Austin Seminary Commencement, 2019

May 26, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Ministry as an Act of Resistance

Tim Hart-Andersen
Delivered at  Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Commencement

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Luke 19:41-48

Thank you to President Wardlaw and the seminary for the invitation to be here today. It’s especially meaningful, of course, to speak at the graduation of our daughter Madeline. We are grateful for the education and preparation for ministry she has received at Austin Seminary.

This is the fourth commencement I’ve been to this graduation season, which means this will be the fourth commencement address I will have heard – and the only one over which I have at least some measure of control…and I’m not sure yet if that’s a good thing.

Twenty years ago I was in Cuba, walking through the scruffy trees and tumbled-down buildings of the Presbyterian Church’s camp on the island. It was the end of the 1990’s, the so-called período especial, the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba’s economy had been in free-fall for more than a decade and it showed everywhere, including the camp. No running water. No electricity. No resources. Not much hope.

As I walked through the camp I came upon a hand-lettered sign tacked to a tree: Habrá tiempos mejores, it said, pero este es nuestro tiempo. “There will be better times, but this is our time.”

Those are good words for the turbulent times in which we live. Things may get worse before they improve, but this is our time. This is your time. And I can’t imagine a better time to be heading back into the church to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I graduated from McCormick Seminary in Chicago 35 years ago and have been preaching ever since. You well know that the preacher always has a text and a context. While the former stays the same, except for an occasional new translation, the latter changes all the time.

I won’t detail the changes I’ve seen in my years in ministry and won’t attempt to suggest what you will go through in yours. Suffice it to say that the context is always shifting and it’s the preacher’s job to search the text for new meaning in the ever-evolving world. Some years ago a scholar of the newer testament named Marcus Borg wrote a little book titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. That happens regularly to preachers; you come upon a familiar periscope and see it again as if for the first time.

Take the Palm Sunday story, for instance. Until I was well into my ministry I never saw Palm Sunday as anything other than a joy-filled parade, a bright moment in an otherwise troubled and fateful week, a triumphal entry soon shadowed by what was to come. That’s the view of Palm Sunday I grew up with. When you’re on top of the world, which I was as a straight, white, American male growing up in an affluent suburb outside the urban and rural realities of my neighbors, a “grand procession by the Son of the Almighty who comes in the name of the Lord” looked perfectly reasonable as a way to understand Palm Sunday. “All glory, laud, and honor, to thee Redeemer King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!”

But there’s an entirely different way to see Palm Sunday, especially in light of our world today. It’s in the stones. Remember what Jesus says when those in power tell him to shut down his raucous supporters? “If these were silent,” he says, “The very stones themselves would shout out.”

There’s a rebellion simmering underfoot. If we’re not careful we’ll miss it.

And when we learn that there’s nothing particularly sweet about Hosanna – that it’s not the sunny equivalent of Alleluia, but rather a cry for liberation – that parade starts to look very different. The people living under the thumb of Rome and its unjust system of occupation were shouting Hoshianna! Save us! They were singing a Freedom Song along the road to Jerusalem that day. It may as well have been Soweto in 1995, or Selma in 1965, or Stonewall in 1969 or Ferguson in 2014.  Singing for freedom. Singing for their lives. Singing because, like the stones, they could no longer be silent.

Palm Sunday was an act of resistance. This was no cheerful homecoming parade, but, rather, a minority opposition movement going public as they engaged those in power and tried to make change. As Luke tells it, Jesus weeps upon entering the city. “If you…had only recognized on this day,” he says, “The things that make for peace!”

And then he goes straight to the Temple to confront the way things are with the way things ought to be. No wonder those in power felt so threatened that they executed him.

The church is many things, a community of spiritual nurture and prayer, of worship and education, of hospitality and welcome. It’s also a non-violent movement that follows Jesus in resisting injustice.

The moment the stones refuse to be silent the church is born, and when that happens again and again, the church is given new life in every age, including in our time. You graduates are going out to be those stones, to speak up in the name of Jesus, whether it’s a middle schooler being bullied or a poor family being evicted or migrants being mistreated or women under assault or a nation needing to learn that black lives matter or God’s creation being ruined. These stones will not remain silent.

The Presbyterian Church in this country and its historic denominational cousins used to operate from a place of privilege. The straight, white male dominated Protestant church in which I was raised once considered itself in charge of the American narrative. You can see it in the architecture. The sanctuary of the church I serve in Minneapolis was built in 1897 at the dawn of what we declared would be “the Christian century.” Its tall stone towers, so fortress-like and confident, so solid and impenetrable, provided ample evidence of the church’s unquestioned dominance in the heart of the city. We were going to win the world for Christ.

Well, that century didn’t work out quite as planned.

And this new century, the one in which you and I are serving the church, looks quite different. The context has shifted dramatically, at home, and around the world.

This is the multi-faith century, when either we learn to live together with people of other traditions and goodwill or spiral further into unceasing conflict. This is the century when either we come together and steward the creation or see the earth forever changed. This is the century of vast human migration across the globe, the century of water scarcity, the century of expanding disparities within the human family, the century of technology that may surpass our human limitations…and the church needs to find its way into it.

This is our time.

Novelist Elena Ferrante says this about life today: “Pressing changes are underway. Everything is becoming something else, unpredictably. A completely new outlook is required.” (NY Times, May 19, 2019)

We just constructed a new wing on our church building back in Minneapolis. We built another tower, only this one is made not of stone but of layered metal panels, in Frank Gehry-like fashion. It’s not straight and doesn’t even appear to be finished. Next to its stone siblings it appears soft, even playful. It looks like an opening rose. It allows light and air behind and through its petals. It’s an invitation to dialogue. It wants to learn and listen.

The architecture acknowledges what we all now should comprehend: the church, as some of us once knew it, is no longer dominant or in charge – and I’ve come to see that as good, liberating news. We should banish the words “church decline” from our vocabulary. That’s the language of the old way of being church, when we thought we were at the center.

Try church “correction” or church “deconstruction” or church “decolonization” instead. The church simply cannot be the church from a place of privilege. We’ve been liberated from that ecclesiological mythology. From a position of privilege our vision is foreshortened, our hopes turned inward, our leadership self-serving, and the gospel atrophies because we don’t hear the cries of the stones.

The first congregation I served was in the heart of San Francisco in the decade of the 1990s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Ten percent of the members of our church were HIV-positive or living with full-blown AIDS. I lost track of the number of memorial services we did for young men, most of whom had been abandoned by their birth families. That experience changed us.

It led us into the struggle for full equality for the LGBTQ community already underway in our church. It took 40 years for the denomination to come to its senses about inclusion of all God’s children and change its mind on ordination and marriage equality, There were a lot of No votes along the way before the church finally said Yes.

I remember a speech I gave at a General Assembly lunch after one of those losses. I said that being in the minority and on the losing end was not a familiar place for me. For the first time, I said, I felt that my own denomination had marginalized me, and it was painful to be on the margins. Afterwards Janie Spahr, who calls herself a “lesbian evangelist” and is one of the prophets of our time, came up to me and said, “Welcome to the margins, Tim. Only we think of it as the horizon.”

I was experiencing first-hand the liberating effect of the loss of privilege. I was being introduced to a different view of the triumphant Palm Sunday story. Jesus didn’t go into Jerusalem to be heralded a king. He went into the city as an act of resistance. He wanted the stones to shout out. He went to the Temple to shake things up.  He was calling his followers to a ministry that confronts the principalities and powers.

On the side of our church back in downtown Minneapolis we have installed a large sign that says “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Cornel West said that as he was urging the church not to limit itself to the safety of the pastoral dimensions of ministry. Justice is what love looks like in public, he said, and then he added, “Just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.”

The church is the church when it leads as Jesus did, with both kinds of love, private tenderness and public justice. We’ve majored in the former; in our time, we need more of the latter.

Ministry is an act of resistance, an act of resistance against any effort to truncate or control or limit or make exclusive or exploit the power of God’s love. That’s what Jesus saw happening in the Temple that day, and it’s what all of us will see in our particular contexts of ministry.

Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at Westminster a couple weeks ago. “Jesus never commanded me to love my religion,” she said. “When religion tries to come between me and my neighbor,” she added, “I will choose my neighbor.”

There will be tables that need to be overturned, and we’ll struggle with what that means for us, what sacrifice it might entail. Some of us will need to relinquish our places of privilege and power and let go of control.

These times call us to experiment, to take risks, to reassemble and redesign our deconstructed church, centering it on the gospel as we understand it in today’s world.

Habrá tiempos mejores, pero este es nuestro tiempo. There will be better times, but this is our time. This is your time. This is God’s time.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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