- 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: Exodus 3:1-6, Hebrews 13:7-17, John 7:37-44
In these days of our reunion, the subject most common to our conversation is change: the way the campus has changed, the way our classmates may have changed or not have changed as the case may be. The college, to be sure, has changed in size, curriculum, faculty, and student life. And the world in which our graduates will serve has changed. In the 1930’s graduates moved into a depression economy, in the 1940’s it was wartime and all the uncertainty that went with those tumultuous years, in the 1960’s there was social turbulence, and in the 1980’s we face increasing moral and economic uncertainty as a nation.
Some things, we may note happily, have not changed. We have had Homecoming since 1921, our ruby class rings have been around since 1920 and the “Hymn to Concordia” has been sung faithfully since 1931. The motto of this place, too, is unchanged: Soli deo Gloria, to God alone the glory. That reflects the assurance given the Hebrews ages ago, the assurance that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, for there is a direct line from that gospel news to our simple but profound motto.
We recall other things that are the same yesterday, today, and forever. The first of these is God’s expectations for his people. In the Old Testament text, God came to Moses and told him that He would lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God told Moses that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom God called to special tasks. God expects important things of His people; Jesus called the disciples to forsake their routine to become part of a revolution. God literally turned Saul of Tarsus around in a flash. And He called the founders of this college – Hougen, Christianson, Ness, Beck, Daehlin, Holte and the rest – to do a mighty thing here. They were not a distinguished bunch if judged by pedigree, position, or wealth. They didn’t really think they could do it, but God did, and they not only created a college that would survive, but one that would prosper.
What did God expect of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Saul; and Lars, Ole and John of yesterday? What does God expect of us today and forever after? Quite simply that we would put God first. That no other god would come before the God – not politics or money, not food or drink, not knowledge or power – none of that. God first. And God expects us to care for our neighbors. In the lesson from Hebrews, we are admonished to do good and share what we have. There is plenty of opportunity for that in a nation where hundreds of thousands are homeless and millions more are hopeless, where 20 percent of the children live in poverty, and in whose inner cities a 12-year-old boy has an 89 percent chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime in his lifetime.
God expects us to care for the earth. The hot, dry weather of the summer past gives us a new awareness of the fragile quality of our atmosphere, and the spreading of acid rain a new concern about the vulnerability of our land and water. The poet Robert Penn Warren wrote that “the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter.” What the poet sensed, the scientist Peter Raven observed, when he reported, “there is no longer a square inch anywhere on earth in which chemical pollutants do not fall.”
God expects us to pursue righteousness. Whether you look to the tablets of stone at Sinai, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the letters to the young churches, the expectations are clear. The God of Israel was a covenant maker, and part of the covenant was pursuing justice in one’s own personal life and in the relationship to God and the neighbor. We have plenty to work within a world of negotiable promises, relative ethics, and subjective truth. Those who pursue righteousness are not content with quality, with excellence; they press on toward virtue. We are not willing to settle for tolerance of those on the outside of our society. No, we seek after their justice. While diversity is a gift we treasure, we press on toward unity. In the middle of the gospel is the commission to make disciples, to bring the good news to the millions who have not heard it and the millions who have heard but not yet experienced it.
Such is the quest of those who pursue the expectations of God. As the Hebrews were warned, those who pursue such a course may bear abuse. Going upstream is not the thing to do, and that is almost inevitably the role of God’s people in the world we would influence. But such are the expectations of God – yesterday, today and forever.
What makes responding to the expectations of God so difficult for us is another unchangeable, and that is our human nature. Since the days of Adam and Eve, there has been that constancy. In the Old Testament text we are told that when God spoke to Moses, he hid his face. The patriarchs had similar stories to tell. In the face of his responsibilities for his wife on the one hand, and his desire to save his skin on the other, Abraham told his enemies that Sarah was his sister and not his wife. And Jacob, with greed in his eye, would conspire with his mother to deny his brother Esau his rightful inheritance. In Jesus’ day people of stature like Peter would deny Him. And down through the centuries, in and out of the church, in issues large and small, the battle against the expectations of God has been unceasing.
Now, it’s not that we don’t know that. We do. At our best we are a people seeking after righteousness. We are told by the writer of Hebrews that people sought to make things right with sacrifices of various kinds. And we, in our age, have refined self-improvement into both a high art form and a highly successful industry.
There is, for example, New Age spirituality. According to Dr. Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, it is some combination of mysticism and psychology. It emphasizes such good ideas as self-help and wholeness. It is packaged in workshops, religious movements, and consulting seminars of many kinds. In its spiritualistic form it begins to say that there is a potential for divinity, for reincarnation, for heaven on earth. What is forgotten is the essential brokenness of life -- that the world is not divine -- and that only God can make it and us whole. This new spirituality thrives in our day.
New religion thrives today, too. It is the religion of “go with Jesus and all will be well with you” – health, business, personal relationships -- everything. Imagine how all the martyrs must retch at that drivel! But self-help religion has its limits. In 43 percent of church going families surveyed by Merton and Irene Strommen, God, the Bible, and spiritual matters are never discussed. Or, according to a survey of stewardship conducted by the Lilly Endowment, in the 17-year period between 1968 and 1985 per church member benevolence as a percentage of income declined 23 percent.
What we in the academic life can’t duck is that we must also deal with New Age education. I am pleased to note that, in the face of our declining strength in world trade and our softening family life on the home front, education is now receiving a lot of attention. This is good. But education could also be another Tower of Babel if we think that by knowing enough, by producing world-class skills in math and science, we can solve all our problems. As futurist John Naisbit put it, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” The German university could provide the technology to build a world-class army of destruction but they could not provide the ethical sensitivity needed to avert a moral catastrophe. Our educational system, at its best, may once again make us a world power, but it can’t fill the souls of a society unsure of its course.
Along with New Age education, we find New Age ethics. Tom Wolff, popular novelist, was the class speaker at Harvard’s Commencement this year. Among other things, he proposed a fifth freedom in addition to the four so eloquently phrased by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s. The fifth freedom is freedom from religion and the development of a new ethic without the help of religion. In the wake of the Pentagon and stock market scandals, a lot of attention is being given to ethics. It is a quest conceived of largely in non-religious terms. Well, it can be done, of course. There have been and are non-Christian, thoroughly secular ethical codes that can lead to constructive, civilized, just behavior, and we do well to support such measures. But in the final analysis, something absolutely essential is missing in a society that ignores the ultimate brokenness of human life and the divine wellspring of love and justice.
We may describe ours as the New Age, and we may strive after righteousness on our terms as did the Hebrews of the early church. But I believe the writer of the Hebrews would send us the same warning today as he did then, “Do not be led astray by diverse and strange teachings.” Yes, the human condition is the same yesterday, today and forever, as is the ultimate futility of our efforts to bind up the world on our own. In Luther’s words we may conclude that we cannot of our own reason or strengths believe in God or come to Him.
All of this brings us back to the gospel, back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, back to the struggling Christian community in Jerusalem, back to Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever; back to Jesus, the reconciler, the author, and finisher of life.
The Hall of Saints is worth revisiting at least briefly. Abraham’s new age efforts didn’t always succeed, and yet God promised to bless him and use him for His purposes -- and God did. Isaac, for whose wealth didn’t guarantee either security or acceptance, God told him not to be fearful, that He would bless him and multiply his descendants -- and God did so. Jacob, the conspirator, would end up spending years indentured and uncertain. God would use him to build His kingdom -- and God did. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, “the promises to Abraham and his descendants … did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Jesus would describe the gift in the gospel lesson this morning as living water available to any and all. No “New Age self-help” here, but God’s love and grace, a gift that is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The Hall of Saints bears witness to Christ’s promise that out of the hearts of those who drink His water will flow streams of living water. The Hall of Saints bears witness to the writer of Hebrews’ testimony that those touched by grace do good and share it with others. It is evident in the hundreds of students at this college who volunteer their time to bring hospitality to the homeless and parentless. It is evident in the Habitat for Humanity movement, in which volunteers will build 2,000 homes this year. It is evident in the lives of hundreds of graduates who bring to their responsibilities in the corporate world a vision of fairness and honesty. It is evident in students who, touched by the gospel, want to peg their lives to the vision of peace with integrity. It is evident in alumni who get into the dusty fray of political life in order to do faithful duty for the gospel vision. It is evident in El Salvador, where Lutheran World Relief is building a new community for refugees from that country’s ongoing civil war. It is evident among faculty members at this college who keep questions of faith and learning in the middle of the academic process. And it is evident in alumni and family who pray for and share with a college where Christ is the cornerstone – yesterday, today, and forever.
Time moves restlessly, relentlessly on. But it does not move without purpose. As the lord told Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you as a future with hope.” That future and that hope is Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.