On the day before the national celebration of the freedom obtained by American Independence, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church instead celebrated Christian freedom.
This was the message delivered by Rev. Dr. Sarah Henrich, Minister of Adult Education and Visitation, in her sermon, ‘What Kind of Freedom Does Faith Proclaim?” Its Biblical foundation was Galatians 5:1, 13-16, 22-25 (NRSV):
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
Rev. Henrich opened her sermon by remembering that archaeologists had just “let the world know that they found the tunnel dug in 1944 outside of Vilnius Lithuania by Jewish prisoners in order to escape the evil in which they were trapped. 100 feet dug with bare hands and spoons. Such a desperate drive for freedom.” She also recalled that in July of 1776 the American Declaration of Independence was immediately printed and posted up and down the east coast of the colonies.
“I wonder if St. Paul wished for a printing press right around the corner in Galatia millennia earlier. His short letter to a little group of Jesus followers would have fallen harshly on many local ears. Let freedom ring, he says. How warmly welcomed is that claim to freedom when sung out by some minority group? Yet Paul insists, “For freedom Christ has set you free.” And that conviction, that powerful conviction has also come down through the ages to us.”
“Two strong claims to freedom shape us. The overlap of the word freedom in our foundational scripture as Christians and in the America’s founding document has often led us to think that both freedoms are the same. Freedom from the unjust practices of imperial England and freedom from the legalism of ancient Jewish life. But not exactly.”
“What kind of freedom do Christians proclaim? Paul writes about a different kind of freedom. True, he wants to assert that being part of God’s covenant people does not require taking on practices of a pre-Christ age. More important to his little church, though, is the belief they are all free, free to live the good life. No matter their status…slave or free, male or female…empowered to live a good life.”
“That sounds a little like our constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but again Paul had something quite different in mind. These new believers, he declared, were freed by the Spirit’s power to live a life of goodness, of depth, of peace. The good life was to be a life of goodness with God’s love as plumb line, to borrow a phrase. Freedom is for something bigger than my pursuits . . . it is for life lived in love of God and neighbor.”
“Paul defines the good life for new believers by what folks do. They bear one another’s burdens and they take responsibility for their own lives. This is where’s Christian freedom is not simply American freedom.” (Emphasis in original.)
“Has there ever been a time in the world when we were more aware of our interconnectedness? Despite a deep international desire to build walls around ourselves right now as protection from dangers that crop up around us, despite our yearning for a safe place to live the good live, we know with every fiber of our being that we can’t. We can’t live a good life by disconnecting. Our freedom is not freedom to live in safe and splendid isolation from all that causes us grief or fear. We are only free to be the village that raises the children, respects older citizens and attends to everyone in between. To live the good/godly life. We experience and we are to be that village as we gather around the table. Come, just come. As you are to receive in this company the blessing of God’s presence.” (Emphasis in original.)
“This isn’t the pursuit of happiness as we usually think of it–friends, family, a home, freedom of worship, the ability to pursue our own dreams. Paul is writing to those early believers about freedom to live by standards other than those of the world around them. I think those Jewish prisoners, commandeered to burn or bury their own as they were killed by the Nazis in 1944, they would understand. Freedom to get out, to tell the story of evil, to call the world to hear. Freedom to help each other for God’s sake…freedom to live. They bore the burdens of each other’s lives, a spoonful at a time.” (Emphasis in original.)
“It was Sunday morning at another table just a few weeks back where I learned something about bearing each other’s burdens. At 6:15 am, my brother-in-law drank coffee and talked about a new book he was reading. Now, you have to understand. This man was raised as a Quaker, is a smart, edgy agnostic. And he loves moving fast–from the delivery truck he drove in high school to the motorcycle he zips around on as a grandpa. And he watched his beloved Dad slow down with Parkinson’s disease until he finally stopped. Now watching my sister go through the same thing.”
“Suddenly he needed a response. ‘I’ve read Matthew,’ he said, ‘in the New Testament. So what’s the gospel? What?’ I waited, hoping he’d answer his own question. But no, this one was for me. ‘The gospel—it’s that the reign of God is at hand, right at hand and it’s for all God’s people” [I said.] ‘Right’ he shouted. ‘That’s it. Right now, Living is to love, God and your neighbor, whoever.’ I’ve never come to God’s table with my brother-in-law in church, but God came to that kitchen table where the two of us sat. The energy freely to embrace a life of care – it was there.”
“I don’t know how, but my speed-loving brother-in-law knew that he was free to live the good life/the God and gospel life by slowing down to walk with those he loves. Whatever it took, whatever it takes – he’s free to do it, to give it. What kind of freedom do Christians and all led by God’s spirit proclaim? What kind of freedom do we live? The freedom to love God and others as we learn to love ourselves, recognizing the village God has already created us to be. The freedom to tell THIS story to a world yearning for walled in happiness. Even if we do it slowly, a spoonful at a time.”
Yes, the central Christian message for me is to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself! It is not complicated to say. And we are free to live our lives in joyful fulfillment of this instruction. Yet it is not always easy to do. We all too often fail to satisfy this great commandment. By God’s grace we are forgiven—time and time again—when we fall short.
Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church has a three-part order of worship: Preparing for the Word; Listening for the Word; and Responding to the Word. A key part of Preparing for the Word is the Prayer of Confession.
Here are three such recent prayers that speak to me because of their simplicity and their use of contemporary English language to address current issues we all face.
Prayer of Confession (May 29, 2016):
“When we limp around altars we have made to false gods, Lord, have mercy. When we sacrifice our very selves for that which cannot satisfy, Lord, bring healing. When we turn to idols to meet our deepest need and there is no response. Lord, save us!”
Prayer of Confession (June 26, 2016):
“God of forgiveness, as we gather for worship today we confess we do not offer you our whole selves. We come anxious of what others might think. We come with assumptions about one another, and how things ‘should be.’ Help us to come as we are, and allow others to do the same. Create open space in our hearts for understanding, empathy, and grace. Mold us into people who always choose love before hate. Make us peacebuilders, and those who point to goodness, in a world blinded by evil. We pray this for Jesus’ sake.”
Prayer of Confession (July 3, 2016):
“ O Holy One, we call to you and name you as eternal, ever-present, and boundless in love. Yet there are times, O God, when we fail to recognize you in the dailyness of our lives. Sometimes shame clenches tightly around our hearts, and we hide our true feelings. Sometimes fear makes us small, and we miss the chance to speak from our strength. Sometimes doubt invades our hopefulness, and we degrade our own wisdom. Holy God, remind us again of your holy presence hovering near us and in us. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live honestly, to act courageously, and to speak from our wisdom.”
I pray that these prayers are meaningful for you, dear reader.
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.
“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 yourkingdom.
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.”
“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.”
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.” 
“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.”
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.
 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.”
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 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 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)”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
 A prior post discusses the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
 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).)
During the first part of the service (“Preparing for the Word”) Associate Pastor, Rev. Brennan Blue, led the congregation in a short, meaningful Prayer of Confession: “Almighty God, you poured your Spirit on gathered disciples, creating bold tongues, open ears, and a new community. We confess we hold back your Spirit among us. Transform our timid lives by the power of your presence, and fill us with a flaming desire to be your faithful people. We pray this in the name of Jesus.” (Emphasis added.)
Reading of the Holy Scripture
The second part of the service (“Listening for the Word”) had the reading of the Scriptural passages for the day. First was Genesis 11: 1-9 (NRSV), which states in part:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. . . . Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And theLordsaid, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.Therefore it was called Babel, because there theLordconfusedthe language of all the earth; and from there theLordscattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Emphases added.)
The New Testament passage was Acts 2: 1-17 (NRSV), which states in part:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they [the 12 Apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . . [Responding to the crowd’s belief that the disciples were drunk and not understanding one another, Peter said,] “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:‘’In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’” (Emphasis added.)
After the reading (in English) of these passages, Psalm 104 was read simultaneously in Italian, Russian, Korean, German, Pidgin, Arabic and Mandarin. Here is the beginning of its text in English (NRSV): “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.”
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered a thought-provoking sermon, “What Happens When Faith Catches Fires?”
“We call it the Tower of Babel, but on a closer read, it turns out to be a story about a city, a city unlike any we know in our time – without discord or diversity. A city without division of culture or ethnicity.” (Emphasis added.)
“’Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” Genesis tells us.(Genesis 11:1).”
“Babel is a city where all are alike. And God is not happy about it. Genesis 11 describes an ancient version of what author Bill Bishop calls The Big Sort: the effort in America – sometimes unconscious, but often intentional – to cluster ourselves into like-minded units. We see it all around us: communities and neighborhoods where we think alike, look alike, act alike, consume alike, worship alike, vote alike.”
“Come, let us build ourselves a city,” the people of Babel said, “And a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” At first blush it seems like a good idea: stick with those in your camp politically, religiously, socially, racially. If need be, make rules to enforce all that sorting out. Put up gates if you have to.” (Emphasis added.)
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.(Genesis 11:1) That’s history according to those who built and ran Babel, those in control. That’s the perspective of privilege, the version of reality those in power want us to believe.But there never has been only one language, one narrative in any community. That’s what Black Lives Matter is telling us. There never has been only one way to tell the story of who we are, and every time some group wants to do that it leads to discrimination and intolerance at best, and sometimes to violence and death. It’s no wonder God wants to confuse their language and, thereby, bless and affirm and celebrate human diversity. It was God’s way of protecting the minority narrative in that ancient city. ‘Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’” (Genesis 11:7) (Emphases added.)
“That’s not the Almighty trying to fend off a human attempt to attain Godlike power, as is often supposed. God has nothing to worry about from humankind. No tower will ever reach the divine precincts. The sin of Babel is not the effort to be like God or to try to reach heaven; it’s the human inclination to exclude the other in an attempt to create a community of one kind only.” (Emphasis added.)
“God wants to terminate our tendency to tribalism. God wants to undercut our capacity to create closed communities that admit – or think of themselves as – only one kind and push the rest out, one way or another. God wants to lift up the narrative of those on the margins of that ancient city, confined to the underside of history of biblical history.“ (Emphasis added.)
“Suddenly things begin to change in Babel. People start asserting their own story in their own way and in their own words. The human family spills out across the land speaking different languages and eating different food and making different music and wearing different clothes and worshipping in different ways. And that’s precisely what God intends. God creates us for that kind of community – diverse, mixed, richly varied in hue and culture and opinion. But we humans never quite get over the dream of building Babel.” (Emphasis added.)
“The result is what we have today among the peoples of the earth, in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, and, even, our churches. It shows up among those on the right and among those on the left. It’s found wherever people work toward ideological purity, wherever people write off “the other” not like them. Pentecost is God’s attempt to put an end to all that, to put an end to Babel’s hold on the human heart. For fire to burn there has to be heat, and there was heat that day in the flames that danced above their heads. For fire to burn there has to be air, and there was air that day in the rush of a mighty wind. For fire to burn there has to be fuel, and there was something ready to burn that day, in the hearts of those gathered. Faith catches fire on Pentecost.”(Emphases added.)
“Those lit up by the wind and flame that day are the same people they were before the conflagration and chaos. Nothing has changed. Injustice it still injustice. Despair still abounds in the world. Human enmity still has a stranglehold on the people of the earth, and yet there is something burning now in their hearts that gives them hope, something that gives them courage they never thought they would have.”
“When faith catches fire the future opens wide. In contrast, at Babel the future is foreclosed by human pride. The Tower we build is a mountain of individualism and self-importance and fear of those not like us – a tower that wants to have supremacy in our lives, as if we were better than others, as if we did not need one another, as if we were not made stronger by the different voices of the human family. Babel has no future in either its ancient or modern forms. (Emphasis added.)
“This isn’t the detached stuff of abstract religion; it’s the stuff of real human life. We face it every day, at school and at work, on the street and in the news, and certainly, in this season, in our politics. We politely call it “polarization,” but that’s just another name for all of us striving for Babel, where, to God’s distress, ‘The whole earth’ – supposedly – ‘had one language and the same words.’” (Emphases added.)
“The future belongs to Pentecost, not Babel. It belongs to those who discover in their very differences a oneness that had always been there but they had not seen before. The people at Pentecost are still Parthians and Elamites, Cretans and Arabs, Romans and Egyptians, but by the power of the Spirit they have figured out how to build community. They listen and hear one another for the first time.” (Emphasis added.)
“Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. When faith catches fire the insurmountable is suddenly not so overwhelming, the distance from here to justice is shortened, and that which once seemed impossible becomes something that might actually happen. You and I have hearts that need heating up. The wind of Pentecost is already blowing. The flames are dancing all around us. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God.” (Emphasis added.)
I had never studied or thought about the two main scriptural passages except I remember the Tower of Babel as a tale of a place where people talked in different languages (in a babel of confusing tongues) and the Pentecost passage as a hard-to-believe tale of people understanding one another when they spoke in different languages.
I see the Genesis passage as describing people who only spoke one language and who were supremely proud and self-confident. They were building a tower “to make a name for themselves.” In other words, they suffered under the sin of pride. God did not like that situation and, therefore, made them speak different languages to make it more difficult to get along by themselves. It was an affirmative action program of creating diversity. Just think what a boring world it would be today if the earth were occupied by over seven billion identical human clones.
As the Senior Pastor said, “Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. . . . You and I have hearts that need heating up. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it.”
But we need to confess thatwe hold back God’s Spirit among us and that our timid lives need to be transformed by the power of God’s presence so that we have a flaming desire to be God’s faithful people.
The Call to Worship and the Prayer of Confession at the January 31, 2016, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church were especially moving
They both are important elements of “Preparing for the Word,” which is the first part of our three-part worship service. The other parts are “Listening for the Word” with the readings from Holy Scripture and Sermon and “Responding to the Word” with the Offertory and Pastoral Prayer (and Communion on the first Sunday of the month). The complete bulletin for the service is available online as is a video of the service.)
The Call to Worship (from Psalm 71) stated:
“One: Our hope is in God all of our lives.
All: God is a rock of refuge: a fortress against threat and shame.
One: God has held us since our birth.
All: So we are never in the full grasp of the unjust and cruel.
One: In love, God saves and support us.
All: Trusting in God, we continually offer our praise!
One: Let us worship God.”
The following are the words of the Prayer of Confession (unison):
“God, our Deliverer, we confess that we are too reluctant to speak and to live
according to your truth. We grow comfortable with the way things are, passively
condoning injustice. We see ourselves as “insiders,” excluding those we
consider “outsiders.” We find it easier to pluck up and pull down, to destroy
and overthrow, than to build and to plant. Forgive us, O God, for being timid
disciples. Empty us to fear and shame, and fill us with love that is humble and
patient and kind.
We pray this in the name of the One who humbled himself, Jesus the Christ, Amen.”
As discussed in a prior posts, Spain’s National Court in 2008 commenced a criminal investigation of the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. In May 2011 the Spanish court issued the equivalent of an indictment of 20 former Salvadoran military officials for their alleged involvement in those murders.
In December 2011 Spain requested extradition of 13 of them who were in El Salvador and two who were believed to be in the U.S. (Two of the others could not be located, another two were in the process of cooperating with the Spanish judge in the case and another had died.) In May 2012, however, the Supreme Court of El Salvador denied extradition of the 13 on the ground that the country’s constitution prohibited extradition of its citizens while one of those was in the U.S. in U.S. custody on criminal charges (Inocente Orlando Montano Morales). As a result, it appeared that the Spanish case had been road-blocked
Now there are signs in the U.S., Spain and El Salvador that the case will be resumed.
U.S. Court Approves Extradition of a Salvadoran Suspect to Spain
On April 8, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint for U.S. extradition of Montano to Spain. A hearing on that complaint was held on August 19, 2015, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank, U.S. District Court (Eastern District, North Carolina).
On February 5, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued her decision upholding the requested extradition. She agreed with the Spanish evidence that showed that Mr. Montano was present at a meeting of the military high command that ordered the murders, which were carried out by an elite Salvadoran unit trained by the U.S. military. “A government official who acts in collaboration with others outside the scope of his lawful authority,” she wrote, “may reasonably be considered a member of an armed gang under the Spanish terrorist murder statute.”
The key conclusions of the decision were: (a) “There is currently in force an extradition treaty between the United States and Spain;” (b) Montano “was charged in Spain with extraditable offenses under the terms of the extradition treaty between the United States and Spain, namely the terrorist murder of five Jesuit priests of Spanish origin and nationality;” and (c) “Probable cause exists to believe [Montano] committed the charged offenses of terrorist murder.”
Therefore, the Magistrate Judge concluded that Montano was subject to extradition and certified this finding to the U.S. Secretary of State as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3184.
The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which has supported the extradition of Montano, said that this decision was “thorough, erudite and sweeping in scope [and] turns on a central legal ruling: As a government official, Montano collaborated with others to carry out the murders, acting beyond the scope of his official authority. As such, Montano can be considered a terrorist. This finding is a vindication of the years of struggle of the Salvadoran people against a repressive military which tried to turn reality on its head by calling anyone who defied it – including the Jesuits priests – terrorists. It is gratifying that a US court has recognized the true reality and named its leaders, Montano one of the most powerful, what they were – terrorists.” CJA added: “The Assistant U.S. Attorney was persuasive in all aspects of his arguments, ably representing the interests of Spain in the U.S. judicial process.”
Carlos Martín Baró, the plaintiff in CJA’s Jesuits Massacre Case in Spain and brother of Father Ignacio Martín Baró, S.J., one of the murdered priests, said: “My brother had a broad desire to help people. When he encountered the poverty and inequality of El Salvador, he realized the problem was deeper, and he dedicated his entire life to helping the people of that country. The fact that the Colonel Montano may face trial in Spain won’t heal the pain but is a victory for all people who seek justice.”
Under the previously mentioned U.S. federal statute (18 U.S.C. § 3184) the Secretary of State “shall issue his warrant for the commitment of the person so charged to the proper jail, there to remain until such surrender shall be made.” This statute on its face does not appear to grant the Secretary the discretion to deny the request for extradition. Moreover, since the U.S. Department of Justice brought the prosecution of Montano for immigration fraud and then for his extradition, it appears exceedingly unlikely that Secretary of State John Kerry would not provide the necessary warrant for extradition.
Now we wait to see if Montano exercises his right under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 (c) and Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a) to appeal this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit within 30 days “after entry of the judgment or order being appealed from,” which presumably is February 5.
Spain and El Salvador’s Apparent Cooperation on Extradition of Other Suspects
In August 2015, in an unrelated case, the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled that, according to a treaty on international cooperation in criminal matters to which El Salvador is a party, an INTERPOL red notice requires both the identification of the location of the defendants and their arrest and detention pending an additional filing, such as an extradition request. This decision appears in direct conflict with the Court’s May 2012 ruling against extradition in the Spanish case over the Jesuit murders.
In response to this recent ruling, on November 16, 2015, the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, David Morales, petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to review its 2012 decisions refusing to arrest and order the extradition of 11 former military officials who were subjects of the INTERPOL arrest warrants,
The Ombudsman also issued a resolution asking Spanish authorities to re-issue the arrest warrants, for extradition purposes in the Jesuits Massacre Case. This request was endorsed in the Spanish case by CJA and the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE).
On January 4, 2006, the Spanish court’s Judge Velasco honored that plea by requesting INTERPOL to re-issue the international arrest warrants for all the Jesuit Massacre case defendants who reside in El Salvador for their extradition to Spain to face the charges.
On January 6, the Salvadoran government said it will cooperate in the execution of those warrants and the extradition of 17 former Salvadoran military officials and soldiers (one of whom is the previously mentioned Montano in the U.S.), but that the country’s Supreme Court would make the final decision.
On the other hand, a former Salvadoran Defense Minister, Humberto Corado, who was not involved in the killings, has requested support for those subject to the INTERPOL arrest warrants from the ARENA political party because their party members were the government officials in charge at the time of the killings and issued orders that the military carried out. He also argued that the country’s amnesty law should prevent the Spanish case from proceeding further,
On February 5 and 6, 2016, Salvadoran police detained four of the 17 former military officials. The police also are looking for the other 12 (excluding Montano). This is despite some earlier police reluctance to do so. These arrests and searches are seen as a first step towards extradition. These actions were endorsed on February 6 by President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who stressed that the country was “committed to comply with international standards” and that there were INTERRPOL red notices calling for arrest. He also urged those subject to arrest to comply for decision on extradition to be made by the Supreme Court.
There now appears to be some hope that those accused of complicity in the murder of the Jesuits will face criminal charges in Spain. The main obstacle now is the Salvadoran Supreme Court, which will have to decide whether the new arrest warrants and request for extradition will be honored.
 Prior posts that were tagged “Jesuits” covered the marvelous ministries of these Jesuit priests and their university (University of Central America or UCA); the circumstances of their horrible murders; the Salvadoran military’s attempted cover-up of their involvement in these crimes; the flawed Salvadoran criminal prosecution of a few of the military personnel so involved and their absolution by a Salvadoran amnesty law; the investigation and report on these crimes by the Truth Commission for El Salvador; other legal proceedings regarding these crimes; the Spanish criminal case over these crimes; El Salvador’s 2012 denial of Spain’s request for extradition of most of the suspects in the case; and the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs in November 2014.