Irene Vollbrecht

Irene Vollbrecht

The story about a diminutive tax collector and Jesus may seem a strange story to read at a memorial service.  After all, what did Irene have in common with Zacchaeus?  Well, tree climbing for starters.

Anne, or Sarah, or both of them were here in Fremont during the final weeks of Irene’s life – while she was hospitalized or in the nursing home – and they were both here on that Tuesday when her life with us came to an end and she stepped into that unimaginable well of love that we call “heaven.”  During those days, we got to share some stories.  One image from those stories sticks in my mind – Irene as a girl up in a New England apple tree (I’m betting it was a McIntosh tree, though I wasn’t told that detail), reading a book.

Pastors come to churches and get to know people – but we only get to know who they are for the years that we’re at the church.  So Irene was already in her late 70s when I met her.  I didn’t know her as a mother raising her children, as a public school nurse, or as a girl climbing trees and reading books. I knew her as a book reader.  Reading books has always been a part of her life and Irene was a member of the church’s book group for as long as I’ve been here, even hosting the group the past few years.  But I didn’t know her as a tree climber who found in those trees a special place to read.  I imagine it, I can easily imagine it, but I never saw that side of her.

I suspect that part of the reason Irene went tree climbing was to get out of the house, to get out from underfoot (maybe even to get away from chores).  But she didn’t go tree climbing just to go away.  She was also going to – going to the fresh air, and going to the places and ideas in the stories she was reading.

Zacchaeus went tree climbing because he was curious.  Even though he was a tax collector (in other words, he was part of the system of oppression that was the Roman Empire), he was curious about this Jesus guy and what he was teaching and doing.  He went and climbed a tree to discover something new.  And that’s how I see Irene up in the tree – discovering something new.

Irene was also like Zacchaeus back down on the ground.  He was happy to welcome Jesus and Jesus was happy to welcome him.  I never heard Irene say an exclusive word about anyone.  She was as welcoming of people and our differences as anyone I know – not just of her generation, but of all generations.

The reading from the Epistle of James reminds us that faith that isn’t enfleshed is empty.  I knew Irene to be a woman of faith, not so much because of what she said but because of what she did.  That engaged mind engaged in Bible study and I always appreciated what she had to say in the Women’s Fellowship Bible Studies I led over the years.  But it was how she lived that faith that spoke loudest.

To be a school nurse or a volunteer nurse at the homeless shelter, Irene had to deal with reality.  She never told stories (at least not to me), but I know she had to deal with teenagers who were pregnant and child abuse and chronic illnesses and chemical dependency.  When you’re a health care provider to people who are living on the edge, you have to deal with some pretty tough stuff.  Some people who do that end up being very clinical and cold and distant.  Others get caught up in the drama and lose track of where they end and someone else begins.  Irene wasn’t either.  She somehow managed to approach people compassionately and to deal with reality.  She had a compassionate heart without losing herself.

I’m having trouble explaining exactly what I mean, but what I’m pointing to is how she lived her faith.  Her faith had works – works that made a real difference in real people’s lives.

Not that Irene thought words were unimportant.  Finding the right words to tell a story or to craft a poem was important to her.  I’m not sure how her family picked just one of her poems for the bulletin, but what a great selection.

Love does not require
perfection in its object.
It can make perfection
with its own reality.

By its own intensity
and its creativity,
Love emits an energy
that sets a soul on fire.

I’ve had a chance to sit with that poem for a few days, to reflect on it, to consider the wisdom it contains.  It’s really quite profound.

The reading from Proverbs – Proverbs is an interesting book.  It’s almost like a scrapbook, with its collection of pithy sayings and long poems and admonitions.  The reading we heard today comes from the first section, which is a collection of poems about wisdom.  It seemed an appropriate reading for today because wisdom is personified here as a woman and wisdom is explained to be of greater value that material riches.

That, too, reminds me of Irene.  She saw wisdom, compassion, and love as being of greater value than riches.  She also saw how they were connected.  Compassion and love open us up to others and the wisdom they can share – whether that other is an author and we’re sitting in a tree reading or that other is someone we meet from a different walk in life.  Their stories, our stories all contain some wisdom, some knowledge, some insight, some strength that can lead us along the ways of righteousness and the paths of justice.