- 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
Texts: Isaiah 41:8-10, Matthew 28:16-20, Hebrews 12:1-2
These have been thrilling days with hundreds and thousands of people gathering to hear the actor Charlton Heston speak, to cheer a team to victory, to be entertained by Cobber musicians, to recount experiences with fellow alums and to worship. The crowds are simply extraordinary. It is this way every year.
But it has not always been this way. On an October day in 1891, just 12 students and three faculty gathered for the first year in the life of this college. The students were barely teenagers. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, away from home for the first time, for the purpose of getting an education. One might imagine that they were anxious for their own reasons; lonesome to be sure, and unsure if they would be accepted by their peers or if they could do acceptable work for their professors. Those professors must have been a little anxious too, for a one building college next to a corn field on the prairie with only 12 students was probably not what they had in mind when they chose their profession. But the students found friendship from the faculty, and the faculty discovered that the farmers, merchants and pastors who had dreamed up this college were consistent in their loyalty and generous with their meager resources. They had a vision, too, as one of the founders predicted that “these people are doing a work for Christ and His church for which even the sons of New England will yet rise up and call them blessed.” In short, that small group of students and teachers discovered that they were “with love and hope surrounded.” That theme is a constant in the history of our college. The challenges Concordia has survived, the opportunities it has seized and the service it has rendered through thousands of graduates – how else can you explain it?
People who visit the campus remark about the friendliness they find here. Alumni return each year in incredible numbers at Homecoming time. Cobbers around the globe wear their ruby and gold rings with pride, and we sing our hymn with spirit and joy, “with love and hope surrounded.” But what we experience here is more than a song, more than a motto, more than school spirit. It is all of that, but more than that, it is a religious heritage, for that love and hope is from God’s hand. It is that heritage more than anything else which ties us to the past, back to 1891, to the people of Christ’s time, and to the children of Israel. This heritage of love and hope is alive today, and is relevant to people who are anxious, to people who are looking for ministry and to people who are in ministry. At one time or another all of us find ourselves in those categories.
First of all, the love and hope of God is relevant to people who are anxious. About 20 years ago a popular writer called ours the age of anxiety. There is evidence of that all around. We spend twice as much money on armaments as we do for food. It is small wonder that the young worry about nuclear annihilation, for according to sociologist Robert Bellah, among their parents is a widespread feeling that life will be worse for their children. Other societies have anxieties different from ours. For the one billion who are undernourished, hunger is the cause of their anxiety. For the millions who live under totalitarian regimes, bondage is the cause. I suppose each of us has kept our own list: it may be a promise unkept, or our lives may not have been all we wanted them to be. Whenever people gather, there are those gripped by their own private despair.
We are not the first to have experienced anxiety. We reach deep into our heritage and discover the children of Israel had their own discomfort. They had experienced plagues, pestilence and the scourges of Pharaoh. Even when Moses was raised up among them, it was for a wilderness journey that seemed to go on and on. It was a journey with its own perils, disappointments and anxieties. It was so terrifying that some of them gave up, while others took on new gods and idols. God understood their anxiety. He said, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” God had made a covenant with the children of Israel, a covenant to surround them in their extremity, that His love and hope were dependable. “Covenant” is the word he used. God had made a covenant with His people, and He would not break it. What incredible love and hope.
Well, the good news to anxious people today in 1983 is that God’s covenant promise is still good. The disappointment of my past or your past cannot separate us from His love and hope. Neither can the worst of our sins. As one writer put it, we Lutherans take sin seriously, but we take grace more seriously. That love and hope comes to a farmer anxious about an 80 percent crop failure in the face of the accumulation of heavy debts and to a Cobber too young to die of a dreaded carcinoma. That love comes to a couple caught up in the guilt of unfaithfulness, and it comes to students facing uncertainty about careers and friendships. Yes, God surrounds the anxious with love and hope. Fear not, He says, for I am with you. The gates of hell shall not prevail against such love and hope as this.
People surrounded by love and hope are often inspired to express it, to find a way to give thanks for it. They are the second category of people I want to talk about, people to whom God has ministered and who, in turn, want to minister to others. That’s the way it was with the disciples of Jesus. They had followed Him, listened to His preaching and experienced His miracles. They had been forgiven by Him when they had been unfaithful. So it was not surprising that on a mountain some days after Jesus’ resurrection, they gathered to worship Him and find out what they might do with their lives. So Jesus gave them a ministry. “Go and make disciples,” He said. This they did in many places. In those early days of the church, there was need for ministers of many varieties. Paul tells us about that, about teachers and servants and physicians and pastors, all with special gifts – each gift an opportunity for ministry. For Lutherans, our spiritual father Martin Luther` gave prominence to the laos – the laity – the whole people of God. As Luther put it, “God approves of all skills, callings and trades…insofar as they are honest and laudable…be it burgher, peasant, cobbler, janitor, scribe, horseman, master or servant. Whatever our calling,” he said, “we are to be Christs to our neighbor.” For people looking for ministry, there is along with the commission a promise, “I will be with you,” and so He sent his spirit to dwell among us, carrying forward in a new form the covenant that had come to the Israelites.
The call to ministry has been fresh in every generation. We can read it in the history of the college. On the very first day of the life of Concordia, the Reverend G.M. Hoyum took the college’s call to ministry from these words in Deuteronomy 6:4-7:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon you heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
At the midpoint of our history, Carl B. Ylvisaker spoke about a college of destiny with Christ as the cornerstone of its being. And in the 1960’s Professor Carl Bailey was to put that call to ministry in these words:
The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian way of life.
On this Homecoming weekend it is fun to read the roll of ministers. In particular, this weekend we honor three distinguished alumni – one with a career in medicine, another in public service and the third in industry. We hold them up as ministers in whom that blend of competence and commitment has flourished. The reading of the roll goes on, there are ministers in small towns and large, some whose path is largely unmarked and others who serve in the floodlights. But nameless or recognized, I am proud of these ministers of ours and the witness they bear for us all and, most of all, for the One who called them. They, like us, are surrounded with love and hope from God’s almighty hand.
But lest we be carried away, thinking that heaven comes to earth for ministers, let’s face the fact that ministry has its ups and downs. We don’t always do our ministry well; we grow weary in well doing. Our zeal flags, our skills too, not to mention our commitment. It is of some comfort to know that people in ministry throughout the ages have experienced valleys as well as mountaintops. That is apparently the way it was for the Hebrews in the Epistle lesson for today. The theologians who have studied this text admit to limited knowledge concerning the Hebrews. But the letter indicates that they were having some problems with dullness, sluggishness and even unfaithfulness. We can tell that from the words of the text when Paul told them to put aside every weight and sin which was clinging to them. That is a common experience of people in ministry. We can lose our edge, our diligence can flag and we may yield to temptation from the devil’s side. We have seen it in ourselves and others: an artisan who yields to fatigue and whose work then loses its luster, the educator who lets new developments in their discipline slip by, or the business person who puts personal concern ahead of customer service. We see it in the rampant individualism of our day that makes personal satisfaction a god above all others. The rhetoric is that I have a right to be what I want to be, to do what I want to do. We see it in the dullness of view of persons for whom the major issues of life are: how can I lose weight, can I shoot par, and how shall I use my spare time? I am saying that these are the experiences of people in ministry – well-intentioned people like the Hebrews – who become weighted down with dullness, sluggishness and sin.
It happens in churches too. In a survey it was noted that seven out of 10 who leave Lutheran churches do so because they don’t experience community in their congregation. Sounds like a lack of excitement, doesn’t it? Another study finds that Lutherans in America are minimally involved in their communities. Participation does not extend beyond home, school and church. Sometimes there is a lack of balance too. James Wall, the editor of Christian Century, spoke of the absence of moral tone in our day and noted that we mainline religious groups have allowed our zeal for social justice to override our concern for morality, excellence and duty. The tendencies of the Hebrews – people in ministry – extend beyond individuals and churches, they also extend to colleges and college alumni who face the temptation to take tradition for granted, assuming that someone else will tend to it, or to rest on past laurels, while society all around is providing new challenges. Colleges and their alumni need to keep their edge in order that these colleges remain faithful in mission and fully equipped for the preparation of ministers.
So the call to ministry keeps coming to us as individuals and as a college. There are ministries out there in abundance. There are hurting people who need friends – loyal, faithful and helping friends. There are people out there who literally need food, those one billion who are chronically undernourished. And there is justice to be done both in the neighborhood where the unlovely are slighted in the political process and in places like Namibia where Lutherans pay a heavy price for the color of their skin and their place of birth.
The call to ministry for this college is as clear today as it was in 1891. Most of education is preoccupied with teaching the skills that will get students jobs. Well, Concordia was interested in that in 1891 and it is in 1983 too. Competence in performing the work of the world isn’t just a nice thing for a Lutheran college to develop in its students, it is a prerequisite if we are to be prepared for ministry in the world. But our ministry calls for more than competence, it also calls for commitment. For God’s woman and man, baking bread or growing wheat or teaching the young is not a job, it is a ministry born of commitment. John Gardner has been one of my favorites for years. Consider these remarks that he made at a recent meeting of educators:
People can achieve meaning in their lives only if they have made commitments beyond the self-religious commitments; commitments to loved ones, to one’s fellow humans, to excellence, to some conception of an ethical order. The meaning in your life isn’t just handed down to you, as a wayward motorist might be provided a set of directions. You give life meaning through your commitments.
No one can make a commitment for another; it cannot be injected or indoctrinated. But a college can plant the seed and cultivate the field in which Christian commitment is born and grows. That is what this place has been about for 93 years in response to its call to ministry. The college calls those who dwell here to secular competence and Christian commitment that blend in ministry.
Like the Hebrews we need to be confronted from time to time, and, I submit, that is part of what it means to be with love and hope surrounded. Paul told the Hebrews to set aside the weight. Don’t dwell on it. Forgiveness allows us to set aside the past, the dullness, the slothfulness and the sin, for that is what grace is all about. Paul said a second thing, “Run with perseverance the race that is set before you.” Your ministry is valid, it is important, now get on with it, forgiven and renewed. Our call to ministry is clear, and to get sidetracked from time to time is normal, but there is forgiveness for that. We are called to remember the ministry and hang in there with perseverance.
For people in ministry there is more than just this call to shape up. There is again the assurance that we are not alone. We are surrounded by love and hope. Paul speaks first of the cloud of witness, our forerunners in ministry. Their lives bear witness to the faith. Paul recited the role of Israel’s priests and prophets as a way of reminding the Hebrews of the cloud of witnesses surrounding them. We each have our own list – parents, teachers, and pastors – people whose lives made plain the faith, a faith that lives with us in memory. With their love and hope we are surrounded. Colleges have their cloud of witnesses too – people like Bogstad and Christianson, Norbryhn and Nilsen, Johnshoy and Brown, Saetre and Fuglestad, Mundhjeld and Hjelmstad. That roster of witnesses goes on and on. With their love and hope we are surrounded
And one more word Paul left for his Hebrew friends and us – that Christ was with them in their ministry with His love and hope. This is the scared truth that comes to us. That is the sacred truth on which Concordia stands. And that is the truth to which we would be faithful. Amen.