* Simultaneously “saint and sinner” is part of how we try to explain baptism in the Lutheran Christian tradition.
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 7, 2018
Torkel Palmer Attleson’s name says a lot about him. Born full-blooded Norwegian, he was proud of his first name, Torkel. Born on Palm Sunday in 1922, he was given the name most of us know him by, Palmer, because of the palm branches in the Bible story waved when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He filled out his 5 Wishes for what he wanted us to know about him. His list begins like this – full-blooded Norwegian, lifetime Lutheran, and baptized in the Norwegian Church. So much of what defined Palmer’s life was steeped in his families’ experience in the Norwegian immigrant community in Iowa. The other two things on his list stretched him just a bit – the rite of Confirmation in the German Lutheran Church and marriage in a Swedish Lutheran Church to his lovely Swedish bride who was from a Swedish immigrant community in Kansas. These are the things that he wants you to know.
Of course, there’s more. Palmer was a part of what’s called America’s Greatest Generation. Naval service in World War II’s Pacific Theater is incomprehensible to most of us, as is the rebuilding of the post-Depression, post-War America. He and Leona married in it, grew their family in it, and held onto their faith through it. Palmer lived this life while winging out Ollie and Lena jokes along with other one-liners with his signature dry humor and twinkle in his eye. His care and devotion to Leona through her MS is unparalleled, moving her in her wheelchair up the stairs in their home at the age of 75. The list could go on and on and there’s more in Palmer’s bio in the back of your bulletin. He loved his wife, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He loved his church. He loved his life.
Celebrating Palmer’s life is the easy part. Missing him is the harder part. I read recently about grief that it seems to take up all the space in the world until one day, it doesn’t. So we celebrate his life even as we miss him in death.
As devoted, proud, funny, and accomplished as Palmer was, he had an honesty about his own imperfection – the limits of his humanity. In the language of Christian tradition, we call it sin. And this is where his testimony of faith is so powerful. He worshiped with awareness and humility to hear Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and God’s love for him. For Palmer, this language of faith was formed by his Norwegian Lutheran heritage expanded by Leona’s Swedish Lutheran commitments.
In the Bible story chosen by his children from the Gospel of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time on his way to the cross. He had just come from visiting his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was because of the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead that the crowd came to see Jesus when they heard he was coming into Jerusalem. They took branches from palm trees and went out to meet Jesus. What a strange parade – palm branches waving as Jesus rides by on a donkey. The story goes on to tells us that even his disciples didn’t understand what was happening at first. Their lack of understanding is comforting. Jesus is on the move, on the cross, and onto the resurrection on our behalf whether we understand it or not. It’s a beautiful, powerful promise.
The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God’s promise in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race. Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. One thing the cross means is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer. For someone like Palmer, whose last years muted hearing, dimmed eyesight, and faded memory, the promise of the cross, of God suffering when we suffer, is no small thing.
The crosses in our lives can separate us from each other and from God. But God says, “Not so fast…I’ve been there too…I who came in the form of a baby, who lived and walked the earth, who was put to death and who conquered death in rising again…I am God and I have the last word.” God’s last word meets us our grief with hope – the hope that forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation with each other are possible; and the hope of all that God is yesterday in a living baby, today in a living Christ and tomorrow in an eternal God.
In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down and now catches death up into God, drawing Palmer into holy rest. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Palmer, just as it was for Leona. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you. Thanks be to God!