Last Saturday I had the privilege of preaching at my mother’s memorial service. I share it with you as a testimony to the witness of my mother’s life and as a challenge for each one of us to consider prayerfully where God is calling us to pitch our tent in this world.
We are in the midst of the season of Advent. It’s a season of preparation, anticipation, expectation, and comings and goings. It’s also a time for self-reflection. While we are here to honor Gwen’s life, our worship this afternoon is ultimately not about Gwen, it’s about God’s grace given to Gwen and to us. And it’s about our call to share that grace with the world so that the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness.
Every year at this time people of faith read Luke’s account of how the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Mary, a nondescript young woman, a nobody in the world at the time. Gabriel’s most important words were his first ones, words that would no doubt stay with Mary for the rest of her life, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.” Naturally, Mary was confused. “What are you talking about?” Gabriel replied, “Don’t be afraid because God knows you and loves you and wants to use you to change the world. You are going to conceive and bear a son who will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
Mary wondered how all this was going to happen since she wasn’t married. Anticipating the question, Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you. Therefore this child will be called the Son of God. And the good news is that you don’t have to go through all this alone. Not only is the Lord with you, but your cousin Elizabeth, who is well past childbearing age, is 6 months pregnant, for nothing will be impossible with God.” And how did Mary respond to Gabriel? She said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
Mary had a choice. She could have said no to Gabriel. She could have reacted out of fear, skepticism, doubt, or sheer disbelief. But she didn’t. Mary took a huge risk by believing Gabriel’s statement that God was with her. She trusted his assurance that she didn’t have to be afraid, she embraced the possibility that the son born to her would indeed be holy, and she expressed confidence by saying, “Here I am. Use me as you will.” Mary allowed God’s love to become incarnate in her. The Word was made flesh through Mary, full of grace and truth.
When the gospel writer John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, a more literal rendering of 1:14 is that God pitched a tent among us. I would like to suggest this afternoon that God pitched a tent in Gwen Hartzel’s backyard for the past 84 years. Of course, if my mother knew that she would be horrified since she was not a camper in any way, shape, or form. Roughing it was not her style. However, Gwen did say yes to God early in her life, just as Mary said, “Here I am.” Gwen understood the words of Matthew when he quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” Gwen allowed God to live in her and use her as means of sharing grace, hope, and light to a hurting world.
10 years ago I spent a week with my parents in Arizona. It happened to be the week of September 11, 2001, and we became stranded in Phoenix because no planes were flying. By Friday of that week, we decided that we would get home faster if we rented a car. As my father and I took turns driving across the country, I took out my computer and asked both mom and dad to share their life histories. What I discovered is that through all the days of her life, God said to Gwen, “The Lord is with you,” and she pitched her tent firmly in this world by responding, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
Gwen was the 2nd of 4 children born to Mary Price and William G. Nyce. She lived at 605 Columbia Ave. in Lansdale where she and the neighborhood kids played games such as mumbly peg, hopscotch, marbles, kick the tin can, red light, and hide and seek. The Nyce children wanted to play card games as well, but my grandparents thought cards were wicked, so the kids ended up making their own cards out of cardboard. All the children had bikes which they would ride around town.
Gwen’s father started Nyce Manufacturing Company in 1907, so he was a busy man. Gwen described him as always being in a hurry and collecting all kinds of junk, not only at his factory but at home as well. She remembered her mother cutting up her own wedding dress to make clothes for her Shirley Temple doll. Gwen and her sister Beulah would dress up their cats in doll clothes and take them for walks in a stroller, which was no doubt the beginning of a life-long love of cats.
Gwen walked to elementary school and then to high school, which was about 3 miles away. I never knew this until we spent that time in the car in 2001, but my mother graduated first in her class of 160 students at North Penn High School. She was a very intelligent person. Gwen babysat, had a job at Woolworth’s on the weekends, and also worked at her father’s factory in the summer.
Gwen’s parents were faithful members of the Hatfield Church of the Brethren, where the women and girls had to wear coverings on their head. Sometimes Mom forgot, so the older women would chide her, and she had to go to the house next door, where they had extras. They’d tell her, “If you wore the covering all the time and not just on Sunday, you wouldn’t forget it.” Gwen remembered love feasts, footwashings in big wooden buckets, and the pressure to come forward at the time of the invitation to confess her faith, be baptized, and join the church. When the time was right, my mother said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
My mother was fortunate to be able to attend Juniata College, their church college and her father’s alma mater. It was at Juniata College where she met my father, who had just come back from serving in the Merchant Marine. They were married on September 2, 1950, at which point Gwen became a General Conference Mennonite and left her covering behind forever. Gwen and Gerry had 4 children: Gerry Jr., me, Randy, and Jenny.
I can only speak for myself by saying that I enjoyed a wonderful childhood in a secure and sheltered family where Gwen was a consummate stay at home mother. I was free to ride my bike all over town when we lived in Lansdale, and when we moved to a more rural area outside of Souderton in 6th grade, I spent much time outside exploring. My mother was always there for my father and her children to take care of our needs. Gwen was a great cook, she definitely had a sweet tooth which she bequeathed to all of her children, she loved tending her flowers, and I still remember how she taught me the stories of the Bible at bedtime by reading from the book, Little Visits with God. My mother was the first person to teach me about Jesus and a God who is always with me and who will never fail me or forsake me.
Gwen was an English major in college and an avid reader of books, which rubbed off on me big time. My mother’s greatest contribution to Zion Mennonite Church was her service on the Library Committee for over 50 years. Most of that time she was the head librarian. I still remember checking out Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books as a kid from the library in the old church, which at the time was the only public library in Souderton.
When my parents moved to Peter Becker Community 15 years ago, my mother started a lending library in their garage, and every time I would call, Mom would ask, “Read any good books lately?” Even when Gwen’s Alzheimers had progressed to the point where she needed full-time nursing care, she still had a book in her hand and would circle typos in the church bulletin that Dad brought to her every week.
Gwen was a natural care-giver, which I believe was one of her spiritual gifts. Not only did she raise her children well, she also loved to take care of her grandchildren. I will never forget the time when Mom agreed to take care of our 2 oldest children, Sarah and Garth, for nine days, so that Gary and I could take a trip to Israel. Sarah was not yet 3 years old, and Garth was only 9 months old. My father helped her when he was home, but he was still working. As a grandparent myself, I can only imagine how exhausted Gwen was by the time we arrived home, but there was never a hint of complaint. What a gift she gave to us.
When I lived in Germany for 13 months as a college student, my mother wrote a letter to me every week – every single week! Gwen was not naturally athletic, but her husband and children were athletic. To her great credit, she was a good sport and learned how to ski, fish, play tennis, golf, bike, and even jog. She did draw the line at hunting and swimming. One time in the early 1980’s my parents came to visit us in Traverse City, Michigan, and my mother ran in a 5 kilometer race with me. She would have been in her early 50’s then, and she came in first in her age group.
Gwen also loved traveling. Our family always went to the shore for a week in the summer, but when we were older, our parents took us on longer trips to Florida, Canada, New England, and out west. As empty nesters Mom and Dad traveled all over the world, sometimes alone and other times with friends. One of my mother’s favorite activities while traveling was collecting shells, hence the shell you see on the altar table.
My parents shared a love of music and greatly enjoyed going to the Philadelphia Orchestra and other concerts in the area. I know my mother had a beautiful voice because I sat next to her in church. She told me back in 2001 that she used to sing in a choir in high school that would travel from Lansdale to Souderton to sing religious music in front of Fishers Furniture Store. According to Gwen, the owners of Fishers used the choir to attract the Plain People to buy furniture in their store. Mom always said, however, that Dad was the singer in the family, and she sat with the kids so he could be in the choir.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that my mother loved to laugh and have fun, and once we got laughing it was hard to stop. I remember one time in high school when Mom and I were right here at the church for a school function, perhaps a concert. Something funny happened, Mom and I both got the giggles, and we simply could not stop laughing. It was pretty embarrassing but made for a great memory.
The journey with Alzheimers defined the last years of Gwen’s life. Alzheimers is a cruel disease which takes an enormous toll on the one with Alzheimers as well as the caregiver. Siblings Bill and Beulah both died of Alzheimers at younger ages than Gwen. It was an agonizingly difficult road for both Mom and Dad, and my father valiantly and faithfully cared for her until September of 2009, when it was no longer possible. As the only child living far away from PA, I could only visit occasionally, but when I did, I lived with Mom and Dad and witnessed firsthand the challenges. I have enormous respect for my father’s courage and unflagging love, the attentiveness of my brothers and sister to their mother, the compassionate care she received at Peter Becker Community, and the support of this congregation.
Of course, Alzheimers did not ultimately define who Gwen was, for the Lord was with her all the days of her life to the day she died. Gwen was a servant of the Lord who literally gave herself away, pitching her tent in the mist of her family, church, and world. She allowed herself to be overshadowed by her husband and her children and stayed in the background in order to support us. She blessed us and encouraged us to become who God created us to be, and in her quiet way, she reminded us that nothing is impossible with God. That was her call in life. Could Gwen have articulated that in words? Probably not, but that is what it was.
Last week Bishop Keaton asked me to characterize my mother in one sentence. I said, “My mother taught me the Christian faith and modeled what it means to be a servant of the Lord.” Even though my mother was a very private person as far as expressing her faith and emotions, in the truest Anabaptist sense, Gwen was an activist. She stood up for the least, the last, and the lost, and she was an advocate for peace and justice. She was also a typical Church of the Brethren/Mennonite who insisted, “Don’t just talk to me about faith. Show me your faith by how you live.”
I honor my mother for her life, her servanthood, and for her faith in her children. There is much of my mother that lives and grows in me, and for that I cannot express enough gratitude. I can’t help but think of Proverbs 22:6, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” My mother trained us in the right way. Her influence extended to all of you as well. Yet Gwen would not want us to glorify her this afternoon. This worship service is about God, and it’s about what God has done through Gwen and how we are called to keep loving, keep serving, and keep doing the impossible.
What difference has Gwen’s life made in your life? What have you learned from her life that will empower you to live fully, joyfully, faithfully, and peacefully? You see, the angel Gabriel’s words were not just to Mary, and they weren’t just to Gwen, they are spoken to us today. That is the message of Christmas. Gabriel says to each one of you, “Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you. Don’t be afraid because God knows you and loves you and has great plans for you to change the world.”
God has pitched a tent in your backyard, too, so what are you going to do about it? Are you going to crawl into that tent, shut out the rest of the world, and snuggle down with Jesus till you get to heaven? Are you going to head off to the Holiday Inn instead where the pillows are fluffy, the sheets silky, and there’s room service at your fingertips? Or are you going to carry God’s tent on your back and pitch it right in the midst of the poverty, despair, hopelessness, racism, unemployment, and oppression of our world? Are you willing to incarnate the love of Christ and be the hands, eyes, ears, and feet of Jesus as you care for the widows, orphans, and immigrants, transform unjust structures and institutions, and speak tender words of grace and hope to all?
Do you know that God is with you whether you are a nobody or a somebody, whether you openly claim to be a disciple of Jesus or whether you’re still searching, whether you are aware of God’s presence or can’t seem to connect with God? Do you know that you don’t have to be afraid to become who God called you to be, for with God nothing is impossible? Do you know that you have been blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others?
If the Lord is with you, what difference will it make when you walk outside this church back into the world? It will be a shame if we leave here having honored and given thanks for Gwen’s life without being changed in some way ourselves. Where is God calling you to pitch your tent so that you will make a positive difference in the world? Can you allow the power of the most high to overshadow you and give glory to God through you? Is it time for you to renew your commitment to the One who pitched a tent your backyard? Could the angel be speaking to you this day through Gwen Hartzel’s life? “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.