A little over one week ago, my seminary community was deeply shaken by the death of esteemed and beloved faculty member, the Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle. As our community worked itself through this grief – precisely one week before this year’s seminary graduates would receive their diplomas and begin their calls – we gathered last Thursday to pay our respects, and to honor and celebrate Dr. Westhelle’s life. Vitor’s devoted friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Kadi Billman, was asked to preach the memorial’s sermon, and it was a poignant request. In addition demonstrating why one of her most well-appreciated classes is called “Caring for the Dying and Bereaved,” Dr. Billman herself has recently lost her own husband to the disease, giving all who heard her words that morning even greater weight. Using many of her late colleague’s own words, her sermon reminded those in attendance of the power of God’s promises, and how to ‘keep the faith’ in times of despair and loss. It was a truly kairos moment for our community and we are blessed that she has agreed to share the sermon here. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when the Messiah is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. – John 3:2.
The first and last word in remembering the faithful life of Vítor Westhelle must be the opening sentence of this verse:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
In all things, at all times—especially in times of suffering and grief. For that is what Vítor said over and over: God is especially to be found among the suffering ones, in the places God is most in danger of being unrecognized.
But the following sentence of the verse has been dwelling in my mind and heart these past days because it expresses something of the landscape families and communities so often must travel in the wake of a profound loss:
“What we will be has not yet been revealed.”
So let’s dwell there as a starting place. When someone as beloved as Vítor has moved beyond our sight, sound, and touch—someone whose teaching and way of engaging the world has so profoundly shaped our life together—the world itself has changed, and what we will be has not yet been revealed.
When Vítor’s eldest son Carlos wrote of the many roles his father embodied well, he said that the “one thing that unified everything” his father ever did was that “he was a teacher to all of us.” Carlos wrote, “…even in his last hour he was the one comforting us and teaching us. As his three boys sat next to him talking about his last wishes we mentioned the majority choice about a particular topic but he paused and said, ‘I worry about the minority.’ Through the pain he was experiencing he still wanted to make sure we learned more and grew; an example of how amazing a father he was. Words cannot summarize or capture his impact, accomplishments, and his absence leaves a large hole.”
Yes, his absence leaves a very large hole—a Grand Canyon in the heart and among us, I think. We ache over this canyon of loss for Vítor’s beloved family, for the faculties of LSTC and EST, for the students he was still trying to write to when his body could not keep pace with the hopes of his heart, for the global Lutheran and ecumenical theological communities.
What we will be, in each unique community, has not yet been revealed.
And we also remember that these “large holes” of life—the places and spaces where people groan in travail as they await an as-yet unrevealed future —are precisely the spaces where Vítor Westhelle made his pastoral and theological home. Our last faculty meeting took place the day after Ascension Day, and we read some quintessentially Vítor Westhelle words from a sermon he preached a few years ago on the ascension of Christ. Not surprisingly, the title of the sermon was “The Glory Down Below.” Listen for the cadences of Vítor’s voice:
“Well my friends, it is a matter of where are we looking at. So let us remember the first lesson that the followers of Jesus had to learn after Jesus left them. The very first lesson was not for them to know when Jesus would return. After all, he said he would be always with them to the end of the ages. How could they know that, when in his ascension they were gazing up into the skies? The question was one of the gaze.
So let us learn the first lesson that the disciples had to learn when the master they loved was lifted away from them. There they were standing in utter bewilderment, gazing at the clouds on high, gaping at the skies, probably wondering about his last words that said it was not their business to know about the time reconciliation would happen.
Now that the master was gone from their sight they had to learn where to turn their vision to. Not when but where does Jesus return was the point. Where should the gaze be fixed at? Two men stood by the disciples when they were staring up heavenwards. And they told the followers that theirs was the wrong quest. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?”
This is what is called a rhetorical question.
Those who were asking for the time of Jesus’ return were now being told that Jesus’ continuing presence, his parousia, his being-there was not a question of when, but of where. The text of Acts that tells us that Jesus’ ascension is …the very same way he comes to us: it is always from down below. The narrative of Jesus’ ascension is only a story to tell us about his descent. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
It is from down below that he comes. Don’t look into heaven. It is from down below that glory emerges. Don’t gaze up, look down. Look down where life is broken, where creation is tortured, where nature is abused. Down there in the troubles of our days lies the glory as much as it once was found in the womb of a poor peasant maid of Galilee, or lying in a manger in the midst of dung, animals, and flies.
Consider then the homeless old woman in the city street and know that Christ is there and that NATO’s whole air force in all its glory is not armored as she is. So, do consider the lilies of the field, but consider as well the pollution, the waste, and the violence against which the blossoming of the most simple flower is already a triumph that beats the odds and tells a story of ascension.”
Vítor pointed to where we might look to encounter the Messiah among us; the where always seemed more important than the when. We do not have to wait until some designated “end time” to experience what “eschaton” means; it is a matter of where we are gazing. And so I hear Vitor’s voice pointing to the double meaning in “What we will be has not yet been revealed”:
anxiety and faith,
lament and hope,
ending and beginning…
a kind of “crossing over” that can happen in the depths where these dwell together on a threshold that disappears when we try to finally “fix” it and pin it down.
In his book, Eschatology and Space, Vitor quotes a sentence from Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat, that “God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light is,” and goes on to say:
This darkness is the night that seizes us in the eschatological event that is at once a judgment and act of grace in breaking down our self-built defenses. And these are the two opposite and complementary sides of an eschatological event: lament and remembrance, condemnation and justification, grave and grace. The dividing line between these pairs, the threshold, cannot be defined, measured, or theoretically located. In the moment that is done, it is no longer there. It can only be lived through; experienced.
“It can only be lived through; experienced.” Three days before he died, Vítor’s last message to his faculty colleague indicated that he was experiencing in his own body the mysteries to which his life’s work points: “In the school of life,” he wrote, “the last lesson comes, of course, at the end. The last lesson is, of course, about life, its telos and goal, its closure and termination. The content of this last class, I can tell you because I see from a privileged vantage point, concerns and executes the lesson in life that is most difficult to address: how to be receptive, how to receive a gift.”
“The lesson in life that is most difficult to address: how to be receptive, how to receive a gift.” Carlos said that amid the pain of parting his father reminded them that he lives on through the memories of everyone he touched. He said, “As we held his hands, he was surrounded by those he loved dearly. Just like the unifying power of water reaching across continents, his soul is now free, and will forever unite us all.”
How do we become receptive amid sorrow? How do we receive a gift?
Perhaps we already have been experiencing this mystery or faith and hope amid disorientation and sorrow as communities across continents have gathered this week to offer expressions of gratitude for all Vítor Westhelle has meant to us; to share stories and memories; to reconfigure his life and legacy…a practice that will continue after the service when we gather to share memories and stories at a meal that will be an extension of our Communion here, also holy, and on and on into the future as Vítor’s words and stories are remembered and repeated in other conversations and writings.
Barbara Rossing recently related Mark’s story of transfiguration to our life together with Vítor: “Now I see transfiguration all around… in the gift of what Vítor gave and received from his students: transfiguration as boundary-crossing, opening up a glimpse of the future already in the present…Transfiguration in the care we embody…in how we abide in love, the transfiguring force that holds us together.”
Vitor was fond of a quote from Søren Kierkegaard that “the work of love in remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love,” because it “eliminates every possibility of repayment,” and added that the reverse is also implied: “The gift the dead receive in remembrance is a pure gift, because it cannot be repaid. Thus these, gift and death, are the eschata par excellence.”
How do we receive a gift?
Following our friend and teacher, let’s start with remembrance—a gift we can offer Vítor, a gift that cannot be repaid. Yet, when offered in community, in shared gratitude and grief, perhaps we will be met by the Messiah who is not yet fully revealed but whose presence may be palpably present when the dividing line between lament and hope is, in unforgettable moments, dissolved, and we get a small foretaste of the feast to come. And in the very center of our sorrow we may hear Vítor say:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when the Messiah is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
May it be so.
Rev. Dr. Kathleen Billman earned her B.A. degree from Muskingum College (now Muskingum University) and M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Following seminary graduation and ordination (Billman is an ordained elder in the Greater New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church), Billman served as the pastor of an urban congregation in Trenton, New Jersey for eight years before returning to Princeton to complete the Th.M. and Ph.D. degrees. After joining the faculty at LSTC in 1992, within a few years Billman was named dean of the seminary (in 1999) the first woman to serve in that position. She then served as LSTC’s dean and vice president of academic affairs through June 30, 2009, when she returned to full-time teaching. Currently, she the John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology and Director of the Master of Divinity Program.
 Vítor Westhelle, Eschatology and Space: The Lost Dimension in Theology Past and Present (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 137.
 Ibid, 104.