Homily for Deacon Roger Button’s requiem

­Preached by Fr. David Houk at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Dallas, May 1, 2020
2 Corinthians 4:16–5:9

I met Roger Button in 2011. I was on the diocese’s Standing Committee when he was in the ordination process—also known as the Bataan Death March for those who have been in “the process.” It really is a stressful road to ordination. At every step, one is evaluated, poked and prodded. After all, “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

Many potential ordinands are on edge when they come to the Standing Committee. But I distinctly remember Roger Button. Those still, steady eyes. That peaceful look on his face. Someone on the committee would ask Roger a question, and we’d have to wait—you know, with Roger you had wait just a little bit for that answer—but the answer would come in this resonate, deep, calm voice—articulate, astute, wise.

By that point, Roger had been working as a chaplain at Parkland and Baylor for about seven years. And I remember, again, distinctly, having two thoughts during that Standing Committee interview. First, that if I ever got hit by a bus and was lying in the hospital, this was the guy I wanted to visit me. Second, since I’m the rector of a parish, the question came: “How can I get me one of them there deacons?”

Of course, Roger was deeply devoted to his calling as a deacon and the ministry of deacons. On one hand, he believed it was the call of every Christian to spread God’s kingdom through love and service; that a watching world doesn’t care what you know until they know that you care. On the other hand, he wanted to embody that reality himself and model it in a ministry of service: listening, interceding for the cares of the community. He believed that this is the primary way in which people see and receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. And that’s what deacons do.

I think what so many people appreciated about Roger was the combination of knowledge and service that he brought to the deaconate. He was a smart dude: a MA in theology and then a law degree. Roger’s learning certainly came forth in his preaching and teaching. His classes were well loved here at St. John’s (and I’m told they were also loved at St. James); usually a Biblical book like Exodus or the Gospel of Luke. His classes were deep dives into the sacred text and Roger evidenced a wealth of knowledge in the areas of exegesis and Church history and theology.

At the same time, Roger’s prodigious mind didn’t eclipse his great heart—his love for people, his ability to sit and listen, and sometimes his wisdom in keeping his mouth shut because the context of care required it. He had a soft spot for people who were suffering. He had a special interest in children: his nieces and nephews, his grandchildren, his many godchildren. He loved his time with kids and they loved being with him. He didn’t look down on young people. He related to them, truly enjoyed them, and they loved him back.

When Roger died, Kathy heard from a few of Roger’s dearest friends through the years, and they all talked about Roger’s capacity for care. A friend from seminary, Pastor David Ingrassia sent a note to Kathy that had Roger’s kids in mind: Sabre, Rachel, and Mitra. He wrote:

Your Dad loves you, and he was uniquely capable of that kind of love because of Jesus. He was a passionate introvert who didn’t always have to tell you what was on his mind, but you always knew what was on his heart.

A high school friend, Donald Hasty—now a Methodist minister—wrote to Kathy and credited Roger’s young witness as an important part of his own coming to Christ as a teen.

Roger was someone I always looked up to. I trusted him. He was solid. I could talk with him. I could ask him what he thought. He was reliable. And I could be myself. I liked to be with him.

Matt Wadsworth, another DTS friend, reflected on Roger’s work at Parkland and Baylor:

I have no doubt Roger brought much comfort, grace, safety and affirmation to patients as they suffered and faced an uncertain future. Roger’s quiet, caring listening ability must have enabled patients to talk through their concerns, fears and questions.

I can tell you that Roger’s care for people came through every time he preached here at St. John’s. Sermons were not theological abstractions. He told stories of struggle, of suffering, of loss—stories that made your head drop into your heart, and then finally lifted your heart as he brought you to Jesus, who shares our suffering, who redeems our struggle and pain and brokenness, who offers us a chance to trust him, in and through it all.

And that is what Roger and I talked about when he invited me over to plan his funeral a few months back. Kathy and Roger’s friends describe him as a “life-long learner” and what I found is that he embodied that all the way through those final fifteen months of his struggle. He told me at our funeral planning session, “I want you to talk about what cancer has taught me.”

Wow. How many of us would have that attitude? What most people say to me after a diagnosis, and sometimes right up to the threshold of death, is “I’m going to beat it.” But Roger was asking, “What can I learn from it?” Roger was thinking, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17) Roger picked that that scripture for this service because he believed that Jesus really does use it all—the pain, hardship, heartbreak, suffering—for our good, and for our eventual glory.

So he said to me, “This is what cancer has taught me…

  1. Gratitude. He said that at times in his life he had been a complainer. (I know nobody else in this room has that tendency!) But he said he used to focus on whatever was wrong in his life, whatever was not perfect. But now, with so many things pretty darn imperfect, Roger said his eyes were open to all the good things around him. His time with Kathy was now precious, every single second. And he appreciated how COVID made it possible for her to work from home and they could spend entire days together. He expressed appreciation for parishioners and people who drove him to his treatment and the love they showed him. He talked about his good friend Canon David Petrash—his love and support. He was thankful for the nurses and hospital workers who cared for him. It all became a gift, and he found himself grateful.
  2. The importance of relationships. He said that cancer helped him let go of his anger and defensiveness and to seek reconciliation with people in his life. He was thankful for the diagnosis and the realization that his days were short, and he embraced the opportunity to make the most of them. So, he set about getting his relationships right. There were people he wanted to talk to, apologies he wanted to make, forgiveness he wanted to ask for. He just let his defenses drop and took the lowest, most humble place.
  3. Real love and empathy for others. You know, when we are strong, and healthy, and building our resume, we can be quite blind to the ways almost everyone is hurt in one way or another, how everyone is “fighting a hard battle.” Roger told me that he, like all of us, could be pretty judgmental at times. But what he really wanted me to tell you, and what I wrote down in my notes, was this: “Cancer made me more empathetic, more loving, more kind, as I realized we are all suffering.”

Do you hear the weight of those words? Do you hear the glory of those words? Do you hear “the eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17) bursting forth in this weak man, now stronger than ever because day by day he has been holding on to the things unseen, the things that are eternal? (1 Cor. 4:18) He wasn’t really learning from the cancer, he was learning from our Lord Jesus, himself the suffering servant, himself the patient redeemer who bore it all to bring us to God, to show us what God’s love really looks like—like a Messiah hanging on the cross, loving the world he has made to his very last breath, and then beyond…

And that’s our hope for the “beyond”—the day of resurrection, when—back to Paul again— “that which is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor. 5:4) We believe that those who seek the heart of Jesus (like Roger did) will one day be fully lit up with the risen love of the risen Christ. Which is why we are “always of good courage” today and why we have a solid hope of seeing him again. For a time we miss our friend and brother, but we trust that he is well, and healed, and that his life is changed not ended, and we put our trust in Christ ourselves, because he is the Savior, he is the one who raises the dead.

So as it turned out, I did get me one of them there deacons. And I am so grateful. I never got hit by a bus and so I never had Roger by my bedside. But I got to be by his bedside. And he ministered to me all the same: his love, his example, his faith, his courage. And I will always be thankful.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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