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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Christmas Eve sermon #1

Let’s do some Christmas ABC’s.

We begin with A—Adorable, but not because baby Jesus is so darned cute. We adore and bow down before him not just as a precious infant, but first for identifying God’s presence in him.

That’s more shocking because of our letter B—Barn. “Were you born in a barn?” is a condescending question, but tonight it ascends to the highest point. The one born in a barn is identified with God. God isn’t located in halls of power or the fortress tower, not identified in lifestyles of the rich and famous. God is marginal, left out, when there was no room in the inn. Yet in that kind of birth is where God wants to be found.

Which brings us to C—Christ, the title that gives us the name “Christmas.” We already had our letter A, but the English word for Christ is Anointed. The Hebrew is Messiah. It’s a term about being chosen by God, to accomplish God’s work. Generally in the Bible, priests and rulers and prophets were anointed for their chosenness to do God’s tasks. For baby Jesus, it’s not about recruiting him for one of those specific godly jobs. Calling him Christ means his entire life is revealing God for us, showing us how God works and what God is up to.

But we note he’s not the only Christ. With those holy workers of old, you are also Christ-like, or—in a term I prefer—you’re little Christs. Anointed in baptism, you’ve also been chosen to receive and embody God’s presence.

Which raises the obvious question: what is God up to, then? What is God’s work for and through you? What is Jesus showing or proclaiming about God as he lies there asleep in the hay? What should we know about God’s presence?

For that, we get to D—Don’t. We have a pretty strong sense that approaching God comes with “don’ts,” with rules to follow of stuff we shouldn’t do. For example, during college when I told friends that I was going to be a pastor, their first reaction was always to apologize for swearing around me. There’s some sense that connections to God mean Don’t Swear. Beyond that, we also presume: Don’t Cheat. Don’t Lie. Don’t Fight. Don’t Be Mean. Don’t Abuse. Don’t Drink Too Much. You probably in your mind can keep adding to lists of Don’ts, of what we imagine are God’s expectations of our actions.

But the Don’t we hear tonight is: Don’t Be Afraid. Don’t Fear. Do not worry or be scared. This is the primary definition of God’s work, what Jesus is arriving to enable us to trust, the good news of Christmas.

Don’t Be Afraid is a hard message to believe, though, isn’t it? Our fears stretch from tiny and silly to unfathomably complex, from being afraid that we won’t get what we want for Christmas on to being afraid our lives won’t turn out how we wished. We may fear we won’t get what we need—food, a warm bed, the next paycheck, an effective medical treatment, resolution to an argument, home safely. And yet the angel has the nerve to tell us Don’t Be Afraid.

It gets worse than those individual concerns. We’re overwhelmed by fear in these days, of what will or won’t change with the next President and the next budget cycle. We’re afraid of tragedies caused by racism and immigration, from xenophobia. We worry about homophobias that undermine people’s wellbeing. Our societal phobias stretch on and on. There are wars and rumors of war, irrational fears of getting caught amid terror attacks or being shot. We have reason to be terrified of climate change. This all nearly incapacitates us, immobilizes us, silences, shutters us and shuts us down, almost forcing us to surrender when things go wrong.

That may be why God announces so definitely and defiantly Don’t Be Afraid. Because our fears confined us, but God wants us to be both free and open to each other. More, God operates in our capacities, the sharing of abilities that join to make this world good and better.

That is so important that I got away from our alphabet for a minute there. Let’s get back to it with E—Everybody. This is also core to the proclamation. It’s not just about people who make it to church often enough. It’s not a Christian deal. It’s not those behaving to follow the religious rules (because, remember, there weren’t rules; the only Don’t was Don’t Be Afraid). It’s not just for shepherds who were in the right place at the right time or a blessing one can claim more of. The angels announce this is for everybody. The good news, calling an end to fear, this birth, the arrival of Jesus is for me, for you, for your family who’s far away, and the dude at the gas station tonight, and folks waiting in hospitals and nursing homes, and those sadly infected by violent thoughts, and ladies wearing headscarves, and guys refusing this celebration. For everybody. No one should feel or be separated from this.

F—Find. In order to trust that amazing, extravagant message, you need assurance. “You will find a baby,” the angel says, wrapped in warm pajamas and snuggled in a feed trough, as a sign, an indicator. This isn’t hypothetical good news leaving you to speculate whether it could really be true. This verification you find first in baby Jesus. And extending that forward, as you follow him, you’ll witness the fulfillment of the promise. In him you may know and trust God’s work is happening.

G could easily be God or gospel or grace, good churchy words. G could be government, since this story confronts the given order. But for Christmas, let’s say G is Gifts. The Christmas presents you give are symbols of sharing and practice at cherishing and caring for each other, just as we already said God’s work is found in our living together in community, building each other up and supporting everybody. In these broadest views of sustaining life, we should especially recognize here on Christmas we are able to give because of what God chooses to offer. God adores you and wants full and abundant life, so all you have is a very good gift.

H—Home. That’s distinct from H—Heaven. Christians sometimes claim heaven is our home and this world isn’t. But God’s work isn’t kept for afterdeath experiences somewhere else. This story tonight places God in our midst and surrounded by livestock. We find God’s gifts here and now. Jesus is born so we may know God dwells among us; the home of God is among mortals. God’s presence is here on earth, in our lives, in the places where you’ll return (just as the shepherds do), at the tables you’ll gather around, in beds where you’ll lay your own heads to rest (just as baby Jesus did). God is with us, in the very ordinariness of it all.

Realizing, then, that this story can only be fulfilled when you leave church to go back with many other good things to do in those places of home, I’m going to leave you the rest of the alphabet to fill in on your own, as a gift of one more H: Homework. You’re welcome, and Merry Christmas.

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Who Could Ask For Anything More?

By the time you’re reading this we should’ve survived another Black Friday. Since it’s typically marked by stampedes of people, “survival” does often describe that day. Some avoid it “like the plague,” while others “fight the crowds” but come away victorious. What severe language, invested with so much emotion: Conquest in hunting the best deals! Agony that it destroys families!

Amid it all, our Christian faith offers the gift of a counter-narrative. We don’t have to “buy into” the dominant and dominating structure. When we are captive, we return to the one who sets us free and gives us life abundantly. Our story is indeed focused on the birth of Jesus. But, again, that “reason for the season” isn’t a stick to whack others. It’s better our own measuring stick, a standard for consumer habits along with the rest of life.

With that, we can’t claim that Christmas should be pious and austere. This is a fleshy feast! Our Lord was born into our world, our bodies, our kind of existence. He needed to be cared for and nursed. He was given gold, frankincense, and myrrh and celebrated with glorious choirs. There’s background here for enjoying material good, for a party. Maybe even luxury and delight (both words connected to light—Latin lux—that comes into our darkness, John 1:5).

Yet with the revelation of who this Lord is, our celebration isn’t selfish reveling. A simple test of purchasing and gift-giving might ask: What does it really give and what does it really cost? “Fleshed out,” that could ask: Are kids happier and more beloved through another plastic object, soon to be cast aside? What wellbeing is extracted—for clothing, from the garment worker in Bangladesh? For an iPad, from Africans dangerously mining rare earth minerals or Chinese factory workers? What human and natural resources go into it?

At church we’ve offered alternative gifts, the olive wood carvings and oils that also care for Palestinian refugees, the ELCA Good Gifts that instead invest in poor communities, the Fall Bazaar that supports local artists.

I’d suggest these are important reflections for us as Christians on what we give and why. Giving gifts is good and even godly, but is not equated with spending money on objects. What of society’s goods come at the expense of betterment? When do wants interfere with needs? What is life-giving and worthy, and what isn’t? Further, a word from the 1st Sunday of Advent reminds you, “You are not lacking any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1st Corinthians 1:9). When do we say, “enough is enough”?

But lest we get too high and mighty in moralizing, our infant Lord Jesus also brings us back down to earth. Nothing we give or give up determines his presence with us. Not how much we expend or how meager our funds. With or without packages, boxes, and tags. It’s not from great and glorious traditions, nor abstaining from sacrilegious misbehavior.

After all, our God was born in a barn. In the stink of an unexpected circumstance, he made his appearance. Still he cuts through the crap to come into our midst. Nothing can take away the love of God in Jesus.

Yesterday I was at a store with shelves piled high with kitschy debris. Playing over the loudspeaker was the tidy religious sound of a brass ensemble heralding “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” That’s not only glaring contrast but exactly right. Through the chaos of our lives, “beneath life’s crushing load,” where we need it most, this is exactly where and why our God comes to be with us. “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

My hope for you and my expectation of our faith is, amid accursed cultural clutter and also sensual pleasures of the season, that you again get to delight in the blessing of the eternal enough!

 + nick

 a PS gift to you: With humor that is part of delighting in life, comedian Eddie Izzard re-tells the Christmas story, with Baby Jesus a little too-human and materialistic in asking the wise men for his Christmas and birthday presents. Click the image.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNqH6dCPe_s

eddie

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