Another Year of Grace

Phyllis Anderson—May 19, 2010
PLTS Chapel of the Cross

John 17:20–26

Another Year of Grace. That’s a good thing. We need it. We’re tired. We’re in transition—again. We’ve had so much sadness. Too many deaths, including Hans Petersen and Debbie Ow’s father and Justin Baxter’s grandfather and Donna Duensing’s niece, to name just a few. We’ve been kind of hard on one another around here. We need grace. We can’t get enough grace.

We’ve bid farewell to one another at the end of the school year now for the last four years with this service, which Dean Aune has called Another Year of Grace. It is a reminder that—whatever is going on in our particular lives or in the life of our community—the grace of God is a constant that under-girds and encircles us.

Four times now we have sung our way through the seasons and remembered in sequence the ways in which God has shown grace toward us—in the promise and in the birth of the Christ child, in the revelation of who he is for us through the season of Epiphany, in his suffering and death on our behalf and his glorious resurrection—drawing us into his endless life.

I’ve gone back and re-read the sermons I have preached on each of those occasions. Each one has been a celebration of a particular community forming here that year—new people joining, shared experiences, struggles and triumphs—and then an inevitable grieving for the rupture of the relationships we’ve formed as we go our many ways at the end of the year. This community is always a transient sort of thing. Sometimes it feels more like a house trailer than a home.

Yet, this quirky, imperfect, transient community continues well beyond today as you hold on at least to a few good friends and layers of memories from this time. You will remember odd things. I had a letter this morning from a 1954 graduate, Robert Varblow. He was in the second graduating class 56 years ago. It was a thank you note for the annual note we send to our graduates on the anniversary of their ordination. He wrote:

I am reminded of this incident every time I receive a notice of Founders’ Day. On the Sunday before the seminary held its first classes, there was a festive worship service on the lawn south of Sawyer Hall. Dr. Steinhoff, President of the Pacific Synod of the ULCA was preaching about how God knows about us and cares for us. He mentioned that “even the hairs on our heads were numbered.” Sitting on the platform were Dr. Mumm, Dr. Beasom, Dr. Getzendammer, Dr. Sawyer, and along with Dr. Steinhoff there was not a head of hair among them. The congregation began to smile and even giggle a bit. Dr. Steinhoff looked at those behind him and said, “Well, the hair on some of our heads is numbered.”

These memories, these friends, these lessons learned, go with you through all the changes and chances of your life up ahead. This community is not an end in itself. It is meant to form you to go out and re-engage in the new community to which you are being called.

That is the cycle of our year that runs along side the church year. And it is touched by grace at many points. We celebrate those highpoints and give thanks for them. I hope there were many for you. Not a few of you met the person you will marry here. Many of you have experienced support in uncommon ways when you have been sick or in trouble. Hopefully all of you have been touched in profound ways by teachers who opened your eyes to see your God and your world in fresh new ways. But I am keenly aware of how this year and all our years are also touched by grief, sadness, disappointment, loneliness, and hurt. And at the end of the year, we need mourning as well as celebration; healing as well as blessing; forgiveness as well as Godspeed.

The Gospel for today is Jesus prayer for unity. Jesus prayed that all those who would believe in his name might be one as he and the Father are one within the dynamic interdependence of the Trinity. This is the classic text for the ecumenical movement. It expresses the solemn will of the Son—in intimate conversation with the Father—in the hearing of the disciples—at his last meal with them before his death. Jesus’ will for his followers at that time—and for all those in the future who would ever believe in him through their witness—is that they would all be one. His vision, his prayer is for an undivided church.

The prayers of Jesus do not go unanswered. And so by faith we confess that the Church is indeed one—in essence—even though the divisions are clear for everyone to see. Here at the GTU we experience the grace of that unity as we sit at the feet of brown-robed Franciscans and share ideas in class with Unitarians and Baptists and Jesuits and Progressive Christians. We catch the vision for which Jesus prayed, but that vision is far from fully realized.

Week in and week out, we confess our belief in the one, holy, apostolic, Catholic Church. We believe in it, even when we don’t see it. That is what faith is: the belief in things not seen. When we pray with Jesus, as we do, for the unity of the church, we are aligning ourselves with what God is already doing, what will surely be when God rules all in all, but what is not apparent everywhere right now. Even as we celebrate our full communion agreements as Lutherans, we find it very easy here to trash evangelicals—or our Lutheran brothers and sisters who are breaking the unity again, forming still more church bodies.

We know the fault is with us, not God. In this year of grace, we seek God’s forgiveness for the sin of disunity. We commit ourselves to be stewards of that unity for which Jesus prayed, to make it more and more visible to the world.

The unity of the church is a bit grand, and a bit abstract. It is hard to get our arms around. We take it on faith, but we long for more grace, for more lived experience of unity—or more precisely, more experience of love. We long for it in the church at large and in our personal lives and in our humble seminary. We long for a unity—an inclusiveness—that comes closer to the perfect unity of Trinity, bound together in love. The Gospel for today closes with these words: I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

So at the end of this school year, we affirm the promise in Jesus prayer ever more fervently, even as we acknowledge the gap we often feel. We come with our wounds that still need your healing. We come with our wrongs that will always need your forgiving. We give thanks for the cycle of grace we have received this year, even as we cry out for more grace among ourselves, more love, more unity for all.

And we ask your blessing on our way—that we may carry with us the grace we have received, leave the dross behind, and more and more become instruments of your peace, your grace, your love.

In the year 260, when the Christian movement was torn apart by controversy and heresy, Dionysius of Alexandria prayed for the unity of the church:

Good beyond all that is good,
Fair beyond all that is fair,
In you is calmness, peace and concord.

Heal the dissensions that divide us one from another
And bring us back to a unity of love,
Bearing some likeness to your divine nature.

Through the embrace of love
And the bonds of godly affection,
Make us one in the Spirit
By your peace which makes all things peaceful.

We ask this through the grace, mercy and tenderness
of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.