With Thanksgiving To and For Carl: Old First Meditation 11.17.18

With Thanksgiving To and For Carl: Old First Meditation 11.17.18

A homily shared at the memorial service for the Rev. Dr. Carl Kleis at the Reformed Church of North and Southhampton

Psalm 39:4-7 and Matthew 20.1-16
Goodbyes are never easy. From the time we are little children suffering separation anxiety to when, later in life, we can’t quite fathom what our days and years will be like without someone dear being part of them, goodbyes are never easy.

But some funerals and memorial services are easier than others: we worship God today with gratefulness for the long life Carl led, and even the death he accepted.

Over these last months, with his eye patched, and his walker at home, or the wheel chair when he was on the loose at his beloved Ann’s Choice, Carl would tell me about a book he’d read a few years ago by a Dutch theologian. I’m afraid with all these RCA divines here, everyone else remembers the name of this writer. I remember Carl telling me that the author promised, ‘slowing down with age, we are given time to attend to things we neglected or missed.’ Help Carl may never have asked for to attend to things he had not before. To learn patience… I think that was one benefit he mentioned! Church, we do not always do the same things in all the seasons of our life, but there is always much to do. Another lesson in living, an example offered care of Carl Kleis.

When I visited with him at The Renaissance Center just a few weeks ago, after he’d made his decision to go into hospice, I asked, “Carl, what do your expect to happen after death?” He responded, without a pause, and in his matter of fact — still midwestern after all these years — way: “Michael, I don’t really know, but I believe, no I trust: it will be wonderful.” And, so our gratefulness: for how Carl’s faithfulness makes our having and keeping faith easier:

I say that as a colleague.
But I know I also say it for you who were his parishioners here at the Reformed Church of North and Southhampton.
And I say it for the people of Old First who got to be peers in the pews with him. And for all those who received the grace of his visitations.

And for Gretchen and Nancy and the rest of the family. He was so proud and thankful for you all. He said to me, “Michael, my every effort with them has been rewarded and returned seven-fold.”

Carl’s faith and its practice makes this celebration easier. …Easier to thank God, whom we ultimately is the only One to thank for Carl, for faith, for life here and for life that continues on after death.

It’s ironic, but church is curiously one of the last places one expects to hear about much less encounter death. Ok, we can’t avoid it completely at funerals and memorial services, though even here we sometimes try to step out of its way with an abundance of comforting memories and spiritual solace.

Carl showed a more profoundly Christian approach to death, as he did to life. Instead of deny the problems and tough spots, he approached and confronted them, accepting life and death as God’s givens, and then went about figuring out what faithfulness or ministry might look like. Or, in the UCC’s borrowed parlance, he just kept coming up with commas instead of periods.

As we stood together and sang that first hymn, with all the sound and power and shared belief, I thought to myself: “Carl’s Kleis’ memorial should be a triumphant Easter service. And it is! Think how proud he is: he’s filled the church.”

He told me last month, while we were discussing his brother’s death… he said, “I was baptized and confirmed and eventually ordained. Those were all promises that I have had to stand for something, and stand against other things.” He did so, passionately, stridently, consistently. Beloved, a Christian vocation — whether it be an ordained or a lay person’s — isn’t some tepid, tame or cautious living of one’s life for fear of the shadow of death. Rather it is living full throttle in the face of… because of the realities, over-abundance of death all around us. Living abundantly despite our own and others limitations and fragility because we believe God’s love in Christ is more than enough to cover our failings and to make more of our efforts when they’re done in faith, hope and love. Yes, we succumb, but are not finished. Our hope. Our passage. Our victory are always
— only — assured by One who loves us eternally.

The psalmist in this 39th song reminds me of Carl. It’s as if he’d added words to one of his oboe performances. The realism, willingness to look life and human brokenness, and even death squarely in the face. And to talk openly, straightforward about it. That we might not be overwhelmed or defeated. But empowered to go forth and try in our imperfection nonetheless. We only have so much strength and a certain number of days, so we better use them both well, if we want to serve God.

It’s Niehbuhr’s:
“Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, no matter how virtuous, can be achieved alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”

Carl knew that. Lived that. Showed us that. And he was so save. Used his days well. Because they were numbered. Because so much more is promised.

But there was also that second sacred text we heard this morning. Jesus offered a pointed lesson, in effect, that grace is not only more than any of us deserve. It’s also more than sufficient. And more than any of us need. More than generous. In fact, it’s God’s prerogative. (That’s the answer if anyone is wondering, how Carl lived as he did.)

Carl and I had an argument once about this passage. I’d preached it on Sunday, and most of the implications I drew out were theological. He found me at the back door and then again in the fellowship hour to suggest — a little steamed, maybe even annoyed — that I missed an opportunity by not talking about the economics of such a work environment… how this parable points to a better way of organizing our society and correcting its misled economic priorities, redeeming it by focusing society on people instead of profits.


I love that Carl could make me feel too much a centrist. Talking to him reassured me, I’m not the farthest lunatic fringe clergy falling off the deep end!

The next day, Carl called to apologize. Of course, he wanted me to know he was really sorry about coming down hard on me right at the end of worship. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, which was also characteristic, but responded, “I trust you enough to take your criticism. Especially when you are right.”

Jesus in the parable illustrate his point about grace from the negative. The ones who worked all day, even through the heat of midday, are a bit bent out of shape that they’ve not received more than others for their labor.

For me, Carl Kleis was Jesus’ stronger version of this parable. Same point, but in Carl, Jesus argued from a positive point of view: a man who gave his whole life, and still advocated tirelessly for the equality and care due others. The all-day worker who fought for room for all in that exact same grace that reached and upheld him.

As I said goodbye to Carl — we’d had a visited and the room had just filled up with family hoping for time with him than they got, I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, and said “I love you.” I can’t remember ever as a pastor saying goodbye that way before. Certainly, it was something about my feeling for Carl.

But I think I was also impelled by or maybe even channeling all of you. Carl’d said to me apologetically, “Tell everyone at Old First that I know their care, feel their prayers. When you visit me, it’s like they are all visiting.” (I worried when he said that… where my visits must have been very tiring!)

But because of you, I was encouraged to kiss him and say, for all of us: “We love you, Carl.” I almost feel bad saying that in front of Gretchen and Nancy: even in death, they’re sharing your dad…

But now, trusting God’s love is better than any of ours, we commend Carl to the God’s everlasting mercy and care, in the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.