A Burial Homily

Robert Winston Brownlee

Sharon and I remember Robert Winston Brownlee as the person waiting here in this nave after the first liturgy I celebrated here on June 1 of 2008. Most of the congregation had moved by that time to the Great Hall for coffee hour. Bob lingered; he seemed to want to greet us, and so we went to him. We had conversation, and Bob made us both feel very welcomed. After that encounter I went away thinking: “I just met another reason I’m glad to be here”.

One day more than two years ago Bob came in to share with me his plans for his Burial Eucharist. They were well-laid liturgical plans, and you are experiencing them today.

Another day Bob arranged a visit to the parish office to show me the guide to flower arranging published by the Flower Guild of the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, otherwise known as the National Cathedral. What would I think of St. Paul’s Flower Guild taking inspiration from this book? He asked. Having a clear sense that a great gift had just been laid before me, I said I thought that would be just fine!

Encounters with Bob Brownlee were always occasions for blessing for me, and my wife Sharon shares this feeling with me. The greatest gift and blessing, in the end, was the way in which he shared with me and with Sharon his journey through his final illness. There was a lunch on the sun-dappled terrace of the Taproot Café at the Willows Inn where we heard about motorcycle trips in Europe and his love of travel. There were some visits out to his home overlooking the Strait of Georgia where we quietly conversed with him and with Grant, received the affections of Annie and Socks, his dogs, and read Psalms and Gospel texts from John and shared in the sacrament of the Holy Communion. Those times had all the character for me of communion times: together we communed with the living God apparent in the sea vista just outside the window, in the beautiful works of arts and crafts Bob collected in his home, with the wonderful canines greeting us with moist affection, and in the human conversation that appreciated the moment and the company and the essential mystery and beauty of life that enveloped us.

Bob had a deep soul. For all I know, he was born with it. I do know that we work on our souls during our lifetime, though, and Bob worked his soul.

And that brings me to the lessons he chose for his funeral. A common theme runs through them; the theme of the nearness of God. He chose a text from Isaiah with comforting words to a people returning from long exile. He chose a text from the Apocalypse affirming that the dwelling of God is with mortals, and that God’s presence among us is as consolation and comfort for sufferers. He chose a text from the Fourth Gospel affirming that in Jesus we have very present with us the Way home to God.

Sharon and I were discussing this theme, and her observation was that no one who lived the kind of professional life Bob lived as a physician with oncology as his specialty could very well find the thought of a distant God at all sustaining.

Bob gave himself to a profession in which he allowed himself to be present to much human suffering, and by all accounts he was anything but distant with his patients. He lived and practiced medicine soulfully, and in so doing I believe he became a friend of God.

Like another physician named Luke, Bob was drawn in his funeral planning to a text from Isaiah. That text we read occupies a central place in the story that Luke tells in his Gospel account. Luke alone tells us that on a certain Sabbath Day in Jesus’ home town Jesus was in the synagogue and was invited to read the appointed lesson. Unrolling the scroll, he read from Isaiah the words we heard:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Luke the Physician, in his vocation as a healer, gave us this recollection of Jesus as one concerned with the healing of the world. Bob also recognized in this text the call he was pursuing in his life. Bob saw himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ; seeking to learn from the Master how he himself might be the means of God’s compassionate nearness to sufferers.

This had a memorable affect on Bob’s patients. I heard from Grant the story of the occasion recently when Bob received word from a man with what we call a “Bucket List” with Bob’s name on it. Fifty years ago that man was a ten-year-old boy on a ward Bob visited on his rounds during his residency. Something apparently compelled Bob to make a gift to that small boy of his stethoscope.

Well, that ten-year-old boy lived. Inspired by Bob to seek a career in the healing arts, he practiced physical therapy for years. Upon his retirement his “bucket list” included an item to contact that doctor from long ago to thank him for his attention and to let that doctor know what his attention had meant to him all his life long. He followed through, and Bob had the joy of knowing the difference he made in that man’s life.

A ministry and vocation such as Bob had is demanding, and one cannot be around suffering as consistently as Bob was in his professional life and not seek other avenues for creativity that participate in the wonder and beauty of life.

In Bob’s home sits a piano he learned to play, and works of needlepoint he executed with loving attention. A cabinet in his dining room contained an extensive collection of recordings of much of the greatest music of the Western world,along with some of the most playful and accessible music of his time. And the other day I saw two notebooks given to Bob by a friend when Bob – having no prior training in flower arranging – asked for some help. Those notebooks contain the most beautiful pencil and watercolor sketches of designs for arranging. We at St. Paul’s Church became the beneficiaries of his efforts, and this altar was adorned many times for the celebration of the glorious mysteries of our salvation by Bob’s exquisite re-arrangements of some of the most glorious materials of God’s creation.

Through his compassion, Bob entered deeply into the mystery of life, with a keen appreciation for the things that make for joy. He enjoyed the depths of a Mahler symphony and he enjoyed a good country song like Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart”. I’m told he once took the nursing staff to a concert to hear Cyrus perform. That’s so Bob; generous and compassionate and wanting to share life’s pleasures with others.

Through his final illness I witnessed Bob graced with a keen sense of humor and a deep, unshakeable faith that God was with him and that he could entrust himself to God. Bob lived the Scriptures he selected today; he lived in the knowledge of God’s nearness.

Our desire for Bob and for ourselves is to know and trust the nearness of God until the world is healed and reconciled to God. That promise is expressed in the text from the Apocalypse chosen by Bob. Let’s hear it again:

Revelation 21:2-7
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

This hope, I believe, was firmly planted in Bob’s heart, and Bob’s desire for us would be that this hope be firmly planted in our hearts. And so I offer this prayer for us; a prayer to which I believe Bob would say a hearty “Amen, so be it.”

O Lord of life, who dwellest in eternity, and who hast planted in our hearts the faith and hope which look beyond our mortal life to another, even a heavenly country: We give thanks to thee this day for the bright shining of the light of immortality in Jesus Christ. As he hath showed us the blessedness of heaven on earth, and hath called us into a kingdom not of this world, so may our life be made ever richer in the things that do not pass away. Raise us up, we pray thee, in the power of his Spirit, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. Prepare us to follow him, in hope and trust, through all the darkness of the grave into the world of light whither he hath led the way. And when our spirits shrink before the mysteries of life and death, may we be comforted by the thought of that immortal love which knoweth no change, and feels that, whether we live or die, we are safe in thine everlasting arms; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(from Burial Services, Joseph Buchanan Bernardin, p. 153)