Proper 6, Year A
18 June AD 2017
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon IL
Proper: Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35–10:8
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
✠ ✠ ✠
Whenever I preach at funerals I keep it fairly short, mainly because grieving loved ones aren’t in a frame of mind such that they can take in very much. Also, one of the things I was taught about preaching at funerals is that the sermon is not to be a eulogy. Eulogy comes from a Greek word meaning to speak well of someone. In the Anglican tradition, as in the wider Catholic tradition, there’s no place for extolling the praises of the person we’re burying. As Marc Antony said at Julius Caesar’s funeral, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (Act 3, scene II). That’s because a Christian funeral is above all a worship service. So the sermon has to be a proclamation of the Gospel, just like every other sermon. It’s quite alright, however, to talk about ways the departed may have served and glorified the Lord in their earthly life, and stood as a witness to Christ crucified and risen. So it’s okay to speak well of someone in that way, as long as the central focus is God.
Well I’m going to be fairly brief today since I had very little down time during St Michael’s Youth Conference to work on a sermon. And this is also going to be a little bit of a eulogy. I found out last Monday that a very dear friend of mine had died two days before. His name is Fr Lyman Harding, and he was the priest who presented me for ordination. (It was his 80th birthday celebration that I went to a couple of months ago in Canada.) When I moved to Saint John, NB, in 1989, I lived a block from Trinity Church. By then I had not been a regular church attender for nearly ten years– that’s another story. I walked by that church quite a lot, and I noticed his name on the sign and remembered the he was the priest in my grandmother’s parish years before, and that he had officiated at her funeral. I was curious, so eventually I decided to go to church there one week; and from that point on I never missed a Sunday, because from that first day, I knew beyond all doubt that I was home, a prodigal son back where he belonged in the bosom of the Church.
The vocation to ordained ministry that I had begun to sense as a teenager began to resurface soon afterward, and became louder and louder. So Fr Harding and I talked about it. Eventually he called me into his office and said that by working full time and going to school part time it would take years for me to get my bachelor’s degree, plus three years of seminary after that. “So here’s what you’re going to do,” he said, “You’re going to quit your job and move into the rectory, and go to university full time.” And since the only household expenses he and Margaret had were groceries and cable, I was going to pay $25 per week for room and board. Then I would go to seminary if the bishop agreed to sponsor me. I got my degree in three years. During one summer he got funding to hire me to catalog the parish archives, which was a pretty big collection of all kinds of stuff. And the summer after my first year of seminary he hired me as his student pastoral assistant, and persuaded a parishioner to lend me her car for the job. So as you can well imagine, I became pretty close to the Harding family. Ever since, I’ve referred to them as my godparents– I had been baptized as a baby in a church that didn’t do the godparent thing. And their daughters and I still call each other pseudo-sis and pseudo-bro.
There are actually four of us priests in whose lives Margaret and Lyman have had a strong formative influence. One of them is now an archdeacon, like Lyman was before he retired; one is a college principal; one is the Dean of the Diocese of Fredericton, where we were all ordained; and I’m the last, and the least. He always called us his “boys,” and they both treated us as if we were their own sons. Margaret and Lyman are both faithful servants of the Lord, and Lyman was a good and faithful priest. They saw what they did for us four “boys” as part of their service to the Lord and to his Church– not as an onerous duty, but as a real act of Christian love.
Lyman, by the way, is the one who taught me that there is no place for eulogies at a funeral. He also taught me how to pick hymns. He was adamant that you pick them randomly, but ones that support the readings of the day. He also insisted that you never, ever sing slow, draggy hymns at the beginning or the end of a service, and that communion hymns ought to be somewhat quiet and meditative. I learned lots of other things from him, but those seem to be the ones that some people want to argue about.
So here’s the gospel proclamation: Two verses from today’s readings really stood out in light of my godfather’s death. The first is in the gospel. As Jesus was preparing to send the disciples out as his student assistants, he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Fr Harding saw it as a huge blessing in his life to be able to present four young parishioners to the bishop that he could send out into the harvest.
The other verse is from today’s second lesson: Paul says that through Jesus “we have… obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” It’s lovely poetic language, but more than that, it’s a pretty significant expression that Paul uses– “this grace in which we stand.” It’s the grace of God that makes every good thing happen. We heard a great sermon from Mother Ann Tofani here on Friday in which she talked about the various kinds of grace that God gives. Prevenient grace goes before us to prepare the way– first of all to predispose us to receive the Good News and to believe the Gospel, and then to prepare God’s people to receive all the gifts he has to give. Then there’s justifying grace, by which he reconciles us to himself, through baptism, forgiveness, Holy Communion and so forth. And sanctifying grace makes us holy. God’s chief means of doing that is through the sacraments, not just baptism and the Holy Eucharist, but all seven, depending on which of the others we’re called to receive or that we’re in need of. These are particular forms of grace, but really grace is one gift that God gives in countless ways. So when St Paul speaks of “this grace in which we stand,” he’s talking about the expressions of God’s love that have come to us from every direction, whether straight from him or through other people ministering to us.
That’s what I saw God doing powerfully for me through Lyman and Margaret Harding as his faithful servants who saw it as their ministry to further the ministry of the Church. And that’s what I saw again this past week at St Michael’s Youth Conference. Those eight kids went home yesterday so much richer in the gifts of God’s grace than when they came last Sunday. And I saw God pouring out his grace on them– and on us adults– in so many ways, including the way so many of our parishioners gave so much to support the cause, whether it was by serving meals, donating the cots they all slept on, making sure the air conditioning got fixed, at least temporarily to make sure we didn’t swelter in last week’s heat, and not to forget Tiffany who took lots of pictures to post on Facebook every day, and Jack who helped out the bishop in teaching music and playing for Mass every day. For my part, it was just paying forward what I’ve received in my life through other followers of Jesus. And all those gifts from our people was just some of the grace in which we stood over the past week. It was all given to build up the faith of the people who participated, the love that we have for one another, and to prepare laborers to go out into the harvest of God’s eternal kingdom.
So deepest thanks to you all for that, and prayers for rest eternal for Fr Lyman Harding. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ian C. Wetmore+