Memorial to the Rev. Dr. Robert J. Marshall March 8, 2009

by Rev. Dr. H. George Anderson
former presiding bishop, ELCA

"From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows will I pay before those who fear him.  The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.  May your hearts live forever!  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.  To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.  Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it." Ps. 22: 25-31

"[Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised."  Rom. 4:20-21

It was a real gift to me to be invited to participate in this memorial service for Robert James Marshall.  Our paths crossed many times, and I would not be here today if it were not for his influence in my life.  But that very fact  created a quandary for me:  how to honor both the character of this service of worship-- requiring a sermon, and still share with you the memory of this remarkable servant of God--tending toward eulogy.

I found the solution by re-reading his book.  Dr. Marshall begins THE MIGHTY ACTS OF GOD by reminding us that, while God can be known through creation, God's nature can be fully known only through "special revelation", and that requires both a special event and a special person to interpret that event.  He wrote, "As revelation moves into a narrower stream, it confronts us with chosen individuals whose task it is to interpret events for others".   He was thinking particularly of the prophets, but for me, and for many of us, he could have been speaking of himself.

So if you will permit me, I will tell you my recollections of Doctor Marshall in the context of God's continuing self-revelation through certain human beings--sometimes called prophets, but sometimes called pastor, or professor, or president. Or sometimes "Bob" or "Alice".

Bob Marshall entered my young life when his car, grimy from a thousand-mile journey, pulled up to the curb in front of our house in California.  He had learned to drive on that journey from seminary to first call, no doubt also learning more about his new bride, who was wiser in the practical matters of life than he.

Our pastorate had been vacant as a result of council action against our previous pastor--an action that had led to one of those church fights that leave permanent scars.  Since my father was the current secretary of the church council, it was he who had corresponded with the Marshalls regarding their first call,  and therefore it was to our house that they came.

Let me take you back more than sixty years, to the situation that the Marshalls found when they arrived.  I have already mentioned the bitterly divided congregation--a fact the the synod president who had recruited the Marshalls had failed to mention to them.  That was not the only difference between what the new pastor had been taught and what he found.  The ushers were lighting the candles by striking a match on the soles of their shoes. Grape juice was served at communion.  The five other catechumens and I had only a vague knowledge of the creed and what it meant. 

The previous pastor had been called by his first name--actually his nickname: "Eddy". The supply pastor had preached the same Mother's Day sermon for years, regardless of the lectionary.  It reminds me of Jesus striding into the Temple --although I suspect that Pastor Marshall thought more about Ezra and Nehemiah and the problems they faced in a worldly and dissolute Jerusalem.  In any event, like Ezra and Nehemiah, he set about putting things right  We soon learned that worship was to be taken seriously. Acolytes replaced the phosphorescent ushers, and wine replaced the grape juice..  We catechumens were sent back to study Stump's Catechism for another year.

To a depleted and dispirited congregation he provided sermons that made sense and often ended with a poetic flourish. He insisted on being called "Pastor Marshall", and although some of the congregation thought that was awfully pretentious, we soon learned to respect him as a true and faithful shepherd.  In short he brought Grace Church, Alhambra, into the presence of God.  In our little church the words of the Psalmist came true: "future generations will be told about the Lord; I will  proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it." 

It was the same story, but on a grander scale,  when he became President of the LCA . When Franklin Clark Fry suddenly resigned and died just a few weeks before  the 1968 convention, the church turned to President Marshall of the Illinois Synod for leadership.  He was suddenly thrust into what has been recognized  as "one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the LCA and in North American society."  The "Long hot summer" of 1967, when Washington D.C., Detroit and Newark were burned by race riots, was followed by 1968 and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the "Black Manifesto" of 1969, Kent State in 1970, Women's Liberation, "Jesus People"--one challenge after another.  When people ask me how intense the preparations were for Dr. Marshall's first convention as president in 1970--the convention that would consider the ordination of women--I say that the real anxiety centered on how we would deal with a threatened take-over by the American Indian Movement.

To these unsettled times President Marshal brought a calm and methodical style that seems to be a far cry from our picture of the Prophets of old.  Yet I am sure he reacted to the cries for justice and equality just as they did.  He wrote that, while Ezra and Nehemiah had restored worship to its proper place in Israel's life, the earlier prophets, like Amos and Jeremiah, lived in turbulent times when worship could not be separated from social justice.  Like the prophets he saw those challenges as further acts of God, judging the church for its blindness to oppression and human need. To the Native American movement he provided a voice in LCUSA , now a directotship in our program unit for Multicultural Ministries.

In response to the Black Manifesto he urged the adoption of the Priority Program to combat racism.  He called attention to the plight of the Palestinian people--a position that caused him to be accused of anti-semitism, but that surely arose from his identity with the eighth century prophets.  He presided at the birth of the World Hunger Appeal.  And, of course, he supported the ordination of women. His vision of service persisted through his later years as Director of the Office of Mission, Service and Development of Lutheran World Ministries.  Even during the formation of the ELCA--a development for which he had planned and worked, he steadily--and successfully--lobbied for locating the Churchwide offices in Chicago because of this city's diversity.

St. Paul said that time and testing would prove who had built of brick and who of straw.   I think of the lasting effect of the Hunger Appeal, the ordination of women, the continued witness on behalf of the Palestinians, and the existence of this Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I have to believe that God still does use specific persons to interpret events and out of them to create new possibilities. That is surely what we mean by inspiration--the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

And to give you one last instance of just how God can build on our faithful acts to  heal this fractious world--one more story. 

Some of us here lived through the upheavals in the Missouri Synod that resulted in the formation of Seminex, and those of us who simply looked on as that crisis unfolded often worried that the same fate would overtake us.  But it didn't.  And as I look back on those days I have become convinced that the reason it didn't was because the gap that had opened between the congregations of the Missouri Synod and its seminary over modern biblical scholarship.  was not as deep and as wide in our branch of the church.

Why was that?

The introduction of a new Parish Education curriculum in the mid-sixties had involved thousands of Sunday School teachers in studying Dr. Marshall's book, THE MIGHTY ACTS OF GOD.

Just as St. Paul had searched the scriptures and discovered the thread of faith and had gone on to weave a new alternative to the chain mail of legalism, so Dr. Marshall highlighted the mighty acts of God instead of a petty literalism.

The Sunday School teachers who studied that book in 1964  had become the council presidents and lay leaders by 1974, and the possibility that the Pentateuch had multiple authors did not shock them.  Marshall's book had helped them to see that the issue was not about the number of days of creation, but about the One who created a world, a chosen people, and a way of salvation for all humankind.

Thanks be to God for those gifts--and for that messenger. 


Psalm 22:25-31; Romans 4:20-21

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