Nelhama Catherine Jackson
December 8, 2014
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. That verse from Psalm 118 was especially important to Nelhama. I understand she used to repeat it often. And I also understand that she was pretty good at putting that verse into practice. This is the day which the Lord has made, so rejoice. Be glad to be alive. I wonder if Nelhama’s love for life was so strong because she nearly lost her own life at such a young age. For those of you who don’t know the story, when she was 5 years old she fell into a fire and was severely burned. Her home in Virginia was a little off the beaten path, so someone had to carry her for a mile just to get her to the road where the ambulance was waiting. She spent a year in the hospital having her wounds dressed and redressed each day until they healed to the point where she could return home.
As I heard that story last week, I couldn’t help but wonder if that experience gave her the joy with which she lived each day. She loved to travel, especially that special trip around North America just a few short years ago, seeing so much of our own country, not to mention the time she spent in Mexico and Canada. She loved to fly fish for trout, although with as small as she was there was always the danger that she would simply float away down the stream in her waders. She was always so prim and proper, a true lady. But she also knew how to get her hands dirty in her garden, where she would work to make those flowers grow. Yes, she certainly had a zest for life, the type of zest that very well might come from realizing that each day she lived was a second chance at life, a chance given to her when she survived that horrible accident with the fire 73 years ago.
But it’s not her zest for life that captured my imagination when I sat down to think about what to say today. It wasn’t her travelling or her gardening either. What stuck out to me most about Nelhama was her name: Nelhama. From what I understand, it is a Native American name, probably Cherokee. I tried to look up what it means on Google, but I couldn’t find it. I’m so curious to know more about her name because most people around her called here Cathy, which is actually her middle name. Beverly called her Wilma. 1 women, 3 names. As I was thinking about what to say today, that is what stuck out to me – the fact that Nelhama was known by a different name around here. The fact that Cathy had a different name from birth. The fact that her daughter called her Wilma, which might be the most special of all the names she had. As I considered all the names that Cathy went by I was reminded of Isaiah’s words that we heard just a few moments ago:
The nations shall see your righteousness,
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
5 For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:2-5)
You shall be called by a new name, says Isaiah. That’s why we’re here today: because of the new name that Nelhama had. Not Cathy, although that was a new name. Not Wilma, although that too was a new name. No, there is another name she had, and it is that name that has brought us together today, the name that the mouth of the Lord himself gave her: the name Christian. For on June 17, 1959, Nelhama Catherine Jackson was baptized into the name of Christ. She was clothed with Christ’s righteousness that covers all her sin. She was baptized into the name of God, and as Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “where God’s name is, there must also be life and salvation” [LC IV.27]. In baptism, Nelhama was given the benefits of being called by our Lord’s name. When we are given our Lord’s name in baptism, we are given these things as well.
And that, in short, is why we are here today. Yes, we are here to grieve the death of a dear lady who loved Christmas cookies and candy and kept Grandma’s fudge recipe alive in her family. But as the Apostle Paul says, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We have hope, for we have Jesus. We know that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. And we know that Cathy has been brought into that life, for she bears the name of our Lord himself. She feasted on the body and blood of our Lord in this very room, at this very altar. She was united to him, bearing his name into her daily life as she left this altar singing, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, for your Word has been fulfilled.” Nalhama departed this altar in the peace of sins forgiven. Now she departed this life in the same way, in the peace of sins forgiven.
That fills us with hope. Christmas won’t be the same this year without her. Life this side of heaven will never be the same. But we have the hope of sin forgiven. We have the hope of relationship restored. We have the hope of seeing her again in paradise. For like Cathy, we have a new name, a name that the mouth of the Lord himself has given. To return once again to the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Nelhama is now a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of her God. Cathy is a child of God. And behold what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God, adopted into his family, called by his name. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and even though what we will be has not yet appeared, take comfort. For Nelhama is with her Lord. And one day Jesus will appear again, and when he does, the world will see Nelhama and all God’s children for what we are. For when we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
So as you celebrate this Christmas without Wilma, without Cathy, without Nelhama, and without many you love who have died in the faith, remember the words of our closing hymn:
And our eye at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above;
And He leads his children on to the place where He is gone
Not in that poor, lowly stable with the oxen standing by shall we see him,
But in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high.
Then, like stars, his children, crowned and all in white, His praise will sound!
(Once in Royal David’s City st.4-5)
May our Lord who was born in that humble stable, who died on that humble cross, and who is risen from the dead in the glory of the Father grant you his peace today, throughout this holiday season, and for the many months and years ahead. And may he comfort you with the promise of the resurrection of the body unto life everlasting for Nelhama, and for all his children.