- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Text: Mark 9:30-37
During this Homecoming weekend in this bicentennial year of our independence as a nation, we are gathered around the theme, “Beyond ’76.” These events are part of a campus wide quest this fall semester, a quest to understand how we as Christ’s disciples should bring shape, direction and reconciliation to our nation in its third century. It is a fitting quest for a college whose hymn of dedication ends with the prayer, “In strength and faith forever, lead us where those have trod, whose toil and chief endeavor have brought us close to God.” In this prayer we identify ourselves with those disciples who have gone before us here and we claim their mission for ourselves.
The business of anticipating the future is not without its perils. I think about the world into which the members of the class of 1892 were called to serve. That was the first group of students in Concordia’s history and the college was booming in 1892 with 200 students but with lodging for only 50 and classrooms for fewer still. With no funds in sight and only the optimism of early President Rasmus Bogstad to go on, the college decided to build a new dormitory for its expanding student body. And what of the world into which those first Cobbers were called to be disciples? Well, farmers in the area were beset by drought, low prices, and high interest rates and gouging by the grain market and transportation industries. For these reasons populism was flourishing in this region. Also about that time, 23 million acres of Indian land had been detached from the reservations and made available for settlement. Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1892 on the promise of reform and putting an end to the spoils system.
Let’s now come halfway across Concordia’s history and consider the discipiling prospects for the class of 1931 -- a class that celebrates its 45th anniversary this weekend. Their basketball and football teams won conference championships. Probably inspired by that success, plans for a new gymnasium were launched, plans that would not come to fruition until 1952. These were the early years of the Depression that many private colleges in this part of the country would not survive. The Concordia faculty volunteered to take a salary cut of 25 percent that would leave them with a paycheck that President J.N. Brown said, “could not be justified before God or man.” The condition of the world into which the class of ‘31 was called to be disciples? Well, banks were closing at such a rapid rate that the college deposited student checks twice a day lest the banks on which they were drawn back home might have closed their doors. One hundred and two students graduated into an economy in which 12 million people were unemployed. But Pa Anderson, who operated our campus “placement service” out of shoeboxes, found positions for 85 percent of the graduates. That same year our European allies from World War I were unable to pay up their debts, an army of veterans of the Great War marched on Washington, D.C. in search of bonuses, and radical political movements were popping up all over the land.
And the class of ’76? This class was part of the largest student body in the history of the college and it experienced the biggest housing shortage since 1947. The women’s basketball team secured the conference championship, musical groups toured the country, and the new Knutson Center became the hub of campus activity. Forecasts are for declining numbers of students in the 1980’s and changing employment patterns for the country as a whole. The world that this class of ’76 is called to serve? Well, there’s a new consciousness about plenty and poverty as we enter a period of predicted limited growth. We are experiencing a crisis in national self-confidence and a new agenda of human justice issues.
The classes of 1892, 1931, and 1976 -- what do they have in common? For one thing, Concordia’s own future has been uncertain in some ways at each of these points in history and sin is still alive and well in our world as seen in the uncertainties of the economic order and the inequities of the social order. These epochs also have in common God’s call to be witnesses and, best of all, there is Christ’s enabling grace. And persistent in each epoch has been the question of how we shall exercise our discipleship.
That question of discipleship is the one that was before the followers of Christ in the text for this day (Mark 9:30-37). Christ and His disciples were on a journey through Galilee and as they came to Capernaum the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus took that occasion to tell them some things about discipleship. He said that the one who would be first should place himself last and become servant of all. Furthermore, the earnest disciple should become a friend and a helper to children.
Now here were are in Moorhead in the year of our Lord 1976, in quest of discipleship in the name of that same Lord. These are new times and new circumstances, but the same call to discipleship and the same enabling grace. Let us consider what Christ tells His disciples about their call: First, he says the disciple is called to be a servant, “whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all.” We have difficulty understanding what it means to be a servant. Arnold Come, a theologian at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, puts forth the claim that the concept of servant has been degraded in contemporary language. For example, if we take servant to mean that a person should not be a leader, most of those assembled here would be out of a job for there are assembled here leaders of many kinds – business people, teachers, pastors, parents and students.
So what does it mean to be a servant? Jesus stressed that we should be servants as He was a servant, which is to say, a responsible person to whom a task has been given. Christ commissioned the disciples to be servants by taking responsibility for the Word, for teaching, and for bearing witness. He said that disciples should be wiser than the children of light – yes, that they should be as wise as serpents. We know that Jesus could deal harshly with those who desecrated temples or who, having a stern master, were not wise enough to invest their money well. To be a servant is to take responsibility for Christ’s ministry to serve a brother or sister in need, and to bear witness to the Gospel whether as teacher, president, parent or chambermaid.
Besides clarifying what it means to be a servant, Christ’s injunction to the disciples reflected a concern for their misplaced priorities. Remember the disciples were concerned about who among them was first rather than accepting their calling to serve. This made Christ angry. Jesus said that a person consumed with a desire for money would be better off in poverty, and the person preoccupied with power was less fortunate than a weak person. In the Beatitudes and elsewhere, Jesus featured humility and meekness over unfettered power and misdirected commitment. And what happened to Jesus’ disciples 2,000 years ago happens to His disciples again today. Yes, we too quarrel about who is first and being first becomes an end in itself. Machiavelli is alive and well and we have the tragedy of President Richard Nixon, who placed power over conscience as an example. We also have volumes of popular books which sanction power, control, and manipulation as ends in themselves. It was the essayist and late-in-life convert to Christianity, Malcolm Muggeridge, who said, “power without the intervention of Jesus tends to become absolute and tyrannical.” In saying that the person who would be first should be the servant of all, Christ was endorsing leadership in behalf of mission, talent in behalf of witness, competence in the service of conscience -- that’s our challenge in the years beyond ’76.
The Roman philosopher Seneca asked, “What good is there for me in knowing how to parcel out a piece of land, if I know not how to share it with my brother?” Earl McGrath, a contemporary educational leader, says the important questions for society and higher education are the value questions -- the questions of oughtness. It is to such questions that we commit ourselves as a college of the church. It is in the service of such questions that we aspire to high academic standards for in gaining competence we become more able witnesses of our Lord. He who would be first must be a servant of all. Theologian Alvin Rogness, former president of Luther Seminary, illuminates such apparent contradictions as these better than most. He put it this way, “Should the president serve the citizen, the general the soldier, the owner the worker? Yes, says Jesus, that is precisely the order. The powerful serve the weak. To whom much is given, of him shall much be required. To the degree that a man has power, the opportunity and the skill to serve, to that degree is he under obligation to serve. This is the law of His kingdom.” To be a servant of all in Christ’s behalf becomes our marching call, that’s where the status is in God’s kingdom, and that is the path our forbearers have trod -- not without some pride and sin and all of that, but we celebrate today because of their faithfulness in service.
The second theme of our text is that the disciples were called to serve children. We are told that Jesus took a child in His arms and said to the disciples that the person who welcomes one of these children, welcomes Christ. Perhaps the disciples, in their search for status, considered persons of influence to be the ones who could bring them position. But Christ took a child in His arms and made this young person the symbol of status. This was a significant act, for in the time of Christ, children were not highly valued in Palestine. So it was no sentimental gesture to take a child in His arms—in this act Jesus was embracing a member of an outcast group.
Children -- Christ’s status people -- they are open, promising and dependent. They are in need of nurture and the opportunity to become all that they are capable of being as children of God. In the setting of our text, children represent not only the young in age but the outcast of all ages, that is, all who are dependent and in need of nurture, regardless of their chronological age. Let us consider the children of this generation -- those who depend on others for their growth and welfare. Certainly the children of this generation include those who are hungry. We are told that in the developing countries, out of every 100 who are born, 20 will die in infancy, 60 are damaged by malnutrition and only 20 escape unscathed. Futurist Herman Kahn notes that progress has been made in some developing areas of the world and says that if we apply our wealth and technology effectively, the very poor nations will be rich in 200 years!
Now that is a dream worth believing -- that the children of hunger may be fed and it is a dream worthy of the discipleship of all of us, some as direct agents in science and technology and medicine and agriculture, and then all of us as indirect agents in shaping world conscience and policy. The hungry, they are the children of this generation and so too are the black and red and brown people of this land who are striving to escape the cycle of oppression and injustice that leaves them with the highest unemployment and the lowest income levels in both good times and bad. The children of this generation may include, ironically enough, those who we refer to as senior citizens. They are the most rapidly growing age group in the land and many live in dependency created by employment laws on the one side, and on the other by a value system that often tends to place low importance on actions that do not produce capital. These esteemed people may not clamor for attention but they deserve the freedom and dignity that disciples can grant them.
In a manifesto for our nation’s third century, a commission of the American Lutheran Church declared, “We seize with joy the challenge of reshaping our nation in its third century. Jesus and the disciples give us the vision of a world made new for a life of social justice and mercy, of reconciliation and peace, of promise and fulfillment.” There is no guarantee that disciples who receive and care for children will be applauded or recognized in this generation. As Catholic theologian Dr. James Shannon put it, Christ never promised the disciples “thou shalt not be shafted.” In fact, quite the opposite may be true. Indeed, in verse 30 from our text in the book of Mark, Jesus was trying to tell His disciples that when he foretold his own suffering and death. Servanthood – discipleship -- often involves heartache and sacrifice and even death. But the marvelous thing about children is watching them grow and freeing them to walk on their own in independence and strength. It is every parent’s delight to see children become strong, independent, whole and operating as free people under God. God’s reward for discipleship is the inward satisfaction of being His agents to the children of this generation.
We see that disciples in the first century and the 20th century alike are enjoined to serve, and to serve those who are dependent and growing. This business of being a servant and ministering among the dependent, as opposed to gathering power and influence and associating with the popular and powerful, this is hard business to understand. We live in a world where being first is defined in terms of power and social status and who you can manipulate. Indeed, such a course of discipleship appears foolish and the Apostle Paul was reviled by the leaders of Corinth on precisely this point. But Paul told them “God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to put wise men to shame, and what the world considers weak in order to put powerful men to shame.”
How is it then that disciples can put off instruments of power and status in favor of service and associating with children? By the transforming love of Christ, that’s how. Nothing can separate us from that love -- neither life nor death, neither the world above nor the world beneath, neither the present nor the future, for “there is nothing in all the world that can separate us from the love of God that is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Christ frees us for this kind of discipleship by transforming us from masters to servants in some profound sense. And we become apostles of a new logic, that in giving we receive, in dying to sin we are born again, and in committing lives to Christ we are made free. In that assurance we step boldly and firmly into the years “Beyond’76.” In that assurance we pray that God will lead us where those disciples of previous generations have trod “in strength and faith forever.” Amen.