Summary: Funeral sermon for Howard Abernethy, the church’s longest-standing member. He lived without wavering from old values, from his church, from his friendships.
Howard Abernethy approached me after worship one Sunday and said that he and his wife wanted to invite Margaret and me on a little excursion. It would be a day on the railroad. He had learned that my grandfather had been a railroad mechanic, and thought maybe we were kindred spirits. Howard loved the lore of railroading. So he and Liz and Margaret and I spent a lovely day riding the rails on a special train from Kensington up to Brunswick and back.
On that rail journey, Howard commented on the rolling stock and led us to look at the Brunswick yards. He taught us about the switches at Point of Rocks and showed us the historic stone arch bridge. All these things delighted Howard. There was only one unhappy thing about the day, only one thing that bothered him: browsing through antique shops.
You see, the excursion train waited a few hours at Brunswick, so that everyone could stroll the streets of the town before returning. Those streets were lined with antique shops. Liz and Margaret gravitated to those shops like kids to candy counters; Howard and Joe trooped dutifully behind, praying that their wallets would not be ravaged. The farther we went, the more disinterested Howard became. For him, if you’ve seen one antique store, you’ve seen them all. He said, three or four times, "I think we should be getting back to the train. We don’t want to miss it."
For Howard, it was about the train and the ride, and not about wandering or browsing. For Howard, the train represented a way of life, a style of being: focused, certain, sure, on the rails, no time for foolishness, stay with it, without wavering. His was a life of faithfulness, persistence, steadiness, a life lived without wavering.
And so the Psalmist, I think, captures what must be said about this good man: " … I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering." Along the path of the rails, like the enormous power of the locomotive, Howard moved forward and lived his life with integrity and without wavering.
It’s important to understand that Howard’s steadiness was founded in his understanding of God’s truth. Some of us live without wavering simply because we are too stubborn to do anything else; but others live without wavering because we know whom we have believed, and know that He is able to keep that which we have committed unto Him against such a day as this.
For Howard, it was not about being a know-it-all; far from it. Never was there a more humble soul. No, it was what the psalmist pleas, "Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you." Howard believed in the old ways, the ancient values, the eternal truths. He was not interested in pointless byways, but only in those things that express his relationship to his Lord.
One Sunday he said to me, "How come we never have any messages on temperance any more?" Temperance, for those of you who do not speak our language, is "Baptist-speak" for "not drinking alcohol." We say temperance, but we don’t mean temperance. We mean abstinence, teetotaling – dry! Howard wondered why nobody had been beating that drum lately. I started to explain that today we focus on positives more than on negatives, on what to do more than on what not to do. But Howard persisted, "Some of these people have never heard a good temperance sermon." Well, I thought about that, and did in fact preach one – didn’t change any habits, but I did it, because Howard was right. The old ways do need to be reinforced. The ancient values must not be thrown away. Eternal truths come out of living in relationship with the living God.
Howard’s steadfast commitment to his way of life was without wavering. Like the rails that keep the Metropolitan Line running straight and true up the Potomac valley, so Howard’s integrity was based in his love for the Lord. "For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you." Those of you who prayed with Howard during these last weeks and months saw indeed in his eyes that faithfulness, without wavering.
Now Howard’s sure and steady way of life came out in many ways. He never threw away anything that might have a use. Once Margaret and I visited and had a bit of a time finding a place to park because of Howard’s old cars, each one filled with tools or equipment or bits of this and that. But Howard wanted to be useful, and those things allowed him to be useful indeed. Among other things, they allowed him to serve this house of faith.