Seeing the Miracle – Sermon from 6/5/16 – the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

Before my Grandma Hetland’s funeral in 1984, the whole family gathered in the basement of our church while we waited for the pastor to come in and pray with us before we would be seated in the sanctuary.  I was fourteen and in addition to me and my immediate family, there were tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles stuffed into that room – most of whom I had never met before.  I had grown up living just down the road from Grandma.  I spent time over at her house most days – talking at her kitchen table and usually eating something good she had just baked. I was very close to my grandma but since my cousins had always lived far away, I wasn’t close with them and I remember feeling strange gathered with them there. We were family, but we didn’t feel like family.

So we all sat in that basement room on the light green vinyl chairs and scratchy orange sofas and waited.  The room was completely silent.  Every now and then there was a sniffle.  I could hardly bear it – the silence, the sadness.   In the corner I heard a muffled sound that at first I thought was someone crying – but when I looked over I saw my cousin, Cookie, who was a few years older than me, was completely red in the face, her handkerchief pressed in a ball against her mouth, and she looked like she was about to explode.  Her shoulders were shaking and as she wriggled uncomfortable it only took a few moments before I realized she wasn’t crying – she was desperately trying not to laugh.  Her mother realized, too, what was happening and she was whispering at Cookie to behave and to ‘Shush”. But of course, trying to hold in a good laugh is about as easy as herding a group of cats – and within moments, Cookie burst into laughter.  Even as she did it she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry…” but we knew she was a goner.  The laugh had to get out.  I looked at each of my cousins then, and bit by bit I could see each of them observing Cookie and trying not to smile themselves…but she really had become a funny spectacle, and one by one they started to giggle.  Then the laughter spread to Aunt Vivian, then Aunt Marilyn, my mom, and suddenly the whole room was enveloped in laughter…and that is how Pastor Vetter found us, the grieving family, when he walked in the room.   

There were two things I loved about that moment.  First, as I looked at Cookie and her round face turning red and her robust laugh – I kept thinking about how she reminded me of someone when she laughed.  In a moment I realized she looked just like our Grandma when she laughed.   And second, I couldn’t help but think that if Grandma could see all of us in that moment she probably would have been pretty happy.  To see the country cousins and the city cousins, the unfolding generations of her offspring just laughing together.  It felt like such a blessing and a miracle, that laughter shared in that moment with our family.

How remarkable, I remember thinking, to be surprised by joy and laughter that day at my grandmother’s funeral. It blew into that sad room out of nowhere and helped us through that day – reminding us of things like possibility and love and peace that passes all understanding. I felt it then – Life as we knew it was changing, some things never would be the same, but still, God was near.

As we meander into these summer days, each Sunday now we get to witness miracles wherever Jesus goes. Today we read about how he came to a small village called Nain. There is a widow there whose son has just died. Likely for her it felt like she might as well die, too. We remember that during this time, women’s value depended a lot upon their relationships to the men in their lives and this woman no longer has any – a widow, so her husband is gone, and now her only son as well.

I don’t think it is any stretch to say that perhaps her hope is gone. Notice she doesn’t even ask Jesus for help. Why bother? What good could possibly come now? We don’t find any greater hope in the Old testament reading for today.  Right before the place where our reading begins I Kings, as I shared with the children a few minutes ago, Elijah was told by God to go and stay with another widow. Her situation is terrible, too. Elijah comes to her, he asks her for something to eat and some water. She responds, “I swear, as surely as your God lives, I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.”

It’s grim times for these widows – death and near death. Hope all gone.

But the story wasn’t over for either of them – because God can surprise us anytime God pleases. Because at any time, that which seems to be a dead end, can become the farthest thing from it. Not just for folks in Biblical times, but for us, too.

In the gospel, Jesus sees the widow, she might not see him, but he sees her and he says simply to her, “Don’t cry” and then his actions show her why. He raises her boy from the dead and he begins to walk around and talk.

In the Old testament reading, Elijah tell the widow to trust – that somehow, if she just shares with him out of the little she has, God will make sure she never runs out of that flour and oil.  I can imagine her shaking her head as she puts together the ingredients and creates a little biscuit for him. “Who is this man to come and take the tiny bit we have left? And using God’s name to convince me to trust him? With a weary sigh, “Fine, then, take what we have, let death come even sooner to me and my son.”

But she finds that Elijah had spoken true words to her. She found that her jar of flour and the oil, they never ran out. God daily provided what they needed. Then, this widow receives an even greater sign of God’s presence with her when a short time later her son becomes gravely ill and dies. Now the first miracle almost seems like a cruel trick – why did God provide for them if only to take her boy now. But Elijah calls on God to help and God does – this boy comes back to life as well.

Surprised by joy again and again. God provides, God heals, God brings laughter in desolate times, unexpected friendships to inspire and strengthen us. Yes, we all know painful experiences – grief, illness, losses of so many kinds, but still, God has always been and is always still in the process of bringing about resurrection in our lives in the most surprising ways.  In Jesus, there is new life always, always, always around the corner. Expect a miracle.

You remember that old saying, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

How do we live our lives?

In Texas, there was an elderly couple, Joe and Audrey. Inseparable – they were one of those couples who went everywhere together. At the grocery store – if you saw Audrey, Joe was around there somewhere. At church, they sat together in the third row from the back on the right. Neither of them were in great health by the time I met them.  I was often visiting one or the other in the hospital, a couple times they were hospitalized at the same time and even then they shared a room. Everyone knew they belonged together.

Finally, Audrey became very, very sick and she died. It was the biggest, saddest surprise of Joe’s life that she died before him. He kept saying in the hours and days that followed, “I always thought I would be the first one to die.” I can still picture every step of the walk with the family from our little parish hall, outside and down the sidewalk to the front door of the church building as the funeral began. It was a sunny, warm autumn day. Joe was dressed up in his Sunday suit and walked in those church doors he had hardly ever entered without her. He leaned hard on his cane. His children and grandchildren filing in behind us. Every time I looked at Joe during the service, he looked as lost as I’ve ever seen anyone look. He didn’t know how to do life without her. Everyone knew the road ahead was going to be very hard for him.

The next week, I went to visit Joe to tell him I love him and pray with him, sit with him a while. As we sat in the front room of the house he and Audrey had shared for nearly all their married life, he began to talk about how they had met. This beautiful love story, one they had shared with me before, but I always loved to hear it. They had been in high school and right before Valentine’s Day of their senior year, Joe had told his friend Earl that he was going to marry Audrey. They hadn’t even been on a date yet but he said he just knew. Their first date was on Valentine’s day and by the fall of that year they were married. His face softened and the lines of worry on his forehead disappeared as he remembered out loud to me about fishing trips and raising their children together and how it had been such a good life with her.

Because it was good to see how the remembering looked like it was comforting to him, I said simply, Joe, you need to write all this down.

I don’t know why he listened to me, but he took this task to heart. He began to write and write and write – memories spilled out of him and he asked his daughter to type them up and each time I came over, he showed new pages to me and asked me to read them out loud. He added in pictures and this project of recording a lifetime of moments he shared with his dear Audrey became his priority. And something about his grief evolved during that time. I asked him about it some time later and he said thoughtfully, “I’ll always miss Audrey. She was my whole world. But I don’t want to spend the rest of my days dwelling on the sadness of losing her, I want to spend the rest of my life being thankful for the miracle that she loved me all those years.” He smiled slowly with tears welling in his eyes and said simply, “It was a beautiful life together.”

Joe chose to see the miracle. And every day, we get to decide if we will see the miracle in nothing or the miracle in everything. What will you decide today?

All Saints (a sermon)

(Written on the eve of All Saints, 2013)
Last night some of the youth from Our Savior’s and Trinity and St. Olaf’s met here for a cemetery walk.  We had done this before a couple years ago – it’s an opportunity to come together and learn more about the cemeteries here in this area and since it was right before All Saints Sunday we talked about the significance of that day.

Pastor Joan from Cranfills Gap shared a clip of the movie ‘Places in the Heart’.  It takes place in Waxahachie, Texas and tells the story of a group of people during the 1930’s.  The movie starts out with the hymn “Blessed Assurance” being sung and we see people going about their daily lives on a Sunday morning.  Many coming out of church after the service.  A family sits down to a noontime meal and while they are saying grace we hear shots ringing out.  Within moments, there is a knock at the door and the men at the door are asking for the husband of the family to come with them.  Turns out he is the sheriff in town and there is trouble down by the railroad.  A young black man – looks to be a teenager – he is drunk and throwing bottles up into the air and shooting at them.

There is a brief, good-natured exchange between the police and the young man.  They tell him to come on now – he needs to come with them, get sobered up.  The feel of the scene is that these are just two good policemen who know a youthful indiscretion when they see it  – they are chuckling as he throws one last bottle up into the air and the gun clicks – out of bullets. And the young man turns to go with them.  He’s been swaying a lot this whole time – you can tell he’s had a lot to drink – but there’s no worries now, the gun is out of bullets.  But as he turns, his finger hits the trigger again and there was another bullet.  It hits the sheriff in the chest and kills him.

In a heartbeat everything changes – for the family of the sheriff, for the young man – the young black man is actually killed by local folks enraged at what he has done.

The whole movie shares hardships of the people during this time –what the widow does to get by, how many need to move away from that town to find work, how more folks die.  It tells the story of the difficulties and challenges that many communities face over time. And the closing scene is back in the church.  The pews are probably only about half full now.  We know why – so many have died, so many have had to move away.

But the last thing is this: it shows the congregation having communion – and this is one of those churches where the sacrament is passed up and down the pews – and as the tray of wine is being passed from person to person, suddenly we see the pews are not half empty.  All the people who have left or died are there.  All of them passing the sacrament to each other and saying “the peace of God” to each other as they do it – even that sheriff and the young man who had killed him.

The communion of the saints.  I thought this movie painted a picture so perfectly of what we mean when we talk about that “communion of the saints” in church.  About how our life together and our faith in Christ connects us to each other in ways that time, distance, or even death cannot break.  How when we gather here, we gather not just as the people of God in 2013, but as God’s people throughout time.

Well, after we watched those couple clips from the movie we walked outside into the cool evening air.  We started out in the new cemetery shelter and I shared what I had read about in our history here regarding old funeral traditions and our cemetery.  As we moved out into the cemetery and walked among the stones in the increasing darkness, I told some stories I had collected about the cemetery and when we were nearly done and walking toward the gate, I heard one of the young girls say to her friend, “I hate cemeteries.  They give me the creeps.” She continued.  “Cemeteries and nursing homes.”

Please don’t think less of me when I say my first inclination was to turn around and slap her – because I didn’t.  Instead, I prayed that God could help her see in time, and I’m certain God will, that the sacred that is present everywhere – in every season of life and even in death.  I prayed that someday, when someone she loves is in the nursing home, that she will be faithful to visit and begin to see and understand that it is a place full of beautiful people with lifetimes of stories we are blessed if we get to hear.  And that even if they aren’t able to tell those stories anymore, that they are still the saints of God in that place, with worth and beauty and dignity. I hope she’ll begin to realize that what she hates is not nursing homes but the fear they stir up within her of her own mortality – that yes, someday, all of us – if we get the blessing of living a long time, someday all of us will need help.  Someday all of us will have hands that may tremble a little too much to take our own medications.  Someday, all of us will have minds that may not quite be able to remember the way home or be able to go for a simple walk alone.  And yes, that is not fun information to think about, but there it is.  And we don’t do ourselves or the world any good if we spend our lives doing things like casually dismissing an entire group of people and saying things like “oh, I just don’t like nursing homes.” And that if we are held in God’s hands, then there is nothing to fear – that somehow God will help all of us through the last seasons of our lives just as God helped us through the first ones and the middle ones.

And I hope that someday, when someone she loves dies, she’ll go to the funeral and then she’ll walk along with the casket, with her heart frozen inside her, out to the cemetery for the burial.  And she’ll feel the awful emptiness that comes with knowing her loved one will be sleeping in that ground that night and that’s all there is to it.  And it will feel like the period at the end of a sentence – final.  But then I pray she’ll listen to the words of scripture that the preacher reads. Words about a home prepared for all of us in God’s house – and that even through her grief – as the breeze floats over the cemetery she hear God’s whisper that this isn’t the end of the story.  That the one she loves dearly who is being buried that day is not simply being shut up in a tomb and that the ground upon which she is walking is not just a pile of bones and tears – but that it is a holy place where we linger over a promise.  It is a place full of stories of a thousand saints who lived, and yes, died, but even then God had a plan for them.  A plan we can only just glimpse – but one they have now seen face to face – and that if you really listen in that place, you’ll hear a song not of death but of hope – a hope in which we can rest, and rejoice.  I pray she’ll realize in that moment, that what she hates is not cemeteries, but her fear of the unknown. And that in time she’ll remember that she, and all of us, are held in God’s hands, and there is nothing to fear.

Living and loving God, the generations rise and pass away before you.  You are the strength of those who labor; you are the rest of the blessed dead. We rejoice in the company of your saints.  We remember all who have lived in faith, all who have peacefully died, and especially those most dear to us who rest in you.  Give us in time our portion with those who have trusted in you and have striven to do your holy will. To your name, with the Church on earth and the Church in heaven, we ascribe all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

Longest Night

December 20, 2014

Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year. When I get to this point in the year, I can almost feel my bones beginning to ache for sunshine and warmth.

As we gathered at Earl Huse’s graveside this past Wednesday, a cold rain was falling and we shivered as we prayed the familiar prayers and sang the songs he loved. His longtime friend, Pat Gorton, said the words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and made the sign of the cross over his casket. It’s hard to grieve and to pronounce a blessing at the same time, but she did it.

And I guess this is what we do when we gather for the Blue Christmas service tomorrow night. Those who are sad or lonesome or sick or grieving or just feeling “blue” during this time of year – we all gather together to lift up those real and raw feelings to God, but also claim the promise of hope that is just as real: Emmanuel, “God with us.”

I believe that promise and I have seen it come true over and over in my life. Sometimes it has felt muted – during moments of great difficulty, or when praying the same prayers over and over and over again by a hospice bedside, or when the cancer is diagnosed and ravages mercilessly, or when a young life is snuffed out, or ____________________(insert any bad thing that could happen), but nothing can silence the song of God’s promise. Somehow it is able to sing to us even in the worst moments, the unimaginable moments. Still, even there, always – Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

I’ll share with you a poem from Jan Richardson:

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.
This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.
So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Blessings to you as this Advent season draws to a close.

Pastor Ruth

This Day


This is the day.  It’s the last time the scent of coffee will drift from the kitchen.  Never again will you see the baby rub sleep out of his eyes as he sits up in the crib to call for you.  Your spouse – with tousled hair – gives you one final good-morning kiss.

You observe these things you will not see again – the morning sun shining on pots and pans still in the sink, the cat crying for her food, the dog scratching to go outside, the children bickering in the bedroom.

A concluding full schedule of commitments awaits you.

It seems the same as it is most mornings – yet it will never exist again.  Never again will it be this way.

Today is the only day there is.  This instant is the only one you have to live.  This is the moment you get to love one another.  This is when you must bless the world with what only you have to give.  This is the hour to savor, treasure, and be present fully.

Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow is a chance.

God has brought you this far so that you can live in this day – just this day.  What in the world will you do with such a stunning gift?cemetery sunrise

2 Samuel 7:18-29
“Who am I…that you have brought me thus far?”

I Didn’t Know

stroller boys



You have me still

You have me

You have me

You have my heart completely.

            – Gungor

Jesse was sick last night.  It was the awful throwing-up-every-half-hour kind of sickness.  He cried because his stomach hurt so badly and he hated the vomiting.  Sweet child.  I kept thinking back to when he had RSV as a baby and how helpless I felt and how scared I was for him , but then also feeling like I am so dang lucky because these kids have been so healthy overall.  I am deeply thankful for that.  Please keep them safe, dear Lord…all of them, not just mine.

A power ranger sits on my desk.  It was probably Jesse who left it here the last time he played games on my office computer. I hardly pay any attention anymore to the toys left scattered around my church and my home, they have become the background of my life.

I remember visiting a friend with two young children before I had any of my own and I was startled by the assault to my senses while I was there – the house was rarely quiet, there was the faint smell of diapers always drifting through the air, and I was dismayed at the inconveniences: of having to pluck toys out of the bathtub before I could take a shower, of needing to wait for my friend to breastfeed her youngest before we could take off and go shopping and exploring, of how the needs of her children were so obviously greater than her need to visit with me and catch up on the things that we used to spend hours discussing.  Her world had shifted and I knew she was very content with those shifts.

I couldn’t imagine wanting any of those changes.  I loved my quiet house and life.  I loved my little challenges I gave myself – training for a marathon, writing some articles, working on my Doctor of Ministry degree.  I liked things in my time and I had a sense that children would blow up the world as I knew it.

Of course, they have.  Entirely.

I read an article recently that a mother carries cells of her children within her forever and also cells of the mother who gave birth to her.  There’s something so deeply comforting about knowing that physically my dear mother is knit into the fabric of me.  And just as I suspected, there is some very real part of me that is buried with her in the cold Minnesota ground.   No wonder we feel losses so completely.  A part of us is not figuratively dying when a loved one dies, rather a part of us has actually died.

It’s a vast thought…and sad enough to leave me huddled under a blanket in the corner forever.

Until I remember there is a living part of me, still.  And these beautiful sons are here – children I did not expect nor even have the wisdom to wish for very long yet God blessed me in spite of myself.  God saw fit to let me be their mom and to let me understand joy and true love in the best way possible.

I didn’t know, my dear boys, I didn’t know!  I would have been searching for you from the moment I began breathing if I had known how you would cast the world into the loveliest light of all.  I promise you, I live for what is still living – in me and in you.  I do not live for this grief although it covers much of me still.