When I was a very young girl, growing up in a small town in Nebraska, I remember going to church with my family every Sunday. My home congregation had a lot of youth and kids back then, and about once a month or so, we started our Sunday school time with an assembly. All the kids, from the tiny preschoolers all the way up to the confirmation students, would gather together in the church basement for a short service before going to our classes.
We sat in rows by class, from the youngest in front to the oldest in back. And I remember being in about first or second grade (it was the last year of sitting in the tiny folding chairs before you graduated to the *adult size* folding chairs) – I remember turning around in my chair and craning my neck to try and see the older kids sitting aaaaall the way at the back of the fellowship hall. They seemed so cool and wise and knowledgeable, those ninth graders. They got to make the pancakes at the pancake feed; they got to run the hoses at the carwash fundraiser; they helped out with vacation bible school; they even got to light the candles on Sunday mornings. So cool! As a little girl, watching them, I learned from their example. I saw all the things they got to do in the church, all the ways that they served – and I wanted to be just like them.
I remembered those Sunday school days as I was preparing for today. Our first reading, from Philippians, is a passage that Laverne specifically wanted to be read at this service. And as I heard more and more stories about her over the last week from the people who loved her and knew her best, I started to understand why – why she chose this passage. The apostle Paul wrote these words in a letter to the young congregation in Philippi: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Follow my example, Paul is saying, and I will teach you how to live a good and faithful life.
What a fitting set of verses for remembering someone like Laverne. Just reading the handful of stories that have been printed in the bulletin, you start to get the sense of Laverne as a woman of deep faith who prided herself on setting a good example for others to follow. This week, for example, I heard about how all three kids had paper routes from a young age – it was Laverne’s way of helping them to learn responsibility and to develop a strong work ethic. And she demonstrated it for them by getting right in there and helping them do it.
I heard about the big garden that Laverne grew – and about all the goodies she canned that would last the family well through the winter. Heh, and even before this week I had heard about Laverne’s legendary cookies – the kolache and the other baked treats that everyone was eager to get their mitts on at church events. Laverne had a gift in the kitchen – but she didn’t bake or can alone. She had little helpers with little hands that learned to do the things she did by following her example. Just a week ago, I had Leigh and Joellen in my office comparing notes on which of her recipes they each have in their collections. Those recipes are more than just precious memories – they are a piece of Laverne that lives on, through the legacy of all the many things that she taught.
And beyond these useful life skills, the most important example Laverne set for others to follow was modeling a devoted life of faith. Laverne was a dedicated and active member of St. John’s Lutheran Church. She served on the altar committee and helped with the yard sale and the Holiday Fair. She taught Sunday school for many years; and through this ministry, she helped shape a whole new generation of the faithful, teaching them through her words and through her actions what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Every single person here – whether you’re in this room or you’re joining us online – you’re here because your life was impacted in some way by Laverne and by the faithful example she set. For her kids, her grandkids, her great-grandkids, for her friends and neighbors and siblings in Christ, Laverne embodied the love of God. Through her baking gifts and her love of creation, through her service as a nurse and her service as a sister in Christ, a beloved member of this congregation, Laverne shared with others the grace and the wisdom and the profound love of Christ.
Her life was a gift and a witness. She pointed to something beyond herself – to the God in whom she had faith up until the day she died. And I know that she will be sorely missed by all those who loved her. It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone who has been such an important part of your life. The grief that comes is as strong as the love that you shared – and it will continue to hit you in waves over the coming days and weeks and months and years.
A day like this is hard – I’m not going to try and tell you it’s not. But even from beyond the grave, Laverne is still continuing to teach us, still showing us the example of how to live faithfully, even in hard times – because the other scripture reading that she specifically wanted to be read today is the familiar words of Psalm 23. This psalm is often read at funerals, and that’s because it reminds us of the comfort and hope that is ours both in each other and in God. It reminds us that, yes, God leads us to good places – to still waters, to green pastures, to places where we may find rest for our weary souls. And also it reminds us that God goes with us wherever we go; whenever we wander through harsh and desolate places – whenever we feel lost or overwhelmed by grief – even when we find ourselves here, in the valley of the shadow of death. Like the psalmist, we fear no evil, because we know that God is with us. God enfolds us with love and gives us the strength and resilience we need to keep on going – and gives us the companions we need on the journey to keep going.
And as we gather today to say goodbye to our sister Laverne, we are reminded that the hope that we cling to is for more than just comfort in the midst of grief. We cling to the hope of God’s promise – the hope in which Laverne was baptized – the hope that, because we have been united with Christ in his death, we will also have a share in his resurrection and eternal life. Today we hear this hope in a pair of verses that might be even better known than Psalm 23!: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In Christ, there is always hope!
God is so bent on saving and redeeming all creation that no price is too high to pay to accomplish it. God willingly takes on human flesh as the Son, who gives up his own life for the sake of the world – for our sake. God proved once and for all that even death cannot break the power of God’s love. Like Laverne did in her life, we cling to the hope that God’s love saves us and makes us whole and will one day raise us, with Laverne, to life everlasting in the kingdom of God.
Today is a sad day – an exhausting day of grief and painful goodbyes. But even in the midst of sadness, let us hang on to that undying hope of life in Christ – the hope that has been passed down to us through generation after generation of the faithful: hope that is rooted in a strong faith like Laverne’s. I pray that her legacy of faith and hope may continue to teach us and guide us and inspire us – because, after all, she set all of us such a good example.