Excerpts from a June 8 sermon at Christ Episcopal Church, Ridgewood
What can I say about Marge Christie that hasn’t already been said in newspaper articles, speeches, commendations and facebook posts? Marge was admired, respected, liked and loved by so many.
She was a capable leader, advocate, organizer, board member, fundraiser, and politician (with a small “p”). She was a trustworthy friend, a considerate neighbor and a faithful parishioner. She was an attentive aunt, cousin and sister, and a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, daughter and daughter-in-law. And in all of these roles, Marge generously gave and received love.
Marge knew herself to be a beloved child of God, and no matter how frustrated, irritated or angry she got with someone, she believed that everyone — no exceptions — is loved by God. Marge understood what it means to love God and neighbor; and through love, this remarkable woman changed the world. She moved the arc of justice and the way of kindness a little further on the path to God’s shalom.
Marge also loved stories. She loved to hear them, and she loved to tell them (in great detail). I still treasure the many hours spent with Marge listening to her stories, sometimes over and over again. She would often say, “Did I tell you about the time….” and then before I could say anything, Marge would be off and running with some story about her childhood, her children, her marriage, or her favorite non-familial topic, the church. Listening to Marge’s stories was better than taking a class in Episcopal Church history; and in her file cabinet, she had an archive of the justice movement.
So today, I want to tell you a few stories that describe the Marge Christie I knew and loved.
Marge was a respected and accomplished leader in our church before women were permitted to serve in many leadership roles. Her service began in 1970 when women first were seated as general convention deputies. She would often talk about watching with pride those first women take their place on the convention floor. Soon thereafter, Marge was elected to serve as a deputy from the Diocese of Newark and served for 13 consecutive terms, until her last convention, when as first alternate, she sat beside her granddaughter, Caroline, who was elected deputy at age 17.
From her deputy position, Marge worked tirelessly for social and economic justice, including the ordination of women and LGBT folks, reproductive choice, and marriage equality. In an interview for the Episcopal News Service, Marge recalled in July 1974 being on vacation at the Jersey shore, she read a front-page article in The New York Times saying some women were going to be ordained as priests in Philadelphia. She assumed that her bishop George Rath would be among the consecrators and wrote him a congratulatory letter. Bishop Rath wrote back explaining that he would not participate because he was waiting for the church to make a legislative decision permitting women’s ordination to the priesthood. In response, Marge said “That was a disappointment. You do have to be a pioneer sometimes and take some risks.” And so, she went to the ordination of the “Philadelphia eleven,” and returned home to move the church’s legislative process forward.
When women’s ordination was finally authorized by the General Convention in 1976, an angry male priest gave Marge a clergy collar saying, “Now you can get ordained and wear this collar.” Marge graciously accepted the collar but declined to wear it, except once for an after-hours hospital visit. You see, Marge never wanted to be ordained. Rather, she understood herself to be ordained through baptism to the first order of ministry — the priesthood of all believers.
For over forty years, that clergy collar hung proudly in her study alongside her deputy badges, yellow ribbons signifying senior status, and name tags from just about every meeting she ever attended. Her clergy collar was often the occasion for Marge’s telling of the story of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church. And that clergy collar became a symbol for Marge as she continued to work for the full inclusion and just treatment of all God’s children in both church and society.
Marge loved to travel. For a woman who lived her entire life in Northern NJ, she traveled to almost every continent on earth, often in the name of the Episcopal Church, and frequently in search of sunshine. I still can see Marge sitting on the beach, sailing a boat, driving in her convertible, or lounging on her back deck in early spring as she “worked” on her tan. By the end of her life, I think Marge’s legs were permanently embedded with the tint of sunshine.
One winter, Linda and I convinced our two mothers to take us on vacation to Jamaica. Our week was filled with eating food foreign to our mothers’ taste buds; driving all over the island on the left side of narrow, winding roads with our mothers laughing and screaming in the back seat. We read on the beach during the day; played card games at night; and yes, “worked” on our tans. Marge simply couldn’t get enough sun. My mother (five years Marge’s senior) would quietly whisper to me: “She’s going pay for all that sun exposure someday.” I don’t think she ever did.
Born in the 1920s and living till almost 2020, Marge was a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. As much of a feminist as she was, Marge was also a traditional homemaker who valued family more than anything else. While she had a short career as a secretary, she had a long vocation as wife, mother, and community volunteer.
It was always important to Marge that she be home in the evening and on weekends. I can recall more than one occasion when Marge complained about evening church meetings. She said it wasn’t good for family life, and it interfered with Jeopardy.
When George got sick, I had the privilege of seeing yet another side of Marge. She sat day and night by George’s bedside at Valley Hospital. And when he died, she said goodbye and shed her tears; and then, meticulously planned his funeral, supported her children in their grief, established a scholarship fund in his memory, and began a new chapter in her own life.
So how do I remember Marge? She was one of the most compassionate, faithful, practical, creative, playful, optimistic, and loving individuals I’ve ever met.
I will remember her lying on a beach, walking through a convention hall, standing at a podium, and sitting at a card table. I will remember her beaming over George and bragging about her children - Linda, Stewart, Dave, and Ross; her daughters-in-law - Cathie and Rosemary; and her precious grandchildren - Vanessa, Kyle. Emma, Graham, Caroline and Lauren.
I will remember Marge marching for women’s choice, LGBT rights, healthcare for all, world peace, and urban justice. I will recall her speaking at the United Nations, the New Jersey statehouse, and our nation’s capital.
I will remember Marge presenting dozens of women and men for ordination to all orders in the Episcopal Church, always reminding each of us of our first ordination through baptism.
I will remember Marge carrying her General Convention blue book around for weeks as she read every word of it. I will remember her crafting a resolution, working a room, chairing a committee and moderating a debate.
I will remember Marge giggling during silent breakfast on a women’s retreat, wearing silly t-shirts, riding a camel in the desert, speeding down highways in her convertible, sailing in brisk winds, decorating her house for the holidays, jumping in ocean waves, and dancing at weddings and Diocesan Conventions.
I will remember Marge chatting with friends over breakfast at the Daily Treat or while packing up boxes for Northporch. I will recall her playing “Jeopardy” or “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” as if she were a contestant. I will remember her recounting the details of Long Beach Island family vacations, complete with card games, ice cream, sunfish regattas, and croquet opens. I will remember her driving cross-country with me when I moved to Ohio.
I will remember Marge accompanying Linda and Rosemary to their wedding in Canada and looking at her own wedding picture as she sat by George’s hospital bed.
I will remember her praying with the 8 o’clock congregation on Sunday mornings followed by brunch with Bloody Mary’s and reading of the New York Times from cover to cover till she fell asleep in her chair.
In all these ways and so many more, I will remember Marge Christie as fully present to life.
In the Gospel of John (John 14:2) we are all assured of a place in God’s eternal realm. I like to imagine what each of our “rooms” in God’s mansion might look like.
Here’s how I see Marge’s room. It’s spacious and sun-filled, with an unobstructed view of the ocean. There’s a little convertible parked outside with Marge’s beaded baseball cap hanging on the rear view mirror. There are lots of books on the shelves, and photos of family and friends on the walls. There’s the sound of classical music on the radio and jeopardy on the television. There’s a card table readied for the next game of bridge, argentine rummy, or oh shit. There’s a bottle of Carlos Rossi wine chilling in fridge with a plate of Cheese Whiz and Ritz crackers. On the desk, there are carefully organized stacks of heavenly reports to be read, marked and inwardly digested; and sitting by the front door, are bags of canned food ready to go to heaven’s nearest food pantry. There’s the smell of Marge’s open-faced, buttered, steak sandwiches simmering on the stove. And there’s the sound of laughter has Marge catches up with all those who have gone before her.
Louie Crew once called Marge, “The Laughing Prophet.” In a birthday message, he penned: “Prophets tell us what we’re doing wrong and warn us, “Rethink! Rethink! But laugh?! Marge, clearly you do both. You even hinted how. In reflecting on General Convention 2006, [Marge] wrote: ‘I picked up a thought somewhere which helps me to keep the actions in balance: ‘Searching for God is the first thing and the last, but in between such trouble and such pain.’ [Louie responded]: Your rich laughter models how to survive any trouble and pain as we search for God.”
It’s so true. Marge’s rich laughter, combined with her passion for justice and her love for us all has helped many of us survive trouble and pain as we live our lives in search of God. As one who has been deeply touched by Marge’s laughter, passion, and love, I am profoundly grateful.
So to the woman who loved beach time and sunshine, loved her church and her home, loved her friends and neighbors (nearby and far away), loved her children and grandchildren, loved her George, loved her life, and loved her God, I say thank you and bless you. Servant well done!