a funeral sermon

john-goltermannWith Thanksgiving for the Life of John Fredrick Goltermann

(4 June 1935 + 31 December 2016)

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 6:20-23; Psalm 23

 

While celebrating John’s life, I’ve also been lamenting—partly since I met him but more in the past two weeks that I didn’t really get to know him.

I’ve been his pastor for nearly the past year, but our visits had varying amounts of connection, though he was always congenial and direct, graceful and genuine. Sometimes my stop would be as brief as a couple sentences, when he’d answer my question about a visit with, “Yes, why don’t you come back another time.” Other times we chatted more, still with his answers nearly as brief, a short few word replies to my inquiries. It wasn’t easy to draw him out or learn about his life.

Making it even more difficult, once when he was most talkative, I later learned from Jean and Fred that the dementia had interfered and John wasn’t actually remembering the stories and details as they’d actually happened. Still, perhaps the main point of that visit and the thing that I don’t have any reason to doubt was his statement that he had to thank God for all of his blessings. Even as he wasn’t feeling up to getting out of bed, and even as dementia was robbing him of his life, he spoke of offering thanks.

That is why we’re here today, to be able to say thank you to God in honest and enormous ways, sometimes in spite of everything else. Today, we say thank you for the gift of life, for sharing it with John through the years. We say thank you for him, even though he could be difficult to know, and even in spite of sadness at his death. We give thanks because the promise of life from God overcomes all obstacles, even in this moment of sorrow and loss and finality.

Again, to back up a bit, I wish I’d gotten to know more of John. There was a sparkle in his eyes as he talked about his fundraising work and its many relationships and what that work meant for him. That delight fits with our first reading from Ecclesiastes, which concluded “that there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy [yourself] as long as [you] live; [and] moreover, it is God’s gift that all should take pleasure in their toil.” John discovered that pleasure in his toil, from what I’ve heard and learned. And I’m also told that he did pretty well at Ecclesiastes’ vision of being happy and enjoying himself, including old days of tennis and the move up to the U.P. and walks around town here and Eva’s reflections of dining in Chicago with her father and toasting a great nephew’s 21st birthday and his quick humor.

Still, along with that Bible reading, we realize it wasn’t all those good times and happy memories. As much as we’d wish for those things to continue, the best Ecclesiastes can tell us is that we can’t figure out why God put our times together how they are. There are times to be happy and times to mourn. A time for embracing, but also when that doesn’t happen. A time to be born and a time to die. We may wish otherwise. We may not have the faintest clue of why God has done it this way. But we easily observe that this is how life goes.

We heard this same reading from Ecclesiastes as one of our Bible readings in worship on New Year’s Day this year, in a service inviting us to look back at the past year and forward into the next and to discover God’s blessing amid all of it. In general, there may be plenty of discontent about 2016 and trepidation for 2017. More specifically, that was also the morning when I announced with our prayers that John had died the day before, on December 31st.

Perhaps that gave us reason to look into 2017 as a relief from John’s suffering, for not having to struggle any more with the diminishment of life from what it should have been. But we also have to admit we’re looking into this new year without John, and that makes something obviously not right.

That sense of wrong Ecclesiastes was content—or at least resigned—to leave to the uncertainty of God. But that isn’t always the faithful answer. Our faith, which discovers God most closely and importantly revealed for us in death on a cross, has a tendency to look in the obscurest places for blessing. One example is that core verse we read from the 23rd Psalm: we don’t only look for God’s presence and blessing amid full tables with overflowing cups or along still waters, verdant pastures, and right pathways, but the most vital verse and dearest for us in that Psalm declares the shepherd accompanies us through the darkest valleys when we’re overcome by the shadow of death. That assurance is far from Ecclesiastes’ sense of enjoying life, but is the heart of trust and hope in this faith we share.

The reading from Colossians also shares an unexpected assurance that seems appropriate for John. Describing John’s personality, I’d use terms like introverted or reserved or a man of few words, keeping to himself. Colossians labels it that his life was hidden. There were things we didn’t know or maybe couldn’t understand about him, about his choices or his illness. Well, this reading says that even what we think we know about each other or about ourselves isn’t the full reality. In fact, these details we claim for our identity—our families, our work lives, our shortcomings, the history we may have forgotten, our favorite sports teams—these are as good as dead amid the fullness we have of life in Christ, though that remains unseen and unknown. Who John was and who we are is hidden in Christ, and will only be fully known through that love and the glory of resurrected life. That’s an astounding word of promise.

One last example today is in the words of Jesus typically known as the Beatitudes. These are words of hidden blessing, of unexpected and surprising reversals that God’s grace always brings to us. With the sense of those words from Jesus, we could continue to expand our faithful vision of this unseen reality with Beatitudes especially for John today:

Blessed are those with memory loss, for they will be remembered.

Blessed are the hard to know, because in them we nevertheless know God.

Blessed are the introverted, for in them we will find humor.

Blessed are the reserved, for from them we appreciate honesty of compliments.

Blessed are the strong in body, for in them we witness gentleness of spirit.

Blessed are the hard-working, for they will be given rest and leisure.

Blessed are we who weep, for we will sing Alleluias.

Blessed are you in death, for then you have the assurance of eternal life in Christ Jesus. Amen

 

http://www.cressfuneralservice.com/obituary/170972/John-Goltermann/

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andy

sketch by John Mix

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Andrew John Remington

November 23, 1936 + August 3, 2019

 

The first time I ever met Andy became I think the longest hospital visit I’ve ever done.

I generally figure hospital visits should be and are brief. A sick person trying to find energy for healing and rest doesn’t really need a clergyperson loitering about trying to make small talk, especially when that clergyperson is a stranger. So I figured I’d pop in, and if Andy was in the room and awake I’d introduce myself and hear a bit of what why he was there and say a quick prayer about it then be on my way home to supper.

Well, something over an hour later it had gotten dark outside and not only was it maybe my longest pastoral care visit, but also the one with the deepest theological conversation as Andy shared his view on things and invited my thoughts and feelings.

He took this stuff seriously. In the language of our Bible reading, he wouldn’t probably claim quite the extent of “understanding all mysteries and all knowledge,” but he was seeking to understand. In the millennium-old definition of theology, he had “faith seeking understanding.” But it wasn’t just to engage his brain or to try for a deep conversation. His faith was truer than that.

The reading also talks about having “faith to move mountains.” And again though it’s not the limit of this for Andy, certainly another of the characteristics of Andy’s faith was his conviction for miracles. Most of my visits with him insisted on trusting in miracles, that there would be enormous surprises from God. I value how he didn’t expect those only to be in an instant flash of light, but included that God’s goodness would find us in more ways than we had reason personally to expect. That outlook was even embodied in his refrain that he never achieved all he was capable of, but still he did more than he thought he could, better than he imagined.

He very much counted his relationship with you, Helen, as a prime example of such miracles, and also then the extension to the amazing family he gained and to be able to be called grandpa. For a man who saw miracles, that was probably the biggest. And I’d say there’s been something miraculous about it for you, too, Helen, including as people around Advent have been remembering much in these days those terribly hard times at the sudden death of your first husband. Andy came in with more goodness than you’d expect and got to enjoy and be secure in for so long.

Those initial connections make me also think of early days through Al-Anon and how Helen has told me that Andy was so committed in leading the 12-step program that he said there was no other way, that you had to follow it. Some of that sounds like Corinthians’ refusal to rejoice in wrongdoing, and those very difficult efforts to set life right or at least better as bearing all things and enduring all things and hoping all things. It takes that kind of commitment to make it through sometimes, to pursue truth.

For comparisons, he also for some reason wanted it said at this service that he liked learning about time-outs as a wise discipline method for children. Maybe we’d pair that with the reading talking about putting an end to childish ways and reasoning.

But again, his faith wasn’t just that. It wasn’t understanding theology. It wasn’t solely expecting miracles. It wasn’t only about trying to do right.

Of course, what I’m dancing around here is what you probably know deeply about Andy through and through: that for him, the core was love. He’d say that some guys were bashful about love and wouldn’t want to say “I love you,” but he’d say it straight out and deeply mean it. I’d give Helen a hug with my goodbyes, and he’d insist that he wanted one too and didn’t feel bad about it.

Another of those particularly Andy surprises that he wanted stated at this service was that he discovered after a few years of marriage that it wasn’t only about the sex. (There you go, Andy. It’s not the sort of thing I’d say in a church service, but you get your request.) And it’s maybe a funny and silly line, but we also trust it as truly Andy, that he most definitely lived more fully in love.

Love was with Helen.

Love was with family.

Love was with friends, including the words from the GEMS we’re hearing.

Love was with Al-Anon.

Love was with the briefer connections, like with staff at Sienna Crest or nurses in the hospital, where he’d joke and poke a little fun with his sly smirking smile as a way to change their work day and, indeed, know they were loved.

Andy was great at love.

I’ve been pondering since I got the news of his death on Saturday morning about the last line of the Corinthians passage, that faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. Why love?

I probably have times of wanting faith to be biggest, trusting in God or in Jesus. I want to get my theology right and to know and to understand. But it says that’s not biggest.

I often want hope to be biggest, to be confident it will all work out, that there’s something amazing around the corner and more to come. That’s not the greatest.

Well, I already said Andy didn’t have all the answers, so it wasn’t ultimately faith for him. And in spite of his thought of miracles, he had some very hard moments of doubt and worry when the cancer diagnosis came in and as he anticipated death. He had peace, too, but I won’t say it’s only that. So he wasn’t suspecting or hoping everything would be okay or that the cancer would just go away.

And he certainly continued to persist in love, in his concern for Helen and very precious close times and conversations together, and for the rest of us. Still, the readings says, “love never ends, but now we’re without his love. There are no more hugs, no more deep-voiced gravelly assurances of “I love you.”

But for what I don’t have figured out, and what Andy may not always have had either, for the sake of pondering today about this passage, I’m grateful that Helen insisted on our other Bible passage. “For God so loved the world that God have the only begotten Son, so that we might have eternal life.”

What abides, the greatest of these, isn’t our faith. It’s not the power of what we hope. It’s not even that we love. It’s that God loves without end. We can say we knew a reflection of that love in Andy, the unstoppable unfathomable complete love of God in Jesus. God loves you. Even now and forever, God loves Andy. That remains eternally, and that’s the greatest.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of George Philip Steinmetz, Jr.5bcb4eac8e636.image

April 21, 1931 + October 18, 2018

1Corinthians15, Matthew6

 

Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Jesus speaks this as encouragement for generosity, for selfless almsgiving, for open-handedness that does clench a fist of entitlement but releases so abundantly and generously that it refuses to tally and ignores any kind of score-keeping record.

I know straight off there’s a risk in commending something that won’t keep score at the funeral of a guy who was a guard in the Badgers’ first trip to the Rose Bowl, maybe not least because George got to hold in his hand the astonishing amount of $1000 for tickets he scalped to actor Fred McMurray. And though the Badgers had the best stats of that whole season against USC, they got blanked 7-0.

Maybe that actually does promote not keeping score, that there was plenty to that experience and George’s identity as an athlete and growing as a young man that wasn’t about one final win.

But, again, it may seem even more strange to talk about a left hand not knowing what a right hand is doing for a heart surgeon, for a man who used to have dog heart valves stored in the garage where he had his office, for this doctor who extended care to thousands of open-heart patients, extended their lives, and extending the possibility of their loving relationships, while also extending that knowledge and research and training to subsequent generations of medical and surgical staff.

I’m not surgeon, and can hardly hold my hand steady enough to brush my teeth, and certainly would not be invited to do the precision work that might involve sharp tools and careful cutting, but having gotten to watch the finesse and artistry of some surgery this week, it sure seems that it’s worthwhile to keep track of what both hands are doing and not to let one go off and do its own thing unnoticed. So, yet again, this little verse spoken by Jesus may seem like we shouldn’t apply it too closely to George.

In spite of those parts that don’t seem exactly to fit, or to go hand-in-hand or hand-in-glove with George’s life story and personality, still I’ll say that this saying from Jesus occurred to me first because of how I knew George. I’ve been his pastor for less than three years, so I didn’t know the vibrant and strong George in the ways you did. I knew him after he lost much of his memory. He still had photos of Joe displayed prominently. He knew and cherished that Suzie was right there near him. He and I could talk about his childhood, growing up on Fox Avenue, and I think about him every time I’m walking my dog past his childhood house. He recalled growing up at Luther Memorial.

But then we’d start to lose track. He’d ask again which congregation I was from, and if he’d been a member there. He could briefly recall the gardens on our grounds and being excited by those. And he always knew he was a part of the dear group of guys called GEMS, the Grumpy Elderly Men, and remembered that connection.

So I’m hesitant to mention George’s lost his memory. He had so much good and full, in his career, in his family, in enjoying travels, in all of life. He was strong of body and of mind. It could seem only to highlight sadness and emphasize the loss of this moment to mention the contrasting moment.

But I mention it because that’s what I knew of George, how I came to love him, and that will be the way I miss him.

And I mention it because with this faith we gather around today and with the God in whose name we are gathered, this isn’t only something to be ignored or avoided. We can confront the illnesses and losses of life, and even face this terrible moment of death itself. Even as today we are especially clinging to memories of the past, we recognize that the goodness of our hope is not only in how well we recall what has been.

So when Jesus talks about a right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, we can take that as applying to George’s loss of memory, and realize that it doesn’t separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We may not assert that dementia brings us closer to God, but I’d gladly and eagerly proclaim that God brings you closer in such moments, that when thoughts won’t stay in a head and when you don’t have the capabilities you used to and wish you still did, that God holds you yet more tightly in the promise.

In that way, I want to commend to us two more Bible passages that not only manage to deal with losing memory, but find in it the way forward, the way to new life, even the celebration of blessing.

The first is again from the Apostle Paul, in striving for his own forgetfulness. He wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:10-13).

Paul claims that in forgetting the things that he would’ve considered his previous accomplishments or successes in life or marks of superiority, then he recognizes the fullness of life offered as he is made God’s own. Jesus has also claimed George, not mindful of what he had or hadn’t done in life, not only celebrating his career or integrity, but simply for his own love, straining on toward the heavenly goal of resurrection.

With that view from Paul for George, one more word of God’s own loss of memory. Exactly contradicting any sense of an eternal record keeper who logs our every action for good or ill, the prophet Jeremiah recognizes that God, too, must forget and proclaims this Word of the Lord (which even includes some heart surgery, we might say): “This is the covenant that I will make, says the LORD: I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We have a God who doesn’t—who in fact refuses—to keep track, to tally our sense of accomplishment, and who sets aside what we lament as deficit. God’s own left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, in lavishing on us the gifts of life, deserved or undeserved, abundant and grace-filled, the blessings of 87 years, the love of family and two marriages, of deep friendships, the care of tending life all the way to last days, and promises even more to come in an eternal victory.

So whether we know it or not, the one thing this God will remember is to be with you always in love.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life annette.jpgof Ruth Annette Lindstrom

June 1, 1922 + February 1, 2018

Philippians 1:18b-25

 

I’ll admit I’ve been on kind of a Philippians kick.

We had it for readings here in worship last month, and I just really, really love this part of the Bible, for what it says about our lives and about what we’re up to here together. We’d also done some Bible study sessions on it, and Lindy didn’t come to those. But that made me recall how she had come for some Bible study back in January (because it happened to be a gap in her schedule and she was in the neighborhood), but she ended up missing the rest of the sessions because she down in Rockford, with her mom for those last weeks of life, and with her dog Auggie, and with all the others who lived in the same care facility, and Bob’s practice of seeing her every day to sing together and family and all those relationships. And that loving assemblage, being together in compassion and joy even through the hard times, that’s kind of a model of Philippians, too.

So we’re going with Philippians today.

I picked this reading because I’ll say again that Philippians is really a love letter, an outpouring of how good it is to be together, joyful and enjoying each other, to share life, to share love.

In the first case, that’s about the writer of the letter, Paul, and a congregation he’s away from.

But that’s also some of what we heard in what the family had to share about Annette, or Yaya in that term of endearment, with stories of so much laughter and creativity together and adventure and the harmonies of music that should’ve been recorded and all the memories of good times shared and that deep, rich sense of connection. Those words weren’t just eulogy; they were a love letter, a love letter capturing life, but a love letter because of separation, since we don’t have the chance to tell Annette directly today.

This recalling of past happiness makes me think about a phrase that has come to be used quite a lot for portraying these sorts of gatherings. It’s popular now to refer to these or even to request them as “celebrations of life.”

Now, I have to say that I’m not quite sure what that’s standing in contrast to. Would the alternative to a “celebration of life” be a “disparagement of life?” Or a gathering of complaints and sharing of resentments? If so, I’ve certainly never led a funeral service that would fit those labels, and wouldn’t say that I’ve been to one, either.

I suppose two other alternatives are that a celebration of life means that we’re taking seriously the life the person lived, a memorial service full of memories, that we’re actually recollecting Annette and paying attention to who she was as opposed to some generic set of church-y words. Maybe there’s a sense that a funeral could be impersonal otherwise.

Or maybe it’s the notion that otherwise we end up focusing on the death, so we celebrate a life we had and shared instead of just gathering to lament a loss. But if that’s the case, then I don’t really like the term celebration of life, because it seems to overlook the obvious reality.

This is part of what Paul is facing in the letter with the Philippians. It’s such an intense love letter exactly because he’s separate from them. We cherish the remembrances of Annette today precisely because she’s not here to keep sharing them with us, because death has absolutely and matter-of-factly separated her from us.

Even as we gather on a beautiful summer afternoon, on what would’ve been the day after Annette’s 96th birthday, there’s some of winter chill that comes creeping back in. This isn’t all laughter and joy and the fondness for the past. I know that there’s been extra grief this week that has brought back some tears, that even while getting ready for a cheery and vibrant service and keeping humor, still it has meant confronting that loss and separation of death in a renewed way, of having to live back again also into the ending weeks this past winter, and again having to say goodbyes, farewells, the reality of being apart. Even if we’re so intent on celebrating life, that can’t help but make us face some sorrow that that life is no longer with us. The best of celebration for such a spunky, creative, friendly woman will also rightly be paired by the lament. If we didn’t feel that sorrow, then maybe we’d have to feel there wasn’t much of her life worth celebrating!

But, again, Philippians points us toward something more. It isn’t only that it was so good to be together, so many times of joy, such deep love. And it’s not only that that’s been fractured by death, that you can’t have what you used to have. Not a spark and sparkle that has gone out. It’s not that’s over and this is the end.

In this reading, Paul doesn’t contrast the joy of life versus the lament of death. Rather, he contrasts two kinds of joy. Or, maybe to put it another way, he has two celebrations of life—a celebration of the life we have known, and a celebration of the life to come, as we’ll sing in a lovely Swedish promise, “neither life nor death shall ever from our God her children sever.”

As we talked about it in the Bible study, the best image was a love triangle. It’s not just that Annette loved you and you loved Annette. It’s also that Jesus loves you and loves Annette. And Annette shared that love of Jesus, that passion and commitment and devotion. Paul recognized that even while a time like this of confronting death meant separation in one relationship—and even if he would’ve found plenty of joyful reason to want to remain—still he found even more in going to the sweet embrace of Jesus. It’s far better, he figured.

And that’s what we hold onto today, too. It would’ve been nice still to have Annette here, to be laughing and playing with her, to be celebrating her life by having a birthday party. Instead we have a re-birthday party and the celebration of new life, of a love that already was holding her through her life and will continue hold onto her forever, and that will welcome you more deeply and directly into it, too, when one day we’ll all be brought together again, for a feast without end, cups overflowing with wine, maybe a heavenly choir, angelic Lindy on the autoharp, banjos of Paradise, and Annette making sure the melody is well-covered. That’s really the life we celebrate today. Thanks be to God. Amen

 

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Earl John SchoffThumbnail

December 16, 1943 + December 28, 2017

Matthew 2:1-11, Psalm 23

 

My two tasks in this sermon are, first, to remind us the good news of God with us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and that his life, death, and resurrection are connected to and blessing for John’s own birth, life, death, and what is still to come.

My second task is to keep it short. Because in a worship service John always had the timer running, pointing to his watch, and so it wouldn’t be right if I failed to honor that sense of him now at his service.

So before the clock ticks too much, I’ll jump straight in with my first task. It probably seems like an unusual Gospel reading to hear about the wise men and baby Jesus at this funeral service, so I’ll explain why it seemed fitting to me. See, today is January 6, the 13th day after Christmas. You may be more familiar with the 12 days of Christmas. That’s because the season stops on day 13 with a new festival called Epiphany. And Epiphany is marking the visit of the wise men and how Jesus is made known in a shining star and adored by these gift-bearing visitors.

I suppose I have to admit I’m kind of a church nerd and since this used to be one of the biggest celebrations of the year, outshining even Christmas, but since it passes with almost no attention these days, well, you might think I’m just inflicting this on you since you happened to show up today for a church service here at the funeral home.

But it’s not that I’ve got a captive audience. No. With this coincidence of the calendar, I was thinking that this story applied well for John, that those gifts that the magi brought, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit with his life and his relationship with God.

So an easy place to start is with frankincense. It’s often understood that the wise men brought it as a religious symbol, representing the holiness of this baby Jesus and how he would be a priest on our behalf. The frankincense was marking the sacrifices of the temple and prayerful devotion. “Let my prayer rise as incense,” it says in a Psalm. Such religious devotion was apparent in John. Always identifying with his family’s Catholic background, I recall him sitting in the back row of the congregation during the Lutheran church service, quietly praying the rosary (which Lutherans don’t normally do!). Like a wise man bringing a gift of frankincense, John showed holy devotion to God.

That brings me to the second gift: gold. This one we don’t need to think of as a metaphor for something else; we can take it as plain old gold or wealth that the wise men brought as a gift in adoration of Jesus.

Since we’re keeping track of John’s timer for the service, I can tell you that as he pointed to his watch, telling me even before the service got started that I should be quick to wrap it up, sometimes John’s timekeeping came with an observation something like, “Those slots won’t play themselves.” If you’d say that in addition to his devotion to participating prayerfully at church that he was a dedicated participant in the casino, it also came back around and the two meshed together because he’d also report back that he was going to be adding to the offering plate as it went by because he’d had a good day of winning. John didn’t value wealth only for its own sake but understood its place amid his commitment to God, as a response to God’s blessing and goodness for him.

That brings us, finally, to myrrh. Of the gifts that the wise men brought, this one may be the strangest. If you don’t really know what myrrh was, you’re in a pretty good place to understand it, here at the funeral home. Myrrh was used as an embalming oil, an aromatic ointment to anoint the dead. Within the story, from his birth it is a marker that Jesus would go on to face death, and that he would suffer for our sake, but that not even that could separate us from the love of God.

For John, it marks in another way the finger pointing at the watch, that our days are numbered and eventually our time is up. We in some ways can cherish that with him because he survived through some pretty desperate medical moments in the decade I most knew him. But we are also confronted with it now because his life was over too quickly and suddenly.

And yet, with that reminder of myrrh, we remember that even in death, as much as that has temporarily severed our relationship with John and we consider it a terrible loss, it has not cut him off from God and, therefore, not finally separated us from being reunited with him. John is bound to the death of Jesus, and also to his resurrection. The anointing of myrrh, the embalming of death, is not the end. In baptism, where John was anointed as a baby with the chrism oils by the priest, in that was a gift from God to him. We repeated something of that long ago baptismal promise as we voiced together our Psalm: You anoint my head with oil, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

That’s about the shortest sermon I’ve managed to give, and with that, I’d better stop, because otherwise somebody will tap their watch. But remember, the best is yet to come.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving janfor the Life
of Janice Gail Kittleson Kelly

February 23, 1932
+
September 30, 2017

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23;
from Hebrews 13; Luke 14:16-23

 

I need to begin this sermon by asking the obvious question: am I the only one who’d prefer to be eating banana bread right now?

I know I’m not alone in this and assume many of you got to experience and enjoy plenty of banana bread from Jan. She not only had creativity in what went into them—my fondness was for pumpkin pecan. Or maybe it was for cranberry orange. Well, it’s tough to say for sure—but besides the varieties, there’s the quantity. She was sure prolific! I marvel that she took the time for all that baking day after day, and the time for shopping that went along with it, and especially the time for deliveries to family and friends and the fire station and those loaves that even found their way toward me.

Something of that kindness and generosity is what I’m centrally holding onto for today.

Much more that could be said about Jan’s life. Maybe most significant are her years at the Forest Products Lab. Or maybe we’d focus on the relationships she developed out of that work, including friendships that abide still long after retirement. That JBJ group (for “Jan’s Birthday Junket”) formed with a bang to celebrate Jan’s 50th with an outing to Dolores Gust’s cottage, plus stops for refreshments along the way and ever since.

But it wasn’t all fun and games and happy hour. Far from it, because Jan also got a group committed to helping at WilMar center in serving monthly meals to hungry people in a way that’s continued on for more than three decades and been recognized in many ways all over the city and beyond.

And that’s just one notable way Jan’s care and sense of charity and sharing of wellbeing extended to those around her. There were cancer walks and Art Fair on the Square and baby blankets and blood donations and on and on in ways she raised money and volunteered. And pfeffernusse cookie dough for St. James Catholic Church, plus so much else she shared and offered to family and friends and casual acquaintances and strangers.

And, of course, the banana bread. Loaves and loaves, filling and enriching many lives, as well as (of course) many bellies. I mention that bread and hold it centrally in these days for three reasons.

The first reason is to mark that generosity. I don’t do that just to compliment Jan or celebrate her good works. I believe it is important to highlight that characteristic because it is godly, because she was Christlike, acting in a way that revealed God’s goodness in our lives.

Some of that is highlighted in the language of our second Bible reading, that this mutual love of our neighbors, the hospitality and kindness even to strangers, is to entertain angels unawares. And sharing what we have and doing good is a sacrifice pleasing to God.

I don’t really expect that Jan did all of this so she could please God, nor even that she felt like it was much of a sacrifice. I expect it flowed from her almost naturally. And that’s a little more in character and in line with how the Gospel reading portrayed the God whom we know embodied in Jesus. With abundant goodness, overflowing generosity, unconditional love. In the story from Jesus, this God is so eager to share blessing and celebration that offering goodness doesn’t need to be coerced. Rather, it is receiving the goodness that is compelled in rounding up people for the banquet.

Jan, too, could have more goodness and generosity to share than we even had been prepared to receive. I continued to learn from that, not only to benefit with another loaf of tasty banana bread, but by understanding something deeper and richer about Jesus and about our God through Jan. As she gave banana bread to me, she hardly even knew me to begin with and had no reason to like me and I offered nothing in return. In that, she was embodying for me the love and care of God who continues giving and blessing and sustaining and loving, even when I don’t deserve it and give nothing in return. It’s a true sense of being cherished, as Jan would regularly say, “I love you. I like you, too.”

Having valued that faithful reminder then points to a second reason I mention Jan’s generosity and banana bread: it’s a sign of missing her. Jean, her twin sister and best friend, the one who may be missing her most of all in these days, said there had been some question about having banana bread at lunch today. But she said she hadn’t saved any of Jan’s loaves and any other wouldn’t be quite the same thing.

There’s something as we go without, as we miss those deliveries and the joyful gift of a treat, as we lack that sacramental reminder of the character of Jesus, all reminding us we miss Jan. We shouldn’t fail to recognize that in these days. Sometimes in small ways and sometimes enormous life-altering fractures and gaps, we are not the same as we were. Things are different without Jan. Death is wrong that way. It is not as it should be. We lament and grieve, we are sad and hurt, and we also hope.

And that leads to the third reason I’m holding onto the idea of Jan and banana bread these days, because it indicates something more. It isn’t just her own generosity that reminded us of God’s love. It’s not only what she gave while she was with us. It’s also much more broadly that she, too, receives.

The point of the parable from Jesus wasn’t just as a sign of feeding hungry people or an instruction that it’s good to share. It was a word about looking ahead, about God’s abundance that pulls you in from being lost and left out, that won’t forget about you and won’t let the celebration go on without you. This is the God who prepares a table before you, even surrounded by your enemies, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This is the banquet promised in Isaiah, when we’ll be gathered together for a feast of rich foods, of well-aged wine, maybe of some JBJ cocktails, with unending goodness, of reunions with all those we miss and have said goodbye to and buried, with Jan, and—just maybe—with some banana bread.

 

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