Friday, February 29, 2008

Lutheran Theological Seminary- Tshwane

The focus of our experience here has been the seminary- most of our time has been spend in class or interacting with the students. Even though I had a sick day yesterday (still not quite 100% today), I was able to speak to the lone student from Sudan. Talking with my roommate before bed has been very good as well- I am learning a lot about the situation of the Lutheran Church in Africa generally and South Africa specifically.

The seminary may not be as nice we might be used to, but it is still very adequate. The library in particular surprised me- it only has about 1,000 volumes (as a contrast, my personal theological library is 230 volumes), but they really have all the essentials. Their dormitories are comparable as far as space to what students have in Ft. Wayne, and in many cases the only difference is the lack of air conditioning. The students have plenty of room for food storage and cooking. All in all, the seminary facilities are adequate for the current task.

And that is the key, because the seminary has larger plans. The student body is currently 20-30. A construction plan is in the works to build a large dormitory that can house 75 students, then a nice classroom building next to the current chapel. One of the great advantages this seminary has is that it posseses land for expansion right on the property. They have room to pursue these projects. As they continue to enhance their academic programs, this construction will help them to serve the Lutheran church in Africa even more. I'm told that the Rocky Mountain District of the LC-MS has pledged a large sum toward the construction of this facility. It is great to see how God works through His people to spread His Gospel!

One of the major problems is the plight of the students. Most cannot afford tuition, and many send their small stipend (500 Rand a year- about $70) directly to their families. Many are unable to attend because of financial issues- and political issues, as visas and governmental stuff holds many back. I will speak about this more when I return, but these students need help- both while they study and when they go out to the field.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

South Africa

This truly is a fascinating country. Unlike America, where we have our so-called 'melting pot,' in South Africa many groups of people have settled here and have kept their cultures and their languages. I ate with a seminarian last night who speaks a total of seven languages! And they can shift from one to the other without any problems. The classes here are taught in English, but the professors speak German, and the students speak a variety of other languages. I am hoping to learn more about this as I am here, but in addition, the Lutheran Church here has congregations from all these different groups, and they work together pretty well. There is a German-speaking congregation down the street, and on campus a Zulu (I think) and English speaking church meet on Sundays. The different cultures that exist side by side here make it a very different place than I am used to.

On the other hand, as we drove through the countryside, I was struck by how similar things are while being completely different. I saw tons of cornfields (some with Pioneer signs!), some soybean fields, a lot of cattle, and even some pig farms. There were even a couple pivots! But then we also saw subsistance farms scattered all around, where people lived in mud huts and tried to scrape a living from the land. The terrain in some places was little different from Indiana or Nebraska, while we also saw spectacular scenery with low mountains. We found a KFC in every town, and expensive car dealerships, but right next to them was evidence of great poverty. The contrasts here are incredible, especially in the rural areas. Finally, we just got done with a long walk downtown. Pretoria is quite similar to a European city (or so I've been told), but there are aspects that are distinctly African. Almost everything is in English, but the language on the streets is usually something else. I have enjoyed my time here a lot, and learning about this country and the Church here has been great. I better get going, I'm keeping a student waiting!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A student's life in South Africa

Well, the seminary is now up to three computers with internet- the promised library internet connection was established late last night. Just in the past month or so, the students and faculty (and guests) have moved into the future, with internet access and a projector screen for one of the classrooms. These improvements will really help the students as they prepare to serve our Lord all over Africa...

Our schedule is pretty laid back- My roommate gets up a bit after six, because he has class at 7:35. Our class starts at 8:20, so I am up at 7:30ish to get ready. We have class until 10, then chapel (from the LCMS's Lutheran Service Book) After that, I am sitting in on a class on the history of the Christian Church in Africa being taught by another guest, Dr. Arkilla from Finland. We eat a hot meal at the German Lutheran Church down the street, graciously provided by the people of that congregation. The afternoon is then given toward studying, shopping, and relaxing. The weather is beautiful, so I have done most of those activities under a shade tree. The supermarket was quite an experience- the prices are comparable, but the conversion rate keeps messing me up. When I pay 150 for something it seems like a lot, but it really is only about $23 or so. We could find almost anything we would want there, and they are really efficient. Overall, life here takes some adjusting, but it has been fun, and I have learned so much from our hosts. Tomorrow I think I will try to comment on the country as a whole, then maybe the next day on the seminary facility (they have big plans!). Stay tuned and take care!

Monday, February 25, 2008

I'm here!!

Well, I have made it safely to the seminary in Pretoria, after a looooong flight and a very busy weekend. South Africa is absolutely beautiful, and we were able to see a lot of the scenery as we drove from place to place in the eastern part of the country. I would like to tell you all about our entire weekend, but there is so much to tell that it might have to wait until I return (there is a line behind me for the one computer on campus with internet access). The one thing I will say is that yesterday we attended church at a boys school in Themba- a service in Zulu (the pastor did translate his sermon for us). Can you imagine a church full of boys aged from kindergarten to twelth grade sitting still for two and a half hours? Neither could I, until yesterday. As the pastor who was with us said, they would have stayed all day if they were able to. It was a great experience, and hopefully you will have the opportunity to see the pictures and video from it.

The seminary is great- I am staying with a Zulu South African, but students are from all over the continent (Uganda, Ghana, Sudan, Liberia, etc.). It has been great to meet all of these guys- they are a lot of fun! Tomorrow and the rest of the week we have class and general ''hanging out" scheduled. As I said, there is only one computer currently hooked up to the internet, so I will try my best to keep posting. Take care!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Getting ready to go...

Well, I found out yesterday that the seminary campus I will be at in Pretoria has great wireless access (though I am not bringing my laptop) and one computer, with the potential of three more in the library. I'm thinking that if I could get to one of those computers every other day for at least fifteen minutes, I can type up quick updates...we'll see how well that works.

By the way, the computers and wireless access are the result of generous work by supporters of Tshwane Seminary here in the U.S. Our library director here in Ft. Wayne just spent several weeks down there setting up their new technology and teaching the students and staff how to use it. He also evaluated their library, with the result that we will all be bringing books over. It is great to see our seminary and other folks working together with an African seminary to train pastors for the Lutheran churches all over the continent!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Proper 29 of Series C (preached 11-25-07)

Text: Malachi 3:13-18

“You shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and the one who does not serve Him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Malachi chapter three. Dear friends in Christ- If there is one thing that I have observed in all of my years in various schools, it is that students love to complain. This may surprise you, but even at the seminary, it is difficult to go one day without giving a complaint yourself or hearing one from someone else. We complain about cafeteria food, we complain about professors, we complain about assignments, we complain about other students. And I doubt that it is much different with you. You probably have even had a few complaints enter your mind this morning. “Why do I have to listen to this pastor-wannabe this morning?” “Why are we having another sermon on Malachi?- we have to be the only church in America who is having Malachi back to back!” There you are probably right, but yet it is only a minor example of something that is a major part of our lives.

The people of Malachi’s day thought that they had a lot to complain about. They had just been returned from exile in Babylon and had rebuilt their temple. They thought that they were on the up and up. But then things did not improve- God did not make Israel into a great nation as He promised, and even more important, He did not reward those who served Him. Malachi tells us that they cried out, “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as of mourning before the Lord of hosts?” Does that sound familiar? We too often complain that serving God has not given us any profit- we have not received the rewards we deserve for going to church every week, volunteering our time on boards, committees, or choir, giving ‘everything we have’ to God. But still we get sick, we lose loved ones, our relationships with others crumble- to put it simply, we do not seem to receive any benefits from serving God.

But in fact, the situation is even more unfair, as the people of Malachi’s time realized and we echo. Not only do those who serve God have a rough time in life, those who defy God do great. The people complained, “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers do not only prosper, but they put God to the test and they escape.” The people who arrogantly defy God do not get zapped by their creator, but instead prosper. They know God’s will and they go against it anyway, but receive no divine punishment. This is unjust, unfair, simply not right- so we raise a complaint to God. ‘Why do you bless my atheist/mormon/muslim/sometimes Christian neighbor and not me? What right do you have to not give me a good life? - I serve you, you should serve me!’

And that is where God stops us cold with the words of our text. You may have never said it exactly that way, but that is where your thoughts were heading. Our complaint eventually comes down to what we can get out of our relationship with God right now. But God has an accusation to bring against us- “Your words have been hard against me.” God points out our selfish pride and the sin that has brought us to this point. We have selfishly raised complaints against God, complaints that come down to what our relationship with God is giving us now.

So, like the people in our text, we are on a dangerous road. The people whom Malachi speaks to are not quite in rebellion against God, but they are so very close. They have seen the evil ones in their society, the ones who openly defy God and yet live to see even greater prosperity than before. The temptation is so strong, and we feel it yet today. If my world is still falling apart, why should I still put so much time toward the church? The other people around me seem to be doing just fine without God, what about me? The path to rebellion against God is an easy one, and like the people in Malachi’s day, we are tempted to take it- in fact, with our complaining we are well on our way. And so God today speaks as He once did through Malachi: Repent, o people of God and return to Him, because your sinful complaining can lead to only one place- the destruction and punishment of hell!

But then something happens- Malachi records that “those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them.” Here in this place, with our brothers and sisters, have heard God’s stern words of accusation. We have seen our sin, our walk on the path of rebellion, and we have turned from our ways, we have heeded God’s call to repentance. But none of that really matters- with our sinful complaining we, along with the people of Malachi’s day, have sinned against God, and that sin deserves death, eternal death. But God chose not to leave us in a state of death. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” God chose to make us His own, to make us His treasured possession, by sending His Son to this earth to bear our sin, our complaining, our rebellion on His shoulders, bearing the burden we could not bear, and dying the death we deserved. Again we hear these words, “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Jesus Christ was that Son who truly served His Father, living a life on this earth without sin. But yet God did not spare His Son, but instead spared YOU. We are the disobedient ones, who complain to God about our lives in this world, but for our sake Christ went to the cross without complaining, bearing the brunt of all God’s wrath. You heard about the punishment Jesus endured from the lectern in our Gospel lesson today- know that He did this for YOU. But Christ did not only die for you, He rose for you- victoriously conquering the power of death for YOU. As Paul puts so beautifully in our Epistle lesson today, “for in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.”

And because Jesus did that for you, God will not forget you. The people in Malachi’s day believed that God had forgotten them, that He had forgotten His promises to bless them. Today we complain for the same reasons- we cannot see any benefits to worshipping God, so we often believe that God has forgotten us. But for Christ’s sake, God will remember you. As He says through Malachi in our text today, “The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before Him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed His name.” In your Baptism, God wrote your name in this book, bringing you the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul writes that in Baptism, “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” As water was poured on your head ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ you were made a child of God, and as God’s child He will remember you, granting to you final victory on the last day.

And as we arrive at final Sunday of the Church year, we look toward that Last Day, the time when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. God speaks of this day in our text: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve Him.” We are often led to complain during our time on this earth because we cannot see any distinction between those who follow God and those who do not. Both face troubles, and in fact those who defy God seem to be blessed by Him. But on that final day, we will see those who do not believe in God for who they really are- those destined for eternal destruction. But that is not all- we will see who we truly are, those who for Christ’s sake are destined for eternal life. In this sinful world it is difficult to see that we are the people of God, those who have been spared by God because of Christ. But on that day, we shall be revealed as those wearing white robes, cleansed by Baptism to live before God forever.

Therefore, the last day is not a day of fear, but instead we look toward that final day with confidence because the end times came to this earth in the death of Christ. God spoke through Malachi, “They shall be mine in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them.” That day was Good Friday, that day was Easter, that day is every day that the body and blood of Jesus comes close to your lips in Holy Communion, and because of those ‘days’ we can look forward to the Last Day with confidence and hope. The end times came with Christ’s death, and we continue to live in the end times whenever we gather in this place in eager expectation of the Last Day. Because Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, then wrote your name in the book of remembrance through Baptism, we can stand with confidence when the Last Day comes. On that day, when we will “see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked,” Christ will speak to us as He did to the dying thief, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Proper 22 of Series C (preached 10-08-07)

The text is Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 (sorry, I should've been putting up the texts for these sermons):

[2:3b] “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read just a few moments ago from the first and second chapters of the prophet Habakkuk. Dear friends in Christ, how often have you cried out to God, ‘O Lord, how long?’ Maybe you are going through a rough time in your life, a struggle with this sinful world that seems to not end. You cry out to God, ‘O Lord, how long?’ Maybe you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a deadly disease, and you are wondering just how much time you or they have left on this earth. The question rises, ‘O Lord, how long?’ Maybe a son, daughter, brother, sister, or spouse is deployed to a far off land, fighting against a deadly enemy. You want them back in your arms, you cry out ‘O Lord, how long?’

But your cries do not stand alone- they echo the cries of God’s people in every age, in many trying situations, when the evil and sin of this world crowds around us like walls. The prophet Habakkuk looked out at the world around him, and saw evil, evil that corrupted the chosen people of God. A prophet usually calls Israel to task for failing to live up to their covenant with God- Habakkuk calls on God to hold up his end of the bargain. Habakkuk knows that sin deserves punishment, that God Himself pledged to carry out that punishment, and He called on God to be faithful. We know exactly what Habakkuk is talking about. We look around us at a world filled with sin, where adultery and homosexuality are praised on TV, where pornography fills the internet, where people can ridicule God as much as they please. The wicked seem to prosper, getting ahead in their jobs, having the attractive spouses, and making the most money. We are persecuted by sin in so many ways, assaulted by Satan, while those who disobey God’s law strike it rich. We cry out with Habakkuk, [1:2-3a] “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry out to you ‘violence,’ and you do not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” O Lord, how long?

God’s answer to our complaint, to our calling him to honor the promises He made to protect and care for us, is not what we expect. Habakkuk is told that the Babylonians will sweep down and destroy the wicked in Judah, they will defeat God’s promised nation and bring them into bondage. But there is only one problem for this bold prophet- how can a just and holy God use a sinful nation to punish sin? In Habakkuk’s eyes, the Babylonian conquerors will be worse than the evildoers in Judah. And what do we think? The ‘sinners’ in our society are punished by thieves and robbers, they are killed by terrorists. Sin is punished, but often by those who are more terrible than those they hurt. Even the government, established by God to restrain evil, is sinful in itself. To Habakkuk and us, God has not given a solution, He has increased the problem. In between the two parts of out text, the prophet offers a second complaint, one that we echo: [1:13b] “why do you idly look at traitors, and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” We want deliverance from sin, we want deliverance from those whom God has appointed to punish sin, we cry out, O Lord, how long?

But neither we nor Habakkuk can be let off the hook that easily. We have complained to God as those ‘poor righteous people’ who are so persecuted from sin. We deserve to be saved from sin by God, because we simply are too holy to stay in a sinful world. In doing this the prophet along with us have ignored our own sin. We too are corrupted by the very evil that fills our world. It cannot be otherwise, because we are human- we are descendents of Adam and Eve, who fell into sin and infected all of humanity since with its condemnation. And not only that, but we commit the very sins we see in others. We may not commit adultery with our bodies, but we do with our eyes. We may not murder, but we hate others in our thoughts and words. We, no more than any of those evil people ‘out there,’ deserve God’s wrath and punishment. We do need deliverance- but not only deliverance from this evil world, we need deliverance from ourselves and our own sin. We need this deliverance because without it we will be swept up in the punishment for sin that is eternal. With Habakkuk we cry out ‘O Lord, how long?’

We want deliverance right away, like the prophet we are impatient. Habakkuk writes, [2:1] “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.” God does answer Habakkuk, and us all, not with immediate deliverance, but the promise that God will punish the evildoer. God answers us [2:3] “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end- it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” God’s deliverance will come, but it will come on his schedule. God’s time is not our time, and so we still cry out ‘O Lord, how long?’

God assures Habakkuk throughout the rest of the book that Babylon will be punished for its sin, that God will honor his promise. And so Judah was taken into bondage by Babylon, just as God promised, then the Babylonians were defeated and Judah returned home, just as God promised. But God had greater deliverance in mind for both Habakkuk and us. In God’s time, on His divine schedule, a baby was born in Bethlehem. God promised [2:3b] “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” For the children of God, the promised messiah was slow in coming, but for God’s timeframe, Jesus Christ came at exactly the right time. This Jesus, true God yet true man, was the only man to ever be truly righteous, to truly ever deserve to ask God, as Habakkuk did, for deliverance from a sinful world. Yet, in a great reversal, the sinless Son of God chose to enter this sinful world and do something about the corruption of sin. This was God’s plan and purpose all along, as Paul writes in our epistle lesson. God delivered us through [9b-10] “His own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.” Christ died on the cross to grant us the deliverance Habakkuk cried out for, to take away the condemnation of sin from us. Then He rose victorious on the third day, granting life and salvation to all. Now when we ask, ‘O Lord, how long?’ God answers with Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the entire world.

And yet we remain in this sinful world, cleansed and redeemed from the condemnation of sin, but yet still sinning. But Christ has promised ultimate deliverance. God spoke through Habakkuk, [2:3a] “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end- it will not lie.” God fulfilled this promise in Christ, but there is still one promise yet to be fulfilled. At the end spoken of by Habakkuk, Christ will come to bring us all to Himself for eternity, releasing us from this sinful world once and for all. But this deliverance, like the promise to Habakkuk and Christ’s first coming, will not be immediate. It will come on His schedule, in His time. So until that day, we wait as those forgiven by Christ, crying out ‘O Lord, how long?’

How can we do this? How can we simply wait around for Christ to come again? Habakkuk has the answer [2:4b] “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are declared righteous, and this declaration comes to us through faith. This faith is a firm confidence in the promises of God, that Christ did come to save us from sin and will come again to take us to Himself. But how can this faith be created, be sustained, when Christ continues to delay His coming again in glory? The simple fact is that Christ does come to us, and He does so to create and sustain faith. In your baptism, Christ came to you and established faith, declaring you righteous by applying His death and resurrection to you. In the Lord’s Supper and the Word of God, Christ continues to come back to you, strengthening your faith so that you can stand firm until He comes again Habakkuk waited patiently for God’s answer: [2:1a] “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower.” We can do the same because Christ continues to come to us, giving to us the strength to ask in faith and hope, ‘O Lord, how long?’

The apostle Paul, as a faithful Jew, waited for the deliverance of God. It came in Christ, delivering him from sin and sending him on a hard life of persecution for the sake of Jesus. Yet in our epistle lesson today, Paul echoes that same confidence that we have in the coming Lord: [12] “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” In the same way, while we may still labor in a world filled with sin, where the cries of ‘O Lord, how long?’ come from our lips, we have the confidence that Christ has redeemed us, he has rescued us from the power of sin to condemn us eternally. And because He has done that, He will come again one day in glory to bring us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. That is the hope that we have, a faith sustained by Word and Sacrament every time we enter this place. This faith, given by Christ, is strengthened by Christ, and as God says through His prophet Habakkuk, [2:4b] “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Amen.