March 8, 2020
Second Sunday of Lent
(Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; Matthew 17:1-9)
Welcome to Harrington University. Also known as ... The University of San Moritz, University of Palmer’s Green and University of Devonshire ... among other names.
At Harrington, the campus is small, the class schedule very convenient (as in, no classes at all), and a Ph.D. will only take you 27 days and a few thousand dollars to earn. No transcript from a previous institution is necessary. Instead, you get full credit for your “life experience”!
And to think that some people are still paying off their college loans.
Harrington University is (or was, until it was shut down in 2003 by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and British authorities) a “diploma mill” — an online “university” selling bogus but authentic-looking-and-sounding bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Rather than a tree-lined quad, Harrington’s “campus” was the residence of an American living in Romania with mail drops in the United Kingdom, printing services in Jerusalem, and banking options in Cyprus. By 2002, some 70,000 Harrington-Palmer’s Green-Devonshire degrees had been “granted” to online applicants, earning the operator more than $100 million.
Using e-mail spam, online advertising and even print advertising in mainstream media like USA Today, Time, Newsweek, Forbes and Money magazines, diploma mills like Harrington are an occasional phenomenon in our wired world. As jobs become more scarce and competition for them more fierce, many people are turning to quick, albeit illegitimate, ways to pad their résumés without the cost or hassle of actually going to class.
A May 2004 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found 28 senior federal executives who claimed degrees from diploma mills, and 463 employees in eight federal agencies were hired or advanced in their jobs with bogus college degrees, some even billing taxpayers for their fake credentials.
Counterfeit colleges and universities make it easier to pull off the résumé charade because they provide fake diplomas and transcripts that often seem legitimate. With all this academic fakery going on, it’s become harder and harder for legitimate distance-learning institutions to maintain their reputations, and it’s also become more dangerous for people in need of professional services.
Sadly, even our seminary is treated like it is a “diploma mill” by student who come to us to study for the priesthood in hopes that they will be done in a very short time with some very easy courses. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Our expectation and mine is that a student who desires to be a priest will need to attend the seminary to completion. Compared to average seminaries, our seminary is actually quite easy, but alas some simply want to pay for a piece of paper and be ordained tomorrow. Not on my watch. Real priests need real study. If you are going to be a shepherd, you must learn how to be one and cause no harm to your flock.
But how do so many people get away with this chicanery? The answer is simple: No one seems to check them out, call the references, ask for the paperwork. Bottom line is that in this 21st-century culture, it can be fairly easy to fake who you are and make yourself look good to anyone — on paper at least.
What about if you’re applying for eternal salvation? If you’ve got holes and creative coursework in your spiritual résumé, you can bet they’ve been checked out thoroughly. Truth is, you can’t fake faith.
In Romans 4, Paul is using Abraham the Patriarch as a primary case in a study of God’s approach to human resources. Abraham was righteous, obedient to God, and had followed a straight career path from nomadic herder to “father of many nations.” His exploits, both vocational and spiritual, were well established and generally well done. If anyone had a résumé of solid credentials to “boast” about, says Paul, it was Abraham.
But it wasn’t his righteous résumé that made Abraham a prime candidate for the job of Patriarch of the faith. “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God,” says Paul.
In other words, even Abraham’s best work couldn’t match the quality standard of holiness set by God. No human résumé is impressive enough. Earlier in Romans, Paul puts it more clearly: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Instead, it was faith itself that was Abraham’s one and only true résumé builder. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:3).
It’s belief in God’s ability to save us because of love, rather than belief in our own ability to measure up, that makes us “righteous” before God. To put it in human resource terms, in God’s world it’s who you know (Jesus Christ) not what you do that counts toward eternal employment as a citizen of the kingdom. Truth is, we’ve got nothing to boast about except the fact that God cared enough about us to forgive our fakery by providing the real deal of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Theologically speaking, we call this the doctrine of “justification by faith.”
In a world where Christian faith was being more and more characterized by lists of activities than deep faith, people like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli (sounds like a fake name!) shredded their own résumés and tacked up a different set of criteria on places like that door in Wittenberg. For them it was all about faith — sola fide, sola gratia — God’s grace offered freely to everyone regardless of their past history and cobbled together lists of deeds good and bad. Like Paul, they saw God’s grace as the ultimate qualification for righteousness, not our own feeble attempts at “faking it” as people we’re not.
The God who created us knows us intimately — no background check needed — and yet still seeks to love us, change us, employ us as God’s hands and feet in the world. None of us could or should make the cut, but as the old saying goes, “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.”
Yet, truth is, most of us feel like we have to have something to show God. We like hanging diplomas on the walls and showing off our degrees.
If we’re truly made righteous by faith, then our records should speak for themselves or, better, for Christ himself. What we believe, deep down, about ourselves and about God will determine our course of action and how we’ll spend our time, our resources, our lives in relationship to the world around us. Eventually, our resume of our life will be vindicated or vilified depending on what we believe and whether we live out that belief.
Lent is a good time of year to add spiritual diplomas to our resumes. Too many today are looking for the diploma mill route of experiencing Lent and preparing ourselves for Easter. Lent has become nothing more than an average day or an average week.
Yes, none of us likes the idea of thinking of our short-comings when it comes to liking up to the example of Christ. We cannot use the excuse that “He doesn’t know what it’s like to be human,” because he was! We simply want the easy way out.
Lent is a journey – a journey in which we accompany Jesus on his trek to Jerusalem where he fulfills the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. Our journey should remind us that a Christian Life is a way to take, not so much consistent with a law to observe as with the very Person of Christ, to encounter, to welcome and to follow.
We are called to follow, participate and learn at the school of Jesus, reviewing the events that brought salvation to us, but not as a mere commemoration, a remembrance of past events. By participating in the liturgical functions and actions of the church, Christ makes himself present through the power of the Holy Spirit thus making these saving events real for us.
We should make a Lenten journey and on this journey, we should be careful to accept Christ’s invitation to follow him more decisively and consistently, renewing the grace and commitments of our baptism, to cast off the former person within us and put on Christ, in order to arrive at Easter renewed. Though it may not be an easy journey, it is one that can be powerful if we allow ourselves to set some time aside to journey with Jesus, just as he gave us 33 years that we may be saved. He put aside his divinity to become one of us.
Diploma mill e-mails usually qualify themselves by saying that the degrees offered are from “non-accredited” schools. Real academics know that accreditation is a big factor in determining a school’s reputation and what kinds of students will be enrolled. Accreditation means that a qualified body is overseeing the operation and setting high standards. Every college credit makes it to a student’s transcript the old-fashioned way: They earn it.
The good news for us is that, through Christ, God credits us with righteousness even if we can’t earn it. Faith, belief in God’s love for us and confidence in God’s saving grace, is the only qualification needed.
Let us pray.
Today we read how Jesus was transfigured and how the Apostles experienced a vision of the divine presence which awaits the faithful following the trials of this world. We pray today for the grace to remain steadfast in our faith and on our journey of Lent so that we are worthy of being in that transfigured presence. We pray to the Lord.
That this season of Lent will be a time of greater prayer and fervent devotion for us and for all the Church. We pray to the Lord.
That this Lent we will be faithful to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, and to all the ways the Lord sanctifies us.
That we will be generous in our almsgiving and attentive to the poor. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are discouraged by temptation and failure. We pray to the Lord.
For the gift of faith and an appreciation of God’s mystery in our lives. We pray to the Lord.
For those who have been affected by the spread of coronavirus, for those who are sick from it, for those who died, and for all who are working to contain the outbreak. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Holy Spirit, move in us today. Set our mind on things above, not on earthly things. Remove our pride and clear our distracted minds so that all we hear is your truth. Allow the Scriptures to be life-changing and to renew our desire for you. Help us to understand clearly the message of your Word. We want to know you more. Interrupt us, O God, with your presence. Intrude upon our preoccupation, our restlessness, our discontent and our boredom that we might center our hearts and minds on your Word as it is read and proclaimed. Gracious God, despite assurances that you are good and loving, despite the psalmist's reminder that you are the ever-watchful keeper of our lives, we still struggle to trust you. We find it difficult to hope in what is unseen, to believe in what we cannot prove, to take the leap of faith that walking with you requires. But Lord, how we want to believe! How we want to let go of our need to control, and rest instead in your ever-loving and gracious arms! Free us, we pray, to trust you this day, that we may walk with you as Abram did. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA