When I first came to St. Matthias, I remember looking out at the congregation and seeing this collection of folks and thinking, ‘good Lord, all of these have known God for so much longer than I have even been alive, how on earth could you have placed me here to serve them?’ As it is rather unusual for Anglicans to do, the first folks who really stood out to me were those sitting at the front: dear Robert and Sylvia.
I remember looking at the two of them wondering, ‘I wonder what their story involves … work, travel, kids, retirement, where were they from, were they from here or did they move here.’ Well soon enough I got some answers. I went to visit them both and had a conversation about where they had come from. I learned they were from BC, the grand city of Victoria. That they had come here for Robert’s work. That they had two daughters whom they loved dearly. That Robert was a magnificent cook and uber kitchen maestro! These were of course, the surface details.
Over the years of being here, I learned of Robert’s Parkinson’s condition, and of Sylvia’s own struggles. I tried to place myself in their position of having a sense of physical autonomy, to being reliant on others, their daughters, nurses, for their basic care. I thought about what that would mean to someone like Robert who was a husband, a father, a worker, a cook, a social fellow. And I wondered what he thought, what he thought at his core if you could pull back the shield that all of us put up to protect from appearing vulnerable. I can’t say for certain because as most of you know, communication was one of the most challenging aspects that Robert and frankly that the whole family had to live with.
Here’s what was communicated to me though: bravery. Robert didn’t retreat from his community, the Church, or from his family. He attended this parish until he simply couldn’t physically do so. That is brave. Incredibly brave. To remain with others when you decline physically and mentally, that my friends, that takes character; it takes humility, it takes love, and it takes focus. It takes a particular kind of focus that I saw most revealed to me in the last months of Robert’s life. When I would go to see him, we would chat briefly, and then I would read some scripture to him and he would recite parts of it with me.
He never lost the most essential part of life: belief that he was loved and desired, and held and sustained by God. And that focus allowed him to balance the parts of his life where – for most of us – we might find ourselves falling apart. It allowed him a sense of proportion: the things of this life are temporary, the things of this life are extremely important yes, but they are also temporary. The love of God is forever and it endures all things, all our suffering, all our decline, all our wondering, our doubt, fear, and anguish. Robert knew God because God first knew Robert. Robert held fast to this and it sustained him through what were quite obviously some tough times.
When we prayed together, I saw tears. Those tears reminded me of the cry that Jesus made on the Cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ That in Robert’s physical, mental and emotional suffering, God would inhabit his heart and mind, and that Robert himself was taken up in Jesus’s own suffering on the Cross, means that Robert is also taken up in Jesus’s body and so in his resurrected life, indeed, in his spiritual body.
Through Robert, through his life – regardless of his condition – God showed me what it means to have life, to have grace, to allow God to work through him so that others might know love, and in turn share it with others. Robert was for me, and for so many others – his wife Sylvia, his children, Sharon and Denise – an instrument of God’s grace: a life of service (however imperfect, however, broken, however weathered by disease, or decay as well all eventually are), it was a life of faithfulness to God and to neighbor; a fulfillment of the law and of the gospel.
I cannot tell you exactly where Robert is now, God alone knows this. What I can say is that in Robert, in the life of a man, a father, a husband, a brother, an uncle, God was made known to others. And in God, Robert has the promise not just of rest eternal, but of new life, a life free of suffering, of pain, of disease, he has the promise of a resurrected body, a spiritual body perfected by the one who gathers all of us to him. AMEN