Is PLU Lutheran enough? A sermon by Pastor John Rosenberg
My name is John Rosenberg and for the past year I’ve served as the Interim University Pastor at Pacific Lutheran University. Yesterday at the Tacoma Dome, we celebrated commencement for the 2015-16 academic year and I completed my duties. Part of my job this year has been to help PLU call a new University Pastor. On August 1st, Pr. Jen Rude will begin her duties as the new University Pastor and I will be fully retired … at least for a while!
Pastor Karen asked me to say something about PLU. My hope is to give you a fuller picture of PLU and, most importantly, bring a gospel word to those of you gathered here on this Memorial Day weekend. I chose the reading from I Kings because I believe it points to an essential element of what we at PLU believe we’ve been called to do as a Lutheran University. I believe it also addresses a basic misunderstanding about the purpose of Lutheran higher education.
Perhaps you remember this story from Sunday School days or Bible study. Solomon, the son of King David, greatest of Israel’s kings, has just completed the temple in Jerusalem; the temple that his father, David, had always hoped to build but was not able to. Archeologists tell us that Solomon’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world. In the reading, Solomon is praying at the dedication.
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart.
“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”
That’s an interesting prayer for a number of reasons. In my role as University Pastor, I’m often called upon to pray at official functions, so I find myself paying close attention to prayers and borrowing from the good ones. I’ve discovered that you can tell a great deal about people’s beliefs by listening to their prayers. Lex orandi, lex credendi, the ancient church fathers said. “The law of prayer is the law of belief.” What we pray reflects what we believe almost as much as what we do.
So think about Solomon’s prayer in this light. He begins by praising God: “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant [i.e., keeping promises] and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart.” Solomon recognizes a God who loves creation and always keeps promises. That’s key; God loves creation and always keeps promises. If you don’t remember anything else, remember that!
But he goes on, “When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they all hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm” [this is a reference to the Exodus when God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt “with a mighty hand and and outstretched arm” according to the Scripture]—“when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” So Solomon sees the temple as a witness to the God who loves creation and keeps promises. Now that’s an interesting prayer and an even more interesting God!
Solomon anticipates a time when people will come to the temple in Jerusalem to see what all the fuss is about and when they pray, he’s asking God to hear their prayer as a witness that, in fact, the God of Israel is a loving and faithful God. In the ancient world, most people would have prayed for God to defeat their enemies or at least convert them. But Solomon is asking God to hear their prayers so that non-Israelites will experience God’s steadfast love and faithfulness for themselves.
You could think of Pacific Lutheran University in much the same way as we carry out our mission of Lutheran higher education. One of the wonderful gifts of the Lutheran Reformation that – like Solomon’s temple – people outside the Lutheran church are most impressed with is the Lutheran commitment to education and especially higher education, i.e., Lutheran colleges and universities like PLU. It’s funny because in my experience, it is outsiders who often appreciate this gift more than many Lutherans who either take it for granted or aren’t aware of it. But it is an incredible gift for which we should be grateful and which we should seek to use on behalf of a world in desperate need of it.
Remember that the Lutheran Reformation began in a university. Martin Luther was a teacher committed to making sure people could read and write and study the Scriptures in their own language so that they could learn for themselves about the same steadfast and loving God that Solomon prayed to. That commitment to critical study and learning led to a deep and abiding belief in the importance of education for all people (not just Lutherans!) at all levels—from preschool to graduate education—that Lutherans have been justly famous for throughout our 500-year history. Pacific Lutheran University is an expression of that Lutheran commitment to education and learning.
But take it a step further. For Luther, learning was never an end in itself. It was always learning for the sake of serving our neighbor who, as Jesus taught us, is anyone in need that God places in our path. So Philipp Nordquist’s history of PLU is appropriately entitled, Education for Service. At PLU, we teach about what Luther called vocation, i.e., the place where God calls us where our deep joy and the world’s deep hunger (i.e., our neighbor’s need) come together.
You can’t get away from vocation at PLU. Every student and faculty member, every administrator and staff-person, everyone on campus regularly thinks, talks, and writes about vocation. We have programs and courses about vocation. We have Days of Vocation. We even joke about it (which is how you know its part of the culture!) “How am I being called to serve my neighbor using the gifts, passions, and opportunities that I have been given?” That is a very Lutheran question that we ask all the time at PLU. In fact, we believe that if more people asked that question, the world would be a better place. As our President, Tom Krise, likes to say, “The world needs more PLU.”
There are some core elements of Lutheran higher education. Here they are:
- Critical questioning of current knowledge and values—If Martin Luther hadn’t been willing to critically question the values of the institutional church of his day, there would have been no Reformation.
- Freedom for expression and protection of learning—Academic freedom, the ability to ask question and look for answers wherever our search might lead, no matter who it makes uncomfortable is a very Lutheran principle.
- A liberating foundation in the liberal arts—A basic understanding of history, language, art, religion, culture, ethics, philosophy and science is a foundation for all more specialized knowledge, c.f., PLU’s ROTC program.
- Learning and research within community—Nobody pursues an education alone. We were meant to collaborate with each other. It’s built into our DNA. Even an online course assumes there’s someone on the other end helping to lead and guide us while we study in front of our laptop.
- The intrinsic value of the whole creation—Lutherans understood ourselves as environmentalists and stewards of the created world before it was trendy because we believe that when God called the creation, “Very good!” God meant it!
- Discerning one’s vocation in the world— “How will I serve the neighbor using the unique combination of gifts, experiences, and opportunities that God has given me?”
- Service to the advancement of life, health, and wholeness—At PLU, we educate students for service to the common good; a concept that desperately needs to return to our national and international conversation.
We’ve summarized all this into our mission statement: The mission of Pacific Lutheran University is to educate students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care—for others, for their communities, and for the earth. That’s a very Lutheran mission statement and I can tell you that everyone at PLU without exception is deeply committed to it.
So when you wonder about whether Pacific Lutheran University is “Lutheran” enough, remember that we are not a church. Our call is not to preach the gospel. That’s the vocation of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Brown’s Point and all the other Lutheran and non-Lutheran churches.
We have a different vocation which is to be a university. Don’t judge us by the number of chapel services we offer—although we offer excellent weekly Morning Prayer services attended by faculty, staff, and students. And don’t judge us by the size of University Congregation although I can promise you that there is a lively and vibrant group of students and faculty (including our President) who gather each week around the Word and Sacraments as University Congregation. Don’t judge us by the number of Lutheran students or faculty we have, although I can also tell you that while our numbers may be smaller than they once were, we are mighty! The fact that there are so many non-Lutherans at PLU is a testament to the power of Lutheran higher education. They want to what PLU has to offer!
Judge us by our mission—the vocation to which God has called us—of educating students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we know we have been saved by God’s grace alone. Like Solomon, we worship the God who loves creation and keeps promises! So the question for us as Lutherans is: “Now that we know that we’ve been saved by God’s grace alone, what will we do with our one wild and precious life?” At PLU, we are committed to helping students of every religious belief and understanding to answer that question. By the grace of God, students and faculty from all faiths and from no faith are responding to that mission, drawn by the Spirit, just like the people that Solomon prayed would come to the temple. That’s a mission that is worthy of your respect and support.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.