Their names were Carl & Alma Rasmussen. They were Sages back in the 1980’s before we called our octogenarians by the title Sages.
The Rasmussen’s were both well into their nineties, when I came to St. Peter’s as your assistant pastor in 1986. Carl was the retired systematic theology professor of the former Gettysburg Seminary – an extremely bright man who, apart from his theological acumen, was also fluent in German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Greek and Hebrew and used them actively into his 100th year of life. My thoughts turned to the Rasmussen’s this past week, because we received a planned gift from the estate of their daughter. Carl & Alma had evidently left their resources to their daughter in their will when they died, with instructions to make a gift to St. Peter’s when she also passed from life on earth. It is a reminder to each of us to remember the church in your wills and planned giving financial tools, along with other charities you are passionate about. But when I was alerted to the gift by their daughter’s estate lawyer, the first thing I thought about was their deep love and appreciation for Holy Communion. I was privileged to bring them communion in their final residences at Luther Acres for a couple of years before Alma’s death at 104 years, and Carl’s at 102 years. And each time I offered them Jesus body and blood, Carl would recount the rich Lutheran heritage in which they grew up, and the parents and pastors and siblings who were instrumental in their developing a deep love and respect for the Sacrament of the Altar. Carl and Alma were soundly rooted in the spirit of community that the Lord’s Supper offers to us, as it connects us to God … and to each other. And though he did not use the words of our preaching question in today’s bulletin, it always stood behind Carl’s understanding of Holy Communion. “Lord, to whom can we go? … Jesus, without you, what hope can we have for life? Carl & Alma Rasmussen understood the deep blessing of this Sacrament, and recognized how it bound the Christian community together.
Anna also understands this rich blessing of Christian community, even though it is harder to access that understanding due to the progression of her dementia these past years. For her, one of the deep connections to Christian community came through … cookies. For Anna led our funeral luncheon ministry for a number of years, and she often said to us all, “I just can’t allow myself to buy a store bought cookie for a funeral luncheon.” And so she would bake … and bake … and bake … typically 15 -20 dozen cookies for a normal funeral luncheon … more for larger gatherings. During weeks when we have 2 or 3 funerals, she would bake 30 -60 dozen cookies and not bat an eyelash. Adding in cookies made for other church socials and dinners … Strawberry Festivals … Christmas gifts to her clergy and friends … and certainly many that were lovingly made for her family … I cannot even begin to put a number on the volume of cookies that left her oven in her former home on Valley Road. But to suggest that the number was in the 100’s of thousands would not be an exaggeration. Anna understood that good cookies fostered Christian community, also. Certainly not in the same way that our meal of Holy Communion sustains the Body of Christ, by binding us to each other … and to God. But I will say publicly, that when I ate one of Anna’s sand tarts … it was almost sacramental.
I share these two vignettes because on Sages Sunday, we are reminded of the depth of Christian community that our eldest, and in many cases longest standing members, have embodied in their lives … in their service … and in their love for Jesus – for each other – and for those among whom we serve in the world. They have learned it from Jesus’ words and actions and have striven to embody it in their lives. These Sages … and others like them … have been the persons who have taught us the faith Jesus taught them, and modeled it for us in their lives. And here at St. Peter’s, they have lived out that faith in their worship … and their stewardship … and their service to this congregation — whether they have been here for a few months or a few decades … or in a some cases — for the entirety of their lives. We thank them, and we honor them today … but in doing so we recognize that the one we truly honor is that one who gave them and us life, and who has provided us with the tools and resources for abundant lives. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Our Sages, in their wisdom, understand the truth of our preaching question for the day. Namely, that when everything else that we trust in — our financial wealth … our tangible resources … our skills and talents … our closest relationships … our hopes and dreams – when the things we rely on instead betray us, the one to whom we always turn is Jesus. It is this Jesus that we meet in our meal at this table – that one we call the Bread of Life. We have spent the past five weeks reading from this Bread of Life section in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. These weeks in John chapter 6 have pointed us to this meal of Holy Communion, and its vital presence in our individual lives and in our communal life. Jesus’ words have proclaimed to us that this meal is much more than a nice little ceremony, but is the power that fuels the very best of what Christian community can be. And that this meal brings us into fellowship … into communion with each other in the deepest and most grace-filled way possible.
Now this meal is not going to solve racism in our world … or gun violence … or the problem of homelessness in our communities. It is not going to change the deep divisions of our political system … nor make our cyber lives more secure … nor save baby seals from oil spills in the Atlantic. It will not magically change the disagreements you have with your neighbor … or the hurt that exists in your marriage … or the estrangement you experience from someone you love deeply. But when we dare to believe that this meal models a spirit of community that is fueled by grace and governed by the belief that we are all lost without the regular presence of God in our lives…. and when that belief allows us to experience the spirit of community with God at the center…. then we have the chance — and Jesus would say the obligation – to help embody what we have learned here in those places in our world where there is an absence of that kind of true and life-giving community.
When I look around this room, I see Sages who have striven to build that kind of community for decades, and in some cases continue to do so now. Sages who have fixed pipes and doorknobs … and who have painted rooms and hallway molding. Sages who have taught our children … and sung to us about Jesus love and grace … and written to us with images that fill us with the Spirit of God. I see Sages who have served on committees … and led us through Church Council ministry … and signed church checks and counted offerings. And Sages who provide audio-visual knowledge at worship services in their retirement communities … and who have visited the sick and those in Hospice care … and who have led Bingo games in the dementia units in nursing care hallways, and refilled water pitchers in personal care rooms. There are sages here who have walked people in wheelchairs to chapel services … and driven community members to doctor appointments … and supported friends at funerals. Each time we chose to act in ways that build community, we make a faith choice to see God transforming the world one person at a time. It’s not flashy and it doesn’t make headlines. It’s not gonna get you an award from the county commissioners or get a church building named after you. But it offers you the opportunity to say thank you to God as an acknowledgement of the gifts with which we are blessed, from the God’s loving hand. We get to pass it on … we get to share with a friend what has blessed us … we get to model Jesus, and the community he creates through his love, to others who desperately need it.
Our Sages are not the sole reason we know of this love and this life of blessing. But in most cases they are a pretty big part. So we thank you all, and give thanks to God for the Holy Spirit … for it is that Spirit which fuels the communities that mean the most to us … and it is the way that Spirit is seen in your lives and your service. May we all some day stand at this same threshold as our Sages, and be able to acknowledge how God has done the same through us. Amen.