may he be numbered with the saints in light

My friends, ours is a God who reveals himself in the face of a man, Jesus Christ, and who helps us understand who he is through stories in Scripture. I stand here today as a witness to the life of Charles Thomey and I seek to share with you the ways that God has revealed himself in this precious life, and the ways God continues to reveal himself through the life and work of this man. Indeed, aren’t we all both testaments and fruits of the love that God taught us through Chuck?

Over my 30 years, Grandpa showed me how to do a lot of things. Chuck taught me how to make people laugh, he showed me how to work hard, and how to put others first. He helped me learn to waterski and to drive a stick-shift, he fostered my love of dogs and gave me an example of how to love my family well, with an unconditional and unwavering devotion. Last week, he taught me perhaps the most important thing I’ll ever learn from him: he showed me how to die.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces a great bounty.” (John 12:24)

Last Saturday, his some of granddaughters had already started to take over grandpa’s regular shopping trip for the Food Bank at Aldi’s. They were collecting cans and boxes for the school food drive, and their mother asked Grandma about the particulars of Chuck’s habit, wishing to share the tradition with his progeny. His blood and his spirit continues through those who he’s shaped, though his body has already gone back to the earth as dust.

As he lost his independence and, as Isaiah said, his “knees became feeble,” Grandpa’s sense of humor didn’t suffer. When the medical transport team was wheeling him down the hallway of his condo complex just a week ago Friday, he assured a passing neighbor, “This is just a dress rehearsal.”

Even last Sunday, the eve of his death, Chuck was laughing. When the nurse would come in and give him medication, he winked at me as he accepted the syringe. As he drifted off to nap, he’d chuckle—at times he’d laugh in his sleep. He even started singing as I sat with him early on that frigid, sunny morning. Making conversation, he asked me when I had flown in and he asked if I was happy; hardly 24 hours out from death, he was still looking first to others’ comfort and happiness.

Chuck said to me, “I’m okay”—always reassuring—and he continued, “I have to go now, you understand?” I told him I did, and I counted each one of his breaths, relishing each moment I sat and witnessed the dying of this strong, gentle, faithful man.

Toward afternoon, my aunt and I sat flanking him; telling him that we were there and how lucky he was to be surrounded by beautiful ladies. He said, “I need to walk home.” Through tears we told him that we were here to help him walk home, and when he started to shift his legs, that he didn’t need his legs to get back home.

The last thing he said to me, on Sunday afternoon, was, “I’m ready. What do I do?” Charles was always ready for action, even in his very last journey. My mom said I was lucky to have known a person so eager to help with whatever needed to be done, to have seen the way that a life could look if it was truly spent in service to others.

Chuck’s life and death is captured in the last words said by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, “Father, glorify Your name.” We have seen clearly self-giving love, joy, and wisdom of God in the face of Charles Thomey.

Jesus, come quickly, that we may not live long without the joy and comfort of Your Spirit, as known through Chuck, and all your saints, Amen.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

“Get behind me, Satan!”

When was the last time you said this to someone?  Have you ever said it, either out loud to someone or in your mind?  Maybe we should.  What a Lenten discipline that might be–to tell the truth when we’re facing temptation, to go so far as to admit, out loud, to friends when we’re struggling with sin.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel passage?  In the verses preceding this section of Mark, Peter is the one who rightly recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the one promised throughout Israelite history to come and to save God’s people.  When the cat’s let out of the bag that Jesus is God come to earth to save humanity from their sin, Jesus takes his disciples aside to explain a bit more about what’s going to happen.
I can imagine the scene: Rabbi Jesus, having spent months, maybe even years, preparing his disciples through his words and his actions, for them to be ready and able to put the pieces all together, to identify the face of God in the carpenter from Nazareth, finally asks, “who do you say that I am?”  They equivocate for a few moments in the middle of chapter 8, “well, people say you’re Elijah, come back down on that fiery chariot, and others have their money on your being John the Baptist come back to life.”  Jesus smiles and shakes his head, “okay, but who do you say that I am?”  From this pointed question, Peter makes the great proclamation of faith, “You are the Christ.”  I imagine Jesus’ eyes filling with tears, grateful in that moment for the willing, tender hearts surrounding him, eager and ready for the salvific revelation that’s just been made by one of their brethren.  “You are the Christ.”

On the tail of this statement of faith–which is similar to the one we make when the Nicene Creed is recited just after the sermon here every week–Jesus “quite openly” prophesies of his own demise, sharing with his disciples that he will have to “suffer many things” and to be rejected by those most respected and most educated in Judaism.  He knows that faith in a God who would become human inevitably leads to evil’s seeking to destroy this atrocious, unfitting act of love.  The very people he came to spend his life with will slam the door in his face.  There’s nothing wrong with education, or with respect, but the hardness of heart which more often accompanies people who have the trappings that make our lives here seem secure can make us blind to the ways that God is creeping around the corners of our lives.

In rebuking Peter’s rebuke, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus admits to his disciples and to us how tempting it was even to him to pursue a life of security, of gathering around himself the sorts of things that make life more comfortable, easier.  We’re not alone and we’re not unique in struggling against the powers of this world, the images we’re given to aspire and follow for a life of success.

I nannyed for a couple who were both professors and priests when I lived in Durham, and sometimes I made dinner or picked one of them up from the airport, too.  Clearly, they were both very bright and accomplished, and their kids were pretty smart, too.  The husband of the duo was returning from a speaking engagement at Hope College in Michigan, and when I picked him up from his flight and asked how the trip had been, he said to me, “If we’re in America (they are British) when the children go to college, I want them to go somewhere like Hope College.”  I remember thinking to myself–and perhaps even saying out loud, “Why on earth would you want them to go there?  It’s not the Ivy League or a top-ten institution, how could you wish to send your child to anywhere except the absolute best–like Duke?”  And I remember him replying, at that time, or some other, that he and his wife desired to raise compassionate, thoughtful, loving children, and Hope College seemed like a place where it would be easier survive with those priorities than at Duke.

How much more did Jesus face this temptation to security and accomplishment than each of us do?  Relatively, we have little control over how secure, successful, and impressive our lives are–Jesus really does have the power to take everything over and bend the world to his desires.  This was, in effect, what Peter was saying as he rebuked Jesus; as Jesus told his friends about where the faith they followed would lead them, especially Jesus himself, Peter hoped that the power afforded by being God himself and by being God’s homies would insulate them from the sort of danger and discomfort that might threaten less powerful people.

Aren’t we sometimes like Peter, too?  We see a situation that demands a difficult stand at work, we’re convicted to give more money than budgeted to the work God is so evidently doing in Haiti or elsewhere, and we resist the right thing that we know we’re supposed to do.  In effect, we take God aside and say, “Look, God, I know it looks like this situation demands that I say “no” to my boss, but I don’t think that’s really necessary, there’s got to be another way that’s not so uncomfortable and risky.”  That twinge we feel, that raising of our inner temperature or the turning of our stomachs–those are the signs that God is saying back to us, “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re stuck in a mindset that is prioritizing ease and comfort over and above the mindset and sort of life that I desire for you.”

Back in 2004, some kid in a Harvard dorm room started an exclusive website called “The Facebook.”  Mark Zuckerberg and a few roommates launched what is now the largest social networking site in the world, most of them are now millionaires.  What would you have given to be a teenaged boy at Harvard in Mark’s dorm in 2004?  Can you imagine the luck of those hallmates who got in on the ground floor of this business?  We could be living out in California in enormous houses with every comfort cared for, every whim fulfilled.  As I said, there’s nothing in particular wrong with enormous houses or fulfilling whims, just that such comforts often insulate us from God’s voice, from noticing what Jesus is up to in our lives and those around us.  There’s one kid, a roommate of Zuckerberg’s in fact, who didn’t join up in the business.  Do you know what he does now?  He’s a rabbi.  Can you imagine the courage and clarity of conviction it would take to say no to Mark Zuckerberg?  Rabbis don’t mean nearly what they did in the world of the New Testament, really, the tables have been flipped–the silly ones in society are the religious ones and those who are sensible and businesslike are respected and catered to.  The rabbi may very well have said to his friend, Mark, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are focused on earthly things, not heavenly things.”

So what does success look like for those who proclaim faith in Jesus as the Christ?  Thankfully we don’t have to guess, we’ve got a whole book full of examples–called the Bible; we even hear about one today in our epistle lesson from Romans, that father-of-us-all, Abraham.  Though he never met God in Jesus, Abraham recognized, knew, and cultivated a relationship with the living God.  We read that Abraham did not lose faith in God, that he, too, proclaimed trust in God’s promises–for Abraham, the promise was that he and his wife Sarah would have a son of their own flesh, despite their age, and that the two of them would be the grandparents of several nations.  We’re told that he grew strong in his faith–it seems like his faith was both a gift (an ability) given from God and also something that Abraham cultivated through practice.  How did he practice this faith, though, how did he help it to grow strong?  Romans says he gave glory to God, continually being fully convinced that God would keep his end of the bargain.  And haven’t we seen that God has done exactly that?

Abraham didn’t have even the benefit of thousands of years of witnesses to corroborate the promises which God made to him.  How much more did Abraham have to fight doubt and distrust with so little to stand on in faith?  How much each of us has in the biblical witnesses over millenia, as well as the lives of saints in the history of the church, both throughout the world and closer to home, those in our own families and in Trinity’s history.

The temptation is real.  Just as Jesus struggled mightily with the temptation to refuse the cup which was offered to him finally in the garden of Gethsemane, of which Peter’s rebuke is a foretaste, each of us continues to struggle in temptation to fix our minds on human things–worrying about our security, our respect, our accomplishments–rather than on the things of God, living in compassion, wisdom, and love.

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:36-38) Amen.

(another) quotation of the day, with comment: Emily Dickinson

 One who wrote unflinchingly of death, Ms. Dickinson’s poem (below) has been bouncing around in my head and heart this week.  I don’t know that I quite agree with her that we shall not use our love again until eternity, but I know the busyness of funeral-planning that often overtakes one (or an entire family), and the urge to vacuum up broken bits of heart.

The Bustle in a House

The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

I hope we do use that love again; even the same love I had and have for Grandpa used for his children, grandchildren, and hoped-for great-grandchildren.  I think that’s a piece of resurrection in the midst of death.  Hope in the middle of darkness.

quotation of the day

“If Job cries out that he is innocent in such despairing accents, it is because he himself is beginning not to believe in it; it is because his soul within him is taking the side of his friends.  He implores God himself to bear witness, because he no longer hears the testimony of his own conscience; it is no longer anything but an abstract, lifeless memory for him.” – Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction”

precious breath

IMG_1247spending the last few days keeping vigil at grandpa’s hospice bedside, I’ve counted each of his breaths. As the pauses between his exhale and inhale lengthen, I hold my own breath, listening for his lungs to heave once more, knowing that at some point soon, they won’t.  He will exhale, his body will go slack, and he won’t breathe anymore till his Maker remakes him, on the last day.

Many of my friends have welcomed babies in the last year, and they talk about watching their babies sleep, staring at their lovely little bundles, watching each breath–like I have been with my grandpa.  It’s reminded me now much the edges of human life are alike: the timing of birth and of death is unpredictable, loved ones are on call, near their cell phones at all hours, of heightened sense.  There’s very little that loved ones can do except to be present–babies have to do their work of coming into the world, mothers shepherding the experience (but, at least as I’ve heard, not particularly in “control” of the work going on), just as when a person dies–loved ones are helpless to do the work of dying, we are sequestered as witnesses to the event.

If life’s been long, then no one who witnessed the life’s genesis is there at the deathbed, but an entirely new cast of characters, full of the same sort of love and compassion, is there to be witness to the end of it.  There’s still some sort of mystical connection between those gathered at the edges of a life–the same person, beloved of those witnesses, does the hard work of grasping, and of letting go.  I never met my paternal great-grandmother, Grandpa’s mom, Marian Ladner Thomey, but I feel as if I’ve gotten to know a bit of her life and experience over the last week.

I’ve studied the same precious face she did, as she held her little boy Charles in her arms.  I’ve cradled his bald head as she did, and watched his lips purse and his eyebrows twitch.  I’ve witnessed his furrowed brow and his little chuckles in his sometimes-restless sleep.  The little boy who must have showed her how to live is now showing me a good way to die.

Marian and I are only witnesses, connected through time and by flesh.  The work of birth and the work of death is to be watched, encouraged, but mostly, to be witnessed.  It is sacred work to engage in, and those who do it have no power over the journey they’ve been asked to trod.  We, the loved ones still in the midst of life, are called to watch, to pay attention and to bear witness to the work being done.  To watch for the breath of life, to pay attention to God’s presence and action in the work done of being born and of dying.

on grandpa’s hands

on being surrounded by loved ones

Quotations of the Day:

IMG_0631papal namesakes being not-indifferent to each other…

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”

-John Chrysostom

“Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”

-Pope Francis