Alan Herbst was many things to those who are gathered here this morning, or who wish they could be gathered here. He was a brother, a brother-in-law, and a stepson. To the clergy of the diocese he served for nearly three decades, he was a colleague and friend—one who, I am told, delivered some superb meditations in his role as chaplain to the synods in 2010 that resulted in my election as bishop of this wonderful diocese. And shortly following that election, Alan was among the first to reach out to me in welcome by telephone even as I was still trying to process the news of the impending change in my life. But to the great majority of those have come together today in worship and prayer, song and remembrance, Alan Herbst was a pastor and priest, the long-tenured rector of this historic and vital parish.
And that is, I’m sure, how Father Alan would most want to be remembered: as a priest. It’s usually quite healthy and necessary for us to maintain a boundary between our identity and our work, between our being and our doing. But I can tell you from experience that this is a very difficult distinction to maintain when one’s vocation is the priesthood. It is, in fact, one of the wonderful things about the priesthood. A priest gets to integrate being and doing in a way that has the capacity to lead to great wholeness, great integrity, especially if a priest is mindful that the severe mercy, the sacrificial privilege, of the vocation is to pour one’s life out as a libation, a drink-offering, for the glory of God, the salvation of souls, the building up of the Church, and the life of the world. Yes, I’m fairly certain that the Reverend Alan Herbst would want to be remembered as someone who did just that.
Most of us are familiar with what a priest does on a practical level. I can tell you that, as most priests feel the weight of their responsibility, Job One is simply to make sure that Sunday morning, along with everything associated with it, just happens … smoothly and without incident … that hymns get sung, prayers get prayed, sermons get preached, and sacraments get celebrated. All that is not nearly as easy as it might seem, and Fr Alan made sure that it got done, not only in a minimalist sort of way, but with great care and love. Emmanuel has a rich tradition of worship that your new rector will inherit in a few weeks—a tradition that is liturgical and spiritual, to be sure, but also quite tangible; the very physical fabric of this place in many of its details is part of that inheritance. This is, in fact, a great gift, and one that comes largely as a result of the life and labor of Alan Herbst.
But there is also a more generic meaning to priesthood, a meaning that transcends even the familiar categories of the Christian presbyterate. A priest is one who stands in the gap between God’s holiness and human sinfulness, between God’s original and infinite real-ness, and our contingent finitude, our quite flimsy real-ness. A priest transforms the glory of God down to a voltage at which others can encounter it and not turn to dust. Alan made himself available for that ministry as well, although, as a contingent and finite human being himself, he had to rely solely on the grace of the One who alone is our Great High Priest, the One who continually makes intercession for us, who stands in the gap on our behalf before God the Father. I speak, of course, of our risen Lord, Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.
I was kind of joking with Deacon Chris over the phone last week, in a macabre sort of way, that nobody consults those who will be most affected by the timing of their death, about whether it will be convenient for anybody. Most of the time, a death is quite inconvenient, and appropriately so, I suppose. But I have to say, Alan did an extraordinarily good job choosing to pass on at the time of year he did. We are in the midst of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, a “week of weeks,” wherein we are at every turn put in mind of the central verities of our faith: that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. We are put in mind of the fact that death does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is life forevermore. Because Jesus is risen from the dead, those of us who have “clothed ourselves in Christ” in the waters of baptism have our destiny inextricably tied up with his destiny. Jesus rose from the dead and left death in the grave, not so that we don’t have to also experience death—we do—but so that death would no more have dominion over us, that as we have been configured to Christ in a death like his, so we will be configured to Christ in a resurrection like his. As Job cried out, in anticipation of the redemption wrought by Christ, “and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” Our destiny in Christ is indeed to see God face to face and not die as a result of the encounter, because we have been conformed to the image of Jesus, who is himself the perfect image of the Father.
This is the hope in which Alan Herbst was baptized, in which he lived, and in which he died. Our job now is to commend him on the next phase of his journey toward being configured perfectly to the image of God in Christ. It is our job now, collectively, to be a priestly people on Alan’s behalf, to stand in the gap for him as he stood in the gap for so many who are here and so many who are not here. As we lift up our hearts in thanks and praise, as we lift up the consecrated bread and wine, become in that moment the very Body and Blood of the risen Christ, we are, as a “kingdom of priests” (to use the words of St Peter in his first epistle) making intercession for Alan, saying to God the Father, “Look on your servant Alan not as he is in this moment—broken, incomplete—but look on him as he will be when you are finished with him—completely whole, completely healed, completely as you intended him to be when he was conceived in his mother’s womb. We plead the offering of your Son Jesus on Alan’s behalf.”
And then, having done that important work for Alan, we come to the altar and stretch our hands across the communion rail into heaven itself, where we partake the bread of angels, where we are fed with same celestial food with which Alan is now being fed by the one true and great High Priest. Praised be Jesus Christ. Alleluia and Amen.