Friday, January 31, 2014

Funeral Homily for Clayton A. Sweeney

Readings: Isaiah 25:6a, 7-9; Revelation 21:1-5a, 6b-7; Matthew 11:25-30

Clayton Sweeney was a busy man.
Of course, no one who raises six children gets much downtime,
even if he has a force of nature like Sally Dimond
to do a lot of the parental heavy-lifting.
But you can add to that his work as a lawyer, a corporate executive,
a board member, an adjunct law professor,
not to mention the almost full-time job
of being a sibling to his brother and six sisters,
and an uncle to literally scores of nieces and nephews,
for whom he was always a source
of willing and generous support.
Even in his so-called “retirement” at Lake Chautauqua –
his own version of Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree,
where he sought the peace that “comes dropping slow/
dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings” –
even there his life was a flurry of activity:
serving on the boards of numerous non-profits,
singing in the choir at his beloved parish
of St. Isaac Jogues in Sherman,
hosting an endless stream of family and friends
and friends of friends in his home,
and keeping track of the exploits and misadventures
of his ten grandchildren.
All of this activity bore fruit in a long list
of noteworthy achievements
and significant contributions to his family, his church, and his community.
Clayton was a busy man in part
because he was an extraordinarily talented man
who was often called upon by groups and individuals for his expertise,
and, because he was also an extraordinarily generous man,
he rarely said “no.”

But now we have come to lay this busy man to rest.

When the early Christian theologian St. Augustine wrote,
“you have made us for yourself, O God,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you,”
he put his finger on something fundamental about being human:
we are made by God to live with God,
and God alone can quench our thirst for meaning and love.
No achievement, no honor, no paycheck or bonus
can still the restless seeking of our hearts,
but only the one who says, “Come to me,
all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.”
For all his achievements and honors,
Clayton remained not just a busy man, but a restless man.

It does not diminish Clayton’s memory
to say that he was not perfect,
to say that in the restless journey of his life
he labored and was burdened,
for we know that we are saved by God’s mercy,
not by our own perfection.
So, for example, it was rumored that Clayton could be a bit stubborn
(a trait that he passed along to at least a few of his children),
and it could be quite terrifying to watch a Steelers game with him,
particularly if things were going badly.
But he also struggled with demons
more troubling and more difficult to face,
demons that were hardly unique to him,
but seem, in one guise or another, to afflict all of us
in our restless journey through this life.
In the almost thirty years that I knew Clayton,
it seems to me that his greatest burden,
his greatest source of unrest,
was the struggle to let those whom he loved
know just how deeply he loved them.
Again, this struggle is hardly unique to him;
all of us want so badly to let those whom we love
know how much we love them,
but often the words don’t come, or they come out wrong.
Even the best of us,
who busy ourselves with all we can do for others,
all we can give to those whom we love,
can still hold back ourselves,
perhaps afraid that the naked gift of ourselves
will not be enough to merit love in return.

When Clayton died I posted a picture of him on Facebook
from his seventieth birthday celebration,
surrounded by his ten grandchildren,
all engaged in various acts of mischief and misbehavior,
and Clayton looking as happy as I have ever seen him.
It garnered a number of comments,
but one in particular stood out to me:
“What a golden picture, and a foretaste. Eternal rest.”
It was a picture of a happy moment from the past,
but also, I think, a picture of what we now hope for Clayton.
On our restless journey through this life
we are sustained by the grace-filled glimpses we are granted
of what it must be like to rest in God.
For the seer John in the Book of Revelation
it was the image of a new heaven and a new earth
in which God would dwell with humanity.
For me, it is that golden picture,
which captures the busy man in a moment of rest,
surrounded by squirming grandchildren who, like God,
loved him not for anything he had done, but for who he was;
loved him not for anything he had achieved,
but simply because he was their Papa.
“Although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.”
Clayton was a busy man, a restless man, who achieved much,
but in the end I think that he, like all of us, wanted only this:
to love and be loved for who he was.
And he, like all of us, was burdened by the fear
that who he was would not be good enough.
But now he can lay that burden down; now he knows:
through the mercy of Christ, it is enough;
it was always enough.
Now he is surrounded, as in that golden picture,
by the love of God,
the love that will strip away from him
all that is fearful, all that is false,
and reveal him to himself as who he truly is:
Clayt, Dad, Papa, brother, uncle, friend,
beloved child of the living God.
The busy, restless man is now at rest.

It seems appropriate in this place to end with words
from another notable Catholic lawyer: St. Thomas More.
On the night before he was executed,
he wrote to his daughter Margaret
words that I believe Clayton even now is saying to us:
“Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me,
and I shall for you,
and for all your friends,
that we may merrily meet in heaven.”

Until then, Clayton, rest in peace.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew tells us that “magi from the east,”
who came seeking a newborn king,
“prostrated themselves and did him honor.”
But sometimes I wonder:
before bowing down and worshiping the Christ child,
do you think they were secretly disappointed,
even if only for a moment?
Do you think that, arriving in Bethlehem
at the end of a long and difficult journey,
and seeing the unimpressive dwelling
of the unimpressive parents
of this unimpressive child
the magi might have thought,
“we came all that way for this?”
After all, an astronomical event
spectacular enough to be visible in in a distant land
sets up a pretty high set of expectations.
Did the magi, not unreasonably,
expect a palace with a treasury
that could receive their gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Did they perhaps confer discretely among themselves
as to whether they should find some alternative gifts
that would be more suitable for these simple folk
and keep the fancy stuff in reserve,
just in case another star appeared,
heralding another king,
perhaps a more normal sort king?
Did they perhaps even find themselves thinking that King Herod,
who, though ruthless, was quite effective at wielding power,
seemed a bit more of a king than a squalling baby
and his shabby parents.

Matthew doesn’t tell us of the magi
having this disappointment,
and maybe I’m simply projecting,
but if they did doubt, who could blame them?
Surely what the world needed was a ruler
who could take on petty tyrants like Herod,
not to mention major tyrants like the Roman Emperor.
And just as surely
there was nothing that they found in Bethlehem
that gave any indication
that such a ruler was to be found there.
No palace, no treasury, no obvious royal lineage.
Just a poor baby of poor parents,
and a star, and a prophecy:
you, Bethlehem, land of Judah…
from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.

Matthew says nothing
of the disappointment and doubts of the magi;
what he does tell us is that,
“they prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
He does tell us that, “they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
If at first they felt that their expectations had not been met,
something seems to have changed.
The word “epiphany,” which is the name of this feast,
means a “manifestation” – literally a shining-forth of light.
At the end of a long journey
that ended at an unexpected destination
the magi seem to have found new eyes
to see the divine light that shone,
not from a star in the heavens,
but from a child cradled in his mother's arms.
They found new ears to hear the voice of God,
no longer in ancient prophecies,
but in the cries of a wordless infant.

One detail of Matthew’s telling of this story
that has always struck me
is his statement that the magi
“departed for their country by another way.”
Of course the reason that they did this
was in order to avoid having to go back to Herod
and tell him where the infant Jesus was.
But perhaps Matthew is also telling us
that the magi were changed by their encounter with Jesus.
Their prior expectations overturned,
the long journey back was a quite different one
from the long journey out
because everything was seen with new eyes,
everything was heard with new ears,
and they now journeyed through a world redeemed by love
shining forth from a powerless child.

After the journey of Advent and our arrival at Christmas,
we too may feel a sense of disappointment and even doubt.
Perhaps we too have not found the savior whom we sought,
the savior who would bring us
peace or healing or reconciliation.
Perhaps we, like the magi, brought to Bethlehem
a set of expectations that have not been met.
But the God whom the magi found in Bethlehem
is clearly not a God whose top priority
is meeting our expectations,
but a God of surprising grace.
And we too, like the magi,
can have our expectations transformed
by the grace of the Christ child;
we too can return home by a different way,
having new eyes with which to see,
and new ears with which to hear.
Let us pray that we will find
true peace and healing and reconciliation
in the new world that awaits us as we continue our journey.