[Photo: "Mary's Leaning, Tucson, Arizona" (c) 2011 Stu Jenks.]
In the name of the God who is present with us in our deepest grief. Amen.
There are not many things more difficult in life than what you have just heard Stu Jenks achieve. Capturing the essence of any individual who has lived a full and complete life is always a formidable task. Doing so for someone as complex as Mary Jenks is darn near impossible. But accomplishing all this when you are the one living in the land of intense personal loss and grief, well, that is almost unthinkable. In the midst of losing both his mom and his sister, Stu has done this beautiful thing. Thank you Stu for being willing to put yourself in this place of extreme vulnerability. We are all the richer for hearing your Mom’s story from your lips.
As Stu and others have shared their memories of Mary with me, I too have struggled with a way to capture such a brilliantly enigmatic character in so many words. Mary was devilishly difficult to pigeonhole. She was the epitome of the classic, graceful, elegant southern belle and she had all the refined sensibilities that go with it. But at the exact same time, she was so opinionated and forceful that she did not want to let you up until you saw things her way. Similarly, she was so fiercely and proudly Episcopalian that many were often a bit nervous to tell Mary that they were in another denomination. But simultaneously, Mary’s theology was all about full inclusion of everyone and she absolutely and unequivocally believed that God is way too big for one religion.
While the most well known colloquial way to describe Episcopalians is to call them God’s frozen chosen, and while Mary was the most Episcopal like person most have ever experienced, Mary was never frozen a day in her life. No one had any difficulty knowing exactly what was on her mind and no one ever stated their position more emphatically or with more fervor. And while Mary had a deep and abiding relationship with God, the last thing she would tell you is that she was chosen. In fact, as Stu has made clear to us, Mary believed we were all chosen and that Episcopalians certainly had no inside track to anything.
This afternoon, we will all take part in the act of communion as a part of this service because it was so instrumental to Mary’s belief system. For her, communion was as powerful an act as any of us can ever take part, because it captures the essence of the beloved community. She was all about community, but at the same time, she was more of a rugged individualist than John Wayne.
Finally, since the earliest days of Anglicanism during the reign of Elizabeth I, this has been the church of the Via Media, the middle way. We have always been about finding a way to allow very diverse philosophies to live together. Our goal has always been to be a church where people could worship together despite our theological differences. Never has an individual been more steeped in Anglicanism and the Via Media than Mary Jenks. But in the midst of that Anglicanism, all of you who experienced the real Mary know that she, in the nicest, most southern way possible, made it crystal clear that it was, “My way or the highway.”
How do we reconcile such a dichotomy? More importantly, how did Mary? This afternoon, I would suggest to all of you that for Mary, it was not difficult at all. In fact, I would suggest that she never saw any of this as contradictory in the least. She saw it as a simple matter of living her faith. She saw it as embracing the very heart of Anglicanism.
If there is a standard methodology for attacking Anglicanism and the whole idea of The Via Media, it is that this church does not stand for anything. Via Media is often heard in today’s culture as a theology that does not come down in favor of or against anything. It is heard as a theology for the wishy-washy.
But as Mary Jenks knew so well, that is not what Via Media means at all. Via Media is about balance, it is about realizing that Newton’s third law of Physics applies to faith also, for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. In Taoism, this is referred to as the yin/yang. In Native American tradition, it is called walking the red road. The point is, it is about balance in your life and holding the tension that exists when things are not black and white. What Mary knew better than all of us is that this is the nature of the world. As much as we would all love a world where evil and good are easily discernible from one another, none of us actually believes that. We might want our religion to be simplistic because of the complex world surrounding us, but we know darn well that it is not and cannot be “God said it, I believe it and that settles it.” Mary knew that this does not settle anything. The key for a helpful faith then, is to teach us how to live in ambiguity, to live in the tension of the place between being a southern lady and also getting across your point. The tension between being a fiercely loyal Episcopalian while also being a universalist.
That is the Via Media that Mary embraced, a faith that was never for one second wishy washy, a faith that kept life in balance by being the enigma that the world saw.
It is this faith that allowed Mary Jenks to see beyond the notion that church is all about “making nice.” It is what allowed her to take sides when Anglicanism came under attack from the inside in the last 20 years. When most sat around during the battles going on in this Communion and said, “Can’t we all just get along?”, it was Mary Jenks deep faith, steeped in the theology of Anglicanism that convinced her that she had no choice but to defend the ordination of women in this church. It is what convinced her that she had no choice but to stand for up for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in this church because she knew darn well that this is what Jesus would have done. She was able to do so even though almost everyone in her generation disagreed with her, because she understood the nature of Anglicanism and was able to interpret the words of Jesus for a new time and place.
That beloved, is an amazing accomplishment. But Mary Jenks went far beyond that. She made this bold stand in the midst of the greatest siege of The Episcopal Church. Because while the press was concentrating on the flamboyant events occurring in the Diocese of San Joaquin and Pittsburgh, the real battle for this church was going on in Mary’s home Diocese of Virginia. When Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire, the last piece was put in place. Those who were still fuming within the church about women’s ordination, saw this as their opportunity to storm the bastille. They would start in Virginia, because many churches there, including Mary’s home parish of St. Mary’s White Chapel, were incorporated before The Episcopal Church had formed. If these properties were parishes before the Episcopal Church existed, they argued, then they could not legally be owned by The Episcopal Church, giving them the opportunity to not just leave the wider church, but take the property with them. It was a brilliant strategy.
What the defectors did not count on however, was Mary Jenks. In the midst of it all, she stood firmly and resolutely with her Bishop and her friend, Peter Lee. In the end, the coups would fail. Mary stood for the Gospel and for the protection of Anglicanism and a church where everyone was welcome and included, even those who disagreed with her.
I have to tell you, I cannot help but feel a bit cheated for not having had the opportunity to experience Mary in all her regal feistiness. I have no doubt that she had the ability to be a royal pain, but it is also obvious that it was this same fierce character that gave her the ability to make such a strong impact on the world around her. Her enigmatic ways went a long way to keeping intact the heart of The Episcopal Church and helping others to realize that all of us are children of God.
The spirit and chutzpah of Mary Jenks is exactly what this church needs right now and in the years ahead. It is exactly what Jesus taught us to be. Mary’s service on the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Virginia and her role as a women’s historian in the church will not soon be forgotten. Her love of church music and her years of service as a choir director will be a major part of her legacy. But it will be her fiercely loyal protection of her friends and those who were being oppressed that will always make Mary a saint for me.
May each of us have the courage to follow her example and be an enigma to the world. May each of us learn from her how to live in ambiguity and enjoy every moment of it. May each of us relish every moment of life and always stand proudly with anyone and everyone who has been rejected by others, just as Mary taught us. Amen.