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Remembering The Rev. Dr. Ronald Thiemann

On December 5th I had the honor of preaching the funeral sermon for my mentor and friend, The Rev. Dr. Ronald Thiemann. We lost him too soon and will miss him greatly.

ron thiemannFirst Meeting

I remember the first time I met Ron Thiemann. It was 1996 and I was a newly minted first year Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School and Ron was the Dean. I was invited, along with all first years, to the traditional welcome cookout at Jewett House, the Dean’s residence. We shook hands in the receiving line and said hello. And that was it. In that brief moment, neither of us could have possibly imagined that our journeys would somehow lead us here today.

I never had a class with Ron, a fact he would later tease me about frequently. I tried to explain that he just wasn’t in my area, but he didn’t buy it. But I did see him often. You know, at Harvard, professors are our versions of celebrities and Deans all the more so. I remember seeing Ron walking hurriedly across the Div School campus. I’d say, “Hey, there’s the Dean!” It was like seeing a theological rock-star. I knew that he was brilliant, important, and busy teaching and guiding the Divinity school, which he did for 13 years.

So, perhaps you can imagine that when Ron and Beth appeared unannounced for Sunday worship here at Redeemer when I was serving as pastor, I had to do a double take. I peeked into the sanctuary from the back door and said, “Is that the dean? That’s the dean!” I walked up and, I’ll never forget, I nervously said, “Hello, Professor Thiemann, I’m Keith Anderson.” And Ron said, “Yes. I know.” Eek! And then I had to preach in front of him a sermon I didn’t particularly like. My heart thumped in my chest as it did for my sermons in the weeks to come. After weeks of calling him Professor Thiemann, he finally had to say, “Keith, please, call me Ron.”

And in the time since, I came to know Ron, not only as the incredibly accomplished scholar and institutional leader, advisor to political, religious, and business leaders, but as a colleague, a wise mentor, and, truly and most of all, a friend.

Today we gather to give thanks to God for both Ron’s remarkably productive life, the way he used his considerable gifts in the service of others, his contributions to the academy, church, and the ministry, but also the wise teacher, generous listener, husband, father, grandfather, and friend. We gather to entrust him to God’s care, to lay claim to the promise of eternal life in Christ, and to find solace in our sadness.

Curriculum Vitae

As you well know, Ron’s academic area was Religion in Public Life. He helped to bring clarity to the complex relationship between church and state, the role of religion in our common, civic life. But in a profession that can sometimes run toward arcane specialization, Ron’s work was deep and broad. His thinking on religion in public life touched on all aspects of our lives. And it was grounded in deep faith. I recall in these recent years:

  • His work on the Lutheran Roman Catholic International Commission on Christian Unity. Ron was helping to draft a common statement on Baptism for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. As the leader of a non-sectarian institution and the son of a Catholic father and Lutheran mother, Ron was committed to ecumenism throughout his life.
  • His trip to Iran for the National Academies of Science, building relationships with other scholars, engaging in interfaith and inter-disciplinary dialogue as shaped by powerful political forces. 
  • His helping to redefine the Master of Divinity curriculum on how best to train religious leaders for 21st century
  • His visit to the White House a couple months before he was diagnosed to hear from high level advisors about how they were reaching out in the world, sensitive to the role of religion. I think he was most excited that it was some of his former students that were part of that group and were, in part, responsible for bringing him there.
  • His comments on how much he enjoyed his seminar on Faith, one of his favorite classes.
  • Business and Religion across Traditions meetings in New York.
  • Finally, his forthcoming book The Humble Sublime, a book about "prisoners of conscience" who lived according to deeply held convictions which they expressed, publicly, through their art, theology, and beliefs. The project was like a microcosm of Ron’s work: starting from a deep grounding in Lutheran theology, and then finding diverse conversation partners, engaging different cultures, belief systems, and media, in search of understanding.

The Teacher

At the heart of all this, Ron was a teacher. He loved teaching and he was so gifted at it. I finally had an opportunity to have Ron for class a few years ago. I audited his new course, inspired by his book project, called Theology and the Everyday. Ron was amazing, both because he could effortlessly move between theology, philosophy, art, and literature using what seemed like a half page of notes, but also for the fact that he enjoyed, in the second half of those classes, taking his place in the class, as his student presented, their readings, their interpretations, their ideas.

Ron has a way of holding these together. He was an pastor and a parishioner, he preached and sat in the pews. He knew when to speak, when to listen, when to teach and when to learn, and he did each well.

He rejoiced in the success of his students as much or more than his own. He equipped them well and trusted them.

Ron loved the learning process, some of which happened in the classroom, but most of which, happened in conversations outside of class, outside of school. And not only with students, but all of us. He was a colleague’s colleague. A pastor’s pastor. A teacher’s teacher. Ron’s students, and I count myself as one, knew both his intellectual ability, but also his generous and often gentle wisdom. Through many conversations, Ron taught me about being a pastor, teacher, leader, about being church—the value of theological rigor and integrity, the centrality of the Gospel, the skills of thinking critically and analytically, as a way of balancing and supporting vision and imagination.

Part of the tragedy of Ron’s early passing is that deep repository of wisdom is lost to us. You know, these scholars, they are supposed to live good long lives. They are supposed to be around forever, so we can call on them when we have questions. Now we need to mine the wisdom he has given us, which, even as I have thought of it since his passing, is more than we realize now. We will be unpacking it for some time.

When I say wisdom here, I mean that Ron had this great ability to see things as they were. He possessed a remarkable clarity. It reminds me of Martin Luther’s line, “A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.” Ron did that. He understood the world with its complexities, that it was filled with death and resurrection, sinners and saints, it did not always yield easy answers. This is what made him a good leader and teacher. It also served him well in these last five months. Whereas many people might have gone into denial after receiving a diagnosis like his, Ron faced it head on, planned and prepared, finished his book, spent lots of time with family, friends, and colleagues. Ron and Beth and their family spent good and blessed time together.

Ron said that he experienced, in this time, a deep sense of peace. He experienced a confidence, trust in God. This came out his faith, which is captured in this tableau of the cross and risen Christ, which Ron so loved and always encouraged me to preach on. The cross shows us that God is in the midst of our darkest times, in the tragedy, unfairness, and sadness of this diagnosis and death, in our mourning. God is present here. And the resurrected Christ rising to new life, and raising us up to new life, so that death is not the end. Ron is resurrected out of death and we shall be resurrected from our mourning and grief.

Ron and Beth and their family steeped themselves in Scripture in these last days, passages that we heard this morning:

  • From Psalm 27, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
  • From 1 John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”
  • From 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.”
  • From the Gospel of John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

These Scriptures not only comforted him in his dying, but informed his living as well.

The Person

There was so much more to Ron than we will see and hear in the official history—more behind the man in the Dean’s portrait hanging in the library. And we see that in the sacred ordinary of his life, or, as he called it, the Humble Sublime:

  • I loved the way his grandchildren made him giggle, how he worked on the train set with them downstairs at the house, and hosted them for swimming. He baptized them all, and recounted, when sharing stories, of how he got choked up preaching at Kate’s baptism. It was so fun to see Kate, Will, Anna, and Nathan playing with their Pop Pop.
  • I once attended a Red Sox game with Ron. He was as fluent in the starting line up as he was theologians and philosophers. It was, he said, something he learned when scoring St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio as a young kid. 
  • He had an encyclopedic knowledge of barbecue, a passion he shared with his son-in-law Dan. At our last dinner together, we hosted and cooked on the grill and Ron could not emphasize enough how the meat had to rest. He and Beth have been gracious hosts to many people, to our country, to Harvard, and their home.
  • Ron had a twinkle in his eye, his quick wit, a good laugh. He was a caring person. He was immensely kind to our family, and I’m sure to yours as well.
  • He was devoted to Beth, Sarah, Laura, and their family. Our hearts break for you. I am so grateful for the many experiences you’ve had together, and especially grateful that you were able to spend such good and blessed time together in these last months.
  • I am appreciative of the well roundedness of his life. A life cut too short, but a life lived fully and lived well.
  • Ron’s legacy will live on, not just because of his books, but in us, because of the investment he made in us. We see those moments with him as the precious moments they really were.

The Gospel

But today, now, we entrust Ron to God’s care. We celebrate the resurrected life he now shares in Christ Jesus and know and trust that we will be together again, and even now remain connected in the Communion of Saints and rejoice that Ron now lives in the very heart of God. And I think of the words of the Psalmist:

“One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.”

Ron, we miss you. We are grateful for all you have given us. Today, we say, “Well done, very well done, good and faithful servant.” Amen.

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