Saturday, June 10, 2017

Homily: Frederick Houk Borsch Memorial Service [June 10, 2017] St. Augustine's, Santa Monica

Gary Hall
St. Augustine’s, Santa Monica
June 10, 2017 [Frederick Borsch]

All of us see Fred Borsch from a different perspective. For most of us he was our bishop or seminary or college dean. For some an irreplaceable family member. For others a mentor and friend. For many a New Testament scholar and teacher. For others yet a civic leader and public intellectual. Maybe even a tennis partner.
            To me, Fred was many of those things and something else. In my experience of him, Fred Borsch was primarily a poet and a lover of poetry. I didn’t know this at first about him. My early experiences of Fred were of a rather distant public figure—my bishop. Early on, Fred was a man I admired from a distance and listened to with respect. It was only as I was fortunate enough to get to know him as we worked together—first here, then in New Haven and Philadelphia and finally in Washington-- that I began to realize what an enormous heart and soul he had. And his heart and soul found their best expression in reading, talking about, and writing poetry.
            I found that out one night when, after a long and contentious meeting with a priest accused of sexual misconduct, Fred went to his desk and pulled out an essay he had written on George Herbert’s poem, “Artillery”. Herbert’s poem compares the life of prayer to an ongoing battle between the speaker and God, describing both God and the speaker as “shooters”. It concludes with the speaker’s admission that we and God live with each other in tension and an uneasy peace:
“Then we are shooters both, and thou dost deign
To enter combat with us, and contest
With thine own clay. . .
                            There is no articling with thee:
I am but finite, yet thine infinitely.”

Fred knew that I had been an English teacher, and it appeared he wanted to redeem what was left of a painful and conflictual evening by thinking about prayer and words and how we use them, about how God can take even human aggression and pain and turn them into something beautiful and true. We talked that night for probably an hour about George Herbert’s beautiful and vexing poem, and in that moment I saw a side of this public man that I didn’t know existed. Fred said that Herbert was right: we and God are “shooters both”, each assaulting the other with our various weapons of complaint and love. I saw my bishop in a way I hadn’t seen him before, and being let into this aspect of his life and thought was both a revelation and a privilege.
            I will come back to Fred’s poetic side in a bit, but I don’t want us to forget that he was also a public figure. Fred made his living first as an interpreter and expositor of the New Testament, then as a public articulator of Jesus and his priorities to the wider community. Fred Borsch was a very American type of exemplary English bishop, a kind of bishop we don’t see that much in the U.S.—one who acts both as shepherd to the gathered church and to the wider public within his diocese. Fred wrote books, sermons and op-ed pieces, and he used all these forms to articulate a gospel vision of what a just society might look like.
In the gospel reading we just heard, the Beatitudes, Jesus gives his strongest expression of the gap between God’s priorities and ours. “Blessed are the poor,” he says. There is a connection between Jesus’s words and those of George Herbert. If we are “shooters both”, then the Beatitudes are God’s opening volley in an ongoing contest about our social and personal values. We want to live for ourselves. God wants us to live for the greater good. Our culture equates blessedness and prosperity. God’s values endorse something else: poverty, meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity in heart, peacemaking. God’s values always rile us just a bit, and so the life of prayer, like the life of the church itself, is often full of conflict. To Fred’s mind, it was the job of the church to hold out the gospel vision to a beautiful yet confused world. In Fred’s practice, a bishop spoke both to the church and to the world about how we might, together, bridge the gap between is and ought, between God’s vision and ours.
            Fred spoke to us during his career first as a scholar and teacher, then as a preacher and public figure, finally as a novelist and poet. In retirement, Fred produced a dizzying number of books—essay collections, meditations, poems, a history of religion at Princeton, and even a couple of novels. In his final novel, My Life for Yours, Fred created a character very much like himself, a retired school head and English teacher named Harold Barnes, who dies during a gym workout and then finds himself alive in the body of a much younger (and very different) man. It is a wonderfully inventive and entertaining book, and part of its fascination lies in the way Fred imagined both a different career path (he could have been a great teacher and schoolmaster) and how those of us who have lost him might react and carry on after his departure. The novel shows Harold’s widow and children first grieving, then accepting, then making their way in the world anew. When I first read My Life for Yours a couple of years ago I thought of it as merely the counterfactual imaginings of a vigorous man in his seventies. Now I see it as Fred’s extended meditation on his own death and how those of us who loved him can make our way through grief, in John Milton’s phrase, “To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” To be sure, Fred was a scholar and a thinker and a leader. He was also, to the end, a pastor, seeking to lead both himself and us through life’s deep woods into the open spaces of God’s love.
            Earlier in this service, Fred’s son Matthew read the title poem from Fred’s collection, Parade: 
“I want to see, I want to see,”
my little grandson pulls on me.
I lift Jack up that he may point
to firemen smiling from their truck,
hooting when they whoop its horn.
Next horses and a marching band,
and, by God, an elephant thumps ahead
of open cars and pretty girls, I notice,
waving to a squad of cyclists,
black and red and white and blue
in the parade that’s passing through.

It’s then I see I want to see
new poets, next musicians, scouts,
explorers of the quarks and stars,
even global warming, if more caring,
undoing of some old diseases:
all he may see this century,
seeing he cannot shoulder me.]

Like My Life for Yours, the poem “Parade” is a witty yet poignant reflection on life’s finitude. The speaker hoists his grandson on his shoulders to see the literal parade, realizing that a figurative parade of future events is coming, that his grandson will not be able to return the favor, and that little Jack will have to be his eyes and ears for the coming century. The book Parade ends with a similar poem, “As Well”:
As Well
Of course we die alone,
marked by loss and brokenhearted,
even doctors say so,
and eternity seems vast,
while there is love, as well, my gratitude,
and where go these unless you—
as I am parted?

This poem, “As Well”, gives voice to the same kind of love of life and longing for connection after death. If all we knew about Fred Borsch was these two poems, we would think of him as a rather witty (if mordant) observer of life and death and their respective ironies. But Fred was not only a poet. He was a pastor and preacher. He probably never became an English teacher for the same reason he never played Major League Baseball: as satisfying as those career choices might have been on one level, they would not have enabled him to express the depth and extent of his faith. Fred not only believed what we proclaim today in this liturgy. He lived it and wanted to make it accessible to the rest of us. And that is why there is yet one more thing to say.
Several years ago, Fred sent me the text of an Easter hymn he had written, and though I don’t believe it has yet been set to music, the text of “Easter Now” should be in whatever incarnation of our Hymnal that comes next. Fred Borsch the poetic ironist knew we die alone and that we will not see the parade ahead of us, but the Fred Borsch the Christian person knew something more. He knew that the love and hope and compassion and goodness we meet in Jesus and in each other will outlast and finally transform all those other things that oppress and frighten us—even (in some mysterious way we cannot entirely grasp) death.
I’m thankful for so many things about Fred Borsch, but today I’m perhaps most thankful that a man like Fred could hold together such a sharply questioning critical intelligence and such a deep and compelling faith in one complex human identity. On more than one occasion I heard Fred say, at a funeral like this one, that the mystery is not, “Why did God take him from us?” but rather, “Why did we get to have him in the first place?”
Easter is God’s answer to both questions, taking the pain and the joy of death and life and somehow making them into a new way for us to be together in the world. Here, finally is how Fred announces Easter in his hymn text, “Easter Now”:

Now to broken-hearted yearning,                                  
Now for love such love returning                                   
In upper room, light from a tomb.                                 
The wounds, his voice, again bread broken,
Rabounni, Jesus, from death woken.   [Alleluias]                      

His Spirit’s peace upon us breathing,
Our hoping, hearing hearts for healing
That we might see how it could be,
And now does daystar’s courage dawn,
And now can be our morning song. [Alleluias]

            Thank you, God, for the gift of Easter. Thank you for this community that celebrates and proclaims it. And thank you today most of all for the gift of the life and ministry and witness of Frederick Houk Borsch. Amen.

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