Homily for the Presentation of a Festschrift to The Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel. By The Rev. Dr. Scott Bruzek
Evening Prayer at the Chapel of Laclede Groves Senior Living, St. Louis, Mo.
A Festschrift for the Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel in Honor of his 90th Birthday
8 November 2015
Down the hill from Westfield house, in the chapel of Trinity College, lies Alfred North Whitehead, the last great cosmologist of the 20th century. Whitehead once said that the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity on the far side of complexity, and that helps us makes sense of the Book of Daniel.
Frankly, this book is a mess. It is the complexity – and often the chaos – of hubris, exile, magic, dreams, visions, idolatry, insanity, assassinations, angelic warfare, and the ever-present threat of the End, the Real End, that makes this book so hard to apprehend. But then comes the simplicity of the text appointed for our prayers this evening, 3 verses from Daniel chapter 12. These 3 verses are the very simple story of a chosen people (12:1), an everlasting covenant (12:1) and the LORD who loves them so (12:1-3).
The best news this evening is that this very simple story is our story too. These are the elements of our life together, as we await our own Apocalypse: creation, pride, Promise, Christ, Golgotha, redemption, protection, and everlasting joy. This will someday be our Blessed End.
Norman, if you hadn’t been a pastor, Betsy says you would have made a brilliant kindergarten teacher. I think that’s true.
The best kindergarten teachers make most complex things – stars, frogs, prisms, honey, rain and maps, honesty, self-control, justice, mercy, faith, and love – clear and attainable. But if our LORD had given you that station and vocation, then our lives would have been poorer.
Think of all the simple things from you that we would have missed: the Way of the Law and the Way of the Gospel; the utter certainty of Absolution; the Word incarnate, in-Scriptured, and in-Spirited; the tattoo of Baptism; the tangible, forgiving touch of our Lord’s Supper; “…and where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation”; gift, blessing, and for you; the joy of Luther and Lutherans and Liturgy and languages and “brilliant!” and tea and sherry and chatter and cigars and Valpo and Cambridge and Aussies and China and “it’s not a good work till it’s a forgiven work” and “Amen!” and the Gospel is always more.
See? On the far side, divine things don’t need to be complex, but in each generation these simple things do need to be bestowed or we will all be lost.
Here is a simple thing: it turns out that there is really only one story in Scripture, and that is the story of death and resurrection.
The Church tells this story in so many different ways: as Adam and Eve; as Noah; as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as Moses, David, Elijah, and Deborah; as 3 men in the fiery furnace – or was it 4?; as “Repent!”, “Follow me,” the woman at the well, the prodigal son, and “get thee behind me, Satan”; as “surely this Man was the Son of God”; as Mary Magdalene in the garden: “they have taken away my Lord”; as Emmaus, with its Liturgy of pilgrimage; as Acts 2; and here now as Daniel 12:1-3.
This makes life and death pretty simple. If we run against this One and Only Story, our lives become terrifying, even if that terror strikes us only at our very last minute. Hell, after all, is when we get our own way for eternity. But when this Story it is received as gift and blessing, even the horror of the Last Days is a relief. Finally, the grind of sin is done. Finally the flash-bang of evil burns itself out. Finally the chaos is put to order.
And then we are left with this simple but profound truth: sin, death, hell and self never have the last word with us. Instead, the last to speak is Love: creating Love, Love promised, Love delivered, Love incarnate of the Blessed Virgin Mother, Love applied by the physical touch of Word and Sacrament, and Love embodied as the Church. Divine Love, for us, and never against us, always has the last word about us.
Life is really this simple: Jesus Christ would rather die than hold our sins against us. There is really just one story here.
Everybody knows that there is no story without a storyteller. It all started with our LORD telling us about Himself, but soon enough that became the ὁμολογέω of the Church, its same-saying, especially by those put into Christ’s Holy Office, as verse 3 says, those “wise leaders [who] shall shine like the bright vault of heaven.” That was the task our LORD put you to, Norman – storyteller – and though you would have been a brilliant kindergarten teacher, his choice has been a better use you.
This festschrift marks how his choice has worked itself out, how the story came from Christ to Church to you to us – your students, colleagues, friends and family – and then back to Christ again. Your life has been a gift, verse 2, for “your fellow-countrymen,” for “people [meant to be] delivered,” for “those who [now] sleep in the dust of the earth [but who were always meant to] wake…to everlasting life.”
It has now been 90 years of a that simple Law and Gospel story which has seen you and us through our sins and woes, our despair and bitterness, our self-inflicted wounds and innocent sufferings, to Christ’s altar, pulpit, lectern and font, through all those narrow straits into the wide places of forgiveness and healing and generosity and hope and joy and kindness and finally, someday, back home to Eden. This festschrift is a very real thank you for keeping the story simple, true and trustworthy, which is proof, you see, that it was not your story at all – after all, we are nothing but given to.
Praise to you, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for all of that and always more, always more. Now bless your servant, Norman, and his family, and his students, and his colleagues, and his friends, and bless your Church and your world through complexity and chaos to the simplicity of Christ’s saving sacramental touch, and someday, draw us all together into your eternal Rest, in Peace, and Life, and Love, and Beauty, and Light, where, one of our eternal joys will be seeing your servant, Norman, set among “…those who have guided the people in the true path,” “[as one of those who] shall be [shining] like the stars forever and ever” (12:3).
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