a funeral sermon

IreneWith Thanksgiving for the Life of Irene Josephine Rasmussen

September 1, 1919 + July 13, 2016

Exodus 20:9-12; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 14:27-28


“How long?” is a familiar question amid the Bible’s Psalms, a repeated refrain, even a persistent demand. I’ll come back to the Psalm later, because it takes a different tone, but let’s stick with the phrase “How long,” as it’s been on my mind in these weeks and months for Irene and since her death.

“How long!” might well begin as an exclamation for Irene. Her nearly 97 years made her the second-oldest member of this congregation, and well above most any expectation for life.

That time stretches back to the kind of farm life that hardly exists anymore and a Norwegian identity that has mostly been melted and blended into American culture. “How long” was such a length for her that it involves the increasingly rare trait of being shaped by the Great Depression, with thrift and endeavoring after careful and wise living. Irene could remember when their large garden produced almost all of her family’s food and that she didn’t have store-bought clothes for years, but only those made by her mother. She could recall when her father traveled to have a job with the Works Progress Administration, and—maybe even more remarkable for its contrast to this current culture—the overwhelming sense of optimism that went with hearing a speech from FDR. It sure feels like it must be a long time ago for somebody to say they were inspired positively by a politician!

The “how long” isn’t only a distance in the past, though, but also a duration. We can certainly celebrate that Irene and Paul’s marriage lasted for 65 years, which likely didn’t feel too long at all. And we can celebrate all they enjoyed through the course of those years, especially in travels to camp: Maine, the Black Hills, Montreal for the Expo, and much more. A couple weeks on the road each summer, and almost a month of the year spent camping out. That’s a lot, a long time to be outside. On those voyages, following after “are we there yet,” “how long” may also have been a question from a son in the back seat.

Those camping trips inspired a couple of the hymns (How Great Thou Art and Beautiful Savior) and Bible passages we heard this morning. The Exodus reading is actually part of the 10 Commandments given to Moses while the people were camping in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. I like the part about honoring father and mother because it offers an encouragement, a blessing: “so that your days may be long in the land.” It’s such a good biblical phrase for the “how long” of life and enjoying the world.

And the previous commandment about honoring the sabbath with rest also seems to fit with the recreation of those camping trips with Irene, of pausing to enjoy the world around you, of breaking from regular routines of life, and observing nature and the glories of creation and life around you.

Similarly, the vision of Revelation isn’t a description of the heaven we are destined for, but is a grand assurance and broad insistence that in spite of all that goes wrong, we share the blessings of life with a multitude, humans from all times and places, and all creatures, on earth and in the skies and under the earth and in the seas, as it says. A beautiful notion of praise, I expect it is part of the worship that Irene found on camping trips.

It’s also a vision that fits this occasion, of being brought back together with those who have been through ordeals and suffering, of God’s ongoing striving for redemption and to wipe away tears, of the baptismal springs of resurrection to new life. Good words, carrying us into the “how long” of eternity that stretches out in front of Irene and awaits us.

But before we get there, we also need to pause with the Psalm’s sort of “how long,” asking “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?” (13:2) It’s not a cheery question, but that “how long” was more the sense that I knew in my brief months with Irene, and which she had been headed toward over the past several years.

Sometimes “how long” is a lament, a prayer to God, a question of yearning. That certainly must have been the case for Irene at the tragedies of death, for her son David, and grandson Jonathan, and when she lost her husband, and her siblings, and so many friends. That is certainly a hard down-side to longevity.

And we wondered the question for Irene, too. How long will dementia worsen? How long until she isn’t able to recognize me? How long before a worse fall? How long will she be able to last? How long will this life go on?

Asking those harder parts of “how long” isn’t to say the situation was desperate. “How long” also meant important time of care from Paul and Maria. Irene did remember family and longtime friends. She remembered her childhood. She delighted in the visits from her church circle and could relate very well. She eagerly welcomed me as her new pastor, often over and over again during our visits. She continued to be eager to receive communion.

And maybe that’s part of our answer to the question, that in some ways we don’t know “how long.” We don’t know what will last or what’s coming next. Besides good times, we have plenty of anxieties that surround and lurk after us. Yet this faith turns us continually back to God and repeated assurance of hope, inspiring us perhaps with patience, but also promising the peace that surpasses all understanding, such as the world cannot give.

So that is for you now, for the “how long” of these ongoing days without Irene and for the rest of life: the peculiar assurance that your hearts need not be troubled or afraid. Somehow, in spite of it all, your “how long” is held in the promise of God’s embrace, that Jesus is with you forever and always.

I want to conclude with a couple words about our next hymn (When Memory Fades, ELW 792). For “how long,” we could’ve sung Amazing Grace’s notion that “when we’ve been there 10,000 years…we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” Instead we’ll sing this hymn with its strong text, perhaps almost too strong. In that, there’s some yes and no of how these words do and don’t apply to Irene and for our gathering today. I’m hoping that you find value in them for what they do say, perhaps even in spite of the hard honesty of the laments of “how long.” But if it doesn’t exactly make you feel like the resurrection praise we heard about from all creation in the Revelation reading (and our opening and closing hymns are probably better for that), still this one is a great tune, and for Irene’s love of symphonic music, it’s worth singing with gusto.


A Forgetful God’s Memory

 Sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah31:31-34; John12:20-33; Psalm51:1-12

When I used the phrase “heart of the matter” in my last sermon, Pastor Tim decided to share a song with that name by Don Henley. Today I’m provoking it directly: a lyric from the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” says, “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.” That points us toward both forgetfulness and memory and illustrates the balance, the narrow divide between what we want to call to mind and what we’d just as soon leave behind.

This reflection is prompted by peculiar words at the end of our Jeremiah reading, where the LORD says, “I will remember their sin no more.” Last week Tim highlighted for us the perhaps surprising notion that God can change God’s mind, that God doesn’t have the future written in stone or fully predicted. This is a notch stranger still: not only does God not see into the future, but the LORD also has a bad memory and will forget the past!

The name of the LORD may even hint at this. See, whenever our Bible has the LORD in capital letters, it is a replacement for Yahweh, the name introduced to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh means something like “I AM” or “I will be who I will be.” I like to think it indicates that existence, all of being is grounded in God.

If this is who God is, present tense existing “I AM,” if God doesn’t dwell on the past, that means your own past doesn’t need to define you. And the future is not predetermined. You may take those as good news, words of freedom and encouragement. Your God is the LORD of what will be, and so you also are not stuck in stasis, not left to the status quo, but always becoming, leaving the past behind, living in the now, moving toward a new future.

Yet with matters of memory, we can’t claim amnesia. Life isn’t simply a blank slate or carpe diem and what you can make of each day. God also explained to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” It isn’t only a fresh start. History is important. Our heritage and genealogy give shape to our present, whether we like it or not. In eulogizing departed saints, we should also memorialize them as sinners. For us, too, there are things we’d prefer to forget—traumas and tragedies we’ve lived through or major blunders and bloopers we’ve committed. “My sin is ever before me,” the Psalm said. Those often continue to shape us, even when we don’t want them to.

Plus, memory is incredibly persistent. As Acacia’s mom, Judy, has been unresponsive in critical care, we heard multiple stories of patients waking up from a coma to recall conversations that happened around them.
While it may be preferable to forget all about the terrible struggle with illness this week, we’ve simultaneously been confronted with wishing for more memories, both in the past and to come. I’ve been trying to recollect conversations with Judy, gardening advice, how she gloated when she beat me in dominoes. Some of what we remember is not as clear as we’d wish.

Amid complexities of forgetfulness and memory that mirror the complexities of life is when we turn to find our foundation in God, a relationship that is built on trusting the validity of a promise. This is the point in repeating as a blessing that God will remember the covenant made with you, with your ancestors, with all people of faith, with all creation. This is also the heart of the sacrament of baptism—it is a guarantee of God’s unconditional love, an assurance that you’ll never be expelled from God’s presence or condemned by your failings. Ultimately, it isn’t dependent on your behaviors or how tightly you adhere to God’s ways. Much stronger, God’s utter insistence on the promise is what enables our faith, our trusting and confidence.

The promise of God’s memory is essential when your memory fails, when you don’t or can’t keep up your end of the bargain. But the just-as-essential parallel is the promise of God’s forgetfulness when your memory is too strong, when you simply can’t forget. This is the amazing thing in God’s promise: that God both promises to remember and promises to forget.

The first part of that—that God remembers the promise even when you don’t—in regular daily existence may be a matter of negligence, where you didn’t measure up to the standards of faith, where you fall short as a disciple of Jesus, where life is too scattered. But God’s memory is not only a resource for when you’re distracted from church and don’t give God the devotion you should. It fundamentally shapes our baptisms. Courtney Reagan and Hazel Lydia will have no recollection of the words spoken with water today. Nevertheless, it isn’t their capabilities or mental capacity, but God’s promise that is the essential thing in the sacrament.

In another way, this also pairs importantly with our Gathering Hymn, “When Memory Fades.” As a congregation, we are walking through dementia and memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease in many ways. Too many. In our midst, we share the difficulties with Lorraine Johnson and Edward, with Roger Kinson and Nancy, with Gene Hanson and Jo. Through many degrees, from the early onset testing for Lee Johnson and Janice to the greater struggles of Jane Dohler and Dave. Many more affected relationships ripple beyond this assembly. Amid worries and sadness, however, remains God’s abiding word. It is an absolutely vital promise that even when memory fades, when the brokenness of confusion cannot be overcome, when the loss becomes too great, God will not let you slip away but will insist on the covenant. God will remember! Always!

Yet, with an amazing paradox, God will also forget. God will not hold iniquity against you. No sin, no failure, no shortcoming will separate you from God’s blessing. It’s not even that God overlooks your character flaws or that God grades on a curve to count your benefits more strongly than your faults. No. God simply has a terribly lousy memory when it comes to keeping score. God will forget.

And God forgets because God remembers. In the Jeremiah reading, though the people forgot to follow God’s law and had gotten so estranged that they had become almost foreigners, still God remembers them, holds them dear, promises to care for them and guide them. Your relationship with God is so important that God will keep the covenant and forget your sin.

With that, we may also, then, begin to explore how this same pairing of memory and forgetting can take place in our lives. Certainly it’s obvious as we gather here and turn again to the renewed covenant of the Lord’s Supper that we are called to “Do this for the remembrance of” Jesus. We ask that he remember us in his kingdom, but also that we live into his kingdom. If we are members of the body of Christ, rather than being dis-membered, in this gathering we are re-membered into the body, into the life of Christ, into the life he still lives through and among us.

Yet there must also be an element of not remembering for us to be in communion. We gather starting with the confession of sin. We don’t do it to dwell in feelings of guilt or shame, but to find release from what haunts us. Neither is it repressing or ignoring, but is holding sin to proper account. We confess to God and each other, to those who hold us accountable. We remember in order to name the wrongs as wrong, to capture them and no longer let them define our meaning, since our true identity is as children of God, in Christ. The lens for examining our past is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. He is how we see the future. Living into what that means, we can acknowledge our suffering as victims and complicity in hurt, but then we also practice setting it aside.

Maybe in some way we forgive and forget. I know that’s among the most disliked phrases, that we’d prefer to claim “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget.” But such an attitude either means a grudge yearning for revenge or else it means that the wrong has not been released, that it still has power over you, a control that then is attempting to usurp your relationship with God, to cut you off from life in Christ and with each other.

Maybe the phrase of burying the hatchet can be instructive for us, since from a buried hatchet one expects reconciliation to blossom and come to fruition. It fits with the saying from Jesus, that a seed must be buried in order to bear fruit. There is a surprise in burying the past, in forgetting it. Each spring, bulbs emerge and plants start to sprout that I had forgotten were there, maybe that even arrived by accident, transplanted by a squirrel or something. New life comes where there was no reasonable expectation for it to be.

The same is true not only for burying those old injuries and trespasses, but even more centrally for you yourself. You have been buried with Christ by baptism into death so that you may rise to walk in newness of life. Remember: that is your future.

Hymn: Remember and Rejoice (ELW #454)

with a hearty endorsement of Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory