The following prayers and sermon were delivered at a memorial service for Jeff Rickert at the AFL-CIO in Washington DC on January 17th, 2015. I post them here for the friends and family who could not be in attendance.
Walking with Grief
Do not hurry
as you walk with grief;
it does not help the journey.
do not hurry
as you walk with grief.
Be not disturbed
by memories that come unbidden.
and let God speak for you
will be resolved in God.
Be not disturbed.
Be gentle with the one
who walks with grief.
If it is you,
be gentle with yourself.
Take time, be gentle
As you walk with grief.
Adapted from a passage in David Elginbrod. By George MacDonald in Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community,2002. USA: HarperCollins.
Today we walk with Grief together. In these next hours, let us be gentle with ourselves and one another.
Let us forgive Jeff for the wrongs he did during his too brief life. Let us forgive ourselves for the things we said and did, and didn’t say, didn’t do for Jeff.
Today let us take time to celebrate Jeff’s life and give thanksgiving for Jeff’s presence in our lives.
Today as we walk with Grief together, let us feel the love that brings us together, a love which continues beyond death–our love for Jeff, Jeff’s love for us, our love for one another, and the eternal love of God.
Homily, The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding
We have heard about Jeff’s passions, about his friendships, about his work and about his love for his family.
I loved Jeff. He was my friend and my colleague. He called me when he fell in love. We sat in conference hotel lobbies and he told me about his break-ups. He listened to my anxieties. He was my confidant when I was in a bad place and he was my friend in spite of my failings. He told me about his family and we griped together about work. He came and sat in my Berkeley breakfast nook and we strategized about workforce development projects, and we imagined together a new green economy in which all workers could find dignity and together we would thrive as a nation. He brought friends to my place for dinner, and he appreciated my cooking as well as my policy work.
But today my task, is not only to continue this conversation about what made Jeff’s life meaningful and what he gave to all of us, but also to try and help us all make sense of his death.
In some ways, it is an impossible task. Jeff died too soon. It was not right that he should die at this young age. I am angry that he died—I’m angry at Jeff for having died, I’m angry at myself for not preventing his death, I’m angry at God for not keeping him safe. I find myself lamenting as the David the psalmist lamented, raging about the unfairness of his death.
Over the past few weeks, in my tears of anger and loss, I have also been listening for, praying for, some resurrection angle, some divine intervention that will transform this loss into new life.
Finally this week, I went back to the Bible story about the death of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary.
In this story found in the Gospel of John, Jesus’s friend Lazarus was dying. Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary sent for Jesus and asked him to come and save their brother. But Jesus didn’t come. He stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Lazarus died. When Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.
Martha said to Jesus on the road and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” . . . 32 When Lazarus’ sister Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Usually when Christians retell this Gospel story, they tell it as a story about faith—Lazarus was raised from the dead as proof of Jesus’s power and as a testament to Martha and Mary’s faith.
So why would I tell this story here now to a room full of friends and colleagues—likely among you are some Christians, but I know that some of you have different faiths, some are agnostics, some adamant atheists. I am not, I assure you, telling this story to convert you.
No, I hear in this story something universal, a truth about life after death. God’s role is not to prevent death. Death is a fact of our human existence. While we fight against it, it comes to us all. No God, no faith, no divine intervention can prevent our human lives from ending.
Instead of preventing death, Jesus comes to assure Martha and Mary that their brother will have new life. So today, I listen to that story and ask, what is that “new life” that Jeff has today after death?
I ask, is Jeff’s new life in the work that will continue here at the AFL-CIO? Is it in the building up of the trade union movement, the organizing of workers and fighting for decent wages and working conditions? Is Jeff’s new life in the janitors, the hotel workers, the building trades apprentices, the manufacturing line workers who will earn decent wages, be able to afford homes, have health care, save for retirement because of the labor movement? When I meet the newly organized workers who are fighting for their first contract, or when I meet a group of retirees who were able to spend some years with their families because they had a decent pension—maybe Jeff’s new life is in them.
I ask, is Jeff’s new life in the work that will continue around workforce development and job training? Last Friday, I was with a group of pre-apprentices who were graduating from a certificate program based on the new Multi-Craft Core Curriculum developed by the building trades. They were a group of men and women who were full of hope—hope that the certificate that they’d earned would lead them into an apprenticeship program that would give them a lifelong career ladder, with increasing skills and increasing pay. Jeff hoped that those students would get trained for jobs that they could be proud of. Maybe Jeff’s new life is in the realization of that hope.
I ask, is Jeff’s new life in the ongoing work around the clean, green economy. As we develop new programs to create green jobs, build infrastructure that is needed to address climate change and ensure that people who have been left out of a market driven economy, will find prosperity in the new clean economy that we are creating. Maybe when we see new solar farms going on line and wind projects gradually replacing our fossil fuel economy, we’ll see Jeff’s new life.
But I don’t think that Jeff’s new life is only in the work that he started that we will all continue.
I ask, is Jeff’s new life in the relationships that he created here among us. When Jeff loved us and made us his friends, he changed us forever. Maybe his new life is in the friendships that we will continue and in the new relationships that we will make, the new people that we will love because in some way his love ripples out through us.
I ask, is Jeff’s new life found in the sardonic humor that he shared with us, the dark jokes that were funny and painful, and opened us up to some truths that without his humor we might not have seen. When we laugh at things that are not really funny, when we point at the ridiculousness of our reality, maybe Jeff has some new life in those moments.
And today, as I’ve met Jeff’s family for the first time, I ask is Jeff’s new life in Blake. Jeff loved his family so powerfully, so passionately. That love doesn’t end because Jeff isn’t here. Jeff continues to love his family, and they continue to love him. Blake will grow up and live in Jeff’s love, the love of his parents, Jeff’s brother Kevin and his sister-in-law, Jill, the love of his grandmother Ginny and the love of all of Jeff’s friends. Jeff will find new life in Blake.
I am nearly finished. But before I conclude this sermon, I want to go back to the story of Lazarus. Jesus told Martha and Mary that Lazarus, their brother would rise again. But when Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb he wept. When Jesus was confronted by the reality of losing his friend, he was deeply disturbed because he loved him. I hear in this part of the story, that the belief that Jeff might have new life (in these different ways) doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t weep over his having left us. For some time, the comfort that we need may be in crying together, knowing that we are not the only ones suffering this loss. When it seems an unbearable loss, maybe it is just time for weeping together.
After Jesus had wept with Martha and Mary, he went to the tomb and said to them, “Take away the stone.” They didn’t want to, but Jesus commanded it and they did it. Jesus then called in a loud voice, “Lazarus come out.” And after the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
In this conclusion of the story, I hear Jesus saying that Jeff’s new life requires our participation. It is up to us to roll away the stone, to unbind him and let him go. In time, in good time, our weeping will begin to subside and we’ll be ready to live with Jeff, in his new life. When that time comes, tomorrow, or a year from now, or gradually over many years—we might hear a voice inside of us saying “Jeff come out.” When we hear that voice, it will be time for us to do hard work, moving the stone away and unbinding Jeff.
If Jeff is going to have new life, in the work of organized labor, in building a better system of job training, in creating a clean economy—then it’s up to us to roll away the stones that block that work. It’s up to us to unbind, and overcome the forces that would prevent Jeff’s vision from being realized. It is up to us to carry Jeff’s work forward with his energy, his passion and his wit.
If Jeff is going to have new life in friendships that he created and the ripples of his friendships into new relationships, then it’s up to us to unbind him by loving people as he loved. Sometimes loving people who are hard to love, loving people who have issues, maybe loving people who don’t love us back.
If Jeff is going to have new life in his family and in Blake, then it will be up to us to continue the love and support that Jeff shared with them. In moments of joy and success, we’ll have to remember Jeff’s joy and carry that forward. And when things are hard for Blake and his family (as they are in any family), it will be up to us be there just because Jeff would have been.
I am a person of faith. I believe that Jeff has a new life in all these ways that I’ve mentioned. I believe that this is a resurrection life, a life in God. But whether you believe in God or not, there is comfort for us in weeping together. And when the time comes, I believe that Jeff will rise. His life, his work and his love for all of us will continue in our ongoing work and our love for one another.
Thank you all for coming together today to share in this celebration of his life on earth and this beginning of his new life in God, his new life in us and our love.
Irish Funeral Prayer
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Everything remains as it was. The old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no sorrow in your tone. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort . Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting, when we meet again.