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.