When I think back over all the conversations I had with John Strong in the four years since I came to Good Shepherd, there’s one that stands out for me for the way it demonstrates the essence of who John was as I came to know him.
This happened on a Sunday morning, as he was coming out of church—when he nearly always had something pleasant to say about the sermon, or the service, or both.
Now just for background I’ll mention a guideline that anyone who wants to be an effective writer or preacher should know, which is that it’s best to choose one good, strong point and stay focused on it, so you don’t dilute your message.
But during this particular week, as I was preparing for Sunday, I found myself thinking about two different ideas, and I was finding it very difficult to choose just one to preach on.
And finally I told myself that it would be OK to include both of them in the sermon, since the unifying point was that both were takeaways from the same Gospel.
So when Sunday morning came I talked about my first idea for a while, and then I threw in a little transition along the lines of “another way of looking at that … ” and went on to the second, and I was actually rather pleased with the way it turned out.
And when John stopped on his way out to shake hands, I felt affirmed in that assessment when he said, “I liked your sermon.”
And he smiled, and paused just a beat, and added, “Both of them.”
So I was busted!
He was perfectly correct, of course. I had ignored that advice to stick to one point, so you could say that I had preached two different sermons that day—and I don’t know that there was a single other person in the church who noticed!
And John couldn’t have been more gracious about pointing it out.
I knew John as a sharp intellect, when many others his age had lost that edge.
A man who didn’t miss church without good cause, and didn’t miss anything that happened here.
If there was something he disagreed with he would tell you so—and he could be persistent—but he was always gracious in anything he said, even if he threw in a little zinger just to let you know he was paying attention.
The short passage from Second Timothy on the inside back cover of your leaflet isn’t officially part of our service today.
It’s something the Strong family had asked to have in the leaflet for Jane’s funeral—I think maybe Rick Strong suggested it—and these are some beautiful last words for John as well:
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:6-7
Certainly John fought the good fight. He kept the faith. He and Jane raised a good family together. They famously ran the swim club together. I saw in his obituary that he was involved in more community organizations than I can remember, and his many activities in this church included serving as senior warden, which might sound like a funny name if you’re not familiar with our Episcopal structure, but it’s the top lay position and it’s a challenging job.
John laid some of these activities down as he grew older, but he never retired from life. I know that he missed Jane terribly, and there have been some very hard things in his life in recent times, but he went steadfastly on.
So I lift John up this morning as an example of steadfast faith, of using the gifts God gave him to live a full and generous life, and ultimately it is this faith that is our focus here this morning.
And if by any chance John is listening, I trust he’ll know that when I talk about his life and his faith they are just one thing, so this is not the transition to a second sermon on a different subject.
This gathering is an opportunity to find comfort in being together to share our loss, and to draw hope and inspiration from the faith that John lived.
That Resurrection faith is a golden thread that shines as it weaves through our prayers and readings here, as it did through John’s life.
It’s summarized in the anthem we read together at the very beginning:
I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. … he will raise me up; and … I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.
We grieve, knowing we won’t see our brother John again, and at the same time we find reassurance in the words we heard from the reading from the book of Revelation, the promise that God will “wipe away every tear.”
Despite our sadness, we’re confident that John is fine. He and Jane are both at peace. And our consolation is the faith that John has finally received the promise of the last sentence in that quote from Second Timothy:
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.2 Timothy 4:8