Homily for Gary Michel Memorial
Zion Lutheran Church
John Marboe, Pastor
John Marboe, Pastor
Gospel Lesson: John 3. 1-8
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
I never spoke with Gary about what his wishes for his own funeral might be. But if I had, I am quite sure that Gary would have said something like: “Keep it short. And no BS!”
I will attempt to honor that!
A minute ago, Gary’s brother Tom shared how he tried to help his kids understand their Uncle Gary: “Your uncle is kinda like the wind.” He said. “He shows up when you don’t expect, and goes when and where he wants.”
In the Gospel story, this is how Jesus describes people who are “born of the Spirit.” But this passage is about more than unpredictability. It is about letting go of those things the world tells us give life, but do not. And it is about the life that comes from living in Christ’s Spirit (by the way, in biblical Greek “wind” and “spirit” are the same word). It is descriptive of people “born from above,” or “born again.”
And Gary was born again into a life of the Spirit/Wind.
For many Christians, to be “born again” is something like a badge of membership that distinguishes those who “belong to Jesus” from the rest of humanity…forever. For them it is an entry ticket to heaven, and without it you go to hell. I spoke to Gary plenty about these matters, and we agreed that this idea is baloney and bad for the world.
It is just this kind of judgement, of othering others, of religious distinction, and of self-righteousness that Jesus protests in the Gospels. Rather, to be “born again” is to let all that stuff go, and to begin life anew with a new sense of humanity; one that is on the side of life—abundant life, of compassion, and of healing. For all people.
Gary was, in this sense, born again. He was awake to what really mattered in life—and what did not. As was said earlier, he would help anyone. Anyone. Okay, he might grumble and be critical while doing it. But there he was.
He rejected the path of accumulation, of reputation, or of recognition. These simply did not matter to him.
What he cared about was quite simple. To pursue knowledge, to care for others, and to show up each and every Thursday here at Zion to serve food to persons in need…AND to yell at us that we weren’t doing things right. Which we all experienced. Me included. Yep he yelled at me too.
Which brings me to another image Jesus used, besides wind.
In Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns to his disciples and says: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, it is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trodden under foot. So have salt, and be salty!”
Gary was salty.
He was salty in that Irish way of speaking: “Aye, he’s the salt o th’ arth!”
Which means: He swore like a sailor. He had no airs. He drank (until he didn’t anymore). He could be rough around the edges. He told it like he saw it. But he had a heart of gold.
I love this image because it is so earthy. I love this image because it is not churchy.
I love it because it expresses something of how we are to be here in the world.
Gary. Was. Here.
He was fully present. He was fully himself. For better and for worse. He showed up!
Now that was not always, nor by everyone, exactly appreciated.
But Jesus never called anyone to be “nice.” Not once.
But salt. Salt is an essential element for life. Without it we die. To be sure, too much of it is not good either! But it is embedded in the life of the world, essentially.
We all know that salt was a preservative in the ancient world. It made food last and helped people survive the seasons of life.
What we may not know is that salt was essential to healing. I used to think that “to rub salt in a wound” was a phrase that meant to be cruel to someone who was already down. But salt was the most basic and universally available antibiotic. Soldiers rubbed salt in their wounded comrades to prevent infection, so that they might heal. Yes, it stung like mad, but it was applied for healing.
It is striking that Gary’s two main senses of vocation were: to heal and to feed people. He trained during Vietnam to be a medic, and later became an RN. After that he went to culinary school to become a chef. Eventually he came to help in our kitchen at Zion. Gary was a healer. Gary fed the hungry. Encountering Gary could sting, but he was salt; on the side of life and of healing.
Gary was and is like wind and salt. But we are here not only to ponder Gary’s life. We are here in this liminal space, this in-between space, between life and death, to ponder our own lives…in light of Gary’s life. It is from this perspective, from the perspective of the end of life, that life can be viewed with greatest clarity. And if you are anything like me, you realize from this point of view how much energy, time, money, fear, and worry we spend on things that, from this perspective, don’t really matter much at all.
What really matters? It becomes quite simple. For what really matters boils down to one thing:
What matters is getting ice cream cones with your brother’s kids and carrying them home, ice cream melting down your shirt.
It’s just one thing: Showing up as Santa for the kids every Christmas.
Just one thing: Feeding the hungry while being an ornery cuss.
Just one thing: Caring for people with huntington’s disease as a nurse.
Just one thing: Love.
Gary was moved by love. Imperfectly, but real-ly. Wholly. Saltily. Windily.
And this is eternal life. Eternal life is not a very long time after you die. Eternal life has nothing to do with time. It is outside of time. That is what “eternal” means. No time.
Eternal life is not a quantity of life. It is a quality of life. It is the life of love And that life is available and present both now and forever. It is available to all of us. All the time. No matter how much or little time we have. No matter how strong or weak we feel. The one thing that truly matters, that lasts forever, and that is the very life of heaven, is available to all of us. To love.
Gary is with God. No one can understand quite, nor describe adequately what that means. We are too limited in our imaginations, too narrow in our experience and thinking. However:
The best description I ever heard was from a three year old girl. Who is my daughter. She is no longer three, but when she was, we visited the graveside of our cat Harvey who had died shortly after she was born. We stood around the grave, under the maple tree in our back yard. My wife Andrea asked our daughter, Charlie, “Where do you think Harvey went?”
Without hesitation, Charlie proclaimed, “Into the world, Mommy!”
It is the best description of heaven I have ever heard. Not: Up to heaven. Not: Into the ground. But: Into the world.
We tend to think of heaven as some other place, absent from here. But where is God?
If God is anywhere, is not God everywhere?
Gary is with God. Therefore Gary is present—forever with you, as salt and as wind. His love the very reflection of God’s love that makes and redeems the world.
Love is eternal life. Is a gift. Is grace for everyone, no exceptions.
I hope that was not too long, nor BS.