A Matter of Identity


December 19, 2013

Sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 353 East Pine Street, Wooster, OH 44691 on Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Text: Matthew 11:2-11   

It was with great excitement and joy that Westminster received the new Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God, only to discover that the second section of the Hymnal which includes hymns 49 to 81 has the heading “God’s Covenant with Israel”.  For a church like Westminster, whose ministry is peacemaking in a pluralistic context on the campus of a liberal arts college, and for our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA),  which has been involved in the Middle East for nearly two centuries and wants to be a voice of a just and durable peace in Israel/Palestine[1], this heading is problematic. 

According to the “Theological Vision Statement” of Glory to God, the new hymnal is meant for a church that wants to be relevant amidst a changing culture and growing diversity. The intention is that it “will be used by worshippers who have not had life-long formation by Scripture and basic Christian doctrine, much less Reformed theology”, and it wants to “address a church divided by conflicts but nonetheless, we believe, longing for healing and the peace that is beyond understanding”[2]

It is in this context that Glory to God is right in stating that what is at stake is our identity as a church, saying that “collections of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs give voice to the church’s core beliefs and theological convictions”.[3]  Glory to God, also acknowledges that “the selection of hymns and songs, the order in which they are presented, and even the ways in which they are indexed shape the theological thinking and ultimately the faith and practices of the church”.[4]  Unfortunately what the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS)  fails to realize or acknowledge is that current culture also shapes the interpretation of Glory to God and the theology it presents. Contemporary issues and questions shed light on all aspects of our theology and thus shape our identity as a people of faith in the twenty- first century.

The Gospel reading before us today is about identity,  not only that of Jesus of Nazareth but also of ourselves, who confess him to be the Christ and the Son of God.  As John the Baptist now finds himself in prison and hears what the Messiah is doing, he sends word by his disciples to ask Jesus “if he is the One to come”. In response, Jesus tells them to go back and tell him what they “hear and see”. Jesus’ response to John is ironic, as it is the very words and acts of Jesus that caused John to question Jesus’ identity in the first place.  John was expecting the Messiah, a descendant of David, who would rise to redeem his people by overthrowing the oppressive Roman government and introducing a period of harmony and peace;  but from Jesus’ answer it seems that he rejects any Messianic expectations and if not, at least redefines them by saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

From Jesus’ words and deeds it is clear that he did not conform to popular Jewish messianism by bringing political, social, and economic deliverance, and his failure to do so caused disappointment. What he did instead, was to establish God’s just and loving presence in the world so we can see God’s incarnation among us, thus we the church becoming the Body of Christ through the work of the Spirit.

As we, the Body of Christ continue the work of the Incarnated One in the world, Jesus’ answer to John helps us shape our identity. The phrase in Matthew, “what you are hearing and seeing” is central.  By placing “hearing” first, words are emphasized in this phrase, saying they are important[5].  As Brian Stoffregen points out in his commentary on the text before us, “Words" (logos, that is the inner reasons or motivations for speaking the words) mean more than just using the right words (rhema, that is "rhetoric").

Glory to God acknowledges this importance of words stating that language is close to the heart of Christian faith.  As befits a faith community called into being by a God we know as the Word made flesh, we pray, proclaim, teach, comfort, admonish, serve, and administer justice with words woven in and through all our actions. Language used in worship has great power. Therefore the language used in collections of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs matters a great deal.  Worshipful words joined to worshipful music deeply shape the faith and practices of the church[6].”  It is in this context that Glory to God acknowledges that our denomination is aware “that our language can exclude and stereotype, but also that carefully chosen language can embrace and include people who have been separated from the centers of power[7].”  For this reason Glory to God, was anticipated with excitement by Westminster and others within our denomination as it avoids language “that stereotypes persons according to categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, age, or disabilities….”[8]  Even before the release date of Glory to God we sang some of the hymns that were included in the sampler that was distributed.  Unfortunately it was upon receiving the complete copy of Glory to God that we, and others within our denomination, discovered the section heading “God’s Covenant to Israel”.

From a theological perspective one can understand the choice of the terminology “God’s Covenant with Israel” and the inclusion of the section within the “history of salvation” framework of Glory to God.  But where this decision falls short is when it comes to the inclusive use of language, especially to a “people who have been separated from the centers of power”, and in its attempt to “inspire and embolden -  to create a peace that is beyond understanding”, and as it wants to appeal to “worshippers who have not had life-long formation by Scripture and basic Christian doctrine, much less Reformed theology”.[9]

In discussing the phrase “God’s Covenant with Israel”, I will focus my sermon on the twenty-first century interpretation of the word “Israel” and not on other issues that the word “Covenant” raises, in connection with “Land” and especially within the salvation framework of Glory to God, “Supersessionism” (the idea that God chose the Jewish people and after their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, that covenant was fulfilled in the Church, as the new Israel.  This frame of mind has led and can be seen as anti-Semitism, a notion that the Presbyterian Church has rejected as it opposes all forms of anti-Semitism).

Nahida Gordon, elder of Westminster Presbyterian Church, rightly points out in an open letter to our stated clerk and to the members of the PCOCS, dated October 2, 2013, that the section demonstrates a lack of understanding of a twenty-first century meaning of the word “Israel.” Nahida wrote;

“Because I am a Palestinian Christian, I am uneasy with the word “Israel” in “God’s Covenant with Israel” – I am always told, however, that what is meant by “Israel” is Biblical Israel and not today’s Israel; but do all Christians know this? With the prevalence of Christian Zionism, which the GA repudiated in 2004, I highly doubt it. Even if not intentional, this language is inflammatory, misleading, and hurtful.”

Nahida is not the only Palestinian stating this reality.  Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, in his book Justice, and only Justice, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, says what is at stake for Palestinians when it comes to the Biblical language is the nature of God’s character stating that:

“many good-hearted Christians have been confused or misled by certain biblical words and images that are normally used in public worship; words that have acquired new connotations since the establishment of the State of Israel.”[10]  

For many worshippers today the traditional spiritual connotation of the word ‘Israel’ has been overshadowed by a political and military connotation.  For me personally, who has visited Israel/Palestine three times, it is difficult to use the word ‘Israel’ without seeing images of suffering and hearing voices of pain caused by the occupation which our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) at its 2010 General Assembly declared that “the continuing occupation of Palestine (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) to be illegitimate, illegal under international law, and an enduring threat to peace in the region.[11] Also Kairos Palestine speaks out against occupation saying: “that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God.”[12]  I know that I am not alone in my struggling with this tension in expressing my faith and using terminology and images that were once a source of comfort and is now redefined by a twenty-first century meaning.  As Nahida Gordon points out in a follow-up Open Letter, dated October 14, 2013, to the editor of Glory to God;

“Israel is in the news every day – in the television evening news, the print media and the internet.  Not a day goes by without us hearing about Israel.  The views of various pundits and experts friendly to Israel seem to be a prerequisite for any discussion on Israel and its relationship with its neighbors.  Added to this daily reminder of Israel, Presbyterians will have a reminder each Sunday morning when they open their new hymnals and encounter a collection of hymns labeled ‘God’s covenant with Israel.’

So I will enumerate a very small portion of the latest news about Israel that you and many Presbyterians may not have heard or read in the news.  Israel, on an annual basis, arrests 500 children usually at night after midnight and incarcerates them using administrative detention for various periods of time.  For details you can consult the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the occupied Palestinian territories (OCHA-oPt) as well as Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, all of whom regularly report on this issue.  Further, Israel regularly uproots olive trees which provide a living for 80,000 Palestinian families.  In 2011, Oxfam reported that 800,000 olive trees were uprooted. [Oxfam, 2011. Olive Harvest Factsheet, p2(PDF)”]. 

Most of these human rights violations by the Government of Israel includes, but are not limited to the following: 

  1.      “Systematic expropriation of Palestinian land and water for Jewish-only settlement colonies;
  2.      Deportation and forcible transfer of Palestinian populations;
  3.      Imprisonment and torture of Palestinians;
  4.      Construction of a separation wall/barrier deep into the militarily occupied Palestinian territories;
  5.      Building Israeli-only by-pass roads to connect the Jewish-only settlement colonies together and to Israel;
  6.       Destruction of Palestinian agricultural lands and homes and expropriation of Palestinian property not justified         by military necessity; and
  7.       Daily humiliation at numerous checkpoints deep within the Palestinian territories.”[13]

 As a South African, who has visited Israel Palestine, I can say that this level of population control and restriction of movement exceeds what happened during Apartheid South Africa.  Apartheid South did not have separate roads and different color car registration plates for each of its racial/ethnic groups.

 Again, I am not the only South African interpreting the Israeli occupation in this way.

Fatima Hassan, a leading South African human rights lawyer, said: ”The issue of separate roads, [different registration] of cars driven by different nationalities, the indignity of producing a permit any time a soldier asks for it, and of waiting in long queues in the boiling sun at checkpoints just to enter your own city, I think is worse than what we experienced during apartheid." She was speaking after the tour, which included a visit to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and a meeting with Israel's Chief Justice, Dorit Beinisch.[14]

As a Congregation that sees itself called to peacemaking and a ministry of reconciliation, we cannot ignore the twenty-first century reality of the term “God’s Covenant with Israel” and the violence it brings into our community and in our worship of God. 

To use the Glory to God as printed will be a violation of who we are as a community of faith that affirms the love of God for all peoples, including Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews and Muslims.  Just as we do respect and speak out against the human right violations of the Palestinians we do respect the human rights and dignity of the Israeli people and opposes all forms of anti-Semitism[15],[16] and violence in Israel/Palestine .

The challenge we face, however, with Glory to God is that our denomination did not give enough care and thought in their theological and biblical arguments when it comes to the section heading “God’s Covenant with Israel” and thus weakens the church’s peacemaking presence in the world, including the voice of Westminster.  

As a congregation, and I believe as a denomination, we cannot just ignore the situation before us and continue to use Glory to God as published as it is a matter of identity. 

I do support a proposed overture to the 221st General Assembly (2014) entitled “Distinguishing between biblical terms for Israel and those applied to the modern political State of Israel in Christian liturgy” in which it recommends that our Presbyterian seminaries and Christian educators help clarify the use of these terms such as biblical Israel and how to use them appropriately.

I also propose that the Presbyterian Committee of Congregational Song, (PCOCS) publish and distribute an addendum, which can be pasted in the back of Glory to God, to Appendix 2, “A Statement of Language” in which they clarify the context in which they use “God’s Covenant with Israel” as they did with the section “Language used for God”.  Also, I hope it is possible that all future editions of Glory to God can be printed with this addendum, or even better yet by leaving out the word Israel from “God’s Covenant to Israel”.  This will honour the theological and language guidelines that the PCOCS has set for themselves and honour the identity of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and congregations like Westminster.  Most of all, I believe this change will help us as a church be true to our identity in following the ways of Jesus of Nazareth, and help us to more clearly articulate our ministry of repentance, reconciliation and hope, reaffirming  the love of God for all peoples, including Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. 

Here at Westminster, our Session will decide in January how we will use the Hymnal, or not use it.  We   invite your participation in this conversation as to  what to do with Glory to God now that we have it.  

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/global/israel-palestine/

[2] Appendix 1, “Theological Vision Statement”, Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal. Westminster John Knox Press 2013.  Louisville, Kentucky. p. 926-927

[3] Ibid

[4] Appendix 1, “Theological Vision Statement”, Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal. Westminster John Knox Press 2013.  Louisville, Kentucky. p. 926-927

[5] Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen, at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

[6] Appendix 2, “A Statement On Language”, Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal. Westminster John Knox Press 2013.  Louisville, Kentucky. p. 926-927

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Appendix 1, “Theological Vision Statement”, Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal. Westminster John Knox Press 2013.  Louisville, Kentucky. p. 926-927

[10] Naim Stifan Ateek, 1990: Justice- & Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation.  Orbis Books Maryknoll, NY. (p.75)

[11]219th General Assembly (2010).  “Breaking Down the Walls”—From the Middle East Study Committee.

[12] Kairos Palestine, 2009: A moment of truth A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.

[13]  OVT-017 - Overtures to the 221st General Assembly (2014): Engaging Presbyterians to Witness for Palestinian Human Rights and for Ending the Occupation of Palestine at http://pc-biz.org/Explorer.aspx?id=4583

[14]  Published on Friday, July 11, 2008 by The Independent/UK: 'This Is Like Apartheid': ANC Veterans Visit West Bank by Donald Macintyre

[15] OVT-017 - Overtures to the 221st General Assembly (2014): Engaging Presbyterians to Witness for Palestinian Human Rights and for Ending the Occupation of Palestine at http://pc-biz.org/Explorer.aspx?id=4583

[16] See Joshua Ralston ABC Religion and Ethics 13 May 201 Can Christians advocate for Palestinian rights and not be anti-Semitic? http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/05/13/3758316.htm


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