As evidenced by the attendance here this morning, the shocking news of Harold’s passing has been devastating to many.
We did receive some comforting words. Harold did not suffer. There was no prolonged illness, no pain, no struggle. Harold was given the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with loved ones here in Fort Smith and then in Nebraska. Harold was happy. He was full and content.
But then we received a dreadful word, a word that was difficult for us to hear, that that his wife Audrey, whom we all know he adored, had to drive home from Nebraska all by herself as Harold’s body was sent home by another way.
“Home by another way.” Those are the exact words Matthew uses in yesterday’s gospel lesson to describe the journey of the Wise Men after they worshiped Jesus, laying down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, we are told that they went “home by another way.”
“Going home” is of course how we like to talk about death. We find great comfort in the old hymn:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.
“Home” is being with God. It is a place of perpetual belonging, acceptance, comfort and love. It is a place of eternal rest and peace.
In his book of Revelation, John described it this way:
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away (Revelation 21).
So, in a way, going home is the goal of every believer. And as Christians, we believe that how we get there, how we go home, matters.
Do we go home following the instructions of King Herod? Do we go home by collaborating with the empire? Or do we go home by another way?
Do we go home following the way of greed and power, the way of self-centeredness and fear, the way of deceit and cowardice, the way of exclusion and isolation? Or do we go home by another way?
I believe the most comforting word, the most hopeful word for us this morning was what we first thought was a most dreadful word: “Harold went home by another way.”
As Christians, we believe Jesus showed us the way, the truth and the life, the very narrow, yet broad and expansive way home.
One day Jesus was teaching a large crowd of people. While he was still speaking, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’
But Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers!’ (Matthew 12:46-50).
In other words Jesus said, “here is my home, here is my family.”
I believe this story reveals that Jesus had a much broader, more expansive definition of home and family than we often do.
This, of course is why Gentile Wise Ones from the East were guided by that star to worship the Jewish Christ child: The people of God, the family of God, extends beyond Israel, and includes all people.
And so it was with Harold.
If I said to you, “Harold sure did love cooking for his family.” Your first response would probably be: “Which family are you talking about?”
Are you talking about the Stewart family? Or are you talking about his family at the Elks Lodge? Perhaps you are you talking about his family at First Christian Church?
Someone told me that he left Mike and Jane one of his famous pizzas in the fridge before he and Audrey left for Nebraska. That was so Harold. As his mother Roberta Ray used to always say: “It is very difficult to get Harold out of the kitchen!”
Harold also loved to make his pizza monthly for his Elks lodge family. And each time Harold invited me to the lodge and introduced me to other lodge members, it was obvious to me that he was introducing me to his home away from home. During the fish fry, he introduced me to his son Mike and daughter-in-law Jane, but he also introduced me to countless sisters and brothers. Chris Perry has written that Harold’s example and leadership is the reason they like to say that the “Elks Loge 341 is the friendliest little Elks Lodge in America.” That is because they are truly a family.
And of course this church was the beneficiary of having a brother named Harold in our family. Our brother Harold spoiled us with that infamous pizza recipe, the juiciest hamburgers you have ever tasted, unbelievable pulled-pork barbeque, and most recently, a Christmas dinner that featured a prime rib that Steve Riggs described best as “crazy good.”
What if I said to you that “Harold loved being there for his family?”
Well, are you talking about his sons Brian and Mike? Are you talking about one of his six grandchildren or his great-grandson?
Are you talking about his family at Fort Smith Restaurant Supply? Are you talking about the names of the people with whom he worked that he would text to his pastor requesting prayer for them when they were sick, experienced a loss or had a need?
Or are you talking about a child he mentored for the last three years at Howard Elementary School? Are you talking about the 12-year-old boy he visited once a week, oftentimes bringing him lunch, building his self-esteem, encouraging him in his studies and teaching him the importance of values that he may not learn in the classroom, like looking someone in the eyes while giving them a firm handshake?
Or are you talking about one of the children at the church who he made an effort to greet every Sunday morning before reaching in his pocket and giving them a piece of candy.
Yes, the good news is that Harold certainly went home by another way.
Speaking of going home by another way, it is no secret that Harold could literally build a home. His sons describe him as the best teacher they ever had. They even built an entire house together on Ten Killer Lake. Harold taught them how to do everything, from carpentry, duct work, heat and air, plumbing to laying tile and flooring. They said Harold knew how to crack a whip in such away that you never even knew there was a whip.
Harold could fix anything. His son Brian recalls that anytime he or Mike ever had a problem with their house, whether it be carpentry, plumbing, heating or air, all they had to do was call Dad. They said: “And it seemed like it was before we get the phone hung up the doorbell would ring and there would be Dad, standing there wearing a tool-belt around his waist and light on his head.”
With Harold, anytime something would break, his family said they never called a professional. They called Harold. Just like we did here at the church. Just like I am sure they did at the Elks Lodge.
Yes, more than anyone we know, Harold went home by another way.
Yesterday, someone asked Audrey: “How in the world did you drive home all by yourself?” She replied: “I had a good teacher.”
We all know how he absolutely adored and cherished his wife of 38 years, Audrey, but the love he expressed to Audrey always seemed to have an even higher purpose. For me it was like he was modeling for others what love looks like, what being a true gentleman looks like, what being an authentic disciple of Christ looks like.
As I watched him each Sunday morning, walking into the church building holding Audrey’s hand, opening the car door for her after church—it was as if he loved her as an example to the world how we ought to love one another.
Perhaps that is exactly what Harold was doing. Harold was not only a mentor to a young man at the Howard Elementary. He was trying to teach us all how to be wise men and wise women and go home by another way.
He was teaching us how share the inclusive, expansive love of God with all people; how to see and treat all people as children of God, as sisters and brothers; how to leave this world a better place than we found it.
Yes, as his sons have said, Harold was one of the best teachers we have ever had, for he taught us all how to be wise men and wise women by avoiding the way of King Herod that so many seem to be taking these days, and instead, choose another way:
the way of chivalry over the way of indecency,
the way of love over the way of indifference,
the way of compassion over the way of apathy,
the way of sacrifice over the way of self-centeredness,
the way of inclusion over the way of fear,
and the way of calmness and peace over the way of stress and worry.
And when we choose to go home by this way, not only will we change the world and leave this world a better place than we found it, we can rest assured that like Harold, we will see that the home of God is among mortals. With Harold, we will dwell with God and be God’s peoples. God God’s self will be with us.
To wipe every tear from our eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
There is a great old hymn with beautiful words that describes what Harold experienced the first day of this new year.
Just think of what it must be like to step on shore and finding it heaven,
Of taking hold of a hand and finding it God’s hand.
Of breathing a new air and finding it celestial air,
Of feeling invigorated and finding it immortality
Of passing from storm and tempest into an unbroken calm,
Of looking up and finding it home.