Going through the Motions

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

Text: Isaiah 58:6

Old Testament: Isaiah 58:1-12

New Testament: Matthew 5:13-20


                This past week I went to Carlow University. 

A young woman whose marriage I conducted years ago is the assistant librarian at the University.  Her name is Emily. Ken Ference arranged for me to see her.  Emily introduced me to the Head Librarian and we discussed the changing culture Carlow University is trying to serve.  The University was once a college operated by the Roman Catholic order, the Sisters of Mercy.

Now, Carlow is a University that still promotes the Sisters of Mercy’s value of service.  But it’s reaching beyond its original Roman Catholic mandate.  The Head Librarian said, “The student population is declining across the region.  Competition with other educational institutions is rising.  Campus leaders are trying to be more things for more people.”

After our talk, I saw Sister Shirley, the Sisters of Mercy campus director.

Sister Shirley described campus change through the years.  She said few students at Carlow come from churches today.  Years ago the application form for students gave applicants a choice between Roman Catholic and Protestant.  Applicants began to resist filling in Protestant and wrote “Christian” instead.  They saw themselves as equal believers in Jesus Christ. 

Today, Carlow presents itself as a university, which has a broader, more secular curriculum – like the University of Pittsburgh.  There are still a few Sisters of Mercy on Carlow’s Board of Trustees.  They’re not in the majority.  The Order is shrinking while the University’s mission is moving toward the secular.

Instead of a Roman Catholic catechism, Carlow is teaching social justice – a euphemism many educators from church-founded schools use today.  It teaches a Church inspired social gospel without emphasizing belief in Jesus as God’s Son.

Carlow seems to be going the direction of my own college, the College of Wooster, in Ohio.  Wooster was founded by Presbyterians.  It was to prepare ministers and elders for Church service.  It taught the humanities and sciences along with the Westminster Confession from Presbyterianism. 

Today, Wooster’s religious studies curriculum has 34 course offerings.  Only two courses are on the Bible and Jesus’ teachings.  A third course teaches Old Testament.  A fourth teaches Reformation history.  A fifth course presents Christian history.  There are two classes in Hebrew, required by Presbyterian seminaries for ordination.  There are no courses on Greek from which to translate the New Testament.  Greek is another seminary requirement for ordination. 

More than three fourths of Wooster’s religious studies curriculum teaches alternative religions or general ethics and social justice courses.  Courses on Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Manicheism, Bahaism, Taoism, Shintoism, Sikkh, and Native American spirituality are taught.  Wooster is covering the religious waterfront to reach more students beyond the declining number of Presbyterian students wanting a liberal arts education.

The University of Pittsburgh was founded as the Pittsburgh Academy by the Presbyterian Henry Hugh Brackenridge in 1787.  Its trustees were limited to “any Christian denomination.”  In 1819, the corporate charter was revised and the name changed to Western University of Pennsylvania.  Its trustees and pupils could be from any religious denomination.  Religious discrimination for employment or admissions was prohibited. 

What does it mean to say you’re a Christian on an application form to these schools today?  Does it even matter for higher education in our culture? 

What does it mean for these schools to say they were founded by Christians?  What does it mean for these schools’ original charter describing a Christian direction for education?

Most importantly, what does it mean that higher education has distanced itself from serving Christian educational and spiritual formation?

At some point college presidents who were baptized in Christ’s name chose to take a more secular direction for their institutions to combat fears of declining enrollment and revenues.  They persuaded anxious Boards of Trustees to admit trustees who would seek broader purposes than the Christian mission to educate youth that founded the schools.

College faculty retired who were committed to a more Christian-centered curriculum.  They were replaced by faculty who supported secular education trends.    Many of the public battles we’re seeing in the news regarding government change hides the underlying struggle over religion and its influence on the nation’s conscience that is being fought in higher education.

Secularists want religion to be a hidden ritual that’s practiced outside of the public square behind sanctuary walls or in private homes.   Some secularists who oppose Christianity believe religion is the cause of social conflict.  It must be managed by the state so that it has limited appeal. 

Other secularists believe religion is private and not subject to public scrutiny.  They are joined by religious people who believe religion is simply a private matter of the heart that shouldn’t be mandated for its broader application to the public good.  They don’t want state enforcement of religious teaching.

These are the separation of church and state advocates.  They are not necessarily Presbyterian.  But they subscribe to the Presbyterian call for religious independence in the Westminster Confession.  Church state separation wasn’t originally an effort to privatize religion.  But it’s being interpreted that way today, not only by secularists, but by many Christians, particularly Presbyterians.

Today’s privatization of religion is not supported by our Scriptures.  This is not the perspective taught in either the Old or New Testaments.  It’s a modernist revision of the Biblical understanding of covenant.

Isaiah 58 doesn’t consider religion as a matter of the private conscience.   Worshipping God is a matter of the national conscience.  The entire nation is under God’s scrutiny.  The nation of Israel received a covenant from God.  God’s law defines the covenant.  Religious belief in God is not simply for personal self-interest.  Faith in God is a national responsibility.

Listen carefully to these words in Isaiah 58.  God is speaking to all the people of His covenant.  God sees people pursuing their private interests.

“Announce to my people their rebellion.  Day after day they seek me, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God . . . you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your works.”

Fasting is a sacrifice made to honor God’s covenant in Isaiah.   God is criticizing how His nation outwardly appears to be worshipping God.  But instead, what really matters for the Israelites is fasting to benefit themselves in their relationship with God – at the expense of others. 

Consider what sacrifice means for us today. 

The primary sacrifices we make in our secular nation are to earn a wage.  It benefits ourselves, our family.  This is not sacrificing for the Lord who is the source of our national blessings.

The sacrifice God requires of us in worship is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our might, with all of our mind.  When all of the nation is equally committed to loving God completely, the entire nation will look different than what we see today.  The acrimony and demonization of others will end.  We will be grateful together for the blessings God has given us. 

The sacrifice God seeks from us is to love our neighbor as ourselves. When all of the nation is equally committed to loving our neighbor, the entire nation won’t be dominated by fear and loathing.  The anxiety bubbling around us will vanish and we will be united by compassion for even the stranger among us.

 The sacrifice God looks for in us is to stand for His righteous by showing our love for His Son Jesus Christ.   When the nation is committed to loving Jesus Christ, we won’t be dominated by an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, which is the justice of the Torah.  We will pray for those who persecute us and love the unlovable as Christ loves all sinners.

The sacrifice God looks for in us is to give our lives for our love for His Gospel.  When the nation is committed to loving the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s lessons won’t be hidden from serving the culture in which we live.  The Gospel’s teachings will be restored as the basis for national morality and ethics.

This is where Jesus comes in with today’s verses from His Sermon on the Mount.  We are to be the salt in the culture of this land.    The doesn’t mean we are a bland flavor that’s unnoticeable to the palate of public discourse. 

Salt is distinctive.  It unleashes others flavors and enhances food. 

We’re not talking about having so much salt that the dish is unpalatable for the national diet.  We’re talking about not having enough Christian salt in the national diet for public consumption.

Christians who aren’t committed to teaching Christ’s lessons as the only legitimate value for our national ethics and discourse are salt that has lost its taste for Jesus.  Christians who believe teaching about sin is punitive and calls for repentance are judgmental, are salt that has lost its taste.

A Christian unwilling to accept sinfulness, and refusing to repent is salt that has lost its taste.  Such Christian self-righteousness rejects Jesus’ Cross.  It has no stomach it responsibility for disobeying God.  Christians acting with humility in Jesus’ name are salt for public consumption for the nation to return to God.

The problem of our age is that in our worship of freedom, we’ve lost our taste for the salt of the Gospel – especially in our institutions of learning.  We who are alums of universities and colleges with influence upon trustees and presidents need to add salt to the conversation of trustee elections, presidential hires, campus curriculums, and faculty appointments. 

There is a generation of young people who are starving for spiritual nourishment in the bland diet of secularism.  Our national future depends upon the restoration of their spiritual lives as worshippers of God.

Let’s give up going through the motions of being the Church on Sunday mornings and take our love for God, Jesus Christ, our neighbor, and the Gospel into the discussion of our national education.

And may we be blessed by a new sense of national unity under God, through this Christian mission.