Celebrating the Life of Nancye Jane Turner Suggs (1943-2011)

Nancye and Larry Suggs with Bishop John B. Chane on May 2, 2011

A sermon for the Mass celebrating the life of Nancye Suggs, former senior warden of All Souls Church. The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:1-3, Psalm 23 (sung), 1 John 3:1-2, and Luke 14:16-23.

Raconteur is a great word. A raconteur is defined as “a person who tells stories, a person who relates anecdotes in an interesting manner.” It comes from an old French word, meaning “to account” for something, or “to give one’s account” of something. The theologian Harvey Cox, has said famously, “There has never been a better raconteur than Jesus of Nazareth.” But I don’t think Professor Cox met Nancye Suggs. Nancye could tell the Devil a story and make him smile. Nancye told lots of stories—some of them historical, some about people she knew or had heard about, and many of these stories were true. (Truth, after all, is often conveyed more by the spirit of a thing than in the details.) Right now, I imagine Nancye and Jesus out-story-telling each other, while countless disciples, saints, martyrs, angels, and archangels, wonder when they’ll even stop talking and dessert can be had!

Nancye gave me a little book for Christmas, knowing (in the way that she always did) that I would delight in it. The book is by Russell Lynes (whose father was an Episcopal priest) and the book is called Guests: or, How to Survive Hospitality: The Classic Guidebook). In the chapter on boring people, he says that in his family there were always five forbidden topics: domiciles, domestics, dress, diseases, and descendants.” He goes on to agree that “It is a good rule-of-thumb list, though I believe that there is no topic of conversation that is boring per se. It takes a bore to make it boring, and being a bore is usually the mere calamity of miscalculating one’s audience, a thing for which some people have a more marked talent than others.” (p. 32).

I take great comfort in knowing that Nancye gave me that book, but the section I just read, at least, was not highlighted. I read that section out loud to her one day, and we laughed, and agreed, that God must have put boring people in the world to teach us patience. One thing is for sure: While perhaps entertaining a few boring people over the years, and while she certainly put up with her share of boring priests—as for Nancye, there was not a boring bone in her body.

A relatively new member of All Souls emailed me to say that she did not really know Nancye very well, but that she had been at a dinner in which half the gathering ended up in the living room, surrounding Nancye, as she held forth about the history of All Souls, the history of Washington, D.C., her opinion on city government, the school system, and last, but certainly not least, her opinion on desserts. It was only in the last year or so that she would come close to approving of fruit as a dessert. A well remember her looking at me one day in complete bafflement: “Father, those people tried to serve fruit for dessert! Can you imagine? I’m sorry, but that is simply NOT dessert!”

Nancye was opinionated about her funeral, which was only complicated in that she left instructions written in 1994 and some from last year, and they don’t always agree. Nancye personified the Walt Whitman line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” (Song of Myself).

She left us a list of hymns to sing and specified that we read from the King James Version of the Bible. But she left me some room with the Gospel. I could have used one of the classic Gospels for an occasion such as this: the Good Shepherd passage, or the one about many mansions. And while I know that Nancye has been called by name by the Good Shepherd and that she is surely holding forth right now in a magnificent mansion, the reading we heard, the parable of the Great Banquet, seems to fit her just about right.

Jesus tells a story about a man who gives a great feast, tries to get his guest list together, but people are busy, or distracted, or have other plans. Thanks much, they say, maybe another time? Maybe we could meet for coffee instead? (You know, the kids are at summer camp, and then we’re at the beach for a week, and then school starts, you know, and Christmas is here before you know it….. we’ve all heard this.)

Jesus names a situation we’ve all known. We’ve got this big, good thing to celebrate. We invite people, but either people are busy, or no one responds, or people forget. And so the person giving the feast tells the servants—“ok, then, if all of these people are too busy, open the doors wide, let everybody in, compel (that is, convince, cajole, kidnap) people to come in.

Jesus is talking about inviting people to a larger feast, the feast of life itself, the feast of life lived in God’s company, the feast we celebrate and enjoy in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

I love the context for this story Jesus tells. He’s sitting at a fancy dinner party! There he in, in the middle of this rich man’s home, enjoying his food and drink, and Jesus tells this story that ends up hitting his host between the eyes with truth and choice.

Either Jesus is very Nancye-like here, or Nancye was very Jesus-like in this respect, I’m not sure which, and I’m not sure it matters. But what I’m talking about is the way that Jesus (and Nancye) could look at a person with love—look through the person with love and then speak Truth, with a capital “T.” This is a rare thing. It is an exceptional thing. I know that I will keep hearing her say to me, “Father, you know. Maybe I’m out of line in saying this, because you know, I take seriously that I’m the ‘rector’s warden,’ but have you thought of…” and then she would gently, smartly, judge me in a direction in which (five minutes before) I had no intention of going.

When Nancye and Laurence showed up at All Souls in the mid-70s, a few All Souls eyebrows were lifted. A very few even said some nasty things about them. But not only did Nancye know she was living out the welcome of Jesus, she also had a sense that she was simply carrying forward the vision of Dr. Sterrett, who founded this church. He said, famously, that it be “neither a broad church nor a narrow church, neither a high church nor a low church, but a church of All Souls.” Nancye welcomed and reminded. She encouraged and uplifted. She entertained and she offered criticism that always enlarged one’s own vision of oneself. She talked, and talked, and talked.
She remembered (just about everything she had ever heard about a person, a place, a building), she remembered and conveyed her memories so that others would be captivated by a love of history and story, as well.

We miss her at the table. When someone with such a powerful presence dies, sometimes we respond to their death in strange ways. We might rush into the space that is opened up. We might quickly try to do a thing “our way.” But I think our way of honoring her place is to give thanks, to pray about all that she did and all that she was for us, and to ask God, “What part of her life might I be called to embody, or enact? Might I encourage? Remind? Cajole or nag? Might I check on people? Might I offer healing? Might I cook, laugh, or simply be the face of God’s forgiveness and joy? If there’s something Nancye taught us that we can continue with, then that would really be a nice chapter to her story that keeps on being told.

Thanks be to God for Nancye Suggs, raconteur extraordinaire and for us a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister. Thanks be to God for Nancye’s resurrection to eternal feasting. Thanks be to God for Nancye: storyteller and saint.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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