“Rejoice Always”

A Memorial Reflection in Celebration of the Life of the Rev. Richard F. Stone

“Rejoice always!
Pray constantly.
Give thanks in everything,
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Don’t stifle the Spirit.
Don’t despise prophecies,
but test all things.
Hold on to what is good.
Stay away from every kind of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.”

– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Rejoice always? Rejoice while the delta variant surges across the unvaccinated heartland and we return to our masks. Hunh?  Rejoice while Republicans and Democrats debate whether January sixth was an armed insurrection or a reverent, if illicit, tour of the Capitol.  Hmmm.  Rejoice while Simone Beils struggles with the stress of athletic excellence and bows out of Olympic events that she once mastered with ease.  Really?  Rejoice while we gather in sorrow.  Rejoice as we miss a beloved husband, father, pastor, and friend.  Rejoice as we sense a Dick Stone-shaped hole in our hearts.  I’m not so sure.

“Rejoice always.”  When the Apostle Paul wrote that exhortation to his beloved flock in Thessalonica, they didn’t feel that they had much to celebrate.  Thessalonica was a culturally Greek city, where a bevy of Greco-Roman gods were worshipped.  In fact, Thessalonica was a haven for the Imperial Cult.  The Roman senate had declared the emperor the newest of gods and mandated that all should worship, sacrifice, and give generously to the emperor to ensure their personal wellbeing and the good of the empire.  Thessalonica was an unlikely place to plant a church, especially a community that heralded as the Messiah a man convicted and crucified for insurrection against the empire: Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul first came to Thessalonica after spending time in jail in Philippi.  In Thessalonica, Paul found a kind and generous welcome among the Greeks, who had eager ears to hear his good news of a God who loves us enough to take on flesh and live among us and show us the way of salvation.  They marveled at the Christ, who loves us enough to die for us, who promises that God’s holy love is eternal, who is always eager to welcome us—no matter what—both here and now and in that far brighter light on that far better shore.  Not everyone in Thessalonica welcomed Paul or his gospel.  He met with violent resistance from the synagogue and was driven out of the city.  But Paul’s tender followers persisted in Thessalonica, experiencing the sort of scorn and persecution that had led Paul to flee for his life.  In the refuge of Athens, Paul heard of his little flock’s trouble, so he wrote to them saying, “Rejoice always.”

Paul reminded his people that joy isn’t found in the superficial circumstances of our lives: the masks and the virus positivity rate, the incessant squabbles of partisan politics and the false, hateful brotherhood of white supremacy, the thrill of Olympic gold and the euphoria we find when everything is coming up roses.  Joy is found in God’s love that was revealed to us in Jesus, a love that walks with us through the long days of our lives and holds for us the promise of salvation.  Paul cast a joyous vision of the fulfillment of joy to come, writing to his persecuted friends, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).  Although we know persecution, although we know grief and hardship, we have a holy welcome and an imperishable inheritance.  In that truth there is abundant joy, enough to make us want to “rejoice always!”

My friend and colleague Dick Stone knew the joy of which Paul wrote, the joy that we choose, even when it feels like life is giving us more lemons than we can possibly squeeze into lemonade.  Dick found joy in the Lord.  Jesus was his shepherd, friend and constant companion.  Dick found the quiet joy of prayer and meditation.  He feasted on the Word, whether tackling seminary studies at Princeton, prepping for his weekly sermons, or meeting with the ecumenical clergy.  Dick expressed his love and joy for the Lord in a life devoted to God’s service.  There was joy in serving the saints of Bellona, Hornell, and Canton.  There was joy in caring for vulnerable neighbors through the Church and Community Program that he worked to establish in Canton.  There was joy in providing clean water for African villages through the shallow well initiative of the Marion Medical Mission.  It’s hard to believe, but there was joy in moderating the Presbytery of Northern New York.

Dick found joy in Jeanne, his partner in life, love, and ministry.  They forged a family and a home together in sunshine and, at times, in sorrow.  Especially in retirement, the two were inseparable.  You might have seen them strolling the village on a Thursday evening Art Walk, or sharing a lunch out at a local eatery, or seated next to one another in a pew, worshipping the God who brought them joy. 

How grateful Dick was that the circle of joy and love that he shared with Jeanne spilled over to a new generation.  Lisa, Mark, and Kirk were the apple of his eye.  He loved and was proud of you and the strong, independent, successful adults that you have become.  He delighted in those grandchildren.  Dick acknowledged that he struggled with the challenge of being a pastor and a family man.  As he prepared to retire from his 30-year pastorate in Canton, Dick told a local reporter, “I’ve said to my children many, many times, ‘All I ask of you is to believe I tried to do the best I could at that time in my life.  I might have been dead wrong, but please believe that I tried my best.’”

Dick lived with good cheer, faithfulness and a modicum of rejoicing – even when it may not have seemed that there was much to rejoice about.  On the third Sunday of Advent in 1996, after the untimely death of Kirk, Dick returned to leadership in Canton, to lead the people he loved in worship.  I can only begin to imagine the ponderous weight of climbing into the pulpit on that Sunday with a broken heart, still reeling with grief.  The theme he chose for worship that day?  “Rejoice always!” 

Jeanne shared with me Dick’s sermon notes for that message.  Those of you who knew Dick’s penmanship can imagine how indecipherable those notes truly are.  But I was able to make out that Dick began that message as I did this one, with all the reasons that joy seems like a bad and unlikely choice.  I may not have been able to read Dick’s handwriting, but I know that he went on to claim the hope that Paul held out to his friends in Thessalonica.  Dick trusted that, in every circumstance, even the most bitter of family tragedies, God was with him.  Dick knew that God can take all our loss and tears and grief and bless it, redeem it, and summon from it a miracle of new life.  Dick believed that death is the ultimate healer.  There is a far brighter light on that far better shore where the unbridled joy of the Kingdom of God awaits.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  Again, we will say rejoice.

We who love Dick can find solace in the very promise that Dick trusted.  No life is without sorrow, from the persecution of the Thessalonians to the grief that we share this afternoon.  Yet amid the tears there is joy.  Listen!  The archangel has called.  The trumpet has sounded.  Dick, God’s good and faithful servant, has risen with unbridled joy to meet the Lord he so dearly loves.  One glorious day, we shall all be caught up together.  “Rejoice always!”  Again, I will say, rejoice!

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

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