In Memoriam: John WM Neely
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Manhattan
“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron's beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men and women - to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us - with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”*
I was once told that it’s a pretty bad idea to say a sermon at a friend's or family member’s funeral, but when my grandmother died my family, being made up of lapsed Catholics, had nothing. There was going to be no service, no sermon, no eulogy; nothing. When I heard this, I said, ‘Well, okay... I’ll do this. It’s better for me to step in then for there to be nothing.’ It was a mess.** And I hope that today is not a mess, but it might be because John Neely was for me, like for so many of you, my friend, and contrary to death-denying "celebration of life" ceremonies, so in fashion today, you and I are here together to mourn the loss of our friend.
John was quite a guy--quite a character--and I wish I’d have known him like many of you knew him. I wish I had known him longer. I met John in the basement of St. George’s Church. I had just arrived as an associate priest at Calvary - St. George’s when the priest-in-charge asked if I’d help out at the soup kitchen on Thursday mornings. And I’ll admit, I didn’t want to go, because, believe it or not, the ministry job, contrary to what all of you know and think, is actually pretty tough, and I wasn’t super thrilled about adding on one more thing. But I went anyway, because I’m holy like that.
That first day, Doug Perry, bless his heart, saw this bachelor priest, sniffed out my lack of culinary skills, and paired me with a buoyant, tall African-American man whom I would later discover was a chef. From the get-go our back-and-forth began. All of you at the Common Table know that John loved to ride me for this and get on my back for that, but I quickly learned that John wasn’t like so many whom I know who dish it out but can’t handle having it handed right back to them. John, I saw, appreciated snark.
So I learned right off the bat that John and I were going to be friends, which I’m sure contributed to me beginning to very much like those Thursday mornings with the whole quirky gang (many of which are here today). Before long though, John was trying to get me to make soups on my own so that he could stand back and ask me any and every theological question that he could think of. He was always pretty hard on, but also very fascinated by my more (I guess you’d say) small ‘o’-orthodox faith. “Wait you really believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead,” I remember him asking in astonishment and condescension. To which I all I could do was nod my head and say 'uh huh.' “Oh, you creed-lovers,” he replied, “we don’t do those at St. Bart’s.” (This, I hear, was only at one service and is no longer true. PTL.)
But as the Thursdays came and went, I found that John was teaching me a whole lot more than I thought I was ‘teaching’ him. And I’m not just talking about what my mother was happy about--namely that he was teaching me how to cook. No, John had a knack for saying just the right thing at the right time; a knack for a wisdom that cut through cliches and abstractions (which we theological-types are so good at). He had a knack for being the 'pastor' in the relationship. I learned to trust him so much that soon after breaking off a pre-engagement with my then girlfriend in December of 2014, I told him first. And at the height of my guilt I remember him saying, “Ben, it sounds like you’re not ready to be married yet,” which for some strange reason made everything a little lighter. Not just for that moment, but from then on. More recently, as the shoe came to be found on the other foot, and I got my heart ripped out and stomped on, John was one of the first to know. When I told him, he didn’t make me cook that day, and he didn’t tell me that it was all going to be okay. (Which was so helpful because everyone said, “Oh, you’ll be okay.” But he didn’t tell me that.) He was just there and he listened, and he cracked timely jokes. "Well, Ben, it sounds like you'll just never be happy again." To which I frowned before cracking up.
At around the time of the pre-engagement breakup, I gave him a book by a quirky chef priest named Robert Farrar Capon for Christmas (from which I stole my introductory prayer). I’m a pretty good gift giver, so I knew this was a good gift (#brag), but what I didn’t know is just how much he would love it. He told me that he read it multiple times and that Fr. Capon had inspired him to write his own recipes with corresponding theological reflections on for example “The Intrinsic Goodness of the Onion,” and, as people at the Common Table will well know, it's sequel, “The Especially Intrinsic Goodness of the Tomato.” He also wanted to write about the virtues all different kinds of spices. (And he wrote some of these and unfortunately we have no idea where those are now, so if you know let us know after. I’d love to see them). But this was one of the many book projects that John was up to, that had no chance of being completed, right up to the end.
More recently, John would talk with great affection about his Landmark and EFM groups and the theological discussions he had among you. (I think it was with you all that he learned that he wanted to become a priest, and then was convinced that, no, he wanted to become a deacon, and then, well... you know John.) But he wanted so badly for me to meet you people, and I wish it could be under different circumstances. Just weeks before his death John asked me for tome, a theological tome, by the 20th century theological extraordinaire Karl Barth. (For those of you in the know I, of course, gave him Volume 4 on The Reconciliation.) [maybe two people at the funeral knew what I was talking about.] And I would have loved to hear what he would have had to say about it. And I’m sure he’d say something like “Karl Barth isn’t so different from all you priests. You love your robes and your regalia, and Barth loves his big words and highfalutin concepts, but get to the point.” Believe it or not, though, he actually grew to love these priests up here on the chancel. He truly loved this theological stuff, which at first I thought was him feigning interest... “You playin’ me, John Neely?" I once asked, but no he actually enjoyed it.
There are so many things, so many inside jokes, so many friends and colleagues that he talked about--especially you, Edward, who I think didn’t actually think John loved you but he very much did. But I can’t talk very much longer because I’ve been given a time-limit that I’ve already eclipsed. So I’m going to wrap up by saying, “Yes, John, I do believe in the resurrection. I do believe in this whole resurrection business.” And the reason that I can mourn here today and not say things like “John would not want us to mourn today,” or that “John was just a perfect guy” (because all of you who knew him knew he wasn’t). I can mourn and not be in denial because I do not despair, and this is because I believe that Christ rose from the dead, and that when he comes we will rise with him. And, thankfully, those many rooms being prepared for us, spoken about in the lesson that we just read, are not for the righteous, or for the perfect, or for those who have their acts together, but for the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, and in the words of St. Paul, the ungodly. John, having spent his last years, and, as I’ve heard from many of you, most of his life interested in the lowly and left out, would have loved this gospel, even if he could only start believing in something like the resurrection from the dead just weeks before his own death.
You and I, sisters and brothers are free to mourn John’s death, because as the Prayer Book tells us, “he was a Sheep of Christ’s own fold, a lamb of Christ’s own flock, a sinner of Christ’s own redeeming, and he will therefore be received into the arms of Christ’s mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” For our God is a God “who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
Thanks be to God.
*Prayer taken from Robert Farrar Capon's, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
**a mess on my part. Overall, it was a beautiful, spontaneous appreciation of Winnie DeHart in particular and the family in general.