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Century's End
A Homily at the Death of Marjorie Brick


Old  Testament Lesson: Isaiah 65:17-20.

"Behold, I create a new sky and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing, and her people for gladness. I will also rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; and there will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying.

No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days; for the youth will die at the age of one hundred and the one who does not reach the age of one hundred shall be thought accursed."

New Testament Lesson: John 21:20-23.

"Peter, turning around, saw the disciple Jesus loved following them... [and] said to him, 'Lord, what about this man?' Jesus said to him, 'If I want him to remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow me.' This saying therefore went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, 'If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?'"


We are gathered this morning to mark the end of a century, a century coinciding with the life of Marjorie Brick. Somehow a life which has attained unto the round number in which we count the passage of historical eras seems almost to have escaped mortality. Psalm 90 estimates that the most one can reasonably expect of life is 70 years, "or by reason of strength," 80. Of God it says by contrast that he is "from everlasting to everlasting." Or, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says of "the Son of God, without beginning or end of days."

Genesis tells the legends of the great antediluvian patriarchs who lived for eight and nine hundred years, though for the Genesis writer these life spans are already symbolic allegories. The Isaiah prophecy wistfully envisions a return of that primordial, mythic time when the merest stripling will exceed the life span of the eldest. In such a scenario, life would have won the race with history, the plodding tortoise finally overcoming the swift hare.

These are myths, I say, but the fact remains that Marjorie Brick did live an even century. She is dead, alas, so history passed her and won the race, but still, we can savor the image: most of us live a life contained well within a century. Marjorie Brick's life contained a century.

And here is a paradox: we, the living, stand in envy of one dead! Usually the mourners at such an occasion are looking on with a sense of relief, as Tolstoy depicted it so unflinchingly, relieved that the Grim Reaper has missed them this time and cut down some hapless contemporary instead. But Mrs. Brick outlived all her contemporaries, both those who admired her, and those who sought to exploit her, and as a woman of accomplishment and wealth, she had both types of contemporaries. But none of either tribe is here today. All alike have gone on into history ahead of her.

And we, you and I, can only stand afar off, much her junior, and wonder. As I visited Mrs. Brick over the last several years, prayed with her and read scripture to her, I had grown to half-expect she would outlive me as well! My little daughters Victoria and Veronica always enjoyed tagging along to visit the matriarch. And at times I was tempted to wonder if they would one day be taking their own children to visit her!

As we look on this life now spent, we are moved inevitably to ask what was accomplished in it. And of course, simply to have endured unto the end of a century would be accomplishment enough! But there is more. Mrs. Brick is that case envisioned by the Isaiah prophecy: the one cut off prematurely at 100. She was like Enoch who disappointed his millennial fellows and left this life at a mere 365 years! "Enoch walked with God, and God took him" to be with himself. Only the good die so young!

Marjorie Brick was gifted in the arts and with a sense of compassion for all beings. She was a devout Christian believer, an equally devout humanitarian, and beyond this she saw, as Albert Schweitzer did, that the inner drive of the ethic of Jesus, the Golden Rule, is a reverence for all life forms, not just the human. She was a member of the National Wildlife Federation as well as various social and political groups. And with Marjorie Brick, these concerns did not remain safely within the realm of opinion. She put her money where her mouth was. She knew the salt of the earth savors nothing as long as it remains useless in the shaker.

The very circumstances of this service today attest to the remarkable achievement of the centuried Mrs. Brick. She was for many decades a faithful member of the First Baptist Church of Montclair and faithfully supported its programs, whether sewing bandages in wartime or giving to its various building projects. During my pastorate there, a perpetual headache was how to afford repairing the crumbling bell tower of the sanctuary on the corner of Church and Trinity. It was no new vexation. I learned later that decades earlier Mrs. Brick had single-handedly funded the repair of the very same structure. And one must assume King Hiram's artisans did their work well. But years and years and years passed in the interim and it needed to be done again. And finally the congregation, like most others in town, found themselves in a different age, one in which church-going was no longer the fashion, and their meager resources made it impossible to repeat the repair. So they sold the building to a group of enthusiasts and tabernacled in this place. In other words, Mrs. Brick managed to outlive the very building she had decades earlier paid to restore!

Mrs. Brick was wealthy, as I have said, and it is a sad comment on our age, perhaps on every age, that some will know only that about her. Some will speculate, "What was she worth?"  The Bible raises the question of what an individual is worth, nor does it shrink from using financial metaphors. I am thinking of a famous parable in Matthew. God is depicted as a king handing out assignments to his stewards. In his absence, they are to assume management of his affairs. He assesses what each is capable of and hands out different amounts of capital to invest. In two cases his faith is justified. Two of the stewards get a hundred percent return on their investments. The third disappoints his master. He was too cowardly to venture the money. He simply buried it in the ground to await the master's return. At least he would have lost nothing. Or so he thought. But by playing it safe he lost everything. By seeking to save his life he lost it.

And of course the parable treats of the final judgment. The absent king is God off up in heaven. We are his stewards, the only hands available to do the work of God on earth. And the various amounts of capital entrusted to each according to his ability, well, that's your life of many days or few. From him who was entrusted much, much will be expected. The day of reckoning is the final judgment when the account books are opened. It is the IRS audit. And the question on that day is "Well, what do you have to show for yourself? What have you made of the investment I entrusted to you? What have you dared? What have you risked?" For there is no other way to achieve, whether for yourself or for God.

The image of the poor coward who has played it safe all his life, having merely buried his talent of silver in the ground awaiting the King's return--I see there the image of resurrection. When the trumpet sounds, he finds himself rudely awakened, emerging from the grave (having been "buried in the ground") with nothing to show for his decades of life except the very skin on his back. How much was he worth? Exactly nothing. His life had not been about anything. His life had not been spent in the service of anything. It had not become raw material for the fashioning of anything. He was just a loss.

The others? We read that they were given great promotions to wealth and power. But that is the imagery of the parable, no more to be taken literally than the life spans of the preflood patriarchs. I'll tell you what the reward was. It was simply the verdict, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." You know well enough from your own experience that there is no greater reward than those words. And the day of reckoning? It is today. It is when we gather to make the final epitaph, the judgment of history on this life. And there is no doubt in my mind that Marjorie Brick had well earned that verdict, "Well done, good and faithful one."

But that is not the only metaphor of investment the New Testament gives us. Recall the words of Paul in his Last Testament, 2 Timothy: "Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me, his prisoner; but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day " (1:8-12).

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Now it is the servant who expects something of the master. It is Paul who has allowed God some capital and expected him to keep it safe until his return. And do you think God will be like the third servant in the parable, merely returning the deposit without interest? I think not. I think rather of Paul's promise to the Philippians that God has begun in them the good work of sanctification and will continue to perfect it until the end, even though the process may sometimes be less than pleasant.

And what of Marjorie Brick? Over the past 7 years or so I had the high privilege of visiting her at least once a month, and I had the treat of seeing both sides of this investment formula in action. There was Mrs. Brick, reduced already by the time I met her to complete and childlike dependence on a staff of round-the-clock nurses. She lived, as she had done for decades, in her own home. In the circumstances, this was nothing to be taken for granted. During the same period, I had been visiting another elderly lady in a nursing home which, for all its too-sweet-scented air and squeaky clean floors, could be a screaming Bedlam. Thank God, Marjorie Brick was not abandoned to such a fate. I thought often of the Psalm which says, "I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread... For the Lord loves justice and does not forsake his godly ones; they are preserved forever" (Psalm 37:25, 28a).

So Marjorie Brick had been right to entrust her lot to her Lord, as he had shown shrewd judgment in entrusting life and wealth to her. But Mrs. Brick's days of service were over. She had already, even in her lingering life, been welcomed into the joy of her Lord. And yet I beheld one of God's servants hard at work. Though all Mrs. Brick's nurses deserve our gratitude, I can personally attest to the tireless Christlike service of Annette Kennedy. She might claim as her own the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, "We proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our very lives, because you had become very dear to us."

Both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, when they speak of "angels," use the ambiguous word "messenger," which can mean either a heavenly being or a human messenger. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference! Annette always seemed to ride an invisible current of divine grace and effortless, unselfconscious sanctity. 

I was never quite sure just how aware Mrs. Brick was, though I always acted on the assumption that she could understand everything I said. But insofar as she was aware of what transpired about her, Annette's loving care must have made her imagine herself to be in heaven already. I have no choice but to believe in guardian angels, having seen one up close. As Marjorie Brick had returned her Lord's investment with interest, so did Annette. 

To visit Mrs. Brick and to see Annette's kind care for her was to see lived out the truth, so easily lost sight of, that human beings are a great family in which the strong care for the weak until they themselves are one day weak and receive back the care they have given. For if God is the absent king and he has entrusted his work to us, then it is up to us to see to it that his godly ones are never forsaken. Just as God will not forgive us if we do not forgive one another, so will we receive God's care only insofar as we care for one another.

  August 21, 1997 




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