By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
September 6, 2020
Video of whole service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/881635885968090
Scripture: Luke 12:22-31
I preached on this same scripture in the garden this past Thursday. If you were there, you will know that I was motivated to choose it by own my deep need to experience the comfort of God’s presence in such an uncomfortable time of living during a global pandemic.
I am regularly afflicted by the worry that Jesus talks about in this scripture. Now, I know I am not unique in this. When Jesus said, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” He did not say, “Chris Jorgensen, I am talking to you.”’
He was talking to the people of ancient Judea right in front of him. Yet this resonates with us today. I think this worrying thing is fairly universal. Also, I’ve talked with many of you about the worries and concerns you carry. They are not trivial. We have lots to worry about these days. There are a lot of things wrong with the world…and our work to try to make things better for ourselves, for our families, for our community, and especially for the most vulnerable people among us…it matters. It is important.
Yet sometimes I get so focused on changing the world in these big systemic ways, that I forget to see how the presence of God is manifest and makes a difference in small ways and in every life. But the thing that makes me remember that – every time – is when I have the sacred privilege of walking with a family whose loved one has died. I have told you this before, and I will tell you again: I have never, ever failed to see the presence of God at work when I have simply listened to loved ones tell the story of a human life. No matter how complicated or messy or difficult that life may have been, I have always, always glimpsed the presence of God at work in it.
This week, as I struggled with all my worrying and striving, I started thinking about the most recent funeral I was blessed to be a part of. In the midst of this difficult pandemic, I have – and we as a church have – received an unexpected blessing. It was in April, I believe, that a man named Leonard Neff started participating online. He began as part of our virtual bible study group gathered on Wednesdays at noon, and then he invited his wife Fran to start participating as well. We saw them faithfully here in virtual worship. They were first sort of born-virtual members of our little flock. It was such a blessing that God moved them to reach out and get involved even though we couldn’t gather in person.
In early summer, Leonard was admitted to the hospital. Many of you know this – you were here virtually and spiritually – praying with and for Leonard and Fran. You were praying with and for them through that whole time and when Leonard died on August 11th. In these odd and difficult coronatimes, the first time I met Fran in person was when we met to plan Leonard’s Celebration of Life.
It was so sad and beautiful all at the same time.
As I thought about the lilies of the field this week, I thought about how I saw the life and love of God reflected in Leonard’s life. So I did something unusual. I asked Fran if it would be okay if I shared Leonard’s funeral sermon with you. I am grateful that Fran said yes, I was welcome to share.
So, I invite you to hear this celebration of Leonard’s life as we consider our own lives in God’s presence. What follows is what I shared at Leonard’s funeral:
As I mentioned earlier, I only had the pleasure of knowing Leonard online. He reached out and made connections to the Hanscom Park church community over the last few months as we’ve been meeting remotely. But even though we never met in person, I felt like I knew him. And after meeting with his beloved wife Fran…as well as Judy and Deb and Marc and Estrella…I do feel like I know him very well.
The first thing they told me is that Leonard was an SOB. I told them that was very appropriate because we have lots of SOBs at Hanscom Park church. For those of you who are from in Omaha, that stands for South Omaha Boys. That means good men like Leonard.
Leonard grew up in Omaha, went to South High School, and worked at a number of iconic Omaha places: UNO, UNMC, some of us remember Brandeis, Union Pacific, and eventually at the Holiday Inn Downtown.
Leonard’s jobs had to do with transportation, with security, but mostly, Fran told me: Leonard loved working with people. He loved driving the shuttle and meeting the guests at the Holiday Inn. And people loved Leonard – so much that when he died, his old boss at the Holiday Inn reached out to two people he drove regularly in those shuttles to let them know. Leonard connected to people. That’s just who he was.
Leonard was fearfully and wonderfully made. As the Psalmist declares in prayer to God:
“13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.14
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”
I think it’s great that this was Leonard’s favorite Psalm. Because as I listened to Fran and his family talk, I could see God’s presence reflected in Leonard: in his desire to love and connect with others and in his broad love and appreciation for the rest of God’s wonderful works – for all of God’s good creation.
Despite having significant health challenges (including open heart surgery at age 31 and three kidney transplants), Leonard embraced life. He LOVED life. He LIVED life.
He loved to travel. He and Fran traveled to Alaska, to the Caribbean, to the Mexican Riviera. He traveled on cruise ships, in a tent, with a fifth wheel behind the truck. They enjoyed wineries. They loved the weather in Colorado Springs. He loved doing all this travel in the company of his wife, his partner, the great gift of Fran that God gave him.
God gave him another gift: his daughter, Stephanie. Because the time wasn’t right for him to be a parent, Leonard gave Stephanie up for adoption back in 1980. Around 2010, Leonard got a message on Facebook asking if he knew Stephanie’s birth mom. Leonard was like, “Holy cow – this is my daughter!”
And was she! Every time they talked, they found out they were more alike. Stephanie would say, “My favorite sandwich is roast beef,” and Leonard would be like, Mine too! Stephanie would be like, “I love NASCAR,” and Leonard was like, “ME TOO!”
So Leonard received this amazing gift of Stephanie, and she became part of his story, part of his travels. Fran and Leonard and Stephanie and Andrew went to NASCAR races together, a cruise together, and the best thing they did on that cruise was sit on adjoining balconies and eat pizza and ice cream and just talk and talk and talk: connected in the love of God, enjoying God’s works that are so wonderful.
As much as Leonard loved traveling and being out in the big, wide world, he loved being home as well – with his doggies Holly & Buzz on his lap, sitting on the couch. Maybe some music on the radio – anything from Kiss to Barry Manilow to Brooks & Dunn. A whole diversity of music – of God’s creation that Leonard loved so much.
In [the Gospel of John], Jesus says “I [am going to] prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
This is a bit of a mystery to us. Eternal life is a mystery to us. We can’t say where it is. No one has ever told us how it looks.
But I think we experience a glimpse of heaven here on earth: when we really love and connect with one another, when we really LOVE and cherish and LIVE the life that God has given us.
So I believe that Leonard’s life with God now is what his life was here, and even more. It is an eternity: an eternity of the delight he experienced as he discovered similarity after similarity with his daughter, an eternity of the love he experienced in partnership with Fran, an eternity of the peace he experienced on the couch with Holly & Buzz, an eternity of connection with the lives of others – whether it was on a shuttle bus to the airport…or online with this pastor and this community who was and is blessed because of him.
That love and connection is the entirety of what Leonard experiences in the fullness of God’s presence. So thanks be to God for the life of Leonard and for a glimpse of a life well-lived here and into eternity.
May we receive that same gift now and always.
May it be so.