Sunday, November 3, 2013
The Richest Man in Town
During the past few days, we celebrated All Hallow’s Eve on Thursday, All Saints Day on Friday during the Headmaster’s Holiday, and yesterday was All Souls Day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. You remember well the first night on Thursday with your delightful costumes, but the other days are often ignored, or forgotten. All Saints and All Souls are days when the Christian tradition comes to life as we remember those famous people, and those people we have forgotten, who came before us. The celebration of All Saints Day on November 1 dates back as early as the 9th Century as a tradition in the Church, a day of remembrance that was begun in Ireland. Though it is a celebration that has changed over the years, it is an observance that is infused with the mysticism of Celtic Christianity, Irish spirit and wisdom, and the date of November 1 goes back even further with Pagan roots. It is a day when the living and the dead lean towards each other in greatest intimacy—when we look for the thin places in our lives, the places where God is near, and the spiritual presence of the dead is palpable. In the thousand years of All Saints Day, and the tradition of All Hallow’s Eve, this is the time when the living and the dead come into closest contact.
Today is about celebrating the people, both living and dead, who have shaped you as the person you are. There are so many people out there who care for each of you, even if you have never thought of them as saints before. All Saints Day helps us to remember what makes a good life. In his extraordinary novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck zeroes in on precisely this question as he retells a famous story from the Greek histories written by Herodotus. From East of Eden:
“Herodotus, in the Persian war, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most-favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading question. He would not have asked it if he had not been worried about the answer, ’Who,’ he asked ‘is the luckiest person in the world?’ He must have been eaten with doubt and hungry for reassurance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, ‘Do you not consider me lucky?’
Solon did not hesitate in his answer, ‘How can I tell?’ he said. ‘You aren’t dead yet.’
And this answer must have haunted Croesus dismally as his luck disappeared, and his wealth and his kingdom. And as he was being burned on a tall fire, he may have thought of it and perhaps wished he had not asked or not been answered.
And in our time, when a man dies—if he has had wealth and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments—the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil?—which is another way of putting Croesus’s question. Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: ‘Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come from it?’”
Every human life has a cloud of witnesses, as Dr. Greene referenced on Thursday night from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12. This cloud of witnesses can be those who inspire you, and even those who scare you a little bit.
There are some people about whom you can say: Without this individual, I would not be here right now. For me that person was my mentor, The Very Reverend William Power Clancey, and I’d like to share with you this morning a little of his life. He was a cathedral dean—a priest of the church--in San Jose, California, and he shepherded me through the political process towards ordination in the church. It’s actually a politically difficult process at times, and Bill got me through the maze. Bill Clancey—Father Clancey--was all about service: service to his country first and later to the church. Bill was a father figure to me when I desperately needed one. He was also a criminal lawyer for the Justice Department, along with being an Episcopal priest. Powerful abilities and identities could be combined in a single individual; I learned that from Bill. That was one of the many interesting things about him. He had significant talents that were employed full time in helping others. As a priest, he printed his pager number in the Yellow Pages. He was nearly always on duty, ready to help a person in need. The joke was that he would always beat the ambulance to the hospital. But it was no joke to Bill. Semper fi was a way of life for him as a former marine. Former Marine: I love that term. Some would say that there is no such thing as “former marine.” Despite his service in the church, he was also never a former attorney. He was always a lawyer. My understanding of my own calling as a priest, teacher, and writer didn’t seems so strange when I watched Bill in action.
Help is the ordinary and extraordinary offering of the public servant. This is the first shift in thinking of All Saints: that your skills are to be used for the common good, not simply, or exclusively, for self-gratification and making money. Bill was a lawyer and a marine and a priest all rolled into one, and he brought all of those experiences and abilities to the table. He certainly gave away lots of free legal advice—hundreds of thousands of dollars of free legal advice. He was a walking Legal Aid Society with a priest’s collar. As a marine, he fought in two wars. He was an enlisted man, fighting in the Pacific at the end of World War II. He came back as a captain in the Korean War, and he actually volunteered for Korea. He felt it was his duty. After the war, Bill excelled as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. He called Berkeley “The People’s Republic of Berkeley.” Even though he was a lifelong Republican, he always loved Berkeley, California: the largest open air mental health facility in the world, he called it. Bill collected three UC Berkeley degrees, including a JD from Boalt Law School, and then another degree in divinity from the local seminary, where I also graduated. Four degrees in Berkeley. He worked for the Justice Department in Washington, and then as Assistant District Attorney of San Francisco. Bill had mad skills, and he even had a cameo in the movie Milk when a real interview with him was placed in the documentary footage of the movie starring Sean Penn. Bill once argued a case before the United States Supreme Court. Of course he did this case pro bono. That was his style, and he had plenty of it. When you looked into the face of this tough, wiry Irishman, you could see the swift turnings of a highly intelligent and playful mind. But you could also see the psychological scars of someone who had served in combat for years--and also the prosecutor who had sent people to prison, sometimes for life.
Two years ago, at the beginning of 2011, I was aware that something was wrong, in my world. There was some subtle change in the universe, like a change in the earth’s axis. Yes, sure enough, my mentor had reached the end of his life—Bill had died. He had “crossed the Jordan,” as Bill loved to say about the end of the journey for all of us. He lived eighty-five years, and nearly all of that time was in public service: both military and religious. Bill was an active e-mail guy, but he never made it to Facebook. He was one of the lucky ones.
Bill was born in 1926. He was initially the golden boy of his Irish family. However, a blot on his early record came when he was expelled from Milton Academy. The expulsion charge was initially kidnapping. Because the local bishop’s son had gone missing, the police had been alerted of a missing person--the bishop’s son was nowhere to be found. Bill and the boy had just gone into Boston for an afternoon away from campus; they were playing hooky. No one seemed worried about Bill being missing. After all, he was just another Irish kid among the Blue Bloods of Boston. When the boys were located back on campus that evening, kidnapping was dropped to mere truancy. But it was enough to send Bill packing, and out to New Mexico to finish high school. Throughout his life, he took pride in being the black sheep in his family. But for Bill, all adversity was just grist for the mill; it could and should make you stronger, wiser, a better human being. My theory is that it was at this moment of his development that Bill decided to be a lawyer. He did not believe he had been treated fairly. And he could prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt in a real trial and not some prep school farce. Bill loved a good legal battle all his life. The man could cut through red tape like a flame thrower, and I believe he preferred defending to prosecuting (though he was equally adept at both), especially if he thought someone powerful had abused his authority. Which happens often. I don’t particularly like conflict, but Bill didn’t give a damn about ruffling feathers. The world is full of injustice and mendacity. If you want to do something about it, powerful people will not like you. “Deal with it,” Bill would have said.
As mentioned, I know that I would not be here today without his expertise and constant stream of advice and wisdom, sometimes more than I wanted to hear, usually right on the mark. I literally would not be standing here in this pulpit, or working on this campus. Bill was the person who taught me you better have opinions, and you better be able to express them. There is nothing noble in pretending to be wiser than you are; or just hiding, being aloof, hanging around, playing the game, and acting a part without intelligent engagement and conviction. Bill would catch me, call me out, and challenge me to do better.
His one liners still echo in my mind. For a marine, he could be hilarious. He was a man of ready, constantly streaming wit. People who serve and protect this country include every kind of personality you can imagine. Father Clancey taught me that our duty in life is to make a difference; to make a difference to each other. There is a quotation from the minister, former school chaplain, and writer Frederick Buechner that perfectly fits this Sunday after All Saints Day, and my time with Bill.
“On All Saints’ Day it is not just the saints of the Church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and the overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots…and the crackpots of our lives who, in one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”
Bill Clancey is one of the most important people in my cloud of witnesses. With his array of skills, he could have made a fortune in this world, but he made different choices with his life. “And in our time, when a man dies—if he has had wealth and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments—the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil?” The living take stock of the dead, and remember them in the here and now. And so, for my part--and my memories, I will always consider Bill Clancey the richest man in town. Happy All Saints Day to all of you.