Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sermon for the funeral of Edward (Sandy) Hughes III

Jesus said, in my Father's house are many dwelling places. . . I go to prepare a place for you.  

I feel tremendously honored to be standing here today to remember the life of my dear friend and mentor Sandy Hughes and also, in light of his death, to set forth the truth of God. I got to know Connie and Sandy after I came to the seminary in Ambridge. I was pretty hard up at the time, and Connie mentioned that Sandy needed help on Saturdays doing work on their historic home in Sewickley. For the next three years I worked for Sandy almost every Saturday. Gradually he began to share with me his passion for old trucks and wood-working: it started with turning bowls and making stools. What eventually sealed our bond was a chair-making course we attended in my final year of seminary. I always like to tell the story that when I came back to seminary, all I could think about was making another chair. I did eventually make another chair four years later; this time we were in Sandy's basement with him as instructor. At the present time, I have another chair that is in process, but this one will have to come completion without the guidance of the master.

Over the years I learned many things from Sandy, like the proper volume for listening to opera (loud). I also learned that there is a distinctive shape to most projects whether it is laying a tile floor, making a Windsor chair or building a congregation: there is the initial hump of starting the project followed by a burst of energy. In remodeling projects this part consists of the demolition. Next follows the long and seemingly endless middle. During this period, the possibility of completion is greatly questioned especially by the neophyte. Finally, there is the finish which demands a great deal of exertion to bring all the loose ends together into a completed project. This rhythm in the shape of a project was like second nature to Sandy so that he rarely was intimated or discouraged by a task. Anybody that ever worked next to the man eventually realized that Sandy always knew the way to the end or at least that there was a way to the end.  From Sandy I also learned the wisdom of silence. The biblical proverbs speak of a proper time and content for speech. Idle and ill-timed words are destructive. To put it even more strongly, sometimes provocation and foolishness needs to be met with silence. In the Christian tradition, we see this in our Lord especially at his trial. Sandy's silences could be unnerving at first, but gradually I understood they stemmed from his wisdom. I heard Connie say once that the way Sandy used it a tool, it was like an extension of his hand: I might add that the way Sandy used his words, they were like an extension of his person.

Today we gather to give thanks to Almighty God for the life and witness of Sandy and to commend his soul to God's never-failing love and care. We give thanks for his accomplishments in engineering and construction: his projects were mammoth and wide-ranging. We also give thanks for his witness to sobriety and his friendship with Bill W. Obviously I did not know him before he went into the program, but I strongly suspect that much of his quiet strength had its origin in the twelve steps. Today, we especially give thanks for Sandy's devotion as a father and grandfather. His daughters and especially his grandchildren in my observation gave him more joy than anything. Connie, Jess, and Corrie, God bless you for the many seen and many more unseen ways in which you cared for him in his final illness. As a friend recently reflected, there is a kind of poverty in weakness and sickness, but your loving care meant that he was never abandoned to that poverty.

Today, let's be honest, we are in great deal of shock and sadness at a life that seems to have been prematurely cut short. The prayer book reminds us of the uncertainty of life with these sobering words: in the midst of life we are in death. It is fair to say, I think, that our hearts are broken—everywhere we turn there is heartache. In the church year we are in Lent. One of the themes of Lent is penitence, and every year on Ash Wednesday, the church recites Psalm 51, the great Psalm of penitence. In it, the Psalmist says, The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise. In the wider context of the Psalm, the Psalmist is reflecting on the fact that God does not accept empty religious ritual. The Psalmist realizes that the true heart of faith is not in the outward forms—in this case animal sacrifice—but in a heart broken and consecrated to the Lord. One might wonder why does the Lord seem to value so much a broken and contrite heart? Is it that he wants us to be sad and unhappy? No, it seems to me that when the heart is broken, then it can be filled up with love. The Bible says that we have hearts of stone. As long as we do not taste what the Bible calls the bread of adversity, we will be unable to empathize with others who sorrow or suffer. Once those hearts of stone have been broken, then the love of God can come and fill them up. And this is the pattern of the Bible. Those who have been broken and have confronted sorrow are the ones that find themselves consecrated to God in a particular way: consider Moses who in his youth and vitality is cast into exile away from his people, or Jeremiah who is called to prophesy to a people who would not hear or Mary Magdelene who has her life set a new course because of her relationship with the Lord. In each case a heart of sorrow and grief is transformed into a heart that burns with the fire of love for the Lord and for his people. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of how suffering perfected the Lord Jesus as our high priest. In rejection and sorrow and brokenness, his heart of love shines as if in the darkness. Consider some of his last words from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” “Woman, behold thy son. Behold thy mother.” “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” The wounded heart is the heart that can be filled with love.

In our Gospel today, the Lord Jesus speaks of going before his disciples, before us, to prepare a place. He says, in my Father's house there are many rooms. The older translation read in his Father's house, there are many mansions. Neither is exactly right. Jesus is not promising a large house nor is he saying that you'll get your own room at the heavenly hotel. The Greek word used here is related to the verb abide that Jesus uses again and again in John's Gospel, and perhaps most famously with these words: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” So, when our Lord speaks of his Father's house, he says that in that house there are abiding places, or to paraphrase, spaces in which we have communion with God.  While the fullness of that communion is promised in the greater life, there is also the implication that this communion is for here and now. Our Lord says I go before you to prepare a place for you that where I am there ye may be also. When our Lord goes to the cross, he creates this dwelling place of communion with his Father. You see, even while on the cross he is still in communion with his Father. It is the truth of our Lord's crucifixion that he takes the Father with him into that time. The witness of the Psalms is that the speaker addresses God in the midst of suffering and distress. Empty platitudes or pious aphorisms are no where to be found. As Christians, we recognize that God is present in light and beauty and happiness. But the mystery and power of our faith is that, as our Lord was in communion with God on the cross and offered that sorrow and pain back to God, so we can by faith recognize that God is working in the darkness and accidents and grief. Our grief finds meaning and consolation in the one who asks, behold and see, is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?

On this day, let us offer our grief to God. He does not ask us not to be sad or to pretend that everything is okay. What he asks us is to allow him to come into our hearts, to be with us in sorrow and pain. He asks us to loosen our grip on what the future might bring and in so surrendering, to open ourselves up more to love. On this day, we commend our beloved brother to that finished work of the Lord Jesus. And I, in the words of St. Paul,  commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

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