A sermon based on John 14:1-7, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,”by Gerald Christianson for the memorial service for Richard Thulin, professor and dean emeritus of Gettysburg Seminary December 8th
We’ve heard much about the life of a wonderful man, and there could be more. Now we share a challenge: what is the gospel we preach on this sober celebration of his death? I’d like to recall three themes that Richard’s preaching taught us and illustrate them with his most vivid and memorable stories.
First, a taste for beauty. A strange thing to say about this well-developed, good looking, Californian who swam the bay all the way to Alcatraz, who conducted a wedding dozens of feet down a water-filled Chambersburg quarry, who went diving off the Caiman Islands with his firemen buddies from Springfield, and brought back sensational pictures of marine life. No jokes here about the preacher who could go down deeper, stay down longer and come up drier than any person known. Not Dick, who practiced the “I” of the sermon, the title of his best known book, as few of us could because his “I “ produced rounded, poetic, colorfully illustrated sermons that brought us expectantly to hear him, whether here in this Chapel or at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rock Island where, while preaching as a student one Sunday morning he looked out on the congregation and saw the woman he was to marry. His sermons were organic, not analytic—never three points and a poem like this one.
Many here recall that wonderful image that describes such a sermon and the grace-filled Christian life when he likened both to the graceful growth of a mighty oak, as ever more abundant leaves sprout on ever stronger branches; just as the Christian life spreads out in ever new adventures, ever deeper relationships—all rooted in faith and reaching to eternity. It is the beauty of a life lived in the light of the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, the one that proclaims “For God so loved the world”. Dick taught us the beauty of this world that God so loved.
From the “I” of my recollections: He was the slowest eater I ever met, and I’m a slow eater. He enjoyed the taste of it, not to mention the conversation. The rationale he wrote for our Worship syllabus that we taught together for a time declared that liturgy is “palpable.” We hear it, see it, taste it. During one brief, intense year in Chicago over a half century ago while he waited for Elizabetj to graduate from college, and for me (out of the North Woods) to grow up, he brought me to my first Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert—a revelation; my first visit to the Art Institute—a revelation; my first exposure to W.H. Auden which Dick, Liz and I once read in public, one an accomplished preacher, the other a fine actress, the third—well, I suspect they decided they’d make a better duo than a trio.
All this from a taste for beauty. But then along comes a death in November, or was it an early storm rumbling through in October, with heavy wet snow. And the branches of the trees in the back yard begin to pop, crack, bang like the canon placed here in the desperate Union defense of Old Main. The branches crash to the ground, they break our neighbor’s fence. In either case—death or storm-- they leave us to pick up the pieces. It’s not fair. A beautiful life, a beautiful mind taken from us. Fifty killed by bombs in Afghanistan this week. Five kids in an auto coming home from school. Not fair. It’s not a popular notion, I know, but we live in a fallen world.
That’s why the Gospel of John declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” It’s not the holiness of beauty we proclaim; it’s the beauty of holiness. A holiness that rises out of the grave and redeems the world and proclaims “you ain’t seen nothin’yet.” If ever the Christian gospel should proclaim resurrection it must surely be at a funeral. Paul, to our surprise, begins his argument for resurrection not with Easter, but with our resurrection; for if we do not proclaim the resurrection of the dead, then what purpose the resurrection of Jesus? Geoffrey Thulin has attempted to capture in his spirit paintings the thought that if the world emerged with incredible force out of a tiny atom and with such power that it spread across the universe to the most distant star and is still going, and still making sound that we can measure, what Bach called the harmony of the spheres—then why not an Easter when the same power burst forth from the grave, when the temple veil was torn and graves opened and the whole earth felt a shaking of the foundations?
Well, maybe this one we can’t measure. And thank God. We can hear it, see it, taste it only with the eyes, with the senses of faith because the world, with all its broken branches, all its broken fences is an Easter world, set on a new course that is, yes, irreversible. We’re on it, we’re going somewhere, and while we travel this part of our journey we have this good news that illumines, enhances, enlivens, enriches our taste for beauty.
A second gospel theme: a sense of place. Such a wild and wooly depiction of a world that we’ve just addressed may prompt excitement, but does it make connections, create community; does it assure us of lasting relationships? One of the longest and most vivid illustrations Dick told came from the memoirs of Ingmar Bergman, a fellow Swede whose films asked this very question. It’s the modern question: what is my place, why am I here, have I any value, where am I going, what will be on my gravestone? Bergman recalled an afternoon walk with his father, a Lutheran pastor, when they came upon a country chapel as evening was falling. They went in and with four or five others waited patiently for ten minutes or more. Then came a screech of tires on the stone driveway; a car door opening and closing; hurried footsteps; and a winded minister appeared, robe in one hand and book in the other. “We’re running a bit late,” he announced, “and we don’t have many present, so we’ll just say a few prayers and be on our way.” He retreated to the sacristy, followed by the elder Bergman. Hushed voices could be heard. Bergman emerged; then the pastor, fully robed. “We seem to have a retired pastor with us this evening, “he declared, “so we can celebrate a full eucharist.” The older man leaned over to his son and whispered, “We must do our communion.”
Young Bergman admired what he thought was the tough-minded stoicism of his father. In spite of everything, press on! But in telling this story Dick made it clear that the Christian has more to say. We do our communion because we need to be in touch with the presence--the presence of one another and the presence of Christ who, in John’s gospel gathers his beloved community to his breast. We don’t do our communion because we must, we do it because we know we meet him here, and we meet each other here. We can sense it, taste it, see it, hear it. And not just with those standing around us at the table for bread and wine, but with those loved ones, pioneers who have gone on ahead. They fill the spaces between us. Larry Folkemer is here, so is Linnea and Luther, Calvin and Cassie Nutter, and Dick is here, too, right beside us. A foretaste of the feast to come.
Finally, at home. Where else do we find the care and comfort we so desperately yearn for? When the branches fall, we know we have a home. All the vast reaches of space, all the gathered assemblies of Christians must finally come down to this: The word became flesh and pitched his tent (according to one translation), built his home and dwells among us. I can’t remember a specific sermon or an illustration, but somewhere after Dick had preached, it struck me that I needed to expand my thinking about Jesus’ promise in John that “in my house there are many mansions, many dwelling places.” We usually take this to mean in the life to come, but Dick had now led me to see that it was also a promise of the presence here and now--a promise of inclusion that whoever we are, we are welcome in the house. There’s a room for all, and not just in the bye and bye. Now and here since there is little or no break in John’s gospel between life and life hereafter, between the now and the beyond. It’s all a single story, a single home. “If I have gone to prepare a place for you,” Jesus declares, “I have already opened the doors. Come in. I’ll be there to meet you.” The God of the whirlwind, of the big bang, of infinite space, is not an absolute monarch withdrawn from us beyond the far reaches of the universe. He is love, John says. Not God is loving or God represents love. God IS love. The most intimate of all relationships—that intimacy is the essence of God. The Word that sent the universe exploding into life--that word is love. And as a result of being loved, the beloved’s response is to flourish and grow like a mighty oak into fullness of life, a fullness unimpeded by death.
Dick told the story of a seminary friend who went back to North Dakota for Christmas and was called out of bed the very first morning while it was still dark. A neighbor’s chicken coop had burned nearly to the ground. When he arrived across a frozen landscape he was given a black garbage bag and told to gather up the countless dead, black chickens. Dawn came and he was still at his grim task when as he was about to put yet another charred hen into his bag, a live baby chick fluttered out from under her protective wing.
Children of the heavenly Father, safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven, such a refuge e’er was given.