Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Gospel at a time of Death Part II

Today I preached this sermon in response to the news that Fr. Cal Adams had died just Friday morning. His funeral is Saturday December 1 at Christ Church, Reading at 11am. It is an irony of sorts that at the time he died, I was preparing to commend my Aunt Peggy to God's keeping. God rest their souls.

My Heart Therefore is Glad
My Spirit Rejoices
My Body Also Shall Rest in Hope
~Psalm 16:9

By now most of you have heard the news but in case you have not, I must tell you this. After a long and difficult illness, Fr Cal succumbed and now lies in death. There is a deep and profound sadness that nows falls upon us like a pall falls over a casket.

“But my heart is Glad!”

How can I be glad at a time like this? Just last Sunday was Membership Sunday, and Jim Eliot stood at the podium of a parish luncheon and he told us the story of how he, Jim Hollenbach and Cal Adams partnered and together the three of them build the Keystone Villa.

“My Spirit Rejoices!” 

How can my spirit rejoice at a time like this? Well it can because of a man like Cal Adams because he went on from there and built the Learning Center

“And my Body also shall rest in hope?” 

How can my body rest when there is so much life in the church? The Parish Life Center arose from the ground. For 20 years Cal baptized your children, he married your sons and daughters, he visited your sick, he buried your dead. And he laughed and cried with you. He led your vestry, loved your youth, and when necessary, he fought for the right and the good things for the church he loved.

Oh yes, his Body shall rest in hope. When Jesus' disciples admired the Temple in Jerusalem as you and I admire the great cathedrals in Britain or Europe or The National Cathedral or even our own cathedral in Bethlehem PA, Jesus said of them all, not one stone will be left on another until all shall be thrown down. In John’s Gospel, he goes on to say; “Destroy this Temple and I will rebuild it again in three days” John 2:19. 

The Temple he was referring to, of course was his own body. He was referring to Cal’s body. He was referring to all those who commit themselves to Jesus as Cal did to build a place where human needs of every age and condition can be tended to within the community of the church.

“I know that my Redeemer lives and I know too that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And even though this body be destroyed yet shall I see God whom I shall see for myself and not as a stranger."

Job suffered terribly in his life and yet these words came from him in the 25th Chapter of the Book that tells the story of his life. So too for Cal. So too for me. So too for you!

What an irony that as Cal lay near death, I would be gathering with my family on the North Shore of Massachusetts. We would gather to celebrate the life of my Aunt Peggy, 94 years of age. But not everyone is granted long life, so sadly. 

I called to mind my dad who died at the age of 37, and even more cruelly, he died two days after Christmas when I was just a boy eight years of age.

I know I've told this story before, but I'm going to tell it again. My poor wife has heard this story and others more times than we can care to count.

I remember clearly the tears that filled my eyes as a child. It was a Sunday, and when I came home from church, my mother told me the news. I went out to play ball with my friends. It was an unusually warm day as I recall. I just didn’t understand that the word death meant I would never see him again. In fact, I can remember running to the window to see if he would drive up in his pride and joy; his wonderful white 1951 Chevrolet. O what a time we had, dad and me. Sometimes we went to the race track, or to Howard Johnson’s for an ice cream or drive all the way to Beverly from Somerville to see his family. 

But he never came again to see me. At church I would say that prayer; “Our father, who art in heaven.” And when I said those words I would look up to the clerestory of that beautiful church and I could not see either father, and I wondered long and hard where they were. Many’s the night I’d cry myself to sleep and listen to squeal of trolly cars on iron rails and the bells from St. John’s church as they called out into the night.

Otherwise there was only silence in answer to my prayer. 

Then one summer Sunday on the way home from church, I pulled a leaf from an old hedge along a rusty old chain link fence. As I pressed my thumb into the life blood of that leaf, I heard something speak in my voice...just a sense...but I gave it a voice. Because, whatever it was that spoke in my heart, it spoke clearly; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?” I stopped dead in my tracks. I said it again, and then I said it right out loud; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in my heart for your dad?

There were those who said my dad couldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t go to church. And in fact the only time I ever heard him use our Lord’s Name was when he lost a bet at Suffolk Downs.

But now this something spoke in my heart and I ran home as fast as I could and Ma was standing at the stove presiding over her favorite cast iron skillet, and she was peppering some delectable to taste.

I tugged at her apron string and asked her if there really is a God.
“Yes” she said, “of course there is!”

So then, I said, 
“Is there a heaven?”
“Yes” she said, “of course there is”...somewhat irritably now. After all this was not a good time to do theology. There were mouths to be fed.

But I had to know. And I pressed the issue;
“Is my daddy there?”
She did hesitate I must tell you in all candor. After all, more than once she said that it was the Irish that ruined Boston. That will tell you what she thought of my dad, the separation and divorce from my mother. She did hesitate. After all, the prospect of a Yankee from Maine spending and eternity with an Irishman from Boston must have given her pause.

But what she did then, I will never forget. She got down on her knee, held me close, and it is as if I can still smell her hair as she held me close in the nape of her neck.

“Of course he is”

That night my heart was filled with joy and it was as if that Silence now became a Presence and it wiped away my tears with the Love that only God can give.

My dear friends; for me heaven is a wonderful banquet. Just as the Scripture says it is. And on that day God will remove that shroud that covers all nations, and God will wipe the tears from all our eyes”. 

Is there a God? 
Of course there is.

Is there a heaven?
Of course there is.

Is Cal there? Is my Dad there?
This I can tell you without hesitation; of course they are!

It is because of this that I became a priest. So that I could spend a lifetime bringing this news to the bereaved, the poor and to all who are in any need whatsoever, just like Cal did!

In a curious kind of way, it was because of my dad’s death that I became a priest. It was all that fun and all that love that led me to Jesus. And it is a vision of heaven that I have for my family, your family and Cal’s family and all the uncles and aunts; that crazy quilt of characters;  that countless number, all of us gathered at the mountain of God, around God’s banquet table.

Is it so?
Of course it is!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And may Peace be upon him,
Fr. Paul


marthasway said...

Amen! Today I had occasion to email a man whom I had met only briefly at my Daddy's funeral earlier this year. I needed to ask a favor, and the grace of his reply was balm to me.

He told me what a privilege it had been for him to take communion to Daddy in his last months and to know that wise man of deep faith and love. He was a layman cast in a mold like your Father Cal.

The recessional hymn today was Crucifer, with that glorious descant. My spirit soared even as my tears fell, and I was grateful for the example of a life lived in Christ and for the promise of life everlasting.

"Fr. Paul" Bresnahan said...

Martha; what wonderful and graceful words! You write with the skill of a poet. May God continue to fill you with the faith and love you so artfully articulate in this comment. Peace to you, Fr. Paul