Friday, July 12, 2013

Farewell, good friend

One of my pre-sabbatical fears came true two weeks ago: we lost Bob London, dear friend, mentor, and brother in Christ. We shared the Lord's Supper a few days before the sabbatical began, and his final words to me were words of affection and love. I am unable to attend his memorial service on this Saturday -- and must entrust the arrangements to the capable ministers who are covering for the three months of my absence. I know of the great outpouring of love and tribute that will come due to Bob's impact in our lives. As a small contribution, here is the sermon that I will not be able to preach:

Thoughts on Losing a Friend
John 15:12-15
On the event of Bob London’s death

Bob London believed in a careful lesson plan, even though he knew the Holy Spirit might come to disrupt it. In light of his detailed plans for his memorial service, I told him that the Spirit had suggested a disruption to me. That was the addition of a scripture text that Bob should have included but didn’t. As Jesus prepares to depart his disciples, he speaks these words from the 15th chapter of John’s gospel:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

It is an extraordinary passage, for Jesus suggests a shift from power to equality. No longer is he the “Master” (capital “M”) with servants (small “s”). Now the Lord of life declares we are his friends, and that he is our friend. There is mutuality. Everybody stands on the same level ground. Nobody is better than anybody else. All are loved equally.

This relationship is possible because Jesus steps down from heaven. That is the mission of God according to John’s Gospel. The One through whom all things were made takes his place among those he has made. He lays down his divine life out of self-giving love, to the end that all people might be full of his life. This move from “on high” to “side by side” is the essence of friendship. You stand side by side with your friends.

Bob’s holy mission was to make friends. That was the work that God gave him to do: to make friends as a sign of God’s rule of human equality, and to make friends for Jesus. His single lesson plan was to present the God of Israel as capable of long-term, life-giving friendship. Bob’s single liturgical contribution was to bless people “with the friendship of the Holy Spirit.” These were the lessons he taught us as he laid down his life for his friends.

The first day that we met was the first day that I began work as a pastor. He was pulling boxes out of his car for a workshop at my first church, handed one to me, and said, “Here, kid, carry this.” Then he began to traipse down the sidewalk assuming I would follow. I never stopped following that man.  He invited me to grow as a pastor, insisting that teaching was essential to the church’s work. He led me to youth events, pastors’ groups, and enlarged my understanding of confirmation, youth ministry, and officer training. Yet he never did this from a stance of superiority. We always stood on level ground as friends.

Once I was the preacher at the Synod youth conference and Bob was my roommate. By the second day, I had a major ear infection and could not stand longer than thirty minutes. “That’s how long the worship services should be,” he affirmed. In between each service, he brought me soup. He brought every meal to me, and then prayed that the food would be blessed, and I would stand and get off my bed, just like all the paralytics that Jesus healed. Both prayers were answered.

Bob could work a crowd using only a tennis ball. He could re-ignite any group that lost its way. He could take a group of self-absorbed college students and transform them into a church camp staff. He could pull fearful adults off the sidelines and help them befriend seasonal farm workers.

The key to it was Bob’s spiritual gift of encouragement. People young and old were touched by his ability to take them seriously, just as they were. Together we took teenagers to wilderness camps and Ground Zero, to soup kitchens and cathedrals. He invited me to join him as a caregiver for an annual retreat for people with disabilities and then requested me to teach the Gospel of Mark to these people who could neither hear nor see. Once we paused to pray together for a lady who was sleeping on a Philadelphia subway grate. Immediately we stepped inside a swanky hotel to watch an expensive ice sculpture melt at a black tie reception, and we paused to pray again. My soul has been enlarged because of the size of that man’s heart.

Bob London could persevere like a hound dog. He hunted down ministers who didn’t keep current to make sure they knew about changes in church curriculum, sometime dragging me along as his advocate. One time he chased down a paper trail and discovered someone had embezzled money from Lehigh Presbytery. When he worked as a synod education consultant, he was capable of working two forty-hour jobs each week, one in each presbytery. I know this, because I took part in two of his personnel reviews. He could exhilarate you and exhaust you in the same moment.

When I first expressed an interest in pursuing a call as the pastor of the Clarks Summit church, Bob sneaked me into town for a full tour, long before any paperwork was prepared or interviews arranged. After the call went through some time later, we became partners in Gospel Subversion. He prayed for me, I nudged him back, and neither of us would let the other one rest in complacency. That was the shape of our friendship.  

We had our moments, occasionally knocking heads but always concluding with a hug and a prayer. Sometimes for the sake of emphasis he would use that special word of Jesus, and the Tulsa accent would leak out: “friend” (pronounced in two syllables: fray-end). But neither of us needed to name it. We were friends. Thanks to our friend Jesus, we shall be friends forever.

I suppose someone who ran so hard would run out of breath one day; all of us will. But it is a line from St. Hildegard of Bingen that makes me remember my friend best: “I am a feather on the breath of God.” That is what Bob has been to me: a beautiful rainbow plume from the wing of the Holy Spirit. He floated on the gracious Breath of Christ, our Saving Friend. Now we commend him to God’s arms.

I will be forever grateful for Bob’s continuing voice in my heart. I loved him as a brother, and he taught me to love everybody else. That is what the friendship of the Gospel is all about.

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