Welcoming Immigrants at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church

The Fourth of July was celebrated at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church with a conversational sermon, “Whom Do We Welcome?” by two immigrants, Rev. David Shinn, our Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care from Taiwan, and Evelyn Ngwa, a Deacon from Cameroon.[1]

The Scripture

The Scripture for the day was this comment by Jesus in Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV):

  • “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The Sermon

Rev. David Shinn

The sermon was opened by Rev. Shinn with these words from Deuteronomy 26:5 (NRSV): ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’”

[This passage reminds us that] “our storied faith is steeped in this beautiful tapestry of stories. In retelling the stories, it stirs the hearts and minds of the faithful to recall God’s incredible deliverance from bondage to liberation. This is the core of our spiritual DNA, that we are a people who believe that God migrated to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Who, under the tyrannical oppression of Herod, fled to Egypt and became a refugee. In fact, the story goes even further back. It begins with Adam and Eve, the world’s first immigrants. Our biblical stories are filled with stories of our faithful ancestors being called and sent to lands unknown such as Abraham, the wandering Aramean. Our spiritual stories are told through the lens of immigrants and refugees. Yet we have often forgotten the root of this meaning and practice.”

“In the same way, deep within our country’s DNA, we are a nation of immigrants. On this July 4th weekend as our nation celebrates its 241st birthday, we remember how this land was first founded by the Native Americans who traversed through great distance from Asia to the Americas. Centuries later, a new wave of Europeans immigrants, escaping from religious intolerance, settled and colonized this land. Since then, waves and waves of immigrants and refugees have come seeking for religious liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“[Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor, told] me about two nurses who came [to the U.S.] as immigrants and refugees. One person came at the age of three escaping from the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge. The other came to the U.S. by way of becoming a refugee in Ghana when her own country, Liberia, erupted in civil war.”

“This is who we are. A country made up of immigrants fleeing from tyrants, escaping poverty, and seeking for better life.”

“With 241 years of history of immigration, how are we doing today in welcoming immigrants and refugees?”

“In just a few words in our scripture today, mixed with power and compassion, Jesus challenges us to think deeply about the meaning of welcoming one another. In doing so, we may then discover and receive the reward that comes from the warm hospitality that is at the center of God’s welcome and gift of faith to us. Our focus this morning is on hospitality and on compassionate welcome as a form of Christian discipleship and service on behalf of Christ to all people of God. This hospitality and compassionate welcome are the simple and basic acts of kindness we can all perform in welcoming one another. We like to invite you to look around here in this community and look beyond this community in the way we can practice hospitality and compassionate welcome.”

Deacon Ngwa responded, “Looking at our passage from the gospel of Matthew; Jesus challenges his disciples to go against the status quo and implement God’s alternative plan of “a just and merciful world” by continuing his mission on earth. He continues “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward”’

“Jesus’s mission on earth was and continues to be about bringing love to the world by proclaiming the Good news, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead.”

“According to Jesus, [Ngwa continued,] mission is not optional but the very reason why the church and disciples exist. These disciples today are all who have chosen to follow Christ called Christians. Those people are you and me, and everyone is included.”

Rev. Shinn then said the two of them wanted “to share our personal stories of being welcomed as a stranger to this strange land. From the immigrant’s point of view, the United States is fascinatingly strange in so many ways.”

“When I first came to the U.S., my adopted parents wanted to help me learn as much as I could and as fast as I could, about this land. It was no coincidence that I began the formative years of my immigrant journey in the Commonwealth of Virginia. To help me, they asked one of their very good friends who was a high school English teacher, Mrs. Barbara King, to tutor me. For the initial months, every afternoon after school hours, Mrs. King came by for half an hour to sit with me and help me with homework. Her first assignment for me: memorize the names of the 50 states and the capitals.”

“Yet, I learned the most about hospitality and welcome on the Chuckatuck Creek and the tributary rivers of the James River, where the settlement from English arrived to build Jamestown. There, Mrs. King took me fishing at least couple times a week during my first summer in 1983. She packed sandwiches, fruits, and her favorite drink, Dr. Pepper, in the cooler. We hopped on her Johnson outboard motor boat and off we went to look for her crab traps and good fishing spots. At times, her husband, Mr. Jack King, a veteran of the Korean War and a Newport News shipyard builder for over three decades, would join us. To this day, I have a very soft spot for Mr. and Mrs. King’s kindness.”

Deacon Ngwa next shared her story of welcome to the U.S. “I came into the United States through Newark International Airport. At the entrance was a greeter dressed in a red suit, black pants and a tie. He had this big smile on his face and shouted to everyone ‘Welcome! Welcome to the United States of America! Enjoy yourself; feel at home, you are welcome!’”

“I thought he was talking to me directly. It felt as if the greeter was talking to me personally because in a strange land where I know no one else other than those I was traveling with. How could a stranger be so welcoming? The image and message of the greeter stayed in my memory to date. It felt nice to be welcomed by a stranger in a strange land.”

“We don’t have snow in Cameroon. You all know that. I traveled in January, the heart of winter and snow. I knew about winter, and I read about it. I knew about the cold and I prepared for it. Yet I had not experienced winter or cold before then. No amount of warm clothing and no amount of heat could keep me warm, especially at night. I put on sweatpants, sweatshirts, socks, hat, and mittens. There was central heat, and I also had a bedside heater. That didn’t make any difference and I wanted to go back home so badly.”

“To crown it all, I was separated from my family. My husband and I were here while our young children stayed back home for the time being until we stabilized. The cold was one part, but being apart from my family just made things worse. That was not a very good experience. My family means so much to me and I was separated from them.”

Rev. Shinn: picked up on this thought. “A significant part of the immigrant life reality is not just adjustment, learning, sacrifices, but also challenges of separation from one’s family and familiar culture. While we both have many difficult challenges range from blatant in-your-face racism to subtle and demeaning micro-aggression, that’s not the focus of the message here. The focus, however, is how do we put to use Jesus’ teaching of hospitality and compassionate welcome in our daily lives? “

In our Scripture for the day, “Jesus says, ‘and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of the disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’”

“Notice Jesus says, ‘give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.’ In the arid climate of Nazareth or Capernaum, keeping anything cold would be nearly impossible. Yet, it is only possible if one is intentional and dedicated to either draw water from a very deep well or keep the water deep inside the house to keep it cool. In other words, the prerequisites of practicing hospitality and compassionate welcome are intention and dedication.”

Deacon Ngwa added, “Do not be afraid of people who are different from us, whether they are young, old, female, male, tall or short. Let’s not be afraid of people.”

“Example: Let’s say an 80-year-old woman is sitting by a 13-year-old young man in church. The adult in this case who is a mature Christian can help the young man feel at home by showing interest in what he is doing. ‘Oh what book are you reading, what is it about, what grade are you in? By the way, my name is Evelyn and what is yours? It seems you like to read, who are your parents? ‘ As much as you can keep this conversation going.”

“By doing so, the adult has met the young man where he is and this might be an invitation from this adult to this young man to come to church for one more week. This is showing love to the younger teenager. A teenager can experience acceptance. This is doing church together. “

“Next, spend one to two minutes of your time to know your pew neighbor by talking and shaking hands, by finding out where people are from and what they are doing. Welcome people sitting by you or coming in through the doors of Westminster. Your neighbor might be a guest or first-time comer.”

“Once you connect with them, they will feel at home. They will not feel like a stranger.”

“Mission work is not optional and we are all Disciples of Christ to bring love to the world. Be each other’s greeter with the bright red suit and big smile at the airport yelling ‘WELCOME TO AMERICA.’”

Rev. Shinn, “Thank you, Evelyn for this powerful and important reminder that we begin the practice and hospitality and welcome from right here in this community, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Our doors are wide open to them and we can share our welcome and our lives with them.”

“Yet we as a nation are struggling. We are struggling with hospitality and compassionate welcome when we engage in amped-up, fear-driven rhetoric toward immigrants, refugees, and people of Muslim faith.”

“For many Asian Americans, the newly installment of the travel ban echoes perilously close to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 when Chinese immigrants were denied entry to maintain racial purity in the US. It also echoes dangerously to President Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 when he ordered Americans of Japanese heritage into internment camps. Once again, the bell of fear, resentment, and anger tolls.”

“However, the bell of hospitality and compassionate welcome must toll louder and brighter. Christians, you are, WE are that bell. Our Westminster vision of Open Door Open Future is that very bell of hospitality and compassionate welcome. We are followers of Christ and we will not fail. We will not fail because in our nation’s DNA, we are a country of immigrants that fled from tyranny for liberty, from oppression for freedom, and from injustice for humanity. In our Christian DNA, Jesus instills in us hospitality and compassionate welcome. Let us not forget our national DNA and our spiritual DNA.. Let us shine that hope in our open and faithful expression of hospitality and compassionate welcome. Whom do we welcome? Everyone! Everyone, we will.”

The Prayer of Confession

The sermon’s theme was foretold in the earlier Prayer of Confession (from Feasting on the Word, Kimberly Bracken Long, ed.): ‘ O God of extraordinary hospitality and welcome, you open your table wide to invite all people to come. Even with this gracious invitation in hand, we deny others of your welcome. We have allowed sin to run our lives, to shape how we act toward others, and to kill our relationship with you. In your great mercy, forgive us. Change our bodies from implements of destruction to instruments of your peace; for the sake of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.’ (Emphasis added.) [2]

The Music

The music for the service also emphasized the sermon’s theme.

One was the famous hymn, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” which opens with that phrase and continues “in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” (Emphasis added.)

Another was the Offertory Anthem, “Welcome to God’s Love,” with these words: “Families of all shapes and kinds, love the only tie that binds This gathering of open minds, welcome to God’s love. Every person has a place in this holy, sacred space, Earth’s entire human race, come and feel God’s love! No proof required of your worth, a gift to you before your birth From God, who made the heavens and earth. Welcome to God’s love. We’ll love each other and take care of every need encountered there. Within God’s heart there is room to spare. Come and live God’s love.”[3] (Emphasis added.)

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

[2] Kimberly Bracken Long is s an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a professor of sacramental and liturgical worship in the tradition of the reformed church.

[3] The Anthem’s composer is Mark A. Miller, an Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School as well as a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University and the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey.

 

 

 

A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness

At the center of the March 26, 2017, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was a conversation about forgiveness between its Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and Makram El-Amin, the imam of the historic Masjid An-Nur (the Mosque of the Light) in north Minneapolis. The service was opened with an Islamic Call to Prayer by Elijah Muhammad, the Muezzin (the man who calls Muslims to prayer) of Masjid An-Nur.[1]

The Reading from Holy Scripture

The Holy Scripture reading for the day was the following, Luke 6:27-38 (NRSV):

  • “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
  • “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

The Conversation

Hart-Andersen: “This morning’s reading of the gospel in both English and Arabic, from the Egyptian Coptic Bible, comes from Luke’s version of the Sermon . . . on the Plain. . . .

It’s a pivotal sermon. Here Jesus puts forgiveness in the broader context of the wide-open love of God. Jesus delivers a string of commandments that represent a serious re-directing of our lives. This is Christianity at its most challenging.”

“’Love your enemies,’ Jesus says, the first hint that he expects us to live in a way that will be difficult. And then he goes on… ‘Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.’ Jesus is proposing an ethic that goes far beyond anything we would consider reasonable in the normal course of life and human relationships. If we thought following Jesus would be easy, we will have to think again.”

“’If anyone strikes you on the cheek,’ Jesus says, ‘Offer the other, also. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt, as well. Give to everyone who begs from you.’”

“I wonder if those who heard these words of Jesus 2,000 years ago had a response similar to mine. To comply with these commandments, frankly, seems to be humanly impossible.”

But then Jesus reframes his teaching. He shifts his emphasis from those on the receiving end – those who have been hated or abused or cursed or unloved, those who have little power in a relationship – and, instead, turns toward those on the doing end, those with agency and power in the relationship. To them, to us, when we’re in that situation, Jesus offers a summary imperative that underlies all his teaching. It’s deceptively simple: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’”

The Golden Rule. The foundation of Christian living. The core of the teaching of Jesus on how we are to get along as human beings.”

Do to others as you would have them do to you. This teaching is not unique to Christianity. It’s found in other traditions, as well.”

“Makram, . . . Islam teaches something similar to the Golden Rule. Would you comment on the Muslim version of this teaching?”

El-Amin: “Yes, Islam’s Golden Rule is very similar to that which is in Christian and other traditions. . . . Mohammad, the prophet to Islam, said, “You . . . do not have faith, until you love for your brother or sister that which you love for yourself.’”

“So he made this a matter of faith, not just simply a good thing to do. It is not just a nice idea. But for those of us who want to be faithful and trusting to God, we are required to transcend our own desire, our own self-interest even, and to expand that to our neighbor, those with whom we share common space. Mohammad also said, which I have found to be a very transformational teaching, ‘Your religion, in fact, is in your human transactions, or your human interactions.’ It is one thing to profess faith, it is another thing to adorn the robes of faith. But how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, how we act in our local human interactions, this really determines and shows the quality of our faith together.”

Hart-Andersen: “Jesus uses the Golden Rule as another way to teach about forgiveness. We offer forgiveness, because each of us would want to be forgiven. It’s a pragmatic approach to forgiveness. We do it because we would want it done to us. The next time you are asked to forgive someone, and you really don’t feel like forgiving them, remember the rule and respond in the way you would want them to respond. We can’t ask someone to do something we’re not willing to do ourselves. ‘Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’”

“The danger here is that we begin to think of God’s love as merely transactional, between us and God or between us and neighbor…an exchange. But Jesus teaches here that we don’t love others because we expect others to love us in return. That approach to human relationships imagines an unwritten contract between people: we will do this – forgive, share, give, love – if and only if you will do the same for us.”

“Life in the realm of God is not like that. It is not contractual, not a negotiated deal between people or between God and us. The Bible is not the story of contractual love, but of covenantal love. Life in covenant with one another begins with our first extending love to the other, with no expectation of anything in return. God loves us like that, with no conditions. God forgives us like that, as well.”

“It is really the core, defining quality of our understanding of who God is. God is the Generous One. Generosity underlies the ministry and teaching of Jesus, his entire life, and certainly his death for us on the cross. We hear that in his Sermon on the Plain. ‘If you love those who love you,’ Jesus says, ‘What credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.’”

Generosity. No expectations.”

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies (and) do good…expecting nothing in return.” Generous living in the way of Jesus compels us to forgive, to share, to love one another. Expecting nothing in return.”

“Makram, is there a similar mandate in Islam to live generously toward others, including people of other faith traditions?”

El-Amin: “Yes, my understanding of our religion is that Islam, in and of itself, is about generous living. It is about living abundantly, a life of abundance, versus a life of scarcity. The idea that we are to go beyond our very selves and to convey courtesies and peace upon one another.”

“There are many attributes of God that we call upon throughout our religious tradition. [One is] . . . Ar-rahmaan, the merciful benefactor. The one who gives all of the benefits, everything that we enjoy in life, everything that we sometimes think of as small and insignificant, the breath that you just took. . . . [Another attribute is] Ar-raheem, the merciful redeemer. The one that, after we have enjoyed all of these wonderful gifts from God, and we make a mess of things, we go astray, we err, we sin, it is the Ar-raheem now that we call to redeem us, and who comes to put us back on a firm footing with God. Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to say, ‘Oh God, you love to forgive. So forgive me.’”

“Again, we are called to abundant living. This idea of forgiveness must not get stuck in a grudge. Not to stay small in our own disturbed sensitivities. But to live a life that is truly free.”

Hart-Andersen: “It sounds as if the teaching of Islam on forgiveness and generosity is very similar to Christian teaching on those subjects. We might think Islam and Christianity would be getting along pretty well these days. But . . . in other lands and in our own nation, the reality is that we don’t live as friendly neighbors. We live as people suspicious of one another, assuming things of one another, afraid of one another. . . . ”

“We speak of generosity in our traditions, but what we’re experiencing oftentimes is a distortion of that teaching. Current politics, the campaign last year, and our government’s recent proposals to ban anyone coming from several Muslim-majority nations tend to exacerbate the tension. We’ve seen a rise in America of crimes against people of traditions other than Christianity. The politics of intolerance make the situation worse, and move us from the religions traditions we have described today into a more extreme view of one another. I’m sorry that that happens in our tradition; you in your tradition are often on the receiving end of that, as we have our own extremists. But I want to make clear: that is not the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is a loving path, a generous path, a forgiving path.”

El-Amin: “I really appreciate this recognition of what we experience in the world by those who operate under the cloak of faith, and, instead, the attempt to discern what is really the essence of faith. I believe that, also, we can see the fate of our country, and many of those who are suffering at the hands of this intolerant rhetoric that we hear day-in and day-out begins to play itself out in hate crimes and discrimination and other forms of oppression and we have experienced this, many times, at our mosque and against others of the Muslim tradition. Even here in Minnesota, . . . there are those who have experienced a degree of anxiety and fear. We have also seen those who have been driven to cause physical harm to others, as well.”

But one thing that I would have to say, in all honesty, is that I’ve also seen the opposite. I’ve also seen good people of faith to come to the support of those who are under siege. To come to the support of those who are in need the most. When we are under fire, when we are not having a good day, when things are not going well, we call upon our friends. We call upon those who care about us. We call upon those with whom we have established relationships for a comforting word, for some peace to be conveyed, and we have that. And we share that. I would hope that we would model this more in this time when leaders must lead.”

Hart-Andersen: “Makram, can you help us understand how a person who has a religious tradition rooted in peace, salaam –meaning “peace,” Islam – moves from that kind of position and understanding of a tradition to an extremist position that might result in violent actions? We don’t understand how that happens in our tradition. Maybe you can help us understand.”

 El-Amin: “I’ve done a lot of work recently on this idea of de-radicalization. One of the things that I’ve found is whether it is a terrorist, under the cloak of Islam, or a right-wing group promoting a certain ideology, one of the things I’ve found that is very surprising to me, is when we took the labels off of each of these particular extremist groups, we found them to be eerily similar. So if we covered the label, and looked at the content of actions, thoughts, behaviors, and what ultimately began to be these acts of aggression towards others, we could not discern any difference.”

“So how does this happen? I think it happens to us who find it hard to forgive. We have some hurt that we’ve experienced in our life that blocks us from abundance. And it begins to taint and jade our thinking and our view of life. And it allows us to justify things that, when seen through clear eyes, we wouldn’t even tolerate. So I believe there is a way that it happens and that in some way they have codified it and produced other minds that are radical and extreme. But I also think that there is a way of combatting this in my view, that we have the power of our traditions to reverse-engineer radicalization. And get us back to a state of peace. Because ultimately, to become radical or extreme, you have to depart from your tradition at some point and some time.”

Hart-Andersen: “In the [Biblical] text today, the Sermon on the Plain, we hear the heart of our tradition. “Be merciful,’ Jesus says, ‘Just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged… Forgive, and you will be forgiven; Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”

“Following Jesus is not for the meek or indecisive. To follow Jesus is demanding and difficult work, and it all begins with living generously, by forgiving, by loving, even as we are forgiven, and loved, by God.”

Conclusion

As a Westminster member, I am thankful for our encouragement of respect, love and forgiveness for our Muslim brothers and sisters.

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[1] Makram El-Amin also is a member of the Minneapolis Downtown Clergy group and serves on the advisory board of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas. In 2014 Imam El-Amin was named a Bush Foundation Fellow and received an appointment as Chaplain to the Minneapolis Police Department. In addition, Muezzin Mohammed participated in an interfaith worship service at Westminster, as discussed in a prior post. The bulletin for this worship service and the text of the conversation are available on the Internet.

 

Jesus, The Refugee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Inaugural Address       

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

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

The Biblical Text for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is the acceptable year of the Lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now the work begins.”

“ Thanks be to God.”

Westminster’s Congregational Reaction

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Joyous Worship Services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

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

street

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

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

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

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

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

screen-shot-2016-07-28-at-11-27-38-am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where Is Christian Faith Headed?”

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

The Processional Hymn

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

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

The Holy Scripture Readings

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

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

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

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

The Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

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

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