For Whom the Bell Tolls

Listen to Sermons

January 24, 2016


It was a week ago last Tuesday. It was early morning and I had just gotten to work when I saw a call from my daughter in New York. When I answered she was so distraught it took a minute for me to know what bad thing had happened. What had happened was the sudden death the night before of her good friend’s father. The friend is Catherine Scott, whom Mary Olive has known from childhood and with whom she now shares an apartment in New York City.Catherine’s Dad, Monty, Mary Olive told me, had had a heart attack. I turned around, left the office and went to see Monty’s wife Becky.

Monty was baptized here, and last year we buried his mother from here, but for decades Monty has attended Catholic services with his family. When I arrived at her house, though, Becky said that this was where he should be buried. So we had the funeral here a weak ago this Friday.

So what you are bout to here is the sermon from that funeral. In part, it is about one man. In greater part, I hope, it is about us all.

Morin Montagu Scott, Jr.

Home is the title of a book I am reading at the moment, the middle novel in a trilogy by Marilynne Robinson. Set in rural Iowa in the 1950’s, it mostly takes place in the kitchen and backyard of an American family. A once full and boisterous household is now much quieter. An old widowed father lives there with a loyal daughter and errant son. The old man, a pastor, is talking to a friend, another pastor, about the son’s surprise return home. He says: “It is in family that we most often feel the grace of God.”

Home for Monty Scott was Texas—our large rich state neighbor to the west.  In Giant, Rock Hudson (Bick) explains to Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie): Everything’s big in Texas. Home for Monty was big. He was at home in Austin, Houston, and in hotels and banks. Yo-Yo Ma once spent an evening at Monty’s Houston home, playing cello to support some worthy cause. Monty sidled up and requested “Cotton-eyed Joe”—which Yo-Yo knew, and played. Monty and his sister Susan grew up with standard poodles as protectors, named Voici and Voila. Of the graces that we feel in families, some of our favorites are administered by dogs.

Home was the post-war United States. He was born in 1949, a baby boomer, as was I. Our parents had lived through two world wars and a great depression. Our generation’s decades of high times and tribulations have been tame by comparison, but it has been an exciting time to occupy the planet. Monty took the booms, busts and changes as they came sardonically, with an air of bemusement, but not cynically. “Remember how lucky you are,” he would say to his children. Good luck is grace incarnate.

The central figure in the novel, Home, is Jack, the old man’s son, who is now approaching forty. A ne’er do well, he had been away and mostly out of touch for twenty years. He’d grown up smart, talented, good looking, and always a worry to his parents. As a boy he’d play hooky from school and church and been caught stealing. Older, he got a girl in trouble and didn’t man up to his responsibilities. Raised strictly in church, Jack knew the Bible as well as I do and could sing and play the hymns. He knew all the words of faith and in a way appreciated them, but with agnostic detachment. Sitting at the kitchen table with his sister, Jack muses: “It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth of them. That’s where the problem lies. In my case.” He expects this to offend his faithful sister but it doesn’t. Graciously, she declines to judge him: “I think I like your soul the way it is,” she says.

The thing to notice in this story is the author’s love for Jack. Marilynne Robinson, who knows the great truths and feels the truth of them, gets us to appreciate  a character who can’t. That is the kind of love we get from friends and family. Above all else—and here is a great truth—this is love we get from God.

Home is how I came to know Monty. I didn’t know him as a pastor. Although he was born and baptized Episcopalian, his love and loyalty to Becky prompted him to entrust his soul to the safekeeping of the Catholic Church through his adult life right up until this Tuesday morning, at which point it was returned to my pastoral care, in good working order. So I had known Monty through his children—Dad to Dad. I was Morin’s deputy assistant soccer coach. Soccer Dads come in a colorful variety of flavors. Monty’s sideline demeanor was bemused and philosophical. On Saturday morning he would rather have been elsewhere playing golf, but here he was on duty, manning up to his responsibility. That was twenty years ago.

For the past four years I’ve come to know Monty even better through a fellowship circle. It is the fellowship of fathers whose daughters lived in New York City and occasionally need money. Monty’s bemused regard to that was the same as his approach to soccer. We of this fellowship agree that taking your daughter and her friends out to dinner in New York is almost heaven. One time I arrived at a restaurant early and was waiting for the girls. I told the maître d’ a bunch of beautiful young women would be coming through the door and he should just send them all to my table because they’re with me. I told Monty that and he grinned big—he’d been there, done that.

It was early Tuesday morning when I got a call from our girls’ New York apartment. I had just gotten to my office, a little before seven, and my phone showed a call from Mary Olive, Catherine’s roommate. I drew a breath. At that hour, I knew before I answered something bad had happened. What I now know is that Becky had protected Morin and Catherine by waiting through the night before she called to tell them. That night’s sleep was her gift to them. It is in family that we most often feel the grace of God.

Death is one great, hard truth of life that we all do eventually feel the truth of. St. Paul called this truth the “sting” of death, which was an understatement. The hardness of this truth is preamble to the greatest truth, which is that in death our lives are changed, not ended, and the change is for the better. That is another understatement. I pray you feel the truth of it this morning; if not now, then someday.

This is why we worship. In Home, Jack’s sister had been disappointed in love—another of life’s hard truths to swallow. She had not imagined that in middle age she would find herself living with and caring for her ailing father—but here, back at home, she was. Her name is Glory, which she regards with a grain of un-cynical bemusement. Unlike her brother she is faithful. In this description of her you can hear the great truth of why we come to church on days like this for prayer.

Faith for her was habit and family loyalty, a reverence for the Bible which was also literary, admiration for her mother and father. And then that thrilling quiet of which she had never felt any need to speak. Her father had always said, God does not need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of the holy, so that we can feel and know the presence of the Lord, who is with us always. He said, Love is what it amounts to, a loftier love, and pleasure in a a loving presence. She was pious, no doubt, though she would not have chosen that word to describe herself.

We’ll not use that word for Monty either.

But do you see? We worship to enlarge our sense of God to a more accurate approximation. In doing so, we come to a larger and more accurate appreciation of ourselves—and today, especially, of Morin Montague Scott, Jr. Love is what it amounts to. A loftier love.

And what is not to love about a man who’d get Cotton-eyed Joe out of Yo-Yo Ma?