“What Is Your Call Story?”

This was the title of the moving February 17 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen.

As mentioned in previous posts, Westminster’s worship services are divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word; Listening for the Word; and Responding to the Word. After looking at the main points of the first part of the service, this post will quote the main parts of the second section: the sermon and its Biblical texts. The post will conclude with attention to the main parts of the third part of the service while my personal response to the sermon and Biblical texts will be set forth in a subsequent post.

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude was J.S. Bach’s Duet for Violin and Viola, as played by Becca Hanson and Jim Hanson, in memory of Lois Hanson (Jim’s mother and Becca’s grandmother) with Melanie Ohnstad, piano.

Then the congregation sang the Processional Hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” by William Williams, Wales’ most famous hymn writer (1717-1791), followed by Associate Pastor, Rev. David Shinn, leading the congregation in the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Almighty God, you love us, but we have not loved you. You call, but we have not listened. We walk away from neighbors in need, wrapped in our own concerns. We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed. God of grace, help us to admit our sin, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent, turn to you, and receive forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our redeemer.”

The Assurance of Forgiveness was then spoken by Rev. Shinn.

Listening for the Word

The Biblical Texts

Isaiah 6: 1-8 (RSV) 

“In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’”

“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’”

Luke 19: 1-10 (RSV)  

“[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchae′us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ And Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’”

The Sermon

“Our biblical texts this morning introduce us to two very different persons. One, a powerful prophet of God born in the 8th century before the Common Era, the other a local tax collector in the time of Jesus. Each is summoned by God, called by the voice of God, and each responds positively.”

“Isaiah has a vision of a wild and smoky room, where the Lord is seated high and mighty, on a throne. Winged seraphim and cherubim are flying around. There’s fire and noise and holy cacophony. It’s like a scene out of a Steven Spielberg movie, and it terrifies Isaiah, who suddenly feels tiny and helpless and woefully inadequate – and he says so. But one of the winged creatures flies to him and cleanses his lips with a burning coal, which emboldens him.”

“A little fire, some smoke, flying creatures and burning coals. Just another day at the office for an 8th century prophet of God.”

“When a voice booms out asking, ‘Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?’ the suddenly brave Isaiah replies, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“At the other end of the call spectrum we have Zacchaeus, a wealthy little man in the town of Jericho, made rich by his tax collecting job. His neighbors don’t care much for him; he takes from them on behalf of the Romans, the occupying empire, and makes out like a thief. This is no prophet of God.”

When Jesus and his entourage come to town one day, everyone wants to see the renowned teacher and healer. Because of [Zacchaeus’] small stature and also, I suspect, because it kept him out of reach of his hostile neighbors, [he] climbs a sycamore tree to watch the parade.”

“Our Westminster travel group was in Jericho three weeks ago. Our bus did a drive-by viewing of the Greek Orthodox church built as a shrine over the old stump of the ‘actual tree.’ There, or near there, Zacchaeus had his leafy encounter with Jesus.”

“It’s a more mundane call story than Isaiah’s, but it does have some drama. Imagine Jesus and a crowd coming into town, something like the Palm Sunday procession. All of a sudden Jesus stops, and all eyes are on him. Everyone else stops. He looks up. Everyone else looks up. And there, perched in the branches of that sycamore tree, sits everyone’s favorite tax collector to hate. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and tells him to hurry and come down because he’s going to stay at his home. The crowd is shocked. The most despised man in town, the one colluding with the Romans, is the one Jesus chooses to favor?”

“‘Why would he go to the house of a sinner?’ they ask.”

“In the course of the visit with Jesus at his home, Zacchaeus announces he will change how he collects taxes. If he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back fourfold – and why would he say that if he had not already cheated someone? And he makes a commitment to give half of his wealth to support the poor. Zacchaeus is a transformed man.”

“That happens when God calls, and we respond. Just ask Hannah in the older testament when God calls, she responds, and Samuel is born…or Sarah when Isaac was born or Elizabeth when John was born or Mary when Jesus is born. When God calls, wonderful, transformative things happen.”

“A thread runs through these two call stories. Neither Isaiah nor Zacchaeus nor those women in scripture assumed they were the ones God would choose. None expected to be summoned by God. And yet they all listened and said yes – and with that yes came a change in the direction of their lives. That happens when God calls, and we respond.”

What’s your call story? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t mean you have to run off to seminary because only clergy are truly called. Zacchaeus kept on collecting taxes; he just did it now with honesty and integrity. James and John, Andrew and Simon, the fishermen summoned by Jesus, went on fishing, only this time for people – and I suspect they didn’t entirely leave their nets behind.”

“I grew up in a family where the description of ‘being called’ was quite common. I suppose that’s how it should be in a Presbyterian minister’s household. Calling, or vocation, has always been important in our tradition. John Calvin, writing in 16th century Geneva, argued that God’s calling was essential for anyone wanting to find their way through life.”

“‘The Lord bids each one of us,’ Calvin wrote, ‘In all life’s actions to look for God’s calling.’ (All quotes from Calvin are taken from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter X, section 6 [Philadelphia: John Knox Press, 1960], p. 724)”

“Then sounding like a critic of multi-tasking, he goes on to say,

  • ‘For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambitions long to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest everything…be turned topsy-turvy, God has appointed duties for everyone in a particular way of life.’”

“Sixteenth-century advice, sound advice, for a 21st century world: slow down, center yourself, find your purpose, and focus your life.”

“Calvin then says, ‘God has named these various kinds of living ‘callings.’”

What’s your call story? What gives your life meaning?”

“Each individual,” Calvin continues,

  • ‘Has their own kind of living assigned to them by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that they may not heedlessly wander about through life.’”

“To discern our calling is to have the foundation we need to live sound and healthy lives. To find our calling means to discover our life purpose.”

“ . . . . Calvin was trying to help believers come to see that how they live vocationally can – and in the best of circumstances will – reflect the love and life of God. And that brings profound contentment in life, not so much victory or triumph, but, rather, gladness, and gratitude.”

“When we say, as we Christians do, ‘The peace of Christ be with you,’ we mean may you find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in your life. May you find your calling in life, because then you will have found the peace of Christ.”

“My father spoke often of his being called to ministry. It was commonly assumed around our house that each of us was called; of the four children in our family, he would say, one was called to teach, one to practice law, one to ministry, and one to banking.”

“When my father reached retirement he faced a deep challenge – an existential crisis not unlike many who reach that milestone: what to ‘do’ with one’s life now that the purpose is gone?”

“My dad struggled for a full year after retirement from the last church he served. He’d always had a specific calling to fulfill, to one church or another. And then that calling was gone. He wondered if his life was coming to an end because it no longer had purpose. During that first traumatic year he slowly came to understand that retirement itself could be a vocation. He discerned a ‘call to retire,’ wrote a paper about it, and went on a mini-speaking tour to describe his discovery – all the retirees loved it. He dubbed it ‘the penultimate call.’” [2]

“I had a conversation recently with a retired business executive. He had been invited to serve on a community board and wanted to talk about whether he should do it. In the course of the our conversation he began to speak about the board role as offering him a chance to make a difference, to focus on something that mattered. He was making the decision on the basis of direction and purpose. We didn’t use ‘called’ language in that conversation, but that’s what we were talking about.”

“What’s your call story?”

“Most of us reflexively leave the notion of ‘being called’ to the clergy, thinking that only they receive a summons to a vocation. We reserve the terminology for clergy; we ‘call’ them to serve. They have terms of call. When they leave the church the congregation dissolves the call.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t use such language with other vocations. Why not try it? Try speaking of your job –working or retirement – with that language. If someone asks, ‘When did you start teaching at that school?’ trying answering, ‘I was called there four years ago.’”

“‘When did you start working for Target?’ [Response:] “I was called there two years ago.”

“‘What kind of job are you looking for?’”

“‘I feel called to a retail clothing sales position…or called to be a mail carrier…or called to be a car mechanic…or called to do social work…or called to be a doula…or called to run for public office…or called to make music… Try using that language the next chance you get, when talking about your work, your vocation, what it is you do that gives you meaning in life.”

“Martin Luther King referred to our calling as our blueprint for life. He used to speak with school children and explain how builders use blueprints in order to follow the architect’s design. Then King would ask the school children, ‘What’s your life’s blueprint?’”

“Yesterday more than a thousand people gathered in this room to celebrate the life of Jim Dayton, who died unexpectedly on Wednesday. An awful loss. He was a person who clearly had found his calling, his life’s blueprint, in design and architecture. We see that every time we enter the new wing he created. In his life he produced blueprints for human community. Thanks be to God for his life.” [3]

“Without a blueprint we run the risk of having no direction in life. We lose our way. That’s what had happened to Isaiah. Remember when God summons him through all that smoke and noise, and he says he’s not up to it: ‘Woe is me, for I am lost. I don’t know where I’m going. I have no direction. I have no focus. I’m lost. How could you be calling me, God?’”

“The same thing had happened in Zacchaeus’ life, and it’s why Jesus called to him in that sycamore tree. When the people of Jericho complain about Jesus choosing to go to the home of a tax collector and, therefore, a sinner in their eyes, Jesus replies, ‘The Son of humankind came to seek and to save the lost.’”

“Zacchaeus had lost his way. Doesn’t that describe many of us on our worst, purpose-less days – as being lost?”

“‘Wandering about heedlessly through life,’ in Calvin’s terms? No sense of calling, no purpose, no focus in life?”

“Jesus came for people like us. And like Zacchaeus, and Hannah, and Sarah, and Isaiah, and Mary.”

“At the heart of the ministry of Jesus was his desire to help people find their calling – their way – our way – of serving God in life. He knew that once we find our calling, we are fulfilled, and begin to live as people transformed. We become part of the unfolding reign of God, which we are all in together.”

“In a moment we will baptize little Elsie Anne and Evelyn Marie. Baptism is the beginning of Christian vocation. It’s the first sign of a calling in life. It happens there, in the water. We make the promise, essentially, to help those being baptized find their purpose in life, their calling.”

“Calvin summed it up this way: ‘The Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-being.’”

“So when God calls, let us be prepared to come down from that sycamore tree and respond by saying, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“Thanks be to God.”

“Amen.”

Responding to the Word

Following the Sacrament of Baptism of two children, the congregation stated their Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the United Church of Canada:

  • “We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer then gave the Pastoral Prayer and led the congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

The Offertory, accompanying the taking of the offering, was “Greater Love Hath No Man” by English composer and music teacher, John Ireland  (1879-1962).

The congregation also sang two hymns: “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” by contemporary American composer Ronald S. Cole-Turner and “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John L. Bell, a contemporary Church of Scotland minister and member of the Iona Community. 

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

[2] See In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 29, 2012).

[3] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s Meditation at Jim Dayton’s Memorial service is also on the church’s website.  An obituary for Jim.appeared in the StarTribune

“Do You Love Me?”

This was the title of the October 21 sermon by Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. [1] Below are photographs of Rev. Brouwer and of the church’s front entrance.

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

The following Prayer of Confession was led by Executive Associate Pastor Meghan K. Gage-Finn with the congregation’s responses followed by silent prayers of confession:

  • One: O God, we confess that we need to approach the world differently, and, with your help, turn our judgments into acts of grace.
  • All: Help us to show grace to one another, and ourselves, O God.
  • One: As we pray, and name those things we are not proud of, we encounter all of the insecurity and fear that keeps us from loving ourselves and one another.
  • All: Help us to trust in your forgiveness, O God.
  • One: The Spirit leads us to seek and name the truth; in turn we can begin to reconcile, and heal wounds kept invisible.
  • All: Help us to rely on your Spirit, O God.
  • One: Injustice continues, and because of our privilege we are able to tune it out, and leave those who suffer in our wake of ignorance.
  • All: Help us to pay attention and engage in the work of justice and peace, O God. 
  • One: We come together to confess, to support one another in the hard work of being honest, and to marvel at the gift of God’s grace.

Listening for the Word

The Scripture: John 21: 1-19 (NRSV):

“After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’  They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”

“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’  So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’  When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.”

“When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, “’Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

 The Sermon:[2]

“For the disciples in our text for today, going fishing wasn’t really an option- more of a necessity, as they needed to eat. But, we find them, too, with a sense of longing, because at this point they were grieving Jesus’ death. And so, they return to the Sea of Tiberius to do some fishing. Maybe they also just needed something to do something that felt familiar and brought back good memories. Tiberias, or more commonly called the Sea of Galilee, was near where the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 had taken place and where the Sermon on the Mount happened. It’s also where Jesus walked on water and calmed a storm. So, the disciples got out of town and headed to the beach, a place of memories. And while it might have seemed like a good idea to begin with, after fishing all night long and catching nothing, they were left even more emotionally, spiritually and physically worn out–maybe even ready to give up.”

“At a very low moment, scarce of food and hope, Jesus appears on the beach, at first unrecognizable. They see him from a distance, with the fire already going, preparing fish and bread for them. He tells the disciples to put the net in the water one last time and pull up some fish. And they do and [obtain an] abundance of fish. Then, the best thing ever happens. . . . . One of the disciples recognizes that it’s Jesus and Peter is so excited he jumps awkwardly and half-naked into the water, filled with abundance and joy that his friend is back.”

“I love Peter’s response. He doesn’t stop to check himself for appropriateness. He doesn’t try to make sense of the situation. Peter is unabashed in his eagerness to meet Jesus on the beach and it’s almost as if he loses his mind a little bit. He loves Jesus in an uncalculated, inexplicable way. And Jesus loves them, too.”

“I heard someone say once that this scene is so simple it’s hard to know what John is getting at. But, maybe that’s the point. It’s an encounter of abundant love  — no more and no less. It’s a memory the disciples had that John decided to write down. And they probably left some parts out — how the fire on the beach warmed them after a long, cold night on the boat, the crackling sound of the fire and the smell of the smoke as it cooked all of the fish, the nourishment of good bread and protein after hours of hunger, and the safety and communion they felt in Jesus’ presence. What a welcome, simple meal, after so much betrayal and death.”

“In many ways the story from John’s Gospel is one of scarcity and fear, which does not seem far from where we are today. A basic meal of plentiful fish and bread and a God who shows up when hope seems lost stands in stark contrast against the forceful and scary regimes of Jesus’ time.”

“The disciples’ initial lack of recognition of Jesus is a good reminder to me that scarcity can keep us from seeing abundance. Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees, when it feels like everything is wildly and irreversibly out of control. For the disciples it was grief over Jesus’ torturous death and the loss of a future for the people of Israel. For us it’s the partisanship and vitriol and lack of truth or accountability. I will admit, it is sometimes hard for me to imagine where God is showing up these days.”

“In the same way Jesus showed up resurrected on the beach of the Sea of Galilee and fed the disciples, the Body of Christ (the Church)—[according to William Cavanaugh, a professor who studies Catholicism in the Global South]–must continue to show up and disrupt history and stay visible. In the disciplined act of showing up, we [are formed by] the church . . . into a body that is not disappeared, but seen and heard and countercultural and subversive. It’s an act of resistance to all that tries to dominate us. In our showing up we declare that scarcity does not have the final word, and there is, in fact, abundance to reveal.”

“When the disciples are bringing their boat in to meet Jesus on the beach, he tells them to put their nets down just once more to see what they can pull up. It’s a really quick moment in the story that I’ve already glossed over, but John takes the time to mention that 153 fish are pulled out of the lake.”

Again, I don’t fish, but can you imagine taking that much Walleye out at once? On a little boat? With a net that, as the story says, has questionable ability to hold them all? It’s a crazy amount of fish. But, even crazier is that Jesus greets them in his resurrected body. Now, I know this is hard for all of us to wrap our minds around, but try to suspend your disbelief for just a moment, and imagine it. The raw wonder of it. The God we have shows up in a body and eats. It’s real and messy — think of all the sand in the food. But, this is the posture of abundance. Eating together in the midst of grief. Showing up for a meal when all seems lost.”

“And Peter, he not only says he loves Jesus, but he shows up, too. When he hears it is Jesus standing on the shore, he lets nothing stand in his way — not his own knowledge, not a boat, not feelings of fear or regret, not a sense of unworthiness, scarcity or anything else. It is less about him, he seems to realize, and more about Jesus and the meal he has prepared and the love that is offered, and finally, what he can offer others.”

“And so we must go and do as Peter did, without fear or rhyme or reason, with illogical joy and love. God shows up and so must we.”

“Thanks be to God.”

 Reflections[3]

The setting of this encounter is important. The Sea of Tiberius was also known as the Sea of Galilee, where so many important events in Jesus’ life had occurred. This was news to me.

Peter and the others clearly were grieving Jesus’ crucifixion and perhaps were feeling abandoned and as a result perhaps were turning away from being His disciples and instead returning to their previous occupation of fishing.

Sensing all of this, Jesus out of love for them appears on the shore to make their breakfast and produces the large catch on the last try.

Jesus then challenges Peter three times with the question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me? “ Peter’s repeated response, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” shows that he did not understand why Jesus was asking despite the clues provided by Jesus —“Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “ Feed my sheep.” These responses are telling Peter to return to being His disciple, rather than fishing. That is how Peter and everyone else should demonstrate love for Jesus —by their acts of love for others–not mouthing words of love to Jesus.

Previously, I must confess, this passage did not mean much to me. Jesus asking the same question of Peter the second and third times, I thought, was being rude after Peter gave a  correct and truthful answer the first time. The passage also shows this was not a conversation. If it had been, after Peter’s first answer, then Jesus would have said something like, “Well, as I think you know, you need to demonstrate your love for me by tending to our flock. Help the people.”

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[1] The bulletin for this service is available on the church’s website.

[2] Sermon, Do You Love Me? (Oct. 21: 2018).   This extract deletes the pastor’s personal observations that parallel those of the disciples.

[3] This blogger would appreciate comments from biblical scholars about the validity of his reactions to this biblical passage.

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.

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

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

 

 

 

 

Horizontal Faith

This was the title of the August 13th sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s new addition now under construction and of Rev. Brouwer.

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of every day, you are beside us, behind us, and before us, every second of our lives. Yet, we confess we find you mostly in mountaintop moments, and seek you in our dark valleys. We struggle to take our daily walk with you. Remind us, O God, to pause—to consider you, and others. In a world of connectivity, help us stay connected to your Spirit, and to put relationships first. Put us in touch with the rhythm of your life, so our lives may mirror the constancy of your grace. In Christ’s name, we pray.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture: Psalm 90: (NRSV):[2] 

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.”

“You sweep them away; they are like a dream,                         like grass that is renewed in the morning;                                   in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;                                 in the evening it fades and withers.”

“For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

“For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

“Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.”

“Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!”

Sermon (Extracts):

“Psalm 90 is typically read at funerals. . . . [and] has become one of my favorite Psalms. I appreciate the comfort of its familiarity; it returns me to the sacred moments in which it has been read. Funerals . . . sometimes . . .  can be moments for taking stock, checking priorities, and making meaning. This Psalm acts as a mirror, and the more I’ve read it, the more I see myself in a reflection of what a relationship with God might look like over the span of a lifetime. Of course, the language about God being angry is typically left out for memorial services, which is appropriate. But, given the chance, I love reading the whole thing.”

“There is something about God being angry that . . . [is] an important part of this Psalm. It’s raw, honest. God is not completely unaffected, and that makes God more relatable. A God who is accessible is emotional and reactive, and closely aware of the measure and rhythm of our lives.”

“I wonder if the reason the Psalmist focuses so much on God’s anger, and his own mortality, is because he’s projecting some things on to God. . . . [It] sounds kind of like the Psalmist is playing a bit of a blame game. It sounds like he knows he has done something to make God angry that he’d rather not let us know about here–God doesn’t get angry without good reason, after all.”

“And maybe there’s also a chance, he’s angry with himself. Either way, he’s working it out, externally processing with God, using God as a sounding board. And along the way he touches on some serious concerns, which might be the underlying root of that anger. The Psalmist is struggling with life and death, what it means to have this life at all, and then what it means to have that life be limited and fragile and messy. In the end, what it reveals is important–that not only can God take this kind of stuff from us, God desires it. We want and need God to be there for us. And I think that’s the way God wants it, too.”

“I found myself coming back to this Psalm most recently because it does help me remember times when God felt particularly close. Maybe you can relate, but for me it takes work and intention for God to feel close every day. I know on an intellectual level that God is always there, but to feel spiritually connected is another thing, even for someone who does this for a living.”

“What I assume about most people, church-going folks or not, is that God tends to be near at hand only occasionally, either during spiritually recharging mountaintop moments or in the hardest, darkest valleys of life. Those are liminal times and places, in which the distance between heaven and earth seem to come miraculously or desperately close together.”

“But we can’t be climbing mountains all the time, nor would we want the lowest of lows to be our constant companions. That kind of vertical experience of faith is not possible day-to-day, and it doesn’t express the whole of our journey. I’m not sure we talk enough about the ordinary days of faith– how God is with us as we answer emails, or shop for groceries and pay our bills, or even deal with conflict. Nothing about God is ordinary, but life gets that way, and so we struggle to connect the two. And maybe that’s because we haven’t been taught how, or at least we haven’t been asked often enough to consider how we might do it. It sounds simple, but what is simple is not always simplistic.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution, Diana Butler Bass writes about this issue for herself, and for the sake of the church in the 21st Century. At one point, she is using the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth to describe what she means. She writes, ‘Here in the labyrinth, I struggle to find words to describe what I feel. Up on the mountaintop, I [know] the language to describe God: majestic, transcendent, all-powerful. [But,] in this vocabulary, God remains stubbornly located in a few select places, mostly in external realms above or beyond… Like countless others, I have been schooled in vertical theology. Western culture, especially Western Christianity, has imprinted a certain theological template upon the spiritual imagination: God exists far off from the world and does humankind a favor when choosing to draw close… In its crudest form, the role of religion… is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling around down below in the world.’”[3] (Emphasis added.)

This vertical theology [Bass] describes misses the part about the incarnation, the part about God being with us that sets Christianity apart. It doesn’t touch on our individual need to be known and enmeshed in God’s life, and for God to be known, at least in part, by us. It’s the horizontal part of our faith we have a hard time with. It’s the part that says God is relational, neighborly, immanent, fleshy, earthy, broken, poured out, dead and risen… and even though I can come up with those words I probably don’t say them enough. Our default is easier: to keep God up there, or in these walls, and to only connect on Sundays. But, this structure of Christendom that has shaped our whole worldview, is changing, it’s being dismantled, along with many of the other hierarchical institutions around us.” (Emphasis added.)

“People, including me, are seeking a more horizontal faith, and a God that doesn’t live somewhere else, outside of us, veiled in complex theology that is beyond our capacity to understand. As Bass writes, “my soul has a mile-wide mystical streak.” And that resonates with me. Not in a supernatural sort of way, but it’s a description of faith that affirms a wideness, and a wisdom. All of this doesn’t mean we forget certain pieces of our theology, rather it confirms that God cannot be contained–and that God has vastly different ways of being in relationship with God’s people.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist begins by praising God for being a dwelling place. It’s a more intimate metaphor, and one that is used throughout scripture. The Gospel of John uses it often, taking a turn from the other three Gospels in the way he talks about God. The word for dwelling is related to the word for womb. It’s an indwelling–that’s how close the Psalmist is to God. A place where one lives, a home to return to. The Psalmist doesn’t describe how the dwelling looks, only that it is has always been there, and it always will be, and that it seems to take the shape of whatever the Psalmist needs. There’s no hierarchy to it, but it is clear that God is God, eternal, and human beings are finite and needy. This, as it turns out, is the Psalmist’s struggle, not proximity to God, but how to fit as much abundance into one life as possible, especially when life seems so short.”

“I wonder what Christianity would look like if we were less interested in how to figure God out in these vertical systems, less concerned with who is right about God and who is wrong, or who is saved and who isn’t, and more curious about our own day-to-day walk with God? Different, I think. Freer, kinder. More creative. I think that, for the most part, when I feel close to God I am more generous, more justice-oriented, more at peace with what I am good at and even more so at peace with what I’m not good at. I’m less ashamed and more confident in who I am.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist prays that God would, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” and “prosper the work of our hands.” Wisdom and purpose are what the Psalmist wants from God and life. I have to admit, it seems a bit countercultural. Even though the Psalmist finds life to be unbearably short, there is nothing here about Carpe Diem, Seize the day! YOLO- you only live once! And there’s no prosperity Gospel here, either. Nothing about, ‘prosper our retirement accounts so we can live comfortably in the end!’ The Psalm calls on us to ask: What is important in the end? And will we be in a close and fruitful relationship with God, and one another?”

“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Prosper the work of our hands.”

“Some days I get discouraged, because I feel like wisdom and prosperity defined like this are in short supply. And, I throw myself into the mix of those who have a hard time living this out. It’s easy to buy into the world’s definitions of wisdom and purpose, simpler sometimes to live mindlessly, distant from God, not treating each day as though it is a precious, wonderful, difficult and messy gift. Keeping God up here is more straightforward, more organized–it fits into our ordered society.”

“But, as my Old Testament Professor Terry Fretheim used to say, ‘God did not intend creation to be a machine…’ He writes, ‘For all the world’s order and coherence, a certain randomness, ambiguity, unpredictability and play characterize its complex life.’”[4]

“Unlike our tendency toward the vertical systems we have created for God–horizontal faith celebrates relationship, between us and God, but also among all people, and all creation. Our faith is not a machine that can be turned on, established, and instituted only when it is convenient–that promotes exclusivity and suffocates. Taken to an extreme, we’ve seen the dangerous ways this has played out over centuries, and even until the last few days in Charlottesville, when vertical theological power becomes twisted, misinterpreted, and used to dehumanize. horizontal faith, on the other hand, means there’s no power involved, no ego, no money, no walls, no competition. It’s no wonder the Psalmist uses organic images throughout: mountains, grass, even dust. We are intertwined with God, and all people, and all things, in a beautiful, sacred, web of relationship.” (Emphases added.)

“Poet Wendell Berry describes horizontal faith as well as anyone. (Emphasis added.) A farmer and writer from rural Kentucky, Berry has long used creation metaphors to describe his faith and call to environmental justice. His poem “The Wild Geese” seems like a modern interpretation of Psalm 90. It touches on life and death, wisdom and purpose, and our relationship with God, which is so much closer than we can believe. I invite you to close your eyes, and imagine what he writes,

‘Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.’”

“And it’s true. God is right here, God with us, our dwelling place. Not too far above or beyond our grasp. But, willing us to count our days as precious, and gain a wise heart– reminding us that prosperity and abundance are what has already been given us, in Christ.”

“Even within God’s very self–Creator, Christ and Spirit–there is a wideness and inclusivity. God’s very own diversity, God’s very own shape is a dwelling place for each of us, showing us that God is accessible to us all, and to our every need. It is this God who calls us, who desires us, and all we are. This is the God we have right here. God with us.”

Conclusion

Thank you, Rev. Brouwer, for opening our eyes to see and our ears to hear another interpretation of the 90th Psalm and to gain a better appreciation of our horizontal faith.

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

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

[2]  The New Testament passage was Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV).

[3] Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution (Harper Collins 2015). This book won the Religion News Association Book Award, the Nautilus Award (Better Books for a Better World) and the Religious Communicators Council’s Wilbur Award. Bass is an independent author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic) (Baker Academic 2010). Fretheim is the Elva B. Lowell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary.

 

 

 

Lover’s Quarrel

This was the title of the July 16 sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of mercy, you call us and we ignore your whisper, listening to the voices of this world. You call us and we choose a different path, following our own devices. You call us to be the body of Christ, to collectively proclaim your justice and love. God of grace, open our ears and our hearts to your wisdom and ways. Help us to receive your forgiveness, and by your Spirit, show grace to a broken world. Call on us, again, O God, to serve you and your people.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV):

  • “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
    to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
    that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
    What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
    To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
    so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
    For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.”

Luke 5:27-32 (NRSV):

  • “After. . . [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
  • Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Sermon (extracts):

“This is the place where the good news of Jesus Christ should be preached to all people. It is the preacher’s job to make sense of the complexities within scripture- to lift out what is challenging, troubling, even, and then reveal the ultimate truth of the story, which is that God’s love is always at the center, even if it seems buried in the shadows of a dark text.”

“It seems to me this preaching gig is . . . more of a dialogue that should engage all of our hearts with God’s word. Like you, I have thoughts, questions, reactions to what God says and what it means for us today.”

“I come here, too, because, despite how comfortable I am, I still need to hear the good news of the Gospel. But good news is not always comfort. I need the Gospel to give me a framework for how to think about and serve a world where affliction is rampant, and the news we hear and read about is often not good. The Gospel should surprise us, challenge all of our assumptions, and help us make meaning, find purpose, and push past cynicism. That’s what is good about the Gospel. [This] church with Open Doors and an Open Future exists not to come down on anyone, but to be a community where we explore the nuances of being followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st century and beyond.”

“The two passages, side by side, from Isaiah and Luke, seem to convey a relatively similar message, though they are separated by hundreds of years in their history.

“Isaiah speaks a word of judgment to certain scribes, who have written laws that continue to oppress the poor, the widows and the orphans, and protect the established members of society. Isaiah’s Israel was a kinship society where money was not exchanged. Widows and orphans were those who didn’t fit neatly into extended, patriarchal families that cared for one another, so finding resources to house and feed them when their husbands or parents died, either did not exist or were scarce. Laws to carve out space for them in an ordered world, were the only way they would thrive. The words Isaiah uses against these scribes are harsh, but fairly straightforward, and common among the prophets- they describe what the eventual consequences will be for behavior that continues as it is in the present. The Common English Translation says [this Isaiah passage] like this:

  • “What will you do when disaster comes from far away? To whom will you flee for help; where will you stash your wealth? How will you avoid crouching among the prisoners and falling among the slain?”

“In the reading from Luke, the overall message is somewhat the same: calling sinners to repentance. But, if we pay close attention, there is a slight twist. In the story it says that, after recruiting Levi, a tax collector, Jesus joins him at his house to have dinner with Levi’s former colleagues- the other tax collectors. In first century Israel, tax collectors were despised because they would defraud the poor, and pilfer money for themselves, while aiding the harsh Roman Empire. The Pharisees, who were strictly religious, Jewish leaders, began to whisper to the disciples behind Jesus’ back, complaining that Jesus was hanging out with these sinners who mistreated the poor. Jesus must have overheard them talking, and in what seems like a rather loaded comment Jesus says, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”

“It occurs to me that Jesus was probably calling both the tax collectors and the Pharisees sinners, because there really are no righteous people in this story. The so-called righteous folks were finger-wagging Pharisees who could not see beyond the surface of what Jesus was doing. Jesus’ method was a different way of being a prophet, one that sought to build a relationship with those whose moral compass had failed them, to try and change their minds. But, so convinced were the Pharisees in their interpretation of Jewish law, they could not imagine eating and conversing with sinners like Levi and his friends.”

“In the same way, if we approach scripture, using either of these passages or others, as a way to prove our own side of the argument we will always be in opposition with someone, afflicting them with our righteousness, and never making any headway in finding what good God might be doing right in front of us. Scripture should not be used as a method to prove  one’s point about a subject, but a way for the good news of the Gospel to surprise even our own well held assumptions about justice.”

“William Sloane Coffin, a well known social justice preacher who died not that long ago,. claimed he had a Lover’s Quarrel with America, and preached often about patriotism. In his mind there were “three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones,” he wrote, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”[2]

“God is the lover, and we are the beloved. That is the first and most important truth we can hold on to- you might even say it’s the comforting part of this sermon. But, the word quarrel implies that this love is a two-way street. God doesn’t love us inconsequentially, or deny us love as a consequence. There is a relationship between lover and beloved, one that has expectations on both sides. And if we are God’s people, as Coffin says, we are a reflection of this lover’s quarrel- this is the kind of relationship we are to have with the world. To love it is to engage it, to be affected by it, to care for it.’

‘What I think is important for us as Christians, though, is that the quarrel is not about winning or losing an argument- it’s a quarrel that spurs us toward working on our relationships, our place in the world in relationship to all people, and making sure that they are good, and honest, and, eventually, whole.”

“If we look back to Isaiah, I think this is what the prophet is getting at. Isaiah was conveying a lover’s quarrel; God’s frustration with the people of Israel was out of love for them, love for those they were leaving behind, and the relationships that were all suffering because of it. God’s quarrel was, and is about justice. And justice, in the biblical sense, is a social concept.“

“As professor Rolf Jacobson writes, ‘It has to do with the order of society and how that order shapes or fails to shape human relationships with one another. A society that is ‘more just’ is one in which the social order allows life to thrive… A society that is ‘less just’ is one in which the social order prevents life from thriving to a greater degree.’”[3]

“As we read these difficult texts we know justice is sought after, but what we often fail to see is that relationships are at the core of God’s work to bring it about. Love and relationships are the way to a justly ordered society where all people thrive, even when it comes through laws, or policy decisions.”

“It’s why Jesus sat and ate with sinners and, at the same time, corrected the righteousness of the Pharisees. ‘None of you is right,’ he seemed to say, ‘until you are willing to break bread together, to love one another, even in the midst of your quarrel.’ God’s justice does not come about by denigrating one side or the other. It may necessitate consequences and correction, but God’s justice is always, ultimately, loving, relational, and restorative in its approach and culmination.”

“There are maybe some who will hear what I just said and think this sounds like a good idea, but that in the end it is naive, it’s idealist- there is not one lens we can use to view the world that will help us all settle our quarrels and bring about justice, especially one as emotionally driven as love.”

“Maybe it is naive. But, if we can’t be idealists in church, where can we be? We have a God who died to show us how far love was willing to go. To be sure, there is a time and place for data and quantitative research, which can also help solve problem,… but we come to this place to imagine that with God all things are possible- that the affliction of the world will not win out, that God’s justice will eventually inhabit all of our hearts, and the world will begin to turn.”

“Until that day comes we return here to be reminded of the good news. We have a framework we are creating here, for a world that is coming into being out there. We are making meaning here, and dialoging here, so that we can lovingly quarrel with the world. And we also come here to remember that, while we are likely neither the tax collector nor the Pharisee, God is still lovingly quarreling with us. And that is a good thing to remember, especially for those of us who think we have a lot of this justice stuff figured out.”

“In general, there are any number of ways we can approach issues of injustice. Being good citizens, giving away money or time, using a good filter for investments, reading and staying up-to-date on all that is happening in the world, checking our privilege. I think I’ve done most of these things, myself, and while it is important work, I have to say that none of them has ever left me feeling remarkably hopeful about the state of justice in our world. And without hope, what is the motivator to continue in our pursuit?”

“In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, author and speaker Parker Palmer writes this, ‘If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken… What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.’”[4]

“Herein lies what we do here, particularly related to justice. All of us have the capacity to have our hearts broken, especially if we are paying attention to the world. But, it all depends on how they break. Will we be overwhelmed, apathetic, angry, or cynical? Or will we come here, and find ways to move forward in hope?”

“Here’s the thing- our hearts will break if we love the world as God loves the world. And there are a number of ways to handle it. But, in this place we have a way for them to break open and create new life. When we come here, we are not doing it alone. We have the hope and the call of one who loves us and is quarreling alongside of us, who is working to restore relationships. And we trust in the promise, that there will be a day when two sides understand each other, when we are all fully known, and quarrels will ultimately cease.”

“This is why we come. This is why I am a minister. Not to afflict the comfortable. Maybe to comfort the afflicted. But, always, always, to engage in God’s love and quarrel with the world- one that challenges assumptions, that builds a framework of meaning and purpose and hope, and constantly, little by little moves us toward justice. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The phrase “lovers’ quarrel,” I guess, had been kicking around in the back of my mind, when what should have been its obvious meaning suddenly dawned on me. Two lovers care for each other’s best interests, but do not agree on everything. Occasionally one conveys truth to the other that the other resists. As a result, they have quarrels or disagreements, not wars or fisticuffs or worse, and in the best of times they seek to resolve their quarrels through conversations and reasoning.

This too is the nature of the quarrels that God has with us His people.

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

[1] The bulletin and a video recording of the service along with the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Coffin, Credo, at 84 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004)(extracts of sermons and other writings). In an aside Rev. Brouwer noted that the “lover’s quarrel” phrase had come from an earlier unnamed poem by Robert Frost that will be discussed in another blog post.

[3] Jacobson, “The Lord is a God of Justice (Isaiah 30:18): The Prophetic Insistence on Justice in Social  Context,” 30 Word and World 125 (2010).

[4] Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (Jossey-Bass 2014.)

Subversive Revolutionaries 

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

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

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

Scripture Reading

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

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

The Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for the Word

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

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

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

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

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

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.

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

Prayer of Confession

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisionist Christians

Westminster Presbyterian Church

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

Preparing for the Word

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

Listening for the Word

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

Scripture Reading

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

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

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

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

The Sermon

Rev. Sarah Brouw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affirmation of Faith

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

  • “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Conclusion

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

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

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

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