Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
IN MEMORIAM : Alice Dabney Parker
Alice Dabney Parker
Sermon by her daughter, The Rev. Fleming Rutledge
April 27, 2007, being the third week of Easter
You may wonder why we chose that reading from the Gospel of Mark about our Lord healing the epileptic boy. I pray and hope that by the time we finish, we’ll know. Because funerals, as you know, are really not for the dead, but for the living. These words are for those of us who are here today in this “queen of seasons bright,” this Easter season of fifty days stretching between Easter Day and Pentecost.
Mother, who had very refined taste in music, loved the Easter hymns especially, more than the Christmas ones. Not everyone knows that for eleven years in the 40s and 50s Alice Parker sat in that organ loft—where the old organ was, where the Franklin Book Club is sitting today—and played the organ for the services. More than that, she was the director of a small but select choir of mixed adults and children. That’s why Betsy and I both know all the words of scores of hymns. Jeannette Purrington remembers those days; when she heard of Mother’s death, she called about altar flowers for the service. So these flowers, beautifully arranged by Gayle Urquhart on behalf of Emmanuel Church, were given by one of Mother’s former choir girls.
Mother’s devotion to Emmanuel Church was total. In the years after our father died—he who was many times senior warden—Mother visited the sick and the bereaved of the parish. We found the lists she kept of all the little gifts of food, flowers, books and other items that she had taken to people, not just Episcopalians but people all over the community. We had no idea how much of this she had done until after her death. She felt the sufferings of others very deeply. People sensed that. Three different people said, this week, “I loved your mother—everybody loved your mother”; “I was devoted to your mother—everybody was.” I think they knew she was devoted to them and that she grieved when they were sad, sick, or hurt.
It’s unusual for an intellectual to care so much for people, yet Mother was an intellectual in the true sense; she placed the highest value on the life of the mind and the pursuit of ideas. We used to say that she knew everything and that she was always right, and we said that not in resentment, but in admiration. She didn’t know everything, of course—for instance, she didn’t know much about science, though she certainly respected it. Within her very wide range of knowledge of the humanities, however, we almost never knew her to make a mistake, either in facts or in discernment. Alex Haley is reported to have said that the death of an old person is like the burning of a library. Alice Dabney Parker’s library was vast and we are inconsolable about its loss.
was the epitome of a Christian in her determination to do her part in relieving
the sufferings of others. Her outpourings of gifts to charities resulted in
huge pile-ups of appeals for money arriving in the mail every day. Because of
this concern for others, and even more, because of her personal demeanor,
people have frequently referred to her as sweet, gentle, and kind. That’s true.
She was indeed both sweet and kind, and gentle too at times. There was another
side to her, however. Ed Pickup said, “God forbid that
Now we are coming closer to our Scripture passages. Mother envied those who had the gift of unquestioning faith, because she did not have it. I feel sure that there are many people here today who can understand that. Faith is a gift, not an acquisition. Those who have been given it can only be thankful for it; we can never boast of having faith. Mother had the type of mind that relentlessly probes after things that others sometimes try to ignore or smooth over. Ben Duffey will remember the little position papers she wrote back in the 70s when she and he would talk at length about faith and doubt.
Mother’s doubts took a form that every serious person will recognize. They emerged from her temperament as I am trying to describe it. She could not bear for people to suffer. At the very end of her life she was still lamenting the loss of the son of friends who had died in tragic circumstances 20 years before. She had great difficulty reconciling such things with the promises of a merciful God.
In the reading from Mark, we hear of a man who, in desperation, brought his son to Jesus hoping against hope for some help. He didn’t know who Jesus was; he had only heard that he was some sort of religious wonder-worker. He calls Jesus “Teacher,” because he hasn’t the vaguest idea that he is the promised Messiah. He just wants to get help for his son. He describes how his boy suffers and he says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, please help us.”
Today we would say that the boy had epilepsy, but that’s not what the story means. The story means to convey that there are enemies loose in the world, enemies of God, enemies that have power to destroy human lives. It is that enemy that Mother railed against. Human beings are under assault by the power of Death in its many forms: disease, war, crime, violence. How do we understand these things in the context of our faith in God?
There is a common theme in all the Scripture readings today. All of these passages, in one way or another, speak of the power of God to overcome evil, suffering and Death. Listen again to Isaiah: “The Lord God will destroy…the covering that is cast over all peoples…He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”
listen again to
The man who brought his son to Jesus had no faith in the Son of God; he did not even know who he was. He only knew that there was a healer in town attracting big crowds. When he says to the Lord, “If you can do anything, please help us,” Jesus challenges him with a remarkable answer. Repeating back his own words, the Lord says, “If you can do anything! All things are possible to him who believes.” Do you see how the Lord is summoning him first of all to put his trust in him? The call to believe is prior to the actual healing. The man’s response is even more remarkable. In fact, it has been called the greatest cry of faith in the New Testament. When Jesus says, “All things are possible to him who believes,” the man instantly responds, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”
“Help my unbelief!” This has always made me think of Mother. We think she was saying this all of her life. She wanted to believe and she never gave up. That’s why she was so faithful to the church. She wanted to be in the place of belief. Even though she herself did not have that full conviction, she wanted to be with people who did. She never ceased to want the sort of faith she saw in others. She was saying “Help my unbelief” all of her life. And that appeal, we may believe with all our hearts, was enough. It was certainly enough for our Lord, who, hearing the frantic father say those words, drove the enemy from the boy instantly with all the power of the original creation of the world.
In the Gospel
of John there is a story which perfectly sums up the reasons for Mother’s lifelong
dedication to the church, and, in particular, to all who serve the
Whatever her struggles of faith may have been, Mother knew that it was Christ the Lord who is himself the Word of eternal life. He has the power to overcome all our disbelief. And so we may all say, today, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”