Global Music on World Communion Sunday

As mentioned in a prior post, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s celebration of World Communion Sunday on October 1 featured a sermon on where was the Reformation headed today.

As that sermon mentioned, the service included global music. Our Westminster and Global Choirs joined together to sing five anthems from other countries and to lead the congregation in singing five hymns from around the world. [1] Our leaders were Dr. Melanie Ohnstad, Organist and Minister of Music and Arts; and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Director of Choral Ministries; Barbara Prince, Director of Global Choir; and Jeffrey Gram, percussionist.

Introit

The Introit or hymn which is sung at the start of a worship service was “Somlandela,” a traditional South African anthem that was arranged by Barbara Prince. It had one verse in Zulu, another in French and one in English, the last of which stated, “I will follow, I will follow Jesus, I will follow everywhere he goes.”

Offertory

The Offertory anthem was “Indodana,” also from South Africa in traditional isiXhosa, which is one of the country’s official languages and spoken by about 18% of the population, and arranged by Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt. Luckily for me as a bass singer, most of our lines were “oo” and “oh”with “Zjem Zjem zja baba” (three times) and “Ho Baba Baba, ho Baba Baba, Je ho Va!” (twice). Just being part of the choir’s singing this beautiful piece brought tears to my eyes. [2]

The church bulletin provided the following English translation of the lyrics: “The Lord has taken his son who lived amongst us, the son of the Lord God was crucified. Hololo Father Jehovah, Zjem zja father.” (“Hololo” and “Zjem zja” are expressive words with no English translation.)

Holy Communion

During the distribution of the bread and the cup for communion, we sang three anthems.

The first was “Nasibi (My Portion),” a Palestinian Hymn arranged by Maggie Hamilton. Its Refrain was in Arabic (English translation: “The Lord is the only strength of my heart, so says my soul”). The text, which were sung in English, was the following:

  • “The Lord is my portion for evermore, so says my soul. In heav’n above, who else have I? Who else, on earth, might I desire? The Lord alone is all I need, true treasure of my soul. For God, I’ll give my wealth away, strew valleys with unwanted gold, that God may be my only prize, my portion and my share.”

The second was “O Jumalan Karitsa” by Matti Rantatalo and sung in the original Finnish language with the following English translation in the church bulletin: “O, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins the world, have mercy on us. O, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, give us peace and blessing.”

The third anthem was “Ukuthula,” another South African piece sung in Zulu. Again, the English translation was provided in the bulletin: “Peace in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings peace. Redemption in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings redemption. Praise (gratefulness) in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings praise (gratefulness). Faith in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings faith. Victory in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings victory. Comfort in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings comfort.”

Congregational Hymns

The global theme of the service also was emphasized in the following five hymns.

“In Christ, There Is No East or West” (No. 317 in Glory to God: the Presbyterian Hymnal) whose first verse states, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” This and the other verses were written in 1908 by John Oxenham (a/k/a William Arthur Dunkerly) and the music is an African-American spiritual, which was the very first such music used in a mainline North American hymnal in 1940.

 “O Lord, Have Mercy” (No. 578) is the traditional “Kyrie eleison:” “O lord, have mercy, O Lord have mercy, O Lord have mercy, have mercy on us.” The hymnal also contained the verses in Greek and Guarani, which we did not sing.

“Sheaves of Wheat” (No. 532) has music and text (in Spanish) by Cesáreo Gabaráin, a Spanish priest and composer, but we sang the English translation by Mary Louise Bringle. The first verse goes this way: “Sheaves of wheat turned by sunlight into gold, grapes in clusters, like rubies on the vine, feed our hearts as the precious blood and body of our Lord: gifts of heaven from earthly bread and wine.”

“Holy, Holy, Holy” (No. 594) has music and text by Guillermo Cuéllar, a Salvadoran composer, with English translation by Linda McCrae. The choir and the congregation sang the refrain in Spanish: “Santo, santo, santo, santo, santo, santo es nuestra Dios, Señor de toda la tierra. Santo, santo, es nuestro Dios. Santo, santo, santo, santo, santo, santo es nuestro Dios, Señor de toda la historia. Santo, santo es nuestro Dios.”

“May the Love of the Lord” (No. 549) has music by LIM Swee Hong, an Asian Christian, and text by Maria Ling, who are the parents of a son who stopped breathing at one day old , but who was revived by the prompt action of nurses. The hymnal has Chinese and English lyrics, the latter of which says, “May the love of the Lord rest upon your soul. May God’s love dwell in you, throughout every day. May God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s Spirit be upon you as you leave this place.”

Conclusion

In the shorter, earlier worship service that day the Global Choir with augmentation by some of the Westminster Choir members sang all but “Indodana” of the anthems and only one of the hymns (“In Christ There Is No East or West”), but we also closed that service by singing the Refrain with the congregation joining in the stanzas of “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah!” (No. 591 in the Hymnal), which has a traditional Caribbean melody with stanzas by Marty Haugen. The words of the first stanza are these: “O God, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life. Let your words be our prayer and the song we sing: hallelujah, hallelujah!”

There were so many things happening in these services, I once again discovered by reviewing the service, re-reading the pieces that we sung, researching about the composers and lyricists and writing this blog post enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the services.

Although I joined the Global Choir in 2014, it was created in 2001, and for the regular church calendar (September through May), we sing nine times in the early worship service in the church’s Chapel. Just contact the church to join the Global Choir! All are welcome.

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[1] The church’s website has the bulletin for the main service.  A video of the service also is there; go to http://westminstermpls.churchonline.org/ and click on the icon with three white dots and lines at the top of the video screen; next you will see small screens with the dates of services; then select “Oct. 1, 2017.”

[2] Beautiful performances of “Indodana” by (a) the combined voices of the University of Pretoria Camerata, the Missouri State University Chorale, and the Emory and Henry College Choir at the University of Pretoria Musaion, (Pretoria, South Africa) and (b) South Africa’s Stellenbosch University Choir are available on YouTube.

 

 

The Protestant Reformation: Where Does It Go from Here?  

The World Communion Sunday, October 1, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church featured Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s last of four sermons on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: ”The Protestant Reformation Today: Where Does It Go from Here?” [1]The first three sermons, as covered in prior posts, discussed the three great themes of the Reformation: grace alone, faith alone and scripture alone. Below are photographs of the church’s Sanctuary and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Revelation 22: 1-6, 16-17 (NRSV)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’”

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Galatians 3: 23-29 (NRSV): 

“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”

Sermon:

“Where does the Reformation go from here? What does the future hold for the great Protestant traditions flowing out of Europe 500 years ago?”

“I see at least three directions we might expect the Reformation to take in coming years.”

First: an ecumenical, interfaith direction. Protestant Churches have shown themselves, especially in the last 50-75 years, to be uniquely capable of forming cross-denominational relationships, usually in institutional, organizational, and structured ways: councils of churches at the local level, the state level, nationally, and at the global level. In coming years this will happen in less institutional ways, less structured ways, and increasingly in local relationships.”

“The past week illustrates this emerging new reality. On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed one of its candidates for ministry to be ordained to serve a non-Lutheran church. We celebrated the ordination of Matt Johnson, Westminster’s Interim Associate Pastor, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Candidly, that break with tradition did not start in the bishop’s office or the presbytery’s office; it began with a few of us conspiring locally to make it happen. Localized ecumenical relationships, yielding that kind of change. Congratulations, Matt.”

“Then yesterday I co-presided with a Roman Catholic priest at the wedding of a Westminster woman and her Catholic fiancé, now husband. That would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The fact that we pulled it off has less to do with relaxing of standards in Rome – we did not contact the bishop or presbytery – than with developing ecumenical relationships in local communities. The old walls separating us don’t mean as much anymore.”

“’In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,’ the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek’ – Paul dissects the binary way people tend to look at the world – ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:6-8)”

“It’s as if we were undoing the divisions resulting from the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves. If we ask where the Reformation goes from here, an obvious first answer is that it goes in the direction of a Christianity that has fewer barriers standing among and between the various branches of the Church than it has had for the last 500 years.”

“The same thing is happening with interfaith collaboration. The Reformation taught us the God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that grace alone saves us, not our behavior or a particular creed. From those Reformation-era principles it is a short step to respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation.”

“A major world challenge on the religious horizon – locally and globally – is learning to live with people of other faiths. Protestant churches, with our emphasis on freedom and respecting the rights and responsibilities of individuals with regard to religious matters, can and will lead the way in interfaith collaboration.”

“Westminster is certainly doing its part. Our interfaith dialogue sermons and relationships with multi-faith organizations are not one-off novelties or the whim of your pastor. They are the vanguard of 21st century open-minded, open-hearted Christianity more concerned with practicing the faith in real ways with real people, some of whom have other faiths, than perfecting or judging it.”

“In recent years I have co-presided at a number of Jewish weddings – again, something that even a few years ago would not have happened. I’ve also done this with Buddhist priests. Many of us have attended a Muslim iftar, when the Ramadan fast is broken. We never would have done that 10-15 years ago. These are local outbursts of interfaith commitment – not handed down from on high, but local efforts – resulting in a shifting religious landscape.”

“Where does the Protestant Reformation goes from here? It’s moving in an ecumenical and interfaith direction.”

Secondly, on this World Communion Sunday we’re enjoying sounds and rhythms and movement from all over the globe. Again, this is not a one-time experience, where we trot out the world music on one Sunday a year. We’re now drawing regularly from the music of Christians in other parts of the world to enliven our worship, to teach us other ways of praising God, to inspire us.”

“Over the last 150 years Protestant churches moved out from Europe to the world, in particular the global south, where the Reformation churches are growing rapidly. There are more Presbyterians today in South Korea than there are in the U.S. The same is true for Kenya and South Africa.”

“Christianity is on the move. One hundred years ago two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in the global south. The Church there is exploding in growth, and our churches are receding. North American churches had 15% of the world’s Christians 100 years ago; today we have 10%.”

“We can see the impact of this emerging reality not only from a distance, but closer to home. The Roman Catholic priest friend who co-presided at the wedding yesterday serves a Minneapolis parish overflowing with people from Latin America. He told me last Saturday he did 29 baptisms and yesterday 28 were scheduled. They baptize around 400 per year, and they’re all babies of Latino immigrants. The parish has discovered that their future lies not with the Euro-Americans who brought Catholicism here –Irish, Germans and others from Europe –- but with Catholics form the global south. The Roman Church in the US would be shrinking if not for Catholics coming from Latin America.”

“Similarly, we Protestants who lament the decline of our churches here can rejoice in the vast growth of the Reformation churches in the global south. We, too, can welcome immigrants coming from other parts of the world, especially sub-Sahara Africa, where the Reformed churches are so strong. Westminster has experienced an influx of West African Christians over recent decades, now serving as leaders in our church –and what a richer, healthier congregation we are.”

“The global south will bear the Protestant stream of Christianity into the future.”

“The third emerging direction for the Protestant movement, especially in this land, is increasing openness to diversity. At the local level we’re coming to see that in the future our churches will either reflect the contexts in which we minister, or they’ll not be sustainable for the long haul. We’re too isolated, too divided in our communities, racially, ethnically and culturally. It’s not the way of the gospel. Mono-cultural eco-systems cannot continue to thrive. They must be diverse in order to have the adaptive capacities to live into the future.”

“One of the last images of the Bible is found in the Book of Revelation when the Heavenly City comes to earth and settles among the human family. There is a river flowing through that city, and on the banks of the river is the Tree of Life. The leaves of the tree, the text says, ‘Are for the healing of the nations.’”

“I’ve usually interpreted that verse as pointing to healing among the political nations of the earth. But the Greek word here for nations is ethnos, that is, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the variety of ethnicities in the human family that do not live well together. This may be less a political comment and more a call to learn to live in harmony with those different from us within our own land.”

“The vision of the Holy City invites us to be part of the healing of the racial divide that exists among us, to finally put aside, to do away with, the old reality that Martin Luther King used to remind us of – that Sunday at 11AM is the most segregated hour in America. The Church’s future lies in congregations that are more diverse, that reflect God’s hope that the human family might one day learn to live together in peace.”

“Here at Westminster our new members classes in recent years have been 10-15% racially mixed. Around 7-8% of Westminster members are people of color. We’re changing, but the world is changing a lot faster all around us.”

“A recent study of more than 100,000 Americans in all 50 states shows that only 43% of the population is made up of white Christians. Forty years ago that number was 80%. Twenty years ago it was two-thirds. Things are changing rapidly, all around us, and the church will need to change.”

“And forty years ago 55% of the population was made up of white Protestants. Today that number is under 40%. We are watching in our lifetime the end of America as a white Christian nation. And some see that as a threat. We see the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism and the clinging to white privilege in response, much of it cloaked in Christian language.”[2]

“The changing reality shouldn’t frighten us, but, rather, call us to open our doors and hearts and open our lives to new friends who’ve been our neighbors for many years. We can either move constructively with these challenging new realities and learn ways to be faithful in worship and mission, or we can struggle against them and find our churches continuing to wither and weaken and die. This is hard work, but essential to the future of the church.”

“Where does the 500-year old Reformation go from here? The Protestants churches, heirs to the great legacies of grace alonefaith alone, and scripture alone, will need to grow new ministries that reach across divisions we’ve long accepted as normative. That means creating new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

“To do this, the people of God will have to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, stirring things up for the future health and vitality of the Christian Church.”

“We will have to use a holy imagination to see and join the new thing God is doing among us. May that imagination, that holy imagination, be kindled today at this World Communion table, as we join with Christians around the globe in celebrating the love of God that unites us in one human family, in all its wonderful and rich diversity.”

Conclusion

I agree that “Westminster and other churches need to develop  new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

Westminster already is engaged in global partnerships with churches in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine, and for 10 years I chaired our Global Partnerships Committee and visited our partners in Cuba (three times), Cameroon (once) and Brazil (once). I know that they have enriched my spiritual life and of others in the church and in our partners.

As the sermon stated, music from around the world will play a major part in our worship as it did this day and as will be discussed in another post.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of the sermon are on the church website. Excerpts of the sermon are  set forth below.

[2] Wilson, We’re at the end of White Christian America. What will that mean?, Guardian (Sept. 20, 2017); Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wall Street Journal’s Annual Christmas Message

The September 17 sermon at Minneapolis Westminster Church, as discussed in a prior post, referred to the church’s sculpture by Paul Granlund that was inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s annual Christmas Day editorial discussing the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus to become the Apostle Paul. That editorial was written in 1949 by Vermont Royster (1916-1996), who was the head of its editorial page, and thereafter has been published annually. Here is that message.[1]

“In Hoc Anno Domini” [In the Year of Our Lord]

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.”

“Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.”

“But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression — for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?”

“There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?”

“Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee [Jesus] saying, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’” [Matthew 22:21 (KJV.]

“And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.”

“So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.”

“But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, ‘Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.’”

“Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.”

“Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.”

“And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord: ‘Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.’” [Galatians 5.1 (KJV)  (emphasis added).]

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[1] Annual Christmas Editorial, W.S.J. (Dec. 24, 2008); Kassel, In Hoc Anno Domini, Bill Kassel’s Blog (Dec. 22, 2013).

Whatever Became of “Faith Alone”?

On September 17, 2017, in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, delivered the second of his four sermons on the great themes of the Reformation: sola fide (faith alone);  The first one was devoted to grace alone (sola gratia) and the last two will be on sola scriptura (scripture alone) and where do we go from here? [1] Below are photographs of the new addition to the church (under construction) and Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

Readings from Holy Scripture

Jeremiah 32:31-35 (NRSV): 

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name.”

Luke 18: 35-43 (NRSV):

“As [Jesus] approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, [Jesus] asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.” (Emphasis added.)

The Sermon (Extracts):

“A man without sight, begging by the side of the road, calls out to Jesus for help as he passes by. The disciples try to quiet the man; why would Jesus want to listen to someone like that, they say to themselves? But Jesus stops and asks what he wants. “

“The man tells Jesus he wants to see again, and in an instant his eyes open. He sees – and he rejoices. Those who have witnessed the scene unfold rejoice with him, praising God for what has happened.”

“Then, above the jubilation, Jesus says to him, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”  (Emphasis added.)

‘That line is why Luke tells this story. That’s why healing accounts like it are repeated throughout the gospels: your faith has saved you.”

“The ancient Greek here for ‘save’ – sesoken – can have several meanings: made you well, made you whole, delivered you, rescued you. Your faith has saved you. “

“ But it’s the other part of this sentence that has true revolutionary impact: Your faith – not something or someone else, but your faith – has saved you. The man has what he needs within, and Jesus helps him see that, helps him uncover it. He needs no outside source of power. He does not need to seek permission. He’s free to access the power of the God directly.” (Emphasis added.)

“Forty years ago, church member Tom Crosby commissioned Minnesota sculptor Paul Granlund  [2] to create a work of art as a gift not only to Westminster but also to the city. Crosby was inspired by the annual Christmas Eve editorial in the Wall Street Journal that speaks of freedom, published every year since 1949. [3] It concludes with this line from Galatians: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1 (NRSV)) (Emphasis added.) Photographs of the sculpture are below; the first has the sculpture in front of the south wall of the existing sanctuary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Granlund created a piece that shows four human figures breaking out of bondage. The sculpture has just returned to the church in a more accessible location, and as I walk around it, I meet each figure anew. It’s the man who could not see, being given sight again. It’s the woman whose flow of blood for 12 years finally stops. It’s the man with leprosy seeing his skin made new. They leap up and rejoice as they are set free.”

“The sculpture and, in fact, the design of the new [Westminster] wing all point to the freedom at the core of Christian faith, the open access each one of us has to the love of God.”

“’Your faith has saved you. ‘The Protestant Reformation begins with that assertion by Jesus.”

“In the midst of a 16th century Christianity characterized by dependence on the authority of the priestly hierarchy and control by Rome, to declare we are saved by faith alone turns everything upside down. It’s the fulfillment of the prophetic word of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah: ‘The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The man without sight, begging for his life by the side of the road, scorned by the disciples– those able-bodied, self-righteous, entitled, powerful disciples–has what he needs in his own heart. They are no better than he is. ‘No longer shall they teach one another,’ God says through Jeremiah.’ Or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.’” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34)

“Five hundred years ago Martin Luther and the other reformers reached back to that biblical tradition, back to the gospels, back to the prophets, and recovered the world-changing idea that all individuals have within themselves the power to save themselves, if only they turn and claim it, by faith.” (Emphasis added.)

Even further back in scripture we hear the same word in Deuteronomy: ‘Surely, this commandment…is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven…Neither is it beyond the sea…No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.’ (Deuteronomy 30:12-14 (NRSV))

“The genius of the Protestants was to link that liberating word to the life of the individual believer. The world, and certainly the Church, would be forever altered by that theological breakthrough. From the declaration that every individual is a self-determined human being whose life before God is not beholden to any other powers on this earth, it was only a matter of time before the structures of the Church – and, then, of society and economy, culture and politics – would begin to shift irreversibly. (Emphasis added.) (emphasis added.)

Anyone who embraced the concept of faith alone would no longer need the power of external sources, the power of the Church or the authority of the priest to mediate access to God and to give them value as a human being. It was there, in the heart, for the taking. (Emphasis added.) (Emphasis added.)

Faith alone is a declaration of independence. (Emphasis added.)”

“Early Protestant insistence on individual freedom would have positive consequences that reverberated throughout Europe and around the world and that endure to this day. It gave rise to a profound re-thinking of civil power and authority and its relationship to the Church. It helped develop political democracy. It created a culture of individual rights and responsibilities. The core principle that each individual believer is free led to the emergence of acceptance and affirmations of others and their own God-given gifts.”  (Emphasis added.)

“But the transforming streams flowing out of the Protestant movement 500 years ago also have their shadow side. The Reformation emphasis on individual freedom, based on each person’s autonomy and personal agency before God and the world, has been sacrificed too many times at the altar of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. “

“Over the years we Protestants have attempted to wed religious authority and political rule. It happened in John Calvin’s 16th century Geneva. It happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. It happened in 19th century America with Christian, even Presbyterian, support of slavery, wedding in a paradoxical way their focus on individual freedom before God and a desire for power that limited that very freedom. It happened in 20th century South Africa.”

“It was never successful, or tolerant, or just. It was never theologically sustainable for those of us in the reformed tradition who stand on the free right of the individual to be whoever God made that individual. Coupling that emphasis with an exclusive interpretation of political power would not and does not work.” (Emphasis added.)

 Whatever happened to “faith alone?”

“We are Protestants. Presbyterians. We stand in a tradition that – at its best – refuses to lock-down a formula for salvation. We believe all of us already have the light of God’s love of within us. It does not need to be given to us by some outside authority. We are heirs to a theological and political insistence on individual freedom, with rights and responsibilities. We inherited a faith that not only tolerates but accepts and celebrates diversity, precisely because it affirms individuals in all their God-given, beautiful variety.” (Emphasis added.)

“The great theological struggle for Christians and other people of faith in the coming century, the coming years, the coming days, will be to find our place in a religiously diverse world, without being judgmental or dismissive, or angry about, or violent toward, those of other traditions. Protestants should be prepared to take the lead, especially we who are Presbyterians. ‘God alone is Lord of the conscience,’ is a basic principle of reformed theology that not only asserts our right to individual freedom, but also affirms the same right for others.” (Emphasis added.) [4]

Our “approach to tolerance and acceptance of diversity arises from the 16th c. Protestant discovery of the principle of faith alone. Individual believers work out through their own conscience, in their own hearts, their relationship to the Almighty, however they name the Holy One.” (Emphasis added.)

“Jesus said to those he healed, ‘Your faith has saved you.’ He was telling them they need look no further than their own hearts, where the Word of God has already been placed, no further than that, to be set free to live into the fullness of their humanity. “

“The challenge for each of us is to be attentive to the Word that dwells within us. It’s not easy in our busy, noisy world full of distractions to center on the life of God within us. It is not easy and to develop an inner life and find there the freedom that is ours through faith.”[5]

“The church does . . . that when it worships, when it prays and sings, when it shares God’s love: it helps people discover what they already have. That’s what happened on the road to Jericho that day when Jesus stopped to listen to the man calling to him. He helped him find the tune in his heart – and he leapt up, rejoicing with those around him.”

“To have faith, and to be saved by it, means hearing the music of God’s love in our hearts.

It means playing the tune that has already been placed into the deepest reaches of our very being, and finding in that music the freedom God longs for each of us to have, the freedom to be fully who we are.”

Conclusion

I join Pastor Tim in refusing to lock-down a formula for salvation. I believe all of us already have the light of God’s love of within us. It does not need to be given to us by some outside authority. Others and I are  heirs to a theological and political insistence on individual freedom, with rights and responsibilities. We inherited a faith that not only tolerates but accepts and celebrates diversity, precisely because it affirms individuals in all their God-given, beautiful variety.

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

[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of this sermon are on the church’s website. A subsequent post will cover that day’s Prayer of Confession and Pastoral Prayer. There are many sources on Martin Luther; one is Wikipedia.

[2] Paul T. Granlund (1925—2003) was an American sculptor. His creative career spanned more than 50 years and more than 650 different works. Most of his work is figurative and made from bronze. His patrons included colleges, hospitals, churches and other institutions.

3] The Wall Street Journal’s annual Christmas Day editorial will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[4] At this point the sermon referenced Westminster’s originally owning our city’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital, which included a Christian chapel that has been converted to an ecumenical Center for Reflection and Renewal as well as Westminster’s new addition which will host a children’s wellness center operated by St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development.

[5]  The sermon here referred to an article by Rev. Dr. Cindy Rigby of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary that mentioned how a contemporary youth orchestra in concert sight-read a new piece of music, thereby embracing it in their hearts, before playing the piece for the very first time. (Rigby, This Hour of Fire, Insight at 37 (Spring 2017).)

 

 

 

 

Whatever Became of “Grace Alone”?

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church celebrated “Coming Together Sunday” and the start of a new church year on September 10, 2017. In recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, our Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, commenced a series of at four sermons on the great themes of the Reformation.  The first, this day, was grace alone (sola gratia). The others will be on sola fide (faith alone); sola scriptura (scripture alone) and where do we go from here?.[1] Below are photographs of  the church’s refurbished Nicollet Mall main entrance and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, whose face is hidden from us by our sin, and whose mercy we forget in the blindness of our hearts: Cleanse us from all our offenses, and deliver us from proud thoughts and vain desires, that with reverent and humble hearts we may draw near to you, confessing our faults, confiding in your grace, and finding in you our refuge and strength; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 43:1-7, 14-21  (NRSV):

“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

“Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-10 (NRSV):

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

 Sermon (Extracts):

“Author Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years the Christian Church holds a giant rummage sale. It throws out what it no longer needs or wants – doctrines, creeds, assumptions, structures – and replaces them with new things.”[2]

“To make her 500-year cycle argument, Tickle points out that roughly 500 years after Jesus, the Church entered a time of chaos when the Roman Empire collapsed and the western world entered an era we used to call the ‘Dark Ages.’ The Church survived those centuries of crisis through the rise of monasticism, even as more formal ecclesiastical structures were in ruins.”

“Another 500 years passed and the Great Schism between East and West took place. Then the Protestant breakaway from Rome half a millennium later. And here we are today, with the Church experiencing another time of upheaval and renewal of our time.”

“The ancient prophet Isaiah suggested that God is involved in such transitions, in times of transformation: ‘Do not remember the former things,’ God says through the prophet, ‘Or consider the things of old.’ It’s as if God were saying, ‘Don’t be afraid. This is a great, divine rummage sale. Let go of the old and prepare for the new. I am about to do a new thing,’ God says. ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:18-19)”

“God assumes – correctly – that we’ll have trouble finding our way through the transition and turmoil. Where’s the church headed? How does it stay vigorous and vital? How do we navigate the shifting cultural sands all around us?”

“Author Diana Butler Bass has written about ‘the end of church’ and ‘Christianity after religion.”’[3] Those of us who toil in the ecclesiastical vineyard know that virtually everything is in flux, changing around us, as the new thing emerges among us. It is challenging, but the prophet reminds us that God will not abandon us: ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ (Isaiah 43- 19)”

“That was true for the church in the 16th century. God was doing a new thing then, at work when that cantankerous, strong-willed, beer-loving, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther decided to take a stand against the practices of Rome. He was not the only one to protest, nor was he the first. Inklings of reform had stirred centuries earlier in Italy, England, and Bohemia. But Luther’s rebellion was the tipping point of this pent-up frustration for reform in the Christian Church.”

“[Contemporary views on the Reformation were covered in a recent survey by The Pew Research Center.] The good news is that the memory of the religious wars fought in the centuries following the rebellion against Rome has faded. The Pew survey shows an emerging consensus among Catholics and Protestants that they have more similarities than differences. That will not come as a surprise to this congregation in this city.”

“The bad news – at least from a Presbyterian preacher’s perspective – is that most Protestants have little grasp of the theological premises that drove the Reformation in the first place. The Pew survey shows that more than half of us no longer know or care about the distinct themes for which our forebears fought and died.”

“Frankly, many Protestants today have no clue about the foundations upon which their stream of Christian faith is based. Some may see no problem with that, but there are consequences of embracing a version of Christianity that has let go of the core convictions of those who protested in the 16th century.”

“What did that 16th century church rummage sale look like?”

“Luther’s ire was directed at the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. All 95 of those theses he wrote [in 1517], in one way or another, were protesting the selling of indulgences, that is, the Church’s means of controlling access to the grace of God by requiring believers to buy it. To gain God’s approval or forgiveness one had to go through the Church and, through the priests and the bishops and the prince of Rome, literally, purchase it. God’s mercy was for sale.”

“Luther and other Protestants rejected what they called ‘works righteousness,’ the idea that one must do something – something inevitably determined by the Church – to gain favor with the Almighty. Protestants declared that God’s grace was all one needed, and it was freely given. No one could earn it – not by purchasing indulgences, or saying prayers, or repenting, or doing good deeds, or accepting the Church’s doctrine.”

“’I would remind you, brothers and sisters,’ the Apostle Paul writes, ‘Of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved.’ (I Corinthians 15:1)”

“The good news Paul passed on and that we have received from our Protestant forebears is that God’s love is not subject to the whims of any person or institution, not even the Church, but, rather, is freely offered. This may seem inconsequential today, but Luther represented a major challenge to the dominance of Rome. The ‘Protestors’ had to be stopped; ecclesiastical authority was at risk. If the Church could not control the dispensing of God’s grace it would lose the basis of its power.”

“These are not merely 16th century issues. The same questions continue to roil the Church today. Ten days ago, a group of prominent Protestant leaders released what they call the Nashville Statement. It’s a declaration against the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons on the basis of a particular reading of scripture and tradition.” [4]

“Having read the statement, it seems to me that by the standard of common human decency alone the statement is offensive. But it also distorts the Christian gospel, especially as Protestants have understood it. The document illustrates how the basic Protestant tenet of sola gratia, God’s grace alone, has been cast aside in a rush to condemn.”

“In Article 10 of the Nashville Statement the writers declare that support of LGBT persons “constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness.” They are trying to hold God’s grace hostage by limiting it to those they deem acceptable. That is what provoked Luther and precisely why the Reformation was needed, because that was happening in the Church.”

“Back then we Protestants rejected the idea that the Church could assume God’s prerogative. Instead, we surrendered to the notion that God’s grace alone is sufficient for our souls. We do not need the approbation of anyone, or the acceptance of certain biblical interpretations, to earn God’s favor. We do not need to prove ourselves worthy. Indeed, we could never do that.”

“Whatever became of ‘grace alone?’”

“One way to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to recover the theological clarity of the reformers. We are Protestants; we protest when the church’s control of God’s grace becomes a tool for exclusion.”

“Our task today, in the midst of the ferment of our time, is to build thriving communities where Christianity is taught and shared and practiced anew. That’s essentially what Luther was after, as well as Zwingli, Calvin, and other early Protestants: creating a personal, authentic, genuine experience of Christian faith, of God’s love, not mediated by the Church.”

“They were done with the old ways, the former things. And so are we. Done with church power games. Done with merely going through ecclesiastical motions and reciting old formulas.”

“They were hungering after a genuine, powerful experience of God’s grace in their lives, and so are we. God’s grace: it alone liberates us. It alone gives us hope. It alone introduces us to the unconditional love of the Creator in whose image we all are made.”

“God is doing a new thing. An old thing, in new ways.”

“The 16th century Protestants were protesting, and those of us who continue to do so today remain in that same line. ‘This is the good news in which we stand,’ Paul says.”

“Our Protestant theological genes bear the imprint of a version of Christianity that instinctively rejects any system that does not grant to all the same access.”

“The racism of white supremacy is another expression of the power of those in control of the narrative of acceptability. From a Protestant Christian viewpoint, American racism tries to restrict the grace of God and limit it only to those of European descent. It’s a grave theological error. “

“This is not arcane church language and theological detail; what we hold to be true determines how we see the world. Our faith shapes how we live, and we are Protestants. Our deep conviction is that God’s grace is not withheld from anyone. It is all sufficient.”

“What impact does that 16th century theological claim have in our time? For starters, we declare that the wide-open affirmation of grace alone rejects the narrow and bigoted assertion of race alone as the sole determinant of who is acceptable and valued in our world.”

“Not only the Church needs a new reformation; our entire nation does. Its embedded racial distinctions have given rise to privilege for some and left others in despair – and that is a theological error, in our judgment as Protestant Christians.”

“Grace alone is the theological equivalent of the political claim that ‘all people are created equal.’”

“These are the animating issues for our life today at Westminster. Our Open Doors Open Futures is not simply about a beautiful building. . . .  It’s also, and fundamentally, about rediscovering the heart of Christian faith: the open, no-holds-barred, unconditional, no-strings-attached, love of God onto which we pin the theological word ‘grace.’”[5]

“Nothing we do can earn it. No indulgences we might pay. No creed we might recite. No baptism we might undergo. No particular circumstances or human condition, neither the color of our skin nor the person we love.”

“’By the grace of God, I am what I am,’ the Apostle Paul says, having persecuted Christians and been blinded by the grace of God one day. ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.’ (I Corinthians 15:10)”

“Those first Protestants 500 years ago didn’t get everything right, but they did launch a new movement that invites people into the Christian faith, based solely on the individual experience of God’s love. We call it grace.”

“Grace alone. It still stirs the soul. It still saves the soul. And it still compels the church.”

Responding to the Word

Affirmation of Faith (from A Brief Statement of Faith—Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)): “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve. With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[6]

Conclusion

This sermon was a good reminder of my belief that God alone through his and her grace extends love to every human being on the planet in the past, today and in the future and that no human institution can interfere with that grace.

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

[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of this sermon are on the church’s website. There are many sources on Martin Luther; one is Wikipedia.

[2] Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books 2012)  Ms. Tickle is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, the international journal of the book industry and the author of over 30 book in religion and spirituality.

[3] Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Harper Collins, 2013).   Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Coalition for Biblical Sexuality, Nashville Statement, CBMW.org; https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/ The Nashville Statement was drafted in late August 2017, during the annual conference of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been signed by more than 150 influential conservative evangelical leaders. The Statement says that only heterosexuality is permissible, calls people born with intersex conditions “disordered,” derides transgender identities as “transgenderism” and makes clear that anyone who is an L.G.B.T. person is immoral. (Cruz, The Nashville Statement Is an Attack on L.G.B.T. Christians, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017); Nashville Statement, Wikipedia.

[5] Open Doors Open Futures is Westminster’s multi-pronged campaign to increase support for local and global needs, to expand its historic building on Nicollet Mall with an inspiring new wing designed by James Dayton Design, and to develop significant new green space surrounding the church.

[6] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Brief Statement of Faith (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983) in   Book of Confessions, pp. 307-18.

Horizontal Faith

This was the title of the August 13th sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s new addition now under construction and of Rev. Brouwer.

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of every day, you are beside us, behind us, and before us, every second of our lives. Yet, we confess we find you mostly in mountaintop moments, and seek you in our dark valleys. We struggle to take our daily walk with you. Remind us, O God, to pause—to consider you, and others. In a world of connectivity, help us stay connected to your Spirit, and to put relationships first. Put us in touch with the rhythm of your life, so our lives may mirror the constancy of your grace. In Christ’s name, we pray.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture: Psalm 90: (NRSV):[2] 

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.”

“You sweep them away; they are like a dream,                         like grass that is renewed in the morning;                                   in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;                                 in the evening it fades and withers.”

“For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

“For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

“Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.”

“Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!”

Sermon (Extracts):

“Psalm 90 is typically read at funerals. . . . [and] has become one of my favorite Psalms. I appreciate the comfort of its familiarity; it returns me to the sacred moments in which it has been read. Funerals . . . sometimes . . .  can be moments for taking stock, checking priorities, and making meaning. This Psalm acts as a mirror, and the more I’ve read it, the more I see myself in a reflection of what a relationship with God might look like over the span of a lifetime. Of course, the language about God being angry is typically left out for memorial services, which is appropriate. But, given the chance, I love reading the whole thing.”

“There is something about God being angry that . . . [is] an important part of this Psalm. It’s raw, honest. God is not completely unaffected, and that makes God more relatable. A God who is accessible is emotional and reactive, and closely aware of the measure and rhythm of our lives.”

“I wonder if the reason the Psalmist focuses so much on God’s anger, and his own mortality, is because he’s projecting some things on to God. . . . [It] sounds kind of like the Psalmist is playing a bit of a blame game. It sounds like he knows he has done something to make God angry that he’d rather not let us know about here–God doesn’t get angry without good reason, after all.”

“And maybe there’s also a chance, he’s angry with himself. Either way, he’s working it out, externally processing with God, using God as a sounding board. And along the way he touches on some serious concerns, which might be the underlying root of that anger. The Psalmist is struggling with life and death, what it means to have this life at all, and then what it means to have that life be limited and fragile and messy. In the end, what it reveals is important–that not only can God take this kind of stuff from us, God desires it. We want and need God to be there for us. And I think that’s the way God wants it, too.”

“I found myself coming back to this Psalm most recently because it does help me remember times when God felt particularly close. Maybe you can relate, but for me it takes work and intention for God to feel close every day. I know on an intellectual level that God is always there, but to feel spiritually connected is another thing, even for someone who does this for a living.”

“What I assume about most people, church-going folks or not, is that God tends to be near at hand only occasionally, either during spiritually recharging mountaintop moments or in the hardest, darkest valleys of life. Those are liminal times and places, in which the distance between heaven and earth seem to come miraculously or desperately close together.”

“But we can’t be climbing mountains all the time, nor would we want the lowest of lows to be our constant companions. That kind of vertical experience of faith is not possible day-to-day, and it doesn’t express the whole of our journey. I’m not sure we talk enough about the ordinary days of faith– how God is with us as we answer emails, or shop for groceries and pay our bills, or even deal with conflict. Nothing about God is ordinary, but life gets that way, and so we struggle to connect the two. And maybe that’s because we haven’t been taught how, or at least we haven’t been asked often enough to consider how we might do it. It sounds simple, but what is simple is not always simplistic.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution, Diana Butler Bass writes about this issue for herself, and for the sake of the church in the 21st Century. At one point, she is using the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth to describe what she means. She writes, ‘Here in the labyrinth, I struggle to find words to describe what I feel. Up on the mountaintop, I [know] the language to describe God: majestic, transcendent, all-powerful. [But,] in this vocabulary, God remains stubbornly located in a few select places, mostly in external realms above or beyond… Like countless others, I have been schooled in vertical theology. Western culture, especially Western Christianity, has imprinted a certain theological template upon the spiritual imagination: God exists far off from the world and does humankind a favor when choosing to draw close… In its crudest form, the role of religion… is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling around down below in the world.’”[3] (Emphasis added.)

This vertical theology [Bass] describes misses the part about the incarnation, the part about God being with us that sets Christianity apart. It doesn’t touch on our individual need to be known and enmeshed in God’s life, and for God to be known, at least in part, by us. It’s the horizontal part of our faith we have a hard time with. It’s the part that says God is relational, neighborly, immanent, fleshy, earthy, broken, poured out, dead and risen… and even though I can come up with those words I probably don’t say them enough. Our default is easier: to keep God up there, or in these walls, and to only connect on Sundays. But, this structure of Christendom that has shaped our whole worldview, is changing, it’s being dismantled, along with many of the other hierarchical institutions around us.” (Emphasis added.)

“People, including me, are seeking a more horizontal faith, and a God that doesn’t live somewhere else, outside of us, veiled in complex theology that is beyond our capacity to understand. As Bass writes, “my soul has a mile-wide mystical streak.” And that resonates with me. Not in a supernatural sort of way, but it’s a description of faith that affirms a wideness, and a wisdom. All of this doesn’t mean we forget certain pieces of our theology, rather it confirms that God cannot be contained–and that God has vastly different ways of being in relationship with God’s people.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist begins by praising God for being a dwelling place. It’s a more intimate metaphor, and one that is used throughout scripture. The Gospel of John uses it often, taking a turn from the other three Gospels in the way he talks about God. The word for dwelling is related to the word for womb. It’s an indwelling–that’s how close the Psalmist is to God. A place where one lives, a home to return to. The Psalmist doesn’t describe how the dwelling looks, only that it is has always been there, and it always will be, and that it seems to take the shape of whatever the Psalmist needs. There’s no hierarchy to it, but it is clear that God is God, eternal, and human beings are finite and needy. This, as it turns out, is the Psalmist’s struggle, not proximity to God, but how to fit as much abundance into one life as possible, especially when life seems so short.”

“I wonder what Christianity would look like if we were less interested in how to figure God out in these vertical systems, less concerned with who is right about God and who is wrong, or who is saved and who isn’t, and more curious about our own day-to-day walk with God? Different, I think. Freer, kinder. More creative. I think that, for the most part, when I feel close to God I am more generous, more justice-oriented, more at peace with what I am good at and even more so at peace with what I’m not good at. I’m less ashamed and more confident in who I am.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist prays that God would, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” and “prosper the work of our hands.” Wisdom and purpose are what the Psalmist wants from God and life. I have to admit, it seems a bit countercultural. Even though the Psalmist finds life to be unbearably short, there is nothing here about Carpe Diem, Seize the day! YOLO- you only live once! And there’s no prosperity Gospel here, either. Nothing about, ‘prosper our retirement accounts so we can live comfortably in the end!’ The Psalm calls on us to ask: What is important in the end? And will we be in a close and fruitful relationship with God, and one another?”

“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Prosper the work of our hands.”

“Some days I get discouraged, because I feel like wisdom and prosperity defined like this are in short supply. And, I throw myself into the mix of those who have a hard time living this out. It’s easy to buy into the world’s definitions of wisdom and purpose, simpler sometimes to live mindlessly, distant from God, not treating each day as though it is a precious, wonderful, difficult and messy gift. Keeping God up here is more straightforward, more organized–it fits into our ordered society.”

“But, as my Old Testament Professor Terry Fretheim used to say, ‘God did not intend creation to be a machine…’ He writes, ‘For all the world’s order and coherence, a certain randomness, ambiguity, unpredictability and play characterize its complex life.’”[4]

“Unlike our tendency toward the vertical systems we have created for God–horizontal faith celebrates relationship, between us and God, but also among all people, and all creation. Our faith is not a machine that can be turned on, established, and instituted only when it is convenient–that promotes exclusivity and suffocates. Taken to an extreme, we’ve seen the dangerous ways this has played out over centuries, and even until the last few days in Charlottesville, when vertical theological power becomes twisted, misinterpreted, and used to dehumanize. horizontal faith, on the other hand, means there’s no power involved, no ego, no money, no walls, no competition. It’s no wonder the Psalmist uses organic images throughout: mountains, grass, even dust. We are intertwined with God, and all people, and all things, in a beautiful, sacred, web of relationship.” (Emphases added.)

“Poet Wendell Berry describes horizontal faith as well as anyone. (Emphasis added.) A farmer and writer from rural Kentucky, Berry has long used creation metaphors to describe his faith and call to environmental justice. His poem “The Wild Geese” seems like a modern interpretation of Psalm 90. It touches on life and death, wisdom and purpose, and our relationship with God, which is so much closer than we can believe. I invite you to close your eyes, and imagine what he writes,

‘Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.’”

“And it’s true. God is right here, God with us, our dwelling place. Not too far above or beyond our grasp. But, willing us to count our days as precious, and gain a wise heart– reminding us that prosperity and abundance are what has already been given us, in Christ.”

“Even within God’s very self–Creator, Christ and Spirit–there is a wideness and inclusivity. God’s very own diversity, God’s very own shape is a dwelling place for each of us, showing us that God is accessible to us all, and to our every need. It is this God who calls us, who desires us, and all we are. This is the God we have right here. God with us.”

Conclusion

Thank you, Rev. Brouwer, for opening our eyes to see and our ears to hear another interpretation of the 90th Psalm and to gain a better appreciation of our horizontal faith.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2]  The New Testament passage was Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV).

[3] Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution (Harper Collins 2015). This book won the Religion News Association Book Award, the Nautilus Award (Better Books for a Better World) and the Religious Communicators Council’s Wilbur Award. Bass is an independent author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic) (Baker Academic 2010). Fretheim is the Elva B. Lowell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary.

 

 

 

Lover’s Quarrel

This was the title of the July 16 sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of mercy, you call us and we ignore your whisper, listening to the voices of this world. You call us and we choose a different path, following our own devices. You call us to be the body of Christ, to collectively proclaim your justice and love. God of grace, open our ears and our hearts to your wisdom and ways. Help us to receive your forgiveness, and by your Spirit, show grace to a broken world. Call on us, again, O God, to serve you and your people.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV):

  • “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
    to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
    that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
    What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
    To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
    so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
    For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.”

Luke 5:27-32 (NRSV):

  • “After. . . [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
  • Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Sermon (extracts):

“This is the place where the good news of Jesus Christ should be preached to all people. It is the preacher’s job to make sense of the complexities within scripture- to lift out what is challenging, troubling, even, and then reveal the ultimate truth of the story, which is that God’s love is always at the center, even if it seems buried in the shadows of a dark text.”

“It seems to me this preaching gig is . . . more of a dialogue that should engage all of our hearts with God’s word. Like you, I have thoughts, questions, reactions to what God says and what it means for us today.”

“I come here, too, because, despite how comfortable I am, I still need to hear the good news of the Gospel. But good news is not always comfort. I need the Gospel to give me a framework for how to think about and serve a world where affliction is rampant, and the news we hear and read about is often not good. The Gospel should surprise us, challenge all of our assumptions, and help us make meaning, find purpose, and push past cynicism. That’s what is good about the Gospel. [This] church with Open Doors and an Open Future exists not to come down on anyone, but to be a community where we explore the nuances of being followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st century and beyond.”

“The two passages, side by side, from Isaiah and Luke, seem to convey a relatively similar message, though they are separated by hundreds of years in their history.

“Isaiah speaks a word of judgment to certain scribes, who have written laws that continue to oppress the poor, the widows and the orphans, and protect the established members of society. Isaiah’s Israel was a kinship society where money was not exchanged. Widows and orphans were those who didn’t fit neatly into extended, patriarchal families that cared for one another, so finding resources to house and feed them when their husbands or parents died, either did not exist or were scarce. Laws to carve out space for them in an ordered world, were the only way they would thrive. The words Isaiah uses against these scribes are harsh, but fairly straightforward, and common among the prophets- they describe what the eventual consequences will be for behavior that continues as it is in the present. The Common English Translation says [this Isaiah passage] like this:

  • “What will you do when disaster comes from far away? To whom will you flee for help; where will you stash your wealth? How will you avoid crouching among the prisoners and falling among the slain?”

“In the reading from Luke, the overall message is somewhat the same: calling sinners to repentance. But, if we pay close attention, there is a slight twist. In the story it says that, after recruiting Levi, a tax collector, Jesus joins him at his house to have dinner with Levi’s former colleagues- the other tax collectors. In first century Israel, tax collectors were despised because they would defraud the poor, and pilfer money for themselves, while aiding the harsh Roman Empire. The Pharisees, who were strictly religious, Jewish leaders, began to whisper to the disciples behind Jesus’ back, complaining that Jesus was hanging out with these sinners who mistreated the poor. Jesus must have overheard them talking, and in what seems like a rather loaded comment Jesus says, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”

“It occurs to me that Jesus was probably calling both the tax collectors and the Pharisees sinners, because there really are no righteous people in this story. The so-called righteous folks were finger-wagging Pharisees who could not see beyond the surface of what Jesus was doing. Jesus’ method was a different way of being a prophet, one that sought to build a relationship with those whose moral compass had failed them, to try and change their minds. But, so convinced were the Pharisees in their interpretation of Jewish law, they could not imagine eating and conversing with sinners like Levi and his friends.”

“In the same way, if we approach scripture, using either of these passages or others, as a way to prove our own side of the argument we will always be in opposition with someone, afflicting them with our righteousness, and never making any headway in finding what good God might be doing right in front of us. Scripture should not be used as a method to prove  one’s point about a subject, but a way for the good news of the Gospel to surprise even our own well held assumptions about justice.”

“William Sloane Coffin, a well known social justice preacher who died not that long ago,. claimed he had a Lover’s Quarrel with America, and preached often about patriotism. In his mind there were “three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones,” he wrote, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”[2]

“God is the lover, and we are the beloved. That is the first and most important truth we can hold on to- you might even say it’s the comforting part of this sermon. But, the word quarrel implies that this love is a two-way street. God doesn’t love us inconsequentially, or deny us love as a consequence. There is a relationship between lover and beloved, one that has expectations on both sides. And if we are God’s people, as Coffin says, we are a reflection of this lover’s quarrel- this is the kind of relationship we are to have with the world. To love it is to engage it, to be affected by it, to care for it.’

‘What I think is important for us as Christians, though, is that the quarrel is not about winning or losing an argument- it’s a quarrel that spurs us toward working on our relationships, our place in the world in relationship to all people, and making sure that they are good, and honest, and, eventually, whole.”

“If we look back to Isaiah, I think this is what the prophet is getting at. Isaiah was conveying a lover’s quarrel; God’s frustration with the people of Israel was out of love for them, love for those they were leaving behind, and the relationships that were all suffering because of it. God’s quarrel was, and is about justice. And justice, in the biblical sense, is a social concept.“

“As professor Rolf Jacobson writes, ‘It has to do with the order of society and how that order shapes or fails to shape human relationships with one another. A society that is ‘more just’ is one in which the social order allows life to thrive… A society that is ‘less just’ is one in which the social order prevents life from thriving to a greater degree.’”[3]

“As we read these difficult texts we know justice is sought after, but what we often fail to see is that relationships are at the core of God’s work to bring it about. Love and relationships are the way to a justly ordered society where all people thrive, even when it comes through laws, or policy decisions.”

“It’s why Jesus sat and ate with sinners and, at the same time, corrected the righteousness of the Pharisees. ‘None of you is right,’ he seemed to say, ‘until you are willing to break bread together, to love one another, even in the midst of your quarrel.’ God’s justice does not come about by denigrating one side or the other. It may necessitate consequences and correction, but God’s justice is always, ultimately, loving, relational, and restorative in its approach and culmination.”

“There are maybe some who will hear what I just said and think this sounds like a good idea, but that in the end it is naive, it’s idealist- there is not one lens we can use to view the world that will help us all settle our quarrels and bring about justice, especially one as emotionally driven as love.”

“Maybe it is naive. But, if we can’t be idealists in church, where can we be? We have a God who died to show us how far love was willing to go. To be sure, there is a time and place for data and quantitative research, which can also help solve problem,… but we come to this place to imagine that with God all things are possible- that the affliction of the world will not win out, that God’s justice will eventually inhabit all of our hearts, and the world will begin to turn.”

“Until that day comes we return here to be reminded of the good news. We have a framework we are creating here, for a world that is coming into being out there. We are making meaning here, and dialoging here, so that we can lovingly quarrel with the world. And we also come here to remember that, while we are likely neither the tax collector nor the Pharisee, God is still lovingly quarreling with us. And that is a good thing to remember, especially for those of us who think we have a lot of this justice stuff figured out.”

“In general, there are any number of ways we can approach issues of injustice. Being good citizens, giving away money or time, using a good filter for investments, reading and staying up-to-date on all that is happening in the world, checking our privilege. I think I’ve done most of these things, myself, and while it is important work, I have to say that none of them has ever left me feeling remarkably hopeful about the state of justice in our world. And without hope, what is the motivator to continue in our pursuit?”

“In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, author and speaker Parker Palmer writes this, ‘If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken… What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.’”[4]

“Herein lies what we do here, particularly related to justice. All of us have the capacity to have our hearts broken, especially if we are paying attention to the world. But, it all depends on how they break. Will we be overwhelmed, apathetic, angry, or cynical? Or will we come here, and find ways to move forward in hope?”

“Here’s the thing- our hearts will break if we love the world as God loves the world. And there are a number of ways to handle it. But, in this place we have a way for them to break open and create new life. When we come here, we are not doing it alone. We have the hope and the call of one who loves us and is quarreling alongside of us, who is working to restore relationships. And we trust in the promise, that there will be a day when two sides understand each other, when we are all fully known, and quarrels will ultimately cease.”

“This is why we come. This is why I am a minister. Not to afflict the comfortable. Maybe to comfort the afflicted. But, always, always, to engage in God’s love and quarrel with the world- one that challenges assumptions, that builds a framework of meaning and purpose and hope, and constantly, little by little moves us toward justice. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The phrase “lovers’ quarrel,” I guess, had been kicking around in the back of my mind, when what should have been its obvious meaning suddenly dawned on me. Two lovers care for each other’s best interests, but do not agree on everything. Occasionally one conveys truth to the other that the other resists. As a result, they have quarrels or disagreements, not wars or fisticuffs or worse, and in the best of times they seek to resolve their quarrels through conversations and reasoning.

This too is the nature of the quarrels that God has with us His people.

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[1] The bulletin and a video recording of the service along with the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Coffin, Credo, at 84 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004)(extracts of sermons and other writings). In an aside Rev. Brouwer noted that the “lover’s quarrel” phrase had come from an earlier unnamed poem by Robert Frost that will be discussed in another blog post.

[3] Jacobson, “The Lord is a God of Justice (Isaiah 30:18): The Prophetic Insistence on Justice in Social  Context,” 30 Word and World 125 (2010).

[4] Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (Jossey-Bass 2014.)