Jesus, The Refugee

“When last we saw Jesus he had just delivered a withering homiletic critique of his neighbors in the synagogue in Nazareth. He had refuted their assumption that God’s intentions for the human family were reserved solely for them and their nation.”[1]

“The townspeople nearly throw Jesus off the cliffs outside Nazareth for saying that, but somehow he escapes.”

Jesus thereby “became a former person, a person without a home, rejected by his own people and expelled. It had happened to him before, when the Holy Family had fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape the violence of King Herod. Now, when Nazareth runs him out of town, Jesus becomes a refugee again. He never returns to his hometown.”[2]

Then Jesus and the disciples walked the nine miles or so northeast of Nazareth to the village of Cana.

“When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Cana they were invited to a wedding feast [where he performed his first miracle by turning] six jugs of water  into wine.” This is the account of that event from John 2:1-11 (NRSV):

  • ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘ They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘ Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has yet to come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification and holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. when the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him,’Everyone serves the fine wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have been drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.’

[This wedding scene has great significance because marriage] “is a recurring metaphor in scripture for the relationship between God and the people of God. The prophets used wedding language to describe God’s desires for the human family, especially for those who suffer. Isaiah’s words, directed to a long-ago people in exile, may have been read that day:”

  • ‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.’ (Isaiah 62:4)

“‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.’ The marriage scene in Cana offers a counterpoint to the violence Jesus experiences in Nazareth. It opposes his dehumanization. It reaffirms God’s love for one who has been subjected to hatred. ‘For the Lord delights in you.’ ‘Jesus did this,’ John says, ‘The first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)”

“The wine [provided by Jesus] signals something. The marriage feast with its abundant drink is a sign that God will not abandon the outcast children of God but will instead delight in them. God will contest those who seek to deny the humanity of others, in this case, Jesus, the former person from Nazareth. God uses the wedding feast to show that the degradation of humankind will be resisted, and that the resistance will be girded in joy.”

“Jesus changes the water into wine to signal God’s hospitality to those rejected by others and to reveal God’s delight in those deeemed to be former people.”

“At the wedding feast in Cana Jesus launches a movement. A movement of joyful resistance  against the baser impulses that run through each of us and through the principalities and powers of every time and place.”

“Yesterday a Jewish congregation in Illinois welcomed a Syrian family that had arrived in the U.S. on Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the very day new rules excluding all refugees were issued. A day later the American Jews welcomed the Syrian Muslim family to their new town near Chicago with hugs and cheers and toys for the children. The members of the synagogue – and more than 100 were involved in supporting the family – then brought them to their new home, where they had prepared a feast, complete with a Syrian-style cake. ‘If this is the last group of refugees to get in,’ the [Illinois] rabbi said, ‘We will show them the best of America.'[3]

“It was the miracle of Cana all over again, and God’s intentions for the human family carried the day.”

“Today, in our time and in this land, the church still finds its calling in that same movement [of joyful resistance against the baser impulses].”

[We do so while recognizing that] “no religion or nation is innocent. . . . It’s what Europeans did to indigenous people and enslaved Africans. It’s happening now to Muslims and christians in Syria, in unprecedented numbers.”

“’Those of us who follow Jesus are no different from the refugees of our time. Once we were former people. Forgotten people. Displaced people. At the heart of our faith is the claim that God stands with those cast out who now dwell in the kingdom of memory, and the mandate that we stand with them, as well.”

[As 1 Peter tells us,] “’Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people,’ [and] goes on to say.

  • ‘Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to…conduct yourselves honorably…so that…they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when God comes to judge.’ (I Peter 2:10-12)”

“Judgment is a word to be used sparingly and with great caution, but in the midst of one of the greatest refugee crises in history, we as a nation, and certainly those of us who follow the refugee named Jesus, will be judged by our response. Assuring the safety and security of our country is essential, but when we indiscriminately close our borders to mothers and fathers and children fleeing violence in their homeland and when we refuse entry to people solely on the basis of religion or national origin we are no different from and no better than those across history who have forced others to become former people.”

“’Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ Emma Lazarus said in her poem written in celebration of the Statue of Liberty, which she called the Mother of Exiles, ‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.'”

“Remember the ship called the St. Louis carrying Jews, forced from our harbors to return to Nazi Germany? Or Japanese-Americans driven from their homes and put in camps? Or the Dakota people expelled from this state and their land? Have we learned nothing from our history?”

“We live in a nation founded by people fleeing persecution. As people of faith we cannot remain silent in the face of policies that run counter to the biblical call to ‘welcome the stranger in our midst’ and that ignore the American commitment to offer refuge.”

Reactions

I found this sermon very moving although I had these nagging concerns. Jesus’ mother Mary already was at the wedding and thus it is fair to assume the residents of Cana had heard something about Jesus’ preaching, but they probably would not have heard about Nazareth’s expulsion of Jesus. If so, then the residents did not welcome Jesus as a refugeee. I assume that Cana was a small village and that most of the residents were at the wedding celebration. Therefore, when Jesus and his 12 disciples show up, there is nowhere else for them to go. These 13 additional guests placed an unexpected burden on the wine and food for the guests, yet the 13 were invited and welcomed. I also assume that in that time and place, as is true today, wedding guests are expected to bring gifts for the bride and groom, and Jesus and the disciples had no gifts in hand. Recognizing this faux pas and the burden they were placing on the bride and groom, Jesus provided extra wine as a gift and as a thank you for being included.

Are these concerns misplaced? I solicit comments from those who have greater knowledge about the Cana story.

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[1] This blog post is an edited version of Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s January 29 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, including his reference to his prior sermon that was discussed in an earlier post.  (the 1/29/17 sermon, Westminstermpls.org/2017/02/02/why-chan; the 1/29/17 bulltin, wp-content/uploads/2017/01; the bog about the 1/22/17 sermon, dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/30/Jesus-inaugural-address.

[2] The phrase “former people” comes from historian Douglas Smith, who used the term to refer to the Russian aristocracy banished and persecuted after the Russian Revolution of 1917. (Douglas Smith, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013).) Smith, by the way, before college, was involved in youth activities at Westminster Church.

[3] Kantor, Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2017).

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.

 

 

 

Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings?

A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.

Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.[1]

Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.

My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.

I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:

  • “The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”

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[1] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

A Garrison Keillor Sermon on Hospitality

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor

Now that Garrison Keillor is no longer hosting the weekly “A Prairie Home Companion” on American Public Media, he is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post of his essays or sermons that combine humor with a serious subtext.

The serious message in his latest essay is hospitality or loving your neighbor.  He says at the end, “We survive by virtue of people extending themselves, welcoming the young, showing sympathy for the suffering, taking pleasure in each other’s good fortune. We are here for a brief time. We would like our stay to mean something. Do the right thing. Travel light. Be sweet.”[1]  (Emphasis added.)

Along the way, he laments “the high-pitched oratory on behalf of the embittered rich and people with ingrown toenails and what not. Apparently we are on the verge of losing our Second Amendment rights and will need to defend ourselves with tent stakes and bug spray.”

His Uncle Gene told him, ““There are things more important than being right.” Thus, Gene as a “born-again” had no problems with obtaining his opium-based medicine for hemorrhoids from a Roman Catholic druggist.

Garrison also celebrates “the common decency, the common crucial values which are about marriage, parenthood, friendship, work, faith and attitude” of small towns, in Minnesota, of course. A Syrian refuge in such a town should go to church suppers and buy a raffle ticket and “sit down with a plate of beans and baked chicken, potato salad, a roll, a slab of pie, and learn the art of small talk.”

Keillor’s message was anticipated by Jesus when He said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 36-40) (Emphasis added.)

Thank you, Garrison. Keep it up. “Make the most of your brief time on Earth!”

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[1] Keillor, Make the most of your brief time on Earth, Wash. Post (Aug. 17, 2016).

 

The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PCUSA

On June 23, 2016, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly voted (540 to 33) to include in its Book of Confessions the 1986 Confession of Belhar from South Africa.

Let us examine that Confession, its adoption by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions and the recent use of the Belhar Confession at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the PC(USA).

 The Confession of Belhar[1]

The Belhar Confession emerged from the era of apartheid in South Africa, 1948-1994. That doctrine and practice of racial segregation was embraced by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) for whites and imposed upon its racially segregated offshoots: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) for colored or mixed-race people, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks and the Reformed Church in Africa for people of Indian descent.

After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the 1964 convictions and imprisonments of anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the 1976 condemnation of South Africa and apartheid by the United Nations, the Synod of the DRMC in 1978 concluded that apartheid was anti-evangelical and a structural and institutional sin.

Eight years later, in 1986, another Synod of the DRMC met in Belhar, a colored suburb of Capetown, South Africa, and adopted the Confession of Belhar. It has the following primary confessional statements:

  1. “We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.”
  2. “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.”
  3. “We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
  4. “We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.”
  5. “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

Three of these statements also set forth additional detailed belief statements and rejections of any doctrine and ideology which:

  • “absolutizes  natural diversity or the sinful separation of people;”
  • “explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church;”
  • “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race or color;”
  • “would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

The PC(USA)’s Adoption of the Belhar Confession [2]

As previously noted, on June 23, 2016 (30 years after the DRMC adoption of the Confession of Belhar), the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to add that Confession to the U.S. church’s Book of Confessions.

Rev. Godfrey Betha
Rev. Godfrey Betha

Immediately after the vote, the General Assembly was addressed by Rev. Godfrey Betha, the Vice Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which was formed by the DRMC and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks. Betha told the General Assembly, “It is important to seek solidarity with South Africa. We’ve come a long way with the PC(USA). We are grateful to have you as partners in service to the Lord. Today we offer gratitude, we salute you as the PC(USA) for your historic decision to adopt the Belhar Confession as a standard of faith for your church. I bow in humility to God and thankfulness to you … I’ll never forget this date.”

Betha added: “Your decision affirms that, like those other historic standards of faith, the Belhar Confession transcends its historic circumstances as a standard for faith in all places and times. Your decision affirms that Belhar does speak against ideological and theological attempts to justify specific historical forms of injustice. Your decision affirms to your church, [and] to all, when you come looking for the demon of racism, don’t come to us.”

Rev. Allan Boesak
Rev. Allan Boesak

Also present at the General Assembly was Rev. Allan Boesak, a co-author of the Confession of Belhar and the moderator of the DRMC when it was adopted in 1986. He said, “I thank God for what happened here tonight. I thank God for your faithfulness. I thank God for your acknowledgement of our common humanity in doing this … I thank God, and I thank you, and because of Jesus and because of God’s faithfulness, we shall overcome.”

Rev. Denise Anderson
Rev. T. Denise Anderson

At that point the commissioners linked hands throughout the plenary hall and spontaneously broke into “We Shall Overcome,” the famous song of the U.S. African-American civil rights movement, led by the General Assembly’s Co- Moderator, Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Pastor, Unity Presbyterian Church, Temple Hills, MD.

Earlier that same day, and before the General Assembly action, Boesak had addressed a breakfast meeting at the General Assembly. He said the Belhar Confession “stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document. We cannot yet foresee the consequences of the Confession. No other Confession has been so clear in its intentions: not only unity, but its foundationality; not just reconciliation, but its inescapability; not only justice, but its indivisibility.”

“Today is a defining moment for the PC(USA), as it was for the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 30 years ago as we finally adopted the Belhar Confession,” Boesak continued. “But the defining moment  was  not  just  the  adoption  of  the confession, as stunning as it was. In the years between 1982 and 1986, my friend and colleague and co-author Jaap Durand offered crucial prophetic insights that inspired and haunted the church in ways we couldn’t imagine in 1982, saying, ‘A  confession does not and cannot engage in mere trivialities. It can only be an extension of the ancient confession that Christ is Lord… I’m convinced that the Confession of Belhar will outlive apartheid and the heresy that formed it.’”

Recalling the struggles of black South Africans to remain faithful and pursue unity in light of terrible oppression, mass detention and cruel policies, Bosack said: “The church became directly involved in the efforts of freedom and justice in South Africa. The Jesus we worship and confess as Lord in the sanctuary is the Jesus we take into the street. Our people were slaughtered. Everyone was touched in one way or another.”

“By 1986 we saw no sense in, and had no desire for, unity with the white church, or with white people in general,” he said of the general despair that afflicted the DRMC. “But we had Belhar, [which] . . . understood [John] Calvin as he spoke of Holy Communion. ‘Christ has only one body of which he makes us all partakers.’”

Calling the unity of the church both a gift and command, Boesak said it was difficult in those years to find points of unity or reconciliation with those who were actively opposing the rights of black South Africans. The Belhar Confession, however, understood from Isaiah that God is not only a God of justice, but that God is a God of indivisible justice,” he said. “So against our self-absorbed instinct for self-absorbed victimhood, the black church confessed God as a God who wants to bring forth peace and justice in the world, and that God calls the church to follow in this, that the church must stand next to people in any form of need or injustice.”

This teaching of Belfar also challenged the DRMC when it faced the issue of the rights of LGBTQI and eventually affirmed those rights. Boesak said his denomination had “to face the consequences, not only with the white Dutch Reformed Church, but within itself.”

“In following Christ, the church must fight against those who use their privilege to oppress and put down any people,” he said. In asking the PC(USA) to “witness against any form of injustice,” Boesak turned his attention to Palestine, asking the denomination to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – similar to those used to end apartheid – to place economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation and expansion of territories. “Kairos Palestine is a cry from the heart of suffering,” he said. “Unless it rolls down for Palestinians, it will not roll down for others. Indivisible. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

In conclusion, Boesak said of Belhar and its broader implications: “It is a confession that stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document.”

The PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions

The Book of Confessions is a collection of confessions and creeds that declare to the church’s “members and to the world who and what [the church] is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.” Prior to the addition of the Belhar Confession, the Book contained 11 confessions and creeds starting with the Nicene Creed of 325 and ending with A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 1983.[3]

According to the church’s Book of Order, These creeds and confessions are “subordinate standards . . . subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him” that “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions,” that “guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures,” that “summarize the essence of Christian tradition,” that “direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines” and that “equip the church for its work of proclamation.” They also give “witness to the faith of the church catholic” while identifying “with the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation:” “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”[4]

Westminster’s Recent Use of the Belhar Confession

One of Belhar Confession’s central themes was adapted for use by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church as its July 17, 2016, Call to Worship (in call and response mode):[5]

  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God longs to bring justice and peace among all people.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God teaches the church to do what is good and to seek the right.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God sees a day when all people – black, white, red, yellow, and brown – will live together in harmony.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God calls the church to follow Jesus, to lift up the poor, to heal those who hurt, to feed those who hunger, and to comfort those who grieve.”

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[1] PCUSA, Confession of Belhar (English translation); PCUSA, The Belhar Confession (paper about the history of the Confession); PCUSA, 30 Days with the Belhar Confession: Reflections on Unity, Reconciliation and Justice (this book weaves together Scripture passages and the Confession’s timely themes of unity, reconciliation and justice; it is written by a diverse collection of scholars, theologians and church leaders and is a great resource for individuals, study groups or entire congregations wanting to familiarize themselves with the Confession through prayer and reflection; the Confession itself is included).

[2] PCUSA, Allan Boesak commends Belhar Confession (June 23, 2016); PCUSA, Belhar added to PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions (June 23, 2016); Duffield, Adopting Belhar, the 222nd General Assembly Makes History, Presbyterian Outlook (June 23, 2016). The Confession previously had been adopted by Namibia’s Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa, Belgium’s United Protestant Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, however, has not adopted the Confession in a manner acceptable to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa and, therefore, has not merged into the latter.

[3] PCUSA, Book of Confessions.

[4] PCUSA, Book of Order, Ch. II (1983-85 edition).

[5] Westminster, Worship Bulletin (July 17, 2016).

 

 

Prayers of Confession at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church has a three-part order of worship: Preparing for the Word; Listening for the Word; and Responding to the Word. A key part of Preparing for the Word is the Prayer of Confession.

Here are three such recent prayers that speak to me because of their simplicity and their use of contemporary English language to address current issues we all face.[1]

Prayer of Confession (May 29, 2016):

“When we limp around altars we have made to false gods, Lord, have mercy. When we sacrifice our very selves for that which cannot satisfy, Lord, bring healing. When we turn to idols to meet our deepest need and there is no response. Lord, save us!”

Prayer of Confession (June 26, 2016):

“God of forgiveness, as we gather for worship today we confess we do not offer you our whole selves. We come anxious of what others might think. We come with assumptions about one another, and how things ‘should be.’ Help us to come as we are, and allow others to do the same. Create open space in our hearts for understanding, empathy, and grace. Mold us into people who always choose love before hate. Make us peacebuilders, and those who point to goodness, in a world blinded by evil. We pray this for Jesus’ sake.”

Prayer of Confession (July 3, 2016):

 “ O Holy One, we call to you and name you as eternal, ever-present, and boundless in love. Yet there are times, O God, when we fail to recognize you in the dailyness of our lives. Sometimes shame clenches tightly around our hearts, and we hide our true feelings. Sometimes fear makes us small, and we miss the chance to speak from our strength. Sometimes doubt invades our hopefulness, and we degrade our own wisdom. Holy God, remind us again of your holy presence hovering near us and in us. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live honestly, to act courageously, and to speak from our wisdom.”

I pray that these prayers are meaningful for you, dear reader.

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 [1] These prayers are set forth in the bulletins for the May 29, June 26 and July 3 services. Earlier posts have discussed other such prayers: The Order of Worship at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2012); Prayer of Confession, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 26, 2012); Prayer of Confession, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 29, 2014).

“Where Is Christian Faith Headed?”

WestminsterAThe question posed at the June 19 worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was “Where Is Christian Faith Headed?” The answers were seen in the Processional Hymn, the Bible passages for the day and the sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Processional Hymn

The Processional Hymn, “God Weeps with us Who Weep and Mourn (787),” which preempted the one listed in the bulletin, was especially apt to memorialize and honor those who were killed and wounded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando the previous Sunday.  The tune was composed in 1995 by Sally Ann Morris upon reading the obituary of Thomas Layton Moshier, a friend who died from AIDS. She sent the tune to Thomas H. Troeger, who in 1996 created the text for the hymn. Here is the first verse:

  • “God weeps with us who weep and mourn. God’s tears flow down with ours, and God ‘s own heart is bruised and worn from all the heavy hours of watching while the soul’s bright fire burned lower by the day and pulse and breath and love’s desire dimmed down to ash and clay.” (Emphasis added.)

The Holy Scripture Readings

 The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) passage for the day was Amos 7: 1-9 (NRSV) (emphasis added):

  • “This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said,”
  • “’O LordGod, forgive, I beg you!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!’
    “The Lord relented concerning this;
    ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord.”
  • “This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said,”
  • “’O LordGod, cease, I beg you!
    How can Jacob stand?
    He is so small!’”
    “The Lord relented concerning this;
    ‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord God.”
  • “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said,
  • ’See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the midst of my people Israel;
    I will never again pass them by
    ;
    the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
    and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
    and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’”

The New Testament passage was Matthew 16: 24-26 (NRSV):

  • “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”

The Sermon

After recognizing the first year after the murder of the nine African-American worshipers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the first week after the murder of 49 human beings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Rev. Hart-Andersen wondered “if God ever gets angry with us. So often we seem to miss the point of being part of the human family. Every day, every week, we fall short of God’s hope for us.”

“If ever we were curious what an angry God looked like, we need only read the book of the prophet Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures. Amos, who lived in the middle years of the 8th century BCE, delivers a fierce critique of the people of Israel, speaking on behalf of Almighty God.”

“Things are going well for many in the time of Amos. The nation is prosperous. Their enemies are not strong against them. The people dwell securely with little external threat. This will sound familiar to us in our time. Yet, they are not following the parameters of the relationship God has made with them. Disparities between those who have and those who do not are increasing. There’s violence among them. People pay little serious attention to God, even those who practice the religion. Their worship is false and meaningless.”

“The prophet calls them to account on behalf of God. God expects the people to seek justice and righteousness, to lift up the widow and the orphan and the alien sojourning in their midst. Instead, we read in Amos, they ‘oppress the poor and crush the needy,’ they have forgotten ‘the covenant of kinship’ with other peoples, and they ‘push the afflicted out of the way.’ (Amos 4:1, 1:9, 2:7)” (Emphasis added.)

“It makes God angry. Most of the book of Amos catalogues the things God has in mind to do to Israel as a result of their failure to live according to God’s desires. It’s not a pretty picture. God will send fire and locusts on the people. God will withhold rain to make their crops die. The people will be taken away with . . . fishing hooks. They shall neither live in the houses they built – God is angry – nor enjoy the wine from their vineyards.”

“In the face of God’s kindled rage, Amos intervenes on behalf of the people and begs God to back down, begs God to forgive them and spare them from the fire and famine and the locusts, and all that God has described through the voice of the prophet. God is merciful and agrees to relent, but not without setting up an ongoing way to judge the people. God asks Amos, ‘What do you see?’ and Amos replies, ‘I see a plumb line.’”

God puts a plumb line among the people to measure their obedience.” (Emphasis added.)

“Do you think somewhere in the divine precincts God’s wrath is smoldering against us, and, perhaps, a plumb line has been lowered among us?”

“If the question is, ‘Where is Christian faith headed?’ the response will have at least three dimensions, from my perspective.” (Emphasis added.)

First, Christian faith has to learn to live respectfully with people of other faiths and no faith at all. We live in a religiously plural world, and it is not going to change. It will only become more diverse religiously, even in our own community. We live in a world of competing theological claims, yet there is only one human family. The prophet Amos calls it the covenant of kinship among all of us. As God sees it, nothing should stand in the way of our kinship with one another.”

“Every human being bears the image of God. That assertion is fundamental to the task of accepting people who do not believe or worship or pray or live or speak like us. God is the Creator of them all; our ability to live with them depends on our seeing the holy in their lives, the spark of the divine in their faces. When a religious tradition denies the full humanity of the other – and there are ideologues in every religion that do this – it will only lead to persecution and even violence.”

“In any culture the onus is on the dominant tradition to make room for the minority. That was a hallmark of the ministry of Jesus. When he tells his followers they will have to lose their lives to gain them he’s calling them to sacrificial living. When he and Peter get into an argument about Jesus sacrificing his own life, Peter apparently misses the point. The whole point of Jesus’ life and death is that he is calling us to be willing to sacrifice, to give up, to relinquish for the other. That means giving up privilege and power for some of us, for the sake of the other.”

“Being respectful of other religious traditions does not mean we have to water down our faith. On the contrary, interfaith dialogue needs our deepest commitment at the table. When I meet with my Jewish and Muslim friends, they expect me to be a follower of Jesus, not merely a nice person willing to listen to them. They respect me more when I am authentically Christian. To borrow the image from Amos: Jesus is my plumb line.”

Where is Christianity headed? Into a religiously plural world. We had better be ready, which includes knowing what we hold to be true about God, about this God whom we worship.” (Emphasis added.)

“That leads to the second thing to say about the future direction of Christian faith. We have entered an age, especially in our context, where fixed doctrine matters less and relationship with Jesus matters more. That is not to say faith today is devoid of theological content. On the contrary, our central theological affirmation is still that Jesus is Lord of life. But we are moving away from an intellectualizing of the faith and a rote recitation of our commitment in rigid doctrinal statements. We’re moving to something more lived, something more of the heart, something more relational in our understanding of who God is in Jesus Christ.”

“Christian faith – and I’ve seen this in my own 30+ years of ministry – is becoming more fluid today, more flexible, more rooted in the love of Jesus, in the simple love of Jesus, than in the complicated layers of teaching of the church. Our lives are changed because of who Jesus is, not because of the systematic thinking of our best theological minds. We want the babies we baptize today and the children in our church school and the adults in the pews to know Jesus, not merely know about Jesus.”

“In this regard, we can learn from the more evangelical wing of the church and their personal experience of faith. Jesus is more than merely a good, first century, itinerant teacher. That’s often about how we see him, and it stops there. But he’s more than a long ago prophet who called for justice, which he did; more than a voice speaking up on behalf of people who are poor and forced to live on the margins, which he did. But he is more than that. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, our hope and salvation. I repeat: Jesus is our plumb line. We want to live as he lived. We want to love as he loved.” (Emphasis added.)

“The third thing to say about where Christianity is headed is that congregations will continue to be, as they always have been, the primary place to experience and pursue faith. Our faith is not an individual enterprise. We are not alone. We are not isolated individuals living out our faith apart from the community. In churches people build relationships around shared commitment to love God and neighbor. Christian faith is not a spectator sport. We are not on the sidelines in the church.”

“The purpose of the Christian message,” theologian Jürgen Moltmann says,‘Is not so much to report on the past as to change the future…Thus the task of the church is to preach and proclaim in such a way that the people will not only believe but that they will act in history and change it.’

“The local church today has to pay attention to the world around it and Westminster has done that. Since we were established nearly 160 years ago we have paid attention to the city around us and the world around us. In its worship and preaching, its mission and education all build up the body of Christ so it can change the future. To borrow from Amos one more time, community of faith like Westminster becomes a plumb line for the world around it. With partners from the community we help move the world closer to justice, closer to God’s love, closer to what God intends for the human family by our very life as a congregation.” (Emphasis added.)

Where is Christian faith headed?” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s learning to be more at home in a multi-faith world and does not feel threatened by it.”

“It’s becoming more focused on the life of Jesus and simply following him.”

“And it’s more acutely aware that the future of Christianity depends on lively communities of faith like this one, where the love and justice of God are made known in visible, tangible, concrete ways, where the plumb line of God is the measure of our life together.” (Emphasis added.)

“When that happens, working with others, we will change the future.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

I concur in Rev. Hart-Andersen’s three points about the desired future of Christian faith and Westminster’s embracing these points. Whether other Christian congregations or denominations do so will be up to them to decide. I hope they join us.

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