What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

June 12 was Heritage Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church when we celebrated the history of our church and honored those who have been members for 50 years or more. The sermon–“What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?”–was based upon Psalm 145 and Hebrews 12: 1-3.[1]

Readings from Holy Scripture

Psalm 145 states as follows (NRSV):

“I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.”

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”

“The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.”

“My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

The New Testament Scripture (Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)) reads as follows:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen used his recent interviews of finalists for appointment as the church’s next Director of Choral Ministries as the entrée to his sermon because they all wanted to know “’Who is Westminster?’ They wondered about how we express our faith, how we worship, how we reach out to the community, how we make a difference in the city. They wanted to hear Westminster stories, those experiences and encounters with the Holy and the mundane that happen here, and have for many years, that make us who we are.”

In answering this question, Hart-Andersen realized that “the continuing life of a congregation depends upon telling and re-telling its narrative.”

“In their stories people find meaning that forms them. Their narratives – and I use the word in the plural because there never is simply one story – their narratives give them identity. Christian faith lives beyond any particular time in a congregation’s history and is passed along in the telling. Memories are formed and those memories impart meaning from one era to the next.”

“Westminster has nearly 160 years of stories. Some of us know some of them; no one knows them all. And yet, known and unknown, the stories continue to shape us as a people. We’re not always conscious of that dimension of worship and education, of mission and hospitality – how we pass on the faith we have received and in which we stand and by which we are saved. We’re not always cognizant of the movement of the people of God through time, not always aware how our faith is shared by those before us and with those who follow.”

“Not always, but today we are.”

“On Heritage Sunday we recognize the long-time members of Westminster. Two hundred twenty-two of you have been a part of this particular community of faith for at least fifty years. Two and a half generations ago you embraced the story of Westminster; over the years you have now become its story.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,” says the Hebrew poet to Almighty God. And through the psalm we hear over and over that the people continue to pass on and sing of the stories of God’s deeds and works among them to the generations to come. The faithful people of one age pass their faith on to those of the age to follow. (Ps. 145:3)”

“You heritage members of this church have lauded the works of God from one generation to another. For half a century and more you have told the story and lived the story of our faith in ways that compel and transform. For five-plus decades you have worshipped and taught and sung and showed who we are as a people of faith, and we are grateful. We have heard you, and seen you, and followed you.”

“At the heart of Judaism lies the commitment to entrust the narrative of the people of God to the next generation. The formative history in that tradition is never forgotten. At a Bar-Mitzvah or Bat-Mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual for young people, the story of the Jews is re-told. The heirs of the tradition then take it up and make it their own.”

“One generation lauds the work of God to another.”

“Baptism and confirmation serve the same purpose for us in the Christian community. At the font and in the teaching we tell the story of Jesus and watch as that story moves from one generation to the next. ‘For I handed on to you,’ the Apostle Paul says, ‘What I in turn had received.’ (I Corinthians 15:3)”

“Over the years the details of the faith story of this particular people called Westminster have changed. In the early days there were the pioneers from Wales and Scotland, eight of them who set up shop in the muddy little village on the Mississippi. They started this congregation and from the beginning they were aware of their role in helping build the city.”

“Years later, when immigrants from Europe began showing up looking for work and hoping for a better life for their children, Westminster responded. We fanned out into poor immigrant communities down on the flats along the river on Sunday afternoons and started mission schools for the children. “

“And God was in that work.”

“When we heard from fellow Presbyterians on the west coast that Chinese immigrants were being persecuted we invited them to come to Minnesota. The first Chinese to arrive in this town in the 1880s were welcomed and supported by Westminster. Our work increased after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the next 80 years we maintained a Chinese ministry; some of you remember it.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Abbott Hospital was given to the church in the last will and testament of William Dunwoody, we learned how to run it, and did so, for the next half-century. Some of you were born in Abbott when it was owned by Westminster, before the church spun it off 50 years ago. We helped train doctors and nurses. We served the medical needs of the residents of the city, especially women and children.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Hmong families began coming to this city 100 years after the Chinese, in the 1980s, Westminster responded again. The Hmong were seeking refuge and a new life after war in Southeast Asia. We already had one Boy Scout troop at Westminster back then, Troop 33 led by Scoutmaster Dave Moore since 1965, but we went ahead and chartered another, the first Hmong Boy Scout Troop in the country. Thirty-five years later Dave – who joined Westminster in 1948 – is still leading it.”

“And God is in that work.”

“If the question is, ‘What is Westminster’s way of faith?’ the response may be found in our stories. There’s a pattern in how God’s work has been made manifest among us, when we take a look back. How have we pursued and lived and embodied the gospel of Jesus Christ in the life of this congregation and in this city over the years? Simply put, we have not closed ourselves off from the world around us. On the contrary, we have understood our faith to be a living faith and we have followed the gospel right into that world and worked with others to change it.”

“A telling presence in the city.”

“Whatever questions of justice are on the hearts of the people of this city and nation and world, especially the most vulnerable, they have set the direction for Westminster’s mission from the start.”

“In worship last week we announced the distribution of signs of support for our Muslim neighbors by wishing them a Blessed Ramadan. The question of how we will learn to live with people of other faiths is critical not only in this city, of course, but in the nation as a whole. It is on our congregation’s agenda.” [2]

“Our God is an incarnational God, not an abstract, detached, distant deity. Jesus comes to bring the divine into the world, to draw the universal into the particular, to step right into the real stuff of human life, the injustice and poverty, the exclusion and hopelessness which hold sway over much of the earth. The incarnation inserts Jesus into human history – real human history. His story of redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love is the one passed down through the ages, the one we have heard in our time, the narrative that forms us as a people.”

“Last Sunday I noticed [a young man] taking photos of the Blessed Ramadan signs [at our church]. He told me he was a Muslim, and was surprised to see the signs. ‘They give me hope,’ he said.”

“Not everyone was so pleased. Some of you may have heard that Westminster was in the news last week and we began to hear responses from some in the community who did not agree with our participation with the Minnesota Council of Churches effort to show respect to our Muslim neighbors. We received unkind phone calls and emails from a few, but we also heard that the signs were beacons of light in a world struggling in the shadows of religious misunderstanding, struggling to figure out how to live with religious diversity.”

“The memorial service honoring Muhammed Ali this week – which he planned himself – offered the same message: we can learn to live in peace with one another, in spite of differences in our religious traditions. We need not fear one another. We need not feel threatened by one another. We need not feel the desire to exclude one another.”

“This message is more important than ever this morning, [with the news] that the mass shooting at a gay bar earlier today in Orlando may have been linked to extreme Islamist ideology. I hope not, but if it is, we will need to strengthen our witness in supporting the Muslim community, being more present with the message of respect for our Muslims neighbors, the vast majority of whom reject violence. They will likely be on the receiving end of a backlash.”

“The tragedy in Orlando brings up the question of the full equality and acceptance of gay people in this country, something we have stood for and worked for at Westminster. We may need to step up and strengthen our witness in support of the gay community in light of this latest attack.”

“The tragedy also brings up the challenge of the easy availability of guns and weapons in America, another issue where this church has taken a stand. In the aftermath of this latest mass shooting we may need to strengthen our witness in support of efforts to end gun violence.”

“Today we are pursuing Westminster’s way of faith. We are creating the stories in our time that in another fifty years will be remembered by those who follow us. In some ways they’re not that different from the narrative of this church since the beginning. This is the race we are running, Hebrews tells us, with Jesus as ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ It is a race for justice and peace in our time.”

“We are not alone in that race, Hebrews tells us. There is a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ surrounding us. Some of their names appear in the bulletin this morning. Some are seated among us wearing yellow carnations. Others have been here for many years but not yet fifty; and some in that great cloud are just getting started at Westminster.”

“I heard about one of them this past week. She was baptized here and is now six years old and has been attending this church and our church school all her life. Out in the city this week this Westminster first grader saw a Muslim woman in a burqa. Having been at church last Sunday, she turned to her mother and said, “Is she a blessed Ramadan? Can we say it to her?”

“One generation shall laud your works to another. You long-timers have done well in carrying forward the heart of who God has called our church to be and to do in this city. You have conveyed the hope of the gospel to those who came after you. We have received it and, together with you, we will pass it on. The future is full of promise.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

This sermon tied directly to the one the prior Sunday for recent high school, college and graduate school graduates that was the subject of a prior post. Both sermons emphasized the interconnectedness of the generations of the faithful. Indeed, churches and other houses of worship are perhaps the only institutions where there are intergenerational groups of people learning and being together.

This was most evident in the June 12th sermon’s reference to the six-year old girl’s asking her mother if she should say “blessed Ramadan” to a woman in a burqa. It also was present in that day’s “A Time for Children,” when Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer had the children face the congregation as we all sang together, “Jesus Loves Me.” I pray that the children were impressed that this favorite hymn is not just for children and that their parents and other adults are enriched by their religious faith.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available online.

[2] As mentioned in a prior post about Westminster’s June 5th service, the church is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.”

 

 

 

 

 

Peripatetic People and Religious Faith

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

On June 5, worshippers at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church heard a fascinating sermon on Bacalaureate Sunday to celebrate those members who had just been graduated from high school, college or graduate school. Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon–“Can Faith Guide Our Future?”–did just that and more. It spoke to all of us, no matter whether or when we had graduated from any of these institutions.[1]

1 Samuel 7: 3-16

The Scriptural text for the day was from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, 1 Samuel 7:3-16, which states (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord ‘” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.’ So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.”
  • “When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines.The people of Israel said to Samuel, ‘Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.’ So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.”
  • Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.He went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places.”

The Sermon

The sermon opened with these words: “One of the most common ways Scripture speaks about the people of God is to talk about them as being on the move…The Exodus is a journey out of Egypt to a Land of Promise…The Exile to Babylon is a forced relocation from Jerusalem…Paul’s missionary journeys across the eastern Mediterranean keep the Apostle always traveling.”

“Even the life of Jesus is peripatetic as he roams the hills of Galilee. To be his follower is to be on the move, a pilgrim on the way.”

“Jews and Christians are not the only ones who have at the center of their religious narrative the idea of pilgrimage…Hindus go to the Ganges River. Muslims go on hajj to Mecca. People of faith in every tradition are on the move.”

Rev. Hart-Andersen then discussed the “recurring themes” of the past four annual pilgrimages he and his wife, Rev. Beth Hart-Andersen, have taken in Europe, each of which has been a “spiritually and physically and emotionally rich experience that invites reflection and brings balance.”

‘Some of the paths [on these pilgrimages] have been marked clearly; some were not marked at all and we spent a lot of time discerning the right direction to follow.”

This thought, Rev. Hart-Andersen said, undoubtedly was the case for the new graduates. Indeed, it also was the case for Tim’s “own pilgrimage after graduating from college. I had no particular direction. I meandered, seriously. In the space of about five years. I was a graduate student, a teacher (twice in two different states), a construction worker, a security guard, a custodian, and a civil servant. I graduated from college in 1974; I was ordained a minister in 1985, more than a decade later. Meander is a good word to describe the route I took, but along the way my faith kept quietly telling me (and, I hope assuring my parents!) that God would work through my life, and the way forward would be clear.”

“How do we find our way [on our own pilgrimages]?”

“It’s a matter of paying attention.” This was illustrated on his and Beth’s hike “on a lonely stretch of Welsh coastline [when] the path disappeared into overgrown ferns. They were so thick we couldn’t see where to go and we were on top of a steep cliff. But then we saw a sheep up ahead. It knew the path, and we followed. Sometimes help comes from the least expected places.”

“How do we know what direction to take as we move through life?”

This was often true, exhilarating, terrifying and chaotic for those just finishing school or college or graduate school. In such situations, “It helps to know we’re not the first to take the path. Many have walked it before us, getting there in different ways and heading toward different destinations. It’s good to watch for signs of them having passed by, to learn from them.”

As an illustration he cited a hike in “the wet, cloud-covered hills of the Lake District in England. No marked path and no other walkers to follow. Even the sheep were hard to see through the fog. A compass helped in a general way – we were heading east – but the footing was treacherous and we needed something more specific. We came to depend on rock cairns, stacks of rocks that would emerge from the mist and offer direction. We were never quite sure if a cairn marked our path, but we usually went that direction anyway, because it had been someone’s path.”

“There are many ways to get where we’re going. The rocks themselves in those cairns weren’t offering direction; it was the prior pilgrims who had marked the way. We found ourselves depending on people we would never meet, people who might have come that way decades or even centuries before, people like us, looking for direction. We assumed they had seen other rocks cairns left by earlier walkers. Often we would stop and add a stone in gratitude for what we had received.”

“That’s what Samuel and the people of Israel do when God brings them through a particularly rough patch in their journey. They’re facing huge odds against the Philistines preparing to attack them. The Israelites are outnumbered. Divided and confused. Losing focus on the one God and following other gods. Near panic. In disarray.”

“Like some of us on our journey as we try to figure out what to do with our lives, no matter our age.”

“Samuel tells them, over and over again: ‘Direct your heart to the Lord.’ By that he means, trust God to lead you through. Trust God not to abandon you. There are larger things at work than you can see. You are not alone. Trust that the way forward will be made clear.”

Direct your heart to the Lord. That’s good advice for anyone setting out on a journey, especially one where the direction isn’t clear. Don’t turn inward, counting only on yourself. Keep your eyes on God’s love and justice and pursue it with all you’ve got, trusting that God will be at work in it.”

“When God does help them through their predicament with the Philistines, Samuel marks their gratitude by raising a large rock. They call it an Ebenezer, from two Hebrew words eben haezer meaning “stone of help.” Every time they pass that stone of help it reminds them people had been that way before, and God had brought them through a time of trial.”

“’Here I raise my Ebenezer,’ we will sing in the final hymn this morning. ‘Hither by thy help I’m come. And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.’ (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, vs. 2)”[2]

“A few weeks ago I spoke to a young woman who grew up in this church and graduated from college several years ago. After wandering a bit she has now found her passion and is pursuing it. She lives in another state. I mentioned I hoped she would still consider Westminster her community. ‘Are you kidding?’ she said. ‘This place is home for me. It keeps me grounded. I’ll always be part of Westminster.’”

“She went on to describe mission trips and global travel and youth group and choir and Cabaret – all things that make up the Westminster journey for our young people. It occurred to me that this congregation had become for her a kind of ecclesiastical Ebenezer, a living reminder that God is with her, that God will not abandon her, that she can trust God to see her through.”

“Westminster and its partner communities of faith can be Ebenezers for the entire city, reminders that God is present, that justice will triumph in the end, that love is more powerful than hatred or violence.”

“The signs wishing our Muslim neighbors a Blessed Ramadan are little cardboard Ebenezers, defying the human tendency to vilify those not like us, pointing in a direction of mutual respect and humility, reminding us of the full humanity of all our neighbors.”[3]

“If we are to be a community reflecting God’s intentions that will be the way forward: each one of us and all of us together, living Ebenezers, signs of God’s love.”

Can faith guide our future? The answer is yes, if we are ready to let it, if we direct our hearts to God, if we trust that God is at work in our lives, even when it’s not obvious.”

“We who follow Jesus are a people on the move. Our faith will help us find our way – if we can see the signs all around that God is present on the journey with us. Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

As indicated in a prior post, I have wondered about the seemingly strange Biblical reference to the Ebenezer erected a long time ago by the Jewish people and concluded that Samuel publicly dedicated this stone “as a monument to God’s help, God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal covenant. And as the people got on with their lives, the stone stood there, visible to all who passed that way, a reminder of judgment and repentance, mercy and restoration.” Thus, I said, “‘Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come’ is a metaphorical way of saying that I recognize that God has helped me reach this point in my life and that it is important for me to create an outward expression of this recognition and gratitude.”

The June 5 sermon added to my understanding by stressing everyone’s need for help from those who have gone before and the importance of outward signs of those previous pilgrims and of the interconnectedness of the generations of believers.

The sermon’s emphasis on journeys also says to me that no one is defined by where they are from or where they are currently living. We all are children of God no matter where we live. And we need to live like God’s children wherever we happen to be.

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[1] The bulletin for the service is online as is the text of the sermon.

[2] A prior post discusses the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

[3] Westminster is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.” (Minn. Council of Churches, To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan; Hopfensperger, Minnesota council offers ways to support Muslim neighbors in Ramadan, StarTribune (June 8, 2016).)