Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bill Penny

In my occasional funeral sermons, this is the one I preached for Bill Penny in Litchfield, CT with a Bishop celebrating. (Bishops always celebrate at the funeral of a priest--I'm trying to figure out how to get out of that!)

Bill was a remarkable priest and an incredible man. He was Archdeacon of the Diocese of Long Island for many years. He retired to Connecticut and came to our clericus and attended St. John's in Waterbury for several years, off and on.

Being asked to preach at his funeral was a great honor, extremely humbling and a treat beyond imagining. In his later years, Bill had macular degeneration and couldn't drive anymore. That will help you make sense of the beginning of the sermon.

I can only hope some of Bill's glory glimmers through in my words....


The best job I ever had—best by far—was being Bill Penny’s chauffeur from time to time.
I am only one of a multitude of folks who were Bill’s chauffeurs—and though I always thought I was his favorite driver, I am as sure as sure can be that everyone who gave Bill a ride felt like “his favorite driver”. Bill simply had the God-given capacity to make whoever he was with feel like the best and brightest and most beloved. That gift of his is beyond compare, fondly to be wished, a holy gift.
And there is this: I was Bill’s driver to the General Convention in 1997.
We’d drive into Philadelphia each morning from Bill’s sister in law’s house and go to the convention center. I would feel like the one person entourage of an ecclesiastical “rock star”. We couldn’t walk ten steps without someone coming over to hug and kiss and love on Bill. And he would hug and kiss and love on them.
There were coveys of nuns who descended on him like teenagers around the Beatles—Bill was Paul and John and George and Ringo all rolled into one. There were bishops who would walk away from important conversations just to come over and bask in Bill’s presence. Just walking through the convention center, priests by the dozens and as many lay-people, would be drawn from whatever else they were doing to come and hold Bill near and feel his oh-so-fierce hug in return. (Sometimes, when he hugged me, I felt he was about to dislocate my shoulder or break some bone….Bill was a world class hugger…..)
I had known before that trip that Bill was a “special person”—what I hadn’t realized is how wide spread that realization was! Everyone he ever met, it seems, was made to feel so wonderful by just being with him that they never forgot it….And could never forget it.

And now Bill is dead. I hate this part. I want to rant and rage against God and the cosmos and the powers that be and say, “No, give him back to us…we still have great need of him….”
And we do. His family needs him and we as individuals and we as a church have “great need” of him—of his never-ending compassion, his great, good humor, his gracefulness and generosity of spirit, his wisdom about what was old and his openness to what is new, his love and his guidance and his eternal optimism in the face of life’s cynicism and his undefeatable hope in the face of fracture and fear.
We have need of knowing that whatever the evidence to the contrary, life is TERRIFIC….Really, life is Terrific….That’s what Bill believed, believed always, believed absolutely, without a shred of doubt….

“Enough about me,” Bill would be saying about now, “Proclaim the Gospel, Jim. Proclaim it….”
And this is the gospel I proclaim—the gospel Bill gave his life to; God is Love.
Not complicated at all. Not subtle in any way. A simple three word sentence that gathers up and contains all we know and all we need to know.
In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novels, there is a robot named Salo that had been programmed to travel the galaxies endlessly, searching for the answer to one simple question: “WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?”
Salo finally finds his answer from a lonely, forgotten woman who was marooned on one of the moons of Jupiter. “THE MEANING OF LIFE,” Beatrice tells him, “IS TO LOVE WHOEVER IS AROUND TO BE LOVED.”
I believe that would have been Jesus’ answer as well.
And I know it was Bill’s answer.
From Bishops to power-brokers to the people who run the fish store to clerks at Starbuck’s to folks down on their luck—Bill simply loved whoever was around to be loved. Whether he was pleading for compassion from the powerful or sitting on a bench on the Waterbury Green with the homeless—he loved whoever was around to be loved. And in that he proclaimed the gospel more eloquently and profoundly than any preacher can convey.
God is love—and love is stronger than death could ever be.

The Buddhists tell us that the illusion of separateness is the cause of human suffering. The illusion of separateness is the cause of human suffering. If that is true, then the acceptance of unity is the pathway to joy.
That, I believe, is the gospel truth that Bill embraced, leaned into and lived from. He didn’t seem to notice the separateness of the powerful and powerless, of brokenness and wholeness, of hope and hopelessness, of death and life. Bill seemed to accept, in ways both obvious and profound, the “unity” of God’s creation. He loved whoever was around to be loved.
And that is the good news I proclaim for him and from him.
He taught us to love by loving—by his eternal love of his precious Natalie, his blinding love of Priscilla and all her family, his loyal love to those he ministered to and with, his unflinching love of “the least of these” in our midst, and—most, most of all—his quiet and grateful love of the one who is Resurrection and Life.
My invitation to you is to carry from this holy space, this gracious time, a little of Bill’s Spirit—a sampling of his love, a touch of his humor, a dollop of his compassion. And my invitation to you is to carry from this service, this memorial, the unity of God, who is resurrection and life.
If we can carry that good news with us into the world, Bill will be pleased. If he were here, he would say that was “Terrific”, absolutely “Terrific”.
Godspeed, dear, dear friend. And may God’s blessing be with you and with us, who miss you so, this day and forever….

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.