November 3, 2013

St. Roy


Sermon for Year C, Pentecost, All Saints’ Day
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 3, 2013 (Transferred from November 1)
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“St. Roy”

This is the Festival of All Saints.
It’s a day to remember those gone before us into the Great Unknown
 Of God’s unfailing mercy and light.

Last week I made a point of saying that God makes saints out of sinners.
That God redeems life by resurrecting it from death.
But for those of us on this side of that mystery, I believe sainthood eludes the living.
It is God’s task, God’s responsibility and authority, to make saints.
In other words, it’s God’s business, not ours.

If you have ever heard one of my funeral homilies,
 You know how I feel about this:
 We have no need to try to make saints out of people after they die.
In the Episcopal Church, there’s no need to turn a homily into a eulogy.
No need to fluff up a normal person into a superhuman.
But we do owe it to ourselves to study the lives of those gone before us,
 For in every life -- every! life -- there is always at least some unlikely little glimmer of a teaching
   That brings us closer to Jesus Christ --
   Perhaps understanding, but even moreso imitating Christ, as our master and brother on the Way.
And Jesus is our reason for being here today:
 To celebrate the day of the resurrection of Our Lord, and to give thanks to God
   For taking the worst thing that could happen (the death of Jesus in the body),
   And turning it into the best thing that could happen -- the promise of new life.

As part of that celebration today, I want to tell you about someone I once knew --
 Someone now gone from sight and from touch.
One of a million everyday saints, in retrospect, God willing.
Someone I still find myself remembering in prayer every now and then,
 Whenever we recall the names of the dead.

His name was Austin Roy Baker, but he went by “Roy.”
He was an Episcopal priest who came to Colorado from Wyoming.
He served at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Basalt, just a few miles down the road
 From St. Barnabas Church in Glenwood Springs, where I worked.
To say his first name was Austin and his middle name was Roy,
 And that he came to Colorado by way of Wyoming, ...
 I can see where you’d be tempted to paint him as some kind of cowboy-priest.
Let the facts speak for themselves.

He was English, having been born in 1932 in London.
In almost every way he looked and sounded exactly like Alfred Hitchcock,
 Except that where Hitchcock’s face was drawn and featureless, with hollow eyes,
 Roy’s features were sharper, and his eyes glimmered
   Like he’d just heard a joke he could not repeat in mixed company.

As a youth, he received his education as befit a boy the late ‘40s in England.
He entered the British Army and rose to the rank of Captain.
Then he retired and worked as a director and producer in the Plays division of the BBC,
 Where he helped to adapt famous theatrical plays into a format for television,
 Working with people like Sir John Gielgud.
In 1975 he came to the U.S. and became the editor of British Heritage Magazine.
After that, he formed a video production company,
 And he hit on some hard times that included a divorce.
Finally, in 1996, at the age of 64, Roy decided to do something he’d always wanted to do --
 He became a postulant for the priesthood in The Episcopal Church.
He matriculated at Virginia Theological Seminary, in Alexandria, Virginia,
 Which is only about a 45-minute car ride from his old stomping grounds
 At the offices of British Heritage Magazine in Leesburg.
In 1998, he landed at St. Stephens’ in Casper, Wyoming.
Eight years later, in August 2006, we would shake hands for the first time
 When he showed up to take his assignment in Basalt.
We would become good friends for as long as I had him.
And, I clearly remember him reporting around that time -- and others do, too --
 That he was having trouble with what he thought were kidney stones.
In reality he was being eaten alive by an aggressive kidney cancer
 That was rapidly metastasizing itself into his bones.
By the time the doctors’ information came together and he had the whole picture,
 There wasn’t much he could do.
By June of 2007, at age 74, he would be dead by cancer’s hand.
I couldn’t bring myself to take his number out of my phone until last year.

I remembered this week that one of the stalwarts at St. Peter’s back in 2007 --
 My friend and now a fellow-priest up serving in New York, a great person named Beth Phillips --
 I remembered Beth got to spend time with Roy close to the end of his life,
   In his home near Casper, Wyoming, in Big Sky Country.
In fact, the day she left Roy’s house to drive back to Colorado
 Was the third-to-last day of his life.
I rang her up and asked her what she remembered about those last few days.
She said it was clear he was dying; clear it would be soon.
Said he was peaceful, jolly even.
She remembered that in the beginning when he was sick he was frustrated, angry, fighting it.
But now she remembered that he smiled persistently; that he looked healthy in his own way;
 There was still that glint in his eyes.
She told him how much she hated Episcopal funeral services
 Because how can you sing “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee”
   When you’re feeling a million miles from joyful.
He dug into his Prayer Book and he showed her where it says about funerals
 That even Jesus cried at the grave of Lazarus --
 That grief is not unchristian, but just part of life.
She remembered that he went through his books and gave a lot of them to her
 To help her in her studies whenever she went off to seminary.
He told her that just because you wear a collar doesn’t mean you’re a saint.
 He said it’s never too late to be who you’re meant to be.
And she said on the day she left to come home from that visit, there was a big rainbow.
A big rainbow, spread out over the big country, under the blue sphere of the big sky.

I asked Beth, What did Roy do at St. Peter’s that was so special?
She said,
 “Roy brought joy; he was just a joyful person.
 People [at the time of his arrival, because of the recent past] were feeling unhappy and unloved;
 Roy came in and was above that -- he was joyful to be called where he was in that moment;
   He was not looking for his next place;
   He was really meant to be with us in that moment;
   He was so happy to be with us, and love us.
He was totally in the moment and present.”
And in turn, she said,
 “We didn’t ruminate over what was past or get anxious about our future.
   We were just in the moment and letting him love us at that moment, which was a good thing.
   That’s a good way to heal.
   He brought the Spirit and let it breathe that life-giving ... breath into us.”

Actually, Beth didn’t just say the “breath” of the Holy Spirit.
My seminary-trained friend used the word ruach, which is like the invisible force of God,
 The invisible divine power of God manifesting itself for good, imparting its gifts,
 Creating, giving life, making unjust situations into situations of goodness and justice.
Ruach: the creative force that first appears in Genesis, in the second verse of the Bible,
 Dangling over the surface of the waters of chaos,
 About to order the universe so as to make it habitable.
Ruach: the whirlwind blast of Holy Spirit
 That encourages the people of God to stand up and be the people of God.
Beth said Roy “brought the Spirit and let it breathe that life-giving ruach breath.”

A long, circuitous journey -- a life of ups and downs brought Roy to St. Peter’s.
And in the small time he had to be there, he became like a window for them --
 A window that opened and allowed the breath of God to blow in,
   Allowed the people to breathe.
Ever open a window in a room that felt stuffy?

You are loved by God. I am, too. All of us are.
It’s easy to forget that within the normal and the everyday of our lives.
But when we have moments of being reminded --
 Gently and joyfully reminded as Roy seemed to do in Colorado --
 Then we can begin to know the liberating power of Gospel
   That opens like a window on our souls and sends the breath of God --
   The ruach --
     Wild and free among us.

Yet this is not merely personal. Not merely individual. Not just Jesus and Me.
It’s a word for all the church to hear and heed.
Open the windows everywhere. Be the church. Let the breath of God breathe in.
For how else is it that the poor will have the Kingdom of God,
 Or that the hungry will be filled,
 Or that those who weep will once again know laughter?
How else is it that the defamed and excluded and abused and reviled and hated ones
 Will one day rejoice and leap for joy?
How else, but by the work we do in Jesus’ name.

Death, my friends, is inevitable.
How we choose to face it is in some small way up to us,
 But let us learn that how we face it will be remembered and perhaps imitated
 By the generations that follow us.
The only other thing that’s ultimately inevitable
 Is that there is something beyond dying, and just being dead.
It is the joy of God we cannot describe.
What more can I say?
Only that I hope some day to see Roy again,
 Among a host of witnesses and friends and family,
 And to thank him for bringing a little joy to this life,

   And for being an open window for light and air to reach in and relieve.

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