When Jeanette shared the startling and tragic news with me of Elizabeth’s death, I was in Greenville, South Carolina preaching at a 200 year old Episcopal Church. I got up early and went to pray inside the church, where to my left, there was a beautiful tiffany stained glass depiction of an angel dressed in pale lavender with graduating pink and purples that intensified to an almost black dress by the time it reached her feet. She shimmered in a beatific light that seemed to carry her into a timeless hope where you felt peace and love abide. Such an image as we were all still reeling from the news seemed right and holy. Elizabeth was as exquisite, beautiful, dramatic, and artistic as that angel with outstretched hands. My husband once wrote about how stained glass “is a picture made of broken things, of fallen feathers from an angel’s wings. When all is said and done, what else have we but stained glass love.” We all, like our beloved Elizabeth are held together like stained glass from the holy, broken and beautiful pieces of our lives. Collectively this week everyone has been describing Elizabeth with consistent adjectives like selfless, thoughtful, present-giving, note-writing, party planning, funny and beautiful. She was graceful in her dress, voice, fancy high pony tail, and work. I have wondered this week, if we were able to add up all the money raised at the charitable events she hosted in Nashville, if we could not say she was the largest fundraiser this city has known. She was capable, overcommitted, underpaid, and she never realized the impact of her life and work on the countless charitable organizations she supported. Elizabeth was a modest theologian with profound insight who prayed for others far more than she asked for prayers for herself. She lived the beatitudes and saw beauty in all things and the blessedness of the woods. She spoke of God’s all-inclusive love in her daily life. There is no need for me or you to preach on her behalf, she has already done it. Her legacy preaches volumes. The thousands mourning her rings louder than any words or music we offer as testimony to her belovedness. She was a natural storyteller and laughed as freely as she cried at tenderness. She felt compassion and righteous indignation rising in her at injustices. Her life was a witness that in the fleeting nature of time, we can create timeless moments.
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement who fed the poor all her life tells a story of a rich woman who gave her a diamond ring. Dorothy wondered what to do with the diamond, and ultimately decided to give it to one of the women coming to the food line. Dorothy said the homeless woman can sell it, give it away, or keep it. After all, Day concluded people who are poor or hungry can enjoy the beauty of a cherished diamond. Elizabeth helped us see the beautiful even in poverty or grief. When she was in charge of feeding the men at our Chapel for Room in the Inn, she fixed beef tenderloin served on her finest platters. When we called for letters and stamps for the six women inside the prison that were part of the Magdalene community, she brought cards, envelopes, beautiful pens and stickers all wrapped in bows. She was known to drive the food truck and set out table cloths and flowers as she distributed food. But all of those examples just dance around the edge of what Elizabeth preached with her life. The heart of what she preached was love. That is as plain and as simple as I can say it. She preached love like Jesus would want it preached. She preached it without guile, with unaffected modesty, and with power. I am so sorry for our loss. I am sorry we will miss her voice in our community. I am so sorry for her family, but I am so grateful she walked with this community and preached with such beauty to this community and loved her family so deeply.
Elizabeth knows we are mourning her. She would want to make sure we laughed even as we mourned. As we planned her memorial, her family told stories about her childhood. Jeanette, her mother, talked about when Elizabeth Hightower and Elizabeth went to summer camp and were required to write notes home. And if you have ever received a note from Elizabeth, you know the care and love she puts into her notes! Her mother called her at camp that summer and asked, “Elizabeth, what is going on? There are so many misspellings in your notes.” “Mom,” Elizabeth said, “it’s summer. I don’t have to know how to spell in the summer."
I will always see Elizabeth in this passage of the beatitudes. Her life and death are juxtapositions and it is through faith that we can hope that there is reconciliation as the heavens open up to her as mysteriously and beautifully as the angelic image seen through stained glass. It wasn’t until I wept at the beauty of angel that I noticed the angel was carrying a banner with the beatitude on it - Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. We will always honor her in the liturgy of this chapel, and all of us will help her spirit thrive in this world as we tell stories, and live a bit more tenderly and openly with each other.
Blessed are the pure in heart and I say in faith today and believe that Elizabeth would want you to feel reassured by that and that she was never abandoned by love and that you will never be either. It is hard to fathom in real time and space that all those we love will pass. Sometimes it is only possible to glimpse at that truth through soft stained glass images when the light is golden. She joins us in this communion today as part of the cloud of witness that is pouring love out. And so it is that even as we grieve her return to dust and acknowledge our own, we still make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.