Chapel Talk

February 15, 2010

When I was a boy, at the beginning of each month my father, who was a professor, would call me into his office at home and hand me a sheet of paper. On it was a list of different types of books, with a blank line after each type of book. First on the list was an “All About” book. My parents had bought a set of books for the family that all began with the words “All About”; they had titles like All About the Sea, or All about Electricity, or All About Insects. Next on the list was a biography. My parents had also bought a set of biographies of famous people written for young readers. I remember reading biographies of Clara Barton, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Edison. Next on the list was the category “Religion.” Next was “History,” and so forth. There were probably five or six of these categories specified. Then came three lines for “Books of Your Choice.”

So here’s how this worked. I would take my list, go away, read the specified types of books, fill in their titles on the sheet, and present myself back in my father’s office at the end of the month. We would discuss them, and — here’s the good part — he would give me a dollar.

Now, there are a lot of ways you could go with this story. We could have an interesting discussion, for example, about the role of incentives in learning and, particularly, of paying for performance. (What with inflation and the amount of reading you have in your classes at St. Olaf, think of what you could be pulling in today if you had this system in place with your parents. Just a thought.) Or we could have a discussion about the costs and benefits of the kind of directed learning environment my father created for me — you have to read history and theology but not economics or art history — versus a more free-form learning environment in which I could read whatever I wanted. Or watch cartoons. Or fly a kite.

On that topic, by the way, my father saved all of my completed reading lists, and he sent them to me a few years ago. You can trace a boy growing up in the ’50s and ’60s by what’s listed under the category “Your Choice.” First it was books about animals, like White Fang by Jack London or Big Red, followed by Irish Red, which was followed by Outlaw Red — these were all about Irish setters — by a writer I loved named Jim Kjelgaard. Then, it was all books about baseball. I vividly remember a biography of Mickey Mantle, who was my hero, by a sports writer named Dick Schaap. Its epigraph was a quotation from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” After baseball, it was all books about cars. Girls may have entered into the picture at this point, too. And as to the whole topic of a directed learning environment, don’t get me started on our family vacations, which were always to improving places rather than, oh, say, Disneyworld; or Friday night “movie nights,” where we would make popcorn and watch filmstrips my parents would check out from the public library about things like rice cultivation in Cambodia; or the time my mother led all of us kids down to the basement, where she had set up a blackboard, and tried to teach us Norwegian.

I sometimes wonder whether, without my father’s system, reading would have been such an important part of my life. Would I have become an English major at St. Olaf, an English professor after that, and — even now — someone who lives and works surrounded by books? It’s hard to unravel cause and effect at this distance of years, but I do know that I didn’t regard completing my reading lists as a chore. I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, but I was glad my parents cared enough to give me this homemade curriculum.

In today’s reading from the book of Romans, Paul engages the topic of pay for performance. He doesn’t believe in it. The topic comes up in the larger context of his message that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28). Paul here lays out one of the central tenets of Lutheran theology, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (3:22-24). This message is a familiar one. Salvation is offered to us as a gift through God’s grace, not because we have earned it by following certain precepts or amassing sufficient good deeds but purely because God loves us. We are justified by faith, not by works.

In today’s reading Paul uses the metaphor of work to explain his point: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justified the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4:4-5). In other words, we don’t work for God. It might be tempting to want that job. You would have a clear set of tasks to perform, and if you performed them well you would get what you earned not out of your employer’s generosity but because you’d earned it. Your salvation would be predictable.

But stop and imagine for a moment what that employment contract would look like. Would it be written in stone tablets? Would the human resources office be on top of a mountain? What would the position description be like? Would you have a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word “prophet”? We can’t imagine that, because there isn’t a quid pro quo whereby we perform a certain function or complete a certain number of tasks and thereby earn our paycheck, which is salvation. Our relationship with God is based on love freely given, not on a contract; on trust, not on the employee handbook; on faith, not on a union pay scale. You can’t parse it out. There’s no mathematical model that guarantees you will get the outcome you want if you make the right inputs. Instead, there is an illogical promise of manifold grace that flows from incalculable love for those who haven’t earned it.

As Paul reminds us, “all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” If we did work for God, it would be the worst job ever. It would be the job from Hell. Literally. We would come to work every day armed with the best of intentions and always do our jobs badly. Our memos would be misspelled, we would be mean to customers, we would overcook the burgers and set off the sprinkler system, we’d overspend our budgets and send the company careening into bankruptcy, or we’d back the delivery truck out of the garage while forgetting to open the door first. We would live in mortal fear of our supervisor. We’d get fired, and we wouldn’t be able to count on a letter of recommendation, either.

Our fallen state constrains us. At our best, we rise to acts of kindness and generosity toward one another, serve as faithful stewards of God’s creation, and offer worshipful reverence to our Creator. At our worst, we foment war, we destroy the home we have been given on earth, and we shut God out of our lives. If our world operated on a pay for performance basis, we would all be out on the street.

Fortunately, it doesn’t. As Paul says in the opening verses of the fifth chapter of Romans, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Rather than working for God we live in Him, assured by God’s presence and buoyed by God’s love. The presence of God’s grace does not absolve us, certainly, of our responsibility to live Christian lives, but that grace supports us in our efforts and sustains us in our moments of weakness and failure.

It’s the beginning of a new semester, and that’s always a time of hope and cheer in the life of the college. Classes have newly begun, and continents of new knowledge lay undiscovered before you. This is an opportunity for students to work with new professors and for professors to work with new students. That’s a good thing all the way around. Despite the snow that fell last night, there’s even hope that spring will come one day. This is a good time to attend to Paul’s message, to remind ourselves of God’s abundant grace, of God’s boundless love for the creation, and of the power of faith that is our path to God. We don’t work for God. God works for and with and through us. Thanks be to God for that.


David R. Anderson ’74