Sermon given by Father Kevin Morris, Ninth Rector of the Church of The Ascension at the funeral mass of Father Donald Latham, Sixth Rector of the Church of The Ascension, April 24th 2016.
I want to begin by reading you an excerpt from a letter:
You must understand this: distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
Now here is a question: was I just reading from the 2nd letter of Paul to Timothy describing the Last Days, or the 1st letter of Donald Latham to Kevin Morris describing the Church of the Ascension?
You will be forgiven if you are unsure of the answer to that.
I actually thought that I was beginning to solve a great theological mystery this week: you see we don’t actually know who wrote the second letter to Timothy. It is traditionally attributed to Paul, but we know that its tone and style look nothing like Paul’s. Who could have written it then? Whose style of writing is this? And then I started to pour over my old correspondences with Father Latham and the light came on! This sounds like something he would have written.
I was prepared to announce my Latham hypothesis for the authorship of 2nd Timothy, until I came across one line: “No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldiers aim is to please the enlisting officer.” I realized then and there that Father Latham couldn’t have written this, because although he was quite good at giving orders, he didn’t always like to receive them. He told the story about when he was in the Navy and disobeyed his commanding officers orders by staying up in the signal room during a combat when he was supposed to be in the wardroom, because according to him the view was better. Now it was a testament to Father Latham’s character and personality that nobody would tell him to go back downstairs where he belonged.
Thus we get a glimpse of the self-proclaimed old curmudgeon that we remember today. His personality was reflected in the dogs he raised and so loved: He liked to project himself as a Doberman or a Great Dane, but I suspect down inside he was something more of a Dachshund. He was a man with a great capacity to love, but that love was often shown in his appreciation of practical jokes, in yanking your chain or in questioning your mental stability.
He had been warned by one of the bishops of this diocese that the vestry of this church “eats rectors for breakfast.” But I am afraid that vestry met its match in Donald Latham. His tenure here would be the highlight of his career, and his love for this place and the people in it, despite his humorous protestations about wretched children and depraved lawyers, was unquestionable. He was a stubborn man, but that also means he loved stubbornly. No matter how many challenges this place presented him with, and no matter how difficult or intimidating some people tried to be, he just kept on loving. It is no easy thing, but it is that kind of love, and that kind of life that God calls us to.
One of the peculiar realities of the priesthood is that very often your best friends and your worst enemies are other priests. The legacy that is left to you by your predecessors can be either your greatest asset or your greatest obstacle. Shortly after I arrived in Rockville Centre, I did indeed receive a letter from Father Latham, introducing me to this place and some of its idiosyncracies which he relished. It was the first of quite a few correspondences we have had over these past few years and I am grateful for them, because they are my personal connection to Donald, but they are not the only way, and in fact they are not the primary way that I got to know him. It is the legacy that he left here that was my first introduction to the sixth rector. Sometimes the best way to know someone’s character is to look at what they leave behind. Just like a glacier, it is the landscape left behind when it is gone that is the best testimony to its power and influence. Donald Latham was the rector of this parish for 22 years during a time of great change in the Episcopal church and in the world and what did he leave behind?
Well first and foremost he left behind a church filled with Christians (mostly) and you can’t take that for granted nowadays. He left a church that was formed on the solid foundation of classic Christianity. I can step into this pulpit and preach the gospel and not worry about getting shouted down for actually believing in the Resurrection. When we stand up and recite the creed we “believe what we say and say what we believe” to use one of Father Latham’s quotes and I tip my biretta to him for keeping the faith.
We are a church that values traditional liturgy. When the Episcopal Church revised its prayerbook in 1979, Father Latham could have insisted that this church change to that dreadful thing known as Rite II (modern language), but he didn’t. And while I am actually jesting a bit, because the modern rite isn’t the end of the world and some of it is just fine, still I am glad that this church decided to hold on to and value traditional worship. It is part of the quirky character of this place and we owe that in part to Father Latham. I would hasten to add here that although he was traditional, he was not utterly immovable. When it was time for women to begin taking more active roles in leadership in the church, he relented, although maybe he needed to be pushed a little at time. Reading over some of his memoirs, he seemed proud that Margaret Waische was the first woman elected to the vestry, although he also seemed a bit proud that two of his Dobermans peed on her once. And he never forgot the fact that is was Carolyn Brancato who petitioned him to allow girls to be acolytes, but she did and he did. The old Doberman could indeed be a daschund sometimes.
We are a church that values good music, we value social activities, fellowship and friendship, we value the nutjobs as much as the normal. Those of us who value the character of this church owe a huge debt of gratitude to this man for helping to shape that same character. This man touched a lot of lives. Some of you have come from far and wide to be here and to pay your respects to him. Now you may have come here to honor him, but I am here to tell you that that is not our first and most important task here today. Our first and primary purpose for gathering this afternoon is not to honor the man in the urn, it is to honor the man on the cross. That is the first purpose of every Christian funeral, because it is his death and resurrection that changes the way we grieve. We are people who have hope. We have hope because this is the Church of the Ascension and we know that our Lord ascended into heaven and is preparing a place for us there so that we may be with him. We have hope because we believe just like the author of 2 Timothy that “if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” If you really want to honor Father Latham, then honor the man that inspired him and that he dedicated his life to serve. You may have loved Donald Latham, but it is really the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that brings us together today. It was his word that Donald preached and it was his stubborn love that Donald tried emulate in his own stubborn love for you. The best way you could honor him would be by being the Christians that he helped shape you to be: get up and go to church, pick up those bibles and learn about Jesus, pray, forgive, love, laugh and know that hope that you have in Christ Jesus.
Maybe Father Latham didn’t write 2 Timothy, but just for a second, listen to it as if he had:
Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastnest, my persecutions, and my suffering …but as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with utmost patience and teaching.
As for me, the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
One last thing: in one of my email exchanges with Father Latham he left me this piece of advice: Kevin, stay healthy and humorous. It will get you through all those exasperating days with all those attorneys who pollute the environment. And with that said I would like to invite one of those attorneys forward to offer a few more words about our departed friend.