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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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Roger Duane Kinsonroger

15 August 1929 + 24 April 2017

Psalm23; 2Cor4:16-5:5; John17:1-13

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

I want to thank Pastor Elisa for the opportunity to be here. I used to be Roger and Nancy’s pastor. Now I’m just a twerpy sneaky evangelist. In that way, I want to add on to the very fitting Bible readings Nancy chose to add one more from the Gospel of Matthew:

A centurion came to Jesus, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And Jesus said to [the foreign commander], “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed…And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour. (8:5b-9a, 13)

In the good ol’ days, before I became a twerpy sneaky evangelist, Roger took me to my first Badger football game. I’d never been to anything more than high school games, and I’ll also admit I’ve only been to one game since then. That might reinforce my status for Nancy as a “scrawny young goofball.” I didn’t know what to expect of the game or the experience, but Roger was so organized and ready on all the details. He knew when we needed to leave, what route to take, where to park. Those may seem small, but it impressed me at the time (though I was also a bit nervous as his big Lincoln went barreling through traffic). Once we were inside Camp Randall, he was pointing out all kinds of things I would’ve missed otherwise—what plays were happening, who was running where, what went on between downs. The man knew his football. He was also grandfatherly enough that while he was directing my attention toward the game, he directed me away from trying to hear the cheers coming from the student section.

This sense of Roger’s direction was something I got used to. In the same way that I’ve heard Oscar Mayer employees recollect his emphatic greetings and wave as he walked down hallways with his firm and demanding presence, I got used to Roger’s arrival in the office at St. Stephen’s. He would pull up with rakes and garbage buckets sticking out of the Lincoln and come in to schmooze the secretary Jane Voss, a lingering style of check-up that must have fit his days at Oscars. But it wasn’t just for a cordial howdy. He was investigating what was going on. I also knew that Roger would have some sort of idea in his head that he was ready to execute. He’d be talking about spraying chemicals on the weeds in the parking lot or what branches needed to be cut off of shrubs or how the Building & Grounds meetings should run differently. He’d have these plans fully formed and, even though I’d try offering other suggestions, there was absolutely no way of changing his mind.

In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that commander said he was a man of authority, used to giving orders and being obeyed. Roger, too, was used to being in charge, used to being listened to in his opinions or decisions, used to having final say. He could do it with great charisma and charm. He could lead with his loud, exuberant voice and his big smile. He could direct and guide with passion and love. If I knew him in that way even though I met him 15 years after he retired, I also know it must be true in the stories I’ve heard about him as a boss at Oscars, and I expect that you children also had sense of that caring but sometimes firm authority.

Maybe it softened for grandchildren. But about the only place it wouldn’t fly is with Nancy. You could change Roger’s mind. With you, Roger had to dialogue, doing these things not by dictating orders but by conversation, with mutual trust, through 63 amazing years of marriage and your miraculous care through the end.

With that, we know that Alzheimer’s disease changed his mind, too, making him somebody he wasn’t and leaving him unable to do what he wanted. He recognized that and began to cope with those changes long before this end.

Still, overall we have the feeling from the Gospel reading: Roger was used to having people under him and being able to say “do this,” just like that faithful authority in the story.

And, to our larger point of this gathering, this faithful authority pairs with an expectation of Jesus and of God: the centurion, from his own experience, identified that God is in control, in charge, that when Jesus issues a word of decree, that word is effective, is trustworthy, is to be counted on. The reading Nancy chose from the Gospel of John certainly agrees with this sentiment, as Jesus says the Father “has given him authority over all people, to give eternal life.”

That is our word for today, a word we trust and count on as effective and powerful, as authoritative for Roger. Roger Duane was claimed in baptism as a child of God, a beloved son, and that word of promise is utterly and completely insistent. Nothing could or can change God’s mind being set on this promise and bringing it to completion. That word of love and life held Roger from old days of centering the football, on through the start of a young family establishing life in various homes all the way to bring him to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The authority given to Jesus to abide as God-with-us went with Roger through the stresses and successes of work, directing his days and his deeds toward peace, amid changes and adaptations of retirement. It was a promise that nurtured him in service to congregation and community, in friendships and the love of family. This assurance of God’s strong presence is in pleasant pastures and beside quiet waters, in overflowing cups but also through the darkest valleys. So even when sickness seemed to interfere and interrupt, to change Roger from who he had always been, diminishing his big, bold personality and leaving us with him in terrible distress, still even then, nothing can separate Roger or you from this promise—neither death nor life, neither our firmest determinations nor deepest groanings, neither distractions of life nor disease, beginning nor end.

We do not lose heart, because in this very hour we hear again the strong word of God that claimed Roger extending to give eternal life. In that light, as our words from 2nd Corinthians observed, even the worst we suffer becomes like a slight momentary affliction. Jesus, the Word of God, speaks the word so that you may be healed, made whole, as he calls into being a new creation and out from death calls you into new life with Roger. “Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.” Alleluia. Amen

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lynne Schultzwis167399-1_20170418

23 February 1968 + 17 April 2017

Psalm23; Romans8:31-39; John14:1-6

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

I bring, first, apologies: I had been eager to be with you for the visitation, but instead spent an hour driving the wrong way out of Madison for some reason.

From Madison, I also bring greetings from sisters and brothers of Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, from many who have loved and prayed for Lynne, including my colleague, Pastor Sonja Ingebritsen.

Amid that congregation, I’ve been stunned recalling that it was just over a year ago that I met Lynne in the hospital, as her new pastor. Though I knew her less than most of you and journeyed through health struggles more briefly than you who had been part of the long, long haul, I’ve felt so connected to her. Some of that was her openness in sharing, including her knowledge, that she was proud to be her own advocate and could understand and explain these strange procedures she was having to face. Her gratitude for care and support—both from professionals and family and friends—also exemplified her personality.

Most notable, though, was almost certainly Lynne’s exuberance and great big laugh. In the ups and downs of illness, they were great moments of relief when her laugh returned. In places of sickness, she was the infectious one. An unfortunate upside was that nurses, doctors, and more also came to love Lynne and delight in her and could enjoy being in her room for those few minutes.

Though she was stuck in hospital rooms so often and focused on her healing, she wasn’t confined there. I got glimpses of Lynne’s vibrancy as she eagerly talked about connections with friends and what was going on in their lives, as well as current political frustrations and life on the other side of the world in Palestine and books she was reading and music and new ideas for spirituality groups and—boy!—did she like to talk about the garden at church and what was growing and how she wanted to be back getting her fingers dirty among friends.

That also leads to some of my larger point, not about church so specifically, but about what Lynne was yearning for and wanting and how that fit into the shape of her life, including right up to this moment now.

See, amid each setback that Lynne faced, or as she continued to strive forward with each medical possibility, in struggling to be well, Lynne thought about what the next steps would be. I came into the scene not too long before she got the LVAD heart pump, which was already far along in the discernment and decisions of the process. And from there it was dealing with bleeds and the thought of bypass to get her closer toward the transplant list and on and on. In all of this, Lynne realized what the next steps were, what it would take to proceed and get back to the life she wanted to have. Typically for somebody with Lynne’s upbeat personality, we’d label this sort of focus on future possibilities as “optimism.”

But I don’t want to use that term for Lynne, because optimism tends to be a cheeriness with rose-colored glasses that ignores harder details. That wouldn’t fit Lynne. What Lynne was was hopeful, which is also important to say for us here now.

The week after I met Lynne, I referenced her in my Good Friday sermon. She said her experiences gave her a deeper understanding of Holy Week, of Jesus on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That may seem the opposite of hopeful, but in Lynne it wasn’t. Even then, she was longing, knowing, and trusting that God’s presence should and would be with her. Indeed, the forsaken feeling of God abandoning her directly paired with God’s presence for her, with a sense of reassurance, that every word of prayer was heard and embraced and responded to by God. Her Good Friday feeling was at a cross-section with the joy and delight of Easter, that separation was not the end.

Hope means even amid our Good Friday moments we’re not separated from God. That’s why Lynne cherished receiving Jesus’ presence in communion at those times. It’s also in a song she shared not long ago, a gospel song by Iris Dement. It’s a lovely, gentle song about Jesus confronting illness and suffering and need. The refrain goes like this: “Well he reached down, he reached down. He got right there on the ground. He reached down, he reached down And he touched the pain.”

That pairs well with an old hymn Lynne kept around on songsheets after a visit from Pastor Sonja. This one you might know to join in: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry ev’rything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer.” That’s not wishy-washy optimism that things are turning out hunky-dory. It knows there are pains and panics, that we bear grief and our sin. But God reached down and Jesus bears it with us and for us.

So the word of hope isn’t that things get easier, but that God will bring us through it. That pairs with our Bible readings, that neither hardship nor distress nor death separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is hope. As in the 23rd Psalm, God’s presence is with us in pleasant and refreshing times of abundant contentment, but also in valleys, when it’s so dark we can’t see a glimmer of light and feel so utterly alone. Even there, the Good Shepherd abides with you, bringing you through that to dwell in his house forever.

That word of being brought out of death to Easter life could certainly be sufficient today. You walked with Lynne deep in darkness through Holy Week last week, had to confront death you should not have had to, the cross, the suffering and loss in the story of Jesus and also in your reality with her. And beyond that, she leads you in hope into the promise of new life, of resurrection, of being reunited at a feast into the grand heavenly chorus.

But I want to conclude in offering one more scriptural metaphor that Lynne had been clinging to in these last months: that of wandering in the wilderness. Like when God’s people were led out of slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years unsure when—or maybe whether—they would arrive at the Promised Land, with delays and doubts and yet also constant miracles and the practice of caring community around them. That was Lynne’s metaphor. Again, this is not of optimism but of hope. As she was encouraging patience and persistence in the long journey for those around her, she began also to grow frustrated at how she wasn’t making steps forward, at least not in the way she’d originally been planning, for life to work out how she wanted. But she did expect to be led out of the wilderness and into God’s promise. It’s just that in recent months she became aware that that path might lead through death and into new life. That wilderness waiting is a terrible place to be, but now we gather together rejoicing in the promise for Lynne, clinging to it yet more dearly for ourselves. Even when our steps are unclear or troubled, we have hope in God’s love that there is a way to life: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

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a funeral sermon

eileenWith Thanksgiving for the Life

of Eileen Grace Bolstad

20Nov1925+18Nov2016

John 11:23-28; 2nd Corinthians 9:6-15; Psalms23&42

 

For my part, about all I can say at a moment like this is I wish I would’ve had more chance to know Eileen, had known the fullness of her life and gotten to share more directly in her benefits to this congregation.

Instead, I mostly knew her lament that she wasn’t capable of those things anymore. Already that’s a strong indicator of her personality and her value to this congregation and our lives. To have a 90-year-old lamenting she’s no longer out digging in the garden really says something about her!

In spite of how vibrant I continued to find her, still she regularly apologized for her memory loss. That decline meant she couldn’t do what she wanted, couldn’t be involved how she’d like and care for others as she was used to or even tell stories of her beloved grandchildren as much as she wished.

While I missed out on part of this amazing woman in these last months of her long, beautiful life, I had glimpses of who Eileen had always been.

That strikes me, for example, in recalling two other funerals earlier this year. I was impressed that Eileen was still among friends visiting and caring for Irene Rasmussen, and she also was always eager to hear how Ruth Olson was doing when I visited them at Oakwood. She was still filled with her characteristic care, which had been part of relationships amid the life of circle and quilting and giving rides and providing food through the years for services exactly like today.

I’ve also clung to Susan’s words claiming Eileen as both her gardening buddy and also her mentor or teacher. That parallel is richly descriptive, that Eileen’s teaching was never overbearing or anything, but was relational and joyful, as a buddy. In watching Susan interact with the Kids in the Garden this past summer, it felt like a glimpse or reflection of who Eileen also was in that role, cherishing the children as well as the soil and growth of plants. Kids in the Garden was somehow a best of both worlds—for Eileen’s delight in young people and for the work of the land.

Even though in some ways it was so long ago, there was a lot about Eileen that continued to be tied to the land, continued to be a farmer. Susan described it as paired commitments to faith and to the earth. In conversations, I heard Eileen talk about farming and agriculture, not only with the love of a spouse in appreciating her husband’s career, but also in who she was, in that farm up north and its hardworking roles and how that place drew them to return even in retirement. Moving to Madison to provide the opportunities for you children to grow up, as you’ve mentioned, was certainly a worthwhile decision, but even with that move Eileen remained rooted in the soil and identified with the farm.

That identity gave rise to a couple of the hymns and Bible readings for this service, plus the reflection that comes out from them. With farming imagery, we heard of sowing bountifully and gratefully reaping the harvest. We heard Jesus describe a grain of wheat buried in the soil, and how that symbolizes our lives.

Whether or not it was because of that farming background, Eileen embodied these metaphors extraordinarily. She sowed bountifully in life. She was not sparing in her relationships with you, never stingy or reluctant about her good works. She gave of herself, and just as the passage recognizes, this generosity has produced the fruit of abundant thanksgiving among us here. We, indeed, gather today to celebrate with gratitude our benefit from Eileen’s life. Even more, this isn’t just about Eileen, but recognizes that the very presence of God was also embodied for us in her bounty and grace and cheer.

With that faithful dedication, we can pivot from Eileen’s direct commitment to growth and soil and the earth to that paired commitment of hers to faith. We could note that the passage from 2nd Corinthians is often used in churches as we’re talking about financial commitments. While Eileen helps us understand the broader stewardship of our whole lives—that our giving is about our shared actions and attitudes and the fullness of how we encounter each other and the earth—still in the much narrower financial sense, I just want to mention that among the notes and plans that Eileen had written for the end of her life, Peter shared that she made special instruction that her pledge to this congregation should be paid completely for the year. Again, it’s only one mark of her broader life, but it shows her passion and concern and dedication for faith as it continues to be lived out in this place.

Also for this moment and bearing fruit even in death, the words from Jesus are the last time he speaks in public in the Gospel of John before his own death. He proclaims his own burial is like a seed that will rise to bear fruit, and also that his death somehow glorifies and praises God.

These are hard tensions to hold and describe for Eileen. She was so vibrant and spunky and so well embodied for us what life should be that we must be slow to apply the words of Jesus about hating life in this world, or at least we’d have to be cautious about what exactly he could mean in that, maybe that her love for life and losing of it was in giving herself to us, that unusual gain by giving away in generosity.

On the other hand, Eileen did reach the point of saying she’d had enough of this life. The memory loss was not how she wanted to live. Even more, in the past month as she struggled to recover from that small stroke, life was not the shape she knew or yearned for. Last week, after she’d fully realized that, death came quickly.

Yet even as she lost life, she glorified God. As hard as it is for us, there is gain in this moment, not only in recalling and celebrating the past fruitfulness of life well-lived, but more as we trust the goodness of her reunion at long last with Ingman, and even simply as we witness and are still being taught by her trust and faithfulness at the end.

We heard Psalm 42 today because I happened to read that for Eileen this past week. As I started to read, that was the last moment I saw clarity and dedication in her eyes. She stopped in some of her agitation, she focused and listened, trusting the goodness that the Psalm proclaimed. These words were her words, and by her witness are also for you:

My soul thirsts for the living God.

Why are you so full of heaviness,

O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God;

for I will yet give thanks

to the one who is my help and my God.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Greta Karen Hammonds

June 24, 1939 + September 9, 2016greta

Exodus34:6-7a; Psalm23; 1Corinthians13:4-13

 

This is about love. It’s a gathering about love. It’s ultimately about the love of God in Christ Jesus, as we’ll say more later. But firstly you’re here for love because you loved Greta or because she loved you. Those may be bonds of family, or chosen ties of friendship, or relationships with some sort of care, that you received or gave or even simply observed. Through that, in some way, this isn’t general loveliness, but is the very specific love you connect with Greta.

Now, I’m at a disadvantage for only having met her once, and only knowing small bits from her sister Jean, so I’d like to hear maybe in a word or a sentence some of the ways you associate love with Greta. (Things mentioned:  family, she cried when I left home, marrying into a great family, she babysat my children, community table meals, the cat lady, potato salad.)

I’ve heard she was giving, that she was very generous in sharing what she had and not keeping it for herself. I’ve heard she always gave hearts each year as Christmas presents, a sure symbol of love. I’ve heard she took care of her mother at the end of her life. I’ve heard she cared for our country and fellow citizens in working the polls. So there are these things to recall, memories to cherish, stories for telling and reminding each other in these days (and that’s an important part of the reception and chance to share more of this after worship) and it’s also for understanding that they continue to shape you, as you embody this love of Greta in an ongoing way.

This is some of what we heard in 1st Corinthians and why we heard it. It’s most common as a wedding reading, but with Greta we can see it as a frame for all of life in our relationships. This is how things are supposed to work and what our connections ought to be like.

Of course, it can also seem sort of idealized, that we’re not always patient or kind and don’t always do the right thing and sometimes just can’t endure it. That is true for me, and I’m sure for you, and I know it was true for Greta, too, because it’s unfortunately just how we are, just true for all of us, as much as we try and as good as we may be.

But that’s also exactly why we heard the couple of brief Bible verses from Exodus, where there’s sort of a message that if it were easy and we didn’t have to keep struggling at it, then it wouldn’t really be love. These verses where God models and promises love, steadfast love, love that lasts through the generations, and God can do that precisely because love must be slow to anger and faithful in striving for forgiveness, this kind of love from God is exactly because we need it.

This is the point in the Bible story leading up to these verses. God makes this strong declaration and promise at a surprising moment in the story; it comes just after the people had made the golden calf, that premier example of idolatry and turning away from God, and Moses was furious at them, and all of this even as they were right at the foot of Mount Sinai where God was giving them the 10 Commandments. Even with that direct and present reminder, still they could blow it.

But that sure wasn’t the first time; it seemed all too natural for their history in this story. Before that golden calf, the people were complaining about wandering in the wilderness and grumbling about the miracle of manna that kept them nourished day after day. And before that, before the escape through the Red Sea and the plagues striking Pharaoh and all the wonders of God’s work to save them, of love as this ongoing salvation project, before that they were complaining even that they didn’t want to be freed from slavery.

Which is all to say that these weren’t easily loveable people. For all the blessings that surrounded them, they weren’t always appreciative. As God is promising and practicing steadfast love through their generations, we can’t help but notice they weren’t especially holy or nice or smart. And all too often they could be lousy, nasty, curmudgeonly boneheads. But through their best and their not-so-good, God promised to love them anyway, and kept at it, with enduring patience and more.

That’s true of love and Greta, as well, in all those things you named about her and so much more, for all the really remarkable care and tender affection, and also for when that fell short or fell apart for some reason. It’s true in your relationships with her, maybe in very small ways or maybe really dominant ways. It’s true in love that spreads throughout family and across the years.

And it’s especially still true of God’s love. See, we gather today because of love. We gather because love isn’t the same as understanding all the answers, not the same as everything working out just how we wish, not the same as everything going right. But we gather because of love. We gather to celebrate relationships and what has gone well, of life well lived and enjoyed. We also gather to lament the things that haven’t gone that way, most especially that you are separated from the love of Greta, and that there isn’t any good, clear reason of why that is, of why she died now, or why any of us need to face the loss and pain of death.

But this love isn’t an explanation or a solution. This love will lead Greta and you with her into light and life, but in the meantime it goes through the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, because that’s what love does.

We gather because love endures. Just as we heard, it persists in promise to the thousandth generation. That means it’s for Greta and her siblings. It’s for her parents, back to old times in Stoughton, and beyond that back to Norway and wherever else. It’s back to the very beginning, and it’s also forward, to you six children of hers, and your families, and on to generations so distant yet to come.

And for all the interruptions and disruptions, for all the disappointments and desperations, for Greta and for yourself you may be faithfully confident that nothing now, nothing in your past, nothing yet to come will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. For that amazing promise, all that’s left is to say Amen.

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With Thanksgiving for the Life of Ruth Eleanor Mithus Olsonruth

March 3, 1918 + September 2, 2016

Genesis9:9-16; Psalm23; 1Corinthians13:7-10,12-13;  John10:1-6

 

The good shepherd and good gatekeeper has called Ruth home.

I’m typically reluctant to say that. It’s a phrase that can be misused or can give a nasty image of a vengeful or capricious God, who one day decides we’re fine here, but then suddenly interrupts life to whisk us off someplace else. Generally I disagree with that, and even in this specific instance we still have to confess and confront death as an interruption and sorrow; we can never say life is better without Ruth around, that it was her time to go and so now we just need to deal with God wanting her elsewhere.

Yet I should come to terms with that phrase. After all, this isn’t just a popular concept trying to explain away death. No, it’s even right there in our funeral liturgy: in the prayer of the day we prayed just a couple minutes ago, we were asking God for confidence and hope to sustain us until “by your call, we are gathered to our heavenly home in the company of all your saints.” So in spite of my trying to toy with and argue about the helpfulness or positive side of it, and my theological grumbling (which I hope you can hear with a playful twinkle in my eye, as well), if ever there were a time for this notion of God calling someone home, it’s now and it’s for Ruth.

98 years. And 98 very good years. 98 years with lots of smiles and laughter and joking, and this family’s characteristic playful jibes. 98 years of strong health, and an end that came quickly and without long suffering. 98 years of productive life, whether we count that in secretarial work, or count it as weeks traveling with family each summer, or count the fruitfulness of 98 years in being a wonderful mother, or the 30 years of marriage, or even the 47 years as a widow and in spite of that loss for how full life still was.

Certainly I’d be eager to count the 56 of those 98 years that marked Ruth’s time as a charter member of this congregation, now leaving only Karen in that category. That’s not just the mark of beginning- and endpoints, but the span of all that happened in this place amid those years, recalling the bigger marks of pastors who have come and gone and preached sermons for her and offered her communion. It’s the myriad of hymns she sang and anthems in choir and the zillions of prayers of that long and faithful life. It’s the stitches in practically countless quilts and the way that thread continues forward, from a well-tended past even in these weeks to prepare for more quilts to be shared and sent, to wrap around unknown and unimaginable bodies across this world.

And Ruth’s years are marked not only by the humor and joyful conversations, but also the simple happening of relationships in this body of Christ, this communion of saints, the mutual conversation and consolation of the sisters and brothers, as Luther termed it, those very visits and unspectacular moments of interaction, gathered where Jesus himself has promised to be present in our midst. Those were surely part of Ruth’s strong connections here over the years, and continued right up to the last bulletin that Mary Maxwell delivered and the last prayers that Martha Nack offered. All of this, in its most mundane and so very regular reality is exactly where God is present in our lives, where God is incarnate and continued to be embodied in Ruth, for Ruth, and for us. All of this is well worth celebrating the 98 years and this moment where she is called to the next new awareness, where we will live no longer by faith and seeing in mirrors dimly but will know it face-to-face.

But that also raises another side of this whole idea of being called home, of this good shepherd and good gatekeeper who tended to Ruth so well in her life and even now gathers her up into his arms to carry her home. It is one of the first things you were able to say about this moment, Karen, and I fully agree with you.

Jesus said, “I call my own sheep by name. They follow me because they know my voice.” Well, I’m especially excited about that for Ruth. Because the first time I went to visit her was my first week here, when David Keesey-Berg took me to Oakwood for the introduction. Now, David has a good voice. We know his voice and his stories and his faithful words. And Ruth recognized his voice. But whatever I tried to say—maybe because of my tone or pitch or volume—she didn’t recognize my voice.

On the next visit, Ruth and I talked about quite a bit. Well, I talked. But the only thing she could hear and understand was who I was. She kept repeating, with a smile and a nod, “So you’re Pastor Nick.”

On a subsequent visit, she was out in the dining room, and just as it’s uncomfortable to try to shout at you here, I found it wasn’t easy to try to make myself heard by Ruth as others were eating their lunch.

Sometimes Ruth would hear bits and other times she wouldn’t understand what we were saying to her. Sometimes she would recognize, and other times voices would go unheard.

And so I celebrate this moment for Ruth and this reality of faith. I celebrate because her good shepherd has called her and she recognized his voice, this voice of Jesus who will bring her home forever. I rejoice that what was lost will be restored, both in life laid down in order to be renewed in the resurrection forever, but also the restoration from hearing loss so she can once again recognize voices and offer those jokes back to her family.

Besides this future hope, though, when you’ll be reunited with Ruth, and when I’ll at long last be able to have a conversation with her and not try to shout or wish we could better understand each other, besides such heavenly hope, I celebrate today that Ruth recognized the voice of Jesus and heard his call. This voice called her in baptism so very long ago, nearly a century ago. As the promise after the flood with a rainbow, an everlasting promise of blessing, for human and all creation, so the flood of baptismal waters made that call specifically to Ruth, an assurance from God no matter what. That voice continued to call even when her own ears weren’t hearing well, still continuing to call her heart and spirit. That voice called throughout 98 years with the reassuring promise of care and compassion, of faith, hope, and love, a voice that would not let up through bad times or good, through gain or loss, through life or death. That voice has been always calling her to find her home in this promise, and that’s the voice that will call her and eventually you with her out from death to follow into life forever. Amen

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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.

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