In Memoriam: Joen Marie Larson

Revelation 21:1-4, 22-26 ; Psalm 90; Saint John 14:1-3

I only met Joen Larson once — on the day we said “Farewell and Godspeed” to her and to Duane on his final day as senior pastor. I didn’t have the privilege of knowing her as so many of you did. I certainly didn’t experience the love you, Duane, and she shared. I never experienced her passion for inclusion of all and equality for all, especially women. Several of you have shared with me your experiences with her — a strong, independent, dependable, and trustworthy confidante, always attentive, an active listener. With deep admiration, you have written of her as an accomplished and admired educator, education administrator, and educator of educators. You tell about the depth and breadth of her caring, especially for young adults, particularly those experiencing disruptive and seemingly endless transitions; how she was “there” for them. You each have fond and very personal memories of Joen, memories I cannot share nor dare interpret. I didn’t know her. But I do know of her courage as she faced the power of death; I do know her faith and yours; and I do know Christ, as you all do; and because of all of that; and because we are determined, even at the grave to sing “alleluia,” I want to tell you a story — a conversation overheard, or at least imagined, a private conversation between a husband and wife– she on her deathbed, he seated close beside, both of them hoping still to say what needed saying most before the end.

“Before I leave,” she said,

“I do have something to confess.”

“Please don’t,” he said

“Now’s not the time for that.

If there’s confessing to be done,

let’s let it go at saying that you’re mine and

I’ve loved you always.”

“That’s right,” she said, I’m only yours.

And that you love me, that I know.

It’s just because you do that I believe

that you could handle my confession now.”


“But don’t you understand,” he said,

“that I don’t need for you to say you’re sorry,

not for anything.”


“Well,” she agreed,

“you may not need that but I do.

And I know that if I have that need

–the need to make confession and be forgiven–

you’re strong enough to hear me out.”

“Maybe,” said he,

“I’m not so strong at that,

at least I’m not afraid that some last,

unacknowledged sin still stands between us.

And if I’m not afraid of that,

why should you be?”


“Oh, Adam, you poor dear,

Is that what you had thought I said,

that I’m afraid,

that that was why I wanted to confess?

I’m not afraid, at least not much.

At any rate that wasn’t why

I wanted to apologize:

not out of fear3 but out of hope.

I dare to hope that I’m absolved

and hoping that,

I want to hear you say I really am.

And hoping that I am

does make it easier to say I’m sorry.”


“All right,” said he,

“You win. What is there to forgive?”


“Forgive my dying.

Pardon this damned mortality.”

“Your dying? Pardon that? But”

said he, “that’s something you can’t help.

Dying is . . . only natural.”


“No, it’s not natural at all,” she said.

“Life wasn’t meant to die.

Neither were we.

We both know that.

We’ve known that

ever since we’ve known of Easter.

Death isn’t natural at all.

It’s downright dirty,

dastardly and demeaning.

We’re not meant to ‘accept” it,

not even if with ‘dignity.’

We’re meant to trump it, as we shall.”


“But then,” said he,

“if death is conquered anyway,

if we outlast it, (and we shall)

why do you still think

dying needs forgiving?”


“Does that,” she asked,

“disturb you so,

for me to say that death

is what we’ve brought upon ourselves?

Does that strike you as morbid,

despite the fact I’m not afraid?

Despite the fact that

it’s my hope and not my fear

which frees me to admit

the shame of dying,

do you see that as merely

clinical escape?

Come, Adam,

can’t you deal with that?

I believe you can.”


“I wouldn’t say,” said he,

“that that is morbid.

Still, it does seem

– – how shall I say? – –

a bit too self-important

for us to take the credit

for so vast a thing as death.

Are we, for all our guilt,

really that influential?”


“That does seem hard to believe,” she said,

“unless we manage first to believe

that God is interested enough to judge

because God’s still more interested

in resurrecting and forgiving.

For God to let us die

is judgment, not contempt.

And there’s a difference.

Ignore us?

That God never does.

But deal with us God does.

That important we all are.”


“But then,” said Adam,

“why do you ask now

to be forgiven by me?

Forgiveness, yes.

But why from me?

I’m not the one who judges you.”


“But you’re the one I hurt.

For, Adam dear,

I do hurt you by dying.

You know I do.

It hurts me, too, of course.

Death even hurts my vanity.

Death isn’t pretty and,

as you know,

I’ve always liked being pretty.

But worse than that by far,

it hurts to have to liquidate

the fondest love affair

that any wife could want.

And it’s for that,

for interrupting that,

That I do say I’m sorry.”


To which he said,

“I do forgive, I too forgive.”


“And thanks for that,” said she.

“Meanwhile, Adam, think spring.

Think Christ.”

To which he replied,

“I’ll see you later, my love.” *

There, in God’s Garden. Amen.

*Robert A. Betram: Pardon My Dying — A Sequel To Ash Wednesday. Chapel Sermon, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, February 17, 1972.