Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Good people are never shaken, because they love justice, and will leave an imperishable memory behind them.” (Ps. 112)
Do you remember “Saving Private Ryan,” the Steven Spielberg film about the Battle in Normandy? Private Ryan was a soldier from a family of four boys. Three have already been killed in action. As a gesture of compassion, the army sends a detail to find Private Ryan amid the fighting and bring him out, so that at least one boy can go home to his family.
Captain John Miller, charged with this mission, is killed in the process. But he has found Private Ryan, and as he dies, he charges the young private to make the most of the chance he has been given, to earn what has been done for him.
In the movie’s closing scene, James Ryan returns to Normandy, now as an elderly man, to visit Captain Miller’s grave, and remembering his liberator’s dying words, entreats his own wife, “Tell me I’ve been a good man.”
As a pastor, I hear a lot of eulogies delivered at funerals and memorial services, and I am always deeply touched by what family and friends have to say about what made their departed loved one “a good person.” And with several recent deaths in the parish, I’ve been thinking a lot about what recurring themes come up in these eulogies.
One theme that stands out for me is food. I’m amazed how many people are remembered for the sense of welcome and hospitality that they generated around the table. Some wrote family cookbooks to preserve beloved traditions. Some were great chefs, others simply knew how to serve the right comfort food at the right time. But many are remembered for having exhibited a deep concern and love for other people through the gift of food.
Another recurring theme I’ve noticed is passion. People often talk about the passions that made someone dear to them. Sometimes it was something mechanical, like motorcycles. Sometimes it was something political, like the Democratic party. Sometimes it was music, or gardening, or any number of other things. But people want to be with someone who cares deeply about something that is personally important to them.
Yet another theme is family. People often talk in a eulogy about the way the deceased person brought family together, or loved and supported their children even when it was hard to do, or made sure to celebrate birthdays and holidays. Sometimes people remember that even if a parent wasn’t such a great mother or father, they at least tried. Children remember their parents’ attempt to love them as best they could.
And related to family is the theme of inclusion: I’ve been struck by how often someone will be remembered for the way in which they always made sure there was a place for everyone, in the house and at the table—family, friend, or stranger.
And perhaps this is already implied in all these other themes, but in the eulogies I hear, I notice that people really value someone whose life was devoted to a commitment to something bigger than themselves—some cause perhaps, or some community organization, or some profession.
Today’s psalm is itself a portrait of what a good person is. The psalmist says that good people are generous; they are honest in their dealings; they are steady because they are committed to justice; they are trusting, peaceful, and not fearful; they are generous, and quick share what they have.
It’s interesting to me, how few of the characteristics celebrated by the psalmist—and by all those eulogists whom I have heard—would ever find their way into a resume, and conversely, how few things that are in a resume ever find their way into a eulogy. Goodness is more about character, and less about success, at least in the way the world defines it.
Which suggests to us that it may be a good thing, every now and then, to ask ourselves the question that gnawed at Private Ryan: What is a good person, and have I been one? It’s not an exercise in making yourself feel guilty, but rather a way of both celebrating who you are, and of shaping who you might become.
Isn’t that the point of Jesus’ story about not taking the place of honor at a banquet, but rather the place of humility: by cultivating the virtues of what we understand to be the interior goodness of human nature, we in fact ennoble ourselves—whereas if we cultivate only the outward trappings of importance (such as power, privilege, or prestige) we end up being hollow and vacuous.
In Judaism, there is a word “mitzvah,” which contains within its meaning both a commandment given by God, and the fulfilling of it in a good deed. The meaning of the word, however, transcends command and deed, for it comes from a root that means “connection.” In the expectation given to us of what it means to be good, and in the fulfilling of it, we create connection—connection with God, connection with one another, and connection to ourselves.
Around us, we are all too aware nowadays of the Faustian bargains that have been struck at so many levels of society: we care little as a society about who other people are in their character, so long as we get what we want out of them. Yet what I most hear most celebrated in what is said in funeral eulogies, is a deep connectedness that comes from a depth of character: the sense of connection that a person had with the world around them, and with their own interior selves, and with God that allowed them to live in a peaceful, generous, and trusting manner.
So this week, you might let the psalmist guide you into a reflection on the web of connection that surrounds you, wherein lies your own goodness. Are you good in the way in which you want to be? Are you good in the way in which you need to be? Are you good in the way in which you can be?
As we prayer in today’s opening prayer, “Almighty God, nourish with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Amen.