Is the Water of Life for Everyone?

May 7, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Revelation 22:12-14; 16-17; 20-21 and John 17:20-26

Today is Legacy Sunday at Westminster. I want to begin by thanking those who have made provision to support the church by making a legacy gift in their wills or estate plans.

One hundred three years ago Charles Thompson, Westminster’s Clerk of Session for more than three decades, made a gift to the church in his will that established the church’s endowment. The endowment serves as Westminster’s savings account, providing resources when needed and offering stability in turbulent times.

Over the years many additional legacy gifts and the Trustees’ careful investment have grown the church’s endowment. Thompson’s estate gift of $5,000 in 1914 started the Westminster endowment that now stands at nearly $28 million.

The “Legacy Circle” includes all those known to the church that have made a commitment to Westminster in their estate plans. There are presently more than 140 in the Legacy Circle. We imagine there are many more that have made provision for Westminster in their wills about whom we don’t yet know. Feel free to let us know!

When Charles Thompson served as Clerk of Session the world was a different place. At the start of the 20th century, Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, had become significant and influential in the broader culture. We had established many hospitals and scores of colleges across the country, including Macalester in St. Paul. We had collaborated with other mainline denominations to create joint mission boards that sent missionaries, educators, and medical personnel across the nation and around the globe.

It was happening in Europe, as well. Protestant churches deployed mission workers to Africa, Latin American, and Asia to spread the gospel. Strong Presbyterian denominations in nations like Cameroon, Kenya, Guatemala, and South Korea today are the direct result of the efforts of European and American missionaries at the end of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

We were going to win the world for Jesus Christ. We began referring to the 20th century as “The Christian Century.”

That was the church in which attorney Charles Thompson served as Westminster’s highest elected lay leader for 34 years. He lived in the Continental Hotel one block from here, then a high-end residential hotel. Today it is owned and operated as affordable housing by Westminster’s partner Aeon, Inc. Thompson was Clerk when we built the new church at Nicollet and 7th in 1883; he was Clerk when that building burned down 12 years later, and, he was Clerk when this sanctuary was dedicated in 1897.

The architect Warren Hayes, who designed our neighbor Wesley Methodist in 1892, joined architect Charles Sedgewick to design this sanctuary. Hayes had designed 19 other churches in the city by the time of the Westminster project. He and Sedgewick were proponents of what was called the “Social Gospel Movement.” They built churches that would extend that view of the gospel into the world and help create communities of faith supporting that perspective by their very design.

The Protestant churches of that time – Westminster among them – were increasingly sure of themselves theologically. They projected that confidence in their architecture. Their buildings were generally constructed of stone, as was this one, declaring by their very strength that the congregations worshipping in them had a firm grasp of God’s intentions for the world.

Against what we Protestants saw as global Roman Catholic power we began establishing our own ecumenical organizations. Westminster was a national leader in the emerging ecumenical movement 100 years ago. Our senior pastor was the first president of the Church Federation of Minneapolis. In 1918 John D. Rockefeller spoke in this sanctuary in a Westminster-hosted event at which he hoped to set in motion the Interchurch World Movement.

In the midst of all that Protestant confidence and unified vision, however, cracks began to appear. Following the First World War, a theological struggle that had long simmered beneath the surface burst into the open. Some church leaders claimed certain “fundamentals of the faith” were being violated by the social gospel’s tolerance, its ecumenical inclusivity, and its focus on doing good in this life and seeking justice in the world. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, as it came to be called, split the once-strong, united denominations of mainline Protestant America and gave rise to the growth of more conservative, independent, evangelical churches, evidence of which we still see today.

In 1922 in New York City’s First Presbyterian Church, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached on this question: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” It became the most-widely read sermon of the 20th century. Tens of thousands of copies of the sermon were circulated around the nation, paid for by Rockefeller. Great debate took place in Protestant denominations. Fosdick was forced from his pulpit. Seminary professors were purged from faculties. Congregations broke away from the church.

Westminster was not without its own struggles around inclusivity and intolerance in those days. In 1914, the year that Thompson’s last will and testament launched our endowment, Westminster’s Women’s Missionary Society hosted a talk on the “The Jewish Invasion of America.” We were not always a tolerant, welcoming congregation. The senior minister at the time, John Bushnell, said Westminster was “on fire for the Christian conquest of the world.”

On Legacy Sunday it behooves us to take a look back in history to see what we might discover as our “legacy.” Over the years, this congregation has wrestled with the current issues of the day, whatever they were: anti-Semitism, racism, war and peace, poverty, inclusion of gay and lesbian persons.

Through the years Westminster has tended to lean in the direction of tolerance – but not always. We generally have sought to allow the most open embrace possible of a variety of viewpoints within these walls and in the community and world beyond them, as an expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have learned much along the way and still have much to learn. Even our new architecture of the project next door speaks of a commitment to be open to the world around us, not in spite of our commitment as a Christian community, but because of it.

We find ourselves today in the 21st century, which we would not be so bold as to declare is the Christian century. We do not imagine ourselves going off to conquer the world for Christ. As a result we find ourselves struggling with the question of how wide the love of God is. Does it include those outside the Christian faith? Does it include Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists? People of no faith at all? Must one be a believer to find favor, in the end, with God?

Our two scripture lessons today offer what appear to be differing responses to these questions. The text from the gospel of John is part of what is called the Great Priestly Prayer of Jesus. The theme of that prayer is the oneness of the world through faith in Jesus.

“I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus prays,

“But also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

It appears that Jesus hopes that all the world would believe in him through the word of his followers, and through that belief, come to know and believe in God. That leaves little room for acceptance of other religious traditions. One could conclude that only those who claim Jesus can or will come to know God.

Contrast that with the final words of scripture, from the Book of Revelation. They are full of invitation and wide-open hospitality:

“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.” (Revelation 22:17)

Is the water of life for everyone?

In the 14th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Again, the words suggest that the only way to God is through Jesus.

And yet, in Matthew 25 Jesus says that those who show love and compassion to the most vulnerable, the “least of these,” will enter the realm of God, making no mention of the necessity of faith in Jesus or hewing to any particular theological propositions as a requisite for salvation.

Which perspective prevails?  Both draw directly from the gospels. Is one more “correct” than the other?

The Bible has been used to undergird almost any point of view, especially when treated as a book of texts that prove one point over another. This was part of what Fosdick was arguing in his famous sermon about fundamentalists 100 years ago. Those who claim to take the scripture literally are simply declaring their interpretation of the Bible as the only acceptable one.

Fosdick was calling for a more open mind, urging the followers of Jesus to take scripture seriously, but not literally, and to look instead for the great sweep of God’s love in the pages and words of Holy Writ. There is more to Christian faith than any one, particular interpretation of the Bible.

The heart of the matter is less what we think scripture tells us, and more how we practice the faith that springs from it. The true measure of faithfulness is whether or not people and congregations offer living witness to the love and justice and mercy of God.

Is the water of life for everyone?

That question hangs over the 21st century church, and not only the church. It surfaces in the divisive polarities now common in our communities and our national life, and visible in violent conflicts in dozens of places across the globe. Religious tension has become part of our life today. This Wednesday, May 10,  at 7PM at Temple Israel I will be part of a program organized by Congressman Keith Ellison on the increasing violence against Jews and Muslims in America.

Whose version of religion is right? Is it acceptable to tolerate people of different traditions? Does God have favorites? Can I genuinely practice my faith, be moved by and trust in its deepest claims, while at the same time respecting that others’ religious traditions do the same for them?

Westminster once again finds itself engaging the challenge to clarify what it means to be a follower of Jesus in our time. To celebrate the legacy of this historic church means to give thanks for the adaptability of its members, to offer gratitude to God for calling leaders who have shown flexibility and resilience as the context for Christian ministry has altered over time, and as it continues to shift.

The struggles we face as a church have changed since the time of Charles Thompson. Chief among them today is the question of the singularity of our faith in the context of a religiously plural world.

I have described myself before as a “hopeful Christian universalist.” That is, I stake my life on the claim that Jesus is my Savior and the one who calls me to love God and neighbor, but I also hope – in fact, I trust and accept – that God is bigger than my own vision allows and that all will be welcomed into the expansive embrace of the One who is the Creator, whose image is born in every human being.

Is the water of life for everyone?

“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.”

The legacy you and I are creating and sustaining today reflects that wide-open view of the love of God, as we experience it and know it in Jesus Christ, the one whom we follow.
Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Doug Mitchell

Blessed are you, good and gracious God.

All your works, the height and the depth,

echo the silent music of your praise.

In the beginning your Word summoned light,

night withdrew, and creation dawned.

As ages passed unseen,

waters gathered on the face of the earth

and life appeared.

When the times at last had ripened

and the earth grown full in abundance,

you created in your image man and woman,

the stewards of all creation.

You gave us breath and speech,

that all the living

might find a voice to sing your praise,

to celebrate the creation you call good and

with all the powers of heaven and earth,

to sing the ageless hymn of your glory:

All holy God,

how wonderful is the work of your hands!

When sin had scarred the world,

you entered into covenant to renew the whole creation.

As a mother tenderly gathers her children,

as a father joyfully welcomes his own,

you embraced a people as your own

and filled them with longing

for a peace that would last

and for a justice that would never fail.

Through countless generations

your people hungered for the bread of freedom.

From them you raised up Jesus, your Son,

the living bread, in whom ancient hungers are satisfied.

He healed the sick,

though he himself would suffer;

he offered life to sinners,

though death would hunt him down.

But with a love stronger than death,

he opened wide his arms

and surrendered his spirit.

Gracious God, let your Holy Spirit move in power over us

and over these earthly gifts of bread and wine,

that they may be the communion of the body and blood

of Christ, and that we may become one in him.  Let this congregation serve as a beacon to others, showing your love to the world.

May his coming in glory find us

ever watchful in prayer,

strong in truth and love,

and faithful in the breaking of the bread.

Then, at last, all peoples will be free,

all divisions healed,

and with your whole creation,

we will sing your praise,

through your Son, Jesus Christ.

May your great love, O God, sustain those among us who need your healing touch and tender presence.  Make the sick whole.  Give hope to the dying.  Comfort those who mourn.  Uphold all who suffer in body mind or spirit, that they may know the peace and joy of your supporting care.

And remembering your great love, let us pray the prayer Jesus taught us,  Our Father…

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