Sermon: Raymond Phillips' Memorial, October 3, 2015

The following sermon was preached at the Memorial Service for Raymond Ewart Phillips on October 3rd, 2015.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

"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.

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Sermon: Memorial for Shirley Stewart July 23 2015, "How Can We Keep from Singing" Psalm 30

The following sermon was offered as part of the celebration of life for Shirley Stewart, who passed on July 4th after a short but intense battle with cancer. Shirley had a long-time connection to St. George's, and had a deep love for singing--especially classic hymns. Shirley will be deeply missed.


July 23, 2015
Psalm 30
Memorial for Shirley Stewart

"How Can We Keep from Singing"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Our scripture passage for afternoon comes from the book of Psalms. Which is the song and prayer book of the bible. It’s stood at the center of Jewish and Christian worship for thousands of years. Which we still sing and say today.

The 30th Psalm is not just any prayer, though. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance. “I extol you, O Lord,” it says,” for you have drawn me up.” “I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” “You restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit.” “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And “You have turned my mourning in to dancing.”

While this is one of my favorite of the Psalms, I have to admit that it is a strange text to be reading for a Memorial Service. Any Memorial Service. Because when it comes to the death of a loved one, offering praise and thanksgiving for deliverance is probably the last things on any of our minds.

I met Shirley Stewart three times. A couple times at church—before her diagnosis. And once late last month. In the hospital room, only days before she died. While the psalmist may have seen recovery,  and may have the light of day break into the darkness of a seemingly endless night, Shirley did not have such a privilege. We are not able to see beyond the point of our own deaths. We go down to the pit. But we have no way in seeing a way out. Either when we die. Or when our loved ones die. The singer of this psalm may sing joyful praise with confidence. But how can we sing this same song? It’s hard to hear reassurance that things will get better for us. When in death, the face of God remains hidden.

But it was a curious thing when I went to visit Shirley that last time. When I walked in to her room she was asleep. She was on oxygen, intravenous and all those other things that come with an illness like hers. Since she was sleeping, I wrote a note for her saying I was there. I went to leave it on a pile of books by her bedside. Which I assumed were there to pass her time in the hospital. What I noticed, though, was that it wasn’t just any pile of books. It was a pile of old hymn books. After a polite *cough* *cough* to see if she was in a deep sleep, her eyes opened. I apologized, telling her that I didn’t mean to wake her up. And then we got to talking a bit. I asked about the hymn books. And Shirley told me she was having trouble deciding which hymns would be sung at her Memorial Service.

We got to talking some more, and I learned about her passion for music. About how she loved singing. And that she loved the church choir at St. George’s, and at Kyle United Church in Saskatchewan. And just about every person I’ve talk to has mentioned how much she liked singing. And how much hymns meant to her. Especially the old ones.

There’s this sense that, for Shirley, music was her closest connection to the divine. Singing brought her close to God in a way that other things didn’t. And singing no doubt helped carry her through life’s struggles—from multiple sclerosis. To cancer the first time. And then to this final time. Even though Shirley did not have the privilege of seeing what awaited her beyond death, she faced her own death with such dignity, such calm, and such courage. Even when she couldn’t sing any more, even the idea of singing could still bring her such joy. And lift her up. Even in the midst of such troubles.

Truth be told, neither the singer of these songs, nor I knows what—if anything—lies for us beyond death. For us, or for Shirley. As the Apostle Paul writes, “we see as through a glass darkly.” But in the Christian tradition we continue to sing these songs of praise even in our darkest times, not because hope in the face of death is common sense. Or that we have airtight proof or irrefutable evidence. Or even just because the Bible tells us so. We do so because we have encountered a mysterious love and a grace that has carried us through the worst of times. A redeeming love. An unbreakable love. And because we have met this love, we believe that it promises to carry us, to hold us, and to never let us go. The same love that carried Christ to the other side of a cross. Even when we go down to the pit of death.

Brothers and sisters, gathered friends and family. We can stand here today, even in the midst of our own pain, and sing songs, give thanks, and offer praise, even in the midst of our hurt and our sorrow because we have seen this love in the flesh. This is the love that touched and shone forth in Shirley’s life. And continues to shine forth in our own in times of darkness. One that is already at healing our pain. One that is pulling us out of our deepest pits. One that is at work turning our own morning in to dancing. And so we entrust ourselves in life to God’s love and keeping. As we now entrust Shirley to God in death.

Because in life. And in death. And in life beyond death. God is with us. We are not alone. So how can we keep from singing?[1] Amen.

[1] From Robert S. Lowry’s famous gospel hymn “My Life Flows On,” which was the beautiful solo following the sermon performed by our musician Eve Mark: “My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing: It finds an echo in my soul -how can I keep from singing?”

Sermon: Memorial for John Buick April 25th, 2015


This sermon was offered at the Memorial Service held for John Millar Buick, a long-time participant in the St. George's and Comox Valley Communities. A copy of the service bulletin can be dowloaded by clicking here.

April 25th, 2015
Psalm 121
St. George's United Church

"Help from the Outside"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

Being a minister is a strange thing. Because you’re often asked to say something about a person who you either don’t know or don’t know very well.  And this is the case with John. I only ever met John once. And it was a week or so before he died. So, truth be told, when it comes to words about John, you are all far better authorities than me.

But services like this aren't for the dead. They are for us--the living. And certainly, memorial services are not occasions of joy. But they are, in our tradition, services that proclaim hope in the midst of our sorrows. And that's what I'm here to do.

One of the most meaningful things for me comes out of not knowing someone very well. It’s that you get to meet that person through the people that they love. I’ve been able to listen to you tell me about John. Your feelings, your experiences, and your stories about his life. And that is a unique gift.When Ruth and I were planning this service together, she told me all about John’s life. About how he was born in the southern interior, and how much he loved it there—why would you vacation anywhere else? And how much he loved the Valley when they moved here. And about how he especially loved walking from one side of town to the next. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalm. When you live in a place like this, or the Southern Interior of B.C., when you lift your eyes, they’ll eventually find some majestic hills (or the mountains). Every single day. What a gift. One I’m sure that John relished.

In this Psalm whoever is saying these words as they look up at the hills is less impressed, or awestruck than he (or she) is scared or desperate. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” they say. “From where will my help come?” We don’t exactly know what the problem is. But for this person there is little hope. Hemmed in by hills on each side, there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out of the valley of despair. So she (or he) looks off on the horizon beyond the mountains. Beyond the immediate troubles. And hopes against hope that this isn’t the way it has to be. Even if the evidence says otherwise. There’s got to be a way out.

When Ruth suggested this Psalm for John’s service, I couldn’t really see the connection at first. But now I do. By the time I met John it had been a long, steady decline. There’d been chronic pain. He had trouble remembering who anyone was. He had little control over his body. And no way of caring or doing anything for himself. “I look up to the hills, from where will my help come?” We’ve all felt the same. Insert your trouble in here. We long, rightly to escape from them. We long to be free. To get out of the messes we find ourselves in and move on. But, as in John’s case sometimes there is no obvious way out.

But perhaps it isn’t about finding a way out. “My help,” it says, “comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Rescue comes not as an escape from trouble. “God will not let your foot be moved;” it says. “God will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper, your shade that shades you from the scorching sun, and the icy cold of the moon at night.” Here God comes not as the ejector seat. Rescue comes not as a way out. But a divine way in.

The promise of this story is not an escape from the struggle or hurt of daily life. The promise is that there is a love that is so deep, so vast, so wide, and powerful that no matter who we are, or where life takes us, it can never let us go. Whether we are the ones in the hospital bed. Or standing beside a hospital bed. Whether we are the ones in the grave or the ones at the graveside. The promise from this text, is that for John, and for you, and for me, is that we can live not in fear, but live life with courage. Even if there is no way out. Because God is always making a way in.

Friends—brothers and sisters. Today is a challenging day. It is a day of heartache and sadness. It’s a day of grief. There is no way out of our own fears. And, yet, we can somehow say the words “hallelujah” and mean them. Because “our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  May God keep your going out and your coming in from this time on. And for evermore. Because in life, in death, and in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.