In Memoriam: Nancy Waller Newmeyer
Memorial Homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco
The Rev. John Kirkley
On behalf of Bill, his family, and the people of St. James, thank you for the gift of your prayers and presence as we celebrate the life of our beloved sister, Nancy. Nancy was a remarkable woman. In her own quiet, self-effacing way, she was a powerful woman. What made her so remarkable was the way she exercised her power: with great humility and profound dignity.
It really hit me that Nancy was gone when, after she died, I went into the kitchen downstairs and discovered that the dishwasher was full. Every week, Nancy would stop by the church and put away the clean dishes left in the dishwasher from the past Sunday’s coffee hour. I never asked her to do it. She never told me that this is what she did; I just happened to catch her doing it one day. I imagine she had been doing it for years before I ever came to St. James. She just knew that it had to be done, that it would make life easier for others, and so she did it.
A couple of years ago, a young mom in our congregation was going through a difficult divorce and needed a place for her and her daughter to stay temporarily until the court decided who got to keep their apartment. Nancy immediately opened her home to them, and I’m sure Bill did as he was told – happily. Bill is fond of telling me, “John, my wife is a saint.” He is right. She was always doing things like this that most of us never even knew about.
Nancy was the kind of person who gives Christianity a good name; and these days, that is saying something. She didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve. She followed St. Francis’ dictum, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if you have to.” Nancy didn’t have to. Her actions spoke volumes. Whether supporting people with disabilities, restoring the Presidio’s landscape, advocating for public education, affordable housing and immigrant protections, arranging flowers or cleaning the kitchen, Nancy walked the talk without needing to say a word. She showed up. And she kept showing up: for Bill, for Thomas and Carla, for her grandchildren, for her students, her friends, her neighbors, for the City of San Francisco, for St. James. I don’t know how she did it, but I suspect her faith played a big part.
Nancy was private about her faith. I will never forget one evening, however, during a study group here at St. James. Folks where asked to share about how they prayed. When it was Nancy’s turn, she said, “Oh, I don’t know. I just talk with Jesus throughout the day.” I didn’t let on, but I almost fell out of my chair.
There was a spiritual depth to Nancy that she didn’t talk about much. Which is one sign that it was authentic. It wasn’t about her. It was about being transparent to the power of God’s love shining through her just as it shines through Jesus. She didn’t want us to see Nancy – she wanted us to experience the inexhaustible power of divine love. She just got out of the way and let it flow.
Scripture tells us that we are dust and to dust we shall we return. For Nancy, this wasn’t a threat. It was a promise: a promise of homecoming. As dust, Nancy knew herself to me intimately and eternally connected to the whole of reality; she was comfortable in her own skin; she was at home in the world. As Carl Sagan once observed, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
When we were discussing scripture readings for her memorial service, Nancy was particularly drawn to the reading from the Gospel of John: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
Jesus invites us to trust that in God’s “house” there are many rooms and a place has been prepared for us. We are at home already, here and now. When we die, we simply move from one room in the house to another. In some mysterious way, returning to stardust is a movement into the very heart of God’s own life, God’s own house. Nancy embraced being dust; being stardust. This was the source of both her great humility and her profound dignity.
The Gospel that Nancy lived was a deep trust that she was at home in the world, at home in God. This was the source of her serenity, her liveliness, her generosity, her humility, her dignity, and her strength. She was aligned with the power that birthed the cosmos, the love which energizes the universe as a single emergent reality that is moving toward greater complexity, creativity, consciousness and joy. Her life was one great explosion of love into the world, and it continues to expand in ways known and unknown to us. You are stardust, Nancy. You always were and you always will be. May we remember that we are stardust too.