Gordon Clem Homily

Gordon Clem

Funeral 19 October 2013

Trinity Church, Lenox, Massachusetts

Last Sunday afternoon, Gordon Clem was honored at a memorial evensong in St. Thomas Church in New York City. Gordon’s forty-year career at the St. Thomas Choir School was described in great detail during the Rector’s homily, and many alumni and former faculty were present in the choir and congregation.

Although I met Gordon in 1970 when I was serving as a seminarian assistant at St. Thomas, and I later was myself chaplain and theology teacher at the Choir School, I would choose today to speak less of Gordon’s professional achievements and more about him as a person and as a Christian.

Of course, his private character couldn’t be separated from his public profession. And yet it was in private that he was a Godsend.

He was always available for his students when they were at school and then, even long after they had graduated, they could come to him for counsel. Every year he would send hundreds of birthday cards. He rendered innumerable kindnesses to me and my family; he was godfather to both of my sons.

Gordon would find himself giving advice to choir school parents and family members as well. I remember one harrowing night when Gordon was on the phone with a family member in a distant city. The man was standing at the window of his hotel and contemplating suicide. After many anxious minutes, Gordon convinced the man not to jump.

Along with this private side to Gordon came numerous personal qualities. Visitors to the Choir School often marveled at how he never had to raise his voice to get the boys’ attention.

He had enormous patience and I never heard him swear. His many talents did not include the driving of automobiles, and I was with him once when he was leaving a supermarket parking lot, and he managed to back into a steel pole. After the shock subsided and we realized what happened, Gordon began to laugh.

Like anyone, though, Gordon could get angry, and he wasn’t always adept at conflict resolution. Indeed, if there is a cautionary lesson to be learned from his life, it would be the perils of resigning in protest. Gordon gave up several important professional and church positions when he didn’t like how things were going. Sometimes this gesture is the only choice; sometimes it works. Yet the pain of separation may be greater than one expects.

The Rector of St. Thomas spoke eloquently of Gordon’s deep Christian faith. Yet despite this faith, Gordon could have problems with clergy. This is not unusual; I have problems with clergy!

But I think many of these issues were the result of his acute sense of his own high calling to ministry. Lesser standards just weren’t acceptable.

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

Not ordained of course, but his grace and patience and concern were surely the highest markings of the priesthood of believers.

His pastoral ministry was particularly evident in his last years—first as a lay Eucharistic minister for this parish caring for many shut-ins, then, later, when he was himself shut-in, he reached out to his fellow residents.

His natural willingness to challenge authority didn’t flag, either, and he was not afraid to complain about the nursing home management when he thought procedures could be improved. Yet I never heard him complain about his own illnesses and his agonizingly slow decline.

One final remark about Gordon’s faith. At its heart was his concern for others. In sociological terms, Gordon was “other-directed.” More than almost anyone I have ever known, he thought first about other people.

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

This attitude of other direction 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 today’s service couldn’t have been more appropriate: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

As we commend Gordon to the gracious and loving God he knew so well, let us remember the way he offered his life for others—including many of us, his family and friends.

And in our sorrow, let us not forget the biblical words that end the official hymn of his beloved choir school: “Servant, well done!”


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