On Saturday, we had a funeral for one of Ithaca’s major town figures. He shuffled off this mortal coil at the elegant age of 95, and spent his entire life serving his community. The church was packed.
Because his entire family was Roman Catholic, few of the people who came were Episcopalian, but because Jerry was, the family thought it was very important that he be given an Episcopal service.
I adore funerals because of things like this. Funerals (when they’re not traumatic) are one of the few chances we have to be public theologians; to speak into people’s lives when they would never usually darken the door of your church. And also–really, the BCP funeral liturgies are second to none. They are stellar.
I don’t usually post my sermon notes here, for a few reasons. First, I don’t usually write out my homilies. Much depends on how the congregation seems to be hearing me, and I tend to adjust on the fly.
Also, while I don’t preach the same sermon at every funeral–I do try to get to the same ideas at every funeral. That the way we loved this person spoke to us of how God loves us, that this love we know testifies to how life can endure beyond the grave, and how surely if we love someone so much, how much more does God love them, and will keep them in safety even now?
Funerals, after all, are a remembrance of the resurrection. Even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia–which is probably one of the most radical statements we make. That refusal to permit death–in any of its myriad forms–to have the last word, even on days when it seems most triumphant.
Here’s what I said–and I’m grateful that we got to proclaim resurrection in ways large and small on Saturday.
Surprised we’re here? Let me explain. We at St. John’s had the honor to be Jerry’s spiritual home for years.
Jerry married a RC woman, and agreed to raise the kids RC. Because those were the rules (and still are). But he just kept on coming to the Episcopal church. First Grace, in Syracuse, then this one. He’d drop the kids off at Immaculate Conception, down the street, then hop over here.
Now, when his kids told me this story, I was FASCINATED, and I still am, frankly. Because I didn’t get the sense that Jerry’s decision to come on down the street to us implied judgment of the rest of his family’s Catholicism–indeed, he took them to church! And when he became unable to bring himself here, they brought him! No, I think something else was going on.
Every week. For years. No matter what. New prayerbooks, old prayer books, new priests, people came and went. Jerry would show up on Sunday, at 8am and come to mass. Because he was an Episcopalian, and That was What You Did when you were Episcopalian.
In politics, he oversaw the Tompkins County Republican Party, and worked with Connie Cook (another parishioner of blessed memory). Til his dying day, he was a Republican, win, lose, or draw, because again—that was what you did, because that was Who You Were.
Even as the decades wore on, and the social landscape changed around him: party politics shifted, priests came and went, trends rose and fell, Jerry never strayed from a clear-sighted notion of who he was, and what he was loyal to. It didn’t matter what anyone else did, or what the entire rest of his party shifted to (I don’t have to remind you that a Republican Party that runs Connie Cook is a far cry from the Republican Party of today.)
What stands out to me in these stories is a person who had a particular sort of faith. Not faith in a fad or another person, or a ideology, but the certain sort of stalwart faith in what was right, and therefore, what he himself was called to do. Everyone else could do what they would, and that was fine, but he was going to do as he was called.
And I think that was the source of his eternal optimism–I wonder if that was the wellspring of the hope he found in his life, the force that made him the coach who would say when their sports team would lose or win!—well, we’ll get them next time. And when the Republican Party faced defeat after defeat–we’ll figure it out next year. Hope was always on the horizon, because you just had to be the person you were created to be.
Today, we celebrate Jerry’s life, and all the ways in which he gifted this world while he was here. I think most of his gift of steadfast faith—-in his quiet, resolute way of being that always found hope around the corner. That sort of quiet steadfastness speaks deeply of God, I think. The God who consistently meets us where we are, and bears with us, in ways large and small, and promises us that a new, brighter day is just over the horizon. Once we listen to that still small voice that urges us on, that sees in us the people that God created us to be.
I think Jerry, in his loyalty and his faith, showed us a glimpse of the love of God in how he lived his life. And I know that the Christ he followed so faithfully now welcomes him home as a beloved and long-awaited child.