a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Ellen Janean Oliversen Wade

November 21, 1955 + June 4, 2017

Psalms 35:1-5 & 23; Romans 12:3-6a,9-13; Matthew 6:26-29

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For all of the hardness of your loss without Ellen, I’m at a loss for never having gotten to meet her. In spite of that, it seems I’ve had some good verification in hearing repeatedly a few important details. In fact, two out of the three things I first knew about Ellen seem to come up again and again, in stories, in reflections written online, in photos and the shape of this gathering today. Those two of three things are that she was good to be around and that she loved Door County.

The good to be around fits with assessments of her customer service, of the relationships she established throughout her long career with USDA, connections with meat inspectors that stretch around the country, of people who both valued and enjoyed her. That personality makes it seem pretty reasonable that she said to Shannon not too long ago that she was thinking she could be a senator. We probably could’ve used her there.

And, speaking of Shannon, the good to be around is also importantly a word for family, for that strong caring marriage the two of you shared and all that went with figuring out life together for almost 40 years. It’s also for her parenting and grandparenting. Erik referred to his mom as his “rock,” which we’ll come back to in a minute with one of our Bible readings, saying he could always lean on her and she was never nosy but always open for his questions. And that she was good to be around also fits for being a daughter, and a sister, also very hard losses.

As a sister points us to Door County, a place where she could count on good time with family gatherings, where she could find tranquility and beauty, where she could snap photos of every sunrise. Along with mountains in Colorado, the lakeshore in Door County was a place that fit for her, Ellen’s own landscape.

So as we gather for this memorial service and the chance to remember Ellen, it is good and fitting that we remember her personality and relationships and care, and that we remember her delight in Door County.

I started by saying that those were two of the three things I first learned about Ellen. But for this moment, I also have to say that the very first thing I learned was that she was dying, when Jean came to tell me that Ellen was in the ICU with lots of things going wrong and she probably wasn’t going to come through it alive. Besides the fact of those medical issues was also Ellen’s viewpoint on illness and facing death: I’ve been told she probably felt ready to die, that she’d been having trouble eating for more than a year, that she was her usual stubborn Norwegian self in not wanting to go to the doctor, that she wouldn’t have wanted extraordinary measures.

Some of our task gathered here is to figure out what to do with all of that, how to hold onto it, to figure what we believe it means. Today is for looking back to celebrate life, to recall the many good things with and about Ellen. And today is about putting that not just in the past but in a larger perspective. And today is also for holding the tragedies and the endings and the loss, and finding a place for that, too, in the same larger perspective.

For that perspective, we’ve got several Bible readings for placing Ellen’s story within God’s story. We have readings about delight in nature, and our relationships, and facing hardness, about the spread of life in its ups and downs, good and bad, its fullness and also the lack in its ending, in death.

From the Psalms we heard God described as walking beside the still waters with us, a verse where it’s easy to picture the relaxation of the lakeshore and the calm of Door County. In the other Psalm, we heard of God not only as one to enjoy nature, but as the creator of these good places, who holds the waters and the heights of the mountains, who wants those things for our lives and is concerned for their wellbeing in the same way God is concerned for us.

That reading also used the term “rock” for God. I was intrigued that you called your mom “your rock,” Erik, because it’s an unusual image, both for God and for people, since it is so inanimate, so un-cuddly. But it makes sense. Calling your mother your rock and knowing God as the “rock of our salvation” is about reliability, about steadfastness, about ways that will not be swayed, like an anchor in a storm, like a warm and trustworthy place you’ve always been able to come home to.

I’d say it is important that what you recognized in your mom is also a characteristic of God, that the two are related. Just as we know God’s goodness through our enjoyment of natural beauty and re-creation, we also know and experience God’s love and care through the love and care of others. That’s why we heard the reading from Romans. It could seem like a list of rules for behavior—don’t think too highly of yourself, use the gifts you’ve been given, love genuinely, don’t give in to evil, be patient. But I didn’t include those as instructions, but as what Ellen seemed already to embody for you, how she lived her life. If we would describe those as godly traits, as how God wants us to relate to each other, we could say that she was living faithfully, whether she knew it or not, and whether she had to work at it or it just came naturally.

With that, we’ve said something about how Ellen’s relationships and her love for Door County fit into God’s larger story. But what about facing the end and her death? This one is always hard. Our readings remind us and assure us that God delights in life and strives for the best life and fullness of life for us. Hardship and illness and death are not part of what God desires for us. That might makes us wonder: would God have wanted Ellen to try harder, to listen to doctors, to fight for life? And where is God in it now?

I guess I’m holding the end also with a couple of our Bible verses. Jesus reminds us that worry can’t add a single hour to our life. He doesn’t explain why illness or death hound us, but he does assure us that God’s care and compassion and blessing are even more insistent and persistent. With that promise, there’s nothing ultimately to worry about.

And, as the 23rd Psalm reminds us in concluding, there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Your shepherd will bring you through all the dark and deadly valleys, past what would hurt and harm you, even illnesses within your own body, and bring you to eternal life, to blessing that will never stop, never end. That’s the promise we hold today for Ellen, and the fullness of your story with God, too.

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mini mini sermon for midweek outdoor worship

We gather here at the Memorial Garden not just because it’s a flat space to set up for worship. We gather here because this gives us a fuller sense of worship. We worship together as the great communion of saints, as well as praising God with all creation. Today as flowers mark Brian Anderson’s grave, those are for his birthday. We could still be singing “Happy birthday God bless you” to him, though with a much broader and deeper sense of what God’s blessing means now.

 

We also gather here acknowledging and remembering how these departed saints gave us life and how we are bearing the fruits of their labors, these people who preceded us and led us as MCC, as humans, as family.
That is closest to how we’d consider this week’s Gift of the Garden: I have peas that I skipped eating so they can dry and go in the ground next year and—if they serve their purpose—go on to produce more pea pods for me in the next generation. As creatures, none of us lives to ourselves. With God’s blessing, we live that others may be more fruitful. In that way our lives applaud God.

 

Jesus said, “I can guarantee this truth: A single grain of wheat doesn’t   produce anything unless it is planted in the ground and dies. If it dies, it will produce a lot of grain.”                           John 12:24, God’s Word translation

 

Generation after generation stands in awe of your work, O God;
each one tells stories of your mighty acts.

Creation and creatures applaud you, God;
your holy people bless you.   Psalm 145:6, 10, The Message

 

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More than a Seed

sermon on Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

 

Not long after I started seminary, I looked up where that word came from and discovered that seminary means “seedbed.”

If we’re talking about trying to plant and cultivate the seed of faith, then seminary seems sort of like an odd greenhouse for its late start. With the same word, it feels more of an artificial insemination than the natural process of growth hinted at by Jesus. Clearly you don’t need to be found in a seminary to find yourself growing in faith.

Still, that notion of a seedbed as the location to fertilize growth has had me thinking about the expanse of sowing seeds. And like wheat that in dark earth many days has lain, I stuck this photocopied piece of paper in my Bible about four months ago, waiting for it like the risen grain to come forth and bear fruit. It’s from the amazing book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World. Since reading it, I’ve been waiting for this Sunday’s Bible passage to come around to share this excerpt with you, which starts out sounding like Jesus’ parable, but ends up with a very different outcome:

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While not trying to argue with Jesus and his parable, but as a companion parable and extending the conversation about interconnectedness from Thursday Gifts of the Garden worship, we certainly remember that you are not just an individual seed who has fallen where you may. Nor are you carefully dug into place by God’s hands only to be left to grow on your own. Nor is this a matter of survival of the fittest or of lucky placement circumstances.

No, we have to extend Jesus’ parable with this message from the book. So I say to you: welcome to your place here amid the forest. Keep it close. Share, and grow well.

 

 

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mini mini sermon for midweek outdoor worship #2

At the start of summer, kids from Kids in the Garden noticed making a cheeseburger required meat and a bun and ketchup and a pickle, and those came from farmers and relied on a cow and vinegar and cucumbers and tomatoes and—inevitably—on soil and rain and sun. I also like tracing those lines when we pray “give us today our daily bread,” a system dependent on innumerable aspects—from a grocery store stocker to wars not happening on a field to upkept roads (and transportation budgets) to fusion of hydrogen atoms 93 million miles away. Just for bread, this spectrum ranges from the simple to the frustrating to the incomprehensible.

 

Interconnectivity. This 2nd Gift of the Garden invites us to connect the dots, to appreciate the extraordinary and miraculous aspects of detailed work in tightly woven relationships, God’s gracious presence as the Body of Christ not just in bread or a congregation of people but throughout creation.

 

I have to stop because I’m out of paper, but we’ll continue with this theme Sunday, so you can come for even more connections.

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Syzygus*

sermon on Matthew 11:16-19,25-30; Romans 7:15-25a20170709_113619_resized
I want to start with Show-and-Tell.

The strips of fabric I wear are called stoles. During my ordination service at my home church, Trinity Lutheran in Eau Claire, one was first placed on me by George Carlson, my bishop at the time, and by Annie Engebretsen, who was chair of my first call committee. So the stole began to serve as the main visual representation that I am a pastor.

But in that,20170709_114104_resized like a lot of things about being a pastor, it has a built-in paradox: a stole is the sign of being a pastor, but at the same time is symbolic of what applies to all of us. That’s also true of my alb, this white robe. (“Alb” comes from the Latin word for “white”) (like Albus Dumbledore’s white beard in Harry Potter). My alb looks like special clothes, since I’m the only one here wearing it, but it’s also supposed to symbolize that all of us are washed clean in baptism and put on newness in Christ and match the saints described in the book of Revelation.

Again, I get to splash around in the font and declare that your sins are forgiven. That isn’t because I have special magic powers as a pastor, much less that I’m especially faithful or brilliant or eloquent. It’s just because you hired me to say those words to you, so that you could guarantee you’d get to hear what really any of us can and should say to each other, stuff like “God loves you. Jesus is with you. It’s not the end. You’re forgiven.” I don’t have claim to those words by virtue of being an ordained pastor (again, it’s certainly not grounded in my virtues at all), yet paradoxically I have special opportunity to announce grace, to put on a white robe, and to wear this stole.

The reason I describe this is that when the stole was placed on me, it was with the words from today’s reading: “Come to me20170709_114059_resized.jpg, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This stole represents a yoke placed on my shoulders. Again, while realizing that Jesus wasn’t talking exclusively to future pastors, still this vestment had me contemplating what Jesus meant. What is light about this? And why is it still a burden?

As a snapshot of this yoke’s role, I’ll tell you that I was up north at the start of the week at a high school friend’s cabin. It happened to be her daughter’s 5th birthday party, and amid the balloons and piñata and ice cream cake, I was also taking advantage of the wifi to check messages from church. It could be argued that it’s standard for our 24-7 world these days to mean always being plugged in. I’ll say (for those of you who might be concerned) that I don’t think I’m overly distracted, not excessively tech-bound. That burden felt light; I was still able to enjoy friends in the northwoods. But it would be the wrong burden, anyway; being captivated by technology and our communication cycles is not likely the yoke Jesus wants.

So maybe another difference is in confessing why I was on my phone. The burden isn’t merely having lots to do, since long hours don’t inherently make it Jesus’ kind of work. For me, that moment on Monday had me worried about sick family members and struggles for housing resources and I was deliberating worship details and how to enliven Bible stories and overall pondering what benefits I could offer physically or by speaking God’s good news into those circumstances of life that range from desperate to mundane.

In short, I was focused on you. Since you are my work, I’d say that means (in the language of this Gospel reading) that you’re my burden and I’m carrying you with me most everywhere I go. Or to say it more fully, we are each other’s burdens. And not just us here, but others too, as we were reminded with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference this week: we’ve discerned that we need to bear others of our neighbors who are facing special threats in these days. We find ourselves indentured into service for them.

Having that sense of service and Jesus’ work, though, I should stop to admit something else. It’s a bit self-promoting when I try telling you that I was working and focused on you up north at that birthday party. It’s harder to tell you stuff that doesn’t fit with your image of a pastor, which might be that I was drinking beers from 11:00 that morning, or that besides asking about you the friends also asked about one of my tattoos, or that that self-indulgent little getaway used a heckuva lot of gasoline, or that I probably wasn’t doing well in balancing my responsibility to Acacia. And those still leave out unspoken not-so-pure details that I should be able to trust and confide, but am uncertain of the words and am chicken. They leave me doubting myself whether I’m fit to be your pastor, the insidious traps that minds chase after.

You may rightly say that if there’s no virtue that enables me to be a pastor, there should be no vice that would exclude me. But fears of what disqualifies from God’s love and blessing hound and haunt. Honest moments face and recognize I do not do what you want, what I want, what I should. In gloomier times I wonder whether I can do anything right.

The solution for that is not to look on the bright side. Such self-confidence can be dangerous. Indeed, the term means placing faith with the self, with a paired risk of ignoring or mistrusting God. As those who are reading The Screwtape Letters are reminded, it is tricky and demonic when blinders prompt us self-assuredly to imagine our thoughts and concerns are so positive and benevolent and yet leave us failing to notice the malice and lack of charity really present in our daily life (eg, p28).

This is exactly the wretched assessment in Paul’s words from Romans. They are a loooong ten verses zeroed in on the perception of my individual circumstances, of being worse than I wanted. Finally when Jesus shows up to set things straight at the end, I’m surprised to find I’ve been desperately gasping for breath in longing for him. Really this passage is small potatoes, since the last we heard from Romans was that you were already dead to sin, and living only to God in Christ Jesus. Whatever struggle there is has already been declared won for God.

Having Jesus back in the picture returns us to an earlier question of service and his work: he tells us to take up his yoke. So where in this image is Jesus? I’d suspect the obvious thought would be that he’s the plowman driving the team, the farmer who has hitched up the oxen to do his work and plow the field. That probably squares with a view that the whole world is God’s estate and property, God’s creation that needs tending, the expanse of God’s garden. We may picture ourselves as beasts of burden to serve God, directed by this plowman Jesus as our boss.

But the yoke metaphor isn’t portraying Jesus behind you holding the reins. Rather, he uses the image to emphasize two necks paired together, side-by-side through the bows or loops of the yoke, and (if I understand what was probably already clear to the original listeners), a new ox was paired with an experienced one. So the ox working with you and teaching you is…Jesus. Jesus is your yokefellow. In this image, then, he’s not saying that he’s a nicer master who will spare the whip and make sure you’re well-fed. He’s saying he’s working with you, keeping you straight, leading you into his way that is gentle and humble and offers rest.

And if it culminates in sabbath rest, this is also a word about the work that you do as God’s creatures. Rather than “my burden is light,” it should be translated “my burden is better or is fitting.” The workload Jesus offers is more natural and fitting than the burdens you otherwise choose for yourself or get roped into. It’s natural and good that we should be dependent on service to each other, that we honor the relationships of creation. Caring for each other is the fitting way for us to live. Selfishness and reckless gain and ignorance about others around us instead create cycles that continue to make life more difficult and restless. We see it in exploitation of immigrant workers. We see it in environmental abuse. We see it when we neglect time with our families and end up requiring more effort to sort it out later. Even though we recognized with Romans that we end up at those dead ends, that is not God’s intention for us.

Jesus continues to speak of burdens since it’s right that we’re bound together. While we may react at first to this passage against the yoke, wishing instead to be set free, that’s a wrong model of freedom and of life itself. As our society celebrated the American form of independence this week, I’m disheartened how that’s framed that as freedom from others, as in “you can’t tell me what to do.” That is essentially a nonexistent impossibility. We must exist in relationship. We fit most naturally when we attend well to shared needs and demands.

For that, I’m so grateful for the yokemate Jesus. You aren’t left to navigate God’s work on your own, not of your own devices trying to plow good and straight lines. In your roles, it’s not whether you worry about feeling good enough, since the natural fit comes from Christ. And when the unnatural threatens and your doubts and distractions arise and you so constantly seem to stray toward the evil that you don’t intend, nevertheless Jesus your yokefellow remains to work beside you, to guide your steps into the way of life. We might say he’s pulling for you.

So even the invitation to take this yoke upon you is a bit of a misnomer, since Jesus has already yoked himself to you, as Immanuel, as God with you, born into your life, to take your suffering upon himself, who remains with you always. Jesus your yokemate will guide you, by your side in love, and that presence ensures the burden is light, good, and natural, and culminates in rest. That’s who you’re supposed to be amid God’s creation, and—in the concluding words from Romans—it happens, “thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

* the “yokefellow” from Philippians 4:3

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mini mini sermon for midweek outdoor worship #1

Beauty may seem an unlikely place to begin this summer series on the Gifts of the Garden. A flower garden might exist for beauty. But as we focused on sharing the Green Team’s work of the Food Pantry Garden, likely our first term would be “produce,” on production, on the fruits that feed. We can’t quantify beauty, but can measure poundage. As long as the food fills bellies, would clients at the Lussier Center or Middleton Outreach Ministry really care whether their vegetables were beautiful?

And yet beauty matters to God. And in God’s eye, it’s an abundant beauty. There’s too much sense in our culture (and too much even as I was searching the Bible) that beauty applies to a very specific appearance and almost always to women.

But God sees you and all that sprouts in the spring as beautiful, as glorious as wedding garb. God clothes wildflowers and lilies in splendor, so we should pause to consider them (and you’ll have a chance to stroll amid the prairies and the Easter lilies re-blooming on the other side of the building). Jesus starts us with a focus not on our hard work and dirty hands, but on beauty as the lavish gift of God.

From Isaiah:
Let me tell you how joyful God has made me! For God has clothed me with garments of salvation and draped about me the robe of righteousness. I am like a groom in his wedding suit or a bride with her jewels. Just as the earth brings forth buds, and as a garden in spring has young plants springing up everywhere, so the Lord GOD will show justice and praise springing up across the world. Isaiah 61:10-11, adapted from the Living Bible

From Matthew:
Jesus said, “Why worry about clothes? Look how the lilies and wildflowers grow. They don’t work hard to make their clothes. But I tell you that King Solomon with all his power and riches wasn’t as well clothed as one of them. God gives such beauty to everything that grows in the fields.”
Matthew 6: 28-30a, adapted from the Contemporary English Version

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Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference

I’m Nick Utphall, pastor of Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community.

Along with my welcoming you here on behalf of my congregation and my colleague Sonja Ingebritsen and Community of Hope UCC, I’m eager to share that this congregation proclaims welcome.

We strive to be welcoming people, because that is who we believe and understand God to be: a God of unconditional love and abundant welcome.

That welcome from this place has especially extended to those who have been made in other ways to feel out of place, oppressed or antagonized, unwelcome.

Such animosity should have no place in our community, in our culture, in this society, much less in a nation that often tries to label itself as “Christian.”

From the perspective of our God, all of us are declared to be family, as equal, and are beloved.

From the perspective of Jesus, we are to be neighbors to anyone in times of need.

And yet that is not what our government or the domineering voice of our culture has been proclaiming. Instead they have said that some are not welcome, that some are to be categorized as worse, that some families don’t matter, and that some don’t even deserve the guaranteed protections of due process in a fair system.

Because our congregation has heard that those fears have become so threatening to the immigrant and refugee population, and because our faith is founded on the assurance of God’s repeated encouragement with the words “do not be afraid,” the Madison Christian Community proclaims “¡Santuario para inmigrantes y refugiados!” and has joined the Dane Sanctuary Coalition and over 1000 congregations nationally as one of the local sites so far to agree to serve as sanctuary congregations for those who are valued and valuable members of our society, who are not only beloved in their own family but are beloved amid God’s human family.

In this congregation, we are being prepared for the possible instance of welcoming an individual who is facing deportation that would damage their life, fracture their family, and rupture the good of our community. Sanctuary is part of giving that person a publicly visible place to dwell while waiting for a lawful hearing, and to exhibit to our society how we can and should do better in welcome and caring for each other.

This is what we understand to be the request from our local neighbors and our calling as Christians in God’s world.

Estamos unidos. We stand together. Thank you, and you’re welcome.

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