June 7, 2017

Text: John 11: 21-27

Father Lynn Edwards and I spoke of this day more than once while he was alive.  He left very specific instructions concerning his funeral, and among them was his insistence that there be no eulogies.  So, this is a homily, not a eulogy, as it says in the Order of Service.  And if at any time it begins to sound to you more like a eulogy than a homily, then I suggest you go to the bottom of page nine in your booklet where you will see this moment clearly described as “The Homily,” and I hope you will thus feel reassured.

Since this is a homily, I want us to consider first the gospel passage we have just heard, from John 11.  The entire chapter tells the story of the raising of Lazarus, the last of the great signs of Jesus’ power and authority.  If you know the whole story, you will remember that, when Jesus enters Lazarus’ home town of Bethany, He comes into a place of danger – many there already hated Him for the way He was stirring things up by His insistence on loving absolutely everyone, healing anyone who needed it, speaking the truth of His Father no matter what the cost, doing the works of the One who sent him.  It was also a place of grief and anger and fear: grief over the death of Lazarus, anger that Jesus had not come earlier, fear around what might or might not happen next.  Martha is the one who, near the end of the story, puts it all into words.  When Jesus orders that the stone be rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, she tries to stop Him, saying: Lord, by now there will be a stink.  Do you see?  Don’t go near the smell of death.  Better to avoid even the odor of the grave than take the glorious risk that death might be overcome by the life of the Resurrection.

As one of the earliest clergy to care for those dying of AIDS, Father Lynn knew that kind of fear first hand.  Those of us ordained in the early to mid 1980s, or before, remember well the strange plague that began to overtake many cities in America.  It left in its wake legions of young men who in a matter of weeks could be swept from perfect health to death’s door.  The diseases that were killing them were so rare that many doctors had never seen an active case, such as Kaposi's sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia.  Patients wasted away with alarming speed, losing several pounds over a few days.  No one knew where it came from, and though it was soon associated with gay men, others quickly joined the ranks of the fallen: hemophiliacs, drug users, and oddly, a disproportionate number of people from Haiti.  There was terror and grief in the gay community, and fear everywhere else.  All this led to a pervasive stigma associated with the disease.  Many families found out their sons or brothers were gay only as they were dying, and sometimes they reacted by disowning or abandoning them in their darkest hour.  Hospital cleaning staff would not enter the rooms of AIDS patients; their meals would often be left by the door.  Isolation protocols were put into place in AIDS wards – those who visited their friends, even the clergy, had to be gowned and gloved and masked, all of which added to the growing sense of isolation and shame.

And the churches?  I wish I could say they all rose to the occasion, but in many cases they did not.  There was plenty of moralistic preaching of the worst kind, plenty of judgment and exclusion.  Even sympathetic congregations sometimes eliminated the exchanging of the peace or withdrew the common cup from Communion.  And all of this added up to one common approach across much of our society: do not touch the sick and the dying, do not go near the smell of death, do not be found in the company of the rejected.

Father Lynn knew too much about the love of Jesus to make his peace with any of that.  He was a parish priest to his toenails, and from the moment the plague appeared, he made the decision to open even wider the doors of the Church of the Good Shepherd in the working class neighborhood of Hazelwood.  Those whom others were afraid to touch, he embraced.  He anointed them, and blessed them.  Food was offered for the hungry, clothing for those who had lost so much weight that nothing in their closet fit them anymore.  Soon they were gathering for Friday night dinners to hear a talk, hold hands, and join in a simple prayer.  Eventually, in order to put a little more organization into this love, with the support of his congregation and the local community, he and Cyndee Klemanski along with a few friends launched Shepherd Wellness.  And bit by bit, a sort of Bethany miracle came into being, a little Lazarus event – the stench of fear and death began to be overwhelmed by the sweet savor of love and the life of the Resurrection.

It’s important to understand that Father Lynn did all this, not as some kind of wide-eyed radical on the cutting edge of social change.  He was one of the most traditional clergy I have ever known; though for a time he had been swept up in the charismatic movement, he was a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying, unreconstructed Anglo Catholic.  He loved the Mass and the ceremony of the Church because he saw it carried the truth and the mercy of Jesus into the lives and hearts of the people who needed it.  He presided over countless funerals and ministered to any number of families struggling with grief, and in many cases, anger and shame, and his message was always the same – always pointing to Christ the Good Shepherd, to the radical love and Resurrection life of the Lord Jesus.  But with all this seriousness, there was also a playful and even silly side to Lynn, which I loved as much as I loved his sanctity.  I confess there was one time I intentionally led him into sin, by introducing him to the website badvestments.com.  He was in the hospital, and feeling glum, and I thought he could use a little cheering up.  So I sat next to him in bed and brought the website up on my phone, and he and I took a few moments to chortle together over short videos of truly shocking mitres, copes and chasubles in action.  “Oh, my!” he said.  “Oh, dear, look at that one!”  At the end he shook his head and that playful smile came up.  He leaned towards me and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Makes you wonder if they even own a mirror.”

And that is about the meanest thing I ever heard him say.  Lynn is probably very annoyed with me already for spending this much time on him, in what is supposed to be a sermon not a eulogy, but he would be even more annoyed if I painted him as some kind of plaster saint.  No one knew him better than Barry, his partner of thirty-two years, and I am sure all was not always sweetness and light in their household, as is true in any of ours.  Lynn could be pushy, and insistent, and occasionally impatient.  When he wanted you to do something, you had the feeling he had just talked to Jesus and it was Jesus who wanted you to do it, not Lynn, which could feel a little unfair.  But when I look back on it, I see that in every instance what he wanted, especially as it involved others, he wanted because he genuinely believed it was what Jesus wanted, for His church, His children, His little ones.  And because of that, if Father Lynn in heaven is objecting to this being more eulogy that sermon, I would reply, that it is his own fault, because he was the sermon to us: Christ’s living word brought to us in the way he welcomed us and held us and blessed us, speaking the very word of Life, the same word Jesus spoke to Mary when He raised her from her grief, and to Martha when He raised her from her fear, and to Lazarus, who at Christ’s command came forth from his grave.

And now we are the sermon: you and I.  The Christian belief in the Resurrection of the Body means, among other things, that we are precious to God in and because of our flesh as well as our souls.  Our bodies are the first installment in the glory that is to come, the seed out of which will be raised to our new life in the Kingdom that is to come.  Among other things, that means we are to regard one another, and absolutely everyone, as precious in the sight of God, bearing God’s image and hope in our bodies and souls, erasing barriers of suspicion and fear by the power of Christ’s love, through the living proclamation of the mercy of His Cross and the hope of His resurrection in all our words and actions.  Yesterday, Dr. Marty Seltman reminded me of an old Jewish story that says in every generation there are thirty-six righteous persons who hold up the world but whose identities are unknown.  He believes Lynn was one of those, and I think he may be right.  But suppose there are many more than thirty-six?  Suppose there are hundreds, or thousands?  Now that Lynn is in glory, suppose we were those righteous ones?  What if we trusted God enough to believe He will work through us in the same way as he worked through Lynn, to love the world this way, to be such voices and hands in Christ’s service?  Our friend would want nothing less.  And he has just talked to Jesus.  And he knows that is what Jesus wants.  And what Jesus wants, Jesus gets.  May we be obedient to this vision and faithful to Christ’s call.

And may our brother Lynn, in the company of all the saints, rest in peace and rise in glory.  In Jesus’ name. 

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