Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Maria Erling,
November 4, 2011
Isaiah 44: 22-23
I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist: return to me, for I have redeemed you. Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it: shout, o depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel
A walk down Confederate Avenue at this time of year feels like a walk down the aisle of nature’s cathedral. On each side the pillars of oak and hickory trees make arches over the road. If you walk down the center – like Moses or Miriam or Isaiah certainly would – you are protected by the canopy of heaven.
Break forth in singing, you trees. This is the time of year for sloughing off the leaves, for the mists to come, for the dying of a season. There is nothing more beautiful than the late autumn sun on these dying leaves. Their final song to us is stunning. It reveals the brilliance of death, of aging.
A few days ago my friend Richard Koenig died. He shared his friendship widely, even with those much younger than he was. He was like a tall oak to my new and hardened maple self when I came to the New England Synod as a young pastor in the early 80’s. He had recently moved to New England after a stint of editing for Lutheran Partners. Before that he’d been a campus pastor at the University of Massachusetts, where he decided that his beloved Missouri Synod was on the wrong side of history, and he sided with the group that was forced out of the synod during their purges.
He had stories to tell of how he survived the upheaval of fear in the Missouri Synod. He was the unnamed source for Newsweek and Time during the turmoil of the Missouri convention in 1973. He was not an optimist. His friends called him “Black Richard” because he always looked on the dark side of every issue. The exile he lived through when Concordia Seminary’s faculty saw the exit door gave him that somber view. He saw how fear took over his church and power became more important than truth.
He was a stalwart oak tree singing his song of courage, honesty, and truth telling in our New England synod in the last decade of the 20th century. We celebrated Bonhoeffer’s witness because of Richard’s conviction that we Lutherans could not leave the 20th century behind without seeking a way to apologize, ask forgiveness, make a reckoning, for the horrible and devastating events of the wars, the holocaust, the nuclear threat, and the whole lousy dark side of Lutheran lack of courage during those dark days.
So we did some work together to remember and to make amends. We remembered Bonhoeffer together in our synod. We had a church day – a kind of Kirchentag – for New Englanders, 500 strong. We educated the people in the congregations and then we moved on to stronger reasons to think hard about who we were as Lutherans. We need forgiveness, we Lutherans. We understand how forgiveness is our life blood, our future, our reason for singing.
Richard helped me see the bigger picture – that especially difficult work was ahead of us, because the usual way for churches, Protestants as well as Orthodox, or Catholic, is to emphasize our strengths, not our weaknesses. Richard, known for his dark mood, his gloomy demeanor, knew that strength really comes from dying, from letting go of posturing, pretense, power. Lutherans had humility work to do to sort out our teaching about Justification with the Roman Catholics. We needed to soften our hard hearted stance on faith alone, faith alone, and recognize that Roman Catholic teaching was no longer the straw man we loved to tear apart.
Our church also needed to take a stand against our own hero, and founder, Martin Luther, who famously succumbed to anti-Semitic ravings in some of his writings. We could enter the 21st century with a clear conscience about those writings because of the work that Richard Koenig pushed through the synod as a memorial, and then through the ELCA assembly that year. He wrote the ELCA statement. It is displayed at the Holocaust Museum. It serves as a model of what a church today can do and say about its heritage.
There have been even more ways we have ventured out to make amends, most recently with the Mennonites. I learned to pay attention to the power of forgiveness because Richard made me feel it so keenly. The church itself cannot be the church until it makes the effort to confront its wrongdoing. The world will not listen to us unless we are clear about this. No hiding.
Ministry with a humble conscience can lead Lutherans to remarkable and powerful insights. One of them is the truth that you don’t really know the stature of a tree until it has fallen. Then you know how tall it really is.
Isaiah tells us that God’s forgiveness – the removal of transgressions - will lead to such freedom that even the mountains will shout. And trees will sing. They have their own way of doing that, and we have ours.