September 23, 2009
Founders' Day and Seminex Celebration
Lessons for Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist:
Ezek 2:8-3:11, Eph 2:4-10, Ps 119:33-40, Matt 9:9-13
Matt 9:9-13 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. 10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (NRSV).
So many topics; so many texts; so little time. 1 was tempted to add, "and miles to go before I sleep," but decided it was not a good idea to begin a sermon with the word "sleep"! So many topics: PLTS Founders' Day; Seminex at 35; the call of Matthew; and one more, which I'll save until the end. So many texts, from Ezekiel, Ephesians, Psalm 119 and Matthew. These I narrow to two, Matthew and Ephesians. I he psalm we sang, and psalms are for singing. All I'll do with Ezekiel is make the rather perverse observation that in God's call to swallow the scroll we finally see the origin of the Collect for Holy Scripture, which invites us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
For all these topics, from these two texts, one double theme: a) God's grace/mercy/love that embraces us in Jesus Christ, the crucified one, and b) the grace/mercy/love we are therefore freed to live out in the world with this crucified one.
But still the embarrassment of riches. Today's texts from Matthew and Ephesians use all the terms I just used, grace/mercy/love, and more, to speak of both halves of the double theme, God's love for us and God's life through us. I want to make it simple, as Rabbi Marc Gellman was quoted as doing in an article called "The Right Way to Pray?" in last Wednesday's New York Times (printed, the article was eleven pages long). The Rabbi said, "... when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!"
I need and have found a simple phrase like the Rabbis that covers both God's love to us and God's love through us. I found it neither in Matthew nor in Ephesians but in the words you see as you go through a Bay Area bridge tollbooth using FasTrak, the automatic toll collector attached to your windshield. A sign just beyond the tollbooth flashes these words as you go through: "VALID ETC ("ee-tee-cee"), which means "Valid Electronic Toll Collection." But before I knew that, I had always read it as VALID ETC. ("et cetera") and saw a sermon theme in there somewhere. And you are in luck, dear friends, for here is that sermon, in which VALID ETC. means: a) because of God's love in the crucified one, we are VALID, validated, justified, every day anew and b) every day anew the Spirit impels us to live out the ETC. life of service that flows from faith's reliance on our gospel validation.
Theme one, the call of Matthew. Whatever this tax gatherer had done or been, with no prerequisites, today's gospel says he was called with these unadorned words, "Follow Me." This was not, in first instance, a call to be one of the twelve apostles, but a call like ours, to be Jesus' follower, to follow his way to the cross. It is through Jesus' cross that Matthew and we have been validated. Matthew's gospel is by no means devoid of this VALID-half of our double equation: it tells us that Christ has come to give his life a ransom for many and that his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. But Matthew majors in the ETC. In today's gospel, when Jesus is challenged about his and God's barrier-breaking inclusiveness, Jesus says, "Go and learn what it means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'" Jesus' followers are to be just as welcoming, just as barrier-crossing and just as merciful as he. "Go ... and make disciples of all nations" is the command with which this gospel ends.
Ephesians 2 is much more articulate about the VALID part than Matthew: God is rich in mercy, acts out of great love, by grace, through faith, not the result of works. However, the ETC. is not far behind-the "not of works" in verse 9 is followed by the assertion that in Christ Jesus we were created for good works. And if today's Ephesians lesson had not been cut at verse 10, we would have come to one of the most barrier-breaking, reconciling passages in the whole Bible, in which, through the cross, through his flesh, Jesus has broken down the barrier between Jew and Gentile "that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace" (v. 15).
Sadly, as James Carroll shows in Constantine's Sword, the church often made the cross a sword, a weapon of warfare, of superiority. Whatever was not the church became no-thing, especially if it was Jewish. The church, with its sword-cross, became the ecclesiastical equivalent of Chevy Chase's self-introduction on Saturday Night Live: "Hi, I'm Chevy Chase--and you're not!" Thank God for the cross that unites rather than divides, creating one new humanity!
Theme two, on Founders' Day, the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) story. PLTS had two main catalysts, the Holy Spirit and James Prince Beasom. Beasom, president of the California Synod of the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA), was an incredibly energetic, mission-oriented pastor. Before there was a PLTS, Beasom went each year to the Lutheran seminaries in the East to recruit promising pastors for the West. He was so successful that these Eastern seminaries said, "Don't come back." And so, he and others bought two mansions on a hill, and voila, a seminary in and for the West.
PLTS has had a wonderful blending of the VALID and the ETC., with an evangelical center and a reach beyond itself. Of the four orienting perspectives of PLTS, Lutheran Identity seems to focus most specifically on the VALID, the evangelical core. It reads, "A shared passion for the biblical story, centered on God's sheer love in Jesus Christ, which forms us as a community of worship, study, and service, rooted in the Lutheran confessional tradition."
The other three perspectives, Religious Pluralism, Multiculturalism, and Public Sphere, flow from this evangelical core into various aspects of the ETC. In today's gospel Jesus speaks of God's desire for mercy in the context of warning against saying no to those to whom God says yes. And so PLTS became a Reconciling in Christ seminary.
Its ecumenical and inter-religious setting in the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) is a logical extension of its Lutheran heritage, not a denial of it. So is the seminary's commitment to justice and peace. Maybe in the '60s it was accused of being the Berkeley city council at prayer. To which two brief remarks: 1. I learned in the Beasom booklet that the seminary is not actually in Berkeley, the property line putting it almost entirely in Contra Costa County. So, seminarians, if necessary, a quick note home to the family in Peoria or St. Cloud--"Guess what, Grandma, I am actually not going to school in Berkeley!" 2. A passion for peace and justice did not first spring up on Sproul Plaza on the Cal campus or on Telegraph Ave. It is at the heart of Jesus' message, and he, in turn, found it in the books he called Scripture.
Theme three, on its 35th anniversary, the Seminex story. In January of 1974, the Board of Control of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis suspended the seminary's president, John Tietjen, alleging that he was harboring false teachers on the faculty. The students declared a moratorium on classes until the issues were resolved, and the faculty majority (all but five of the forty-plus professors) honored the moratorium. A month later, with nothing resolved, the faculty was ordered to teach or be fired. The students and the faculty majority then voted to continue seminary education as Concordia Seminary in Exile (later called Christ Seminary--Seminex). On February 19, 1974, we processed off the campus to be met by Walter Brueggemann, then Dean of Eden Seminary, and representatives of Jesuit-run St. Louis University, who gave us classrooms and took us in. In 1983, in anticipation of Lutheran merger, Seminex deployed its remaining faculty to other Lutheran seminaries, and four of us came here (Carl Graesser, Bob Smith, George Hover and I).
Here are the Seminex issues, in an abridged Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! version. On the issue of the VALID, both sides wanted to uphold the gospel. Our accusers sought to do that by insisting on a particular understanding of the scriptures. They insisted we affirm, for example, "the historicity of every detail in the life of Jesus as recorded by the evangelists." We found the gospel as the center of the scriptures by methods that differed from, and were not helped by, the ones they insisted on. On the issue of the ETC., here is one example. Our detractors declared, "a decision on ... ordaining women ... [cannot be] made on the basis of the 'Gospel' rather than on the teaching of Scripture as such." On the ordination of women, we found the gospel a wonderful guide to keep us from saying no where God was saying yes.
These are the stories of Matthew's call, PLTS, and Seminex. There is one more story--by far the briefest of all, but, if John Steinbeck is right, the most important of all. In East of Eden he said, "If the story is not about the hearer, he[/she] will not listen." This VALID ETC. stuff is our story, yours and mine.
Last week my wife, Clara, and I rushed to the home of a neighbor to help the infirm husband, who had fallen. An hour later he fell again, and 911 was called. As 1 sat with the wife, herself infirm, we spoke about their adult daughter, who lived at home with them and sacrificed her own life to meet their every need, and then some. The mother said of the daughter, "She does not think she has done nearly enough and thus believes that when she dies she will not go to heaven, at least not right away."
Thanks be to God there is a different way to think about deeds of love and God's eternal embrace. The VALID ETC. story is our story. From the baptismal get-go, because of Jesus Christ, we are VALID, validated in the sight of God. To these waters, this VALID, we are called back every day, only to be sent out on the Fas-Trak of the ETC., to show filial, parental, neighborly, and every other kind of love. It does not get any better than that! And so, to end this sermon, all I need is one of Rabbi Gellman's very brief prayers: Wow! Amen.
Everett R. Kalin
Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of New Testament Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary