As you might imagine, I’ve prayed a long time about what to say today.
What can I say to honor a man who was, no joke, my favorite professor in seminary, and later the emeritus pastor of this great church I’ve had the ridiculous good fortune of serving for years?
What could sum up all the deep and tender personal encounters with Bill McElvaney, the man, the mentor, the preacher?
I’m clear that Bill was not my father. I have a wonderful and incredible father. And Bill has a wonderful son and daughter. But he’s been like a father-figure in ministry to me for 30 years. And what a grace it has been…what an incredibly rare gift it’s been to know him as I have.
So, how can I possibly sum up from this pulpit, one final time, all that Bill McElvaney has meant to me and to Northaven…and to the world? This has been the question on my heart.
And then, God sorta spoke a word to me.
God said, “Eric, you big dummy….you don’t HAVE to do that….because it WON’T be the last time.”
And I said…. “Oh….God, I think you’re right…”
This won’t be the last time….It won’t be the last time that I will share some part of Bill’s ministry that has deeply affected my own life. Of course I’ll keep doing that….in many future sermons…We’ll do it together, here at Northaven Church…in many future times and places…we’ll mention and reflect on Bill’s legacy and how he continues to affect all of us.
So, once God removed that great weight of “one final time” from my shoulders, it allowed me realize some of the things Bill McElvaney taught me over the years…lessons I learned from him….both personal and professional. And since I would bet they are some of the lessons that inspired you too, I want to share with you today…
The first thing Bill McElvaney taught me is that our lives can genuinely be changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For Bill…and for many of us….it’s Christ’s Gospel that calls us to social action in the world.
A few weeks back, a reporter who I shall not name asked me “So, what was it that made Bill McElvaney tick….what was it that drove him…compelled him?”
And I said to him, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
And the reporters said, “Yeah, that’s what his wife said too…but I mean what was it that DROVE him to do all those things he did?”
And I said, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ….”
When it really takes hold of us, Christ’s Gospel propels us outside of ourselves, and of our own narrow interests…and bring us to a place of new life, wholeness, and service. Bill’s life itself tells this story…
Bill’s father had been a titan in Dallas in his day. McElvaney Hall, one of the old freshman dorms at SMU, is named for Bill’s Dad….and there’s a painting of his Dad that hangs there to this day. You can’t miss the resemblance.
But Bill turned his back on that privilege. And Bill went into ministry. And not only did he turn his back on privilege and go into ministry, but he answered a very a specific calling: To stand up for God’s justice…to accompany, to walk alongside (not ahead of, or lording over) women and men, ethnic minorities, people of other religious faiths, LGBT persons, the poor, immigrants and others.
Bill’s life and ministry doing these very thing inspired me to believe that this calling could be mine too. As I’ve said before, Bill’s personal story assured me of something quite important to me: That you could be a white guy from North Dallas and turn out OK. Since I was one too, this was Gospel for me, friends….gut-check Gospel.
Here’s what I mean by that…here’s what Bill meant: that you could learn to walk beside people who were very different from you…and you could LEARN from them…to allow them to teach you and be YOUR mentors in life and in ministry.
Bill life taught us that the Gospel of Christ could radically change your social views. The story I remember Bill telling that most affected me as a student was of his own journey on racial equality. In 1950, Bill was an undergraduate member of his fraternity at SMU, and at a meeting of that group, spoke in favor of the fraternity’s policy of excluding African-Americans. He later described that moment with shame.
But! Just a few years later…Rev. William K McElvaney would march in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Poor People’s March” alongside African-Americans. One of the only Anglo clergy to do so.
About this way that the Gospel works on our lives, Bill once wrote:
“As I get in touch with my own years, I realize that it took me a long time to come to one of the major discoveries of my life: namely, that God loves me enough to disturb me…For me the gospel has been like a Roto-Rooter, churning through my resistances and turning my presuppositions and priorities upside down.”
Bill’s life embodied that we can always repent, change, and grow in our faith…Bill’s life calls us all to remember this is true for us too.
The second thing Bill taught me is that the pastoral and the prophetic are always connected.
This was a lesson I remember from his preaching class at Perkins. Bill would lecture on how to preach on social issues. But he would always make ONE thing very very clear. That before you can a prophet to people, you must be a pastor to them.
Here’s how Bill said it in one of his books:
“…the pastor as one remembered at the hospital bedside and as a trusted confidant goes a long way in gaining an ear to the pulpit. I have hardly ever known an exception to this connection. The first lesson of prophetic preaching is not necessarily the content of the sermon but the relationship of the preacher/pastor to the congregation..”
I have most certainly found this to be true. There are a lot of clergy in the room here today. And some of us desire to be prophets. But, Bill would remind us to also be pastoral. To show up at the hospital. To listen to people, and take time with them.
But! Bill would also want me to remind all our preacher friends in the room that the converse is true. Friends, some of us do great work shepherding our congregations. And Bill would say to you: “Spend some of that Spiritual Capital that you’ve gained…preach more prophetic sermons….preach JUSTICE sermons…speak out on the major issues of the day. Your people are thirsty to hear it…and BECAUSE you have been their pastor, they will allow you that grace.”
A third thing Bill McElvaney taught me was that showing your compassion for others, as a minister of the Gospel, is a good thing.
Humble vulnerability is a beautiful thing.
Some of you have heard me tell this next story before. It dates back to the time I was at Perkins, and Six Jesuit Priests were gunned down in El Salvador, at the UCA..Universidad de Centro Americano. I’ve told this story before, in a slightly different way. But I actually looked back at my journal and it jogged my memory was to what really happened…
We had Thursday chapel back then, and Bill came in to announce that the priests had been killed, and offer a prayer of the people. But, he was so filled with emotion that he left to service. I followed him, and we embraced, out in front of Perkins Chapel, and he cried some more. And I remember being deeply moved that this professor of mine would be deeply moved about the deaths of people in a foreign land. His compassion was real and tangible.
Another time I saw Bill weep was after a General Conference here at Northaven. He was preaching, and as he did, he took off his stole and laid it on the communion table…in solidarity with LGBT persons who had been excluded from ordained ministry, and from the full life of the church. And he wept for them as well.
Bill McElvaney was not afraid to show his compassion. That kind of compassion leads to empathy. And that kind of empathy leads to activism. When we LISTEN to those who are oppressed and excluded, our hearts are compelled to do something about it.
A final thing Bill McElvaney taught me is that you are never too old to embark on a brand new adventure in God’s name.
Bill “retired” almost two decades ago. But he hardly went away. Ten years ago, Bill was stirring the pot with his opposition to the Bush Library and Institute. And for this, Bill…in his seventh decade….achieved some of the greatest notoriety of his career…when he was featured on “The Colbert Report.”
On his show, Stephen Colbert called Bill and Dr. Suzanne Johnson “Professors Lenin and Marx.”
Bill came to church the next Sunday, and I said, “Bill! You hit the big time!! You were on the Colbert Report.”
He said, “What’s the Colbert Report?”
He’d been in the New York Times….he’d been in dozens of papers…but nothing brought the notoriety of being called a “Communist” on the Colbert Report. He was called one in the 1960s by people who weren’t kidding. He was called on as a joke decades later.
The final way Bill showed me that you’re never too old for your last great adventure, was when Bill came to me last Fall, and told me that God had put on his heart to perform same sex weddings. He came to see me in the office and said that it was a calling he felt God was leading him toward in the coming months.And so it was that Bill performed same sex weddings before his death, including a very high profile wedding in January with our dear friends: George Harris and Jack Evans.
I think it’s fair to say that that wedding was one of the most joyous moments in the life of Northaven Church, possibly since the time we moved into our new building. For those on the outside looking in here, it might have seemed controversial and poorly timed. But for those who loved Bill, who love George and Jack, and who believe it’s never a bad time to stand for social justice, it was a day of pure joy and love.
But several folks have said, “But why then, Eric….why right at that moment?”
And all I can say is..this is how it felt: Did you ever see that Indiana Jones Movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?”
That’s the movie where Harrison Ford stars as Indiana Jones, and Shawn Connery stars as his Father. And there’s this final scene of the movie, where they ride off into the sunset together…..
Yeah….well it felt like that.
When Bill came to me last Fall, determined to perform same sex weddings, I knew it was likely Bill’s last crusade. The answer as to why, and why then was that it was his time.
And it was simply a great honor to ride alongside of him, into the sunset…one final time….
To sum up all the lessons, then?
Follow the Gospel of Christ.
Let yourself be open to, and vulnerable with, those who are different from you.
Allow them to teach you.
Do not be afraid to take stands for justice.
Know that it’s never too late to start.
Allow yourself to feel the thing that breaks your heart about the world. And then, ask yourself what you’re going to do about it. And do a work for justice in the world…not once, not just twice…but as a way of living our our faith always.
A few closing thoughts: Bill, as many of you might know, was something of a hypochondriac.
He was! He was kind of a wimp about physical stuff. If he had a little head cold, or some other illness, he could go into GREAT detail about it. Some of you at Perkins…and maybe here at Northaven…will remember his copious and lengthy descriptions of late 1980s prostate problems.
I remember at the time, plugging my ears, and saying, “La, la, la, la….”
But, then, semi-hypocondriac-Bill got cancer for real. And, friends, it’s like that worried guy went out the window. There was something about this very real…and potentially final…diagnosis that changed things for Bill. Bill became VERY focused…and even more, if you can believe it…FEARLESS.
Bill, a good Reconciling United Methodist, found a way to bring reconciliation and closure to all of his relationships in these past two years. He loved and adored his son John, his daughter Shannon, and their families. And My Lord, he loved his soulmate, Fran. It was a beautiful thing to watch these final reconciliations and closures in his life. And Bill navigated them fearlessly.
As Gene has already reminded us today, our celebration today in faith is that Bill’s journey is one of life into life. We don’t fully know and understand what it means to take the journey of life into life. But let me connect some dots. WE know that the journey of life into life is wrapped up in an understanding of the communion of saints…and that the communion of saints is connected to holy communion…and that holy communion is always connected to works of justice.
Bill’s final Sunday here at Northaven was August 7th. Two weeks to the day before he died. And two things happened at that service that how seem perfectly timed:
We shared holy communion, and
We heard a sermon about justice.
That morning, I was just returning from a trip to Washington DC where during the week before, I had been arrested at the White House with 102 other faith leaders…for standing up for the rights of immigrants in our country. Our colleagues, Rev. Owen Ross was there too in Washington DC…along with Rev. Jeff Hood (Cathedral of Hope) and Jason Reddick (Holy Covenant). So, my August 7th sermon was basically, “Let me tell you the story of how your pastor got arrested for justice…”
O man, you could see how Bill loved it!
And then, we took communion. And Fran wasn’t too sure Bill would be able to come forward for it. But son of a gun, he did…and he took communion one final time.
And, o man, he loved it.
And after he died, I thought…how perfect…what a most beautiful last day in church for Bill McElvaney.
A WORD of justice…a SACRAMENT of justice….
Know this: Bill is good. Bill is fine. Bill is reconciled. Bill is celebrating with God in the joy of life into life.
But Bill would call us to remember that we are still here. You are still here. And God still has work for us to do. God has works of justice for you to do…stands for you to take. Honor Bill by continuing to stand for God’s justice, every chance you get.
In just a moment, we’ll take Holy Communion together. I want to say now, and I will say again, that our United Methodist tradition is that all are welcome to take communion today.
Bill always connected Justice with Holy Communion, and here’s a great final quote from him where he makes the connection between the sacrament and justice:
“For me to live the Eucharist means that, dependent upon the grace, forgiveness, and power of God, I, a senior citizen white male, am called to be a faithful advocate in word and deed for the rights and well being of children, persons with disabilities, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender persons, people of color, women, refugees, and prisoners, among others. Living the Eucharist means that our liberation is bound up together, and that my attempts at justice advocacy depend not only on the grace of God but also on the wisdom and experience of those with whom I hope to be a friend and advocate.”
Thank God for the life and legacy of Bill McElvaney.
Servant of God.
Friend and advocate to us all.