On September 10, 2023, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen. Senior Pastor at Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the sermon, “The Benediction of Life Together,” which was the first of his last seven sermons before his retirement at the end of October.
Psalm 1: 1-3:
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.”
John 10: 7-10, 14-16:
“Therefore Jesus said again, ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’”
“’I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me–just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.’”
“As most of you know, I will retire from my role as senior pastor of Westminster at the end of next month. When I told pastor-friends that this fall I’ll preach only seven more sermons from this pulpit, they asked if that was my version of the seven last words from the cross. This will be considerably less dramatic!”
“The prospect of concluding 40 years of ministry does raise the question of what to say, or what you might want to hear, as I prepare to leave. Early in my ministry here someone gave me a copy of Dr. Arnold Lowe’s final sermon, delivered on the Sunday following Easter, in April 1965, following 24 years of service at Westminster. The sermon was titled The Sum and Substance of It All. “
“Since that has been covered already, I’m going in a different direction. I’m conceiving of my last two months at Westminster as a kind of extended benediction, a long Minnesota benediction, for both the congregation and for me, as we part ways this fall and remember the many blessings we have shared over the years. That’s what a benediction is: a bene dictio – a good word. A benediction is a blessing offered and received, an invocation of the holy, a sacred conclusion to time together.”
“What better way to be reminded of the joy of our life together at Westminster than the start of the new church year, with children and music and festivity! We celebrate the blessing we have in our shared faith as followers of Jesus. God’s love is all around us, and we see it when we open our eyes and hearts. In the words of the old gospel song, “What a fellowship! What a joy divine!”
“We commence this year in the life of Westminster rejoicing in the goodness of God. We know not all is well with the world. We know of the fear and injustice, the animosity and anger that engulf our nation. We know of natural disasters, the fires and hurricanes and earthquakes, and pray for those impacted by them, especially the people of Morocco. We know of humanity’s complicity in climate-related calamities. We know, in the words of the Apostle, that ‘the whole creation is groaning in travail, awaiting the promised redemption.’”
“But all that difficult reality doesn’t overwhelm us because hope finds a home in the hearts of those who trust in the goodness and justice of God. There’s a tradition in African American worship that I have long admired. When the preacher says, ‘God is good,’ the congregation replies, ‘All the time.’ Then the preacher says, ‘All the time,’ and the congregation replies, ‘God is good.’”
“Given the events of the last few weeks in Jacksonville and Montgomery and other American cities – and given the long trajectory of racial injustice in this land, those words continue to sound in sanctuaries where people refuse to give up hope. We cannot change the past, but we can transform the future. ‘God is good’ – ‘all the time.’ ‘All the time’ – ‘God is good.’”
“The words offer an acclamation of praise, an affirmation of the power of life together in the church, a benediction of gratitude for the goodness of the God we worship and serve. Like the Hebrew poet’s trees planted by streams of water, if we draw on the goodness of God we are nourished, and we flourish – no matter the circumstances.”
“When the world bears down on us and squeezes us hard, in the systems we encounter or in our own personal situations, we can still claim the goodness of God. When the diagnosis is tough to hear and the future seems devastating, or when grief grips us, we can still claim the goodness of God. When loneliness and despair and mental illness grow to crisis levels, especially among young people, we can still claim the goodness of God. When the social order is coming unglued and vitriol is unchecked, we can still say, ‘God is good,’ ‘All the time.’ ‘All the time,’ ‘God is good.’”
“Christians are not Pollyannas who only look at things through rose-colored glasses. We’re not relentless optimists who see only the good in all situations. On the contrary, the followers of Jesus are realists. All of us are realists. We know how challenging it is to be a teenager in America today. We understand how new laws can create hardship for some. We see the crisis of drug overdoses and gun violence, including by suicide. We bemoan the cruelty and mendacity in politics and culture in our land in recent years. We don’t look away from the tough stuff that confronts us every day – sometimes personally, at other times in our communities or nation.”
“But we trust in something beyond all of that, beyond the powers of this world. The God we worship is sovereign over all things seen and unseen. Our resilience arises from trusting that Jesus came that all – that all – may have life and have it abundantly. That’s the blessing of life together in Christian community. No matter what we face, we have confidence that the light will not succumb to the shadows; that the dawn will follow the whatever our night be.
‘The early morning,’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘Belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light, it remembers the morning on which death…lay…in defeat and new life and salvation were given to humankind.” (Life Together)
“‘God is good.’ ‘All the time.’ ‘All the time.’ ‘God is good.’”
We also know that our time is not the end of time. We who follow Jesus reject the temptation to surrender to the fatalism and conspiracies that creep in if we are not vigilant. Yes, these are difficult days, but it is hubris to think of ourselves as facing the worst humanity has ever seen.
That’s not to say nothing needs addressing. Take a look around. We don’t lack for challenges. As the church we’re called to meet those challenges head on, to speak up and act up, if we must, and stand up for what is right and just. We do not let go of our pursuit of a better way and a better day simply because it will be hard to get there.”
“We follow one who came that all may have life and have it in abundance. That gives us hope that refuses to let go. We’ve seen communities in other times and places find courage to work for change – even when the world seems to have defeated them – rather than lose heart.
In 1934 in Germany, in the face of the rise of Nazi ideology and its influence on the church, a small group of Protestants assembled in the city of Barmen and wrote a credal statement of resistance. It’s called the Barmen Declaration. It rejects the many falsehoods that were swirling through Germany and its churches at the time, and instead insisted on the truth of Jesus Christ.
Fifty years later Christians in South Africa gathered in the town of Belhar and wrote a similar creed that rejected false claims being made by some in the church of that time that provided theological rationale to prop up apartheid. ‘Any teaching,’ the Belhar Confession says,
‘Which attempts to legitimate…forced (racial) separation by appeal to the gospel…must be considered ideology and false doctrine.’”
“Both in 1930s Germany and 1980s South Africa, in the midst of those crucibles of suffering and hatred, Christians reaffirmed the power of the gospel. They resisted the prevailing ethos in the culture and politics of their time – and even in the religion of the day, as expressed by some. They refused to let the blessing of life together be undone. The church today in our land should be doing the same.”
“Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), adopted both the Barmen Declaration and Belhar Confession into our church’s constitution.” (https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2016.pdf)
“Let us be clear: “Our faith is about life, not death. I came that all may have life, Jesus said, and have it in abundance. Our faith embraces hope, not fear. Let not your hearts be troubled, Jesus said, neither let them be afraid. Our faith tells the truth, not lies. You shall know the truth, Jesus said, and the truth will set you free. Our faith shows mercy, not judgement. God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, the Apostle Paul said, but that the world might be saved through him.”
“The benediction of life together. The joy of being the church. What a fellowship. What a joy divine! We are like trees, planted by streams of living water, nourished by the love of God, invited to seek and reflect the goodness of God’s presence and God’s justice in all we do.
An enduring image of this congregation’s faithfulness and resilience can be found outside in Paul Granlund’s sculpture on Westminster’s Upper Plaza. It’s called The Birth of Freedom. It’s on the front of today’s bulletin and we’ll see it up close after the service for the all-church photo.
The figures leaping up out of broken chains reach toward the heavens, rejoicing in the fullness of life granted them as those who bear the image of God, as we all do. They’re leaping out of all that had bound them – as we hope to do, out of everything that binds us – into the freedom of serving God.”
“’The joy of God,’ the theologian Irenaeus is reported to have said in the second century, ‘Is a human being fully alive.’”
“Like those figures in the sculpture, a human being fully alive is given freedom – not to indulge in selfish pursuits, but to love God and to love others. An old prayer borrows from words attributed to St. Augustine:
‘Lord God, light of the minds that know you, life of the souls that love you, and strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom.”
“‘I came that all may have life, ‘Jesus said, ‘and have it in abundance.'”
“God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good. ”
“Thanks be to God.”
Affirmation of Faith
The congregation together said the following words from the Belhar Confession of South Africa, adopted by the PCUSA (2016):
- that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things,
- that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
- that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged;
- that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
- Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.’
The congregation sang the following hymns: ‘All Creatures of Our God and King,’ ‘O God Beyond All Praising,’ ‘What a Fellowship, What a Joy Devine,’ and ‘God of Grace and God of Glory.’ And the Choir sang ‘Yonder Come Day,’ with the following words:
‘Oh day, yonder come day. Day done broke inna my soul, yonder come day. Good mornin’ day, yonder come day. A brand new day, yonder come day. Oh come on child, hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do? Oh day, yonder come day. I was on my knees, yonder come day. When I heard him say, yonder come day. Oh come on child, Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away, I ain’t got long to stay here. Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. Oh day, yonder come day…’
Commissioning of Church School Students and Teachers
As this was “Coming together Sunday” to mark the beginning of the church school year, there was Commissioning of Church School Students and Teachers,” gathered together in front of the church.
This was a very significant and moving service and sermon in the life of Westminster.
 Sermon, The Benediction of Life Together, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Sept. 10, 2023); Bulletin of Service, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Sept. 10, 2023).