“Love never ends… In the end, when it all goes down, all that shall remain are faith, hope, and love. But, love… Love is the greatest of these three…”

Paul of Tarsus, 1 Corinthians 13 (freely translated)

I cannot recall the day or the year… but one time, Auntie Rhonda and I were talking on the phone and she asked me—well, let me rephrase that—she told me that I would be preaching her eulogy. She asked me, but it wasn’t like she asked; it was still kinda like she demanded… Oh, if you knew her, you know what I’m talking about. But whether she asked or demanded, I said “yes.” Cuz I declare, I love me some Rhonda Sue.

I truly (still) need some help here.

I’m not going to take a moment of personal privilege, but I have to say this so that those who didn’t know her can understand something about her. She loved deeply. Her love could come out all kinds of ways: in prayerful reassurance; in flaming hot lava; in bold defense; and in quiet caretaking. But when I changed my major from biology to theology, and accepted the call to ministry, Aunt Rhonda always backed that decision. She always supported me in this journey and never wavered in her conviction that I was called to preach.

So… She sho’nuff cussed me out when she found out that I had been assigned to my first church on Facebook rather than calling her as soon as I could. And the next day, when I tried to tell her that I didn’t get the pastoral assignment ‘til about 10PM her time and, “Auntie, I didn’t have a chance to call you until 11PM, and I didn’t wanna wake you up and—”

Auntie interrupted me with the quickness. “Boy, be quiet. You shoulda called me and told yo’ auntie. I don’t wanna hear them excuses…. Now…. Nephew… Joe, I’m so proud of you…. [then she did that classic Rhonda throat-scratching chuckle…]”

Whew, that chuckle tho. I miss that chuckle.

Listen closely to what she said, y’all.

“I don’t wanna hear them excuses. Nephew, I’m so proud of you.”

Two sides of the same coin. She loved me enough to let me have it. And she loved me enough to say that she was proud. All within 10 seconds of the other.

I imagine that’s what love does. It does both. It tells the truth even when it hurts, and Love supports, encourages, and feels so good.

I imagine that’s what love does. It causes us to weep over the loss of our dear wife, mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, and friend. And love has brought us here to celebrate her life. And so we weep and rejoice. We mourn and celebrate. Two sides of the same coin called love.

Love never ends.

This woman loved God and she loved love. And as the apostle Paul said so eloquently almost two thousand years ago, spiritual knowledge, prophetic witness, and miraculous deeds without love are nothing. It’s all empty.

You know what was never empty when I was around Rhonda? My stomach. Nope. Never that.

This woman could cook. Lawd, this woman could cook. Only person I know that could cook better than Rhonda Sue was her mother, my grandmother, Nanny—Willie Mae. And the fruit don’t fall too far from the tree, because if you happen to surf on Facebook and catch a glimpse at what Kwame and Ish be up to on the grill or in the kitchen…. yes, indeed. And while I’m at it, I gotta give props to Brown’s Fried Turkey…

But it’s more than that. Those meals were the occasion to share a table. And it’s powerful to share a table. Jesus Christ was known for sharing tables and breaking bread with all kinds of folk. And in doing so, he created a sacred community. When you eat food made with love in the midst of loving company, we all catch a glimpse of God’s beloved community. Indeed, the Kingdom of God is at hand when you can share a table. When a table and meals are shared, new relationships and possibilities open up. When a table is shared and conversation is had, Rhonda and Sammie Brown can become mother and father to children who are not blood, but are spiritual relatives… Robert Jr., who is my first cousin on my mother’s side of the family, becomes family to my father’s side of the family. The dressing and collards weren’t just off the chain. So was the laughter, the camaraderie.

This ability to create a sacred space around a meal—Nanny passed it on to Rhonda and Rhonda passed it on to her sons and they possess this sacred power now.

No; wait. This sacred power has possessed them.

Rhonda Sue loved her grandchildren. In fact, the last time I saw her was when she and Brown had driven Jaylin and some of his homeboys out cross country to CA. She was a proud grandmother; so many of our convos would eventually be about what her grandchildren were up to. And she always talked about “Brown.” Growing up, I didn’t even know his name was Sammie, much less Samuel… for as long as I remember, my uncle’s name was “Brown.” And when we talked on the phone, she would ask me to pray for Brown because she cared about her husband. Y’all pray for Brown. She loved her nieces and nephews and friends.

Her siblings…my aunt and uncles… She gave me a piece of advice once. “Don’t tell us anything you don’t want the others finding out. You know how we talk, boy.”

And talk they did. When I thought about it. I realized how special Aunt Rhonda and siblings are. These jokers talk to each other all the time. I can say jokers up here lol… not down there… she was proud of James, and Ruby and Yusuf and Ujjayyi… whom she consistently called “yo’ daddy” just like she called herself, “yo’ auntie.”

I get it, Auntie. I get it. My Dad. My Auntie. It’s not in the proper names. It’s in the relationships. Sister. Brother. Friend. Husband. Mother. Wife. Son. Daughter. Grandchildren. Niece. Nephew. Cousin. Our personal names matter. But without love and relationship… those names are empty gongs and clanging cymbals.

Just like y’all, I love me some Rhonda Sue. And I won’t say I “loved” my auntie. “Loved” is past tense like it’s over. But it’s not over. Because I read somewhere, that love endures all things, even death. I felt somewhere, deep down in my spirit, that God is love. And I wish I had just one somebody in this church—and reading this blog— who can declare with me that love never fails. We live in the hope that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even death.

So let us be mindful that even in the midst of loss, we remember what Rhonda Brown understood: God is with us. Whether beside the shady green pastures and still waters or by the darkest valleys and in the presence of enemies. God is with us. Love is with us. And as my auntie began her transition to a new journey on the day that we in the Christian faith celebrated Resurrection Sunday… I am assured that she built her hopes on things eternal.

Like love. Love is eternal. Because love never ends.

Auntie Rhonda puts it to us again this afternoon, and like always, we have to make a decision. Let her life tell it this afternoon. It’s not in the degrees we hold. It’s not in the titles we got. It’s not in the homes we build or the weapons of war that make us great. It’s not in the amount of money we have or social status we think we got. It’s not even in our spiritual knowledge or pedigree. That’s not the question.

What’s the question, Auntie?

Rhonda’s enduring love asks us: Did we love somebody? Did we visit somebody when they were sick? Did we provide scholarships for folk? Did we see ourselves in Haitians or Liberians? Did we serve with love and kindness without expecting compensation? Did we tell the truth even when it made us and others uncomfortable? Did we put both of our feet into some dressing and had family and friends somehow understand the power and the possibilities that lie in a shared table? Did we love each other? Did we understand that love is an action and not a thing? Even when it was inconvenient for us, did we love somebody? Because love demanded it from us and we could not and did not resist a power that endures all things and never fails…

I hope I have some kinfolk and folk who understand what I’m talking about. Love never ends. It is God’s love that defeats death, forgives sin, mends brokenness, comforts heartache, and sends peace in the middle of the storm…

Love never ends.

After all of the high-mindedness, after all of the intellectual exercises, after all the stubborn do what we wanna do, can’t-nobody-tell-me-nothing-streak that runs deep in the Sales clan—I’m a witness and participant—after all of the back and forth, and after it’s all said and done—I can still hear my Aunt Rhonda Sue say to me, “but did you love somebody, nephew? Did you show it?” She might have laced that question with some words I can’t utter up here. She might have said it with a tone none of us can duplicate. But she was and remains a woman who believed in Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.” That is one way we still keep Jesus here with us. We share a meal in remembrance of him. And so, in Christ, we can certainly say, love somebody in remembrance of her. Love yourself in remembrance of her. Do some mission work in remembrance of her.

It’s no small thing to remember. But’s it’s an even greater thing to do something in remembrance. That’s one way a person can still live on….

Her love never ends, because her love is wrapped up in God’s love. Though this life may end. Love never ends.

She was and shall ever remain a woman of conviction. We need to remember her. She must live on in our memory. In this age of lies and “alternative facts” and injustice that we live in, we need to remember Rhonda Brown, and the importance of telling the truth. This woman was going to speak her mind and call it like she saw it. Period. She was gonna keep it 100. Our tongues may not be as sharp as our dear Rhonda, but the truth is the truth and we must deliver it to the best of our abilities. In a world where we are shackled to lies, ideology, and social mendacity—only truth can set us free. So, tell the truth in remembrance of her. Face up to the truth in remembrance of her. Live in reality in remembrance of her and she will still live on with us.

At some point, it’s beyond obligation. It’s beyond guilt. It’s beyond other motivations. At some point, you and I must tap into that thing that is beyond us yet within us all. At some point, our dear Rhonda came to understand and lean the very power and nature of God. At some point, you begin to understand that the doctrine will pass away, that all the pews and pastors and mentors and family members and ideals and resentments and ups and downs and prophecies and scriptures and the four walls of the church…. All of these things will cease… and all that will matter is, did you trust in the Lord? Did you trust in God’s Love…. Did you trust a God who is Love? Not did you trust the preacher, or trust the scripture, or trust the doctrine, or trust in power… did you trust in God’s love? Did we trust in the God of Love…. And Rhonda Brown surely trusted in God and trusted in Love… and that is why she will still live on… down here and up there… Love never ends because God never ends…

When it’s all said and done, what do we hope for? What do we hope in? At some point in her life, my auntie made a decision, and she made it with conviction. She hoped for God and she hoped for love because this will all pass away my brothers and sisters. So what do we hope for? What did she hope for when she did mission work; when she created sacred meals; what did she hope for… when she went to track meets for her granddaughter or chaperoned her grandson across country; what did she hope for when she organized and threw Brown a surprise 60th Birthday Party and prayed fervently for her children? Behind those shades, behind that tight-lipped visage… it’s still crystal clear… She hoped in and hoped for love… Her hope was in God.

None of us are perfect, we’ve all sinned and fallen short. We’ve all been lied on and harmed. We’ve all got some skeletons in the closet. But when it’s all said and done… what do we love? That’s the greatest question. We can love anything. But do we love God and do we love love…? Oh, I wish somebody understood what I’m talking about this afternoon. We may not always be patient. We may harbor resentments… but are we actively trying to love love? Are we actively trying to love God with all our heart soul and mind? Are we trying to love somebody? Not because a preacher told us to, or because we read about it somewhere, or because we feel obligated to…

No, we love God and we love love, because we understand like the old songwriter did, I was sinking deep in sin… I was sinking deep in death, I was sinking deep in brokenness, I was sinking deep in injustice… far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within sinking to rise no more, but the Master of the Sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I…. Love lifted me…. Not my money… love lifted me… that’s what My Auntie understood… when nothing else could help… love lifted her… because love endures all things, believes all things, and hopes all things… Love never ends… Because God is love and God is eternal… and so though she is absent from this body…. Love has already lifted her… love is a force of attraction and not even death can separate us… So, she’s gone but she ain’t gone…

Well, I’m almost done now…. The name “Rhonda” is derived from Welsh. The closest approximation to translation is “good spear” and the name might also mean “noisy” or “loud.” Rhonda was retired military, but more than that, she was on the battlefield for her Lord. She was a good spear and loud; she was gonna speak her mind and go on the offensive. She was a loud and good spear for the Lord and for family and friends.

“Sue” is the shortened form of Susan or Susannah, and that means “lily… “purity,” “hope,” “innocence” and “peace.” And through her mission work, phone calls, helping hand, prayers, and witness… she gave folk a chance to find some hope in the midst of devastation; she gave this nephew some peace in the midst of confusion, though I always knew that her spear was ready and willing…

But her name perfectly captures this moment. Because she’s put her spear down now and has studied war no more. She’s picked up her Easter Lily and though she journeyed through the valley of death… She saw the lily in the valley… she turned her eye from God’s staff and rod, and picked up some lilies… because she is one of God’s precious lilies…

Her name symbolized her personality and commitment to God, but it is also appropriate that her name is the very meaning of the transition from labor to reward.

Ah, glory glory, hallelujah, she has laid her burdens down. She’s gone on to be with Jesus, since she laid her burden down. Since she laid her good spear down… she exchanged her spear for a lily… she fought the good fight and kept the faith. She sacrificed so that others could smell lilies while they were still alive. And indeed, because of her struggles, this world got to see some lilies in the valley. Some people got to find some peace in the valley. Some folks got to find some joy in the valley. Some folk got to see some love in valley. Because love never fails and love never ends….

And when she met her savior, she met him with a smile. God healed her wounded spirit and owned her as his child; around the throne of Grace, God appointed her soul a place… she’s off the battlefield… and has joined that mighty cloud of witnesses…

Because love never ends….

Well done God’s good and faithful servant: you’ve fought the good fight and kept the faith.

Well done God’s good and faithful servant: you loved somebody, you created table fellowship, you visited the sick and the poor. Move on up a little higher.

I love you, Auntie.


“Those whom we have loved and lost are no longer where they once were. They are now wherever we are.”—Saint John Chrysostom.

Amen.

I miss you, Auntie.

Faith, Hope, and Love

But the greatest of these three…

© M. J. Sales 2017

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