In Memory of Bob Rybicki: A Sermon by Dean Richardson

Dean Richardson preached this sermon at the funeral of Bob Rybicki, CDSP’s director of operations and personnel management, on September 10, 2016 at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

Bob Rybicki

We come together today in memory of the Rev. Bob Rybicki, priest of the church. We are here as Bob’s friends to support especially his husband Lee Ng. And we gather here in this place, in the context of the faith of the church, as a people of hope in God’s future, trusting that God is transforming and drawing all things into God’s own presence more fully and deeply.

Our scriptures readings today are about hope in God’s future. And about hope, the writers of Sacred scripture, including St. Paul in today’s reading, provide us only with picture language, words that depict and point but never define the mode in which God’s promise is fulfilled, as if to say that what we trust in is not our highest imagination about what is possible but God’s transformation of all things. 

So I begin this morning with the picture language of Paul. Bob was an urban creature through and through, whether in the streets of Chicago or the streets of the Bay area, but let your thoughts turn for a moment to Paul’s agrarian image of ‘sowing’. Essentially Paul is saying, one’s life now is like a seed, given away, placed in the soil.  Sown in our weakness and finitude, sown in the complex soil of a city and its struggles and all the struggles of history. The words of Paul are an echo of Jesus’ own words to his friends:  except a grain fall to the earth it abides by itself alone, and it does not bear much fruit. When it dies it bears much fruit.

It is as if, spiritually, our lives are to be in a continuous posture of being given away, sown into the soil of life surrounding us.  I want later to think of this in terms of God’s future in which we place our trust, but first in terms of what God is doing through our lives now, the present effects of our lives thrown into the soil of our own time and place. Bob planted his life into many places as if to give himself away in the service of life itself:  into his marriage with Lee, his friendships (he loved his friends—Barbara Kimport, you come to mind when I think of the reciprocity of this friendship), and into a professional life dedicated to God’s mission in the world. The planting of himself that I knew began barely two years ago in the fall of 2014. And what I witnessed over two years many of you have known for much longer.

In the fall of 2014 I called Bob on the wise advice of Randal Gardner, canon at this cathedral. Bob was not yet a priest in the Episcopal Church but would soon be received as a priest by Bishop Marc.  Bishop Marc and others said the same thing to me as Randal had: “Don’t miss this opportunity; Bob is a keeper.”

I saw Bob and met with him soon after.  I did not really see him yet, only those focused eyes behind the blue-framed glasses, and his confident but humble and understated voice. When I began my conversation with Bob I was at a crossroads in my staff leadership and on a number of issues at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley California, where I am president and dean. It was very soon after that that Bob himself would ironically help to pastor me through some hard issues even as he waited for me to wake up and invite him to come on staff or lose the chance. He wanted so much to serve in the context of forming spiritual leaders for the church, but he had other offers.

I did make that invitation, and he was not with us long at CDSP—only two very full years. But speaking of planting himself! I can assert with confidence that no one had more impact on our institution in a shorter period of time than Bob, and no one has taught me more about servant leadership. We were on the edge of major property and facilities transitions, good ones, and he had more than the skills to manage this.  The real gift was his relationships with people, the modeling of leadership by example and by service, bringing people and communities along with him when they faced transition, and in every instance imputing dignity to every person he engaged:  students, staff, faculty and contractors. This is what touched us all. Bob did not ring bells and blow whistles to announce his leadership; he led by example, side by side with everyone.

CDSP is an Episcopal divinity school in the consortium of the Graduate Theological Union, a vital mix of Catholic and Protestant schools, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu dharma centers of study, all in close proximity, and one block from UC Berkeley. This was the location of his ministry, where Bob’s last professional position would be planted. He loved the context mostly because he loved knowing he was helping to shape the future of spiritual leaders. Whether working quite literally with a janitor buffing a floor, working with contractors to install solar energy to power our campus, working with seminarians to build community, or CFOs to strategize toward future financial strength, Bob blessed the school by the humble and humorous way that he built human relationships. And, he built them through the fabrics of the earth in bringing physical beauty to the campus. I loved how he would light up with childlike joy in seeing the effects of change around the campus. These, to use Paul’s image, are among the seeds of his life sown for God’s redeeming work, his contribution to the divine life for God to transform.

One former student now a priest wrote this week on hearing about Bob’s death:  “Thank you for blessing my life with your personal kindness and example of leadership … Your spirit is too joyful and too much needed to go far away.” Well it hasn’t gone far away; he planted himself on fertile soil and his gifts will be felt palpably in our community life this year. Bob left his mark on a school that is flourishing because of his aid.  He trusted that he had not planted himself in vain.

As I said, in my first meeting with Bob, I didn’t see much beyond the focused eyes behind the blue-framed glasses.  But in a short time after that I began to see Bob— (well, yes, there was his endless supply of office M&Ms and Diet Coke—Lee, I know you tried to change his diet). The ‘Bob’ I grew to really see was known in his action, his care, his humor that brought activity into proportion. It was a more in-depth seeing. Yes, the face and body in action matter to us; it makes real any life that we know. At the same time, it is the window onto something immeasurable in a person’s life with us; the core depth of the person is what we come to know, an opening onto something of the mystery of how that person we love participates in, contributes to, the life of God. 

We grieve naturally the loss of Bob because we can’t see him and his actions any longer through the light waves, nor hear his voice through sound waves, but his spiritual resonance (the core depth of who Bob is) still reverberates through us. We will, to use another of Paul’s images, recognize his gift in the body of Christ and the body of humanity that he served. 

In one of my last visits to see Bob, it was only a few days before he would leave the nursing home. I knew he was feeling better at that point because his wry sense of humor was back, he had a laundry list two pages long of things he was thinking about that needed to get done at the school.  Then, two weeks later, came the sudden and shocking news.

Bob has now planted his life into this world and he did this trusting in God’s grace. For Bob, giving his life into the soil of the world was the form of his reverence and the measure of his hope in God’s future.  This hope is the theme lacing together our prayers and lessons today.

Hope is the bridge between what we have already known in the presence of God whose spirit is infused in all things, and what is yet to be. It is hope in the future that comes back to invest meaning in the present. On the one hand, nothing we do, nothing in our personal histories, nothing in all of nature and history can exhaustively represent the promise of God to bring all of creation into the divine life.  Yet on the other hand, that future of God cannot do without the particulars of our lives that have been planted in the soil of nature and history.  The incarnational message is that we are sowing the seeds now, and the particulars of our lives matter. They are the materials that God transforms. The message of the Gospel is about God’s treasuring of this mortal life here and now. God’s Spirit works through all of us—the loves known, the justice enacted, the values realized, the gifts given—all contributing to the material that God will make new.

We arrive at this place with modesty. Augustine once said about the hope we place in the transformative power of God, that we trust what we cannot fully know:  “Let human voices be silent; let human thought repose. To things incomprehensible they [our thoughts] stretch out, not as if to comprehend them, but only to share in them. And share in them we shall.” [1]

Bob did not labor, in conversation with me, over a need for certainty about anything. We cannot know our ultimate future, precisely because it is God’s and not what our finite imaginations can produce. But the faith of the church, which we extend to Bob this day, is that we have a future dwelling within the mystery of God.  

About the reality of this future, in faith we fall silent, words fail. But this is not an empty silence, not a vacant hopeless silence but the silence of love. How can we do better than Jesus himself who in his dying words did not give a dissertation on the future but said simply, ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Lee, we who know Bob know that he loved you deeply. One of your friends Sally Carlson, who could not be with you today but who attended your wedding years back, wrote after hearing of your loss: “I am holding the image of Bob’s profound joy at his wedding to Lee in my heart’s eye.”

So we surround you with our friendship and hold you in our love and prayers today as you face the grief of your loss. In all of our thankfulness to God for the life of Bob and his gift to us, we can never overlook the suffering of loss, and for you it is surely experienced most deeply. My prayer is that God will grant you courage through the season of grief. And as you remember one of Bob’s jokes, or remember his touch and embrace, let that wonderful smile of yours come out, let your heart enlarge still more to embrace life itself in all its preciousness. For you share in the harvest, and you share also in the fruit of God’s power to transform all things and make them new. May God richly bless you, and all of you who are Bob’s and Lee’s dear friends, today and always.

[1] Enarratio in Ps. 146, 11, in Patrologia Latina, vol. 37.  Found in Miroslav Wolf and William Katerberg, eds., The Future of Hope,  Kevin L. Hughes, “The Crossing of Hope, or Apophatic Eschatology, 101.