This reflection is about an epiphany from one of the saints I have known, Marjorie B. Lester. I became Marjorie’s pastor at Houston’s Bering Memorial Church in January of 1978 when she was 95 years old. Marjorie was born in Kentucky in 1882. Her father was murdered when Marjorie was not quite 5 years old. She married when she was 15, bore three children, and was widowed at the age of 46. Somehow, in the early years of her marriage, she managed to study law and was the second woman admitted to the bar in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Around 1910, the Lester’s moved to Texas, first to Hardeman County, then to Corpus Christi. She told me that following the death of her husband she moved to Houston to take a position in charge of corporate records for United Gas Pipeline, which position she held until her retirement in 1947. After retirement, Marjorie devoted much of her time, talent, and energy to programs for seniors. In 1957, she was appointed to the Governor’s Committee on Aging and in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed her to the White House Conference on Aging. She died at the age of 101.
It was my first time to serve as a senior pastor and she was in many ways a mentor to me as she had been for pastors who preceded me. In October of my first year at Bering, our stewardship campaign theme was “Open the Doors.” The pledge cards were printed and folded to resemble the main doors of the church. On the Sunday members were asked to complete their pledge cards and bring them to the Altar, Marjorie raised her walking cane in the air and asked to say a few words to the congregation. She came to the front of the nave, stood facing those who were gathered there, leaned on her cane, and challenged everyone to give generously. She concluded her remarks by pointing to the doors of the church with that cane and saying, “The Apostle Paul would be envious of the mission field at our doorstep.” She then returned to her pew and sat down. 60% of the pledge cards turned in that morning had the original numbers erased or crossed out and higher amounts filled in!
Marjorie’s closing words rang in my ears for the remaining eight years I served in that place and they have remained with me ever since. It became my practice at the end of the service to invite worshipers to turn and face the door of the church for the Dismissal. From there, through the door of the church, near the Baptismal Font if possible, and with the Book of the Gospels in my hands, having been nourished by Word and Sacrament, I send Christ's followers into “the mission field at our doorstep.”
Above the Choir in the front of that church is a stained glass window I have never especially liked. It is a poor representation of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting of Jesus “The Light of the World” knocking on a door. In Hunt’s painting, there is no latch on the door, the implication being that it must be opened from the inside. However, in this particular window, there is a huge latch right there in front of Jesus. I could never reconcile the window with what I believed about the way Jesus enters our lives.
Until recently! A story shared by Bishop Scott Mayer in a sermon at the Ordination of Deacons provided the very insight I needed. It was a story told by a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Blasé Cupich of Chicago – a story about the days leading up to the Conclave to choose the current Pope. In the days leading up to the Conclave, it is their practice for the gathered Cardinals to deliver addresses designed to help their colleagues discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the Church.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina took his turn and remarked that, “In the Revelation to John, Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks.” “The idea,” he continued, “is that Jesus is knocking from outside the door.” But Cardinal Bergoglio inverted the image … and asked his fellow Cardinals and indeed the whole Church to consider “the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.” When the Church keeps Christ to herself and does not let him out … it becomes “self-referential – and then gets sick. The Church must go out of itself to the peripheries, to minister to the needy.”
Evidently, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke the words the Church needed to hear, for he was called. We know him now as Pope Francis.
Jesus wants to lead us out into the mission field at our doorstep, as Marjorie so powerfully envisioned it 45 years ago this month. I rejoice to say that the faithful of Bering Memorial Church are still going out there, responding with love and compassion to the needs of others. The doors continue to open outward and through them all kinds of people come and go. Marjorie was one of them. There is no way to even estimate how many lives she has touched. I am grateful she touched mine and, hopefully, many others who’ve heard my stories about her.
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue