Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

This year’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday on January 14 was a very special occasion for Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] We welcomed the pastors and members of our local partner congregations, Liberty Community Church and Grace-Trinity Community Church, to hear the sermon by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II , the highest official (Stated Clerk) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination.[2] The Biblical passages for the day were 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1: 43-51.

After the worship service, we explored the spaces in our new addition whose front exterior is shown in this photograph.

The following is a summary of this historic day by the church’s communications consultant, Kathy Graves, with the first photograph by Westminster member, Tom Northenscold, and the other two by Rev. Brennan Blue.[3]

The Worship Service

“A celebratory, soulful group of musicians from Westminster and its partner [congregations] welcomed people to worship. . . [followed by a reminder from] Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor at Westminster. . .: ‘Today is just the beginning. Many of us have worked long and hard to get to this moment, but our vision of a parking lot has grown into a vision for transforming our presence in the city. Our work is ahead of us.’”[4]

Alika Galloway, co-pastor of Liberty, Minnesota’s only primarily African-American PC(USA) congregation, shared the successes of her church’s 21st Century Academy, a rigorous after-school and summer academic program partially funded by [Westminster’s] Open Doors Open Futures. Daniel Vigilante, pastor of Grace-Trinity, described the support his congregation received from Westminster’s campaign. Five years ago, the congregation had expected to close because of dwindling numbers and resources when Westminster and Grace-Trinity formed a unique partnership. Today, Grace-Trinity is thriving and nearly self-supporting.”

“Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II [in the  photograph to the left] spoke [in his sermon] of the need to ‘get real about those being left behind.’ He urged the congregation to listen to what God is calling them to be, especially in the beautiful new spaces created by Open Doors Open Futures. “’Be consumed not with the love of this building but by a love of this community,’ he told worshippers. ‘Use this space wisely. You have much and have already used it for the glory of God. Take it and do a whole lot more. Let the world know you are standing firm.’”

“Worship concluded with [a call-and-response reading of the unique] “Litany for a New Day,” which offered these words [by everyone in the congregation]: ‘We hope this is where new life happens, where friendships are made and children are loved, where hands serve and prophetic voices are nurtured out of silence, where good news is proclaimed in a broken world and radical hospitality is our daily practice, where you, O God, are worshipped and another generation experiences resurrection.’”

The Reception

“Following worship, the congregation cut the ribbons’ on the expansion, which were actually handcrafted banners created by [Rev.] Beth Hart-Andersen from textiles donated by Westminster members and which were carried down the Trinity Staircase of the new space by Westminster youth as shown in the photograph to the right.

“Drummers [then] led a procession of nearly 1,100 people out into the new wing and down the four-story “Trinity Staircase” (and adjacent elevators) into the new 300-stall underground parking garage. Outside temperatures below zero led to a brisk and festive blessing of the garage.’

“As the youth group sang “Amazing Grace,’ they made their way back up to the first floor to inaugurate Westminster Hall with the premiere of composer Tom Trenney’s ‘I Will Make a Way,’ a setting of Isaiah 43:19, commissioned by Westminster for the occasion. Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Westminster’s director of choral ministries, led the Westminster Choir in a performance that showed off the magnificent acoustics of the space as shown in this photograph.[5]

“’The new hall will allow the church to diversify its worship offerings as well as fulfill long-unmet needs for community meetings and congregational celebrations. ‘Westminster Hall is the heart of the new first floor expansion,’ said Hart-Andersen. ‘It will allow us to worship in a new key. The city is right here,’ he said, gesturing to a full-length wall of glass overlooking Westminster Plaza on Nicollet Mall. ‘We can see the city and it can see us.’”

“The hall comfortably accommodates up to 400 people. State-of-the art lighting and acoustics allow for a wide array of programming. Sunlight passes through a tree-like canopy overhead, speaking to passages in scripture that reference the power and symbolism of nature and life’s cycles.”

James Dayton, the lead architect, thanked the congregation for its steadfast support of the project. ‘My firm does this work every day, but you don’t,’ he said. ‘You had to learn a whole set of skills. And you did. This building makes manifest the faith of this congregation. Thank you for allowing us to be part of this.’”

“’Westminster is a church open to creative new ways to serve and engage the city,’ said Hart-Andersen. ‘This new wing gives us the tools to do that: easy access, multi-use space, enhanced technology, inspired green design, and much more.’” (A subsequent post will discuss how that new space will be used.)

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[1] The live stream of the service is on the church website, and the bulletin for the service should soon be there as well..

[2]  Rev. Nelson is the son, grandson, and nephew of Presbyterian pastors and the first African- American to lead the denomination, which has a 300-year history in the U.S. As Stated Clerk his duties include interpreting assembly actions, representing the church on various denominational and ecumenical councils, witnessing on behalf of the church to social justice

[3] Graves, Westminster Presbyterian Church opens doors on expansion to historic downtown Minneapolis building, Presbyterian Outlook (Jan. 19, 2018); Powell, Westminster Presbyterian to serve as a cornerstone of justice, Presbyterian Mission (Jan. 17, 2018).

[4] The musicians were Sam Reeves, Jr., pianist and Liberty Church’s  Minister of Music; Brian “Snowman” Powers, a Louisiana-bred saxophonist, composer and music producer; and Chris Koza, a singer-songwriter-guitarist and member of Grace-Trinity Community Church.

[5] The Westminster Choir also was joined by the church’s Global Choir (in which this blogger sings bass), and Youth Choir while the children’s Choristers danced for a performance of “Bonse Aba,” a beautiful traditional Zambian anthem, whose native language words translate in English as, “All that sing have the right to be called the children of God.

 

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).)