Ninety years ago, Nils and Nora Forde came to this place. Nora’s Father, Wilhelm Erickson, built this church. Nils was its pastor for many years, as was his son and my father, Gerhard, after him. Today, many of us – descendants of Nils and Nora – have come to this place to have a reunion, to remember, to renew our ties to the past, to this place, to you good people and to one another. So I thought it might be fitting for us to think a little about the importance of a place in our lives – a place that helps to give us our bearings, to tell us who we are. I have chosen three texts from the Scriptures around which I would like to center our reflection.
The first is from Psalm 103:15-16: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”
The second is from Matthew 8:18-20: “Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has no place to lay his head.’”
And the third from John 14:1-3: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
The first text is somewhat melancholy, I suppose, for a happy occasion like a family reunion: our days are like grass, we flourish momentarily like a flower, the wind of time passes, and the place knows us no more. Yet the text contains a twist of thought about a place which I have always thought interesting – a good word for us and something to think about on our occasion like this: “The wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows no more."
The place is spoken of as knowing or not knowing the person. His place knows him no more. But that means his place did once know him. Usually we have that the other way around. We speak of us knowing our place, or finding a place, or losing it, or whatever. But the bible speaks again and again of the place knowing or not knowing us. The Book of Job has the same thought: “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house nor does his place know him anymore” (Job 7:9-10). The good word – the comforting word – on the other side of that melancholy is the idea of a place that knows us, a place that knows me.
For a good many of us, this is such a place. For others, I suppose, some other place might be that sort of place. But it’s a great gift to be known by such a place. When I come here it seems as if the very rocks and hills and sloughs and trees can say, “Yes, we know you. Remember when you used to play here? Remember when you used to climb in my branches?” And it doesn’t take long, even if you never spent a lot of time here – or any time at all – to be located somewhere in the family tree to be claimed by the place: “Oh, yes, you are Walter’s child, or Alex’s or Magdalene’s, or Ralph’s, or a granddaughter’s husband, or a cousin’s wife, and so on; yes, I know you.” And all the memories come tumbling into view. I suppose I could go anywhere on earth and close my eyes and see this church just as it is, inside and out – or at least as it was before there were some changes made! Didn’t I used to mow the cemetery for fifty cents an hour – with a hand-mower, no less? Yes, I expect the place knows me.
Remember the school – old district three? I remember teachers, Jeanette Brenden. Martha Rosten, Clara Hagen. I remember when Magdalene Barsness and Signe Vinje used to come and teach parochial school in the “other room” once a week. I remember sliding on the hill and sitting around the stove to dry our clothes. I suppose most folks don’t know we almost burned the place down once. We used to sneak in through the coal-bin and play school. Once we were redoing the Christmas program and tipped a candle over so that a curtain caught on fire. We scrambled out and ran home as fast as we could and stood over on the parsonage lawn waiting for the school to go up in smoke. But, thankfully, it never did. Yes, the place knows us. I suppose if the truth were told – all the incidents like that – it would have to be said that the place knows us all too well! I remember pitching hay and shocking barley and getting all scratchy and itchy over at Alfred Gorder’s place.
And I remember, of course, as we all do, the parsonage – that great old place which knows so many of us. It was a happy place. It seemed always to be full of people and comings and goings of one sort and another. I especially remember the big family gatherings when the old folks would sit and tell stories late into the night and the kids would hide behind chairs so no one would see us and tell us to go to bed. The stories were always pretty much the same – except when Agnes would come home and tell some of the latest ones from New York! But even if the stories were the same, they never seemed to get old, they just got better with time. We laughed more because we knew what was coming than because the story was new.
And so it was, and so we could go on and on. And I suppose most of you could tell similar kinds of stories about a place – its sorrows, its joys, a place that knows you. It’s a great blessing to be given such a place, such a place is ultimately a gift from God: to have a place where we can come to have a reunion, to let the place say, once again, “Yes, I know you.” To let such a place tell us who we are, and where we might be going. To find one another again.
And yet, even with all the joy, there is, undeniably, that note of melancholy: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” Things change – not, certainly for the worse necessarily, but they just change and the place doesn’t seem quite the same. The old school is gone. Some of the favorite trees are gone. The parsonage is up for sale. Many, many faces are missing both from family and congregation. Nils and Nora, Augusta, Ralph and Ausilga, Gerhard and Hannah, have found out here in the church-yard what we call a “final resting place.” Walter, Magdalene, Alexander elsewhere. Their place knows them no more. It is like that for us. Our days are like grass – the wind passes over it and it is gone. The place may stay. But we do not. The time comes the place knows us no more.
So it is that we must look to our other two texts as well for the final word about our place. We must look to that other one who came among us but for whom there was no place. We forget, I suppose, that a place is a gift from God. We worry about the fact our days are as grass – so we try to scratch out a place for ourselves, to make a permanent, lasting place, to climb to higher places and succeed, more often than not, only to hurt each other in the process.
Not so with him. He refused to fight for a place among us. When there were those who tried to use him to their own advantage, like that scribe in our text who said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” he would not have it. He simply said, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” There was no place for him here in the battle for places so Christ was finally driven to the place of the skull where he was crucified, driven out of our world. We tried, I suppose we might say, to put him in his “place.”
But he came to say that a place – this place – is a gift from God to be cherished, loved, and cared for. And that God can be trusted to find a place for us that will know us forever. He triumphed over the place of the skull, he broke the hold of what we call the “final resting place.” He spoke the promise – which is the only cure for the note of melancholy, for the fact that our days are as grass, the only cure for our restless and tempestuous attempts to make a lasting place for ourselves: “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
In the end, that’s about all we have to go on. Let us believe that. Let us believe that God who gave us this place – a place that knows us for the time being – will give us finally a place that will know us forever. And believing that let us rejoice for yet a while, and find one another again, in this good place. Amen.
This series of sermons by Gerhard Forde has been kindly submitted by Lutheran Quarterly journal. To learn more about the Forde legacy, visit them at lutheranquarterly.com