A sermon for the memorial service celebrating the life of Steve Collins, held at All Souls on February 20, 2010. The lectionary readings are Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Psalm 121, and Matthew 18:1-4.
There are a number of people who could not be with us today. Some family are out of town. Friends have to work to catch up from the effects of the weather. Musicians have performances to give. And then there is what I’m sure must be the most under-reported, little-known, cultural, intellectual, educational, (and dare I say—social?) event on the East Coast— the Mid-Atlantic Flute Fair!
Katherine Riddle, a flutist friend of Steve’s, remembers how he enjoyed these fairs. He was drawn (of course) to the exhibition of golden flutes, and would try out each one. When the performances happened, Steve would offer his own insights—by pun or sarcasm, in that way that he was very good at. He would say something a little sarcastic, and then you’d see him smile and you’d think “Oh, he’s just joking.” But then you’d wonder, “Or, is he?”
And so, though we may be few today, there are many who are with us in spirit. Friends and family, Steve himself, not to mention the whole company of saints, martyrs and apostles, the matriarchs and patriarchs, the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven. In this time we remember. We reflect. And we rejoice.
The Gospel today is a simple one, known well to many. The disciples are squabbling about rank and importance and Jesus answers their questions by putting a little child in the middle of the circle. “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom heaven.”
Sometimes this story is depicted in painting or stained glass in a kind of weepy, sentimental way. As though Jesus, the Ultimate Nice Guy, is being kind to the sweet little children. But in Jesus day, children were thought to have much less value than a good sheep or chicken. You could get something out of a cow or a chicken, but until the child grew up and was able to contribute to the family, the child was basically worthless. Children were not thought to have “rights” or “privileges” until fairly recent times.
When Jesus places a child in the middle of the group, he is doing a radical thing. He is confronting the disciples’ questions about social status by lifting up the very lowest of the low. If you imagine the kind of person in our culture who perhaps has the very least social standing—who knows who that might be? perhaps a non-English speaking immigrant who is sick, perhaps an older person who has mental illness and is not a lot of fun to be around, perhaps a criminal with several addiction issues— this is the sort of person Jesus is placing in the middle of the group.
Be like a child, Jesus says. Be childlike, but not childish. Embrace joy. Laugh. Notice what is funny in the world and don’t take yourself or the world too seriously.
And I imagine that as Jesus places that child in the midst of all the adults, I imagine the fear that child must have. And I bet Jesus whispered to her something like, “Be brave, you are God’s child, and God loves you.”
Jesus says, “be brave” with his actions, and he shows us what “being brave” looks like. There was much in the life of Steve Collins that shows us what bravery looks like.
At first, it might surprise you to hear me describe Steve as “brave.” We often think of the women and men in Iraq or Afghanistan, or we think of Mel Gibson in “Brave Heart.” We often think of overt strength, muscle, and power.
The Oxford English Dictionary adds that “brave” can also mean “gallant,” or “fine.” To be brave is also to be courageous, daring, intrepid, and stout-hearted.
It is a brave thing to be a musician. Steve and I talked about my playing the saxophone and bassoon through junior high and high school. I quit when I got to college. When Steve asked me why, I said something about not having time to practice and not wanting to be second rate, so I would just give it up and pursue other things. But there was really more to it. No one in my family or social sphere had ever studied music in college. It simply wasn’t done. To study music, to major is music, meant making a huge gamble on life—how would one make a living? How would one afford to live? In other words, it took (and takes) a kind of bravery to study music (to follow one’s passion of any kind, for that matter). And Steve had that kind of bravery.
It is a brave thing to move beyond one’s family (in culture, in practice, in geography). Steve spent many years around people who loved him deeply in what most would consider a fairly conservative social and religious background. Steve moved in and out of that community, that world, that family. Sometimes the movements were less graceful than other times, but one of the great gifts of the last year of his life (especially) was that there was healing, there was forgiveness, there was understanding. He loved Leonard and Peggy, Larry, Brad, and Jeray. He loved his parents, his extended family, and the various religious communities in which he served. It takes bravery to venture out and find one’s own expression of life, and Steve showed that kind of bravery.
Of course it is among the bravest things to stare down disease, to look death in the eye, and continue to choose life. Some of his friends and family tried to talk about end-of-life issues with him, but Steve usually responded in a way as if to say, “Never mind about that. It’s all worked out.” Steve had chosen life. He had chosen life in Jesus Christ. He had chosen life everlasting, and so, he knew there was nothing to fear.
I imagine Steve in that part of heaven where the musicians hang out. He’s probably consumed in conversation with Fauré, and Bernstein, and his former teacher, Irene; and many, many others. And so, we can sing bravely along with their music. We can live bravely in our choices and decisions. And we can follow bravely and faithfully the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.