I've been a pastor at this congregation for just over nine years now, which is longer than I have lived anywhere other than my parents' house when I was growing up. Although it's a fairly large congregation, I've gotten to know many of the people quite well. And even the the ones I don't know well -- I feel like I know them well, because, they always sit in this pew, or they always come to a certain service, or they sit in the top row of the choir, or they shake my hand in a certain way when they leave worship on Sunday. One man always touches my arm as I come down the center aisle in the morning, and asks me, where am I taking my next vacation? (Last Sunday he said I should consider Hawaii.) A friend overhears, smiles, and says, "He really likes vacations."
This congregation was founded just after World War II. We will be 60 years old in December. In the years I have been here, we have experienced a lot of loss: sometimes, on All Saints Sunday, the list of names is so long, and so full of memory and meaning, that it is hard to bear. Some of the losses are the expected ones: people who have lived long and faithful lives who peacefully go home to Jesus. Sometimes they are tragic, lives ended too soon, it seems.
So, lately, and while preparing for another funeral, I have been remembering just a few of the saints who have made this place a church for me, saints who are now feasting at the table of the Lamb, but whose presence I still miss in at our weekly feasts here below.
Saint J... his wife has become one of my good friends. But he was wonderful in his own way, not the least because of his wonderful sense of humor. What I miss most is the gift he had of the well-placed phrase, which sometimes could make me laugh until I cried. Even in the hospital, he knew how to make his visitors comfortable. He died of lung cancer. At his funeral, just before Christmas a few years ago, grown men were sobbing.
Saint L...I remember her as the Happy Nursing Home Resident. But I knew her before she went into the nursing home. I used to visit her in her home, when her husband was still alive, and they cared for each other. He had a magnificant garden, I recall. I had the privilege of taking over the monthly communion calls after the intern left one year. L. loved living at the Nursing Home. Her room was filled with many kinds of toys, stuffed animals, matchbox cars. I particularly remember a singing wall fish that sort of gyrated when you pushed a button. She was never lonely because people liked to stop by her room to get their daily dose of "uplift." But she was sad whenever she lost a roommate.
Saint K... She was always such a Prayer Warrior, both for herself and for others. She had a chronic and debilitating illness. But when she went to the hospital, she made friends with everyone on her floor, as she prayed for them. She used to sit out on her porch and pray for everyone on her block. She was often ill and in pain, but I don't think we ever thought that she would die.
Saint P...She was a real jewel of a woman, with a special tenderness for children, for families, and for service men and women. She wrote letters to all of our service people. She took under her wing all of the families with children who sat next to her in worship, and made them her own family. A story was told at her funeral about the time she stood up at a somewhat contentious congregational meeting, and said, sweetly, "Just remember: Jesus is in this room."
Saint C.... He was a retired pastor who attended our congregation. I remember him for his thick Norwegian brogue, for sitting in the same place every Sunday, and for always saying a good word for my sermons. After he retired, he kept busy in a variety of ways, including serving as a greeter for a local discount store. A true Lutheran, he believed that all work was holy, not just that of Pastor. At his funeral, at the age of 95, there were 400 people.
Of course, there are so many others: ushers and Sunday school teachers, parents and children, choir members and lunch servers and gardeners, those who befriended children and took communion to nursing homes. Ordinary people. Great people. They will all be missed. May they all be welcomed to God's great feast.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God."