Pastor Joe Britton
Memorial for Fr. Bill Easter
12 October 2019
“For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3)
You’ve probably heard the old Texas saw about the cowboy who is all hat and no cattle. To paraphrase that a bit, there are also such priests, who you might say are all alb and no gospel. But Bill Easter was not like that. He was the real deal.
Bill was a priest with a deep sense of the urgency and importance of the Christian gospel. You could tell it in the way he preached: short sentences made up of simple words (what I imagine Ernest Hemingway would have been like had he been a preacher rather than writer). Bill was known to begin a sermon by saying, “What I have to say is of such importance, that it will be brief.” Yet he spoke with a depth of learning that demonstrated that he had thought long and hard about what he wanted to say. He had an ability to give words new power by using them in unexpected ways: instead of the New Testament “kingdom of God,” for instance, he chose to speak of “the empire of God,” because he said, the empire of Rome was the bad news. But the empire of God, now that was the good news.
When I let my predecessor here at St. Michael’s Church, Fr. Brian Taylor, know of Bill’s death, he wrote to me that Bill was “a salty dog of a priest, feisty, with a warm heart and great sense of humor.” [He was notorious, I’m told, for telling off-color jokes at the annual Clergy Conference.] Brian continued, “His sermons were like that too, reflecting authenticity and passion, but often with a twinkle in the eye that suggested skepticism and a bit of mischief. He wasn’t afraid to take a risk, either. I always wondered, ‘What’s he going to say this time?’”
With a bit of luck, I was able to find in our archive recordings of two of Bill’s sermons, from the summer of 2006. And they certainly bear out what others have said. Explaining in one of these sermons why Jesus was so disliked by the establishment, Bill said “It’s because he was such a bum — coming after all from Nazareth, a real “nowhere’s ville;” from a poor family that didn’t even own land; pretending to be a rabbi in the synagogue when he had no education or training, and even shirking his duties to his mother!” Bill’s sermons often ended abruptly, with a concluding barbed comment: one of the recorded sermons, for instance, ended with his observation that, “I’ve come to the conclusion in my later years, that if the church should perish, it will be because of its terminal seriousness.”
Bill relished the image of Jesus as the itinerant rabbi, the rabble rouser, and I think Bill self-consciously followed in his footsteps. He especially identified with the character played by Jack Nicholson in the film, The Last Detail, where Nicholson is a Navy shore patrolman, defiantly proclaiming himself after a bar fight as a “fucking bad ass.” Bill also knew the importance of the political implications of the gospel, for instance preaching against the Vietnam War on the campus of Texas Tech at a time when that view was not well received. He knew that you can’t talk about God without talking about justice, and you can’t talk about justice without talking about politics.
And yet Bill was also a person of uncommon humility and compassion. Those characteristics came, I think, from the fact that he was all too aware of his own weaknesses, especially in regard to his own children. “We’re all a mixed bag,” he frequently remarked, and that keen self- awareness both made him able to empathize with those around him, and taught him to rely on God’s own mercy for us all.
One person wrote to tell me of a prayer he asked her to pray for his own wife, Kathryn, and her caregivers when she was terminally ill with cancer. He said to ask God “to give them skill beyond their training, wisdom beyond their education, and compassion beyond their inclination.” My correspondent wrote that she has prayed that prayer in many other circumstances, finding in it “profound comfort and hope.” She went on, “I do not know if it was a prayer written by Fr. Bill himself, but I do know that in a conversation that lasted less than a minute, I was given a prayer that has been like a pebble in a pond generating ripples all ‘round.”
Bill’s human understanding really came into its own in his role as a grandfather. Grandpa Bill loved to play with his grandchildren, and was thoughtful in finding things that appealed to them—paddle boats, mini-golf, and captioned videos when sound was not suitable.
And as you’ve seen memorialized here already, Bill was a Navy man. He was proud of his service in both World War II and Korea, and he always wore his Navy hat to church, coming in with on and then sitting down right over there before taking it off.
But above all, Bill saw his life—and all our lives—as caught up in the new life given in the risen Christ. In fact, in his written instructions for this service, he specified that there be a sermon “centering on the Resurrection,” so in fulfillment of his intentions I should shift from talking about Bill (which he would have found embarrassing anyway … just look at how short his self-authored obituary is), to talking about Jesus.
Because, you see, as a follower of Jesus, Bill would have had the conviction that even in his death, God is not done with him yet. As the old prayer puts it, “Death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing, safe the limit of our sight.” So eulogies are, in a sense, premature. Because the resurrected life into which Jesus leads and calls us means that beyond this physical life, and beyond the grave, there is still more to come—and not only that, but that the best is yet to come. We die, but our life is “hidden with Christ in God,” as Paul said in our first reading. Contrary to what is often said at funerals, we really have little if any idea of what lies on the other side of the grave—Jesus doesn’t tell us anything about that. But we do know that through Jesus we can trust that God did not create us as a fleeting, passing thing, but as a creature whose destiny is to know and enjoy the beauty and mystery and mercy of God.
We’ll sing about that mystery in the final hymn: “Lord! By the stripes which wounded thee, from death’s dread sting thy servants free, that we may live and sing to thee. Alleluia!”
But before we get to that, we have a few other things to which to attend: an affirmation of the faith by which Bill lived; prayers for him and for one another; and most importantly, the sharing of the meal that makes Jesus present to us, so that we may know ourselves to be present to him in his risen life. Bill would want us to do nothing more, and nothing less. Amen.
The Feast of St. Francis October 6, 2019
Luke 16:19-31 St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
“The Discordance of it All: Francis, the Rich Man, Lazurus and Us”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
What is that gospel doing here? In this space? On this day when we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis and honor the life of the one who cast aside his cloak of privilege to live a life of service to God, one who embraced the leper on his path, one who gave his own coat to a poorly clad fellow soldier, one who loved tenderly all of God’s creation?
The discordance of it all
—the story of a the rich man living a life of conspicuous consumption,1 daily ignoring the poor man Lazarus lying at his gate, then enduring the torments of Hades while seeing that sore-infested fellow who, in life, had lain across his path now in the afterlife resting comfortably in the embracing arms of Sarah and Abraham; the story of that rich man’s pointless pleas for just a drop of water to relieve his eternal thirst; the story of a vast and unbroachable chasm dividing that rich man and Lazarus
—How can this be a parable told by Jesus, the one sent by God not to condemn the world but to save the world; the one who assures us that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. What gives? And what are we to make of it?
In my mind, I play that story Jesus tells in different keys.
There once was a rich and powerful land home to a people clad in organic cottons and designer jeans; a people feasting on grass-fed beef and fresh kale and fingerling potatoes all the way from Idaho, their food washed down with boutique beers, crisp roses, and subtly nuanced reds. Boxes from Amazon lay at their gates.
There once was a woman—not rich but not poor—who lived in a comfortable detached house with a two-car garage. She had two kids—one played soccer; the other piano—she drove them to school, to games, to lessons; and she drove herself to work. Some weeks she drove a thousand miles and didn’t even leave her own home town.
There once was a planet. Folks called it earth. For years, for centuries, for millennia, it served its people well-providing them with what they needed to live in harmony with their host the planet earth—food and fuel and water to drink. Then the people began to hunger for more—more food, more stuff, more comfort. One day, that planet Earth looked around and saw that it was running out of food and fuel and even water to drink.
Each time I run that story in my head, I get stuck. That chasm, that vast divide, stops me cold. I can’t finish the story. I can’t escape the judgment that I hear.
Then I remember another story—a story from a different place, a different time, a different millennium.
There once was a young man who lived in a palace. Maybe not a palace. Maybe it was just a fancy villa. His father, a prosperous merchant, indulged him, providing him not only with what he needed but also all that he wanted. At first, he just wanted to party. Then, caught up in the romance of his time, he sought to be a knight. He got his wish. He became a knight—a knight sent off to battle. And when his town was defeated, he was held in an enemy dungeon for almost a year. Ransomed by his father, he returned home to a life of partying.
That young knight got another chance to venture off to war. This time he went off in armor decorated with gold and wearing a coat of the finest cloth. No mistaking him for some poor soldier. But this adventurer, this budding knight, never made it back to the battlefield. He was stopped in his tracks just a day’s ride from his home. The first night out he had a dream. In that dream, he heard God say “go home.” Go home he did.
You know the rest of the story. It’s the story of St. Francis. The story of a rich young man, an impoverished soldier, a leper, a crumbling church, and Christ speaking from the Cross .
The story of a rich man clad in fine brocades and soft linens.
The story of person crossing the vast divides of his day and our own as well.
The story of a man of privilege saying “yes” to God’s invitation to live lightly on the earth.
You and I, we live in a time marked by chasms as great as the one that separated the rich man from Lazarus. Divided by lines of class and party, alienated from those with whom we differ and from the earth on which we dwell.
How can we not feel just a bit uncomfortable with the parable we just heard? We know the times we look away from the deep need before our very eyes, the times we consume more than we need; we remember the vegetables we threw out because they rotted before we could eat them; we can count the miles we’ve driven when we could have walked or ridden our bikes; we remember the Amazon packages on our doorstep and we know just how they got there. We watch our glaciers recede and our oceans swell. We know that 100 degree+ temperatures in early October are not normal. And we know the cause. It’s okay to feel just a bit uncomfortable with this parable.
But don’t stop there. Don’t stop with that discomfort.
That is not the point of the parable. Jesus tells this story of Lazarus and that rich man and his kin because he wants those within earshot to amend their lives. It’s not a parable of judgment; it’s an invitation. An invitation to cross the divides of our lives. An invitation not unlike the one Francis received as headed off to yet another war.
An invitation offered over and over and over again.
An invitation to join in bringing about the reign of God. Now. In this moment.
An invitation to embrace.
September 29, 2019, The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, "Michaelmas," Pr. Joe Britton, Preaching
29 September 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jacob said, “How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28)
The philosopher Alan Watts once said, “This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, to realize it is play.”
Watts might have fit right in here at St. Michael’s. He was British by background, giving him that lovely English accent that we Anglicans so admire. He attended the King’s School, right next door to Canterbury Cathedral. By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong and talkative.
And at one point he went to seminary after emigrating to America, and then was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1945. But he turned rather quickly from that toward Zen Buddhism, and set about devoting himself to interpreting Eastern spiritual practices to Western audiences.
In any case, Watts had this idea, popularized in his book Play to Live, that we human beings thrive most when we understand our life’s activity to be a form of play, rather than of work. That is, being alive is essentially an activity that engages our imagination in the creative exploration of our innate wonder and joy, rather than in the fulfillment of social obligations.
Now, if Watts’ spiritual eclecticism is a little too far out there for you, we could turn toward something a bit more orthodox. The Catholic theologian Hugo Rahner (elder brother of the more famous Karl Rahner), explored in his own book from 1963, Man at Play, the ways in which even worship itself is more like children playing than otherwise. His point was this. What we do here in church has all the elements of play: story, song, imaginative response, movement, and so on. And just as grown-ups look on with pride and delight at children playing, so too God looks on what we do here with the same kind of joy and appreciation.
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, our patronal festival, is an occasion that especially calls to my mind this idea of play. In the biblical imagination, it seems, angels are used to describe a whole network of spirits who bask in the beauty and wonder of God—the proverbial angels of Jacob’s ladder, for example, about whom we read today. The idea of dancing angels has become a part of popular culture, and even the medieval mind famously asked the question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
So let’s follow this idea of playing—dancing—before God in church a bit further, and see where it might take us. What might the idea of play tell us about what we do here together in church?
Well, in the first instance, it takes the pressure off of whether there is a right or a wrong way to worship. Just as children experience a great freedom in the way they play, so too worship is also something we create, even “make up” (if you will), as we go along.
And worship as play also puts the emphasis more strongly upon the dimension of story. Each time we gather, we are here to tell a story—some part of God’s story with us. So now two Sundays are ever alike, because each tells a different part of the story. The gospel reading is the most obvious example of that, because the gospels are themselves the story of Jesus, and within the gospels Jesus himself tells many stories, or parables as we call them.
But every other piece of our worship also helps to tell the story: the songs we sing, the prayers we offer, the silences we keep, the movements we make. Many of those elements repeat themselves week by week: part of the story we tell, for instance, is always that we are invited to sit down at table with Jesus, to know ourselves there to be one of his friends. Getting up and coming forward for communion tells exactly that story.
But other elements of the story change. Sometimes the story that needs to be told is of the way we fall short of friendship with Christ—and so we pause to confess our fault. Sometimes the story that needs to be told is of how we share a common faith with Christians of all times and places—and so we take time to express that faith publicly (as we will do here today, on this occasion celebrating our parish identity).
Worship thought of as play, in other words, has more to do with a drama performed in a theater than with a lecture given in an auditorium; and it has more to do with the movement and music of a dance hall than with the hush of a theater; and it has more to do with the noise and improvisation of a playground than with the regularity of a dance hall. Church becomes a place of imagination, wonder, creativity, and improvisation—rather than a place of propriety and restraint.
But even more importantly, worship as play affects the way we live the rest of our lives as well, for it returns us to our daily living with a different sense of our true self. As Rahner explores, the homo economicus of modern society—the human being defined by what he or she produces and consumes—blocks us from experiencing our authentic nature as homo ludens, the playing human being. Worship reminds us that we are not ultimately defined by what we have, but by the relationships we have with one another and with God, shaped by the time we spend in nonproductive activity, in other words, in playing. And just as children become friends by playing together, we become friends of one another, and of God, in play.
Last Saturday, we happened to have both a funeral and a wedding here at St. Michael’s. At the funeral in the morning, Entourage Jazz made a surprise appearance because one of the scheduled musicians was ill. And so, instead of the Pie Jesu, “Fly Me to the Moon” became the offertory anthem, bringing smiles and laughter to many a sad face. Later that same afternoon, Entourage Jazz and I joined up again downtown, in this case for a lively outdoor wedding. At the reception, as the musicians played “Fly Me to the Moon” yet again, the children just let loose, dancing enthusiastically and unselfconsciously to the rhythms. What a scene it was!
Times like those don’t just happen. They are the result of years of people like us being woven into the fabric of family, community and church by the time we take to be together without any other purpose than simply to know ourselves to be the holy common people of God. And that, I think, is what our stewardship team has in mind with this year’s campaign theme, beginning today: “A Gift to One Another.” What we are about in this community, is truly pure gift, not unlike the gift of play that children give to one another. And to paraphrase Jacob, with whom we began this sermon: “How awesome is that!”