‘Remember your baptism and be thankful!’

Celebrating the life and work of the Rev. Marney Ault Wasserman

by the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, Associate for Worship for the PC(USA) | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Marney Ault Wasserman died April 19 at age 71.

LOUISVILLE — There is a fountain in Louisville’s Waterfront Park beside the Ohio River. It is an oasis for office workers and a treat for tourists in the heat of summer. Children splash with delight in the jets of water that spring up from the ground. And for members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Sacrament Study Group (2003–2006) it is a sacred place.

At that fountain in August 2005, Marney Wasserman led them in a joyful reaffirmation of baptism. Weary from their work of theological reflection, historical study, pastoral discernment, and liturgical scholarship — yet strengthened by the sacramental meal they had just shared —they walked over from the Presbyterian Center and waded into the water. And Marney exclaimed, “Remember your baptism and be thankful!”

The Rev. Marney Ault Wasserman — who died on April 19, 2021, at age 71, after an 18-month struggle with pancreatic cancer — was a pastor, writer, and leader in sacramental renewal in the PC(USA). Through four decades of ministry, she served churches in Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin; two were new congregations, founded with her husband and partner in ministry, the Rev. Dave Wasserman. She also taught worship at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Phillips Theological Seminary and helped to train ruling elders commissioned to pastoral ministry in Oklahoma and Texas.

Wasserman’s service to the denomination is perhaps best known through her leadership of the Sacrament Study Group that developed “Invitation to Christ: Font and Table: A Guide to Sacramental Practices.”  As chair of this task force, authorized by the 214th General Assembly (2002), she directed a group of 15 scholars, pastors, and leaders in a careful consideration of whether people who have not yet been baptized should receive the Lord’s Supper. Rather than settle the matter through a simple vote, the Sacrament Study Group had a better idea. They called on Presbyterians to engage in a two-year period of theological reflection on the relationship between the sacraments by way of five simple actions of worship.

Fifteen years after the publication of “Invitation to Christ,” we can recognize this as a watershed moment. The next Presbyterian hymnal, “Glory to God,(2013) had twice as many hymns related to the sacraments. The 2017 revision of the denomination’s “Directory for Worship,” drawing on the work of the Sacrament Study Group, offered pastoral guidance for receiving people who are not yet baptized at the Lord’s Supper. The 2018 “Book of Common Worship” includes suggestions for leading elements of worship at the font and table, as well as many new prayers of thanksgiving for baptism and eucharistic prayers. And Presbyterians are growing accustomed to reaffirming the gift of baptism and receiving communion more frequently. In 2012, in partnership with the Association for Reformed and Liturgical Worship, Wasserman drafted an ecumenical version of the sacrament study, titled “Invitation to Christ —Extended” in order that the work might be shared with a broader audience throughout the church. This latest edition of the document was published in a 2020 issue of “Call to Worship(54.2), along with a new introduction from Wasserman.

As a writer and editor, Wasserman had already made a mark on the previous “Book of Common Worship” (1993). She had a hand in many of the eucharistic prayers in that volume, shaping the church’s Great Thanksgiving throughout the seasons and festivals of the Christian year. She was also part of the team that developed the 1999 “Book of Occasional Services,” containing the liturgies of ordination and installation. These gifts from Wasserman were received and included in the 2018 edition of the “Book of Common Worship,” alongside new prayers and patterns of worship she contributed, such as the service for the “Dedication of a Place for Sacred Use,” designed for congregations meeting in gymnasiums, schools, coffee shops or homes.

A book of Wasserman’s poetry was published just before her death.

Wasserman believed it was important to think about what happens after baptism, as the journey of Christian discipleship continues. In 2016 she published a book on the church’s way of welcoming new believers, titled “Companions: Accompanying Newcomers into Church Life and Faith.”  She was also a gifted poet. Her poems appeared in a variety of church publications, such as “The Presbyterian Outlook.” Just before her death she accomplished the life-long goal of publishing a collection of poetry, titled “A Thousand Gratitudes.”

Whether leading worship at the font or splashing in a public fountain, Wasserman did love the water. In retirement, she and Dave spent two years living in the British Virgin Islands and sailing in the Caribbean. We celebrate the many gifts of the Spirit that overflowed in her life and were poured out so freely in her ministry. Thanks be to God for Marney. Her baptism is complete.

The Rev. Marney Ault Wasserman is survived by her husband, three children and two daughters-in-law, and five grandchildren. A Service of Witness to the Resurrection will take place at First Presbyterian Church in Taos, New Mexico, on Saturday, May 8. The family suggests that donations in memory of Marney be given to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

 Here are some tributes from members of the Sacrament Study Group:

“Having had the opportunity to work with Marney on several liturgical projects I can say without hesitation that we have lost a giant force for liturgical renewal and the active engagement of everyone in worship. She was a delight to be with, thoroughly engaged and engaging with her research and presentations for the benefit of the church. She was a great friend of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians and volunteered her time without hesitation to lead workshops, classes, or act as the liturgical presider at conferences. Her physical presence will be greatly missed but she will continue to be with us and inspire us into the future.” — Alan Barthel, Former Executive Director, Presbyterian Association of Musicians

“It is fitting that news of Marney’s birth into God’s eternal presence comes in the week when we anticipate Good Shepherd Sunday, with the psalm’s rich images of ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters.’ I am most thankful for Marney’s gifted leadership of the Sacrament Study Group, a collection of passionate personalities, each one able to offer a special contribution to ‘Invitation to Christ’ because of Marney’s skill. Her gentle but firm demeanor, open-heartedness, and well-formed liturgical knowledge and sensibility were critical to her role as our convenor. Marney’s gifts as a writer and theologian are especially evident for me in the prayers she wrote for the 1993 ‘Book of Common Worship.’ Marney has now joined the saints in light with so many others of our number in the liturgical renewal movement. I am grateful for my years with her as a co-laborer.” — The Rev. Dr. David Batchelder, Pastor, West Plano Presbyterian Church

“All of the seasonal eucharistic prayers in the 1993 ‘Book of Common Worship’ carry her accent and provided the church with a way to pray at the table. Particularly, in its time, it was a monumental contribution that pushed Presbyterians to move beyond the (so-called) Words of Institution. The liturgical renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) owes a debt of gratitude to the significant contributions that came from Marney. I am grateful for the chance that I had to work alongside her in her home in Texas as we edited ‘Invitation to Christ.’ — The Rev. Dr. Paul Galbreath, Professor of Theology, Union Theological Seminary

“I give thanks for Marney’s life and ministry, for her leadership in our working group (especially through the final stages), and for her research and writing and teaching on behalf of rich liturgical practice in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the wider church. I grieve with family and friends everywhere. And I know she bathes now in perpetual light and peace.” — Dr. Scott Haldeman, Associate Professor of Worship, Chicago Theological Seminary

“Marney was such a treasure to the church, including her work on the 1993 ‘Book of Common Worship,’ the liturgical practice of the extended table, and most especially, ‘Invitation to Christ’ — both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the ecumenical version. She was deeply attentive to divine grace as it was manifest in ordinary creation: bread, wine, water, and oil, yes, and also sky, trees, water and air.” — The Rev. Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, J. B. Green Professor of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary

“I am saddened by the death of a beloved friend and colleague, Marney Wasserman. From our work together on the ‘Invitation to Christ’ sacramental report that sought to renew the centrality of the baptismal font and eucharistic table in our common liturgical life, Marney was a deep lover of the Lord, of Christ’s church, and of the church’s worship. She was a joy and inspiration to serve with, and in the years afterward, she was an encourager in my own pastoral and academic ministries. We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and, indeed, the Church ecumenical are indebted to her for the important role she had in the liturgical renewal movement in our generation. Your baptism is now complete, Marney. Rest from your labors until the resurrection at the last, when you will rise in power and glory.” — The Rev. Dr. Neal D. Presa, Moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the PC(USA)

“I remember Marney as a graceful and dedicated leader with a gift for herding cats.” — The Rev. Dr. Craig Alan Satterlee, Bishop, North West Lower Michigan Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

“Marney’s wisdom, energy, and yet humble care for others shone through in all she did. I remember being impressed with her timely words and agile mind as we worked together as part of the sacrament study group — and those qualities were always combined with her deeply caring spirit. She was a true Christian force and such a gift to the church as well as my life. She will be missed.” — The Rev. Dr. David Stubbs, Professor of Ethics and Theology, Western Theological Seminary

“Marney’s leadership and guidance for the Sacrament Study Group was an exemplar of masterful creativity. Her insistence on practices as the focus for our work was truly inspired and made possible all that came afterward. She was truly a gift to the church and to us all.” — Dr. Jane Rogers Vann, Professor Emerita of Practical Theology, Union Presbyterian Seminary

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