- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Texts: Romans 3:21-28 and 12:1-2; Isaiah 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20
A few weeks ago I had a homecoming visit with a friend whom I had not seen for some time. We talked of families and summer events. Then he told me that the central event of his summer was spending a month in treatment for alcoholism. He described the process and for some it may have a familiar ring. First, there was the confrontation -- the people who meant most to him telling him that he was ill. Then there was the painful first of the Twelve Steps, admitting the power of alcohol in his life. Then there was the long leap of faith that God loved him and could restore him that led to the third step of turning himself over to God’s care. It was easy to see the impact of these first steps in his life, the good spirit was back, and there was a healthier sheen about him. He described the continuing process, the fearless moral inventory taking. It will be a long trail -- this recovery Trail -- but he has already moved from redemption to renaissance, from the acceptance of God’s power to restore him to the taking of responsibility for a new style of living.
Redemption to renaissance. Today’s lesson from Romans was written by Paul, Paul the persecutor of Christians who was stopped in his tracks on the road to Damascus, convicted of sin by none other than Jesus and then, when sight was restored, the Holy Spirit entered his life and he embarked on a life of discipleship. His was a journey from redemption to renaissance!
In the first 11 chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul is talking about redemption and he makes the gospel claim loud and clear. “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” We are “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” If you are a Lutheran, those words are part of your confirmation credo and when you hear them you want to stand up and cheer for joy. On the basis of that good word and beginning in Chapter 12, Paul says, in effect, therefore “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is in the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
We are to move, says Paul, from redemption to renaissance, from good news to good work, from the death of sin to the living sacrifice of life in faith. The nub of the renaissance will be the renewing of our minds. In Paul’s vocabulary, the mind included the spirit and conscience, the intellect and the character. Now, in good catechetical fashion you may ask, “What does this mean?” So the burden of this homily is to begin to answer that question by looking at some of the renaissance tasks before us.
There is, first of all, the renaissance task in our own lives. In view of our nature, the renaissance of our lives is not an inconsiderable task. Here is how Martin Luther put it in a sermon on this text delivered at Wittenberg in 1546. “After baptism there remains much of the old Adam. You still have your own proud ideas, as well as other gross sins; therefore take heed to yourselves.” One thinks of brave and bold Peter responding fervently to Jesus in today’s gospel text by calling him Messiah. This same Peter would cave into his human nature, his desire for fame and self-preservation, in acts of betrayal.
Once we take our frail claim on redemption into the public square, we find it is easier to conform to the prevailing norm than live the sacrificial, faithful life. Think about our taste in culture and our discipline of conscience and vocation. It is tempting to live as though God is dead and we are in charge. For all of these reasons, it is easier to go from redemption to perdition than from redemption to renaissance.
If what is inside isn’t challenge enough to renaissance in our own lives, then consider the foes that assail us from the outside. Think about brokenness and abandonment, the ways in which the sins of parents are visited upon their children. Think of illness and cruel death. Within the past two weeks, two of our students whose mother is disabled by the effects of multiple sclerosis lost their father to cancer.
Under such conditions, imposed from without or within, under such conditions how shall we move from redemption to renaissance? There is a large and reliable answer from an old and faithful source, the word of God as recorded in the book of Isaiah:
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were dug.”
There is the answer. Look to the rock, there you will find resources for your renaissance. You will find them in the tradition of the saints, of Abraham and Isaac, Ruth and Sarah, Peter and Paul, Mary and Priscilla, Luther and Calvin, St. Thomas and St. Catherine; the traditions of Aasgaard and Brown, of Fjelstad and Nilsen and all the rest.
Look to the rock, there you will find the gospel word of grace, the word that became flesh in Jesus and becomes flesh still in water and word, in wine and bread. Yes, the Lord will comfort you, comfort you and then send you forth on justice journeys. If you would move your life from redemption to renaissance, look to the rock, to the company of saints where the tradition is preserved, the gospel is preached, and the blessing is borne onward.
We simply cannot underestimate the power of this rock. A friend told the story of her mother’s illness some years ago. She lay on a bed of pain in her closing days. One morning she was absolutely disconsolate, she was concerned not about her wasting body but her fragile soul. She was filled with anxiety recalling past sins and future uncertainties. The daughter used the psychological talk and the doctrinal talk with which we are all familiar. But to no avail. Her mother literally wrestled with the demons assailing her. Then suddenly the daughter was moved to grasp her mother by the arm and place the other hand on her mother’s brow and she recited these ancient, ritual words: “God in heaven, for Jesus’ sake, forgives you all your sins.” Her mother immediately quieted down, her countenance was at last at rest, her soul at peace. That is the power of our gospel rock as we move from redemption to renaissance.
Yes, renaissance happens in our lives and then, in a response of gratitude, we take the renaissance into the world and to our neighbor. Having considered the renaissance needs in our own lives, let us consider the renaissance needs of our neighbors. There is a hunger in our world today for a renaissance of virtue and morality. Daniel Yankelovich, the well-regarded social scientist, tells us that four of five Americans believe morality is in a state of decline in America. To judge by the brisk sales of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, many are very serious about these matters.
There are, of course, many theories about what led us to our present confusion, a kind of latter-day antinomianism. Was it our schools, our individualism, our material success and was the church somehow complicit in all of it? I don’t know, but there is now a clear sense that something can and must be done. As a distinguished visitor, Pope John Paul II, said last year, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
How can we move from redemption to a renaissance of virtue and morality? Well, again, by looking to the rock -- to the rock of the Lutheran understanding of the uses of the law, for one thing. Inspired by Paul’s writing to the Romans, Luther said we are not saved by law but by grace. The first use of the law is to convince us of our sinfulness and therefore our need for redemption. The second use of the law is to help us live the life of service to which we are called. Someone once called the Ten Commandments “signposts on the road to freedom.” They are there to help us, to give us a degree of freedom in our walk. Keeping those commandments and our various derivative laws, the laws of property, the laws of academic integrity, the laws of tolerance and dignity, will not save our souls, but it will help us in our calling, which is the renaissance of our neighbor and our neighborhood.
Luther can be a great help to us in being moral without being moralistic, for he taught us about both our bondage and our responsibilities, our limitations and our possibilities. Luther told us that keeping the law was a struggle but a necessity. His is an emphasis worth reviewing in a time given to moral self-righteousness on the one hand and moral relativism on the other.
Today there are some signs of renaissance in the neighborhood. The place of the family in moral formation has been rediscovered and reaffirmed. Many congregations are becoming communities of moral deliberation on matters of faith and life, taking on some of the toughest moral issues of the day. Communities are becoming more upfront about the importance of law keeping. There is more talk of character and virtue in both sacred and secular settings. Such matters are finding their way into conversation in business and the professions and into the curricula of schools, colleges, and universities.
If we are to move from redemption to renaissance in the life of our neighborhood, we will want to respond to the soul searching of our day. “Soul Searching” was the title of our fall symposium. It was a challenging, engaging discussion of the soul needs of our day and the response of the church. It is not difficult to document this quest for renaissance. Look at the sale of books and objects related to angels. And look at the quest of growing numbers of people for some transcendent meaning and value in their lives. Conferences on spirituality have become a cottage industry in our country.
What is perplexing to many of us is that what most of the searchers are looking for is spirituality and not organized religion. They want to make connections but they regard the church as more concerned about structure, policies and ritual than with spirituality. Timothy Lull, a distinguished theologian from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, was one of the lecturers. He spoke about what the church can and ought to be offering to those in search of spirituality. To answer that question we ought again look to the rock of our tradition. Begin, said Lull, with the recognition that Luther was a soul searcher. Or if you prefer other models or other traditions, think about St. Francis, Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Lutheran theological tradition has a good deal to offer people of every denomination if we take the time to unwrap it. Lull reminded us of the theology of the cross and its potential meaning to prosperous people who seem unable to find happiness and suffering people looking for comfort. Then there is the paradoxical insight of Luther on freedom and responsibility. We are lord of all, subject to none, yet at the same time, we are servant of all subject to all. Again, we can look to Luther who made worship accessible to soul searchers by revamping the liturgy, by translating the scriptures into the vernacular, by inviting the people to participate in the worship and in the sharing of the body and blood of our Lord. Out of such a tradition Lutherans can not only afford to be flexible and innovative in responding to soul searchers of our day — we are almost obliged to be.
There are some exciting and hopeful things happening in the church as it draws from the rock in responding to the soul searchers of our day. There are creative ministries in places like Cooperstown and Fargo, North Dakota; Glendale, Arizona and Nome, Alaska; Montemedi, Minnesota and Arusha, Tanzania. Bible study has taken on a new place and a new vitality -- study that begins with the Word rather than the nomenclature, with the intersection between experience and revelation. I participated in a new form of Bible study this summer. We began by reading aloud the assigned chapter. The point was to hear it, to attend to God’s message. Our leader, a distinguished theologian, was not unwilling to share his scholarly insights with us, but he said the central point was to discern what God was saying to us soul searchers.
There are other signs of renewal as conventional liturgies are being reinvigorated by giving more attention to preparation, quality and context. There are house churches for the few, megachurches for the many, and Promise Keepers for men seeking to reconnect with God, with each other, and with their families. We won’t like all of it, or respond to some of it, but we must respect the Spirit’s capacity to move in many and wondrous ways. We must be prepared, as the evangelical preacher said, to “preach, pray and get out of the way” as God’s people move from redemption to renaissance in the life of the church.
The other arena in which we need to discern the renaissance is in response to issues of justice. I don’t need to recite again the stark facts of our society: the absolute despair in our inner cities, the enslavement of children in foreign nations, the continuing suppression of the rights of indigenous people in Latin America and elsewhere. If we don’t understand that poverty and politics have something to do with violence and despair we didn’t listen carefully enough in our college classrooms nor are we reading the daily newspapers with much discernment.
As we begin to discern our role in the renaissance of the global neighborhood, we begin again by looking to the rock, to the invitation of Jesus to feed the flock and His stern warning that if we neglect the least among us we have neglected God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, reminded us that grace in the service of justice is inevitable and it can be costly. It cost God His son, Jesus his life, and Martin Luther his way of life. So we shouldn’t expect that it might be otherwise for us.
We can look to the mission of our college that sends us forth, day after day, to do justice. Whether you are a businessperson, a doctor or a nurse, a teacher or a lawyer, a housekeeper or a street sweeper; wherever there is a neighbor, a customer or a patient, a friend or an adversary, a patron or a student, there is also a place to do justice.
As people look to the rock in a discerning way, renaissance happens. In Billings, Montana, church people, Concordia alums among them, put Menorahs in the windows of their homes and churches to show solidarity with Jewish families in that city when they were subjected to hate crimes during Hanukkah, and the hate crimes stopped. In the Fairlawn neighborhood of Washington, D.C., citizens concerned about drug activity in their community organized and today their children are again able to play in safe streets. Here at this place, nearly 900 students began their academic career by contributing 2,000 hours of volunteer service to a host of community projects.
From redemption to renaissance: There are signs of renaissance in our lives and in the lives of our neighbors and our neighborhoods. Redemption is God’s good act and renaissance is our response, a renaissance that requires us to make an effort to discern “what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Our renaissance journey is not a one-time thing. The friend whom I mentioned at the beginning of this homily calls himself a recovering alcoholic and his counselor warned his group in the treatment center that two out of three of them would be back. On our renaissance journey the odds are even worse. But again, we can look to the rock of our faith. God knows our situation better than we do and God did not use up all the grace on our parents or on us at baptism. God’s grace is not only sufficient, it is inexhaustible. And on our renaissance journey the spirit of God “helps us in our weakness . . .” and “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Hear again the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”
God be with you on your journey from redemption to renaissance. Amen.