Sermon: Sermon for Dr Ruth Etchells
Preached on 21st August 2012
(Funeral of Dr D R Etchells)
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….’
Ruth, as many of you will be unsurprised to hear, was very clear about the focus of today’s service. She wrote to me, ‘I would want the thanksgiving and celebration to be not about Ruth, but about the wonders of God’s love that we have enjoyed together’.
And I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that by grace, Ruth has enabled us to glimpse something of the ‘length and breadth and height and depth’ of God’s love. Ruth’s evangelicalism was centred on seeking to know better the One whose ‘nature and name is Love’; a love that we see so perfectly displayed in the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, in his Incarnation, life, death and resurrection. God’s prodigal love, expressed in glass and adorning the cover of today’s service booklet. A love that expresses itself in the ‘wideness of God’s mercy’ – of which we have sung – of that hymn Ruth wrote, ‘This is the God I know’.
On Sunday morning, Ruth’s dear friend Gillian Boughton-Willmore led the intercessions at the Cathedral Sung Eucharist and so poignantly incorporated into the prayers the fact that she was standing, in that place and at that time, where Ruth so often had stood as a Cathedral intercessor. And I know that thousands upon thousands of people all over the world have been able to make Ruth’s beautiful prayers their own through her books, especially Just as I am, Safer than a Known Way and A Rainbow-Coloured Cross. But here at Durham Cathedral we were privileged to hear her pray. Her prayers were so carefully crafted, so elegantly written, so imaginatively conceived, and spoken with such feeling. But there is one little phrase from her praying that I will for ever hear in my soul, the two simple words ‘Oh, Lord’. These two words for me encapsulate Ruth’s longing, or should I say her grasp of divine longing, that the human race in its warring madness, in its self-centredness and sin, and even in its joys and delights where we seem unable to recognise the Source, should somehow come to know, to experience, the extravagant, life-transforming, love of God himself. A God who ‘so loved the world’, a Johannine phrase for a Johannine Christian. ‘Oh, Lord, please, please, please’ – Ruth liked to repeat words for emphasis – ‘break through and let your love be known’. You know Ruth had a firm hope that, at the last, salvation will be gloriously wide – that human beings will, in her words, ‘recognise the face of Jesus’, and see in him God’s ‘yes’ to their longings. ‘God so loved the world…’
Not long after I came to the Cathedral, Ruth asked if I would come and see her at Dunelm Court. I must confess, my first thought was ‘What questionable thing have I said from the pulpit or what esoteric liturgical development have I introduced, for which I need correction’ – and, my word, I do know that experience! But, no, she asked if I – in that lovely phrase of hers – would ‘walk with her’ as a spiritual companion. And it was my privilege to do that, gaining a magnificent personal enrichment. During those eleven years we shared many joys, many gifts. There were also challenges – Ruth’s continuing struggle with Crohn’s Disease, the complicated and worrying operation on her eye, the experience of loss, the death of her beloved dog Saffy and the loss of her dear friend Pauline, who cleaned for her, yes, but was such a special, special, friend. And then there were the sadnesses that come from the perplexities of human relationships. More recently, she told me of the circumstances of her birth to a single mother, and then of her adoption at the age of two and a half and of the gifts but also the hurts that became so bound up with her own identity. And finally, of course, she faced her battle with terminal cancer. We would often talk about our struggles to discern the will of God, but also of our experience of the love and grace of God. And throughout those eleven years, when I prayed with her, Ruth would punctuate the prayer with ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘Oh, Lord , yes’. We see again that grasp of the divine longing that is in the Father’s heart, whose love always reaches out and never, ever gives up. ‘God so loved the world…’
But there is another area I would like to share with you about Ruth and prayer. Ruth was very focussed and particular in her requests for prayer. And when we met, I have to say it was remarkable how those prayers were answered, not always predictably, but nevertheless truly. When Ruth had to go into hospital, and prayed that she might meet a Christian, it was remarkable how often a surgeon, a doctor, a nurse would prove to be a ministering angel. It was remarkable how often a set of circumstances would work themselves out, or a deep perplexity would somehow manage to resolve itself. And that made us bolder in our praying and in a strange way faith seemed somehow to grow. And even in adversity we would celebrate grace.
Many people wrote to Ruth or spoke to her or sent her texts in her final weeks. Some of us had the privilege of reading some of those messages to her as her strength failed. She also wrote some letters, asking for forgiveness and being forgiven, where perhaps misunderstandings or human fallibility has intruded into relationships. St Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4, ‘Though our outward humanity is in decay, yet inwardly we are being renewed’ became very precious to her, as did the words of Jesus in John 14 – ‘I will come to you…. and take you to myself so that where I am, there you may be also’. As she slipped into extremis, sometimes I wasn’t sure if she could hear me, and yet to my ‘amen’, I heard a whisper, ‘Amen, amen, amen’. Her spirit was singing. And on that late Saturday evening before she died, once we has assured her that Andy Murray had got to the Olympics final and that we had three gold medals on that Super Saturday, she said to me, ‘I’m ready’ as, in the presence of Jamie and Anne, Jo and Mally, she was anointed for the last time and we prayed our Nunc Dimittis.
Those messages, those visits, those texts, were for Ruth simply the final expression of the years of love and care of, and this is her phrase, ‘Mother Church’, a love and care that was given to her first by her natural mother who refused to give her up on birth, but then fulfilled by her godly adoptive parents, and then by this remarkable, amazing, world-wide Christian family into which she came ‘by adoption and grace’. And that is why this service had to be ‘not about Ruth, but about the wonders of God’s love that we have enjoyed together’. Ruth, I fear I have not entirely fulfilled your wishes, but I am only one of the many who will live out the rest of my Christian pilgrimage more faithfully, more trustingly, more prayerfully, more hopefully – and Ruth did love adverbs – because we had the privilege of sharing with her the ‘wonders of God’s love that we have enjoyed together’.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life – alleluia – ‘Oh, Lord, the joy of resurrection morning.’ Amen.