The Wall Street Journal’s Annual Christmas Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever Became of “Faith Alone”?

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

 

 

 

 

Readings from Holy Scripture

Jeremiah 32:31-35 (NRSV): 

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

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

Luke 18: 35-43 (NRSV):

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

The Sermon (Extracts):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Whatever happened to “faith alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Whatever Became of “Grace Alone”?

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

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

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

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 43:1-7, 14-21  (NRSV):

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

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

1 Corinthians 15:1-10 (NRSV):

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

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

 Sermon (Extracts):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever became of ‘grace alone?’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to the Word

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humility and Equipoise As Fundamental Civic Virtues

David Brooks in two recent New York Times’ columns discusses humility and equipoise (the ability to hold various opinions or identities in equilibrium) as two fundamental civic virtues.[1]  Here are his arguments for these conclusions.

The truth is pluralThere is no one and correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth. Sometimes immigration restrictions should be loosened to bring in new people and new dynamism; sometimes they should be tightened to ensure national cohesion. Leadership is about determining which viewpoint is more needed at that moment. Politics is a dynamic unfolding, not a debate that can ever be settled once and for all.”

Beware the danger of a single identity. Before they brutalize politics, warriors brutalize themselves. Instead of living out several identities — Latina/lesbian/gun-owning/Christian — that pull in different directions, they turn themselves into monads. They prioritize one identity, one narrative and one comforting distortion.”

It is a myth, according to  Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf, that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters. . . . In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.” And the “more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. . . . [Moreover, these multiple identities or attachments should enable an individual] to practice equipoise [which is] . . . the ability to move gracefully through your identities—to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.”

With such equipoise, one more easily can “turn the other cheek, love your enemy. Confront your opponent with aggressive love.” This was Brooks’ indirect quotation of a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6: 27-31):

  • “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“Creativity is syncretistic[Wise politicians and citizens] . . . don’t just pull their ideas from the center of the ideological spectrum. They believe creativity happens when you merge galaxies of belief that seem at first blush incompatible. They might combine left-wing ideas about labor unions with right-wing ideas about local community to come up with a new conception of labor law. Because they are syncretistic, they are careful to spend time in opposing camps, always opening lines of communication. The wise [politician and citizen]. . . can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time.”

“Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.”

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. [Wise politicians and citizens] . . . believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The [wise politician and citizen] . . . is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.”

In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The harm government does when it screws up — wars, depressions — is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well. Therefore the [wise politician and citizen] . . . operates from a politics of skepticism, not a politics of faith. He understands that most of the choices are among bad options (North Korea), so he prefers steady incremental reform to sudden revolutionary change.”

“Moderation [The wise politicians and citizens, for Brooks, are moderates, who] do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world.”

“Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.”

In support of this conclusion Brooks says he has been inspired by “the great book Faces of Moderation” (Univ. Pa. Press. 2016) by Aurelian Craiutu, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University.

Conclusion

Especially important for me is the recognition that all human beings have multiple identities that should be honored and that all of us need to keep reminding ourselves of this fundamental truth. Everyone is a child of a mother and father, usually grows up in a specific place with a specific nationality and perhaps is a brother or sister to other siblings and a cousin to others. With adulthood everyone may choose to become a spouse or partner of another human being and perhaps a parent of a child or children. Everyone may choose be an adherent of a particular religion or of no religion. Everyone may choose to change some of these identities and to adopt other identities such as attendance at a specific college or university in a specific class and participation in a specific occupation or profession.

One could also agree with Brooks that partisanship is blinding, that politics is a limited activity and that its lows are lower than its highs are high and, therefore, conclude that one should avoid all political involvement and stand on the sidelines as an “independent.”

But that is the wrong conclusion, especially in a representative system of government. Instead, one should be so involved. This is where the virtue of moderation comes in.

More fundamentally Brooks’ conclusions  remind me of Biblical passages. The Lord requires us mortals “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  “[A]ll of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5) (emphases added.)

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[1] Brooks, What Moderates Believe, N.Y. Times (Aug. 22, 2017); Brooks, In Praise of Equipoise, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017). Earlier blog posts discussed a book by  Brooks and his presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on :The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

 

 

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.

Jesus’ Inaugural Address       

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Jesus’ Inaugural Address was re-delivered at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on January 22, 2016, by its Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Biblical Text for the Day

Jesus’ original address was set forth in Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV),which sets the scene as the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day, someone asked him to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah [61: 1-2]. He did just that with these words from the scroll:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After sitting down, Jesus told the members of the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Prompted then by comments and questions from members of the congregation, Jesus added, “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

“When [the members of the congregation] heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

The Old Testament passage was Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, which described how the priest read the book of the law of Moses to the people and which is referenced in the sermon.

The Sermon

The sermon reminded us that according to Luke, “Jesus has been out on the hustings, working his way through the towns and villages of Galilee. Having been baptized in the Jordan by John and tested by temptation in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus has been on a preaching tour. He’s been campaigning his way across the rugged hill country, teaching, healing, and listening. Meeting and greeting.”

“Now he comes home, to the hill town of Nazareth. Many there have heard about Jesus’ Galilean tour, about his preaching and healing in Capernaum and other villages. They’ve been expecting something similar when he got back home; perhaps they even felt they now deserved his attention.”

“It’s a dramatic moment for Jesus: part-coming out, part-opening act. Joseph’s son, the carpenter, enters the synagogue for Shabbat worship as he’s done hundreds of times. He’s there with friends and neighbors who’ve known him all his life. He’s now about 30 years old – no longer the little boy, no more the teenager, but a mature man.”

“People find their usual places in the synagogue that evening as the service begins. After the opening words, probably a sung psalm or two, Jesus walks to the front of the gathered crowd and unrolls a scroll, apparently prepared by him beforehand.”

“It’s is an age-old scene for Jewish worshippers. We just heard a passage from the book of Nehemiah from 600 years before the time of Jesus, describing the ritual that day in the synagogue in Nazareth: ‘So they read from the book,’ the text says, ‘From the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.’ (Nehemiah 8:8) That was the heart of the Jewish worship experience: a reading of the ancient word of God, and a sermon interpreting it. And that’s what takes place in Nazareth. Jesus reads scripture and then he ‘gives the sense, so that the people understand the reading.’ That day the carpenter becomes a preacher.”

“Jesus reads the previously quoted words of Isaiah, concluding with the words ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,’ which sometimes is translated as ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ These words refer ‘to the day when God’s reign would break forth in concrete ways: the poor would be lifted up, the oppressed set free, forgiveness extended, debts relieved, slaves released. The acceptable year of the Lord. It points to the long-awaited year of Jubilee, when all relationships would be made right and God’s intentions for the human family would take root. It’s nothing short of a realigning of human relations, a reconfiguration of human community based on God’s expectations – and that’s where Jesus starts: as the theme for his inauguration speech. Jesus chooses the acceptable year of the Lord.”

“That text from the old prophet becomes the focus of his first sermon, and it will frame his entire ministry, from beginning to end. That’s the signal he’s giving by choosing this passage. Call it the plumb line for his life, or the bottom line of the gospel, or a theological line of justice in the sand, here Jesus declares his core values. His life will be defined and measured by those values.”

“Having finished the reading, Jesus carefully rolls up the scroll and gives it back to the attendant. He then sits down to preach, as was the custom, and when he sits, Luke tells us, all eyes are riveted on him. ‘Today,’ he says, ‘this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21) The time for which you faithful people of God have waited for generations, he says, that day has finally come.”

“There’s a murmur of approval across the congregation. There’s delight among them. The people in the synagogue are pleased with what they hear from Jesus at the start of the sermon. Their homegrown preacher-prophet healer seems to be saying God is about to bless the Hebrew nation in a major way, and Nazareth, perhaps, in particular. So they’re happy as he starts out.”

“Remember this is a people living under Roman occupation, a people dominated by outside forces for as long as anyone can recall, a humiliated people. Jesus reads Isaiah’s Jubilee text and announces that God’s promises are now being fulfilled. The congregation in Nazareth takes that as an affirmation of their hope for themselves. Their nation, they imagine, will finally be made great again, by God’s own hand.”

“But then Jesus really begins to preach, and the sermon takes a turn they don’t like. To describe how he understands the acceptable year of the Lord, Jesus cites two stories from Hebrew tradition, the tradition the people gathered there know well.”

“First, he reaches back to the time of Elijah, when there was famine in the land. It had not rained for three years and six months. Nothing was growing, No harvest at all. People were starving, including the prophet Elijah. So the prophet cries out to God and is saved from death not by an Israelite, Jesus reminds them, but by a foreign woman, a non-Jew, and a widow, at that. There were many widows in Israel, Jesus says, if God had needed to work through a widow, but God chose instead to work through the most vulnerable person imaginable, a widow not even from the Hebrew tribe, to save the man of God.”

“As if to say: what do we learn from that story?

“Then Jesus reminds them of the story of the prophet Elisha. In his time, Jesus says, there were many people suffering from leprosy, but God chose a foreigner called Naaman, a Syrian with leprosy, not an Israelite, but instead a foreigner to be healed by the power of God through the ministry of Elisha. Jesus is making the point here that the acceptable year of the Lord is coming not only to the Hebrew people but to all God’s children. Things will be turned upside down when the Jubilee begins. Women will have power. Foreigners will be blessed. Gentiles will be included in the promise of God. All those excluded now from the circle, he is saying, those despised because of who they are or what they believe or where they come from, those deemed by cultural and political norms to be outside God’s reach, are now welcomed in.”

“That is the acceptable year of the Lord.”

“The people of Nazareth are now not happy at all. They’re not cheered by this message from Jesus. They had assumed all along that God’s love was primarily for them, that they had an exceptional place in the heart of the Almighty. But now they hear that God’s love will reach to the poor everywhere who will be lifted up, to the oppressed everywhere who will be set free, to the hungry and thirsty everywhere who will be satisfied.”

“God’s favor is not reserved exclusively for one tribe or own nation or one religion.”

“Jesus is telling his friends and neighbors they are not the sole recipients of God’s grace. And they do not like that word. In fact, it’s too much for them to bear, and in their rage they turn on him. They drive him out of the synagogue, out to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff, but it’s not yet his time. Jesus breaks free from the crowd and leaves Nazareth as fast as he can.”

“The prophet is not welcome in his own town. Jesus is one of them, but our nation first is not the plumb line this carpenter will use.”

“At the heart of Jesus’ concern are the wounded and lonely, the lost and rejected; those living in poverty, barred from and broken by systems of power and privilege. A plumb line for the poor will set the course for his life, and the life of the church. The bottom line of God’s inclusive love becomes the measure of his ministry, and of our faithfulness. A line in the sand, a justice line in the sand for those whom God loves this whole world over, determines his agenda.”

“And it determines ours as well, as Christians in these troubled times.”

“It is not acceptable that racial disparities still pervade our national life. Every person is made in God’s image.”

“It is not acceptable that some are paid less for the same work, or that many are not paid a livable wage while others make millions. God’s children are all of equal value.”

“It is not acceptable that many in our land are ensnared in generational poverty. God lifts up the poor.”

“It is not acceptable that American prisons are overflowing. God sets the prisoners free.”

“It is not acceptable that good health care is out of reach for many. God heals the sick.”

“It is not acceptable to ignore the impact humanity has on the earth and its climate. God calls us to be stewards of creation.”

“It is not acceptable to demean those of other faith traditions. God goes by a thousand different names.”

“In his sermon in the synagogue that day Jesus declares it is now the acceptable year of the Lord. In so doing, he defines the ministry of the church, our ministry, yours and mine, and the ministry of this congregation.”

“It is time for the unacceptable to end. We can be complacent no longer. We have been called, urgently summoned, to love God and to love neighbor.”

“It is not simply the inauguration speech of Jesus that day in Nazareth; it is ours, as well.”

“Now the work begins.”

“ Thanks be to God.”

Westminster’s Congregational Reaction

Everyone in the congregation that day, knowing that this rendition of Jesus’ inaugural address came only two days after the inaugural address of President Donald Trump, rose in a standing ovation to the sermon and the challenge to begin our work to end the unacceptable in our land.

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

 

 

 

Joyous Worship Services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Last Sunday (October 2) Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church joyously celebrated World Communion Sunday with Cuban and other Latin American music.[1]

street

Our musical leader was Charanga Tropical , a Minneapolis group that performed in the 2015 International Danzón Festival in Havana and whose leader, Doug Little, is a Westminster member. To the right is a photograph of the group in Cuba.

Their Prelude was “Centro La Libertad Güira de Melena” (danzón); their Postlude, “A Gozar Con Mi Combo” (son), both by Orestes López, a prominent 20th century Cuban composer and bandleader.

At the 8:30 chapel service Charanga Tropical also accompanied the Global Choir, of which I am a member, in our singing, “Enviado soy de Dios,” a traditional Cuban melody with Spanish lyrics. Here is an English translation of the first verse and refrain of the lyrics: “I am sent by God, I’m ready to serve; to make the world a place of justice and peace. The angels cannot do the work that must be done, to change a hurting world into a world of peace. The task is giv’n to us to build a better world. Please help us, God to do the things you ask of us.”

The two hymns at both services were sung in English and Spanish. One was “O Sing to the Lord/Cantad al Seńor,” a Brazilian folk melody; the following is its first verse and refrain: “Cantad al Señor un cántico nuevo, Cantad al Señor un cántico nuevo, Cantad al Señor un cántico nuevo, ¡Cantad al Señor, cantad al Señor! Oh, Sing to the Lord, oh sing God a new song, Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song, Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song. Oh, sing to our God, oh sing to our God.”

A Latin American folk tune was used for the other hymn, “Heaven Is Singing for Joy/El Cielo Cantga Alegria.” The English translation of the first verse and refrain of the Spanish lyrics that were written in 1958 for an Argentinian picnic of theological students was the following: “Heaven is singing for joy, alleluia, For in your life and in mine Is shining the glory of God. Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia!”

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Another musical highlight of the main service was the Westminster Choir’s singing the World Premiere of the beautiful anthem, “Love Is,” by our Director Choral Ministries, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, whose photograph is to the left.

The Old Testament text for the day was Psalm 33: 1-15, whose first stanza states: “Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright. Praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (Emphasis added.) The New Testament text was Ephesians 4: 1-7, 11-13; its first three verses state: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Rev. Dr. Timothy   Hart-Andersen

Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen in his sermon, “What New Song Shall We Sing?,” said that the Psalms passage provides “a wonderful image: God eagerly watching the people, listening for the melodies rising from around the globe, in a variety of languages and cultures. The Creator delights in it, in the sound of song from every people in every land. Singing shows that God’s people have not gone stale, that their hearts can still praise God.” After praising the use of music in worship, Rev. Hart-Andersen challenged Westminster and the Christian church generally to “sing our faith in ways that give life, in ways that connect us to the Source of the song.” He concluded with these words: “Our lives change, the world changes, language changes, music changes. But the song of faith, the song of praise, the song of thanksgiving, the song of hope and love and justice is as old as the covenant of God with God’s people.”

The joyous music and words of these worship services were infused by our congregation’s special connections with Cuba. For the last 14 years we have had partnerships with the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba (Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Cuba) and one of its congregations in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island east of Havana.[2] Many of us in Minneapolis have welcomed visits by Cuban pastors and members and have been on mission trips to our partners, and I have been on three such trips. During the service I prayed for all of our Cuban brothers and sisters.

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[1] A video of the main service in the Sanctuary is available online  as are the bulletin for the services and the text of the sermon.

[2] A list of posts about Westminster’s connections with Cuba is found in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.