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God of Goodness, Unfailing Love, and Faithfulness

God of Goodness, Unfailing Love, and Faithfulness

(This sermon is based on Psalm 100:5 and is a memorial for a fellow that is a member of my church since his childhood, though he had not attended for almost 40 years.  He lived his life well, was a man of great humor – and one of the most unpretentious people you’d ever meet.  The sermon recounts my last few conversations with him.  I don’t know about the congregation, but this memorial sermon was one of the most enjoyable and meaningful messages God has blessed me to preach.)

I first met Billy Snead when he was at MCV undergoing chemotherapy for the blood cancer he’d battled for many years.  I was fairly new to Patterson Avenue Baptist – new to the city of Richmond.  I had been told that Billy was one to speak his mind and that I should not be shocked by anything that came out of his mouth.

I entered the room and introduced myself, “Hello, I’m Bill Nieporte, pastor of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church, where you are a member!”

He replied, “Where the hell have you been for 35 years?”

I imagine that’s how long it had been since Billy had been to church.

So, I pulled up a seat, started from 35 years back, and recounted nearly every placed I’d lived since I was in Middle School in Daytona Beach, Florida.  When I was finished, Billy said, “Remind me to never ask you a question like that again!”

When people find out I am a pastor, they often temper their conversation around me.  I remember once, in my first full-time church on the Northern Neck, driving to visit a church member after a heavy snow.  I lost control, took out this fellow’s mailbox, and landed in a ditch in his front yard.

He blasted out of his house using all kinds of creative conversation.  I’d heard all the words he’d used before, just never in the order in which he used them.

When he finished, I said, “I am sorry about this.  I am looking for Luther Welch, one of my church members.  I am the brand new pastor at Morattico Baptist Church.”

Well, he looked at white as the snow on the ground in his yard.  “Oh, Luther is a good man, yes, indeed.  I know a lot of people down at your church.  I am a member up the road at the Methodist Church.  I serve on the session…”  and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.  After hearing that I was a pastor, this fellow’s speech was converted from that of a drunken sailor into that of a stained glassed saint.

People like that bug me.  I appreciate people who are true to themselves…people who do not put on airs or pretend to be something different depending on who is standing nearby.

That’s why I liked my encounters with Billy Snead.  He never pretended to be anyone other than who he was.  His motto in life might have been like that of the old cartoon character Popeye, “I Yam What I Yam!”  Billy never pretended to be something he wasn’t.

I did not see or talked with Billy very often over the next few years.  I did pass on word through his brother Brian that I was willing to come and listen – come and talk – whatever Billy wanted.  What I refused to do was been one of those preachers who would take aim at Billy to get another notch on some gospel gun.

So I was amazed when Billy sent word through Brian that he would like me to visit.

When I arrived, Billy and Evelyn were on the back porch.  The Hospice nurse was saying her goodbyes as I arrived along with Brian.

We went inside.  Billy laid back on the couch to get comfortable and said, “Okay, shoot!”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

I didn’t know if he wanted me to put him out of his misery; or if he wanted me to preach a sermon; or perhaps go into some gospel song-and-dance.  None of those things are me, so I said, “Well, Billy, you are the one who invited me over here.  You shoot!”

He did!

“I do not want to become religious,” he said.  “I have not been a religious man for most of my life.  People would see through it completely if I were to become a religious person now at the end of my life.”

I listened and replied, “Why the hell would you want to be religious.  I sure don’t want you to get religious, Billy.  You might think it strange to hear this, but I am probably the least religious pastor you’d ever meet.”

“In fact,” I continue, “Jesus had more trouble with the religious people than he did with everyday people.  That’s why the religious people conspired together to put Jesus to death.  Jesus doesn’t want you to become religious either.”

Then I said:  “Billy, I am not going to come in here and preach a sermon.  I am not going to try to make you religious.  You are right, everyone would see through that.”

It was quite for a few moments.

“Is there anything else you’d like to say,” I asked.

“Well, not only am I not religious.  I am also not sure I believe there is a God.”

“Okay!” I said.

There was silence for a few moments.  Then I added, “I am not able to prove there is a God.  I can’t look at God under a microscope or see God in a telescope.  All I can say is that I have had an experience with God and for me God is very real.”

“There is no way anyone can know for certain!” Billy said.

“You’re right.  You really can’t prove there is not a God and I cannot prove there is.  So I wonder, ‘Might you be willing to accept that God might actually exist.’”

“I guess it is possible.  There is no way to know.” he said.

“And if that God did exist, would you want that God to be good, loving, and kind – and not so hung up on if you act religious or not.”

He agreed that he would want that kind of God and I assured him that this is the God I represent.

Then Billy said, “I want to have my funeral service at the church!”

I smiled and said, “And you say that God doesn’t exist!”

He ignored that comment.

I told him that he was a member of that church – had been since the days of his youth – and that we would certainly be willing to have his funeral in the church.

Then we talked about various aspects of the service.  Who he’d like to speak, and sing, and how he’d like to be remembered.

He said, “I would like you to conduct my service.  But I have been to a lot of funerals where the preacher was talking about somebody he’d never known.  I do not think that fair to the preacher so I wanted you to come by so you could get to know me.”

“I understand,” I said.  “Tell me about yourself.  What is there to know?”

“There isn’t much to say,” he replied.

There are actually a lot of things that could be said.

Billy was not a tall man, but whenever he entered a room, he was large and in charge.  He had the kind of persona that demanded attention and attracted people like a magnet.

Evelyn showed me some pictures of Billy on an annual fishing trip with some friends who he had known since the second grade.  Billy was the smallest man in the group – but he was evidently the leader of the pack.  They all knew, loved, and appreciated Billy Snead.

I saw several pictures of Billy with baseball teams he had play on and coached.  Billy was a big sports fan.  As he wrote in his obituary, “One of my passions was playing sports, although I was not endowed with size, speed or talent. I played as hard as I could in every game I ever got in.”

I love the picture of Billy on the baseball card.  It says, “FBS!”  It was created by a team of friends he left so he could get more play time on another.  If you wonder what that means, the family and I have decided that we will say it means, “Friend of Billy Snead” as long as we are in the church building. Some of you might know different, but that’s what we are going to go with while we are together in this place.

Billy had a successful career in business, having negotiated various kinds of contracts on a national and international level with the Reynolds’s Metal.  He was known by business, union, and corporation leaders all over the world.

Somehow Billy became connected to Jack Nicholson.  He and Evelyn stayed with Nicholson and his people in a mansion a studio had rented for Jack while he was filming a movie.  Billy even had three or four walk on parts in a few of Nicholson’s movies.

Billy loved his mother and father.  He even spoke at his own mother’s funeral (which had to be a challenge).  I am told his opening line was, “Momma always wanted me to be a preacher.”  I am told he owned the platform whenever he stood in front of a crowd to speak.

Billy was a terrific story-teller, loved to tell jokes, and could ad lib some of the funniest lines in any conversation.

Billy was also quite the craftsman.  If you have been to the house – then you have probably seen the “outhouse.”  If you haven’t seen it, you are missing something special.

He and Evelyn had a happy marriage, three terrific daughters, several grand-children, and extended family members whom he loved – and who loved him.  He always brought smiles to their faces and joy to their lives.

Like I said, “Billy was large and in charge” most of his life.  It was the challenges of the last few years – and particularly these last several weeks – that must have taken its told.  In death, we all face one of the few things in life that NONE of us can control.  Billy could not control the when, were, or how of his eventual death.

That’s not to say he did not face it with courage.  That’s not to say that he did not face it on his own terms.  That’s not to say that he allowed it to change who he was in any way.  It didn’t!

It is to say that he was not large or in charge.  That’s the reality we all have to deal with when we come face-to-face with our own mortality.  In the end, it’s just us and God.

That’s the one thing I prayed that Billy would discover.  I wanted him to know that there was a God – and I prayed that Billy would discover that this God fit the description of the Psalmist whom I quoted a few moments ago.

 “For the Lord is good, His unfailing love continues forever, and His faithfulness continues to each generation.”

On that Monday afternoon visit, Billy agreed that there might be a God – and if there were, he hoped that God might be good, unfailing in love, and faithful for all eternity.

Billy also agreed that I could come back and visit again.

At the time I hoped that Billy might have several weeks – even months – before he passed.  I hoped that I would have several more visits to get to know him and enjoy his personality.

The following Saturday, however, I received a call that Billy was very near death.

I went over to the house and went into the room.  I introduced my presence in the room and Billy said, “It’s PB!”  I didn’t understand the reference and asked him what he meant.

“Pastor Bill!” he said.

I am told that I had arrived, since he had given me a nickname.

I sat next to him and held his hand.  There was a little bit of small talk about how he was feeling, which was not well.  He was in obvious discomfort.

After a few minutes, I said.  “Billy, I promised you I would not come here and preach a sermon to you or try to make you religious, and I intend to keep my promise.  So, I am going to leave, but before I do, I wonder if there is anything you want to say to me as a pastor.”

“No!” he said.

“That’s fine,” I replied.  “Can I say a prayer for you before I go?”

“Yes, please!” he said.

As I held his hand, I prayed that Billy would know God’s as good, loving, and faithful.  I prayed that he would discover that God has offered him grace and acceptance through Jesus.  I prayed that he would know that God did not expect him to be religious, but wanted Billy for relationship.

When I finished praying, Billy squeezed my hand and said quietly, “Amen!”

The word “Amen” means, “So be it.”  It is the word we say at the end of a prayer as an expression of agreement and affirmation of the words that have just been spoken.

Billy was a smart man.  I know that he knew that.  I believe that “Amen” was Billy’s best possible response to God’s love and grace – and I think it was more than sufficient.

A few moments after my visit, one of Billy’s sisters was in the room.  Billy was very frustrated, dealing with great discomfort, and trying to say his goodbyes to his family.  Billy took a deep breath and said to his sister, “I am going to be alright!”

Yes, Billy is alright!

The next morning, around 10:00 AM, Billy’s fight ended.  It was the end to a life lived well.  It was a life filled with love.  As Billy said in his obituary, “A life without love is not worth living.”

I am told that somebody, hearing of my conversation with Billy, said to Evelyn, “I understand that Billy made peace with God.”  To which, Evelyn respond, “Yes, but he hasn’t done any witnessing.”

That’s right.  Billy didn’t do any witnessing.  He did not become religious.

What happened was that the goodness, unfailing love, and faithfulness of God were expressed to Billy.

This God doesn’t ask us to be religious.  This God doesn’t have a long list of expectation and demands to which we must adhere.  All God hopes for is that we might know that He is real; that He is good and gracious; that His love and faithfulness toward us have been expressed in Jesus – and that when we discover all of that grace and love that our heart might simply say, “Amen!”

 

“For the Lord is good, His unfailing love continues forever, and His faithfulness continues to each generation.”

 Let the people say…AMEN!

 

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3 Responses to “God of Goodness, Unfailing Love, and Faithfulness”

  1. Steve McVey says:

    Excellent, Bill. Billy sounds like my guy for sure. And you’re my kind of pastor too.

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