Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Funeral for Harriet Engebretson

Harriet Engebretson
(April 16 1924-January 1, 2010)

January 6, 2010
The Feast of the Epiphany
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church

Revelation 7.9-17

In our reading from Revelation today, we find a wonderful vision of the future. We heard this:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

The future is certainly an uncertain time. It can be full of hope. Or it can be full of fear. Or it can be full of sadness. It all depends on where we are, emotionally.

The fact is that for us, people who believe in the vision we are given in our scripture reading from Revelation today, we cannot allow fear or sadness to reign in our lives. When we are told that, in the future, every tear shall be wiped away, those are not light words. Certainly not for those of us who have shed our fair share of tears in this life.

Harriet, no doubt, shed more than her share of tears in her life. But today, we realize one thing after hearing this lesson: her tears have been dried. Every tear has been wiped away from her eyes. And she will never again shed tears of sadness or pain. If she sheds tears, they are tears of joy and gladness.

Funerals of course are sometimes sad events. But I think sometimes it’s good to find joy in the midst of sadness. When someone we love and care for and who cared for us and loved us leaves us, it is natural to feel sadness. It is natural to shed tears. It is natural to be apprehensive of a future without that person. But the fact is this: as sad as it may seem, as wonderful as it is that Harriet’s tears have been wiped away, we also can find hope and joy in our futures, even a time like this. If Harriet was here—and I think she is here with us today—in our midst—she would tell us to cling to hope and joy in this moment.

As a pastor, I lead a lot of funerals. And sometimes—sometimes more often than not—I lead funerals for people I never knew. I am disappointed today that I didn’t get to know Harriet, that we never met. But what I have found in my years of leading funerals is that, more often than not, I bond not only with the family, but I also sometimes bond especially with the person whose life we are remembering. I definitely felt a bond develop between Harriet and myself in these last few days. Although I never had a chance to know Harriet personally, I have no doubt in my mind that I would’ve liked her immensely. And forming bonds like that with people never makes leading funerals any easier, let me tell you. In fact, it sometimes complicates doing them. I find myself at times getting emotional about people I have never even met. But that’s a good thing, I think.

I have no doubt in my mind that what separates us who are alive and breathing here on earth from those who are now in the so-called “nearer presence of God” is a thin one. And because of that belief, I take a certain comfort in the fact Harriet is close to us today. She is here, in our midst, celebrating her life with us.

Yes, I think I would’ve liked Harriet very much. She seemed like one of those people who, for the most part, loved life and tried to live it as completely as possible. It was fun for me to hear the stories about her. Cathy told me about simple wonderful things like how she always had fresh cinnamon rolls for her grandchildren. Or how amazing it was that for someone who was such a crazy driver to have so few bumps on her car.

But she was also a woman of faith. She was a woman of prayer (even if her prayers were in Norwegian sometimes) She a woman committed to studying Scripture. Bob remembers seeing her lying down on the couch after a long day of work and reading her Bible.

And this church—St. Mark’s—was important to her. It was here she was married and it was here she attended church until 1962, when the family moved to Mandan. Her faith is a lesson for all of us still. No doubt she knew pain in her life. She shed her share of tears in her life.

But, in this moment, that is all over for her. In that place she now lives, it is a wonderful place. It is place where there are no more tears. It is place where there is no more sadness or pain or loss.

Last Sunday, I preached here at St. Mark’s about New Year’s Day and how New Year’s Day is a day of hope and renewal for us. It is a day when everything seems new—when we seem to grasp at that one moment in life and say, “This is it. We are here. Now.” I truly believe that in God’s Kingdom, it always like New Year’s Day. The day is always fresh and new and full of endless possibilities. In God’s Kingdom we are always in that one new, fresh moment of saying, This is it. We are right here.” And it is wonderful. It is wonderful because that freshness and newness never ends or grows old or becomes stale. It is a renewal that happens again and again.

I truly believe that God would provide no less a place for Harriet. We, here and now, can only guess and, maybe if we try hard, can possibly JUST imagine that place. We, here and now, can only just guess at what unending joy can possibly be like. Here and now, we can only barely fathom what a place would be like in which there are no more tears.
But the consolation we can take away from today is that for Harriet, she is experiencing that place at this moment.

On New Year’s Day, she experienced a new beginning that will never grow old or stale. Our hope in that place is what gets us through. Our knowledge is that Jesus himself knew what pain and tears were. And he has led the way to that place where those things pass away.

In those moments when all seems bleak, when all seems lost, we know that we can find peace—we can find comfort. We can find God’s peace.

Bob shared me with this story about Harriet: Back in 1990, Clyde had a brainstem stroke. The doctors said he wasn’t expected to make it, that patients who have had this kind of stroke never survive. After days of praying and watching over him, an exhausted Harriet went back to the hotel. She climbed into the bath with her Bible and randomly opened it. She came upon a verse in which God spoke very clearly to her. As she read it, she felt peace descend upon her. She knew then and there that everything was going to be all right. She went back to the hospital and upon entering the ICU, she was told by that doctor who had told her Clyde would not survive that he had, in fact, turned a corner.

That, to me, is a sign of deep and abiding faith. And it is something we can take away with us today. Yes, we might be saddened that Harriet is no longer with us, we might be saddened by all those memories we have. But through our tears, through our pain at loss, I think we can all hear Harriet’s voice speaking to us, telling us, “It’s going to be all right.”

This is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss. It is a faith that can tell us with a startling reality that every tear we shed will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear. All of those negative things in life will vaporize like a bad dream upon awakening. We too can cling to it in a time like this.

So this morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith that Harriet is full of joy and gladness in this New Day that will never end for her. And let us also be full of joy that one day we too will be sharing with her in that joy that will never end.

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