That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Requiem (page 1 of 2)

The Work of Christ – Sermon at the Requiem for Elizabeth Scott Bres, January 28, 2018

You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.”[1] Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

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God the Embroiderer – Sermon at the Requiem for Susan H. Potterton, January 13, 2018

Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?

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Death at Christmas – Sermon for Advent 2, RCL Year B

Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)

I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.

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Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Homily for the Requiem of Organist Roberta Stamper, 8 Sept 2017

Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us,
filling us with your love. Amen.

(Please, be seated.)

I wonder if you remember a few years ago when the Broadway actress and singer Patti Lupone performing in a revival of Gypsy stopped the show, broke the “fourth wall,” and berated an audience member who was using his cell phone? She launched into what has been called a “blistering tirade” and “legendary rant,” and had the spectator thrown out of the theater. Her moment of ignominy is preserved forever on YouTube. (Radar Online)

In contrast, there is a story about Wynton Marsalis playing at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Grennwich Village in 2001 told by The New Republic‘s music critic David Hajdu:

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Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Perfect Scorecard: A Funeral Homily (James McKee, 28 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the funeral of James William McKee, July 28, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from The Book of Common Prayer lectionary for burials: Isaiah 61:1-3; Psalm 23; Second Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 10:11-16. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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golfWhen I was practicing law and serving as the chief legal officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada, there was a church member (of another congregation than mine) who always greeted me with a lawyer story. “What’s the difference between a lawyer and ….? ” “There was a lawyer who went to heaven ….” I think I’ve heard all the lawyer jokes, and I considered starting with one this morning. If I had had more than a passing acquaintance with Jim McKee, I might have done so. But I didn’t know Jim, so I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll begin with some poetry.

The death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing. This is especially so when a father or grandfather passes away, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever a father or an older brother passes away, I cannot help but remember the poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As I said, I didn’t know Jim McKee; I do not know if he was Thomas’s wise man, a good man, a wild man, or a grave man, so I cannot eulogize him. But I do know that he was a father and I know that he was a lawyer specializing in what I think of as an esoteric specialty (intellectual property law), and that he had a loving wife, two children and five grandchildren, and that he loved football and golf (though he is said to have had no skill at the latter).

So I have a few things in common with Jim McKee. I’m also am a loving husband, a father, and a grandfather. I, too, am a lawyer (though my specialty, before I left active practice, was medical negligence litigation) and I am a terrible golfer.

I don’t play the game any longer, but as I was preparing to celebrate Jim’s life and preach this homily today, I got to thinking about golf. I remembered the observation made by someone (I can’t remember who) that there are probably more prayers said on the golf courses of America on Sunday morning than are said in its churches, although as evangelist Billy Graham once quipped, “The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.”

I collect prayers, as you might suppose, and over the years I’ve collected quite a few golf-themed petitions. One of the nicer is this one:

God, What is my fascination with this game? Is it the outdoors – the green fairways, the blue skies, the lakes and trees, the feel of the breeze across my face? Is it the friends with whom I play – their companionship, their encouragement, the conversation between holes, the silence as we wait our turn? Is it the game – the balance between grace and skill and power, the striving for perfection, the loft of the ball, the precision of the putt? Or is it all of these, and in these, meditations about all of life – harmony, friendship, balance, and – every once in awhile – the perfect shot and a glorious Amen. (The Joy of Golfing)

I suspect that that prayer captures what it was about golf that attracted an intelligent and thoughtful man like James McKee.

Another golf prayer, one written by a man named Don Humm, begins this way:

Oh God, in the game of life, you know that most of us are duffers and that we all aspire to be champions with plenty of birdies or eagles.

Help us, we pray, to be grateful for the course including both the fairways and the rough. We thank you for those who have made it possible for us to tee off. Thank you for the thrill of a solid soaring drive; the challenge of the dogleg; the trial of the trap; the discipline of the water hazard; the beauty of a cloudless sky and the exquisite misery of rain and cold. (Presbyterian Church of the Roses)

The Buddhist writer Roy Klienwachter writes that “golf is a metaphor for life. It is up and down. The harder you try to win the worse you get. When you learn to let go the game gets easier. So,” he advises, “learn to play the game and go with it. The ‘practice’ is the game, learn to practice.” And Roman Catholic monk and golfer Thomas Moore writes that a game of golf is “an abbreviated, symbolic round of life. A green is like Eden: You reach it, and you feel that you have arrived at an unearthly place with its perfect grass and chance at salvation.”

In our lesson from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus describes our salvation this way: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” so that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:11,16) The Eucharistic prayer which we will offer in a few minutes picks up this theme of salvation, recalling that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [the Father’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP 1797, Pg 362)

Lutheran Pastor Chris Rosebrough uses golf as a metaphor to explain Christ’s atoning sacrifice:

Pretend you are a terrible golfer (for most there is not much imagination needed here). Now pretend that your eternal salvation depends on you scoring a perfect round of Golf (par or better for the entire round) at Bethpage Black (arguably the toughest golf course on the planet) and the course has been set up for U.S. Open conditions (7400 yards long, 8 inch rough and greens so fast it’s like putting in a bath tub). But, wait just to make things even more difficult, the devil has thrown in gail force winds that are swirling and gusting as high a 60 miles an hour.

To give you an idea of how difficult this feat is, Tiger Woods at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, with practically perfect weather conditions was the ONLY golfer with a score that was UNDER par. Phil Mickleson was the only other golfer that scored an even par for the tournament. Every other golfer was above par for the tournament. But under these course conditions not even Tiger Woods has any hope of being saved. Sadly, even if Jesus gave you a Mulligan then there would still be no hope of your being saved. One ‘do-over’ would be quickly gobbled up at Bethpage Black under these conditions.

So then how can you be ‘saved’ in this scenario?

The Gospel teaches us that even under these impossible conditions, Jesus Christ shot the perfect round of golf for you at Bethpage Black and is offering you His scorecard as your own. He’s already taken your scorecard, the one with all the sins on it, and he’s atoned for those sins on the cross. In return, He will give you His perfect scorecard and let you sign your name to it as if you were the one who shot that round. (Extreme Theology)

Our guaranteed salvation notwithstanding, we must still face those “impossible conditions” as we play the fairways and putt the greens of life even though we are assured that they cannot defeat us. As the rabbis teach, we must not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. We are not obligated to complete the work but neither are we free to abandon it. We must, as the Buddhist philosopher said, continue to play the round and practice.

Thus, in Mr. Humm’s prayer, he give thanks that golf teaches us important life lessons: “how to get the right grip on life; to slow down in our back swing; to correct our crazy hooks and slices; to keep our head down in humility and to follow through in self-control . . . to be good sports who will accept the rub of the green, the penalty for being out-of-bounds, the reality of lost golf balls, the relevancy of par, the dangers of the 19th hole, and the authority of [the] rule book.” As Leonard Finkel wrote in Chicken Soup for the Golfers Soul, “In golf, as in life, obstacles are placed in our path. In overcoming these roadblocks, our greatest triumphs occur.” It is such times that we know that God (as Isaiah put it) brings good news to the brokenhearted, “the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” (Is 61:3)

New York Times writer Harold Segall observed that golf is “an adventure, a romance . . . a Shakespeare play in which disaster and comedy are intertwined.” The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention golf but she could certainly have been describing the game when she wrote:

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

As I said at the beginning, I did not have the privilege to know James William McKee. I do not know if he was the wise man, the good man, the wild man, or the grave man of Dylan Thomas’ poem. But I know from what I have been told that Jim did bless each of you with his fierce tears, that he battled bravely the cancer which finally took him from you, and that he did not go gentle into the night, but raged against the dying of the light. Nonetheless, his last putt has dropped into the cup; the light of his last day has faded into the darkness of death, and though his trophies may be few, his handicap still too high, and that hole-in-one still an unfulfilled dream, he is able to turn in that guaranteed perfect scorecard.

Today, we commend to almighty God the life and death of James William McKee – father, grandfather, lawyer, friend, lover of golf – whose life was, like a round of the game he loved, an adventure and a romance, amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and be assured that, through the grace of God, he is at rest in the final clubhouse, that building “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 5:1)

I didn’t want to start this homily with a lawyer story but I’ll finish with one: A lawyer went to heaven. That’s it. No long tale, no punchline. Just a true story: A lawyer went to heaven. Amen.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Remember and Rejoice: Sermon for the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (14 December 2015)

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A sermon offered at the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (12/14/1967-12/09/2015) on Monday, December 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons selected by the family were Isaiah 25:6-9 ; Psalm 121; Revelation 21:2-7; and John 14:23-30.)

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funeralsprayA Native American proverb instructs us, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live your life in a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Today, on what would have been Sheryl Ann King’s 48th birthday, the world (you and me and everyone who knew and loved Sherry) is crying, but Sherry is rejoicing. “If you loved me,” Jesus told his followers, “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:28); we who love Sherry, let us rejoice (even through our tears) that she, too, has gone to the Father.

In the Jewish religion going back at least as far as the Babylonian exile it is a tradition that those mourning the death of a loved one recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer begins with these words:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen. (ReformJudaism.org>

As the prayer continues to its conclusion, there is not a single mention of the loved one, no mention of the loved one’s passing, no mention of the mourner’s grief. The prayer is, in its entirety, a sanctification of God and a petition for peace. The rabbis tell us that this tradition arose to remind us, even in the midst of great sorrow, to rejoice and to give thanks.

Nonetheless, there is a very human need to acknowledge the loss of the one we love and in a prayer book of the Reform Jewish movement entitled New Prayers for the High Holy Days there is this lovely meditation:

At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live,
for they are now a part of us.
As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
(Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer, We Remember Them, New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Media Judaica, New York:1970, p. 36)

What memories do you have of Sherry? I will always remember three things about her. The first is her competence and her drive. When Sherry was doing volunteer work here at St. Paul’s Church, I knew that if she said she would do something it would get done and it would get done well. (Parish priests really appreciate that and remember with special blessings those members on whom they can rely as one could rely on Sherry.) The second is that she loved to have a good time: she was a great hostess and she enjoyed a good party. I’m sure that she is just as pleased as she can be to be joining the saints in light at God’s great party, the one Isaiah described, that “feast of rich food, . . . of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Is 25:6).

The third thing I will remember is the way she always looked when she came back from her annual trip to Cancun. Sherry was someone who clearly enjoyed the sun! I have to admit to being somewhat amused when I realized that the family had selected a psalm with the verse, “The sun shall not strike you by day” (Ps 121:6)! I’m not sure Sherry would have gone for that, but I am sure she is now enjoying what Malachi prophesied, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Sherry, we believe, is now in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, p 499)

And this is where our Christian faith takes us beyond the meditation in the Reform Jewish prayer book. We are assured that more than our memories sustains the lives of our departed loved ones; it is not “as long as we live” that they shall live, but forever. We are assured, because of the birth of Christ which we will celebrate in just a few days, because of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that the way to eternal life has been opened to Sherry, to all of our loved ones gone before, and to all of us.

Sometimes when we bury the dead, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church as part of that service, in the introductory preface to the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest presiding at the altar says these words:

Jesus Christ our Lord . . . rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. (BCP 1979, p 382)

This is our Christian hope and our assurance, that in Christ Jesus God has (as Isaiah prophesied) “swallow[ed] up death forever” (Is 25:8), and as John of Patmos heard the voice in heaven saying, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

So, our memories are precious and we cherish them, but it is more than our memories which sustain Sherry or any of our departed loved ones: through the love of God and the salvation of Christ, rest eternal has been granted to them, and light perpetual shines upon them. And we honor them with more than our memories; we honor Sherry not by living in the past, not only by remembering her, but by living into the future. When Queen Mother Elizabeth passed away in 2002, this meditation entitled Remember Me by David Harkins was included in the order of service. It seems to me appropriate today as we remember and celebrate Sherry’s life:

Do not shed tears when I have gone
but smile instead because I have lived.
Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back,
but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind.
I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me,
but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow
and live only for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow
because of what happened between us yesterday.
You can remember me and grieve that I have gone
or you can cherish my memory and let it live on.
You can cry and lose yourself,
become distraught and turn your back on the world,
or you can do what I want –
smile, wipe away the tears,
learn to love again and go on.
(See Poetic Expressions.)

The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Pleasures and Days, Hesperus Classics, London:2004, p 116) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus, “and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27c) Instead, let them blossom, and let us rejoice and be grateful for the life of Sheryl Ann King. Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Baseball and a Father’s Death: A Funeral Homily, 18 November 2015

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A sermon offered at the requiem for James E. Freiberger, held November 18, 2015, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the requiem were Lamentations 3:22-26,31-33; Psalm 27:1-7; Romans 8:14-19,34-35,37-39; and John 11:21-27. These lessons may be found at the Burials Lectionary Page The Lectionary Page. Mr. Freiberger’s obituary may be found here.)

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Baseball and GloveThe death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing, even if the relationship was strained or even broken. This is especially so when a parent dies and, for some reason, more so when that parent is our father, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever someone’s father passes away, I cannot help but remember the poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The death of a parent, especially a father (I think) no matter what our relationship with him may have been, fills us with rage, with conflicted emotion, with a frustration difficult to name. Let us commend all of that to God, as we commend the soul of James E. Freiberger to God’s eternal care.

I didn’t know Jim Freiberger; I do not know if he was (to use poet Thomas’s labels) a wise man, a good man, a wild man, or a grave man, so I cannot eulogize him. But I do know that he was a father and I know that he was in the Navy, that he had a career in data processing, and that he had three children, one of whom I know. I am told that he was a gifted athlete and almost had a chance to play professional baseball, a game about which he was passionate . . . a love I know he passed on to his daughter.

So I got to thinking about baseball and did some research and found an article about the lessons baseball can teach us, lessons that can be applied in business and management. I think what the author has to say suggests that baseball can also teach us something about our spiritual life, as well. It’s a cliché, I think, that baseball is a metaphor for life, but (in many ways) it actually is.

The author of that business article contrasts the timing of baseball with the timing of sports such as football or basketball, noting that in those sports there is a clock which limits the time of the game and ticks down inexorably and finally, and although there might be overtime in the event of a tie at the end of regulation play, even that is bounded by the clock. In contrast, he writes:

Baseball is a game that is pastoral in nature, a reminder of a time that our life was slower and most of us lived on farms and small towns. You have 27 outs and the game is not over until all outs are exhausted. There is no clock to pressure you. You simply go on your business until it is done. Time marches slowly in baseball and baseball allows us to simply relax for three hours while drinking a few adult beverages.

I think this is part of the message of the lesson from Lamentations: “[God’s] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” God’s time marches slowly and it is always merciful and every morning is new. We can relax into God’s time; we can find comfort in God’s time; we can find all things renewed in God’s time; we can abandon our frustrations, our rages, and our fears in God’s time. “The Lord is the strength of my life,” says the Psalmist today, “of whom then shall I be afraid?”

In the article, then, the author talks about the way baseball deals with failure:

Baseball teaches about failure as the length of the season reflects the pace of our life. You have 162 games and there are days in which the batter can’t see the ball or the pitches look more like beach balloons as the opposing hitters feast on the big fat pitches coming their way. The beauty of baseball is that you can suck one day but the next you can redeem yourself. You don’t have to wait a week before getting a chance to get it right.

And you don’t have to dwell on getting it wrong. It occurred to me this morning that there’s a real contrast between football and baseball with regard to getting it wrong. In football, every mistake a player or a team can make has a name and is remembered by that name: the quarterback sack, the fumble, the incomplete pass, the missed block, and so forth. Fans and players relive, again and again, all the mistakes of past games. In baseball, on the other hand, there’s just one word for every sort of mistake: error. The scorekeeper and the statisticians keep track of “errors,” but the rest of us move on. There’s no point in dwelling on mistakes, because (after all) they are forgiven. They will be of no consequence in the end. As Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [and I would add that includes ourselves and any mistakes or errors or bad decisions we have made] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The author of our article on baseball and business then takes a look at the game’s attitude towards success, something that none us (especially in our families and interpersonal relationships) really have much of. He writes:

In baseball, if you hit .300, you are very good. In most sports, hitting .300 represent failures. Quarterbacks lose their jobs if their accuracy is 55% but in baseball, a manager who win 55% of the games is brilliant. In college football winning only 55% of your games will get you fired. Ask any good salesman and they will tell you if they get 30% of their prospects to buy their products, this will produce a successful year. There are days that you wonder why you got up and then there are days in which wow, you can’t do no wrong just like the baseball player who hits for the cycle.

In the Christian faith we believe in a cycle . . . a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that we call “Resurrection,” not a rebirth into this world as taught by some other religions, but a rebirth into the Presence of God. This is the assurance Jesus gave to Martha, to Mary, to their brother Lazarus; it is the assurance that his own birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension gives to us. “I go,” he told his disciples, “to prepare a place for you . . . and I will gather you to myself, that where I am you may also be.” Martha said to Jesus about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And we can say that now about Jim Freiberger and about all of us, no matter what our “batting average” or our “percentage of accuracy” may have been.

So, baseball (about which Jim was passionate) has something to teach us about our spirituality; it may be a cliché, but it is true that baseball can be a metaphor for life. If you “Google” that phrase – “baseball is a metaphor for life” – you will find, among many other less colorful explanations, this somewhat off-color monologue by the character Kenny Shea in the television program Rescue Me:

Anyway, baseball and life, one in the same. Everybody always says that life is too short. Bullshit. Life, unless you get cancer or hit by a bus or set on fire, takes forever. Just like baseball. It’s a series of long, mind-boggling boring stretches of time where absolutely nothing happens. So, you take a nap, and then, after a little while, when that crisp crack of the bat hittin’ the ball, so crisp you could almost smell that wood burning, jolts you awake and you open your eyes to see something so exciting and intricate, and possibly, very, very meaningful has just happened, but you missed it ’cause you were just so goddamn bored in the first place. Oh, you know, a couple of hot dogs, throw in some beers, . . . and that’s that.

So baseball is a metaphor for life with its long boring stretches and its moments of excitement and its disappointments. The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention baseball but she made the same point when she wrote:

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Today, we commend to almighty God the soul of James E. Freiberger – Navy man, father, grandfather, data processing worker, lover of baseball – whose life was amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and remember that, whatever else may be true about Jim Freiberger, remember that “nothing in all of creation will be able to separate [him] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Dead Matter – From the Daily Office – July 25, 2014

From the Gospel according to Matthew:

After conferring together, [the chief priests used the silver Judas returned] to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 27:7-8 (NRSV) – July 25, 2014)

Shrouded CorpsesUntil our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary my wife had never traveled overseas. She’d been to Canada, but that was it for foreign travel for her. For our anniversary we went to Ireland, something we’d talked about doing for many years. In fact, it had been my plan for our honeymoon, but that (obviously) didn’t happen.

Since then, we’ve returned to Ireland and we’ve traveled in Israel and Palestine. Each time we’ve gone overseas (and I’ve made two other trips by myself), she has insisted that we up-date our wills, temporarily transfer assets to our children, and make other death preparations before leaving. My wife is afraid of dying in a foreign land and (I suppose) of being buried in a potter’s field.

I’m not. I don’t care where I die and I don’t care where I am buried.

I wonder if that difference between us is because there is a “family plot” where she knows her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are buried, whereas my deceased family members are just about everywhere.

My father, the first of my nuclear family to die, is buried in Las Vegas. My brother, the next, is buried in his hometown of Winfield, Kansas (his wish and that of his second wife, another Winfield native). My mother and stepfather were cremated and their ashes deposited in a church memory garden in southern California. My mother’s only brother, the only extended family member whose grave I know of (because I handled the arrangements), is buried in Winfield like my brother, but in a different cemetery. I have no idea where my grandparents are buried; my father’s parents are somewhere in Denver, Colorado, and my mother’s somewhere in or near Long Beach, California, I think. Visiting family graves for Decoration Day would be an expensive road trip!

There’s none of these places special enough to me — except maybe my hometown, Las Vegas — that I would want to be buried there, and even Las Vegas is without significant meaning to anyone else in my family. (Our daughter was born there, but she considers Kansas her “home place.”) So I bury me anywhere, even in a foreign country; I don’t care.

In any event, I wonder about those foreigners in that field. Like the man whose betrayal money purchased their graves, their burials would be attended to by non-family. Perhaps, like his, their burials would be hastily arranged and the rituals only partially attended to. Like him, they would be buried in tombs not their own. But did they care? I think not.

Recently, a group of us clergy were talking about funerals and funeral planning. One of our group pointed us to a wonderful essay by undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch entitled Tract: I commend it to you, as well. Interviewed about that piece by Frontline, Lynch said:

[Q] Will you care after your death if they take care of you in death as you did your dad? Will that matter?

[A] Whether or not my family is involved with the care of my body, that’s their business. I’ll be the dead guy, and the dead say nothing. This is a sign to me that they don’t care, that heaven is not having to worry about these things, so I’m determined not to worry about them either.

But, you know, we used to say to my father, who directed a fair few funerals, “What do you want done with you when you’re dead?” and he’d say, “Well, you’ll know what to do.” I think mine will know what to do, too, not because I’ve said, “Do this or that,” but because they have seen life as I have seen it, and they sort of know me and I know them. And so they’ll know what to do.

[Q] And yet you write that beautiful essay Tract in your book, The Undertaking, which is in some way a map, is it?

[A] Well, read it closely, and what I’ve written is that as long as they deal with it, I don’t care what they do. I do not care but that they do it honorably. That they do it for themselves I think is very important. So yeah, I enjoyed writing that piece. And I do think that while the dead don’t care, the dead matter. The dead matter to the living. And at least so far as my experience is concerned, the living who bear those burdens honorably are better off for it.

(Frontline interview)

“The dead don’t care, the dead matter.” I don’t care and when I’m dead I’ll care even less. I really don’t think my scattered family members cared. Those foreigners buried in the potter’s field, once they were dead, didn’t care. But they did and do matter. They matter most to the One whom they were like, the one who had no hole, no next, no place to lay his head (Lk 9:58), not even a grave of his own, the One who like them (and like Moses before them) was “a stranger in a strange land.” (Ex 2:22, KJV)

“The dead don’t care, the dead matter.” And they matter to the One who has gone that way before.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

At the End, There Is God – From the Daily Office – July 22, 2014

From the Letter to the Romans:

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 14:7-8 (NRSV) – July 22, 2014)

Coffin in GraveThe Book of Common Prayer (1979) lifts these verses and, together with others, uses them in the anthem with which the Burial Office (Rite Two) begins:

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

The first paragraph is from Jesus’ conversation with Martha of Bethany when she met him on the road when he came following her brother Lazarus’s death. (John 11:25-26) The second is from Job; it is part of Job’s reply to Bildad the Shuhite. (Job 19:25-27) The conclusion is from Revelation; John of Patmos is told to write this after seeing the “one hundred forty-four thousand” elect and as the angels of God harvest what Julia Ward Howe called “the grapes of wrath.” (Rev. 14:13)

The 1928 Prayer Book had a similar but rather more resigned opening anthem compiled from Scripture, the first two paragraphs being the same, but a third concluding paragraph was taken from 1 Timothy 6:7 and Job 1:21. Where the newer anthem presents the hope of eternal rest, the older feels like a shrug of the shoulders and a sigh of “Oh well, it’s over – it was fun while it lasted.” I’m sure that’s not the original intent of the drafters, but that’s my reaction to it:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Although the newer anthem is more positive and comforting in my opinion, the theological import of the two is the same; life ends and at its end, there is God.

Both represent a liturgical model of what I find most attractive about the Anglican approach to Scripture. They are theological statements constructed from a holistic understanding of the Bible. They draw from multiple sources within the holy text, from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to fashion a statement which succinctly, but memorably summarizes the Christian hope.

Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. At the end, there is God.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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