Monday, January 11, 2016

Homily: Robert O. Blake Memorial Service [January 9, 2016] Washington National Cathedral

            Although I’ve never liked the term “father” when applied to clergy, in one respect we are a bit like parents.  We are not supposed to have (or acknowledge we have) favorites among our parishioners. But since I’ve been retired now for all of nine days, I can finally admit that yes, we often do, and for me here at the cathedral Bob Blake will always remain my favorite.
            Why that is so may not be immediately apparent.  While an obviously accomplished, faithful, and gracious person, Bob drew me toward him for additional reasons. We were both native Californians—and not only native Californians, but native Southern Californians.  It’s true that I went to UC Berkeley and he attended that other place on the peninsula, but we learned not to hold our colleges against each other, especially as Stanford has outperformed Cal routinely on the gridiron for many years now. But there was more to it than that. The first time Bob took me to lunch, he asked rather casually if I had ever heard of his uncle, David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford. Now that’s an obscure reference, but I replied, “Bob, you’re looking at one of the few Washington alumni of David Starr Jordan Junior High School in Burbank.” After discovering that rather bizarre connection, we were friends for life.
            There were, of course, a million other reasons to love Bob Blake. He would write regular generous and supportive emails to me (with the entire message contained somehow in the subject line) expressing his willingness to assist personally and financially in whatever justice ministry the cathedral might engage in.  After a distinguished career as a diplomat and then a stint in international development, Bob devoted the last years of his life to working for social justice on a range of issues—the environment, pre-eminently, but also poverty, race relations, and hunger. Bob was the real deal, both as a person and as a Christian. His faith informed his social and personal commitments, and he was generous with his time, energy, and resources in working to make the world and America a better place.  Who couldn’t love a guy like that?
            Talking with Bob Blake was like being part of a living history lesson. You’d learn about the inner workings of the State Department and the U.N.; the ins and outs of the Kennedy Administration; climbing Mount Everest; and (my own personal favorite) what it’s like to be cooped up in an embassy for a week with Richard Nixon. That Bob had been both so close to power and so relaxed about it was part of his charm. That he climbed mountains and didn’t boast about doing so enhanced, at least for me, his personal appeal.
            The Gospel reading Sylvia chose for today’s service is a familiar one. In the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “In my Father's house are many mansions.” We often read this passage at funerals because of the beautiful way in which Jesus assures us that even in the face of death, we have been provided for.  “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” This passage has always stood for Christians as a promise that we and those we love are ultimately held in God’s eternal, loving, embrace.
            All that is true. Yet, in reading this passage, I hear something else about Bob Blake that all of us can hold on to in the wake of his passing.  In the King James version of the Bible, Jesus talks of his father’s house having many “mansions”. That’s a confusing word to us 21st century people. When I hear the word mansion, I think of a big house like Mount Vernon or The Biltmore. But in Early Modern English—the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the Prayer Book-- a mansion was either a place where someone literally dwelt—a house or lodging—or it was a figurative abode—Paul called the body the “earthly mansion wherein we now dwell”. So in the English of the King James Bible, a mansion is, literally and figuratively, a home. In my father’s house are many mansions. In our ongoing life with God, we are and will be at home.
            Now Bob Blake was a well-travelled guy. From Whittier, California to Washington D.C. and Maine with stops in Palo Alto, Baltimore, Managua, Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Tunis, Kinshasha, Paris, and Mali. Bob Blake got around. And I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to observe that Bob was pretty much at home everywhere he went. To speak both literally and figuratively, the world was Bob’s mansion.  The world was Bob’s home.
            “In my father’s house are many mansions.” We are gathered this afternoon not only to give thanks for the life and work of Bob Blake. We are gathered also to entrust him, to hand him over, to God’s care. We know that Bob was at home in the mansions of the world. It is Jesus’s assurance that he will be at home in the mansions of God.
            And our other Bible reading—from Isaiah 61—gets at what allowed God to be at home in the world:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners.

This is the scripture passage Jesus read in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. It’s the one that defined Jesus’s life and ministry and has become the mission statement of those who feel the world’s pain and believe that following Jesus has implications for how we live our lives.  For people like Bob Blake, Christianity was not just about his own personal salvation. For Bob and people like him, Christianity is about feeling for and standing with the ones Jesus names: the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the prisoners, the poor.  For Bob Blake, being a Christian meant not only being at home in the world; it meant making the world the kind of place where everybody could be at home.
            I have been a priest for almost 40 years now, and over the course of my working life I’ve probably known a handful of men and women with Bob Blake’s qualities: deep faith, personal grace, professional accomplishment, and real empathy for those who are up against it.  You don’t meet a lot of people like Bob in my business, but the ones you do meet are the ones who make the whole lifelong enterprise worthwhile. They are so grounded in what it means to follow Jesus that they make it just a little bit easier for you to follow Jesus, too.
            “In my father’s house are many mansions.”  “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to bring good news to the oppressed.”  We all knew Bob in different roles and capacities, so there are as many reasons to be grateful for the gift of Bob Blake’s life as there are people gathered in this cathedral today. Bob was a husband, a father, an outdoorsman, a diplomat, a tireless worker for justice and peace. To spend any time in his presence was to come away feeling that you had been engaged and encountered by a great spirit and a deep mind.  He was, in every respect, a lovely and fascinating person.
            But he was more than that.  He was a follower of Jesus who shaped his life in response to Isaiah’s vision of what it means to stand for God’s values of love, justice, peace, and compassion in a beautiful yet broken world. He made it a better place, and he helped to make it enjoyable for an ever-widening circle of people. He was at home everywhere in God’s world, and by his life and witness he made it easier for all of us to be at home in the world with him. In the short time I knew him, he brightened and deepened my life. I am not alone in holding him as a favorite. As Bob Blake moves on now with Jesus to the mansions in his father’s house, I know as surely as I know anything that he will be at home there, too. Amen.