The Sole Comfort In Life And Death

This past week I lost my good friend and long-time encouragement, Dr. Keith Brodie.  I was Keith’s pastor for a number of years when I was at Duke Chapel.  He was my advocate and encouragement in my scholarship and publication.  Some of you know the challenge of preaching at a memorial service when one is speaking of a close friend.  It’s tough to be both personal and to proclaim the gospel.  Here is my attempt at Keith’s service:

As God’s chosen, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and of all these virtues, put on love. Colossians 3:12

I know a man who embodied these Christian virtues, a man whose life demonstrated that kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience are not impossible ideals but rather the way life ought to be lived. You are here this afternoon because you know him too.

Keith Brodie’s beloved Brenda – quite the best-formed, Reformed Christian I know – has asked me for a sermon, not a eulogy. Brenda knows that the fit subject for Christian sermons is Jesus Christ. As a child Brenda memorized this in the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism: our “sole comfort” in life, in death, is not in eulogized human merit or worldly achievements. As the Catechism says, we are “not our own,” but “belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

That Christ is our sole comfort means that death, for Christians, though still our “final enemy,” is also opportunity to speak about our sole comfort, Christ.

However….

As Colossians 3 implies, the greatest tribute to Jesus Christ is a human life well-lived; a life turned outward toward others rather than narcissistically, self-agrandizingly inward (no mean achievement in our culture!); a life focused on the needs of others rather than self-consumed, a kind and thoughtful life more interested in hearing about the needs and sorrows of others than in enumerating one’s own.

No need to eulogize a dear, gentle life who blessed ours in those ways.

I’m trying to preach a sermon about Jesus Christ, but I know that Christ is best proclaimed not by preachers like me, but rather by the people Christ creates. Each Christian is called to be a showcase to the world of what Christ can do when he gets hold of a life. Keith loved this great church, particularly the music made here. His beneficence to the choir blessed generations of Chapel music makers and helped the rest of us praise God as we ought. Before we are done today, we’ll sing his favorite hymn. However, Keith knew that the Christian faith is best celebrated, not in its dogma or liturgy in church, but in its popular performance in life.

Jesus, had difficulty with his family. Not so with Keith. He believed that love is better than discipline. He loved being a father to Melissa, Cameron, Tyler, and Bryson as well as an admiring and curious grandfather. Yet, unlike most of us, Keith still found room in his heart to be in loco parentis to many outside his family.

If I were eulogizing Keith, it would be easy. I would eulogize one who shunned exaltation yet lifted others up. I would note that the designation of Jesus is rabbi, “teacher.” Doctor, means, “teacher,” that was Keith, always sharing, explaining, patiently, wondrously enabling others to understand.

I expressed surprise when a Duke undergrad told me that she had decided to do Med School. She explained, “Blame it on Brodie’s famous ‘brain course.’ He made me want to spend my life around the miracle of the human brain.”

If this were a eulogy I would extol Keith’s cerebral cortex as the most active I’ve ever known. Lord, how did his capacious brain managed to be so smart about neurobiology, basketball, textile manufacturing, higher education, the Durham Police Department, avant-guard art, dogs, urban gardening at Seeds, vegetables, chickens, and the most minute details of the Chapel budget (that I hoped he wouldn’t notice)? The reading list required to be Keith’s friend was overwhelming.   Virtually monthly Keith presented me with a new book on theology that he had discovered before I did. (In the process Keith learned more than is healthy for any psychiatrist to know about the theology of Karl Barth.)

I learned not to ask Keith what he thought about one of my sermons unless I really wanted to know. He was nice about it, compassionate as always, but still. Only he could suggest a link between the Gospel of John and the amygdala.

Keith had a humbling sense of his own God-given gifts, talents, and resources and felt an obligation to use them, by example, he encouraged us to do the same. He’ll never see the book that he relentlessly insisted I must write on preaching to confront racism, a book I dedicated to Keith.

Jesus was not only God with us but God in action, a Savior who refused retreat in the face of evil and injustice.   Look at Keith’s portrait in the library, see him, shunning restrictive formality and dull decorum, sleeves rolled up, ready to dive into good work for others, rather than himself. That’s how I’ll remember him.

Jesus was a healer, who had particular compassion for those whom society had tossed aside. Some of you were able to make it through another night, only because of Keith’s healing ministrations when nobody else noticed or cared.

Indeed, yesterday President Broadhead praised Keith for his cura animarum, Keith’s “cure of souls,” as the church used to call it. How many of you have been the beneficiaries of Keith compassion? In his most memorable story, Jesus made the Samaritan’s compassion exemplary. Keith obeyed Jesus’ “Go thou and do likewise.” You told secrets to Keith you entrusted to no one else. As a pastor, time and again I asked Keith to try to explain to me, in words of one syllable, what was going on in the mind of some troubled soul under my care.

Jesus said, “Let your light so shine that others might see your good works and give glory to your heavenly father.” Keith obeyed that dominical command explicitly. His good works shine on every corner of this campus and helped humanize Durham. But his most impressive good works were not in public view, as Jesus also commanded: the one-on-one therapeutic-without-appearing-to-be conversations with some troubled soul, the encouragement he gave some young person or budding physician or scholar. There are people here who – through the advice and council given by Keith, the medical help you received when you thought there was none, the encouragement he so generously bestowed – are shining testimony to Keith’s good work.

But this is not a eulogy because Keith wouldn’t want that.

Keith doesn’t need my encomium. But we need all the help we can get to obey Colossians call to clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and put on love. Maybe that’s why God gave us Keith.

Keith despised good byes. He didn’t like to linger. I envied his ability to evaporate from some dull public ceremony once his official duties were done. I admired his mastery of the skilled, unheralded exit.

Well, he’s done it again. With genuine humility and lack of self-importance, putting the needs of others before his own, Keith has left us. His quite, unexpected parting is our grave loss. To whom shall we turn in our times of psychic, bodily, spiritual need? Who will lift our flagging spirits with, “That’s a great idea! Go for it!”

Let us turn, in our loss to Christ, who is the real subject of a sermon, and the loving, merciful keeper of Keith’s life. Keith was Christ’s idea before he was ours. Reluctantly we give back to God, the beloved one whom God gave us. We shall, by Christ’s grace, rise up in our grief, grateful to the God who gave us so remarkable husband, father, grandfather, father-in-law, teacher, doctor, philanthropist, President, and friend. Let our farewell to Keith be overcome with thanksgiving to God for all the saints who from their labors rest.

Our sermons about Christ are permitted to eulogize people because of Christ. There are faiths that promise to elevate us above the mundane, temporal, carnality of the human. That’s not the Christian faith. Christ conditions us to look at a life well-lived and see God’s handiwork. (That’s why you remember sermon illustrations long after you’ve forgotten the sermon.)

God used a human being to get to us, and gives us human beings to get us to God. When God wanted once and for all to say how it is between us and God, God didn’t do it through a sermon; God said it through the Babe of Bethlehem.

Most of us have a tough time thinking of God, eternal, spiritual. These things are too high for us. What we need is earthly exemplars, flesh-and-blood enactments, people who, by their lives, bring us close to God, show us how it ought to be done. Thus an incarnate God gives us those who convince us that life is a gift, that the human body is a wonder, that creation is an ever-unfolding mystery, and God is good. So God gave us Keith.

From this pulpit, in twenty days, a preacher will rise and say to a darkened world that our sole comfort in life and in death, is this: the Word became flesh, our flesh, our weak, mortal flesh, and dwelt among us finite ones, and we beheld his infinite glory. The light shines in the darkness (even that of death) and the darkness has not overcome it!

Thanks be to God for the gift of Keith.

 

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