Powerful Call to Service in Sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

In the January 28 sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen delivered a powerful call for all to go out into the world and serve those in need.[1]

Reading from Holy Scripture

The Bible text was Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV):

  • “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
  • “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘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.’”

  • “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, 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[a]in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they 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 Sermon: “What Is Jesus Up To?”

“The preacher that day in Nazareth was on a roll when he came to town. He’d been on a speaking tour throughout Galilee, visiting the villages and synagogues there, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and things were going his way. The response was good. He was being praised everywhere. His reputation was growing.”

“esus is strategic in starting his ministry. He comes out of 40 days in the Judean wilderness and does not go home first. Instead, he goes to the larger towns in the area and begins preaching there – in Capernaum and Magdala, home to the woman we will come to know as Mary Magdalene.”

“Two years ago Beth and I walked from Nazareth down to the Sea of Galilee. It took us four days. On the pilgrimage we visited the ancient synagogues of Magdala and Capernaum where Jesus had taught before going home to Nazareth. Those villages were quite different from his hilltop hometown. They were on the Sea of Galilee, along busy trade routes, coming from Egypt and going on to Syria. In contrast, Nazareth was off the beaten path, high in the hills. It was a small, isolated village – maybe 300-400 people – full of conservative, traditional Jews, and somewhat closed off, sheltered from the rest of the world.”

“By the time Jesus finally gets back to his hometown he’s made a real name for himself in the more cosmopolitan region along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The people of Nazareth have heard all about him. They expect him to do for them what he has done for those down in Capernaum and the other towns.”

“Jesus goes to his family synagogue on the Sabbath Day. He’s going to be guest preacher there. He’s handed the scroll of Isaiah and unrolls it to a familiar passage about the hoped-for Messiah who would open a new era, a new day of justice and peace among the people of God. And then he begins his sermon this way:”

“’Today,’  he says, ‘This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

“So far, so good. Hometown boy makes a name for himself.”

“It will be the first and only time he ever gets that close to an outright claim to the messiah mantle. He should have stopped there, but Jesus keeps going. Jesus is up to something else, and that’s when he gets into trouble. The preacher’s good run is about to come crashing to a halt – and I have great sympathy for him.”

“God, he says, is breaking into history and calling them to account for the way they live. To illustrate this, he mentions two times in Hebrew history when God had intervened to save the people from certain destruction, through famine or drought. The problem is that both times God chose to work not through the most pious believers, like those seated in the synagogue that day, but, rather, through unexpected people, even reviled people – a non-Jewish widow and a non-Jew with leprosy, neither of whom had any standing whatsoever among those assumed to be God’s people.”

“That was too much for the congregation in Nazareth. First to equate himself with the long-awaited Messiah – sounding like blasphemy! And then to imply they were not among those through whom God would work – sounding like heresy!”

“Professor Tom Long says of preaching that at its heart is ‘the astonishing cry of the witness, ‘Something has happened! Everything has changed!.’”’ (Why I’ve focused on form and function,” Christian Century, 12/20/17, p. 29)

“That’s what the preacher is up to that day in Nazareth. That’s what Jesus is saying. Something has happened. Everything has changed!”

“But his listeners have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. Their hearts are closed. That will be the story of the rest of the ministry of Jesus.”

“Those who are the most religiously observant will not be the ones who believe that something has happened and everything has changed. It will be the women and children, who don’t count for anything in that time, whom he honors. It will be the people rejected because of disease or disability or age or status in life, whom he heals and loves. It will be the sinners condemned by everyone else, whom he accepts. They will hear him. They will believe. Their lives will be changed.”

“But the people in Nazareth in the synagogue that day aren’t ready for that. They’re furious at Jesus for suggesting they’re not in God’s good graces. In their fury they push Jesus out of the synagogue and into the streets and to the edge of town and nearly throw him off the cliff.”

“Surely that experience reminded Jesus what he had just gone through in the desert temptations, when the devil took him to a high tower and told him to jump and the angels would save him. We don’t learn what saves him that day in Nazareth, but he breaks free and walks away, unscathed, and heads back down toward the towns along the Sea of Galilee.”

“In a way, the townspeople do exactly what Jesus calls them to do: they leave the confines of the synagogue and go out into the streets, out into the town, out among the people who are at the center of God’s concern. A summons to go out into the city should sound familiar to us at Westminster – something of a recurring theme these days.”

“If they are ‘to bring good news to the poor’ and ‘proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (and) let the oppressed go free,”’that will not happen inside their house of worship. We will never address the crying needs of so many in our world if we sit behind these walls, comfortable in our religious rituals and never go outside to encounter the world. And if we do go outside we will not be able to do much by ourselves.”

“Ministry in the 21st century necessarily draws us out of the protection of our own way of doing religion and into coalitions with people of other faiths or of good will. This afternoon’s interfaith gathering in our sanctuary, Bold Hope in the North, will help prevent homelessness because we’re working with thousands of others whose religious practice requires them – as does ours – to leave their houses of worship and work together in the streets of the city for the common good.”[2]

“If we want to  join Jesus in proclaiming ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ we will find ourselves having to stand up for things we had at one time counted on someone else to deal with. We will need to speak out against what we had previously accepted or ignored or let slide. We will go places we have not gone before.”

“We know those places, and we try to avoid them. It’s simpler to hide behind the mantle of our professed religion and go through the motions than it is truly to practice our faith. And it’s always easier to see that kind of hypocrisy happening in others, especially if they are within our own tradition, than to see it in ourselves. I am guilty of this.”

“This week when I read about Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, saying that evangelical Christians were tired of being ‘kicked around’ by the previous administration in Washington and, referring to the current administration, ‘are finally glad there’s somebody on the playground…willing to punch the bully.’ I reacted to that.”

“When asked about the injunction to turn the other cheek, Perkins said, ‘You know, you only have two cheeks. Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.’”

“Tell that to Jesus as he’s pushed out of the synagogue by his pious countrymen and nearly thrown off the cliff, as he’s persecuted and hounded by the religious and political authorities of his time, and as he’s walking up the hill to Calvary.”

“Too often self-described evangelicals seem willing to set aside the kind of biblical mandate Jesus lays on us in Nazareth for short-term political gain. Not all evangelicals agree; in fact, there’s quite a discussion among them now. Many of them are wondering if the term ‘evangelical’ still has any shred of meaning.”

“But before we judge our sisters and brothers in the faith too harshly let’s remember that Jesus was speaking not only to them, but to us, as well. We should take care not to become obsessed with the speck in someone else’s eye and not notice the log in our own. In the cultural and political and religious climate of America today it is so easy, and – shall we not confess it – sosatisfying, to see all that is wrong in somebody else, in the other, those with whom we disagree.”

“The danger with putting on such blinders, of course, is that we can’t see where we fall short, as well. And then we become the righteously offended worshippers in the synagogue in Nazareth. We imagine Jesus is talking about someone else, not us, when he repeats those words from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, and when he says that God will choose to work through not those in the synagogue, not those in the sanctuary, but through the last people we would expect.”

“’Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ Jesus says of Isaiah’s words. Something has happened. Everything has changed!”

“That synagogue scene is the start of the public ministry of Jesus. He’s not come to Nazareth to meet the religious expectations of his fellow townspeople or to play into their prejudice and affirm it. He’s not there to talk about religious things at all, really, about tithing, or keeping the Sabbath, or following the religious proscriptions about eating and farming and marriage and sex and family life – there were rules for everything, 613 of them in the Torah – but Jesus does not turn to them in his one and only sermon in his hometown synagogue.”

“That’s because Jesus isn’t focused on religion for its own sake. And he’s especially not interested in religiosity, that is, adhering to the rules, keeping the tradition, following the path trod for centuries, but missing the point of it altogether. As if nothing had happened and everything were the same.”

“If our faith doesn’t shake us up and wake us up and turn us around then we’re not paying attention. And in Jesus’ eyes there’s nothing worse than mouthing the faith and not meaning it. His most strident words in the gospel are reserved for hypocrites, those who profess religion but have no intention of practicing what God desires of us.”

“Jesus is challenging those of us who would follow him to reexamine our lives. Not somebody else’s life; our lives.”

“I know at certain points in my life I’ve found it was time to take stock of how I was living. Most recently that occurred when my parents died. Those of you who have gone through the death of a loved one know what I mean: something happens and everything changes. And we find ourselves asking big questions about the purpose of life. We look for new approaches, make new discoveries about ourselves, draw new conclusions about what really matters. We wonder what difference we’re making in life.”

“And if we profess to follow Jesus, as most of us do, we might ask how we’re part of the unfolding reign of God of which Isaiah speaks.”.

“Jesus is not concerned with getting the doctrine right. He’s focused instead on getting the practice of our faith right. He wants to get relationships right – not only personal relationships, but relationships among the human family, within our communities. Our faith is fundamentally about God’s hope for humanity, about just relationships among neighbors and among nations, about loving the most vulnerable among us – not about a religious creed or system, and getting it just right.”

“The preacher that day in Nazareth was digging deep and hitting home:  ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

“It was not about their religion. It was about their lives. It was, and it is, about our lives.”

“Something has happened. Everything has changed.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

Yes, everyone in the world, Christian or not, should go out into the world and help others. Yet no one can do everything that needs to be done and that thought often is daunting and debilitating. Therefore, one needs to go through a process of discernment to determine what your vocation is or should be and then you need to go out and work to further that vocation. Also one needs to recognize that your vocation may change over time. Just get started.[3]

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

[2] See Minneapolis Interfaith Gathering To End Homelessness, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 29, 2018)

[3] See these posts to this blog: My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); Another Powerful Worship Service about Vocation (Feb.  2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

The Protestant Reformation: Where Does It Go from Here?  

The World Communion Sunday, October 1, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church featured Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s last of four sermons on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: ”The Protestant Reformation Today: Where Does It Go from Here?” [1]The first three sermons, as covered in prior posts, discussed the three great themes of the Reformation: grace alone, faith alone and scripture alone. Below are photographs of the church’s Sanctuary and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Revelation 22: 1-6, 16-17 (NRSV)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’”

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Galatians 3: 23-29 (NRSV): 

“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”

Sermon:

“Where does the Reformation go from here? What does the future hold for the great Protestant traditions flowing out of Europe 500 years ago?”

“I see at least three directions we might expect the Reformation to take in coming years.”

First: an ecumenical, interfaith direction. Protestant Churches have shown themselves, especially in the last 50-75 years, to be uniquely capable of forming cross-denominational relationships, usually in institutional, organizational, and structured ways: councils of churches at the local level, the state level, nationally, and at the global level. In coming years this will happen in less institutional ways, less structured ways, and increasingly in local relationships.”

“The past week illustrates this emerging new reality. On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed one of its candidates for ministry to be ordained to serve a non-Lutheran church. We celebrated the ordination of Matt Johnson, Westminster’s Interim Associate Pastor, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Candidly, that break with tradition did not start in the bishop’s office or the presbytery’s office; it began with a few of us conspiring locally to make it happen. Localized ecumenical relationships, yielding that kind of change. Congratulations, Matt.”

“Then yesterday I co-presided with a Roman Catholic priest at the wedding of a Westminster woman and her Catholic fiancé, now husband. That would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The fact that we pulled it off has less to do with relaxing of standards in Rome – we did not contact the bishop or presbytery – than with developing ecumenical relationships in local communities. The old walls separating us don’t mean as much anymore.”

“’In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,’ the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek’ – Paul dissects the binary way people tend to look at the world – ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:6-8)”

“It’s as if we were undoing the divisions resulting from the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves. If we ask where the Reformation goes from here, an obvious first answer is that it goes in the direction of a Christianity that has fewer barriers standing among and between the various branches of the Church than it has had for the last 500 years.”

“The same thing is happening with interfaith collaboration. The Reformation taught us the God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that grace alone saves us, not our behavior or a particular creed. From those Reformation-era principles it is a short step to respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation.”

“A major world challenge on the religious horizon – locally and globally – is learning to live with people of other faiths. Protestant churches, with our emphasis on freedom and respecting the rights and responsibilities of individuals with regard to religious matters, can and will lead the way in interfaith collaboration.”

“Westminster is certainly doing its part. Our interfaith dialogue sermons and relationships with multi-faith organizations are not one-off novelties or the whim of your pastor. They are the vanguard of 21st century open-minded, open-hearted Christianity more concerned with practicing the faith in real ways with real people, some of whom have other faiths, than perfecting or judging it.”

“In recent years I have co-presided at a number of Jewish weddings – again, something that even a few years ago would not have happened. I’ve also done this with Buddhist priests. Many of us have attended a Muslim iftar, when the Ramadan fast is broken. We never would have done that 10-15 years ago. These are local outbursts of interfaith commitment – not handed down from on high, but local efforts – resulting in a shifting religious landscape.”

“Where does the Protestant Reformation goes from here? It’s moving in an ecumenical and interfaith direction.”

Secondly, on this World Communion Sunday we’re enjoying sounds and rhythms and movement from all over the globe. Again, this is not a one-time experience, where we trot out the world music on one Sunday a year. We’re now drawing regularly from the music of Christians in other parts of the world to enliven our worship, to teach us other ways of praising God, to inspire us.”

“Over the last 150 years Protestant churches moved out from Europe to the world, in particular the global south, where the Reformation churches are growing rapidly. There are more Presbyterians today in South Korea than there are in the U.S. The same is true for Kenya and South Africa.”

“Christianity is on the move. One hundred years ago two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in the global south. The Church there is exploding in growth, and our churches are receding. North American churches had 15% of the world’s Christians 100 years ago; today we have 10%.”

“We can see the impact of this emerging reality not only from a distance, but closer to home. The Roman Catholic priest friend who co-presided at the wedding yesterday serves a Minneapolis parish overflowing with people from Latin America. He told me last Saturday he did 29 baptisms and yesterday 28 were scheduled. They baptize around 400 per year, and they’re all babies of Latino immigrants. The parish has discovered that their future lies not with the Euro-Americans who brought Catholicism here –Irish, Germans and others from Europe –- but with Catholics form the global south. The Roman Church in the US would be shrinking if not for Catholics coming from Latin America.”

“Similarly, we Protestants who lament the decline of our churches here can rejoice in the vast growth of the Reformation churches in the global south. We, too, can welcome immigrants coming from other parts of the world, especially sub-Sahara Africa, where the Reformed churches are so strong. Westminster has experienced an influx of West African Christians over recent decades, now serving as leaders in our church –and what a richer, healthier congregation we are.”

“The global south will bear the Protestant stream of Christianity into the future.”

“The third emerging direction for the Protestant movement, especially in this land, is increasing openness to diversity. At the local level we’re coming to see that in the future our churches will either reflect the contexts in which we minister, or they’ll not be sustainable for the long haul. We’re too isolated, too divided in our communities, racially, ethnically and culturally. It’s not the way of the gospel. Mono-cultural eco-systems cannot continue to thrive. They must be diverse in order to have the adaptive capacities to live into the future.”

“One of the last images of the Bible is found in the Book of Revelation when the Heavenly City comes to earth and settles among the human family. There is a river flowing through that city, and on the banks of the river is the Tree of Life. The leaves of the tree, the text says, ‘Are for the healing of the nations.’”

“I’ve usually interpreted that verse as pointing to healing among the political nations of the earth. But the Greek word here for nations is ethnos, that is, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the variety of ethnicities in the human family that do not live well together. This may be less a political comment and more a call to learn to live in harmony with those different from us within our own land.”

“The vision of the Holy City invites us to be part of the healing of the racial divide that exists among us, to finally put aside, to do away with, the old reality that Martin Luther King used to remind us of – that Sunday at 11AM is the most segregated hour in America. The Church’s future lies in congregations that are more diverse, that reflect God’s hope that the human family might one day learn to live together in peace.”

“Here at Westminster our new members classes in recent years have been 10-15% racially mixed. Around 7-8% of Westminster members are people of color. We’re changing, but the world is changing a lot faster all around us.”

“A recent study of more than 100,000 Americans in all 50 states shows that only 43% of the population is made up of white Christians. Forty years ago that number was 80%. Twenty years ago it was two-thirds. Things are changing rapidly, all around us, and the church will need to change.”

“And forty years ago 55% of the population was made up of white Protestants. Today that number is under 40%. We are watching in our lifetime the end of America as a white Christian nation. And some see that as a threat. We see the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism and the clinging to white privilege in response, much of it cloaked in Christian language.”[2]

“The changing reality shouldn’t frighten us, but, rather, call us to open our doors and hearts and open our lives to new friends who’ve been our neighbors for many years. We can either move constructively with these challenging new realities and learn ways to be faithful in worship and mission, or we can struggle against them and find our churches continuing to wither and weaken and die. This is hard work, but essential to the future of the church.”

“Where does the 500-year old Reformation go from here? The Protestants churches, heirs to the great legacies of grace alonefaith alone, and scripture alone, will need to grow new ministries that reach across divisions we’ve long accepted as normative. That means creating new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

“To do this, the people of God will have to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, stirring things up for the future health and vitality of the Christian Church.”

“We will have to use a holy imagination to see and join the new thing God is doing among us. May that imagination, that holy imagination, be kindled today at this World Communion table, as we join with Christians around the globe in celebrating the love of God that unites us in one human family, in all its wonderful and rich diversity.”

Conclusion

I agree that “Westminster and other churches need to develop  new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

Westminster already is engaged in global partnerships with churches in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine, and for 10 years I chaired our Global Partnerships Committee and visited our partners in Cuba (three times), Cameroon (once) and Brazil (once). I know that they have enriched my spiritual life and of others in the church and in our partners.

As the sermon stated, music from around the world will play a major part in our worship as it did this day and as will be discussed in another post.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of the sermon are on the church website. Excerpts of the sermon are  set forth below.

[2] Wilson, We’re at the end of White Christian America. What will that mean?, Guardian (Sept. 20, 2017); Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever Became of  “Scripture Alone”?  

On September 24, 2017, in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, delivered the third of his four sermons on the great themes of the Reformation. Today’s was devoted to sola scriptura (scripture alone)  The first, grace alone (sola gratia). The second, sola fide (faith alone). The last,  where do we go from here?[1]

The Call to Worship

The Call to Worship opened the service with these familiar words from Micah 6: “What does the Holy One require of us? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”

Listening for the Word

 Readings from Holy Scripture

 Luke 1: 1-4 (NRSV):

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

John 21: 20-25 (NRSV):

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

“his is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Sermon (Extracts):

“Protestants [seriously] take the Bible, and . . . fiercely we fight over its interpretation. It all comes down to scripture and what it means.”

“I believe in God and get frustrated by how people sometimes wield scripture as a weapon.”

“[W]hat does scripture say and mean – and how does our understanding of the Bible inform what we believe and how we should live in our communities? Those are uniquely Protestant questions, and over the centuries they have led to uniquely Protestant problems. Roman Catholics argue over what the Church says; we struggle over what the Bible says.”

“The two gospel passages just read remind us that what we call Holy Scripture was written by ordinary people. These are odd snippets of the gospels that, frankly, don’t have much substance to them, but they offer a window onto the ordinariness of the authors. At the start of one gospel and the end of another we get a glimpse of their down-to-earth personalities”

“Luke opens his gospel by saying that what follows is an effort to put down ‘an orderly account’ of extraordinary events. The author tells us, almost apologetically, that this is merely his attempt to make sense of things that might otherwise seem incredible. Thank you, Luke, for your humility.”

“John’s gospel closes with the author boasting of knowing so much more in the story that he’s not going to let us know about. In an all-too human burst of hyperbole, he says, ‘There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (John 21:25)”

“Scripture was written by human beings, people telling a story they had heard from others or had experienced themselves. Yes, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, both in its writing and its reading. Yes, as we Presbyterians have said, it is ‘unique and authoritative.’ But it is not a record of divine dictation, as if God had uttered each word in a kind of magical transcription process. Nor is it ‘just another book,’ a collection of religious words that have little bearing on what the ‘real world’  is like.”

“Scripture is something else altogether. It’s part history, part poetry, part prophecy, part story, memoir, myth. We call it the Word of God because it bears within it a larger Truth – capital ‘T’ – to which its various parts point. Holy Scripture carries the compelling narrative of faith of the ordinary people of God, trying to understand who God is in their lives and in the world.”

“The words of the Bible, the psalmist tells us, ‘revive the soul.’ Many times at the bedside of a person gravely ill, I have seen the familiar words of scripture bring light and comfort. The words of scripture, the psalmist says, ‘rejoice the heart’ and ‘enlighten the eyes.’ They are ‘more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold.’ (Psalms 19:8, 10)”

“We should not underestimate the significance of scripture in our life as Christians, especially those of us who call ourselves Protestants. As we continue to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this fall, we’re reflecting on the great themes of that epic shift in the Church, and scripture alone is among them.”

“In the 16th century, power in the Christian Church tilted heavily toward Rome, with its vast ecclesiastical empire managed by a network of priests and bishops. Rome controlled all sources of religious authority – the wealth of the Church, its buildings and lands, its liturgies and rituals, its theology and doctrine. It even regulated access to salvation.”

“The Bible itself was also under Rome’s lock and key. Few common people could read their own local language, much less the Latin in which the Bible was written. It was read only by the educated few, mostly clergy in the hierarchy.”

“The Reformation initially offered a critique focused on the priestly office, but it soon escalated into a frontal assault on other sources of power. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers found in the Bible a formidable alternative to Rome’s clout. By declaring that scripture alone was the source of religious authority in the life of Christians, in one swift move Protestants swept away, discarded 16 centuries of accumulated Catholic doctrine and created an entirely new way of understanding Christian faith and imagining the Church.”

“The Reformers were able to wrest scripture away from the Church hierarchy through a combination of factors, not least of which was the advent of the moveable type printing press. It was as revolutionary then as the Internet has been in our age. With the Protestant emphasis on reading scripture, literacy became essential. For the first time in history it became important for common people to learn to read and write. In some areas controlled by early Protestants, literacy was required of the people. The printing press was perfectly timed, then, to begin to make Bibles and other literature. Luther was among the most prolific pamphleteers of his time. All this literature was suddenly available for the first time in the local language to ordinary people who could now read, and the Reformation caught fire.”

“We can still see the results of the dramatic move away from established Church tradition and toward scripture as ‘the only rule of life and faith,’ as Protestants have described the Bible. Worship for Protestants – as we see every Sunday here – became centered on reading and preaching the Word of God, not on Church doctrine and ritual.”

“To this day, we refuse to put our ultimate trust in an institution, but instead look to the Word of God in scripture. We are Protestants. Everything we do in worship revolves around the Word read and interpreted, as we try to understand what God is saying to us and compelling us to do in the world.”

“There’s a shadow side to Protestant reliance on the Word of God found in scripture. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking our interpretation of the Bible is the only way to understand it. We forget the other two great themes of the Reformation, grace alone and faith alone, and begin to judge others, as if our reading of a text were the only possible, acceptable one.”

“Last week . . . I saw the new tower on the corner in a new light. It’s wrapped in metal, but not constricted by it. The skin of the tower appears to be opening, letting in light and air. It’s not tied down and concluded, but is a work in progress. It defies easy definition. It invites inquiry and dialogue.” [Below are photographs of the Frank Gehry-influenced bell tower.]

 

 

 

 

“It’s doing in architecture what Protestants have done when they are at their best with Scripture: asking questions, offering and opening up differing interpretations, allowing a variety of perspectives.”

“Words like ‘inerrant,’ ‘infallible,’ and ‘literal’ have occasionally crept into Protestant vocabulary, and when that happens, there’s trouble. We become rigid and inflexible. We want to tighten things down, finish it off, close it tight. We act as if the meaning of scripture is fixed and firm, once and for all. We’re tempted to exclude those with whom we disagree.”

Whatever happened to ‘scripture alone? Whatever happened to the Protestant insistence on the individual believer’s access to the Word of God and the responsibility of that individual believer to understand, and study and interpret for themselves what the text might mean. Scripture alone has often been appropriated by those who insist on their interpretation alone, dismissing the Reformationinsistence on the freedom of all believers to read and understand God’s Word for themselves.”

“The Bible matters. There’s no other witness like it. The renewal of the Protestant movement, of the Christian Church, of our life in faith, will require a reawakening in us of the power and beauty of scripture for every believer. That means bringing our best to the Bible, our minds, our hearts, our science, our questions, our doubts, our emotions, our fears, our hopes.”

“Ordinary people wrote the words of scripture, people like us, trying to make sense of the extraordinary, mysterious, wondrous discovery of the love of God in their lives and in the world around them.”

We worship and follow and serve a Creator beyond our capacity to name or understand or contain or fully grasp. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and we Protestants believe that scripture is the best place to start.

Conclusion

It was good to be reminded that the Bible “was written by human beings, people telling a story they had heard from others or had experienced themselves. Yes, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, both in its writing and its reading. Yes, as we Presbyterians have said, it is ‘unique and authoritative.’ But it is not a record of divine dictation,” as Muslims believe the Quran is.

The Bible requires us to bring “our minds, our hearts, our science, our questions, our doubts, our emotions, our fears, our hopes” into reading, reflecting and speaking about the Bible.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of this sermon are on the church’s website. There are many sources on Martin Luther; one is WikipediaPsalm 19 also was read at the service, and this post’s excerpts of the sermon delete its many quotations from the church’s Confirmation Students who were received into the membership of the church in the last part of the service.

 

Whatever Became of “Faith Alone”?

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

 

 

 

 

Readings from Holy Scripture

Jeremiah 32:31-35 (NRSV): 

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

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

Luke 18: 35-43 (NRSV):

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

The Sermon (Extracts):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Whatever happened to “faith alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Whatever Became of “Grace Alone”?

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

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

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

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 43:1-7, 14-21  (NRSV):

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

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

1 Corinthians 15:1-10 (NRSV):

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

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

 Sermon (Extracts):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever became of ‘grace alone?’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to the Word

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.