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 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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Christmas Eve sermon #2

One of the most exciting and essential parts of this Christmas story is usually overlooked or unmentioned on Christmas Eve. We’re so involved in the sweetness of a mother and baby, in the pastoral sereneness of barnyard animals, in the mysterious glory of angelic choirs, that we avoid the hard, vital honesty that this is a protest story.

It’s not just telling us that Jesus was born in such-and-so way, which was coincidentally charming for carols and fitting for greeting card images. Rather, the details of this story right from his get-go place Jesus against expectations, against a dominant and domineering culture. Identifying this birth with God’s presence very directly locates God in a place where most would not have claimed—and most would still not claim—that God would be present.

Actually, backing up a notch, these shocking details revealing God with Jesus were arising even before his birth: that the angel Gabriel was sent to a girl. Probably the same age as girls in our Confirmation class (which they were sort of horrified to learn). Beyond the biology of it, it is a meaningfully shocking detail that God came to Mary, a poor, young woman. By typical criteria, she sure wouldn’t be identified with God’s presence; God was supposed to be mighty, in palaces and buddied up to rulers. Even in the Jewish temple, God sat at the center, amid restrictive hierarchy of the elite male high priest having closest access, where women were kept exclusively to an outer courtyard. But in this case, God moved out to visit Mary, to work in conversation and collaboration.

And, for her part, Mary realized this was extraordinary and radical, even if difficult. After Gabriel’s visit, she sang a song about how God was turning structures and systems on their head, lifting up the lowly while casting the mighty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty.

This is more directly embodied in the birth of Jesus and this Christmas story. Again, it’s placing God’s presence away from the powerful, not in a castle or cathedral, but where there wasn’t even room in the inn, officially announced to shepherds in the field, guys who couldn’t hold a job with regular hours. And what could be more vulnerable than a baby’s birth?

Even if we claim this is a newborn king, still that title subverts the usual claimants to the throne. Most particularly, the story challenges one directly: Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome. As he conquered most of the Western world and spread the empire around the Mediterranean, claiming allegiance and claiming tax revenue and claiming slaves from these beaten regions, he was also making claims for himself, that he was Lord, was divine, the son of god, that he was the bringer of peace and savior of the world.

Those terms and titles sound awfully familiar because you’ve heard them applied not to Caesar but to Jesus. Claiming them for Jesus contradicts Caesar, saying that the authority, the godly dynamics, the real presence for what matters didn’t reside in the capital of the empire, surrounded by soldiers and in control of the Senate. This Christmas story is a direct protest against the occupying forces of Caesar.

Now, that protest served mostly in subversive encouragement, because there’s no head-to-head contest where Jesus would win. He’s born out in the boonies. As far as Caesar is concerned, it wasn’t the Holy Land, but an outpost of an outpost, far at the edge of his empire. Even Jerusalem was scorned by Caesar, and this was a Podunk suburb of Jerusalem. The only claim Bethlehem had was as the birthplace of an ancient bygone king, of David, who had ruled a millennium prior. You see faded signs in small towns commemorating the softball team that won the Division 3 state title twenty-some years ago, and the nostalgia of Bethlehem’s best victor was exponentially longer.

Still, there’s something setting up our attention in Jesus about that king. David, after all, was the underdog who used his sling to slay the giant, to take down Goliath and stop the oppressor. But this new Goliath from Rome would be harder to slay. Jesus would have no opportunity to confront Caesar in a duel. Rather, his peculiar victory we are still celebrating and still deliberating is that Jesus confronted Goliath and died, gave himself up on a cross, his final protest and the shocking embodiment that God wasn’t with the mighty authorities, but identified with one who suffered unjustly in scorned death.

His faithful protest continues. We’re singing next “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” envisioning small streets of the unimportant village 2000 years ago when a homeless baby was born, shut out from warmth and yet identified as the center of God’s presence, and then the song sees those same streets in Bethlehem today.

Our travel group met residents of those streets this fall and continued to realize the old difficulty: they are facing a Goliath, and they have practically no chance of slinging the right stone that will bring down the giant and end the oppression and occupation. That’s because their Goliath isn’t just one big baddy but is a spreading, lurking, cancerous system that tracks their every movement and watches what they put on Facebook and keeps them from traveling to see family and puts up walls that separate them from their livelihoods and establishes laws to shut up life and keep them curfewed and close off possibility at every turn.

Yet we saw Bethlehem’s protest, the proclamation of God’s presence and the celebration of life even while the authorities claim that’s not where it should be found. They dance, they play sports. They cook and grow vegetables. They create artwork, like angels from shards of stained glass shattered by tanks. They speak truth to power. They graffiti messages of hope and humor on the wall that’s there to confine their wellbeing. They worship, they cherish community, they care for their young, teaching peace in schools. All of this, which may sound as normal as the birth of a baby and as low wage workers on the late shift, this is all transformed into a protest, when living itself requires courage and existence is resistance to the Goliaths of empire, just as that first Christmas.

This is a time when we may need to be reinforced in those practices ourselves. You may need to hear the protest of this Christmas story. You may need the examples, the witness, the martyr of others engaged in subverting authorities and resisting oppressors, of toppling terror and restoring righteousness, of hope over fear.

I’m going to end this message of reinforcement with words by my favorite artist. I’ve certainly never quoted him in a Christmas sermon, but maybe now that he’s a Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s got some additional credibility. Or maybe you can just hear these words from 50 years ago as a blessing and hope amid the darkness, echoing why Jesus was born, to strengthen you this evening. Bob said: “Nowadays there are crueler Goliaths who do crueler, crueler things, but one day they’re gonna be slain, too, and people two thousand years from now can look back and say, Remember when Goliath the 2nd was slayed?”

Take courage, dear people, and be not afraid. This is the world a baby was born into, the world God so loved, the world that needs you.

 

 

  1. O little town of Bethlehem,        2. O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see thee lie!                              the organs still do play

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep        of Jesus in a manger

the silent stars go by;                                  and angels on the way;

yet in thy dark streets shineth                   our music and our singing

the everlasting light.                                    is louder than a gun,

The hopes and fears of all the years        and church bells in their ringing

are met in thee tonight.                               remind us we have won.

 

  1. O holy child of Bethlehem,

descend to us, we pray;

your love bring down on David’s town;

drive fear and hate away.

Awake the ire of nations,

let justice be restored.

Rebuild the peace in silent streets

where once your love was born.

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I Break for Jesus

“Lives Matter” sermon

(featuring Psalm13; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:1-10a; John10:11-18)
It seems obvious we can’t have a vacation from church because our lives won’t accept that pause.

A couple examples: I was in Hawaii, ready to play cards with family when news came about Orlando. And I was eating lunch when I heard of Philando Castille’s death in my seminary neighborhood. I was starting my weekend with a movie on the couch with Acacia when my phone buzzed about Dallas, visiting my mom as the Fort McMurray fire blazed, and was going to the baseball game when learning about France this week.

We can hold onto only so many of those moments, but nevertheless our routine lives become marked by them. Even as you’re adding a new Dallas tragedy to these layers, you may still hold the memory of where you were when President Kennedy was shot. I can picture in elementary school where as a 1st grader I knew something wasn’t right when the Challenger space shuttle blew up. I recall the seminary classroom on 9/11 when the first tower had been hit and a professor suggested we might want to be in chapel worship that day.

She was right. We continue to need this. This is where we come for good news, for a change. This may be where we look for answers. We may expect to find something different, hope amid despair, find life amid death. We may seek community, since “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Okay, those were theme song lyrics to the old TV show “Cheers.” I know that reference to a bar may not seem to fit the seriousness I was mentioning, but scan the obituary pages these days and notice the memorial services at a bar, or at a botanical garden or park. We have to ask if church is just another place to commiserate, with beautiful distractions in music or moments of quiet. If so, is this any different than those other places that are made to bear grief and sorrow and the longing for sympathy in these days?

Though church functions well in those quote-unquote “standard” ways, we have the burden of admitting that, in worse moments, we can end up hypocritical and less engaged in fixing the world and sharing love than we followers of Jesus should be.

We also have the added theological conundrum when these terrible things happen. A loving God who merely weeps with us wouldn’t seem to be very helpful. But a mighty God who causes catastrophe is left constrained in fear, not worthy of devotion or praise. President Obama’s remarks this week were constructively hopeful, but he phrased recent misfortune in terms that “God has called [the dead officer] home.” I disagree that God is the type to interrupt life with horrendous violence as a means to take us to heaven. But if that’s not what God does, it leaves the question of where God is in these moments, or the still harder wondering if God even exists.

As we’ve said before, though: here we are. We may gather in church intent on continuing to figure this stuff out, on confronting the hard questions. More, in the face of tragedy and sorrow, we not only desire answers when we cry out “why,” but also long for resolutions, for ways to resolve the problems and end the crying. We long not only for less pain, but to be people who can heal.

Yet today we remain hurting people. For this summer, there has been too much hard news, too much sad news and bad news, besides all the personal struggles and sadnesses that wear us down as we bear them. In what’s becoming more devastation than we and our world can handle, we just can’t catch a break. It seems there’s no vacation from all these problems.

That, again and centrally, is why we are here, why—in spite of travels and visitors and all that fills long summer days in often very good ways—why we find ourselves in church. We need a place to pause and collect ourselves. We need some beauty and music to fill our hearts and lungs, inspiring us. We need encouragement. We need the presence of each other, to sort through and talk about this stuff, or sometimes just for a hug or smiling face.

I’d contend, though, that church is not exactly a place of answers. If we yearn for “why” questions to get simple explanations like “because of God,” our lives, our world, and certainly the mystery of faith are more complex than that. As hard as we may work, it’s no easy fix. As powerful as the love and life of God is, even resurrection doesn’t eliminate the sting of death we face.

Amid complexities we hold as we gather here, we don’t claim total good in ourselves or condemn others as ultimately evil. We don’t say Muslims are bad or police are against us or that all trucks are dangerous weapons. We refuse such categorical fears. Even amid the deepest darkness, we strive to find and name the light. We long for, but also expect and trust redemption, both consistently and impatiently.

This is the faithful and paradoxical language of the Psalm chosen for this service. It is among the Bible’s vital reminders that faith isn’t being happy all the time, not blind rationalizing that God has a bigger plan, or anything like that. The Psalm gives us language to complain, to lament, to cry out “How long?! How long must I bear pain and sorrow?” And yet it goes on to sing, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Even as we gather today with too much grief, wondering when and how it will all be over, still we practice singing, with joy, trusting love that endures.

Another of the complex distinctions in the heated mix this week is the skirmish about #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter. Held by boundless compassion, we know these can be both true and also silly to squabble about. A child who skinned her knee needs different care in that moment than another. Or, in Bishop Mary’s example, the fire department treats all houses as worth their attention, but when a house is on fire, that one matters. Again, we can say that God loves everybody, but sometimes when it’s miserable and you feel horrible and you wonder if everything is out to get you, you need to know that God loves you.

This fits the lectionary reading from Colossians assigned for today, which essentially says “All Lives Matter.” But it isn’t only meaning multiracial of black, brown, and white skin tones. It isn’t limited for those killed on duty or those killed by those on duty. This stretches wider. Christ Jesus is making amends for all creation, reconciling “all things.” This proclaims an enormous vision of God’s work. Examining the expanse of this in terms of these days, it says that American Lives Matter and French Lives Matter, that Christian Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter, that Black Lives and Blue Lives Matter, that victims’ lives matter while terrorist lives also matter, and cancer lives and homeless lives and poor lives and wealthy lives all matter. Old lives and young lives matter. Plus polar bear lives matter. Monarch butterfly lives matter.  Democratic lives and Republican lives matter. Each and every one of these is worth announcing, for its own value. The huge scale of all these lives matter, and your small life still matters to God. None of these are excluded, and they’re also brought together in reconciliation, out from deadliness and hostility and competition to new life and peace in Christ Jesus. It’s among the Bible’s most stunning readings (though it’s not perfect). It’s an important promise for us to cling to in these hard days. The place of God’s amazing work in Jesus isn’t just inner spirits or after death but is spread through every complex intricacy and relationship of creation.

That points us to some surprises. We know that prejudice cannot suffice as the end expectation, that God’s work continues and may pop up where we weren’t looking. This is what’s in the lectionary reading from Genesis: Sarah and Abraham receive strangers with hospitality, and then also receive unexpected good news and joy. We meet and receive God’s presence in people and places we know to look, in bread and wine where Jesus declares he will be found. But God may also show up with strangers and outsiders and unfamiliar faces. Amid or underneath any of the desperate circumstances around us, then, we may keep searching to find revealed the surprising good news of God’s work.

Life can’t be defined by tragedies, then, because the tragedies begin to be redeemed in the ordinary moments, these summer days, the very places and relationships you find yourself when the shockwaves hit. God is deep in all those events and commonplaces.

In the Gospel chosen for this service, Jesus the Good Shepherd similarly says there are other sheep not of this fold. His caring presence is not restricted to those who gather for church or even for the human contingent of sheep. Imagine how shocking that would’ve been to those earliest Christians, surrounded by fearful persecutions.

In some parallel way, we keep coming back here for the assurance of this declaration, so critically needed. As we’re surrounded by too much death, Jesus declares his life not stolen, but given. His sacrifice is not a loss of life, but a gift, a gain, a sharing. Different from but so connected to the disasters that have happened, in Jesus is the word that death does not triumph and enmity and hatred will not break our world apart because God will not give up at reconciliation. Unflinchingly, this Good Shepherd won’t abandon you but will go through death to abide in care.

That promise enables us to find relief and encouragement, to be sustained and resilient, to overcome almost overwhelming hopelessness, to find confidence in community, to rejoice in beauty and delight in song. These aren’t distractions or compensations amid the sorrows of life. Flowing out to these days when we seem to face unending sorrow and flowing out across this trembling world—flowing from this heart of God, who in the image of Jesus is revealed as a God of compassion, of care, of love, of life for you, and a God we all need at just such a time as this.

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Singing the Faith

sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:39-55)

Having sung there with Mary (a setting of the Magnificat, ELW #251), we’re going to reflect on songs.

After all, this is a season of songs, on your lips, and perhaps even inspiring your heart to leap for joy. So today let’s consider a bit of why we sing.

First off, especially as we are doing it here, it is good to remember that we sing because it is enjoyable. Our choir had to put lots of hard work into preparing for The Messiah and Steadfast practices weekly, so it’s not always easy. It can be challenging, but rewarding and—yes, indeed—fun! Singing is just plain a good thing to do. This isn’t drudgery or dirges that we sing here, though we’ll come back to that and also to more on emotions.

The second immediate thing to note is that this task of trying to say words about our singing is mostly futile. Rather than diving into the deep end of “why” and trying to describe it, we’ll be best-served in the end by going ahead and doing the thing, letting loose our tongues and raising our voices. The reasons are too deep and multifaceted and overlapping to sort out, so spirit-filled we can’t rationalize it. Singing is like poetry, then. We probably notice the most frequent kind of poems are love poems, and the commonest songs are love songs. An essay on love just plain wouldn’t work, right? It can’t be explained or captured like that. That’s true of the spirit of our singing, as well.

Also indescribable is that songs are things of beauty. That can be simple elegance, like the chant we are using for this season, ancient melodies—one line of music that takes small, gentle steps. Other times, as we said, it’s not simple. There are huge, complex harmonies and melismas, of one word getting many notes. Listen to this bit with Rebecca and Tim from The Messiah (“Every valley shall be exalted”). Sure, it’d be quicker just to read those words, but it would lose the feeling and beauty. Communication isn’t just message, but medium. That song does exactly what it says: it exalts! Just imagine speaking that in monotone: shall be exalted.

That may also remind us that singing is natural. When we talk, our voice goes up in excitement or gets hushed in suspense. And singing is just sustained speaking. So if you can talk, you can sing! That’s a notion that my dad and probably any music instructor has had to combat: people claiming they can’t sing. Even for those of you thinking it right now, it’s just not true. Singing is so natural it doesn’t need to be taught—though, like any skill, you can learn to do it better.

With that, we might notice music as an art. We’re at a difficult point in history with arts, so used to having experts not only producing the art but also expert critics erecting further barriers by defining for us what is good art versus bad art. We get stuck with a sense, then, that it involves mastery, that singing should be done by a performer, partly because they’re very, very talented at it, but also because they can make money by doing it. Our songs have been capitalized.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t appreciate performances. We can enjoy being at concerts. We’d have to expect that the shepherds in their fields having the whole heavenly chorus show up for a late-night performance would’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience. The beauty and majesty of the angels’ song left them in awe.

But those shepherds were likely also tapping their toes along with it, swaying and dancing to the tune. Maybe they even “repeated the sounding joy” when they went to tell others, echoing it and explaining, “the angels’ song went kind of like this.” Whenever we sing “Gloria,” we’re imitating or resonating with (literally re-sounding) the angels’ song at Christmas. Maybe the shepherds were, then, the first tribute band.

Or maybe they made up a new song, putting it in their own voice and key. This is another mark of why singing is so much a part of us: it is creative, using creativity. That identity ties us to God the Creator, and it is part of living as creatures. We are not only created, but also creative. We weren’t made to be mechanistic robots. We were created to be co-creators, to join the innovations of life in this world. So we could say that God’s Word not only spoke us into existence (“let there be light”), but sang us into existence, and that we reverberate with that and continue in improvising with creativity. This might be how we understand the instruction repeated in the Psalms, to “sing a new song to the Lord.”

It becomes all the more amazing that creativity doesn’t lead to chaos. It is not that we each have our own songs competing and ratcheting up the volume to overpower other voices around us. Rather, singing becomes shared communally. It is, at heart, a social and not solo enterprise. Rebecca compared it to sharing candles on Christmas Eve, becoming more than the sum of parts.

We join in because we’re drawn in, like those toe-tapping shepherds. It moves us, emotionally but also quite literally, and more than we typically realize. In that sense of motion, songs change our energy, like the inspiration from pep bands or the rhythms of work songs. Others calm and sooth us, like lullabies. I was once at a workshop with Marty Haugen discussing how hard it is to sing when you’re tired. It’s exercise, using our whole bodies, which Rebecca calls marvelous wind instruments. There are muscles in our guts, and our expanding lungs, and our brains, and the flow of blood, eyes, ears, tongues.

And, of course, there is the vibration of our vocal chords. It is remarkable that when we sing in unison, we are actually, physically united. It’s responsive, because we have to listen. But even more, we vibrate together. For all that is different and unique about us and each of our bodies, in that moment of singing not only are we joined in the same song and breathing the same air, but our vocal chords are in sync, bodies synchronized and united together.

This is good for us to pay attention to because we have a diminished sense of these connections, compared to the ancient and medieval world. Back then, it was seen that the whole universe vibrated with these eternal tones, the music of the spheres, as it was known. Planets and the sun were understood to cycle with a rhythm. That meant our lives were best lived in harmony (again, in the quite literal musical sense) with these larger natural patterns. So even mathematics, medicine, and astronomy were seen as musical endeavors.

That vast communal, joining power of song we also realize when we describe music as its own language. If we don’t know the words to a song, much less speak different languages, still we can relate and hum together. Our song can be a form of expression even when we don’t have words. Perhaps you find yourself humming absent-mindedly when you are content, for example.

But to stay with knowing the words, for a moment, that is a large influence for our singing together here at church. We like these songs, these old favorites. It’s not just the jingles for commercials that get lodged in our brains. Putting words to music helps us to memorize, truly to “know by heart.” We love the Christmas story better because we have these songs. It’s ongoing communication, to tell the story, proclaiming and receiving good news. Singing God’s message simultaneously makes us angels for each other, including from our Sunday School children in their program this morning! We even sing to remind ourselves. And the songs stick with us when memories fade otherwise. Kathy was visiting Nola Jacobson this week in the hospital and sang “Away in a Manger” to her. And though Nola couldn’t join in, still the song brought a smile to her face.

That’s another of the benefits: our voices combine with saints of generations before us, and likely generations to come. We carry songs with us, and also send them beyond us, through time and across distances, with sound waves of music remaining clear.

Maybe, again thinking of this as so natural, we recall whales can sing through thousands of miles of ocean depths. Birds communicate different messages by their song. Even bats, with voices too high for us to hear, know their place in the universe by singing.

That awareness from our fellow creatures reminds us of this enormous symphonic chorus our voices are part of, “as heaven and nature sing.” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” recognizes it, too, saying “angel hosts, his praises sing; let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring evermore and evermore.”

We’re getting close to the center here, that the purpose of our song may be for praise, and so indelibly linked to worship and lifting our spirits. We also offer prayer to God as our voices rise to heaven or beckon God to come into our midst (making it fitting our prayers are framed by “Come, Hope of unity, make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.”)

For expressing ourselves, our songs are filled with emotions, almost unmatched in intimacy yet also a shared form of expression. They celebrate happiness, joy, love. They may be indeed dirges, because it is honest and needed for us to lament and grieve, maybe at the same time expressing compassion and hope. This week, a homeless man was singing to me on the phone, with sadness and yearning in his voice, from Elvis’ song “If Every Day was Like Christmas.”

That brings us, at last, back to Mary’s song. In her words of dashing the proud and filling the hungry and lowly with good things, we may wonder: are these words of hope and longing, for what Christmas may be or what our world become? Is Mary predicting the future of what Jesus will accomplish and God continues striving for? Are these words, as we put them on our lips, serving to change us, to inspire our hearts and—by the voice of the Holy Spirit—to transform our lives? It’s an interesting word Mary chooses, not only that she proclaims but that her soul and her song “magnify” the Lord. Our songs, like magnifying glasses, have power, to accentuate, to envision, to see more clearly, power to expand and make greater God’s purposes in our lives and across our world.

You may have realized I don’t usually engage in reactionary hysteria to current events, but maybe today as a summary and contrast we could see why that is by holding all of this against our own mini terror event in the shooting yesterday at East Towne. Where that isolates us and makes us flee, God’s song draws us together and unites us. Whereas we inherently sense that is wrong, God’s song comes naturally. Whereas that causes anxiety, God’s song leads to joy. Whereas that is about danger and chaos, God’s song is about life, about hope, about changing us and this frustrating, trembling, miserable world. That’s the center of our attention. That’s why we sing.

We’ll stop there. But having been speaking of songs, our Hymn of the Day is one of my favorite tunes in the hymnal, and this is the only Sunday in three years of lectionary Bible readings that the words really fit. Let’s sing!

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Barbara Ann Allen

29 July 1935 + 26 November 2015

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:1-7

 

I don’t know much of what to say to start this sermon besides that life sometimes goes how we want it to, and sometimes it doesn’t. At least there seems to have been that mix for Barb, and for you around her.

For the part that goes right, we could hardly find better words than what Justin shared for us from the book of Proverbs. It even wove in words about thread that could make you think of the beautiful Christmas stockings she knit.

But so much more than that is just the concern for life shared that those words spoke and that Barb embodied. Beside those words in our own terminology, the phrase “high school sweethearts” seems like an epitome of things going right, of life being how it should be.

And lasting! What a gift not only that love from early on, but that was together for 60 years of marriage. Through the years, then, you can think of moves to each new place with your career, Bob, and her care to help in succeeding, and establishing a new home and getting settled and making everything right for another new setting in life. Proverbs says we should be certain to praise such a wife, and that is clearly one of the good parts today, in being able to recall and celebrate those parts of life well-lived.

And it wasn’t just as a wife, but also as a mother, and a dear friend, and as a grandmother who cared so much and could be such fun, riding the flume over and over, or traveling with the motorhome, or enjoying sunsets from the houseboat and even daily these last years from home, for that pause to appreciate. These are the things where we truly notice life is going how it should.

But that still leaves us with questions for the other times. Proverbs doesn’t address much of that. It just says “she does good all the days of her life.” But for Barb, those of us who are left behind can’t help but miss her and feel like we wanted more of those good days of her life. We wonder about how surgeries go and what should happen. We think of how our lives go on now without her. There doesn’t seem to be much explanation or clear-cut right answer for all of that.

And there are the things that are so much more complicated. Proverbs said to help the needy, and there’s a detail from Barb’s life: I’ll continue to picture her with the good she was part of in helping out at the Food Pantry. But it was a good that goes along with a bad, trying to alleviate hunger, but we’d have to confess that hunger shouldn’t need to be a problem in the first place.

Some multi-layered complexity goes also with this moment at the end of Barb’s life. Even when we aren’t ready to say good-bye, still she was accepting of the end, ready to be done struggling with too many bad diagnoses and too little energy. Yet her resolution isn’t always ours, as we’re ambushed by what happens in each other’s lives. So we don’t have larger explanations of why she went first, of what happened that she’s gone and we’re still here. And even for her, we have to know the ambivalence, that she really would have loved to be at Jenna’s graduation next month.

For all the right in life that goes how we want it to, and even being able to celebrate and enjoy and remember those many good times, still we can’t just ignore or forget about the other side. Today, at this gathering, we need to be able to address that, too, and need some sort of word for it.

That is where our faith comes in, including the reminders today from our other Bible readings. This life is not only for striving to be happy and helpful through however many days we have. As blessed as this existence God has given us can be, that is not the sum total of what we believe or understand.

The Revelation reading reminds us of what we can look forward to, that there is more to come, that for any of our uncertainties or resentments or sorrows now, for whatever we don’t understand and wish would be different, that in the end we will meet resolution, that God will come directly to be with us and so every tear will be wiped away, and mourning will be no more, and pain will be no more. And all of that because death will be no more.

That is the heart of our faith, the core of what Barb could trust, the promise of resurrection and life to come.

But even now, our faith points us toward something more. Just as God didn’t create us for the all-too-fleeting pleasures of this life only, neither are we just waiting for that eventual day of joy and being brought together again in a heavenly promise. Even for the hard days of life to come in these weeks, even for the sadness and crying and confusion that are part of this time of loss, even for these struggles of the last months for Barb of wearing out and not having doctors be able to do what they wished, for all these moments, this is also the core of our faith, a faith that we remember during this Christmas season identified in God who came to put on our flesh and be Immanuel, God-with-us. From heaven above, Jesus was born to enjoy family and to feast and to be part of this world. But he was also born to know our hurts and our brokenness and our yearnings.

This is what the 23rd Psalm holds all together for us almost as if summarizing: the God who walks along with us, is with us in times of plenty and peacefulness—the sunsets beside calm waters—and just as much accompanies us in the worries and the hardships of shadowy valleys and even going through dying and death. And beyond that, at the end, this God through our risen Lord Jesus will bring us again to our eternal home, to feast in unbroken celebration. In life, in death God abides with you.

Just as you knew the often private Barb through love, so God also is revealed in love that persists, endures, and brings new beginnings.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Judith Ann O’Leary

25 July 1942 + 14 November 2015

Psalm 23 & 139:1-18; Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 2Corinthians5:1-10;  Romans8:31-35,37-39; John15:9-17

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

Well, this may have been a long time coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier for you, does it Tom, and Judy’s family, and you of the Sisterhood, and all the rest of you who found her so dear? On the one hand, we celebrate the amazing 24 years of life since her transplant. But we still can say that that’s not enough. We mark all the time in hospitals over the last years, and how cheerful she remained and with what strength she continued to fight (and live!), but that doesn’t prepare us for this moment, for when the struggle is ended and she is in peace, but when from our lives a bright and beautiful light has gone out.

So what do we say at this moment? How do we deal with the loss? What does God have to do with it? These are our questions, the words we try to supply for each other along with hugs and cards and all the compassion and support we muster in shared tears. The question is directly asked by one of our Bible readings: “What, then, are we to say about these things?”

Pat and Christine chose for us a very fitting Psalm to try to get answers from God’s perspective. It fits this moment, and also fits Judy herself. That 139th Psalm gives a perspective that God has been attending to us and caring for us and planning for us from before we were born, and when we first enter the world, and who made us to be what we are. Those are words for Judy, for God’s care and blessing for her that held her throughout life, from the start to the end. Those words also apply specially to Judy, who continued to see herself as the Neonatal Intensive Care nurse where she has so kind-heartedly served her vocation. The Psalm’s words go with her concern for all of those tiny, tiny babies on the NICU whom she helped to live, and—we’d have to expect—it is also for those who didn’t, when her best medical attention and wisdom and devotion was still not enough to make life last. Judy had perspective—probably better than most of us—of the intricate and precious value of life, the miracle of how are bodies are built, the frail blessing of our existence.

Yet that raises more questions for us of where God is when babies don’t survive, or have birth defects, or amid the pains of the NICU, and beyond. We believe God is present in the healing and the compassion, and holding us even through the tears. Nor even at the far end of life can we say that it was just Judy’s time and so God took her. The Psalm said that God knows all of our days, but we shouldn’t take that to mean God plans our loss or sorrow or random problems. Sometimes life continues against all odds, but we can’t predict when or how. We know that bad things happen, even to good people.

So our human perspective can only be that we face a whole lot of different things in life, good times and bad, sorrows and joys. As we have seen our first snow, we know we’re transitioning into a new season. Some of these things seem like cycles that come and go, while others seem like a trajectory, as we go from young to older, from health to infirmity, from birth to death. The same Judy who was worn out in a hospital bed was the one who used to get dressed up for dates and steal her parents’ car. Her glowing smile said it’s the same Judy, but with it we’d note how much life changes us through it all. “There’s a time for everything,” was the observation from Ecclesiastes.

Which may have some honesty, but it still isn’t all that satisfying as an answer, is it? It remains unpredictable on when changes will come, how long they’ll last, what we can expect. In these last months, we had to wonder with Judy on when she’d finally improve and get back to life, when she’d be able to overcome the falling and clots and infections. Or if the tiring process of dialysis was really worth it.

Amid that is where we turn to a larger hope. This is not just sad mortality. Even as the 2nd Corinthians reading reiterated that our bodies are fragile and groan and wear out—like clay jars, it says in another place—still we expect and trust that there is something more, beyond this earthly tent we wear now. We presume that it is not only for this temporary, broken life that God has made us and destined us. We trust that our Shepherd does prepare a place for us in his home, an eternal dwelling place that will not wear out. We cling to that promise today for Judy, the assurance of things hoped for and as yet unseen. We eagerly believe the heavenly promise in which she rests, the promise that awaits us, again with her. This is the best of good news.

But even looking forward to that, we may still wonder about the present moment. Why did Judy linger in suffering so long, even with her positive attitude? What do we do now without her? For this, at last we turn to our Gospel reading, a word of love. This is what remains, what abides, what sustains us for now and forever. As Kathy reminded us, it’s a good word for Judy, in whom we knew so much love, as a partner, as a mother and grandmother, as a coworker and dear friend, as one you cherished each in your own ways, and who treasured you in return, holding onto you with that sparkle in her eyes.

This is also what we’re doing here today, continuing to practice love, trying to help each other. This is what Jesus has given us. He says that we may know his love holds onto us through life, will bring us through death, and will mean even more. And because you are held in his love, he has chosen you, appointed you, even commanded you, to share that blessing for each other, to love as he loved you, as you and Judy loved each other. In spite of tired, worn out, hurting bodies and uncertain lives, this love cannot be undone even by death.

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