“Christian: The Path of Service”

First Sermon in a Series entitled “Christian”

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This is the first sermon in a series entitled, “Christian.” In each sermon, I will discuss a Christian man or woman whom I have known personally. Most of these people were prominent in the Episcopal Church; all are deceased.

Each sermon will be independent, so you don’t have to hear them all to make sense of any one of them; they’ll be on our website in any case. My idea is that reflecting on the lives of other Christians helps us to live our own lives in faith.

This sermon is about a man named Gordon Clem and his service to God. I met Gordon in 1970 when I was a seminarian intern at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan; he remained a close friend of mine until his death last September. (He was a godfather to both of my sons.)

Gordon’s service to God took place in Episcopal churches and private schools. He taught at the Choir School at St. Thomas Church for ten years and then was its Headmaster for thirty years.

As Headmaster, Gordon was amazing. Prematurely bald, plump, and rather cherubic, he was loved by his students and his staff.

He was always accessible. He would receive students in his office or–since this school was a boarding school–he would talk to students in his apartment. Even when he was entertaining adult friends, his door was always open. If a student came in, Gordon would drop whatever he was doing so that he could give his full attention to the boy’s concerns.

Most nights he met with the oldest students for prayer; as chaplain, I organized “house eucharists” that took advantage of the new, informal liturgies that were being introduced into the Episcopal Church. We would have communion sitting on the floor of the student lounge.

Even after the students had graduated, they would still call Gordon for advice. Every year he would send hundreds of birthday cards to former students to keep in touch.

Gordon would also find himself helping parents of choir school students. I remember one harrowing night when Gordon called me at home. He was on another phone line with the father of a student; the man was in a hotel room in a distant city and he was standing at the window of his hotel, contemplating suicide. After many anxious minutes, and much talk, Gordon convinced the man not to jump.

Gordon Clem’s ministry had numerous personal qualities. Visitors to the Choir School often marveled that his personal presence was so strong that he never needed to raise his voice to get the boys’ attention.

And he had enormous patience; I never heard him swear. He actually loved committee meetings and was often appointed to church commissions and task forces that would have driven other people crazy with boredom!

Like anyone, though, Gordon could get angry. He wasn’t good at “conflict resolution.” Indeed, if there is one cautionary lesson to be learned from his life, it would be that anger can cloud the judgment of the sanest, most balanced person.

In the course of his life, Gordon resigned from several important professional and church positions when he didn’t like how things were going. He got mad and left in a huff.

Now sometimes resigning in protest is your only choice; and sometimes it’s a way to win a battle, especially if your opponents give in and ask you back. Yet when it doesn’t make things better, you’re the one who is hurt, and the resulting pain of separation can be very great.

It also has to be said that despite Gordon’s deep faith, he sometimes had problems with clergy.

But I think many of Gordon’s issues with clergy were the result of his acute sense of his own high calling to ministry. Lesser standards of service to God just weren’t acceptable.

When I was working at St. Thomas, a colleague of mine and I were talking about Gordon’s intense involvement in the church. My friend observed, “Gordon is already a priest.”

Not ordained of course, but his gracious concern for others was surely a mark of the priesthood of believers. And that ministry is available to all Christians, ordained or not.

When Gordon left New York, he settled in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. His pastoral work blossomed in his retirement years.

As part of his parish ministry, he brought communion to many shut-ins who were members of his local Episcopal parish. Later, when he was himself was disabled by diabetes and confined to a nursing home, he still reached out to comfort and console fellow residents of the home.

Nor did Gordon’s willingness to challenge authority flag in his final years. Gordon wasn’t afraid to complain to the nursing home management when he thought procedures could be improved and life made more comfortable for his fellow residents.

Yet, again, his concern was for others, not himself. Even though he never left the nursing home for the last two years of his life, and for many months he was too sick to leave his bed, still I never heard him complain about his health or about his agonizingly slow decline.

In the words of the sociologist, David Reisman, Gordon was “other-directed.” More than anyone I have ever known, he thought first about other people.

Other-directedness doesn’t come naturally in our self-centered, self-indulging culture. Think of how few of our culture heroes are applauded for helping other people—think of how many celebrities are famous for being famous.

But it’s also worth noting that all who knew Gordon Clem would agree that his unselfish service made him happy. That’s another lesson we can learn from this Christian life. Thinking of others—loving your neighbor: that’s not such a bad way to live.

And he always thought of the people he served before God. How many times he added names to various prayer lists in different churches. God only knows how long his personal prayer list must have been.

This attitude of other-directedness was the source, I think, of his ability to bear the endless hours of suffering in his last days.

Gordon was a remarkable teacher, and a legendary teacher of teachers. But his life also teaches us many lessons. The Gospel chosen for his funeral service couldn’t have been more appropriate: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

We can also repeat the biblical words that end the official hymn of his beloved choir school: “Servant, well done!”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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