On December 28, 2019, at St. Stephen’s, Richmond, Bishop Goff preached the following sermon at the Celebration of Life for Robert Dilday, a priest of the Diocese of Virginia and co-founder of the Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice. Robert died unexpectedly of natural causes on December 22, a week after his ordination to the priesthood.
Dear family, friends and colleagues of God’s beloved child Robert, when a hundred of us gathered two weeks ago, five miles east of here, to celebrate Robert’s ordination to the sacred order of priests, none of us imagined that we would gather again so soon. Certainly not for this purpose.
We were stunned, physically and emotionally, when we heard the news of Robert’s sudden death last Sunday. For most of us, it still doesn’t seem real. How can it be that a faithful servant of God should die just a week and a day after his ordination? How can it be that a beloved son and father, brother, colleague and friend should die without warning just days before Christmas? Where do we go for comfort, strength and hope in this unimagined time?
The scriptures we heard this afternoon give us a place to start because they have supported people in grief across millennia. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” we heard in the first reading, “because he has anointed me . . . to comfort all who mourn” God has always held people who mourn close to God’s heart of love.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me,” we proclaimed in the Psalm. God was with Robert early on Sunday morning, holding him in strong arms of love.
God is with us now. And always. That’s the message of the angels, the message of Christmas. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” we hear in the Gospel of Matthew this time of year, “and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:23). God came to earth, born a vulnerable child to vulnerable refugee parents.
God broke down every barrier between heaven and earth to live as one of us, showing us how to pour ourselves out for the sake of other people, for the sake of the world.
God broke down every separation between the earthly and the divine to heal a broken world, to take sides with the poor, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
In Christ Jesus, God came to earth and challenged the powerful for the sake of the marginalized. It was a profoundly loving act - and a powerfully political act, because it touched every aspect of the ways that society orders itself. And how society orders itself is a definition of politics.
Right from the start, what God did in coming to earth was loving, political - and dangerous. Because the first century world of the Middle East was every bit as averse to real, meaningful change as is our increasingly polarized society today. Poor, marginalized shepherds welcomed Jesus and celebrated his birth; the powerful rulers of the world did not. Magi from foreign countries and religions celebrated his coming; the leaders of the local tradition did not.
What God did in coming to earth was dangerous. It was provocative. And it got responses. We commemorate this very day, December 28, the massacre of the innocents under King Herod. As the story is told in the Gospel of Matthew,
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under . . . Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”
That’s a part of the Christmas story that we don’t tell young children; it’s not typically in our Christmas pageants.
Right from the start in the biblical witness, people countered and contradicted God’s action in the world. Right from the start, joy and mourning dwelt side by side. Mourning is, in fact, the context in which God acted that first Christmas, bringing hope and promise for another kind of life. Division and suffering are the context in which God continues to act, showing us how to pour ourselves out, as Jesus did, for the sake of the poor and oppressed, and for the sake of this beautiful and beleaguered earth. God continues to act by coming to earth and working through us.
The ways God acted in and through Robert. Robert dedicated his energy and passion to the work of justice on this earth in Jesus name. He saw how treatment of the environment, treatment of persons of color and treatment of the poor intersect, and he chose actively to engage environmental, racial and economic justice. He chose in literal ways to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.
Earlier this month Robert, two others from the Diocese of Virginia and I went to Union Hill in Buckingham County to meet with mostly African American residents and hear first-hand how their lives are impacted by a proposed compressor station for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Robert stood in characteristic calm, clarity and deep compassion with people who grieve and look for hope.
In that, and so many other aspects of Robert’s life, he lived the life of a priest - even before he was ordained priest. At his ordination service, the Rev. Penny Nash, his colleague at St. Stephen’s, preached these words about the work of priests:
“We are called to notice the Holy in this world . . . to look, to see, to reorient and realign ourselves toward the Divine in the midst of whatever mess, whatever difficulty, whatever noise is swirling about us, and to encourage others to join us there so that we can give people hope when they are discouraged by all the crazy and dysfunction and grief and despair, when all they can see is the shattered and the broken, the pain and the chaos.”
Robert noticed the Holy. In his work for justice, in his truthful, honest speaking and writing, Robert pointed out the holy to others. He chose goodness. He chose life.
Now God has given him the gift of the fullness of life, eternal life that God offers to everyone through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Robert chose life in this world. And Robert lives life now beyond our wildest imagining.
God was with Robert all his life, and is with him now more fully than ever. God is with us. Always. Holding us in strong, tight, fierce arms of love. And God will never let us go.
Because that is true, we can have life right here in the land of grief by living as Robert did, in imitation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for the sake of others. We can find comfort even in grief by loving this wondrous creation that God has committed to our care.
May that hope, that trust bring comfort to each one as we miss Robert, as we learn to live without him, as we remember his witness of love to this beautiful world, and all in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Deal graciously with Russell, Harrison, Andrew, Nancy, Ellen and all the family, friends and colleagues in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Remembrance for Robert from Baptist News Global
- Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice
- Toxic Injustice: Ecological Crisis in Marginalized Communities by Robert Dilday