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Easter VII, 50th Anniversary Seminary Graduation Celebration

The following sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Strieter, Class of 1957 (Concordia), in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Sunday, May 20, 2007.


John 17:20-26

Here we are – gathered on this seventh Sunday of Easter, tucked away between Ascension and Pentecost. Sort of like the disciples in the Upper Room, awaiting the promise of the Holy Spirit. We're gathered in celebration of the fiftieth year of our graduation from a parent seminary of LSTC…

As we listened to our stories last night, some of us come with a sense of fulfillment, - of mission accomplished. "We have fought a good fight; we have kept the faith." Others of us may not be all that sure. Maybe we have more of a sense of spottiness in our ministries, whatever form they have taken. Perhaps there is no great sense of success. But we find comfort in Paul's words, "Moreover, it is required of stewards that a person be found faithful." And there is comfort in that: -- faithfulness if not success

I look back on my 50 years of highs and lows with mixed feelings. And I find my greatest comfort in the words of St. John: "If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart."…And that is the heart of the Gospel for me … that, "God is our Father and Friend in Jesus Christ in spite of all evidence to the contrary."…..

My wife, Doris, draws strength from the piety – or lack of it – of Ann LaMott. The author writes that she has a friend who says two prayers each day. When she gets up in the morning, she says, "Whatever!" And at the end of the day, she prays, "Oh well!"

Whatever each moment may bring for us, "Whatever!... Oh well!"….. "When our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts."…….

From this mountaintop moment, looking back over the past years, and forward to whatever the future may bring, believing God's grace given in Jesus, we share the wisdom of the Rabbi in Robert Browning's poem, Rabbi ben Ezra: "Grow old along with me; the best of life is yet to be the last for which the first was made. Our times are in his hands who said, 'A whole I've planned; youth shows but half.' Trust God, see all, nor be afraid.."…….

After that bit of confession – and, hopefully, absolution, - what can I share with you to enlighten and to edify? You know as much as I do. And have experienced as much as I have experienced. We all have the same spiritual gifts, or at least the same Spirit. So I don't have the chutzpah to try to dazzle you with my footwork…

I can only do what Luther tells us to do, and what you've probably done every time you've addressed your communities of faith: Preach the text. Preach the gospel. And preach pro nobis – for us; pro me –for me. Otherwise, as Luther writes in his commentary on the Magnificat – it is only "empty words and idle fables…"..

I must admit, I've always had a certain anxiety when preaching from Johannine texts, such as from the discourse at the feeding of the 5,000, or a series from the high priestly prayer for several Sundays in a row. It's hard to say something fresh because they are so repetitious. How many times in a row can you preach basically on the same theme?

Our excellent homiletics professor, Richard Caemmerer (Sr.) , said that John operates with circular logic. Like sauntering around a hologram, he looks at the same thing from all sides. And that stretches the preacher's creativity… So I'll just focus on this one thought in this Gospel: WE ARE ONE IN THE WORLD…….

As you know, the Gospel for today is from Jesus' High Priestly Prayer in the Upper Room, just before his suffering and death. In this text, Jesus prays, "My prayer is not for these alone. I pray for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them might be one."

We are learning to understand more clearly that the minister is not the only teacher, the only prophet or witness in the church. It also involves, "those who believe in me through their message." The church – the ekklesia – is the "called out ones." It is the called and consecrated people. Where believers gather, the church IS. Together we are one in the world.......

There is an old Latin saying, "ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia." "Where Christ is, there is the church." And that's what the Ascension and Pentecost is all about. Christ has ascended into his church. And is present in the breaking of bread and the splash of wine…

But Luther also insists on ubiquity, the "everywhereness" of Christ. Permeating all things. In, with, and under the bread and cup, but in with and under all things. Sally, McFague, the theologian, puts it: "The world is God's body."…..

Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, "Where is Christ today?" … He is invisibly present, just as he was in that Upper Room, as the disciples prayed for the Spirit to move out into the world…. "Where is Christ today?" … Bonhoeffer answers, He is in the suffering, and the believers, who labor for peace, who cry out against injustice, and against the rape of God's good earth…

Christ is where his Spirit is incarnate in people. And where the Spirit-filled community gathers, there is the church. It is in this that you and I have found the dignity and glory of our calling. In our servanthood. As "ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." Christ has called us out to call others out – a people united… And Jesus says that the world will know the unity of the Father and the Son when it sees our unity of love and service…

What must WE BE if the CHURCH IS TO BE?... Jesus emphasizes the unity of his beloved community, expressed in love. How could it be otherwise if love is the sign of Jesus' followers? And that love is manifested by service to the world. That's what we have been about in our ministry. As our Lord, who washed his disciples feet, saying, "I have come among you as one who serves."…….

In this sense, the church must be political. It was said by Lutheran theologians in the 19th and 20th century in Germany and elsewhere, "The Gospel has nothing to do with the social order." That's a quote! And most of the church was quiescent as Hitler rose to power……

We must go beyond the personal problems of living and dying. We must face the problems of all people. The challenge to live humanely and justly in a world that is assaulted by evil. And not be only committed to peace and justice, but also the care of the earth. We must be involved in creation stewardship as never before. Because now we know what is so desperately at stake. And if we don't participate in the solution, then we are part of the problem.

We may want to stay snug in our churches and homes, avoiding the reality of our world going to hell in a hand basket. But, just as those disciples in that Upper Room, WE CANNOT STAY HERE! We are called to the nations

This is at the heart of what Luther calls our vocation. Not just our careers. But every role we fill in family church, society, nation, - and earth! Luther always insisted that toward God we do nothing! It's all a gift. Grace is to receive…

But in our roles in society, we are active partners with God, doing his work in the world. "The milkmaid and the manure-hauler have the noblest of vocations," says Luther, for they are doing God's work in the world. He even says that we are "co-creators with God."…….

In today's Gospel, Jesus looks at his followers and says to the Father, "These you have given me." And then he adds, "It is in them that I have been glorified."… Many of us in our ministry have raised buildings "to the glory of God." But the church is not a building. Not this building. It isn't Rome. Or on Higgins Road. It is in all these places.

But these institutions do not constitute the church. For the temple of God is the world. And God will be glorified when we are God's hands and feet, transforming the world and continuing God's creating and redeeming acts…

God's glory is established not only when words are uttered, but when the deeds are done in the work of our hearts and minds… And that calls for a global vision. We have foolishly created havoc in the middle east, and our children's children will pay the piper. We in the church must stand against injustice and for healing.

We must do our part to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, which is essential if there will be peace in the middle east and if world terrorism will abate. And wherever there is oppression and suffering, whether that is the genocide in Darfur or the world-wide AIDS pandemic, we must be about the Father's business. Working to make the earth a livable, sustainable and, hopefully, even an enjoyable place as God intended it to be…….

There is ONE world. At least it's the only one we know. And there are 6 ½ billion of us on it. And now our elder brother makes his claim. He says to the Father, "Those you have given me, - all that belongs to me is yours." It is God's world, and we are all his children. One in the world…Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, - and Christians. Christ is present here in our prayers and in the breaking of bread. And he is present in the house of humanity. In the wide room of the earth…

This is the task to which we have been called as stewards of the mysteries of God, at work in his worshiping, supportive servant church in a hurting world….. Our careers in the clergy may or may not be ended. But our vocation never ends. Always we are called to be political. Working for the well-being, peace, justice, and care of the environment of the polis: the city, the nation, the world, mother earth. For this is the arena of the kingdom of God. And, in that sense, we are never retired…….

Wherever we may be on this mountaintop of 50 years in ministry, this vision would make for a terrifying pilgrimage and impossible challenge, if it were not for the unspeakably marvelous reality: that, "when our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts." That he who calls us to love one another is in the midst of us. And he who calls us to service, serves with us on the way. And – together – we are one in the world.

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