A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my Wednesday night seminary class when I got a phone call that would change everything. It was my brother calling to say that my dad had been found unresponsive on his apartment floor, and I needed to get over there right away. I’ve never driven so fast in my life.
I arrived, and was able to see my dad still barely alive, before the paramedics arrived and attempted to stabilize him. They tried their hardest on the ambulance, and the doctors did their best at the hospital, but to no avail. My dad died of heart failure as a result of undiagnosed cardiomyopathy the evening of April 13th, 2016.
Marshall Harrison Brown was born in North Miami, Florida, in 1953, the only son of Jerry and Emma Brown. He met and married my mom at The Church of the Resurrection in Miami, and they moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the late 1970’s to attend Virginia Theological Seminary. Graduating with his masters of divinity, my dad went into full-time pastoral ministry serving different churches in Florida throughout the 80’s and 90’s, before coming to Virginia in 2000. My brothers (Tim and Matt) and I tagged along for the ride, and oh what a ride it was.
Last Wednesday, April 20th, hundreds of people gathered at Truro Anglican Church (where I now serve as Director of Worship and Arts, and where my father had once served as an associate pastor in the early 2000’s) for my dad’s funeral. We celebrated and proclaimed the good news of the gospel together, and while we mourned the loss of a good man, we rejoiced in the hope of Jesus, the resurrection and the life.
I offered a few words of remembrance at the service. You can listen to/read what I said below.
On behalf of my entire family, thank you all for coming this morning. But much more importantly, thank you for your love for us, and your love for my dad. He was a good man. He was a great sinner. And he has a great Savior.
My dad was a man of deep giftedness.
He had such amazing pastoral skills. In these last few days it’s been overwhelming to hear and read so many stories of the lives, marriages, and difficult situations where God used my dad in meaningful ways. Whether it was his preaching, his pastoral care, his hospital visits, his counseling, or the smile that you’ve written about in your notes to us, God used my dad to point countless lives to Jesus, and that is a legacy I will give my life to carry on.
My dad was also a man of good humor.
He knew how to tell a good joke, how to break the ice, and how to make people laugh. One of my favorite stories is from his third year of seminary, around the time the Episcopal church was revising its prayer book. Dad, being assigned to field work at a church in Mt. Vernon, was approached by an older lady from the congregation after the service who said: “If Jesus could see what they’ve done to his prayer book, he’d roll over in his grave”.
And if you thought my dad was funny in public, I got to hear his jokes at home. I don’t think he’d mind me sharing his code name for the “Craft Guild” at one of our previous churches in the Florida Panhandle: “Stitch and Bitch”.
He was a good dad to my brothers and me.
He was present in our lives, encouraging, strong, tender, and always telling us how proud he was of us, and how much he loved us. He gave us freedom to grow up and make mistakes, and he would rescue us when we had gotten in over our heads. Most importantly, he planted the seeds and watered the soil so that my brothers and I would hear and respond to the good news of the gospel. He knew and he shared the freedom of Christ.
But my dad was also a man who knew great bondage in his life.
He fought, and he struggled, and sometimes he won, and sometimes he lost, in the battle against sin, and in the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. He was a normal, sinful man. But he was also a pastor called to a certain standard. And for how he fell short of that standard, on my dad’s behalf, I’d like to ask you to forgive him.
Over the last several years, it had been hard for me to forgive him. I didn’t see him or talk to him much, while I waited to see what kind of man he would be and what kind of decisions he would make. Several months ago we began to rebuild our relationship, and talk again, and get coffee, and exchange text messages, and I saw a humbled man. A contrite man. A more feeble man. A good man.
And you can learn a lot about a man when you go through the place where he lived, and through his belongings, as I have begun to do over the last few days. I see a man who had a devotional, or a bible, or a journal, or a prayer book, or a book on the hard sayings of Jesus, or a workbook on finding freedom in Christ, on every table or nightstand or dresser or chair. Until the last day of his life, my dad was pursuing Jesus. I am proud of him.
You know the depth of my dad’s giftedness. And my dad knew the depth of his sin. And the good news of the gospel is that Jesus took the punishment for my dad’s sin, and my sin, and your sin, on the cross. There is a grace that is greater than all our sin. It’s amazing grace. And it not only saves wretches like us. But it leads us home.
That grace has led my dad home.
Until the end, my dad “fought the good fight, he finished the race, and he kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And that faith is in a Redeemer whose nail-scared hands reached down to my dad on his apartment floor, and said “come with me, Marshall, you’re free”. God’s grace reaches downward, and it reaches deeper than our sin, and it leads us home.
And that is my dad’s last sermon to us today.
That our hope is not in our giftedness, or our charm, or our reputations.
And our salvation is not won or lost depending on our performance.
Our hope, and our salvation, is in Christ alone. It was won by Christ alone.
Marshall Brown’s life – all of it – from beginning to end, the good and the bad, the successes and failures, are hidden in Christ. He was a good man. He was a great sinner. He has a great Savior.
The hard news of this week is that my dad is no longer here.
The good news of the gospel is that my dad is risen.