Sermon for PLTS Chapel
April 17, 2013
Today’s reading from Acts was the basis of the very first sermon I ever preached 25 years ago as
a high school student in South Carolina. It was Youth Sunday, and I had somehow been tagged
to be the preacher for the day – which involved a fair amount of agony in the preparation. I
remain grateful to Pastor Dick Webber for guiding me through it. I don’t remember much about
the sermon itself, but I do recall having two clear thoughts when it was over. One was, “Hey,
that was kind of fun.” And the second was “You would have to be out of your mind to do that
Trust me – I can see the irony. The long view of history has revealed that I am apparently out of
Perhaps no one can appreciate the irony of the long view as much as our friend Saul-turned-Paul.
No one was a more devoted enemy of Christians. He was all in. The first time we see him in
Acts, Saul is the coat check boy at the stoning of Stephen. He may not himself have been the
one bashing Stephen’s head in with a rock, but scripture makes a point of telling us that Saul
approved of the killing. That incident unleashed a full-scale persecution that scattered believers
in all directions. In Chapter 8 Saul graduates from willing accomplice to active threat; we find
him “ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women” and
putting them in prison. So by the time we meet up with him on that road to Damascus, we
understand that Saul is serious about “breathing threats and murder against the disciples.” It’s
not a figure of speech. With every breath he seeks to destroy those who follow Jesus.
I linger on these details because so often when we hear these stories that we have heard again
and again, it’s easy to lose sight of the complete absurdity of it all. We know how the story plays
out. So we fast forward to what comes later and forget how insulting it is to our way of thinking
that this murderer becomes one of the greatest mission developers of all time.
Saul is the guy about whom Flannery O’Connor once said, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only
way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” (1) Now I know Saul
wasn’t on a horse (southern writers love to embellish), but isn’t that what it took? Jesus comes
and knocks him to the ground. Calls him by name – “Saul! Saul!” – and calls him out for what
he has been doing – “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” I like that Jesus makes it
personal. Why do you persecute me? Jesus identifies with those who are suffering, with those
who have been victims of Saul’s unrelenting violence. To stone someone is to stone Jesus. To
throw someone in prison is to throw Jesus in prison. And in case it wasn’t clear, the second time
it’s a statement, not a question: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Here’s the part where the story would go quite differently if I were in charge. If it were up to
me, someone would at this moment summon the families of all those people that Saul threw into
prison. And someone else would hold their coats while they find some nice big rocks. That just
When I was fourteen, a murderer gripped our community with fear. He kidnapped and killed a
young woman named Shari two days before her high school graduation, and he later killed a
little 10-year-old girl named Debra. This man called Shari’s family several times pretending that
she was still alive; one of those phone calls was made from a pay phone less than a mile from the
home of my aunt and uncle. I do not support the death penalty, but on the day that this man was
executed, something in me breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed fair.
I watched news coverage of Monday’s bombing, and there was a part of me that immediately
started thinking about justice in that way. I want someone to pay for what has happened. I’m not
proud of it, but sometimes I want people who do terrible things to face terrible consequences.
So when I returned to this story of Saul yesterday, I decided that the most important word in the
whole reading is the word “but.”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but…” You’re persecuting me, but get up and enter the
city, and you will be told what to do. Jesus has other ideas – ideas that will send Saul to bring
the name of Jesus to Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. Can you think of anything more
absurd than that? Can you think of anything less fair?
Let’s be clear. Jesus doesn’t call Saul into this new service because he somehow forgot to do a
background check. It’s not that he doesn’t care about Saul’s violent past. He knows exactly what
Saul has been up to – “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” Jesus calls Saul into this new
life because he knows that the place of Saul’s deepest darkness and the place of his best ministry
will be the same place. All of that time spent persecuting Christians has prepared him to become
one. All of that time spent running away from God has made him ready to run everywhere to
share the good news. Saul’s brutality is drowned in baptism, but he remembers it well enough to
tell the story again and again.
This turn of events must have been baffling to anyone who had known Saul before. It must have
been especially confusing to all those families whose loved ones had been targeted by his
persecution. But who better than Saul to show that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all
creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?
Somewhere out there is a person or persons who built bombs and made sure that they would
explode in the middle of a big city during one of the most crowded and joyous days of the year.
We don’t know who.
But Jesus knows that person by name.
That person put ball bearings and nails into pressure cookers so that people’s bodies would be
But Jesus says, “Your nails don’t scare me. I know what nails feel like.”
That person killed three people, including an eight-year-old boy – and wounded so many others.
But that person is not beyond the love of Jesus Christ.
The place of deepest darkness and the place of deepest grace are the same place. God is with us
Each of us is called to carry that same absurd, scandalous love into a dangerous world. Whether
our road takes us to Damascus or Berkeley or Boston or Syria or Afghanistan or any place where
bombings have become a way of life, we proclaim the truth that Jesus calls each person by name,
claims each person, loves each person. We say: “You may have done reprehensible things, BUT
God has chosen you. God wants you to be an instrument of peace and holy purpose. Yes, you.
Even you. Especially you.”
(1) William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation - A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and
Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 73.
Several classmates from Alicia Vargas' Public Ministry course spent time in Southwest Detroit with fellow graduates Meghan Sobocienski and Pastor John Cummings to link their studies with field experience, an approach core to the PLTS seminary curriculum. With John and Meghan's gracious invitation Nathan Allen, John Kuehner and Stacey Siebrasse visited them and experienced their work with Grace in Action, a mission development faith community in the ELCA.
With the declining automotive industry and housing market, many parts of Detroit are experiencing difficult times. With a waning of infrastructure and resources, many communities are looking to gather together and see the church as an important partner.
But why a community sees the church as a partner has a lot to do with how Meghan and John engage with their community. It's not about drawing people into a church, but reaching out into the community. It starts with listening to people and empowering them to be leaders in their neighborhoods.
More recent graduates and first call clergy continue to see the fluidity within communities and how social media is changing the landscape of religious expression. It's less about the "bricks and mortar" of the church and more about the relationships developed in the model of Christ's love for all. In Southwest Detroit, the church's mission can be found in the local Mexican restaurant and a corner coffee shop, a graffiti park established by founder Erik Howard and other "micro enterprises" that embrace art as well as the needs of the community.
Presenting their experience along with complementary work conducted by classmate Ryan Eickenbary around key Bay Area resources, the team presented a seminar on community organizing with theological, academic and practical applications.
The future of the church begins with the gospel mindset one personally takes into the community. The success of mission developers begins with a sense of personal humility and the ability to empower others; to put oneself second and others first. It's not a preoccupation with "the numbers", but foremost about relationships. If our gospel approach is the latter, the former will be the fruits. It's not to say we ignore the numbers, but we might not be so preoccupied and driven by it; for it is the love of Christ that has the power to transform.
Thanks be to God!
Barbara, or Bobbie as she was known to her friends, died on April 22 and was the beloved wife of Walter Stuhr, PLTS Emeritus Professor and President from 1978 to 1987. She was a brave spirit suffering with serious health problems for several years and was in hospice care for the last few weeks. The prayers of this community rise up with thanks for her life and begging God's care and comfort for Walter and their daughters and families. The service for Barbara Stuhr was held on April 27, 2013 at Grace Lutheran Church in Richmond.
Barbara was born to Leonard and Frances Gordon in Los Angeles. She was the eldest of five children: Patricia Gordon, Jessie Mitchell, Jennifer Freedman and Charles Gordon. She graduated from Alhambra High School in Alhambra and attended UC Santa Barbara. In 1953, she married Walter Stuhr, and the two would have celebrated their sixtieth anniversary this June. Bobbie and Wally lived in New Haven, Berkeley, Pasadena, El Cerrito, Sacramento, Chicago and Richmond and traveled together around the world. Bobbie was supportive of Wally-seeing him through college, seminary, taking care of three small children while the pastor's wife at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, moving cross-country to Chicago for her husband's time at graduate school, and packing up and moving back to California. She continued supporting him in his work as professor and then president at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), serving on the board of the Auxiliary as wife of the president, hosting dinners and receptions, not to mention the work of running the house and always being available as her children married and grandchildren arrived. Bobbie passed away quietly on April 22, with her husband by her side. The two were inseparable and even as Bobbie's health failed due to symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, she and Wally insisted on staying at home together.
Bobbie is survived by Wally and their three children, Deborah Iwabuchi, Rebecca Stuhr and Philip Stuhr, daughter-in-law Yolanda Stuhr and son-in-law Ikuo Iwabuchi. Bobbie was blessed with nine grandchildren, Philip Jr. (married to Cora), Julian and Victoria Stuhr, Helen, Martin, William and Gabriel Stuhr-Rommereim, and Manna and Hikari Iwabuchi, and one great-granddaughter, Evoleht. Bobbie was close to her sisters- and brother-in-law, Melvin and Shirley Langeland and Mary Mullin, and adored her eight nieces and nephews and all of their families.
In Richmond, Bobbie was active in and held leadership positions in the PTAs at Grant School, Downer Junior High and Harry Ells High School. She was president of the Richmond-Shimada Friendship Commission. An excellent cook and gracious hostess, Bobbie was also a talented artist. She sewed clothes, made beautiful quilts, knit sweaters, hand-dyed yarn and wove wall hangings and mats. She spent many years in classes and doing volunteer work at the Richmond Art Center. She will also be remembered for her love of reading-especially books by Jane Austen.
+ + + Barbara Stuhr, child of God: May she rest in peace and light perpetual shine upon her. + + +
These articles are from the May 2013 issue of Above The Fog, the PLTS monthly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe, and receive great articles and seminary news right in your inbox.