What Happens When Love Goes Public?
November 17, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
This week at Westminster we’ve welcomed more than 7,000 people to variety of events held in our building, ranging from a reception for the American Institute of Architects at which I offered a memorial moment for Jim Dayton and Mort Mortenson, to a sanctuary filled with followers of Jen Hatmaker, a progressive evangelical writer from Texas, to a Town Hall Forum with André Thomas on the power of African-American spirituals, to two events with Parker Palmer, on Friday with Carrie Newcomer, and on Saturday with Sondra Samuels of the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, talking about race and justice and healing our democracy.
Then there was the usual activity: mid-week worship and education, Wednesday Night Supper, the staff and children of St. David’s coming and going, devotional chair yoga, the Minnesota Chorale, our two Scout troops, the Senior Center, Cantus, various Bible studies, folks experiencing homelessness and needing support, and a meeting of the Deacons.
And we thought church was only an hour or two on Sunday.
After one of the events this week a young woman told me she appreciated how our congregation engages the city. “I’m an agnostic humanist,” she said, “But every time I come here I find myself tempted to make this my community.”
You can imagine how I responded – this is, after all, the Month of Invitation!
A young Mennonite man told me how welcome he felt here. An older gentleman said to me as he was leaving, “Thank you for what you do in the community. We need you, Westminster.”
At our Wednesday Worship: Silence and Song, two devout Roman Catholics who live in the neighborhood were here again this week; they are regulars at that contemplative service. And this week I met an asylum-seeker from Africa who has made Westminster his worshipping home.
It was another typical seven days in the life of Westminster.
Our church is evolving. Our church is evolving into a congregation that gathers multiple times each week for worship, study, and fellowship, even as we also bring together a wide variety of diverse people and groups. That’s the work of building the Beloved Community.
It’s Stewardship Sunday, the day each fall when all of us to make a financial commitment to the ministry and mission of our congregation. The robust, exciting life of Westminster these days gives rise to deep thanksgiving to God – and that gratitude is the source of our generosity. What a joy to be part of a church so thoroughly engaged in making this world a better place!
We have become a church known for what we do and who we are.
Yet, historically, Christian faith has been associated more with something people believe. The great Creeds of the Church made that clear many centuries ago: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” the Apostles Creed begins. Those first affirmations of the Church put a stake in the ground long ago to anchor Christianity. All subsequent expressions of faith were measured by how well they kept the claims of the early creeds of the Church.
The insistence on orthodoxy – from the Greek, meaning ortho, “right,” and doxy belief – orthodoxy came to be the central work of the Church. Theologies were written, sermons preached, doctrines promulgated, and clergy ordained – all to help people get their belief right. It was a matter of controlling the message, and underlying everything was the assumption that Christian faith was essentially something people believed.
But through those same centuries there was a counter trend in Christian faith, a movement mostly flying under the ecclesiastical radar. There were those less concerned with orthodoxy and more focused on ortho-praxis – not so much right belief, but right practice. Women religious and monks, mendicants and mystics whose sole purpose was to pray or to serve or to show hospitality or to care for those who were ill or to welcome those deemed to be strangers – they lived a Christianity that became associated with something people do, a Christianity centered simply on loving one another.
In which direction does our faith lean? Does it matter more to us that we get belief right and adhere to inherited tradition, or that we act on what we understand about our faith, whether or not it reflects historic doctrine?
Jesus faces something like that same question when he walks into his hometown synagogue in Nazareth to deliver his first sermon. They all know him. They helped teach him the ancient stories of the Hebrew people and the rituals of the Jewish community. When Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then sits down – as they did then – to preach, they probably anticipate an interpretation of the text based on the teaching of the elders.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus reads from Isaiah,
“Because God has anointed me to bring good news to those who living in poverty. God has sent me to proclaim release to those held captive and recovery of sight to those who cannot see, to let those living under oppression go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Having read the text, Jesus then sits down to preach. All eyes are on him. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he says.
At first the congregation is pleased. Maybe Jesus is saying that Nazareth will now be the center of attention in the coming reign of God, after being a hilltop backwater for so many years.
But Jesus continues, saying that the words of the prophet will indeed be fulfilled, only not in the way they assume. The reference to good news for those living in poverty and good news for those held in prison and good news for those who cannot see, points to a divine presence much more generous, much more open than anything their religion expected. Something beyond what their tradition could control. And suddenly they’re not so pleased with Jesus.
Jesus challenges the theological assumption that God belongs to one group. He rejects a religion of closed circles and offers a love so inclusive it’s terrifying to them, and threatening. That’s why they nearly throw him off the cliff that day in Nazareth.
When Jesus announces that God’s love is henceforth going to ignore the boundaries built into their belief system, their world and their religion are turned upside down. God’s love is going public and it will no longer be contained or constrained by the smallness of a particular tradition.
What matters most to God, Jesus is saying, is not so much what we believe, but what we do, how we live, how we treat those with vulnerabilities, or those seeking refuge, or those on the receiving end of the brutalities of history.
In other words, orthopraxis over orthodoxy. Acting in the world out of love, rather than huddling behind belief that stays inside the walls.
That day in Nazareth Jesus breaks open their religion, their hearts, their lives. Can he break open ours?
The church is in the business of loving others. That’s what takes place here every week. When we open the doors each morning, we begin to witness to the love of God. Oftentimes that love happens behind the scenes, even on a Sunday. Take church school teachers, for instance. Some of them have been coming Sunday after Sunday, year after year for more than two decades. Only occasionally do we see them, but the children see them every week. Those kids know they are loved.
Or the Grief Support Team. Members of that group are at every memorial service. They greet at the doors. They put tissue boxes in the pews where the family will sit. They manage the guest books and the flowers and help at the reception. Those grieving family members know they are loved.
Or the deacons. Every Sunday following worship they take the flowers from the sanctuary and deliver them to someone recovering at home or in the hospital. Or the Befrienders or Member-to-Member care givers or Prayer Companions, all of whom quietly offer support week after week. All those touched by these ministries of Westminster know they are loved.
But if we at Westminster are truly committed to Building the Beloved Community we will have to practice our faith beyond these walls, as well.
What happens when love goes public?
It gets complicated. It’s risky. It’s not easily controlled. It can be controversial. We might get a little pushback. Love that reaches out, beyond the confines of the comfortable, is a little wild and unpredictable. And it necessarily bumps up against the realities of life in the world around us – disparities, privilege, racism, nativism, anger, fear. Faith isn’t always ready to confront such challenges.
Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at Westminster last spring. “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.” (Holy Envy, p. 208)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing Germany in the 1930s, said essentially the same thing: “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.”
A relationship of love, love of the other, love that takes us out of the building and into the real world.
Womanist author bell hooks calls it the “politicization of love,” and hooks says it’s needed if we want to change the way things are.
“The politicization of love,” she says, “Is the primary way we end domination and oppression…” – those words coming from the prophet Isaiah – “…Domination cannot exist in any social situation where a love ethic prevails.” (Quoted in Nahum Ward-Lev, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets [New York: Orbis, 2019], p. 167)
On the side of our church along 12th Street several years ago we installed a large sign that says “Justice is what love looks like in public.” The sign is still there.
Theologian Cornel West said those words as he was urging the church not to retreat to the safety of the pastoral or personal dimensions of love. Justice is what love looks like in public, he said, and then he added, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.
Some have said the sign makes a political statement. That may be, but it also echoes the prophet Isaiah who said in the same passage Jesus quotes, “I the Lord love justice.” (Isaiah 61:8)
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. “These days are asking us to be better people,” Carrie Newcomer said Friday evening. “Better people than we ever thought we’d have to be.”
Love expects that of us. And when loving others seems beyond our capacity, especially with those who don’t see things the way we do – and our nation is full of that kind of polarity – or when systems in the world seem too entrenched ever to change, Newcomer says, “Remember this: things are impossible – until they’re not.”
And, we believe, “With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
When love goes public the church takes its hope for the world out of the sanctuary and into the community, where we will find Jesus already at work. When love goes public it makes sacred the processes of change, the work of transformation, the politicization of love.
That’s the calling of this congregation, not only on Sundays, but week after week, day after day, as people stream through our open doors – and as we go out those same doors to be the church, and join with others in building the Beloved Community.
Thanks be to God.