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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child, and certainly the same could be said of churches communities. But I would dare to say, that from my experience, even the church buildings can make a difference in raising a child. When I was a young boy growing up in southern Minnesota, there were two memorable hallways in my home church. The most exotic hallway was outside the Sunday School classrooms. It was there that the souvenirs and memorabilia of the congregation’s missionaries were kept. In long glass cases, butterflies from Brazil, silk from China, drums from Africa, and pictures of the missionary’s homes in distant lands, enchanted the eyes of impressionable children. For the Lutheran churches of my youth, missionaries were the contemporary martyrs. They were the truly committed Christians who were sent out when they were young and returned years later when they were old. Needless to say, there were missionary jokes that Sunday School children loved to tell. There was the story of the missionary who was being chased by a man-eating lion. As he fell on the ground, he prayed furiously, “Oh, God, make this lion a Christian.” And suddenly, the lion stopped in his tracks, put his paws together, turned to heaven and prayed, “For what I am about to receive, make me truly thankful. Amen.”
There was another hallway as well just beyond the chancel. It contained the gallery of the faithful Norwegian pastors who had founded the congregation and then tended to the flock. They were stern looking men with gray beards and ruffled collars. Oh, of course, there were jokes about these men as well. One pastor proposed that the church should purchase a new chandelier. This caused a great stir at the annual meeting. The Church Council president thoroughly disagreed with the pastor. “Pastor, we don’t need no chandelier. First of all, nobody knows how to play it. Second, nobody knows how to spell it. And third, what we really need is light.”
It’s odd that these two church hallways could have taken such a hold of my imagination as a child and then defined my professional career as an adult. As Norwegians around the world celebrate the 200th anniversary of their constitution, I am reminded of those hallways, and the faithful pastor and missionaries that they represented. 1814 was a pivotal year for Norway igniting both a spiritual and national awakening that would inspire a generation to go forth, trusting and living out the promise of a loving Savior as their way, and their truth and their life.
My friends, this morning I would like to share with you the inheritance they was passed on to me through the faithful Norwegian immigrants of my youth. Consider this word: Heaven is not a reward for God’s faithful; but heaven is the destination. As Christians, you and I have been destined for the gates of heaven. We have been created in God’s image to dwell with him in his eternal home.
This was conviction that shaped the church of my youth. These devout men and women believed that they were making a road and preparing the way for others to follow them. The Norwegian immigrants who settled in southern Minnesota knew what was important for growing in faith. It was evident in the names and road signs along the way. As I shared with the Call Committee nearly two years ago, I was born at St. Olaf Hospital, baptized and confirmed at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, and went on to study at St. Olaf College. These early settlers were men and women who trusted that if you were destined for the gates of heaven, you should know way.
Of course Norwegian-Americans can joke about heaven as well. I am reminded of Ole, who at the age of 70 decided to study ancient Hebrew. His friend Sven asked him, “Now why would you do a thing like?” And Ole answered, “Well, when I get to heaven I want to speak to God in his own language.” Then Sven replied slyly, “And, so what if you go to the other place?” And Ole answered, “Well, I already know Norwegian.”
Many, however, believe that heaven is simply a final reward and they ponder the question, What will heaven be like? That doesn’t need to be a concern for those who know their savior and trust that he is preparing a place for them. Nearly 30 years ago, when my Confirmation Pastor, Carl Borgwardt died at 54 years old on the handball court, the familiar words he preached to the congregation came back to the parish as a word of comfort and strength. “Death is not a tragedy for those who live in the hope of Jesus Christ.” Why is this truth so important, you may ask? Years of parish ministry have taught me, that when you believe that there is a destination calling you homeward, then you can trust in the loving purposes of God. Yes, when you trust that there is a heaven at the end of life’s journey, then you can press on with confidence. For you, the unbearable becomes bearable and in the midst of darkness, you can see a glimmer of hope.
I remember distinctly the change in my brother’s countenance, when on his death bed as he was fighting leukemia he recognized that his fight was over. He turned his to wife and said weakly, “It’s time for plan B.” He knew that at his journey’s end, there was a promised place prepared for him. That is God’s promise to you as well. You may have experienced a painful and tragic Good Friday in your life- maybe even this year. But let assure you, a miracle is not far away. It may not be the miracle that you prepared for. And God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle that is waiting for you is this: God will give you the strength to rise again in the morning to see the beauty of the new day. And one day, you will be reunited with those you have loved in a place he has prepared for you.
Now, you may be wondering, so how do we make such a daring step and accept the promise of a miracle? It is the same question St. Thomas asked Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” The answer is by getting to know the Savior. And it all begins by listening to the encouraging witness of those disciples surrounding you with their stories of God’ love.
A mother wishing to encourage her young son’s progress on the piano, took her small boy to a concert to be performed by Paderewski. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her. Seizing the opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, the little boy rose and eventually explored his way through a door marked “NO ADMITTANCE.” When the house lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to her seat and discovered that her son was missing. Suddenly, the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway on stage. In horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and whispered into the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” Then leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child and he added a running obbligato. Together, the old master and the young novice transformed a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience. The audience was mesmerized. That’s the way it is with Jesus’ followers. Your journey may not seem musical or memorable. There may be pain and tragedy along the way. But with the hand of the Master near, your life’s work truly can be beautiful. Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master, whispering in your ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.”
This is what I learned from that faithful generation of Norwegian immigrants who raised me. It’s what I learned from the portraits of missionaries and pastors in the hallways of my home church. And so now I wonder, what are the lessons that you and I are teaching the next generation? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.