Burial of the Dead “ Jim Walter
March 11, 2013 “ Holy Trinity, Auburn
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Some years ago I was training a new Lay Eucharistic Minister at St. John’s and she said that she knew she was going to be nervous when she read in front of all those people. Do you ever get nervous up here?, she asked. You bet I do. Every time Jim Walter is preaching, I am nervous as a cat.
You know, in lots of ways when we gather for this liturgy of the Burial of the Dead, it really doesn’t matter all that much who we are burying. We have suffered a loss, we have been reminded that life is short and precious, and we gather to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. Our burial liturgy isn’t designed to draw special attention to the one we are burying. We’re not here to encourage any thought that, if you’re special or good enough, you’ll get into heaven. We’re not here to paint some sparkling picture of the deceased. We’re not really here to focus on the one we are burying, but on the Almighty God and Father of all as he has made himself known to us in Christ Jesus. We do not proclaim ourselves but we proclaim Christ, Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. That is our hope. That is our only hope.
But we do have the rich opportunity at times like this to grab hold of the great joys of life and to give thanks to God for the richness of this earthly life which helps us imagine the richness of the heavenly life awaiting us. Life is hard and it hurts and it is a struggle and when a loved one dies it shakes us. But life is a hell of a lot of fun. And if anyone showed us that it was Jim Walter. I know why you’re here. And I know why I’m here. You want some Jim Walter stories and my job is to give you some so here we go. So many times he began a sermon by saying, I’m going to tell you a few stories. You see if you can put them together and if they have anything to do with the gospel. So I guess now it’s my turn.
He was waiting for me when I came to St. John’s in 1995. Short cropped hair, that sparkle in his eye, a self-deprecating demeanor, and a bundle of energy in that round little body. I had no idea what I was about to get into. My second day on the job, I got to work real early and the phone rang about 7:00. It was my first time to answer the phone as the new rector. St. John’s Church, Robert Wisnewski. Let me speak to Cracker. I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no one here by that name. The hell there isn’t. That little fat guy in the office next to yours is Cracker. Who is this?, I asked. It’s Bubber Patton and you better keep your eye on Cracker. That boy is no good. Bubber and Jim went way back, I was to learn, and were in on a lot together. Eight days ago we buried Bubber Patton and so now they’re causing a little trouble again in another realm.
I quickly learned that Jim Walter was the bright light in a dark little period of St. John’s history. The interim rector came swooping in, wreaking havoc, and the place was way out of kilter. Jim was the glue, visiting folks, telling jokes, reminding the parish that their hardship was temporary, that better times were coming.
He couldn’t work a microphone worth a flip. I hate these damn things, he said every Sunday morning in the vesting room. And it didn’t take me long to see why. One of the ways Jim prepared for the sacred mysteries was to tell inappropriate jokes after he put on his vestments and, as he started one, I learned to say, Is your microphone on. Damn, I can’t tell if it is or isn’t. Truer words were never spoken.
Vestments were confusing for him. Jim, we’ll be wearing cassock and surplice for the funeral today. Is that the white thing or the black and white thing? The black and white thing. We gonna burn up in that. When Rich Webster joined our staff, I told him his job on Sunday morning was to make sure Jim Walter had on the right vestments and the right color stole.
Cell phones were another great mystery. He called Mike Jarrell one day to tell him he had lost his cell phone. Mike asked, Jim, what are you talking on right now? Damn. His phone rang one Sunday while he was giving out communion and he couldn’t get to it under his vestments. The ringing was distracting enough but not as much as the cussing. The body of Christ. Ring. Damn it. The bread of heaven. Ring. Damn it.
Oh, that Snowdoun accent. Who knew the Vuh-jin Ma-a-a-ry had four syllables? It’s the River Jordan, Jim, not the River Jurdan. One Palm Sunday he was in our Passion Narrative. You know how it goes. The crowd is accusing Peter of being one of Jesus’ followers and he is denying it three times. Then the narrative turns on the character Jim was playing: You too were with him. We can tell by your accent. And Jim’s line: I do not know the ma-a-an made it hard to continue.
I caught him checking out a young woman walking up the aisle in a short skirt, as we were getting ready for the procession one Sunday. I elbowed him. Don’t hurt to look, does it? He was 78 at the time.
At St. John’s we publish the Banns of Marriage for three Sundays prior to weddings. Jennifer Huntley’s wedding was approaching and I was on vacation. I thought that might be a little confusing for Jim so I started publishing the banns a week early so he wouldn’t have to do it that particular Sunday. Well her father, Neil Huntley, thought Rich had forgotten it in the announcements and said something to Rich at communion. Rich mentioned it to Jim at the altar and Jim said, I’ll take care of it. After the postcommunion prayer, Jim strode to the chancel steps and, before the blessing, decided to give the Banns a shot, but he didn’t know their full names. I publish the Banns of Marriage between, um, um, the little Huntley girl and her fiancÃ©. I believe that was the Sunday Rich Webster said at the announcements: I feel like Barney Fife when Andy went to Mount Pilot and left him and Gomer in charge.
My typical position during Jim’s sermons was with my head down and my hand kind of grabbing my forehead bracing myself for what may come. One of his favorite stories was about a young clergyman, fresh out of seminary, giving a very formal and tight sermon. As the story went, someone came out of church and said to the young clergyman: young man, you need a spiritual enema. I hated that story and about the fourth time he told it, I was hanging my head and holding my forehead with my eyes closed as he repeated that last grating word. I waited for the next story or whatever it was he might say next but there wasn’t anything else. I opened my eyes and saw that he had left the pulpit with that as the last word of his sermon. Amen, Jim. That’s how you’re supposed to end the sermon, okay? Amen, not enema.
He once preached a sermon on Jesus healing Naaman the Leper. Jim, you know that’s an Old Testament story and happened hundreds of years before Jesus was around. Hmmm. Well, it sure sounds like something he would do.
And these are the binoculars I had to confiscate from his office. I was standing there with him one day and saw them and asked about them. His office faced the Madison Hotel. You can see some interesting things looking in those windows, he said.
Now I’m just scratching the surface. There’s lots more. Irreverent. Mischievous. Joyful. Humble. Generous. A holy man in his own unique way. At a time in my own ministry when I was bringing in some new initiatives, Jim was out there every day calling on people in their homes and the hospitals, being compassionate, and reassuring everyone that St. John’s was headed for good things. I honestly don’t think I would have made it three years there without him, and what wonderful things I would have missed had he not been there. He took the pulse of the parish every day and made sure I knew what was what. Every time I hear the words in the Prayers of the People, Grant these our prayers, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and
Advocate, I think of Jim. Like Christ he took the needs of his people to God and advocated for us.
And so we give thanks for his life among us and for the grace of God which brought him to us and now holds him forever in mercy. Christ shows us the fullness of God. You and I show a little of God. Jim Walter helped us know God in a very real way. For all of God’s wonders may we be always grateful.