1 Timothy 6:12-16
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Jenny Marie, Too Soon Gone
When I had been welcomed as a first-time solo pastor by my congregation in Lancaster TX, my new LCA bishop Phil urged me to attend the weekly pastors’ sermon study group in North Dallas. It was a long haul through busy Dallas traffic, and I didn’t last long as an attendee once I realized it would take two hours of driving time for about one and one-half hours of meeting. Jenny’s father was one of the first pastors I met, but I didn’t meet his wife and children at that time. After a while, I got to know Jenny’s mom when there were clergy and spouse gatherings in the area.
Many years later, Jenny’s dad was out of the pastoral ministry and selling Lutheran Brotherhood products, and, because the General Agent for most of Texas was a member of my parish in downtown Austin, I reconnected with Jenny’s folks when they came to town for agency meetings. They told me to watch for Jenny Marie, their daughter who was working as a clinical social worker at the state psychiatric hospital in Austin. She began to worship regularly, and I was delighted to have her at church and was already playing matchmaker in my head as I tended to do with a number of eligible singles there. She had sung in the University of Texas Longhorn Singers and very much enjoyed the music at St. Martin’s.
One day, I received a heartbreaking phone call from Jenny’s dad. She had been diagnosed with a very aggressive kidney cancer at 28 years of age and was in treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston. Because it was a larger parish with three Sunday morning Eucharists, it was very easy to miss that someone had been gone from worship for several weeks. I realized that I hadn’t seen Jenny Marie lately, and now I was heartsick about it. Her Dad asked if would make the three-hour trip to Houston to call on her and to bring Holy Communion. We coordinated schedules so that her parents could be there, too.
The Houston medical complex is massive with a cluster of world-class research institutions. I had not been to M.D. Anderson since my father’s treatment there in 1975, the year Jenny Marie was born. When I recognized the original façade after so many years of expansions all around the complex, my heart went in my throat and tears welled up in me. I asked for God’s help to provide pastoral care without being weighed down by my grief-stricken memories of that place. The Holy Spirit gave me the courage and grace to be Jenny Marie’s pastor and, in that moment, her parents’ as well. We shared the Medicine of Immortality and hope-filled prayers. Not many weeks after, her parents called to say Jenny Marie had died. They asked me to preach at her funeral at their old parish in suburban Dallas. The pastor and his wife were old friends from seminary, and the nave was filled with Jenny’s old high school classmates and her parents’ dear friends. We rode together to the cemetery for her “impossible” burial.
On this Palm Sunday 2021, it has been almost eighteen years since we buried Jenny Marie. After a while, her father went back into the pastoral ministry and served a retirement community parish in Arkansas. Jenny Marie was a year older than Layla, my older daughter, and two years younger than Stephen, my oldest son. Layla’s oldest turns 21 this May, and Stephen’s oldest is 24 and married. Both of them fine young women. I think of Jenny Marie’s parents and the weight of grief that has been with them so many years and of their unfulfilled dreams for their sweet girl. We tightly cling with hope to the Lamb of God, who came to bear all our griefs and sorrows and to destroy our last enemy death and its dreadful reign.
Thank you, dear Father, for Jenny Marie and all those who leave too soon with so many left behind wondering why. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Put forty pennies, nickels, or dimes in a bowl or box today to help to provide food for the local food bank to share with the poor.
Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.