“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

“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.

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

 

Prayer of Confession

An important part of every worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is the prayer of confession.

The text often differs, but the essential elements do not. They are confessing our individual and collective failures to do what we should do and our doing what we should not be doing and then asking for God’s forgiveness.

The Prayer of Confession on September 23rd was from the United Church of Christ, USA (1986). Here it is:

  • “God of all mercy, we confess before you and each other that we have been unfaithful to you. We lack love for neighbors, we waste opportunities to do good, and we look the other way when you cry out to us in the suffering of our brothers and sisters in need. We are sincerely sorry for our sins, both those we commit deliberately and those we allow to overtake us. We ask your forgiveness and pray for strength that we may follow in your way and love all your people with that perfect love which casts our all fear; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.”

The Prayer of Confession then continues with silent personal prayers by the members of the congregation.

In response to these prayers, one of the ministers leads the congregation in the Declaration of God’s Forgiveness (from the New Testament‘s Romans 8:34; 2 Cor. 5:17):

  • One: Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Friends, hear the good news:
  • All: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.