Here is the text of the message that I gave at my Grandmother’s funeral on June 9, 2010:
(The sermon text was Romans 8:24-27, 31-39)
12 years ago this August I stood in this very same chapel and celebrated the life of my grandfather, George May Sparks, Jr. Today, it is my honor on the 60th anniversary of their wedding day to stand before you and remember his beloved wife, Julia Irene Thompson Sparks, my grandmother.
There are a few things that I have always known about my grandmother, Julia Sparks, Big Julia as we often called her to differentiate her from her namesake, my sister Julia Bolt. She loved Furman University, she loved to garden, she was an AMAZING cook and she would go out of her way to take care of others.
I saw how much my grandmother loved Furman University on Saturday mornings in the fall when I was a kid. We would start by going to Paladin Club barbecues on the mall and then finish the day sitting in HER seats on the 40 yard line about half way up the bleachers, in the then NEW stadium. The seats she held as a season ticket holder from day one after the move from Sirine stadium until 2000.
I remember her decking me out with Furman gear, helping me get my face painted and loudly cheering as Dr. Johns would lead the crowd in “F.U. ONE TIME, F.U. TWO TIMES, F.U. THREE TIMES, F.U. ALL THE TIME!!!!”
I heard about how much my grandmother loved Furman University and how proud she was of her work here. She loved the people and the place. She never tired or complained about going to work – Furman was and is part of her family – she struggled when things were just computerized – she didn’t trust those new fangled things to keep the kind of accurate and meticulous records that she did, so she learned the computer and did the work on it but then she brought work home and made sure that she had paper files as well so that the personnel records were accurate until she finally began to trust the computer.
I saw how much Furman University loved my grandmother when I stood in a receiving line in 1993 for what seemed like FOREVER at her retirement celebration. I stood and watched as people from the maintenance department to the President, from the cleaning services to the football coach lined up to say thank you for her 39 ½ years of service.
I see how much Furman University loves my grandmother as I stand in this beautiful chapel and celebrate the life of a small woman who had a giant impact on this place, as I look out and see the faces of people who are forever changed for having known her. I know that the presence of God is here.
For those who knew my grandmother, the fact that she loved gardening comes as no surprise. All it would take was one trip to her house on Watkins Bridge Road: the giant magnolia in the front yard, the carefully manicured lawn and the wide array of colorful flowers that lined the driveway and filled the flowerbeds in the back yard. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Jeff and his son, Aaron, for their tireless work to maintain the lawn after my grandmother’s health began to fail her.
If you were ever lucky enough to have dinner at my grandmother’s house, you dined like royalty. Her gifts of hospitality were overflowing. I never had to worry about what was for dinner or if they were going to have my favorite cookies in the pantry. My grandmother would make sure that we were having my favorite dish whenever we came over for dinner. One of my favorite meals when I was younger was meatloaf and soupy potatoes. I LOVED the butt end of the meatloaf! There was one problem; my grandfather George ALSO loved the butt end of the meatloaf. We would always “fight” over who got the butt ends. This might say more about the character of my grandfather and I, arguing over who could be more full of it, but my grandmother had a different solution. She somehow figured out how to make the meatloaf with 4 ends. Through her grace and hospitality she was able to satisfy every one at the table.
My favorite meal as I got older was my grandmother’s famous teriyaki. The way that marinated flank steak smelled on the grill was nothing short of heavenly. I was so proud of my grandmother’s recipe that it was the first meal that I cooked for Heidi a girl I was dating.
All these memories paint a picture of who Julia Irene Thompson Sparks was. Over the last ten years the devastating disease of Alzheimer’s has robbed us of a complete picture of this women who is worthy of sainthood and robbed her of the joys, experiences and milestones of her family she loved so much.
She was unable to witness her only granddaughter graduate from college, get her first job, become a pet owner for the first time or grow into the responsible young women that she is. She missed her only grandson graduate from seminary, go on to marry that girl named Heidi, be ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and become a father. She was gone for the joyous occasion of watching her only daughter become what she loved being so much, a grandmother.
She missed milestones in the life of her friends, she couldn’t be there for celebrations with her Furman family, Alzheimer’s trapped this once sweet, gracious, competent and caring lady in a rigid, silent shell of her former self.
Today we celebrate our belief that Julia Irene Thompson Sparks has been made whole through resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is not a wholeness that we can see, this is a wholeness that we trust, that we hope for. We trust that today, on the 60th anniversary of their wedding that George and Julia will once again be together side by side. We trust that Julia can now look down on her daughter and see the joy in her eyes as she showers her new granddaughter with love and affection. We trust that she is smiling upon us and saying thank you to her brothers and sisters who never left her side and to her extended Furman family who has not let her memory fade. We trust that Julia has broken free from the vicious trap of Alzheimer’s and is once again able to tend a garden, cook a meal, share a laugh with her beloved George and catch up with the ALL the loved ones that have gone before her. We give thanks for the truth that today my grandmother can rest.
We hope one day we ALL will join her, with all the saints of every time and place. Together we wait for that day with patience.
As we wait the Holy Spirit intercedes for us granting us glimpses into the love of God. We see the love of God through the eyes of a new born, we feel the love of God through the presence of so many gathered to celebrate the life of a women whose life was filled with blessings, we recognize the love of God through the merciful passing from this life to more life of Julia Irene Thompson Sparks.
As we wait, together, in this world that often seems anything but hopeful we continue to proclaim the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God guides our hope for things unseen. It is through that Spirit that we take comfort in the fact that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God.
For I am convinced that neither Alzheimer’s, nor arthritis, nor old age, nor youth, nor aches and pains, nor financial burdens, nor cirrhosis, nor divorce, nor cancer, nor diabetes, nor disability, nor failing health, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.