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April 11th, 2015

Tomorrow is Holy Humor Sunday at our church. On the Sunday after Easter we celebrate “God’s last laugh on the devil” when he raised Jesus from the dead. I’ve heard more than one comment this week that it just seems appropriate to have Ed Wiehrdt’s funeral on Holy Humor weekend. Ed loved to wear a t-shirt on Holy Humor Sunday that said, “Older than Dirt.”

Nobody loved a good joke more. Nobody had a better twinkle in his eye. Nobody won you over with a smile more quickly than Ed Wiehrdt. To his family and friends from out of town, it won’t surprise you to know that he won the hearts of everyone here, young and old. Angie Burnham, who’s now on our staff, said the first time she ever came to a Wednesday night dinner at the church, she was a little nervous. But Ed invited her to sit with him and Sharon. She never forgot that simple act of kindness.

I keep a file on each member family, occasionally dropping something in that file that seems significant about that person or family. I think my favorite item in the Wiehrdt file is a Lockhorns cartoon. Loretta Lockhorn is holding the phone, with Leroy around the corner, sitting in his recliner and reading the paper. I think it’s Sharon’s handwriting – not quite pretty enough to be Ed’s – that has written “Sharon” over Loretta Lockhorn’s head, and “Ed” over Leroy’s. Loretta says to her husband, “The preacher wants to know what you’ve been up to, Leroy…he’s having a hard time coming up with a sermon.” Ed would have loved it.

When I met with Sharon, Debbie, and Bill last week, they asked me to include Psalm 23 as our Old Testament Scripture lesson today. It’s always a great place to find comfort in the arms of our Good Shepherd. I chose the passage from John 3 because when Ed and Sharon joined Corinth in 1998, they both wrote John 3:16 on their membership form as part of their statement of faith. We have a place on that form to check, “I profess Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, and by that I mean….” Ed wrote, “John 3:16 – repentant of my sins, believe in him and I will be forgiven and have everlasting life.” This was his hope and confidence, and even to the end at Hospice he was testifying to having no fear of death because he knew where he would go next.

John 3:16 is arguably the best known verse in the Bible. Say it with me in the familiar King James Version: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in me shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Nobody’s 100% sure whether those words were spoken by Jesus or form John’s editorial comment. In the end, it doesn’t matter. They are God’s words.

But there’s more to John 3 than verse 16. What follows, as Pastor Bill read for us, is a statement of God’s heart – that he did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. The whole paragraph includes dramatic contrasts – perish vs. everlasting life, condemnation vs. salvation, believe vs. unbelief, darkness vs. light, truth vs. evil. We’ll come back to what John writes.

This black and white world was the world of Ed Wiehrdt’s generation. It was the world I was born into, but not the world I grew up in. It was the world Ed’s generation shaped. I don’t need to repeat the obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. We’re losing this generation. Those who have made it into their 90s won’t last much longer, and every time one of them dies we need to relive and relearn what they lived and learned during the century of greatest change the world has ever known.

It seems to me that much of what we can say about Ed we would say about his peers who were born in the 1920s and lived to see the 2010s. Let’s talk about three characteristics in particular.

Frugality. Ed’s thriftiness was not always amusing to his children, nor was it always politically correct. In his own words, he would try to “Jew” people down. They’d be in a nice restaurant and he would ask about his World War II discount. It didn’t bother him. He had a hat that said, “Where’s my senior discount?”

His son-in-law Bill’s favorite story about Ed’s frugality had to do with planting trees. As they dug the hole, sparks started flying because they had hit an underground power supply. Instead of paying someone to repair the wires correctly, Ed wrapped them up with rags and tar. Bill warned him that one day he’d lose power in the house. The day came when Bill’s prophecy was fulfilled – and it just happened to be on the day there was a wedding shower in the home.

This frugality is typical of the greatest generation, those who lived through the Great Depression. They learned in 1929 that you can never assume anything about the future. You don’t spend what you have. You live prudently and save what you can. Ed called himself a “miser” the first time we sat down to get acquainted. He attributed it to working for 40 cents an hour, 50 hours a week when he finished high school.

One of the ways Ed’s miserliness showed up was in his attitude toward cars. “A car is just a way to get there and back,” he would say. It’s not about status or comfort or appearance. Family lore centers around an old stick shift nicknamed “The Blue Flame.” Because it was cheaper to drive, he took Old Blue to a family wedding in Ohio instead of taking the good family car.

Debbie told the story of her sister Kathy taking the Blue Flame out one snowy evening not long after she got her license. Ed looked out the window of their tri-level home and commented, “Look at that crazy idiot out there doing donuts in the parking lot.” Then he realized who it was. When she came back in the house, he said, “Kathleen, can I see your license?” That was the last she saw of that driver’s license for a while. Ed was a man of more action than words, another trait typical of his generation, particularly men.

Family. A key reason for that frugality was family. Men of Ed’s generation were not always emotionally healthy or even aware, but they were solid men of high commitment to care for their family. That meant working hard to make sure their family had enough to eat and a place to live.

Born in Palatine, Illinois, Ed learned his work ethic early by helping out on his uncle’s farm. He would ride his bike out there and hang out with his cousin Margie, 13 years older.

Ed married April 19, 1947, which was his birthday, so he wouldn’t forget his anniversary. He and Lucile had four children, one of whom was stillborn. He worked in the Cudahy Packing Company in Chicago for a couple of years, then at Elgin Watch Company for 18 years, and completed his full-time working career as the Credit Manager for DuKane Corporation in St. Charles, Illinois. (I have two brothers who live in St. Charles, and one of them has done work for DuKane, still an active company.)

After retiring in 1981, Ed worked part-time for Sears in Elgin for several years. Lucile died early in 1988, and Ed married Sharon Anderson that August. After a few years they retired to Hickory, and we were blessed to be part of their lives.

Ed taught his children the same economy he had learned. If they wanted spending money, they could earn it by wedding his flowerbeds for 50 cents. Ed loved flowers, birds, and landscapes – and Debbie said she learned early from her Dad how to distinguish a flower from a weed. Most people take their Easter lilies home and keep them until they die, then throw them away. Ed would replant his. Several years ago he brought me a picture of an Easter lily that had three blooms on it the year he got it, then 27 the year after, and 42 the third year when he brought me the picture.

In later years, after Ed married Sharon, some of the family’s best memories were camping trips to Green Lake, Wisconsin. They had a trailer that slept four. Boating, skiing, and golfing were all part of family excursions. Every Saturday there was a flea market. Rivalries between Packers fans and Bears fans were part of the fun. So was what they called “10:00 chicken,” because Ed and the guys would burn the chicken, lost in the moment of conversation and beer. Ask them about the time Ed lost track of his young grandson Bradley. By the time Ed finished looking for him and came back to the campsite, Bradley was already there waiting for him.

Family life was not always smooth for Ed. There were trials and heartaches along the way. But he was always loyal and committed to his family – another trait of his generation.

Faith. Perhaps nothing defines Ed’s generation more, and thus him more, than World War II. In many ways, this was the war that defined and changed America more than any other. It was certainly not a war we wanted to wage. Our preference as a nation has been to let the Europeans fight their own wars. But our partnership with the Allied powers in World War II eventually gave us status as one of the two superpowers in the world. By the end of the century, we were the only superpower – and have had both successes and failures in the use of that status.

At age 19, neither Edwin Fredrich Wiehrdt nor his peers debated the present or future status of America’s power in the world. They didn’t know how that war would end or what the world would look like 70 years after it did. Ed was drafted in November 1942 and served on active duty for about three years. The 103rd Infantry Division, in which he served as Battalion Supply Clerk, was on the front lines in Marseilles, France, in late 1944 and into 1945.

Not long ago, Ed gave Debbie a little yellow plastic bag. In that bag was every letter he had written home to his mother as he served in Germany, France, and Austria. He also developed old black and white photos from the war and walked his family through where he had been.

Debbie typed out some of those letters and shared them with me. You definitely get the idea that this is just a late adolescent who is both fascinated and frustrated by what’s happening. At one point he’s writing about the food and says, “There’s one thing about the Army is that they keep you on the run so much that you get so darn hungry you eat anything they set before you. (I’m even eating peas, spinach, and all that stuff too.)” He ends that letter to his mother with “I think I will close now because the guys are going over to the P.X. for some beer and I can’t miss out on that.” He wants her to send him “some writing paper and smokes.”

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Ed is still in Camp Howzie, Texas, and writes about the P.X. being out of candy and the betting pool among the guys on what day the invasion would happen. Everything is changing in the world, and he’s still a 22-year-old who’s thinking about chocolate covered nuts and how he almost won $24 in a betting pool.

He even kept his sense of humor in the war. When he referred to “dive bombers” in his letters, he was talking about mosquitoes. There were some stories Ed loved to tell over and over again to anyone who hadn’t heard them, and even to those who had heard them dozens of times. One of his favorites was about the night he was relieved of his watch and was so exhausted he took his backpack and fell asleep between two other guys. When he woke up the next morning, he realized he was in the morgue. He would end that story by quipping, “Nobody snored.”

Those who survived that war could never be the same. They had sacrificed everything for freedom – not just theirs but that of the whole world. It became even clearer after the war how much this had truly been a battle between freedom and tyranny, death and life, truth and evil, light and darkness. Just like John 3.

Those of us born later sometimes fail to understand why there’s so little gray area for the greatest generation. You don’t splurge, even when you have extra money. You don’t divorce, even when your marriage is difficult. You don’t give up on what’s right, even if there’s no immediate gratification.

It’s really about faith, isn’t it? It’s about trusting that what you see in front of you at this moment is not the whole story. It might be worth waiting, trusting, hoping for what you can’t see.

John 3:16-21 takes that basic life lesson and give it its deepest, most profound significance. Faith means believing that God loves this world so much that it is worth the gift of his own Son. He knows about the evil in it. He knows about the darkness in it. But he doesn’t come into the world to condemn it. He enters to save it.

John 3:16 says that those who believe – who understand and receive this message – live forever. That’s the gospel. It’s God’s love, God’s gift, and God’s reward of eternal life. Let’s say that verse one more time together – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Amen.

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