“Where Is Christian Faith Headed?”

WestminsterAThe question posed at the June 19 worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was “Where Is Christian Faith Headed?” The answers were seen in the Processional Hymn, the Bible passages for the day and the sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Processional Hymn

The Processional Hymn, “God Weeps with us Who Weep and Mourn (787),” which preempted the one listed in the bulletin, was especially apt to memorialize and honor those who were killed and wounded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando the previous Sunday.  The tune was composed in 1995 by Sally Ann Morris upon reading the obituary of Thomas Layton Moshier, a friend who died from AIDS. She sent the tune to Thomas H. Troeger, who in 1996 created the text for the hymn. Here is the first verse:

  • “God weeps with us who weep and mourn. God’s tears flow down with ours, and God ‘s own heart is bruised and worn from all the heavy hours of watching while the soul’s bright fire burned lower by the day and pulse and breath and love’s desire dimmed down to ash and clay.” (Emphasis added.)

The Holy Scripture Readings

 The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) passage for the day was Amos 7: 1-9 (NRSV) (emphasis added):

  • “This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said,”
  • “’O LordGod, forgive, I beg you!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!’
    “The Lord relented concerning this;
    ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord.”
  • “This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said,”
  • “’O LordGod, cease, I beg you!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!’”
    “The Lord relented concerning this;
    ‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord God.”
  • “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said,
  • ’See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by
    ;
    the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’”

The New Testament passage was Matthew 16: 24-26 (NRSV):

  • “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”

The Sermon

After recognizing the first year after the murder of the nine African-American worshipers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the first week after the murder of 49 human beings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Rev. Hart-Andersen wondered “if God ever gets angry with us. So often we seem to miss the point of being part of the human family. Every day, every week, we fall short of God’s hope for us.”

“If ever we were curious what an angry God looked like, we need only read the book of the prophet Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures. Amos, who lived in the middle years of the 8th century BCE, delivers a fierce critique of the people of Israel, speaking on behalf of Almighty God.”

“Things are going well for many in the time of Amos. The nation is prosperous. Their enemies are not strong against them. The people dwell securely with little external threat. This will sound familiar to us in our time. Yet, they are not following the parameters of the relationship God has made with them. Disparities between those who have and those who do not are increasing. There’s violence among them. People pay little serious attention to God, even those who practice the religion. Their worship is false and meaningless.”

“The prophet calls them to account on behalf of God. God expects the people to seek justice and righteousness, to lift up the widow and the orphan and the alien sojourning in their midst. Instead, we read in Amos, they ‘oppress the poor and crush the needy,’ they have forgotten ‘the covenant of kinship’ with other peoples, and they ‘push the afflicted out of the way.’ (Amos 4:1, 1:9, 2:7)” (Emphasis added.)

“It makes God angry. Most of the book of Amos catalogues the things God has in mind to do to Israel as a result of their failure to live according to God’s desires. It’s not a pretty picture. God will send fire and locusts on the people. God will withhold rain to make their crops die. The people will be taken away with . . . fishing hooks. They shall neither live in the houses they built – God is angry – nor enjoy the wine from their vineyards.”

“In the face of God’s kindled rage, Amos intervenes on behalf of the people and begs God to back down, begs God to forgive them and spare them from the fire and famine and the locusts, and all that God has described through the voice of the prophet. God is merciful and agrees to relent, but not without setting up an ongoing way to judge the people. God asks Amos, ‘What do you see?’ and Amos replies, ‘I see a plumb line.’”

God puts a plumb line among the people to measure their obedience.” (Emphasis added.)

“Do you think somewhere in the divine precincts God’s wrath is smoldering against us, and, perhaps, a plumb line has been lowered among us?”

“If the question is, ‘Where is Christian faith headed?’ the response will have at least three dimensions, from my perspective.” (Emphasis added.)

First, Christian faith has to learn to live respectfully with people of other faiths and no faith at all. We live in a religiously plural world, and it is not going to change. It will only become more diverse religiously, even in our own community. We live in a world of competing theological claims, yet there is only one human family. The prophet Amos calls it the covenant of kinship among all of us. As God sees it, nothing should stand in the way of our kinship with one another.”

“Every human being bears the image of God. That assertion is fundamental to the task of accepting people who do not believe or worship or pray or live or speak like us. God is the Creator of them all; our ability to live with them depends on our seeing the holy in their lives, the spark of the divine in their faces. When a religious tradition denies the full humanity of the other – and there are ideologues in every religion that do this – it will only lead to persecution and even violence.”

“In any culture the onus is on the dominant tradition to make room for the minority. That was a hallmark of the ministry of Jesus. When he tells his followers they will have to lose their lives to gain them he’s calling them to sacrificial living. When he and Peter get into an argument about Jesus sacrificing his own life, Peter apparently misses the point. The whole point of Jesus’ life and death is that he is calling us to be willing to sacrifice, to give up, to relinquish for the other. That means giving up privilege and power for some of us, for the sake of the other.”

“Being respectful of other religious traditions does not mean we have to water down our faith. On the contrary, interfaith dialogue needs our deepest commitment at the table. When I meet with my Jewish and Muslim friends, they expect me to be a follower of Jesus, not merely a nice person willing to listen to them. They respect me more when I am authentically Christian. To borrow the image from Amos: Jesus is my plumb line.”

Where is Christianity headed? Into a religiously plural world. We had better be ready, which includes knowing what we hold to be true about God, about this God whom we worship.” (Emphasis added.)

“That leads to the second thing to say about the future direction of Christian faith. We have entered an age, especially in our context, where fixed doctrine matters less and relationship with Jesus matters more. That is not to say faith today is devoid of theological content. On the contrary, our central theological affirmation is still that Jesus is Lord of life. But we are moving away from an intellectualizing of the faith and a rote recitation of our commitment in rigid doctrinal statements. We’re moving to something more lived, something more of the heart, something more relational in our understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.”

“Christian faith – and I’ve seen this in my own 30+ years of ministry – is becoming more fluid today, more flexible, more rooted in the love of Jesus, in the simple love of Jesus, than in the complicated layers of teaching of the church. Our lives are changed because of who Jesus is, not because of the systematic thinking of our best theological minds. We want the babies we baptize today and the children in our church school and the adults in the pews to know Jesus, not merely know about Jesus.”

“In this regard, we can learn from the more evangelical wing of the church and their personal experience of faith. Jesus is more than merely a good, first century, itinerant teacher. That’s often about how we see him, and it stops there. But he’s more than a long ago prophet who called for justice, which he did; more than a voice speaking up on behalf of people who are poor and forced to live on the margins, which he did. But he is more than that. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, our hope and salvation. I repeat: Jesus is our plumb line. We want to live as he lived. We want to love as he loved.” (Emphasis added.)

“The third thing to say about where Christianity is headed is that congregations will continue to be, as they always have been, the primary place to experience and pursue faith. Our faith is not an individual enterprise. We are not alone. We are not isolated individuals living out our faith apart from the community. In churches people build relationships around shared commitment to love God and neighbor. Christian faith is not a spectator sport. We are not on the sidelines in the church.”

“The purpose of the Christian message,” theologian Jürgen Moltmann says,‘Is not so much to report on the past as to change the future…Thus the task of the church is to preach and proclaim in such a way that the people will not only believe but that they will act in history and change it.’

“The local church today has to pay attention to the world around it and Westminster has done that. Since we were established nearly 160 years ago we have paid attention to the city around us and the world around us. In its worship and preaching, its mission and education all build up the body of Christ so it can change the future. To borrow from Amos one more time, community of faith like Westminster becomes a plumb line for the world around it. With partners from the community we help move the world closer to justice, closer to God’s love, closer to what God intends for the human family by our very life as a congregation.” (Emphasis added.)

Where is Christian faith headed?” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s learning to be more at home in a multi-faith world and does not feel threatened by it.”

“It’s becoming more focused on the life of Jesus and simply following him.”

“And it’s more acutely aware that the future of Christianity depends on lively communities of faith like this one, where the love and justice of God are made known in visible, tangible, concrete ways, where the plumb line of God is the measure of our life together.” (Emphasis added.)

“When that happens, working with others, we will change the future.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

I concur in Rev. Hart-Andersen’s three points about the desired future of Christian faith and Westminster’s embracing these points. Whether other Christian congregations or denominations do so will be up to them to decide. I hope they join us.

===============================================

[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the Sermon of the sermon are available online.

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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