As one of the last surviving full-time Protestant pastors in Northeast Philly, I get asked to do a lot of funerals. In fact, I think I am to non-member funerals what Barry Bonds is to home runs and what Donald Trump is to embarrassing Tweets—if anyone’s keeping score, I may just have the record. And I consider this a blessing. My ancient Welsh ancestors used to have these guys they called “bards.” Their job was to tell the stories of the local heroes in poetry and song and make them sound really terrific. As a modern bard, my job is to tell the story of ordinary folk—everyday saints—and show how they walked with God and how God touched their lives. The beauty of remembering the saints is not just that we get inspired by their lives, but that we see our own selves reflected in their stories. We feel less alone, and we get to appreciate the grace of God which blesses us with the qualities we may only recognize in others.
Our Gospel text (Matthew 5: 1-12) begins by describing the saints as “blessed.” In Greek it’s “makarioi” (makarioi) This is a tough word to translate. Some have said that it might be better translated as “happy” or fortunate.” “Blessed” sounds so holy, doesn’t it? Yet it’s hard to think of those early Christian martyrs who were tortured and killed for their faith as being particularly happy or fortunate. This “happiness” isn’t about being perpetually cheerful, and this “fortunate” isn’t about hitting the Power Ball. Rather, the saints are those who know that by grace they’ve been gifted with God’s favor, that God walks with them, and they trust that the good gifts of God may be experienced in their lives.
This year I’d like to tell you about three very special saints from my community whose lives illustrate the Gospel.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (v.5). Ruben Romero was one of the most humble men I’ve ever known. In his day he was a brilliant and gifted musician. He played the organ at Faith Lutheran for twenty years and directed our choir. He steadfastly brushed off compliments about his work and directed the glory to God. He worked with volunteer singers who weren’t always appreciative of his musical selections or particularly attentive to his directions. They teased him for his thick Puerto Rican accent, and sometime I felt like he was trying to bring order to a group of unruly kindergarten students. Yet never did I hear him raise his voice or seem the least bit perturbed. Never did I hear a cross word from his lips. Never did he fail to honor a request. In later years, when he was confined to a wheel chair and a nursing home because of his Parkinson’s disease, I never heard a word of complaint from him. He was gracious, thankful, and always pious. Often I would discover him reading his Spanish Bible, finding strength in the Word. The nurses at the home always remarked on his patience and good humor. Even in deep affliction, joy, gratitude, and respect for others shown on the face of this gentle saint.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (v.6) If Ruben Romero was blessed for his humility, Charlie Conway was blessed for his irascibility. Charlie wrestled with his faith. He was a man deeply concerned about righteousness. There was a right and a wrong and nothing in between in Charlie’s world. He was a paradox in that he couldn’t believe a literal interpretation of scripture, yet he couldn’t accept a non-literal interpretation. He challenged God for allowing evil and sorrow into the world. But like Job, he refused to curse God and die. He doggedly and steadfastly questioned, but just as doggedly and steadfastly worshiped. He may have grumbled about changes in liturgy and music and acceptable morals—and church attire—but he never refused to serve. He was an usher, a lector, a volunteer behind the scenes, and one of the most generous men I’ve ever known. Last January, at age 77, he was involved in a serious auto accident which might’ve taken his life. He continued to wrestle with God during the last nine months as he fought to regain his health and vigor. God won the match, as God always does. Charlie became more accepting, more forgiving, more appreciative. As Shakespeare would say, “Nothing in his life became him as the leaving of it.” It was an honor and a joy to be with him these last months, and to see how God was working in his heart.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (v.8) Pure in heart? Bud Markelwith. He had been with Faith Lutheran from the very beginning, and he was faithful to the end. There was a great simplicity about Bud. He smiled even when he told you that his knees hurt and it was hard for him to get around at over ninety years of age. Yet he never missed a Sunday. Affability radiated from the man even when he was disappointed or frustrated. Rarely have I known a man so sentimental and affectionate. His greatest concern was for the welfare of his beloved Jean, his wife of 68 years. He’d be close to tears if he thought she was hurt in any way, and he was not afraid to cry at the loss of a friend or family member. He was generous in his estimation of people, and always quick to share a compliment about others. When his health permitted, he was the go-to guy. He’d fix what needed fixing, paint what needed painting, install what needed installing, and never asked to be thanked. I cannot remember him without an enormous sense of joy.
Why do we look to the saints? Because in them we have seen Christ. As I always say, our daily job as Christians is to see Christ in others, and to be Christ for others. We can’t just let the love of Christ be an abstract concept. It must be a living reality in flesh and blood. As St. John said, “…those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Look to the saints around you, and look for the things of Christ Jesus. When you can see Christ, you can be Christ.
Thanks for letting me share! Please drop by again.