Thursday, June 9, 2016

Real Sermon for David

(I don't think the Gurniak family would mind me sharing the sermon I gave for his funeral last Saturday with you. He was a wondrous man. My sermon doesn't nearly do him justice.)

You may be seated.
David Gurniak was very inquisitive. He  once asked me, when he and Jan were members of St. John’s in Waterbury and I was the Rector there: “Jim, why do you say, “please be seated?” to begin your sermons. Why don’t you say something like, ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spririt?”
I thought about that for a moment and replied: “I don’t know.”
He nodded and that was the end of that.
David was the kind of guy who took what you said at face value. I admired that in him.

O thou who camest from above/the pure celestial fire to impart
Kindle a flame of sacred love/upon the mean altar of my heart.

That’s the first verse of a hymn by Charles Wesley that David asked to be worked into the sermon at this service. And since I know better than to deny a last request of David Gurniak, I will try, as best I can, to do that.
David also wanted the preacher to talk about this lovely hymn in the context of the call to priesthood.
Again, haltingly and as best I can, I will try to talk about priesthood today.

Kindle a flame of sacred love/upon the mean altar of my heart.

David was a ‘big man’. I don’t have to tell you that. And I don’t mean simply in the physical sense of ‘bigness’, though that was true as true can be.
But David was ‘big’ in all ways: big in his opinions, big in his faith, big in his love, big in his heart. I never really knew David before he lost his leg.  But he always stood tall for me. Tall and ‘big’.
David’s heart, beloved, was not a ‘mean altar’.
His heart was massive, expansive, huge.

There let it for thy glory burn/with inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,/in humble prayer and fervent praise.

David requested the Old Testament reading for this memorial to be the story of the Dry Bones.
I must say, I’ve never preached at a funeral where that was a reading!
I think there may be a story there, but I don’t know it.
But I do know this: what a priest is called to do is call forth life, call forth God, call forth resurrection.
I was once at a cocktail party in New Haven and found myself talking to a physicist from India. He asked me, “what do you do?” which is what people in New England ask strangers. Where I come from, in the mountains of West Virginia, you ask a stranger, “where are you from?” (More about that later….)
I told the scientist I was an Episcopal priest and he asked again, “what do you do?” And I told him, honestly, I was a member of a community who watched the life of the community and from time to time stopped everything and said: “That was God! What happened just then was God!”
The Indian scientist nodded, “you are a ‘process observer’ then,” he told me.
Part of ‘being a priest’ is being a ‘process observer’, watching, listening, waiting until God breaks into the ordinary—which is the only place to find God…in ‘the ordinary’—and then declaring God’s presence to the community.
Dry bones can live again. God does it. A priest declares it. That was a part of David’s life and ministry.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire/to work and speak and think for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,/and still stir up thy gift in me.
I only knew David for a few years. Many fewer than most of you. But in those years, I honored him as a priest, a mentor and a friend.
If I needed an ‘opinion’ about something going on in the parish, I would go to David.
David—and I know all of you know this—was always willing to give an ‘opinion’!
Here’s what I think a priest does. It’s probably simpler than you thought. I think a priest ‘tends the fire, tells the story and passes the wine.” That’s the job description as far as I can tell.
Guarding ‘the holy fire” and working, speaking and thinking for Jesus. That was David’s ‘calling’ as a priest.
And to work/speak/think for Jesus, David had to proclaim, as Paul did in today’s lesson: “Nothing…nothing…nothing whatsoever, can separate us from the love of God.
David’s life—and love: his love for those he served, for those he worked with and most, most of all, his love for Jan and their family—that was his ministry. His calling. His life.
Ready for all thy perfect will/my act of faith and love repeat,
Till death thy endless mercies seal/ and make my sacrifice complete.
In the gospel today, Jesus told his friends, “I go to prepare a place for you…and you know the way to the place I am going.”
Then Thomas, who gets all the good lines in John’s gospel, says, annoyed I think, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
One other conversation I had with David comes to mind.
He asked me, after a funeral of someone we both loved, “what do you think happens after we die?”
I didn’t have to think this time, I merely answered: “I have no idea. That’s one of the things I leave up to God.”
David smiled that smile he had and chuckled. I don’t know if I passed the test or not.
But this I do know. St. Francis of Assisi once wrote: “Death is not a door that closes, but a door that opens and we walk in all new.”
Whatever happens when we die, I leave up to God.
And yet, deep in my heart, I long for the reality that David, my friend, my mentor, my priest, walked through an open door into the presence of the One who loves him best of all and was made ALL NEW.
All new. All new. God was where he ‘came from’ (I promised we’d get back there) and where he returned to.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow him and he will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. And his sacrifice is made complete.
We love you, David. God loves you more. You are made complete. All New. All New. All New. Go home. Back to where you ‘came from’.     Amen.

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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.