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September 30th, 2012

One of the more challenging tasks in my ministry is to preach the funeral for a person I did not know well.  Most people in this room knew Eric Loytty better than I did.  You might find it odd that I did not know him well, since I have been his pastor for 20 years.  I have often wanted to make a more personal connection with him, and intensified that effort when I learned about his cancer.  We had lunch scheduled about two weeks ago, but had to cancel when he went in the hospital.  I will always regret I did not push harder to spend some time with him, because I realize now more than ever what a remarkable person he was.

During this same twenty years, Eric’s wife Peggy has been a very active member of this congregation.  She, in fact, served on the Search Committee that brought me to Corinth and on the Consistory (our governing board) when I began my ministry here in March 1993.  She has been a faithful participant, servant, and leader, as well as an encourager for me personally.  But for reasons he alone knew, with Eric it was different.  With the exception of one occasion I will share in a moment, I honestly don’t remember Eric being at church in these two decades except for his daughter’s wedding and the funerals of Peggy’s mother and father.

I say this not to criticize Eric at his own funeral, but to set your mind at ease.  Some of you who knew Eric well know it would be disingenuous for me to focus my meditation today on faith or heaven or prayer or the Bible, suggesting that these were at the center of Eric’s life.  You will notice in the very well-written summary of Eric’s life included in your bulletin, there is no mention of God or church.  Eric’s faith was mostly invisible to most people.

That being said, my role is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  That is what this pulpit is for, and that is what this sanctuary is for, and that is my calling.  It is not as difficult as you might think to be true to my calling and at the same time true to Eric Loytty.  If I were to give a title to my remarks, I would call it “The Gospel According to Eric Loytty.”

You see, I believe every human being is created in God’s image, and therefore reflects something of God’s nature and character.  I also believe we are all flawed sinners, in need of God’s grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who lived perfectly among us and then died for our sins.  I believe faith in Jesus Christ must be lived out in our daily life.   This is the gospel, and every human life in one way or another illustrates the gospel.  Let me tell you how I saw the gospel on display in the life of Eric Loytty.

God is an engineer.  With a number of engineers in the room, I have to confess I don’t know a great deal about engineering, except to the extent that Dilbert represents your profession.  So I went to the great cyberspace authority, Wikipedia, for some background.  I learned the word engineer is derived from the Latin verb ingenaire, meaning “contrive, devise,” and its corresponding noun, ingenium, meaning “cleverness.”  An engineer is a scientist who cleverly devises ways of applying knowledge to human needs in order to improve the quality of life.

Eric Loytty did it well.  One of Corning’s current engineers, Robb Elkins, who is an active leader in this congregation, said that Eric’s legacy at Corning was creating a culture “where we would seek understand what people need and how to meet those needs.”  It was a corporate culture that solved problems for customers, that focused its engineering cleverness on customer service.  It was, Robb said, “one of the reasons we have been extremely competitive.”

The day before he died, Ken Dunn, one of Eric’s former colleagues, wrote him a card  in which he said thanks “for making me a better man; for seeing that my duty is mostly not to things but to people.”  That is what an engineer does, and in doing it well Eric Loytty reflected the image of God.

Each Sunday in this sanctuary, we stand together and say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  We believe God made all things – every grain of sand and every star.  Some scientists estimate there are more than 700 quintillion grains of sand on this planet we occupy as it spins through space revolving around the sun, a mass of energy and light necessary for life on earth.  Some astronomers estimate there are as many stars in the universe as grains of sand on the earth, making light and sand two of the most common “things” known to us.

Some “engineer” in the Late Bronze Age figured out how to turn sand into glass.  For more than a century and a half, engineers like Eric at Corning have been devising ways glass can improve the quality of life.  More recently, some of those engineers discovered how to efficiently use glass to transmit light, revolutionizing modern communications and making it possible to connect the world through fiber optic cable.  God is the original and ultimate engineer who not only created the raw materials but gave to humans the capacity to reason, to contrive, to devise.

God created all things, but for God, like for Eric, things are secondary to people.  God created things not only to improve the lives of people, but to point our attention back to him.  In my view as a pastor and a Christian, it is foolish for me to spend my life enjoying the things God created – inclusive of sand and light – without giving honor and gratitude to the Creator.  It is as foolish as it would be to Google Wikipedia or send an e-mail without any awareness or gratitude that some engineer, probably at Corning, made the Internet a reality for me.

God is a family man.  It’s one thing to hear about a man from his professional colleagues, and they deeply respected him. It is another to listen to a man’s family express their humble gratitude for his life.  I had the privilege of spending some extended time with Eric’s family the last couple of weeks, and I learned some things about him most of you would not know.  In fact, as they shared stories around their living room on Wednesday, every once in a while one of them would say, “Really?  I never knew that.”

You probably do know that family was important to Eric.  He worked hard and traveled much, but there is a time for everything, and that includes a time to leave work behind and invest in your family.  The reason we read Ecclesiastes 3 today is because of family.  When I used that text for Eric’s father-in-law’s funeral, he said that spoke to him.

Eric’s family of origin came from Finland, thus the connection to the music of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in the music that will follow the message. Eric and Peggy visited Finland five years ago to reconnect with his heritage.  You also may not know that Eric’s grandfather was a glass blower who emigrated to the U.S. and worked for Glassworks making electric light bulbs in the company that would become Corning.  His other grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and he and his sisters were raised in that faith.  “Family meant everything,” his sister Anne said of their home.

I also learned about the mischievous Eric as an adolescent.  His oldest daughter Betsy went to the same high school as Eric did in Corning, NY, and on one occasion was thrown out of the library for no apparent reason.  She called her Dad, but Eric was surprisingly not upset.  “Who is the librarian?” he asked.

“Rita Grant,” came the answer.

“Betsy,” Eric said, “It has nothing to do with you.  She’s still mad at me.”  It seems when Eric was in high school, he and a friend had decided it would be a rather amusing prank to shuffle the card catalog.

You also may not know the story of Eric and Peggy’s wedding.  For some of you who are young, a marriage of fifty years seems like a long time.  But Peggy still said to me, “It’s just too soon” when I visited them at Hospice.  Her mind in recent days has gone back to where she met him (I thought she was rather sheepish in admitting to the pastor it was in a bar where he was the bartender) and to their first date when she beat him at miniature golf.  The bulletin insert says Eric always denied that story.  As recently as a few days ago when he could hardly get his head off the pillow, Peggy mentioned the golf story and Eric groaned, “She lies.”

Peggy’s mind has also returned to their wedding story in recent days.  “We were young, foolish, and stupid,” she said.  “We had no more business getting married than flying.”  Eric had just accepted the job in Augusta and so they eloped, much to their parents’ consternation, in part not to take anything away from his older sister’s upcoming wedding.  At 20, Peggy was too young to be married by a Justice of the Peace, but not too young for a religious wedding.  So they went to the Episcopal priest, Peggy wearing the only dress she owned, a black sheath, and the church custodian was their witness.  After the brief ceremony, Eric startled the priest by uttering a choice 4-letter word, which Peggy would have to get used to all her life.  It was raining outside, and Eric realized he had locked his keys in the car.  So he took off his shoe, smashed the vent window to get in the car, went back inside to shake the priest’s hand and retrieve his bride, and they were off on the adventure of a shared life.  Peggy also remembers they were so poor as newlyweds they never had much to do on a Saturday night but read Robert Frost’s poetry to each other.  Thus the Frost poem you’ll hear in a moment.

As for Eric’s children, they remember Dad as a “rock star” at work and home.  They remember standing on the running boards of his car as he drove up the driveway.  They remember him telling him about the bars and off track betting that stopped him on the way home.  Betsy was commenting on that over at Hospice, and Peggy said, “I didn’t know about that.”  From his bed, Eric growled at Betsy, “You still can’t keep your mouth shut.”  Speaking of Eric’s growl, Betsy remembers he would clear his throat just before coming after you with a rebuke or discipline.

Eric’s remember his engineering precision applied to curfew.  If you were supposed to be home at 9:00, you got one day’s grounding for every minute you were late. They remember lots of fun and practical jokes.  They remember the annoyances were mutual, including Bill wearing his Dad’s clothing to Hospice just because it was one of Eric’s pet peeves.

They remember National Geographic – 50 years of National Geographic in the attic, which they recently had the guts to discard but not the guts to tell Eric what they had done.  Pat commented that their Dad was always the first one with a new gadget, whether it was a weather radio or a high definition TV.  She also commented that you always had to kiss Dad good night.

Eric was not given to public displays of affection – physical or verbal.  So Peggy was as surprised as anyone when she crawled into bed beside him at Hospice a few days ago and he found the strength to say to her, “The best thing we ever did was the children, and you did it.”

Once again, as a family man Eric displays the image of God.  God is the first and ultimate Father.  God exists eternally in relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God created us to love and be loved, like him, and especially to love and be loved by him.  He brought us into this world in love and continues to long all through life that we might be in relationship with him.  Eric displayed that fatherly love for his children.

God believes in deeds.  As I said earlier, I can’t tell you much about Eric’s faith, and I wish I could.  It’s not that I don’t think he had any; he just didn’t display it in some of the ways that his wife did, for example, or that as a pastor I think are important.

The one time I remember Eric coming to church during my pastorate, other than a wedding or a funeral, was in early 2005.  A tsunami had devastated south Asia, particularly Indonesia, and our church initiated a community effort to assemble 5-gallon clean up buckets, filled with supplies and cleaning products, for Church World Service.  Eric jumped on that project, giving money and lending time and organizational skills to help make it happen.

To those who knew Eric better than I did, it would be no surprise that of all the things that churches do, this motivated and energized him.  Eric loved helping people, and when he retired he gave a significant amount of time to things like disaster relief and helping people with their taxes.  He wanted to continue using his engineering mind – science applied to people – to make life better for others.

Although I never got a chance to ask Eric what Scripture he personally liked, and I don’t even know if he read the Bible enough to give an answer, I suspect if he could read the whole Bible he would probably like James 2:14-24 the most.  So I chose it for him.

Some Christians don’t like this passage.  The 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther infamously called James’ letter “an epistle of straw.”  He didn’t like the fact that James focuses on deeds instead of faith.  I suspect if I had pressed him about his faith, Eric Loytty, who loved a good one-liner, would have loved James’ retort:  “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” 

James adds, “So what if you believe in God?  So does the devil. Do something good.”  I have to respectfully disagree with the eminent Luther.  This, too, is the Gospel.  There is no conflict between Paul, who said we are saved by grace through faith alone apart from works, and James, who said your faith better show up in your deeds or it’s a sham.

It wasn’t just the hands-on “deeds” for Eric.  For him, how he treated people was part of his “deeds.”  The family shared another note written to him by “Becky,” another colleague.  She had recently hired a new employee and, although she didn’t name him in the letter, I realized I know him.  He also is a member of this church.

Becky’s hiring process caused her to recall how life changing it was for her when Eric took the risk of hiring her many years ago.  In her words, “I was naïve as hell and green as grass.  But you taught me, guided me, coached, mentored me, and made my skin thick.  You opened a door for me that has yielded so much opportunity and satisfaction in my life.”  Becky now wanted to pay that forward for her own new hire.  That was another of Eric’s “deeds.”

Once again, by being a man of deeds, Eric’s life imitated that of his Creator.  God is a God of action.  He initiates, he responds.  He knows there is a time to wait, but there is a time to act.  Much of the Bible is about God waiting, but what he is waiting for is the right time to step in and do something that will make the most difference.

In the fullness of time God sent his Son, Paul writes, to redeem those under the law and give us the right to call him Father (Galatians 4:4-5).  In Christ, God engineered a way for us to know him as Father and do his deeds in this world.  That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and Eric Loytty’s life illustrated it well.

The Sibelius melody, FINLANDIA, that you are about to hear is the tune for one of my favorite hymns, found in your red hymnal, No. 87, if you would like to follow along:

 

Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side;

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;

Leave to thy God to order and provide;

In every change He faithful will remain.

Amen.

One Response to The Gospel According to Eric Loytty »

  • betsymcc says:

    Thank you for this sermon. It was a lovely service and I thought that you really ‘got’ him, which is amazing because you never really spent much time with him. It was very meaningful to all of us.

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