Barber Potts was a pillar in the parish community of St Paul’s Cathedral in Springfield. I was honored to be asked to participate in his funeral as preacher. +DHM
This is a day, this is an occasion, that has snuck up on us. We’re not sure we saw it coming. Barber Potts was so tightly woven into the fabric of life in the cathedral parish community, so much part of the everyday scenery in the lives of those who have loved him, that to no longer see him moving among us with his quiet elegance is difficult to fathom. I can recall, not too long ago, being desperate to turn the heat on in this nave, because of some out-of-the-ordinary service that was going to take place. I asked some Altar Guild members how to do it, and they didn’t know. I asked one of the cathedral wardens, and he didn’t know. I called Norm Taylor, and he wasn’t sure! But they all told me, “The one who knows is Barber.” Just to put your mind at ease, I now know how to turn the heat on, and I suspect a handful of others do as well, so we’re safe. But this just illustrates the place that Barber has occupied in the family system of St Paul’s.
Barber was many things during his time in this world. He was a son to his parents, a devoted companion to Robert, an extraordinary lay Christian—he was theologically educated, an alumnus of what I know to be a very fine school of divinity—and doubtless many things that I don’t know about. But the one role in which I saw him shine was when he served the principal Sunday and high holy day liturgies in this cathedral as a verger. A verger occupies a position that, by any measure, can be described, I think, as quaint and curious. The vast majority of the time, vergers merely add some ceremonial beauty to an occasion. They class up the joint! But the origins of the job are very practical. Vergers are liturgical traffic cops. They make sure everybody goes where they’re supposed to go and are ready to do what they’re supposed to do, and they carry an impressive wand—it’s called a virge, actually—with which they reinforce their directions.
Barber was very good at what he did; he was a fine verger. It’s a very repetitive task. You look like you’re doing the exact same thing Sunday after Sunday, and, in fact, you are. But that’s because the liturgy, which the verger serves, is the same way. It’s repetitive. We come together Sunday after Sunday, holy day after holy day, and do pretty much the same thing. We say pretty much the same words, we sing pretty much the same songs, we go through pretty much the same motions. We take bread and wine, and we offer them to God as a surrogate for our very selves, and we receive the gifts we have given to God as gifts from God, now become God’s very own life in the form of the broken Body and poured out Blood of his Son Jesus. We do this over and over again because repetition forms us. It meets us where we are and leads us to where we need to be … just like a verger. Many in this church today were blessed to have Barber Potts assist us—leading, guiding, pointing—in the roles we fill in the worship of the Triune God. Perhaps we could be forgiven if we allowed ourselves a little bit of adventurous theological speculation, to the effect that, among the ranks of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, there might be something akin to a Verger’s Guild, one of whose members has been assigned the task of meeting God’s servant Barber, baptized child of God, and, with a bow of the head and the wave of a virge, leading him into the deeper and nearer and clearer presence of the One who has known him and loved him since before he was conceived.
… which leads me to also observe that this is a day, this is an occasion, that we have seen coming for a long, long time. Even before being diagnosed with that awful disease of cancer—truly a sign of a fallen world if there ever was one—even before Barber knew he had cancer, he knew he was dying. We all know that about ourselves. We all will walk where Barber has walked, and hope to be greeted by a celestial verger who will point to where we need to be and get us ready for what we need to do. And this is why, at the funeral of a Christian, there is properly the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy. In what we are about to do around this altar, time and space are transcended. Now becomes then, and then becomes now. Here becomes there, and there become here. Heaven comes down to earth, and earth is caught up into heaven. That which Barber’s ministry helped train us for suddenly becomes more relevant than we could have ever imagined, because when we kneel at this rail and stretch forth our hands to receive Holy Communion, we are stretching forth our hands into the courts of heaven itself. As we are fed from the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation, Barber is there beside us, being fed from the same food from the same heavenly banquet table. Every time we come to the sacrament, we experience Holy Communion not only with our Lord and Savior, not only with the Head of the Body, but also with all the members of the Body, both those who are alive with us in this world, and those who have gone before us marked with the sign of the cross. We share holy communion with Barber, and the other members of Christ’s Body whom we love but see no more. If I may be so presumptuous as to borrow language from St Paul, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” Alleluia and Amen.