Funeral sermon for an astronomer

Read Psalms 136:1-9 & 19:1-8

Rolf worked at many things. My impression is that he accomplished so much. Rolf was always on a project, whether clearing large rocks off his land, growing grapes, gardening, building structures, star-watching and -tracking.

His scientific mind, inductive reasoning and clarity of thought all translated into a degree of productivity not many of us will ever achieve. His gentle, methodical approach to his work reflects a state of mind that mirrors the great, spiritual giants of history.

Yes, spiritual.

Often science and religion have been pitted against each other in the philosophical and doctrinal wars of the contemporary age. And yet, in the lives of common people, we can begin to see that the two are not opposites in the seesaw battle for truth. Science and religion, in all truth, go hand in hand.

Some argue that besides the bible, no other book has likely influenced the course of western history more than the Rule of Benedict from the sixth century of the Common Era. Only some 13,000 words long, The Rule outlines instructions for the monastic tradition including prayer and work. In The Rule, Saint Benedict ordered the monks not only how to pray the Psalms, but how to work.

This work involved primarily manual, physical labour — fixing things, gardening, building. This work also evolved, happily, into artisan endeavours — wine-making, beer-producing, food preparing, and the such. Finally, the intellectual work of scribing and reading.

With singular attention focused on one task at a time, work becomes a contemplation. Even, you could say, a prayer. When it is done with joy and thanksgiving in each given moment. When we are present to our work, it is an offering of the natural rhythms of life, unfettered by distraction and self-consuming narcissism, which is often characterized by the demands and expectations of a hurried, anxious immediacy.

We remember and celebrate a precious life today. We recall moments that reveal a story of a person who reflects some of the best of what life and work is all about. Creation is indeed beautiful. God did good! And it will take eternity for us humans to begin to even scratch the surface of the brilliance and wonder of all that is.

The spirit of expansion, I would say, characterized Rolf’s life — a moving outward to include all, to embrace all, to reach to the farthest limits of all that we can know in God’s creation.

When Rolf was baptized at St James Anglican Church in Gatineau a few months after his birth, he was not only baptized into that particular faith community. His baptism signified his connection to the vast communion of saints. This community of faith spans the globe in all times and in all places. His baptism connected him to what Christians often call the ‘Body of Christ’ which has many members and includes all the baptized around the world: Starting here in the Ottawa region, and expanding outward.

In the funeral liturgy, one of the traditional prayers acknowledges the ‘mystical communion’ we all share in the Body of Christ. It speaks to the connectivity among all creatures.

Rolf’s passion for astronomy demonstrates this expansive spirit beautifully. The stars, of course, symbolize the mystery of heaven and God, and our human yearning for the unknown to become known. To connect to this great mystery, Rolf built his own observatory in the backyard of his house. 

And in 2005 he took a superb photo of Mars, his favourite planet. This image, which you see displayed here today, was possible because in 2005 Mars was in a close approach to earth at a high elevation — which means the angle at which viewing the red planet from the earth’s surface was exceptional.

Apparently Mars doesn’t behave like this every year. But in 2016, this year of Rolf’s death, Mars has again dipped close to the earth. Almost as if it was coming in to scoop Rolf up and connect his spirit once again to the vast universe, where now Rolf can see with his own eyes the expansive realm of God, whose love, mercy, and grace knows no limits.

Although we grieve a particular connection we have known with Rolf on earth these past six-plus decades, we touch today on the truth of the eternal connection we share with Rolf, all people, with all of creation and with God, forever.

Thanks be to God.

Today

In Andy Weir’s book and movie entitled, “The Martian”, the character played by actor Matt Damon – Mark Watney – is stranded on Mars. And he decides to survive using whatever scientific means possible and using whatever resources are at his disposal until a rescue mission is mounted. 

The book and movie differ in some ways — although the deviations in the movie aren’t as pronounced as in other script to screen adaptations. The most significant difference is, perhaps, the last scene. In the movie, the rescued and now teacher, Mark Watney, gives advice to a classroom full of students in astronaut school.

He counsels that in the face of almost certain death, the way forward is to focus all your energy on solving the next problem, and then the next, and then the next. After all, he survived almost two years alone on the red planet on account of his determination, and despite the odds to remain focused on the immediate task at hand. And not get lost in imagining future outcomes, or wallow in past mistakes.

His advice points to the importance of being present to the current moment of existence, paying attention to what is (not what might be or what was), and acting in confidence for all his efforts.

In the Gospel story, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to announce his mission, his purpose (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and good news to the oppressed. In summary, he declares his mission to bring compassion and healing to people. And significantly, he closes his public reading in the Nazarene synagogue in 28 C.E. by announcing that “today” this scripture has been fulfilled.

For all who wonder about who this Jesus is, this season after Epiphany ought to give us some clues. Epiphany means ‘revelation’, as Jesus is revealed to us. And, in this text his purpose is made clear. In fact, the writer Luke throughout his book de-emphasizes moral correctness, and rather underscores acts of compassion (1). The underlying question in Luke is not so much: “What does God demand?”; Rather, “Who needs attention and compassion?” This line of questioning can re-focus the purpose of any follower of Jesus.

If someone asked you today, “What is your purpose in life?”, what would you say? Could you describe your mission, specifically and in concrete terms? And, how does your life today reflect the values of your mission statement?

These questions cannot be directed solely at individuals, but the church as well. In the reading today from 1 Corinthians 12, our ministry and purpose finds purchase in the context of the collective. Saint Paul describes the church as a body with many members. The church is the Body of Christ, today. Do you know what your faith community’s mission is, to which you belong?

In coming to terms with his own ministry, Jesus had to make some decisions. He omits a phrase from the Isaiah scroll handed to him. While Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-3 word for word, he excludes the second part of verse 2 — “… and the day of vengeance of our God.” In order to be true to his purpose, Jesus also needs to be clear about what he will not do. He needs to leave something out of his life altogether in order to remain on the path of healing and compassion. How can he reconcile divisions and heal the brokenhearted by bringing punishment and vengeance upon the people? Impossible.

In pursuing your mission, what do you need to omit? What do you need to stop doing? What are things you need to let go of, in order to make room for the new life which is calling you to grow in the Body?

And we can’t put it off or rationalize it away. There is a sense of urgency in the life of faith. Almost a dozen times in his Gospel, we find the word “today.” The writer Luke emphasizes the importance of the present time. Jesus says, “Today” the scriptures have been fulfilled (Luke 4:21). To Zacchaeus, Jesus announces that “today” salvation has come to his household (Luke 19:9). Hanging on the cross moments before he dies, Jesus turns to the criminal hanging beside him and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Today, not yesterday. Not when I was young. Not in the heyday of church planting and growth. Not in some glorious vision of the past to which we hang on, pretending it was perfect, wishing to turn the clock back.

Today, not tomorrow. Not at some future date when things will be better. When we will have enough money. When I will have more time. When the kids are old enough. When I retire. When I die. When the church will be full again. When I/we find healing or deliverance from whatever hinders me/us from pursing my/our mission.

God gives us no other day than today to do what we must, what we need to do.

What in my life is it too soon for, too late for, just the right time for? (2)

The Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God. And God doesn’t leave us bereft of resources. The solution may very well be under our eyes, very near to us. Everyone seems to want to know these days: “How are we doing as a church?” and “How are you doing as an individual?” Perhaps the questions need to change. The real questions may be: “As a church, what are we doing for God?” and “What are you doing for God, today?”
This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! – Psalm 118:24


(1) Carol Lakey Hess in Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year C Vol 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.286

(2) Dawna Markova, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” in Joyce Rupp, “Open Door: Journey to the True Self”, Kindle version, 2008, p.18 of 36 in Week 1