A Homily for Vera June Fifield’s Burial, March 30, 2013
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Comfort all we who mourn, O Lord… give us a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. AMEN.
Wouldn’t our beloved and loving friend June be getting a big kick out of her burial getting the jump on Easter!? Rousing Susan and Tom Harris up out of bed to get the whole sanctuary filled with flowers in time to celebrate her, the two of them venturing out into the quiet Cambridge streets nearly as early as the women headed to the tomb with their spices in Luke’s Gospel, expecting the darkened sepulchre still to hold Jesus’ body broken in the Good Friday crucifixion, only to find the tomb empty of Jesus’ body and filled instead with angels?!?
Who KNOWS what’s in this casket right here, when we are confident that June herself is already with God in one of those “many mansions” Jesus has prepared for us, as John says in the Gospel – I’m willing to bet you Jesus made one for June that looks just like the house in Belmont! – reunited with her beloved parents and with our legendary sexton and June’s great friend Annette Hunter and so many who have gone before her, as she has long, long LONGED to be? And reunited with all those CATS?!? (Because heaven’s got to be FILLED with cats, otherwise it wouldn’t be heaven to June!)
June’s cousin Jean McCann has been shepherding June in the last years of her illness and frailty so steadily. She saw June through all the painful decisions that had to be made, when June kept falling and having trouble at that much-beloved house in Belmont, made by her father with his own hands after arriving in Massachusetts from Newfoundland. Jean took June’s last cat when he got frail and wouldn’t eat. She made the difficult call to sell the house when it was clear that June really HAD to have steady, round-the-clock care and moreover needed the income from her home to sustain her. Jean’s been amazing, so faithful and loving through it all, so steadfast even when June so patently hated to give up that last connection with her old, strong, masterful life, that last connection with her mom and dad.
It was Jean McCann who said, when we first talked about June’s burial service, that we needed to read Psalm 23, June’s favorite psalm, and to sing “Amazing Grace” even though, as Susan Harris reminded me, June ALWAYS cried whenever we sang it. (Word to the wise: we tend to think tears are bad things. NO! They are NOT bad things. Tears usually spring up not out of despair but just when the current of grief sweeps back into assurance and love! Tears are part of our baptism, deepening and deepening over the years! So were June’s tears at “Amazing Grace.”)
Psalm 23 is the right psalm for June, for sure. Jesus’ kindly shepherding saw her through a lot over the years, not least when she lost first her dad, then her mom. Anybody who saw her meticulously-kept ledgers during the many years she was treasurer at St. James’s can testify that God was “leading her in paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake!” No one has been her equal since, pace our fine current treasurer John Irvine! All of us who visited with June and sent her cards in the last years since her stroke – and we are many, here at St. James’s, many many who never lost sight of our love and care for June and her love and care for us, still sustained in that sharp-as-a-tack mind and memory of hers even when her body was freezing up on her – all of us know how June traveled through the valley of the shadow of death in these last years, yet kept turning back to the kindly staff of her comforting God.
But here’s what I want us really to remember and treasure and learn from about June. Meticulous, she was, in and out of her highly respected professional and church life. But she was also a woman of loyalty, verve and gusto. Don’t forget those Red Sox tickets, held with her close claque of women friends, and all the games she DIDN’T have tickets to, but still followed faithfully, all through the years when the Sox couldn’t win a championship for love nor money! Just like her shepherd Jesus, June Fifield KNEW how to have FUN!
And don’t forget her adamancy about the way things ought to be, and then her willingness to change her mind and heart when Christ’s love demanded it. Here’s a great story from the Rev. Regina Walton, ordained from St. James’s some years ago, when Michael Povey was rector here:
One Sunday years and years ago, Regina wrote, June asked me if I planned on being ordained. I told her that, God willing, I did hope so. She said, "I was the most against women's ordination of anyone at this parish." (At this point, Ken Holmes leaned in and said, "Yes, she certainly was!" with a smile.)” Regina continues, “June described to me how strongly she felt about it when the first women priests were ordained in the Episcopal Church. Then she paused. "But then we had Laurie Rofinot…, and Chris Fike (then Sarah Eastman), and Valerie Bailey-Fisher, and Leslie Sterling . . . and you know, some of those girls preach better than the men!"
That is SUCH a June story! And I can testify, she never objected to my ministry as St. James’s first woman rector, not once, even though she let me know she hadn’t always seen things that way!
I bet you have another thousand of these stories in your hearts and minds, right this minute! Kathleen and Seng will share some in a minute. But the story that brings tears to MY eyes – baptismal tears, I hope! – is the story of how June helped break “the color barrier” at St. James’s. She goes to her grave and on to glory without my knowing what was going on inside her heart at that time, back in the 1960’s. But I know what her ACTIONS were, and I can interpret from them that just as she did with women priests, June let love rule her decisions, and open her heart to new things.
It’s really Eric Maynard who should be telling this story, because I got it from him. Eric’s family – and don’t forget, Eric’s own grandmother is up there in that clerestory stained glass window of ours on the Mass Ave side, talking with Jesus – had arrived from Barbados back in the middle ‘60’s, when Eric was a boy. They lived right around the corner from St. James’s, and coming from Barbados, they were lifelong Anglicans, so when Sunday rolled around, they came on over to St. James’s. But when they got to the door, the usher – who KNOWS now who it was! – stopped them, pointed them away, and said, “YOUR church is Cornerstone Baptist (then in Cambridge, now in Belmont)!” What he meant was, “You people of color aren’t welcome here.” That’s how the Maynards heard it. And for a long time, they trudged downtown to St. Bart’s on Harvard St. because of that unfriendly greeting. Then one day, down their street came Newfoundlander June Fifield paired up with Ena Gladden, Joan Jordan’s mother and like the Maynards, a Badjian. And up the steps of the Maynard house they came, and knocked on the door, and when Elmo Maynard opened it, June said, “We hope you’ll come over to St. James’s for church!” And the Maynards came back and tried again – more than 40 years ago now – and they’ve been here ever since. Like many wonderful people of color, the Maynards are built right into the church itself. Thanks to Ena Gladden and June Fifield. Thanks be to God!
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. That’s a passage I quoted often and often to June when I would visit and bring communion, sharing that ministry with Sylvia Weston and Mary Caulfield and Yvette Verdieu and Anne Shumway, our faithful Lay Eucharistic Visitors, over the years. The Spirit did a fair amount of groaning with sighs too deep for words in June’s heart in these last years. But it was always the Spirit of adoption, bearing witness to God’s glory in her as it does in us. June was an “oak of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” And now she’s home with her God, and we give thanks, thanks for her life, her witness, her generosity to all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.