Sermon for the Funeral of the Rev. Bob McGee
Wait Chapel- Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Saturday, September 6, 2014
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As the Mullah Nasruddin is reported to have once said, “I’ll be surprised if I make it through this life without dying.” That was something that Bob told me a few years ago after surviving one of his near-death experiences, and it reflects the way in which his illness changed him. Some of you have likely heard the story from the Zen Buddhist tradition that Bob told in the past few years. A man walks across a field and encounters a tiger, who begins to chase after him. The man runs towards a cliff and swings over the edge, holding onto a vine. Below him, another hungry tiger has come to wait for him to drop. Two small mice then arrive and begin to gnaw on the vine, when he notices a ripe, red strawberry. Holding onto the vine with one hand, he grabs the strawberry with the other and eats it. And how sweet it tasted.It is the perfect metaphor for how Bob lived since his first diagnosis of cancer. One poet remarked, “I will die, but that is all I will do for death.” And that is the joy and courage with which Bob lived in these final years. He enjoyed the strawberries that surrounded him in the form of his friends, family, and students. And now he is enjoying a strawberry that is exquisitely divine.
I want to acknowledge that I knew Bob as my college chaplain, my sponsoring priest for ordination, as a friend, and mentor. Some of you though knew him in others ways- as a colleague, a father, a husband, a neighbor. And some of you thought he was real clown. As I reflect on the ways in which, in light of the Resurrection, I knew Bob, I hope that you all take this opportunity to consider Bob’s impact on your life and what that says about God who enabled and inspired the greatness that we saw in Robert McGee.
You all know that Bob often told stories about Nasruddin, the Middle Eastern folk hero known as the wise fool. As the story goes, Nasruddin’s wife died and he was taking the loss fairly well. But then a week later, his donkey died and he was rather visibly upset. Someone asked him, “Nasruddin, how is that when your wife died you did not shed a tear, but you wail over the loss of your donkey.” “Well, when my wife died, people comforted me by telling me that they’d help me find a new wife. But as of yet, no one has offered to get me a new donkey.”
Our hearts are heavy today. We may have wanted this to be another situation where Bob bounced back from a tough setback. And it all unfolded so quickly that there wasn’t time for all of the in-person goodbyes that we would have liked to have had. But speaking to us in our grief come the words of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The prophet writes at the beginning of what scholars call Second Isaiah, those passages written after the Exile of Israel to Babylon. As Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann defines it, exile is the loss of the known world. And that is where many of us are today. We cannot imagine the world without Bob in it. Yet, it is in that brokenness that the Lord speaks a word of hope to us. When our spirits are crushed, we are told that a highway will be built in the wilderness. The mountains shall be made low and the valleys lifted up. The prophet is speaking in terms of construction, and God will come to God’s people on this road that leads through the barren places of our world and our lives. The Messiah was the hope of Israel, and as Christians, we boldly proclaim that our Savior has come to us in Jesus.
As our Psalm wonders, “I lift my eyes up to the hills, from where will my help come?” Or in the language of Isaiah, “how will we be comforted?” And the answer comes- “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Isaiah proclaims that even in the midst of brokenness and death, even though the flower fades and the grass withers, the powerful and consoling words of God will stand forever. Just a few chapters later, Isaiah, on behalf of God, writes “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
To me, this is the crux of our faith- that God does new things. God transforms the hills and valleys in order to come to us. God brings Resurrection life even to death. A few years back, Bob told me that the prayer used at the ordination of priests was being transformed from words on a page to something that he was seeing with his own eyes. He was probably familiar with this prayer, as he attended the ordinations of so many former students, which is a real testament to his ministry. In particular, he told me of the ways in which the phrase “let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new” was manifest in his life. He commented that in his role as a chaplain, he watched as new life and energy was coming into the Church through the students that he served. One scholar has noted that “a prophet is a person not who predicts, but someone who sees God’s work in the present.” In this sense, I think it is fair to call Bob a prophet who told us of the power of God to transform our souls and our world. And trusting in this, Bob knew that everything would work out in the end.
The heart of this Christian hope for transformation and redemption is found in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Bob made many trips to the Holy Land, and he would often remark of the importance of table fellowship and hospitality in that culture. Many of his students can likely hear him saying “if you share a drink with someone, you enter into a covenant with them for a year; if you share a meal with them, you are bound together for a lifetime.” This is why meals at Midtown Café were so important to Bob. It was so much more than grabbing a bite to eat, but rather an enactment of the love and hospitality that he had for us all. And in the same way, he knew the power of the Eucharist to transform us and welcome us into God’s fellowship.
Today’s Gospel reading is often read as a prefigurement of the Eucharist, and yet another example of the transformative power of God. In this story, we see the great abundance of God on display. When the wine at the banquet gives out, Jesus transforms some 150 gallons of water into wine. And not just wine, but exceptional wine. Our God is a God of abundance, and Bob knew this in his own life and taught us all that, in God, there is always enough. There is enough love, there is enough healing, there is enough grace, enough time, enough courage.
One of the things that has been so moving over this past week has been to read many of the testimonies about Bob written on Facebook. So many people commented on the influence that he had in their lives. St. Augustine once said that God loves us as if there no one else in the world to love, and all of us as if we were but one. At his core, Bob knew that he was deeply loved by God. And it was out of the abundance of that love that he loved us all so much. So many of us can say that he was always there for us and that he was our biggest supporter. Not only does that speak to the grandeur of his heart, but of the Divine Love which filled it and informed his own life.
St. Origen, when preaching on today’s Isaiah passage, said “The Lord wants to find in you a path by which he can enter your souls and make his journey.” It was evident in Bob’s life and ministry, that the path through which God entered was Bob’s compassionate love for his family, friends, and students. As we heard in 1 John, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” So we give thanks for having caught a glimpse of God in the soul of Bob McGee, where Divine Love flowed from his balloon animals and laughter.
One of Bob’s mantras was “see Communion in everything.” There is a brick dedicated to him on this campus with that quote on it. And by that, I think he meant something of being aware of God’s presence and power in our lives. In the most memorable sermon that I ever heard Father Bob preach, he said that “we are fish swimming in the sea of God’s grace.” It was an invitation to see God all around us. Just as the simple elements of bread and wine are transformed into the Sacrament of Christ’s presence with us, he urged us to see God’s transforming of our world around us. As in the Eucharist there is an abundance of grace, so too there is always enough all around us. And just as in the way that the Eucharist unites us and gathers us around the altar in fellowship, Bob’s ministry brings us all together. Perhaps that is where the comfort of which Isaiah prophesied comes from- the transformative and redeeming power of God to turn our tears into joy, to take us from grief to gratitude; from knowing that in the abundance of God that there is always enough; and that bound together in love, we will endure.
Just as the water at Cana was transformed into the celebratory wedding wine, so too is Bob transformed into the fullness of Christ through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. While there will certainly be a hole left in our lives from his absence, his admonition to “see Communion in everything” will enable us to see the love of God in everything, and in doing so, we shall forever be united with Bob and all the saints in the great fellowship of the Body of Christ. Thanks be to God, who transforms us and makes all things new. And thank you, Father Bob, for helping us to see Communion in everything. Amen.