Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sermon: "Remembrance Sunday 2009" (Delivered 1-11-09)

Remembrance Sunday is a tradition in our church that long predates my ministry with you. Over the years it has had different champions and has taken on different forms. Its purposes, however, have remained the same: To make note of those who have died in the previous year. To address death, that universal and inevitable human experience. To remind us of the great and profound gift that is life. To inspire us to live life more fully.

Each year, part of the Remembrance Sunday service is the inclusion of a list of what Mary Ruth K. calls “one-liners.” [Scroll to the bottom of this blog entry.] This list of noteworthy persons is always incomplete; there are always a few names that it was a mistake to have overlooked. At its best, the list aims to encompass some amount of diversity. On the list you will find artists, musicians, actors, politicians, writers, scholars, activists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and media celebrities. They are there to remind us of some of the diversity of human living. Not all of them led lives that are virtuous or worthy of emulation. This year’s list is lacking in obvious villains, or maybe not, depending on your political persuasion.

Each year some of my favorite people to point out are those who we associate with something that we might encounter day after day, something commonplace that has a human life and a human story behind it. Next time you drive past a McDonalds', you may take a moment to note that Herb Peterson, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, died this past year at age 89. If you pass a Popeye’s Chicken or a Baskin-Robbins, think of Al Copeland or Irv Robbins, the founders of those respective chains.

If it were not for Richard Knerr, who died this year at age 82, the world may never have known the hula-hoop or the Frisbee. He invented both. If not for Betty James, who died at age 90, you might never have played with a Slinky.

For music fans, the list of those who passed away this year would make an all-star band with Eartha Kitt on vocals, Bo Diddley on guitar, Richard Wright of Pink Floyd on the keyboards, LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band on saxophone, and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the drums. All died in 2008.

I always pay special attention to the heroes of the civil rights movement who have died. With each life that has ended we have the chance to look back. With each death we lose a part of our own living history. So, this morning we name and we remember Johnnie Carr, the woman who ran the Montgomery Improvement Association after Martin Luther King, Jr. became a national leader. We remember James Orange, a civil rights leader and community organizer. We remember Zelma Henderson, the last surviving plaintiff of Brown v. Board of Education. We remember Mildred Loving, the plaintiff in the 1967 case argued by the ACLU in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Virginia’s laws that made it illegal for a white person to marry a person on color. The 1967 ruling declared that marriage was, “one of the basic civil rights of man” and “cannot be infringed by the state.” Forty one years later the battle for marriage equality continues with a victory in Massachusetts or Connecticut and a set-back in California or Florida. When Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, he did not say that too often it bends too slowly. In recent days we have known this slowness to bend. But bend it will. Bend it will.

As a matter of ministerial privilege I always mention a few names that are meaningful to me. I read all eight of David Foster Wallace’s books in 2006 and I have never enjoyed anyone’s writing as much as I enjoyed his. I am saddened by his death by suicide this year at age 46. I am also grateful for Loren Pope who died this past year at age 96. His book Colleges that Change Lives introduced me to Reed College and changed my life.

Before I invite you to pray with me, I want to read briefly from one of the three memorial services I performed for members of our church this year. In this past year we held memorial services for Don F., Tim H., and Bob N. Allow me to read just a short passage from Bob’s eulogy in which I talk about legacy in our congregation,
After leaving the Baptist church at age 12 and going unchurched for 23 years, Bob discovered Unitarian Universalism and became a member of All Souls in 1958. He appreciated the common sense, practical humanism of their minister, Rev. Raymond Bragg. When the idea arose to launch another church, Bob became chair of the steering committee that investigated starting a congregation in Johnson County. Along with a group of several dozen founding members, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society held its first meeting in the spring of 1967 and Bob was elected its first President. Going without a minister for the first few years, Bob had some particularly interesting duties including presiding over the first child dedication in which he dedicated Anne B.

Over the years, Bob served this congregation faithfully in a wide array of capacities. He served on the Board, the Finance Committee, the Endowment Trust, the Facilities committee, and headed the building committee that successfully added this wing of the church…. Over his 41 years as a leader of the congregation, he was a pillar, committed through our best days and our hardest days alike.

Bob saw the world through an engineer’s eyes. I remember him insisting on climbing the twenty-five foot aluminum ladder to the roof of Saeger House to inspect the guttering work… at age 80. I recall a gas leak in the church that shut us down for a week during the winter’s coldest snap and how Bob was here every day – in a coat and hat and gloves – working side by side with the contractors. He secretly, or not so secretly, loved problems like these. […]

We mark the loss of our George Washington, our pillar, a man who anchored this congregation in times of storm, and tended the boilers when we were moving full-steam ahead. I think Bob would say that the greatest way to honor him is to re-dedicate and re-commit ourselves to service and sacrifice for the health and future of liberal religion. He has left a void that we will never be able to fill. And yet, his aspirations now become ours. What he dreamed is now ours to do. Let us hope his hopes and seal them true. I cannot begin to describe the honor of serving the church that Bob was instrumental in establishing. I loved him and I love you.

Dear Holy One, on this cool January morning we pause for a moment to take stock of our lives, to remember lives that have ended, to recommit ourselves to lives of compassion and consequence.

While we this morning lift up mostly the lives of famous, we also take a moment to acknowledge those losses not covered by the national news, but far more important in our own heart.

We hold in our hearts every member of this community who has lost a parent or a grandparent.

We hold in our hearts every member of this community who has lost a spouse, a partner, or a companion.

We hold in our hearts every member of this community who has lost a relative, an aunt or uncle, a cousin, a niece or nephew. And we hold in hearts all of those who have faced the death of a friend.

We embrace the families and the loved ones of Don, Tim, and Bob.

Extending our prayers to others in our Unitarian Universalist movement, we remember the tragic shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, pray for that congregation’s continued healing, and recall the lives of Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger who were slain in that attack.

Extending our prayers beyond these walls, we express our respect and our sympathy to the families of the 469 American servicemen and women who died in service to our country in Afghanistan or Iraq in 2008.

Summoning forth the fullness of our compassion, let us pause for a time of remembrance.

Earlier in the service I mentioned many of the remarkable and well-known persons who died in 2008. I saved two names to speak about at slightly greater length, two Unitarian Universalists. Ric Masten and Randy Pausch.

Perhaps my decision to speak on them comes out of my own family background. I grew up the son of two teachers. My father was a scientist who taught nuclear physics at MIT for a decade before becoming a high school physics teacher. My mother was a high school English teacher for over thirty years; her knowledge of literature is profound. Needless to say, growing up I could not get away with not doing my homework. In describing their different fields, perhaps I overstate their differences. My father can parse a poem and my mother knows her numbers. It is this image of the poet and the physicist that came to mind when I read books by two Unitarian Universalists who died in 2008.

Ric Masten’s final book of poetry, Going Out Dancing, was released posthumously after he died in May, following a ten year battle with prostate cancer. He was 78. Masten was a minister, poet, artist, troubadour, and Northern Californian through and through. His final book contains many poems that address the process of death and dying, as well as insights into living.

If Masten is the poet then Randy Pausch is the scientist. Pausch, a computer programming professor at Carnegie Mellon, died from pancreatic cancer this year at the age of 47. He is famous for delivering his last lecture on “How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams.” Video of this lecture became an internet sensation and was followed up by a book entitled The Last Lecture.

In their respective books, each author contemplates the meaning of living with a terminal diagnosis and each writes about what it means to live well and fully. The similarities go even further. As both books were written by Unitarian Universalists it is not surprising that neither book mentions the afterlife. The emphasis is much more on living the one life you’ve been given to the fullest, even if that life is cut short. In Masten’s book of poetry, one of his boldest poems declares that a world with death is better than one without, “Death loses its sting only after you consider the alternative.” Pausch, likewise, embodies the Unitarian Universalist notion that the truest afterlife is the sense in which we live on in the lives we touch. His lecture is an attempt to preserve himself—who he is, what he believes, his lessons for living,-for the sake of his young children, two of whom were too young when he died to remember him.

Likewise, I was touched by how self-effacing each could be. Pausch repeatedly refers to himself as a nerdy computer scientist and points out his lack of fashion sense, although he defends this as a logical decision. Masten does one better. In the middle of his book of poems related to living with cancer, one poem sticks out. It is out of place. In this poem he relates a story from the 1960s when he had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. After attending a church service where King had preached, Masten noticed King standing alone after the service and went up to him, slapped him across the back, and said, “Working you pretty hard are they?”

I think we can all think of a time in our own lives where we said or did something extremely embarrassing. I think we all have a story where we might say to ourselves, “I can’t believe I just said that.” In Masten’s poem, Dr. King is at first taken aback by the na├»vete of the poet. Yet King recomposes himself and lets Masten off gracefully by simply saying, “Yes, but it is worth it.”

Masten’s placement of this poem makes it seem almost like a confession. And if it is a confession, it is a confession for being human. Life is not only about those moments when we rise to some level of transcendence, when we write that exquisite line of poetry, solve that programming quandary, or receive accolades for our achievements. Life is also about the awkward moments, the times we blow it. Masten could have easily hidden this interaction with King. It could have been a secret that died with him. Instead, he embraces his own embarrassment. Not only does he embrace it. He preserves it for posterity.

While Ric Masten and Randy Pausch have a lot in common, I want to focus briefly on the differences between the two authors. The differences go deeper than the fact that they are three decades apart in age and that one is a Northern Californian poet and the other is an East coast computer scientist.

It is very subtle, but they seem to face death with two different strategies. Neither is right and neither is wrong. Several of Masten’s poems are odes to the support group he attends. He sings out praises to this group. Randy Pausch makes no reference to any type of support group. He talks about dear friends, but says he doesn’t discuss his cancer with them. He mentions the counselor he sees with his wife although he seems to hint that it is more for her than for him. Masten seems to surrender. By surrender I don’t mean he gives up or falls into despondency. I mean something more like what Muslims mean when they talk about submission. Submission is not the same as defeat.

Professor Pausch is certainly more willful. He isn’t in denial. But, he responds by taking control of his life and riding it hard and holding on for as long as he possibly can. His Last Lecture is full of illustrations of the virtues of determination, perseverance, and focus. In fact, after he delivered his Last Lecture, he delivered another lecture at another University, on the subject of time management. There is that control again.

I can’t tell you whether, if faced with the same set of circumstances, I would be more Ric Masten or Randy Pausch although I can tell you that I would hope for the grace to face death as well as either of them did.

It has often been said that lessons about dying well are really lessons about living well. As you go forth this morning, take with you both the poetry of life and the analysis of life. Take with you the knowledge that you spent some portion of your life on the same planet as someone with the imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, someone with the soul of Bo Diddley, someone with the playfulness of Richard Knerr, someone with the listening ear and inquisitiveness of Studs Terkel, someone with the moral courage of Johnnie Carr, and someone with the irreverence of George Carlin. And count yourself blessed. And count yourself immensely blessed.

Notable People Who Died in 2008
William F. Buckley, Jr. (82) Columnist and influential conservative thinker for over 50 years
Skip Caray (68) Atlanta-based sports broadcaster and son of Harry Caray
George Carlin (71) Veteran comedian pushed the envelope with his off-color style
Johnnie Carr (97) Civil Rights leader and friend of Rosa Parks. She followed MLK as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association
Arthur C. Clarke (90) Science-fiction author who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey
Al Copeland (64) Founder of the Popeyes Chicken fast-food chain
Michael Crichton (66) Medical doctor was author of science fiction novels including Jurassic Park and producer for TV programs such as ER
Bo Diddley (79) Musician was instrumental in the transition from Blues to Rock & Roll
Dock Ellis (63) Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher during the 1970s was known for bizarre antics
Mark Felt (95) FBI agent known as “Deep Throat” was the whistleblower for the Watergate scandal
Bobby Fischer (64) World Champion chess grand-master became a recluse
Vincent Ford (68) Jamacian songwriter credited with writing Bob Marley hit “No Woman, No Cry”
Estelle Getty (84) Actress best known for her work on The Golden Girls
Gary Gygax (69) Inventor of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game
Don Haskins (78) College basketball coach famous for promoting racial integration
Isaac Hayes (65) Funk and soul artist known for the soundtrack to the movie Shaft
Jeff Healy (41) Blind blues and rock musician died after long struggle with cancer
Jesse Helms (86) Conservative 5-term Senator from NC was controversial for race-based remarks
Zelma Henderson (88) Last surviving plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education legal case
Charlton Heston (84) Actor starred in Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Planet of the Apes. President of the National Rifle Association from 1998-2003.
Edmund Hillary (88) Mountain climber was first to reach the summit of Mount Everest
Tony Hillerman (83) Popular writer set his mystery novels in the American Southwest
Gordon B. Hinckley (97) President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Albert Hofman (102) Swiss chemist was the first to synthesize LSD
Samuel Huntington (81) Political scientist known for controversial “Clash of Civilizations” theory
Betty James (90) Businesswoman was the marketing force behind her husband’s invention: The Slinky
Ollie Johnston (95) Disney animator worked on Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi, and many others
Stephanie Tubbs Jones (58) African-American congresswoman from Ohio
Eartha Kitt (81) Actress, singer, and cabaret star
Richard Knerr (82) Invented the Frisbee and Hula-Hoop. Co-founder of the Wham-O company
Tom Lantos (80) California Congressman (1981-2008). Only Holocaust survivor to serve in US Congress
Ted Lapidus (79) French designer popularized “unisex” fashion
Heath Ledger (28) Actor co-starred in Brokeback Mountain and appeared in 18 films
Mildred Loving (68) Plaintiff in 1967 Supreme Court Case that struck down anti-miscegenation laws
Bernie Mac (50) Comedian and comic actor appeared in 27 films
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (91?) World-wide guru founded the transcendental meditation movement and was a spiritual advisor to The Beatles
Dick Martin (86) Comedian was a co-host of Laugh-In
Ric Masten (78) UU minister, troubadour, artist, and poet wrote the hymn “Let It Be A Dance”
Jimmy McGriff (72) Soul-jazz organist with an innovative playing style on the Hammond B-3 Organ
Jim McKay (86) Sportscaster hosted Wide World of Sports and covered the Olympics and other events
Vicki van Meter (26) As a pre-teen was a record-breaking pilot. Died from suicide
Anthony Minghella (54) Director of Oscar-winning The English Patient
Mitch Mitchell (61) Jimi Hendrix’s drummer
Robert Mondavi (94) California wine-maker helped put Napa Valley on the map
LeRoi Moore (46) Saxophonist for the Dave Matthews Band
Paul Newman (83) Longtime Hollywood star was also a racecar driver and activist. He donated the proceeds from his name brand salad dressings, sauces, and popcorn to charities
Katoucha Niane (48) Supermodel of African descent and activist against female genital mutilation
James Orange (65) Civil rights activist during the 60’s who continued to work as a community organizer
Deborah Jeane Palfrey (52) The “D.C. Madam” operated escort service catering to Washington elite
Randy Pausch (48) Computer scientist and UU known for The Last Lecture
Herb Peterson (89) Longtime McDonald’s employee invented the Egg McMuffin
Utah Phillips (73) Folk-singer was also a labor organizer and social activist
Johnny Podres (75) Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers pitcher was World Series MVP in 1955
Sydney Pollack (73) Prolific Hollywood director, producer, and actor. Credits include directing Out of Africa (for which he won an Oscar), Tootsie, and The Firm
Loren Pope (96) College counselor and author of Colleges that Change LivesIrv Robbins (90) Co-founder of the eponymous Baskin-Robbins chain of ice-cream parlors
Tim Russert (58) TV news journalist and host of Meet the Press program
Yves Saint-Laurent (71) Acclaimed French fashion designer
Roy Scheider (75) Twice Oscar-nominated actor best known for his role in Jaws
Herb Score (75) Pitcher and then broadcaster for the Cleveland Indians
Levi Stubbs (72) Lead singer of the Motown group “The Four Tops”
Tony Snow (53) Press Secretary under Pres. George W. Bush. Also worked for Fox News and CNN
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (89) Russian novelist and historian won Nobel Prize and was exiled from Russia
Studs Terkel (96) Author captured the American experience through interviews
Robin Toner (54) First woman to serve as national political correspondent for the New York Times
Gene Upshaw (63) Hall of Fame football player and head of the NFL players association
David Foster Wallace (46) Post-modern author best known for his novel Infinite Jest
Paul Weyrich (66) Influential conservative thinker and co-founder of the “Heritage Foundation”
Norman Whitfield (68) Motown songwriter composed “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”
Richard Wright (65) Keyboardist for the rock band Pink Floyd