May 20 2023
Blessed be the Name of God
What I intend to do this afternoon is rather like making a quilt. A bit of this, a bit of that, like fabrics of different textures and colors, stitched together tenderly with fine filaments of both love and grief. Like the beautiful quilting done by Susan Ho, Crystal Colombo and David Carter, the sense you make of this quilt we will make will depend on your perspective, where you stand, where you look, perhaps, what you want to find. Whatever your appraisal, however, in all this, please let me borrow your “undefended heart.” [Frank Griswold’s phrase.]
“Our dear beautiful Peter has died.” I wrote that sentence to you in an email, dated one month ago today, April 20. It’s not a sentence I ever imagined writing, not ever in my lifetime. “Our dear beautiful Peter has died.” And yet, and yet, it is so. And here we are, searching for something strong and good to say, something strong and good. We shall see.
As many of you will know, when Peter’s wife and dearest friend, Christen Herman, experienced a fatal aneurysm, was hospitalized and subsequently died, during those complicated and, for Peter, so painful days, he took his evening meals with us at our home. Among other things, that meant that for those three months, like Peter, we were vegetarians.
Even though the rhythm of those daily visits came to an end, from that time until Thursday, April 20, we ate with Peter several times a month, either at his house or at ours. The last such occasion was at our house on April 14, six days before he died. Scallops in lemon butter, black rice cooked in miso broth, kale salad with walnuts, gorgonzola cheese and Vidalia onion dressing.
Peter had his rightful place at our kitchen counter for our invariable before dinner refreshment—in Peter’s case, a restorative dram of Irish whiskey—and he had his rightful place at our dinner table. Amy at the curve of the north end of the table, Peter on the east side, me on the west. Golden times!
Meals and food making, like bread and pickles, being such an integral and intimate part of our lives together, it seems natural and right that the passage from the prophet Isaiah should take center stage, at least for a time. “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” [Isaiah 25.6] In the older translation, we would have read “…a feast of fat things…fat things full of marrow…”
This is the dream of God. Everyone invited. No boundaries. Everyone’s particularity intact, everyone’s uniqueness respected. Sitting there, side by side. “Every tribe and language and people and nation, to feast together at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world.” [EOW 1, EP 2, p. 62.] All of us different; all of us there together, sharing a common table.
Years ago, 1996 it would have been, Amy and I began attending St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin TX, that is, east Austin TX. St. James’ is a historically black church, integrated over time by white folks. We were there 14 years.
In those days, years ago, when you came to St. James’, perhaps for the first time, Clarence Johnson would take your photo, a portrait shot. No one was left out. At the end of the calendar year, Clarence would take each of those photos and very carefully cut out the face of the person in question. Then, on poster board, he would paste the photographed faces side-by-side in a great collage. Although each face was clearly a different color from all the others, as a collection we proved to be a mottled tan/brown sort of color. Clarence showed us ourselves as a rich and diverse mosaic. That’s a foretaste of the feast to come.
There is another one as well, closer to hand. I’ve told you about this before. There will be a time, not long from now, when Bishop Skelton will invite you, each of you and all of you, to come forward to receive bread and wine. You must hear that invitation as an invitation to the feast on the mountain of the LORD. Please note the reality of that invitation. Everyone is invited. No one is left out. No one is excluded. Everyone who chooses will get something to eat and drink. Everyone will be treated the same. Everyone with the same access and the same privilege. If you bring forward your hunger and thirst, you will find what you seek, what you need. At this modest crossroad, right here, we will do a dress rehearsal for that “feast of fat things full of marrow.” You and I will once again rehearse the dream of God.
Isaiah goes on telling us more. He tells us what God will do. These are sharp, pungent words that we must also hear on this occasion, in our faithful grieving. The Prophet says, “[God] will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…” [Isa 25.8a]
Death and tears, gone.
I know the promise and I yearn for its fulfilment. And my yearning is all the more intensified not only with Peter’s death, but with the death of those dying daily by gun violence, the weapons of war in the hands of virtually anyone able to meet the price. And those dying in armed conflicts around the globe, children dying of hunger, young people and old people dying from addiction. The promise of God, the dream of God must face down these realities, “soon and very soon.”
Long ago, St. Augustine taught us that we ought to pray as if everything depended upon God, and work as if everything depended upon us. So, there it is! Work to do!
For a number of years, Peter and I gave each other books of poetry on our respective birthdays. Almost a year ago, for my 82nd birthday, Peter gave me Margaret Atwood’s most recent collection. The book takes its title from a poem, part of which I will read to you.
The collection and the poem are called Dearly. 
It’s an old word, fading now.
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for.
I loved him dearly.
I make my way along the sidewalk
Mindfully, because of my wrecked knees
About which I give less of a [care]
Than you may imagine
Since there are other things, more important—
Wait for it, you’ll see—
Bearing half a coffee
In a paper cup with—
Dearly do I regret it—
A plastic lid—
Trying to remember what words once meant.
How was it used?
Dearly beloved, we are gathered.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here
In this forgotten photo album
I came across recently.
The sepias, the black and whites, the colour prints,
Everyone so much younger.
What is a Polaroid? Asks the newborn.
Newborn a decade ago.
How to explain?
You took the picture and then it came out the top.
The top of what?
It’s that baffled look I see a lot.
So hard to describe
The smallest details of how—
All these dearly gathered together—
Of how we used to live.
We wrapped up the garbage
In newspaper tied with string.
What is newspaper?
You see what I mean.
String though, we still have string.
It links things together.
A string of pearls.
That’s what they would say.
How to keep track of the days?
Each one shining, each one alone,
Each one then gone.
I’ve kept some of them in a drawer on paper,
Those days, fading now.
Dearly beloved, gathered here together
In this closed drawer,
Fading now, I miss you.
I miss the missing, those who left earlier.
I miss even those who are still here.
I miss you all dearly.
Dearly do I sorrow for you.
Sorrow: that’s another word
You don’t hear much any more.
I sorrow dearly.
Peter is at peace. For him, no more sorrow. For him, it is Holy
Saturday, the time between death and whatever comes next. Waiting upon God. Waiting with God. Please know this: Yes, Peter has died but he has not lost the companionship of God, nor will he ever. This will be true for us, as well, for you and for me. The companionship of God that now accompanies us, that companionship will endure, even though we die. It is so. Please believe me.
My good teaching notwithstanding, when Peter died, he left no instructions for his funeral, nothing about what we were to do today. In the absence of such, what we are following this afternoon is the plan I have fashioned for my own funeral, long ago filed in the parish office. We have amended it a bit to suit Peter but, in most aspects, it is what you will say and sing and pray at my funeral, Tom Johnson waxing eloquent, from here, in praise of God. I had fully expected Peter to be there, and Christen as well, to sit with my dear Amy as family. But, alas, that won’t be so. There will simply be whomever remains. And that will be good enough indeed.
The quilt, then, almost done.
We press on, Dear Ones, confident that Isaiah has it right. God intends the good of us all, no exceptions, lovingly and eternally so. As to death and the tears, they are on there way out. God has promised.
One last thing. When you would leave Peter’s home, Peter and Christen’s home, along with warm hugs and affectionate good-byes, you would notice, by the door, very wise counsel. It would only take a moment to read, but it was how you were sent into the world. It was the prophet Micah speaking, “…what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6.8] I take those to be the words, then, with which Peter would see us back into the world, even now.
Blessed may you be.
Blessed be the Name of God