Celebrating a Year of Grace

Phyllis Anderson—May 14, 2008
PLTS Chapel

John 20: 19-23

The spiritual discipline of liturgical worship keeps us focused on God. The cycles of the lectionary and the seasons of the church year bring us back again and again and again to encounter God’s mighty acts for us and for the world God loves.

Michael Aune has given us such a gift today. This lovely liturgy recalls for us the seasons of the Church Year in a way that connects them to the particularity of this year and this community—that connects them to our communal story here at PLTS in the 2007-08 academic year, now drawing to a close. Thank you, Michael, for so elegantly rehearsing with us this year of Grace.

This is another year of grace in the ongoing cycle. But it is like no other year, because these exact people—with their particular sorrows and triumphs, their friendships and gifts, their tensions and hopes—will never be here again in the same way. This is the year Steed Davidson joined us—and Steve Churchill and Joel Wudel. This is the year that Braydon Freiberg was baptized and Alex Tietjen got married. Kim Swenson Hassan got married too. This was the year that Hans and Kristin got engaged and Nick and Jessica and Ralph and Kendra, and who else? What other good things happened to us this year? Our first chair was endowed. Jane became a full professor ….

This year is coming to an end, but the cycle of God’s grace goes on. The ragged edges of all our partings are touched by this grace that goes round and round through all the years, through all the transitions, through all the ruptured friendships, through all the packing and unpacking.

Some of you know I have a friend who is very sick. When we’ve prayed together this year, I have lifted up the name of Connie. She is my best friend from seminary. Last weekend I had a meeting in Chicago, which gave me an excuse to go see Connie. She’s on the faculty of LSTC, our seminary in Chicago. She directs the internship program. She was told two weeks ago that the cancer she thought she had beaten has metastasized. She has some months to live. Last Thursday her seminary community held a service of commendation for the dying for her. The service included a time when she walked barefoot through the baptismal pool, and the whole community walked through after her. They held her; they blessed her, they lifted up her name in prayer. Her life and her coming death were incorporated into the ongoing cycle of grace.

In this year of grace, we members of this community have had our share of personal grief. We remember each other in prayer. We share the sorrows. We waited with Martha for her son to come home from Iraq and then for her husband to pass through his time of danger. We’ve watched with Lara and Ellen and Emily during their physical struggles. We walked with Barbara and Marty Schaefer through the valley of the shadow of death. I can’t name them all, but you know them and you know them as part of another year of Grace.

The suffering of these dear ones is multiplied thousands and thousands of times around the world during this particular year of grace. It is good for us to remember today that God’s grace undergirds this world in a dependable way even when the earth rocks as it did this week in China, when the cyclones strike as they did in Myanmar, the tornados crash through Oklahoma and Missouri, and violence strikes in Iraq and Darfur and Blacksburg, Virginia. These dear ones had no time, no rituals to comfort them. The cycle of God’s grace is stronger than the wind. Its enduring hope is found at the bottom of the rubble, among those who have lost everything.

The Gospel for today takes us back to the locked room in Jerusalem where the disciples were gathered for fear of the Jews. They had lost everything. The one they thought would redeem Israel was cruelly dead. That Easter evening, Jesus entered the room and stood among them. He showed them his hands and his side. He bore in his body the marks of his own suffering, his own loss, his own death. And yet he lives. In his death were the seeds of new life. That is the cycle of grace. Christ the crucified came to his friends full of a new and mysterious life and he breathed into them his Holy Spirit. Then he sent them out to breathe new life into others.

The cycle of grace that we know in the liturgical year is the dependable rudder through all the changes and chances of our lives. And so it was in that locked room. The frightened, grieving disciples had their hope renewed by the startling vision of the resurrected Christ. But it didn’t end there. This encounter set up a whole new cycle, a whole new rhythm. Our life with God not only goes round and round in a continuous cycle of grace; it also goes in and out like our very breath. Jesus breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit and then he sent them out.

Jesus is still breathing on his disciples. In this service, now, Christ breathes his Spirit into us anew. The breath of Christ is in the air we breathe, just as the body of Christ is in the bread we eat, and the blood of Christ is in the wine we drink. We are surrounded and suffused by the intimate, palpable presence of the Spirit in the air. It moves against our cheeks. It raises the hair on the backs of our necks. It enters our mouths and ears and nostrils that are open to receive the breath of Christ.

Breathe deeply of the breath of Christ. Take into yourselves the presence and the peace and the power of the risen Lord. Breathe in, dear friends, but do not hold your breath. You have breathed in the breath of Christ. You are full of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the charism of Ministry. You are entrusted with great power: the authority to forgive sins or retain sins. For God’s sake, don’t hold your breath! Breathe out again the power of Christ. Speak clear words of mercy and of judgment. Rage as a mighty hurricane against the evils that enslave. Pour out forgiveness on the guilt-ridden, as a fresh rain-bearing wind waters and restores parched land. Do not hoard the power you have received, but use it to free others, to empower others to be about the works and wonders the Spirit is calling them to do.

The rhythm of the Christian life is like breathing in and breathing out.

It is the rhythm of receiving and giving.
It is the rhythm of being called and sent.
It is the rhythm of being gathered and scattered
As the father sent me, so I send you.
Go, serve, lead, bless, forgive,
gather new communities and send them out in turn.

It comes home to us this week that this is the rhythm of our lives as leaders in the church.

We cherish the memories of the time we were together, but we know it is only for a season. We were called together for a purpose—so that we might be sent out to serve.

Today …

We remember with gratitude faculty and staff we have been privileged to share this time with: Dr. Ed Yee, Greg Schaefer, Barbara Schaefer and Lois McGee, Cindy Carroll, Jean Haddock, Katalina Thakur.

We bid Farewell and Godspeed, to the students who will graduate this Saturday: the regular fourth years, those from other seminaries who have been here for one Lutheran year, the TEEM graduates and other certificate students, the GTU MA’s and PhD’s.

We bid Farewell and Godspeed to those going out on internships.

We bid Farewell and Godspeed to first year students going home for the summer or off to do CPE in dozens of different places.

We bid Farewell and Godspeed to friends who have been part of this community wherever they are going to follow their call to serve.

We give you thanks, O God, for these companions you have given to us to enjoy before they are sent out to serve.

Let me say it in the words of Prince Rillian in The Silver Chair, one of the Narnia Chronicles….

This signifies that Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or die. And all’s one, for that. Now, by my counsel, we shall all kneel and kiss his likeness, and then all shake hands with one another, as true friends that may shortly be parted. And then, let us descend into the City and take the adventure that is sent us.