The late Reverend Warren Carr, a friend of mine and mentor, once said that a person’s eulogy in a Christian memorial service should be limited to those aspects of a person’s life that proclaimed the gospel, proclaimed the message Jesus proclaimed.
The good news is that we have much to say about Naomi today for she proclaimed the message of Jesus in ways that Rob and I never could.
When many think about proclaiming Jesus, they might first think about preachers. However, as those words attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” teach us, you don’t have to be preachy to preach.
Naomi was anything but preachy. Her faith was quietly practiced but deeply felt. Always self-effacing, she never imposed her faith on others.
However, her faithfulness was clearly evident to all. Many witnessed her faith through her active participation with this church as she led worship by singing in the choir and playing bells with the Primetime Ringers. She was an active member of the Christian Women’s Fellowship and possessed the heart of a servant, always enjoying potluck dinners and other fellowship occasions. When she could no longer drive to church, she had the church van pick her up at Butterfield Place so she could be here to faithfully worship and serve with her family of faith.
However, this was certainly not the only way that Naomi proclaimed the gospel.
It could be said that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to teach us that things are not always as they appear to be. Sometimes reality is the exact reversal of actual appearances.
For example, Jesus said that those who appear to be last are actually first. And those who seem to be first are actually last.
In his first sermon, he said that it is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor. It is the not the strong who inherit the earth, it is the meek. The Apostle Paul said it is not the wise who shame the foolish, but it is the foolish who shame the wise. It is the weak who shame the strong.
The gospel continually teaches us that things are not what they appear to be.
Of course, Naomi, first taught us this reality with her name.
It is not Nayomey or Nyomi.
It is Nayoma.
No matter how it is spelled, or what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, no matter what you’ve seen or think you see and hear right now, things are not what they appear to be.
Naomi taught us this gospel truth in many other ways. Perhaps the the ways we will most remember, and for which we are most grateful, are the ways Naomi taught us, in the words of Ralph Sockman, that “nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.”
If you thought Naomi was gentle and quiet, then you probably never watched a Dallas Cowboy or Arkansas Razorback football game with her.
If you thought Naomi was a non-athletic spectator, someone who sat serenely on the sidelines of life, you probably never saw her slalom waterski, which she did until the age of 69 when she fell and cracked three ribs.
If you thought Naomi was this prim and proper Southern Belle, you probably never saw her play in the waves of the ocean. You never heard her laugh like a child as the waves would crash over her head knocking her off her feet.
If you thought Naomi only enjoyed soft church music, the chimes of handbells, the harmonious sound of a choir, a piano and organ reverently praising God, then you’ve probably never been to an Eric Clapton concert with her.
If you thought her husband of 66 years Pete, with his large, confident personality was the rock of the family. Then you probably didn’t know Naomi as well as her children knew her, as one with an iron backbone in a fluffy coating.
If you thought Naomi might be a pushover, a softy, a patsy you were probably not raised by her and as one of her children never did anything or said anything that would make her chase you with a fly swatter.
And you probably did not do or say anything that caused any harm to any of her children, because you would have quickly discovered that, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, you simply do not want to mess with Naomi.
Naomi was soft as a pillow, but she was hard as a rock.
Naomi was tenderly ladylike, but she was a tough old broad.
Naomi was humble and unassuming but the sound of her laughter, the melody of her heart, and loud reverberations of her spirt can still be heard today.
Like the good news of the gospel, things are not always what they appear to be.
Of course Jesus taught us this reality to lead and to guide us down a certain path, on a specific journey, on a particular and peculiar way:
A way where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty;
A way where those who mourn are comforted and the meek inherit the earth;
A way where those who are hungry and thirsty for justice are satisfied;
A way where those who show mercy because they know they need it for themselves receive mercy;
A way that those who may not be pure, undefiled and unbroken on the outside will see God.
It is a particular and peculiar way where peacemakers are called children of God, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and outcasts are included.
It is way that always graciously extends hospitality, always asking if you need anything to eat, something to drink, a time to rest.
Her children tell me that had to stop visiting their mother when it was mealtime at the nursing home. Because she would always try to share her food with them. No matter her circumstance, the needs of others came before her own. Whenever it appeared that you were the one being hospitable to her, being a blessing to her, she was actually being a blessing to you.
This is a way that sets a high bar in a culture that seems to have no bars, that offers a righteous morality in a culture influenced by a distorted morality, that teaches ethics rooted in a selfless, self-expending, self-effacing love for this world and every human being in a culture with ethics rooted in greed and self-interest.
Jesus also taught us that this particular, peculiar counter-cultural way is the way to life everlasting. To save ourselves, we must lose ourselves. To truly and fully live we must die. And all who embrace this way, live this way, though they are dead, live.
The good news is as Jesus and Naomi taught us, things today are not what they appear to be.
Four years ago, when Naomi broke her hip, and then suffered a stroke during surgery becoming wheel-chair bound and unable to communicate clearly, it appeared that her life was over. She had no reason to live, no reason to smile, and certainly no reason to play the piano.
However, this tender soul made even more tender by the difficulties of life was a tough old broad, under the fluffy and frail coating, an iron backbone was as strong as ever. Thus, Naomi continued to play that piano. She continued to live her life and she continued to be grateful and always found a reason to smile.
No, nothing in this world is what it appears to be. Nothing this hour is what it appears to be.
Naomi appears to spell her name Naomi yet it is Naomi.
Naomi appears to be buried in the National Cemetery, yet her music is still filling this sanctuary.
Naomi appears to be gone from our presence, yet her gifts live on through her children and grandchildren.
Naomi appears to be dead and no longer in our presence, yet those of us with faith know that she is alive and is in the presence of the Lord.
It appears to be a cold, dark, rainy day, but somehow, some miraculous way, the sun is shining.
When some learned of her passing, they may have thought about how losing someone during a holiday week makes it all the more heartbreaking. Families are supposed to be gathering together this week to celebrate life and to give thanks for the blessings of life. They are not supposed to be gathering for a memorial service.
But the good news is, things are not what they appear to be.
In the wonderful little book of Esther, we are told about the Persian Empire’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. Under Queen Esther’s leadership, the Persians are defeated and Israel was saved. Mordecai, who had adopted Esther, and raised her as if she was his own blood, decreed that the days had been transformed “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness…”
There is no doubt in my mind that on this day after Thanksgiving with Advent and Christmas approaching this family is going to be alright. Pray for them, but don’t despair for them. Console them, but don’t pity them. For if Naomi taught them anything, it is that these days are not as they appear. What is going on right now, today, this very hour, is not what it may appear.
Sorrow has been transformed into gladness. Pain has been turned into joy. A day of mourning has been transformed into a holiday, and everyday are becoming holy days. And because we believe what Naomi proclaimed with her life, this week of Thanksgiving will always be for her family days of feasting, gladness and celebration. Thanks be to God.