With Thanksgiving for the Life of Nora Jane Dohler (19 August 1938 + 23 August 2015)
Isaiah35; Psalm23; 1John4:7-12; Matthew25:31-40
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Given that this service is for somebody so deeply Lutheran as Jane, I’m going to start with a characteristic Lutheran paradox. In our distinctions, we don’t see things only as black and white, nor just a lot of gray. Rather, we see black in the white, good even amid the bad, and life amid death. If it weren’t a sad occasion, you might enjoy calling us oxy-morons. We have this heritage that rightly identifies the horrors of death on a cross as exactly the source of blessing from God and eternal life breaking free. It’s with these sorts of reversals and odd distinctions that I want to reflect for Jane and for us.
Now, we are accustomed to the dichotomy of saint versus sinner; a category used a lot. But we Lutherans, of course, don’t use it the obvious way. Mostly saints are viewed as those who do nice things, who are generous and not selfish. Sinners, on the other hand, tend to tally up a long list of our vices, the various peccadilloes or problem-making or debaucheries. Sinners are seen as corrupted by the flesh, while saints are somehow more spiritual.
In that typical usage of sinner versus saint, we’d count Jane firmly in the saint column, hallowing her as one of the good ones, far from evil and whatever we’d term as the haunts of sinners.
But before we get too far into admiring Saint Jane, we have to pause for that Lutheran distinction that looks at these categories differently. In our definition, rather than saints being those who do good and sinners as those who do bad, a better shorthand in our tradition would be that sinners are those who try trusting their own abilities while saints rely on God, a God of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness and life. At some point our abilities fall short, and if we had to rely on even a little bit of our own merit, we’d be in trouble. Instead, we recognize our dependence on the gift of God’s goodness in Christ.
With this is a remarkable Lutheran paradoxical insight: we don’t fall into one category or the other; it’s not that you’re either a failed sinner or, if you try harder, you may become a saint. No, we are simultaneously saint and sinner; in ourselves desperate, yet in Christ redeemed and blessed eternally.
To get more to the point and to the heart of this service for Jane, I want to tweak those categories. Instead of a distinction of saint and sinner, either in its old form of subsequent or separate categories or in the Lutheran version of simultaneous identity, for Jane I’ve been thinking about God’s work in both our abilities and our inabilities, in strengths and in weaknesses, in health and sickness.
For Jane’s many achievements and all of her diligent work, there’s plenty to celebrate, with much gratitude. This is the stuff that would typically make us to label her a saint. We could mark that in her early career as a teacher. We notice it even more abundantly amid family, in her decision to be with the children as the taxi service and party host and gardener and chef and the whole other cadre of tasks at home that can be at times thankless but are so important. And besides kids, we can also celebrate her interest in and role for grandchildren, as a friend, and most certainly we give thanks, Dave, for all those anniversaries and so much effort shared over the nearly 53 years of marriage. These are miraculous God-given vocations.
Beyond that, what comes quickly to mind with the abilities of saintly Jane are her many, many, many roles around this building, on behalf of this congregation, for the mission of God in this community and beyond. Though the obituary is a brief synopsis of highlights, it nevertheless reads almost like a summary of 50 years of St. Stephen’s history. From burning the mortgage of an old building expansion to leading in the initial steps and designs of our most recent capital project that gave us Koinonia and Jubilee and the Agape Annex and better hospitality in this place. That hospitality and welcome with a smile was characteristic for Jane herself, and was embodied in the caring outreach of funeral lunches and for the Food Pantry and on behalf of our shared Lutheran jail ministry in Dane County, from the inspirational and creative with singing amid the choir and acting in the 2nd round of Last Supper dramas and affectionate interactions of children’s education and feeding VBS kids or encouraging the friendships and faithfulness of a next generation of women’s groups, down to the very nuts-and-bolts tedious details of policy and church councils and year-after-year of stewardship campaigns and the comings and goings of pastors.
Jane received the St. Stephen’s Award in 1988, “for gracious and faithful service to this congregation and beyond in the name of Jesus Christ.” And yet, really that was only half-way through her ministry and hard work among us. She continued at it for much of another 25 years.
But that mark is what may be most on our minds. As we’ve been thinking about all Jane was capable of and the many things she shared with us of her abilities, we end up so strongly marking these recent times of her inabilities or disability. The moods in encountering Jane seem to have been sorrow or even pity. From our human perspective, that’s logical, losing something or someone we’ve cherished and counted on.
But in faith we’re pressed to declare that we shouldn’t and can’t write Jane off or discount her. Some of that shows in the days right before her death, when Sandy and Janice got together with her once more for birthdays and she and Dave had good moments together. And Jane knew this. She couldn’t speak or get her functions to cooperate, couldn’t quite make the connections, but she was still Jane.
More, what we need to observe is that we would eagerly declare Jane was doing God’s work when she was so productive on behalf of our congregation and community—that God was working those good fruits in her on behalf of the church and us—but then we’re too quick to presume that God’s good has been stopped or that Jane was no longer capable of doing God’s work and we’d lost her sainthood.
Jesus wants us to see otherwise, though I also struggle with it. God is not only working in us when we are accomplishing big projects or when we’re feeling blessed by our many achievements or think we’ve earned our keep and done valuable duties and merit the celebration or a heavenly reward. God’s economy is not that simple.
Indeed, just the reverse, in some ways scripture would proclaim to us that God’s work was even more operative in Jane as her frontotemporal dementia affected her worse, where power is made perfect in weakness and grace is sufficient. It’s not to dismiss the disease or call it good in itself, but to call God good and proclaim the Shepherd who comes to save us.
As much good work as Jane did in many years, we don’t comprehend our faith if we don’t see that the Lord’s Supper was particularly for her when she was no longer able to dip the bread into the wine. That is precisely when Jesus is there for her and for us in the communion of the saints. And we lose the heart of our faith if, in this moment of sorrow and death, we don’t recognize the fulfillment of baptism and the flame of Easter and that this is most exactly where the victory is in Christ bringing about new life. Indeed, rather than death, this occasion traditionally marks the birth of saints. Even as her voice and actions were silenced, Jane’s life and now her death proclaim Christ crucified and risen, anticipating the fullness of God’s work in the resurrection, when with one more surprise her tongue will be loosed to sing again in joyful praise.
This amazing pairing fills our Gospel reading of caring for the least and lowest and lost. We can see also a mirror of it in the fullness of Jane, from earlier years through recent struggles and even now today: as the outsider is welcomed and the hungry are fed, we proclaim that Christ’s work is being done. But it is in that stranger, in the hungry person, in the one imprisoned and tortured and hurting, in all of our deepest needs that Christ identifies himself with us. The one who is Christ among us is not the one who does the most. Christ is with us amid the least of our sisters and brothers.
From this saint, we have been blessed in recognizing as Jane served Christ. And we have been blessed in recognizing as Christ joined himself to Jane in need and suffering and even death. And in this moment when no more can be done, we glimpse the fullness of Christ’s work for Jane and for us, the God of both the living and the dead, who brings us home forever.