28 October 2011

Voice Recognition

Voice Recognition
John 20: 1-18

Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, Ph.D.

A Service of Witness to the Resurrection for Mary Lawrence Forkel (1921-2011)
Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD

27th October 2011

            Many here this evening will recognize the sermon title.  It’s the title of the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday this year, based on this reading from John.  Many know the setting well.  Mary is left all alone outside the empty tomb on Easter morning.  John and Peter have left her there.  It’s a poignant scene.  She’s crying outside the tomb, missing the one whom she loved, missing probably the only one who ever truly loved her. Alone, she looks into the tomb and discovers two messengers of Yahweh dressed in white, sitting apart, one where Jesus’ head had been, the other sits where Jesus’ feet had been.  And in between the two of them, nothing, an absence there means a presence some place else.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Then she turns around and sees someone standing there who asks the same question, “Dear woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Assuming this man to be the gardener, she enquires after his body.  “Please [kind] sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  As if she could carry that dead weight by herself.  But then everything changes when the gardener says her name,  “Mary!”

            Back in April, on Maundy Thursday, I went to see Mary – our Mary.  By that time, under hospice care, her sight was gone.  It was difficult for her to swallow and eat and talk.  Her cheeks, she told me, felt like stone. She showed me her talking wristwatch that someone in the congregation bought her.  She could just push a button and hear a voice tell her the time.  It worked great.  That week Mary told me about the new phone that Charles had bought for her.  It took about three hours to set up, she said.  It allowed her to make outgoing calls all by herself.  She could just pick up the receiver, say a name, a digital voice would repeat back what it heard and then dial it.  It worked remarkably well.  She showed me.  Mary reached for the phone, picked up the receiver and said, “Ken Kovacs,” and soon it was dialing my number.  But it wasn’t perfect.  With her speech being what it was the phone had difficulty recognizing certain sounds.  When Mary said “Steve Russell,” the phone said back, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then began to dial Judy.  She showed me.  She said, “Steve Russell,” and I heard the phone say back, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then it began to ring.  We hung up.  A few minutes later the phone rang.  It was Judy Kloetzel, calling from about 6500 feet up in the mountains of California wondering if everything was okay and I said, yes.  I put the phone back and then sat down on the sofa, on Mary’s right side.  I put my left arm around her, held her hand, and talked into her left ear so she could hear me.  After a moment of quiet, shifting topics, Mary slap my knee and said, “So, Ken, what’s your sermon title for Easter?” I said, “Voice Recognition.”  And then we both laughed out loud, long and hard.

            It’s a poignant expression, isn’t it, of the power of the name:  to be able to say the name of another clearly and to clearly hear the speaking of one’s name.  We know what it feels like to hear our name said by someone who knows us and loves us.  It goes right to the depths of our being, into our souls.  It doesn’t sound the same coming from anyone else.  It’s a powerful and blessed thing indeed, long after the death of someone dear, to be able to her their voice in your inner-ear still invoking your name.  Perhaps the power comes with knowing that behind the voice saying your name is one who truly loves you.  In John’s gospel it must not be overlooked that it was only upon the hearing of her name – Mary! – said by the one who loved her, did she respond and “see” with the turn of recognition;  it’s as if her ears searched and found Jesus before her eyes did, searching for what they could not immediately see.  It was the voice she knew as one who loved her.  That’s what she needed in order to recognize resurrection in her midst.

            I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that visit with our Mary, of the relationship between listening to another and the experience of being heard, of the power of the human voice to heal and transform.  Talking with Dorothy over last couple of days, reflecting upon Mary’s life, we both agree that one of Mary’s many gifts was her ability to listen. Mary was a marvelous conversationalist.  She loved to talk and it was a joy to talk with her.  But what made it so special was that she was a marvelous listener.  When you sat and talked with Mary, she really listened to you and you felt like you were being heard.  So let us pause for just a moment, embrace the silence, and listen for her voice. What do you hear her saying to you? {Silence.}

            Mary listened carefully and she remembered what you said, days, weeks, even years later.  She had an amazing memory.  Always deflecting attention away from herself, she always wanted to know how I was doing.  And it was a real question, she genuinely cared and listened for the response.  There was something about the way she said your name, that in the name we were “known” or “seen.”  You knew that when she said your name, when she spoke to you, you recognized that when she said your name she was saying it in love.

            And we all know the depth of her love.  It seemed to know no limits.  The generosity of her heart overflowed into all of our lives and we were all recipients of it, either directly or indirectly.  She gave selflessly.  It was difficult for her to be on the receiving end of such a similar kind of love.  She was always seemed more concerned about everyone else than herself.  But that’s who she was – and, I’m convinced, she was this way, not because she had to be this way, not because it was expected of her, not because she was somehow exceptional at exercising this particular virtue, but because she knew throughout her life the power and presence of a similar kind of generous heart, a love that knows no limits, a love that is forever reaching out toward some object or person, a kind of love she not only believed in but experienced in her trust and faith in Christ.  Mary said she was not afraid to die, but she didn’t want to say good-bye to the people she loved and cared about.   She loved life to the fullest.  It was difficult for her to let go, she held on longer than anyone expected.  But isn’t this what love does?  It seeks out, it connects, it holds on, it never wants to let go – not unlike the way God who loves all of us, seeking us out, who wants to connect, reaching out, holding on to us and holding us up, with a love that never lets us go.

            That’s why she cared deeply about the ministry of this church.  She was a raised, as she told me, “a good Methodist” – now tell me something, since we have so many Methodists here tonight, why do people often describe someone as being a “good Methodist,” – “Oh, he’s a good Methodist” – I never hear people say, “Oh, she was a good Presbyterian.”  Maybe someone can explain this to me. That aside, Mary came to love this congregation in 1946 and over the years loved Catonsville United Methodist Church too.  We would be here all night listing all that Mary did in this church. 

            I will be forever grateful for her love and support of my ministry here.  She was on the search committee that called me, as well as for the two previous ministers of this church. 

            Mary was an amazing evangelist of this church.  I cannot tell you how many times I heard her welcome a visitor to worship or, out beyond the church with Mary, perhaps at Charlestown, she would introduce me to a friend, say I was the pastor, and then invited that person to come to worship one day or attend a class or a concert.  She was always reaching out and inviting people into the community.  She called out the best in all of us in the church, she was ever-hopeful and confident, and believed God was trustworthy.  Many of us here will never forget the moving speech she made in April, 2008, just as we were about to take out a sizeable mortgage and begin renovations on this building.  She said, “Do it.”  We were all nervous about what the outcome of the vote would be.  Once she spoke, many of us knew what the outcome would be, and it passed by a large margin.   We did it and are doing it, as she knew God would be faithful.  We could do whatever we set our minds and hearts to because she believed in a faithful God.  She said to me, “It’s been a tremendous journey, Ken,” reflecting on all the kindness, the fun, the giving to and serving the Lord, of serving the church.

            How blessed you are Charles and Sue for having a mother such as Mary; Barbara and Ray, for such a wonderful mother-in-law.  How blessed you are, Fred, for sharing a life with someone like Mary.  How blessed you are Michelle and Diana for having a grandmother like Mary.  Thank you for sharing her with us.  For we have been and are and will be blessed for having known and loved by her.

            There are two conversations I want to share in closing.  This has been with me for months now.  As we know, Mary loved good music, choral music, and organ music.  We know of her love of Mendelssohn and Bach and many other pieces, but her favorite composer was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  I asked her one-day, “Why Brahms, Mary?”  She thought about it for a moment and said he’s “the best.”  She thought longer and said, “It’s beyond words, really.”  Michelle was there for that conversation.  Michelle played a recording of Charles playing a part from the First Piano Concerto in D minor, (Op. 15, 1858), the solo piano lines in the adagio–sublime.  Mary said there was a richness and texture to Brahms’ music.  “His melodies are just so beautiful,” she said, “They’re just right.  Whole.  Complete.  It’s all there.”  She mentioned two songs in particular that loved, Nänie (Op. 82, 1881) – meaning a funeral song – a poem by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and Schlicksaslied (Op. 54, 186-1871), “The Song of Destiny,” a setting of Friederich Hölderlein’s (1770-1843) poem that has only two verses, the first describes the bliss of the gods and the second the sufferings of mankind "plunging blindly into the abyss."   Now “abyss” doesn’t sound like Mary, but it speaks of something she did feel, deeply, about Brahms and why “it’s all there” because the “all there” includes depth.  “It has depth,” she said, “It just goes deeper and deeper without ever dissolving.”  Brahms had a difficult life.  He was known for being a very generous soul, but also melancholic.  He wrote from a very deep place, he was someone who knew pain and loss and disappointment, not unlike Mary who witnessed the depth of human suffering as a nurse. In many ways we are the music we listen to.  It resonates “out there” because it first strikes something “in here,” in the heart. When I left Charlestown that afternoon I turned on the radio and Brahms was playing.

            On another occasion, before I left for Africa, I was there for a visit. I was in my usual spot on the sofa, on her right, with my left arm around her.  We started talking and in a lull in our conversation I could hear some music playing on the radio.  I, too, like Brahms and recognized the piece as Brahms. I asked if I could turn up the radio; I told Mary it was Brahms.  It was the Piano Quintet (Op. 34, 1864).  And so we listened together for about 10-15 minutes. I wasn’t sure if Mary was listening or asleep.  But there was one point in the piece, a point of exquisite beauty when we both sort of hummed or groaned – I’m not sure what it was – from some place deep.  We both responded together; it spoke to both of us.  She was listening.  When I left that day, I got into the car, and Brahms was again on the radio, another chamber piece.  Even after I sent out the email on Monday this week, sharing word of Mary’s death and the funeral arrangements, I switched on my online radio station and, you guessed it, Brahms, playing. Mary listened deeply to music; maybe because she was a good listener, maybe listening to music made her a better listener.

            This evening we can easily imagine Mary singing in the heavenly chorus, keeping the music library in order, and requesting plenty of Brahms and Mendelssohn and Bach.  But more than anything, I imagine Mary, with that voice singing God’s praise, delighting in all that beauty, and that fine-tuned listening ear of hers, responding with joy to the voice of the One who loved her from always, who claimed her as one of his own, and now calls her into the abundance of his life – Mary! Mary!  Not surprisingly, hearing features prominently in John’s gospel.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).  “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice…” (John 5:28).  Jesus the good shepherd says, he “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice….  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:4, 17).  It’s the voice of love that calls out all our names; it’s the voice of love that called Mary home.  She recognized his voice and he certainly recognized hers. 

            To God the Creator, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, be glory both in the church and in the world, now and forever more. Amen.

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