Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Mother Joan LaLiberte was an Episcopal priest.
She didn’t just find a church that did things
more or less her way.
She gave herself whole-heartedly
         to the Episcopal way of doing Church.
So this is appropriately an Episcopal service for her.
It’s what she wanted.

You may notice a few things we do differently.
We have Holy Communion as part of the Burial Office.
Holy Communion is a rich act, with many meanings.
But one of them is that we imagine Heaven as a banquet feast.
The saints are already at that celestial table.
When we celebrate Communion, we join with them.

 Mother Joan celebrated Communion at this altar many times.
Today she is at the heavenly table with her Savior
and Our Savior, the Lord Jesus.
This is our first chance to join her at the table as a saint in light
         as we share with her
         “the food and drink of new and unending life in him.”

The second odd thing is that we take up an offering.
That’s because an offering in part and parcel of Communion.
We give our alms along with bread and wine to God
         as a sign of our lives and labors to be blessed and shared.
Today’s offering will go to Joan’s best-loved charity,
         Hope Floats Animal Foundation.
They care for all sorts of animals at risk
         and as you know, Joan did love animals.

The last different thing you’ll notice is that the sermon
is not a eulogy; it’s a Proclamation of the Gospel.
We used to be so strict about that at our funerals
         it was hard to tell who died.

But what we can do is look for gospel
         not just in the lessons but in the life of our loved one.
It isn’t hard to see gospel in Joan’s life.
I won’t dwell on my personal remembrances,
         but this point is crucial.
When Joan was a new priest, right out of seminary,
         I’d meet her for spiritual direction.
I talked a lot. She mostly listened.
I could tell something special was going on.
But I couldn’t tell what.

 Eventually she explained that while I was talking,
         she was praying.
She would listen and pray at the same time.
New Agers might say she was channeling God to me.
Maybe. What I got was that she was channeling me to God.
It was like she was wearing a wire.
When I could not pray, I could still talk to Joan,
         and my words went straight to heaven.

That is the heart of what a priest is -- a networker,
         a telephone switchboard operator
                  helping us connect to God.
Of course, we know from 1st Peter
         all Christians share in that priesthood.
We can all help each other connect to God
         in ways we could not do alone.

We do that by bearing the Christ light to one another.
We show up for each other.
We care for each other with the kind of compassion
         Jesus made the centerpiece of his ministry.
“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said.
Paul said, “It is not ourselves that we proclaim.
         We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord . . .
                  for the same God who said ‘Let light shine’
                  has caused his light to shine in us. . . .”

We bear the light to one another.
And we bear one another to God in prayer.
We speak each other’s names to the Holy One.
That’s what Joan was doing all her adult life
-- bearing God to us and us to God.
Bottom line: that’s what Christians do.

We can learn a lot about God from watching a Christian
         living and speaking like a Christian.
St. Francis said, “Proclaim the gospel at all times.
                  Use words if necessary.”
These days words are often necessary.
Joan used words but she also showed us gospel
         in her actions.

She did not set out to build an institution here.
She wasn’t trying to build impressive statistics
         of successful congregational development.
She wasn’t trying to get the church’s hand
         in anybody’s pocket.
She set out to share Christ’s love with the people
         who needed it most.
She was looking for the hurting people,
         the walking wounded, the people Jesus called friends.
Joan served briefly as priest at St. James Church, Payette, Idaho;
         then for a long time at Good Shepherd Mission
         on the Ft. Hall Shoshone-Bannock Reservation
                  where she was buried yesterday.
In a conflict between church authority and tribal authority,
         Joan sided with the tribe.
As a result she found herself in New York for a decade.

The Church does not always behave well.
We did not always behave well to Joan.
But she had the courage of her convictions to stand up to us
         and she remained faithful to the Church
         even when we proved all too human.
There’s some gospel in that courage and faithfulness.

 In her retirement, Joan wanted to do two things.
She wanted to come back West
         and she wanted to serve God’s people.
Joan called me looking for a place where she could be of help.
I flew her to Nevada and drove her to Tonopah,
         where she immediately fell in love
         with the land and the people.
There’s some gospel in that too.

Christianity isn’t just an abstract idea.
It isn’t just a story that happened long ago and far away.
Christianity is something that happens
         in real places like Tonopah
         between real people like Joan
         and the people here.

So if we would honor Joan in the time to come,
         the way to do that would be
         to bear the Christ light to someone who needs it;
         to pray for them faithfully,
         to stand for what’s right,
         and to keep true to Christ’s all too human Church.

We can rest assured that will make her smile.