Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other

On May 14, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, preached the last of his three sermons on Presbyterian Principles.[1] This one focused on our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

Scripture

Colossians 3:12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Sermon[2]

 We come today to the final sermon in this series exploring the Historic Principles of Church Order from the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. These principles were adopted in the late 18th century to help the church maintain “order” in its life, but the principles do much more. They offer essential guidance to us as individuals seeking to follow Jesus in our time.

There are eight historic principles; we’ve focused on two so far: “God alone is Lord of the conscience – we carry God’s love in our minds and hearts as a compass in life.”                    “Truth is in order to goodness – facing the truth, even if it painful, leads to goodness.”

And finally, this principle:

“There are truths and forms with respect to which (people) of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other. It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

Those 18th century Presbyterians had read their Bible. The notion of being kind to one another, even in the face of hostility, appears throughout the gospels. Jesus takes it to an extreme when he tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

How do we live like that? The letter to the Colossians has some advice:

  • “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lordhas forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-23)

New life in Christ is like shedding old clothes and donning a new self. I have watched that happen many times over the years, as people come to fresh commitment to their faith, or come to faith for the first time. When we follow Jesus, we put on new clothes. We take on a new identity.

Last Thursday the elders of the church welcomed new members into the life of our congregation. We will receive them in worship next week. The 20 or so individuals are not coming to Westminster for social reasons, or because we’re a well-run non-profit. They are, rather, shedding an old way of life, each in their own way, and putting on a new identity. They want to discern with us what it means to follow Jesus in our complicated time. If they serve on a committee or sing in the choir that’s great; but let us be clear: church is about taking on, putting on, a new identity.

Among other things, our Presbyterian ancestors say, that new identity expects of us mutual forbearance.

This past week I found myself on an airplane flying back to Minneapolis, next to an older man wearing the hat and jacket of someone with whom I assumed I would disagree on any number of issues. He wanted to talk. Has that ever happened to you? My strategy was to open my laptop and go to work on this sermon. He tried to engage me multiple times; finally, I obliged. We were beginning our descent to Minneapolis and with his opening question to me I thought he and I might start a descent of our own.

“Is it true what they say about crime in Minneapolis?” he asked.

“I’m not sure what you’re hearing,” I replied, and then told him about the decline in crime in the city as reported in the news recently. He seemed skeptical.

Then – maybe, I confess, to see how he might respond – I said that things would be even better if there weren’t so many guns. He proceeded to tell me he owned an AR-15, and he didn’t want anyone taking it from him because he needed it for protection.

It was clear we were headed toward serious turbulence. I was determined not to give an inch on this topic about which I have strong feelings. We were in a small airplane. He had the window seat; I had the aisle. I had him cornered.

Then I remembered the historic principle in the sermon I was working on, sitting next to him. “There are truths and forms with respect to which (people) of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

To forbear means to exercise restraint, show patience, demonstrate self-control. That is not where I was headed with my seatmate. I decided to try practicing what I was planning to preach.

I began by assuming he was “a person of good character.” It helped to think of him as someone’s grandfather – it takes one to know one, even if we did have opposing views. I set out to patiently listen to him, and then, to my relief, he sat quietly listening to me when it was my turn.

There we were, two grandfathers representing American polarity on that little plane. We went back and forth for some time, working hard to keep it polite and genuinely hear the other. Both of us were pleased to find one area about which we did agree: the need for more mental health support in our communities.

I left him in Minneapolis. He was headed to Salt Lake. When I told him I was a Presbyterian minister, he smiled and said he was a Lutheran. I doubt I changed his mind about guns, and I know he did not change mine, but our exchange had been surprisingly helpful. I had the sense that if we had more time, we might have found more common ground.

It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other. 

I first learned that historic Presbyterian principle back in the heat of the major church struggle over the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of our denomination. Not unlike other struggles to expand the rights of people, those of us advocating change received a lot of pushback. Some of it was ugly. It was even worse for those who embodied the pain of the church’s exclusion. Individuals were shunned, kicked out of churches, subject to cruelty and hate.

It was difficult in that time to “exercise mutual forbearance” toward those on the opposing side. We consciously and carefully referred to them not as the enemy but as “other Presbyterians,” to remind ourselves that we weren’t that far apart on every issue. There might be some common ground between us. We held firm that God’s love extended to all God’s people, and that God’s call to serve the church could come to any faithful person. We did that while trying to engage those who disagreed in a way that respected their full humanity, hoping they might reciprocate, and some did.

The church finally became supportive of its LGBTQ members. Several hundred congregations left the denomination, including some in our presbytery, but I think more would have left were it not for some on both sides of the struggle committed to exercising the historic principle of mutual forbearance toward each other.

“Above all,” Colossians urges us, “Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

The Church, like the human community, has always struggled to hold in tension internal disagreement while staying together. The historic principle of mutual forbearance acknowledges that we do not all have to agree on everything. We never will. But when we write off someone with whom we disagree, or make them our enemy, we have little chance of ever finding common ground.

There are truths and forms with respect to which (people) of good characters and principles may differ. That principle is not only Presbyterian – it is foundational to any functioning democracy. In the church we call the power that binds us together the love of God; in civil society it’s a shared sense of national purpose. We seem to have lost that, or are in danger of losing it.

When mutual forbearance is thrown out, democracy is on a collision course with itself and headed for deep trouble. With the mutual animosity characteristic of our time, we run the risk of losing any shared commitments and fracturing that which ties us to one another.

It is the duty, those Presbyterians said back then, both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other. Forbearance – both as individuals and collectively. The Letter to the Colossians is not written to a private party; it is directed at a community.

The future belongs to people and communities that can learn to live with those with whom they disagree and may even consider an enemy.

Every year in Israel, Palestinians and Israelis hold an event called Joint Memorial Day. It began in 2005 to “try to break the chain of revenge and hatred.”

The first gathering 18 years ago had only 200 people. Three weeks ago, 15,000 Israelis and Palestinians showed up. They told stories of grief and loss on both sides – and listened to them. They publicly committed themselves to end the cycle of violence that only begets more violence. That is true in any society, including ours.

“It’s possible to use our pain in a different way,” an Arab father whose ten-year old daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers said at the event.

An Israeli man whose sister was killed by a suicide bomber said, “It is easy and natural to hate, be angry, want revenge. But I am convinced this is the best way to leverage my feelings and my loss for the good of my people and this country,”

That is the exercise of courageous mutual forbearance. If Israelis and Palestinians can do it, anyone can. Peace with justice will not come to the world until we break repeated patterns of hatred and revenge, violence and more violence between nations and neighbors.

To survive, our own democracy depends on finding a way to live together in a divided house with those we may be tempted to see as enemies. That is true for the Church, as well.

This may not be happy news for us, because it’s easy and, if we’re honest, strangely satisfying to spiral down into anger and dismissiveness toward others. I know this, because I struggle with this tension all the time. It surfaced on that airplane ride this past week.

Instead, the letter to the Colossians invites us to put on new life, to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and trusting God’s love to bind us together.

The three historic principles we have explored all start and finish with God’s love. They offer guidance to us in this troubled world, as we follow Jesus: God alone is Lord of the conscience. Truth is in order to goodness. It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

In the end, only the power of God’s love working in us and in others will lead to that new day, a day where justice breaks forth and peace flourishes on earth and the human community lives in harmony.

That day is the great gift God has already given in Jesus Christ, the one whom we seek to follow and serve.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Reactions

I wholeheartedly agree that we should act with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience with everyone we meet and with whom we interact. This includes forgiveness of others for what we perceive as their errors.

We may still try to teach and admonish others. And we need to acknowledge that others may not agree with us. This is when mutual forbearance or restraint, patience and self-control come in.

I also must confess that I tend to interact with others who, I believe, agree with me on contentious issues of our political and social life and try to avoid issues that might provoke disagreement.

As a result, I think that many others and I need practice of interacting with others who hold different opinions on issues like gun control and certain political leaders.

Tim’s account of his spontaneous response to a fellow airplane passenger who raised the question of crime in Minneapolis seemed inadequate. Given the vague nature of the other man’s comment, a better response by Tim could have been something like the following: “I’m not sure what you have heard on this subject, but during the COVID crisis and afterwards, Minneapolis experienced a bad rash of car jackings and thefts, high speed, reckless auto traffic that killed and injured many people and many gun-caused injuries and deaths. But recently there have been reported declines in these horrible crimes. I should also mention that later this month two downtown Minneapolis churches—Westminster and Central Lutheran—are co-hosting a national Festival of Homiletics for clergy of various churches.”

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[1] Previous posts about this series of sermons: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (May 11, 2023); Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: God alone is Lord of the conscience, dwkcommentaries.com (May 12, 2023); Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: Truth is in order to goodness, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2023).

[2] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Sermon: Presbyterian Principles: It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Minneapolis) (May 14, 2023); Bulletin, Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 14, 2023) (the Bulletin’s cover contained the full statement of this Principle).

 

 

Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: Truth is in order to goodness   

On May 7, 2023, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the second of three sermons on Presbyterian Principles.[1] This one focused on “truth is in order to goodness.”

Scripture

John 3: 16-24

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.  John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there, and people kept coming and were being baptized.  (John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.)

Sermon[2]

We’re on the second Sunday of a three-part series exploring what are called The Historic Principles of Church Order. They were adopted by the Presbyterian Church more than two centuries ago. Our forebears set out to build Christian community on these basic tenets of faith. The principles served – and still serve – as the foundation of the values we hold dear and which we embrace as followers of Jesus.

We may be tempted to dismiss a set of ethics adopted in the late 18th century as anachronistic or irrelevant. But give them a chance and it becomes clear they still speak to us. Last week we looked at this historic principle: God alone is Lord of the conscience – meaning that in the mind and heart of a Christian, God’s love is the ultimate guide for how we live.

Today we look at another assertion upon which our Church stands: Truth is in order to goodness. When I first read this in our denomination’s constitution many years ago, I didn’t understand it. It refers to one thing that follows another. To say truth is in order to goodness means that goodness results from following the truth. Truth leads to goodness.

Could any old-time principle be more appropriate for our time today, when lies and illusions abound in our public life, and mendacity doesn’t even bother to masquerade? Could any principle be more apt for our time than this one? Truth is in order to goodness. 

When Jesus was before Pilate, only hours before his crucifixion, the Roman governor was probing him, trying to learn who he was, and the motivation for what he did. Jesus finally tells him,

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truthEveryone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

As followers of Jesus, we ought to be known as those who belong to the truth, who refuse to follow falsehood. If we belong to the truth, our lives bear witness to what is good and honest, right and just. Our actions and our integrity point others to the truth.

But how do we know what is true? “The great touchstone of truth,” according to those 18th century Presbyterians, is “Its tendency to promote holiness.”

By “holiness” they meant life that reflects the love and righteousness, the light and justice of God.

Our forebears went on to declare, “No opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level.”

Truth is in order to goodness.

Jesus couldn’t agree more: You will know them by their fruits,” he said. “Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16)

A few years ago, we chuckled at the notion of truthiness in our political and cultural ethos. That was then, and this is now, and it is no longer a laughing matter. With new technology the world of “alternative facts” has scaled up beyond anything we could ever have imagined. To quote Dorothy, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

In an interview this week, Dr. Jeffery Hinton, known as the “godfather” of artificial intelligence, was asked about the benefits and risks of AI. AI, he said, can be a force for astonishing good.  “Would you rather see a family doctor that has seen a few thousand patients or a family doctor that has seen a few hundred million patients, including with the same rare disease you have?”

A benefit of AI.

But, as we have been hearing a lot these days, there’s a deep shadow side to AI. At a recent UN conference on the risks of technology, a participant said, “AI can bring with it a host of unintended consequences. One of the most pernicious could be AI’s ability to spread misinformation at a pace and scale not seen before.”

Pernicious is the very word Presbyterians used 235 years ago to describe bringing “truth and falsehood upon a level.” It carries the connotation of malevolence. The use of this technology – not the technology itself – can be detrimental to our life together, even sinister.

Dr. Hinton recently left Google to speak out about the threats in the use of the technology he spent decades developing. The first danger he cites is “the risk of producing a lot of fake news so no one knows what’s true anymore.”

This has gone way beyond a mere press conference where someone claims something we all know to be false, and it begins to spread by people repeating and believing it.

Jesus was acutely aware of the power of what is true. “You shall know the truth,” he said, “And the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

But in an age when unregulated and unrestrained technology can easily be used to spread that which is untrue and present it as gospel – and I use that word intentionally – we will soon lose our freedom.

If truth is in order to goodness, when much of the world is filtered through and controlled by AI can we even know what is true?

By ourselves we cannot stop the malicious use of technology, but we can be careful with it and check its veracity when in doubt. We can use technology to verify the accuracy of technology. We can discern what is true and decide what we will do about it – even if that truth is painful or difficult to face in our personal lives, in our families and our relationships, in our city and nation today, and in its history. The truth can be hard to hear, but you and I, we are bound to pursue it and act on it.

A statement by the national church 40 years ago, in 1983, says,  “As Presbyterians we believe there is…no way to disconnect faith from practice. What we believe is reflected in our actions, both individually and corporately. Acceptance of untruths as truth is harmful…The truth of a particular idea is often revealed in the way it leads people to behave…Time is a test of truth.”

Truth is in order to goodness, sometimes over a long stretch of time.

The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman spoke this past week at an event here in town sponsored by World Savvy, a wonderful national education non-profit headquartered in Minneapolis. Friedman commented on the credo of the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerman: move fast and break things.

Friedman countered: “In a speeding world, that which happens slowly is more important than ever.”

The three things such a world needs, he said, are self-motivation, the discipline to engage even when so much can be done for us, without our engagement; access, the capacity to get and use the technology; and, character.

Friedman focused on that last point, character. He named a number of “slow-moving” experiences that teach empathy and kindness and help create lasting, healthy community. At the top of his list was Sunday School – and he didn’t mean what happens only in churches; at this very moment, over at Temple Israel they are teaching in the synagogue what they call Sunday School.

People of faith instinctively know that slowing down helps us and our children see and listen and discern more carefully. Prayer slows us down. Music slows us down. Quiet slows us down. Every Wednesday evening people gather for mid-week worship in Westminster Hall that includes 5-6 minutes of silence together. It never seems long enough.

God rested on the seventh day in the Creation story and wonder at all that had been made. The Creator needed to stop and see the truth of all that beauty – and then pronounce it good. We are told to honor the Sabbath because human beings lose their way when they go fast all the time. Truth gets in when we slow down – and truth is in order to goodness.

We don’t often think of Jesus as having a focus on truth in his ministry. He healed, he taught, he loved those reviled or feared by others, he welcomed those excluded, he prayed, he listened, he gave his life for others. But what does all that have to do with truth?

It has everything to do with truth.

Jesus said, “I am the way the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

With his own life, Jesus points to the truth, truth with a capital T and the smaller, everyday truths at the core of our faith, that you and I try to live every day: that love is greater than fear and compassion stronger than hate, that dawn will follow even the longest night, that mercy leads to forgiveness and grace heals brokenness, that hope gives courage to seek justice against all odds. that we are not alone.

I John asks a simple question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. And by this we will know that we are from the truth.” (I John 3:17-19a)

We who follow Jesus are from the truth. We belong to the truth. That means how we live is not some random accident, controlled by some force outside of us, but a direct result of holding fast to the truth that God is love.

“We are persuaded,” the Presbyterians said long ago,,“That there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.” (PCUSA Book of Order, F-1.0304: Historic Principles)

Truth is in order to goodness.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Reactions

These Presbyterian “principles served—and still serve—as the foundation of values we hold dear and which we embrace as followers of Jesus.” “God’s love is the ultimate guide for how we live.”

“To say ‘truth is in order to goodness’ means that goodness results from following the truth. Truth leads to goodness.” “The great touchstone of truth [is]the tendency to promote . . . life that reflects the love and righteousness, the light and justice of God.”

Dr. Jeffrey Hinton, an expert on Artificial Intelligence (AI), says AI “can be a force of astonishing good,” such as enabling an M.D. to see medical results of a disease in vastly more cases. On the other hand, AI risks “producing a lot of fake news so that no one knows what’s true anymore.”

Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, says the world needs (a) self-motivation or the discipline to engage with the world; (b) the ability to get and use the ever-changing technology; and (c) character, which is shaped by “slow moving” experiences that teach empathy and kindness and help create lasting, healthy community. A prime example of such “slow moving” experiences is Sunday School in churches and synagogues.

“With his own life, Jesus points to the truth with a capital T and the smaller, everyday truths at the core of our faith, that you and I try to live every day: that love id greater than fear and compassion stronger than hate, that dawn will follow even the longest night, that mercy leads to forgiveness and grace heals brokenness, that hope gives courage to seek justice against all odds, and that we are not alone.”

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[1] Previous posts about this series of sermons:

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (May 11, 2023); Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: God alone is Lord of the conscience, dwkcommentaries.com (May 12, 2023).

[2] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Sermon, Presbyterian Principles: Truth is in order to goodness (May 7, 2023); Bulletin, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Minneapolis) (May 7, 2023).

 

The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”   

On March 26, 2023, Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the last of his five sermons on different passages of the Lord’s Prayer.[1] This sermon was on the following portion of the third sentence (in bold) of that Prayer:

  • “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. “

Scripture: Psalm 46 

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar; the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice; the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
 Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations;
I am exalted in the earth.”
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Sermon[2]

The annual Art-A-Whirl in northeast Minneapolis is like a pub crawl through hundreds of artist studios. We try to go every year, and we always stop in to see artist James Nutt, a Westminster member. One evening a few years ago, standing in his studio, I found myself staring at a painting showing bands of color arranged in horizontal lines.

“What do you think it is?” he asked.

It took me awhile before I realized I was looking at an artistic representation of the prayer Jesus taught. It now hangs on the wall above my desk at home, as if guiding me in my work. James’ watercolor has been on the cover of our worship bulletins during Lent and is currently in the Westminster Gallery.

I invite you to take a moment to look at the bulletin cover. Slowly say the prayer in your mind and watch the colors bring the words to life. Notice how the colors correspond to different terms in the prayer. “Father” and “Name” are both burgundy; “heaven” and “kingdom” both blue.

Can you find And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil? Those words are in the third and fourth lines up from the bottom.

The colors used for the words temptation and evil stand out. They’re among the largest blocks of color in the prayer. The strong red of temptation looms and intimidates – as temptation does in real life. The midnight darkness of the word evil appears as a hole into which light and hope and joy might disappear – as we have seen in places of violence and hatred in our world.

Stanley Hauerwas says the prayer’s colorful words in this line – temptation, deliverance, evil – indicate that “at this point the temperature rises with the Lord’s Prayer. Things are not right in the world.” (Lord, Teach Us [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996], p. 88)

The colors reflect our own struggle to find a way through those places and moments where we are tested, when we come to a decision point in life and are tempted to take the easy win even if it leaves others behind, or where doing the right thing would mean giving up some privilege or power and we’re not sure we can do that.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

The Church has always been troubled about the meaning of these words. Why would God “lead us into temptation?” Some early versions of this line avoid casting God in this light and render it, do not allow us to be led into temptation, as if Jesus hadn’t really meant to say what he said because it could never be God’s intention that we would face temptation.

Even modern voices have tried “to fix” the prayer here. One church member told me they pray “lead us away from temptation.” And a few years ago, Pope Francis declared that the wording in the prayer Jesus taught ought to be,  “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

The word here in the ancient Greek – eisenenkes – is not in dispute. Try as we might to alter the translation, it means to lead or bring someone into a place or situation. It’s the same word used to describe what the friends do for the man paralyzed when they lower him through the roof to Jesus. They bring him into that place.

The watercolor’s use of red for temptation makes that word leap out. Why would God appear to be threatening to steer us into temptation, into the red place, so much so that Jesus instructs us to try to convince God not to do so?

Some scholars think this line should be read in the context of the early Church’s expectation of the end of time – the eschaton – when believers would be under enormous pressure to abandon the faith. That may be, but I think this line is personal for Jesus. The one line in the prayer where we get a glimpse into Jesus’ own heart.

When he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal, only hours before his death, Jesus is terrified of what is coming. He throws himself on the ground and prays, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”

And when his disciples fall asleep in the Garden, Jesus uses the wording of the prayer he taught: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into temptation.” (Matthew 26:41)

Jesus is afraid of what will happen when he comes into the time of trial. After all, he has already been there. This line in the prayer echoes the experience of Jesus at the start of his ministry. Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)

Jesus does not “fall into temptation;” he is led there by the Spirit.

These forty days of Lent are an annual reminder that the life of Jesus is framed by times of trial that he faces, each one of which God leads him into – first in the wilderness and, finally, in the Garden. Each instance tests his capacity to stay with God and not give in to fear or violence or thirst for power.

Jesus answers every temptation put before him in the desert by falling back on God’s word – this may be a guide for us. When the evil one tells a hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread he replies, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’’

When the evil one takes Jesus to a high peak and tells him to throw himself off, trusting that God will save him, Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘Do not put God to the test.’”

When the evil one offers Jesus all the realms of the world if he would but worship him, Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘Worship God and serve God only.’”

In the Garden, when Jesus says to God, “take this cup from me,” in the next breath Jesus says, “Yet not what I want, but what you want.” (Matthew 4:1-11) He gives himself over to the will of God.

Lead us not into that which frightens us – and be present when we get there.

[Poet] Mary Oliver addresses the paradox of this line in the prayer Jesus taught, in her poem The Uses of Sorrow.]

  • “(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.”

We live in a culture awash in debilitating fear. Fear can be like that dark hole in the watercolor that drains light and hope and joy. Fear leads us into the temptation to define others as evil, which limits possibilities for change in them and in us. We arm ourselves with weapons both real and metaphoric, convinced they will protect us from what we fear – and that can lead to violence.

John Dominic Crossan argues that the specific first century temptation referenced in this line in the prayer, is the use of violence to overthrow the occupying Roman empire. Lead us not into the temptation to be violent but deliver us from that evil. It may be that in our time we would be helped by seeing that one of the evils from which we need to be delivered is that same temptation to violence – real or imagined – born of our unrelenting fear. (The Greatest Prayer [NY: Harper, 2010], p. 175)

Jesus teaches us to pray so that we might live with courage in the midst of difficult realities and challenging times, of the sort we live in now. The prayer wants us to face our fears – and we all have them – by trusting in God and holding fast to our faith.

The psalmist understands this. In the midst of what must have been a traumatic, harrowing experience of some kind, the Hebrew poet says,

  • “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” (Psalm 46:1-3)

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the tumult of evil.

God leads us into times of trial and places of fear in order to be there with us. Who better to stand with us when the world closes in or falls apart? God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not let fear overcome our faith, our trust that God will see us through.

In Jesus, God enters fully into our suffering, to be there when we face our deepest fears, including our own mortality, as we did at the start of this season weeks ago, with the smudge of ashes.

Next Sunday Holy Week begins. On Good Friday, when Jesus goes to the cross, it will be the ultimate act of God’s solidarity with the human community. We are not alone. We will hear that baptismal promise in a few moments. “The God of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46:7, 10a)

Jesus, in this line in the prayer, wants to spare us the fear of coming up alone against that which can be our undoing. It’s as if he were saying, Because I’ve been there and know how frightening it can be, pray like this with all your heart: lead us, O God, not into temptation, but deliver us, when we get there, from evil.

And that’s where Jesus ends the prayer he teaches – with fear and temptation, deliverance and evil, right on the edge of the darkest color, which the poet says is a gift.

We may miss those final words most of us learned to say at the end of the prayer, but the oldest Greek manuscripts end the prayer abruptly, as Matthew does. The first English translations – including the King James – were not aware of those older texts but relied instead on other early renditions that concluded with the praise of God, what the church calls a doxology, which then became the prayer most of us learned as Protestants.

The prayer Jesus taught conveys what we need to know as people who follow him:

  • that God is as close to us as a parent even as God is also sovereign;
  • that Jesus teaches us to pray using “we” and “our” to remind us that this prayer is not private, and neither is our faith;
  • that this is a Jubilee prayer hoping for the time when all are fed, debts forgiven, and evil overcome.

With all of that, it is fitting that the church has chosen to retain in the prayer Jesus taught that one last burst of color at the end: For yours is the reign, the power, and the glory forever.

Thanks be to God.

Amen

Reactions

This line of the Prayer, for me, is the most difficult one to understand and embrace as it suggests that God can and may lead me into temptation.

But, as the sermon says, each of us has faced, and will face, “struggle[s] to find a way through those places and moments where we are tested . . . and are tested to take the easy win even if it leaves others behind, or where doing the right thing would mean giving up some privilege or power and we’re not sure we can do that.”

“Even the life of Jesus is framed by times of trial that he faces, each one of which God leads him into—first in the wilderness, and, finally, in the Garden. Each instance tests his capacity to stay with God and not give in to fear or violence or thirst for power.” But “Jesus answers every temptation put before him . . . by falling back on God’s word.”

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[1] Earlier posts about this series of sermons: The Lord’s Prayer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 2, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”  (May 4, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (May 6, 2023).The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Give us this day, our daily bread” (May 8, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (May 9, 2023).

[2] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Sermon, The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil), Westminster Presbyterian Church (Mar. 26, 2023); Bulletin, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Mar. 26, 2023).

 

The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And forgive us for our debts as we forgive our debtors”   

On March 19, 2023, Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the fourth of his five sermons on different passages of the Lord’s Prayer. [1] This sermon was on the following portion of the third sentence (in bold) of that Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. “

Scripture

Leviticus 25:8-12, 35-41

“You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the Day of Atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you: you shall not sow or reap the aftergrowth or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a Jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.”

“If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.”

“If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the Jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall go out from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.”

The Sermon[2]

 Along the way in this sermon series on the prayer Jesus taught I’ve heard from several of you eager to get to this particular petition. I have been eager, too. I’m glad we’re finally here. Of all the lines in the prayer Jesus taught, this one differs most in its wording among various Christian traditions, which can lead to a variety of interpretations. What was Jesus teaching here?

It’s complicated – and, lest we forget, the Apostle Paul reminds us that “All…have fallen short of the glory of God…. There is no one” – debtor, sinner, trespasser – “who is righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:23, 10)

On that basis we could conclude that it’s of no consequence which wording we use; in the end, we all miss the mark, whatever the mark might be. But there’s more to the story. The different words we use come from the gospels themselves and from church tradition. The language we use matters, as we have seen in this series

One of the points in this series on the prayer Jesus taught is that language evolves. In that sense it is living. We should guard against the calcification of the vocabulary of our faith. Our spiritual practices – no matter the particular wording – always want to reflect the dynamic interaction with God that Jesus longs for us to have. And the words do matter.

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

The prayer Jesus taught appears only in two gospels, each with its own version of this line. In Luke Jesus teaches, “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” In Matthew, on the other hand, he makes no mention of sin: “ [(Luke 11:4} “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – the version we pray at Westminster.  [Matthew 6:12)]

This is not a matter of a typo or confusion about someone’s handwriting. The Greek words here are quite distinct: “debt” is opheiléma, while “sin” is hamartia. The gospels writers chose their vocabulary with intention, leaving us to sort it out.

To add to the puzzle, the Greek word for trespass does not appear in either gospel version of the prayer Jesus taught, although it does show up later. Trespass makes its debut in the first full English translation of the Bible in 1526, done by William Tyndale, who got into trouble for doing it and eventually was deemed a heretic and executed in 1536. Tyndale’s Bible became widely popular and influenced the way English-speakers said the prayer Jesus taught. To this day, many Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, and others use “trespasses.”

The King James version, published almost a century after Tyndale, shifted back to the original Greek and used “debt” and “debtors,” and that’s where the Presbyterians landed and have been ever since. And forgive us our “debts” as we forgive our “debtors”. This is not random use of language. Jesus prays debts and debtors for a reason. In doing so, he intentionally introduces economic language into the prayer. When Jesus teaches about hunger in the prayer – give us this day our daily bread – he’s reminding us that people need to eat. Now when he speaks of economics, he’s reminding us another basic truth: that debt – not metaphorical or spiritualized indebtedness but simply not having enough money – can crush and impoverish people.

In our culture debt is a given for most of us. Capitalism is sustained by debt. Westminster gets this. We’re working hard right now in a campaign to pay off the congregation’s debt. As one Westminster member said, “Forgive us our debt, so we can pursue our mission.” If only the lenders were listening!

When we substitute “sins” for “debts” we miss the specific kind of forgiveness Jesus is aiming at here. Debt is unequivocally an economic term. Sin is a theological word. If we use sin, the wording seems directed to our private, individual behavior, as if Jesus were referring to my moral failings for which I need forgiveness, or my need to forgive wrongs done to me. That makes forgiveness a matter of letting go of personal offenses or owning up to my own immorality– which may be good to do, but it is not what Jesus is after here.

And trespassing has to do with crossing boundaries – a transgression that violates someone else’s property, which was a problem in 16th century England when Tyndale decided to employ that word. The language used by Jesus in the prayer as taught in Matthew, is concerned neither with property nor sin. It’s carefully intended to point toward economic realities. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. By using this terminology, Jesus is taking forgiveness into the realm of systemic economic justice, which concerns the collective, rather than the individual. The prayer Jesus taught draws on a long tradition in Judaism of the hope for a Year of Jubilee. “You shall count off…seven times seven years,” Leviticus says,

  • “So that the period of seven…years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud…And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-11)

It’s an old dream, and the prophets of Israel never give up on it as a possibility, and neither should we. Isaiah speaks of Jubilee when he says,

  • “The spirit of…God is upon me, because…God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

In her book Church in the Round, Letty Russell says the prophet’s vision here announces, “that memory of God’s future is already happening as the oppressed are set at liberty and the jubilee year arrives.” (Letty Russell, Church in the Round [Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993], p. 81)

The memory of God’s future is already happening, as Jubilee arrives.

That Jubilee vision gives rise to the incarnation. Jesus quotes the same lines from Isaiah when he preaches in his home synagogue at the start of his ministry. It nearly gets him killed because Jubilee threatens the exiting economic order and promises to change the way we live by upending the existing economic order.

  • “For it is a Jubilee; it shall be holy to you…If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them…You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance or provide them food at a profit. I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 25:12, 35, 37-38)

The Year of Jubilee as understood by the ancient Hebrew people and carried forward by the prophets if Israel and then enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, is to be the season when God’s intentions for human community are realized.

  • “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as enslaved people. They shall remain with you as hired…laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the Jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall…go back to their own family.” (Leviticus 25:39-41)

Jubilee repairs the world. It offers a way for justice to be done, for relationships to be restored, for the broken places in society to be healed, for economic inequities to be eased. The prayer Jesus taught is a Jubilee prayer. It is a prayer for our time, especially in America, one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, “that devotes far fewer resources” to the reduction of poverty “as a share of its gross national product than other rich democracies.” (Matthew Desmond, America Is in a Disgraced Class of its Own; N.Y. Times, March 16, 2023)

Princeton professor Matthew Desmond says,

  • “Poverty is chronic pain, on top of tooth rot, on top of debt collector harassment, on top of the nauseating fear of eviction. It is the suffocation of your talents and your dreams. It is death come early and often.”

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25, just over $15,000 a year, and that number has not changed since 2009. Minnesota’s minimum wage is $10.59 for large employers, which equates to slightly more than $22,000 a year. Today in our nation, 38 million people live below the poverty line, which is $26,500 a year. To pay rent and other bills, to purchase food, to support children, to pay for transportation – merely to survive, day after day, people go into debt, and that debt then holds them captive.

During the pandemic, in what became an unintentional experiment, the federal government expanded the Child Tax Credit and in six months child poverty was cut in half, to the lowest level in 50 years. In only six months. And with the monthly infusion of cash support for families during the pandemic, food insecurity was the lowest it has been in 20 years. Banks reported that their lowest income customers had a 50% increase in their account balances from before the pandemic. (https://www.vox.com/2022/9/14/23352022/child-poverty-covid-tax-credit)

We know how to do this.

“The hard part isn’t designing effective antipoverty programs or figuring out how to pay for them,” Professor Desmond says. “The hard part is ending our addiction to poverty.”

In the prayer Jesus taught he’s inviting us to imagine the Jubilee, where a resetting of economic priorities and a realignment of relationships takes place, and encumbered people are freed, land taken returned, crushing debts forgiven, and equity within the community begins to be re-established.

The prayer, especially with its economic implications, confirms Isaiah’s hope long ago, that someday we might be called “repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:12b)

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

This line we pray so casually week after week is a summons to get serious, to get serious about undoing the harm inflicted by economic realities in our land on the most vulnerable among us. The prayer Jesus taught commits us, as we pray it, to the work of dismantling the very real, unjust disparities that exist in our world.

There is scant evidence that the Year of Jubilee as imagined in Leviticus was ever fully implemented, but that doesn’t mean we should stop praying for it.

In fact – and as far as I’m concerned this settles it – by using debts and debtors in the prayer Jesus taught, we are praying for the more just economic order that God envisions.

To God be the glory.

Amen.

Reactions

For a long time, I have thought that the correct version of this line was the one said by Lutherans and many other Christian churches that referenced “trespasses” and “trespassed” because those words, for me, connoted wrongs or sins. On the other hand, the words “debts” and “debtors” that we use at Westminster for me connoted legitimate economic transactions.

This sermon, therefore, surprised and shocked me. It really is a radical call for upsetting the existing order of things. As Rev. Hart-Andersen said, “ Jesus is taking forgiveness into the realm of systemic economic justice, which concerns the collective, rather than the individual. The prayer Jesus taught draws on a long tradition in Judaism of the hope for a year of Jubilee. [After 49 years of normal or regular economic transactions, on the fiftieth year, as Leviticus says] you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you.”

This passage of the Prayer made me wonder whether  in Jesus’ days most people lived in small villages or towns where people knew one another and had limited financial dealings with one another and, therefore, would find it easier to forgive debts.

When, however, Jesus preaches this message at the start of his ministry, it “nearly gets him killed because Jubilee threatens the existing economic order and promises to change the way we live by upending the existing economic order.”

Moreover, given the contemporary size and complexity of financial transactions among different governments, international banks, other corporations and individuals, it is impossible for any individual or collection of individuals to forgive such debts and indebtedness. Moreover, today the U.S. is in the midst of a challenging threat to that international economic system with whether or not the U.S. federal government will increase the limit on its indebtedness.

Therefore, this line of the prayer for today’s world calls for the adoption and implementation of antipoverty programs all over the world or, as this sermon says, this Jesus prayer “commits us, as we pray it, to the work of dismantling the very real, unjust disparities that exist in our world” and creating “the more just economic order that God envisions.”

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[1] Earlier posts about this series of sermons: The Lord’s Prayer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 2, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”  (May 4, 2023);The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (May 6, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: ”Give us this day, our daily bread” (May 8, 2023).

[2] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen. Sermon: The Prayer Jesus Taught: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mar. 19, 2023); Bulletin, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Minneapolis) (Mar. 19, 2023).

The Prayer Jesus Taught: ”Give us this day, our daily bread” 

On March 12, 2023, Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the third of his five sermons on different passages of the Lord’s Prayer.[1] This sermon was on a portion of the third sentence (in bold) of that Prayer:

  • “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. “

Scripture

Luke 12: 13-24  (New Revised Standard Version)

Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’  But [Jesus] said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then [Jesus] told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“[Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!’

Sermon[2]

Our Lenten exploration of the prayer Jesus taught has prompted a lot of response. I’m hearing from many of you, which is great. It’s like a dialogue. That happens when we peel back layers of an essential and powerful part of our faith.

One church member told me he still remembers a sermon series on the prayer Jesus taught, delivered from this pulpit by Don Meisel more than three decades ago. Some have said they intend to continue using traditional language – Father, kingdom, thy, thine. Others say they are using altered vocabulary – Father/Mother, reign, realm, you, yours. Someone handed me a worship bulletin with her preferred terms penciled in above the scratched out printed words. Still others have sent prayers that follow the basic outline of what Jesus taught yet with entirely new wording.

We may hear these different versions in worship as we say the prayer together, and that’s fine. It won’t be the first time. Haven’t we all noticed when we say this prayer at a Minnesota wedding or memorial service, a little competition breaks out in the pews over debts and trespasses? We’ll get to that next week.

The 20-second spiritual practice called the Lord’s Prayer is important to us. The prayer Jesus taught is so deeply embedded in our consciousness and in our hearts that hearing it – just hearing it start – provokes a kinetic memory in the body; we want to fold our hands, close our eyes, and bow our heads. It’s intrinsic to our faith. Will Willimon, a retired Methodist Bishop and theologian, has said, “A Christian is…someone who has learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer.” (Lord, Teach Us [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], p. 18)

I think that bar is a little low, and that how someone lives may, in fact, be a better indicator of Christian faith, but his point is that people who follow Jesus learn the prayer he teaches. And most of us learn it early in life. One of my favorite moments in worship happens when I hear a young voice saying the prayer loud enough to be heard over the rest of us.

Now we turn to today’s line from the prayer: Give us this day our daily bread.

With this line Jesus signals a shift in the prayer away from the opening words about the holiness of God and God’s reign to more specific, human needs. Several petitions follow in rapid succession, each with an imperative: Give. Forgive. Lead. Deliver. The urgent verbs of these petitions sound almost impertinent, so demanding of God as to be disrespectful. That Jesus would teach us to use such strong wording in our prayer indicates how much we can trust the one to whom we pray. God wants our authentic selves in prayer. A parent hears this kind of language from their child all the time – the demanding imperatives that parents deal with, God has to deal with from us in this prayer.

We have been watching the pronouns in the prayer. From the start Jesus teaches that we do not offer privatized prayer to “my” God. Nowhere in the prayer does the first-person pronoun appear. That’s true even when we get to these petitions, each of which is intensely personal – I worry about my bread, my debt, my forgiveness, my temptations I’ll worry about mine; you worry about yours. Those are all challenges in life you and I know about intimately, but Jesus does not want us to think of ourselves as facing them alone, in isolation from others. It’s not give me today my daily bread. Life doesn’t work like that. In the prayer, it’s our bread, our debts, our temptations.

In the film A Man Called Otto, Tom Hanks plays Otto Anderson. Following the death of his wife and his 4 4 retirement Otto feels that his world has ended. He slips further and further into isolation. He closes in on himself and cuts himself off from others. Otto’s neighbor Marisol tries to break through to him repeatedly, but cannot. Finally, she says to him, “You think your life is so hard and…you have to do it all on your own – well guess what? You can’t. No one can.”

The film follows the story of the neighbors surrounding Otto, helping him understand he is not alone and that no one can do life by themselves. Eventually they become a small community around Otto and bring him back to the land of the living. We cannot thrive in life apart from others.

Jesus communicates that truth when he teaches that we use collective pronouns when we pray, because life is not a private, isolated, atomized reality. We are created for community.

Give us this day our daily bread.

This phrase in the prayer stands out in the biblical Greek. Unlike the other petitions in the prayer that begin with a verb – forgive, lead, deliver – this line starts with a noun: bread. It reads literally something like this: The bread of us daily, give us today. Jesus focuses here more on the bread, than the giving of it. Daily bread. Bread daily.

As Jesus taught this line in the prayer his listeners, who knew the stories of the Hebrew people, would have heard an illusion to the “bread of heaven” that came down to the hungry Israelites as they escaped from enslavement in Egypt and wandered the wilderness. God provided manna daily, daily manna, and it sustained the people. It was only one day’s nourishment, and everyone received the same amount. No manna was wasted. No manna could be hoarded from one day to the next.

Jesus draws on that image as a way to teach us the difference between what is necessary for life and what is beyond sufficient. The parable of the rich farmer and his barns echoes the old story of the Israelites and the manna. When the land produces more than he could possibly consume, rather than share it with those in need, he decides to tear down his barns and build new, bigger ones to keep it all for himself. That way he can “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”

Something like the American dream, isn’t it.

“’You fool,’” God says to the rich man in the parable, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God…Be on your 6 6 guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15-21)

 Give us this day our daily bread.

It would be hypocritical for the rich man in the parable with his hoarded surplus of grain to pray this line in the prayer Jesus taught. How could he pray only for his own needs to be met and ignore those of his neighbors? That may help explain the placement of the teaching of the prayer Jesus taught in Luke’s gospel. The prayer precedes by only a few paragraphs the moment when Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and his extra barns, as if Jesus were saying, remember the prayer I just taught? This is what I was trying to communicate: we all need bread each day, and if you have more than enough, then share it.

 The writing of early Christians on this line in the prayer shows that the Church understood exactly what Jesus was aiming at here. The Didache, a treatise on Christian faith written in the second century, and one of the earliest non-canonical sources of the prayer Jesus taught, says this:

  • “Do not be like those who are prompt to open their hand to receive and prompt to close it when it comes to giving…You shall not reject the needy but will share all things…and call nothing your own. If you share the eternal goods, shouldn’t you share even more those that are in passing?” (Quoted by Justo Gonzalez in Teach Us to Pray [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans; 2020], p. 110)

Praying this simple line about bread can be costly. In fact, that’s true of the entire prayer Jesus teaches. We should sit up and pay attention when we offer it each week in worship. Frederick Buechner warns us about the prayer.

  • “We do well not to pray it lightly. It takes guts to pray it at all. We can pray it in the unthinking and perfunctory way we usually do only by disregarding what we are saying…To speak those words is to let the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.” (Quoted in Will Willimon, Lord, Teach Us [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], Epigraph)

Give us this day our daily bread.

To pray like that is to reject the culture of continuous consumption and instead learn to be satisfied with only what we need. This is a prayer and a commitment, a promise to help meet the most basic needs of others.

Pope Francis, elected pope ten years ago tomorrow, has written a short book of the prayer Jesus taught. “When we pray the Our Father,” he says, using the Catholic terminology,

  • “It would be good for us to linger a bit over this petition – ‘give us bread today’ – and to think about how many people do not have this bread. At home as children, when a piece of bread fell, my family taught us to pick it up right away and kiss it. Bread was never thrown away. Bread is a symbol of the unity of humanity; a symbol of God’s love for you.” (Pope Francis, Our Father [Milano, Rizzoli Libri; 2017], p. 74- 75)

Last year in Minnesota the use of food shelves skyrocketed by 53.5%. Jesus is teaching us here to rein in our consumptive impulses and simply pray for something to eat for others and for ourselves. To feed the hungry is a universal ethical imperative for the Church, arising from this line in the prayer. I’m glad to report that just this morning Westminster’s Hunger Ministry Team released from our resources more than $51,000 to several local food shelves, to do our part to help meet the need. (https://www.mprnews.org/story/2023/02/08/foodshelf-visits-jumped-nearly-54-percent-last-year-inminnesota)

Give us this day our daily bread.

Bread plays an outsize role in scripture. When we say this line, we are recalling the place of bread in the long story of the people of God – from the provision of manna in the wilderness,      to the breaking of bread as a sign of the first covenant, to the bread offered at Isaiah’s mountaintop feast, to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, to the words Jesus says as he breaks bread at the Last Supper, to the bread provided by Jesus at the resurrection picnic on the beach, to the eyes that open at the breaking of bread with the risen Jesus in Emmaus.

Even little Bethlehem, the town of Jesus’ birth, gets in on it: Bethlehem means house of bread in Hebrew.

With bread at the heart of the biblical story, it should not surprise us when Jesus says, “Í am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” (John 6:35)

Give us this day that bread, our daily bread.

This one short line in the prayer opens to us a world of meaning around the word bread. When we pray it, it takes us to the joyful feast of the people of God, where the breaking of bread is a sign of the new covenant, the promise of God.

Every time we eat our daily bread, whether at the communion table, at the banquet table, or at the kitchen table, we take it, and break it, and in that action, we remember the promise of God that all shall be fed.

To God be the glory.

Amen.

Reactions

This sermon was especially meaningful for me in its shifting to the imperatives for every one of us without “privatized” pronouns. It emphasizes that no one is alone and no one can live a life by himself or herself. “Jesus communicates that truth when he teaches that we use collective pronouns when we pray because life is not a private, isolated, atomized reality. We are created for community.”

This was recognized in a second century Christian treatise, the Didache, when it said, “Do not be like those who are prompt to open their hand to receive and prompt to close it when it comes to giving. . . You shall not reject the needy but will share all things . . . and call nothing your own. If you share the eternal goods, shouldn’t you share even more those that are in passing?”

And in our own time, Frederick Buechner, a deceased Presbyterian preacher, theologian and author, said: “We do well not to pray [the Lord’s Prayer] lightly. It takes guts to pray it at all. . . . To speak those words is to let the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

This line of the prayer focuses on the basic food of bread, not on meat or cheese or a food prepared in accordance with a fancy recipe. And this line of the prayer focuses on a human’s daily need for the food.

I reiterate my suggestion that the communal  recitation of this prayer should be slowed down with a pause after every line  of the prayer to provide time for reflection.

———————————

[1] Earlier posts about this series of sermons: The Lord’s Prayer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 2, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”  (May 4, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (May 6, 2023).

[2] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Sermon: The Prayer Jesus Taught: ”Give us this day, our daily bread” (Mar. 12, 2023); Westminster Bulletin for Service (Mar. 12, 2023).

The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”

On March 5, 2023, Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the second of his five sermons on different passages of the Lord’s Prayer.[1] This sermon was on the second sentence (in bold) of that Prayer:

Scripture

Matthew 5:43-48 (New Revised Standard Version)

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Sermon [2]

 Last Sunday we began our Lenten exploration of the prayer Jesus taught. During this season we want to awaken within us the meaning and power of this prayer that can too easily become merely a rote spiritual practice done over and over and over again.

We looked at the words hallowed be thy name in the first line and remembered that prayers are addressed not to ourselves or to others listening to us, but to the One who is Holy and Other. Prayer begins with praise of God.

We looked at the male language Jesus uses to name God and asked if it might get in the way of our praying to God because of evolving imagery for the divine and shifting use of gendered terminology. We explored other options for naming God. I received a note this week from a parent telling me that after last Sunday their four-year-old is now starting their prayers each night with “Our Mother, our Father…”

Language matters because it shapes our understanding of the world – and, as people of faith, it forms our view of the One we worship and serve. That’s true for children and adults, although it may be more difficult for those of us who’ve been using the same language for decades to make changes when we sense they may be needed. The prayer Jesus taught has wording so ingrained in us that we barely notice it as we say it. Occasionally on a Sunday I mouth the words to the prayer silently – not saying a thing – so I might listen to others, as if hearing it for the first time.

The one phrase in the opening line of the prayer Jesus taught that we did not look at last week is the reference to divine geography: who art in heaven. The wording intentionally distinguishes our location from God’s. The phrase acknowledges that we are on earth, while God inhabits a cosmos not bound by temporal or spatial parameters. This difference becomes more important in the second line of the prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The wording here is not pushing us to think of heaven and earth as separate, competing realities. Jesus is not endorsing a dualistic view of humanity and divinity. On the contrary, he’s inviting us to do the opposite: to imagine that heaven and earth may be one and the same – on earth as it is in heaven – a truly far-reaching vision. It recalls the prophet’s imagination:

  • “The wolf shall live with the lamb,

The leopard shall lie down with the kid,

The calf and the lion and the fatling together,

And a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

The prayer Jesus taught is an incitement to rebellion against the way things are on earth because they do not reflect the ways of heaven. Each Sunday we blithely say this prayer together, when its powerful and unsettling meaning should cause us to squirm in our pews.

Justo Gonzales says that when we pray this line, “What we are calling for is not so much a different place as a different order. It is a new order in which, as Jesus promises, those who have been last will be first.”

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Some may chafe at the use of outdated terminology in this line. In another email I received this week someone said, I struggle with…‘thy’ and ‘thine.’ Those (words) come across to me as over pious, kind of like the words Jesus warned his disciples against. Other than in Shakespeare, they just aren’t words I hear or use in my daily life.”

How true that is. No one talks like that anymore. The most common English version of the prayer Jesus taught does use the idiom of Shakespeare, which is not surprising, since the King James Version of the Bible, from where we draw this prayer, was written in 1611 – a few years ago!

We do not use such pronouns today, so why do they continue to appear in the prayer? Many recent versions of the prayer have shifted to the words “you” and “yours.”

The biblical Greek makes a distinction that today’s English cannot replicate when it comes to the second person pronoun. In English the word you is both singular and plural – which is a good argument for more of us starting to use y’all. The Greek term Jesus uses here is only singular to make it abundantly clear to his listeners that anyone praying this prayer is speaking to the one God who alone is worthy of our prayer.

 The traditional English wording tries to respect that by using “thy kingdom.” Its formality highlights the distinction in Greek, but it may not be worth making the grammatical point, especially if it introduces wording that comes between us and the one to whom we pray. If that’s the case, modern English would be preferable. Feel free to give it a try: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

There are other challenges with this line. It echoes the male language of the opening words of the prayer with the word “kingdom.” The word rendered kingdom in our English Bibles translates the Greek basileia, which, ironically, is a feminine noun. We could follow the Greek and simply insert “queendom” in the prayer, but that may not resolve the issue.

Some are using the word “kin-dom.” Kin-dom has the advantage of no gendered reference, and highlights the familial nature of God’s hope for humankind.

Yet, the term kin-dom softens the political implications of the words of Jesus. He could have found terminology more expressive of family relationships, but instead Jesus leans into the political and chooses language that embraces the sovereignty of God within the human community.

There are other options for wording that capture the intent of Jesus to ground the hope of his prayer in our communal life together. The word “dominion,” for instance, refers to a political realm that could reflect divine hopes for human community. But to our ears dominion sounds a little too close to domination, and we do not want to pray for any more of that in our world.

The word “reign” might be the best alternative. It carries the political connotation Jesus wants and preserves the sovereignty of God. In fact, the two terms – reign and sovereign – are cognates. Feel free to try that alternate wording: Your reign come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

This line is the heart of the prayer Jesus teaches. It’s his personal mission statement. It names the purpose of the incarnation. It sums up the gospel. When the ministry of Jesus begins, both John the Baptizer and Jesus say that “the basileia of God” – the reign of God – “has come near.”

What exactly is the basileia of God? How do we describe the reign of God? Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin argued that one could not know the reign of God apart from the will of God and argued that’s why Jesus added to the prayer the phrase ‘your will be done.’ (Quoted by Justo Gonzalez in Teach Us to Pray [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans; 2020], p. 92)

Praying that God’s reign would break forth, then, is the same as praying that God’s will might be known. To know God’s will and to pursue it has been the calling of every follower of Jesus in every age, including our own.

In North Africa in the 3rd century Bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote persuasively about the prayer Jesus taught, particularly this line. ‘The will of God,’ he said, may be seen in what Christ did and taught. This bishop’s words from 18 centuries ago about the prayer Jesus taught seem to be addressed to us in our time. To pray that God’s will would be done – which is what Christians pray every time they use the words Jesus taught – means, according to Cyprian:

“Humility in conversation;

steadfastness in faith;

modesty in words.

Justice in deeds;

mercifulness in works;

discipline in morals;

to be unable to do a wrong and to be able to bear a wrong when done;

to keep peace with all;

to love God with all one’s heart.”

(Quoted in Teach Us to Pray, p. 92)

Your reign come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

 

To pray as Jesus taught is to long with all our being that God’s desires would be implemented on earth as they surely are in heaven. Each time the prayer crosses our lips we commit ourselves, again and again, to take an active part in the inbreaking of God’s hope for the world.

If we really want to know what the will of God in heaven is, we need only read the words of Jesus and watch and learn from his ministry. Jesus spends a good deal of the Sermon on the Mount getting into specifics, about justice, about lying, about anger, about insults, about hypocrisy, about lust, about generosity, and so much more. The Christian gospels could be sub-titled, what the reign of God looks like on earth.

The parables of Jesus are another way to creatively tell what the will of God is. The stories about the mustard seed and the lost coin and the good Samaritan and the woman at the well all offer insight on the will of God for the human community. Every time Jesus heals someone it’s as if the reign of God has splashed down on earth. When Jesus ignores norms and expectations and incudes someone that others are rejecting, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. When the sun rises on the evil and the good and it rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, we catch a glimpse of God’s ways on earth as they are in heaven. And

When Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God in heaven,” he makes it clear that the standards in his prayer for human relationships, whether personal or communal, are not the standards of the world.

All the words and deeds and stories of Jesus come rushing into view when we pray the prayer he taught. “Be perfect, therefore,” he says, “As your heavenly Abba is perfect.” As if that were possible.

Jesus has high hopes for us – but he knows, as do all of us, that we will fall short. A bit more modest approach might be: Help us, O God, to be as perfect as possible in our living so that we might reflect your will in heaven – however imperfectly – on this earth. 

The prayer Jesus taught is not to be taken lightly or glossed over. It is, after all, meant to turn the world upside down, and all of us with it.

Your reign come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

To God be the glory.

Amen.

Reactions

I thank Rev. Hart-Andersen for this and the other sermons about the Lord’s Prayer. He is correct that this Prayer “is so familiar we can easily glide by it without noticing.” Here are words in the Sermon that were especially meaningful to me:

  • Jesus wants us to imagine that heaven and earth may be one and the same. Jesus invites rebelion against the way things are on earth.
  • “Your reign come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” is Jesus’ personal mission statement.
  • “Reign” carries political connotation Jesus wants while preserving the sovereignty of God.
  • Bishop Cyprian of Carthage: the will of God may be seen in what Jesus said and taught.
  • Parables tell us what the will of God is.

Although it was interesting to hear about suggested changes in wording of the Prayer to address contemporary concerns about male-female issues, I do not want to see those changes.

I reiterate my suggestion that the communal  recitation of this prayer should be slowed down with a pause after every line  of the prayer to provide time for reflection.

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

[1] Earlier posts about this series of sermons: The Lord’s Prayer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 2, 2023); The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”  (May 4, 2023).

[2]] Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Sermon: The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” Westminster Presbyterian Church (Mar. 5, 2023). Here is the Bulletin for that service.  Westminster Presbyterian Church, Bulletin (Mar. 5, 2023).

 

The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name”       

On February 26, 2023, Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the first of his five sermons on different passages of the Lord’s Prayer. This sermon was on the first sentence (in bold) of that Prayer:

  • ““Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. “

Scripture for the Day

Psalm 96 (New Revised Standard)

O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
 Sing to the Lord; bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor;
tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.”
 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar and all that fills it;
     let the field exult and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    before the Lord, for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness
and the peoples with his truth.

Matthew 6: 7-11 (New Revised Standard)

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 “Pray, then, in this way:                                                                                                           ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be revered as holy.
 May your kingdom come.
May your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.”

The Sermon[1]

“As people of faith, it’s good to stop from time to time and look at spiritual routines we do so often they may have become rote. The Lord’s Prayer is one such practice. We pray it in worship each Sunday, we say it at memorial services and weddings, at the end of church meetings. The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar we can easily glide by it without noticing.”

“Over the next five Sundays in Lent, we will delve into – and sometimes challenge – the Lord’s Prayer line-by-line, in order to re-engage with it as an essential spiritual practice, one used by Christians the world over – and sometimes misused. That’s the other reason why it’s important – even urgent – to spend time with the Lord’s Prayer in this season: it’s being used inappropriately, wielded at public events to cloak certain positions with a false veneer of righteousness.”

“The Lord’s Prayer has been shouted by protestors at anti-vax rallies. It’s been yelled at government hearings and at school board meetings. It was a rallying cry for those who assaulted the U.S. Capitol on January 6 two years ago. As the attackers entered the Capitol, the version of the prayer with “trespasses” was being shouted over a bullhorn. The irony was probably lost on those who heard it that day.”

“A similar hijacking of prayer in his time prompted Jesus to teach his followers how to pray.’“Do not be like the hypocrites,’ Jesus says of people flaunting their religion in public, ‘For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

“Our Lenten engagement with the Lord’s Prayer is meant to rehabilitate it for us as a deep spiritual practice. We aim to re-discover the power of the prayer as an expression of Christian faith.”

“First, [a prayer] doesn’t have to be eloquent or a theological masterpiece. In fact, just the opposite. Jesus said as much. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as (some) do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

“Prayer can be intimidating to some of us, as if we weren’t good enough or holy enough or learned enough to try it ourselves. Our Presbyterian emphasis on an educated clergy may be partly to blame here. One does not need to go to seminary to turn to God in prayer! From what Jesus teaches, we learn that God is much more interested in our authentic, honest, broken, needy, confused, thirsty selves than in some well-polished ecclesiastically approved work of art. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. It could be weeds in a vacant lot.”

“The second insight about prayer the poet [Mary Oliver]offers is this: just pay attention. Prayer requires that we stop long enough to turn to that which is holy, to wonder at what we cannot know but ache to comprehend. Jesus does this by withdrawing from others to find such moments. He goes up the mountain to pray alone. He advises us to go into our rooms and close the door to attend to the mystery. We will never fully grasp the one whose presence we seek when we pray. It is enough merely to pay attention.”

“The third insight Mary Oliver gives us is the function of prayer. It is not meant to produce things. It is not transactional, which is how some people use it: Give me this, God, and I’ll give you that. God is not interested in that approach to prayer. ‘This isn’t a contest,’ Oliver says, ‘But the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.’”

“Good advice on praying, including the Lord’s Prayer, from the poet’s point of view: Don’t worry about getting the words precisely right. Instead, pay attention, and with gratitude move into the silence and listen.”

“The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew and Luke. The Matthew version, which is the core of the Sermon on the Mount, became the one used most widely in the Church.

“The prayer Jesus taught starts, as prayers do in Judaism, by addressing God. So often our prayers can be used to make points or are directed more at other people than to God. We say, ‘Sending prayers your way,’ to show support for someone, when it is God to whom those prayers should be directed. The simplest test of any prayer’s authenticity is this: does it speak in a way that lets God be God?”

“The Lord’s Prayer begins in a way that echoes the psalms of old:”

‘O sing to the LORD a new song.

Sing to the LORD; bless God’s name.

Hallowed be thy name.

Worship the LORD in holy splendor.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due God’s name.

Hallowed be thy name.’”

“Prayer begins when we praise God’s name with adoration. Jesus chooses to name God ‘Our Father’ to start his prayer.”

“Using the word ‘Our’ places us with Jesus in praying to God. The first-person plural possessive pronoun signals that although this prayer may be said by an individual, that individual is never alone in offering it. Imagine the difference if it had begun, ‘My Father who art in heaven.’”

“Christian faith does not privatize religion and our prayers should not either. We might have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but it is never singularly privileged. The prayer Jesus taught places us within the community of all those who address the same God every time we say it, together or alone.”

“The term Father appears in Hebrew scripture. Male references to God occur there, like that which we heard in the psalm today where God is called ‘king.’ And Father was used occasionally by Jews in their prayers and worship. But the way Jesus employed the term that day in his sermon on the hillside must have caused a murmur in the crowd.”

“He taught the prayer in Aramaic, not in the formal liturgical Hebrew a rabbi would use in ritual and worship of that time. Instead, he spoke in the common vernacular of that time. He used Abba for Father. That is everyday family language you would hear around the home. It’s the wording of intimate relationship between son and dad, and Jesus uses it repeatedly in the gospel, especially in Matthew.”

“Christianity listens in as Jesus teaches about prayer and hears Jesus using this wording for God repeatedly in the gospels. The early Church picks up where Jesus leaves off and embeds male language for God in its worship and creeds and teaching. This happens to such an extent through the years that, over time, God simply becomes male. Male language about God becomes the norm for worship in community or in individual piety and prayer. And over two millennia this language about God comes to ratify and solidify patriarchal power inside and outside the Church. A male God rules in heaven and men rule on earth.”

“But language is shifting, as it always does, in every age. In our time, gendered terminology is yielding to new ways of speaking not bound to old categories. That is true for the language of faith and for the language we use commonly among ourselves. How many times have you logged into an online meeting and next to the names of those on the call they have placed their preferred pronouns?”

“Language is not fixed; it is fluid and dynamic. That is certainly the case for today’s religious vocabulary. Our understanding of God and how we speak about God is evolving, and doing so in ways that may make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel as if we were losing our faith because the words have changed. This evolution can be especially threatening to those who cling to male domination.”

“We live in an era when traditional patriarchy is being challenged all the time – and patriarchy is defending itself. You may have heard Putin refer to a ‘spiritual catastrophe’ in the West in his speech this week.”

“’The Anglican Church is considering a gender-neutral God,; the Russian leader said, as if such a view of God would be a sign of inexcusable, anti-male weakness. /May God forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”

“The Anglican Church knows precisely what it is doing. They are trying to discern what language to use to reflect God’s inclusive vision of God’s own self and of the diversity of the human community. And Anglicans are not alone in wrestling with gender-neutral language about God. Presbyterians went through this thirty years ago.”

“We set up a national committee to write a Brief Statement of Faith. The group split over whether to use Father in referring to God. Some insisted on using the traditional term because it connected so deeply to their own personal faith. Others insisted on avoiding the term altogether because they had come to understand God in a broader way. In a compromise, they finally agreed on this line: We trust in God, whom Jesus called Abba, Father.”

“That satisfied those on both sides of the debate. That rationale can be used to make peace with continuing to pray the Lord’s Prayer by using ‘Our Fathe’ as a quote of what Jesus said, while avoiding male language to refer to God in our own words. And it makes room for more traditional wording, if preferred. That is essentially the approach Westminster uses in its worship.”

“The Roman Catholic Church addresses this issue in paragraph number 239 of its official Catechism, where it says, ‘God transcends the human distinction between the sexes.’ So far so good. And then it goes on to say: ‘He is neither man nor woman. He is God.’ We don’t mean to pick on the Catholics – and good for them for struggling with language around God – but it is evident there is more work to do. Using the logic of the Catechism, let’s try substituting female terminology and see what it does for our image of the Almighty: God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. She is neither man nor woman. She is God.”

.“Or how about, Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name. Imagine teaching that prayer to our children, generation after generation. Imagine 2,000 years of that wording about God crafting our understanding of the Creator. Language matters. It forms our worldview. It shapes our consciousness and defines our human relationships. And it certainly molds our faith.”

“This is more than a pronoun problem. A church members wrote me recently, ‘I want you to know,’ she said. ‘The Lord’s Prayer is problematic for many women, and I doubt that is what Jesus would have wanted. After all, he was a revolutionary who bucked tradition.’”

“I couldn’t agree more. The Church finds itself today in the awkward position of having wording in its central prayer that some find off-putting, exclusive, or even traumatizing.”

“So how can those who need to, pray the Lord’s Prayer in a way that expresses the loving tenderness of Jesus toward God – son to dad – without using Father, or only Father? The term Creator is a possibility, but it doesn’t express a family-like relationship. No one refers to their parent as the Creator. The word Parent is another, but it, too, lacks intimacy. How do we find language that expresses the tenderness and love that Jesus shows in prayer, but doesn’t get in the way of our relationship with God?”

“Some have found it helpful to add Mother to the prayer. Our Father and our Mother, hallowed by your name. Feel free to try it. The point Jesus is after here is to use language in reference to God that expresses a deeply held relationship that is loving and tender and intimate.”

“As we will see through this Lenten series, the Lord’s Prayer is so central to our faith, and so far-reaching in its implications, that the worst thing to do would be to give up on it altogether or cede it to those who would misuse it.”

“Perhaps remembering [poet] Mary Oliver’s advice would be helpful here. When we pray, we should not let our language be a barrier between us and God. We will never get the words exactly right because we will never fully understand the One to whom we pray.”

“Instead, let us be mindful that, in the poet’s words:

‘This isn’t a contest

but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.’”

“To God be the glory.”

“Amen.”

Reactions

I thank Rev. Hart-Andersen for this and the other sermons about the Lord’s Prayer. He is correct that this Prayer “is so familiar we can easily glide by it without noticing.” The Prayer and this sermon remind us that our own prayers do not have to be eloquent or theological masterpieces and should be addressed to God and that God is neither male nor female.

I suggest that the communal  recitation of this prayer should be slowed down with a pause after every line  of the prayer to provide time for reflection.

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

[1]  Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen, Sermon: The Prayer Jesus Taught: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Feb. 26, 2023).

 

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).)

Pentecost Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

A moving worship service on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, was celebrated at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Prayer of Confession

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 the Lord said, “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 the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered 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.”

The Sermon

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.)

Conclusion

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 that we 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.

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