Just a few minutes ago, I received news that a long-time member of our church— he claimed that his mother while pregnant first brought him in her womb to the place over 72 years ago—has died in a Cincinnati hospital where he was admitted last week suffering from pneumonia. He was on a long road trip with his wife, something he dearly loved to do, but became ill with what he thought was a terrible cold, but was in fact something far more dangerous. Ralph loved old cars and had a fleet of restored ones; he on occasion would drive one these beauties around the city and even to church. It seems somehow fitting, however sad and terrible, that he would die on one of these long car trips.
Ralph was a superior musician, having made a living playing in jazz bands and touring for several years. He would play for us at church, either as accompanist or soloist, and he always played with great skill and passion. He also sang bass in our choir, and while I am a pretend bass—a baritone in thin disguise—Ralph was a real bass with excellent notes below the staff, always a welcome sound in the ensemble. In addition to all that, he was a lay preacher in the United Methodist Church, and served a church as pastor for some 12 years before returning to our church as a valued member. He loved puns, and would make us groan over and again with a twist of language, and would chortle—I can hear it now– as we grinned our responses. In the way of punsters, he always enjoyed the joke far more than we did, but it did not stop him in the slightest.
Ralph will be missed deeply, especially in our choir, where he was perhaps our most faithful member. Our future as a choir and as a congregation will plainly be quite different without Ralph’s presence among us. And because Ralph at his death was one year younger than I, it makes me inevitably think of my own future; our mortality is all too real at such times, and reflection on the future is prominent for me.
Ralph, I must also add, was a very progressive political Democrat, bitterly opposed to the administration of Donald Trump, and ever eager to skewer the orange- headed one in every way that he could. I can only imagine what he might have said as The Donald claimed last week that hurricane Dorian threatened the people of Alabama, when his own storm trackers tweeted quickly that Alabama would in no way be affected by this storm. Rather than admitting a mistake—surely a busy President could be forgiven a simple mistake—Trump doubled down on his claim, and held up for all to see a weather map that included a black sharpie drawn bulge that included Alabama within the obvious addition to the map. Ralph’s chortle springs again to my ears as Trump bobs and weaves through this foolishness of his own making. I will dearly miss that wicked chortle.
Jeremiah, too, faced a very uncertain future, as we do now. He was in prison, confined in the court of the guard, because King Zedekiah of Judah was plainly sick and tired of the prophet’s howling about the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Chaldeans (the Babylonians). It hardly took a well-schooled military strategist to draw such a conclusion, since at that very moment, the armies of Babylon, under the leadership of General and King Nebuchadnezzar, were encircling the city, blockading the place, and starving the populace. And to make Jeremiah all the less popular with the Judean king, he claimed all of this was the work of YHWH, who was using the Chaldeans as the agents of doom against the sinful city. No wonder that the prophet was under guard as a traitor to the Judean cause!
But what is the point of all this land wheeling and dealing in the face of the doom of the city and country? Jer.32:15 makes the whole event clear: “For thus says YHWH of the armies, the God of Israel: houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The doom of Judah is not the final word about the place. When the city lies in smoking ruins, there remains in the mind of YHWH a future for the community, a future that cannot be seen clearly or predicted accurately. Zedekiah, the king, will witness the murder of all of his family, and will then be blinded so as to keep that horrifying site fresh forever in his mind. The 350-year old temple will be sacked and denuded of its ornaments, while the palace of the king will be destroyed. Yet, Jeremiah’s foolish act announces a future and a hope for the people.
As I absorb the death of my quite new friend, I keenly feel his loss, and can barely imagine what others may be feeling that knew him for decades. Ralph was a highly talented man, but he also knew that he was but one member of a community that continually seeks justice for all people and that opens its arms for anyone who seeks to join. That community has a future in the presence and power of God, and Ralph would be the first to celebrate that assured future. I, too, will one day join Ralph in death, and I can only hope that the community in which I found my hope and my joy will continue in the power of God to dedicate itself afresh to the high ideals to which we have publically ascribed. Ralph was a member of our past, and now will forever be a member of our future, however fraught that future may be, however difficult that future may appear. I thank you, Ralph, for your life and witness to the church at its best. May we continue to live out that witness as long as our lives endure; may we always be ready to buy land in the midst of threat, trusting that God is not finished with us yet.