This is a day we have all known was coming sooner rather than later over the last eight months, although we all hoped in our heart of hearts that it would never happen. And for awhile John fed those hopes! His will to live was strong!
Why it was so strong, I believe, was the close attention of his family and friends. In particular hi daughters and their husbands: you literally gave him the life he had over these past few months, making his room at the Church Home a little home, getting him to Starbucks and Church, and just plain loving him. I cannot tell you how many times he said to me how grateful he was for you. I know he told you too. You are all wonderful!
Wonderful! It was one of his favorite words, at least in these last days. What a great word, wonderful. Full of wonder. John was that. I suspect he always was, but he certainly was over the last year. To be in his presence was such an ego boost, because in his presence you were wonderful! It was the kind of blessing we all need.
By any measurement John had a wonderful life. Not free from stress and pain and sorrow, but wonderful, nevertheless, full of wonder.
Wonder even at the evils he had experienced and, in some ways, had come to haunt his life. Over the summer I had the privilege of reading through his papers from approximately 1960-1970, the bulk of the years of his active ordained ministry. Near the end of this time he wrote an essay entitled, “Belsen and Roxbury.” “Belsen” is Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp that John had helped liberate at the end of World War II. “Roxbury” had been home for the Harmon family for 18 years, including John’s time as Rector of St. John’s, Roxbury. In those days it was what was called a “ghetto.” John wrote:
It took me a long time to really bring Belsen and Roxbury together in such a way that a message comes through about the Gospel…In time, however, I came to a new understanding. Belsen was not atypical—German only—but prototypical; the German death camps were actually horrible demonstrations of a genocidal disease that is part of all history—yes, even the history of which I am a part. And concerning Roxbury—it became clear that this consistent persecution of human life was not the result of a system going unaccountably wrong, a human mistake repairable in time—but, quite simply, it was meant to be that way. Some of us in this country have to try hard to fail; others are just not permitted to succeed.
By “it was meant to be that way,” John didn’t mean by God. He meant by us. What John had discovered was that there was an insidious intentionality about poverty. He went on to say where God fit into this.
But now, I think, is a time for taking sides; as it has been before in our history. Indeed, it seems to me now, that God has always taken sides; that he has always been on the side of the persecuted and against those who oppress human fulfillment, whether it’s through cultural oppression or racial oppression or religious, or economic or political.
And I can’t help let him finish his thought.
So we have come, I think, to a time of explicit partisanship—partisan theology, partisan prayer, partisan reading of Scripture. Of every action, both corporate and personal, we have to ask bluntly and unequivocally: whose interests does this really serve? And if—as is so often the case—it primarily serves us, our survival, our well-being, then we must shift our course.
Such a call for justice, for deep introspection and radical action may have been written forty years ago, but it is still written for today. And it is precisely what Jesus meant when he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and also precisely why his fellow Nazarenes wanted to toss him off a cliff.
It may seem a long way from these passionate words to the gentle wondering of John over the last year. I don’t think so. Not at all. He was simply practicing what he preached in his individual relationships with us. To tell us we were wonderful was to take our side and assure us that God is there too. The good news was ever present in his life, and he wanted it to be ever present in the lives of those around him, especially people of color and gay and lesbian persons.
John ached for the day when he might see humankind realize and live out of what he considered to be God’s greatest gift to us—the fact that the dividing wall between us has already been broken down. The reading from Ephesians was a favorite of his and he came back to it again and again in his writings. In 1964 he wrote about this passage:
The central point is this: God has so fashioned his creation that existence is always, at every point, already mutual and interdependent. This is its primary character. This indestructible life together is the foundation of every moment and structure of life that exhibits the peace of God…
“This indestructible life together.” It was and is Jesus’ vision. It was Paul’s vision. It was John Harmon’s vision.
My last time with John was a week before he died. Our conversation began with the war, as it often did. He told me the story of meeting a man named Edgar Romig at Princeton and then delighted in what he thought was the brand new revelation that I myself had known Edgar Romig, who was a priest colleague of mine in the Diocese of Washington. We reminisced about Edgar for quite some time, and we touched briefly on Belsen. We talked about his daughters and Nicky, and then Two Saints, a place that he thought was, of course, “wonderful” (and it is!).
Then it was time for Communion together, about which his eyes lit up and he had a little renewal in his energy. I read him what had been the second reading on the previous Sunday, from the 11th chapter of Hebrews where the writer recalls the story of some of the great biblical heroes, and then says
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them….Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13a, 16b)
I looked up. His eyes were wide. I said, “What do you think, John?” He said, “Wow!” If I had said a word in reply I would have lost it. We shared communion. I said, “Well I’d better go.”
He said, “One more thing.” Have you ever been to Firenze (Florence)? “No,” I said, “I haven’t.” “You must,” he said. “It is the most beautiful city in the world!” “I must take John there someday,” I said. “Promise me you will.” I laughed. “Promise!” he said. “I promise,” I said. “Soon,” he said. “Soon.”
John, like all his ancestors, had never seen the promise for which he dreamed and acted on this earth. But he kept the faith, which he described occasionally as “struggling to believe God.” He struggles no more and he has seen, I believe, a city more grand than his beloved Firenze, a city where no one is ashamed and everyone is truly bound in an indestructible life together.
Thank you, John, for giving us a taste of this life. Thank you God for enabling him to do so. That feeling we had when we were with him—it was the glory of God.