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

Daniel 12:1-3


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).


Sermon on James 4:13–17

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:13–17).


When a person comes face-to-face for the first time with the magnificence of this holy space, set aside for the worship and service of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — it is hard not to notice what is taking place just beyond its towering walls of glass and steel scaffolding. Here inside, just within our view and reach, steadfast and firm stand marble altar, pulpit, font, and organ pipe, and we joyfully meditate in resolute peace on a divine Word that abides forever… but out there, beyond the glass… a tidal wave of industrious activity leaps forward at frantic pace. Busy highways give plain evidence of commerce in full swing; salesmen are racing to make appointments, vegetable trucks travel their local delivery routes, civil authorities patrol ribbons of concrete to protect and serve, the titans of the business world are late to meetings with their armies of attorneys.

Mom has just dropped the kids off at school and is on her way to the airport, headed out-of-town on a business trip. She’s making a mental note to call the dentist to change that appointment which is now conflicting with another ad campaign meeting just scheduled and popped up on her smartphone for three weeks from tomorrow. She feels a moment of guilt for texting while driving, but duty calls… and she is bucking for a promotion. Across town, Dad is fumbling with the space bar on his laptop — in the back of his mind wondering who he’s going to call about the balky transmission on the family’s aging minivan — while He brings up PowerPoint slide number seven (out of eighty-three) in his annual review of the strategic plan for an edgy, grumpy board of directors. The CEO shifts in his seat, still grimacing as he recalls his missing the winning three-footer on the eighteenth green at the club championship the prior Saturday morning; better schedule another putting lesson with the pro. The pro is talking with the course superintendent about fixing the pesky drainage problem in the sixteenth fairway; the course superintendent is not listening very closely because he’s thinking more about an upcoming, long-planned golf trip to Scotland next spring with his buddies.

It’s all but a sliver of one huge, interlocking mosaic of human determination, hopes, concerns, and designs.

And it’s all about influencing, controlling the future.

This morning, James the brother of our Lord reminds you that it is all too easy to forget and disregard and simply ignore God in all of this frenzied activity and planning. Yes, here you have Jesus and His cross held right before your eyes and preached directly into your ears and heart. But with a bit of tongue-in-cheek — and I mean no disrespect whatsoever to our wonderful coworkers across the street —there is a rather substantial office building that stands at elevation and dominates the expansive view from this consecrated spot where we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God (Colossians 3:16). And then I hardly need point out that this very chapel is located inside of an office building — so that when you depart this space this morning and exit through those humongous doors, you’ll be returning to meetings and plans and a stacked Inbox and reports and hopeful expectations and anxious worries about future outcomes arising from our present common labors, our “getting down to the business” of the mission of God, the Church on the move, the Body of Christ in motion. The clock is running; let’s go!

I think this is fitting and proper and as it should be, at least for now, maybe right now in this chapel setting. Jesus, crucified and resurrected, comes in — in quiet, subversive, thief-like fashion — and He collides with the feverish, worldly enterprise of any man who is all too willing to “cut the cord” with his creator. At first, the Word appears to be little if not nothing. But all of the contemporary cues that surround us continue to confront you and me in a way that ought to give us pause before we arrogantly tear down our old barns… and begin building larger ones… and act as if the future were solely in our hands or that we were even given to know that any one of us is going to be physically standing, breathing here on the face of planet earth when the sun comes up tomorrow. Only “if the Lord wills.”

This is James’ call for you to repent, dear baptized: you are to be constantly watchful in regard to how you think and make plans for your life. It is all too easy to map out a path in which God has been relegated to a secondary, “ride along” position… but you are to remember that everything you do is utterly bound by the limits of His time and His will. To forget this is to fall back into the sin of boastful pride, which can only lead to your destruction. To forget this is to falter and give up the confident hope that is already yours — of eternal life in the bliss of paradise, life with God that surely has come to you as a gift, from outside of you, in the perfect righteousness of Christ for you. To forget this is to give way to fears and anxieties that will inevitably come when you love and trust and worship your own plans and efforts — for your heart is a veritable idol factory, and this morning I am bound to remind you that you are not at all immune to the idolatrous sins of “human enterprisology” and “strategic programism.”

It is as if James is saying, “Hold on.” Even if you are able to run around and get on with the “business” of life, you cannot attribute this ability to your own efforts, but rather you are to accept that you can do these things only by the blessing of God. For after all, “Of what sort is your life? A vapor, a mist — for to tell the truth, you are one appearing for a little while, and thereupon also vanishing away.”

So, yes, you make your plans and you labor to your utmost with all of those First Article gifts — your reason and your senses, your intellect, your physical body — but you do so with a constant, overriding awareness that it is all under the grace of God, who alone knows and directs all of the details concerning where… when… how long… what will happen. Absolutely forgiven for every sin of arrogant pride and over-reliance on self, you beseech your Father: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” You take to heart the wisdom conveyed through His servant Solomon: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Proverbs 27:1).

And above all, you continually trust in the eternal will of Him who planned and undertook the greatest enterprise in all of human history, the Lord whose will and business it is that all are saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), the One who broke into this world confessing to His Father, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God’ ” (Hebrews 10:5–7).

Thankfully, so thankfully, dear baptized, at that loneliest, bloody place upon the earth, upon that cross dark-stained with the very blood of this Lamb of God, all of the plans and schemes and enterprise of sinful man — these meet their eternal end in the irrevocable will, the concluding judgment of God Himself. “It is finished.” And it is through His cross that you now gaze upon the world around you and have come to understand that — thankfully — you dwell and labor here for only a limited time.

This is God’s will and work and enterprise: that by the instruments of His grace, you have been brought to believe in this Son whom He has sent (John 6:29). And so together, we work, we labor, we strive, and it is all under His watchful eye, His mercy, His forgiveness and:

We impart a …hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. …[A]s it is written,

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him [Isaiah 64:4] —

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6–9).

In the name + of Jesus. Amen.


Rev. Kevin Robson
Chief Mission Officer
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod