Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Challenge To Be Always Reforming

On October 8 Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer preached a sermon entitled, “On the Road: Beginnings Are Good” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Here are the Holy Scriptures for the day and extracts of that sermon.[1] Below is an aerial photograph of the new addition to the church and of Rev. Brouwer.

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

Readings of the Holy Scripture:

 Genesis 1:1-5, 26, 28, 31 (NRSV):

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’  and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”

Luke 24:13-16 (NRSV):

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

Sermon:

“You may have heard this phrase among proud Presbyterians before: ‘Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda,’ the church reformed and always reforming. Even now, this latin phrase is a rallying cry for reformed people–a motto to remind us of who we are and who we intend to be.”

“Although we aren’t quite sure where it came from, it was written about quite frequently in the mid-20th century by theologian Karl Barth. Barth preached and taught during both world wars. He witnessed how the church, instead of being reformed, was conforming to anti-Semitism. Barth was considered theologically conservative, because he blamed more liberal theology for morphing God conveniently into the supporter of institutional agendas, like the Nazis. Barth fought for the oppressed through theology that was not popular during his time.”

“Barth was not a reformer for the sake of reforming; he didn’t insist on change for the sake of change. There was a global crisis happening, which the church became apologetic for, and Barth was called to respond. Throughout history, this church reformed and always reforming has sometimes been misused by people trying to obtain power, or exclude others. But, when reform  is legitimate and successful, it always seems to happen beyond the control or desire of the church as it is, and it usually has in mind those who have been left behind.”

“Now, here we find ourselves in 2017, at Westminster, a congregation right in the middle of yet another monumental shift. We believe that God is calling us to become more intentionally open and diverse, and responsive to the city around us. And because of an extraordinary gift, the project next door and the incredible mission opportunities with it are taking shape. Through the work of Open Doors Open Futures, and given our unique downtown context, and the juncture within the larger church and in our current culture, I am confident that none of this is coincidental. We stand on the precipice of large-scale change. It is upon us for a reason, and we have been called to the exciting task of deciphering what God is doing among us.”

“The disciples in Luke’s Gospel were at a critical turning point in their life, as well. It was Sunday, and they had spent the weekend grieving Jesus’ death. They heard the tomb was empty, but that was about it- they didn’t yet understand what had happened. Cleopas and another disciple were presumably making their way home to Emmaus, a walk that would have taken a couple of hours, leaving them plenty of time to recount the traumatic events of the last few days.’

‘The text says that as they were walking Jesus came near to them, but they were kept from recognizing him. It’s a strange turn of phrase. My educated guess says they weren’t the only ones on the road, walking home from Jerusalem that day, and they were in deep conversation, unaware of who was around them. But, let’s be logical here, they also weren’t on the lookout for a resurrected body. Their expectations had been foiled, and they no longer had a messiah who would usher in a new reign for the people of Israel.”

“This change in plans was devastating, and, as far as they knew, it put an end to their ministry. I can imagine there was a great amount of resignation between them. They had seemingly given up everything to follow Jesus–family members who counted on them had been left behind in pursuit of this religious radical named Jesus, now dead. And they were facing the facts of the situation. As Sarah Henrich writes, they had to ‘get real, grow up, and get back to work.’”

“As I read and reread these verses, where the disciples seem to have yielded to what they thought happened, I began to think about how hard it is for our own minds and hearts to be changed. We too can be in the dark about what God is doing. We miss resurrection, we move on with individual priorities, become resigned to the way things are, and we continue to hold on to biases that close our hearts. These disciples challenged me to consider: when was the last time I was truly changed?”

[I concluded that it was] “an intense seminary class in dismantling racism and bias. We met with some of the most diverse populations I’ve ever encountered, had some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever experienced, and, it made me realize how much I didn’t know, how many biases I did and continue to have, and that it would be a lifelong pursuit not only to work on those biases, but to be honest and vulnerable about them and bring others along in doing it with me. I also learned an important lesson about ministry, which is that there is a difference between making change happen, and making space for God’s people to be changed.”

There “are, daily, new opportunities to choose how we will have our being in this world, and how we will posture ourselves–as individuals, and at this juncture in our history, as a community of faith. Will we continue on just as we are, using our new space to discuss our own opinions in the dark while the world clamors for good news and resurrection? Our reformation heritage, misinterpreted, can tell us that we alone are the change agents–that we are the ones with the lens that brings God into clearest focus. But Barth and Luther and Calvin would be the first to say that isn’t true; they weren’t the owners of change. They were reformers as a response to what God was doing in them, and what was happening in the world around them.”

As one of our elders recently observed, “as we open our doors to the future, is the expectation that Westminster will be a telling presence in the city, or is it, that God’s city will also become a telling presence to us?”

“The story of creation in Genesis always brings words of blessing, but it feels especially appropriate as change is upon us, and we find ourselves in the midst of a new creation. You see, our creation story begins in the dark, in what seems like the unknown. But even in these first verses we understand that God is intentional, there was never nothing with God, but always something, waiting until just the right time to be changed into what is good. God calling creation good is more than that. It is akin to outstanding. This is our beginning. And thus our beginning always has been and always will be beautiful.

“You and I, we come from a beautiful beginning. And we shouldn’t forget that. As the world continues to present itself as anything but good, we trust in a God who takes what is—death– and starts fresh, makes something new out of it, changes it, and changes even us. ‘The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.’ These things are not erased, but transformed. Creation reveals not just God’s capacity for change, but God’s desire for change that is good”

“In the last couple of weeks, in the wake of natural disasters, and another mass shooting in Las Vegas, I have sensed a collective numbing of our nation. What is happening around us often does not reflect the goodness of God’s creation. Staying in the darkness of our privilege, heads down facing the road like the disciples, feels much safer. But we believe in a creative God–one who speaks words and does not stay silent, who creates not because of ability but because of a desire to change, who does not allow the chaos of the formless void to pull us under, but transforms it and calls it good. This same God sent Jesus to walk alongside his disciples until they recognized him, and showed them the change they were capable of if they trusted in the power of resurrection.”

“We are capable of that kind of change, too. Change that starts within, that is deeply influenced by God’s world around us. In January, when we step foot into the space next door, my greatest hope and prayer is that we will not be the same people we were before. Who we were does not get left behind, but it does get transformed. That is our call. As reformed people. As God’s people.”

“What we are building next door is a sanctuary–a sanctuary for the city that is physically accessible, and spiritually open. And our worship discernment team has been working hard to imagine what kind of  worship will happen there. What they are creating will be good, in the best sense of the word. What has been most surprising and good about working with this group is how much we have all been changed by the process, and how our posture toward the world has changed, too. We are creating space for lives to be transformed by God. This worship is not for us, only, it is for the unchurched, the de-churched, the nones, the poor, the wealthy, the old and the young, black and white, LGBTQ, and whoever else is seeking the good news of the Gospel, and we don’t know yet who else.”

“I would like to think that if Barth had been asked what the next 100 or 500 years of the church were going to look like, his answer would not have been concrete. I’m sure he had his hopes for it–more justice oriented, more gracious and welcoming. But, as a true reformer he would have also known that even he could not predict what God would do, and how God’s people would be changed. He knew the future of the church depended upon a people who could look up from the road they were on. And as reformers of the 21st century, this is where we must begin, too. From creation to resurrection, from reformation and into the future, God’s people have made the most faithful changes when they have been open to God first changing them.”

“Beginnings can be mysterious and always start in the dark. But we also trust that beginnings are good, if we are open to what God is creating, changing, transforming and resurrecting within us.”

Conclusion

“The church reformed and always reforming” is a significant reminder for why I am a member of a Presbyterian church. It is a human creation, is not perfect and always subject to changes to meet new circumstances and to correct outmoded or erroneous ways.

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

 

 

 

 

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.

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).

 

 

A Presbyterian’s Musings about Saints

My recent investigation and writing of a post about the Roman Catholic Church’s process for the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero prompt these musings about blesseds and saints in that church and their absence in my own church, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, and its denomination, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Roman Catholic Church[1]

According to a Catholic secondary source (“Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”), a saint is “…a member of the Church [who] has been assumed into eternal bliss and may be the object of general veneration. A saint is also a person of remarkable holiness who lived a life of heroic virtue, assisted by the Church, during their pilgrimage on earth. They are as varied and exceptional as only God could create them, and each has his own distinct story.”

The veneration of saints (in Latin, cultus, or the “cult of the saints”) describes a particular popular devotion or abandonment to a particular saint or saints. Although the term “worship” of the saints is sometimes used, it is intended to mean honor or give respect. According to the Catholic Church, Divine Worship is properly reserved only for God and never to the saints.  They can be asked to intercede or pray for those still on earth, just as one can ask someone on earth to pray for them.

A saint may be designated as a patron saint of a particular cause or profession, or invoked against specific illnesses or disasters, sometimes by popular custom and sometimes by official statements. Saints are not thought to have power of their own, but only that granted by God.

Apparently under canon law, before beatification, the body of the candidate must be exhumed and authenticated and relics taken for veneration. This has produced disputes, some of which have been resolved by dividing the body. For example, St. Catherine of Sienna is entombed in Rome, but her head is revered in a Sienna basilica. Now the beatification and canonization of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen is being delayed because of a dispute whether his corpse should remain in a crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or be moved to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois, where he was ordained.[2]

Relics of saints are respected in a similar manner to holy images and icons. The practice of past centuries in venerating relics of saints for healing is taken from the early Church. Once a person has been declared a saint, the body of the saint is considered holy. The remains of saints are called holy relics and are usually used in churches. Saints’ personal belongings may also be used as relics. Some of the saints have a symbol that represents their life.

In 993, Pope John XV was the first pope to proclaim a saint, but it was not until the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) that the Pope claimed an exclusive monopoly on the canonization of saints. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made sweeping changes in the canonization procedure for Catholics whom are generally regarded as holy with the local bishop first investigating a deceased candidate’s life and writings for heroic virtue (or martyrdom) and orthodoxy of doctrine. Then a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the pope proclaims the candidate “venerable.”

Beatification

The next step, beatification, requires evidence of one miracle (except in the case of martyrs). Since miracles are considered proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede for us, the miracle must take place after the candidate’s death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate. When the pope proclaims the candidate beatified or “blessed,” the person can be venerated by a particular region or group of people with whom the person holds special importance.

Although I do not know the total number of “blessed” in the Roman Catholic Church, the last three Popes have beatified 2,860 (Pope John Paul II, 1,342; Pope Benedict XVI, 843; and Pope Francis, 675 (including 124 Korean Martyrs on his recent trip to South Korea).)

Canonization

The Roman Catholic Church has over 10,000 named saints (or over 27 for every day of a normal year).

Only after one more miracle will the pope canonize the saint (this includes martyrs as well). The title of saint tells us that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church. Canonization does not “make” a person a saint; it recognizes what God has already done.

The last three Popes have canonized 1,355 saints: Pope John Paul II, 482; Pope Benedict XVI, 45; and Pope Francis, 828. A source says that Pope Francis’ 828 in the first 18 months of his papacy is more than all the Popes of the last three centuries.

Westminster and the PCUSA

sermon

The PCUSA and Westminster do not have a roster of designated blesseds and saints. As a result, Westminster does not have statues or paintings of such individuals in our Sanctuary.Instead, most of Westminster’s Sanctuary’s beautiful stained-glass windows from the 1950s and 60s, made by Willet Studios, primarily depict images of the life of Jesus like the one to the right for His Sermon on the Mount that is on the north side of the main floor of the Sanctuary. Earlier windows feature Victorian and early 20th century stylized organic and geometric designs. Here below, for example, is a photograph of the large Rose Window that was installed at the back of the balcony in 1897 with the construction of our Sanctuary.

RoseWindow

Westminster, however, at the back of the Sanctuary’s main floor does have four Gospel Windows (images of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the authors of the New Testament’s Gospels). Below is a photograph of these windows.

Saints Matthew & Mark
Saints Matthew & Mark
Saints Luke & John
Saints Luke & John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, there are two stained glass windows at the back of the Sanctuary’s balcony with images of prominent Protestants. One is called the “Reformation Window” with images of Protestant reformers Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. The other is called the “Missionary Window” with images of four Protestant missionaries: William Carey (India), David Livingstone (Africa), Sheldon Jackson (Alaska) and Marcus Whitman (Northwest U.S.). Photographs of these windows are below. Finally, also in the balcony we have a window for unnamed Martyrs and another window for Jesus’ Disciples and Apostles (without names). (Thanks for the photographs to Dr. Rodney Allen Schwartz, Director of Westminster’s Gallery and Archives.)

Westminster's "Reformers' Window"
Westminster’s                            “Reformation Window”
Westminster's "Missionaries Window"
Westminster’s                         “Missionary Window”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to a comment on the PCUSA website, “In the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, we have and always will acknowledge and honor saints. Our designation as saints comes from our rich inheritance of Christ’s righteousness.” This commentator then adds the following:

  • “In St. Paul’s understanding, the title ‘saint’ belongs to all those who have been united with Christ, those who have a share in the rich inheritance as Children of God (baptism). St. Paul routinely calls the members of his churches ‘saints’ because of who they are in Christ and not because of what they have accomplished.”
  • “Furthermore, based on the teachings of the Second Helvetic Confession, and the early church fathers, Presbyterians do not pray for the mediation of the saints. We pray to God through Christ alone, and only look to the saints, ordinary people who had extra-ordinary faith, as examples and role models.”
  • “Also, as John Calvin and the early church fathers taught in regard to the mystery of Holy Communion, we believe that when we gather at the Lord’s Table and partake of the sacrament in faith, by the work of the Holy Spirit we become united in Christ and in prayer with those gathered around the eternal throne of God (which the Lord’s Table also represents) in accordance to the vision of St. John in the Book of Revelation.”

The PCUSA website introduces the subject of All Saints Day by saying, “In early Christian tradition, saints’ days began as a way to mark the anniversary of a martyr’s death — his or her “birthday” as a saint. By the middle of the church’s first millennium, there were so many martyrs . . . that it was hard to give them all their due. All Saints’ Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.”

The PCUSA website goes on to say, “All Saints’ Day has a rather different focus in the Reformed tradition. While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of ages past, the emphasis is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God. Rather than putting saints on pedestals as holy people set apart in glory, we give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of the believers in this and every age. [All Saints Day for Presbyterians] . . . is an appropriate time to give thanks to members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. We also pray that we may be counted among the company of the faithful in God’s eternal realm.”

Bishop William Walsham How
Bishop William Walsham How
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

At Westminster, All Saints Day is observed by reciting the names of our most recent saints, those church members who died during the prior year, and by singing the famous hymn “For All the Saints” with words by William Walsham How (1823-1897)[3] and beautiful music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).[4] The words of this hymn in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal go like this:

  1. “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might; thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Interestingly this hymn originally had six other verses that probably were eliminated in our Hymnal to keep the hymn of reasonable length by contemporary standards. But three of those deleted verses specifically recognize the Apostles, the Evangelists and the Martyrs as saints and thereby may suggest that only they are saints.

We also must acknowledge that the names of some Presbyterian churches include the names of saints: the Apostles of Jesus (Peter (or Simon), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas and Matthew), the authors of the synoptic Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John), the first evangelist (Paul) and other Roman Catholic saints (Elmo (or Erasmus)), Stephen, Barnabus, Giles and Patrick).

 Observations

I recognize that all of us as sinners need all the help we can get in striving to live holy lives and that blesseds and saints undoubtedly provide such assistance to many people. Moreover, I believe it must be useful for many people to have blesseds and saints from their own country or ethnic group or era to connect with Jesus, who lived and died 2,000 years ago.

A church’s having blesseds and saints can also be seen as a way for the church to evangelize, i.e., to spread the Good News of the Bible. In secular terms, it is a way to market the faith. Pope Francis’ recent beatification of 124 Korean martyrs can be seen in this light.

Once a church decides that it will have blesseds and saints, it obviously needs a well-established set of rules and procedures for making such important decisions, and Pope John Paul II’s previously mentioned changes in that regard I see as a rational management response.

However, I do not understand why the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero can be seen as controversial or difficult when he had the courage to act, despite repeated death threats, as Jesus taught all of us to act (Love your neighbor as yourself).

As an outsider to the Catholic faith, I see the proliferation of blesseds and saints as perhaps interfering with Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ and God. I also find it difficult to accept the miracles that are requirements for beatification (except for martyrs) and for canonization. According to the Catholic Church, to be deemed a miracle, it happens after the death of the candidate for beatification or canonization, and “a medical recovery must be instantaneous, not attributable to treatment, [and the medical problem] disappear for good.”

In the Presbyterian version of Christian faith as I have experienced at Minneapolis’ Westminster, on the other hand, we avoid having our focus on Jesus interrupted by statues and references to the blesseds and the saints. Moreover, our sermons frequently use the faith and actions of contemporary people to illustrate important points of Scripture. In this way we help to see how Jesus’ teachings can be important in our lives today.

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

[1] This account of the history and practices of the Roman Catholic Church’s blessed and saints is based upon the following secondary sources in addition to those that are hyperlinked above: http://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/p/All_Saints_Day.htm; http://www.catholic.org/saints/faq.php; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_saints; http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201310/how-many-saints-are-there-28027. I welcome amplification and corrections by those with more knowledge of the Catholic history and practice of beatification and canonization.

[2] Otterman, Tug of War Between Dioceses Halts a Bishop’s Beatification, N.Y. Times (Sept. 14, 2014.)

[3] How was an Anglican priest who served as Bishop of Wakefield in northern England and as Bishop of Bedford in the East End of London. He also was a poet and author of the lyrics for other hymns.

[4] Williams, who was Welsh-English, was a composer of symphonies, operas, chamber and choral music and film scores.

Baccalaureate Sunday

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster           Presbyterian Church

June 1st was Baccalaureate Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to celebrate the university and high school graduations of some of our members.[1]

The Sermon

The sermon, “What’s Next for Me?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen was primarily addressed to the new graduates, but its message had meaning for everyone. He emphasized “the metaphor of journey, or pilgrimage, to understand Christian life.”

“The next steps you take on your pilgrimage through life do not have to be definitive. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead. Some will be delightful surprises; others, painful disappointments.”

Hart-Andersen, using his own life as an example, said, “Only after multiple false starts did I finally begin to pay attention to the nagging sense that God had other ideas for my life. It was, for me a matter of feeling ‘at home.’ That became a test for me: did I feel at home in a given occupation? Even if I was good at it, that didn’t prevent me from feeling like a stranger on a particular path. And if I felt like that, I moved on. Only later did I understand that God was at work in those twists and turns.”

“It may not always have been obvious to you, but God has been your companion along the way. Sometimes God may not have felt present to you, or maybe you went through times where you felt abandoned by God. But, the journey is long and we are people of faith. We believe God is the Guide. It may seem as if we’re on our own, but in this we trust: God is on the pilgrimage with us.”

“Scripture is replete with accounts of people trying to sort out which way their path is taking them. The Bible is the story of God’s people trying to find their way. Sometimes it’s clear; at other times, it’s not.”

“Think of the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. That was one, long search for the way forward . . . . The dream of freedom turned into something that felt a lot like a nightmare. . . . They forgot about God’s promise; [instead] they made a new, little god they could manage, a golden calf. They were grasping at anything to find some sense of clarity in their lives.” [Exodus 32:1-9.]

“[W]hen Jesus ascends to heaven . . .[He] tells his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit descends on them. They return to Jerusalem, go into an upper room, and settle in together until the time is right. . . . [They wait.] Their waiting involves prayer. They’re not passive in their hope of the promise fulfilled. Prayer is active waiting in anticipation of divine response, active trusting that God is listening. Prayer helps on the journey. Their waiting involves watching. They pay attention to the signs around them, looking for glimmers of the promise, “the trailing wisps of glory.” Their waiting is done together, in community.” [Acts 1:1-14.]

“What’s next for me is a question aimed at vocation . . . . Every one of us ought to be asking the same question of our own pilgrimage in life: what’s next? Where do I go from here? What does God have in store for me at this point in my life?”[2]

“We Presbyterians are known to emphasize the vocation of each person. It begins with John Calvin who argues that everyone has a vocation, not only those called into ministry. Everyone has a role to play in the community, in business, in education or medicine or industry or technology or the military or science or public service or _____ – you fill in the blank.”

“Calvin views every occupation as an opportunity to excel, and in our excelling, we glorify God. All human work, Calvin writes, is capable of ‘appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God.’ . . . For Calvin it’s the person that matters, the person, not the job.”

“In his view, people are not called by God out of the world, in order not to sully themselves with ordinary life, but rather, people are called by God into the world, right into the mundane stuff by which we make our living. And there, right there, in the everyday challenges of the jobs we do, God is found, and God can be glorified in what we do, no matter what it is.”[3]

“The Israelites cowering in fear in the wilderness and the followers of Jesus huddled together in that upper room struggled with what was next for them. They wondered if God had given up on them; some of them gave up on God.”

“Each of us is tempted to wonder the same thing when the way forward is not clear, or when it’s littered with challenges that seem to overwhelm, or when it leads into darkness that offers little respite.”

“But those who wait for God’s promise, even if it takes forty years, will not be disappointed. Light will illumine the path. The way forward will be clear. We will find it together, trusting that the Spirit will meet us on the way. “

What’s next for me? We need only open our eyes, take a step in trust, and then another, and another, and another. We will discover what God’s future holds for us.”

Choir’s Anthem

The sermon’s emphasis on pilgrimage was echoed in the choir’s anthem for the day: The Road Not Taken with music by Randall Thompson and the words from Robert Frost’s poem by the same name:[4]

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

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[1] The bulletin for this worship service is available online.

[2]A number of posts to this blog have discussed the religious notion of vocation.

[3] The notion of God calling us into the world was also embraced by poet Christian Wiman.

[4]The Road Not Taken” is one of seven Frost poems in Frostiana: Seven Country Songs, a piece for mixed chorus and piano composed by Thompson in 1959 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Massachusetts town of Amherst, where Frost (1874-1963), who had known Thompson and admired his music, had lived for many years. Thompson (1899-1984) was an American composer, particularly noted for his choral works. A colleague said “Thompson’s choral works are a shining reflection of the joy and creative skill with which he taught musical craft—of Palestrina and Lasso, of Monteverdi and Schütz, of Bach and Handel. It has been his belief that music of this craft is timeless in its nature, and can form part of the basis of a composer’s working vocabulary without loss to his individual talent. In this he is a true classicist and an academic in the best sense.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Happens When Jesus Calls?

 

Westminster Sanctury
Westminster Sanctuary
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Rev. Dr. Timothy   Hart-Andersen

The subject of vocation returned to Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on February 9th. A prior post examined the service’s music on the subject while another set forth the Scriptures for the day: Psalm 27 and Matthew 4:12-23.[1]

The sermon that day was “What Happens When Jesus Calls?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor.Here are excerpts from that sermon.

“If the question is what happens when Jesus calls, the answer may be that when Jesus calls we take a good, long, hard, deep look at what we perceive to be the purpose of our lives. That may suggest a job change, or not; perhaps a shift in careers, or not; it may mean finally discovering our life’s vocation.

The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee have that kind of experience with Jesus when he comes calling. His goal is not that they abandon their chosen vocation arbitrarily, but, rather, to rethink it. He never asks them to stop fishing; he asks them to rethink how and why they are doing it. In fact, Jesus even says to them that they’ll continue in the same line of work – only now they’ll be ‘fishing for people.’ He wants them to ponder who they are and what their focus ought to be in life.

 When Jesus calls, it occasions an examination of our purpose in life, no matter what work we’re engaged in. In the story of Jesus calling the fishermen at least two things happen.

First, Jesus comes looking for them. The call is his idea, not theirs. They were minding their own business when he shows up and invites them to rethink their lives. We don’t have to take the first step toward Jesus; he comes for us, if we’re ready. This is what the psalmist refers to in writing, ‘Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Wait for the Lord.’

So often we think the business of faith depends on us; but it’s a gift from God, not an achievement we attain through hard work and hours of effort. Jesus comes looking for us.

Second, Jesus meets them right where they are. He looks for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. Those four fishermen had no apparent special gifts that made them uniquely attractive candidates to become disciples.

The Church will be built not of princes and priests and power brokers, but of common people who are just like anyone else. Those fishermen went from their boats to become the inner circle of Jesus and later to lead the early Church. Nothing about them suggested that they would be suited for this work. Jesus meets us right where we are.

The call Jesus extends to the fishermen changes them. We who want to follow Jesus without making much in the way of change in our lives, be it in how we conduct our business, or how we spend our time, or how we use our resources, are missing the whole point of Christianity. Faith transforms us. The old life is gone; a new life has begun.

Understanding what it means to be called, to have a vocation, is at the heart of the Presbyterian way of Christianity. Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin said.

  •  ‘The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his (or her) calling. For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once.’

 Calvin may be giving us a peek inside his own personality and psychological make-up when he names the ‘great restlessness’ of human nature. But many of us know precisely what Calvin refers to when he laments the way we flit about from one scheme to another as we seek to find what we’re supposed to be doing in life. Especially today, it’s difficult to know what direction to pursue when our vocation in ten years – or even in one year – may not even exist right now.

‘Therefore,’ Calvin goes on to say, ‘Each individual has his (or her) own kind of living assigned to him (or her) by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he (or she) may not heedlessly wander throughout life.’ (John Calvin; Institutes, III.x.6.)

‘Our own kind of living assigned to us so that we might not heedlessly wander throughout life.’

These days the average person will hold between 10 and 15 jobs in a lifetime. I was heading in that direction myself until I finally gave into the nagging sense of call to serve the church. I started seminary at age 27; by that time I had made several exploratory attempts – at least three – to test one career or another, None of them was right. I was having a hard time finding the ‘kind of living assigned to me.’ I was wandering.

Finding my vocation, my calling, depended on my feeling at home in what I was doing. I resisted accepting the call to ministry as long as I could, but in each vocation I tested – teacher, academic scholar, social service worker– I felt as if I were a stranger, as if were not quite at home. Frankly, it also had to do with needing to be sure it was my call and not something I was doing to please someone else – my parents, in particular. [2]

When I was in my mid-20’s, some 15 years later, with my life in a time of upheaval, I began, finally, to consider what I had avoided all those years: whether or not I was called into ministry. I wrestled hard with the decision– for nine months, in a kind of gestating process, I prayed and listened.

And one September Saturday morning, as I was in the bath tub, it came to me that I needed to go to seminary. The water was making a deep connection, I realized later, between baptism and vocation.

Ordained ministry was the one possibility that didn’t leave me feeling as if I were a stranger. It felt like home.

I was finding my vocation, not what my parents wanted me to do, but what I felt called to do.

Think back on your own employment history; you may be surprised how many different jobs you’ve held or careers you’ve tried, but that may or may not have anything to do with the ‘heedless wandering’ Calvin was concerned about. Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less about what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives, and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever work we do.

Nothing more thrills a pastor than to see changes happening in the lives of parishioners. I’ve seen hard-charging business leaders switch to non-profit careers because they feel called to serve the community in a new way. I’ve seen teachers give themselves over utterly to their students because they sense a call to live like that. I’ve watched retired people discover new ways to serve and follow Jesus in their later years. I’ve seen young adults light up as they discover their vocation and pursue it with determination.

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; that’s what those fishermen learned that day. Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.

The occasion of a memorial service – any memorial service, not only that of a much-loved public figure [like Joan Mondale][3] – invites us to reflect not only on the life of the one who has died, but also on the life you and I lead.

Someday it will be we about whom they will be speaking. What will they say? What will be the summary of the highest priorities of our lives? What will they say was the central theme of our lives?

Thanks be to God.”


[1] The bulletin, a copy of the sermon and an audio and video recording of the service are available online as are the ones for the January 26th service about vocation. Prior posts have discussed that service’s (a) Prayer of Confession; (b) an anthem beginning with the words “God be in my head;” (c) passages from the Bible’s book of Acts and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments concerning the vocations of Tabitha, Peter, Lydia and Paul; (d) a passage from Paul’s epistle from a Roman prison and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments about the preacher’s and her people’s vocations; (e) a hymn, “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord;” (f) another hymn, “Give Thanks, O Christian People;” and (g) an anthem, “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go.” Clicking on “Westminster Presbyterian Church” in the Tag Cloud at the top right of the blog will give you all of the posts about the church in reverse chronological order of posting.

[2] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s father–Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen–was an esteemed Presbyterian minister, who died last year.

[3] The prior day Rev. Dr. Hart-Andersen had presided at the memorial service at Westminster for long-time member and former Second Lady Joan Mondale, with remembrances from friends and acquaintances, including Vice President Joe Biden and former President Jimmy Carter. Included in the 1,000 people at the service were her husband and former Vice President Walter Mondale, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (who is a Westminster member), two U.S. Senators, half the Minnesota congressional delegation, several mayors, brass and strings from the  Minnesota Orchestra, the Macalester College Choir and Pipe Band, gospel musicians, and a Japanese solo vocalist Another 5,000 people, including this blogger, attended via the live-stream video, which is available online.