a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Joyce Jeanette Anderson Joyce

October 8, 1936 + August 11, 2016

Isaiah 48:12-17; Psalm 23; Galatians 5:21-25; John 14:1-10


Near and not far off.

Known and not unknown.

Lo, I am with you.

And, you know where I am going.

These are theological terms, statements our scripture attributes to God. But these are also personal terms, identities we knew in Joyce.

We’ve heard loving descriptions of this mother and grandmother, with stories and characteristics you almost certainly recognize also for sister, aunt, and step-mother, friend and teacher. Again, with the stunning summary statement that “God is love,” in Joyce, we similarly knew deeply invested care.

She was devoted to you, to your wellbeing, which is another stunning statement because it’s true for all of you gathered today, and for so many more people, as well. She loved to learn what was happening in your life, caring in both joys and struggles, with an amazing memory to hold all those details. I know this, because I also experienced it. Joyce was one of those rare people where in these past weeks I could walk into her hospital room for a pastoral care visit, and walk out of the room feeling more like I’d been cared for, and also more in touch with others, like hearing the latest ins and outs of Jenny buying a new house.

Though I’ve only gotten to know her a bit in these past months, that feels representative of the care you knew from Joyce, whether for your whole life, or in a brief encounter. Five daughters knew the care and love of this mother, the one who could discipline you for wrecking the car as a child by making you help prepare potato salad for a family gathering. That’s a remarkable kind of love, as you know, and as your friends were occasionally jealous of. It’s the kind of care that persisted and was apparently unflappable even after your father’s death, and the care and love that expanded to more family when she met Eldon, and as you were choosing partners, and as grandkids arrived, and on and on. You got to know best this very present and invested love of Joyce.

Others experienced it from her in innumerable fleeting moments. This is that central identity of Joyce as a nurse and—maybe even more—as a nurse’s nurse. She not only tended to sickness but to the whole person. She didn’t just hand on knowledge as a teacher, but valued the whole shape of life for her students. Still around UW Hospital in these weeks were those who either had known Joyce through the years, or were getting to know her in this way still. Even those who had never met her received from her, perhaps most vividly in her efforts on behalf of hospice care. In precisely this moment of confronting death with comfort and dignity, she appreciated the full circle of receiving what she had helped offer to so many others.

For those of this Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, I should pause to say how Joyce valued you, though you almost certainly still can say it better than I can. She identified herself here, and amid many groups, in worship or at breakfast. She cherished the prayer shawl in these weeks and was showing off the card fashioned by the quilters. And Joyce was still looking forward to more reading with book group, to the wide variety you’d choose, even if it weren’t what she would’ve picked herself.

That’s another mark of her personality: the teacher was always also a learner, eager for new connections, to explore new places and discover new things. That’s true in her travels near and far, right up to that last voyage to Alaska with Carol, when she got sick enough that they needed to come home, which led to more and more medical investigations and finally the experience of hospice and the end.

At this point, I should say something about God. After all, I’ve said lots about Joyce. More than I usually would say about a person in a funeral sermon. But that isn’t because you needed me to describe her or say nice things about her. Rather, I said so much about Joyce because I also wanted you to hear that about God, a God invested in you (as Joyce was), caring for you (as Joyce did), never out to punish but to redeem you, close to you and knowing you in all kinds of ways (as Joyce lived right until the end), always seeking more for you.

This has been the language of our Bible readings. The verses from Isaiah aren’t a typical funeral reading, but are chosen for the Joyce/God pairing. it described God as “first and last,” meaning present before our birth and through it all and beyond death. Isaiah declared God’s love for and investment in the people, with a persistent will on their behalf—on your behalf—that would not be subverted, in those times by armies or calamities, or in our midst today by sickness and death. Isaiah proclaims God to be near, not hidden off in secret. God is with you, calling to teach and guide. So as we knew that in Joyce, we know it in God.

David’s reading from Galatians gives it a clear explanation, that we were able to know these good things in Joyce because they were gifts from God, these fruits of the Spirit. The love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, and more that Joyce shared with us came not as something Joyce had to strive after, but arose in her so naturally and directly as the blessing from God.

The familiar words of Psalm 23 lead us to see this presence in various settings. Sometimes you knew Joyce in the moments of providing, in preparing a table, even as she did for funeral services like these, or in times of quiet reflection like book group and Bible study, or in nourishing meadows of teaching, or in dark valleys, like those who knew Joyce during medical care or from hospice. This says God, too, is amid all those times and places.

And, finally, Jesus explains this whole premise in the gospel reading: as you have seen me, you have seen God. In some way, we can claim and believe that line of Jesus for Joyce.

But we also know there are limits. For all of her travels and explorations and curiosity, there are places she couldn’t go, not only for completing the Alaska trip, but that she is not with you now. For all of her past care, she is no longer able to be that. You have amazing memories and plenty to share, and you can also go on to embody some of that care and compassion that Joyce had been, but she won’t be present to be that for you anymore, and so finally, we need this word of God that proclaims something more, that isn’t only accompanying you in times of dying, but that will go beyond death and bring you to new life. This is the promise of resurrection that we look to in Jesus, a promise for you to live into, and the promise for Joyce from a God who is known, who is near, who is with you, and who will bring you home with Joyce forever.


Mothering Rocks & Provocative Love

sermon for 4th Sunday after Epiphany

(Luke4:21-30; 1Corinthians13; Jeremiah1:4-10; Psalm71:1-6)
You may have heard of the Witness Protection Program, where somebody with information is secretly relocated in order not to be harmed by those they’re reporting on. Well, this Gospel reading from Luke might be identified as part of the Pastor Protection Program, where a pastor is relocated so they won’t be harmed.

This, after all, is shocking stuff. It’s never wise to compare ourselves to Jesus, but indulge me for a moment: In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus stood up in the worshipping community, read from the Bible, and began to give his first sermon. Similarly, last week Pastor Sonja and I gathered in our worshipping communities, stood up to offer a Bible reading, and preached first sermons.

Now, in these following verses, Luke tells us that Jesus enrages the congregation so fiercely that they’re about to hurl him off a cliff. Jesus manages to escape from the mob. But that might be where similarities break down; Jesus escaped, but your preachers might not be so miraculously favored. Thus, the Pastor Protection Program: the MCC pastors have been relocated for our security!

That’s obviously (or at least hopefully) tongue-in-cheek. We’re counting on goodwill persisting longer after our first sermons. But it does prompt the question as to just what Jesus could have said that would’ve driven his listeners so nuts. What from a sermon could be so outrageous as to make faithful people outraged? What in the world was Jesus talking about?

Well, love, of course. It’s because Jesus presses us on love, which has to be provocative. It begins well enough, with God’s love for you. We have beautiful words of that today. From before you were born, God has cherished you and held you. God has been bound to your existence and eager for the best for you. Whether you were raised in the church and baptized as a baby and have been here ever since, or if you were away for a while, or even if this is brand new and never had been part of your life, still God has been with you from the womb onward. Yes, you are most certainly loved. Always have been, always will be.

Our appointed Psalm at the opening phrased this lifelong trajectory, from birth and the cradling, tender, motherly arms, through youth. The Psalm then goes on to face difficulty, to talk about protection and about rescue and salvation and about experiencing shame and those who disagree with you. God is a refuge because we need it. God is a fortress because, at least occasionally through life, we need it.

Even that strange metaphor of God as a rock is because sometimes we need a rock, shelter to hide behind, or a small island to cling to when we can’t tread water anymore and the waves are sweeping over us. I counted 37 times in our Bibles where God is referred to as a “rock.” In other places that rockiness is a mark of permanence, standing against the weather. It’s also a reference of stability, a foundation, that when everything else erodes, you rest securely on bedrock. There are two other interesting passages for our direction today. Deuteronomy (32:18) mentions the “Rock who bore you, the God who gave you birth.” It’s hard to picture a less maternal or loving image than a hunk of stone, but evidently ancient people of faith saw it differently. More familiar for us, like our phrase of being a “chip off the old block,” the prophet Isaiah (51:1) reminds you to “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” In this case it reminds you of your likeness with God.

We’ll come back to being like God in a moment, after focusing on looking to God. But with that looking to God, to cling to that “rock” metaphor, any other reflections on how that is helpful as a strong, faithful image?

Okay, then looking to God, the main point of our Psalm. Remember, our faith doesn’t make God care for us. It’s not only when we believe that God will be mindful of us. But faith is about putting our trust in this God, understanding this refuge and place of security, about building on this foundational rock. Again, it’s not that God’s ignoring you in difficult times or that you had to pray harder. If you were away from church, if you doubted this belief or didn’t know about it, still God abides with you. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more or love you less…but the benefit is to know that, to make use of it, to rely on it.

The Rob Bell video for last week’s adult forum featured a parent carrying an infant through a horrible rainstorm. Even as the child was terrified, the parent kept whispering “I love you. I’ll get you home.” The child didn’t know or anticipate that things would be okay. But it’s a whole other thing in the midst of storms to grow beyond childish ways, to trust that the arms of that loving Parent are always around you, that God’s love for you endures all things and never ends and is greatest of all.

That is the cherished language we have from this beloved 1st Corinthians passage. Yet that also begins to point us more directly into the outrage that encountered Jesus. See, it is the most amazing thing to be loved so unconditionally and completely, but it changes how you hear it when you have to share this love. So when you’re told that God’s love for you will never end, that’s good news. When you’re told that your love for a partner or family or whomever should be patient and not envious or irritable, that becomes another matter. It quickly turns from a relief to a challenge.

So 1st Corinthians 13, with all of its love language, is often considered the Bible reading for weddings. Maybe it was read at yours, or you’ve been to weddings that used it or seen cards with it. But if it’s setting a standard or goal for a relationship of trying to love rightly, Acacia could list numerous ways I’ve blown it just in the last 24 hours (though I’m hoping her love is patient and kind enough that she won’t so quickly point out my faults).

Yet as hard as that is, it has still far greater proportions. With Jesus, this cannot remain with those closest to us. It’s not restricted to spouses or partners or our children or family members, not just kindness for our kin. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors. The smart young lawyer before the parable of the Good Samaritan looked for a loophole, trying to ask what qualifies as a neighbor, maybe seeking the technicality of it only being a two-door radius. But Jesus’ definition in the parable is for anybody we might meet, anybody in need.

Again, he won’t let us off so lightly, because in the Sermon on the Mount he tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). That’s pretty darn tough, but it gets still worse because on the night in which he was betrayed, after stooping into the role of a servant, to wash the feet of his followers, Jesus gives that new commandment that we should love just as he loved us (John 13:34). This is when love is provocative, a word literally meaning to “call forth.” It’s the direct incident in Jeremiah—he was called forth to share God’s love, even if reluctantly.

And that became exactly the problem in the Gospel reading today. See, I get to proclaim how much God loves you. But Jesus goes on to tell about outsiders, foreigners loved and favored by God, including a hungry widow and, coincidentally, a despised Syrian military leader. It’s not only for us who consider ourselves well-deserving or qualified insiders. Now, I’m going to set aside the conundrum of God’s miracles going to the apparently unworthy instead of in response to faithful prayers.

Instead, we’re going to continue just a minute more with this difficult but fruitful question of loving like Jesus. Especially in the lead up to Valentine’s Day, we’re surrounded so much with love as a sweet, mushy, romantic idea. But Jesus conversely pushes us toward love that’s offensive and provocative. This isn’t sentimental, affectionate love—as Martin Luther King reminded us, not always about liking the other—but is God’s kind of love that rejoices in the truth and is patiently enduring and seeks healing and wholeness.

So where might love be provocative, where might God be calling us forth? Some examples: our society in these days has labeled Muslims categorically as enemies and as offensive, so we may figure ways to cross that divide. Closer to home, with Iowa caucuses tomorrow, this political process is causing lots of angst and anger. Perhaps offensive love would seek how to remedy that. What about relationships where we choose sides, especially when there’s been a wrongdoer? How does enduring love help to make it right amid hurt? Or what are the lives we deem more valuable than others: by color or age or profession, “real” Americans versus immigrants, human over other creatures? Where have we placed these boundaries?

On a broad scale for us, I was reading this week about the UCC as a “church of firsts.”* It’s an amazing list to celebrate—African American, female, gay leaders and pastors, abolition and civil rights stances, civil disobedience and schools to make a better society—these are remarkable aspects of a solid foundational identity and also marks of what could be seen as the offensive love of Jesus.

Yet I was also reading a piece this week by the always-provocative Chris Hedges on the “suicide” of the mainline church,** saying we have “looked the other way while the poor and workingmen and -women were ruthlessly disempowered and impoverished. The church was as silent about the buildup of mass incarceration as once about lynching. It refused to confront and denounce the destructive force of corporate power. It…busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics [and paid lip service to diversity] at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic ‘how-is-it-with-me’ spirituality.”

Those are heavy words. They might be arguable, but shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t want to say more, either to blunt them or to overwhelm you. So let’s conclude with a moment of reflection, either silent or aloud on those who are most offensive and hardest to love for you. Where is the love of Jesus provoking you?

* http://www.ucc.org/about-us_ucc-firsts