One of Saint Oscar Romero’s Final Conversations

Carolyn Forché, an American poet and author, [1] then 27-29 years old, lived in El Salvador, January 1978—March 1980. Her memoir recounts her amazing sojourn in this country, which then was on the precipice of a brutal civil war.[2]

As an admirer of Monseñor (now Saint) Oscar Romero, I was especially interested in her accounts of seeing him on four occasions and conversing with him on the last of these.[3]

Mass in the Cathedral

Forché first saw Romero while he was celebrating mass in the then unfinished Cathedral of San Salvador, the capital of the country. He was “in his white vestments before a spray of microphones, giving a homily with a litany of names of those disappeared or found dead that week, some of whom were in coffins lined up at the altar, with windows cut into the lids to reveal their faces, except the mutilated. “ (Pp. 193-94)

“In shafts of sunlit dust sent from the louvers of the two bell towers we stood shoulder to shoulder; women in scarves or mantillas, men holding their straw hats, children sitting along the altar rail as the homily was broadcast to thousands of radios throughout the country, to machine shops, bodegas, to pickup trucks, and the battery-operated radios in the villages. When his homily giving guidance and counsel came to an end, Monseñor walked toward the coffins with an aspergillum [liturgical implement], sprinkling holy water on the dead, and then he walked through the congregation, and we parted to make a path for him, the water sprinkling down on our bowed heads, as it had on the coffins.” (Pp. 193-94.)

Upon later reflection, “I would understand that here the dead and the living were together, and those who stood alive before him, he was blessing in advance.” (P. 194.)

Lunch at the Carmelite Convent

On another occasion Forché went for lunch with the Carmelite sisters at their convent where they operated the Hospital of Divine Providence for cancer patients. Monseñor Romero, who lived in a small casita on the hospital grounds, came late for lunch. Apologizing for his lateness, he said, “there were so many meetings this morning, so many problems to address, that he lost track of time.” Forché heard someone mentioning her name, and Monseñor nodded his head yes, glancing at me.” (Pp. 213-15.)

But the two of them did not have any conversation on this occasion although she later recalled hearing his voice from the convent kitchen, saying,“ We must hope without hoping. We must hope when we have no hope.”(P. 336.)

It should also be mentioned that the hospital’s small, modern chapel is where Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. (P. 332.)

Another Mass at the Cathedral

Presumably in early 1980, Forché attended another mass at the Cathedral,  “hoping once again to receive Communion from Monseñor, to feel the raindrops from his aspergillum land on me. . . . I took photographs of him at the altar, speaking into what appeared to be a telephone held by an altar boy . . . .[To] the left of the altar is Father Ignacio Ellacuria, arms folded, not wearing his glasses, his eyes appearing to focus on Monsignor’s raised hand.” [4] (Pp. 311-13.)

After mass that day, Forché “noticed a man wearing sunglasses, who was, inexplicably, carrying an attaché case . . . He paused near one of the side altars as if offering a special prayer. The following day, a priest found an attaché case carrying seventy-two sticks of dynamite behind that side altar. It had been set to detonate during a funeral Mass for a civilian member of the junta, scheduled for that afternoon, but the detonator had apparently failed.” (P. 312.)

Conversation with Romero

On March 14, 1980, Forché and a Venezuelan journalist met with Romero in a community room at the Hospital of Divine Providence. Responding to questions from the journalist, Romero said finding a solution to the conflict had not been exhausted. “For if that were true, we would already be in the midst of a full civil war.” (P. 327.)

Another question prompted Romero to say, “My relation with the [guerrilla] organizations is one of a shepherd, a pastor with his people, knowing that a people has the right to organize itself and to defend its right of organization. And I also feel perfectly free to denounce those organizations when they abuse the power and turn in the direction of unnecessary violence. This is my role as pastor: to animate the just and the good and to denounce that which is not good.” (Pp. 327-28.)

Romero continued, “As I have told you, I do not have a political role in El Salvador, but rather a pastoral one. As a pastor, it is my duty to construct this Church, my community, the church. That is what I am responsible for. And this Church, as a people, illuminated by God, has a mission too among the people in general.” (P. 328.)

The journalist then asked about Monseñor’s own safety. The response, “ I have a great confidence in the protection of God. . . One does not need to feel fearful. We hear from Jesus Christ that one should not tempt God, but my pastoral duty obliges me to go out and be with the people, and I would not be a good pastor if I was hiding myself and giving testimonies of fear. I believe if death encounters us in the path of our duty, that then is the moment in which we die in the way that God wills.” (P. 328.)

After the journalist left. Forché and her friend Leonel, who also was there, discussed with Romero a meeting she had had with a Salvadoran official who was going to defect. Romero then told Leonel that “It is for the best” that Forché leave the next day (March 15), and Leonel agreed. (Pp. 328-29.)

Forché, however, did not want to leave and said to Romero, “But Monseñor, forgive me but it is so much more dangerous for you.” He replied, “My child, my place is with my people, and now your place is with yours.”  Romero added that he wanted her to “speak about the sufferings of the poor, the repression, and the injustice,. . .[to] say what I had seen.” He “assured me that the time would come for me to speak, and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” (P. 329.)

Forché left El Salvador the next day (March 15), and Romero was assassinated on March 24. (P. 332.)

Conclusion

On April 26, 2019, before I had read her book, I heard Forché speak about it at a “Literary Witnesses” meeting at Minneapolis’ Plymouth Congregational Church.

I asked her whether she had any comments on the impact on Romero of the March 12, 1977, murder of his friend and fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, and the opinion, often expressed, that this death converted or transformed Romero to be more outspoken against the human rights abuses of the Salvadoran government. (Pp. 28-29.)

In response, Forché said that Grande was murdered just before she arrived in the country, but based upon what she heard about Romero and her conversation with Romero, noted above, she disputed any contention that Romero was converted or transformed by that murder. He always expressed solidarity with the people and spoke out against repression.

For anyone interested in El Salvador, this well-written book is highly recommended.

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[1] Carolyn Forché , Poetry Fnd; Carolyn Forché, Wikipedia.

[2] Forché, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press;  New York; 2019); Goldman, A Young Poet, a Mysterious Stranger and an El Salvador on the Brink of War, N.Y. Times Book Review (April 20, 2019); Meyer, How to Write Poetry About Conflict. The Atlantic (Mar. 25, 2019).

[3] This blog has published many posts about Romero, his life and death, his continuing inspiration for many people throughout the world, including this blogger as well as various legal proceedings regarding his assassination. See the posts listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwk commentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[4] Father Ellacuria at the time was Professor and Rector of the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA) as well as a Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian On November 16, 1989, he was was one of the six Jesuit priests who were murdered near their apartments at UCA. This blog has published many posts about these priests, their brutal murders and various legal proceedings regarding that horrible crime. See the posts listed in ”The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwk commentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

 

U.S. and Cuban Churches Denounce U.S. Embargo and Recent Additional U.S. Actions Against Cuba

On April 26 the National Council of  the Churches of Christ in the USA and the Cuban Council of Churches issued the following Joint Statement. [1]

“Today, Friday, April 26, the fifth day after Easter Sunday, we come together once again as two Christian ecumenical councils to affirm our faith and love in Jesus Christ. Like the disciples walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), we desire to walk together with the resurrected Christ and share with him the bread that he has blessed with us and for us.”

“Our Councils have prayed, walked and worked together for many years. We have done so not only to witness to all the blessings we have received from God as a fruit of our unity in love, faith, and hope, but also to testify to the power of the Holy Spirit in all times of challenge to our dream of bringing our peoples and nations together. We have stood for peace when many cried for war. We have taken a stand for family unity when others tried to divide our families.”

“Since 1968, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has called for normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, for the removal of the economic blockade [embargo] imposed on Cuba, and for removal of travel restrictions.”

“Today, after our two nations began to make significant progress toward normalized relations, we are facing a critical moment that threatens to erase the gains already made.  We, therefore, reaffirm our solidarity in Christ and stand together to:

  • Work together to end the blockade — rejected by the vast majority of United Nations member countries — which has an extraterritorial effect, and for normal relations between our people and nations;
  • Express our opposition to the Trump Administration’s addition of new restrictions on travel between Cuba and the United States;
  • Express our opposition to the decision by the Trump Administration to no longer maintain the suspension of Title III of the Helms-Burton legislation, an action that will further hinder the quality of life of the Cuban people and will create enormous and unnecessary legal problems worldwide;
  • Express our opposition to the limitation and restriction of family remittances from the United States to Cuba;
  • Advocate for the reopening and normalization of consular services between the two countries, on a humanitarian basis, since it will facilitate the access to visas and the normalization of relations among families and between our peoples.”

“Finally, these recent actions by the Trump Administration will hinder us as we pursue together God’s mission and will be another obstacle to develop further our relations, partnerships, and the spiritual growth of the churches in the United States and Cuba. We, therefore, call on the churches in our countries along with all our partner ecumenical bodies, faith-based organizations, and all people of good will in our region and around the world to join us in our advocacy, solidarity, and action for a better present and future for our two countries, churches and people.”

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is,
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them, and
entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 

– Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV”

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, which was formally organized in 1950,  has 38 member communions with 45 million people in over 100,000 congregations.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC), which was founded in 1941, is the leading institution of the ecumenical movement in Cuba, with 52 churches and Christian institutions as members, including Protestants, Reformists, Evangelists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Orthodox; in addition to other ecumenical institutions and associate members.

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[1] National Council of Churches, Joint Statement: Facing a Critical Moment (April 26, 2019); Council of Churches of Christ of the United States and the Council of Churches of Cuba pronounce themselves against the blockade, Granma (April 28, 2019).

 

My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, vocation “implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, . . . vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time and what was a vocation for one period of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

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[1] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

[10] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

“What Is Your Call Story?”

This was the title of the moving February 17 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen.

As mentioned in previous posts, Westminster’s worship services are divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word; Listening for the Word; and Responding to the Word. After looking at the main points of the first part of the service, this post will quote the main parts of the second section: the sermon and its Biblical texts. The post will conclude with attention to the main parts of the third part of the service while my personal response to the sermon and Biblical texts will be set forth in a subsequent post.

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude was J.S. Bach’s Duet for Violin and Viola, as played by Becca Hanson and Jim Hanson, in memory of Lois Hanson (Jim’s mother and Becca’s grandmother) with Melanie Ohnstad, piano.

Then the congregation sang the Processional Hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” by William Williams, Wales’ most famous hymn writer (1717-1791), followed by Associate Pastor, Rev. David Shinn, leading the congregation in the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Almighty God, you love us, but we have not loved you. You call, but we have not listened. We walk away from neighbors in need, wrapped in our own concerns. We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed. God of grace, help us to admit our sin, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent, turn to you, and receive forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our redeemer.”

The Assurance of Forgiveness was then spoken by Rev. Shinn.

Listening for the Word

The Biblical Texts

Isaiah 6: 1-8 (RSV) 

“In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’”

“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’”

Luke 19: 1-10 (RSV)  

“[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchae′us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ And Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’”

The Sermon

“Our biblical texts this morning introduce us to two very different persons. One, a powerful prophet of God born in the 8th century before the Common Era, the other a local tax collector in the time of Jesus. Each is summoned by God, called by the voice of God, and each responds positively.”

“Isaiah has a vision of a wild and smoky room, where the Lord is seated high and mighty, on a throne. Winged seraphim and cherubim are flying around. There’s fire and noise and holy cacophony. It’s like a scene out of a Steven Spielberg movie, and it terrifies Isaiah, who suddenly feels tiny and helpless and woefully inadequate – and he says so. But one of the winged creatures flies to him and cleanses his lips with a burning coal, which emboldens him.”

“A little fire, some smoke, flying creatures and burning coals. Just another day at the office for an 8th century prophet of God.”

“When a voice booms out asking, ‘Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?’ the suddenly brave Isaiah replies, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“At the other end of the call spectrum we have Zacchaeus, a wealthy little man in the town of Jericho, made rich by his tax collecting job. His neighbors don’t care much for him; he takes from them on behalf of the Romans, the occupying empire, and makes out like a thief. This is no prophet of God.”

When Jesus and his entourage come to town one day, everyone wants to see the renowned teacher and healer. Because of [Zacchaeus’] small stature and also, I suspect, because it kept him out of reach of his hostile neighbors, [he] climbs a sycamore tree to watch the parade.”

“Our Westminster travel group was in Jericho three weeks ago. Our bus did a drive-by viewing of the Greek Orthodox church built as a shrine over the old stump of the ‘actual tree.’ There, or near there, Zacchaeus had his leafy encounter with Jesus.”

“It’s a more mundane call story than Isaiah’s, but it does have some drama. Imagine Jesus and a crowd coming into town, something like the Palm Sunday procession. All of a sudden Jesus stops, and all eyes are on him. Everyone else stops. He looks up. Everyone else looks up. And there, perched in the branches of that sycamore tree, sits everyone’s favorite tax collector to hate. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and tells him to hurry and come down because he’s going to stay at his home. The crowd is shocked. The most despised man in town, the one colluding with the Romans, is the one Jesus chooses to favor?”

“‘Why would he go to the house of a sinner?’ they ask.”

“In the course of the visit with Jesus at his home, Zacchaeus announces he will change how he collects taxes. If he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back fourfold – and why would he say that if he had not already cheated someone? And he makes a commitment to give half of his wealth to support the poor. Zacchaeus is a transformed man.”

“That happens when God calls, and we respond. Just ask Hannah in the older testament when God calls, she responds, and Samuel is born…or Sarah when Isaac was born or Elizabeth when John was born or Mary when Jesus is born. When God calls, wonderful, transformative things happen.”

“A thread runs through these two call stories. Neither Isaiah nor Zacchaeus nor those women in scripture assumed they were the ones God would choose. None expected to be summoned by God. And yet they all listened and said yes – and with that yes came a change in the direction of their lives. That happens when God calls, and we respond.”

What’s your call story? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t mean you have to run off to seminary because only clergy are truly called. Zacchaeus kept on collecting taxes; he just did it now with honesty and integrity. James and John, Andrew and Simon, the fishermen summoned by Jesus, went on fishing, only this time for people – and I suspect they didn’t entirely leave their nets behind.”

“I grew up in a family where the description of ‘being called’ was quite common. I suppose that’s how it should be in a Presbyterian minister’s household. Calling, or vocation, has always been important in our tradition. John Calvin, writing in 16th century Geneva, argued that God’s calling was essential for anyone wanting to find their way through life.”

“‘The Lord bids each one of us,’ Calvin wrote, ‘In all life’s actions to look for God’s calling.’ (All quotes from Calvin are taken from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter X, section 6 [Philadelphia: John Knox Press, 1960], p. 724)”

“Then sounding like a critic of multi-tasking, he goes on to say,

  • ‘For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambitions long to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest everything…be turned topsy-turvy, God has appointed duties for everyone in a particular way of life.’”

“Sixteenth-century advice, sound advice, for a 21st century world: slow down, center yourself, find your purpose, and focus your life.”

“Calvin then says, ‘God has named these various kinds of living ‘callings.’”

What’s your call story? What gives your life meaning?”

“Each individual,” Calvin continues,

  • ‘Has their own kind of living assigned to them by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that they may not heedlessly wander about through life.’”

“To discern our calling is to have the foundation we need to live sound and healthy lives. To find our calling means to discover our life purpose.”

“ . . . . Calvin was trying to help believers come to see that how they live vocationally can – and in the best of circumstances will – reflect the love and life of God. And that brings profound contentment in life, not so much victory or triumph, but, rather, gladness, and gratitude.”

“When we say, as we Christians do, ‘The peace of Christ be with you,’ we mean may you find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in your life. May you find your calling in life, because then you will have found the peace of Christ.”

“My father spoke often of his being called to ministry. It was commonly assumed around our house that each of us was called; of the four children in our family, he would say, one was called to teach, one to practice law, one to ministry, and one to banking.”

“When my father reached retirement he faced a deep challenge – an existential crisis not unlike many who reach that milestone: what to ‘do’ with one’s life now that the purpose is gone?”

“My dad struggled for a full year after retirement from the last church he served. He’d always had a specific calling to fulfill, to one church or another. And then that calling was gone. He wondered if his life was coming to an end because it no longer had purpose. During that first traumatic year he slowly came to understand that retirement itself could be a vocation. He discerned a ‘call to retire,’ wrote a paper about it, and went on a mini-speaking tour to describe his discovery – all the retirees loved it. He dubbed it ‘the penultimate call.’” [2]

“I had a conversation recently with a retired business executive. He had been invited to serve on a community board and wanted to talk about whether he should do it. In the course of the our conversation he began to speak about the board role as offering him a chance to make a difference, to focus on something that mattered. He was making the decision on the basis of direction and purpose. We didn’t use ‘called’ language in that conversation, but that’s what we were talking about.”

“What’s your call story?”

“Most of us reflexively leave the notion of ‘being called’ to the clergy, thinking that only they receive a summons to a vocation. We reserve the terminology for clergy; we ‘call’ them to serve. They have terms of call. When they leave the church the congregation dissolves the call.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t use such language with other vocations. Why not try it? Try speaking of your job –working or retirement – with that language. If someone asks, ‘When did you start teaching at that school?’ trying answering, ‘I was called there four years ago.’”

“‘When did you start working for Target?’ [Response:] “I was called there two years ago.”

“‘What kind of job are you looking for?’”

“‘I feel called to a retail clothing sales position…or called to be a mail carrier…or called to be a car mechanic…or called to do social work…or called to be a doula…or called to run for public office…or called to make music… Try using that language the next chance you get, when talking about your work, your vocation, what it is you do that gives you meaning in life.”

“Martin Luther King referred to our calling as our blueprint for life. He used to speak with school children and explain how builders use blueprints in order to follow the architect’s design. Then King would ask the school children, ‘What’s your life’s blueprint?’”

“Yesterday more than a thousand people gathered in this room to celebrate the life of Jim Dayton, who died unexpectedly on Wednesday. An awful loss. He was a person who clearly had found his calling, his life’s blueprint, in design and architecture. We see that every time we enter the new wing he created. In his life he produced blueprints for human community. Thanks be to God for his life.” [3]

“Without a blueprint we run the risk of having no direction in life. We lose our way. That’s what had happened to Isaiah. Remember when God summons him through all that smoke and noise, and he says he’s not up to it: ‘Woe is me, for I am lost. I don’t know where I’m going. I have no direction. I have no focus. I’m lost. How could you be calling me, God?’”

“The same thing had happened in Zacchaeus’ life, and it’s why Jesus called to him in that sycamore tree. When the people of Jericho complain about Jesus choosing to go to the home of a tax collector and, therefore, a sinner in their eyes, Jesus replies, ‘The Son of humankind came to seek and to save the lost.’”

“Zacchaeus had lost his way. Doesn’t that describe many of us on our worst, purpose-less days – as being lost?”

“‘Wandering about heedlessly through life,’ in Calvin’s terms? No sense of calling, no purpose, no focus in life?”

“Jesus came for people like us. And like Zacchaeus, and Hannah, and Sarah, and Isaiah, and Mary.”

“At the heart of the ministry of Jesus was his desire to help people find their calling – their way – our way – of serving God in life. He knew that once we find our calling, we are fulfilled, and begin to live as people transformed. We become part of the unfolding reign of God, which we are all in together.”

“In a moment we will baptize little Elsie Anne and Evelyn Marie. Baptism is the beginning of Christian vocation. It’s the first sign of a calling in life. It happens there, in the water. We make the promise, essentially, to help those being baptized find their purpose in life, their calling.”

“Calvin summed it up this way: ‘The Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-being.’”

“So when God calls, let us be prepared to come down from that sycamore tree and respond by saying, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“Thanks be to God.”

“Amen.”

Responding to the Word

Following the Sacrament of Baptism of two children, the congregation stated their Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the United Church of Canada:

  • “We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer then gave the Pastoral Prayer and led the congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

The Offertory, accompanying the taking of the offering, was “Greater Love Hath No Man” by English composer and music teacher, John Ireland  (1879-1962).

The congregation also sang two hymns: “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” by contemporary American composer Ronald S. Cole-Turner and “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John L. Bell, a contemporary Church of Scotland minister and member of the Iona Community. 

==========================================

[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are on the church’s website. 

[2] See In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 29, 2012).

[3] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s Meditation at Jim Dayton’s Memorial service is also on the church’s website.  An obituary for Jim.appeared in the StarTribune

Blogging About Westminster Presbyterian Church

Attending worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church usually is an enriching experience for me. I especially appreciate our service’s being divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word with the reading of the Scripture and the sermon in the center section of the service. That structure helps me and, I assume, others at the service or watching on livestream to focus on the central message of the day from Scriptures and the sermon.

Moreover, I often have discovered that being present at the service is not enough. Afterwards when the text of the sermon is available in hard copy or on the church’s website, I frequently read the Scriptures for that day plus the sermon and the prayers printed in the bulletin as well as occasionally conducting independent research on the topics.

I then write an essay about all of this. In the process I deepen my knowledge of, and appreciation for, the sermon and the issues it explores. This research and writing process usually takes several hours. Typically I then leave that draft on my computer overnight and revise and add other thoughts the next day or so.

I then publish these essays on my blog to share my thoughts with whomever in the world follows my blog or finds them on the web. I hope that they provoke thoughts by others, which when shared by commenting on the blog’s website will stimulate additional reflections by me and others.

For example, an especially meaningful service for me was on November 18, 2018, with the tale of Ruth and Naomi in Ruth 1: 1-18 and the sermon “Whose People Will Be Our People?” by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen. I, therefore, wrote and published a post with the title of that sermon. After quoting the Prayer of Confession, the Scripture and the entire text of the sermon, I entered my Reflections, which was my way of Responding to the Word.

In addition, I write other blog posts about different aspects of Westminster’s life to share the good news. I see all of these blog messages as my way of doing evangelism.

 

 

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

=========================================

[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

“What Is the Highest Law?”

This was the title of the November 11 sermon by Rev. Tim  Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Stewardship Moment for Justice was presented by Rev. Dr. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. He discussed the activities of the Office, including its  actions to help change the cash-bail system in the U.S. while also combating  the silo effect of interacting only with like-minded people.

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor Rev. David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Gracious God, by day and by night we lift our prayers to you, crying out for justice, yearning for what is right, longing for your peace. Replenish our strength and stir up our hope, as we look for signs of your coming reign. Keep us working and praying for the day when your justice will roll down like waters, and your righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And fill us with the peace that passes all understanding—the deep peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in whose holy name we pray. Amen.”

 Listening for the Word

Holy Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV):

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  [Jesus]  said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

Sermon:

“This morning’s gospel passage is set in the midst of a debate between Jewish leaders, the Sadducees and Pharisees. In first century Israel they were powerful competing elites connected to the Temple in Jerusalem. They often disagreed on the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.”

“Matthew presents us with a window into their debate as it draws in Jesus. They ask him about paying taxes to Rome, because they disagree on what they should do. They ask Jesus about resurrection because they disagree about life after death. They’re at odds over interpretation of the law.”

“So when the lawyer asks Jesus a question it’s not merely to trap him, as we Christians often read the text. It’s more likely a local debate in which they want Jesus’ opinion. The lawyer genuinely wants Jesus to weigh in: does he support the Sadducees or the Pharisees?”

“The scene is not that different from what plays out among groups of Christians today. We debate the meaning of scripture, and we want Jesus on our side.”

“’Teacher,’ the lawyer asks, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’”

“It’s a good question. Among the 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, he wants to know which is most important. It’s a bottom-line question, and we should listen carefully to the answer Jesus gives. He’s speaking not merely to that Pharisee or to others eager to hear his response. He’s speaking to us [too].”.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’  Jesus says, reaching back to Deuteronomy [6:5]. ‘This is the greatest and first commandment.’”

“But he doesn’t stop there.”

“’And a second is like it,’ Jesus says, this time going back to Leviticus [19:18]. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’”

“But he’s not done. Jesus wants to clarify his response and aim it at the interpretation of all the ancient texts, so he throws in a bonus answer: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:38-40)”

“The fundamental rule of interpreting scripture, Jesus is explaining here, is the law of love. If the interpretation of a text points in the direction of God’s love, if it amplifies God’s desire that we love one another, if it shines light on the unconditional love of God, then we have understood the Bible in the way Jesus wants us to read it.”

“I wonder if the response of Jesus settles anything. Did the Sadducees and Pharisees walk away saying to one another, ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong. Our faith wants us to start not with law, not with the rules, not with the doctrine, not with the strict definition of what’s right and wrong, but with love.”’

“That’s the takeaway from this text for us, as followers of Jesus. The starting point and the end point in our encounter with the world, with our neighbors, with those with whom we disagree, even with those we consider enemies, the starting point and the end point is always, always, always, the love of God.”

“To love in the way of Jesus we cannot keep putting ourselves at the center.”

“When Jesus says that all scripture ‘hangs’ on the love of God and love of neighbor, the image of a clothesline comes to mind – a long line representing the love of God and the love of neighbor, stretching across all of scripture. Each biblical story, the psalms and the prophets, the formative narratives of the Hebrew people – we see them all hanging there, on that one line.”

“Then we notice that the line is longer, and stretches even further. We see the parables of Jesus, the healings, the cross and resurrection, hanging on that line of love. And the line keeps stretching. The letters to the first Christian communities are hanging there, and the words of the early councils of the church.

“And that clothesline of love keeps stretching, through the spread of Christian faith around the world, through many generations of faithful followers. Nothing stops it. The line keeps going – the commandment to love God and to love neighbor, as we love ourselves – it keeps going right into the life of this congregation…and what is hanging there on that clothesline in our life together?”

“We see our worship every Sunday for more than 161 years. We see our welcome of Chinese newcomers in the 19th century, when they were scorned by others. We see the schools we started among immigrant children living on the flats along the river in the late 1800’s. We see our ownership of Abbott Hospital and our role in offering medical care and training to thousands in the middle years of the 20th century, We see our support of mission in other lands that evolved into our global partnerships today.”

“It’s all hanging on that long line of love stretching through our life.”

“We see the 16 churches Westminster has helped launch over the years, including Kwanzaa, now Liberty Church, the state’s only African-American Presbyterian congregation. We see that partner church there, together with us on the long line of the love of Jesus.”

“We see our church calling and installing [today] an Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, Alanna Simone Tyler, nurtured by our partner congregation in north Minneapolis.”

“It’s all there.”

“We see Westminster’s willingness to work for marriage equality and to stand up for justice by advocating for an end to racism, for sensible gun safety, and for more affordable housing. We see Westminster using our new facility to welcome people coming in off the streets.”

Our life as a Christian community hangs on a clothesline of love that stretches all the way back to Jesus and on into the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“And we’ve learned that to love in the way of Jesus, the other must always be at the heart of our concern, especially when the other is vulnerable, always at the center of our concern.”

“’No one has greater love than this,’ Jesus says, than ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13)

“One hundred years ago today, at 11AM on November 11, 1918, the Armistice ending the Great War was signed. Inscribed on the bronze plaque in the Cloister Hall are the names of 191 men and women of this church who served in what was to have been the war to make the world safe for democracy. They were prepared to lay down their lives for others – and seven of them did.”

“During the war the women of the church formed the Westminster unit of the Red Cross. They ran one of the largest volunteer medical supply programs in the country, preparing bandages, garments, and other materials for our soldiers, orphans, and refugees. The women of Westminster produced and sent abroad more than 366,000 articles.”

“When troops came through town on their way to being deployed, Westminster families saw them in worship and invited them home to Sunday dinner after church. Westminster’s pastor at the time, [Rev.] John Bushnell, whose own son’s name is on that plaque as having served in the Navy during the war, describes hosting three soldiers at one such Sunday afternoon meal:

  • ‘The talk centered about their home lives and it was found that one was a Catholic, one a Methodist, and one a Mormon, all three feeling entirely at home with a Presbyterian minister’s family. It was a local example of the leveling or elevating process of common great cause, eliminating all distinctions and creating the common denominator of an elemental human emergency.’”

“As we mark Veterans Day tomorrow we acknowledge that U.S. soldiers continue to fight in Afghanistan and other lands, without a sense of ‘elemental human emergency’ and no perception of a ‘common great cause.’ But, still, they serve on behalf of the nation and we must not forget them.”

“During World War I, as we bade farewell to those going to serve, prayers were lifted each Sunday. Large American flags draped the front of the organ, as well as a banner with stars representing every man from the church serving overseas. Flags of our allies were placed in front of the pulpit. A ‘Westminster War Letter’ helped people keep track of our soldiers.”

“The congregation wept with the families of those whose sons were killed. The first to die was Edward Phinney, a deacon of the church. To love in the way of Jesus means to be willing to give up privilege and power – even life itself – so that others might live. Fred Wagner, a candidate for the ministry, was later killed in battle in France.”

“Nine-and-a-half million soldiers on all sides died in the Great War, the war that was to end all wars. Another 10 million civilians perished. More than 21 million were injured.”

“Westminster did not romanticize or glorify the war. Referring to the great loss of life, the Rev. Bushnell wrote, ‘It made us understand and hate war as never before.’”

“Following the Armistice of 1918, the Rev. Bushnell described war as ‘an affront to Deity, to (hu)mankind, and all the elements that constitute a moral universe.’”

“Speaking 20 years later, in 1938, as Europe was moving toward war again, he wrote, using words that may sound applicable to us in our time:

  • ‘There is at present far more fear harassing the human family, more despair of the (unity of humankind), more bitter strife and hatred between nations, more greed, more lust than before.’ (All quotes and other information from John E. Bushnell, The History of Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1907-1937 [Minneapolis, Lund Press; 1938], pp.21-31)”

“The response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that enveloped the human family then and the response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that envelops us now is not more war and more weaponry and more violence, but, rather, that which Jesus says to the Pharisee long ago, when asked which was the highest of all the laws: ‘The first and greatest commandment,’ Jesus says,

  • ‘Is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and the second is like it, to love neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

“And, we might add, the ministry of this congregation, and of Liberty church and other communities of faith and people of goodwill everywhere, and the life of this nation, and the future of humankind. The commandment to love. To love God and neighbor.”

“As we hear the bell toll here in our sanctuary with others across the land marking the Armistice 100 years ago, as we remember and give thanks for those who served and those who died in the Great War, let us also redouble our commitment to strive for the justice and peace that comes from those who follow the highest law: to love God and love neighbor.”.

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon was especially powerful for  me.

As I wrote in my eighth blog post in April 2011, “”The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ The lawyer replied, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that.”[2]

“The lawyer, however, would not let it end there. He then asked what he thought was another trick question of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, the lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead he wanted Jesus to provide an answer that could also be twisted against him. Again, however, Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told the Parable of the Good Samaritan without the punch line identifying the good neighbor. Once again Jesus asked the lawyer to fill in the blank, this time to identify the good neighbor in the story. The lawyer did just that by saying, ‘The one who had mercy on [the man by the side of the road].’  Jesus then said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10: 29-37)” This Parable is the second foundation of my Christian faith.

Apparently the lawyer in this account in the Gospel of Luke was drawing upon two passages of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 6:5 Moses is reminding a new generation of his people of the laws he had received from God on Mt. Sinai when Moses says, ‘You shall  love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ The other passage is Leviticus 19:18, where Moses in summarizing what God had delivered to him on Mt. Sinai says, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Today, this precept—”Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”—is still the first foundation of my Christian faith.

Therefore, I was pleased to hear the same message in this passage of Matthew with the reversal of the roles of Jesus and the lawyer from Luke. Now, the lawyer is posing the question, and Jesus is providing the same answer.

I also was pleased and surprised to hear Rev. Hart-Andersen’s add the metaphor of the clothesline when Matthew in the New Revised Standard Version says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Emphasis added.) This integrative device made sense to me.

Although I was not a Westminster member during the events in its history that were recounted in the sermon, hearing about them, especially as tied to the Bible with the clothesline metaphor brought tears to my eyes.

Returning to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the lessons of this story for me is that your neighbor whom you should love as yourself is anyone and everyone and that they can appear when you least expect them. That sets forth a daunting assignment. I have never met this challenge and never can.

That leads to the third foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31), . As an only son and as a father of two sons, I see myself in this story as the older, resentful son as well as the younger, lost son and more recently as the father.

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[1] The text of the sermon and the bulletin for the service are available on the church’s website. This service also included the installation of Rev. Alanna Simone Tyler as Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, which will be covered in a separate post.

[2]  My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).