St Paul’s Cathedral, Springfield
My brothers and sisters, it has been roughly somewhere around a hundred times that I have risen to give a homily at a funeral during the course of my ordained ministry. It’s never an easy thing to do, but I must tell you that I have rarely approached the task with as much personal sorrow as I do today. Today I am among you as one who mourns with you.
On Tuesday morning, when MaryBeth and Susannah discovered that Keith was gone, their hearts were broken. When the chain of phone calls brought the news to Archdeacon Denney, his heart was broken, and when he then called to notify me, my heart was broken. It was a dark day. Hearts were broken all over town, and before long, all over the world. But of all the hearts that were broken, we need to remember that the very first to break was the heart of God himself. The One who knit Keith Roderick together in his mother’s womb, the One who knew him to be fearfully and wonderfully made, was himself heartbroken when that fearfully and wonderfully made body suddenly stopped working.
So, among the many potential meanings that we might ascribe to Father Roderick’s passing, one that is not available to us is, “It was just God’s will. It was just his time to go and the Lord called him home.” It sounds very pious and strangely comforting to say stuff like that, but we’re settling for way less than the fullness of the truth when we do. The God whom we worship is the God of life, and no death, under whatever circumstances, is God’s will. The very notion of death is itself contrary to God’s will. Death is God’s enemy. That’s why we have strange buildings like this to gather in, buildings that have no earthly practical use whatsoever. They are a sign to us of God’s victory over death in the resurrection of his Son Jesus, the Christ, from the dead.
You may rightfully question that statement I just made with the evidence that every day the obituary page is refreshed with new names and faces. If death has been defeated, why is it still claiming new victims? This is where the virtue of faith is rather helpful. As you know, we’ve had a particularly nasty winter in the midwest this year, as well as in a lot of other places. As I drove across the fields of central Illinois to a meeting in Urbana a couple of days ago, the weather was very spring-like. I could see bare ground, with only a few scattered patches of stale leftover snow. But the groundcover is brown, and the trees have neither blossom nor leaf. The corn and soybean fields are turned over, but lying fallow. Yesterday felt rather wintry again, and it may yet snow again this season before it’s all said and done. But winter, my friends, has been defeated—this particular winter, at any rate. We may not yet see consistent evidence of that defeat—it didn’t feel like it yesterday—but we can nonetheless proclaim it confidently, in faith. In the same way, Death has been defeated. We may not yet see consistent evidence of that defeat, but we can nonetheless proclaim it confidently, in faith.
On Ash Wednesday, Fr Roderick graciously welcomed me to preside and preach at the midday liturgy here in the cathedral. He himself sat in the congregation, and came up with everyone else to receive the imposition of ashes. I’m fairly certain that was my last personal interaction with him, when I signed his forehead with an ashen cross and reminded him of his mortality, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Little did either of us know on that day … Yet, today—strangely in Lent but not of Lent—today there are no ashes, and it’s another sign of the cross on Keith Roderick’s forehead that we are reminded of, the one made in his baptism. We are surrounded by symbols of baptism and resurrection—the Paschal candle, the holy water bucket, flowers. In his baptism, the mortality that Keith was born with, symbolized by the Ash Wednesday cross, was overshadowed by the resurrected life of Jesus into which he was baptized.
There’s a great deal we could say about Keith Roderick today. He has been a son, a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father-in-law, and a grandfather. He has been a pastor and priest, standing where I’m standing now, doing what I’m doing now, probably more times than I have. He has been a teacher, scholar, and administrator. He has taken his share in the councils of the church by serving as a leader among the clergy of this diocese and the Diocese of Quincy before that. Through his passionate and compassionate advocacy on behalf of persecuted minority Christian communities, he has forged a network of relationships that extends internationally and ecumenically. For my own part, I have known him as a priest who served this cathedral congregation, as well as St Andrew’s in Carbondale, with gentle humility, never very far from letting a smile brighten his face and thereby the hearts of those around him. What an utterly sweet disposition! And I have known him as a valued colleague whom I’m enjoyed just checking in with before making my way across the alley to my own office after saying my morning prayers here in the church. These are among the aspects of Keith Roderick that we now miss, and will continue to miss for a good long while.
But I suspect that, today, of all the things we might say about Keith, the one that is most important, maybe not to us, but to him, is that he is baptized, that he is showing up at the wedding banquet wearing the proper garment for the occasion, clothed in Christ, literally Christened. Yes, from his perspective, that might be the only thing that truly matters at this moment. He was born again by water and the Holy Spirit, as we heard in our Lord’s teaching to Nicodemus only yesterday. And while the fullest expression of the sacramental action may not have been completely enacted in his particular baptism, the meaning of the secondary ritual elements is implicit in the primary act of water touching skin, so we can say with confidence that he was, in the words of our liturgy, “sealed with the Holy Spirit” and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” He bears on his brow the invisible sign of the Crucified One who is also the Risen One, and therein lies Keith’s hope.
And therein lies our hope as well, because those of us who are marked in the same way, who also bear on our foreheads not only the ashen cross signifying our mortality, but the invisible cross signifying our union with Christ in his defeat of death, have a special treat in store for us.
We are shortly to offer the sacrifice of the Mass specifically on Keith’s behalf. In so doing, we are “pleading Christ” for him, saying to God the Father, “Don’t look on that ashen cross of mortality; look on that invisible cross of victory, and recognize a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” And as a sign that God has heard our prayer, he will return the bread and wine that we offer on this altar—God will return that offering to us as the Body and Blood of his Son, given for the life of the world. And so, when we reach our hands across the communion rail, we are reaching into Heaven itself. When we come to the altar, Keith is there with us, being nourished with the same heavenly food that feeds our own souls. We will have “holy communion” with the Blessed Trinity—the God who made us in his love and saves us in his grace—and also with Fr Keith, and all those who have been branded with the sign of the cross and gone before us in faith under that banner. Blessed, praised, worshiped, and adored be Jesus Christ—on his throne in Heaven, in the holy sacrament of the altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people, and may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.