At the Table: A Witness to the Resurrection and in Celebration of the Life of K.C. Ptomey

KCPJrThe Rev. Dr. K.C. Ptomey, Jr., a former member of the Covenant Network Board, joined the Church Triumphant on May 9, 2013.  K.C. was Zbinden Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Leadership at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, having retired as Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville.

A Service of Witness to the Resurrection was held at Westminster Church on Saturday, May 18.  The preachers, Ted Wardlaw and Jon Walton, have graciously granted permission to share their sermons here.

 HOMILY
on the occasion of the Service in Witness to the Resurrection
and in thanksgiving to God for the life of
Kyser Cowert Ptomey, Jr.

Romans 14:7-9

Theodore J. Wardlaw

Westminster Presbyterian Church; Nashville, TN
May 18, 2013

Last Summer, while Kay and I were on vacation, K.C. and Carol emailed to us several pictures that had been taken at K.C.’s seventieth birthday party maybe a day or so earlier.  It was clearly a great celebration—a house party on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Just the family—the children, the grandchildren, the in-laws, the potential in-laws—eleven of them, counting K.C. and Carol (thirteen of them, counting two dogs).  My favorite of the pictures, then and now, was of K.C. sitting at the end of the table in that large rented beach-house.  He was wearing a Rhodes College tee-shirt, there was a cake that had been put at his place-setting, there was a glass of wine somewhere in the picture, and a gleeful grand-daughter; and what was not in that picture, of course, but I could imagine them all the same, was the rest of that large table and every member of that blended family, happy to be there with the birthday boy!  And the birthday boy—he was vintage K.C.!  Red in the face like a banty rooster, smiling broadly, fierce and spirited in his joy in that moment, so thrilled to be there that his hands were outstretched as if he wished to embrace that whole table, peopled by those whom he loved most dearly.

I love that picture so much, because I’ve seen a similar picture so often; haven’t you?  Standing behind the table that he most cared about in all the world!  The Lord’s Table: at all of the churches he served; here at Westminster for twenty-seven years; or during his interim at First Presbyterian Church in New York City; or at Austin, presiding at the Eucharist in that gorgeous gothic Seminary chapel—that joyful face and those outstretched hands, and that fierce, passionate, spirited, convicted, prophetic, fearless, grace-filled man…full of light and also full of heat and, always, conveying to all of us a non-negotiable invitation.

When I was here a few Fridays ago to see K.C. for the last time, after the oncologist’s news from earlier in that week that none of us wanted to hear, we talked about that picture.  He said to me, “You know, when we went searching for the house on that beach that we would rent for that occasion, one of the stipulations was that the table had to be large enough to seat eleven people.”  He wouldn’t have the notion of extending the length with a card table or two, lest anyone there feel like second-class citizens; no, the table had to be large enough for everybody.  And so, based on that stipulation, they rented the house with a table large enough to seat Tricia and Andy, and Gabe, and Milner, and Chloe, and Christopher, and Liz, and John, and Claire, and K.C. and Carol, of course (the heart of his heart)—with room underneath for Lucy Dog and Sammy Dog.  But the table had to be large enough!

In a nutshell, that stipulation was K.C.’s Eucharistic theology in action.  That was the nub of his eschatological vision, that was the most fitting caption beneath his sense of ethics, that was his highest principle at a dinner party, and it was the profoundest indicator of not just his own character, but the emblematic character of a faithful Christian community.  The table has to be large enough for everybody.

One of the legendary stories that made the rounds among the scrappy young seminarians of my generation, some thirty-five years ago—five or so years before I met K.C. and came to love him—was the story of something that happened in the early 1960’s in Memphis.   These were still days of deeply-defended segregation in the South, and many churches there had strict policies against welcoming people of color to worship.  Lines were deeply drawn between the white establishment and the other races; but change was in the air.  And one Sunday, three white students at Southwestern College at Memphis—what became Rhodes College—went with African American students to worship at Second Presbyterian Church, the largest and most powerful Presbyterian church in town.  These three students went with three students of color on a Sunday morning to worship at that church, and at the doors of that church, they were all turned away.  It was church policy.  Almost immediately, the story hit the Associated Press and the United Press International, and it ricocheted around the country and across our communion.  The Presbyterian General Assembly was to have had its annual meeting at that church in the following year, and, because of this story’s power, leaders in our communion elected another venue for the General Assembly.  A historian who recounted this story to me this past week, said that it was huge in those days to defy the cultural norms like that.  “These young men were bravely defiant,” he said.  “They risked their necks; they could have been beaten up.”  Yet all three of those white students were formed by that moment.  Each one went on to go to seminary and to become Presbyterian ministers, and one of those students was K.C. Ptomey.  Even as a college student, he had to do something; because the table wasn’t large enough.

This notion of a large enough table drove his primary commitments and wove its way throughout all of his ministry, and those of you here who experienced his restless intellect and his relentless sense of justice, and his powerful preaching and his great big, wise pastoral heart; you know all about that.

It was, I suspect, somewhere deep inside that big, wise heart that K.C. found the right text for himself and for all of us, four Mondays ago, when, just a matter of hours after learning that the chemo treatments had not been successful, he wrote his farewells to his friends.  He wrote to his Caring Bridge friends, his Moveable Feast friends, his faculty friends, his family and many friends here, and he concluded with these words from St. Paul: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

These words are grounded in the very heart of the gospel.  These are words by which to live, and words by which to die; and they hold us close on this side of death, and on the other side, too.  These are the words that the architects of the Heidelberg Catechism had fresh in their minds when, in the question-and-answer format of that catechism, they formulated the very first, and, I suspect, the most important, question of all.  The question was: “What is your only comfort in life, and in death?”  And the answer was: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…”  At the heart of the gospel is the conviction that everything we do as Resurrection people, as people of faith, is done not in relation to ourselves alone, but rather in relation to the One to Whom we belong—Jesus Christ our Lord, Who himself died and rose, and thus charted for us the path to life.

St. Paul, writing to the church in Rome, and thinking about its various issues, reached deep into his own big, wise pastoral heart to find those grand words.  Because there were problems in that church; and maybe the biggest problem had to do with the size of the table.  Can you believe that?  The people in that church were quarreling over many things, and one of the main things they were fighting over was table fellowship.  What determined table fellowship?  What makes it possible for us to sit at table with one another?  Those Roman Christians thought that, for starters, it was what you ate, or didn’t eat.  Some of them would eat anything, and others would eat only vegetables.  The vegetarians were mad at the carnivores; and I can only imagine the Church Night Suppers.  There was a tofu table, and there was a quinoa table, and there was a wild game table, and there was a vegetarian pizza table.  The people who were abstaining from eating anything at all were often sitting at their own table, just judging those who were going back for second helpings.  And it wasn’t just divisions over food; that was only the beginning of it.  They were the same way about opinions and theological lines in the sand, and all manner of argument over who’s in and who’s out.  There was no one table that seemed to suit all of them, and it was killing the church.

It always does, doesn’t it?

Which is why the practice of Resurrection depends, finally, not on being right, but on a miracle.  I believe that K.C., in his spirituality and in his practice, was deeply in touch with that miracle: that Jesus Christ has never stopped loving the church, has never stopped inviting us to set in our midst the largest table possible, and to love one another.  That’s what faithful living and dying looks like.  It is the miracle that happens when we manage to overcome, as Paul had done himself, the corrosiveness that we learn from sitting at smaller tables, and to see beyond the endpoint of the languages of argument and line-drawing, toward that Kingdom language spoken by Resurrection people.  Paul beheld that church in Rome, and saw it also in its possibility, and he stretched to hit his highest rhetorical octave when he challenged them to set amongst themselves a large-enough table, and thus to be people who live to the Lord and who die to the Lord.

K.C. Ptomey, at some point, God bless him, both saw and became that miracle, too.

This past Monday at the Seminary, I sat down in my Conference Room with a small group to put the finishing touches on our Baccalaureate and Commencement services for next weekend.  It was me and our Coordinator of Chapel Music and three students—all of them Chapel Beadles.  Not one of those beadles has been out of college more than four years.  “Beadle” is a word that comes from the Church of Scotland—it means the same thing as the word “acolyte.”  Our Chapel Beadles take care of the ceremonial side of our services—they attend to the candles and the processional cross and the paraments and the water in the font and the tidiness of things—and through all of that, they tend to become deeply schooled in liturgical theology.  K.C. was the Chair of the Worship Committee at the Seminary for the past couple of years, so each of these students worked closely with him, devotedly.  We got to the part about the Commencement processional, and I explained to them that the Board Chair has directed that, as a symbol of his presence with us next weekend, someone be appointed to carry in K.C.’s academic hood and his stole.  It will be the crucifer, and then me and the Board Chair and the guest preacher, and then the mace carried by the Faculty Marshal, and then, just ahead of the faculty and the graduating students, that hood and that stole.

One of the beadles immediately volunteered to carry them; he loved K.C.  And that was a moment, and so we stopped for a while.  And finally I broke the silence: “How’s everybody doing right now?”

And one intrepid Beadle, such a wise young woman! (she couldn’t be more than 28 years old), smiled and said, “We’re fine.  There are papers to write, and exams to take, and then there’s the work of the Church to be done.”  She said, “K.C. would be ashamed if we weren’t able to keep going just because we won’t have him with us.”

I’m not sure, but I think she saw in that moment what it looks like when a great teacher leaves one last lesson—that of dying well.  And beyond that, I think she also had a glimpse of that large table, big enough for everybody, occupied by the practitioners of Resurrection, who keep on going no matter what.  After all, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

wardlaw

 

Theodore J. Wardlaw, a former member of the Board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, is President of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

 

 

A HOMILY IN MEMORY OF KC
Sermon Preached by Jon M. Walton

May 18, 2013
Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee

Scripture: Luke 24:13-35

In one of our last conversations KC talked about his classes and the assignments that he gave his students.  He taught a class on ceremonies and celebrations.  And in it he had students prepare a wedding ceremony and he would describe the situation unique to that imaginary couple that each individual student was assigned.  It might be a remarriage for a divorced parent or it might be two eighteen year olds needing parental permission in which there was an unexpected pregnancy; an elderly couple with grandchildren.  They had time to think about the issues and prepare a sermon for the occasion that would be appropriate for the wedding ceremony.

But with regard to the funeral that the student would prepare, he would send an email without warning and let the student know that a person in the congregation had died and these were the circumstances and this was the family and here were the issues.  Now prepare a sermon for the occasion.  This is because, as a pastor, you can never predict when a funeral might happen and sometimes it happens when you already have a full week.

He said the most moving sermon was by a young woman student whom he assigned the funeral of a child who had accidentally rolled down her driveway on a tricycle and who couldn’t stop, but rode into the line of traffic.  KC said the preacher was crying, the class was crying, and he was crying.  It was the best funeral sermon he had ever heard.

I feel a little like that student must have when she got that difficult task.  Given an assignment by KC that I am not sure I can live up to.  So little notice.  So unexpected even though expected.  He was such a good friend for so many years, and I just can’t seem to get my head wrapped around the fact that he is no longer at the other end of a telephone call.

I asked him what he wanted me to say today.  He said, “Well, if you and Ted can find some kind words to say about me, say that, but most of all,” he said, “I want you to preach about the resurrection, because a lot of people are not going to understand this and they’re either going to be mad at God, or feeling helpless, or afraid, and you’ve got to help them, you and Ted.  Tell them about the resurrection.”

So let me start with a few kind words about KC and then we’ll get to the resurrection, because the one leads to the other, I think.

KC was one of the best preachers anywhere, a searching Biblical student and teacher, one of the best pastors I know.  The whole church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) for sure, is the less for his being gone.

He was a gifted teacher whose students admired him, and whose colleagues respected him.  He worked so hard to earn that respect.

He was a compassionate pastor, a gentle spirit, a person who spoke the truth in love, and one who did not run away from the issues in which he believed.  As (fellow Feaster) Patrick Willson reminded us, he ran for Moderator of the General Assembly on the platform, “K.C. bringing us together.”  And hasn’t he though?

You might disagree with KC, but even if you did you could not lose sight of the fact you knew that you were talking to someone who loved you in spite of any differences between you.  And he did not allow difference to keep you apart.

He was fluent in prayer.  A wonderful storyteller.  A gifted liturgist who was never more happy than leading worship with the Seminary Worship Planning Team, or at the Montreat Worship and Music Conference.

He was one of the funniest people I have ever known.  He saw the humor in life.  And he always played as hard as he worked.  When he laughed he threw his whole body into it, slapping his knees, eyes lighting up, rocking back and forth.

I shall miss his Alabama twang, his joyful spirit, his fiercely loyal friendship, his enthusiastic and genuine encouragement, his generous helpings of deep faith and salty earthiness all in one package.

His children can tell you that he was a great dad and grandfather; his family what a great brother, friend.  Carol will tell you that she was the heart of his heart and he, hers.

I can tell you that his preaching colleagues in ministry, the Moveable Feast, of which you have no doubt heard much in past years, loved KC and when he told us so fearlessly that he had cancer, that it was liver cancer, that chemotherapy was not helping, that he was going into hospice care, that he was grateful to be able to die at home… one by one each of us wanted to express our helplessness and love and concern for him.  The emails started pouring in immediately, from Scott Black Johnston, pastor of New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church who wrote,

KC, I have been staring at a blinking cursor for 20 minutes.  Oh my brother.  Oh my.  I did not want to get an email like this from you.  

Bob Dunham from University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill wrote:

Goodness, K.C.  Words are so important to me, and I’ve sat here for an hour now without a one.

Tom Are, pastor of the Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City wrote:

KC, When we are at table together [next January at the Feast] our only solace will be knowing the table at which you will be seated… a place prepared for you from before the foundations of the world.  I love you.  I got nothing else.

And so it’s been since the first word of KC’s diagnosis, and then the report of what the chemo had done, which was nothing much, and how the cancer was spreading.  Like all of the rest of us who have loved KC, I have been searching for words too.

Not just to praise and thank KC, but to try to live up to his charge to Ted and me which was to “Speak of the resurrection and to try to explain this whole thing to people.”

The only problem is that I am struggling to find the words myself.  Because I am missing KC.  And oddly, I notice that the pain of loss comes over me most sharply at those very moments when I relive the delight of being with him.

How comforting he was to me the morning he prayed with me before my heart surgery at NYU Hospital, the times we stayed up late those cold January nights with wine or something stronger, and we remade the church and fixed the world’s problems and answered all the great theological questions.

I don’t seem to have the words I would like to have, perhaps because death is becoming too frequent a visitor the longer I live, or maybe because, as KC taught his students, it comes with such unrelenting surprise and catches us off guard.

I do know that KC himself spoke of the love of God that stands with us in even the most painful of experiences.  He told my congregation on Passion Sunday, 2009 something that he knew in his heart all too well.  He was making the point that too often we ignore the painful things of life, skip past the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday experiences of our existence, (and here are KC’s words)…

until a loved one is walking in the valley of shadow of death, until you are going through a divorce, or a child falls desperately ill or a friend betrays you, or a spouse gets cancer, or you pay attention, really pay attention to what’s going on in Zimbabwe or Darfur.  You don’t notice what you miss until the world seems or you personally feel God-forsaken.  Then you need something more… You need a God who more than anyone, even the one who is the very closest person to you in all this world, knows your pain, your loss, your heartache, your terror at seeing your own life ebbing away or worse, the life of a loved one in the grips of an illness about which the doctors can do nothing.

KC went on to say, one of his favorite hymns was, “We must walk this lonesome valley, we have to walk it by ourselves, oh nobody else can walk it for us, we have to walk it by ourselves.”  KC said that much as we love that old hymn, it’s terrible theology.  “The good news,” he said, “is we don’t have to walk alone, or suffer or die alone.  God suffers with us and knows our pain.”

He ended that Palm Sunday sermon at First Church by saying,

Today we stand by the road and shout, “Hosanna,” thinking we are cheering [Jesus] on to triumph over suffering.  But the truth is he goes to triumph through suffering.  And because he did we can be assured that so shall we.  We do not walk this lonesome valley alone.  Therefore, our suffering, our heartaches, our losses, our pain, and indeed the suffering of the world is not the last word.  God’s love is the last word.

That’s what KC said.

A couple of weeks ago I visited KC here in Nashville.  I flew down on Sunday evening and came by the next day.

We talked and reminisced and laughed and cried.  I asked KC if he would like to have communion.  So Christopher and Carol and KC and I had communion together.

The only thing bread-wise that was available from the kitchen was a sourdough biscuit, very tasty, and some nice wine which Carol put in a crystal glass that I took down from a high shelf.

We were in the den and KC was sitting up in a lounge chair, weak and with a nutrition tube feeding into his stomach, an IV pole hanging beside him.  Carol and Christopher gathered around and we placed the biscuits out, the wine was poured.  All was ready.

We prayed, I read scripture, the 139th Psalm, Whither can I go from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven thou art there, if I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there.  The elements were in front of us.  I took the bread and blessed it and recited Jesus words, “This is my body which is broken for you.”    I said, looking at KC’s broken body.

Then I took the cup and said the words, “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin.  Drink of it, all of you in remembrance of me, for I tell you I shall not drink this fruit of the vine, until I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  And with those words, I looked up at KC and realized that that would indeed be the next time that we would drink this wine together, in some indescribable way, in God’s good time, in a fashion words are not adequate to describe … we will drink wine together in that heavenly kingdom and at that heavenly board.

We looked at each other for a moment all of us, and we knew, finally knew, the meaning of that promise.  The Body of Christ was present among us in a comforting and hopeful way.  And didn’t our hearts burn when he was with us?

Sometimes there are moments like that where the presence of God seems near, so quickly.

The time came to leave and I gave KC a hug and a kiss, and I said goodbye to Christopher and Carol.  I told KC I would see him again.  And he said, “Yes, at the table.”

It was on the night of the resurrection that Luke tells us Jesus was present with two travelers to Emmaus.  The risen Lord was there among them, and he explained the scriptures to them.  They asked him to linger awhile and have something to eat with them, and he did.  And when he blessed the bread and broke it, their eyes were opened and they realized with whom they were.  “Didn’t our hearts burn when he was with us?” they asked.  And they went and told the disciples what they had seen and heard.

And so it was.  And so it is.  The faith and the assurance that sustained KC; the confidence that was his in life and in death, that he was the Lord’s; that God is never far away, and that even through the worst that can happen God is with us.

How did KC put it?  “God’s love is the last word.”  “I’ll be there at the table,” he said.

And for eyes and hearts attuned to seeing such things, among the saints in heaven and with the saints on earth, he is there.

© Copyright Jon M. Walton, 2013.

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Jon M. Walton, a member of the Board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York.

 

 

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