preached on Maundy Thursday April 5th 2012, at St Oswald's Church Croxley Green, just a day before Gertie's 90th birthday. She had spent the last decade of her life in bed and in a lot of pain in a care home.
As I left Paris last night, I slipped a book into my bag by quite a famous art historian, writer and poet called John Berger. The title reads “Hold everything dear” and I just thought, yes that seems right, the subtitle reads – “dispatches on survival and resistance”. That seemed right too.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was love
Back in the old days in Berlin there were three of them, cousins the same age. Gertie the oldest, her brother Walter the youngest, and in between Greta their cousin. In the trams they got odd looks because together they spoke a strange language, German spoken backwards, a secret tongue only they knew the special grammatical rules to. Then tragically one day Greta an only child fell ill and died within 36 hours. Her parents emigrated to London and her mother Tante Helene moved heaven and earth to make sure the rest of the family, got visas for the UK. Sitting in Sir Stafford Cripps office and insisting he being a lawyer sign the papers for her brother who was also a lawyer.
Ten years ago when we cleared out 49 Frankland Road we found photo albums about Greta and her life which her parents had made – a rose bud on the cover and the inscription “Auch die Knospe ist vollendetes Leben” - Even the bud is life in its fullness, even the bud is life in wholeness.
Without the death of that much loved only daughter perhaps Gertie would not have found herself 73 years ago eating oysters for the very first time on her birthday as the family sailed into exile and in the end safety. My grandfather decided to buy a first class cruise into exile as they were only allowed to take the equivalent of 37 pence each with them.
A dispatch on survival and resistance made from fate and feistiness.
Family history recounts that within less than a year Walter and Gertie were not only speaking fluent English but speaking fluent English backwards …
In the beginning was the Word and Word was faith
Keukchilein, Ta, Gertie was a person of great faithfulness, which could sometimes be expressed in terms of stubbornness and even seemingly wanting to refuse change at times – woe betide the BBC if they changed the times of a favourite radio or TV programme.
She was faithful in her belief in education
Knowing that learning could be fun but also challenging – just like the teaching she loved so much and faithfully gave her life to
She was faithful in remembering birthdays faultlessly – right down to Stephen’s just three days before she died
Faithful in friendship and in family
always carefully asking “and how are you” with that shrewd look in her eyes waiting for an answer
and coping for the most part admirably when her beloved niece and nephew were rather more slipshod in replying or remembering
faithful too to a vision of society, which embodies in its statutes care for the most vulnerable, equal access as the way to forge excellence
faithful too in generosity, not just of money but of time, of letters and thoughts
faithful to her faith in God
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was hope
There is a crazy, wonderful and essential hope amongst all of us
We can make a difference
Millions and even billions of human beings doing small things
Saving stamps, selling garden produce, keeping records – I don’t think even now that I have tasted more delicious cucumbers than the ones I ate as a child from Gert’s greenhouse
Forging new friendships at the swimming club in your 70s
Campaigning and collecting money
Motivated perhaps by the knowledge that it was other peoples’ gratuitous charity that saved your own life
Behind all this a sense that, good as this world may be, to continue making it a better and hopeful place needs our commitment and creativity now.
In the beginning was the Word
And just before the end
He stripped off his clothes and wrapped in a towel, washed his disciples feet
An extraordinarily intimate, gentle, caring, political, sensual act
“I have done this for you
Will you go on doing it for one another?
Can you follow?”
And he knows what is likely to happen,
this is not a story with a happy end
But if they follow his example it might just be …
One disciple will use his freshly washed feet to walk the path of betrayal, selling out his master for some pieces of silver
The others will try, imperfectly, to follow
They will try to hold dear to the vision, the message, the master
To hold dear to hope, faith and love
We too wonder, can we follow, can we take up the towel and the bowl?
The three cousins who played together and formed such a strong bond back in the old days in Berlin are now finally reunited. Of course whatever language they may speak together now, even backwards, the angels will probably understand.
Of their child who died far too young my great aunt and uncle said “even the bud is fulfilled life”
Of our aunt who has died, perhaps many years later than she herself would have wished
I would like to say “the rosehip too, even the whithered rosehip is fulfilled and good and meaningful life”
We are called not to have perfect lives but to follow the path of the foot washer in intimacy, in faith, in hope, holding dear to the towel and the bowl, daring to believe in resurrection
All of our lives are dispatches on survival and resistance
Let us learn to hold one another and all creation dear
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was love.
Let us pray in words written for Maundy Thursday by former archbishop Michael Ramsey
Jesus Lord and Master who served your disciples in washing their feet: serve us daily in washing our motives, our ambitions our actions; that we may share with you in your mission to the world and serve others gladly for your sake; to whom be glory for ever.