Faithful Past, Promising Future

Phyllis Anderson—October 20, 2006
Founder’s Day Keynote, California Lutheran University

Matthew 13:31-33

I was on campus a month ago as part of a consultation with the Bishops of this region. We were exploring ways these Lutheran institutions can collaborate here in the west. As I result of my trip now have a CLU mouse pad on my desk. All month I have been looking at what must be a very famous picture of Richard Pederson kneeling in the foreground of a vast expanse of land—the land he and his family gave to build this college on. I held that picture of empty, plowed land next to the picture in my mind from my recent visit to this vibrant, growing university. I recalled images of bright young people spilling out onto its manicured paths, the sound of singing in the chapel, a quick walk over the bridge to your marvelous new Gilbert Sport and Recreation Center. When you lay those two pictures side by side, miracles come to mind— and mustard seeds.

My husband was an intern pastor at Angelica Lutheran Church in downtown Los Angeles in 1960. I have often heard him tell the story of being brought out here to see where the college was going to be. Carl Segerhammer showed him a chicken farm. The place looked desolate, God forsaken. But the people were full of excitement and vision. They were converting chicken coops into classrooms and offices. When you add nutrient rich manure as part of the mix, the image of the mustard seed becomes almost inevitable.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in field. It was the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.

Founders’ Day is the time to remember those small beginnings and the great vision of your early leaders and benefactors: Richard, Lars, and Karen Pederson, Carl Segerhammer, Orville Dahl, Raymond Olson, Gay Falde, Seth Eastvold, Luther Olmon. You could tell me more names that are revered around here.

It is a time to praise not only them, but all those who have contributed their energies, their wealth, their leadership, their scholarship, their passion for teaching and learning, their loyalty through the years—through the lean years and into this great era of strength and promise.

We come together on days like this to give thanks to God for graciously blessing this bold venture in faith. We thank God for giving the growth, a hundred-fold, a thousand- fold and more, like the speck of a seed that becomes a high rise apartment house for birds. That is how God’s Kingdom works!

This is a time to give thanks for your faithful past. This is an institution proudly rooted in the Lutheran tradition of Christian faith. It was founded by people of faith. They wanted the best for their children: faith and freedom, excellence and truth, in the language you use now. I can only imagine that at least some of them hoped to re-create here on these open fields the Lutheran college they attended further east. They wanted to build a Lutheran school where coming generations would be nurtured in the faith, among their own kind of people, at some safe distance from the temptations and the faith-withering skepticism of the great secular universities. The founders hoped that California Lutheran College would be a place that nurtured church vocations and send young men to seminary: to Lutheran seminaries.

And look what you have become! Who are all these birds you have nesting in your out-stretched, full-grown branches?

1. First I want to affirm wholeheartedly that you have returned your gifts to the church and you continue to do so. One of your brightest and best has just become one of our brightest and best at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, where I serve as president. John Cummings was nurtured and challenged in your classrooms and in your campus ministry program. After he graduated, he gave a year of his life as a volunteer in the Border Servant Core, immersed in the issues of immigration and poverty. Now he is at PLTS in his first year of formal preparation to become a Lutheran pastor. He is bright, likeable, full of faith and on fire for justice. He is a leader in every sense of the word. He knows how to hold together the pursuit of knowledge and the life of faith. You did a very good job with him. John—and many, many other CLU grads like him—serve in the church as pastors and lay leaders and active members of their congregations. Through birds like them you keep faith with your founders and fulfill the promise of this place.

When I was here last month, I had a chance to meet your new president, John Sledek. It might have been his fourth day in office. He and his staff shared with the bishops of this region an amazing cavalcade of programs through which this institution serves the church: preparing people for youth ministry, providing leadership training for congregations, continuing education for pastors.

2. I know that recruiting students from Lutheran congregations is a high priority at California Lutheran University—something that all the Lutherans among us can help make happen more and more. But not all of the birds in these branches are Lutherans. And that is something I want to celebrate today as well. Along with the one quarter or so who are Lutheran loons, you have an amazing array of peacocks and cardinals and robins and swallows and mocking birds. It probably would have been hard even fifty years ago to imagine the diversity of the population of California and the diversity of students who would flock to this campus, who would hunger for this very special education that you provide.

God loves all those birds. God loves this world where they will go out to serve as better, wiser, kinder, more just because of their experience here at CLU. Here young men and women who will be our school teachers and bankers and stock brokers and chemists and lawyers and physical therapists are being shaped by an ethos that some of us recognize as Lutheran, as Christian. They are forced to come up against clearly articulated values of service and justice and respect for the dignity of every human person. The world will be a better place because these people have had to engage the fundamental questions of meaning and purpose, because they have had to think about their lives in terms of vocation. It is not just the Lutheran kids whose hearts are expanded and whose minds are challenged by participating in an urban plunge into central Los Angeles. The Human Rights Club is for everyone—and chances to study in Thailand or Mexico, and building habitat homes, and rebuilding Biloxi after the storm.

These diverse birds not only gain from being at a Lutheran university. They also give. I hope that the Lutherans here are also learning from and being enriched by those who come from quite different faith traditions: from the Catholics, the evangelicals, the Muslims and Jews and Buddhists. Perhaps that kind of ecumenical gift exchange is part of your promising future.

3. California Lutheran University began as a child of the Church, a mustard seed planted in a fertile field by faithful Lutherans. The Church sheltered, watered, and nurtured this seed. The college depended upon the Church during those early decades when the dream was just catching hold.

Those years—the fifties and sixties—were boom years for California and for the Lutheran Church in the west. My own institution, PLTS, begun just ten year earlier, as the massive post-war migration to the west crested. Congregations were being planted up and down the coast and they needed pastors to serve all those new missions. The future was full of promise. People could imagine a time when a new Lutheran culture—maybe not so different from the one the loved in their childhood—would be firmly planted here in California, with a strong college and seminary as anchors.

Succeeding waves of migration and immigration have brought far fewer Lutherans. California did not become a new Lutheran culture. The Lutheran church with its stubborn insistence on the centrality of the cross, the persistence of human sin, and the necessity of grace is a counter-cultural witness in golden California. We live in a time when people claim to be spiritual, but do not claim a church. We live in a time when it is too easy for people to say: “Religion is the problem.” These are not boom years for the church. Many congregations are struggling; budgets are tight. The church is bravely, boldly, faithfully finding new ways to serve and to fulfill its mission to communicate to every living soul the love of God in Christ Jesus.

In these changed circumstances, a vibrant, faithful CLU is a powerful sign to the world. You show what people of faith and vision can do. You show how Christians contribute to make the world a better place. Lutherans planted this seed, and by God’s grace, it grew. Lots of people in Ventura County or Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, don’t know anything about the ELCA, but they know CLU and they know it is good. The excellence, the values, and the service that flow from this university communicate something about the church at its best in terms the world can understand. CLU is a witness to those who do not know your middle name. It is part of the commitment of CLU as a university of this church to continue to un-pack the L., to make the connection between the goodness they experience here and the source we know in Christ Jesus. Maybe you can tell them the parable of the mustard seed.

4. Now I haven’t been to Founder’s Day at CLU before. I haven’t heard the keynotes by eminent speakers in the past. I’m guessing that certain themes are perennial. This is a day to honor the faith of the founders and to celebrate the fruits of those labors both for the church and for the world. What I’ve said today has probably been said before, but it hasn’t been said by me. It hasn’t been said by the president of the seminary that shares this California coast with you. It hasn’t been said at a time when there are new leaders in place in both schools. I want to close by raising up for all of us the potential of more and more partnership between these two Lutheran educational centers, Lutheran outposts on the Pacific Rim. Could this be part of a promising future for both of us?

Our missions are distinct, but they overlap. They come together in a young man like John Cummings. We are both forming leaders on behalf of the church and for the sake of the world. To use the PLTS language, we form leaders by “deepening faith, challenging the mind, expanding the heart, and energizing for service and mission in the world.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How can we help each other do this better? I don’t know—yet. Who knows what would happen if we simply planted a tiny seed?