Witness to the Resurrection Service for Alan Steilberg
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2018
Introduction to Scripture Readings
by Barbara Baranes
Lucy chose this reading from the prophet Jeremiah because the tree planted by the water reminds her of Alan. Not only did Alan have a wonderful garden for so many years, she said, but he also had absolute trust in God.
All of us here know that Alan’s trust in God shaped who he was and how he lived. So we trusted Alan because he was trustworthy, we honor him because he was honorable, and we love him dearly because he was so loving and kind.
And his faithfulness pointed us toward God.
Alan lived his faith daily, and it never ceased to bear fruit.
So hear these words of Jeremiah:
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
This reading from the prophet Micah has been important to Alan and Lucy. For many years an exhortation based on this scripture has been posted on their refrigerator. It says: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now! Have mercy now! Walk humbly now! You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it.” These words, on a well-worn slip of paper, are a witness to all who enter their home. Just as their lives witness to the work God calls us to do through the prophet Micah.
So hear these words of Micah:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before the Holy One with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
God has told you, O mortal, what is good:
And what does the Lord require of you, but
To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Homily by Elisa Owen
Love Never Ends
1st Corinthians 13
Love never ends. That is what the longest scripture passage Lucy picked out for this service for her beloved Alan just said. And it is also what the promise of the resurrection central to our Christian faith reassures us. But today is a day on which it may be hard for Lucy to hold onto that promise; and hard for all of those gathered here in support of Lucy and her family to hold on tight to it as well. That is because today is a day many of us who loved Alan never wanted to come.
On this day we gather to give thanks for Alan’s life in the presence of the God who gave us such a huge gift when she gave us him. But we also gather to say goodbye to him, which is very hard to do. So difficult to do in fact that our faith tradition insists that a funeral service, especially a service for one who impacted his community as much as Alan did, not just be about leavetaking, but also about remembering the promises of God. That is why we Presbyterians call this a service “witness to the resurrection.” And, if we are lucky, that is, if the person we are honoring today has lived as God’s own beloved, as Alan did, we can best witness to the risen Christ by reflecting on how those promises of God’s were made more real to us in and through the person we have gathered together to grieve.
It may be counterintuitive to remember in order to hope, especially after a particularly difficult death seems to truncate even hope’s possibility. But the Bible is a story of a people constituted and then sustained through darkness to new life precisely by remembering in order to learn to hope again; first as an oppressed community delivered from slavery in Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey, and then as a bereft community of frightened mourners catapulted by the ripples emanating from the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth to become, at its best, a very powerful human movement toward Christ’s light.
Remembering leads to hope especially when a person’s faith, hope and love filled life has served to reveal to us what lies at the heart of God who has conquered death, the God we Christians serve who we understand to be the Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end. And what lies right in the center God’s heart is love, which is the greatest spiritual gift of all, as Paul describes it to us in 1st Corinthians 13 — the greatest spiritual gift because it is the gift that reveals most clearly the faithfulness of God; reveals that most clearly because it reveals the risen Christ’s presence in and through the person possessed by God’s love. And Alan’s life revealed that love to us. Because unlike those in the quarrelling fledgling church at Corinth whose character Paul was trying to edify with his discourse on love, Alan lived the love he believed. If you doubt it, review with me a few anecdotes about Alan that I think show that to be so.
Our scripture this morning said that love is patient. Lucy and Alan met young. And as I was told of that meeting, it appears she had him even before hello. He and his family came to visit here at the church and he spotted in the choir then, shall we say, “a young woman of interest.” Shortly thereafter Alan was invited to a teen camp with the church. He went because he knew she’d be there. At departure, he did some sleuthing to find out which car she’d be in, and then made sure he’d be in it as well. So began their on again off again relationship. They kept agreeing to see other people because of their youth. Lucy would lock herself in the bathroom and cry after they’d make the decision to see others, again. Her friends would be steeled against Alan, again, by her distress. It took 8 years for this cycle to wear them both down to yes, of course, it has to be you! Alan was nothing if not patient.
Love is kind. When I asked the staff here at Crescent Hill what they remembered about Alan, they all remembered a specific, very personal way Alan had shown each of them he saw them, respected their contribution to the community they served, and cared for them as people. A female pastor told me Alan had reached out to her after her last sermon to encourage her in her preaching. Our office manager said that Alan had written her a letter, which she has kept to this day, telling her that though he knew very little about computers he very much respected her ability with them. And, for that matter he was glad she was the one in the church office, since, as a result, the church was much better off for the quality of her service. A similar anecdote about Alan’s unique ability to assure each person on our staff that he appreciated them for their UNIQUE gifts, which he specifically recognized appreciation for, every member of staff was able to report.
Love is not boastful, or arrogant or rude. Knowledge puffs up, as Paul says earlier in his letter to the church at Corinth, whereas love builds up. Alan was not a self-promoter. Plain and simple. He was accomplished for sure, but he never led with his accomplishments. Instead he played them down. He wore overalls and the socks his mom darned for him to the CHPC men’s breakfast for years. Anyone who ever was ever the recipient the eye roll he gave when forced to dress up in a tux for the Grawmeyer awards given by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is familiar with the way he shied away from ostentation. The funeral home asked if Alan had been a veteran. Yes. Said the family. Would he like a military funeral, No. they said. And not because Alan was not a patriot. But because he did not like ostentation. So there will be no flag folding today. Short, sweet, true, gentle. His way of being.
Love does not insist on its own way. And Paul could have added, does not insist on its own way, but is creative and light hearted enough to have its own way. Alan played with language. He invited people to see things as he did through his unique way of speaking. Would you like me to carry you home in my machine? (translation, Want a ride home in my big white truck?) Going to see that old sawbones, or quack, depending on the day. (translation, I have a dr’s appt.) His friend Barbara asked him the other day, “How are you?” He reached deep into the colorful vocabulary that did not leave him even as the Alzheimer’s that took him from us closed in. “I’m bamboozled.” He said. “The sump pump that is my territory in our house has stopped working he reported. And I hate that Lucy has to deal with it.” Later he learned Lucy had unplugged the sump pump in order to better evaluate the problem. “Good” he said, “that is how it is done.” Pretty sharp for late stage alzheimers.
Love is not irritable or resentful. Or controlling or reactive Paul could have added. Early in their marriage, Alan’s father questioned Lucy’s commitment to social justice. “Tell her to stop marching,” he requested. Alan was matter of fact without being rude, “You tell her to stop,” he said. “That is just what Lucy does. She marches.”
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Even when that truth had to do with his beloved Lucy. Alan was a man of character and integrity – striving to be upright, dependable and trustworthy even when it was not convenient. Alan and Lucy had the opportunity to meet John Updike at the Kentucky author’s forum. They were part of a small group who had dinner with the renowned author. Lucy went up to Updike and said, “I am so pleased to meet you, I believe you are the greatest living author the United States has.” Alan stuck to what he’d heard Lucy say. “Really”, he replied before Updike could, “I thought you’d said that about pat Conroy.” Lucy scrambled to explain, “Well yes” she said, “sort of. I think I said pat Conroy was the greatest living American story teller. But John is the greatest American author.” John Updike smiled and said, “I agree with you about Pat Conroy.”
One thing Paul did not write about love’s characteristics, that I still believe is always the case, is that those secure in the arms of love are riotously funny and clever. As a direct result of Alan’s sense of humor, the Steilberg family wherever it is found, whether on this or the other side of the Atlantic ocean, has a unique Christmas tradition. Each year they would get out their version of the N-O-E-L candles many of us have. And Lucy would dutifully find a visible place to display them. One year Alan got a hold of her display, rearranging the letters to spell L-E-O-N, leon. Whether Lucy was annoyed with his antics, she did not say. But what she and the children confirmed was this. At this stage in their lives together every Steilberg household has a Christmas LEON display. And the question is not now, where should we put the Noel candles, but, instead, where should Leon go this year? Explain that to the great grandkids!
Alan called Lucy Dudley. Up until the last. When he had the nurse call her the other day (at that point he didn’t remember how use a phone so needed help) it was to apologize. “Dudley,” he said. She knew who he was, and not just by his voice. Yes? She replied. “I am so sorry you have to do everything now.” To the very end concerned for her. When I asked why Dudley the reply was this. The name made him laugh. And he liked to laugh. So, he chose to nickname his wife, who he was in relationship so long, Dudley. Dudley he called her — to make him smile as often as he addressed her by name, which was a lot, we know. There was another friend in the service Alan called simply “wedge.” Why’d you call him that? His family asked. “simplest tool known to man.” Was Alan’s deadpan reply.
In addition to his godly sense of humor Alan believed the Love he served required a commitment to peace. That did not mean he did not have strong opinions. It just means that he had a gift for being able to express them in such a way that those opinions not get in the way of his continuing relationships. Would that we would learn from him to better navigate today’s polarized world! As a young pastor, Mark Barnes, who served here at Crescent Hill, preached a sermon on nuclear disarmament. Concerned that Alan the veteran would be offended he went to him to explain his position. No, Alan assured him, I believe we should disarm.
In 1983, on the occasion of Presbyterian reunion, the denomination approved that a confession be added to our constitution. The confession was called the brief statement of faith. The denomination vetted the confession as drafted to some sessions of the newly created PCUSA’s churches. Crescent Hill was one of those. The leaders of the church, which Alan was at the time, were asked if there was any language in the confession to which they would object. Alan thought the line saying the church was called to “smash idolatries” was not only pompous but also unnecessarily violent. “How about changing that smash idolatries to unmask idolatries?” he requested. Less violent. Our denomination’s brief confession of faith reads that way to this day.
Finally, I have been taken by this image of Alan as I have deepened my knowledge of him through story. First, he always drove a Ford F250. White, was that because white was the color of resurrection? Maybe it was because white stayed cooler in summer, without the luxury of air conditioning? Who knows? Several years ago Alan allowed his most recent and beloved Ford 250 without air conditioning to be used in the Easter parade that goes down Frankfort Avenue. Most of the floats and participants are about bunnies, and sweets, and the delight in the fact spring has sprung. CHPC had in that parade a Christian float, in a very unchristian era. The float was anchored in the bed of Alan’s F250 without air-conditioning and with a manual transmission, as is appropriate to all who aren’t puffed up in awe of their own power. Music blaring the truck slowly proceeded down Frankfort Ave, with Alan driving and loving every minute. What was in the bed of the truck? An empty cave. A replica of Easter morning’s empty tomb.
So I leave you with a vision of Alan joyfully driving CHPC’s float. Music blaring. Not sure what it was, maybe Christ the Lord has Risen today? And Alan looking over at us, smiling. With thumbs up as if to say, It is as they say. Love never ends. So why do you look for the living among the dead? I won’t be there. The Lord I served? He is not there either. He is risen. And with me in tow.
May it be so for you and me. Amen.
Thanksgiving for Alan Steilberg
by Mark Barnes
Debbie asked me to say a word about the anthem which the choir is singing toward the end of the service. Alan sang in the choir for over 50 years and “Creation Peace” was one of his favorite anthems. The choir is happy to remember and honor Alan by singing this bold prayer for peace with many hallelujahs which he loved.
I first talked with Alan on the telephone back in 1978. He’d called me on behalf of the Pastor Search Committee of this church. I’d had conversations with other churches since we were open to a new call. But this time I hung up and said to Barbara, “Now that’s a man I’d like to meet!” It was the beginning of 40 years of knowing Alan…as pastor working with him in this congregation for 19 years and then continuing in friendship for another 21 years. I’m thanking and praising God today, like so many of you, for Alan’s being with us as our friend and brother in the faith.
As a young pastor, I relied on Alan as a wise counselor and sounding board, and so did Barbara when we became Co-Pastors in 1987. In fact, Alan befriended and supported all the pastors he knew who served here: going back to Conrad Crow, and John Kirstein, and including our recently retired pastor, Jane Larson Wigger. We all counted on Alan. He was an important bridge person; he was loved and trusted by people of all kinds: long time members and newcomers, conservative and liberals. He valued the old timer’s loyalty to the church and loved hearing their stories. He got along well with the young people and taught them in Sunday school and sponsored them in confirmation class. Alan showed us by example how we could get along in spite of our differences and enjoy each other in the process. We learned together in controversy that unity in the Spirit is a matter of trust. Not uniformity (everybody being the same) but trust. We can disagree, even passionately, and still, by God’s grace, trust each other, still be friends. Alan believed this, and lived it, and helped all of us to do so, too.
Alan had a gift for friendship. One of the secrets of Alan’s successful leadership was that he loved being together with friends. As I thought about his significant leadership roles, and there were lots of them, here and at the Presbyterian Seminary, he always led from alongside others. He wasn’t charging out in front on a white horse (or even a white, Ford 250 pickup, with manual shift and no air conditioning!). He worked with us, applying his amazing intellect and broad knowledge of many subjects in a way that advanced things and brought others along without him ever calling attention to himself. Alan could be forceful and determined…(and when it came to saving money sometimes immoveable) but he always spoke what he believed to be the truth with respect and caring. Whether taking the lead to analyze the finances, or renovate facilities, or craft policy, or fix the furnace, or be the MC at the church Talent Show, or play the host and hand guests a mint julep on Derby Day with a twinkle in his eye, Alan was a faithful, loyal and fun friend. We are, all of us, blessed to have been among Alan’s many friends, aren’t we?! He made the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place.
Alan wasn’t in things for the glory as you know. He’d poke fun at pretentiousness and undercut any hint of grandness with a witty remark delivered under his breath with his soft laugh. If Alan had come to this service he would have looked up front and said, “Four preachers! Good grief! We should have packed a lunch!”
But Alan didn’t count himself better than others. Alan knew that he was a work in progress, and was continually dedicated to being a better husband and father and friend, and to living the faith more completely. He was grateful to God for blessings he knew he never deserved. Alan especially remained humbly and gratefully surprised his whole life long that he had ended up with Lucy, the great love of his life. He honored and adored you, Lucy, for 60 wonderful years of marriage! And you honored and adored him. What an exceptional partnership! Two very different persons whose marriage, quite certainly one made in heaven, blessed all of us, as your love for each other overflowed to us: to children and grandchildren, to extended family, friends, and strangers, too. We can hardly say “Alan” without saying “Lucy”, too. That’s just the way it was. And it was wonderful!
A difficult day today. But we let Alan go into the everlasting arms and we trust the Church’s assurance that in the great communion of saints, in the gracious mystery of God, Alan is still with us, watching over us. By grace, the gift of his life will still bless us and guide us.
And we may be confident that the only commendation that ultimately mattered to Alan, has now been given him: The word from our Savior: “well-done thou good and faithful servant!” Well, done!
To God alone be the glory!