Many of you know that Becky Whitlock, our sister in Christ, was serving her internship in Rural Retreat, VA when she died unexpectedly on the 11th of September. The news came as a shock to everyone. She was a beloved wife, mother, friend, and colleague; a woman of faith who, while serving in her home congregation of Holy Trinity in Kingsport, TN, was finally able to respond to God's call to ordained ministry by joining the community of Luther Seminary as a student in the Distributed Learning program.
Becky had worked at the Kingsport Times-News from 1986 until July of this year when she started her pastoral internship with the congregations of St Paul Lutheran and Grace Lutheran of the Rural Retreat Parish in Rural Retreat, VA. She ended her newspaper career of nearly 30 years where she reported the local news, in order to preach the Good News.
She preached that word of grace on the night before she died, in a sermon on Psalm 98, Verses 1-4: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things…,” which lifts up what it means, as a Christian, to share in Jesus’ victory over death and the grave.
The sermon was a foreshadowing perhaps—but more than that, it was a word of truth and promise: as God’s children, baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are able to live lives freed from the fear knowing that we are drawn into life in Christ’s victory over death. Becky’s last pastoral act was to preach that word of promise to the saints of St Paul and Grace Lutheran churches and by God’s grace, to herself.
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred name.
Come, Christians follow where our captain trod, our king victorious, Christ, the Son of God.
All newborn servants of the Crucified bear on their brows the seal of him who died.
O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, draw us all to thee.
So shall our song of triumph ever be: praise to the Crucified for victory!
(Lift High the Cross, ELW #660) I had the honor of traveling to worship with Becky's internship congregations and to attend her funeral at her home congregation of Holy Trinity Lutheran. The Sunday services at St Paul and Grace were moments to remember Becky’s life and celebrate the two months of ministry on her internship.
Becky’s supervisor, Pastor Jonathan Hamman, mentioned as I arrived for the 9:30 service at St Paul Lutheran that he wasn’t sure how the morning services would go –he was prepared to preach, but the grief and loss were painful for everyone, including himself. That morning I experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit as these congregations celebrated Holy Cross Sunday.
As my dear friend, Patricia Lull, said two weeks later, no one is prepared for such a moment and yet, Pastor Jonathan was uniquely prepared by his own life and his own call to speak words of promise and hope into these moments of grief and sadness.
As pastors, as interns and as students studying at school and working in congregational and faith based organizations, you are preparing and leading and preaching in these moments of loss and deep pain. We are all of us, unprepared and yet uniquely prepared to proclaim God’s promise of love and life in these moments. We are practicing the skills of pastoral care, of preaching the word, of leading the people of God in ministry.
We too are children of God who have been marked by the cross of Christ and we bear it on our brows. We have been washed in the waters of baptism, forgiven and claimed as God’s own. Becky knew that, Becky lived that, and on the eve before her own death she preached that word of life in Christ to those she had been called to serve in this place of retreat in the rural hills of Virginia.
May God’s claim on us through Christ’s death and resurrection and God’s gift to us through work of the Holy Spirit give us the strength to serve and the power to proclaim life in Christ Jesus to all the world.