Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Funeral Service M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Ezekiel 36:22-28
Philippians 1:3-11
John 11:21-27

It was three weeks ago, on one of those stunningly beautiful fall days.  I was sitting at Tom’s bedside in his beloved hermitage at Emery House, with his sister Penny.  We had just anointed him and prayed with him, and he was looking out, gazing up through those huge windows at the brilliantly blue sky and the trees.  He wanted all the shutters open, so he could see – see the golden leaves dazzling and shimmering in the sunlight.

We gazed with him, in silence, and it seemed that the whole of creation was on fire with God’s glory.  At that precious moment it felt like God was gifting us with just a glimpse of the glory that awaits us all – the glory which I have no doubt Tom is now enjoying.   Tom, who loved St. Paul, believed and trusted absolutely, that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.”

All of us here today come with a sense of loss and sadness.  We have lost a man who for so many years has been our brother, our bishop, our friend – and we miss him, and many of us have shed tears for him.  And that is good.  At the same time I know that he would want this worship to be shot through with the beams of God’s glory.  For the promise of glory which sustained Tom throughout his life found its source in that great truth which was the bedrock of his whole life and ministry – the great truth which we celebrate today and which Tom chose as today’s Gospel.  “Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  Today we celebrate the life of a man who did believe this and who embodied it – and built his whole life on that promise, and who in an extraordinarily gracious way was able to help so many of us to believe, to trust, and discover our own truest lives, through that great promise.

Seeing glory, seeing glory often in the most apparently ordinary and unpromising places was a great gift which Tom had, and is probably why he so loved the poems of Mary Oliver, poems which we were reading aloud to him as he died.

Tom loved to see.  He loved to see into.  And of all his gifts, I think he was above all a seer.  He had a prophetic gift of seeing deeply, of capturing a vision.  And of course this gift was the perfect one for the ministry he exercised both as Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and then as Bishop of Massachusetts – the ministry of episcope.

In the New Testament, the Greek word episcope has two meanings.  Firstly it means seeing, or looking around and over.  It is close to the word panorama.  It is about standing back and seeing.  It is the psalmist’s prayer to be set upon a rock that is higher than I.  It’s standing in a high place where you can really over-see.  The word in this sense is used many times in the Acts of the Apostles.  The high place for Tom was his monastic cell.  No one can understand Tom without knowing of his faithful rock-like attention to God.  Every morning, without fail, he would light the candles in his cell, read Scripture and gaze at his icons, and pay attention.  Before he went on his first sabbatical, the diocese asked him how they should pray for him.  He said, “Pray that I may have the gift of perspective.”

His faithful, daily monastic attention to prayer was not out of virtue but out of need.  Without those times he – could not see.  But when he could see, and his vision renewed, amazing things could happen.  And we all know and give thanks to God for some of the fruits of his vision.  The building up of the church in this diocese and beyond; nurturing children and young people for mission and ministry; the establishment of the Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center; supporting the B-SAFE program for youth in our towns and cities; founding the Life Together Program for Young Adults and building the Together Now Capital Campaign to support our diocese’s mission and ministry.  These are just some of the extraordinary fruits of Tom’s episcopal vision.

The word episcope has a second meaning in the New Testament.  It’s found in the Letter to the Hebrews and the First Letter of Peter.  Here, it means, “see to it that.”  It means “pay careful attention and ensure that things get done right that need to be done.”  Theologian Ian Paul writes that to exercise episcope as the New Testament describes it, is to have the helicopter quality and ability to rise up rise high and see the overall lie of the land, but then to drop down low and attend to particular things that need dealing with.

Tom did not try to avoid this often demanding part of episcopal ministry.  When Tom became diocesan bishop after the tragic death of his predecessor he focused all his pastoral, administrative and spiritual gifts on what needed to be done, however painful, to bind up the broken-hearted and renewing the hope and the vision of the diocese.

And of course he loved homing in on the particular.  Often of an evening, if my light was still on, he would come into my cell, plonk himself down on a chair and tell me all about his day.  He loved visitations.  He really knew the parishes, and had an amazing memory for names.  He liked to see what was going on, and he didn’t miss much.  But more than anything else he wanted to see – YOU.  Who are you?  What’s your name?  Do you love Jesus?  Not very Episcopalian!  And he would look at you deeply and steadily with those eyes of his.  Somebody wrote to me last week and said this:  “Tom is one of the few people I can name in my life who really saw me.  He was able to focus on my fears and frailties.  He called me out.  He challenged me to do things I never would have dared to do on my own.”  I know that there are many here today, including me, who would echo that.  And I think it was to do with his ability to see.  So often he could see, what I would call the glory or the potential in another person, that they could not see themselves.  St. Irenaeus said “The glory of God is a person fully alive.”

Tom, who so lived his life in the power of the resurrection, longed to challenge and help others to come fully to life, to glorify God by becoming the unique and wonderful person God had made them to be.  And so he would say “I want to know you.  Who are you?”  Even in the hospital, as he was being prepared for his operation, he would ask the staff, “What’s your name?  Where do you live?  Do you go to church?  You know there’s a really good Episcopal church near where you live!”  He was a formidable evangelist.  Of course, because he had such a vision for how individuals can be formed and transformed in Christ, he loved spending time with young people, and they loved him.  He believed in them, encouraged them and loved and prayed for them.  Young men and women who had the whole of their lives ahead of them.

And so it was that in September 2012 when young Jorge Fuentes was shot dead in Dorchester, Tom was devastated.  All the years I have known him, I have never known him so utterly devastated.  That this young man so gifted, and so full of promise, his life ahead of him, should have been killed in this way was terrible.  For Tom it was sacrilege, it was profoundly sinful, the kind of societal sin which he spent his life fighting against.  And he was galvanized into action – finding ways to end violence, starting with the B-PEACE for Jorge campaign, calling Episcopalians, 650 of them, to join him and march in Jorge’s name at the memorable Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace.

I would say that all Tom’s passion for justice had its source in his vision.  He saw that every single individual had been wonderfully created in the image of God, and anything which stopped them becoming more fully the person God made them to be, from reaching their full glory, was not just unjust but sinful.  Sinful, to have even one beautiful life stunted, or blighted or wiped out because of that person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, class, vulnerability or disability.  And he fought such sin with courage.  At the State House, outside the Israeli embassy, inside Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  He had great courage – courage in these past 18 months as he faced into his brain cancer.

Tom was very gifted in so many ways.  But as with all of us, these gifts had their shadow side.  He was a gifted and forceful leader with a clear vision.  But he could also be insensitive and sometimes get angry and impatient with those who didn’t agree with him.  He wasn’t always right!  Some of us here today will have experienced something of this side of Tom.

Even during some of these challenging times with Tom, his saving grace was his sense of humor.  What I loved about him was that while he took God seriously, he never took himself too seriously.  He was really quite mischievous and could be disarmingly silly.  When he came back to the monastery after a day in the diocese, he used to take his pectoral cross off, or tuck it under his scapular, so he would be one of the Brothers.  He once came into the back of the chapel at the end of a Eucharist, and he forgot to take his cross off.  A woman saw him who hadn’t seen him before and said, “Why are you the only Brother who’s wearing a cross?”  And he said, “O, I’m monk of the month.”

piero-wga-resurrection-560How many more stories we could share!  And last week, I was sitting in Tom’s cell in the monastery, and asking Tom in my prayers, what do you want me to tell them in this homily?  And my eyes passed over the icons, the Bible and commentaries, the candles, the lists of names of those he was remembering in prayer.  But in pride of place, right in the center, and covered with candle wax drippings was this painting, which he was praying with during his last days.  It was one he loved and preached about and led a meditation on at Convention.  That’s what I want you to tell them! I heard him say.  The painting is the ‘Resurrection’ by Piero della Francesca.  [A black and white copy of this is on the front of today’s service leaflet.]

Aldous Huxley called it the greatest painting in the world.  Even as the guards lie sleeping, Christ in great power rises gloriously from the dead.  But the glory of the painting is hard to see in a small reproduction.  The glory is Christ’s eyes.  They gaze at us, steadily and lovingly.  But they are eyes which have gone through the night: for 3 days they have been wrestling with death – but have finally conquered.  This was the image Tom was praying with and this I believe is what he would want this day to be about.  That however dark the day, however heavy our hearts, however hard the struggle, Christ has conquered death, has risen from the dead, and opened for us the gate of heaven.  Alleluia.

Tom believed absolutely in the resurrection and longed for heaven.  I had a letter a few days ago which said this: “If ever I had confidence in a life’s transparency to resurrection – if ever I trusted in the life to come out of the death of someone I knew – it is with Br. Tom.”  Tom talked about heaven a lot, and a few months ago I remember him saying that he was getting excited about going to heaven.  Not long ago someone said to him, “Tom, do you want to go to the hospice?”  And he answered, quick as a flash, “No – I want to go to heaven!”  And he had one favorite hymn which he loved to sing.  I chose it for my own Profession in the monastery.  Tom said, “That’s my favorite hymn, and it always makes me cry.”  A hymn of glory.  Well, we’re going to sing it, Tom, straight after this homily.  We will sing it with thanksgiving in our hearts. [“King of Glory, King of Peace.”]

As we sing it, let us give thanks to God for the gift of our dear Tom, our brother, our bishop, our friend.  Thanksgiving for his family who nurtured him: for his parents, for his sister, Penny, and brothers Sam and Stephen and their spouses and his nieces and nephews.  Thanksgiving for the Brothers of our monastic community.  Thanksgiving for the staff and people of this diocese where he served and loved.  Thanksgiving especially for Jackie who served him so faithfully as his assistant for so many years.  Thanksgiving for all those far and wide who have been touched and blessed by his gracious life and ministry.

Thanksgiving now to Almighty God who created him and redeemed him through Jesus Christ.  Tom, we love you.  We will miss you.  And now may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

The Brothers invite you to share memories and messages at www.SSJE.org/tom

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