Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message at the funeral for William Mark “Bill” Campbell on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.
Perhaps even more so than the imposing stature of his physical presence, Bill’s sharp wit was nothing with which to trifle.
His sense of humor blew into a room like a force of nature, and good-natured hijinks and mischievous shenanigans were par for the course if Bill was your partner.
He wasn’t so much a bull in a china shop as he was an all-enveloping presence who could fill any venue with chuckles and guffaws – usually by telling one of his many jokes that always seemed to begin with a Presbyterian minister, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi walking into a strip club.
So, when Bill first told me that he was moving to a care facility in Decorah, my first instinct was to call up the admissions director over as Aase Haugen and ask the simple question, “Have you met the guy?! I mean, really … Strap yourselves in, folks! ’Cause Billy Campbell’s going to be in the house!”
I now wish I’d placed that call, because things quickly flew off the rails soon after Bill arrived.
As the story was told to me, it was midafternoon on Wednesday, June 21, and two women who lived down the hall from Bill decided to celebrate the first day of summer by stripping down and streaking naked from one end of the nursing home to the other. Their intended course would take them down a hallway and right past Bill, who sat aboard his porta-scooter-seat-mobile in a common area, where he was spinning yarns with his friend Wayne.
Just as Bill was reaching the punchline of his latest tall tale, the two lady streakers came zooming by – or at least as much as mature women of a certain age can zoom. The shocking sight left Bill and Wayne gobsmacked and slack-jawed. Wayne was the first to break the stunned silence. “Don’t see that every day, now do you, Bill?” To which Bill replied:
“That’s for sure! And did you see how wrinkled their pajamas were?”
Shortly before moving to Decorah, Bill wore not pajamas but sweat pants the afternoon I visited. As usual he was holding court from that Stratofortress of a Barcalounger in his living room, which in due time that day became a place of communion.
In the breaking of the bread, this is my body for you. In the pouring of the cup, this is my blood for you. Come, Bill, and you too, Kathy: Taste and see that the Lord is good!
Spiritual food for the journey, physical nourishment for the work that lie ahead.
For indeed I sensed the Lord offering Bill yet one more opportunity for service – one final mission, of sorts. His move, I suggested, would bring laughter and light into a place of infirmity and darkness – for many, like Bill, a place of waiting for earthly death to take its unrelenting toll.
And infused like sweet incense into that stench of despair and despondence would be Bill’s good humor and big heart, his primary weapons for protecting and serving in those hopeless places where the world’s fearful brokenness is on full display – at least, anyway, for those with eyes to see.
Hash tag #thankyouforyourservice
Which is what we say, right? Thank you for your service!
Bill and I once talked about that – about how the well-intentioned phrase sometimes falls rudely upon hearts and minds still brutalized by the nightmares of war and its toxic chemistries of death. “Thank you for your service” – like a double-edged sword, sometimes therapeutic balm for scars that never seem to fade, other times salt rubbed deep into still-open and festering wounds.
From personal experience, Bill suggested a turn of phrase that sat well with my own conflicted soul: “I’m sorry that you had to serve.”
Of course, the choice of service ain’t yours to make when your number comes up and you’re gone with the draft. But serve Bill did. With honor. With distinction. With love. Which surely was welcome news to that wounded soldier whom Bill carried off the battlefield. As they waited for a helicopter to evacuate the bleeding man, I wonder if Bill eased the soldier’s fear with a joke about clergymen and strip clubs.
I’m sorry that you had to serve, Bill. But thank you for your service.
Jesus loves you, and so do I.
For us Christians, loving and serving walk hand in hand.
Scripture clearly and repeatedly calls us to unconditionally love and generously serve friend, neighbor, and stranger – no matter the risk and cost to ourselves.
And the Lord demonstrates through each of us – and our loving service – his particularly special concern for the widow and the orphan, the hungry and the homeless, the prisoner and the outcast, the sick and the dying.
The Lord himself labels these lost souls “the least of these.” And the extent to which you and I love and serve “the least of these” apparently gives shape to our eternal being after our earthly bodies return to dust.
I’m reading to you from the Gospel of Matthew. With the help of the Holy Spirit, listen now for the Word of the Lord.
Jesus said, “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 NLT)
As it intends, Scripture lays weighty questions upon soul and spirit:
Why do we miss so much?
Why don’t you and I pay more attention to life and the people in it? When we’re living it?!
Apparently all of us – sheep and goats alike – never understand that the poor of the world mirror Jesus. All of us miss that connection! The righteous don’t get pats on the back for recognizing Jesus in the poor of mind and body. Because they didn’t! They just served all such folks with unconditional love. Instinctively! With even less thought than you give to breathing or digesting! Hmm.
Someone once suggested a good spiritual discipline for us all.
Go to a place like Chicago O’Hare airport or Atlanta Hartsfield, sit down somewhere, and just watch the parade of humanity pass by. You probably already know who and what you’d expect to see.
You’ll spy the rather obese, somewhat sweaty man who lumbers red-faced and short-of-breath down the concourse with an overstuffed carry-on bag in tow.
Just beyond him in a waiting area sits an impeccably dressed couple and their high-maintenance, teenage daughter – all engrossed in the screens of their iPhone 14 Pro Maxes, first-class boarding passes safely tucked away in tailor-made suit pockets and designer handbags.
Then along storms an agitated mother traveling alone with three little kids under the age of 6. Their plane leaves in 10 minutes, and their departure gate still lies half an airport away. Two of the kids are whining about stopping at McDonald’s, and Mom’s neck veins are visibly bulging with anger and near-profanity.
Eventually, you’ll see a little bit of everything. And in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus loves you.”
Jesus loves you! Jesus loves him and her, that skinny one and that chunky one; that stressed-out mom and her road-weary kids, those elite country-club parents and their disinterested teenager.
Because each one of them – somewhere under all those exterior trappings of broken reality and privileged entitlement, each one of them is made in the very likeness of the Lord God Almighty.
And it is the Lord God Almighty’s love for that whole, sordid, kit-and-kaboodle of humanity that spurs our loving service toward them. The least of these, yes. But Jesus loves them. And so must we.
Such heavenly vision seems largely what the Holy Spirit allowed Bill to see in friend, neighbor, and stranger. And in such loving there was so doing. We know that we are saved by grace – not by what we do. The Jesus who speaks in our Scripture lesson knows that, naturally.
But Jesus seems also to know that the faith and the salvation borne of divine grace create new perspectives, different ways of seeing the world and its “least of these.” Grace opens eyes to see things, to see people, in ways that we otherwise probably would miss. Driven and empowered by such gracious awareness and empathy, grace further allows us to be the hands and feet of Christ, in humble service to those in need, to the least of these.
That same grace begins, already now, to give us a preview of the final justice that’ll mark the end of all things, as well as a foretaste of heaven’s glory that awaits beyond, for those whom, like Bill, the Lord puts to holy use and claims as God’s own.
“Have you met the guy?” Yes, yes I have.
Bill like a lot of us was one of the “good goats” – not perfect, tempted and sometimes prone to wander, but nonetheless a blessing to family and community whose care and compassion, whose faithful witness to the Gospel, now motivates our living, moving and breathing; stimulates our loving, serving, and caring; and arouses our determination to patch up of life’s wounded with kindness, respect, and dignity.
May it be so! For the least of these and for ourselves! Amen, and amen!