Another U.S.-Cuba Dispute Over Human Rights

On December 7 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent an  open letter to Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and Cuba immediately and angrily denounced the letter without responding to the specific questions advanced by Pompeo.

Secretary Pompeo’s Letter[1]

The letter asked for a “substantive explanation of the detention of the [following eight] political prisoners” and “whether [Cuba] . . . continues to incarcerate . . . [them]  as charged with ‘pre-criminal dangerousness’ and “for an explanation of the charges and the evidence against the other individuals [on a list provided by the U.S. in January 2017]:”

  • Yosvany Sanchez Valenciano, Melkis Faure Echevarria, and Yanier Suarez Tamayo of the Cuban Patriotic Union;
  • Eduardo Cardet Concepcion of the Christian Liberation Movement;[2]
  • journalist Yoeni de Jesus Guerra Garcia;
  • Martha Sanchez of the Ladies in White; [3] and
  • Jose Rolando Casares Soto and Yamilka Abascal Sanchez of the Cuban Youth Dialogue.

The Secretary also said that the U.S. “has for decades expressed profound concern regarding Cuban political prisoners. Such prisoners include those charged with pre-criminal ‘dangerousness, ’defined [in Cuban law] as ‘the special inclination an individual has to commit crimes demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction to the rules of socialist morality.’ Former President [Raúl] Castro, in a news conference with then President Obama in March 2016, said that if U.S. officials presented him with a list of political prisoners, they would be released that very night. He received such a list, but political prisoners remained in detention. U.S. representatives [also] raised the issue during the October 2016 Human Rights Dialogue in Havana. They were told all prisoners were in jail for sound reasons and that, if we had questions as to the reasons, we could raise them. Our representatives were also advised that pre-criminal ‘dangerousness’ was no longer used as a basis for imprisoning people.”

 Cuban Responses[4]

The Cuban Foreign Minister responded on Twitter, ” Pompeo lies and slanders. U.S. government  is a global repressor [of human rights and] lacks moral authority.” In another tweet, Rodriguez said he has asked “Washington to lift the embargo, restore visas for Cubans” and “stop the repression of migrants, minorities and the poor.”

Cuba’s more extensive response to Secretary Pompeo’s letter was made by  US Director of Cuba’s  Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Fernández de Cossío. He said the U.S. “acts dishonestly when it raises concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba or anywhere.” He added that the “constant and flagrant abuses against its own population and the population of many countries in the world, and their alliance throughout history with dictatorial regimes authors of the most opprobrious crimes, disqualify the moral authority of the American rulers.”

The Pompeo letter and “his public management are nothing more than acts of propaganda.” They accompany . . . “the unwillingness of that government to sit down with Cuba, with seriousness and commitment, in a bilateral dialogue between equals, to deliberate on the issue of human rights and how to advance with sincerity towards constructive cooperation on the subject. . . . [and if] the United States were truly interested in the human rights of Cubans, it would not impose a criminal economic blockade that punishes the entire nation, nor would it place increasing obstacles to orderly emigration, nor to consular services on which tens of thousands of Cubans depend. ”

Fernández de Cossio concluded, “Cuba is a country in which human rights are respected. . . .  [and contrary to the U.S.]”the Cuban government and society as a whole are mobilized to promote and guarantee the legal framework, public policies and the effective enjoyment of the rights of citizens, including the rights to a life worthy, free of exploitation, marginalization, social alienation, discrimination of any kind, violence, crime and abuse of power, and with access to quality health and education services for the entire population, among other guarantees.”

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, An Open Letter to the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cuba (Dec. 10, 2018)   (the letter itself was dated December 7, 2018); Assoc; Press, US Demands Answers From Cuba on Imprisoned Dissidents, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 2018).

[2] See U.S. at U.N. Condemns Cuba’s Imprisonment of Political Opponents, dwkcommentareis.com ( Oct. 17, 2018).

[3] See Search Results for: Ladies in White in dwkcommentaries.com.

[4] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Tweets by Foreign Minister Rodriguez (Dec. 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement by the Director General of the USA of the MINREX on false accusations of the Department of State of the United States (Dec. 10, 2018).

 

U.S. Warns Cameroon Internal Conflict Could  Get Much Worse 

On December 6, Tibor Nagy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, while on a trip in Africa said the separatist crisis in Cameroon could get “much, much” worse” and was “worrying me greatly.”[1]

He also said that the U.S. continues to call for dialogue between the Cameroon government and the Anglophone separatists and suggested “some form of decentralization” in Cameroon as mentioned in a proposed constitution for the country.

Unfortunately, he added, Cameroon reminded him of neighboring Nigeria, where the government’s “brutal response” to extremism led to an increase in the membership in Boko Haram. That decade-old Islamic insurgency continues to rage in northeastern Nigeria and has spilled over into Cameroon.

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[1] Assoc. Press, US: Cameroon Separatists Crisis Could Get ‘Much, Much Worse,’ N.Y. Times (Dec. 6, 2018)

Cuba Relaxes Some New Rules Regarding Private Enterprise

On December 7 Cuba implemented new rules for its private sector (the “self-employed” in Cuban parlance) that had been announced on July 10.[1]

However, these new rules had been relaxed or liberalized in the following respects from those earlier announced:

  • The proposed limit of one self-employment license per person was eliminated.
  • Licenses for 26 of the 27 activities that had been suspended will be resumed. (The other suspended category (self-employed computer programmers) will remain suspended until specific norms for this area are developed.)
  • The proposed limit on the maximum capacity of 50 customers for food-service establishments was eliminated, with capacity to be determined by the size of the site to be utilized.
  • The required minimum balance of a commercial bank account: will be reduced from three monthly tax quotas to two, for operations in six categories (food services, restaurants and cafeterias; bar and recreational services; rental of rooms and spaces; construction, repair and maintenance services; and transportation of passengers in the capital).
  • Up to 35% of income of the foregoing establishments need not be deposited in the commercial bank account, to provide greater flexibility.

In announcing these changes, the Minister of Labor and Social Security Margarita González Fernández commented that, as projected, this modality of employment has generated jobs, expanded options for the population, and freed the state from the responsibility of managing small-scale activities that do not play an essential role in the national economy.

She also emphasized these adjustments reflect the government’s intention to recognize the positive role played by self-employment workers in the updating of our economic model, and to take into consideration the opinion and experiences of those directly involved, with the goal of establishing a climate of order and discipline in the sector.

However, there were no changes to the proposed rules regarding private taxis obligating drivers, for example, to purchase a minimum amount of fuel from state gas stations with huge markups in order to curb the black market for fuel amid a decline in oil supplies from ally Venezuela. The new rules  also fix prices for the set, shared routes.[2]

Some private drivers in Havana have said the new rules are so stifling that they prevent them from making a living, so they would rather give up their licenses to operate as taxis. The Vice Minister for Transport Marta Oramas said that around 800 drivers had handed in their licenses so far.

Anticipating this reduction in an already severe shortage in public transportation, the government said it was importing hundreds of microbuses and buses to alleviate the shortage.

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[1] Martinez Hernández, Legal norms governing self-employment modified, Granma (Dec. 6, 2018); These are the new regulations to control the Cuban private sector, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 7, 2018). See also Cuba Announces New Regulations for Private Businesses, dwkcommentaries.com (July 10, 2018); More Details on New Cuban Regulations on Private Business, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2018).

[2] Reuters, Cuba Reinforces Public Transport as It Clamps Down on Private Taxis, N.Y. times (Dec. 6, 2018).

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

“What Is the Highest Law?”

This was the title of the November 11 sermon by Rev. Tim  Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Stewardship Moment for Justice was presented by Rev. Dr. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. He discussed the activities of the Office, including its  actions to help change the cash-bail system in the U.S. while also combating  the silo effect of interacting only with like-minded people.

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor Rev. David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Gracious God, by day and by night we lift our prayers to you, crying out for justice, yearning for what is right, longing for your peace. Replenish our strength and stir up our hope, as we look for signs of your coming reign. Keep us working and praying for the day when your justice will roll down like waters, and your righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And fill us with the peace that passes all understanding—the deep peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in whose holy name we pray. Amen.”

 Listening for the Word

Holy Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV):

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  [Jesus]  said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

Sermon:

“This morning’s gospel passage is set in the midst of a debate between Jewish leaders, the Sadducees and Pharisees. In first century Israel they were powerful competing elites connected to the Temple in Jerusalem. They often disagreed on the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.”

“Matthew presents us with a window into their debate as it draws in Jesus. They ask him about paying taxes to Rome, because they disagree on what they should do. They ask Jesus about resurrection because they disagree about life after death. They’re at odds over interpretation of the law.”

“So when the lawyer asks Jesus a question it’s not merely to trap him, as we Christians often read the text. It’s more likely a local debate in which they want Jesus’ opinion. The lawyer genuinely wants Jesus to weigh in: does he support the Sadducees or the Pharisees?”

“The scene is not that different from what plays out among groups of Christians today. We debate the meaning of scripture, and we want Jesus on our side.”

“’Teacher,’ the lawyer asks, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’”

“It’s a good question. Among the 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, he wants to know which is most important. It’s a bottom-line question, and we should listen carefully to the answer Jesus gives. He’s speaking not merely to that Pharisee or to others eager to hear his response. He’s speaking to us [too].”.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’  Jesus says, reaching back to Deuteronomy [6:5]. ‘This is the greatest and first commandment.’”

“But he doesn’t stop there.”

“’And a second is like it,’ Jesus says, this time going back to Leviticus [19:18]. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’”

“But he’s not done. Jesus wants to clarify his response and aim it at the interpretation of all the ancient texts, so he throws in a bonus answer: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:38-40)”

“The fundamental rule of interpreting scripture, Jesus is explaining here, is the law of love. If the interpretation of a text points in the direction of God’s love, if it amplifies God’s desire that we love one another, if it shines light on the unconditional love of God, then we have understood the Bible in the way Jesus wants us to read it.”

“I wonder if the response of Jesus settles anything. Did the Sadducees and Pharisees walk away saying to one another, ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong. Our faith wants us to start not with law, not with the rules, not with the doctrine, not with the strict definition of what’s right and wrong, but with love.”’

“That’s the takeaway from this text for us, as followers of Jesus. The starting point and the end point in our encounter with the world, with our neighbors, with those with whom we disagree, even with those we consider enemies, the starting point and the end point is always, always, always, the love of God.”

“To love in the way of Jesus we cannot keep putting ourselves at the center.”

“When Jesus says that all scripture ‘hangs’ on the love of God and love of neighbor, the image of a clothesline comes to mind – a long line representing the love of God and the love of neighbor, stretching across all of scripture. Each biblical story, the psalms and the prophets, the formative narratives of the Hebrew people – we see them all hanging there, on that one line.”

“Then we notice that the line is longer, and stretches even further. We see the parables of Jesus, the healings, the cross and resurrection, hanging on that line of love. And the line keeps stretching. The letters to the first Christian communities are hanging there, and the words of the early councils of the church.

“And that clothesline of love keeps stretching, through the spread of Christian faith around the world, through many generations of faithful followers. Nothing stops it. The line keeps going – the commandment to love God and to love neighbor, as we love ourselves – it keeps going right into the life of this congregation…and what is hanging there on that clothesline in our life together?”

“We see our worship every Sunday for more than 161 years. We see our welcome of Chinese newcomers in the 19th century, when they were scorned by others. We see the schools we started among immigrant children living on the flats along the river in the late 1800’s. We see our ownership of Abbott Hospital and our role in offering medical care and training to thousands in the middle years of the 20th century, We see our support of mission in other lands that evolved into our global partnerships today.”

“It’s all hanging on that long line of love stretching through our life.”

“We see the 16 churches Westminster has helped launch over the years, including Kwanzaa, now Liberty Church, the state’s only African-American Presbyterian congregation. We see that partner church there, together with us on the long line of the love of Jesus.”

“We see our church calling and installing [today] an Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, Alanna Simone Tyler, nurtured by our partner congregation in north Minneapolis.”

“It’s all there.”

“We see Westminster’s willingness to work for marriage equality and to stand up for justice by advocating for an end to racism, for sensible gun safety, and for more affordable housing. We see Westminster using our new facility to welcome people coming in off the streets.”

Our life as a Christian community hangs on a clothesline of love that stretches all the way back to Jesus and on into the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“And we’ve learned that to love in the way of Jesus, the other must always be at the heart of our concern, especially when the other is vulnerable, always at the center of our concern.”

“’No one has greater love than this,’ Jesus says, than ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13)

“One hundred years ago today, at 11AM on November 11, 1918, the Armistice ending the Great War was signed. Inscribed on the bronze plaque in the Cloister Hall are the names of 191 men and women of this church who served in what was to have been the war to make the world safe for democracy. They were prepared to lay down their lives for others – and seven of them did.”

“During the war the women of the church formed the Westminster unit of the Red Cross. They ran one of the largest volunteer medical supply programs in the country, preparing bandages, garments, and other materials for our soldiers, orphans, and refugees. The women of Westminster produced and sent abroad more than 366,000 articles.”

“When troops came through town on their way to being deployed, Westminster families saw them in worship and invited them home to Sunday dinner after church. Westminster’s pastor at the time, [Rev.] John Bushnell, whose own son’s name is on that plaque as having served in the Navy during the war, describes hosting three soldiers at one such Sunday afternoon meal:

  • ‘The talk centered about their home lives and it was found that one was a Catholic, one a Methodist, and one a Mormon, all three feeling entirely at home with a Presbyterian minister’s family. It was a local example of the leveling or elevating process of common great cause, eliminating all distinctions and creating the common denominator of an elemental human emergency.’”

“As we mark Veterans Day tomorrow we acknowledge that U.S. soldiers continue to fight in Afghanistan and other lands, without a sense of ‘elemental human emergency’ and no perception of a ‘common great cause.’ But, still, they serve on behalf of the nation and we must not forget them.”

“During World War I, as we bade farewell to those going to serve, prayers were lifted each Sunday. Large American flags draped the front of the organ, as well as a banner with stars representing every man from the church serving overseas. Flags of our allies were placed in front of the pulpit. A ‘Westminster War Letter’ helped people keep track of our soldiers.”

“The congregation wept with the families of those whose sons were killed. The first to die was Edward Phinney, a deacon of the church. To love in the way of Jesus means to be willing to give up privilege and power – even life itself – so that others might live. Fred Wagner, a candidate for the ministry, was later killed in battle in France.”

“Nine-and-a-half million soldiers on all sides died in the Great War, the war that was to end all wars. Another 10 million civilians perished. More than 21 million were injured.”

“Westminster did not romanticize or glorify the war. Referring to the great loss of life, the Rev. Bushnell wrote, ‘It made us understand and hate war as never before.’”

“Following the Armistice of 1918, the Rev. Bushnell described war as ‘an affront to Deity, to (hu)mankind, and all the elements that constitute a moral universe.’”

“Speaking 20 years later, in 1938, as Europe was moving toward war again, he wrote, using words that may sound applicable to us in our time:

  • ‘There is at present far more fear harassing the human family, more despair of the (unity of humankind), more bitter strife and hatred between nations, more greed, more lust than before.’ (All quotes and other information from John E. Bushnell, The History of Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1907-1937 [Minneapolis, Lund Press; 1938], pp.21-31)”

“The response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that enveloped the human family then and the response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that envelops us now is not more war and more weaponry and more violence, but, rather, that which Jesus says to the Pharisee long ago, when asked which was the highest of all the laws: ‘The first and greatest commandment,’ Jesus says,

  • ‘Is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and the second is like it, to love neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

“And, we might add, the ministry of this congregation, and of Liberty church and other communities of faith and people of goodwill everywhere, and the life of this nation, and the future of humankind. The commandment to love. To love God and neighbor.”

“As we hear the bell toll here in our sanctuary with others across the land marking the Armistice 100 years ago, as we remember and give thanks for those who served and those who died in the Great War, let us also redouble our commitment to strive for the justice and peace that comes from those who follow the highest law: to love God and love neighbor.”.

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon was especially powerful for  me.

As I wrote in my eighth blog post in April 2011, “”The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer 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.”[2]

“The lawyer, however, would not let it end there. He then asked what he thought was another trick question of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, the lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead he wanted Jesus to provide an answer that could also be twisted against him. Again, however, Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told the Parable of the Good Samaritan without the punch line identifying the good neighbor. Once again Jesus asked the lawyer to fill in the blank, this time to identify the good neighbor in the story. The lawyer did just that by saying, ‘The one who had mercy on [the man by the side of the road].’  Jesus then said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10: 29-37)” This Parable is the second foundation of my Christian faith.

Apparently the lawyer in this account in the Gospel of Luke was drawing upon two passages of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 6:5 Moses is reminding a new generation of his people of the laws he had received from God on Mt. Sinai when Moses says, ‘You shall  love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ The other passage is Leviticus 19:18, where Moses in summarizing what God had delivered to him on Mt. Sinai says, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Today, this precept—”Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”—is still the first foundation of my Christian faith.

Therefore, I was pleased to hear the same message in this passage of Matthew with the reversal of the roles of Jesus and the lawyer from Luke. Now, the lawyer is posing the question, and Jesus is providing the same answer.

I also was pleased and surprised to hear Rev. Hart-Andersen’s add the metaphor of the clothesline when Matthew in the New Revised Standard Version says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Emphasis added.) This integrative device made sense to me.

Although I was not a Westminster member during the events in its history that were recounted in the sermon, hearing about them, especially as tied to the Bible with the clothesline metaphor brought tears to my eyes.

Returning to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the lessons of this story for me is that your neighbor whom you should love as yourself is anyone and everyone and that they can appear when you least expect them. That sets forth a daunting assignment. I have never met this challenge and never can.

That leads to the third foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31), . As an only son and as a father of two sons, I see myself in this story as the older, resentful son as well as the younger, lost son and more recently as the father.

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[1] The text of the sermon and the bulletin for the service are available on the church’s website. This service also included the installation of Rev. Alanna Simone Tyler as Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, which will be covered in a separate post.

[2]  My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).

“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

“What Endures?”

On All Saints Day, November 4, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, delivered this sermon, “”What Endures?” (The bulletin for the service is online.)

At the start of the service, In observance of All Saints Day, the names of the 39 church members who had died since the prior All Saints Day, which were printed in the bulletin, were read aloud.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, in every age you have raised up your children to live and die in faith. We confess that we are indifferent to your will. You call us to proclaim your name, but we are silent. You call us to do what is just, but we remain idle. You call us to live faithfully, but we are afraid. In your mercy, forgive us. Give us courage to follow in your way, that joined with those from ages past, who have served you with faith, hope and love, we may inherit the kingdom you promised in Jesus Christ.”

This was followed by Silent Prayer and Assurance of God’s Forgiveness.

Listening fro the Word

Scripture: Isaiah 40: 1-8 (NRSV)

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Sermon:

“We don’t usually hold memorial services on Sunday morning, but All Saints Day comes close. We gather and remember those who have gone before us, we read their names, we give thanks to God for their lives, and we proclaim that death is no match for the power of God’s love.”

“Given all that has happened in our nation in recent days, it feels as if a memorial service this morning might be appropriate. The murders of 11 Jews as they worshipped in Pittsburgh in their synagogue last week and two African-Americans at a grocery in Louisville, as they shopped – both by white extremists – call us to national grief. “

“When we gather for a memorial service we want to do three things. First, we want to name the sorrow felt by those whose loved one is now gone. Second, we want to tell the story of the person’s life. Third, to declare a word of hope about the love of God that remains strong from everlasting to everlasting: the love that endures even in the face of death.”

“Sometimes a memorial service leans more in one direction or another. When the life of a young person has been cut short, for instance, and there are no memories of a long, full life, giving voice to the anguish of the family is important. I’ve led memorial services for infants and young children, and grief is about all there is, tempered by a touch of gratitude, even for the short life of a child.”

“Ten days ago the world was introduced to little Amal Hussain, the seven year-old whose emaciated body has come to incarnate the awful tragedy of the war in Yemen, where thousands are at risk of starvation. Now Amal – whose name in Arabic means hope – has died. The anguish of her parents runs deep. In an interview her mother said, simply, ‘My heart is broken.’”

“Children so often bear the brunt of the violence of adults. They don’t have a stake in the conflicts fueled by the fear or hatred or ambition of adults. Children don’t take sides in those conflicts. Yet, they’re very much on the receiving end of the fights between adults.”

“Perhaps death like that seems distant and unconnected to us. But we are not innocent when our policies and our weapons are used to inflict violence on the people, the children, of other lands.”

“And closer to home, we are not innocent when we refuse to consider ways to curb the ease with which people can acquire the guns that kill nearly 100 people every day in America.”

“And we are not innocent when we do nothing to stem the growing racism and violence that sometimes lead to death for people of color or differing faith traditions or other nationalities.”

“A rabbi in New York City this past week sent an email to his congregants and I received a copy of it. The rabbi said he views the Central Americans heading toward our southern border to seek asylum as no different from the Jews who sought asylum here in the 1930s when they faced death in an anti-Semitic Germany. We turned them away from our shores then; have we not learned anything in the ensuing years?”

“Every anti-Semitic assault in America is an attack on all of us, and every racist assault is an attack on the values at the heart of our democracy. What makes us to be a good people is shattered by those attacks. All of us are affected by them. We cannot let them go unanswered. We cannot let vitriol carry the day.”

“That’s why so many came together last Sunday afternoon at synagogues across the country, including Temple Israel here in Minneapolis. The 1500 people who gathered there wept together in sorrow for the senseless loss of human life. The service began in silence, and then worked its way through the Hebrew Scriptures: the voice of Job, the lament of the psalmists, the cry of the prophets.”

“It was important for the city’s Jews to gather, and they did, from all three major branches of Judaism. Rabbi Zimmerman noted that the Reform and Orthodox and Conservative movements of American Judaism rarely meet together, but they did last Sunday. They came to lift their collective voices in an outpouring of anguish, and in memory of their common history: it had happened again.”

“It was important that our Jewish neighbors not be alone in their grief. Hundreds of people from other faith communities and people of goodwill came, as did our two U.S. senators, and other elected officials and candidates from both parties. I was grateful to see so many Westminster members there. We came, first of all, to weep with them. It was a memorial service, and it did not paper over the heavy sorrow.”

“But when people of faith gather for a memorial service there is more at work than grief. Healing begins even in the midst of the anguish. We felt and saw that last Sunday at Temple Israel. As we named our sadness and shed our tears and lifted our lament, something else began to emerge.”

“The cathartic moment came when we stood to hear the names read aloud. The 11 Jews killed in Pittsburgh called to us, called to those assembled in that synagogue and in others across the country, summoning us to shared purpose, to renewed commitment to what this country stands for. Their deaths and those of the two Black Americans in Louisville would not be in vain if we could find our way back to the things that bring hope, the things that make us a resilient people, the things that endure. We left that service on Sunday resolved to change our communities and our nation, to work for reconciliation and renewal within the human family. We don’t have to live like this.”

“’The grass withers, the flower fades,’ the prophet Isaiah says, ‘But the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Isaiah 40:8)”

“That word called out to us last Sunday at Temple Israel. It was a defiant word that would not let hope be stifled, would not let us be cut off from the promise of light in the darkness. By the end of the service the entire sanctuary was singing and dancing and holding on to one another. The atmosphere in the room had shifted from despair and defeat to confidence, confidence that there are things that endure, that are stronger than hate, more powerful even than death itself.”

“We saw that same hope two nights ago, many of us. We went back to Temple Israel. It was the first Shabbat service in synagogues across the country since the shooting in Pittsburgh. At Shir Tikvah in south Minneapolis people came from the community and formed a circle of candles around the building as protection to worshippers and to push back the darkness. At the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh the building was closed still, but the faithful and their allies gathered anyway, outside to sing and pray and share the light of God, the light that endures.”

“And at Temple Israel on Friday the Twin Cities Justice Choir, including many from Westminster, sang as worshippers entered the building. We sang of resilience and strength, of courage and working for justice, of resistance against division and hatred. As the congregation that had been gathered there listening to us moved into the sanctuary for Shabbat service, we sang “We Shall Overcome,” and they sang it, as well. With people of faith and good will across the land, we sang of things that endure, of hope, of community, of love.”

“At the conclusion of Shabbat services worshippers always recite the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer. We did that at Temple on Friday. It’s the custom before reciting Kaddish to read the names of those in the congregation who have died recently, as well as the names of those who died one year ago. This Shabbat they added 11 more names, those who died in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “

“The Mourner’s Prayer, the Kaddish, recited in memory of the dead, surprisingly, does not mention death. It speaks, rather, of things that endure. It’s a prayer dedicated to the praise of God, and it concludes with this line: ‘May God who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us and for all Israel.’”

“And with that last line, the worshippers at Temple Israel lifted their hearts in song and rhythmic clapping and warm embraces as they headed out into the night.”

“’’The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.’”

“Our faith as Christians is built upon the claim that God’s love, as we know it in Jesus Christ, endures. The church bears that affirmation in its very life – not only here, but as we go out into the world to be church wherever we find ourselves. God’s love endures.”

“So, at every memorial service, we name the promise again: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“On All Saints Sunday as we read the names of those who have died, we say it again: weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning.”

“And as our nation passes through this time of turmoil and distress we say it again: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined..”

“The things that endure, the things that endure, draw us to this table today, to this memorial table, where we eat the bread and drink the cup. In doing so we remember Jesus, hung by injustice and malice on a tree, and left there to die.”

“But we do not linger long in despair at the table. Instead, as we do at every memorial service, we rejoice in the life that conquers death. In the life that overcomes all that would stand in the way of God’s grace and mercy and love.”

“We may have come grimly to worship today, through the rain and the grayness of the world, struggling through the anxious shadows of our time, but we can go forth in joy, because God is Lord – and if God is Lord of heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing? “

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

The Isaiah passage emphasizes two contrasting realities.

First,, “all people are grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.” Yes, every one of us is mortal. Each one of us will die.[2]

Second, the other reality is “the word of our God will stand forever.” Or, what endures? Our God’s love endures.

Therefore, in times of immense grief, like that over the senseless murders of worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue, we are summoned to “shared purpose,” to “renewed commitment to what this country stands for” and to “reconciliation.”

It also should be noted that Cantus, a well-known men’s vocal ensemble with offices and rehearsal space at Westminster, provided beautiful music at this service: “”Salvation Is Created” by Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944), one of the foremost Russian composers of sacred choral music; “You {Movement 5)” by Libby Larsen, a widely performed composer and a Minneapolis resident; and “A Quiet Moment” by Jennifer Higdon, a prominent, contemporary U.S. composer.

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[1]  One of the names that was read was a friend, Cheri Register, who was a Westminster elder and church archivist and historian as well as an expert in Swedish language and literature, a co-founder of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, teacher of creative writing and a noted nonfiction author.

[2]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (April 8, 2014); Contemplations of Life and Death (Dec. 26, 2016).