I know I just posted last Sunday’s sermon, but I wanted to share a sermon I preached on Saturday, at the memorial for a friend and colleague, Rollin Norris, who lived the last years of his life bifurcated between Detroit and Vermont. Rollie had asked me to preach a sermon with a Christian lens on death. It is something worth all of our thoughts and contemplations. This week’s Denim Spirit will be an echo on the same theme.
I want you to know that I am preaching here today in fear and trembling. My ace in the hole is knowing that one of the sermons Rollie preached, one of the ones he was most proud of, was all about forgiveness. So Rollie, if I mess this up, “forgive me – please.”
Rollie asked me to preach today knowing I would do what he told me to do, which is “preach” instead of talking about him. For three years, I served Margo and Rollie’s parish in Vermont. During that time, I dreaded it when they left for Detroit because preaching was never as fun as when Rollie was in that little 80-seat wooden church. Sometimes he had audible reactions to something I said, and occasionally, his comments rose up irrepressibly in real time from the pew.
He frequently to told me whether the previous week’s sermon was a five-mile, ten-mile, or twelve-mile sermon. That was the measurement for how long he and Margo would discuss the day’s sermon while driving back to their mountain. Sometimes he told me, with that look we all knew, that it had been a stop-light sermon – as in, the one stop light on the way out of town.
So, because he asked for it, this is about death – a kind of Christian lens on death.
I want to begin with a Mary Oliver poem, a poet of Rollie’s age who was known to sojourn in an Episcopal congregation now and again.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Rollie did not simply visit this world, he made it better. Rollie did not simply visit this world…he made it better. But you know that. You don’t need me to tell you Rollie made his piece of the world a better place. But, and maybe this is what Rollie would have wanted me to say, we will never know how much better Rollie made this world.
You see, like the face of God, we do not get to see the full expanse of Rollie’s life. Not even Margo, Megan, or Bill got to see the full expanse of Rollie’s life. You and I do not get to view the full expanse of any life, and here is what I mean.
Rollie touched lives we never knew about – lives even HE may not have known he touched. He touched people he met casually as well as those he had a deep and profound relationship with, and the many ways he changed the trajectory of those lives will never be known to us.
That is the first thing we need to recognize about both death and life:our lives do not end with death, they reverberate and ripple far beyond our breath, and for years and generations in ways both obvious and silent. Each one of us becomes a delicate, intricate element of a divine eco-system that is both present and future tense.
So I want to call us to reverence before the amazing abundance and mystery that is Rollie’s life – and even our own. Reverence…it is not a word we use much these days and yet, it evokes a sensation or state of mind so rich, and resonant, and lovely, we should thirst after it.
We cannot sum up Rollie’s life. All we can do is stutter in amazement at it – the same way we would stutter in amazement at the exquisite interdependency that allows the Green Mountains to flourish; or gasp over the perfect blue of Lake Huron; or find ourselves speechless at the delicate interplay between gravity and motion that once transformed the earth into a spinning orb of life.
That’s what I mean by reverence, and what I hope we can touch within us when we stand before the fullness of Rollie’s life. Rollie knew about our limited vision, and he also owned a sense of reverence and amazement too, in part, because he was a deeply theological Christian. It is part of our creed – not the Nicene one – but the wisdom rooted in Jesus who prayed that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.
That is the wisdom and insight I think Rollie may have wanted me to preach about today. Our task, according to that old prayer prayed by Jesus, is to make this kingdom here on earth as good as the kingdom of God in heaven.
Rollie didn’t live for the next life he lived to make this one eternal along with the other one. That is what we do if we are serious about practicing the wisdom of Jesus, and I think that is something he may have wanted me to say standing here at the edge of his life. At least that is the kind of thing I might say if I wanted Rollie and Margo to talk about a sermon for more than a few blocks.
So, we seek to make the world better, to make God’s kingdom come on earth as we imagine it is in heaven. We get tough about it when necessary, as Rollie could be tough; and we get tender with it when called for, as Rollie could be tender.
We don’t put the planet on our shoulders as if it is all on our one small and precious life, we recognize that it is one small act of love on top of one small act of love on top of another small act of love – an accumulation of small acts across our entire lives, no matter whether we are given a few years or an abundance of years.
One small act of love at a time with one small life at a time added to all those other small lives doing their small acts of love – a miraculous abundance of love that sooner or later shifts the tide, moves the mountain, moderates the wrongs, softens the hatreds, pierces the indifference, takes back the reigns, overcomes the S.O.B.s, and helps bring about the kingdom on earth.
That’s how it works. While we get to rest along the way, we do not get to give up along the way – not if we’re serious practitioners of Jesus’ wisdom.
I had the opportunity to visit a 97-year-old woman on Tuesday afternoon this week, someone I hadn’t seen in six or seven years. We caught up on each other’s lives and then she told me what it was like getting older – actually, getting old.
She said we go along riding the wave and then something comes along and says, “here, I need to take this little piece away.” And you adjust to living without that thing or person or that capacity, she said, and you go along until something else comes along and says, “here, I’m just going to take this thing over here.” And you learn to deal with that missing piece or that missing person, until, sooner or later, something else shows up and says, “yep, I’m going to take this now…”
We both laughed about it, knowing that while we were laughing we were also acknowledging the grief of all the losses, and the diminished capacity that aging brings. Then she said, in a way that reminded me so much of Rollie, “but you don’t get to stop.”
“If you stop,” she said, “it’s no good for anybody.”
And that is the other thing about this practice those of us who are Christian espouse: it is a practice not the final concert.
This kingdom-march we are on, this relentless hope that points toward God, goes on and on. And we go on and on, and that is what Rollie would say – maybe what Rollie is saying through me – “Go on, you’re not done yet. Make the world better, bring about another piece of the kingdom. Take a breath, rest, grieve your losses, savor those amazing Vermont Green Mountains, and feed those fish in my pond, but keep bringing about the kingdom – on earth as it is in heaven.”
There may be other things Rollie would have wanted me to preach today, but I think that is one of them.
Every death that forces its way into our lives is also an occasion of reverence when we need to stop and acknowledge that each of us live lives that ripple out across a vast constellation of relationships, terribly complicated and interdependent acts of love, and serendipitous moments of grace.
Our lives, our work for the kingdom to come, is not silenced or aborted when we die, but continues motioning outward on and on and on and on. We cannot trace its arch, nor fathom its far shore. But we can, if we have the imagination and the faith, feel awe. And that is what I invite us to open ourselves to today: feel awe, and give thanks, for the mysterious, miraculous depth and breadth of Rollie’s life. That awe and gratitude will never take away the pain of his absence, but it will, over time, if we allow it, and if we keep holding it, eventually heal us.
I give thanks that Rollie pressed me into service today, and that Margo allowed me this privilege.
And now, let us pray:
Gracious God, you are a lover of souls.
You loved us so much that
you gave us Rollie for so many years,
and held him in the arms of your love –
his good, his bad, and every bit of his blessed
and sometimes cantankerous humanity.
Hold us now,
surround us now,
comfort us in our loss now.
Stay present and heal our pain now.
Allow us, Beloved,
to draw on our love of Rollie as we move forward;
to draw on our love of Rollie,
as we keep on bringing forth your kingdom on earth
as we think you have arranged it
We thank you for giving us a glimpse
through Rollie’s life
of your kingdom,
and your power,
and your glory.