“Encouragement and Hospitality.” Room for All Board members know that Tom Dibble embodied both traits, as captured by Rev. Paul Janssen at Tom‘s Feb. 2nd memorial service. Further, Paul’s sermon locates both of these attributes where they belong, in the wider context of salvation: “God did not send the son into the world to condemn, to debase, to discourage, but that the world through him might be saved; might have a place to be, and to breathe, to come out of the shadows and into the light of day, to sing, and to dance, and to be blessedly, blissfully human.”
A Sermon Preached on February 2, 2019 at United Reformed Church, Somerville, NJ by Rev. Paul G. Janssen
Texts: Acts 15: 36-41, Romans 12: 9-21
I’ve never preached from these texts at a memorial service before, but the choice is intentional. We have these passages before us in order to see God more clearly through the life of the one whom we remember today.
Earlier I read an obituary for Tom – it covered such a small portion of the actual facts of his life, but little of his spirit. It’s Tom’s spirit that is reflected in the passage from Acts 15. Ever since I met Tom, I’ve thought of him as more of a Barnabas than a Thomas.
“Thomas” usually goes with the moniker “doubting Thomas,” and I suppose Tom had his doubts about many things, but remember, he was also a Lt. Colonel, so as some of you know, what he was sure about, he was really sure about. On the things that mattered most to him, he was no doubter.
But most of us have known Tom to be far more of a Barnabas than a Thomas. The name “Barnabas” was a nickname that Jesus’ friends gave to Joseph the Levite from Cyrus. “Barnabas” means “son of encouragement.” That’s Tom. The encourager. The supporter. The friend. The one who would come into the office to see how things were going, and we knew, that his curiosity was born out of a spirit of encouragement. You who knew him in different frames of reference may well have experienced the same thing: Tom came by, he called, he texted, he phoned, to build you up, not tear you down. As surely as the living God desires that all human beings live a truly human existence, so surely Tom showed us who God is by being a Son of Encouragement.
The other passage that helps us to see Tom in God’s light is these very few words from Romans 12: “extend hospitality to strangers.” I suspect Ben and Chris’s friends, and Scott, Kelly, Carrie, and Deanna, and a whole host of others experienced that fruit of that exhortation at 171 W High Street. The house was open, open to friends, open to scouts, open to energetic boys, open to Breanne and Bonnie and Richard, open to members of the board of Room for All, open to people visiting from all over the country, open to my own family when our daughter was married. He and Sandy have never been jealous for their home; they have embodied the ancient Near Eastern, and deeply Biblical, value of hospitality.
It is in that light – in light of the practice of hospitality – that I would like to say a few words today about salvation. I’m not going to offer you a three-steps and a prayer process for getting into heaven; that’s not what salvation is.
Search the Scriptures and you’ll find salvation starting on p. 1, where God says, ‘let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ God’s intention is for us earth-creatures to have room to thrive. God creates space – that’s the motif that plays its way out over and over again throughout the scriptures – from the garden to the Red Sea to the Promised Land to the prophetic voices that preserve a place for the poor, to Jesus the displaced refugee going before us to death to “prepare a place” on the other side, right through to the expansion of the early communities of faith and seeing far off into the incursion of the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven to earth. This is salvation as the Scriptures teach it: God making room, room for all who are weary and heavy laden. This is salvation: God welcoming the outcast, the left-behind, the stranger, the foreigner. And, yes, this too is salvation: God welcoming the remorseful ones, sinners who have lost their way.
Most of you know that Tom was a big supporter of Room for All – that’s a coalition of people who advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons to be able to serve God at all levels in the Reformed Church in America. Tom had his reasons for why Room for All was so near to his heart. I think that, at a very deep level,Tom intuited that this struggle wasn’t, and isn’t, about being a liberal or a progressive or in touch with the times. I think he knew that it’s not, really, in the last analysis, about us and how we treat each other. It’s about who God is. Tom extended hospitality, not so much because there may have been some Minnesota nice in it, but because God in Christ opened up God’s arms on the cross to embrace the whole world in God’s wounded, compassionate heart. Tom was an encourager, not just because he’d been taught that “if you can’t say something nice to someone, don’t say anything at all”, but because God did not send the son into the world to condemn, to debase, to discourage, but that the world through him might be saved; might have a place to be, and to breathe, to come out of the shadows and into the light of day, to sing, and to dance, and to be blessedly, blissfully human.
So we’ll miss Tom, as we miss all our beloved saints; we’ll miss him, not just because a hale-fellow-well-met, but because in his manner of encouragement and hospitality he was a window to God. He wasn’t by any means perfect – we see through a glass, dimly – but as surely as God walked among us in the flesh and blood of Jesus, so surely God walks among us still, in those who are mystically one with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our lives have been richer for knowing Tom, and we will be poorer without him.
But we will no less belong to our faithful savior today than we did on December 20, just as Tom belongs to our Lord now just as he did when he was walking and talking among us. When Tom died, there were maybe 15 of us surrounding him, praying for him. There were doctors and nurses there. But that’s not everyone who was there. God was there, too, making the next room for Tom, and God is in the room today too, with us still, never leaving us, never forsaking us. God is still God, even now making a way for the beloved, blazing a path, making room, creating salvation.