Family, friends and fans of the Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery held a private, socially distanced, spiritually diverse funeral service Friday afternoon to celebrate his life and mourn his death in word and song.
The service was held at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, the Gothic revival landmark on Union Avenue where Montgomery was senior pastor from 2000 until he retired in 2019. It also was livestreamed and broadcast on the radio.
Montgomery died last week from injuries suffered in a bike accident a few days before. He was 68.
Before the service, dozens of Idlewild congregants gathered in their cars in the church’s parking lot for the playing of the city’s only carillon, 48 bronze bells housed in the church’s 12-story stone tower.
After the service, Montgomery’s wife Patti, daughter Sumita, son Aaron (AJ), brothers James and David, sister Deedee, and his fellow ministers, led a procession to the church’s columbarium, where Montgomery’s ashes were interred.
“For Steve, human beings are God’s language, whether Muslim, Jew, LGBTQ, Native American or immigrant newcomer,” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein, who read from the Book of Isaiah and spoke about Montgomery’s passion for justice. ”Steve was Isaiah’s star witness. Steve’s life story, as I experienced it, was simply: We matter to each other because we all matter to God, and there is hardly a lesson in any religion that is better than that.”
Greenstein was one of three of Montgomery’s closest friends who participated in the service.
Dr. Scott Morris, Church Health founder and a fellow alumni of Yale Divinity School, read from the Psalms, and talked about Steve and Patti’s expansive views of God and the world. “It’s a big world and yet it’s a small world, where God lives at every turn,” said Morris. “AJ, born in Peru, Sumita, born in Nepal, are just reflections of God’s presence wherever you go, and Steve knew that.”
The architect Steve Berger, Montgomery’s close friend and fellow folk-singing guitar player, sang “If I Had a Hammer.”
Sehrish Siddiqui, an attorney and member of the Memphis Islamic Center, spoke and introduced a video message from other Muslim community leaders. “As a lifelong Memphian, when I say that Memphis is special because of its people, I first think of Steve,” she said. “A giant has departed our community and returned to God.”
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), sent a video message. Nelson and his wife, Rev. Gail Nelson, were organizing pastors of Liberation Community Church in Memphis.
Family and friends who sat in the sanctuary during the service were asked to wear masks and not to sing, precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Rev. Anne H.K. Apple and Rev. Sara Dorrien-Christians led the service.
Five members of the church’s choir, led by music minister and organist Barry Oliver, sat in the spacious sanctuary’s choir loft and sang hymns that were meaningful to Montgomery.
One was “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” a 16th-century hymn attributed to John Calvin, the Protestant reformer. It was sung at Montgomery’s retirement service May 5, 2019. Montgomery often quoted from the hymn’s fourth stanza: “Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness. No harshness hast thou and no bitterness.”
The choir also sang “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore,” written by Cesáreo Gabaráin, a Spanish priest, in 1979. It was one of Montgomery’s favorites and also was sung at his retirement service.
After Montgomery’s ashes were interred, the choir sang the traditional Doxology, a short hymn that begins, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Montgomery’s family sang the Doxology at his hospital bedside last week as he lay dying.
The service included two other hymns that were particularly meaningful to Montgomery and his entire family and congregation.
One was commissioned for his mother; the other – “We Gladly Hear of Love and Grace” – for him.
We gladly hear of love and grace –
they are the soul’s desire –
but struggle when we’re called to face
your purifying fire.
How tempting, Lord, to turn away
from your prophetic word,
and mute the hardest things you say
lest we should be disturbed
Montgomery loved to sing as much as he loved to preach. If he hadn’t been standing in the pulpit on Sundays, he would have been sitting in the tenor section of the choir. Sometimes he did.
“He joined the choir for my audition,” said Oliver, Idlewild’s director of music ministry since 2013. “I thought it was a nice gesture, to show me how much he loved and cared about music in worship.”
Worship and life.
Montgomery grew up in a family of singing Presbyterians.
“Six of us would gather around the piano and sing hymns and old ’30s and ’40s favorites while my mother or Jim, my brother, would play,” Montgomery remembered in a sermon he preached on Valentine’s Day 2010, a month after his mother died.
“When we would drive to Texas each summer (to visit family), we would sing. On Christmas mornings we would open our presents, get dressed, and head down to the hospital downtown with another family and sing carols to the patients and nurses who were there on Christmas morning.”
In January 2010, as Montgomery’s mother lay dying, the family gathered around her bed, in person and on cellphones. They sang her father’s favorite hymn, inspired by Psalm 119 and written by Clara K. Scott, the first woman to publish a volume of anthems.
“Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me. Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. Silently now I wait for Thee, ready my God, Thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, spirit divine,” they sang.
“It was then and only then,” Montgomery said in his sermon, “that that evening my father could go into her room and sit by her side, holding her hand and say, ‘Margaret, I’ve always loved you and always will. It’s OK to let go, because we’ll see each other soon.’ She whispered, ‘I love you.’”
After Margaret Montgomery died, Idlewild commissioned a hymn to honor her and their pastor. It’s called “Come Inside” and was written by Mary Louise Bringle.
“Come inside, our doors are open, feel the welcome in this place. Come inside, our arms are open. Feel the warmth of God’s embrace.”
The congregation sang it once a month or so to welcome new members.
Friday afternoon, it was the first hymn sung as Montgomery’s family entered the sanctuary carrying his ashes.
“We Gladly Hear of Love and Grace,” Verse 2:
O Christ, who prayed alone at dawn,
you knew the strain and stress
of being by the Spirit drawn
to judge and also bless:
you threw the money changers out
and welcomed sinners in,
prophetic acts that turned about
how things had always been
After Montgomery announced his plan to retire in 2019, his Idlewild colleagues began meeting to plan his farewell service, retirement potluck and parting gift.
“Steve was not a materialistic person,” Oliver said. “There was nothing he needed or wanted in the way of a traditional gift. But we knew how much he loved hymns.”
When Montgomery was a student at Yale Divinity school, he was a member of a choral ensemble that specialized in Russian Orthodox liturgical music.
Every year or so, Idlewild’s regular worship service focused on a sacred Bach cantata, which included devotional poetry, biblical quotations and verses from hymns.
Oliver suggested that Idlewild commission another hymn, this time for their beloved pastor. He reached out to two hymn writers he knew named – ironically for Memphis – Tom and Lee.
Tom is Thomas Troeger, a retired Yale professor and one of the world’s most accomplished hymn writers. Modern hymnals are filled with many of Troeger’s more than 400 published hymns or anthems.
Lee is K. Lee Scott, one of the country’s foremost composers of church music. His hymns appear in eight hymnals, and he has published more than 300 compositions.
Troeger read a number of Steve’s sermons and listened to an interview with him recorded in December 2018.
“As someone who literally has listened to thousands of preachers, the voice is one of the most revealing things any human has,” Troeger said.
“The warmth, the anxiety, the anger, the delight, all of those things show up in the voice, and may even contradict the words that are being spoken. But Steve’s voice and his message were congruent. They were one.”
Troeger read and heard something else in Montgomery’s voice.
“He clearly felt a tension preaching about the love and grace of God, which was very real for him, while at the same time preaching about God’s demand for justice in society,” Troeger said. “He clearly was trying to hold the pastoral and the prophetic together. That’s the tone I wanted to set and the message I wanted to convey.”
Troeger sent the words of the hymn to Scott, who put them to music.
“It was just a matter of crawling inside the text and finding the right tone,” Scott said.
“The text has a rather serious tone, so I set it in a minor key. But we also wanted it to be somewhat celebratory and festive, so we dressed it up with a string quartet and hand bells.”
“We Gladly Hear of Love and Grace,” Verse 3:
Grant now to us an ample heart
with room enough to hold
the healing judgment you impart
that does not rant or scold,
but standing up to hate and fear
and keeping hope alive
gives witness that God’s reign draws near
when peace and justice thrive
Montgomery delivered more than 700 sermons at Idlewild.
He wrote them in his third-floor office, which was filled with books, crosses, and light from south-facing windows.
On Monday mornings, he’d check the following Sunday’s church bulletin to find the next four lectionary texts.
Then he’d spend much of the day reading and studying the chosen Old Testament verse, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel readings, looking for a theme.
“My sermons are not so much, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord,’ this is how it is, but this is what I see scripture telling us,” he said. “Now let us come reason together, come let us grow together, using Jesus as the center.”
After he’d chosen a theme for his sermon, he’d select three hymns that matched or enhanced the theme or the occasion, such as a particular church holy day.
Montgomery believed hymns were as important as any sermon in worship. Hymns were a prayerful and poetic way for the congregation to hear the Word and express their faith, hope and love.
Montgomery delivered his opens in a new windowfarewell sermon and hymns May 5, 2019.
“In another life I might have played first base for the Atlanta Braves, or sung tenor at the Metropolitan Opera,” he said, waggishly and wistfully. “But I have only one life to live. I am grateful God made me a pastor to you.”
He thanked the congregation for giving him the “freedom in the pulpit” to address racism, poverty, homophobia, xenophobia and other social, political and personal matters.
He also thanked them for “opening the doors of the church” to all people, “because that’s what we do.”
The departing pastor delivered two benedictions that day.
The first was more traditional. “Finally, brothers and sisters, live in peace. And may the God of love and peace be with you,” he said.
The second was more personal. As he walked down the aisle one last time, he sang lyrics written by one of his favorite Presbyterian ministers and theologians, Mr. Rogers:
Whether old or new, I hope that you’ll remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you.”
Montgomery’s only request for his retirement service was that there not be anything resembling a formal dinner afterward. He preferred a potluck supper with deviled eggs.
He knew the staff and congregation were planning something special, in addition to the deviled eggs, but he didn’t know what until after the sermon.
Rev. Apple announced that the church had commissioned a hymn for Montgomery, entitled “We Gladly Hear of Love and Grace.”
She asked Montgomery to sit in the front pew next to his daughter, Sumita, while ushers passed out copies of the hymn.
The composer Scott conducted the orchestra. Oliver played the organ and led the choir, which sang the first three stanzas as the congregation sat.
Montgomery and the congregation rose and sang the fourth and final stanza.
“When he understood the hymn was for him, he smiled and let slip a few tears of joy,” Sumita said.
“He seemed overcome with humility, grace, gratefulness and joy. He loved the hymn that was commissioned for my grandma, so that was an extra special moment for him.”
“You all are crazy,” he told everyone afterward.
Friday afternoon, countless people who were crazy about Montgomery gladly heard of love and grace one more time.
“We Gladly Hear of Love and Grace,” Verse 4:
We thank you, Lord, this church has known
the faith for which we pray
in one whose ministry has shown
your just and loving way,
a pastor and a prophet too
who with the Spirit’s fire
has brought to us your word anew
to challenge and inspire.