Matthew 23: Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’
“But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up. Common English Bible
I am honored to have the opportunity to say a few words this morning as we gather to remember the life of Bob D. Sermons at Funerals are peculiar things in the Episcopal Church. They are not intended as eulogies but instead are meant to show us how God’s grace shown through the life of Bob with the hope that this will lead us to see God’s grace in our own lives.
I chose this morning’s Gospel because I think it captures a side of Bob that I saw frequently. While Bob was an authority on many subjects and unafraid to assert that authority, at the same time he was suspicious of authority when exercised on him by others. Bob is Irish Catholic and had a thoroughly traditional Irish Catholic upbringing. He challenged that upbringing his entire life. It gave him some gifts but he had the clarity of vision that much of the certainty in the church he grew up in was based on the old preacher’s maxim of Weak Point, Shout Louder. Bob had unerring instincts in finding weak points and they offended his sense of integrity.
If you look in the Bulletin you will see that I’m identified at the Homily as Father P. For those of you who know me well you know that I am known as Pete and almost never as Father P. I put it there today to make the point of today’s Gospel. I put it there to take it away and have you notice that I’m taking it away. The text we just heard in the Gospel read in v. 9: 9 Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. So call me Pete.
Many of us who are clergy in the church are challenged frequently by our insistence upon titles of respect. This gospel reminds all of us that none of us are worthy of that respect, that deference, or that authority. Instead we are called to be servants first. Our only hope is in being generous. Furthermore, service that expects reward is not servanthood. We are called to be servants to find ourselves not so that someone else can reward us for being such a good one. The church and organized religion have too frequently lost that and have settled for accumulating power, authority, position, and respect.
I know that many of us in this church today have been damaged by the power and authority claimed by some in the service of Religion. This morning’s Gospel, and this may be the only Burial Office at which it has ever been read, rebukes any confusion of faith and power. Quite the opposite is true. We are faithful in our willingness to do service. No expectation of reward; no payment sought; no accolades given.
When I met with Bob’s family on Wednesday the thing I came away with was the sense that they remember Bob as a generous person. I remember him that way, too. What does it mean to be generous in this context? It means giving of yourself without expectation of return. It means giving the service I’ve just described. Generous people give because they find themselves in giving, in serving, in being humble, and in being a servant. I know Bob through his participation in AA. I’ve known him since he got sober and I’ve talked with many people whose sobriety was enhanced by knowing, being with, and talking with Bob. He was generous.
I also know Bob because he and I used to meet regularly to talk about his spiritual life and his growth in sobriety as a humble, content, spiritual being. We began in the late summer of 2016 and met, usually in Mackenzie, just the 2 of us, regularly through the spring of 2017. Ultimately he decided that we were too intellectual -- that’s Bob -- but it worked for a while.
The crucial thing about Bob in my experience -- and he and I talked about this when we went to Golds for coffee a few weeks ago and again a couple of weeks ago when I visited him in the hospital -- the crucial thing was the happiness and contentment he felt as a sober man. He knew that he was present to his family and to the world in a way that had not been true.
Now, to be borderline heretical. 41 years ago when I was ordained a priest I was much more certain about what happens to us when we die than I am today. I was much more certain about the necessity of baptism than I am today. I was much more certain about how God was present in our lives than I am today. I told Bob on Monday that I have no certainty about where we go when we die. He had just expressed his doubts. I no longer believe in a God who has room in heaven only for Christians. I’m not at all certain what heaven is, but whatever it is, the primary characteristic of it is love for all. As the men in the rooms are probably tired of hearing me say, I think of C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce. The primary requisite for making it into heaven is giving up Resentments. Bob and I learned this in the rooms of AA.
I didn’t learn about Resentments in seminary. I didn’t learn Resentments in grad school after seminary. I only learned the importance of giving up Resentments by getting sober and sitting in meetings for many years now and getting to know people like Bob, and getting to know them well.
Of course no one gets sober to go to AA meetings. I have been assured that the spiritual growth Bob experienced, however defined, was apparent to those who were close to him
My hope is that everyone here this morning will acknowledge the spiritual growth in Bob’s life. He was always a force of nature. He always wanted an A in life. His intellectual honesty was important to him. He seemed not to suffer fools gladly. He enjoyed many blessings and he died surrounded by his family. What more can any of us hope for?
I have no idea why some of us get sober while others do not. For some of us the community just makes sense and we fall into it. If you met any of us the day or week before we got sober it is unlikely that you would predict that we would ever enjoy sobriety. Yet here we are. For those here who are having trouble staying sober know that it wasn’t easy for anyone. Years of debate are a feature in all of our lives. However the community is here for all. That’s the spiritual gift of sobriety. In this church this morning are Christians, Unitarians, Jews, maybe a Muslim or 2, atheists, agnostics, doubters, the angry, the hopeless, the weary and much else. The message is that you won’t find meaning in authority, call no one Rabbi, Father or Teacher, you will find meaning and spirituality in service. Give of yourselves. In this way you will find yourself. Bob found himself.