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A Funeral Sermon for Jerry Koenig. January 29, 2022

January 29, 2022

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) for the memorial service of Jerry Koenig, longtime teacher and principal of Grace. You can view the service and the bulletin, too.

Kendall, Kurt, Karla, and LaNell; colleagues and students; family and friends; sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace this morning in the name of God the Father and our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. It was not long after I had arrived at Grace that Jerry, unannounced and unassuming, probably on his way to or from fixing something around here, poked his head into my office. He stopped by to welcome his new pastor, to see how I was doing, and to let me know he’d be happy to share anything helpful about the history of Grace with me. We had a lovely conversation on that warm August afternoon. We talked a lot about Grace’s history. The funny thing is, to the best of my memory, Jerry never got around to sharing with me his place in Grace’s history that day. He didn’t bother to mention that he’d spent thirty-six years as an educator in this place, twenty as principal. He didn’t tell me about the large role he played in making the new addition a reality. He didn’t speak of the fact that that same year, 2015, he received a commendation from the ELCA for 55 years of service in ministry to the church. He didn’t even tell me that he was the father-in-law of the current principal or that in 1959 he’d been elected Sembuck next door at Concordia. He wanted to hear about me, and he wanted to talk about this church and school he loved so much. He didn’t seem to have time to talk about himself.
  2. Of course, I’d learn more about the man with whom I’d been speaking. I’d also learn that his behavior that day was consistent with his character. When Jerry was named principal of Grace School in 1980, he spoke not of himself, but of his predecessor, Vic Waldschmidt, who had always kept the focus on the gospel. Jerry spoke of how he hoped to carry on that tradition. And, when he retired, he pointed not to himself, but to the teaching staff, noting that it had always been his “privilege to draw on their expertise and support.” If Jerry wasn’t talking about the gospel or his church, his colleagues or his students, it wasn’t so that he could talk about himself. No, then he’d be speaking as proud Pops, sharing updates of his children and grandchildren, sharing memories of his beloved Marj, sharing updates of the life he and LaNell had discovered in their wake of their grief. To learn about Jerry’s place in the history of Grace, you’d have to look to someone other than Jerry. But as this congregation bears witness to today, there is no way to minimize the impact Mr. Koenig had on Grace. And through Grace, the world. Among his many talents, perhaps his greatest was helping others discover and use their talents for the Kingdom of God.
  3. For the Kingdom of God is like this, Jesus says: A man is going on a journey. He gathers his slaves, his servants, and entrusts talents to each of them. To one he gives five, to another two, to another one. The one makes five more, the next two more, but the third, afraid, goes and buries his talent in the ground. This is the middle parable from the great chapter of judgment, and there’s no sense skirting around Jesus’ teaching. Jerry would be the last one here today with any use for pretending that he wasn’t a sinner in need of God’s grace. Jerry, like the rest of us, would be lost with his Lord, no better than a talent buried in the earth. But in the divine mystery of grace, God does God’s best work with buried things. Jesus tells this and the other parables of judgment not, finally, to terrorize us, but to drive us to where his grace is found: the cross. He tells this parable shortly before his death. He, Jesus, would be placed in the ground, God’s spent talent. But he would be raised, and in his rising, he would lift us up. In his resurrection, we know both the hope of heaven and the purpose of a cross-shaped life in this world. Lifted up from the dust, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, wrapped in forgiveness, we are called to put to work the talents entrusted to us.
  4. Others helped Jerry discover his vocation, one that flowed from the font and was nurtured in Lutheran schools along the way. There was a brief detour after high school as Jerry pondered his future while working on a car lot. A mentor told Jerry he’d make a good educator and off to Concordia he went. The rest is history, you might say, a story told in a thousand different ways by a thousand different students; a story told in the deep friendships that he and Marj nurtured and by which they were nourished along the way. And along the way, Jerry kept unearthing talents. When one parent, new to the school, came to Mr. Koenig and said she wanted to get involved but didn’t know what she’d be good at, he simply encouraged her to get involved. Her talents would reveal themselves, and soon enough did. His work with kids didn’t stop with the final school bell; he also spent time leading Grace’s high school ministry. There was one trip in particular that stands out, when Jerry and Marj took a bus full of kids up to Detroit Island. Jerry wanted them to learn the talent of taking care of themselves, so they were sent off into the night to find and cook their food. Oh, they didn’t have to hunt for it; there was packaged food left out for them to find. One youth even discovered what happens when you cook a can of pork and beans on an open fire without opening it first. You never know when you’ll see the explosive work of the Holy Spirit! While such an adventure may not pass muster with today’s policies and procedures, it was in such moments that Jerry helped young people discover how they fit in this world and, even more, how God could use them in this world.
  5. Koenig was an outstanding educator, but he was first of all a Christian educator. When there was a need for discipline or correction, he was much less interested in enforcing authority, much more committed to enacting and eliciting forgiveness. Isn’t that what Christian education is all about? There is not, after all, a Christian way to do long division, or a Christian way to parse a sentence. But there is a Christian way to be in the world. To forgive as we have been forgiven, giving glory to God for the sake of Christ who has won forgiveness for us. In this way, Mr. Koenig shaped helped shape several generations of children for service in the world. As one parent said to me, “You could trust Mr. Koenig with your child’s education, but even more, you could trust him with your child’s spirit.” The world would be a poorer place without all those talents Mr. Koenig helped unearth.
  6. And somehow, while doing all of this, Pops always managed to put his family first. He and Marj saw that Kendall, Kurt, Karla and their kids were talents gifted and entrusted to them by God. Not just that their children and grandchildren are talented, though that’s certainly true, but that they are themselves talents. For Jerry and Marj, their family was a gift in which to invest their time, their love, their own talents. Whether woodworking or hanging drywall or fishing, at home or at the Wren House, these were times Jerry recognized as opportunities to pour himself and, even more, his sense of God’s grace and purpose, into the family with which God had blessed him. As at school, so at home. Children mattered. Their voices were to be listened to; their ideas heard. Today we know that Jerry and Marj are together again, and what a legacy of the gospel they have created.
  7. And then for Jerry, in grief, the joy of finding love again, one last earthly blessing unearthed by God’s grace. In a marriage that bore witness to both Marj and Jim, Jerry and LaNell were surprised once more by the gift of love. Your care for Jerry throughout these last several years was an act of gracious strength, itself a sign of the gospel. We watched with you what you saw most closely, as Jerry’s memory was slowly sapped by Lewy-Body Dementia and his body by Parkinsonism. But if our minds, our bodies, betray us all in the end, the gospel does not. While we forget, God remembers. When memory fails, the indelible waters of baptism remain. For the cross does not fade, and though Christ death does not get the last word. Death, even this death, by the grace of God at work in Christ has become the gateway to eternal life. LaNell, reflecting on your emerging relationship with Jerry, you once said it felt like you were flying. May your memories of Jerry and the life and love you shared continue to uplift you in these days.
  8. For Jerry, this earthly journey has run its course. His master has returned for him, this One who is God of both the living and the dead. Jerry is unearthed, standing with Marj, with his dad and mom, with dear friends and colleagues from Grace and beyond, before the throne of our God. Weeping and crying and death are no more. Body and mind are restored. Resurrected. Jerry is whole again. May this hope sustain us in our grief and return us to joy. For even now, even here, do we rejoice. We rejoice that Christ who was dead is alive. We rejoice that in Christ, Jerry is alive. We rejoice as we reflect upon a life lived well and faithfully, a life spent serving others and giving glory to God. Jerry wouldn’t have said it for himself, so we’ll say it for him: Well done, Jerry, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your master. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, today and forever. Amen.

From → Sermons

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