The Funeral of Billy Decker
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Monday, december 18th, 2017
Here we are gathered, a few days before Christmas. Snow on the ground.
There is a sense of unreality about what has happened in the past week that brings us here today. It scarcely seems possible that we would find ourselves here today, mourning our brother, Billy. A brother, a son, a cousin, a friend, who we love but will see no longer. We miss the warmth of his presence, the warmth of his loyalty, the warmth of his sensitivity, the warmth of his enthusiasm.
Yet, the fact is that when someone has a serious illness the possibility is always there that they will be taken from us before their time. And Billy, as we know, was fighting so hard a battle against the disease that was ravaging his body. He fought bravely against it but in the end it was too much.
As Christians, we believe that he has now been brought into a place of light and peace. A place where he doesn’t have to fight those daily struggles against the disease of addiction. A place where he is without pain and where he is enfolded in the arms of our loving God, who created Billy, who walked alongside Billy every day in his earthly life, and with whom Billy is now reunited.
One of the questions which we will be asking – and one of the questions that church leaders often get asked at times like this is, “Why, if God was walking alongside him, did Billy get taken from us? Why didn’t God stop this happening?”
I earnestly wish that I knew the answer to that question. But what I do know with total certainty is this: that God wants more than anything to be alongside us, to care for us, to help us, to bind up our wounds and to wipe the tears from our eyes.
Losing a loved one is always so hard. Losing a loved one around Christmas time can be especially difficult, because amid all of the jollity every year we are always reminded of sadness instead. But there is a way of transforming this sadness. The reason that God came to earth as a human being is because he wanted to share in everything about the human experience. God loves us so much that he wanted to live alongside us. Jesus was fully God, but he was also fully human. He experienced everything that we experience. He knew what it was like to be loved, he knew what it was like not to be loved. He went through periods of terrible temptation, some of his friends stayed with him through everything, but some of them walked away.
When Jesus died, aged thirty-three, some thought that it was the end. But what he showed us was that death was not the end. By his death, Jesus stopped death having the last word. By his death, Jesus conquered the power of death forever and opened the gates of heaven to everyone who wants to be with God.
That is why I say that this time around Christmas can be transformative. Because when we think of Christmas, let’s not think so much about all of the peripheral stuff, all the merry ‘ho, ho, ho’ and the tinsel and all the stuff that just doesn’t matter. Instead, let’s always remember that Christmas is the yearly remembrance that God loved us so much he wanted to live as one of us, alongside us, sharing in our lives, and all complex soup of hopes and fears, joys and sadness that characterize our lives – each and every one of us.
It is because God has shared our humanity that we can know with confidence that we all have come from God, and that we all will return to God, and why I say that Billy is now resting in God’s eternal care.
Want to know what God looks like? Just turn to the person next to you. No, really. Go on. Take a good look at them. That’s what God looks like. Theologians, who have complex Latin words for everything, call this the ‘Imago Dei’: it means “The Image of God’. Each and every one us is made in the image of likeness of God. In fact this is one of the very first things we learn in the Bible, in the first book, Genesis. We learn that God has made us in his own image. This is so important. It means that when we acknowledge the likeness of God in those around us, we acknowledge God himself. In the same way, when we wound another human being, we wound God himself. If only we humans could acknowledge the image of God in everyone we meet, then this fractured and hurting world would be a very different place.
One thing I’ve learned about Billy over the last few days is that he was an example to us all in this: he treated those he met with an inclusiveness and a lack of prejudice that we need more of in this country. Particularly in sports Billy found that level playing field: to call him an avid sports fan would be an understatement and I think he appreciated that the sports world was, by and large, somewhere where what matters most is ability and merit, more than race or class or economic and social background.
So I get the sense that this level playing field was very important to Billy.
My impression of him is of a fair-minded, sensitive, loving and giving person. Actually, what really strikes me about these qualities are that they are really what sportsmanship is about. Forget muscle, forget tactics, forget tribalism. True sportsmanlike behavior is fundamentally about fair-mindedness, honor, inclusion, and a level playing-field. And all of that requires sensitivity and openness,
Being a sensitive person is a gift: it gives someone an openness to people, to new experiences, to new possibilities. All of the good personality traits that we have also have a flip side, too. A sensitive personality can also make one vulnerable. Openness can enrich us, but it can also wound us. Billy brought much joy and happiness to many people, but he also took on a lot on pain and hurt. But, as the English Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
I am also very certain of this: that when we come at last face to face with God and into his loving presence, all of those flip-sides, that pain and hurt, will evaporate away as dew in the warmth of the morning sunshine and we will become fully the person that God has intended for us to be since before the beginning of creation.
Pictures speak a thousand words, don’t they? Take a look at that picture of Billy in the Yankee stadium. Arms open wide. You’d be hard pushed to find a picture that said ‘open-ness’ more than that. This is a great picture. Not just because it’s a great photo, not just because it says that Billy loved sports, not just because it makes you smile. But because it says about Billy, “I am an open person – my arms are wide open – accepting, open to new possibilities, new adventures, new friends, new horizons”.
In the midst of this sadness, in the midst of this tragedy, in the midst of this pain, never forget this: that God can transform all of this into something that brings meaning and purpose and life. We go forward, we honor Billy’s memory, we work to bring good out of adversity and we become Christ’s hands and feet on earth by helping each other, by being there for each other, by seeing the face of God in each other, and by working to help our brothers and sisters who are in need right now.
And, above all, remember the words of Jesus to his disciples just before he died:
“You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Download the funeral order of service here.