November 3, 2019

John 11:17-27

All Saints Day brings with it a mix of emotions. As we remember loved ones who have gone before us, it feels good to bring forth their memory. We like to remember special times together and think about those little things unique to them. And yet, each one of those seven names I read represents a person who was with us at this time last year who is no longer alive today. They won’t be with us at the Thanksgiving table or around the Christmas tree. Each represents a person who was loved, a person who filled an important role in our lives, a person for whom we grieve today.

Jesus knew that sadness too. In our gospel lesson, we hear that Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. A young man had died, before his time. The emotions were raw, all around. Even though Jesus had the power to bring Lazarus to life, he felt grief over losing his friend. Even though Jesus knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, he felt grief over this death. Even though Jesus had seen the glories of heaven, and knew that joys of eternity, the grief flowed from his eyes and down his cheeks. I’m glad the scripture shares that Jesus wept for his dead friend. If it’s okay for Jesus to weep, it’s okay for us too. There is nothing unfaithful about feeling grief over the loss of a loved one or openly expressing those feelings.

In our Gospel lesson, Martha expresses her grief saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). She is angry and blames Jesus for her brother’s death. The grief is raw. Then she begs Jesus to do something about it saying, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (John 11:22). She is begging for a miracle, and she adds “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11:27). Like Martha, we know Jesus has power over life and death. That is our source of hope, too.

Through his own tears, Jesus calls Lazarus back to life. “Lazarus come out!” he says, and the dead man walks out of the tomb (John 11:43). In Lazarus we see that it is not only the Son of God that can be resurrected, but also everyday people, like Lazarus, like you and like me.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a young man, Evhen Crooke, who died recently from vaping. This loss was heartbreaking. Death had come too soon. A life was cut short. The grief was raw. Family and friends shed a lot of tears. As hard as it is to lose one so young, I’m grateful to know that Evhen was a Christian. He believed and was baptized and lived his life as a Christian. That’s not to say he didn’t have doubts or questions. That’s not to say he lived a perfect life. His death was brought about by his poor choices.

Despite that, I believe that today Evhen is with Jesus, experiencing the joys and wonders of eternal life. That is a real comfort at this time of loss.

This past year we have buried seven members of Immanuel. Each of these people are beloved children of God. Each one has a special place in our hearts. Each of them is deeply missed. Let’s take a few moments to remember each of them.

Roy Johnson died in January. He was the first of three Johnson siblings to go on to eternity this year. Dare we call him Saint Roy? Yes! He was a crusty old saint, but Roy had a big heart and soft center. Roy loved his country and this community. He loved his church and his family. He spent his life loving and serving all of these.

Roy and his brother, Lloyd, brought the Threshing Show to Almelund. I was so surprised the first time I went to visit Roy and his wife, Donna, at their home, to find that it was located on the Threshing Show grounds. I thought my GPS had led me astray, but no, they actually lived on the Threshing Show grounds. Every August they would welcome tens of thousands of visitors to their back yard to celebrate all things Almelund. It was so fun to see these brothers at the Threshing Show. Lloyd went around with this big smile on his face, King of the Threshing Show. He so enjoyed being part of it all. They both seemed amazed at what had grown from an event they had started years earlier.

Lloyd was the oldest. The first time I met Saint Lloyd, he told me about his many close calls with death. He told me about the mortar shell in WWII that took the life of his buddy who was standing right next to him and took his own hearing. He said he felt like a cat with nine lives. He had many close calls, but always made it through. Lloyd wasn’t expecting his younger brother, Roy, to go before him. Lloyd attended Roy’s funeral, but it was hard on him and he died a week later.

The sequence of these deaths wasn’t expected. Their sister, Alice was the sickest. Last fall Alice decided it was time to plan funerals for herself and John. When Roy heard that we’d be planning Alice’s funeral, he had to be part of it. Funerals were important to this old Cemetery Caretaker, and he wanted to be sure his sister’s funeral had all the special touches he though were important. So, one beautiful October day last fall, I picked Roy up and drove him to Parmly where we met with Alice and John, and other family members to plan their funerals. Roy expected he would be attending Alice’s funeral. But he was the first of these siblings to die. Death is odd like that. You never know when it might strike.

Saint Alice died in May and Saint John in August. After spending over 67 years together the two had become as one. It is hard to think of one without the other. Alice and John embodied all things Swedish. They loved traveling to Sweden and hosting Swedish visitors – including King and Queen of Sweden. Alice made intricate Swedish costumes which they wore as they did Swedish dances, and when they were grand marshals in the Karl Oskar Days parade.

I’m grateful for their commitment to this church and their leadership of the Luther League program here. Many of our members, who are grandparents today, were nurtured in their faith as young people by Alice and John Mortenson. This couple lived their faith as good neighbors, reaching out in love to the people around them. What a delight!

The Johnson/Mortenson family is not the only family who lost multiple loved ones this year. The family of Bernice Pearson experienced two funerals and a wedding in June and July of this year. Bernice died just 9 days before her granddaughter, Elizabeth Tolzmann’s, wedding. Elizabeth’s other grandmother, Mercedes Tolzmann, attended that wedding, but died a month later. What a mix of emotions for this family! Joy, as this new couple started their life together. Sadness, as two beloved grandmothers died in quick succession.

Bernice was such a gentle woman, yet she was strong in the face of hardship. Her husband, Ron, suffered a heart attack in his 40s. Although he survived, his health situation meant that Bernice needed to step out of her role as a full-time stay-at-home-mom and enter the workforce. She did so with grace, taking her cooking skills to the schools. Bernice led a service group, together with June McKenzie, until a year or two ago, and often cooked for Immanuel events. She also served on the altar guild. And she encouraged her grandkids to participate in youth group and confirmation, sharing her faith with the next generation. It is easy to think of her as Saint Bernice!

Another beloved grandmother who died this year is Gloria Burasa. Gloria had been having health issues, with hip replacement surgery gone wrong. But she recovered from that. In January she attended a concert for, Momoh, to raise money for him to become a US citizen. Gloria enjoyed the concert. At the reception that followed, she was bopping around, talking with people, laughing and smiling. I chatted with her and said how good it was to see her. She looked the best she had in months. She said she was feeling well and happy to be there. When I got the call a few days later that she had died, I was really surprised. What a shock!

Gloria is another Almelund saint. Saint Gloria had been baptized right here at this font. She attended the Almelund Elementary School. She was confirmed and married at this altar. She lived her life in the area, raising her family here. She was a woman who never had a lot but was grateful for what she had. She was a fun-loving grandmother who loved having her grandkids over for sleep overs, or making donuts and cinnamon rolls, right up to the very end.

Farming was in her blood. She loved animals and had a knack for caring for them. She also enjoyed hunting, fishing, and camping. But most of all she liked spending time with her family.

Our final Almelund saint to enter eternity this year was Vicki Palmer. Vicki grew up on a farm nearby. During that time, she attended this church and was confirmed here. Her mother, Donna Kaufmann, was active here until her death, a little over a year ago. Vicki suffered a series of strokes in her 20s, which limited her abilities, so she lived in a group home. However, this didn’t affect her sense of humor. And it didn’t limit her mission in life which was to make people laugh. Vicki used humor to help the people get through the hard stuff and find joy in life. I think she would get a kick out of being called Saint Vicki! Two weeks ago we laid Vickie’s ashes to rest in our cemetery, together with the ashes of her father, Lowell Palmer, who had died in 2005. At 56 years old, Vicki was the youngest of our Almelund Saints to enter eternity this year.

We can be grateful that Vicki and all these Almelund Saints are now in the place where there is no more sickness or crying, no more pain or dying.

It may seem a little odd thinking of the people we have remembered here today as “saints.” We know their faults as well as their gifts. But it is saints just like these who gave us a start in this world. It is saints just like these who brought us to church and to the baptismal font. It is saints just like these who nurtured us in faith by sharing God’s story and living their faith. It is saints like these who now make up that Great Cloud of Witnesses.

When we gather for Holy Communion we gather as part of that Great Cloud of Witnesses. We gather with saints from all ages – past, present, and future – as we join together in that holy feast. We gather as saints, not to celebrate how good or holy we are, but to receive forgiveness that leads to eternal life.

On this All Saints Day, our claim to sainthood is that our sins are forgiven through Jesus. As Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, so too, he has the power to raise us and our loved ones to eternal life. On this All Saints Day we can rejoice in knowing that death does not have the final word; God does! And our God is the God of Life! On this All Saints Day we gather to celebrate our place as Children of God and remember that:

We are the Saints; We are the Children.

We’ve been redeemed; We’ve been forgiven

We are the Sons and the Daughters of our God!

(Chorus from “Children of God” by Third Day)