“What Needs to Die?”

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

 

 

 

 

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Prayer

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

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).