|Mark S. Hanson is presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is excerpted from a sermon he delivered to the Association of Theological Schools Biennial Meeting in Chicago on June 25, 2006. Members of In Trust have access to the unabridged version.
What questions are foremost for you as you gather with other leaders in theological education? Perhaps there are questions of fall enrollments and whether your FTEs will meet budget; questions of endowment growth and the rising expectations for a president's role in development; questions of a faculty that seems over-balanced with tenured positions or lacking the diversity you desire.
Perhaps there are questions of competition -- that seminary you have always respected from afar now decides to begin a branch campus or more aggressively market online courses in your area. Perhaps you are asking how you maintain the integrity of disciplined, intellectual inquiry while responding to the rising expectations that seminaries will produce graduates with evangelical zeal and missional vision who are at least bilingual, have contextual savvy, and are disciplined faith practicers.
Or perhaps you come to this worship wanting to set all those questions aside, for they are becoming all too consuming.
Is there a word today for you who prepare leaders to be proclaimers of the Word and practitioners and stewards of the faith? Is there a word today for theologians attentive to the construct of the preacher's argument; for biblical scholars listening for his exegesis and hermeneutical moves; and for homileticians waiting to critique delivery and relevance to the hearers? Or are we all so well trained in our disciplines that it is difficult to hear or to believe that God's living Word of promise is also spoken for you, to you and to me?
I will never forget a Jewish psychotherapist who served as a consultant to our staff when I was a synod bishop. She was listening to us describe our growing frustrations with conflicted congregations and with clergy who wanted to and probably should move but were unable to get calls. We were discouraged by the largest, fastest-growing congregations often being such poor financial supporters of the denomination. She finally interrupted our complaining and wallowing in all the things we thought we could be -- maybe even should be, wished we would be -- doing better and differently. She said, "Perhaps this is not appropriate for me as a Jew to ask you Lutheran Christians, but do you believe in the grace of God or don't you? Who speaks God's word of forgiveness to you? When it is spoken, do you even believe it?"
When I taught confirmation in the parish, like many pastors, I would ask the students first to write a faith statement and then, in their own words, give meaning to words we use frequently in the context of the community of believers, but not as often in the larger society. The confirmands would do well with words such as forgiveness, prayers, Spirit, and faith. But, inevitably they would often leave one word blank. What do you think it was? It was grace.
I, a Lutheran pastor, felt an utter failure. Over and over Martin Luther would declare that the heart of the Gospel is that we are justified by God's grace through faith for Jesus' sake. Here I was unable to communicate what this grace of God is to eighth and ninth graders. Understandably, everything in our multitasking, consuming, competitive, self-preoccupied culture pushes against grace, but I still felt a failure.
I would ask them to take out a sheet of paper and to think very, very hard before giving their answer. Then I would instruct them to write down the date and place when they asked their birth parents to conceive them. Well, after tsk, tsking -- or a few exclamations of "Oh gross, I don't want to think about that!" -- they would begin to realize that God's grace has something to do with the giftedness of life and giftedness of life in Christ. Perhaps my question of them was not as poetic as God's question to Job, but I was trying to get at the same point.
God asked Job,"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." Oh, I imagine we could hear God's questions as an invitation into a debate on intelligent design and evolution. Yet in so doing, would we once again be trying to extract answers from Scripture for questions the writers were not asking? Might we miss hearing in God's probing questions of Job and of us the promise of God's presence, the assurance of God's providence, the wonder of God's grace?
"What I am appealing for," wrote Joseph Sittler in Gravity and Grace, "is an understanding of grace that has the magnitude of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The grace of God is not simply a holy hypodermic whereby my sins are forgiven. It is the whole giftedness of life, the wonder of life which causes me to ask questions that transcend the moment."
As I travel, I hear pastors describing the incredible pressure they feel to get and retain their market share of members in a very competitive, consumer-oriented religious culture. So they flock to hear the techniques of the most successful pastors.
However helpful such presentations are, my experience is that they seldom invite one into the wonder of God's grace that causes us to ask questions that transcend the moment. They fail to drive me to the cross or to the paradoxical truth that this is where the hidden God reveals God's self as the gracious and merciful One who is for you and me and the whole creation.
They rarely invite the participants into an experience of ecstasy of wisdom as wonder. This is the wisdom God's exchange with Job evokes.
Ecstasy -- not a chemically induced high, but ecstasy in the literal sense -- means to stand outside one's self, freeing us from our preoccupation with our cravings or fears. Wisdom as a sense of wonder leaves us not indifferent or coolly detached or self absorbed with our desires. Rather, it immerses us in the world, placing us before the neighbor and the creation, making us other-wise.
Could that be something of the same dynamic that is occurring in the Gospel of Mark? Jesus' disciples asked a question borne out of their fear that the raging storm might capsize the boat: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" Evidently, the weary Jesus, asleep in the boat, had more faith in his disciples than they had in themselves. He knew that they -- at least some of them -- were experienced in contending with storms on the lake, and he trusted them to carry out their calling as fishermen.
Like God in response to Job's questions borne out of Job's suffering, Jesus responds to the disciples' questions growing out of their fear. God's question invited Job into the wonder of God's grace and the promise of God's presence and providence. Jesus' question invited the disciples out of their fear into faith.
He [Jesus] said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?' And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"(Mark 4:40–41).
May we in the confidence of faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit entrust our lives and leadership to God's promised grace in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. And in so doing may we be made other-wise as we experience the wonder of God's grace and the giftedness of life that causes us to ask questions that transcend the moment. Amen.
Copyright 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). All rights reserved. Used with permission.