Late in the evening of June 5, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary. He died the next day. Two months earlier he had consoled a mostly black assemblage in Indianapolis who were just hearing of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., earlier that evening. These murders were but two of the events during one of the most tragic years in modern American history.
They climaxed the academic year that my family and I spent in Seattle while I served as visiting minister-theologian at University Christian Church. Living and working in the vibrant, complex, controversial, and liberal university community was a life-shaping experience for me and my family. We went back to our ordinary lives in Indianapolis significantly changed.
As I remember that brief period of life half a century later, I realize that one of the most important aspects for me was learning how to present the Christian gospel to the increasingly skeptical, irreligious, anti-war, pro-personal-freedom constituencies who seemed to dominate the U-District where I spent most of my working hours during that academic year.
So, who is Jesus? And God…how can we talk seriously about a fatherly divine being in heaven above when the world that he supposedly created and cares for is in such a mess? What does the church, with its quaint ideas and fussy ceremonies, have to do with anything, anyway?
These issues consumed the mind, heart, and work of Robert A. Thomas, senior minister of the church, and in his sermons week after week he dealt seriously with the contemporary challenges to Christian faith and proclaimed its relevance to a world that seemed to be falling apart. I had never heard preaching like this before. Bob wrote his sermons in serious, declarative prose, long sentences, complete with dependent clauses. He frequently included quotations from the Bible, modern scholars, and current news sources. Dressed in his black academic gown with wide sleeves, he read the sermons word for word, standing tall in the high pulpit, full voice and animated style, his arms flailing the air.
His liberal theology had been formed during his studies in the divinity school at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s most prestigious and influential seminaries. He believed that science, history, and the Christian faith could live together and unite in solving the social and personal crises of human life and society. Week after week, I could scarcely contain my sense of excitement as sermon time drew near.
Midway through the fall season, Bob invited three younger clergy related to the congregation to join him in planning and preaching a series of dialogue sermons during the Advent Season that would begin a few weeks later. He proposed that we choose a theme that was rooted in the Christmas story and relevant to the tempestuous world in which we lived. He invited the religion editor of one of the Seattle newspapers to join us for one or two of the planning sessions.
We agreed that Bob would begin the series on November 26, the Sunday between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. He would explain the series, announce the theme, and spend most of the sermon describing the central challenge of our time that we believed the Christian gospel could overcome. During each of the next three weeks, Bob and one of the younger clergy would describe one aspect of our human condition and point toward the Christ-centered response that the Christmas story offers. On the last Sunday of Advent, which that year was on December 24, Christmas Eve, Bob would proclaim the miracle of new life that Jesus brings to the world.
The process was exhilarating for the four of us and well-received by the congregation, enough so that early in the new year, we decided to do it again on the Sundays in Lent, beginning March 3, 1968, and reaching their climax on Easter Sunday, April 14. We gave a general title to the two sets of sermons: Dialogues on the Incarnation. The Advent series we entitled Born to Set the People Free, and the Lenten series, The Tragic Vision.
Walter Hansen, the church’s business manager, typed the scripts for us each Sunday, and my carbon-copy set has been tucked away in my files all these years. As part of this year’s remembrance of that tragic year in American life, I have transcribed these sermons—all 30,000 words—and plan to spend the summer, which will include a two-week period visiting family members who live in Seattle, studying them and reflecting upon the form and character of this experiment in preaching. I look forward to conversations with the two colleagues from long ago who have maintained connections with University Christian Church all these years.
When the time seems right, I hope to write columns that highlight leading ideas in these two sets of sermons and then offer my comments, half a century later, on these sermons about God preached in a university church.