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A Funeral Sermon for The Rev. Wesley Harold Wilkie. February 1, 2020

February 1, 2020

I was blessed to preach and preside at the memorial service for Pastor Wilkie at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. The gospel text was Matthew 4:12-23 with a focus on what follows: the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Be blessed. Be happy. Follow Jesus.

 

Dot, Diana, Lauren; family and friends; sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this morning in the name of God the Father and our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. A week ago today, almost to the hour, I joined the vigil at Wes’s bedside, as others would do throughout the day. In the midst of commending Wes into the arms of his Savior, anointing him with oil, and praying through our tears, I read from God’s Word. The gospel for the next day – last Sunday, now – seemed appropriate. It’s the same gospel reading we heard a few moments ago. At the start of his ministry, Jesus called his first disciples. He went down to the lakeshore and called Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. And I couldn’t help but think how, 81 and a half years ago, Jesus had gone down to the waters of a baptismal font in Michigan, to call a child named Wesley Harold. It was a call to salvation and discipleship; a call that would become a profession but also a way of life, both in his family and in his public service. It was a cruciform call that informed every part of Wes’s life. It is a cruciform call that transforms his death. And that is why we’re here this morning, of course, one short week later. All those long years ago, Jesus commanded Wes to follow him. And now, at the end of that journey, this same Jesus has caught Wes up in the gentle net of death and resurrection. Jesus called. Wesley followed. And we gather to seek a word of hope, to make sense of it all. We also gather so that we can answer that call to follow Jesus.
  2. Part of the Christian life is figuring out what it means to live a Christian life. Matthew’s telling of the story moves almost immediately from the call of the first disciples to their first classroom session. They gather at their Master’s feet on a grassy hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Jesus tells them what the good life looks like. It looks like being poor in spirit, or just plain poor; it looks like mourning with those who mourn and standing with the meek; it looks like showing mercy to those who hunger and thirst; it looks like a purity of heart that seeks after and works for peace. The good life, the Christian life, looks like a willingness to be persecuted alongside those who suffer. Of course, these attributes – these Beatitudes, as we call them – don’t align with this world’s values. Perhaps that’s what makes them so powerful, so subversive in the work of the Kingdom. Wes loved the Beatitudes; they shaped his discipleship. These are the things that make one “blessed,” as we usually hear in our translations of Matthew 5. But there’s more to it. I learned this week from Diana that her father and I have something in common. We both believe that nearly every translation of the Bible gets the Beatitudes wrong, and that the Greek word “makarios” is better rendered “happy.” “Happy are the poor in spirit,” and so on. Throughout my ministry, I’ve attempted to convince people of this fact. I’ve gotten nowhere. Christians – or at any rate Lutherans – don’t seem to think we should be happy. It’s too frivolous a feeling. No, we will submit to blessing if we must but not to happiness. Well, too bad. The translation should be happy, and if you disagree with me, just remember that you’re disagreeing with Professor Wilkie, too. I don’t envy your position in that debate.
  3. The problem, I think, is not in being happy. It’s that in our sin we’ve gotten the idea of happiness wrong. If you let that word, happiness, stand at the beginning of each Beatitude, you hear the gospel in a new way. And it will change your life. I think Wes knew that. It’s why he knew that happiness was serving his vicarage in Washington, D.C., during the height of the civil rights movement. He wanted to take his youth group to see Dr. King and the march on Washington. When the powers that be in the congregation prevented him from doing so, he gathered with the youth to listen to King’s speech on the radio. The world was turning, and that was a happy thing. Wes found happiness next door at Concordia, helping class after class of young people learn to see the world through the lends of the gospel, and to respond accordingly. Wes found happiness in Selma, Alabama, working in solidarity with the meek and the persecuted for the sake of social justice. Happiness was standing on the firm foundation of his faith in Christ and being bold enough, curious enough, to not turn away from the world but to engage it. To be ecumenical. To travel. To reach across divides. Yes, Wes was blessed in all of this. But he was happy, too.
  4. Wes found happiness in the simple things of life, the everyday moments shared with the ones he loved. To walk to the lake with his daughters and eat sandwiches as they watched the planes fly overhead. To watch the Blackhawks on a black-and-white TV, passing on his love of sport, or to pass the time while deer hunting, talking about the great questions of life. And of course Wes was blessed to find happiness in love, not once but twice. First, with his beloved Luann, with whom he lovingly raised their daughters, and with whom he is now reunited along with all the saints in light. And then with Dot, two people who found so much joy together. He knew this second relationship was going to work when, early on in their courtship, he invited her on a date. To an Easter Vigil. The longest worship service of the year. And she said yes! The rest is history.
  5. Today we gather, still in vigil, waiting for the great Easter that will one day dawn. A day when there will be no more need to work for justice, for God’s justice will roll down like waters. A day when all tears shall be wiped away from all faces by God’s own loving hand. A day when a rich feast will be set before all people, and the hungry will finally get to eat first. A day when the light that was born in Christ shall illumine a new creation. That day has not yet dawned on this side of death, but we rejoice that Wes’s life is held in the promise of the resurrection, and that while his journey on earth has ended in death, his life lives on in Christ. The same Jesus who called Wes all those years ago leads him now into everlasting life.
  6. As for us? Jesus comes here again today, to feed us, to love us, to call us. Follow me, our Savior speaks. Follow him into happiness. No, not the cheap stuff the world would have you chase. The good stuff that grounds you in Christ, draws you together in loving bonds with family and friends, and sends you boldly into this world to work for the good of all people. Wes, a forgiven sinner redeemed by God, taught us all a few things about that, things learned from St. Paul. Clothe yourselves with compassion and kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Forgive. Love. Be at peace and live with thanks. Dwell in the Word. And sing! To the glory to God and in the name of Christ, sing! Join your voice to the song of heaven, praising Christ who has triumphed. As we give thanks for Wes, we thank and praise our God. Follow Jesus. Be blessed. Be happy, too, even with tear-stained faces. For Christ is risen and we – until we join the saints in light – we will follow him and go wherever he leads us. In the hope and comfort of Jesus Christ. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, today and forever. Amen.

 

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