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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

On Thanksgiving Day, November 26, a moving Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was organized and conducted by clergy from the Downtown Congregations of Minneapolis.[1]

This service was the perfect incarnation of a message given that same day by Pope Francis at a meeting of religious leaders in Nairobi Kenya. The Pope said there was a profound “need for interreligious understanding, friendship and collaboration in defending the God-given dignity of individuals and peoples, and their right to live in freedom and happiness”. Indeed, said the Pope, “ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury . . . [or] something extra or optional, but essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.”[2]

Calls to Prayer

There were three Calls to Prayer at the Minneapolis service. Cantor Barry Abelson of Temple Israel sang one in Hebrew. The Westminster Choir in English sang “God Be in My Head” by Gwyneth Walker.[3] Muezzin Elijah Muhammad of Masjid An-Nur (Mosque of the Light) sang his Call to Prayer in Arabic.

Voices Around the Table

The participants in the service then gathered around a common table in the front of the Sanctuary for the reading of passages of sacred and other texts from their different faiths. In addition to those mentioned below the participants were Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor; Rev. Phil Boelter, Vicar of Gethsemane Episcopal Church; and Rev. Judy Zabel, Lead Pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church.

Rev. Dr. Carla Bailey, the Senior Minister at Plymouth Congregational Church, read these excerpts from “A Litany of Thanksgiving” by Howard Thurman, an influential African-American theologian, educator and civil rights leader (1899-1981):

  • “Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.”
  • “I begin with the simple things of my days:
    Fresh air to breathe,
    Cool water to drink,
    The taste of food,
    The protection of houses and clothes,
    The comforts of home.”
  • “I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
    The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
    The tightening of the grip in a single handshake when I feared the step before me in the darkness;
    The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest and the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
    The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open page when my decision hung in the balance.”
  • “I pass before me the mainsprings of my heritage:
    The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before me, without whom my own life would have no meaning;
    The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
    The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see;
    The workers whose sweat watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;”
  • “I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment to which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
    The little purposes in which I have shared with my loves, my desires, my gifts;
    The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence that I have never done my best, I have never dared to reach for the highest;
    The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.”
  • All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
    I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
    O God, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.”

Hamdy Dr. El Sawaf, the Senior Iman of the Islamic Community Center of Minnesota and the Masjid Al-Iman (Mosque of Faith), read the following passages from the Holy Qur’an in Arabic with the following English translations by Maulana Muhammud Ali:

  • “Blessed is He Who made the stars in the heavens and made therein a sun and a moon giving light!” (25:61)
  • “And He it is, Who made the night and the day to follow each other, for him who desires to be mindful or desires to be thankful.” (25:62)
  • “And We have enjoined on man concerning his parents — his mother bears him with faintings upon faintings and his weaning takes two years — saying: Give thanks to Me and to thy parents. To Me is the eventual coming.” (31:14)
  • “So he smiled, wondering at her word, and said: My Lord, grant me that I may be grateful for Thy favour which Thou hast bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may do good such as Thou art pleased with, and admit me, by Thy mercy, among Thy righteous servants.” (27:19)
  • “And He it is Who made for you the ears and the eyes and the hearts. Little it is that you give thanks!” (23:78)
  • “And certainly We established you in the earth and made therein means of livelihood for you; little it is that you give thanks!” (7:10)
  • “O people, keep your duty to your Lord and dread the day when no father can avail his son in aught, nor the child will avail his father. Surely the promise of Allah is true, so let not this world’s life deceive you, nor let the arch-deceiver deceive you about Allah.” (31:33)
  • “Surely Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the Hour, and He sends down the rain, and He knows what is in the wombs. And no one knows what he will earn on the morrow. And no one knows in what land he will die. Surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.” (31:34)
  • “Even as We have sent among you a Messenger from among you, who recites to you Our messages and purifies you and teaches you the Book and the Wisdom and teaches you that which you did not know.” (2:151)
  • “Therefore glorify Me, I will make you eminent, and give thanks to Me and be not ungrateful to Me.” (2:152)

Senior Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel read Leviticus 19: 9-18 in Hebrew from the Hebrew Bible with the following English translation:

  • “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
  • You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”
  • “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
  • “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.You shall not go around as a slanderer[a] among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood[b] of your neighbor: I am the Lord.”
  • You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Rev. Laurie Feillle, Senior Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) read this passage from the Christian Gospel (Matthew 6:25-33) in English:

  • “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Sermon

The Sermon, “Gratitude for Dreams,” was delivered by Rev. Peter Nycklemoe, Senior Pastor of Central Lutheran Church. Here is a summary of his message.

The above passage from Matthew stresses personal piety, almsgiving, prayers and calls for forgiveness. The text also tells us not to worry. But often being told not to worry just makes the situation worse. Matthew, however, points the way forward: “strive first for the kingdom of God.”

A helpful understanding of the kingdom of God comes from Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and author, who said:

  • “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.” [4]

We all are homesick for hope in this world, and the gathering at this common table of representatives of three great religious traditions is a sign of that hope.

The words of Leviticus that were just read by Rabbi Zimmerman also are important: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.”

These words from the Hebrew Bible reminded Rev. Nycklemoe of a celebration organized by one of his congregants in the State of Washington, Olaf Hanson, who owned an apple and potato farm. After harvesting what he needed, Olaf hosted a Gleaning Day for his guests to gather the gleanings of the fruit and vegetables and put them in paper bags for the poor and needy.

We too need to share our longings, our lostness, our need for love and the gifts of one another.

Responding in Gratitude

The solicitation of offerings to support the work of the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness was provided by The Very Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund, the Dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day was read by Fr John Bauer, Rector of The Basilica of Saint Mary, Here are its words:

  • “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.”
  • “Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”
  • “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
  • “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
  • “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

President Barack Obama’s 2015 Presidential Proclamation was read by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church:

  • “Rooted in a story of generosity and partnership, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity for us to express our gratitude for the gifts we have and to show our appreciation for all we hold dear.  Today, as we give of ourselves in service to others and spend cherished time with family and friends, we give thanks for the many blessings bestowed upon us.  We also honor the men and women in uniform who fight to safeguard our country and our freedoms so we can share occasions like this with loved ones, and we thank our selfless military families who stand beside and support them each and every day.”
  • “Our modern celebration of Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early 17th century.  Upon arriving in Plymouth, at the culmination of months of testing travel that resulted in death and disease, the Pilgrims continued to face great challenges.  An indigenous people, the Wampanoag, helped them adjust to their new home, teaching them critical survival techniques and important crop cultivation methods.  After securing a bountiful harvest, the settlers and Wampanoag joined in fellowship for a shared dinner to celebrate powerful traditions that are still observed at Thanksgiving today:  lifting one another up, enjoying time with those around us, and appreciating all that we have.”
  • “Carrying us through trial and triumph, this sense of decency and compassion has defined our Nation.  President George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in our country’s nascence, calling on the citizens of our fledgling democracy to place their faith in “the providence of Almighty God,” and to be thankful for what is bequeathed to us.  In the midst of bitter division at a critical juncture for America, President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the plight of the most vulnerable, declaring a “day of thanksgiving,” on which all citizens would “commend to [God’s] tender care” those most affected by the violence of the time — widows, orphans, mourners, and sufferers of the Civil War.  A tradition of giving continues to inspire this holiday, and at shelters and food centers, on battlefields and city streets, and through generous donations and silent prayers, the inherent selflessness and common goodness of the American people endures.”
  • “In the same spirit of togetherness and thanksgiving that inspired the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, we pay tribute to people of every background and belief who contribute in their own unique ways to our country’s story.  Each of us brings our own traditions, cultures, and recipes to this quintessential American holiday — whether around dinner tables, in soup kitchens, or at home cheering on our favorite sports teams — but we are all united in appreciation of the bounty of our Nation.  Let us express our gratitude by welcoming others to our celebrations and recognize those who volunteer today to ensure a dinner is possible for those who might have gone without.  Together, we can secure our founding ideals as the birthright of all future generations of Americans.”

Music

Interspersed throughout the Service were pieces of wonderful music.

The Preludes–“America the Beautiful” (Calvin Hampton for organ), “Variations on Simple Gifts” (Michael Burkhardt) and “The Promise of Living” (Aaron Copland)–were provided by Westminster’s Minister of Music & the Arts/Organist, Melanie Ohnstad, and the Westminster Choir directed by Dr. Jere Lantz.

Jon Romer on a Native American flute played two Ojibwe pieces—“Song of Welcome” and “A Song of Love.”

The choir and assembled people sang the following hymns: “O God, Show Mercy to Us;” “This Is My Song;” “ We Praise You, O God;” “Now Thank We All Our God;” and “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”

Conclusion

This was a powerful and meaningful worship service, especially in these days of too frequent expressions of hostility towards Muslims and Syrian refugees. This service was exactly what Pope Francis called for in his previously mentioned remarks in Kenya and on November 30 at the Grand Mosque of Koudoukou in the Central African Republic:[5]

  • “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.  We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such. . . . Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace.  Christians, Muslims and members of the traditional religions have lived together in peace for many years.  They ought, therefore, to remain united in working for an end to every act which, from whatever side, disfigures the Face of God and whose ultimate aim is to defend particular interests by any and all means, to the detriment of the common good.  Together, we must say no to hatred, no to revenge and no to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.  God is peace, God salam.”

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[1] The bulletin for the service is available online,  So too is a video of the service.

[2] The Pope held the meeting at the city’s Apostolic Nunciature (diplomatic mission of the Holy See) with leaders of different Christian confessions (Anglican, Evangelical, Methodist, Pentecostal and others) and of other religions (Animist, Muslim). Holy See, Ecumenical and Interreligious Meeting: Address of His Holiness Pope Francis (Nov. 26, 2015); Interreligious meeting in Nairobi: service to the common good. News.Va (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] A prior post discussed this anthem, its composer and its derivation from the Sarum Primer of 1514.

[4] Other references to Buechner are contained in previous posts: Honorary Degree (Aug. 14, 2011); My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014).

[5] Pope Francis visits Grand Mosque of Koudoukou in Bangui, News.Va (Nov. 30, 2015)

Does the Church Control Salvation?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster               Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the November 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Scripture passages for the day were Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.

The Sermon

“The newest members of our Congregation [who were welcomed that day] . . [are] a slice of 21st century American religious reality. Gay, straight, married, single, partnered, and divorced. People at the top of their profession and others who have been homeless or are without work. Former Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians from other congregations, immigrants and long-time Minnesotans. People who come with questions and doubts, others very much at home in Christian tradition. One has practiced Buddhism. Several were raised in non-Christian households. Two are becoming Christians today and will be baptized.”

“They’re here because their journey in faith brought them. For some the work of this church in the city drew them in, for others the desire to belong to a community, for others the education offered. For all of them worshipping God in this setting and with this people has given them a new spiritual home. This is the church in our time. Our journey now joins with theirs.”

“If the question is, ‘Does the Church control salvation?’ the answer needs to be offered carefully. We don’t want to try to deny other religious traditions their meaning, but at the same time we don’t want to water down our own convictions, especially on this final Sunday before Advent, when we celebrate Christ the King, the one who, in the words of Ephesians, is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)”

“Long ago it was a basic article of faith that the Church did, in fact, control salvation. It was common knowledge that to gain God’s favor one had to be on good terms with the Church, because the saving work of Jesus Christ came through the Church. This gave the Church a lot of power over the spiritual lives of people. As in any situation with an imbalance of power, the temptation for abuse always hovered nearby.”

“The 16th century Protestant Reformation, we like to say, developed as an uprising against the abuse of power of the Roman clergy. They controlled access to God so tightly believers felt trapped on this side of heaven until they met the demands of the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: no salvation outside the Church. The priest in every parish was a spiritual power-broker.”

“Lest we be too quick to speak ill of our Roman Catholic siblings, we should note that Protestant history is salted with similar declarations about who controls the gates of heaven. While Catholics placed that control in the hands of Rome and its priests, the Reformers used theological conformity as a way to maintain control over things divine. One passed heavenly muster only if one’s statement of faith met certain theological standards. It was a litmus test and we can still see it in use today in some churches.”

“That’s a Protestant version of no salvation outside the church. The continuing existence of so many Protestant denominations today is an ecclesiastical hangover from over indulgence in theological conformity among those convinced they have a lock on the truth.”

“Christians have always wanted to say who’s ‘in’ and who’s not, who’s ‘been saved’ and who has not. We would like the Church to be able to control salvation.”

“Then along comes the Final Judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and things take on a different hue. Jesus says,‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

“There’s nothing in there about following a particular theological roadmap; nothing in the text about staying in the church’s good graces in order to curry favor with the Almighty. In fact, neither church nor theology is mentioned.”

“It turns out salvation belongs to God alone and has nothing to do with the exercise of ecclesiastical authority or with meeting a theological litmus test, and everything to do with how we treat the poor and those deemed unworthy by the world.”

“Jesus had said that love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments, when asked what we must do to inherit eternal life. Now we see what that looks like on Judgment Day: ‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

“All the theological grandstanding and all the church authority we can summon will not stand up to the clarity and power and simplicity of those words: as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. It’s not what the Church thought long ago, not what it thought in the Reformation, and not what a lot of us in the Church think today, but this is what the reign of God looks like: loving others.”

“The Church does not control salvation; God does, which is a good thing, because the Almighty surely has a broader vision than any of us.”

“You and I will need to find ways to hold fast to Jesus Christ even as we respect the traditions of our neighbors, including those who have no faith at all.”

“And as far as the business of salvation, we can leave that to God.”

Conclusion

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

The passage from Matthew that was one of the texts for this sermon makes the same point.

I agree that this is the greatest commandment. It clearly is difficult, if not impossible, to follow this commandment all the time. But Jesus tells us in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15: 11-31) that God forgives us, time and time again, for our failure to do what we should do and doing what we should not.

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[1] Westminster’s website has links for an audio recording of the sermon and the church bulletin for the day.

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church Celebrates U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

cuba_havana_matanzas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As mentioned in a prior post, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church for the last 12 years has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas Cuba and with the overall synod of that church for the whole island. As a result, many members of our church have visited our brothers and sisters in Cuba and some of them have visited us. We also have installed four clean water systems in Cuban churches and the ecumenical seminary in that city. In the process many of us at our church have become close to our brothers and sisters and advocates for a closer relationship between our two countries. We, therefore, are celebrating this great gift of reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba.

December 21, 2014 Sermon

The first such celebration was the sermon, “Is the Church Born at Christmas?”, just before Christmas Day and just after the December 17th announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. [1]  Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, our Senior Pastor, said “Christmas is not merely about the birth of Jesus; it’s about the birth in our hearts of a new willingness to be God’s people who seek to restore creation, to work for justice, to strive for peace among the nations of the earth.” He then illustrated this point with the following words about this gift of reconciliation between the two countries:

  • “President Obama’s announcement this week that he’s ending the half-century quarantine of Cuba came as good news and prompted great joy. It’s the culmination of decades of patience and prayer, not to mention politics.”
  • “We should not underestimate the impact of the change; it’s akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The entire Western Hemisphere will see us differently. It will take time for Congress to end the embargo, but now it will happen. The Cubans will want to protect and preserve their way of life as much as possible, but now change is underway.”
  • “My phone rang within minutes of the announcement with people rejoicing at the news. The jazz pianist Nachito Herrera called to say he wants to play a gig here to celebrate and thank Westminster for its steadfast support of the Cuban people for so many years. We’re planning an event early in the New Year.”
  • “Presbyterians in Cuba – those who have access to email – began sending messages to us almost immediately, as well. For them it’s the coming dawn after a long night of isolation and hardship. They chose to be the Church when being the Church subjected them to suspicion or worse. They chose to be the body of Christ, the one born outside the circle of acceptability, and it was not without cost.”
  • “They’ve been a gentle, generous witness in the face of decades of hostility and exclusion. They built bridges while others constructed walls. They stayed the course for the sake of the gospel. They’ve been in a fifty-year season of Advent; Bethlehem has finally come into view.”
  • “Christmas came a little early for little town of Guanabacoa, just outside Havana, Cuba. Last month Westminster’s Clean Water team, working with local Presbyterians, installed a purification system there. That small congregation is now the sole source of clean water for the neighborhood. Emmanuel: God in our midst.”
  • Our team “brought back a letter from another church where they had installed a system last year. The was from a neighbor who is not part of the church. ‘Permit me to say,’ he writes, ‘That the water the church is offering the community is life and health for all of us…In this humanitarian act for our people it is clear the church wants to save lives, alleviate pain, and promote health.'”
  • “That’s what true Christmas looks like: good news of great joy to all the people. Sometimes it’s hard to find, but we know it when we see it.”

Concert Celebrating Renewed Friendship with Cuba 

Our other celebration of this great gift of reconciliation is a concert with Cuban-American jazz pianist and Westminster amigo, Nachito Herrera, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis on Sunday, January 11th at 4:00 p.m.

ALL ARE WELCOME! COME AND ENJOY THE MUSIC AND CELEBRATION!

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[1] An audio recording of the sermon and the bulletin for the service are available online.

How Do We Remember God?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on November 2, 2014 (All Saint’s Day).

The short answer to this question was remembering God by “joining the saints in worship, that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who have gone before us.”[1] In other words, “When we gather for worship we are not alone. In liturgy the memory of those who have said the words and prayed the prayers and sung the hymns and heard the texts comes to life.”

Another answer was remembering “people . . . who had passed on the faith” to us. This was done after the sermon by hearing “the names of those from among us who have joined the communion of saints in the past year, a roll call of part of the great cloud of witnesses. They are names dear to many of us.”

The sermon also saw “All Saints’ Day . . . as the church’s collective exercise in memory-making. It began in the 8th century when Pope Gregory III declared that henceforth the first day of November would be set aside on the church calendar to offer prayers for ‘the holy apostles and…all saints, martyrs and confessors throughout the world … who are at rest.’”

“In that time there were no rules as to how one became a saint; local bishops simply conferred sainthood as they chose. Every day was another saint’s day, and it varied from town to town. The Pope wanted more order, so he declared November 1st as the day that all saints would be remembered and venerated.”

Protestants, on the other hand, “rejected the notion that some of God’s people were more holy than others and, therefore, to be venerated. Any representation of saints was deemed heretical; in 1535 John Calvin ordered all sculptures and paintings of saints in the churches of Geneva to be destroyed. The only true saints were all the followers of Jesus.”

The “basic idea that took root in the Reformation still holds: we view the ‘communion of saints’ as the heavenly equivalent of the earthly ‘priesthood of all believers.’ When we sing “For all the saints, who from their labors rest,” we sing of all those who loved God and served God in this life and have gone on before us.”[2]

The sermon was closed with this beautiful prayer by George MacLeod, a Scottish minister who re-established the Abbey on the island of Iona, in John Philip Newell’s The Rebirthing of God [Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths, 2014]:

  • ‘Be Thou, triune God, in the midst of us//as we give thanks for those who have gone//from the sight of earthly eyes.                                           They, in Thy nearer presence, still worship with us//in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth.                                                           If it be Thy holy will, tell them how we love them,//and how we miss them,//and how we long for the day’                                                              when we shall meet with them again.”

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[1] Hebrews 12:1-2: “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.”

[2] A prior post covered some of this ground in my own “musings” about saints.