The Honesty of Death that Leads to Resurrection Joy

The monogram IHS,

The monogram IHS, “Iesus Hominum Salvator,” or “Jesus the Savior of Humanity”

A sermon for the Celebration of the Life of Paul Stephen Meyer (1950-2015) on October 24, 2015.

Some of those who attend this parish know my 9/11 story. But something I noticed that day has to do with what we are doing on this day. On September 11, 2001, I was working on the staff of a church near Times Square. By 9:30 or so that morning, though we didn’t know exactly what had happened downtown, we knew that people had died. My boss, the head priest at the church, called us all together and he gave assignments. He told me to make a new sign announcing special services of Holy Communion with Prayers for the Dead (Requiems) and also to put the black frontal on the main altar.

A frontal is what it sounds like—it’s a kind of tablecloth in front of the altar. The frontal that we put on the altar that day was black, with purple and silver, with the simply words, “Jesu mercy, Mary pray”— old, old words of prayer that have been used for centuries in the midst of sadness, grief, and confusion.

For the rest of that day, and for the rest of the week, I noticed people come into the church and stop when they saw the altar. And they stopped. They looked. They prayed. That mostly black frontal spoke to them at a very deep level. The color wasn’t so much scary or foreboding or even sad. Instead, the black on the altar symbolized thoughts and feelings and prayers that went way beyond words.

You’ll notice that today we are using a mostly black frontal. There are plenty of signs of joy and life and resurrection also—but the use of black cloth helps us name some aspects of this day, of this occasion; aspects that our culture would have us all too quickly by-pass.

It’s hard to speak of death. We use euphemisms and try to make things better by explaining that someone has passed away, or simply passed. We speak of a person as having “lost” their spouse—“lost” as though the person has simply been misplaced.

But no one is out of place. The Christian faith helps us know that the one who died is resurrected. He is with God. We believe that from the beginning of time in the mind of God, there was a plan for Christ to come into the world for us. Through his death, his descent into hell, and the rising again to new life, the gate has been opened for us. And so, for us to believe in him—however faith, however strong—is to receive that gift of Resurrection to eternal life.

But before there’s Easter, there’s Good Friday. Before there’s resurrection, there is death. This black frontal helps us remember that Paul has died. Our worlds are never going to be exactly the same again. He has passed from our immediate presence.

W. H. Auden was remembering the death of Yeats when he described what it feels like to notice death and want the world to notice, too.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
[from “Funeral Blues”]

We experience loss because there is less in our material world. Someone is missing from the dinner table, from the church pew, from the neighborhood gather. Paul’s life and his death have made a difference, and we feel that difference. We can’t pretend everything is fine. We can’t imagine his too-soon, and too-tragic death are somehow a part of a greater plan. Paul had just gotten into the grove of retirement. He had goals and projects and hopes and plans. He and Ed were enjoying a new pace to life. No—we should not rush to the lilies. Paul’s death is to be acknowledged. It is to be grieved. It is to be cried over, to be felt, and to be honored.

There’s a story in the Bible that isn’t told nearly enough, but for me, it’s one of the most important in all of scripture. It comes when Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus has died. It’s fascinating to notice what what Jesus did NOT do: He didn’t give a grand, over-arching theological account of death. He didn’t try to explain it away. He didn’t say to those around him, “cheer up, it’s all part of a greater plan.” No. Jesus wept. He cried real, human tears because he knew that a person he loved had left this world.

In the case of Lazarus, Jesus’s grief passed quickly. The fullness of God entered into Christ, and he was able to raise Lazarus to new life. The raising of Lazarus became a pattern and symbol of what Christ would experience. It is the pattern and symbol of what we will experience.

I confess to you that there’s another reason why I like this black, purple and gold frontal: It looks so regal and lush. It looks like it suits a gentleman, and Paul Meyer was certainly a gentleman. Courteous in the true sense of the word, true, honest, and caring—so many people, when they heard that Paul has died, used the word “gentleman” when they described their interaction or experience of him. A gentleman and a scholar.

Paul loved language and history and literature. He loved to travel and he loved to talk with others who traveled. Having grown up with one form of religion, he asked questions and looked for answered and lived out his prayers. He came to church—to this church—but he added here the wealth of his experience and wisdom and curiosity. Like we heard earlier from the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, Paul allowed Christianity to help him be in conversation with other faiths, with other perspectives, and with people who might be very different form himself.

The readings used in today’s service were picked with Paul very much in mind. The familiar reading from Ecclesiastes hints at the untimeliness of his death, but at the same time celebrates the way Paul was able to live fully into each season of life. Whether a young man trying to start a family, or a man dedicated to his career, a mature man find love and companionship in a way he never imagined possible, or finally as a youngish retiree ready to explore whatever he has not yet explored. Paul did not know that the trip to Greece would lead to a journey every civilization wonders about—but I guarantee you that Paul is right now taking in all the sites, chatting up the locals, and when we reach heaven, he will be there smiling, reading to show us all around.

The reading from the contemporary Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh was chosen for its last sentence, one that Paul lived out: “We can learn about others by studying ourselves.” [from Living Buddha, Living Christ] And the Gospel reading hints at a universalism not often talked about in Christian churches. Jesus says there are others who will recognize the truth and love and beauty of God in him, and that power and love of God will attract them into God’s eternal life.

A final note about our black cloth on the altar: notice that it’s not ALL black. The black itself has a density and lushness to it that suggests there’s mystery beneath. And the gold combines with the purple to suggest new patterns of light about to emerge. It reminds us of the Gospel truth we hear at Christmas: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, and will not overcome it. [John 1:5]

A few minutes ago I quoted W. H. Auden from his poem “Funeral Blues,” but there’s another Auden poem that speaks of Christ almost as a holy travel guide, always watching out for us, always leading us, always calming the storms. As we remember today all that made Paul Meyer so very special, we can also be aware of his pointing the way toward truth, toward goodness, toward courtesy, and toward love. Auden wrote,

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
[For the Time Being or A Christmas Oratorio]

May we remember Paul’s life, acknowledge his death, and live into the hope and promise of his life everlasting. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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