What Has God Opened?

January 21, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Deut. 15:7-11; 1 Cor. 3:1-11; Matt. 16:13-18

What a Sunday we had last week! A sanctuary full of Westminster members and friends, and the congregations of Liberty Church and Grace-Trinity, our partner congregations in the city, and their pastors and musicians with us, as well. It left me full of joy. I’ve been on a high ever since then!

Thank you, choir and other musicians and all those who made it such a special day. We heard a good, strong word from the pulpit, and then we marched down into the parking garage for coffee hour. What a day it was!

Now here we are a week later, and the first thing to say as we celebrate the completion of the building project at Westminster is that this was not merely our doing. We didn’t open the doors. And we didn’t open the future.

The people of God – as fallible human beings – can easily confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with their own efforts. That’s what happens in the young church in Corinth in the first century. People are dividing into camps around different leaders. The church is growing, but getting off track and the Apostle Paul has to referee their jealousies and factions:

“For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’” and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’” the Apostle explains,

“Are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe…I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

God gave the growth.

At various points over the last six years when we faced obstacles or what seemed to be insurmountable barriers in the vision that became Open Doors Open Futures, something larger than any one of us intervened. There were moments when it all appeared to have reached a dead-end, for any number of reasons. In each instance God opened a new possibility.

It happened so often that one of our leaders took to calling it “angel dust” – an inexplicable shift in circumstances that made a way forward. It was the providence of God, not something we did – the Holy Spirit at work among us, making those long years of labor and hope a sacred journey.

“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth… For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 3:4-7, 9-11)

Today we reaffirm that assertion:

Christ is made the sure foundation,

Christ the head and cornerstone,

Chosen of the Lord and precious,

Binding all the church in one,

Holy Zion’s help forever,

And her confidence alone

The very life of the church is founded on that affirmation, that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the son of the living God, the Lord of heaven and earth. When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” and then, “Who do you say that I am,” and Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus doesn’t then say to Peter, “On this rock you will build my church,” but, “On this rock I will build my church.”

We didn’t open the doors. Only God gives the growth.

Last week J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), preached on Martin Luther King Sunday. He had been invited long before we knew it would be Opening Day for the new wing, but what a wonderful – and providential – happenstance.  He was just the one whom we needed to hear on the day. And he was right to challenge us to keep our focus on the things that matter and not to get distracted by extraneous issues of our own making, as the Apostle Paul was doing in Corinth.

This has always been a problem for the people of God. After Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and during that time they lost their focus. They gave up on the God who had heard their cry. They forgot that God had saved them, and instead pursued other little gods of their own making. Remember the Golden Calf?

As they sojourned through the desert Moses said to the Israelites,

“I am going to die in this land” – God had told Moses that he would die and not go with the people as they crossed the Jordan – “without crossing over the Jordan, but you are going to cross over to…that good land. So be careful not to forget the covenant that the Lord your God made with you, and not to make for yourselves an idol.” (Deuteronomy 4:22-23)

Moses does not deny the goodness and beauty and wonder of the land they soon will enter, but entering the land without remembering the commandment of the Lord will be the undoing of the people. Moses challenges them never to forget where they have come from and what God has done for them, never to forget what God’s call to them is. The fundamental rule of their life will be to do unto others as God has done unto you.

“For the LORD your God is God of gods,” Moses says,

“Who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers” – the word is Hebrew here is ger, and it means foreigners sojourning in your land, what we might call undocumented immigrants today –“ for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

Sounding like a latter-day Moses, last week J. Herbert said from this pulpit, “Westminster, your challenge is not to be consumed with love of this building, but to be consumed with God’s love and share it…across this city.”

Using the account of a skeptical Nathanael who’s invited to come and see who Jesus is, J. Herbert last Sunday called us to respond with gospel hospitality to those who will be drawn here to come and see.

Well, that same invitation also works in reverse and can be flipped on its head: the city invites us to leave the confines of these walls and come and see.

That’s what happened last Sunday morning when the members of Liberty Church in north Minneapolis joined us for a breakfast conversation on race in America today. Come and see how my children and I have suffered because of the reality of racism and privilege in this land. Come and see the disparity between my neighborhood and yours, our schools and yours, our lives and yours.

Come and see. This building with its windows and new open doors and easy access is not meant for us to sit and wait for people to come inside, but, rather, it is designed to send us out to encounter the world as people experience it.

Come and see what’s happening in America’s prisons. Come and see what life is like on the reservation. Or what it’s like to live in fear of being deported from a nation you made your own long ago. Come and see what it’s like to be sexually harassed or assaulted and be unable to do anything about it.

Come and see.

Come and see what opioids and methamphetamines and alcohol are doing to people’s lives and to our communities. Come and see what it’s like to live on the streets with mental illness. Or what it’s like to be old and alone and afraid.

Come and see, Westminster.

“This is a place,” J. Herbert said of our congregation last week, “That can take a little something and can do a lot. But also can take a lot and do a whole lot more.”

The worst thing for us to feel as a congregation at this point in our life would be to assume we have arrived, that our work is done, that we’re finished, that we’ve now entered the Promised Land and all is well.

That’s what Moses was afraid would happen to the Hebrew people as they crossed the Jordan. So he spent his time with them to prepare them for the crossing-over. I like to think of them not as going into a finished product called the Promised Land, but, rather, as stepping into the Land of Promise. That is, a land where possibilities abound, where faith can bear fruit, where God can work through God’s people to fulfil the promise of justice and peace on this earth.

“If there is among you anyone in need,” Moses says to the Israelites as they are preparing to cross the Jordan,

“A member of your community in any of your towns…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand…to meet the need, whatever it may be…. I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

Open your hand to the poor.

That’s the real promise in the land they will enter, not to take the goodness they have received and the beauty of that land flowing with milk and honey for granted, but instead to pursue God’s hope for the human family with every fiber and ounce of their being. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

What has God opened here at Westminster? Doors, yes. Futures, yes. But, perhaps most importantly, God has opened our hearts through the gift of faith and the promise of love that can change every one of us, and change this community, and transform the world.

We received the official occupancy permit from the city for the building on Friday and that evening the boys of Troop 100, the Hmong Scouts, were the first to use the new Recreation Room. Yesterday they were back again for a Court of Honor naming the 126th and 127th Eagle Scouts of the troop, which was started 37 years ago as the nation’s first Hmong Boy Scout troop. Remember that their families came as refugees forty years ago and have now stepped up to be leaders in our community.

You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

We celebrated the opening of the new wing last week. This week we go to work.

Starting tomorrow our building will serve as a drop-off place for those experiencing homelessness who need a place to store their bags for the day over the next two weeks. Downtown security has ramped up for the Super Bowl and people with bags on the street are being hassled and searched. We’ve been asked to give them a safe place to store their things during the day. We will open the doors of this gleaming building and invite them in to put their stuff here.

When Super Bowl Week starts next Friday we will open our doors to those who might need a place to get warm, since other venues will be closed off to them. Volunteers will make sandwiches and pour coffee and offer gospel hospitality to all who need it.

The Lord your God executes justice…and…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.

And one week from today at 2PM we’ll open our new doors again to host a major Interfaith Gathering called Bold Hope in the North, organized by Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness and co-sponsored by the Super Bowl Host Committee. The purpose of the event is to highlight Minnesota’s unique interfaith spirit and to raise money to prevent homelessness by providing rental assistance to keep people in their apartments.

We decided to try to help prevent homelessness by starting a program to provide a month’s rent when a household hit a crisis, in order to keep them in their homes. Not only is it cruel and harsh to evict someone who then ends up in a shelter, it’s also a poor use of public resources to provide support after they have begun experiencing homelessness. We’ve discovered that after help with one month’s rent 80% of those facing eviction at that moment are now still in their homes. So we’re raising money to keep that program going.

We’re promoting next Sunday’s event with a one-minute video. If you haven’t yet seen it, it’s worth a watch. It’s on our web site. A diverse interfaith team of clergy in all their various ceremonial garb array themselves on the football field at Augsburg University. The video opens in the locker room. There’s Archbishop Hebda putting on eye black, and a Unitarian minister putting in a mouth guard and a young Muslim imam putting on shoulder pads. At the line of scrimmage is an immigrant imam next to the Archbishop next to our own David Shinn. In the backfield is the Chief Hindu priest of the Hindu Temple in Maple Grove and Ralph Galloway, co-pastor of Liberty Church. Of course, Rabbi Zimmerman is the quarterback, and she throws what Paul Allen calls in the play-by-play a “Hail Mary pass” for “an interfaith touchdown” to Imam Makram El-Amin.

The point of the video is to say that we are all on the same team. It was all in good fun – but also for a good cause, inviting people to come and join us in raising money to prevent homelessness at the event on Sunday at 2PM. We’ll start with an Arab band in here and finish with a Jewish klezmer band in Westminster Hall. The mayor has agreed to emcee the event. It will be a good moment in a rather hectic Super Bowl Week.

The goal is to raise $250,000 during the Super Bowl for the emergency rental assistance program and we’re more than halfway there.

If there is among you anyone in need do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted. I command you, “Open your hand to the poor in your land.”

The doors are open. The future is open. Our hearts and hands are open. And it is all God’s doing.

The one who brought Israel out of bondage and into the Land of Promise,

the one who spoke through the prophets and poets long ago,

the one who came among us in the flesh and who is still among us in the Spirit, now calls us to love one another as we have been loved.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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