The following sermon was preached at the Memorial Service for Raymond Ewart Phillips on October 3rd, 2015.
"A Time for Everything"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes was a bit of a pessimist. He didn’t think we could know much about God, about meaning, about the universe. In our passage this afternoon, which is often read at Memorials just like this one, he says there is a time for everything. Everything is transitory. Everything passes away. One day there is planting, and another there is sowing. One day we are mourning. The other we’re dancing. One day we see peace. And another day the world is devastated by war. Nothing in life lasts forever. And our lives don’t last for ever, either. There is a time to live. And a time to die.
September 22nd was Ray Phillips’ time to die. Not unexpected. He had plenty of good, full days to live before that day. But it does not change the fact that he is gone. Everything in life is transitory. Just like the author of Ecclesiastes says. Everything passes away. It’s the nature of being a finite creature living in a finite, world. It was simply the time to go.
But that it was his time does not change the fact that he is gone. It does not change the fact that his life was interwoven—is interwoven—with the lives of those he knew and loved. And when a life is woven together with others, like Ray’s was, when those strands are pulled away, they nonetheless can leave fringes on the adjacent strand. His death leaves an empty space. Even if it was the time to go. One that can be filled with sadness, with guilt. And with deep grief. But, as our author says: this is the nature of human life. A time to live. A time to die. Everything passes away. As human beings, it’s something we inevitably have to face.
Nonetheless, we are gathered today, not only to celebrate Ray’s life, to remember with joy a transitory life that has come to an end. No, in the Christian tradition, a funeral, or memorial or celebration of life-- whatever you may call it—is also a celebration of hope. These services are as much for us—the living—as they are for the dead. They are an affirmation of hope and life in the face of the inevitability of death.
I never had a chance to meet Ray. I’ve been blessed by hearing your memories and stories second hand. But a few days ago Dan Phillips came to my office, and opened up his laptop. And he started scrolling through photos. I’ll admit, at first I was like—I’ve got somewhere to be in 5 minutes and here comes a slide show! But he showed me the photos, and he showed me the video that he shared with you. One image—this very old man hunched down in a life jacket. Sun bouncing off the water, and off his sunglasses. One brief moment. Days before he died. One brief moment of joy, rocking back and forth on the sea. One brief, fleeting moment. One glimpse of something so beautiful and deep, and profound. That I couldn’t help but think—surely, in this transitory, fleeting world of ours, there is something that will not simply pass away. Because it was a moment of eternity. A moment of sheer, common, grace.
“There is a time for everything….” says Ecclesiastes. It is true, we are finite creatures. We live. And our lives can be marked with hardship and suffering. And loss—especially today. And we die. “There is a time to live. And a time to die.” But these words, in the Christian are good news for us. Because we know that in the fleeting, transitory, fragility of human life, we experience that which is true, beautiful, and good. A reflection, an experience that says to us there is at the heart of the universe a Love that is permanent, stable, and enduringly strong. A Love that has somehow has grabbed hold of me, and you, something that has grabbed hold of us and has said “do not be afraid, I will not, I will never let you go.” One that we can trust as much in the joys, the struggles, and challenges in life, as we can in death. There is a time to live and a time to die. But at the end of it all, all time belongs to God.
So friends, as we gather today, we not only give thanks to God for Ray’s life. We give thanks to God for the gift of all life. And in the light of God’s mercy, love, and grace, we can live lives of deep gratitude. And even deeper joy.
Because in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.