A Talk Given November 7, 2020, University Lutheran Church,
Cambridge, Massachusetts – All Saints
It’s always a delight for me to stand in this pulpit. I stand here today, as a former pastor of this congregation, to thank you all – all you saints – for your longstanding commitment to the mission of this congregation and for your ministry, in particular, to me, over the course of many years.
I also stand here with this pitch: to encourage you saints to keep supporting this congregation financially as generously as you possibly can.
This is my theme: Thank you, UniLu.
Vignette number one. When I lived in Harvard’s Lowell House in the late fifties, I was in the occasional habit of dragging myself a block and a half down Winthrop Street to the Sunday liturgy here; and then getting out of here as quickly as possible.
In my second year at Harvard, I fell into a deep crisis of faith. I was a fairly loyal Lutheran boy in those days, of German heritage. Then in a course on German history I learned for the first time in my life, deeply, about the Holocaust – and about how many good German Lutherans had been complicit in the rise and the rule of the Nazis, who then went on to slaughter six million Jews.
One Saturday morning I found myself stumbling down Winthrop Street, once again toward University Lutheran Church. What was I going to do? Pray maybe? I had no idea. Providentially, UniLu’s longstanding and fondly remembered Senior Pastor, Henry Horn, happened to be in the office and he warmly waved me in. I immediately started telling him about my discovery of the Holocaust and of Lutheran complicity – and I burst into tears. I can still feel those tears.
In due course, Pastor Horn suggested that, in addition to many other things, I might want to check out the life-story and some of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German-Lutheran pastor-theologian, who was killed by the Nazi’s because he had participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
Turns out that I eventually did my undergraduate honors thesis on the German resistance to Hitler, focusing on leaders like Bonhoeffer, and my doctoral dissertation on the great theologian Karl Barth, who, with Bonhoeffer, was a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany that stood up against Hitler.
It all began with UniLu. This congregation was there for me when I needed a little hope. Thank you, UniLu.
Vignette number two. After I had finished my doctoral work at Harvard Divinity School, Henry Horn brought me here to be his assistant. I eagerly began the practice of chasing after a variety of students, some of them Lutheran, and having lunch with them. But that experience led me astray, Lutheranly speaking. I did something radical.
Somehow – was it the inspiration of Bonhoeffer? – I ended up hanging out with a bunch of student activists who were protesting the Vietnam War and what they considered then to be the complicity of Harvard University in that war. One day, heroically, I stood outside University Hall while some of my students joined others to barge inside to occupy the Dean’s Office, demanding an end to the war and an end to Harvard’s de facto support of that war.
I was excited. What a wonderful prophetic action! – never mind the fact that I remained outside the building. I hurried down to UniLu, again, to tell Henry Horn all about it. I happened to meet him as both of us were coming in the front door. He told me that he had just come from a one-on-one meeting that he had arranged with Harvard’s President Pusey. His purpose, Henry said, was to assure President Pusey that the Church stood with him, the President of Harvard, as a guardian of truly academic values, in that time of unruly student protests. Well.
I think that Henry and I both were right as each of us pursued our own pastoral vocations in our own ways. Being a faithful Lutheran Christian is full of ambiguities. That was a wonderful learning experience for me. Thank you, UniLu.
Third vignette. I had been recruited to Harvard as an undergraduate, I believe, because I met two criteria. First, I was a fairly good student – at a public high school. You might not know this, but Harvard, founded in the seventeenth century, only began seriously to recruit from public high schools in the 1950’s. Second, I was a record-setting swimmer at my public high school, a good prospect for Harvard’s team.
But it took some time for me to realize that what I really cared about at Harvard was not such mundane matters, but the life of the mind. And this congregation was instrumental in that discovery.
Early on, Henry Horn set me up to preach a series of sermons in the fall at UniLu’s High Mass. That was a shocker for me and probably for others. Newly ordained, what did I know? Sitting with the worshiping congregation, in those days, was the then renown Dean of Harvard Divnity School, Krister Stendahl, and not too far from him the academically famous New Testament scholar, Herr Doctor Professor, Helmut Koester – may they rest in peace – and also a bunch of MIT faculty and grad students, who, as far as I was concerned, could have been splitting the atom all over again, while I was preaching.
Somehow I came through that preaching experience alive – not the least of all because those academic saints were most kind to me. In particular, many of them found ways to challenge me to think. They asked me questions and seriously listened to what I had to say. I tried to respond. This was but one of the ways that UniLu introduced me to the life of the mind and encouraged me to walk that way. Since then, over the last fifty years, I’ve published a short shelf of books and become a kind of leader in my own field, ecological theology. Thank you, UniLu, for encouraging me to think.
Brace yourself now, I can’t resist one last vignette. A couple of years after I began serving at UniLu, I noticed this sweet young thing, forgive me, a grad student at the Ed School, who had volunteered to come into the Church Office to fold bulletins on Saturdays. Knowing that one of the chief duties of a Pastor is to show gratitude to volunteers, I eventually asked her to have a cup of coffee with me around the corner at the French pastry shop that was there in those days, the place where Julia Child used to buy her pastries.
Today, after more than fifty years of married life, I still remember those pastries – and what a delight it’s been to keep talking with Laurel ever since (she’s here this morning).
I’m not suggesting now that you should generously support UniLu financially, because this is a good place for you to find that significant other you’ve been hoping to find – or to nurture your relationship with the significant other whom you’ve already found. But the thought has crossed my mind. Thank you, UniLu, for so many things, above all, for Laurel.
And thank you all, all you saints, here in this holy house today and on holy Zoom around the world. Thank you for your eagerness to keep supporting this marvelous congregation and its mission as generously as you can, a Church that has meant so much to me for so long.