Like a thunderclap: words at the funeral of a friend

I have been out of blogging action for a while. Initially this was due to post-holiday reintegration. Then my friend and church warden, James Thomas, was killed by terrorists in the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, on 21st September. This led to a maelstrom of events of grief, pastoral care and not a little media handling. I’ll post more reflections on this, alongside my return to a more usual pattern of blogging, on due course. For now I take up the blogging baton again with the full text of the sermon I preached at my friend’s funeral yesterday, Wednesday October 2nd, at Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town. The service was attended by over 1,000 mourners.  

Texts: 2 Timothy 1:1-14 & John 12:20-26, read from The Message

James was visionary, funny, generous and reckless.

I mean all of that in a good way.

I think of the time of our first Easter in South Africa. We’d only moved from the UK a month previously. We hardly knew James and Colleen, but they’d still invited us to join in with a tradition of theirs, a Good Friday open house with coffee and hot cross buns. We couldn’t come because I had to undergo that oddly beautiful but taxing churchy version of the Comrades Marathon and lead a three-hour Good Friday service. Later on Good Friday I was lying in recovery at the house we were staying in, when the phone rang. It was James and Colleen, checking in with this minister they hardly knew to see how he was and how the service had gone and if we needed anything.

I think of another time a few months later. We’d got to know the family rather better. We were experiencing a tough and stressful time; and on this particular day James and Colleen were busy celebrating the marriage of their daughter Sarah to Scott. The phone went. It was James. “Shouldn’t you be at a wedding?”, I said, worried that something had gone wrong. “I am! It’s great! We’ve had the service and we’re on the way to the party” he chuckled. “OK … Um … you should probably not be on the phone to me”, I said. “Nonsense!” came the laughing reply. “I’m not driving, so I thought I’d call you and see how you are and tell you I’m praying for you today and that as we celebrate here we’ll blow away the darkness over you”.

How very James.

I think of his CV. Yes, really, I do. You may have seen it, or read about it recently. It contained the usual things and detailed his many achievements and successes. It couldn’t possibly cover the personal impact which he had on so many of us. There’s one odd thing about his CV, though. It has a section entitled “Nice Ideas I Tried That Didn’t Work Out”. Honestly. Who puts failures on his CV? An idea like great big airships with tour guides and orchestras in them to take tourists all over Cape Town. Great idea! Until you consider one of Cape Town’s dominant weather issues: wind … Or there’s one he told me about recently. However many times he told me I couldn’t quite grasp it. It involved, inevitably, lots of people. Peeling lots of vegetables. Every time he spoke about it I could see that he could see it, but I just couldn’t get my head around it.

If you knew James, you had almost certainly been exposed to one of his mad ideas. But sometimes they could take beautiful wings and fly. I think of the time we were talking about how to celebrate Christmas at St Peter’s. James talked about a big table groaning with food from the many different countries which are represented in our diverse little church. He talked of stories shared, cultures meeting, lives intersecting. And our little church made it happen. The table groaned with Christmas food from Kenya and the Cape Flats, from Mowbray and the English Midlands. The hall buzzed with stories of childhood Christmases from Edinburgh to rural mid-Africa, summer and winter celebrations. A man who sleeps outside embraced a British priest. James had seen it before it happened; he wasn’t able to be there on the day. But he saw it into being.

That was how James lived life, and nowhere more so in the context of his love for God, Jesus and His church. From his many, many years at Christ Church, Kenilworth to, in recent years, catching a vision for a rebuilding on ancient foundations at St Peter’s; to the individuals whom he invited to share his family life with Colleen and the girls; James saw what could be in people and places and so often he managed to will the new person, the new life into being by sheer force of personality and a profound resurrection hope that is deeper than mere optimism.

Optimism can be proved wrong. Hope, like that which James inspires in me, sees that the stumble, the failure, the optimism dashed is just a mile post, not the destination.

How awful that we are here. How unbearable to scan the pages of the Bible and search for something suitable to say. How soul-wrenching to prepare a talk I want with all my soul not to give.

How empty, how futile.

What a defeat. Yes. What a defeat.

And yet.

The greatest weapon evil can wield is a death like this. Violent and sudden like a thunder-clap on a clear summer’s day, it startles us into new reality. We ache with shock, tremble at what and who we miss, weep with Colleen, Sarah, Julie and Sipho. We fear for a new future without a man who could pull the future into the present. It feels awful to receive the blows of this weapon. Yet those blows are, for evil, self-defeating. Cut, wound, kill as they may they ultimately make evil’s loss greater, it’s defeat more total, it’s end more certain. Let’s think of the readings we heard, and that will shed light.

The first one, from an older man to a younger one, Paul to Timothy. A man with stories of adventures to tell, to a man just setting out. A man whose life had been turned from that of one who sought to murder Christ-followers, to one who wanted to see Jesus-churches to grow and flourish; he, to a man about to give the rest of his life to that same cause. 

Paul, the older man, tells of thanking God for the energy and life of Timothy every time he prays. He tells the wonderful story of how God’s work in Timothy was born – one neither he nor Timothy can take any credit for but that leaves the older man with a warm glow of fatherly satisfaction at what God had done and would do.

 So don’t be embarrassed to speak up for our Master or for me, his prisoner. Take your share of suffering for the Message along with the rest of us. We can only keep on going, after all, by the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work. We had nothing to do with it. It was all his idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus long before we knew anything about it. But we know it now. Since the appearance of our Savior, nothing could be plainer: death defeated, life vindicated in a steady blaze of light, all through the work of Jesus.

2 Timothy 1: 8-10

Paul’s words, but James could be the writer there, couldn’t he? Looking at Sarah, Julie, Sipho, Scott, those gathered up into the family with him and Colleen. Looking at what he was able to give out of what God had given him. Stories are increasingly told of the ripples James’ life leaves, the people by whom he felt fathered, the inspiration he gave. Now we get the chance to tell those stories without embarrassing him. We wish we didn’t have that chance. But we do; and as we do so, we are inspired to keep going, others are challenged to do the same and we all get reminded of what a life fully devoted to Jesus can do.

This is the way of things. This is how God works. Not, and we must be clear, that Jesus willed the attack. Not that God inspired the shooting. He didn’t. The shooting, the attack remains utterly evil, totally cowardly, an offense to life itself. But the Christian God is One who deals in resurrection. The problem with resurrection is that you have to die first. God promises to those in Christ, resurrection; a life that transcends death, a reality that trumps the fading reality of walls and doors, shopping malls and guns.

Jesus spoke in our reading from John of this strange, painful, divine economy.

Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is, destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

John 12 24-25

God does not wish for death or violence. Like Jesus at the graveside of his friend, he abhors death. Jesus at a funeral is described as ‘deeply moved’ elsewhere in John’s gospel. It’s a weak attempt to translate a powerful phrase in the original language. It’s the word used of a horse snorting in anger. That’s how Jesus feels about the presence of death in the world.

James reflected that.  He was a conscientious objector to forced conscription who carried a trumpet instead of a gun; hence the Last Post at the start of our service. I don’t know why God doesn’t stop things like this. Anyone who tells you they do understand is most likely talking nonsense.

But I do know that the God we see in Jesus shows us something bigger, fuller, deeper, truer than an answer. He shows us that life, resurrection life blooming out of the dry soil of death, is something that can not and will not be extinguished. Not now. Not in the Westgate Mall. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not in five years’ time when we still wonder why. Not in the new creation awaiting those who are in Him, a perfected creation where the old way of being with all its tears and illness and fear and pain and terrorism and murder and debt and death is no more and things are as God has always said they should and would be.

James would not allow us to praise him in an unqualified way. His CV with his list of things that did not work does not allow us to do so. He would say ‘Come on. You know I’m not perfect. How could I be?”

As we celebrate and honour James, we do so just as much with thankful stories as we do with remembering hurts we may have received from him and releasing forgiveness for things undone and unsaid.

We do that, because we in Jesus are called to something bigger, fuller, deeper, wider which encompasses everything, yet at the same time redefines everything.

There are tears.

There is hope.

The two sit together; the hope gathering momentum and energy to the point of a divine no return, the tears real and aching, but destined to fade when the new creation is born and hope flowers.

Click here to see my wife’s beautiful tribute to James in images and words

This is the full text of the sermon I preached at the funeral of my friend, James Thomas, at Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town, October 2nd, 2013.