Sermon for Ruth Hammersmith’s Funeral 7/22/17

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: July 22nd, 2017


No recording

Scripture Text:


I remember the day I finally met Ruth seven years ago. I had heard a great deal about her, but she hadn’t been able to be at church for a while. I called her and invited her out for coffee, and she said, “Let’s go for ice cream.”

So, we did. We met at Baskin-Robbins. I wish I could remember what flavor she ordered, but that doesn’t matter. Ruth liked her sweets, and she didn’t hesitate to express her preferences — about anything.

That day was seven years ago, so I knew Ruth for just 7% of her life. (It’s easy to figure that percentage out when someone has been alive for 100 years.)

That day — when we had ice cream — within a few minutes of meeting me, Ruth announced, “I’m going to live to 100.” It would have been normal for me to discount that statement, to think about the odds being stacked against her, but I didn’t. There was something about Ruth, something that immediately made me a true believer in anything she had to say. She was, as one person noted, “irresistible.”

I spoke with about nine people who knew Ruth when I was preparing this sermon. They all had remarkably similar things to say about her, whether they had only known her in her 90s, or they had known her in her 30s.

Pretty much everyone said Ruth was strong, opinionated, and stubborn. She knew who she was and what she believed. One person told me about how Ruth decided to leave her former Episcopal Church when, about 40 years ago, after the national church announced that girls could serve as acolytes at the altar, Ruth’s priest said, “Not in my church.”

She was a true feminist before her time. College-educated when few women were, she believed in the rights, the power, and the talents of women.

Everyone I talked with also recalled her marvelous sense of humor, her dry wit. One person was apologetic for calling her “feisty,” but what a marvelous adjective for Ruth! Feisty typically describes a small or relatively weak person who is lively, determined, and courageous. That was Ruth.

Another friend remembered several awkward church meetings in which everyone was feeling a bit emotional and argumentative about the topic, and the tension in the room was palpable. She recalled how, on those occasions, Ruth had an unflappable ability to interject a droll comment that would make everyone laugh, and the tension would just disappear.

As Ruth got older, her wit did not fail her. She could make a joke about anything — even at her own expense. Once, when she was having trouble finding the words to tell a story, she smiled, pointed to her head, and said, “There’s a squirrel in there.”

Humble was another word that kept coming up as I talked with people about Ruth. Even though she held important positions with various institutions and even national organizations, she never put herself front and center. But when she spoke, people listened. She was succinct and made her point clearly. As one person said to me, “When she asked you to do something, you did it.” She was a small woman with a powerful presence.

That humility of hers must have been the foundation for her loving nature, her kindness, and her gentleness. There was deep, heartfelt caring and generous hospitality in Ruth. She demonstrated this in so many ways, from taking care of her aunts as they aged to organizing the school bags and supplies project at St. Benedict — an activity that reflected her love of learning and books.

Ruth touched lives and hearts, quietly enabling and encouraging others to succeed. So many people stand on her shoulders. She understood what it was to be God’s servant as she prepared the way for those who would follow.

Ruth was a woman of faith and a woman of faithfulness. Like all of us who believe, she had doubts but she lived with them and worked through them, a true Christian, loving her God, loving God’s church. Her friend Vivian said it best to me: “She left her imprint on all of us and it was good.”

Several years ago, Ruth designed this service, carefully choosing the music and the readings. How perfect they are. From the Book of Wisdom, we heard, “She seems to have died but is at peace . . . God has tested her and found her worthy.” Psalm 46 underscores her deep faith: “God is our refuge and our strength . . . Be still. And know that I am God.” 2nd Corinthians seems to speak directly of her final years: “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day . . .For we walk by faith, not by sight.” And finally, the beautiful Gospel of John, “I have prepared a place for you. . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

The music is no less perfect for today. We sang Be Not Afraid, and soon we will sing On Eagle’s Wings. And finally, as we close our service, we will join together in The Servant Song. If you knew Ruth at all, it will be impossible not to see her in the words of that hymn. It will be impossible not to see her generosity, her hospitality, her humor, and her faith.

It is her voice we will hear as we sing: “Let me be your servant. Let me stand with you in your joy and your sorrow.”

Two weeks before Ruth died, I received a call telling me she was not expected to live more than a couple of days. I had received a similar call about Ruth at least six times this year, but that day I decided it was finally time to read the Prayers for the Dying at her bedside. So, a few other people from St. Benedict and I came to be with her. As I read the prayers and touched her hand, she held my gaze. She was not in pain or agitated in any way. She was calm and responded to my words with low sounds. I have been with other terminally ill people in similar circumstances, people who have lost the ability to communicate but who are much more aware of what is going on than we might think.

Ruth was aware. This woman of faith and prayer was with us every step of the way.

“I’m going to live to 100,” she had said.

And that she did.

And now we can all say with our God: “Well done, Ruth, thou good and faithful servant.”

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