Those of you gathered here this afternoon may be a bit shocked that an Episcopal priest is here officiating at Clarence’s funeral. I’m not sure who is likely to be more shocked: you all; me, because I am doing a funeral service without a Resurrection Eucharist; or Clarence. You all laugh, but I know Clarence well enough to know that he was shocked by turn of events late in his life that led to an Episcopal priest strolling into his room in the hospital and visiting him in hospice care.
I only knew Clarence for the last couple weeks of his life here on earth. Our connection was one of those tenuous threads that sort of make you sit back and wonder at the way God sometimes works. His granddaughter has attended my church, and one of his daughter’s best friends attends my church. In full disclosure, I had talked to Denise over the phone sometime around the ice storms this winter. That was the source of our introduction. In any event, I got a call a couple weeks ago asking if I would mind visiting him at home. He was going to have some stents placed in his kidneys the next week, and his loved ones felt he needed to speak with a pastor.
I learned from Clarence that he had been raised Southern Baptist and spent some time in or around Jehovah Witnesses. During one of our early conversations I shared that some of my colleagues in my last diocese referred to me as the “Episco-Baptist.” That got a chuckle out of him and a “I guess you’ll do.” I may have only spent a few hours with Clarence in this life, but I realized pretty quickly that was not effusive in his enthusiasm or his praise.
For the most part, Clarence and I spent time getting to know one another. Mostly there were other people in the room, and Clarence struck me as the kind of guy who was slow to open up, but a real friend to those whom he chose. Certainly, those of you in his family have born that observation or intuition out. I have received a couple notes reminding me what you each lost in Clarence. For some, he was a brother and all that being a brother entails, good times and not so good times of getting on nerves. For some of you, he was a wonderful friend, the kind of guy who seldom let you down and never let you down on the “big stuff” of life. For Ruby, of course, he was far more than a husband, and that is why her grief will be so deep in the coming weeks and months. He was her best friend; he swept her off her feet on the dance floor; and she treasured her time with him.
I do wish Clarence and I had had more time, or I suppose I wish I had known he had so little. One of his deeply held fears was that some of you were disappointed in him for a variety of reasons. I think another characteristic of Clarence was the fact that he was his harshest critic. Where some of you were glad he was there to help you in your struggles, Clarence had a nagging urge that made him wish “he’d done more.” Where you all were thankful for silence; he had that “I wish I’d known what to say” about him. I see the nods.
Clarence also had one major “I wish” that causes me to wish I could have spent a bit more time with him. He may not have known me long, but we spoke the same language. I understand Clarence’s fear that he had disappointed God and, by reason of that fear, was convinced that he had earned a place outside God’s heavenly embrace with all the saints. I wish you all could have seen his face when I reminded him that he had failed God, as had we all, and that was why Christ had suffered the beatings, the mocking, the betrayal of friends, the flogging, the Crucifixion, and death. We all, myself included, I told him, have done horrible things in our lives. We all, myself included, I reminded him, had disappointed God. But such was His love for us that He bore the punishment for all our failures, for all our sins. His death was so horrible precisely because of us, individually and collective. Now, it was our job to repent and ask God for the grace to try again.
Typical of an engineer who put roads together and was always concerned how joints fit just so, Clarence was loathe to accept that it (salvation) was that easy. It had to be harder because our failures were so bad. I told him, expecting that day to be so somewhat off into the future, to ask His Lord when he saw Him if He thought it was easy. Clarence, true to form, chuckled a bit and laughed that I don’t pull many punches. I apologized for the bluntness, but I knew he needed to hear, absolutely needed to hear, that his sins had been paid for by our Lord and that he was by no means excluded from His covenant. It gave him things to think about. I told him I would leave and let him get some rest and be back the next day. He promised to think on what I had said and would likely have a few points to argue. He died that night.
I share that part of the story because I learned from Clarence and from other members of the family and circle of friends that you all have dealt a lot with death these past couple months. One death is too many, but three is beyond painful. Most experts tell us that it takes a year or so to deal with the grieving process properly. All of you gathered here find yourself still trying to be good friends, good family, and yet still in mourning over the death of a loved one. The strain on such a family can be massive. And no matter how many times we like to pretend we have power to do anything about it, all our forbidding of death accomplishes exactly nothing. We can bid death to stay away, but death is less likely to listen to us than a cat or a rock. Death is immune to our desires; death is implacable.
Thankfully, in some measure, Clarence served a God who is not implacable, who is not unmoved. Though we, like Clarence, have done incredibly bad things to warrant our exclusion from His kingdom, our Lord made it possible for all of us to share in that kingdom for eternity. During our big discussion, Clarence asked repeatedly about the what if’s. What if I did not go to church enough? What if I did this sin? What if I did not speak out about this? What if I knew my workers did this? All those what if’s were covered by the flesh and blood of Jesus on the Cross. There is no what if beyond Him! There is no failure that He cannot redeem! There is nothing, not even death, that He cannot use for His redemptive purposes!
God is not a God who needed your loved one as one more angel. God is not a God who is indifferent to your suffering. Our Lord God is a God who weeps with you, who shares your sadness. But our God is also a God who offers us a way to ensure that this, this bitter feeling of loss is not the last word, that there is truly hope in the face of ultimate sadness, and life, real life and not a figment of one’s imagination, in the face of death.
The reading for today came out of Clarence’s own words. As we argued a bit about the what if’s of his life, I reminded Him of all that was required. No matter Clarence’s objection, I had the perfect answer. After a bit, Clarence laughed at me, “No matter what I say, no matter what I have done, you seem to think I get a clean slate every time I ask Jesus to forgive me.” When I agreed enthusiastically, Clarence had one more. “You pastors today ignore the Old Testament. I grew up on the Old Testament.” I asked him what the difference was with what I had told him and what the difference was with what Joshua had told the people. It is the same story! We just know the end now! Each day when we rise, each moment we are awake, you and I are afforded a choice. Whom will we serve?
Brothers and sisters, I am usually loathe to play the evangelist in front of those suffering. There are individual discussions that need to be had, particularly for those who have wondered away from the sheepfold. But brothers and sisters, Clarence’s life and death reminds me that we sometimes do not have the time we think we do. Contrary to how it may sound in your ears this afternoon, I was more slow and more gentle than I think I should have been. That Clarence may have passed away uncertain of his fate will nag at me for some time as a bit of a pastoral failure on my part. I could have been blunter. I could have been even more forceful. But you all have been through this now three times in two months. Better than most families, you know the futility of trying to stave off death. Better than many families, you know the pain of those words left unsaid, those dances left undanced, those hugs left ungiven, those words left unsaid. Brothers and sisters, no matter the sadness or anger at you loss, our Lord still loves you. No matter how long you have stayed away or never even bothered to come at all, while you have breath you still have time. But why not get to know the One who died for you even why you were still at enmity with Him, that you might face the pressures of life and the fears of death with His grace in your life, each and every day you draw that breath, a grace Clarence only dreamed could be true, but would have loved to have shared with each and every one of those whom he loved?