Funeral Homily for Martha (Mardi) Bransford Grimes DeBerry – John 5:24-27
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
June 30, 2018

When Judy Garland went over the rainbow as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she almost left without singing what became her signature number. Movie executives had removed the scene with “Over the Rainbow” for an early screening. They worried that it slowed the film down too much. By chance, some lower ranking producer intervened, and convinced them to put the song back in. The rest is history. We all know the words. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.” That iconic song would take on a life of its own, far beyond it’s original context. If you never saw the movie, you wouldn’t know that the singer was standing in a Kansas farmyard with her dog. The words are universal. They capture a childlike desire to get away and escape our troubles. The song is a mix of anxiety and hope, written in such a way that we can all read into it our own worries and our own dreams.

I heard that this was Mardi’s favorite song. I can imagine her singing along with Dorothy, her own dog by her side, of course. Surely the lyrics brought a certain comfort and assurance over the years. They promise that there’s a place where worries melt like lemon drops and bluebirds fly. Who can help but feel better at those suggestions?

As I’ve gotten to know more of Mardi’s story in recent days, it’s clear that she was loved dearly by family and friends. And that she lived her life fully, embracing the people and animals she loved along the way. It is also clear that she struggled at times. And when she did, her loved ones reached out and cared for her as best they could. Perhaps, at times, her loved ones carried a mix of anxiety and hope for Mardi like that captured by her favorite song.

We gather today to honor Mardi’s life, and to grieve with her loved ones. The church has its own set of lyrics to comfort in moments like these. They’re in the Gospel of John. The passage we just heard is about finding hope in the midst of our anxieties. It’s about where to look for comfort in the big picture, particularly in a time of loss. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus once said, “that anyone who hears my word… has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” I take Jesus as his word, about a distinct lack of judgment in his world of grace.

And though the language might be strange to our ears, we are invited to trust in something eternal for ones who pass from death to life. Jesus is the one with the big picture, where time and eternity meet, where death and life find their meaning. We try to grasp that big picture, and though our understanding falls short, we are invited to trust him as the way to that big picture. A few chapters later Jesus says that he is the way, and that we know the way already because we know him. Mardi, who loved a song about a world beyond what she knew, has found her way, as we all will. She is now fully in a world of grace.

One morning in 1988 at 3:00 am, an unknown Hawaiian singer named Israel with an unpronounceable last name called to get into a recording studio. At first the owner told him to call back, as he was shutting the place down after a long day. But he relented and set up some microphones and did a quick sound check. With only his ukulele, Israel sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In one take it was over, and it was magic. It became nothing short of an anthem for Hawaii, and for all things wistful and hopeful. It’s power transcended location as much as Judy Garland did on a movie set farmyard in Kansas. Years later, the studio owner was interviewed about that historic night. He said that Israel got the lyrics wrong, and changed the melody. You could count the mistakes with a score card. Or, he said, you can listen to the song and smile.

Today we honor Mardi’s life and the song that it was. We remember what and whom she loved and all that she hoped for on this side of heaven. We feel some relief that whatever her pain or earthly anxieties, they are now finished. She inhabits an eternal world of grace now. Whatever mistakes she worried about or counted on a score card, we now listen to the song of her life and smile.


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