind you can feel wash over you. When I’m here, I feel surrounded by God’s love and peace.”
She described Drumlin Hill to me in every season. “It never stops being beautiful. It is always peaceful. You can see deer here, in the meadow, and the calliope of fall colors in the fall, and the kids sledding down the hill in the winter, and if you come here early in the morning, the mist rises off of the hill, and it is like a magical heaven, and all of creation is in concert with God. When I pray here, I just feel deep in my bones that all will be well. I am sure of God’s love because of all of this beauty….”
She looked at me as my eyes filled with tears. “Is this weird? Is this too much?”
“No,” I said. “I can see why you know God’s presence here.”
“Good. I just wanted you to know who Shelly Kennedy-Leonard is. I love you, Robin, and so I want you to know who I am.”
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
We got back into our cars, and I followed Shelly’s car to St. John’s in Clinton. She was talking animatedly on the phone to a friend or family member…I could see that million-watt smile in the rearview mirror.
We arrived at the door at the front of St. John’s in Clinton, near the altar. Shelly put holy water on her forehead, made the sign of the cross and genuflected as we walked over the threshold. Shelly went to find the lights in the sacristy. “I want you to see it all lit up! It is the most beautiful sanctuary I have ever seen. Look at the stained glass! The beautiful carved wood. The pictures of Jesus. The balconies, which are overflowing with people on Easter. The music that plays out from the rafters from the back fills this whole space. It pours over you. God is present in this space. You can just feel it. Can’t you? The power and majesty of this place. I have always felt as though God is in every beautiful thing here.”
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
After we kneeled and prayed she said, “I wanted to bring you here, Robin, because I wanted you to get o sense of my family’s journey. I want you to know where we came from.”
She told me the story of re-discovering the Catholic church as a 20-something, needing to make some kind of meaning in her life, feeling generally lost. She told me about taking the confirmation classes at St. John’s as a young adult.
She told me how hard she had worked, how proud she was on the day she stood on the altar to get confirmed the congregation beaming back at her; how proud her parents were. She felt as though something powerful had made a claim on her life.
She told me she came to church there every Sunday, and felt profoundly at home. She was an irreverent Catholic. She told me about laughing uproariously with Matt after marriage classes in the vestry, how fun it was to share that experience with him which they both took seriously and lightly at the same time; a metaphor for their love and marriage.
She told me about her wedding day in that space. “Here’s where Matt and I stood on the altar.” She told me about the love she felt from her family and friends gathered, how hot she and Matt looked “before kids.” She talked about how proud she was to marry Matt, what it felt like to be up there making those promises to him.
She continued to take me on a visual tour of the church’s space.
“Here’s where we sat when my children were babies, so Matt could rock that car seat back and forth with his right arm to keep them from crying. So embarrassing. It’s so echoe-y in here!”
“Here’s where Sadie and Harry were baptized. Here’s where we were sitting when Sadie took her first communion. She put out her two hands in front of her like this. Her little hands were trembling. I was so nervous for her.”
She beamed that smile made of light when she pointed to the back and said: “Here’s where the kids would be penned up before the Christmas pageant. It was like letting the animals out of the zoo. We always helped out because it was pandemonium. Here’s where we sat when they came in with all the hundreds of other sheep and angels, on the aisle so we could see.” She told me every character Sadie and Harry were in the pageant. “Harry made a great donkey!” She said.
Shelly told me about the day she left the church for her children’s sake. She was sure that the priests were not preaching God’s Love as she understood it. She wanted Sadie and Harry to know God as she knew God.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
And then she said: “Here’s where I’m going to cry, so I’m sorry, Robin.” She continued, “I know that God loves me. I know that God loves my family. I have never felt more sure of God’s love. I feel certain that it is not my time to die…that God still has more for me to do here. I’m getting treated, and I have hope. Because the only way to approach this is to believe that I am going to beat this. And there are new experimental treatments every day. But if by any chance that goes wrong, I wanted you to see where my family has been. I’m going to need you and First Church to take care of them, so I need you to know who we are.”
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
Then Shelly told me the story of when she was diagnosed with cancer…the way she and Matt were told, the shock of it; the disbelief. The terrible bedside manner of the doctor who announced the presence of her tumor to them matter-of-factly, like a stealth bomb.
She talked about her kids and how they are coping.
“You can ask us any question you want,” she and Matt said to them. “No questions are off limits.”
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
And Shelly was filled with hope that God would heal her.
“I have an icon of Jesus from the chapel downstairs where I pray that I visualize in my prayers. It is an image of Jesus with rays of light shooting out of his heart. And when I pray, I pray that the cancer is leaving my body like those rays of light, healing me, and dissipating into the air as it leaves my body so that the cancer cells can disappear from my body…but not just that… I pray that they harm no one else. And then I picture God’s love radiating into me in its place, filling me. And I picture those rays radiating out from my own heart and back into the world. That’s what I want: to be filled with God’s love, and to give that love back.”
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
We left the church, and Shelly and I walked to Bushel and Peck deli. She cracked jokes with the staff and the people in line. Winking, she insisted on buying me my salad and told her I owed her for next time. We sat down inside since it was drizzly outside. “How are you?” She asked me, and meant it.
“Robin, we’re scared of coming back to church. We are skittish and sensitive. We’re scared to cry. We’re scared of what people will say in front of the children. But I am determined to get my family back there. What I want the church people to know is that I am not my illness,” she said. “I am being treated. I’m not lying in a bed somewhere. I’m alive!”
We talked about strategies for well-intentioned questions and comments. We talked about how to care for her family. “My mom and dad are my rock and strength.” “Don’t hug Matt, he is trying to be strong and he doesn’t want to cry in front of you.” “Sadie doesn’t want to be singled out or pitied. No hugs for her either…high fives are fine. My strong, funny girl. “Harry needs lots of hugs and love and care. My sweet, sensitive boy.” She knew her people so well; she knew them by heart.
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
She told me that the time since she has been diagnosed in many ways had been a gift. She had to take off from work, allowing her to realize how much she had been needing to slow down. She could make sandwiches for her kids every day in the morning, which was a loving spiritual practice she re-discovered when she was home. She could be home every day when they came home from school. “I’m soaking up every moment with my crazy family,” she said.
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Before I left her to return to the normalcy of my day (as if anything could be normal after this conversation), she said to me, “Robin, I want you to know something else about me. I need to find a way to return all of this love I have been getting. And there’s no reason why I can’t, just because I have cancer. So please, if you can think of something that I could do to give back to the church or the people, please tell me. I don’t want to just receive, I want to give.” I told her that she had already given me the best gift I have ever gotten as a pastor. And I left.
Shelly Kennedy-Leonard came back to church on October 1st and October 8th she volunteered to teach Sunday School so that the love of God that pierced her heart might radiate back out into the world. The next Sunday, October 15, 2017, Shelly went home to live with God, who she knew with every fiber of her being loved her, and loved her family.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us rejoice in his salvation.
May light perpetual shine upon Shelly, beacon of hope, lover of life, giver and receiver, believer in God’s goodness. Well done, good and faithful servant.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.