What is your favorite image of Ken Roberts? When you think of Ken, what image comes to mind?
Is it Ken sitting at church, blissfully unaware that his hearing aids were whistling during the homily?
Is it Ken enjoying a plate of green linguini with shrimp and marinara? Or is it Ken enjoying his Beefeater martini with several olives?
What is your favorite image of Ken? Is it Ken telling you in a loud voice exactly what he thought about Bill Clinton or Barak Obama?
Is it Ken smiling broadly when he was surrounded by his family, or wearing his favorite hat as he walked around Europe on a pilgrimage?
Is it Ken serving as a lector at the Cathedral, or renewing his vows with Linda, whom he always called “my bride.”
Our favorite images of Ken may all be different, since Ken touched each of our lives in a unique way.
Today, I ask you to consider one more image of Ken. I want you to picture Ken, growing up in Brooklyn. His was not an easy childhood, living on the second floor of a railroad apartment. From a very young age, Ken had to work hard. Ken delivered meat for the butcher, delivered vegetables from the grocer, took any job to earn some money.
Ken was always bright – but that does not mean that he was a student who was easy-to-manage! Ken played hooky... a lot! But he may be the only student in the history of NYC schools who cut class so that he could go to the public library in order to read books on British history!
Ken loved history. He loved novels. He always remembered the librarian who helped him to get his first library card. She told him to read Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.” It changed his life. That librarian helped Ken to discover the joy of reading, a joy he shared with his children and grandchildren. Reading was, for Ken, a place of peace in a sometimes chaotic world.
So I want you to picture Ken at the age of 14, working to scrape together some money. And what did he do with that money? He went to a local craftsman and asked him to build a reading chair. Ken specified that it had to be covered in yellow leather. Picture Ken carrying that chair to the railroad apartment. He put it by the window, where the light was best. Now, he had a proper place to sit, a proper place to read.
That yellow reading chair went with Ken to every apartment and home he ever lived in. It sat near his bed here in Richmond. As long as he was physically able, he sat in that chair and read. That is the chair sitting in front of the altar right now.
In that chair, Ken read novels and history. He also read about his faith. Ken was dedicated to his Catholic faith throughout his life. He read deeply about his faith. At some point, in that yellow chair, Ken must have read the three Scripture passages which were just proclaimed to us in this Mass.
In that Chair, Ken would have read today’s first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes. In this reading, the sacred author is reflecting on the nature of human life and human meaning. There were those in ancient times, just as there are in modern times, who believed that human life is basically meaningless, just a series of random events. Life happens, and then we are gone.
But in today’s first reading, the Biblical author tells us that life does have meaning and purpose. God is with us on every step of the journey. God shows us how to find meaning in every experience. We are born for a purpose. We are created for a reason.
So there is a time for everything. “There is a time to be born, and a time to die. A time to weep, a time to laugh. A time to embrace, a time to refrain from embracing.“
In each moment God is blessing us, strengthening us, guiding us.
For Ken, there was indeed a time for everything. And in everything, Ken was being blessed by God.
For Ken, there was a time to be born… and a time to skip school.
For Ken, there was a time to watch old movies, a time to travel, a time to watch baseball, a time to walk… all over NYC.
For Ken, there came that blessed time when he met his bride, Linda. It was a time to fall in love. A time to marry. A time to create a beautiful family, with Josh, Liesl, Alice and Susan. This Irish American was very proud of the fact that all three of the girls married Italian men whose names ended with the letter “O”!
Ken loved Linda. You shared the gift of marriage 45 years. He shared life with you. He shared the faith with you.
He was fiercely proud of his children. He made sure that you received good educations.
For Ken, there was always time to enjoy a good meal, tell a good story, laugh a good laugh.
For Ken, there were times to take his grandson on the Freedom Trail in Boston, to take his granddaughter to buy a new dress. There was time to feed the birds and fight a losing battle with the “Squirrels of Short Pump.”
And, eventually, there came a time when Ken’s health began to fade. Linda, you and your family showed us what love looks like in the way that you took care of Ken. You surrounded him with love. With the help of good people, like Dr. Young, Ken received extraordinary care and tenderness.
That kind of tenderness is precisely what our second reading is referring to today. John the Evangelist says, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may called children of God.” God loves us with a tender, faithful love. Throughout Ken’s life, no matter what challenges he might be facing, God was enfolding Ken in a love that never failed.
Ken believed that. Ken was a man of faith. He believed that it is in the dying of Jesus that our death finds its meaning. And it is in the rising of Jesus that our hope for eternity is made possible.
And Ken trusted in God’s mercy. No human being is ever perfect. Lord knows that Ken was not perfect. (As Ken might say, “Lord have mercy!”) Ken was a sinner. We all are. Ken needed forgiveness and healing. We all do. But Ken knew that Christ would wipe away every tear, and make whole whatever in us is broken.
Personally, I believe that Ken really began to experience the healing which comes from Christ in recent months, even as his body was weakening. In the past few months, I saw a sense of peace come over him, a sense of gratitude. Ken could always love fiercely. Recently I also saw him love tenderly. What a gift from God.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus sits upon that beautiful hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and he speaks a summary of his Gospel message. “Blessed are you… blessed are you when you mourn, or when you show mercy, blessed are you when you feel attacked, or when you make peace.”
We are blessed in all of those moments because Christ is with us. No matter what is happening in our lives, Christ is with us. So we are blessed.
I started this homily by asking you to picture Ken sitting in his chair. He loved to sit and read. At social events, you could often find him sitting in a chair, laughing and smiling.
But there was something that he loved to do which got him up from his chair: Ken loved to dance.
Ken figured out as a teenager that he could meet beautiful girls if he knew how to dance. So he learned. And he danced. And he met beautiful girls.
And then he met the woman he loved most… and you danced. People would pause and watch you dance. Many evenings, after dinner, the two of you would dance in your living room, as your children smiled.
In recent years, his medical issues made it impossible to dance. He sat more and more.
But on Tuesday, our loving God called Ken by name, and invited him to rise, to walk through the doorway of death, to journey to the heart of God. He took his last breath surrounded by “his bride,” his children, his best friend from the age of 7. We had to let him go.
As our first reading told us, “there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
We mourn Ken’s passing. Letting go is hard. Yet our faith tells us that for Ken, it is a time to dance. Ken is now in the presence of the One who loves us with a passion that is beyond our imagining. Ken is now in the presence of the One who can bind up our wounds, and heal our hurts, and wipe away our tears. Ken is with the One who makes weak legs strong, and suffering souls whole.
When we see your chair, Ken, we will remember you and thank God for you. And we trust that, in God’s presence, you will dance, rejoice and enjoy the heavenly banquet, until we are united with you, and see Christ face to face.
Funeral Homily – Kenneth Roberts
March 19, 2016
Father Michael Renninger
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Richmond VA