Most of you know by now that my father died in October. I’m not ready to talk about that here, if ever. What I want to talk about, instead, is an incredible man I met in September, but got to know much better in October.
Pastor Keith Fry is the pastor of my mom’s church, Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Elgin, Illinois. Mom only recently started going to this church, finally giving into her friends’ invitations to attend. I think she’s gone to this church just over a year.
I liked Pastor Keith as soon as I met him in September at my mom’s book group where they discussed Take this Bread by Sara Miles. I met him again the following Sunday when I attended church with my mom. His sermon mentioned someone he’d discussed at the book group — a friend he’d made in Washington DC who had nothing, yet gave him a gift. That tipped me off that this man was a man to whom connections were important.
When, three weeks ago, my mom’s church friends alerted Pastor Keith that my dad was on life support and in critical condition at St. Joesph hospital, he made a trip to the hospital that night. By then my mom and brother had left — knowing that there was little they could do for Dad and they both needed a good night’s sleep in order to have a clear mind to make whatever decisions needed to be made in the coming days. I’m sure Pastor Keith prayed over/for/about my father and for my mom for strength. He probably also got information from the nursing staff on Dad’s condition.
He showed up on Tuesday morning as well, this time offering support by way of prayer and information. He asked a few questions about our family — he really didn’t know Mom that well — so wanted to know if we had other siblings, what we did for a living, how many kids we had, where we lived, etc. None of what we told him was of any use, really, but, as I mentioned earlier, Pastor Keith is a man to whom connections are important. He wanted to know us in order to connect. At least, that’s what I think he was doing.
On Wednesday and Thursday he was always a phone call away and on Thursday evening my brother called him to tell him that we’d need his support on Friday morning.
I’m not sure what we would have done without Pastor Keith’s support on Friday morning. He was a calm presence the room. He was knowledgeable about the process. He was there when we needed him, but it was not as if there was a stranger in the room with us — more like a dear friend. Most of all, he assured us we were doing the right thing.
All the while we were together, Pastor Keith must have been taking mental notes. He was storing our words, actions, and stories in a file in his head. I know this because he gave the most touching funeral sermon I’ve ever heard — taking what he’d observed the past week, what he’d heard from us the past week, and what he’d seen in a slideshow I posted on Facebook (yes, Pastor Keith is on Facebook). If there is a prize for funeral sermons, this one is a sure winner. It is posted after the break if you want to read it.
One of the memories I shared with Pastor Keith that morning was my vision of Heaven: When my Uncle Don died when I was 6 years old I couldn’t really process it until President Kennedy was assassinated. Then I wondered if they’d meet in Heaven. I pictured Uncle Don and President Kennedy sitting at a table drinking beer. As more and more people that I knew or admired died, they joined the table. If you read the sermon, you’ll see that Pastor Keith really listened.
Unfortunately I don’t have the gift of listening that Pastor Keith possesses. I’d like to tell you more about him, but all I know for sure is that he grew up in Texas, the son of a Baptist minister. He has siblings — maybe 3 or 4? He used to be in publishing, but about 5 years ago decided to go to Seminary. My mom’s church is his first congregation. They love him (I know, I read it on Facebook). I think I love him too.
Sermon: Elvin Patrick Funeral
Texts: Isaiah 25 and John 11
Preached: October 26, 2010 at CTL
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from Christ Jesus, who is resurrection and life. AMEN
I’m one of those strange people who has always been fascinated by other people’s family photos. As I watched the slide show of the pictures of Elvin that Dona put together and posted on Facebook, and then again at the funeral home last evening, I saw glimpses of a life. A young man in a Navy uniform embracing an even younger Patricia whom he had recently met at the Moose Lodge as they stand in front of a car that was old even then, with Patricia looking adoringly at him. A middle-aged man building a fence around the backyard… perhaps to shield from the neighbors’ view the orphaned washing machines he had brought home to work on. A young father holding his children Dona and Kevin, and then a grandfather gently holding sleeping grandchildren, or playing with them on walkie-talkies, or playing Santa. A tall man posing with his shorter brother-in-law Don in their Doberman t-shirts, just having a good time for the camera. A man in a somewhat grubby bathrobe tinkering in the garage, clearly a guy who could fix just about anything. A Depression-era boy standing in stiff pose with the farm folk not so very far from here. A middle-aged man loading up a rusted-out van—the same van, I learned last evening, that was used to carry Christmas gifts for the Moose Lodge to be given to needy children. A 12- or 13-year old boy standing proudly in a suit and tie with his confirmation class in the Covenant church in Lily Lake, having just affirmed the promise of his baptism, that I believe took place in that same church.
Now, more linear folks, or those with more time available, might have sequenced those pictures in chronological order, starting with the little boy on the dangerous-looking tricycle, and ending with the older man sitting in his easy chair. But you know, I loved the fact that the pictures were in totally random order, because that’s the way our memories really work, isn’t it? Past and present get all mixed together and blended. Things that happened 50 years ago can seem as though they were moments ago, and yet we can’t remember whether we had breakfast this morning. In later years, Elvin’s memories had become more confused, and often blurry. 82 years can really pack in a lot of memories. The older memories sometimes are the ones that come most easily, though…and often they are the sweetest.
In looking at those pictures, I was struck by how many of them were taken at banquets and parties. Wedding banquets, with Elvin dancing with his wife, or his daughter, or daughter-in-law. A 25th-anniversary banquet with a beautiful cake on the table waiting to be sliced. Backyard barbeques with grills smoking and Old Style flowing. Moose picnics with gingham tablecloths fluttering and an Oscar-Meyer Weiner mobile standing at the ready. Family holiday gatherings with rich food and bottles of wine and a peppermint pig about to be hammered to bits. And some sort of gathering where everybody is wearing slightly goofy—OK, totally goofy—paper crowns. You can explain that one to me later. But feasting and partying and enjoying life and relationships…those things jumped out at me as I looked at Elvin’s memories, at the memories that you share with him.
The reading from Isaiah that we heard Andrew read a few moments ago tells us that God is all about banqueting. In that beautiful passage, we hear that the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples on his holy mountain a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. That banquet is the vision that God gives to us of our future. That feast is God’s plan for us, God’s desire for us. God delights in throwing us a party. It’s a feast where all the hurts of this life that have caused us pain, all those things that bring tears to our eyes, will be wiped away. All those things that we’ve been ashamed of will be taken away, removed from our sight, wiped from our memory and from God’s. It actually says that God himself will wipe those tears away from our cheeks. And at that banquet, it says that the shroud that covers us, the sheet that blocks our vision and clouds our minds, that mortality that causes our bodies and minds to age and weaken, will be ripped away. Death itself will be destroyed. And we will feast, feasting beyond our imagining.
Elvin is already enjoying that feast. His mind is clear once more, any pains of this life removed, any tears that might have flowed dried by God’s own hand as gently as Kevin wiped a tear from his father’s face as he breathed his last breath. And no paper crown for Elvin, because he has now been crowned with God’s faithful love and mercy. That’s just how God is. You see, God’s memory is long, and God’s memory is sure and certain. God remembers the child that God claimed in baptism all those years ago, God remembers that adolescent boy who was confirmed and sealed with God’s own Spirit, and as we lay Elvin to rest this morning in the cemetery just yards away from the church where those things happened, we have the assurance that God has welcomed Elvin to the feast that does not end, and that God will welcome us, as well.
In a few moments, we will gather at this table to taste and see the goodness of God. As we gather, we come for a foretaste of the great banquet that Elvin already enjoys. At this table, we join in that rich feast, surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses who already see God face to face. We come remembering the good things that God has done throughout history, but we come also remembering the good gifts that God has given to each of us. We come giving thanks that God remembers God’s promises. We come with gratitude that God’s memory of our failings is wiped out. We come in our sorrow to allow God to wipe away our tears. We come with thankfulness for our brother Elvin’s life. We come with joy, remembering God’s promises that death itself has been destroyed and that we can enjoy life that has no end. Thanks be to God. AMEN