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St. Vincent De Paul Church
Albany, New York
High above the city of Assisi on Monte Subasio is a mountain top retreat called Carceri. St. Francis would go there to get recharged, to pray, to be still. One of the several sculptures near the hermitage shows Francis lying flat on the ground staring up at the starry night contemplating his place in the cosmos.
Mountains are sacred sites where one gains a higher perspective on life; where Moses met God in a burning bush and later received the commandments; where Jesus was tempted and transfigured, where Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and the El Capitan wall where Lynn Hill completed her first free ascent.
Like St. Francis, David Edwin Burtis also spent time looking at the stars contemplating his place in the cosmos. He often did so while climbing and sailing; reaching high peaks, catching the wind. David would come away refreshed and serene but determined to share his broad view of creation with others, to work for human rights, and to save the planet.
Using econometrics to analyze relationships between variables in data was rewarding for David. But, no predetermined formula could explain the unbridled excitement he would experience in nature and the adventuresome journeys he would take with Linda and others at his side.
The first reading, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, was written during a time of change and upheaval for the Israelites, a period of history not unlike today. Not everyone was enjoying equal rights, or the benefits that come with liberty.
The passage identifies “time” in terms of life’s ups and downs. In the face of trouble the author encouraged listeners to embrace life as gifts from God — work hard and cry but do not forget to love and play. There is a time for everything.
Jews read the same text from Solomon (Qoheleth in Hebrew) during the Jewish festival of Sukkot when they celebrate joy in the midst of hardships, the enigmatic nature of life for which we are all responsible. Although so minute in the vast cosmos we are all nevertheless here for a reason. David understood that.
This quest for harmony and peace on earth must have been the mantra that David practiced on his life’s journey, what Buddhists call the noble eightfold path, part of the Fourth Noble Truth that leads to the end of suffering. Mindfulness, compassion, understanding, contemplation all result in a lifestyle where wisdom, ethical conduct, and action are the lifelines.
Little wonder then that David would be passionate about saving the planet, rallying for peace, using less gas and more renewable energy, electing politicians who speak the truth. Perhaps David prayed like Francis “make me an instrument of peace, to bring hope where there is despair.”
The passage from Matthew we just heard suggests we should not worry about our own lives because there are more important things that require our attention. David believed this advice. Some scholars say this entire gospel is a subtle rejection of empirical power and religious establishments.
David found that his spiritual development energized him. He believed there was an overarching power that fueled life in the universe, an enigmatic divine power. It made him shine like the sun; it provided him with sustenance to live life to the fullest while helping others along the way. As with many faith traditions, this is also the Christian way of living — caring for the planet and loving one another.
David trekked upward to the highest mountain peaks from which he could envision brighter skies on the horizon. He knew how to tack throughout life to catch the Spirit-filled wind. He could read the currents that would guide him to his diverse destinations and his goals in life. He surely walked in the presence of God in the land of the living.
The reality that death happens to all of us is hard to accept. Here in the presence of David’s deceased body we imagine that the energy that drove David is not dead but continues to work through us. We can harness that power and use it to advance justice and compassion for all creatures. It is the commandment of Jesus the Christ whom we remember and celebrate in this liturgy.
David’s passions were sustained by you, Linda, who journeyed with him through life and lovingly labored to keep his mind and body comfortable as he neared death. David also cherished his daughters Rachel and Sarah and their families. They filled him, I am certain, with hope for the future.
Recently, I asked David if he had any regrets about his life. He raised his eyebrows to say no. Did he have any unfinished business? No, he did not. Like the disciple Paul who, while in prison, wrote to his colleague Timothy, David did his best to fight the good fights — to protect this planet, to make it a safe harbor for his family and all human beings. For his part, David was a faithful person who, now, has finished the race.