I've been looking at the dozens of dozens of sermons I have saved on my computer. And a number of them are funeral sermons. Funeral sermons are, it seems to me, perhaps the most important thing I've ever done. Walking someone to their grave is profound, talking about them right before that is profoundly humbling and an honor no one deserves. Funeral sermons are a gift to the preacher--a 'gift' that brings the preacher to his/her knees if they are paying attention.
So, I'm going to occasionally share a funeral sermon with you, if you don't mind. These sermons are 'the ones that mattered' in 38 years of preaching. Really.
The one I share today is for Jack Parker--one of the sweetest, kindest, most lovable man I ever knew. He was also a priest and a librarian. He served a parish a stones throw from St. John's in Waterbury, literally across the Green, for years. He was an Anglo-Catholic well acquainted with 'smells and bells', the stuff of High Church worship. He was also the first priest in Waterbury, perhaps in Connecticut., to truly reach out to the gay community and welcome them to worship.
He retired and became a member of St. John's and aided me in ways I cannot ever enumerate. He helped me through a really rough patch when some few folks were upset with my welcoming Integrity (GLBT Episcopalians and their friends) to St. John's for their home). He was willing to be the 'fly on the wall' for all my meetings with those who were angry about 'perverts' being part of the ministry of St. John's (so I'd have a 'witness' in what they said). He gave me a tee-shirt that said: I'M THE RECTOR, THAT'S WHY! during that period, to remind me I had 'authority' to let Integrity use the building as well as being correct morally about welcoming and showing hospitality to that community.
He was a mentor and teacher in a gentle way in many other aspects of my priesthood. I became the priest I am because of Jack in many ways.
And I was honored and humbled to preach at his funeral. Below is that sermon.
JACK PARKER’S MEMORIAL SERVICE
OCTOBER 17, 2009
Years ago, I went on a day trip with three men who I love like uncles and mentors and dear, dear friends. Jack Parker and Bill Penny and David Pritchard and I drove up into the heart of New England. I remember that we went to a place called ‘The Cathedral of the Pines’ and we also went to see Jack’s mountain—the one he loved and had climbed time and time again and where some of his ashes will be scattered by his remarkable family—we had a great lunch at some place one of them knew and somehow got back before it was too late for such a motley crew to be out without getting into mischief!
A friend of mine told me that there are only two plots in all of literature. One is, “A stranger arrives in town”. The other is, “Someone sets out on a journey”.
I have memories of sharing part of the journey that is life with Jack Parker.
Memories like that are precious, rare, wondrous and, finally, Holy.
I’ve ONLY known Jack Parker for 20 years or so. I say ‘only’ because I know some of you have known him much longer than that—his children, his family that he loved so fiercely…and others. But knowing him for two decades was a bountiful gift to me from God. And, if I had to choose a word to describe that gift it would be this—‘holy’.
I’ve never known anyone who loved a bad, corny joke as much as Jack.
Most of the jokes Jack loved began something like this: “A rabbi and a priest and a Baptist minister went into a bar….” Or, like this: ‘Three elderly men were sitting on the front porch of the nursing home….’ Or, like this, “A man was trying to sell a talking dog….”
I think you get the point. Jack would start laughing half-way through telling the joke and anyone who was listening would start laughing with him, entranced by Jack’s laugh, caught up in his story, not caring at all how the joke turned out—it would turn out ‘bad’ and ‘corny’—but thankful and joyous to be sharing a laugh with Jack….
There is a word for sharing a laugh with Jack. The word is ‘holy’.
There is a word that occurs to me for anything, anytime ‘shared with Jack’. The word is ‘holy’.
OK, he was not St. Francis of Assisi. Not quite. But he was, for me, a ‘holy’ man. Truly, really, without fear of contradiction…Jack was ‘holy’. No kidding. I’m not exaggerating. Not at all.
He taught me….so many things…. Knowing Jack was like post-Doctoral work in kindness and love and long-suffering and generosity of Spirit and joy. Knowing Jack was like a seminar in prayerfulness. He was a priest to be admired, a man to be emulated, a quick study in sweetness. It seems an odd word, perhaps, but Jack was a sweet, sweet man. I know you all know what I mean.
And learning these things from Jack was—have I mentioned this?—Holy.
The words from Jesus in today’s gospel are among the most beautiful and comforting in all of Scripture.
“Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me…In my father’s house are many rooms…If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?”
The Greek word translated ‘rooms’ is ‘mona’. That word has many possible translations—rooms, resting places, mansions (as we used to say) and abodes. That’s the one I like “abodes”…places to be, space to ‘abide’ in the nearer presence of the God who loves us best of all.
The last time I saw Jack, I made him promise that he wouldn’t die until I got home from a trip to the beach. He said he’d try, but he wasn’t sure he could. It was the only promise he didn’t keep to me. He had other plans, another place to abide.
That last time I saw Jack, I offered him communion. The sacrament was Jack’s favorite food and drink, but that last time, he said ‘no’.
“You’ve been a priest to me long enough,” he told me, with that crooked smile and twinkling eye he always had, “we’re just two old friends saying goodbye….”
Jack taught us all so very much about ‘living’. And he taught us how to die.
And it is time now—he would have wanted it this way—it’s time for us to smile and remember and thank God for the journey and say ‘good bye’ to our old, dear friend….
“I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”