By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Catherine, Jack, Charles and Susan; on behalf of those who have gathered here today, as well as the members of this church, I want to extend our heartfelt sympathy to you and your families at the death of Walt Johnson. As Paul said, he was a good friend to so many, and he will be deeply missed, but most deeply by you, and we offer you our love and promise you our prayers in the coming days. Thank you for letting us share this day with you.
And to you who have come out on this stormy day, thank you so much for being here. Your presence is a gift to Walt’s family, and I hope you’ll stay after the service for some refreshments. I learned a long time ago that when we gather over a cup of coffee and break bread together and share our Walt Johnson stories; in the midst of the laughter and the tears, healing begins. Please join us.
Several years ago, I buried a good friend of mine. Olaf was 40 years older than me, but he was one of the kindest, gentlest and most interesting persons I had ever met. Just before the funeral, his family shared with me a portion of Olaf’s will, and it changed the message that I would preach that day. This is what he wrote:
I now leave to my family and friends all my earthly possessions; If it is gold and silver that they desire, then I have left them poor. But if I have taught them anything about the love and grace of Jesus Christ, then they are rich – rich beyond measure.
Today, I bury another friend. Walt was 30 years older than me, but he too was one of the kindest, gentlest and most interesting people in my life. And the legacy that he has left for so many people has made us blessed and rich. He was so unique; a crusty pilot, training others for war, and yet a gifted artist who relished painting landscapes, people and airplanes. He was an avid golfer, a faithful swimmer, a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend. But last Monday, this congregation lost a giant. Walt’s faith in God, his love and loyalty to this church, and his concern for every person who comes and goes from this place will be my memory of him. By his very life, he taught me about the love and grace of Jesus, and he will not soon be forgotten.
Six years ago, our members were discussing the construction of this facility. Our church was growing and we needed it all – worship space, office space, fellowship space, classroom space – and we couldn’t afford to build it all, so we built this multi-use space that we call The Community Life Center. But Walt wanted a sanctuary; a new, large, beautiful, worshipful sanctuary. I remember he stood up at a congregational meeting and asked about the possibility of building a sanctuary. He was told it would be future construction, and that’s when Walt said “How far in the future? I’m 80 years old, I don’t know how much future I’ve got!”
After the meeting, I asked Walt if he wanted to ride with me to a church in Fridley to see another church that had built a multi-use space. We spent an hour touring that church, and on the way back to Stillwater, Walt said “Pastor Steve, if this is what you think we need at our church, then I support it 100%.” That was Walt Johnson; unselfish, mature, gracious. Some day, we are going to build a new sanctuary in this church, and I promise I will wander in there one day and I will whisper “Okay Walt, how do you like this?”
Somewhere along the way, Walt learned that you don’t get everything you want…but if you asked Walt, he would tell you that he had enough. A wife of 64 years, successful and loving children, grandchildren that adored him. I’m so glad that the story about his painting came out in the paper awhile ago, because it gave him a tribute that he would never ask for but so richly deserved.
But I am here today to tell you that Walt’s greatest legacy is this: his treasure and his heart were firmly planted with Jesus Christ. Did he have shortfalls? Of course he did; just ask Catherine! Did he have warts and flaws and guilt and sin? Of course he did. But on Monday, when he breathed his last, God welcomed him home. “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for God is pleased to give you the kingdom.” That’s the promise that Walt trusted throughout his whole life.
And that’s the promise that Jesus has also made to us. Walt’s goodness, and kindness, and generosity, were well documented, but it wasn’t enough to get him into heaven. Only the work of Jesus on the cross could accomplish that for any of us. Walt is in the kingdom, and we will see him again when our time comes to die. May that promise fill you with hope today. Johnson family, may the truth of the resurrection sustain you in your grief, and comfort you in your loneliness, and hold you close when you are sad. Remember that St. Walt is waiting for us on the other side, because Jesus has taken him home. This is the Good News for those who trust in him. Thanks be to God. Amen.
• Copyright 2008, Steven Molin. Used by permission.