A Sermon Preached
Bill Heyck Funeral – September 13, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
Jesus speaks the words of this gospel passage on the last night he shares with his friends, his disciples. They have eaten their supper together, the betrayer has left the table. Jesus tells that he is leaving, going to a place where they cannot go. He tells them to love each other, hears Peter’s protest about laying down his life. And then, these words: Do not let your hearts be troubled.
“Oh, my people,” writes T.S. Eliot.
They have given up their lives to follow him. They left their families, their homes, their old understandings, to follow this rabbi who is the son of a carpenter from a backwater town, with his unorthodox theology and his inappropriate practices (at least according to temple custom). They have thrown their lot in with him. They listened to his teachings, watched others…many others…do the same. Their hands have carried his miracles. This has been their life, these past three years. Now he says they he’s leaving, going to a place they cannot come? How can their hearts not be troubled?
How can our hearts not be troubled?
Let your hearts be filled by this: Bill loved you. He loved the struggle of good discourse in a well-crafted argument, the insight gained by digging into the process. He loved great ideas. He loved golf, delighted in going to the Masters, the year before last, on what Deni has called a sacred pilgrimage. He loved a cup of tea in the garden, watching for a goldfinch on the feeder, stood ready to protect the birds’ food from squirrels, with a sling shot, as necessary, and malted milk balls (which, Hunter suggested the other day, sent rather a mixed message to the squirrels). He loved the life he shared with so many of you in the academy. The church. His friends. His family. Deni.
My first real conversation with Bill took place shortly after I arrived at St. Augustine’s two years ago. In the season of Advent I preached a sermon referencing T.S. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi.” Bill wanted to talk about these lines:
“And I would do it again, but set down/This, set down/This: were we led all that way for/Birth or death?”
It was in that conversation I found the mind of a professor: he was unwilling to settle for easy answers, hungering instead after a measure of truth, looking for faith’s foothold not too readily found. It was in that conversation as well that I learned of Bill’s then-chronic leukemia, about the path he was following with that disease.
Soon after that, Bill’s diagnosis changed from chronic to acute. His immune system compromised from the treatment meant he didn’t feel safe being out among groups of people. Since he didn’t feel able to come to church as often, I went to visit him. Over many cups of tea, we talked about Palestine and Israel, the wars in Iraq and Syria, his concern for the environment, disagreed about the theologian Marcus Borg. We talked about Bill’s frustration at his disease, the lack of a cure, his hope that researchers would get to work on it. We talked about his friendships, his pride in and love for his children, Hunter and Shannon and their families, his 50 years with Deni.
In his poem “Ash Wednesday,” Eliot writes of “wavering between the profit and the loss/In this brief transit where the dreams cross/The dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying.”
Bill hungered after logic and explanation, fought this illness with a stalwart kind of courage. He wanted there to be reason attached to circumstance. It was probably the thread that ran most continuously through our conversations. It was probably my greatest frustration not to have reason and logic and explanation to offer him.
But I did have the Sacrament, and the words of the prophets and of Jesus, the words of our prayers, and the hope, in Eliot’s words, that this is the space where dreams cross. And I did have the promise that we would be with him, with them, all the way through that time, and beyond. (Do not let your heart be troubled.) Nearly every time I saw him in these last months, he asked me to bring Communion. He missed being able to be physically present as part of this Body of Christ which is the Church; so he was present by extension, even in his absence, as we prayed for him, as he received the gifts blessed at this table.
“Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still/…our peace in his will/And…even among these rocks/Sister, mother/…spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,/Suffer me not to be separated/And let my cry come unto thee.”
Last Friday, he was ready to talk about those things he had not been ready to talk about, before then. (“Suffer me not to be separated,” I heard in my mind as we spoke.) He said that he wanted to be buried here at St. Augustine’s. He asked how many hymns we could sing today, and I told him the same thing his friend Cotton Fite had said in response to the very same question: that we’d be pleased to stay and sing all day. He said he hoped you all would come forward to receive the gifts from this table. He told me he loved this church. He said that he didn’t want to leave his family. He told me to take care of Deni. I promised that we would, and we will.
He brought Eliot’s words into that last conversation as well, and we merged them with our own. “This is the way the world ends,” he said. “We thank thee for our little light, that it is dappled with shadow,” I responded.
My prayer for Bill, for you, for all of us, is that we might find a way into the words Jesus shares with his disciples as he prepares to say goodbye:
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
The theologian Molly Marshall writes about that space beyond our mortal life as “a mystery for those yet living…where God abides, yet a place that has room.” She argues that it is God’s essence – that it is God’s essence – to make space for others, to accompany God’s people home.
This is all too much cloaked in mystery and abstraction at a time when absence is the thing so keenly felt. “But set down this,” Eliot writes, “Set down this”: And the theologian returns: “What we know of God in Christ is that God has not chosen to be God without us.” God has not chosen to remain a remote abstraction. In Christ, God puts on flesh to be God With Us, with a mind that thinks and a stomach that hungers and a heart that beats. God comes among us, that we might come among God.
Today’s gospel passage is customarily translated in this way: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” My professor in seminary read the Greek differently. Where others read “house,” or “mansion,” he read “heart.” He saw Jesus as returning to a place next to God’s own heart, going ahead of us to prepare a place there, for us, that we might return there with him, in that space near God’s heart.
The words of a prayer jumble for me, from Christ, to Eliot, to Christ again…for Bill, for his family, for you…that it might be a promise we can trust, a space in which to place our own hearts:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” “But be ye satisfied that you have light/Enough to take your step and find your foothold.” May you seek and find the space that has been prepared for you. The place next to God’s own heart.
 Eliot, T.S. “Ash Wednesday,” Collected Poems 1909-1935. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Publishing, 1950. 65.
 Ibid, “Journey of the Magi,” 69.
 Ibid, 66.
 Ibid, “Ash Wednesday,” 67.
 Ibid, “The Hollow Men,” 59.
 Ibid, “The Rock,” 113.
 Molly Marshall. “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010. 468.
 Cynthia A. Jarvis. “Homiletical Perspective,” Ibid. 467.
 T.S. Eliot, “The Rock,” 112.