Texts: Matthew 26:12-30 (the Last Supper); John 16:33 (Good cheer)
We have just heard Matthew’s account of the Last Supper. Like Luke’s Gospel, Matthew bases his account on Mark. But there is another account of Jesus’ final night with his friends, the one found in John. John’s account doesn’t mention supper. Instead, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and gives a very long speech (3,000 words!), in which he tells his friends to love one another.
The end of Jesus’ speech in John was the text for the final sermon written by my late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg. He never got to deliver it. But I used it as inspiration for my eulogy for him.
I delivered this eulogy at Trinity United Church in Cobourg Ontario on July 2, 2007. Since it contains a farewell scene between my father and the rest of my family, I am using it as my reflection on the Last Supper tonight.
After I share this eulogy, I am going to invite others to share. No one needs to do so, of course. Unlike me, none of you have had time to prepare. But I would be pleased if the readings from Matthew and my reflection spark a desire to share something of your own. Before then, and at the risk of being sentimental, I now offer the eulogy that I gave at my father’s funeral in 2007.
“When I was in university, I read Sigmund Freud’s book, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” I was struck by a paragraph where Freud talked about the impact of the death of his father. He characterized the death of one’s father as “the most important event, the most poignant loss in a man’s life.” It seemed like an exaggeration to me. What about Moms, I thought. Surely the statement tells us more about Freud than about anyone else. But his words came back to me last week as we tried to be present with Dad as he died.
So, what impact will Dad’s death have on me, or on the rest of the family, and his relatives, and his friends who have gathered here today?
I feel shaken by Dad’s death partly because of how strongly I identified with him. Perhaps more than my brothers and sisters, I am like Dad both physically and emotionally. Certain arcs of our lives seem to have parallels. We both had a lot of trouble dealing with adolescence, dating, and finding love -– though Dad eventually found our Mom. If ever it can be said that Dad was a recipient of grace, I think it would be when Mary fell in love with him.
I also identify with Dad’s call to ministry in the church, though I have been more successful in resisting that call than him. I turned my spiritual enthusiasm into radical politics as a young man, and into other intellectual interests as an adult.
But mostly, I identify with a wavelength of anxiety that I perceive running through Dad’s life and my own. So I appreciate how Dad learned to handle his anxieties and come out the other side to live so much of his life in joy, love, and faith.
Dad wrote what is now his final sermon a few weeks ago. It was to have been delivered at his home church in August, and it’s about this topic of fear and anxiety. The night before his aneurysm burst and his ordeal in the hospital began, Dad gave it to Catherine in an envelope at the train station that said, “To Catherine, Love Dad.” When she asked what it contained, he simply said, “Read it on the train.” So, she did. Since then, we have come to call this remarkable sermon “Disaster is upon us; so be of good cheer.” But in reality its title is simply “Good Cheer.”
I think our title fits, though. Catherine tells us that Dad spoke to her that day of an impending sense of doom – both for himself and for our society. And his sermon talks about our many social and personal disasters, and how we might persevere in the face of those.
Like me, Dad was always waiting for disaster. For him, it occurred the day after he handed that sermon to Catherine as he was rushed to Peterborough in pain.
And yet, “Good Cheer.” That was his message, based upon a line ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Speaking to the disciples on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Dad notes in his sermon that the world has NOT been overcome. Our personal and social troubles persist, and we all face the certainty of pain, struggle, and death. But while the world might not be overcome, Dad overcame his fears.
He was afraid to look for love, but nevertheless he found it, got married, helped to raise five kids, and gloried in his grandchildren. He was scared of public speaking, but he got into the pulpit thousands of times and delivered a Word of God. He was beset by all the doubts that any minister who has been through a modern seminary faces as they learn how their childhood beliefs are founded on sand; and how difficult a mature stance is in the light of modern knowledge and the amazing and dreadful moment of history that we are fated to live within. And yet, he carried his ministry through to the end.
We saw Dad triumph over his anxiety again in the hospital last week in Peterborough. Dad, unable to speak because of breathing tubes, often in discomfort, and stripped of almost everything, communicated his joy to us despite all that.
On his third day in the hospital after a 30-minute family conference where the doctor gave us very little hope that Dad would survive and said that the last-ditch therapy would mean deep sedation, we gathered in a circle around him. Essentially we were saying goodbye. Dad was awake. Mary put her hand on his forehead. Paul spoke to him. Dad waved his arms in recognition, he smiled, and he communicated his gratitude and his contentment to us all. It is one of my favourite memories of him and the last time that I saw him conscious.
Despite pain, despite imminent death, despite not being able to talk, Dad trusted in the moment; he focused on his blessings and on love. He focused on his family.
A key insight for me during my surprising return to the church these last six years has been about the word “faith.” It has about five different meanings in English. My least favourite is to define it as belief in a set of incredible doctrines. My favourite is to define it as “trust” — trust in the universe despite its cosmic, awful mystery; trust in our bodies despite pain and finitude; and trust in love despite our essential aloneness as individuals. In this sense, and in the face of his anxieties, Dad struggled all his life to be a man of faith; and mostly I think he succeeded.
Dad is my role model in faith and in life. I treasure his memory and I will miss him until the day I die. Despite all the ups and downs in his role as one of our parents, I am filled with gratitude that he was my father.
But I want to give him the last word in these remarks. So, here now is the closing paragraph of his “Disaster” sermon:
“Trouble in this world, Jesus said – no doubt about it. The world overcome? Hardly. But the word has gone out – “Fear not!” The road opens before us, the future is ours, the world waits, and wonders. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Who indeed? So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take a deep breath, and go on. And – “Good cheer!!”