About a month ago, Tara (one of Ann’s granddaughters) called me and asked me when we could baptize her son, Noah. She wanted her grandparents to be there for the baptism as she knew it would be important to them. I offered a few dates and Tara picked Sept. 15th. Even just days before, we thought that her grandparents would be there. Unfortunately, they could not make it. The family suggested I bring them communion so that the whole family could share communion that day. I also brought the chrism. I had explained to Tara and Stuart the day before that we use consecrated oil for baptisms, for prayers of healing and often before death. It’s not the exact same oil, but it’s very similar. When we baptize someone, we mark the sign of the cross on the child/adult’s forehead and we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I always ask the parents and Godparents to put the oil on the child’s forehead as well. It’s my favorite part of the baptism because it reminds me of the permanence of God’s promise to us. “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Since Ann and Jim could not be at the baptism, I brought the oil to them and Tara held Noah for them so they too could anoint Noah. Ann was reluctant at first. She was never one to make herself the center of anything, but her family encouraged her and she did with a huge smile. After I found out that she died about 12 hours later, I wished that I had used that oil to anoint her, but I know she would not have wanted that. It was never about her.
Most Christians are so accustomed to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and us as his sheep. We are so used to it, we forget that it’s kind of an odd way to describe God, the creator of heaven and earth, the redeemer of all humanity. The Greek gods were powerful and often frightening. The Romans made their most powerful leaders into gods. Yet Jesus refused to be the kind of god that so many wished for. He would not wield his power with violence or even displays of majesty. He showed his power with radical and unconditional love. In this Gospel reading, he uses the imagery of the shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus was a leader, but he was a servant as well.
Ann’s dear friend Gwen told me that Ann would never be the first to go through a door. She would always insist the other person go before her. And that in many ways, summed her up. Her son told me that she had the life of 10 people. She did. She had a wonderful life full of adventure, amazing places, dear friends, a loving family, and a husband she adored and who adored her. Yet she did not take that for granted. She never acted as though she was entitled. She was a leader, but she was a servant leader. Now, all over town, you will see free lunches for children in the summer because people realized that many children go hungry without school to feed them. Yet long before the rest of us figured that out, Ann was in the kitchen with a small group making sandwiches for a local apartment complex where she knew that there were lots of children who might otherwise go hungry. She never advertised this. She never advertised anything she did. She did it because she cared. She did it because she knew the Good Shepherd and she followed him.
I was a little disappointed that I did not offer to anoint Ann and Jim. We don’t offer Last Rites in the Episcopal Church—at least we don’t call it that. But we do sometimes anoint people before they die if they request that. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that was not how Ann operated. She died not because she felt closure because she was anointed, I believe that she was able to find some peace because once again, she was able to perform one last act of service, by blessing her great grandson and marking him as Christ’s own forever. There are some in the church who will tell you that only priests can bless. Yet I feel safe saying that while Ann didn’t anoint all of us, she blessed us all with her love, her compassion, her kindness and her selflessness. She left her mark on us all. We will miss her, but her Spirit will always be in this church and this community.