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“THE LORD SEES THE HEART” Funeral Homily for Aunt Lee Ann Barlotta

In the first reading today, (1 Samuel 16: 1-13 )  we heard one of the chapters from the Old Testament recounting the story of King David – the same guy who took that giant Goliath down with a stone and had frightened the entire nation of Israel into complete inaction… the same guy who would be responsible for composing most of the psalms in the scriptures that thousands of years later Jews and Christians still pray with daily.  King David is someone that people think that they know who he is or enough things about him.  But journeying with a group of people who are following the podcast “The Bible in a Year” last year and again this year, providentially we’ve been navigating the entirety of David’s story that scripture captures these last few weeks.

This was a homily for the funeral for my Dad’s Aunt (my great- Aunt) Lee Ann Barlotta, who passed away on May 14, 2022 at the age of 95.  May her soul and the souls of all the faithful deprated, through the mercy of God, rest in Peace – Father Jim

What people find about David is that far from being simply the giant slayer removing a murderous threat from the people, remembered for all his successes as a righteous ruler or even a model for prayer – the entirety of his story, is a bit more complex.  David is far less than perfect, and navigating some of those chapters leaves people with mixed feelings to the point that some people who only knew the highs of David’s highlights, learning those lowlights expressed they’re unable to think of him the same way as they did before.   They thought they knew David.

Because these Old Testament books are in the background for me right now, again, providentially they have been much on my mind these last few weeks.  The other day when talking to a friend about Aunt Lee – I said that preparing for this funeral has proved to be one of the most difficult of family funerals for me which was incredibly surprising.  Thinking back to the family members whose funerals I’ve presided at – they’re never easy obviously for a variety of reasons.  Lots of different emotions and the circumstances around their passing are at work.   Uncle Gary’s death was so unexpected and sudden – so was Aunt Cathy’s which dealing with the shock made it so jarring. My own Father’s death was so unexpected and sudden and so close, I was so uncertain that even though I felt confident enough to preside, I asked a friend to preach.

But the reason that Aunt Lee has proved a bit more challenging than I anticipated was because of Aunt Lee’s distance.  Not physically as for the last 15 years she was the relative who lived the closest to me- less than a mile door to door from me.   Distant emotionally: whether it was birthday or Christmas gifts that she begged not to receive to even the morning of her last fall, just over two weeks ago, when the firefighters from the Clifton FD were able to get to her and help her up off the floor, her cries for help had ceased her impulse was that she didn’t need to go to the hospital as she apologized and argued repeating the phrase we so often heard   “I don’t want to be a burden.”   Words that we’ve heard more times than not which were maddeningly frustrating.  Maddeningly frustrating because there didn’t seem any way to convince her to be receptive to whatever care or help we were trying to offer.  It’s easy for us to see and remember those less-than-perfect experiences and think we knew Aunt Lee.  And that first afternoon 2 weeks ago in the waiting room in the ER at St. Joseph’s I found myself navigating some frustrating feelings about this whole situation with one of my own repeated phrases “it didn’t have to be like this…”  

When I finally got in to see her, I had a couple of laughs though.  First was that she was “the most popular patient” in the Emergency Room.  It seemed like the doctors and nurses wanted to take care of her.  The second was when the nurse had said they had done a cat-scan and were relieved that there wasn’t any brain damage from her fall and she said she was “Gabadost” (for Italian purists, since we are at Holy Family, the more formal way is Capa Dosta) which means “hard head.”  I very quickly agreed with Aunt Lee’s assessment, because usually “gabadost” isn’t used to describe being protected from a head injury but being stubborn.  Which I’m pretty sure Aunt Lee was pretty familiar with.  And in that brief moment, there was a humility, a vulnerability that I hadn’t seen before.  And my own frustrations kind of disappeared – recognizing the reality that all of us can be gabadost.

But ultimately that’s not the part of the body that matters the most.

This is why King David kept coming to mind, and in particular, the part of the story that to me is the most important part of his story which we heard in the first reading today.  It’s the beginning of his story.  Long story, short – Israel needs a new King.  God sends Samuel to anoint His chosen one.   He goes to this particular family’s house – Jesse – who has 8 sons to pick from who are gifted or would be considered “royal material” for a whole host of reasons the oldest, the smartest, the bravest…   And as Samuel goes from son to son, the Lord is making it clear – “not this one… not that one…”  He’s left scratching his head “I know I’m in the right place, this is the right house, the right family God had sent me too” When he asks if this was all the sons Jesse had Jesse says “oh actually I have nine sons, actually there’s another one… the youngest, the simplest of the bunch, who’s out taking care of the sheep.  Jesse was certain it couldn’t be him, he was trying to save Samuel the time and the trouble.

Jesse, his own father, thought he knew David, yet we know the story.  That was in fact the one who God had chosen.  And while they might have been shocked, surprised, frustrated, because of their own judgments of God, their own evaluations of each other, their own expectations of what was needed for a King, God had already expressed he wasn’t interested in any of those things.   Telling Samuel He Himself would pick the future king – with the condition spelled out in a verse that is a favorite of mine from scripture:

“Not as man sees does God see,

because he sees the appearance

but the LORD looks into the heart.”

Thank God, He sees past the surface.  Thank God, He sees past the outward appearances, past the Gabadost, the hard heads and looks into the heart… that He sees the heart.  He knows us and loves us.  And He sees the complexity of who we are, the totality of who we are…

For David, that will be even more vital to him years later, as he does some pretty disgraceful things that are against the Lord, against His people and find himself very lost. Ultimately that God’s love is greater than David’s sin, that God still sees David’s heart will lead Him back into friendship with God.

But for us here today, that is why we are here.  To recognize that we don’t know the full story, will never know fully what is in someones heart.  But trusting that the God who created and fashioned each of our hearts does.  And wants us to focus on the good that was there.  To pray for Aunt Lee’s heart and soul that has left us.  We know that in that heart and soul, there was a lot of sadness and loss for all those who went before us.  It was kind of a shock for me to see she had the prayer cards from all those who passed away – not just recently, but from decades ago, including Aunt Marlene – our Great Grandparents (whose names I didn’t even know till Beth shared these cards from Aunt Lee’s pocket book with me – Nicolo Barlotta – who died when Aunt Lee was only about 15 years old and Catherine Tortorrici Barlotta who died 5 years later).  She had those prayer cards in her purse, with her always, and was surrounded by pictures in the apartment of family that she missed and prayed for often.

But she also had great love for each of us, prayed for us often, and even left words for us that she asked that I would share.  She wrote:

I thank you for your many thoughtful deeds of love that have made my life journey an extraordinary one, and I take solace in the thought that once gone I may come to occupy a small place in your hearts and prayers as you have filled mine all these years.  Life is miraculous, and I’m ready for the next part of my journey.  With renewed thanks and much love I wish you all the Best of God’s blessings – Aunt Lee

We also know she had a tremendous love for God, and so, Aunt Lee, we pray that the God who sees hearts, sees all those best of intentions, all the many acts of kindness and sacrifice you’ve offered, and that the Lord Jesus who you prayed to and trusted in has met you, embraced you, and surpassed your greatest of hopes as He has taken you into the Father’s house, with all our beloved relatives who have gone before us.