According to one of the authors of the Book of Genesis, once upon a time a long time ago, there were giants on the earth. Their presence was commonplace. They were, this author writes almost apologetically, “the great heroes of old, the mighty ones of renown” (Genesis 6:4b); as if to explain, to his audience in the Fifth Century B.C.E., why such giants and heroes were commonplace no more.
Giants and heroes are not commonplace among us anymore and that — coupled with her valiant struggle for life and her untimely death — is what makes Mary McNamara’s passing so very painful and difficult for us today. For Mary was a giant; a hero — a quiet, self-effacing, soft-spoken hero —to many of us. In their news release announcing Mary’s death, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities described the scope of Mary’s achievements as United’s President with these words,
Mary successfully shepherded the institution through a strategic planning process, producing a plan that has been instrumental in the seminary’s new marketing initiative and strengthening the development department.
She addressed the seminary’s financial difficulties, positioning the seminary for a strong future.
Here’s what that news release didn’t acknowledge: Mary addressed all of this, the seminary’s financial difficulties, strategic planning, marketing initiative and development department and led the process to position the seminary for a strong future, during the worst economic recession in that seminary’s entire 50 year history! The same might be written about Mary’s tenure as Executive Vice President at Union Theological Seminary and about her tenure as President of the Interchurch Center: She addressed those institutions’ financial difficulties also and helped position each of them for a strong future. These are the accomplishments of a giant! This is the stuff of a hero. Not commonplace today. So it’s not simply that we already miss her, it’s that we will continue to miss her. Like that author of Genesis, we will miss the time when such a giant and such a hero walked the earth among us.
Now Mary didn’t believe there was anything very special about her. In fact, in one of my most memorable conversations with her over these last few months, she dismissed my assessment of her with these words, “Well, it’s not rocket science.” We had a long conversation about that afterward. I noted, “It is rocket science! Not everyone is gifted with the vision to see all the pieces of the puzzle, lying on the table or with the expertise to lead others in pulling all those pieces together.” Yet Mary thought of her gifts and her expertise as commonplace. We all know — and praise God, so many of you visited and spoke and wrote and emailed and told her — that on that bit of self-examination she was really quite mistaken.
It’s been hard to be with Mary in her suffering for, knowing her time was limited but sure that she had more than she was actually given, she moved back to this city to be with her sons and daughter-in-law, her beloved grandson and her dearest friends. She came back here to start a new family tradition, to cook and serve Sunday dinner every Sunday so that the whole family could be together and enjoy.
She came back to this city to indulge her love for its art and its music and its culture and its literature and to do this with her beloved family and friends. She came back to this city to indulge in her life-long passion for justice and equity, for lifting up the poor and re-positioning the rich and the mighty, to provide structure and institutional strength to enable others to share in God’s preferential leanings for the marginalized, the victimized, the unwise and the poor. She came back to this city to spend the rest of her life with those for whom she had lived her life and for an all-too-short time, for a happy time, she was able to do just that. Yet for Mary and for all of us, and especially for all of you; for six of the last eight months the word of our first reading, the unfairness and sorrow and disappointment expressed there, have been all too painful and all too true.
We gather here tonight not to forget or camouflage that pain, but to bear it as we share it. We gather here tonight not to explain or justify the ways of God or God’s timing; nor to cover our pain and loss and sense of injustice with sentimental fantasies or saccharine hope. Mary would have none of that and neither should we.
We gather here tonight to do and to be what Mary hoped we would do and be; what Mary lived to do and to be; what Mary led us to do and to be; what Mary envisioned for the church, its seminaries, this city, its people, her friends, her family and, in the end most especially for her grandson Luke. Hear this from her own lips. Hear her as you sing and pray and weep and worship and serve tonight. Hear Mary’s faithful expression of her own faith, her own confidence, her own passion for God and for the Christ who lives and moves in all creation. Hear Mary’s words as her confident hope for all of us; for all of you.
“It is my hope,” Mary told the United Seminary community, “that [you] will be people who believe the possibilities are great, [who] inspire others through worship and service, and [who] recognize that the challenge of doing so is critically important!”
Mary lived that faith and that hope. Mary recognized and lived for those great possibilities. Her work was her prayer. Her worship and service built a strong foundation for many and is a source of inspiration for us. Mary challenged us to see all things and to especially see ourselves, as critically important. So she was. So too are we. Even as we lay her to rest, we make her hope-filled claim: The possibilities are great for Mary, for us, and for all who think themselves commonplace in the world.