In the name of Jesucristo. Amen.
“This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Now repeat after me and say it like you mean it: “This is the day the Lord has made…. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” By God, I’ll make joyful Christians out of you yet!!
Now I want all of you to turn to Psalm 100 and I want us to say it together and say it like you mean it, with a loud voice and your lungs full of joyful air! Psalm 100
Wow. Do you really believe that? You sound like you do, but I want to convince you of it by recapping some of the events of the past 35 years or so that LSPS has been a part of this community. We all know that today is the last official chapel day for LSPS; however, I refuse to be sad or to give in to depression, because you have almost convinced me in your confession of Psalm 100 that “The Lord is good and his steadfast Love endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations!” I read that “all” to mean you! LSPS and SSW and all those who visit with us today. You have almost convinced me that you mean it so I’m going to give you a little more time to think about it and I’m going to offer some reflections to take you just over the top of your confession!
Let’s back up a bit …
Imagine with me,
It was 1971. I was a senior in high school. I was wearing bell bottoms and I had side burns down to here! But so was Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck … so there! Confession is good for the soul some crazy monk said once! In 1971, LSPS did not exist as a Master of divinity program of Wartburg seminary. But in 1974 someone had a good idea that a Lutheran seminary program was needed here to teach students about Hispanic ministry in cross-cultural contexts. A bishop and a few friends got together and convinced someone to donate $50.000.00 for this mission start and they convinced Wartburg Seminary to do it. So Wartburg in Texas was born. In 1974 LSPS had only one or two students, that was it.
Remember, in 1971 LSPS did not exist. Some folks had a vision for what the Spirit might be able to do in Willie Nelson country if folks could only grasp the vision and help make it a reality. And so they did, and the vision flourished, and folks from all over Texas starting contributing funds to make it happen. Donors starting contributing to the vision and the dream that Texas could be a place where Lutheran students could study theology and become pastors became a reality.
A few years later, another idea was born. The first professor of LSPS, Hilmer Krause, accepted a call to serve as a homiletics professor here at SSW and behold LSPS found a home here on this campus, and good neighbors became friends and mission partners became visionaries as we together fulfilled the call to common mission even before the wider church thought about it! How’s that for keeping the church weird and off-center? The poet Robert Frost once wrote with irony that “good fences make good neighbors.” What he meant by that was exactly the opposite! Fences don’t make good neighbors! And here at LSPS and SSW we agree with him! We learned to tear them down for the sake of a grander vision of serving God in the world! And so in tearing them down “whiskeypalians” became friends with border-crossing Lutherans and the rest, as they say, is a 36 year history of “life together” as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say.
But I have to confess something to you. When I first came here to interview with the former director, Augie Wenzell, back in the summer of 1988, I didn’t think I was going to like it here! Sorry! It was July, it was hot, the grass was yellow, and there was no one around to try to convince me of how great you all were. So he brought me here to show me the chapel to impress me, and then I knew for sure that I wasn’t going to like it.
Let me explain. You have to admit folks, the chapel is a little skewed, shall we say? That’s what Pastor Kerry Nelson remarked last Tuesday when he was here. He noticed the chapel space was not exactly linear; it’s a little bit off-center, and it has this weird altar space that curves around against that wall that now Eliseo has made weirder by turning the altar around.
So I explained that there was a theology behind this sacred space. I told him that this wall represented the “wailing wall” of Jerusalem, and the chapel was supposed to represent a tent in the wilderness; in fact, those glass doors can slide open just to prove the point. I told him that the Cross, our primary symbol of faith, was located outside the building to remind us of the mission of the church to serve Christ in the world. I explained to him that we learned to speak and sing and pray and even dance in Spanish because of the context of our mission. My explanation started to make sense to Pastor Kerry and I told him that if the place seemed skewed, off-center, it was because as missioners of Christ we were called to be a little off-center ourselves in our way of relating with the world outside. We were called to be a little weird perhaps, in a good Austin kind of way.
So let’s review what else we’ve learned by being a little off – center in this place over the years. I once heard Pastor Sandi Wilcox preach a sermon here on Jacob wrestling with an angel and how we too in our own wrestling with God may end up “walking funny”, after we have been blessed by God. We walk funny because we walk to the beat of a different drummer. And even when the blessing has been delayed, as it has been for some of you, we have learned not to despair because as you have confessed to me this morning: “The Lord is Good and his steadfast Love endures forever!” Say it with me! (Repeat). You have known and tasted this goodness here under this tent in the wilderness, while singing songs of praise in two languages! Oh, how good the Lord has been to us, how merciful, how gracious, how loving that God has made us for Godself and has spoken to us in the language of our hearts! Yes, I have learned to love this chapel and the people who worship here!
Mark Moore and Mel Antonio, two students who graduated last year told us of their experience of sacred space while eating in a humble home in Cuernavaca in a ravine so close to the river below that they could hear it as they went to bed at night. It was not much of a “house” by our standards, but it was joyful and full of hospitality. Those students learned to cross over their own comfort zones as they struggled to learn Spanish in Mexico and relate to a people who appeared to have so much less and yet shared so much with them. They learned why folks become economic migrants much like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah.
We learned from Pastor Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán in El Paso in one of our cultural encuentro trips to the border why she ministers to the people of the border – simply put – because the Spirit of God insists on being present with the poor and the homeless, with border crossers, and economic migrants, with folks who dream of seeing the promises of God made real in their lives. We learned from her community of faith that it takes community to make it in this life; that we cannot make it on our own, and that accepting that truth can be the most liberating good news to a people who find value in relating to others in community. We learned from her friend, Doctora Mendoza of Juárez, Mexico that when the Spirit sends you on a mission, nothing can stop the missioner, not even the threat of death by unseen forces because the Spirit gives courage and faith. Her ministry is one of restoring health and dignity to a people and we couldn’t help but catch her vision for what is possible when faith and Spirit meet.
We have learned from so many in this place over the years as we have shared and experienced life together, through both good and difficult times. Our learning has not been limited to the academic or theological. We have learned to be community as we have learned to live and love together.
Have there been tears shed in this place? You bet! I did my own wailing here last year near the wailing wall when we lamented the suspension of the M.Div. program, but that did not last for long because the community was there to support us. Many of you wept with us, and we wept with you when 14 Episcopal staff members were let go last December in order to keep the seminary sustainable; we prayed with them and for them and through it all we learned that God is faithful even in the darkest moments of our lives. We continue to learn together that God can take death and turn it into life and God can sustain us through the power of the Spirit working faith in us so that we might say with the psalmist: ” The Lord is God, It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” Ok, so sheep are not that smart, but God is patient with us, even when we are tempted to despair when prayers are not answered as institutionally quickly as we would like.
What else have we learned in this place? We have learned that folks from different parts of the world can come together and become “familia“, family of faith and a community of love and support for each other. We have been gathered here from the four corners of the world with folks coming here from Slovakia, Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines, Mexico, the British Isles and I’m sure other places as well as we became one people, worshipping and learning together. We have learned to cross denominational barriers and national borders in our quest to be faithful and in the process we became partners in ministry, visionaries, one learning from the other and becoming the richer for it. I have heard the sounds of mariachis in this place and who can forget how we sang “De colores” at the beginning of the academic year. How sweet our time has been as we have learned to live together under a tent in the wilderness, in this chapel where we have tasted the abundant life.
I first came here as a student in 1988 convinced that I would not like this place, and here I am 22 years later as a professor and director, little knowing then that I would come to love this place and the people who make it what it is. This has been a place where we have forged friendships, where we have seen students come and go over the years. We have walked together, prayed together, worshipped together; struggled together, and yet, we have come back to this table, week after week to eat “juntos,” together, as a family. We have learned to love others beyond our own perceived limits of understanding and relating. We have also learned to forgive each other when our relating fell short because of our human frailties.
And who can deny not feeling the power of the Spirit moving among us – gathering us, sending us, equipping us to share God’s love in the world. We have heard here that we are God’s very own, the beloved community, and so as I preach what may or may not be my last sermon here, let me leave you with this thought: God is in love with you! We know it because God crossed the border for you, the one that separated us from God, and not even the death of dream, not even the death of a man called Jesus, Jesucristo, could separate us from this love. The cross is right outside waiting for you to go and tell the story so that others might know something of what we have experienced in this place. The proof awaits you at this table waiting to be set to feed you as familia.
The proof of that vision of so long was is almost 150 graduates now serving Christ in the world.
So convince me once again of your confession of faith by saying with me: “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Amen.