Sermon given at the funeral of Marie Isaacs
The Rev. Dr Marie Isaacs
We are gathered to reflect upon, celebrate and give thanks for the presence in our lives of that large and overflowing personality whom we have come to know simply as Marie.
This is in no way to disparage the not inconsiderable academic expertise of the Rev Dr Marie Isaacs and her important contributions to her academic discipline.
However, more important to those who have known her in such a variety of contexts is her presence as a friend in our lives – to some she is a family member (and our sympathies go out to the members of Marie’s family); to others she was a pastor (in this very church); to others a teacher or colleague; to others a companion. To all she was a friend.
I know that many of you have had almost a lifetime’s friendship with Marie stretching back to early university days. Marie and I go back merely to the early 70s when Marie joined the biblical department at Heythrop College. She was a trusted and reliable colleague who went on to head up the department she had worked hard to build up. Since we had required someone to teach that part of the N.T. syllabus dealing with the shorter epistles, Hebrews and Revelation Marie used to say flippantly that she had been hired to teach the backend of the N.T. However, most of all I treasure the friendship that we shared, a friendship which endured well beyond retirement 15 years ago. In the latter years when debilitating illness constrained Marie more and more to her home a telephone call periodically was always cheerfully received. I arranged to bring along the M&S sandwiches and Marie put the beer in the fridge – a couple of hours would be spent putting the world to rights and the churches.
When asked to speak at Marie’s funeral I felt honoured but not a little daunted – daunted at the thought: how could one do justice to such a flamboyant personality? Where did one start?
Marie had in fact provided the start. Marie was passionate about the bible – not a collection of texts frozen in the past, a product of quite different societies and times. Marie openly faced the challenge of bringing into dialogue the horizon of the biblical world and the horizon of the 20/21st century world. She was concerned with the bible, not just as an artefact of the past, but with the bible as a driving force in our lives.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the texts to which we have just listened were hand-chosen by Marie. Leave that task to others? – not likely! These texts offer an insight into how Marie saw her life and death.
Psalm 23 offers us much more than pleasant, sentimental images. One can speculate about the precise situation of the psalmist (and scholars inevitably do) but the language of the psalms is on the whole traditional and we can have no certainty. I prefer to read it over against a saying in chapter 3 of the book of Qohelet: ‘God has put into the heart of humankind ‘olam but such that we cannot know it all from beginning to end’. I take the Hebrew word ‘olam’ in that context to refer to a consciousness of the ongoing canvas of life from birth to death with its ups and downs over which we have no control. Psalm 23 with its two strong metaphors, picturing God as shepherd and table-host, offers us a confident support as we face up to the challenges this brings.
The metaphor of shepherd is a common metaphor for rulers in the ancient world. The psalmist, however, develops it and fleshes it out to give a rich picture of God’s gift of nourishment, pasturing and guidance in the right way. This is the firm basis of the psalmist’s simple statement to God: ‘I fear no evil because you are with me’. Marie shared that confident faith.
That image of God was, however, also a challenge. A book by Ruth Page entitled ‘The Web of Creation’ explores the complex interaction of all creation in response to the possibilities offered by God. Rejecting the possible dualities and polarities in dealing with an understanding of God as both transcendent and immanent she prefers to speak, not of God-in-the-world but of God-with-the-world. There is no handing of the task over to God but God is with us as we face up to the task. God’s shepherding challenges us in our turn to incarnate that shepherding and guidance for others as we interact with others in our journey through life.
Marie took up that challenge seriously in her life and teaching. In a college which relied heavily on a one-to-one tutorial system Marie’s teaching always had a strong supportive and pastoral element. She accepted the task of helping her students to deal with these biblical texts as a driving force in their lives.
With the image of table host the psalmist hopes for the happy fate that he may enjoy the good things of life all the days of his life and have the happy fortune to dwell in the Lord’s house for many long days. The good things of life, whatever they are, are pictured as a rich table, good food and an overflowing glass of wine. As a priest Marie dwelt in the Lord’s house and relationships, friendships, sharing were an important part of Marie’s understanding of the good things of life.
This metaphor of table host also poses a challenge which Marie took up. God’s largesse as table host must pass through us. I often participated in festivities of various kinds in Marie’s home. I almost see these verses as a snapshot of our annual department dinner which Marie hosted where the good things shared were, not only food and wine, but friendship and caring.
There we saw a rather more jolly side of Marie. Marie inherited from her father a love of the old music hall traditional repertoire. I suspect that on those evenings, when Marie saw the company breaking into groups or perhaps getting too serious, she would consciously change the tone. We would be brought back together into renderings from the music hall repertoire: ‘mud, mud, glorious mud’ or ‘swing me a little bit higher, Obadiah, do’ – a joyful coming together in sharing the good things of life.
In the letter of John there are two central themes – that of light and that of love. Whatever the difficulties in the community, the letter (if it is indeed a letter) appeals for solidarity, a solidarity based on the community’s union with God and God’s son, Jesus Christ. There is the call to shun the darkness and walk in the light of truth. Our own age is not without its problems and tensions. Firm in her integrity, Marie showed herself to be a fiery and doughty fighter in pursuing what she thought was required, either in the field of university politics, church politics, or simply standing up for what she saw was required for a good sound biblical education.
The second theme is that of love. The statement that God is love and Love is of God challenges us to incarnate that love in our lives such that love of God and of our neighbour are inextricably intertwined. So many of us have benefited from the way in which Marie lived out that challenge.
In Romans 5-8 Paul offers reasons for hope which was God’s gift in Jesus Christ. As children of God victory is ours through the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead. I pass over the twists in Paul’s arguments to the culminating question in our passage, a question the answer to which says it all: ‘who will separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing – not even death says Paul.
In one of our beer and M&S sandwich sessions I spoke to Marie of a friend of mine, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was 93 – she was ill and dying. I referred (as a term of endearment) to ‘dear old Elizabeth’. Boy, was I taken to task – the term ‘old’ was just not acceptable.
I realised that this was Marie’s way of coming to terms with the debilitating illnesses of her later years. Marie was in fact a mere three months older than I am – we use to say that ’36 was a good year.
That turned my thoughts to the work of an Irish Catholic theologian (now dead) – John O’Donohue. In one of his books entitled Anam Cara (gaelic for ‘soul friend’) he speaks of another possible duality – our nature as body and soul. In overturning that duality O’Donohue wished to change the language of ‘the soul in the body’ to that of the ‘body in the soul’ – that spirit/soul presence which surrounded, in this case the body of Marie Isaacs, penetrated it, informed it and transformed it. In Marie’s latter years Marie’s physical body declined considerably but that great soul /spirit/presence was and is still there. Here, I turn to another aspect of O’Donohue’s teaching. Coming from a strong Celtic spirituality he speaks of welcoming death as a friend. We may and do mourn the passing of physical contact with Marie but death was the friend who said ‘enough is enough’.
Part of Marie’s legacy was her knack of summing things up in a challenging pithy saying or image. Are some of those coming to mind now as I speak? In talking of the, I suppose, inevitable tensions in a community where there is resistance to change and growth the exasperated ‘Joe, when will they realise that once the toothpaste is out of the tube you cannot put it back in again’ really gets to the core of the problem. Or in discussing the problem of unity in diversity in the relationships of the Christian communities Marie with a twinkle in her eyes would say ‘Joe, I think that your lots idea of ecumenism is back to Papa’. (Well we were friends).
Most of all I treasure the following advice: ‘Joe, I must be so conscious that when we are up there (where I am now) we are preaching 6 feet above contradiction’. Hence, Marie’s meticulous preparation of the message she preached as she sought to involve the congregation as much as possible in that message and that preaching.
We are celebrating Marie’s life. But a life after all is a kind of kaleidoscope – little bits of flashing colours and light which coalesce into patterns, into a whole.
Any life is formed of a kaleidoscope of memories, anecdotes, flashes of insight. Metaphorically, then, I wish to step down from 6 feet above contradiction. You all have your experience of that great presence that is Marie and that too is part of the kaleidoscope of Marie’s life. In a short period of silence I invite each and every one in his or her particular fashion to feel the presence of Marie, to reflect on what that means for me and become a community of thanksgiving.
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