Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Fire's Center: For Dr. Frank Williams

Sermon preached at the Eucharist in Celebration of the Life and Ministry of Dr. T. Franklin Williams on Saturday, December 10, 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York:  Deuteronomy 10:12-15, 17-19; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 6:17-23, 27-31.

            I want to begin with a story from the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were 3rd century hermits who chose to live in the Egyptian desert.  They were drawn there, some believe, because of the ever-present doctrinal controversies of the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Their lives were centered not on doctrinal belief, but on practicing the way of life that Jesus taught.

            Their lives may seem to be a very long way from the life of Franklin Williams, but listen…

            The story is told that Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph seeking counsel.  He said, “Abba, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts: now what more should I do?”

            Abba Joseph stood up and stretched out his arms and hands, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

            I thought of that story and the desert tradition from which it comes when I read the last lines of the poem Will read a few minutes ago.  The last stanza of the poem was a favorite of Frank’s, oft recited from memory.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.[1]

            When we speak of someone as being “on fire” we generally mean that they are outwardly, demonstrably passionate about something, and perhaps practicing that thing in an extraordinarily excellent way.

            There’s nothing wrong with someone being “on fire” in that way, only it is perilously close to the kind of self-centeredness that repels us rather than attracts us.  Those who are “on fire” can light the way or they can burn us.

            Frank Williams was a remarkable man because he burned with fire in a mostly gentle, mostly compassionate, mostly self-effacing way.  His fire warmed us, lit the way, but rarely, if ever, did it burn us.

            That fire came from three sources I think. It came from his family, to which he was devoted, particularly to Carter.  When I arrived at this parish seven years ago, two couples were introduced to me as if they were only one person:  John and Nicky Harmon, and Frank and Carter Williams.  Frank and Carter.

            I learned over time, of course, that Frank and Carter were very much their own people, with real differences.  Yet the gifts that Carter brought to their relationship, and the gifts that Frank brought to their relationship, were wonderfully complimentary and caused great fruit to be borne by the life and ministry of each another.

            The fire in Frank came also from science, from knowledge.  Dr. T. Franklin Williams was a man of science.  His curiosity about the world and how it works, especially the human body, was…well, it just was.  It was not something Frank did, it was who Frank was. 

            And finally, the fire in Frank came from his faith.  He saw no conflict whatsoever between his science and his faith, not that he did not accept the mystery of the relationship between the two. 

            Frank was a thorough-going Episcopalian. He did not wear his faith on his sleeve.  He had a tremendous, honest respect for other parts of the Christian tradition, and also those from other faith traditions.  But in this setting he found the food that sustained his life, gave him the on-going energy he needed to keep the fire burning.

            At one point in his teaching, Jesus says that we all have to accept the kingdom of God as a little child in order to enter it.[2]  More than anyone else in my life, except perhaps for my own grandfather, Frank helped me understand what it meant to have child-like faith.  Child-like faith is not to be confused with childish faith.  Child-like faith takes in all the knowledge and experience of adulthood, it rarely accepts easy answers and never loses its capacity to ask questions, but it also does not let the wonder and mystery of life be taken away, as happens to so many of us.

            Frank’s faith was not only about wonder as a matter of faith, though, it was also about justice.  Frank’s passionate caring about how people, especially elders, were cared for, came right out of his faith, the faith of the God who “executes justice for the orphan and the widow,” as we heard in the reading from Deuteronomy.  It is also the same thing Paul means when he says to the Colossians, “clothe yourselves with compassion…Bear with one another…”  Justice and compassion are just two parts of a whole.  And in the Gospel reading that Carter chose for today Jesus raises the stakes by teaching us that we must act in these ways not only toward those we love, not only toward those we are kindly disposed to, but toward the difficult, the stranger, and even the enemy.

            All of that, I believe, was fuel for the fire of Frank’s passion and life.  And that passion was born out in deeds, countless deeds that have made Rochester, and the world, a better place. They made Monroe Community Hospital one of the best of its kind in the country. In still too many communities such places are to be avoided like the plague. Not so here, in great measure because of Frank Williams.  He taught a couple generations of doctors and other medical professionals to combine science and compassion in order to care for the whole person, so that you are always doing to others as you would have them do to you.

            I told Carter and Mary, as we were talking the day after Frank died, that the remarkable thing to me about him, that I noticed time and again over the past seven years, was how Frank greeted and spoke with others exactly the same, no matter who they were.

            Frank was a model of one of the promises we Episcopalians make at our baptism, and which we renew at every baptism we celebrate.

I will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

            Frank, by the grace of God, the love of his family, and the knowledge of his profession, did just that.

            So how could we not be sad today?  We have lost a real light among us, a bearer of the fire, indeed, in the words of the poet, the fire’s center.  He lived a long, full, fruitful life, but we would have loved to have had a few more years.  So we mourn and that is natural, and it is even good.

            But we must not forget.  The fire Frank carried did not belong to him.  He knew that.  He was constantly giving it away, be it in simple words of respectful greeting, or passing on the vital importance of caring for the whole person, or challenging us to be more compassionate and just in our living and to use our God-given minds for the pursuit of knowledge to care for the stranger.

            This fire burns in everyone of us. Frank is not its only source, of course.  He was too impatient actually to be like Jesus in every way.  But God has gifted us with this man and his fire and I think he leaves us with the challenge of Abba Joseph, “Why not become totally fire?”  Or in the question the poet may be asking, “Why not place your heart at the fire’s center?”

            So we mourn, but we are grateful, oh, so grateful, and we are challenged, as Jesus says to us all at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go and do likewise.”

[1] The last lines of Stephen Spender’s poem, “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great.”
[2] Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17.

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