Texts: Psalm 22 + Revelation 21:2-7 + Luke 12:22-34
You know you’re with a group of Lutherans when you head over to the home of the deceased to make plans for the memorial service and you leave with a new set of Norwegian jokes. It’s been a delight for me to reconnect with some of you, meet others of you, and feel so immediately at home. And I know it’s not just me who senses the deeply Lutheran roots in this room, because when I was here for the wake last night someone walked up — I can’t remember who it was just now — and introduced himself by saying first, “I’m Catholic,” sounding almost like he was offering an apology. Well, no apologies needed. We are all children of one heavenly Father and, at the last, when we are finally gathered together again, we will all be eating at the same table.
But there is something comforting about having those shared traditions and memories to draw upon. Like, when I was asking folks about how Ken and Nanci got together and they started telling me stories of the Luther League. Once I recovered from the acute attack of sudden onset nostalgia, I heard a tale so sweetly predictable it could be a Hollywood love story. They’d grown up knowing each other from church, but she wasn’t so sure about him. As they became young adults, others could see what was coming before they could. Then came the fateful trip where they were the only two chaperones, the one they came back from with a new understanding. Three months later they were engaged and a year after that the church celebrated a wedding for the ages, a moment that brought the whole congregation together in a new way. The extraordinary story of two ordinary people falling in love.
Bringing people together seems to have been one of Nanci’s particular gifts. Bev says that she’ll be remembered, among other things, for her great hospitality; and, again, I can’t remember who said it last night, but I know I overheard someone saying that Nanci’s “gotten us all together again for one more Christmas party.”
Sandy Anderson shared a particular memory of those Christmas parties that has stuck with me. I already knew that Nanci was an accomplished seamstress, having heard from Jeff tales of the elaborate costumes she made for him and Betsy at Halloween when they were growing up; but Sandy told me that sometime back in the 80s Nanci began a tradition of having guests at the Christmas party sign the table cloth with a fabric marker, signatures that she would then embroider over with every color of thread, so that as the years passed the tablecloth became a roll call of the community that had gathered around her table. Bev said, “of course, sometimes you would look down and see the name of someone who had died.”
Isn’t that a perfect image of the holy communion into which we are baptized when we become sisters and brothers to each other in the church? Each time we gather together, whether at a wedding or a funeral or an ordinary Sunday morning service, we are taking our place at the Lord’s table, which is draped with the names of all who have come before us and all who are yet to be born, and in this way we remember and remain present to one another, even though we are apart.
That is the faith we confess, the faith we pass on to our children, the faith Nanci shared not only with her family, but with all the children who passed through Park View Lutheran Church, whether as confirmands or Luther Leaguers or students of the school into which she poured herself. We confess Christ crucified and resurrected. We say that because he lives, we live, and death cannot have the last word.
Christian faith does not deny or ignore the suffering that each of us endures. The psalmist cries out with the words that each of us who has known prolonged suffering can call our own, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps. 22:1)
Over the last few years both Ken and Nanci have had plenty of occasion to repeat those words. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (Ps. 22:14-15) Maybe they would have said it differently, but they’ve both spent enough time in hospitals suffering the indignities of the human body to contemplate their own mortality and to wonder where God is in the middle of so much useless pain.
But then again, it is precisely in the middle of so much “useless” pain that Nanci took care of Ken after his surgeries, counting every milligram of sodium and nursing him back to health. And it was exactly in the middle of such prolonged suffering that Ken took care of her every bodily need, even as Nanci’s body shut down. Having spent her life perfecting the art of hosting, it may just be that it was her dying that drew her family and friends together to show her what a beautiful life she’d lived. After decades of trying to be strong for one another, it turns out that it is in our weakness and our frailty that we discover the depths of love.
The hymns and the scriptures the family selected say the same thing. Bookended by “Lift High the Cross” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” we have been called together this morning to tell the old story yet again, today for Nanci, so that tomorrow we can re-engage the ordinary rhythms of our lives with a renewed confidence that, because God is with us, we do not need to be afraid. The God who was there to hear our “borning cry” has been walking with us ever since. The home of God is among people like us. God dwells with us, God claims us, God treats our heartbreak with tender compassion, gently wiping away each tear, and promises a future where “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Rev. 21:4)
And this is the real joy of being with you this morning. Because whether you are Norwegian or Swedish, Lutheran or Catholic, Christian or not — you know that goodness is stronger than evil, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, and that love is stronger than fear. Because we know these things in our bones, we do exactly what we would do if this were one of Nanci’s Christmas parties, which it is, and we come to the table again.