NOTE: I am pleased to host this homily for my friend Bruce Coggin.
-----------------------------A Funeral Homily for Paul Crews
The Rev. Bruce Coggin
preached at St. Mary’s Church, Hillsboro, Texas
November 11, 2013
“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
Lord, what a mouthful! What a statement, what a really big statement. Jesus bit off a mouthful when he said that.
Way back when I was in seminary, we had a British professor of apologetic theology named Casserley who put up with us fairly patiently. One day I remember one of us, not me, unburdened himself of some vast, all-encompassing philosophical/theological generalization, the product no doubt of hours of fervid cogitation, the result of much heat and little light. Oh, we were full of ourselves we were! And when the orator finished declaiming, Dr. Casserley took a long, deep breath and said, “Oh, a large claim, a la-a-a-arge claim!” Well, in those words with which we started this event here at St. Mary’s Church, Jesus makes a large claim.
In nearly half a century of priesthood, I don’t know how many times I’ve said those words as I headed down some church aisle on occasions like this one, dozens, surely a hundred and more. And every time I’ve done it, I’ve started with a little word to myself: “Son, whether you believe all this or not, you’d better sound like you do.” Because I can hardly imagine making a larger claim. Just think. Life. Life! If you believe in God, you know it’s his greatest gift to us, calling us out of nothing into something, into being, into sharing God’s own life. Even people who don’t believe in the God we worship or any god at all, I think they’re mighty happy to be alive too. Few mean it when they say, “Oh, I wish I’d never been born”; and when life is so bad some people end it themselves, I think they do it from a sense of real disappointment in how wonderful it could have been. Because life is pretty wonderful, all things considered, and none of us really wants to leave it. I can’t prove that, but I expect it’s generally the truth. And I think it’s safe to say that, even if we tire of life, we don’t want to . . . well . . . die. When I learned my sweet Grandmother Yeager was sick unto death, we had a visit, and I asked her, “Mamaw, are you afraid?” And she said, “Well, Honey, I’m not afraid of being dead. I mean, it’ll either be wonderful or it’ll be nothing. But I just don’t look forward to doing it.” Death is the stark negation of everything we love and long for and cling to, and the experience itself . . . I’m not looking forward to it, tellya right now. Don’t imagine you are either. In the presence of the majesty of Death, a great hush falls on us all. Or should anyway.
Well, we’re here this morning because one of us has died—Paul—your husband and father and friend, our friend whom we treasured and enjoyed and respected and put up with, just because he was Paul—most of you call him Hotch—and found him dear if difficult at times and bound ourselves to him in love and affection and friendship. He died last week, as you know, at the end of a short, hard battle with the disease that finally took his life away. The little rubbery machine he lived in gave out, just like yours and mine will, and he shuffled off the mortal coil. But like the Prayer Book says, as the outer man decayed, so was the inner man the more strengthened, because he stayed Paul right up to the end. Those of you who were with him say he was happy. Think of that.
At this point, funeral homilies are supposed to dwell on the more presentable details of the life of the honored guest. Fact is, most of you here this morning knew Paul Crews better than I did. I met him—Roberta, when would it have been?—back in the days when I lived in Cleburne and was Dean of the old Southern Deanery, I guess. I visited here back then, mostly while St. Mary’s was giving birth to the congregation over on Lake Whitney. In the eighties. And then life intervened and we didn’t see each other again until maybe five years ago or so when I started coming to Hillsboro a couple times a month, though we might wave at each other at some church gathering. I’m not going to do that routine, because I wouldn’t have half so much to say as some of you. Instead I’ve been trying to think about what Paul’s death means to me, what my experience of him was and why I will be diminished by his passing. Put it that way, and I can tell you some things for sure. First, my experience of Paul was entirely positive. Oh, I don’t doubt he had a negative side; we all do; and you know enough about that. I, though, knew nothing but his big, sky-wide grin and his firm handshake and the unfailing offer, “Father, is there anything I can do?” Usually there was, and he did it, usually did it well. He read the Bible like he’d read it before. If we lunched after prayers, he was right in the middle of the conversation, had something to say, usually intelligent. I never heard him say anything ugly about anybody. I’m sure he did from time to time, but I never heard it. But I can’t claim that Paul was my intimate friend. Rather I’ve been trying to come up with some image to capture my experience of Paul, and I think I hit on one the other day. You know those little bitty teeny-tiny bright bright lights people sometimes use at Christmas? Sometimes you’ll come across a winter tree, no leaves, just swathed in them, and it’s often a pretty exhilarating sight. There was a famous old pecan tree in Highland Park in Dallas that some feller saved, and the city used to wrap it in those little twinkling lights. Well, if I think of the broad array of people I know and like and love as such a tree, then one of those little twinklers just winked off. My life won’t change radically as a result, but I miss it. I know it’s off.
Of course, to you, Roberta, he wasn’t one of a myriad, not just a little twinkler. He was the star on the top of your Christmas tree. For his sons and grandchildren he was a guiding star. Your lives have changed forever, and the flood of emotions—both the good and uplifting as well as the bad and frightening and painful, the flood you’re weltering in today—will throw you about for a while. You’ll find your way forward, believe me, and . . . well, life goes on. I think you’re really lucky in this case that, as I mentioned before, you don’t have to remember Paul fighting it. He was happy as he lay dying, and I reckon I know why. Bishop Terwillinger used to say, “Death is a meeting with someone you know.” Paul looked up and saw his Lord Jesus and . . . went with him. I think it’s wonderful to think of him not so much as that little light that winked off but rather, if we go out under God’s shining sky at night, to think of him as that new star there in the firmament, twinkling the way he always did, always will. Thank you, Paul, for taking it right in stride.
And now, back to the beginning. Resurrection. “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” There’s that large claim again. In the face of the physical evidence—Paul’s ashes are right there, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, right there—we gather to proclaim our faith that at death our lives are not ended but rather changed. We who have known resurrection all our lives—in our baptism, in our sinning and repenting and living again, in the thousand ways your life or mine has at times become a living death and all the Hell we need, then turned and revived and lived again, stronger and more joyous than ever—we who have known resurrection all our lives, we now claim that for Paul. In the very next breath comes the question: just what does that mean? What does resurrection mean? What does it mean to you? I figure most of us grew up in religious communities where as children we learned about Heaven, all the golden streets and the angels and the harps and Mama and Papa and Cousin Martha coming to meet us, spending the rest of our days singing God’s praise. All that. Most of us also sorta kinda turned loose of that Norman Rockwell kind of Heaven on down the line, find it all charming and dear but not entirely . . . So then what is it? God knows I’ve pondered it considerably in the past seven decades, and I have a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around it. Oh, my heart goes there in a flash, but when I think about it, I have to be honest with myself. It’s pretty daunting. First thing I wonder is, will I know me after I die? I mean, will I survive personally, as me, as Bruce? It seems unreasonable that the God who took the trouble to make the splendor that is me, the splendor that was Paul, that is you, unreasonable to think that God our creator would go to so much work to make us and then . . . just throw us away or leave us with some vague concept of living on in the memories of those who loved us and so on. Nah, I want to live, I, me. And yet . . . ? When I contemplate those images from the Hubble telescope, the unmanageable chaos which is in fact a kind of order, the unsearchable depths and distances, the violent mystery of the Big Bang and the questions it raises—What banged? Who banged it?—why, I don’t know about you, but my composure just collapses around my feet and my courage turns to skim milk. How can I, l’il ol’ me, one of some billions living now and of uncounted hosts of those who have lived before and all those yet to come, just a little twinkler down in the corner of God’s sparkletree—what arrogant vanity leads me to believe I can actually continue to . . . be, to know, to love . . . in the midst of All That? Who do I think I am? Yet even from the depth of that quivering despair, I really wish I could, really hope I will, really do want to see Who Banged and What Banged and how it is that The One who did all that took frail flesh and died . . . for me. I think we all really want to do that, even in the face of worlds of evidence to the contrary.
Jesus says we can. Jesus says we will. He promised it. All the lessons we read at funerals are full of it. We sometimes hear Job affirm that he knows his redeemer lives and that he shall see him face to face and not as a stranger. We often hear Paul remind us that nothing—neither height nor depth nor principalities nor powers nor life nor death—absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus himself tells that he will take to himself all who come to him, all the Father sends, and that he will lose not one of us. In the lesson from John’s gospel you just heard, he tells us that his Father’s house is a big one, plenty of room, and that he’s going on ahead to get our room ready—and then he asks, “Would I lie to you about something like that?” Know what? I don’t believe he would; and whereas it’s more than I can wrap my mind around, I have faith that the God who has shown us so much resurrection in this life will go right on being the same life-giving, life-restoring, loving, forgiving father or parent or creator or what word you like that I’ve known all my life. None of us knows when our turn to cross the bar will come. I just hope I’m there when it happens. I mean I hope I’m not drugged up and inconscient. I hope I can, like Paul, face it like a man. I am going to be scared, I know, but I hope I have the presence of mind to say, “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me to the promised land. O Lord Jesus, take me with you.” And after that, well, it’s all up to him.
So this day we come to mourn the loss of Paul, and we’ll shed some tears. I’m glad. I don’t understand dry-eyed funerals. I hope somebody sheds a tear for me. But in the midst of our sorrow, hope rises; in darkness, light shines; and even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Happy are they who die in the Lord, because they rest from their labors in that place where the saints cast down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.
And now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight; and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be upon you and remain with you until time is no more.