Saturday, December 16, 2017

farewell good and faithful servant...

NOTE:  Today I celebrated what I hope is the last memorial service in this ministry. To a packed church of 300+ people, friends and family, we laid our brother in Christ, the Rev. Dr. John Messerschmitt, to rest. I was grateful to God that his family - and a variety of others - found a spirit of peace and acceptance in the ceremony. I was particularly glad that my words resonated and even helped John's daughters and beloved wife. My homily is as follows... farewell, good and faithful servant.

Our friend and brother – your husband, father and grandfather – our colleague and co-conspirator for com-passion and justice in the world, John, is gone. For each and all of us, the word UNEXPECTED has taken on a new burden since John’s passing two weeks ago was, as we say, UNEXPECTED. It was a shock, a stab in the heart, an emptiness that continues to reverberate in mysterious ways in our souls.

To be sure, we give thanks to God that John’s end time was not prolonged or bleak. Carol has said that there was a peace that passed over John when he breathed his last that was reassuring and grace-filled. Those who have witnessed such a paradoxical blessing understand exactly what St. Paul taught when he assured us that we do NOT grieve as those who have no hope. Just a few weeks before John’s death I reiterated that promise to those gathered for worship on All Saints Day – we do NOT grieve as those who have no hope – and yet grieve we must. John would not have counseled us otherwise: a pastoral therapist to the end he would have told us to make certain not to stuff our feelings or run away from them with distractions or denials. And then to trust that in God’s own time, our grieving would lead us out of emptiness into a darkness that would, in time, move us towards a quiet peace.

It is a journey we never really get over or resolve; but with time and support we learn to live with it in new ways. Like the ancient Psalmist of Israel sang:

I wait upon the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, trust in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love and great power to be healed.

So, in the spirit of quiet trust, saturated with both love and honesty, let me note that as I look back on the life John lived among us, two great themes that stand out: comfort and shalom.

John expressed them in his own unique way. Yet he was clear that both comfort and shalom –what we know as peace but defined as right relations between people, creation and the sacred - were essential for the well-being of individuals and society. And he gave his time, money, energy, thought and love to enfleshing God’s shalom and comfort throughout his full and productive life. Those commitments shape this liturgy – especially the two hymns that bookend today’s celebration of John’s life:

+  God of Grace and God of Glory hails from the Protestant cathedral of social justice and creative thinking: the Riverside Church in New York City, John’s home. It is just a block away from John’s alma mater: Union Theological Seminary. And flows from the pen of Riverside’s first pastor, the dean of liberal Protestant theology, Harry Emerson Fosdick. “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage” the chorus urges us: “for the living of this, hour, lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, that we fail not man nor Thee” o Lord. It is a confession of sin and faith, a call to social action against our warring madness and an invitation to cast our vision upon the Beloved Community rather than the lowest common denominator of our broken culture. Further, it just sounds like John: bold, decisive, elegant and earthy.

+ The same for our closer, For All the Saints, the elegant end of life poem Ralph Vaughn Williams set to music at the start of the 20th century.
It, too, speaks of comfort and peace, a rest born of a life dedicated to the cause of Christ within the real world. Not in an ivory tower nor entombed in abstract theology, but practiced every day in the flesh and blood acts of compassion and justice right here and right now.

The words of Isaiah 40 evoke John’s ministry as I knew it over the past decade, too. Comfort, comfort o my people, tell of peace, thus sayeth the Lord. Comfort those who sit in darkness bowed beneath oppression’s load. Speak you to Jerusalem, of the peace that waits for them; tell them that their sins I cover and their warfare now is over. When I first arrived, we were trying to figure out how to bring some focus to our Outreach Mission Ministry. In time, we zeroed in on four broad themes: caring for the earth, hunger, homelessness and peace. And John was down with EACH of these emphases. He was in a canoe for our river clean ups with BEAT. He was on Park Square with Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice nearly every Thursday. We spent a lot of time in conversation building houses on a Habitat for Humanity trip to New Orleans. And John fed others from his own well-being, too: sometimes that was with food, sometimes with his teaching ministry and sometimes it was in his service as a tutor. Comfort and shalom – healing and social justice – were bound together in the life and ministry of John Messerschmitt.

+ My first autumn in Pittsfield, John took me on a long hike along the Housatonic River near his house to see the beauty of nature – and the destruction caused by human waste and PCBs. Later that year he and Dick Noble taught me to snow shoe and cross country ski. And that first spring we all went to New Orleans with Habitat. John was a member of the search committee that brought me here, too. We spent a LOT of time together.

+ That’s why the gospel reading for this day speaks to us of John Messerschmitt, too: like the early disciples of Jesus who encountered the Risen Christ incognito at a dinner table, John relentlessly encouraged this community to make time to eat and talk with one another on a regular basis. He knew that something holy happens around the table when we break bread together. Small wonder that he was a regular at hikes and winter ski outings, harvest dinner bingo games as well as the more formal events for social justice with the Berkshire Association.

Others will soon eulogize John and share some of their special memories of him in a moment, so let me close by being vulnerable with a blessing that came to me late in our relationship: John and I didn’t always agree. Well, that isn’t exactly right; we mostly agreed on goals, but for nearly ten years we often disagreed on tactics. He was direct, I was more obtuse. He wanted his pastor out on Park Square; I believed that most of my work was in the training of the saints – the laity – to do the public work of ministry. He wanted me to take more aggressive social justice stands in the community, and I tended towards doing that with the arts and contemplation. For a long time, we differed on the how of doing church – and sometimes even hurt one another in the process. Never intentionally, but it happened.

Then two things took place beyond our mutual control that began to change and even heal our differences: 

One had to do with the election of this current regime and my active participation in the resistance. NOW we were on the same page. Now there were regular messages on Sunday morning – and in the Berkshire Eagle – calling out the vulgarity, selfishness, racism and greed of Washington and its swamp rats. So we often found ourselves together protesting some ugly or mean-spirited policies spewing from Washington. So I have to say something out loud I never dreamed I would utter: I give thanks to Donald Trump for creating a situation wherein John and I could claim common ground. Talk about the blessings of the Paschal Mystery, right!  Where something horrific leads us into healing and blessings!

+ That was one thing that changed. And the other was that during those times of protest, we had time to talk. Yes, we talked about the issues. But time and again we especially talked about becoming older, white clergy men whose bodies didn’t work quite as well as they did when we were younger. Whose hearing and eyes and backs weren't quite as chipper as they once were - and what the hell happened to our memories? In a sign of God’s grace and glory – to say nothing of God’s upside down sense of humor and wicked sense of humor – it was on the picket line in the wind, rain or snow where we found ourselves together at the same place for the same cause, and ended up talking together like those two old guys on the Muppets Show sitting up in the balcony. It was Christ’s calling to comfort and shalom – compassion and social justice – that gave rise to a change in my heart. 

Whereas I had always valued and respected John, now there was love and affection – and even trust. God works in mysterious ways her wonders to behold, yes?  Today we give thanks to God for the life and ministry of our brother, John Messerschmitt. Today I give thanks to God for this man who always showed up here and never quit living into the promise of comfort and shalom.

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