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.)

The Tragic Extinguishment of the Eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy

Most Americans remember or know about Robert F. Kennedy or “RFK” (1925-1968): brother to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General in his brother’s administration, U.S. Senator from New York, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and assassinated by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan  on June 6, 1968, at a Los Angeles hotel campaign event.

Less generally remembered or known was RFK’s eloquence, undoubtedly aided by his speechwriters: Adam Walinsky Richard Goodwin and Allard Lowenstein.[1]

One prominent example of Kennedy’s eloquence occurred on April 4, 1968, immediately after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Speaking to a campaign crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy shocked everyone by announcing the news of the assassination and then went on to refer to his own grief at the 1963 assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert added, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”[2]

Kennedy that night went on to say, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . . Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”

The next day in Cleveland, Ohio, Kennedy spoke against the “mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” He added, “Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve justice among our fellow citizens. . . . We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for advancement of others. . . . We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.”[3]

Two other examples of his eloquence were inscribed on Kennedy’s memorial  in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery:

  • “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.” (University of Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966)
  • “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?'” (1968)

Yet others were included in the previously mentioned June 6, 1966, speech at the University of Cape Town. They all seem, to this observer, to be indirect references to Jesus’ injunction “to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself” and to the Christian notion of vocation.[4] They are the following:

  • First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I weep again at our loss of this inspiring, eloquent and passionate man. How I wish he were still here and our president so that we did not have to listen to the constant falsehoods and drivel from the man who now ineptly occupies that office.

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[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon at 373 (Random House; New York, 2016).

[2] Edwin O. Guthman & C. Richard Allen (eds.), RFK: Collected Speeches at 355-58 (Viking; New York, 1993). See Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 10, 2014).

[3] Guthman & Allen at 358-62.

[4] Tye at 410-12; Guthman & Allen at 231-46. See Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

Jesus’ Question: Who Do You Say That I Am?

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?” was the title of the August 20 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Brennan Blue

 

 

 

 

 

Here are extracts of that sermon along with the main Scripture reading of the day and two of the prayers.

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession: “Merciful God, you call us home with compassion and grace, but we fail to listen. You love and name us as your own, but we fail to respond in kind. We turn our backs on our neighbors’ needs, consumed with our own concerns. We look the other way while violence, prejudice, and greed run rampant in our communities. God of grace, help us to admit our sins and shortcomings, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent and find a new way of being. At home in your compassion and care, may we find that we ourselves are new beings.”

Listening for the Word

Reading of the Holy Scripture: Mark 8: 27-33 (NRSV):[2]

  • “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist;’ and others, ‘Elijah;’ and still others, ‘one of the prophets.’  [Jesus then] asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] . . . sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
  • Then [Jesus] . . . began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Sermon (Excerpts):

“Biblical scholars cite this passage [from Mark] as a literary and theological hinge; the single most important passage in the whole of the gospel, for it reveals the truth of Jesus’ identity that only he has known all along: Jesus is the Messiah, and nothing will ever be the same.[3][

“Countless sermons, books, dissertations, and devotions have been written about just what this means that Jesus is the Messiah. Today, I ask us to step back and wonder at what may be one of Jesus’ greatest strengths. He knows who he is. He understands and even embraces his identity, both human and divine.”

“Jesus knows his gifts and graces, his desire to teach and pray and heal. He shares these freely from places of deep love and mercy. But he also knows the hard things that come with his identity. He knows that he will suffer, and must suffer freely in service of others. He probably knows that his will be a lonely road.”

“One that, ultimately, he will have to walk alone. This too Jesus embraces from a place of deep love and mercy.”

“I doubt that Jesus could so faithfully walk the road before him without knowing fully and faithfully who he is. But by the grace of God, Jesus does and Jesus will.”

“And if we are to follow Jesus, then it’s important that we not only know this Messiah, but that we follow in his steps and know ourselves, as well.”

“That’s what it’s going to take. Honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces. It means speaking out while also searching in; leading from our identity, even if we’re working to change that identity. This is as true of our advocacy, as it is of our worship, our service, our care.”

“In short, it takes being and bringing all of ourselves to the table, trusting that God can handle us – all of us – as we are. That’s why we gather each week to confess our sins, hear God’s Word, and pray for the hurts of our lives and world.”

“So may we live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may be not only written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

[May we be able to answer Jesus’ question: “‘But who do you say that I am?” An answer that is truthful for each of us. An answer that is persuasive for others.]

“May we may know and love ourselves for who we are.”

“May we may know and love our neighbors for who they are.”

“As we together seek to know and follow Christ.”

Responding to the Word

The Pastoral Prayer was provided by Rev. Dr. Margaret McCray, the Executive Director of the Westminster Counseling Center, with these words:

“How it must grieve you, our loving Parent, that as we grow into our adulthood from the wide open spaces of our childhood dreams and aspirations we can lose our way, neglecting and even denigrating the unique beauty within ourselves and within every person we meet: the different but equally useful and remarkable talents you endow us with; the different ways we express our sexuality;  our different colors of skin and varied cultural traditions and life experiences; the different and deeply spiritual ways we worship you.”

“Forgive us, Loving God, for making our lives tiny and restricted, contenting ourselves with small, selfish ideas and actions. Forgive us for cutting ourselves off from engaging with our sisters and brothers from all over this exquisite home you gave us to live in, a home we are rapidly destroying by our thoughtless abuse of its once abundant resources.  Heal us, mend us, embolden us, Gracious God.”

“We pray for those who live in fear and anger, for those who know the horror and grief of terrorist attacks, for those who live in poverty and hunger, for those in the midst of war, displacement and hatred, for those affected by drought, mudslides and the effects of climate change.   The world cries out for us to be vessels of the love you created in us at our birth, the love you poured out in Jesus the Christ, who showed us how to live that love.”

“Give us energy and commitment to act on behalf others. Embolden us to live lives of generosity and compassion, to show kindness and act justly towards all people.  Give us courage to speak out against injustice, to honor the rich, fertile multitude of the different bodies, talents, skills, traditions and imaginations you have given us.  Heal our wounded hearts, help us to nurture the unique possibilities of our own bodies and minds. May we go to sleep each night and wake each morning knowing that whatever the day may bring we will meet it with gratitude and love in our body, mind and soul, for it is from this deep well that we draw the love and justice we show others.  This is what saves us.  This is what gives us hope.  This is what inspires us.  This is how you created us to be.  Amen.”

Conclusion

Jesus’ first question to his disciples–Who do people say that I am? — might be seen as His seeking information about whether His message was getting through to the people. When the disciples provided multiple, conflicting answers, Jesus clearly was dissatisfied and thus asked his  follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Presumably the disciples were much more familiar with what Jesus had said and done and would have better answers. Indeed, only one answer was necessary when Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”

That follow-up question also was addressed to everyone in Jesus’ time and to everyone since then. There obviously have been and continue to be many different answers to this question. Some will say, “I do not know.” Others, “He was a man who lived many years ago who claimed to be the Son of God.” And so on.

For those of us who claim to be Christians, the question is a challenge to have an answer that is direct and authentic. For me, Jesus was a favored Son of God, who by his words and actions courageously demonstrated the kind of life that God wants every human being to live. As Jesus affirmed, “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, therefore, commands our love and worship, as we strive to follow Him and live the life that He demonstrated.

Striving to follow Him involves reflection, prayer and conversation with others as we struggle to discern our gifts and talents and how to use them to advance God’s kingdom on earth and thereby discover and advance our own vocation. [4] As Rev. Blue said in his sermon, following Jesus requires “honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces.” In so doing, we “live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may not only be written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

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

[2] The other scriptures were Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Galatians 3:23-29.

[3]  Jeffery S. Siker, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 237, 239.

[4] Other posts have reflected on the concept of vocation and my own sense of vocation: My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014);  (Feb. 15, 2014); Another Powerful Worship Service About Vocation (Feb. 15, 2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); What Happens When Jesus Calls? (Feb. 19, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subversive Revolutionaries 

This was the title of the July 30th sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor, Rev. Sarah Brouwer.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service—Listening for the Word—featured the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The main Scripture for the day was Ephesians 6: 10-20 (Common English Bible):[2]

  • “Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. So, stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
  • Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

“I am as far removed from Roman-controlled late first century Asia minor as I am from the war-torn places of our world– and even the violent parts of our city. But, I do read about war and violence in the news, and it disturbs me. And, the worry most on my mind nowadays is that there seems to be more and more license to threaten individual lives and bodies, especially those who fall outside norms, and land in the margins. So, to equate the Christian life with putting on armor not only falls outside of my comfort zone, it seems counterintuitive, even dangerous.”

“But, I also have to wonder if… maybe that’s the point. “

“The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”

“In the letter to the Ephesians there is no explicit mention of violence outside of the notion of putting on armor, but, the author does talk about standing firm, even as we struggle with cosmic forces of evil. And evil is really the root of violence- not quite the same thing, but certainly related. What’s important, though, is that the writer of this letter actually takes images that are familiar to these early Christians- people who would have seen powerful, intimidatingly dressed, sometimes violent Roman soldiers, walking the streets every day — and then subverts them, takes them out of context and changes the metaphor. The image of armor ends up undermining itself, revealing its emptiness.”

“[The]author of Ephesians seeks to build community by coming alongside it, knowing it, and reframing what appears to be true. . .. For the Christians in Ephesus, it meant they had to shake off the illusions of the powers of the world and put on the armor of God. They had to learn that the body of Christ is a ‘heavenly’ reality, full of righteousness and truth, and it is in no way determined by violent ways or the abusive habits of those who claim power.”

“Although I can certainly appreciate what the author of Ephesians is doing here, it still makes me uncomfortable. Things have not gone well when Christians have put on armor. This text has been misread many times and used in defense of violence, even though I am abundantly sure that was not the intent. As a friend of mine writes, ‘spiritual growth usually feels more like laying down defenses, shedding layers, allowing more of my unprotected self to see the light of day.’ Even putting on the armor of God, which is a subversive, totally different way of garnering strength, just doesn’t sit well.”

“But . . . Ephesians doesn’t mess around with the idea that there is evil. Conflict is implied, but not necessarily conflict with others.”

“Evil is real, but we like to talk about it as though it is part of these systems of injustice, so we can easily remove ourselves from the equation. A friend of mine says it this way, ‘We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).”

“Jesus knew that evil didn’t just exist among the Roman authorities. If he did, he would have spent all his time with them. Instead, he taught the disciples, he healed the sick, he gave to the poor, he spent time with sinners. Jesus knew that violence, even the violence that killed him, was just a symptom of inner conflict.”

“And who among us can’t understand this? Even if we don’t have urges toward violence, we all have deep-seated pain, discomfort, grief, loss, loneliness, anxiety, shame and self-doubt that we are battling internally on a daily basis. And maybe we don’t put on physical armor to cover it up, but we certainly manage to bury evil that eats away at us, covering it up with illusions of personal success and power, or whatever other things we do that don’t really protect us from the world or our own hurt. You might have noticed, but Ephesians never mentions battling enemies, because there are none. Our so-called enemies are always just as imprisoned as we are.”

“[According to] Rev. Matt Fitzgerald . . . in the Christian Century . . . , ‘The breastplate of ministerial self-righteousness will not protect me. I have learned over the years that a helmet made of bourbon and a sword forged from cynicism are also insufficient, as are prosperity, religious zeal, fitness and even family. None of these are strong enough to hold back ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). None can thwart the forces of chaos and disorder that upend even the most righteous of lives. Yet we are tempted to try to master the tragedy of existence by ‘living well.’ Perhaps this is why the writer of Ephesians makes a distinction between ‘the whole armor of God’ and our efforts to become godly. The shield is God’s, not ours.’”[3]

“When I think of someone who has explored the cosmic forces of evil within and sought to overcome them, the person who comes to mind is Jean Vanier. [He] is the founder of the well-known L’arche Movement, which consists of 135 communities around the world where people of 5 varying physical and mental abilities live together as equals. Vanier once wrote, ‘We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favored ones of God… But I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.’”[4]

“If we put on armor, let it be subversive armor. Let us wrap truth around our waist like a belt, and let it be the kind of truth that Jean Vanier talks about. We might wonder uncomfortably, ‘And what good will truth do in the end?’ You might consider asking someone who has revealed the truth about their sexuality, told the truth about who they truly are, deep down, exposed their true identity to a shaming and dangerous world, but whose life was saved as a result. You could ask someone who has admitted they were powerless to addiction, who finally said, ‘I need help. This is unmanageable.’ That kind of truth is strong, it has a story, and it not only has the power to nourish others and change lives, ‘it is strong enough to bring forth life from the grave (Wiles).’”

“The writer of Ephesians says, ‘stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’”

“The Gospel is the world of opposites, where engaging real evil and conflict actually means putting your defenses down. It seems very vulnerable, to march into combat armed only in the Spirit; even precarious and costly, to hold faith as your shield. It feels like you might lose everything on that path to battle. As my friend Sarah writes, ‘Frankly, it all resembles foolishness. It’s as foolish as God Almighty showing up as a baby. Babies literally can’t do anything. They’re just really needy, and they call forth love and compassion. That’s all. But this is the shape of our God. This is our confession about power. This is the nature of our strength—a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit. This is the only armor there is. And it’s no kind of armor at all.’ Except, if we remember the promise. That if we put on this subversive armor, God’s armor, evil and violence will not win in the end, and self-destruction and self-righteousness do not have to be our last resort. If we are willing to put on this strange promise, to wear it, to stand firm in it, and to be advocates for it, it will save us, and others.”

“So, while I still don’t like the idea of armor, I believe in it. I have to. And I pray you will join me, as we ‘dare to lay down all our other weapons, and put on, piece by piece, only this, the armor of God.’”

Preparing for the Word

The first part of the service—Preparing for the Word—helped to prepare the congregation to listen for the Word. Keys for this part were the congregational singing the Processional Hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” and saying the unison Prayer of Confession.

Processional Hymn: “God of Grace and God of Glory”[5]

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power
;
crown thine ancient church’s story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour
.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Cure thy children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goa
l.

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.

Let the gift of thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

Prayer of Confession

 Before the reading of the Scripture and the sermon the congregation in unison said the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Spirit of God, we confess that we put on airs more often than we put on the armor of God. We are guilty of girding ourselves with lies instead of the truth. We try to protect ourselves with arrogance and self-reliance instead of righteousness, faith, and your gift of salvation. Our footsteps do not follow your path of peace. We are quick to use your Word to attack one another, instead of striking out against the sin of the world. Forgive us, Holy God. Gift us with wisdom and strength to change our ways, so that we may live as your faithful people.”

Conclusion

The passage from Ephesians was not familiar to me and like Rev. Brouwer I had difficulty in seeing how it related to my life.

I was aided in this effort by some of the words of the Processional Hymn (in slightly different order): “God of grace and God of glory. Lo! the hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways! Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. On thy people pour thy power. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

The pouring of God’s power on us can be seen as embracing us in God’s armor: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit.

The hymn’s plea to “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore” recognizes the difficulty we all experience in seeing so many injustices in the world and feeling incapable of doing anything to combat them and, therefore, falling into “weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

As Rev. Brouwer said in her sermon, ‘We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).”

We, therefore, need God’s wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour. For me, this means discerning our gifts, identifying ways to use these gifts to help others and then digging in doing it while recognizing that nothing we do is complete or perfect and that we are prophets of a future not our own.[6]

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

[2] The Old Testament reading for the day was Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18.

[3] Fitzgerald, The armor of God: Ephesians 6: 10-20, Christian Century (Aug. 11, 2009).

[4] The noted theologian Henri Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life at a L’arche center in Canada.

[5] The hymn’s lyrics were written by Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1876-1969) for the 1930 opening of New York City’s interdenominational Riverside Church, which was conceived by John D. Rockefeller and which Fosdick served as senior pastor (1930-1946). Earlier he had been a Baptist pastor in Montclair, New Jersey (1903-1917), a chaplain in World War I (1917), and pastor, in New York City, at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan‘s West Village (1918-1924) followed by Park Avenue Baptist Church (1924-1930). Fosdick became a central figure in the “Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy” within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal prominent ministers of the early 20th century. This led to an investigation of his views by the Presbyterian Church in the USA where he was defended by John Foster Dulles, an elder at First Presbyterian and later Secretary of State.

[6] Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

Revisionist Christians

Westminster Presbyterian Church

The June 25 sermon, “Revisionist Christians,” by Associate Pastor for Congregational Life, Rev. Sarah Brouwer, at Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church discussed the need for Christians constantly to consider revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for us as individuals and for all people.[1]

Preparing for the Word

In “Preparing for the Word,” the initial part of the service, we all joined in the following Prayer of Confession: “We confess, O God, we live in extremes. We need you only when things go wrong, but forget you in times of joy. When we have enough, it’s because we did it, and when we have nothing at all, we blame you. We value individualism until we require the help of community. Forgive us, we pray. Nurture peace in our frenetic lives. Help us to cultivate gratitude. Remind us to receive your abundance, and share it with others. We pray, O God, to be grounded in your infinite grace and mercy.” (Emphasis added.)

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service, “Listening for the Word,” sets forth the Scripture reading for the day followed by the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The Old Testament reading was Jeremiah 29:11-14 (NRSV):

  • For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Emphasis added.)

The New Testament reading was Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4: 1-17 (NRSV):

  • “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”
  • “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
  • Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
  • “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”
  • “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

Rev. Sarah Brouw

Revisionist History, a podcast by New York Times bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a ‘journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the distant or recent past—an event, a story, a person, an idea—and asks whether we got it right the first time.’”

One of the episodes, Generous Orthodoxy, has “deep theological connections” that builds upon the work of German-American theologian, Hans Frei, who first coined the phrase. “In this episode, Gladwell interviews Chester Menger, “a 96 year old man who has lived his entire life in the Mennonite community and [who] until recently had been a well-known retired clergy. In the last few years, “Menger became famous in the Mennonite world for a challenging letter he wrote to the church after he married his gay son and subsequently had his ordination renounced. As you listen to the story, you become not only enthralled by the stance he took, but also by the love this man continues to have for his church.”

“For Mennonites, community and reconciliation are two essential tenants. The word community, for them, is not just a term they use to describe a religious group; they live it out in grand gestures of support for one another–especially when someone in the community is in need or has been harmed. It’s for this very reason that when Menger’s son came to him and told him he was gay, albeit after a bit of time, he came to wholeheartedly accept the fact–and not just from a personal perspective, but a theological one, too. His church, however, did not.”

“And for Menger, the excommunication of his son from the church flew in the face of everything Mennonites stood for–community and reconciliation. I can only imagine trying to stay in a church that rejects your child, but, according to Menger, leaving also would have flown in the face of what he believed. So, he decided to write a letter–really a statement of faith–to the church he loved. He writes,

  • ‘I am profoundly reluctant to write this letter because I know there are those it will wound deeply. But I have also come to the conviction that I can no longer hide the light the Lord has lit within me, under a bushel. I want to share with you what the Lord has been telling me and my dear life companion…. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways. We know that while many of us hear different things from the Scriptures, God’s deepest desire, as made known in Jesus Christ, is “to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

“The letter quotes the Apostle Paul a number of times, and in the interview with Gladwell, Menger notes one verse in particular from Romans 1:16 (NRSV): ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The story is remarkable, and told so well. I found myself envious of this man’s simultaneous ability to love his son and the church that didn’t love his son, a generous orthodoxy on his part, to be sure. Menger was able to maintain respect and reverence for tradition, while also seeing the need to reform and revise with abundant grace and hope for the future. I wondered if I could be so open and willing. The truth is, Menger made it seem easy, as though holding these two things in the balance was exactly what his faith and church had prepared him his whole life to do. Was he worried, that after spending over 70 years as an ordained minister in the church he loved, he would have his ordination taken from him in one fell swoop? No. He laughed when Gladwell asked him.”

’Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say rejoice,’ this is what the Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians. In it I also discovered a sense of awe for what Paul, the author, was able to do–exactly what it seemed he had been preparing his whole life for. It’s Paul’s charge to the Philippians, and comes at the end, written to them, we think, while Paul is in prison. Much like Chester Menger, Paul maintains strength, purpose, humility, and lack of fear for the future–proclaiming his faith even after being arrested and jailed for it; preaching the abundance of the Gospel even from a place of scarcity.” (Emphasis added.)

“Paul, as you may remember, was formerly Saul of Tarsus, who was traveling one day on the road to Damascus, doing his duty to persecute early Christians when suddenly he saw Jesus in a great light and was struck blind. Three days later Ananias restored his sight and from thereafter his life was dedicated to spreading the good news of the Gospel. Paul knew from his own experience what it meant to be a follower of Jesus; he had been made new. He respected the Jewish traditions from which he had come, but knew the message of Jesus was for everyone, and that certain things had to be left behind, or change, in order to welcome all people. As Paul writes, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.’ Paul not only knew the Gospel was for everyone, but because he was in the trenches with these early Christians he also knew they had to make the church their own, to adapt if it was going to survive. He tells the Philippians, don’t worry, guard your hearts with Christ, keep on doing what is right. He is not more prescriptive than that.” (Emphasis added.)

The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again- a chance to adapt. The old life has gone away, Paul says, and a new life has begun. [The] most helpful part of worship, in my opinion, is the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. It always feels like such a relief each week to bring before God all that keeps us from being fully who we are, as a world, as a community, and as individuals. We approach a God who has already forgiven us, we offer up all the ways we fall short, and then we are assured of that forgiveness, again. We hear it from the pulpit and we say it to one another: . . . all of us are forgiven. Alleluia. Amen. It feels like the worship equivalent of Revisionist History, our own generous orthodoxy.” (Emphases added.)

“Hans Frei originally said, ‘Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness; generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.’ God has been so generous with us, why would we limit how the church can revise and rethink and retell its story? Tradition is important, yes, orthodoxy makes meaning for us, it is part of our history and foundation, but it’s not all we are. Paul knew that, our reformer forebears knew it, and now as we stand at the precipice of a new era in our life together at Westminster we must know it, too. We are Revisionist Christians. Generous. Open. Adaptable. Transforming. People who examine what God is doing in the world and try to follow; as Chester Menger would say, ‘to seek and save that which is lost.’” (Emphases added.)

“At Westminster I think we do understand what it means to be Revisionist Christians. This congregation is in constant motion, ‘keeping on,’ as Paul charges the Philippians. And we are guided by Paul’s admonition to them, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things.’ But there will always be opportunities to revise. And we know that’s true because we believe in a God who is active. As the prophet Jeremiah writes, ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.’ Yes, God has plans for us, and it is reassuring to hear in that often referred to verse. But do you remember what comes after it? God says, ‘when you call upon me, and pray to me… if you seek me with all your heart.’ Revisionist Christians seek out God’s plans, they seek the lost, they seek to be generous, and open to the future, even as they remember what they are revising from. To be sure, revising doesn’t mean forgetting. It means appreciating, analyzing, lifting out that which was forgotten or left behind, and pulling it into the future in truth. We must revise with hope, as Menger said, not hiding our light under a bushel.” (Emphases added.)

[Last week’s verdict in the trial following the death of Philandro Castile] should make us all wonder how we can “leverage [our] privilege and give voice to injustice. For me it begins, at least, by coming here, and confessing how far I have fallen short. And when I do that I’m reminded I can’t do it alone- none of us can. We need this community to help us remember that being Christian means being Revisionist Christians. We gather here to tell the truth about what has been lost, and say that black lives matter. And then we make plans to dialogue and act, and stand in solidarity… And God promises to be with us in it, and we make promises in return, and week by week we come back, re-promising, revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for all people… every one… I trust God is working to make all things new. And, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.” (Emphases added.)

“I can only hope to have the same kind of faith or joyful determination as Chester Menger or the Apostle Paul- the kind that is willing to change in such profound ways. But, what I do know is that this community has changed me. Westminster has revised me and my call. And that means now I, too, hold in the balance not only a love for us, but a deep love for the world outside. And I have a call to not only to be changed by you, but by whoever is beyond our doors, and whatever they need. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others. My hope and prayer is that it will be your call, too, to let the light that is lit within you shine.” (Emphasis added.)

Affirmation of Faith

 In the “Responding to the Word” final  portion of the service after the sermon, we all joined in the Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “A Brief Statement of Faith” of 1983:[2]

  • “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ 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.”

Conclusion

This sermon was especially moving to me because it emphasizes that we believe in a God who is active. The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again–a chance to adapt. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.

A more frequent formulation of this idea for Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition is “Reformed, and Always Reforming.”

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

[2] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Confessions at 307-18.

God’s Restlessness at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church                                                   

“God’s Restlessness” was the title of the moving May 28 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Rev. Sarah Brouwer, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life. It was preceded by a meaningful Prayer of Confession by Rev. Brennan Blue, Associate Pastor for Families, Youth and Children, and by the reading of passages of Holy Scripture.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s Sanctuary and Revs. Brouwer and Blue:

The Prayer of Confession

Here is the Prayer of Confession (emphases added):

“All: God of grace, we gather in worship to come home to you. Like sheep without a shepherd, you bring us back to the fold; you search for us until we are found.

One: O God, do you ever tire of looking for us?

All: God of compassion, your rest comes when all your people are as one, when justice and peace reign among us.

One: O God, we confess we grow weary of a world in need; will you still call on us to serve?

All: God of mercy, you do not fatigue; you are not exhausted by the needs of the world. Remind us that you have called each one of us to work alongside you. We are not alone.

One: O God, will you help us to trust in you?

All: God of forgiveness, we pray that you would search for us, find us, call on us, and help us to trust in your unending love.

One: O God, who will show us the way?

All: God of new life, in Jesus Christ you show us grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love. We pray to be Christ’s people, gathered and sent into your world to serve.”

Readings from Holy Scripture

The readings were Psalm 89: 20-37 (NRSV) and  Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56 (NRSV), Here is the text of the latter:

  • “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
  • “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

Sermon

“I expect the disciples in our story today were learning about their own limits, as well as the challenges that came along with the joys of following Jesus. As we meet them here in Mark’s Gospel, we see they are coming back together after having been dispersed to go do ministry throughout Galilee. If we peak a bit further back through Mark, we can tell the disciples and Jesus really have been going non-stop, traveling by foot, relying on the hospitality of strangers, healing and teaching, teaching and healing. They’ve also faced what appears to be their first bout of rejection- in Jesus’ hometown, no less. And while rejection is common in almost any line of work, it doesn’t do much for morale.”

“They’re also just hungry. And, if they’re anything like me they’re probably ‘hangry’- it’s when you’re so hungry you get a little angry? So while they do approach Jesus eager to report on and debrief about all they had done, like any good pastor, Jesus recognizes they need a break.”

“Mark’s Gospel says Jesus tells the disciples to come away to a deserted place and rest awhile, and so they all get in the boat and begin to cross a small portion of the Sea of Galilee. I’m confident this journey signals a shift in the story- the literal crossing lets us know of a figurative change. But, the crossing over isn’t our only hint that something is about to happen- the second clue we are given is Jesus’ suggestion to go somewhere deserted. Deserted, desert, it indicates the disciples are entering a period of their ministry that might feel a bit like the wilderness- a time that can be difficult, but during which much can be learned. In Mark’s Gospel, in particular, Jesus reveals things to the disciples bit by bit, peeling back layers. It’s as if they are learning right alongside the folks who gather on the shore to hear Jesus teach. Those who appear to be the insiders- a/k/a the disciples- turn into the outsiders. The ones who should know the full story, really know only a piece of what Jesus is up to.”

“As they start to come ashore the disciples realize they’ve been found out- whoever saw them leaving in the boat recognized Jesus, and a large group hurried around the edge of the water to greet them when they landed.”

“I can only imagine the disciples’ chagrin, as they approached the so-called deserted place, and saw the crowd forming. Any one of us knows this feeling. You’re trying to get out of town for vacation and someone from work, or school, or church, catches you with a last minute request and you just can’t get away fast enough. I can almost hear the collective groan among the disciples as they saw the mob of needy people- so much for some down time and a hearty meal of freshly caught fish.”

“But, here comes the rub. We know Jesus got out of the boat at this point; we don’t know if the disciples did. The text says, ‘As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’”

“This may seem like a small point. Who cares if the disciples go with him or not? Preacher John Buchanan [2] says this, ‘Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion. The agenda is set aside instantaneously. The disciples see an unwanted, unwelcome interruption. Jesus sees lost sheep needing a shepherd. Compassion trumps the disciples’ . . . exhaustion Jesus sees need and drops everything to attend to it. But, the disciples, I assume, hang back. The desire of the folks who have rushed to meet them is not met by the same level of urgency.’”

“Jesus, again, seems to welcome this interruption. Anyone in ministry must, at some point, come to understand that interruptions are one of the gifts of the work, not the burden. But, the disciples haven’t quite gotten it. In verses we didn’t read today, we learn the disciples want Jesus to send the crowds away to find their own food. They figure there must be a time and place for ministry to happen, and this is not it- not when they are tired and hungry. Clearly, the disciples, the insiders we presume would know, are still figuring out what Jesus is capable of. Jesus is not indefatigable, he does take time away to rest and pray, to eat and celebrate with friends. There is, however, a restlessness to him that makes him different. A level of compassion he possesses the disciples do not. It’s probably even a nod to justice. No one gets to rest, until all get to rest.”

“But, if you sense the same tension [here that] I do, . . . you know this doesn’t make the disciples happy. They are still discovering where their ministry ends and God’s continues. There are some things only Jesus can do, and that is a difficult lesson to learn. And, for those of us who like to be in control, and I suspect there are a few of us in the room, one of the hardest parts of following Jesus is actually just following. There’s that saying, ‘Remember you are not God, and thank God you don’t have to be.’ But, for some of us it’s not that comforting.”

“Letting Jesus be our shepherd is actually not as idyllic as all the lyrics and paintings of this image make it look like. And navigating these boundaries is not something that happens once, but again and again- for the disciples, and for us. . . . ”

“When Jesus got out of the boat alone that day, he was able to show the crowd compassion and love the disciples could not. Oddly enough, the word for compassion in the Greek is related to the word for guts. It sounds a little gross, but what it means is not. God’s compassion is up close and personal, it gets inside us, down to the deepest, neediest, sometimes ugliest parts of us. Theologian Douglas John Hall [[3]] says that ‘compassion is unlike pity, which you can manage from afar.’ I’m guessing the disciples weren’t without pity, but they were tired, and couldn’t muster the energy to saddle up to a needy crowd. And frankly, the crowd didn’t need what they had to offer. That may sound harsh, but other times in scripture when God steps in as the shepherd figure, rather than say, a king, it’s because human beings have failed one another. We can’t do what God can do. We aren’t restless for people as God is restless for people. . . . ”

“The reason those people gathered on the beach that day in ancient Israel was not because they recognized Jesus’ face, or could quote his teachings. They had come to know him as one who heals. The disciples, of course, were still trying to figure out how to do it, and that’s okay- we all are. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do an exhaustive job, either. Only God can handle that kind of compassion.”

“But, we are followers. We are the ones who have been healed at some point along the way, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting in these pews. And whether we like it or not people see that in us–they recognize it. And recognition creates responsibility, and as spiritual leaders–and now I’m really just including all of you because you’re all capable of it–as spiritual leaders we are called to learn from what happened on this day so long ago. The world needed a shepherd then, and it still does. It’s our job, at the very least, to point him out.”

“After Jesus had performed two miracles, and finally went away for a while to pray, he got back in the boat with the disciples and headed over to Gennesaret. I’m guessing it was a quiet ride, as the disciples sorted out what had happened. I imagine they might have been overwhelmed, wondering if they had made the right choice to follow Jesus. Was it always going to be this exhausting? Of course, we can only guess, but here’s what could also be true. As they docked the boat and saw the crowds once again, gathering, waiting just to brush against the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, I wonder if their hearts swelled with beauty at the sight?  With pride that they were insiders, and gratitude for being invited to learn alongside this compassionate man?  What if that was the moment it all began to make sense for them? The story says, all who touched Jesus that day were healed, and maybe the disciples were, too.”

“These few verses in Mark’s Gospel, which seem rather inconsequential on first read, really encompass the reality of the Christian life. The push and pull of going with Jesus, but not getting out of the boat, of seeing his power among people, but being too tired to or unsure of how to follow. This story reminds us that even though we might consider ourselves insiders, just like the disciples, there is always room for us to be surprised by the depth of God’s love for others, and wonderfully, for us, as well. We too are healed by simply this: we have a God who cares, a God of compassion, a God who is restless until we know it is true. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The Prayer of Confession was especially meaningful to me for I now sense that God was searching for me until I was found in 1981. The prayer reminded me of the weariness I often feel about the world in need. The last line of the prayer also struck a chord in my heart: “God of new life, in Jesus Christ you show us grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

The sermon put me and other members of the church in the shoes of the tired and hungry disciples, anxious to rest and eat, and not eager to engage in further ministry. The sermon also made us realize that the disciples continued to learn about Jesus and his message throughout their time together. I also was reminded that no one individual can do all that needs to be done in the world, that what each individual does to meet the needs of the world does not have to be perfect or complete, but that each individual needs to do something to help others.

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[1] The Bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website. Other blog posts about Westminster with links established by computer in reverse chronological order of posting is on the website along with a more logical listing of same (without links).

[2] Rev. Buchanan is the retired pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the second largest congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (my denomination), a former leader (Moderator) of that denomination and the editor and publisher of The Christian Century. Information about him is found in Facebook and Wikipedia.

[3] Douglas John Hall is emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and the author of many acclaimed and popular works about Christianity.

An Exciting Introduction to Morocco 

Last month my wife and I went on a wonderful two-week tour of Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel. Here is the OAT map for the tour:

We were impressed by the country’s fascinating history and people, its beautiful architecture, cities and rugged Atlas Mountains, the immensity of the rolling Sahara Desert along its southern border and its current construction boom.

While there we also learned of Morocco’s recent re-establishment of its diplomatic relations with Cuba, a country about which I have written a lot, and of Morocco’s membership in the African Union, both related to Morocco’s lingering conflict over the Western Sahara, which was the subject of a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, all of which were discussed in recent posts.[1]

Also fascinating was the country’s religious profile. Its population of 33.7 million is 99% Sunni Muslim with 1% Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias. In every town the mosques’ minarets were the instantaneously recognizable tallest structures.[2]

Our OAT tour guide told us that the current king, Mohammad VI, has been leading efforts to ensure that Muslims in Morocco are not encouraged to join extremists groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. All imams have to complete an education course at the capitol at Rabat that is organized and administered by the government’s ministry of religious affairs (The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco) and that excludes the extremist ideologies promoted by ISIS and Al Qaeda.

We also were told that neither the government nor the Muslim leaders discriminate against Christians or Jews, and we visited a synagogue in Fez. On the other hand, we were told, the Christians and Jews are forbidden from preaching or proselytizing or evangelizing in public.

Previously I had learned that the five “pillars” of Islam are (1) shahada, declaring as a matter of faith and trust that there is only one God (Allah) and that Mohammad is God’s messenger; (2) salat, saying the Islamic prayer five times a day; (3) zakat, giving to the poor and needy; (4) slym, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) haji, making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Although in Morocco I only experienced hearing the call to prayer over a minaret’s loudspeaker, I came to see these pillars of faith as similar to various practices of Christian spirituality, as ways of reinforcing a believer’s connections with God (Allah), and as ways that help believers live in accordance with the will of God (Allah). These pillars and practices, in my opinion, also rest on the belief that no one is perfect, that all find it too easy to stray from the path of faithfulness and that all need reminders of God or Allah’s way.

I felt fortunate that my Minneapolis church (Westminster Presbyterian) has warm relations with a local mosque and that we have hosted at least two worship services including its leaders. [3]

After returning to the U.S., I conducted research and discovered more about the previously mentioned government ministry; Morocco’s positive relations with international anti-terrorism groups; the important Declaration of Marrakesh promoting respect for religious minorities in Muslim countries; the most current U.S. State Department’s assessment of Morocco’s religious freedom; and the nature of current U.S.-Morocco relations. These topics will be explored in subsequent posts.

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[1] Cuba and Morocco Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations, dwkcommentaries.com (May 7, 2017); U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict, dwkcommentaries.com (May 9, 2017).

[2] CIA World Factbook, Morocco.

[3] Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 2, 2015); A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness, dwkcommentaries.com (May 15, 2017).