Rev. Diane K. Hooge
It was a few years ago when I received the call. The woman on the phone said, if you want to have time with Starla, you better come now. It was the second week of Advent, but fortunately the church leadership blessed my leave taking. I flew from Minnesota to Seattle and walked into Starla’s home where her caretaker left the house so we could have some time together…the kind of sacred time that happens when the one who is in the process of dying somehow rallies enough strength to be clear in their thinking and we were able to say all we needed to say. Sitting with her pink knit cap on her head covering her baldness, we planned out her memorial service. I listed all the people she wanted me to call at the time of her death. I agreed to negotiate with her Interim Pastor, who she so disliked and didn’t trust, to see if he would allow me to take charge of her service when the time came. She let me know where she wanted her resources to go: her brother, niece and nephew and which organization in the church she wanted to give a gift—a gift to the work that she had historically supported with her time and finances.
Although I had known Starla for years, when it comes to what one wants spoken and read, sung and written at one’s memorial service, the conversation goes much deeper. We were graced with over two hours of uninterrupted quiet with her last Christmas tree the only light in the room as we walked through our years of friendship. She was the one that had introduced me to John Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meany, still one of my all time favorite reads. One of our first questions to each other on the phone always was, what are you reading?
The last wilderness journey for Starla began when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She valiantly battled it while keeping up her very successful stock broker position and at the same time having to research a care facilities for her husband. He was 25 years older and had reached the stage of Alzheimer’s where he needed more care. His disease had already taken the life that they had known together. With the diagnoses of a brain tumor, she left her career behind and focused on making all the decisions that she needed to make before the tumor would not allow her to make choices.
Sitting together on the couch in her lovely inviting home, she assured me how she had no fear about the transition that she was making. She let me know that she had had several experiences of getting to encounter the other side, and she had found it comforting and transformative…she was ready.
On December 31st, as I headed for a New Year’s Eve gathering, I got the call that Starla had arrived safely to the new land.
Deuteronomy presents itself as a life review of Israel’s history. Moses work is helping them to get ready for the crossing into the Promised Land. He will not be crossing with them, so his work is to help them get ready to live a very different way of life. His leadership work had led them through the nomadic life of the wilderness journey, but his final work, in the last season of his life, is teaching them about their transition. He is helping to set structure and form in place for a new way of living.
Worship is often described as an act of remembering. We remember ancient stories, the first Sunday of the month we remember the Last Supper, we remember the stories of the early believers, and we remember through our music. One of the great things I treasure about Oregon is the regional collective memory of the land. The land is valued. The Coop is a high priority in this community. The Farmer’s Market helps us support what we value.
Our scripture lesson, offers us the instructions for a service of thanksgiving. Once the people had arrived in the new land, it became a litany that was recounted over and over as part of each service of thanksgiving. The first fruits were brought and presented to the central sanctuary each year. The basket would have been a symbolic offering of their gratitude to God for the fruit of the earth. It involved affirmations to God who had brought the people into Canaan. It also involved a pledge of loyal obedience to God. The ritual is saying, “I believe in God who brought me into this land.”
It’s the story of their history. It recalls the journey from being slaves in Egypt and then being brought into a land flowing with milk and honey.
It sounds so idyllic except that we know that it doesn’t include the whole story.
-there is nothing in here about the journey.
There is nothing in this litany about the years and years spent setting up camp and breaking camp.
There is nothing about the daily gathering of manna. There are no scraps of recipes in the archives about what they did with the quail. There is nothing noted here about those who didn’t make it to the Promised Land and were buried on the floor of the desert.
What we do get from this ritual of gratitude is the heart issue. The essence of freedom that comes from obeying God. Every generation has had to struggle with bondage, deliverance and freedom. Every generation has seasons of life in the wilderness.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, it was no easy leadership task. Having been in bondage for some 400 years, he was probably dealing with a very passive group of folks, people who had learned to bury their anger in order to survive—people who acknowledged that bondage was miserable, but who had a great fear of freedom because it was unknown.
The challenge for Moses was to help empower the people. For forty years he dealt with their fears. The desert journey enabled them to learn how to become a community. The truth of the desert experience is that they were never meant to make it alone. They learned to rely on God and on one another.
In Parker Palmer’s book The Promise of Paradox, he talks about how one doesn’t think one’s way into a new kind of living, one lives one’s way into a new kind of thinking.
Like the Israelites, we too gain our most valuable lessons when we are in the desert. Deserts often come in the form of life transitions. In transitions there is often anxiety, fear of the unknown, fear of failure. We often reach for the new without knowing what the new is, and the pain comes when the old has lost its meaning and the new hasn’t yet loomed into sight. And then we begin to have doubts wondering if the new will ever come. We are often called to wait…to wait for God’s timing. It is during these transitions when our memories often distort our pasts, and we’re tempted to go back…and sometimes, going back is about going to an oppressive situation, not because it is a good place for us, but because it is familiar.
The giving of the first fruits and the tithe of the produce was used for those who had a role in the upkeep of the Temple as well as for the care of the destitute: resident aliens, orphans and widows.
On each Friday, as I’m working on my sermon, I look out my office window and I am always amazed by the vast number of people that begin arriving shortly before noon to attend the AA meeting. Part of our community tithe is opening our doors to needs within the greater Ashland Community. No we’re not farmers, but we bring our Thanksgiving offerings to care for our neighbors who rely on the Food Bank. And, I feel so grateful for those from our community who are taking a stand this weekend in solidarity with people around the globe who are seeking to shut down the School of the Americas, in Georgia. Part of our community tithe can be counted in where we take action. Yes, tilling the soil and growing crops is hard work, but so is taking a stand for Climate Change,
-It takes hard work and discipline to figure out how to change our habits to be better stewards of the earth.
-It takes research and dedication to the struggle to figure out how to be of support to the mothers and children caught in Honduras and Guatemala.
– It takes hard work, dedication to speak out against child abuse.
-It takes a commitment and life stories to educate our community about the importance of being an organ donor.
-It takes commitment to support the Good Sam fund that helps to support those who find themselves in crises and come to our doors each week seeking help.
Every week I find out more information on where members of this community are involved in social justice issues. Where we spend our money and our volunteer time is indicative of our values. It’s how we live out our faith.
On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we will leave this sanctuary and enter our new classroom space at 138 Morton, and we will join together in our dedication litany. It is part of our gift of gratitude to God. And in that litany, is our prayer of Thanksgiving for the gift of having had Pam Shepherd here who came because this once was a very small dying church. However, this faith community made a commitment to follow God’s leading. Personal financial commitments were made in the form of pledges. This faith community raised the money, and Brad Roupp took on the task of rebuilding this church. And, following the dedication of this sanctuary, came the calling of the minister who was asked to help grow the church.
Every Thanksgiving is about a table of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving we offer our stories of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving we grieve for those who are no longer at the table, and we also give thanks for those who are new to the table. We are still adding leaves to our church table. We are still bringing our offers, and, we offer our deep gratitude that God is still speaking. Amen.