a spirit of adoption

Homily for Ann Moag

Last Wednesday was probably the last warm day of the year, a lovely late November day that started warm and breezy and ended with a driving storm that ended the drought.

Most everyone here knows what that day was like, because it was the day that Ann had stepped out into the beauty of the morning, into the yard that she loved so much, wearing her favorite garden clogs, for the last time. Within a few hours the word of her loss had begun to get around, traveling the old ways, by word of mouth rather than by email or text because we all seemed to know instinctively that some news begged to be spoken, rather than expressed by keystroke or smartphone. And it didn’t matter who was told or who did the telling, whether it was Ann’s close friends of many years or parents of young children who were relatively new to the church. We all felt the news in much the same way: as a shock to the system, as a punch to the gut. This was November 30, the feast day of our namesake, St. Andrew, the one whose instinctive openness and willingness to follow Jesus was what gave him his unique apostolic quality: Andrew was the one who brought others to Jesus.

Because Ann, even in her last hours, was such a vibrant part of the life of this place, the imprint of her presence was still fresh for most everyone I spoke with on Wednesday. How many of you told me that you’d just spoken with her the evening before, in some cases several times the day before. She was in touch in her last days with good friends, with her sisters, with her daughters, with church members, and who knows who else. I had heard her shuffling past my office door the before, with Harold along singing backup, as she prepared our parish hall to celebrate another milestone in the life our church, in this case the stained-glass windows in the chapel.

Ann’s presence is a profound part of the very spirit of St. Andrew’s, and I can’t tell you how much she will be missed. Ann was without fail loving, bright, intelligent, fierce (I’ll get to that one) and always, always supportive.

Think, if you will, on any one of the many encounters each of you have had Ann, and imagine what that kind of presence can bring to a church over the course of 61 years. Imagine how much that has helped us to be faithful to one another even in times of change. Imagine how much that has allowed the spirit to move throughout this place when, pretty much at all times, whatever was going on and whatever we may have brought to church that day, there was Ann: loving, supportive, faithful, and always with a steady eye on what God was up to, as if playfully asking god to show our whole church what’s next.

There are few areas of our life together that haven’t been shaped by Ann Moag. She loved the altar guild, she served it faithfully for many years but supported and even cultivated the next generation of leaders. She loved children passionately: if you look at a photo of children in the undercroft, it doesn’t matter what decade it was, there you’ll find Ann, ageless in the corner of the frame, as old and as young as ever.  She was the best friend anyone could have, and many could claim her friendship. She embraced change, but she did it in a way that it never felt like change. It just felt like finding new ways to be Christians, not closing old doors but simply finding more doors to open.

So naturally, many of us are asking, “what will we do without her?” She did so much, there are many of us who feel the loss. I’ve felt it too. But because Ann  was who she was, not a pillar in a stalwart sense but a one who exhorted and empowered us all the life of fellowship, there are now a great many of us who can step more fully into the life of this place that Ann loved so much. It’s one thing for someone to leave a vacuum that can never be filled. Ann instead trained us all to grow into who God calls us to be.

We know what it’s been like to have one Ann Moag here. Now imagine that there are 20, or 30, or 50, all of us personally mentored by Ann herself, stepping into that role of supporting, nurturing and encouraging others. And that may have been Ann’s vision of our church all along.

Of course, Ann wouldn’t have seen herself at the center like that. Quite the opposite. She was a deeply selfless person, as only someone so comfortable in her own skin can be. Liz & Darden wondered why she never bought herself new dresses growing up, but now know that she wanted to make sure her family was taken care of first. She cared for her own parents and for Harold’s in their final years. Indeed, she took a few years off from work to be available to her family as parents reached the end of their lives, and as grandchildren were born.  Ann’s great gift was her presence, and she could not but give it generously.

But about that fierceness. I don’t mean to go too far down the path of sainthood, or to suggest meekness. Behind Ann’s shining eyes was what her daughters called a fierceness that would not suffer seeing another person demeaned or taken advantage of.  As a working mother, she endured the prejudice of neighborhood women who looked down on her for taking a job. She taught her daughters to live without fear and to see the dignity of every human being. When neighborhood children insulted a beloved African-American friend, Ann was at their doorstep with words for their parents that were served without sugar-coating.  When a parishioner – now long gone – spoke ill of another in the presence of Ann and Judy Hackett, Ann held her peace until he left, and then without losing her smile or her spark, said to Judy, “What an ass!”

Behind those blue eyes was a love that would not be diminished.

Nothing, writes Paul, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  When Paul says nothing, he means nothing. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of god in Christ Jesus our Lord. We cannot be separated from God because we are held by an unbreakable bond.  What binds us so strongly to God to begin with? Where does this bond come from?

Paul writes in the same passage that it comes to us through a spirit of adoption, and that it is that very spirit that bears witness to our identity as children of God.  Those of you who are adoptive parents, or know parents who are, can imagine this. There is something uniquely grace-filled about a woman or man who is willing to reach outside their own bloodline, to make a home for another person’s child, to create a place of love and warmth so that that child can become who God created them to be.  Yes, Ann did this, both for our children and really for each of us. We kind of feel like Ann’s extended adopted family.

But perhaps the spirit of adoption that Paul describes is more than just that. What if this spirit of adoption was more of an elemental truth, a vision of a deeper wisdom in which with unconditional love we would naturally reach beyond ourselves and truly greet one another as beloved children of God?  What if we could let ourselves be changed by that encounter…and even seek it out?  And might those visions of unconditional love mirror, in just the smallest of ways, the vision of God for our world?

In Fayetteville when Ann was about 4 years old, about 1940, Ann asked her children for a unique Christmas present. She asked her parents for a black baby doll. I repeat: Fayetteville, 1940’s. To her parents great credit, they said, “ok,” and got her what she wanted. Ann put that doll in a stroller and walked her up and down the street, as many of our daughter (and yes, sons) will often do at that age. When the neighbors gently and politely called attention to her error, saying “Ann, do you realize that you have a black baby doll?” she replied, “Why yes, they come in all colors!”

We have received this spirit of adoption, which means, as Ann would have said later in life, that every one of us is a child of God. Every one of you is a child of God. Every person who walks or drives down this street past St. Andrew’s is a child of God. Every person who lives in this city is a child of God.

We all say it. Ann lived it. And because Ann lived it, we are the church we are today. We are the people we are today.  The spirit of adoption is the spirit of unconditional love, it is as passionate about life and love as it is fiercely devoted to justice and to the dignity of every human being.  Like Andrew showing people to Jesus, Ann Moag embodied for us what this spirit of adoption meant. And thanks to her, we have a far richer sense of God’s love for each one of us.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC, December 8, 2016

About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Cleveland, Ohio.
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2 Responses to a spirit of adoption

  1. Debbie Dowd says:

    Good job with the homily.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Bob Shelton says:

    You have surpassed your usual “excellence” and have entered extraordinary with this homily.

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