Sermon 84

Clara is third from the left front, May 31, 1936.

Isn’t That Wonderful!

For the Funeral of

Clara Barstad Anderson



July 18, 2015


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            On behalf of Clara’s family I want to welcome all of you here today. It is good that you are here with us on this hot summer day to pay last respects to Clara Anderson—a child of God and our sister in Christ.

            There is much to say about Clara. She was a colorful personality who led anything but an ordinary life. I’m sure you will have many stories to tell about her. But here, at this moment, in this sacred place, we will recount the faith that sustained her all of her days. A faith into which she was baptized when she was but four months old. A faith which she confirmed in Glasgow, Montana, when fifteen years old. A faith which carried her through the many trials and tribulations of her 94 years—right up to the severe dementia from which she suffered at the end.


The Christian Faith

So what was this faith that strengthened her and guided her all of her days? It’s right there in John 3—where we’re told that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent the Son in the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God…. For the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hands. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” That was her faith. That’s what she believed in.

            So, as Psalm 23 says, even though she walked “through the valley of the shadow of death,” she feared nothing because Christ Jesus was her Shepherd. This was the “surpassing worth” in Philippians 3 that guided her and protected her and gave her the hope of attaining “the resurrection from the dead.” She held on to this above everything else. She celebrated it Sunday after Sunday in church, worshipping the Lord. She would always say something about my sermons—how they lifted up salvation from sin through faith in Christ Jesus. She liked that. It gave her joy.

            Therefore she also knew what Proverbs 3 says that we should not trust in ourselves, relying on “our own insight,” but rather “trust in the Lord with all your heart.” So we are saved when we trust in what Christ has done for us—saving us from the eternal punishment for our sin and from the terrifying wrath of the Almighty One—and therefore finally putting us on good terms with God for all of eternity, as Lutherans have taught for generations [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. Tappert (1959) p. 561].


Holy Communion

I knew Clara for over thirty-five years. She was a good friend to me. I loved Clara. She reminded me of my mother—these two women of Norwegian descent looked something alike. Clara helped us raise our three children. They called her Grandma Clara.

            When Clara couldn’t make it to church any more, her daughter, Sonja, and I set up visits with Holy Communion on an every-other-week basis. Over the last couple of years, when her dementia worsened, there wasn’t much conversation at those visits, but always Holy Communion. Often she would be babbling when I arrived, and it was hard to get her attention. Sometimes I could turn her head my way when I blurted out to her the names of my children—Susannah, Ruth, Anders! Like magic, that would give me just the opening I needed to begin the liturgy for Holy Communion. Once that began, she calmed down, looked intently at me, and participated in the liturgy—often joining in on praying the Lord’s Prayer. It was amazing. Afterwards, I would say goodbye. Sometimes she managed to thank me for coming. I would tell her I would see her again in a couple of weeks. And that was that . . .


Isn’t That Wonderful!

But on one such visit, a strange thing happened—like nothing I’d ever experienced before or since then, for that matter. After it was over I returned to the church office and told Sonja about it and then wrote it down with the date, May 7, 2014—close to a year before she died.

            The visit started as usual. I was able to grab her attention away from her babbling and begin the Holy Communion liturgy. But then it took an unexpected turn. At the point where I was recounting the Words of Institution, she surprised me. I was saying: “After supper he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink saying: This is my blood . . .” But before I could continue with—“shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”—she blurted out: “Oh, no!” It was just as if she had heard at that very moment of the death of a close friend or loved one. Thinking on my part that this was just some quirky mental flub, tied to her dementia, I plowed ahead: “Shed for you and all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

            But then, unannounced in any way, she jumped in again saying: “Did he really say that?” Now I was confused. This elderly, demented woman, my old friend, had thrown me a curve. What should I say? “Well, Clara, Biblical scholars aren’t sure that these words actually make up the authentic ipsissima verba of Jesus” [Joachim Jeremias (1900–1979), The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, 1966]. Or should I say that the Church thinks he said them? Or that he probably did say them? Or that I believe that he said them? . . . Thinking back on this brief moment, it seemed to have gone on longer than it did. But, by a stroke of grace, in a split second, I said what I thought God would want me to say: “Yes he did.”

            Not losing a step, Clara responded: “Isn’t that wonderful!?” And to that I said: “Yes it is”—taking her at her word and not thinking for a minute that it was just crazy talk from a mentally impaired senior citizen. Here was Clara’s faith breaking out from underneath the weight of her dementia. Here was her faith having its say amidst the babbling of her intellectual incapacity. Here was a declaration of her faith at life’s end—“Isn’t that wonderful!”

            Well, yes it is! Our sins are forgiven because of Jesus—and so we’re freed from the fires of hell. Clara knew this. She knew that she wasn’t forgiven because she was perfect and had solved all of her problems and had quit doing bad things. No, she was forgiven because of what Jesus had done for her on the cross. She was forgiven because of what he suffered and not because of her morality, intelligence or beauty. This is good news indeed. It is the faith that came to Clara at Holy Baptism and continued with her up to the day she died—trusting in her Savior Jesus as she did.


What Clara Meant

Shortly after she died, I recalled these words when reading the end of a poem that her daughter wrote in memory of her, “To Celebrate Your Light.” Words by Clara’s daughter that fill out her exclamation, “Isn’t that wonderful,” on what Christ has done for us:


No longer tied to this world’s insane allure,

In your bosom I’ll forever rest secure.

And like a fledgling who newly takes its flight,

I will gloriously celebrate your light.


That’s what Clara meant—to rest securely in Christ’s loving arms; to flee from the world’s insane allure. That’s what she meant in her shorthand way, by saying “Isn’t that wonderful.”


Traveling Days Are Done

And then at the end of the hymn we’ll sing shortly, entitled “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 497], I see a further elaboration of Clara’s words. This hymn was composed by Horatius Bonar (1808–1889) in Scotland. He stressed throughout his many hundreds of hymn texts the second coming of Jesus—to judge the living and the dead, and to lift up believers to eternal life. Our hymn ends this way:


And in that light of life I’ll walk

Till traveling days are done.


Jesus is that light of life. Throughout her life Clara struggled to walk in that light. There isn’t anything easy about that walk—our Lord Jesus even calls it a narrow way (Matthew 7:13). So she like most of us knew both successes and failures, all mixed up together. No doubt some days were better than others for her. At the end it must have been especially hard on her—with her severe dementia. But even then she could exclaim, “Isn’t that wonderful.” Yes, indeed, it is wonderful to know that Christ’s light shines among us and that we can, by his help, struggle to walk in it all of our days.

Now, however, that struggle is over for Clara. Her traveling days are done—Alleluia! Now all the glories of eternity have been opened up before her. The light of life, which is Christ Jesus our Lord, is no longer a mere aspiration or hope. Now it is an actual reality. Now she beholds him face to face. Now her traveling days are done and all of eternity is finally hers. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)