Grace Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2018, Pentecost 17C
Tongues of Fire (But Not in a Good Way)
Seldom will you ever see the kind of convergence we have today, when a lectionary reading full of warnings about the power of the tongue and its capacity to bring harm and damage – not just to the individual, but to the whole community – is sprung upon us at the outset of what promises to be a heated political campaign. With the race for governor in this state already having witnessed some pretty awful language before it was even twenty-four hours old, it looks and feels like language and words are going to be thoroughly weaponized this time around.
If anything can speak to the double-mindedness of speech, political discourse certainly fits the bill. Lofty, inspirational rhetoric somehow comes from the same mouth that utters point-blank slander (or, increasingly, outright racial slurs) against an opponent. As James says in verse 10, “my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
Still, if we are honest about ourselves, we can’t really push that kind of behavior off on bad politicians, not exclusively. We’ve been on the receiving end of words that damage, and if we’re really deep-down obvious, we’ve dished them out too. And James, with his epistle-full of exhortation that our faith show itself in works, clearly counts the words we let loose in the world as “works” in the broadest sense.
As he did in chapter two, James sneaks up on his subject juuuuust a little bit here, seeming to go in the direction of a warning against too many people seeking to be leaders. Leaders are, he says, judged with “greater strictness” than others. (Don’t think this passage doesn’t give pastors occasional nightmares.) As he works through the examples of a bit for a horse and a rudder for a ship as small-but-powerful controls on the direction of each, he finally arrives at the true subject of his concern here: the small, sometimes mighty, sometimes destructive tongue.
How destructive? Think massive wildfire – “how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” And the tongue, says James, is a fire. Now that metaphor might put in mind those “tongues, as of fire” that appeared above the apostles’ heads on the occasion of Pentecost. You could argue that those “tongues, as of fire” turned out to be powerful, sure. You could say they turned the world of the apostles upside down, sure. But it would be just wrong to suggest that those tongues were destructive. They were instruments of creation, really – the “birth of the church” as it is sometimes called.
James has no such thing in mind here. His warning is dire to the point of exaggeration: “a world of iniquity,” “set on fire itself by hell,” “no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” No one can tame it, James? Not even you?
In the end, though, James’s final point here is compelling; how can such destructiveness and curse come from the same mouth that professes Jesus as Lord? Should we find both fresh and brackish water coming from Ichetucknee Springs up the road? Should apples and oranges be found growing on the same tree? And the Gulf of Mexico is much more likely to yield toxic algae and red tide right now than anything like fresh water, but even at its best it’s still salt water, and you’re not going to find fresh water there.
It isn’t as though words have to be specifically hateful to create destruction. Simple dishonesty, even sweetly and endearingly uttered, is destructive, corroding trust and leading to broken relationships and worse. Words spoken in ignorance can still crush souls. Even what seems an innocent joke can become a piercing arrow, cutting through to the very soul and causing unspeakable pain. Then, when we, because we’re obviously good people who would never do such a thing on purpose, insist “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “don’t take it so seriously” or something that dismisses rather than listens, well, we’re only making things worse, aren’t we?
James would have absolutely no patience for such defensiveness. “The tongue is a fire,” he’d remind us, and rebuke you for not taming that thing before you set it loose.
So what does it mean to “bridle the tongue,” as preachers of my youth used to put it? What tames this untamable beast? What neutralizes the poison or extinguishes the flame?
It isn’t really any one thing. Rather, a cultivation of habits that slow down our speech and engage our minds with those around us seems the only really fruitful path. Remember the saying that goes something like “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”? Y’all know that one, right? Keeping silence, and even more so practicing active listening, are still the most effective ways to put a check on the tongue and its sins.
That doesn’t come easily for many of us, does it? But if we truly seek to show our faith in our works, even the works of our tongue, that’s going to need to be a starting place, to turn our attention towards the other.
Of course, the cultivation of wisdom – memorably depicted as the woman calling out in the street in our reading from Proverbs – is also a pretty effective “bridle” for the tongue. It’s not an accident, is it, that wisdom and quiet are often found in the same place? And the opposite – the utter garrulousness of the unwise – also seems to be pretty pervasively true. Seeking wisdom – not merely knowledge, but genuine wisdom – seems almost inseparable from a controlled tongue. James will have a little more to say about this in the verses following this reading, but that’s for next week.
When you get right down to it, though, living in love towards one another is going to be the indispensible thing for controlling that fire. If that’s not there among us, there’s very little to be done to rein in the destructiveness of the tongue. Our willingness to live in genuine, Christ-like love with and towards one another is indeed irreplaceable as the beginning of relationships marked by wise, thoughtful speech towards one another and towards the world around us.
The thing is, sometimes when all these things come together, the tongue – our words – can indeed produce incredible beauty, passion, and joy. The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner – practitioner of two vocations in which words are obviously important – had this to say about the power words can have for good:
Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves. That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate. And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth.
Oh, yes, Buechner reminds us of one other thing about words: remember the beginning of the gospel of John? “In the beginning was the Word…”? Our very Savior is identified as the Word! Clearly our abusiveness and destructiveness of tongue cannot be reconciled with being worshipers of the one called the Word???
No, it really doesn’t work to be indifferent to the destructive power of words, nor especially to blame others for being too sensitive, particularly when we in our relative security and safety have no idea of the struggles and oppressiveness others may face. It doesn’t do, not at all. That is not the way of wisdom or love.
Control your tongue. Maybe that’s not the sweetest sermon ending possible, but what else is there to say?
For the wisdom of silence and the bridled tongue, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #451, Open My Eyes That I May See; #693, Though I May Speak; #722; Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak; #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song
*Buechner quote from the essay “The Speaking and Writing of Words,” originally published in the collection A Room Called Remember.
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 9, 2018, Pentecost 16B
Favoritism and Faithlessness
Favoritism. It’s not usually thought of as a nice word, is it?
Say someone gets promoted over you at work, especially if that someone is related to the boss, for example. Pretty quickly the assumption is going to get around that the boss showed favor towards that relative, no matter how well-suited that person might be for the new job. It just sounds ugly.
That’s often the kind of context in which “favoritism” gets invoked. The context James invokes in our reading today is perhaps not so dramatically different from that as it might seem. Two people enter the church’s meeting place, one clearly rich and the other clearly … not. The congregation is rather obsequiously fawning over the clearly rich guy, and the other is more or less shunted off to the side. And James makes it clear that’s not how the community is supposed to receive people.
Now this isn’t just James talking off the top of his head; scripture is practically doused with the theme of showing favor to the poor. You might remember from last week’s scripture the reference James makes to caring for “widows and orphans” as the ultimate expression of the community’s doing of the Word, as opposed to being merely hearers. As noted then, that phrase echoes through scripture, not just in the edicts of the Law or the fiery denunciations of the prophets. Even in today’s responsive reading of Psalm 146 that phrase happens, in reverse order: the Lord “upholds the orphan and the widow,” with the strong implication being that we’d better imitate the Lord in that respect.
That’s not all. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament picks up the theme of God’s favor to the poor as well, as our selection of verses from Proverbs 22 illustrates. Here the Lord pleads their cause, and what the Lord does to those who harm them is pretty extreme – “despoils of life those who despoils them”! And there are plenty of quotes in the Gospels where Jesus expresses similar ideas – you might look at the Beatitudes, for example.
So no, James isn’t saying anything new here; if anything he’s taking a fairly easy shot. Favoritism on that basis is not right, and is not how the community of Jesus’s followers is to react to those who come to them. When James speaks in verse five of God choosing the poor to be “rich in faith” and “heirs of the kingdom,” he’s tapping into this particularly rich and fertile vein of scripture. We don’t really have any wiggle room with this part of the scripture; if that’s how the community reacts to newcomers, then the community is in error.
James follows this with a rather interesting point in verses six and seven, one that we in the American church might have trouble understanding. With a few exceptions (the church at Corinth that so vexed Paul being one), the earliest communities of followers of Christ mostly consisted, not necessarily of poor people entirely, but of persons who were not wealthy, and who were not generally of great status in the community. There might be one member who was wealthy enough to have a house large enough to hold the community for its gatherings, but most of the community wouldn’t have been terribly well off.
James points out that not only were his readers not rich, but that they were actively harassed by the rich. Why, James wonders, would you be so eager to fawn all over the people who “oppress you,” who “drag you into court,” and who – worst of all – “blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you,” that is, the name of Jesus?
We have trouble with that because, to put it bluntly, in the United States the church pretty often is rich people. We’re not really in a great position to understand all these scriptural references to God’s favor to the poor, because we can’t really understand why God would favor the poor when we – most of us being, if not rich, definitely not poor – such nice people, such good church folk? God can’t really mean us, can God? But the teaching of scripture remains firm on this one. I suspect very few of us have any clue how the lives we live, the resources we consume, the privileges we claim without even knowing it affect the lives of those less wealthy than we. Yes, God does mean us, and we’d better get to adjusting our lives accordingly.
We’ve so far come through one of the three parts of this passage, and it might seem that the next two really don’t necessarily relate to this discourse on favoritism. Not so, says James. Indeed all of what follows, really does follow from this discussion.
First of all, this favoritism that James criticizes runs afoul of what he calls the “royal law,” a command first found in scripture in Leviticus 19:18. It’s far more familiar to us from Jesus’s citation of it as the second of the two great commandments, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Matthew 22:37-40 version is particularly illuminating for our passage here, not only for the ‘what’ of its usage but the ‘why’ as well:
He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It isn’t about one commandment or another superseding all the others: it’s that these two commandments (the first is found in Deuteronomy 6:4) are the foundation on which all the commandments are based. Everything in the ones we know as the Ten Commandments and all of the other teaching found as “Law” in the Torah is founded in some way in these two. By this standard the partiality that James is calling out among the churches is, in his word, sin. Those who do it are “convicted by the law as transgressors.”
James then engages in a bit of out-there comparison to make the point that the Law isn’t a cafeteria of suggestions for living your best life now. You transgress the law in one point, you are in violation of it all. James’s point isn’t to accuse his readers of adultery or murder (two of the “big ten,” as you’ll recall); his point is that it’s pointless to boast about honoring one of those commandments if you’re violating the other – that’s how it is with the Law. Aren’t you better off, as he says in verse 12, to “speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” – especially if we are to have any hope of mercy for ourselves?
With this we now (finally) return to one of those themes James threw at us in last week’s reading: faith being reflected in our works. When we show this favoritism, we are transgressing against the Law and setting ourselves up for judgment, yes; but even worse we are trying to claim to have faith when our deeds say otherwise.
Is the kind of faith that doesn’t show in your actions the kind of faith that saves you? Is the kind of faith that you have to keep yammering on about because nobody can tell you’re a Christian otherwise really going to save you? Is the kind of faith that does nothing to meet the need of the one in crisis, but merely dismisses the needy or the wounded or the grieving with “thoughts and prayers” – is that faith real?
James is pretty insistent that it isn’t. The kicker is the challenge in verse 18: “show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” You say you have faith; how are you going to show it? Are you just going to talk people to death to show off how righteous you are? Is that faith? No, no, no.
Faith gets up and goes out and lives out loud.
Let it ever be so with us.
For faith that acts, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #610, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing; #848, Trust In God; #762, When the Poor Ones; #766, The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2018, Pentecost 15B
Hearing Isn’t Enough
“Actions speak louder than words.”
Surely I’m not the only one who remembers growing up with this maxim? In my childhood this saying flew around with such regularity that I might have been confused enough to think it was in the Bible. In fact, according to those who study such things, the phrase as we know it appears to date back to the year 1628 (at least that is the earliest it can be documented), and its first verifiable use in the United States is in a quote by Abraham Lincoln in 1856.
The phrase itself – “actions speak louder than words” – is not in the Bible, no. However, it is not a bad summary of much of the content of the epistle of James, the slender book towards the end of the New Testament to which we turn our attention for the next few weeks. More than once in this letter that idea – that our actions matter – will be pushed very hard by this author.
Speaking of the author, we don’t know exactly who it is. The only description offered is that this James is a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are a lot of possibilities – “James” is a fairly common name even in the New Testament itself. We can probably rule out the James who was one of the disciples and the brother of John, since he was martyred relatively early in the life of the church. One of the lists of disciples in the gospels refers to another James among their number (called the son of Alphaeus), and one of the brothers of Jesus who became a leader in the early church was also named James. Most scholars suggest that the latter James is the most likely author, but we’re not going to be able to establish that for certain any time soon.
If the author was really a brother of Jesus, you might find it odd that James doesn’t mention his brother all that much in the letter! Jesus himself isn’t mentioned all that often in the epistle, though much of the teaching contained in it is quite clearly echoes or is connected to Jesus’s teaching. The other criticism leveled at the letter – most fiercely by Martin Luther, perhaps – is that the letter is legalistic, an example of “works righteousness” at its worst as opposed to Paul’s (and Luther’s) emphasis on salvation by grace through faith. As we’ll see later in the letter, this claim doesn’t really hold water, but once such an argument gets a head of steam it’s hard to stop it.
The reading for today seems to start in the middle of one idea – the unchangeable nature of God and the gift of giving – and almost immediately jump into another. In fact, this relatively brief passage hops through a number of ideas, some of which will be treated more thoroughly later in the letter. Perhaps most unusual of all, this brief passage early in the letter seems to end with the ultimate conclusion or at least the desired outcome of the letter; what “true religion” looks like in action.
Perhaps most important for understanding what’s going on in this epistle is that, unlike most of the New Testament, James’s letter is not particularly evangelistic. It isn’t written to convert people; it is written to those already converted, charging them (or us) to live like it. And let’s be honest here; plenty of “Christians” need to be reminded about this key point.
Since a couple of the points made here in this passage will be addressed more fully in coming weeks, it’s o.k. to hit the highlights for now, so to speak:
–verses 19-21 counsel the follower of Christ to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” They do not counsel, however, that one never speaks or that one never gets angry. Listen first, then act or respond in the way that our faith demands, even if that means following Jesus’s example and upturning some tables in the Temple on occasion.
–verse 22 is probably one of the two most famous verses in the whole letter, and it can get interpreted badly as well. “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Again, note: he says “not merely hearers,” but the presumption of this statement is that you area hearer of the word. I don’t know what Martin Luther was thinking, but this is not an invitation to “works righteousness” in any way, shape, or form. Your hearing of the word is presumed in the call to do the word.
–James will have a lot more to say about the tongue in chapter 3. For now let’s merely observe that there are an awful lot of unbridled tongues out there, including in the church, and James says their religion is worthless. Ponder that for a couple of weeks.
–and in the end, what is “true religion,” that is “pure and undefiled before God”? Something the Old Testament and the gospels both had so much to say about; care for “orphans and widows” – a long-used catchphrase in scripture for the poorest and most oppressed in a society. In short, “doing the word” looks like showing up for or cooking for St. Francis House or Family Promise, or any number of other missions our little church participates in and supports. James isn’t preaching anything radically new here, and his letter is not going to get us off the hook. We’re still called to serve the “least of these.”
For the call to do the word and the letter that won’t let us forget it, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #744: Arise, Your Light is Come!; #61: Your Law, O Lord, is Perfect; #529; Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether; #708: We Give Thee But Thine Own
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 19, 2018, Pentecost 13B
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 8:12-17
A Brief Statement of Faith – What We Believe
The year 1983 was momentous for Presbyterianism in the United States, as it marked the formation of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The United Presbyterian Church in the USA, which we have noted a couple of times, finally and formally merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in a joint General Assembly in Atlanta.
Not unlike those predecessors of the UPCUSA, the new denomination found itself called to develop a confessional statement for the new body; like the Confession of 1967, the new statement took years of development and that Presbyterian staple, committee work, to be ready for approval in 1990. Upon its completion and approval A Brief Statement of Faith was constituted as a part of the Book of Confessions, where it remained the last confession added to the book until the recent inclusion of the Confession of Belhar.
A Brief Statement of Faith differs from its fellow twentieth-century documents (Barmen Declaration, Confession of 1967, and Confession of Belhar) in that it is less focused on a contemporary issue or situation than it is in expressing what the church believes – but remember, we’re talking about a newly-created church that had been two separate churches only a few years before. Given that even at our best Presbyterians are adept at disagreeing to the degree that a group of five Presbyterians can produce eight different opinions on a given subject, finding points of unity wasn’t necessarily going to be that easy.
The document that finally emerged from the committee and assembly work is one that both evokes the Reformed confessional tradition in structure and content and is also decidedly contemporary in outlook and language.
The very first sentence of A Brief Statement is a direct evocation of the opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. What was expressed with:
- What is your only comfort in life and in death?
- That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul,in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
is now expressed simply as “In life and in death we belong to God.” The same basic trust, a reference to Romans 8:31-39, is reiterated at the end of the document: “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.”
The Brief Statement also echoes other themes from earlier confessions such as the sovereignty of God, human sinfulness, and the pervasive need for salvation. It does, however, differ from those ancient confessions in revealing ways. While it is organized around the Trinity, like the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, that Trinity is ordered differently. Christ is addressed first, as the One by whom we most clearly and truthfully know and see God (and an echo of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians – “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit…”). Furthermore, Jesus’s life and teaching are included as well, in contrast to the Apostles’ Creed in which Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary” and then immediately “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The life and teaching of Jesus matter, and A Brief Statement makes this clear. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit (a full-fledged member of the Trinity, after all) receives much more extensive description and treatment than in either of those two ancient creeds, so effectively that you can probably count on that portion of A Brief Statement appearing as our Affirmation of Faith at Pentecost on a pretty consistent basis. What has been entwined in our faith and tangled in our words at least as long as Paul used the Trinitarian imagery he does in Romans 8 is expressed here about as clearly as you could hope.
Other differences are more deliberate. In contrast to those earlier confessions, A Brief Statement is explicit about the role of women as equal and mutual partners in the church. Where earlier statements are virtually universal in their gender-exclusive language for humanity (even the otherwise-enlightened Confession of 1967), A Brief Statement is consistent to speak of “women and men” or of “humanity” (as the near-contemporary Confession of Belhar also does) and states unequivocally that the Spirit “calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.” Older confessions (such as the Scots Confession) explicitly forbade women from ministry, but having (for example) read enough times in Acts and Romans about the evangelist Prisca, the deacon Phoebe, and the Apostle Junia, we’ve come to the conclusion that the Spirit through scripture says otherwise.
As for language about God, the statement does use the long-standing Trinitarian language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in its closing doxology, and makes note of the intimate language of relationship Jesus used in speaking to “Abba, Father.” But the statement also taps into scripture’s habit of dropping in feminine imagery for God as well, in lines 49-51:
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.
One is reminded of today’s reading from the book of Proverbs, in which “wisdom” is extensively personified as female. In wisdom literature such as Proverbs, “wisdom” is a very thinly veiled reference to the Holy Spirit – remember, still a full member of the Trinity.
This evocation of wisdom in Proverbs seems particularly apt for this final sermon on our PC(USA) confessions. There she is, out at the crossroads or on the way, calling out and entreating all to listen. That spirit of wisdom is evoked as ancient, there at the very Creation itself, from the very beginning with God. It seems right to evoke wisdom, because it is wisdom – practical, scriptural, spiritual wisdom – that is in effect what these confessions seek to bear for those for whom they are part of the teaching of the church. Immersed in scripture, hearing the voices of confessions long past, and always seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit, peoples of faith come together to seek and understand wisdom, and apply it to the life and teaching of the church.
A Brief Statement of Faith is still relatively young, twenty-seven years since its official adoption into the Book of Confessions. It would be folly, however, to expect A Brief Statement to be the last word any more than it was appropriate to expect the Westminster Standards to be sufficient as the last word of the Reformed tradition. The church continues to live in, at the least, interesting times. The most basic tenets of our faith are routinely, it seems, trampled over by governments (sometimes including our own), undermined by self-professing religious leaders, and increasingly ignored by the population at large (we aren’t the only church or denomination that is shrinking, and those that are growing often do so by means that are, shall we say, faithfully dubious at best). Scandals plague various corners of the church, as recent revelations about sexual abuse and Catholic priests in Pennsylvania painfully remind us. The church (let’s not sugarcoat this) is getting older.
Indeed, confessions continue to be created. NEXT Church, an organization within PC(USA), created the Sarasota Statement a couple of years ago as a response to the state of the church and the world, and to encourage churches each individually to reflect upon their condition, to turn to scripture and the tradition of the church (as reflected in the confessions), and to create their own statements or confessions of faith. In a different vein, an ecumenical group of scholars released the Boston Declaration as a response to ongoing trends of racism and tolerance of sexual abuse in American Christianity. And there are probably more I don’t know about.
So, what do we do? Why are we here?
We speak these confessions to remember who God is, what God is, and why we are. When A Brief Statement of Faith reminds us of Jesus’s life and teaching, we are reminded of the one true model we have for how to live Christianly. When it leads us to speak of God’s love for all people, equally created of God, we are reminded how we are to share God’s love for all people. When it charges us to remember the Spirit’s leading in our lives, we are reminded of our call, our charge, our challenge every day, in every part of our lives. At the last, we are charged to be Christly to one another. We are called to love one another. We are challenged to lift one another up and to be about that work of lifting one another up daily.
Frederick Buechner’s novel Brendan features a sixth-century monk-turned-navigator, who undertakes an epic ocean voyage to see fantastical places and unimaginable sights. Even so, though, for all of the wonders Brendan sees, he is still bound by one unshakeable learning, one insight that still compels him:
To lend each other a hand when we’re falling…perhaps that’s the only thing that matters in the end.
Indeed, after all our contemplation and reflection and study and meditation, needful and commanded as it is, we still come round to this same truth, the same lesson we learn from Matthew 25’s sheep-and-goats story and countless other gospel stories; what matters in the end is how we live with one another, how we love one another, how we lift each other up when we’re falling.
Maybe that’s our confession, where all our confessions lead us.
For maps to the faith that leads us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!; #44, Like a Mother Who Has Borne Us; #324, For All the Faithful Women; #309, Come, Great God of All the Ages
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 12, 2018, Pentecost 12B
Confession of Belhar – Against Unjust Authority
A woman of tremendous historical and theological significance in the life of the Presbyterian church died this past week. Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon became in 1974 the first African-American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (USA), the merged branch that issued the Confession of 1967 that we spoke of last week and one of the branches that subsequently merged to form our PC(USA). Besides that historical moment, Cannon, who taught at my alma mater Union Presbyterian Seminary, was a pioneer in the field of womanist theology and ethics. (Regrettably, I never had a class with her.)
Womanist theology is a field that brings the truly unheard forward, hearing the voices of women of color in theological study. For centuries theology was a field dominated, frankly, by old white men (I mean older than me, even). In the 1950s and 60s both women and African-Americans became more prominent, pointing towards the ways that traditional theology had been anything from indifferent to downright abusive to both (the use of theology to justify slavery being one glaring example). But black theology and feminist theology, as they came to be called, shared the same blind spot: women of color. It was this blind spot that Dr. Cannon, in her characteristic gentle but firm way, called out, challenging both of those theologies that noted the neglect of their own to realize that, in some way, they could also be neglectful of others.
Dr. Cannon was – in a far more gentle and encouraging way – a counterpart to the prophet Amos, whose words are heard in our Old Testament reading today. Unlike most of the prophets whose words or deeds are recorded in scripture, Amos came from nowhere. In fact, he was a practitioner of one of the lowest possible jobs of all in Israelite society: he was a shepherd. From this much-scored role Amos was called forth by God to deliver some of the most blistering prophetic utterance Israel had ever heard. Seriously, look at verse 21 again: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” That is strong language, to say the least. But notice how that call ends: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Anything that impedes that free-flowing justice, no matter how benign or explicit, and especially what impedes that justice flowing to the ones any society deems least important or most disposable: any such thing must be called out and opposed by the people of God, whether in Amos’s flaming rhetoric or Dr. Cannon’s gentler but still firm teaching or any way of saying “no” to the injustices of the world.
This is, in many ways, why the Confession of Belhar might be, after all, the most important of the statements in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.
The history that led to the creation of the Belhar Confession is an overwhelming one, inextricable from the dark and bloody history of apartheid in South Africa. Enacted after elections in 1948 installed an Afrikaaner-dominated National Party in power, apartheid was a system of laws designed to keep that Dutch-descended white minority (by a substantial margin) in power over a large nonwhite majority.
Perhaps more disturbing was the enthusiastic embrace of apartheid in many of the churches of South Africa. It should not be a surprise, given the prior historical examples of the German Christians’ acquiescence to Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s and even the splits over slavery that occurred in US denominations in the mid-19thcentury (including Presbyterianism). The degree to which South African churches participated in apartheid is striking, nonetheless.
Take the Dutch Reformed Church, for example. Clearly under apartheid blacks could not be allowed; hence the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa was formed as a segregated denomination. But apartheid was also strict enough that blacks were not to share with “coloreds,” or mixed-race persons; hence the Dutch Reformed Mission Church was formed as well. Finally, due to an influx of immigration from India, the Reformed Church in Africa was created to keep that population separate as well.
The international community, and churches around the world as well, were only goaded to react after violence against blacks at a protest in Sharpsville in 1960, and again at Soweto township in 1976. Even then, the impetus came not from the outside, but from within the nonwhite South African churches, particularly the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, which challenged world Reformed bodies to call apartheid, a system that denied the possibility of reconciliation between peoples, for what it was: heresy. The argument was simple: the good news of the gospel cannot be separated from the divine drive to reconcile all peoples unto Christ. Confronted with this argument from the DRMC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had to agree, and as a result it was the white DRC that was excluded from that communion in 1982.
In response to this international affirmation of their plight, the DRMC at its synod later that year drafted the Confession of Belhar, a response to the practice of apartheid and an affirmation of the hope of reconciliation in Christ. The DRMC submitted it to its member churches for four years of consideration, and it was formally approved in 1986.
The Confession of Belhar is deliberately and consciously modeled on the Barmen Declaration; a citation of scripture, an affirmation of the faith, and a rejection of false doctrine for each portion of the confession. It is divided into three parts, significantly ordered Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice. That order is indeed significant. The church desires unity in Christ, but unity cannot happen without reconciliation. The church desires reconciliation in Christ, but reconciliation cannot happen without justice – “justice rolling down like waters,” to echo Amos’s words. And the confession concludes with the unswerving resolve that the church must pursue these things, no matter how much state or even church authority persecutes them; a simple affirmation that “Jesus is Lord,” with its equal implied affirmation that no one else is; and finally a Trinitarian benediction. And the word “apartheid” appears not at all in the confession, though it is thoroughly repudiated throughout.
Hear these affirmations on justice from the third section of Belhar:
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
- that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged;
- that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
One could argue, and some did during the PC(USA)’s debate on adoption of Belhar, that the themes articulated in Belhar are similar enough to themes in the Confession of 1967that the later confession was somehow unnecessary or redundant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Belhar speaks without reservation. There is no accommodating, trying to please differing parties. It is unequivocal in its denunciation of racial separation, particularly when practiced or enforced as somehow “holy” or sanctified by God. And it speaks these words not from a committee of white onlookers, but directly from those whose faces had met the boot heel of state enforcement of apartheid far too many times.
And this is why Belhar may be the most important confession in our book. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were created and sanctioned by emperors. The Reformation-era confessions also enjoyed the patronage of kings and princes. The Confession of 1967 was a product of a denomination with national reach and a rather high general level of affluence among its membership. And while the Barmen Declaration spoke out against wrongful church submission to state power in a way that Belhar’s framers deliberately echoed, none of its creators were in danger of the gas chambers or concentration camps.
For the first time, churches in the Reformed tradition listened to the persecuted, took their words to heart, and recognized them as inspired and meaningful for the whole church. Those churches also took a dramatic step towards recognizing the truly global scope of the church – rejecting a model that only listened to European and North American voices and hearing from a church from the global South, rather than dictating theological terms to it.
This confession matters, a lot. Clearly the world, not to mention this country, has not successfully negotiated the true enactment of justice for all, reconciliation in Christ, and unity with God and one another that the confession calls for. We have a lot of work to do, to be sure. But Amos still thunders at us, reminding us that short of insistently pursuing that justice, all else we do is in vain.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #806, I’ll Praise My Maker (Psalm 146); #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples; #379, We Shall Overcome
Note: featured image is of an old Dutch Reformed Mission Church building in the Western Cape Province of South Africa
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 5, 2018, Pentecost 11B
Confession of 1967 – All Together
It’s one of the most familiar of the parables Jesus tells in the gospels, and – as with so many of these most well-known passages of scripture – it opens up multiple lessons to the serious reader the more times it is read. Still and always significant, though, is the most elemental meaning, the one that answers the second, slightly desperate question asked by the lawyer whose encounter with Jesus sets this story in motion.
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner once tried to imagine exactly what was going on in the mind of the lawyer, and exactly what he was seeking:
He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”
Instead, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.
Of course, the flip side of such a definition might be that you are a neighbor to anyone who you need, and that often causes more trouble for people who think of themselves as self-reliant, or who just don’t like, you know, those people – like the Samaritans in Jesus’s parable.
The Confession of 1967, a product of the reunion of two branches of Presbyterian churches in 1958 (creating what was for some years known as the “northern” church), confronted (among other things) the very kind of divide exemplified in the parable, one with close to three centuries’ worth of history at the time of its writing. The divide between black and white is not unique to the United States (next week’s confession will remind us of this fact), but it has played out with particular violence and vitriol at many points in US history, not least of which is right now. While many tensions did break out across the decade of the 1960s as the confession was being written, the release of the statement and its unswerving emphasis on reconciliation among peoples – any race, any gender, any nationality, anyone – must have seemed especially perceptive, even prophetic, in the turbulent year of 1968 that followed.
In addition to its strong focus on reconciliation, the confession also serves as a kind of “catching up” to the twentieth century on the part of Presbyterians, catching up with a world that was dramatically different than the one in which the Westminster Standards – still the only confession acknowledged in many Presbyterian traditions – was written. The Westminster Confession could not comprehend a world in which such racism featured front and center in the society of the most powerful nation on earth. It also couldn’t comprehend a world in which scientific inquiry had advanced as dramatically as to put human beings on the moon, an event not long in the future in 1967; in which research and scholarship had uncovered numerous biblical manuscripts unknown to the writers of the King James Bible and developed scholarly methods to plumb the depths of scripture more fully and with greater intellectual integrity; and which contemplated (however imperfectly) the – astonishing! – possibility that women were not the inferiors of men.
To be fair, C67 (as it is commonly and informally known) doesn’t contemplate all these things perfectly. It may not be quite as understanding of racism, as opposed to straightforward prejudice, as it aspires to be. To seek reconciliation without reparation – without undoing and removing the injustices and abuse that create the breach – is frankly worse than no reconciliation at all, and C67 may not be firm enough on that. Also, it’s all fine and good to contemplate the equality of women and men, but doing so in a document that speaks of humanity exclusively in masculine language somehow undercuts the effect. (In this one way C67 is entirely consistent with its Reformed confessional forbearers.) Still, contemplating these questions and bringing reconciliation to the forefront of the newly-formed denomination’s conversation at that place and time in history is a dramatic step forward for the church, one whose significance should never be underestimated.
Ultimately approved, despite the ferocious resistance of some Westminster diehards, C67 officially became part of the church in cohort with a host of previous confessional statements (including Westminster), giving the church its first book of confessions – the predecessor to the book we have today. In so doing (as well as by the very specifically dated title it was given), the Confession of 1967 made the point that had been previously made by other statements that these human– hopefully inspired but still human – statements were not meant to be fixed and immovable, as Westminster had become. Our responsibility is still to see the world and all its evils and speak to them directly. That did not end with the Westminster divines, nor the “confessing church” of Barmen, nor the commissioners of C67, and it does not end even now. We are still called to speak, and to act, and maybe even live up to the aims of the Confession of 1967 at long last.
For the timely application of timeless faith, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #327, From All That Dwell Below The Skies; #772, Live Into Hope; #754, Help Us Accept Each Other; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing
Image from a plenary sesson of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Portland, 1967, at which the Confession of 1967 was approved.
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 29, 2018, Pentecost 10B
Barmen Declaration – Church Against State
This passage is what I call “second-hand familiar.” In this case it’s right next to a very familiar scripture – verse 11, “I am the good shepherd” – and it even contains one of Jesus’s famous “I am” sayings in verse 7. All the talk about sheep sounds famiiar. But it’s not quite the passage we think it is.
As is so often the case in this particular gospel, Jesus is warning his disciples against the Pharisees, a particular segment of the religious leadership of the time. In this case he uses that familiar sheep talk to speak of those who are not the shepherd of the sheep, but – as he calls such – a “bandit” or a “thief.” By verse 10 Jesus has quite harsh words for such persons: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Despite Jesus’s best efforts to explain these things to his disciples, they seem to have had difficulty when he spoke of these things, particularly in parables. Sad to say that the generations of disciples that have followed across the nearly two millennia of the church’s history haven’t always done much better; false leaders, especially within the church, have far too often succeeded in leading the church, particularly or collectively, down wrong and hurtful paths, and the church has been an agent for harm more than for God’s kingdom.
It’s easy to think of individual examples – the infamous Westboro Baptist “Church” out in Kansas comes to mind. But today’s confession leads us to an example of a church being misled not locally, but on a national scale.
The Theological Declaration of Barmen (the full official title was even longer) was created at a moment in the history of the church in Germany when, possibly to a degree not seen in ages, the church faced a particularly intense and focused kind of pressure to conform to the desires and commands of a particular government and its ruler, or to find itself replaced. Furthermore, even as early as 1934 it was becoming clear that the government of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (or Nazi) party was serious when it spoke of Jews in the most vile terms possible and insisted that the “purification of the race” was the only answer to achieving German greatness. As early as 1932 the theologian Paul Tillich had warned that a church, “to the extent that it justifies nationalism and an ideology of blood and race by a doctrine of divine orders of creation, … surrenders its prophetic basis in favor of a new manifest or veiled paganism and betrays its commission to be a witness for the one God and the one mankind.”
By 1933, the situation in Germany and in the German church had become dire enough that a group of twenty-one pastors gathered in the city of Altona to issue a declaration in reaction to the “German Christians” movement that explicitly tied their Christianity to extreme German nationalism. When the government later that year moved to form an official “Reich church,” and moved against those pastors who opposed that formation, events came to a head with plans for a synod of pastors in the city of Barmen in late may 1934. Commissioned to prepare a statement for the synod to approve were three theological leaders: Thomas Breit, Hans Asmussen, and Karl Barth. They were charged to work from scripture and the confessions we’ve been studying the past few weeks in their writing.
The final product was mostly written by Barth, with additions and editing by Asmussen and then by the full synod. In Barth’s view the purpose of the document was not to create some kind of unified church, but for three churches to confess their faith on the basis of scripture and ancient confessions in the face of current compelling error. Thus this document stands apart from those earlier confessions as focused on a particular moment and issue, rather than serving as an educational or constitutional work.
While the Barmen Declaration certainly opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler, that was not necessarily its primary focus. You might remember a brief mention of a much longer title? That title was “Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church.” (emphasis mine) Those churches that had chosen to align themselves to Hitler and the Nazi regime and to, in effect, take their orders from him and them, were the targets of this confession.
The declaration is structured, after its introductory material, according to the pattern of: a statement from scripture, a theological declaration drawn from that scripture, and a rejection of the false doctrine that had been embraced by the German Christian Church that stood against that scripture and theological declaration. While reading the whole, relatively brief document is recommended, one gets a pretty strong sense of the tone and intent of the document by reading those rejections:
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give to itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers (that is, given from outside the church).
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.
-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
Nothing soft about any of those statements, is there? This declaration is firm in its charges against the German Christians, pointing out errors in giving over authority to the State and taking unto itself characteristics and authority given by the State rather than any church authority (much less God).
So, how relevant can this document be today? More than would be wished.
While certain religious leaders have shown unseemly devotion to the current president and administration, it is not the case that any churches have en masse attached themselves to this or any government in any way. Still, though, undue attachment or pressure for any church to conform to presidential or governmental authority is to be interrogated firmly and called out relentlessly, from scripture and from the tradition of the church, in our case as identified in the confessions like this one. In particular, attempts to equate the current or any president to some kind of biblical deliverer figure, as if this nation had any business equating itself with the biblical kingdom of Israel, are grotesque at best, blasphemous at worst, and too close to those German Christians for comfort, and must not be allowed to stand.
This can be awfully uncomfortable for us. We’re pretty accustomed to thinking of Our Country as “special” to God, when you get right down to it. Maybe even “chosen,” despite the fact that we somehow aren’t in the Bible. It’s a slippery slope from such presumed privilege to wholesale appropriation, and from the Savior to all-too-human saviors and all-too-human errors.
The “Confessing Church” that gathered around the Barmen Declaration warns us against that. Only one God. Only one Savior. Only one Spirit. Only one Word. Ours is to call out leaders and governments, not to sell out to them. Whenever we confuse the two, we are no longer any church of Jesus Christ.
For the call to faithfulness and resistance, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #335, The Foolish in Their Hearts Deny (Psalm 14); #365, God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!; #383, Dream On, Dream On
Note about the featured image: created for the 50th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, the sculpture (more information here) features, seen from one face (below), a crowd of figures giving the too-familiar one-armed Nazi salute: from the opposite face (above), figures are seen not saluting, but looking towards the church where the Barmen Declaration was signed.