Tribute to Cecile Jean Nelson: A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1-2, 11-18; Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 9:35-10:8

One of the greatest privileges a priest has is the invitation to share life’s journeys with people. In long ago days when village life was the norm and centred round the local church, the village priest was there at all the significant moments of transition – birth, marriage and, ultimately, death. For more than forty years this privilege has been part of my working life. How well I remember that feeling of near terror when, ordained less than two weeks, and never having held a baby before, my rector informed me he was going on leave and I would be baptizing twins the following Sunday. I didn’t drop the babies, they didn’t cry too much, and I discovered I loved this aspect of my work. What greater privilege than helping someone on their very first steps along the pilgrimage of faith! The stories of weddings, of brides arriving late and nervous grooms, are endless and best left untold.

But the aspect of privilege is probably most clear when one is invited to the death bed – at home, in hospital or hospice. There the priest joins the family, listens to their stories, sheds tears and shares tissues and prays the dying person into the Kingdom of Heaven. Speaking words of faith and comfort, words that are familiar from frequent use and so able to well up from deep within us, using holy oil to trace the baptismal sign of the cross on someone’s forehead, and then commending the person on their journey from life to Eternal Life – this is sacrament par excellence.

I had always hoped that it would be my privilege to do this for my parents – both people of deep faith who lived out their lives in the light of Christ. Sadly this was not to be and is just one of the costs of moving and living internationally. This strange, strange time of COVID-19, lockdowns, travel restrictions, fascination with stopping the curve and watching endless numbers climbing, adds another dimension to it all.

Today I beg your indulgence to speak a little about my mother, Cecile Jean Nelson, who died in the early evening a few days ago. In speaking thus it is my hope that others will feel included and be able to make the transitions from my personal story to yours, and especially those who have not been able to visit relatives in rest homes and hospitals, and those who have died alone.

I speak very conscious of the readings we have just read and heard – that great story of beginnings in Genesis when Abraham receives the visit from the three and a promise beyond his wildest dreams. So outrageous does the promise seem – that this elderly couple will finally have a child – that Sarah, eaves-dropping on the conversation, laughs out loud. We know the outcome and can read about the birth of Isaac as the story, the saga of those ancient biblical figures, moves on.

I speak conscious of the profound writings of St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans – his complicated and dense argument from works to faith, from death to life. How familiar is verse 8 of Romans chapter 5: “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” That verse alone is worth living with for the rest of our lives and continues to challenge me as I struggle to understand the abundance, the enormity, the sheer profligacy, of God’s love.

I speak conscious of the task entrusted to the first disciples – those apostles named in today’s Gospel reading – and all who have followed in their footsteps down to the present. The message is clear and simple – and utterly profound. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” What does that mean? How do we comprehend it? How do we live it? Proclaim the good news, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, give without payment. This is the detail of Jesus’s commandment.

A family legacy, death transformed into life, a calling to serve – these were part of the bedrock of my mother’s life.

My mother was born in Johannesburg just over ninety four years ago (a week after a certain Elizabeth who still rides horses). Her parents were convinced their first child would be a boy and had the name Cecil in their minds. That was easily changed to the feminine by adding an e but she was always called Cecil not Cecile. As if that surprise was not enough, a few hours after her birth she was joined by a twin sister. Cecile Jean was simply reversed and the new twin was named Jean Cecile! A brother followed a few years later. The Great Depression followed by the Second World War, shaped my mother’s early life – along with caring for her twin sister (who suffered from epilepsy), learning to swim, play the piano and sing, and getting involved in the Girl Guides and later running a Cub pack.

The fist in her family to go on to tertiary education, Cecile trained as a Domestic Science teacher and we children were brought up wearing hand-made clothes and eating ‘healthy’ meals according to post-war conditions. She had what must have been a fairly difficult conversation with my father before they were married. He had not been confirmed. Unbeknown to her he took himself off to the local church and was confirmed before they were married – a commitment he lived out for the rest of his life. She sent her mother-in-law packing after getting back from honeymoon to find all the wedding gifts unwrapped and the cards thrown away. The marriage was a fruitful one in the biblical sense. A quiver full – seven in all – of siblings came along with me being the third.

Mom always took her faith in God and calling to be a Christian very seriously. Her best friend and teaching colleague joined the Order of St John the Divine and we grew up comfortable with the religious life and knowing we were prayed for by Sister Mary. Long before the term became popular, Cecile was the archetypal ‘earth mother’. Not in a tree hugging sense but one deeply rooted in family, in bearing and raising children, and later rejoicing in grand and great grandchildren. Despite the busyness of a large family she found time to be involved in Girl Guides and was a lifelong member of the Mothers’ Union (hence the placing of the banner behind me today). It was, I believe, her involvement in these two organisations that opened her eyes to the injustices of Apartheid. While still a product of that society she nonetheless opened my eyes to the humanity of all people, and that, picking up the cry of today, Black lives do indeed matter. On my eighteenth birthday, as I got on the train to travel to Pretoria and the start of my national service, designed to change a spotty faced youngster in a super rifle-bearing killing machine, my mother handed me a copy of a little book of meditations by Alan Paton, a great Anti-Apartheid activist and author of ‘Cry the Beloved Country’. Based on the Prayer of St Francis beginning, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace’ I have always wondered whether she knew just how subversive that gift was.

A week or so ago Mom took a tumble on her walker. Already frail and increasingly weak and forgetful, she broke a hip and collar bone. The family decision was made not to send her to hospital for surgery but to keep her comfortable in the place and among the people who have become her family these last few years. As Australia opens up at last, it is hard for us to comprehend that, had she gone to hospital she would not have been able to return to the rest home for fear of introducing COVID. Nor was either of my sisters in South Africa able to visit her in these past months of lockdown, and, of course, our planned trip to be with her for her birthday went by the board.

Cecile Jean Nelson died on Thursday evening – without her biological family present – but not alone. In the truly lovely and deeply comforting custom of South Africa those who have cared for and nursed her in recent years were at her bedside, holding her hands and singing to her. And so she passed into glory in the company blue uniformed angels singing in Xhosa, handed on to the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are full of your glory: Hosanna in the highest.”

I want to bring this somewhat self-indulgent reflection to a close by thanking you, the people of St Peter’s Cathedral and beyond, who have prayed, loved and cared for us at this time. As Rachel plays her own composition, influenced by the music of Hildegard of Bingen, join the angels in welcoming Cecile into their heavenly company, along with all who have died and are dying in these COVID-19 days, and those who grieve their passing.

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.