The family of faith (AKA Grace Church) welcomed a guest preacher this past Sunday, September 17th, a fellow who is no stranger to its pulpit, having offered 1,800 sermons from its prominence between 1973 and 2002. What follows are fifty-four photos of the event along with the texts of his sermon and prayer.
Not everyone present was captured on film. Some of you were "captured" several times. Many, many thanks to Dick Keidel for spending his Sunday late morning and early afternoon snapping these shots. Many, many thanks too to the committee, headed by Bob and Terry DiSalvo, for arranging and presenting the reception. And thanks to Pastor John Cole for the generosity of spirit in inviting the old dray horse of West Hartford back for another sermon.
The guest preacher and his bride shook hands and shared personal information for the better part of two and a half hours. No wonder some of you simply could not wait for your turn.
If you detect misidentifications or misspellings, please call them to my attention and I'll correct them forthwith.
“Home” a sermon by Robert W. Howard
Text: Luke 15, the Parable of the Prodigal Son
The prodigal pastor has returned having spent his grandchildren’s inheritance on wine, woman, and two new knees. I didn’t waste it in riotous living, except maybe for the first category. The second refers to a woman named Barbara who, after all, is responsible for at least half of that inheritance. And the third gross expenditure on two new knees, those of you who keep in touch already know, has been a medical miracle enabling me to go at life full stride, without looking like, as one of you described my pre-operation gait, an orangutan. Fact is, I now stand taller and straighter. I could only wish Betty Bjorneby were here to pass judgment on my better stature. She was reported to have observed about Pastor Howard that, “I like the man, if only he would stand up straight.”
So, on Homecoming Sunday, let’s talk about home, where it is and what it is.
In early July I spent an hour in this room rehearsing a bridal party for the ceremony later in the week. Yes, Stephanie Dick and Bryan Fleming’s wedding. Think Muller, Hastings, Ruge. We had been on the island since the day before, July 4th, for another wedding in a castle in Huntington. We took a leisurely drive west the following day and found ourselves in Lynbrook well in advance of the rehearsal hour. I drove past the auto repair shop on Hendrickson Avenue where I had spent many a dollar maintaining our cars. I spotted the owner, Tony, outside. I called to him and he came closer to see who it was, and seeing who it was, he hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
You know you’re home when your auto mechanic kisses you.
Speed ahead a month to another scene, one even closer, across the street, on the South Franklin Avenue lawn of the Education Building. By prearrangement Barbara and I rendezvoused there with our daughter Gwen and her husband Brian Mahoney. They had just flown in to Kennedy from Ireland and we were meeting halfway between West Hartford and Baltimore to transfer two very important treasures. Grandson Ben and cockapoo Teddy had spent the week with us while parents were hiking and golfing on the Emerald Isle. When Teddy saw Gwen he pulled on his leash like Sea Biscuit on the reins at the Derby. When Brian greeted Ben, he hugged him so hard they both fell to the ground. A passerby was bewildered at the sight of a two hundred pound man falling on a forty pound boy and he almost called 911.
You know you’re home when Dad makes a big fuss over you.
Like that moment depicted this morning in the Scripture Reading, when the son – who, I hasten to add, had few of the saving graces of little Ben – the son who wasted the familial treasure entrusted him, finally comes to himself (home to himself?), decides that eating crow is better than eating nothing at all, and makes the long and humbling trek down the road to the father’s house. And what does Dad do? Well, he doesn’t do what most of us dads would do, give him a sermon, a piece of our mind, a dressing down, and an I-told-you-so moment. No, his Dad doesn’t do that. He rushes down the road to meet him. With open arms. Without a sermon. Because nothing harsh needs to be said. The foolish boy returns a sober man. He was dead and is now alive, is the way Dad puts it. Get the fine linens. Cook up a veal roast. Break out the finest champagne.
Home is where the love is. I was going to say “unconditional” love, but that would be misleading. Home is where dwells a deep and abiding love that may love you no matter what, but is restless until you achieve your best. So when you reach out for your true better self and show your maturity, love, Dad, home spare you the sermon. And throw a party.
This summer in Vermont on a hot, sultry day I listened longer than usual to public radio. I heard about a Wellesley College professor of psychology who pioneered a new departure in her field, postulating that we are to whom we are connected, relational psychology; that human beings are social, very social, creatures; and we have life and have it abundantly as we connect positively and purposefully with others. Shades of Jesus! Leave it to a woman to develop this insight!
The lad goes off to a far country and wastes his inheritance in riotous living. Self-indulgence, an adolescent’s fantasy. Pinocchio in the pool hall of hell. When the prodigal’s money runs out and he has to earn his wretched cob of corn by slopping pigs, when, as Alcoholics Anonymous lore puts it, he touches bottom, he sees what his shallow and naked inner drives blinded him to: home, the love there, that it’s the ticket to an abundant, wiser, humbler life.
Home is people, much more than a place, the people, the family and friends, who, in the promise made at many wedding services in this room, say to the question, “Will you uphold and care for these two persons in their marriage?” a loud “We will!” Home is where you are kissed into life, by the auto mechanic, yeah!, by your parents, your children, by those who sit beside you in church, pray for you when you are sick, and look for you at Coffee Hour. The professor at Wellesley has it right, life is relational; and that’s why home, the thought of it, is one of the most powerful and evocative images to everyone one of us, across the face of the earth, and, as George Lucas suggests with ET phoning (where?), across the galaxies.
Even to eternity. I mean, when Jesus reaches for a picture of heaven, where does he go? Right, home, as in John 14, that passage, I have confessed to many of you over the years, in a sad moment of a funeral vigil, which holds my most cherished vision of where we shall be when this life is done. The Father’s House. Like the one to which the prodigal returns. Where we are awaited with open arms. Where a banquet feast to honor our arrival is on the table.
Populate that vision as you choose. I tend to see it in my dreams as 17 Hillside Avenue, the small colonial with a second story staircase that switches back, the house with a cedar closet and a tiled shower stall. That home, more to the point, where Evelyn and Harold welcome Bobby, nurture him, keep him warm, abide his addiction to Pepsi, give him a love for books, insist he do his homework, sit by his bedside when he is sick, including the aftermath of the first medial, medial menisectomy, otherwise known as knee cartilage removal. Those people, and my Auntie Em next door. Yeah, the Father’s House looks just like the place where I grew up, just as your Father’s House looks like the one peopled by your loving family. Heaven is other people.
I sounded this theme one Easter morning in Brooklyn in another century. On the way out the door a young woman grasped my hand firmly and, with a sad look in her eyes, said, “Pastor, I hope you’re wrong. My home is more like hell.” Yeah, well, that’s what Sartre said in his play “No Exit,” “Hell is other people.” Here on earth, where we have no lasting place, seeing that this life attends another, our duty to God (and to ourselves) is to make home like God’s heaven, where we are loved into life. And the prodigal pastor has taken you to the place where he last left off, that the whole Gospel is to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, beginning with our nearest and dearest neighbors, the ones in our own homes.
Being at home finally in heaven depends on it.
Pastoral Prayer (with Psalm 23 as the theme)
God and generous supplier of our need, keep us from presuming on your kindness; but stir up within us an abiding sense of gratitude; that not a day shall pass but we have pause to think how lucky we are, blessed in ways not just beyond our counting, but beyond our understanding.
God of the shadowed valley, hold us close when it is our turn to travel that way, that fear may subside and faith increase in the certainty that there is no place too far, too deep, too high but you can reach out and embrace us in your everlasting arms.
God of the overflowing cup, give us full draughts of its mercy, that we, refreshed and strengthened, may offer the thirsty world, the hope and the love, Jesus’ own, that satisfies humankind’s deepest cravings, that restlessness which finds its rest only in you.
God of our eternal home, your place of joy and peace and love, grant us the determination to follow Jesus closely, that the qualities of life toward which we are tending in eternity may be translated to a more abundant life here on earth.
Good shepherd of the flock, Lord Jesus, in whom we see most perfectly the purpose and will of God, lead us, this church, and all who love you and seek to serve you, through time with courage and spirit, befriending everyone along the way, seeking justice, making peace, loving the children, giving and forgiving, considering the poor, and finding in our hearts room for those who have been forgotten as the world rushes by; and the kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, and we shall know the joy that comes in your service; in your name and for your sake. Amen.