Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century? In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus. On March 1, we considered the first affirmation in our Book Of Order to be written by a North American denomination. We sought to be attentive to the Confession of 1967 (linked below) while referring to Leviticus 25 and Luke 12:32-34.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below
What do you remember about 1967 (and yes, I know, most of you in the room this morning weren’t around then…)? On January 14 of that year, Allan Ginsburg, Dick Gregory, and a host of other popular figures appeared at what was billed as “The Human Be-In” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. An estimated 30,000 people turned out to explore ideas that came to shape the Hippie movement of the 1960’s; it was here that psychologist Timothy Leary first urged the young people of America to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”
That event led to what has been termed “The Summer of Love”, a phenomenon that saw close to half a million people descend upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in an exploration and celebration of the Hippie values of free love, psychedelic drugs, and protests.
And even if you couldn’t get to San Francisco that year, your town was probably filled with conversations about the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, the civil rights movement, what some called “Women’s Liberation”, and the sexual revolution, among other hot topics of the year. 1967 was, in so many respects, a momentous year in the United States.
If you were to leaf through an historical retrospective of 1967, I suspect it would have to be a fairly THICK historical retrospective if you were to come across a description of a gathering of Presbyterians that took place in May of that year. What with the war in Vietnam, the riots in Detroit, and the fire that killed three astronauts on Apollo 1, a bunch of church folks getting together for a conference in Portland seems rather pedestrian.
And yet in today’s worship, we won’t be talking about any of those great societal upheavals explicitly; instead, we’ll explore the ways that the decisions of the General Assembly have filtered into our lives.
More than ten years prior, in 1956, anticipating the upcoming merger of the United Presbyterian Church in North America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the church called for a re-write of the Westminster Confession of Faith. You’ll remember that we are talking about the creeds of the church during this season of our lives, and you might have been in church a few weeks ago when we talked about the Westminster Standards – the then-300 year old document that was at that point the cornerstone of the church’s theology. After that committee met for two years, the new denomination decided in 1958 that it would be better to simply come up with a brand-new statement of faith that would guide the church into the current day. It took another nine years, and two more specially-appointed committees, but the Assembly that met in Portland in 1967 approved not only the document that we know as “The Confession of 1967” but the Book of Order that contains it and the other documents we’ve talked about in recent months. We might not be fast in the Presbyterian Church, but we’re thorough…
When folks called for an updated version of the Westminster Standards, most of them expected a similar document. When churches heard about the development of a new statement, they anticipated receiving a creed that talked about the beliefs that were necessary to maintaining a Christian witness. After all, most of the affirmations that the church had come to in previous years dealt with answers. What must a person believe in order to call oneself a Christian? How can an individual be “redeemed” or “saved”? Which ideas about God are the right ideas?
And yet the Assembly received a ten page document that was based around a single passage in scripture: II Corinthians 5:19, which reads, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” The authors of the Confession of 1967 laid a theological groundwork in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. But then, rather than embarking on a systematic exposition of church doctrine, the Confession of 1967 invites the reader to consider four aspects of reconciliation that were very much in evidence in the turbulent 1960’s:
- The evils of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow
- The perils of militarism and an arms race
- The scourge of economic injustice around the world
- The risks inherent in the onset of the sexual revolution
And because I know that many of you were not alive at that time in history, let me simply say that if you brought up topics like racism, war, economic justice, and human sexuality in a Presbyterian Church in 1967, you weren’t preaching anymore – you were meddling.
So if you’ve been a Presbyterian for a while, you won’t be surprised to know that the early drafts of the Confession of 1967 received a scathing reception in some quarters. In fact, the Presbyterian Lay Committee sponsored 150 newspaper advertisements across the country, including a half page in The New York Times, urging loyal and faithful Presbyterians to vote against this affirmation. These ads stated, “Protestant denominations generally have limited themselves in their jurisdiction to ecclesiastical and spiritual subjects.”
You see, for many people, their central understanding was that the church is here to provide for the salvation of individuals, who are then sent back into their “regular” lives as those who are redeemed and transformed. Religion, in these people’s minds, is a private matter. Talking about issues like this in church was crossing some sort of a line, and getting political, and causing controversy. “The church,” folks seemed to say, “ought to stick to religion.”
And yet in calling the church to respond to evils with names like racism, militarism, poverty, and sexual abandon, the authors of the Confession of 1967 are holding forth an entirely different model of the church: one that sees the congregation as a laboratory in which individuals are brought together to consider ethical responses to the questions of the day, and thereby becoming in themselves agents of transformation that will encourage those who struggle even while threatening the status quo that perpetuates or tolerates such evils.
It’s a key question, and it rages in churches to our own day. Are we here to save souls? Or are we here to demonstrate what God intends for all of creation?
The Confession of 1967 reflects the truth that authentic Christianity has got to be deeply personal, in that it must resonate with and be lived out by individuals. However it goes further to imply that such a faith, while inherently personal, can never be essentially private. The Christian faith is not your private possession, assuring you that you can avoid the dangers of Hell but not requiring you to participate in the life of the world.
Parenthetically, I’ll mention that next month I intend to preach an entire series of sermons I’m calling “How My Mind Has Changed” – and this understanding is perhaps my most momentous shift of the past four decades.
The Confession of 1967 points us, rightly, to the truth that God’s people are called to follow Jesus in every single area of life, and that as a result, our understandings of identity – including nationalism, race, and gender – are bound to be transformed by the discipleship we profess.
By way of example, I’ll point you toward a part of the Confession that focuses on the cry for economic justice around the world. You can see that section printed in your bulletin, and indeed we will read it together as our Affirmation of Faith in a few moments. Here you will see that the Confession is deeply reflective of a key biblical concept – and yet has been called dangerous and socialism by some.
The key truth on which this section hangs is the first verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and all that dwell therein.” The implications of that foundational assertion are unpacked for us in various places throughout the Bible including, as you’ve heard, Leviticus 25.
Follow with me here: if the earth and all that is on it belongs to God, then none of us can truly own any of it. How can we lay title to that which we’ve already confessed belongs to another? So then, according to Leviticus, one does not actually purchase property, buy or sell human slaves, or even own money forever. Rather, you purchase the use of the land, you buy the labor of the worker, and you may make a temporary loan to someone else – but every fifty years, in the Divine economy, there is a fundamental re-do. Every fifty years, according to the Jubilee principle set forward here by Moses and affirmed by Isaiah and Jesus, all the land ought to revert to its original owners; anyone who has become enslaved is set free; and all debts are wiped out. In a society that would truly live these practices out, there would be no such thing as chronic poverty. However, there would also be no ability to amass generational wealth, so you can guess how often this has actually been tried.
The confession points to the fact that scripture calls us to be continually reconciling with each other and with the land itself to the end that every human and all of creation might know the Divine Intentions of justice, rest, and peace.
This system of economic justice cannot work unless people take in personally: folk have got to be individually committed to the ideal. Similarly, it will not work if we tried to do it in our own little space – I try it on Cumberland Street and someone else tries it in McKees Rocks, it can’t function. It cannot be private.
Yes, I think that for some of us, the Confession of 1967 might be among the most influential documents that we’ve never read.
What do you remember about 1967? Do you like listening to the Beatles? Do you remember Cool Hand Luke? Can you whistle along with the theme of The Andy Griffith Show?
All right – before I get an “OK, Boomer…”, let me close by saying that while historians call 1967 the “summer of love” because hundreds of thousands of Hippies descended into Haight-Asbury and “flower children” protested the war, perhaps the Presbyterian Church, in all of our stodginess, did something tangible to remind the world that love has structure, love has direction, and love has purpose.
Because, beloved, if in 2020 we can hold onto these truths
- Racism is an evil that must be opposed and dismantled
- Seeking security and identity in nuclear, biological, ideological, or military weaponry is an absurd proposition and a danger to the world
- Enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is antithetical to God’s purposes for humanity
- The ways that human beings treat each other’s sexuality has deeply-seated spiritual dimensions and effects.
If we can live by those affirmations in 2020, than this year can be a “summer of love” in Crafton Heights. Not “I’m A Believer” or “Baby, Won’t You Light My Fire” kind of love, but enacted, Christ-like, God-honoring, Spirit-driven love that is shared in community, practiced here, and given away freely. A love like that is something worth striving for! May it be a hallmark of our lives and our congregation. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Mark Englund-Krieger, The Presbyterian Pendulum: Seeing Providence in the Wild Diversity of the Church Wipf & Stock, 2010), p. 148.