Three Bibles: A Funeral Sermon

Today we laid to rest a precious woman in our church. Ethel passed away at her home last Thursday. She did not show up to take a church member to a doctor’s appointment, and when we went to her house, there was no response. After getting permission to enter into our house, one of our deacons, who is also a police officer for our city, found her on the floor.

Ethel was very specific in her instructions. Graveside only. Nothing at the church. No music. And no more than 20 minutes at the graveside. At first, I was bothered by this, wondering if we had done something as a church to offend Ethel. But that truly was not it at all. Ethel simply did not want anyone to make a fuss over her.

Normally, I try to meet with the family to hear stories about their loved one as I am preparing a funeral. But I never was able to connect with them before hand. All I had to go by were three of Ethel’s tattered and dogeared Bibles. The first one was printed in 1945. The last one had our church’s bulletin from last week stuck between its pages.

I sat down at my desk and laid all three of Ethel’s Bibles in front of me, hoping to find something I could say about her life from the seventy years of notes she had made in these Bibles. Here is what I came up with.

This past Friday, I got a call from Mrs. Dorothy _______. I asked her how she was doing. She said, “I’m sad. I’ve lost my best friend.”

Dorothy is the one that Mrs. Ethel was supposed to pick up on Thursday for a doctor’s appointment. When Ethel didn’t show, that’s when we discovered that Ethel had died at home. It’s fitting, that for a woman who was absolutely committed to not drawing any attention to herself, the only way we came to know of her passing was when she didn’t show up to help someone else.

Because if Ethel wasn’t there, that’s when you knew something was wrong.

Because Ethel was always there. Pastors know that there are certain people that will be at church every time the doors were open. Ethel was one of those people.

Our church secretary shared with me that her first experience with Ethel was when Stacey’s family first came to Glynwood, and Ethel was the Sunday school teacher for the two year olds. Stacey’s two oldest children both had Ethel as their Sunday school teacher. And every Sunday, week in and week out, Ethel was there.

The Sunday school teacher for the two year olds is not a position in a church that gets a lot of attention, which is probably exactly why Mrs. Ethel found her place of service there. Stacey remembers how Ethel would feed her kids with treats she brought from home. And even when her co teacher would tell her, “Ethel, they are about to go to lunch! You don’t need to give them any more treats, Ethel would still slip them treats under the table.

Trying her best to make sure no one else noticed. Because that’s who Ethel was.

I have a feeling we aren’t going to grasp the full impact of all that Ethel did until a few months from now, when we at the church look around and suddenly notice some things that just always seemed to get done are not being done anymore. Ethel did so much, but she worked harder than anyone I know to make sure she wouldn’t get the credit for it. She would come in early for a senior adult lunch and put a little treat at everyone’s place around the tables. Then she would leave and come back so that anyone who saw her walk in would see her coming in empty-handed.

She was adamant that she not get credit or attention for anything.

God love her, that is why we are here for a graveside service only,  and not the sanctuary at Glynwood. That’s why we are only meeting for about fifteen-twenty minutes. Ethel did not want anyone to make a fuss over her.

Ethel lived her life in a way that would draw attention to Jesus. And so I will do my best to honor her wishes by spending the rest of our time together drawing your attention to the Savior Ethel loved so much, and in whom she put her trust.

The best testimony to a life well lived is a Bible, well used. I’ve heard it said that when your Bible is falling apart, it’s a sure sign that your life isn’t.

And so Ethel’s family was kind enough to let me borrow not just one of Ethel’s Bibles, but three of them. I kind of approached this like an archaeologist, trying to learn about a culture from the writings they left behind.

I’m pretty sure this is the oldest one, because it’s the only one that doesn’t mention Terry. On the first page her name is written as Ethel W____, with a five digit telephone number.

There are more than a dozen different scripture references written on the first few pages, but the biggest one is Malachi 3:8:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, ‘Wherein have we robbed thee?’ In tithes and offerings… Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing. 

And then, on the first pages of this Bible, which by the way was printed in 1945, Ethel wrote this chart:

  • Tithe: 10%
  • House Payment: 20%
  • Groceries: 20%
  • Utitlities: 20%
  • Insurance: 10%
  • Car Payment: 10%
  • Miscellaneous: 10%

I guess the miscellaneous was where Mrs. Ethel bought all the snacks for her two year olds.

But right under Malachi 3:8, Ethel wrote “Matthew 6:19,” and next to it, “My favorite verse in the Bible.”

Matthew 6:19 says,

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Doesn’t that by itself help you understand who Ethel was so much better? She was not someone who cared about earthly treasure. She cared about treasure in heaven. That is where her focus was.

I think this one is the next one. The name on it is Ethel W___. It was presented to her at the Water Avenue Baptist Church in September of 1982. Bob W_____ was Ethel’s first husband, who went to be with the Lord in 1993. The first few pages are filled with dozens of verse references. Two verses are circled and underlined, with the word TITHE next to them.

One is Genesis 28:22:

“And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all that thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto thee.”

And again, Malachi 3:8: Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.

This is the last Bible. I know this because there is a bulletin from last week’s sermon stuck in it.

There are more Scripture references. Again, she wrote that Matthew 6:19-21 was her Bible verse.

There’s George W. Bush’s birthday listed—July 6. In 2005, he was 59 years old.

There’s a prayer for Governor Bentley.

There’s a note about the day they bought their Hyundai Accent in 2008, for $6,000. Two years later, they sold it to Tonya for $4000.

There’s the day Ethel met Terry—February 27, 1997, at Hope Baptist Church.

There’s their first date—April 2.

There’s the day they married, three and a half months after their first date, July 19, 1997.

There’s the visitor’s badge for Prattville Baptist Hospital, dated January 9, 2021, the day Terry passed away.

Now, play archeologist with me: what would you deduce from a Bible that not only had verses highlighted, but had prayers for politicians, notes from purchases, when Terry was ordained as a deacon, how much they received for social security and the fact that the check was delivered on the third Wednesday of every month, and the visitor’s badge from the hospital from the day the love of her life passed away?

You would conclude that this was the book the person built her life on. This was the book she turned to in times of happiness and sadness, in times of national political crisis; for financial guidance, for spiritual growth.

You would look at these Bibles that are falling apart as evidence of a life that wasn’t.

Ethel once paid me the greatest compliment I think I’ve ever received from anyone. After a sermon where I went “off script” and just started quoting different passages of Scripture, she came up to me and said, “James, I think you must have the entire Bible memorized.”

Now that I have spent the last couple of days studying Ethel’s Bibles, I realize what high praise that was coming from her. Because she knew her Bible as well as anyone I’ve ever met.

So I’d like to close by speaking again from the heart.

Psalm 116:15 says “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

That always seemed like a strange verse to me. Does the Lord really count the death of any of his saints as precious? And the answer is clearly yes, especially in the case of someone like Ethel B_______. 

She is united again with Terry.

She did not suffer, she did not linger, she did not decline.

She was ready to meet her Savior.

She lived her life storing up treasure in heaven that will never corrupt.

And even though she hated drawing attention to herself, and never wanted anyone to know the things she had done for them, she could not avoid the words of her Savior, which surely came to her this past Thursday:

Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things. I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of the Lord.





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