A Grain of Wheat:
Collected Sermons of Father Leonard R. Klein
edited by christa ressmeyer klein
cluny, 372 pages, $29.95
Preaching Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it,” wrote Luther. Fr. Leonard R. Klein took that exhortation to heart. After many years of faithful service in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Klein became the first married Protestant pastor ordained to the Catholic priesthood in the Diocese of Wilmington. A Grain of Wheat, a new collection of sermons edited by his wife Christa Ressmeyer Klein, showcases the homiletic gifts of this longtime friend of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and First Things.
Like Neuhaus, Klein studied under Arthur Carl Piepkorn, professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Piepkorn understood Lutheranism as a reforming movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, rather than an autonomous Protestant “denomination.” Although Klein departed from his original ecclesial tradition, his sermons prove he did not abandon the nuances of its theological character, retaining a very Lutheran “theology of the cross.”
“The powers of this present age despise the cross because it is a competing source of authority,” he declares in a 2018 Good Friday sermon. “They despise it also because the cross presents the world with a Savior, thereby announcing that it needs one, and thus cutting to the heart of all human pride, pretense, and arrogance.” Those words echo Luther's repudiation of man’s “theology of glory.” Indeed, Klein ended his final sermon as a Lutheran pastor by citing Luther’s humble last words: “We are beggars, that is the truth.”
That Lutheran recognition of the reality of sin and suffering suffuses A Grain of Wheat. “We reached for the apple and got the snake,” Klein wryly observes in an Easter Sunday homily that features a persuasive articulation of the historical evidence of the resurrection. He ends that homily by exhorting his congregation: “Since Jesus lives, your life is not a tragedy; it is a comedy—worth a smile, indeed joyous laughter, for in the resurrection the radiance of God’s love has shone across the world.”
Klein interprets our lives through the lens of a grand narrative directed by the risen Christ. He explains in a Christmas sermon: “The beauty of our faith is that our life is not an aimless procession to the grave. We are part of a heroic saga, following the way of the cross to the life of the resurrection.” Perhaps that vision explains why his homilies are impressively littered with references to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, as well as William Butler Yeats and Robert Hugh Benson. Reflecting his musical tastes—or maybe an attempt to relate to parishioners?—he also cites the lyrics of Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow.
As any scholar of the Iliad or Beowulf can tell you, the epic saga serves an invaluable function in teaching cultural values. Preachers, too, should be good story-tellers. In a homily commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, Klein describes both the senseless carnage of that conflict and the subsequent nihilism and skepticism that pervaded European culture and intellectual life, accelerating the continent’s descent into post-Christian secularism. Yet hope remains: In another sermon, Klein describes a hill of crosses in Cold War Lithuania that the atheist Soviets regularly attempted and failed to obliterate. There are an estimated one hundred thousand crosses on the pilgrimage site today.
Klein could also play the apologist—a homily for the Assumption of Mary notes the ancient patristic support for a Catholic dogma not promulgated until 1950. Alternatively, his defense of purgatory on All Souls Day appeals less to our historical or theological sense than it does to our common sense. “Most of us die needing a little work. And I think we know it…. Most of us die in the midst of the consequences of our sins and shortcomings. The sin is forgiven, but the effects of our sin remain; the damage to our souls and to others needs to be repaired.”
Like his friend Fr. Neuhaus, Klein could be political, as he was in a 2012 homily delivered the Sunday before Independence Day. Channeling John Courtney Murray, Klein argues that the Catholic Church’s diverse but essentially united character “anticipates the American experiment with ordered liberty and infinite variety,” and that American constitutionalism “corresponds in many ways to that Catholic vision of human community.” He approvingly cites Jefferson’s idea that government secures, rather than grants, rights, and argues that rights must originate not in the consensus of the majority, but in the divine. “Because of the power of sin, rights are too important to be left to consensus.”
Given their similar backgrounds and long-time friendship, Klein was asked to preach at the vigil Mass for Fr. Neuhaus. Klein describes the First Things founder’s faithfulness to one core principle. “The press misses what was truly conservative about the man, for the press misses what did not change—the commitment to Jesus Christ. Even more it misses that Richard changed as he did because his faith stayed the same.” It was Neuhaus’s preeminent allegiance to Christ, argues Klein, that informed his opposition not only to Jim Crow and the Vietnam War but to abortion and euthanasia.
Neuhaus was not the only loved one whose death Klein was forced to mourn in his preaching. He also offered the funeral Mass for his own daughter, Renate Ruth Gabriella, who died of esophageal cancer in 2016. “All of our suffering is in the light of the cross,” Klein said in the eulogy. “God has taken the world’s sin, its sufferings, and its story into the body of Jesus.”
So soon after Christmas, that body should be especially fresh in our minds. “Advent is the season most true to our life as Christians. We live in hope, joy, and longing,” preached Klein. It is a longing to make sense of the trials and losses we endure, a hope that we will in time witness something beautiful and true that clarifies the many disparate strands of our earthly existence. “Hope is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but it does see clearly.” That sounds like the right message for the new year.
Casey Chalk is a contributing editor at the New Oxford Review.
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