Jesus, The Refugee

“When last we saw Jesus he had just delivered a withering homiletic critique of his neighbors in the synagogue in Nazareth. He had refuted their assumption that God’s intentions for the human family were reserved solely for them and their nation.”[1]

“The townspeople nearly throw Jesus off the cliffs outside Nazareth for saying that, but somehow he escapes.”

Jesus thereby “became a former person, a person without a home, rejected by his own people and expelled. It had happened to him before, when the Holy Family had fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape the violence of King Herod. Now, when Nazareth runs him out of town, Jesus becomes a refugee again. He never returns to his hometown.”[2]

Then Jesus and the disciples walked the nine miles or so northeast of Nazareth to the village of Cana.

“When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Cana they were invited to a wedding feast [where he performed his first miracle by turning] six jugs of water  into wine.” This is the account of that event from John 2:1-11 (NRSV):

  • ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘ They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘ Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has yet to come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification and holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. when the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him,’Everyone serves the fine wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have been drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.’

[This wedding scene has great significance because marriage] “is a recurring metaphor in scripture for the relationship between God and the people of God. The prophets used wedding language to describe God’s desires for the human family, especially for those who suffer. Isaiah’s words, directed to a long-ago people in exile, may have been read that day:”

  • ‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.’ (Isaiah 62:4)

“‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.’ The marriage scene in Cana offers a counterpoint to the violence Jesus experiences in Nazareth. It opposes his dehumanization. It reaffirms God’s love for one who has been subjected to hatred. ‘For the Lord delights in you.’ ‘Jesus did this,’ John says, ‘The first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)”

“The wine [provided by Jesus] signals something. The marriage feast with its abundant drink is a sign that God will not abandon the outcast children of God but will instead delight in them. God will contest those who seek to deny the humanity of others, in this case, Jesus, the former person from Nazareth. God uses the wedding feast to show that the degradation of humankind will be resisted, and that the resistance will be girded in joy.”

“Jesus changes the water into wine to signal God’s hospitality to those rejected by others and to reveal God’s delight in those deeemed to be former people.”

“At the wedding feast in Cana Jesus launches a movement. A movement of joyful resistance  against the baser impulses that run through each of us and through the principalities and powers of every time and place.”

“Yesterday a Jewish congregation in Illinois welcomed a Syrian family that had arrived in the U.S. on Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the very day new rules excluding all refugees were issued. A day later the American Jews welcomed the Syrian Muslim family to their new town near Chicago with hugs and cheers and toys for the children. The members of the synagogue – and more than 100 were involved in supporting the family – then brought them to their new home, where they had prepared a feast, complete with a Syrian-style cake. ‘If this is the last group of refugees to get in,’ the [Illinois] rabbi said, ‘We will show them the best of America.'[3]

“It was the miracle of Cana all over again, and God’s intentions for the human family carried the day.”

“Today, in our time and in this land, the church still finds its calling in that same movement [of joyful resistance against the baser impulses].”

[We do so while recognizing that] “no religion or nation is innocent. . . . It’s what Europeans did to indigenous people and enslaved Africans. It’s happening now to Muslims and christians in Syria, in unprecedented numbers.”

“’Those of us who follow Jesus are no different from the refugees of our time. Once we were former people. Forgotten people. Displaced people. At the heart of our faith is the claim that God stands with those cast out who now dwell in the kingdom of memory, and the mandate that we stand with them, as well.”

[As 1 Peter tells us,] “’Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people,’ [and] goes on to say.

  • ‘Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to…conduct yourselves honorably…so that…they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when God comes to judge.’ (I Peter 2:10-12)”

“Judgment is a word to be used sparingly and with great caution, but in the midst of one of the greatest refugee crises in history, we as a nation, and certainly those of us who follow the refugee named Jesus, will be judged by our response. Assuring the safety and security of our country is essential, but when we indiscriminately close our borders to mothers and fathers and children fleeing violence in their homeland and when we refuse entry to people solely on the basis of religion or national origin we are no different from and no better than those across history who have forced others to become former people.”

“’Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ Emma Lazarus said in her poem written in celebration of the Statue of Liberty, which she called the Mother of Exiles, ‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.'”

“Remember the ship called the St. Louis carrying Jews, forced from our harbors to return to Nazi Germany? Or Japanese-Americans driven from their homes and put in camps? Or the Dakota people expelled from this state and their land? Have we learned nothing from our history?”

“We live in a nation founded by people fleeing persecution. As people of faith we cannot remain silent in the face of policies that run counter to the biblical call to ‘welcome the stranger in our midst’ and that ignore the American commitment to offer refuge.”

Reactions

I found this sermon very moving although I had these nagging concerns. Jesus’ mother Mary already was at the wedding and thus it is fair to assume the residents of Cana had heard something about Jesus’ preaching, but they probably would not have heard about Nazareth’s expulsion of Jesus. If so, then the residents did not welcome Jesus as a refugeee. I assume that Cana was a small village and that most of the residents were at the wedding celebration. Therefore, when Jesus and his 12 disciples show up, there is nowhere else for them to go. These 13 additional guests placed an unexpected burden on the wine and food for the guests, yet the 13 were invited and welcomed. I also assume that in that time and place, as is true today, wedding guests are expected to bring gifts for the bride and groom, and Jesus and the disciples had no gifts in hand. Recognizing this faux pas and the burden they were placing on the bride and groom, Jesus provided extra wine as a gift and as a thank you for being included.

Are these concerns misplaced? I solicit comments from those who have greater knowledge about the Cana story.

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[1] This blog post is an edited version of Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s January 29 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, including his reference to his prior sermon that was discussed in an earlier post.  (the 1/29/17 sermon, Westminstermpls.org/2017/02/02/why-chan; the 1/29/17 bulltin, wp-content/uploads/2017/01; the bog about the 1/22/17 sermon, dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/30/Jesus-inaugural-address.

[2] The phrase “former people” comes from historian Douglas Smith, who used the term to refer to the Russian aristocracy banished and persecuted after the Russian Revolution of 1917. (Douglas Smith, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013).) Smith, by the way, before college, was involved in youth activities at Westminster Church.

[3] Kantor, Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2017).

James Weldon Johnson Poem Sung at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) the congregation sang the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. [1] Here are five comments about this hymn.

James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson

First, the lyrics for this hymn were written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), an African-American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist, including serving as the executive secretary (1920-1930) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also was an active poet, novelist and anthologist of black culture’s poems and spirituals in the Harlem Renaissance.[2]

Second, these lyrics were written by Johnson as a poem for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln‘s birthday on February 12, 1900, at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where Johnson was its principal. The honored guest at the School that day was Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a famous African- American educator, author, orator, and advisor to U.S. presidents.

John Rosamond Johnson
John Rosamond Johnson

In 1905, the poem was set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954), an African-American composer and singer, later prominent in the Harlem Renaissance. The song became widely popular and known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted.[3]

Third, here are the actual lyrics:[4]

“1 Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,

ring with the harmonies of liberty;

let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,

let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

let us march on till victory is won.

2 Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,

felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet

come to the place for which our people sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;

we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last

where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

3 God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,

thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

thou who hast, by thy might, led us into the light,

keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,

lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;

shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,

true to our God, true to our native land.”

Fourth, the hymn’s words and music of the first verse are joyous and hopeful: “Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” The third verse returns to this joyous and hopeful theme.

At the same time, however, there is an undercurrent of pain drawn from the African-American experience. “The dark past” appears without elaboration in the first verse while the third verse talks about “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.” The second verse provides some of those painful details: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. . . over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered . . . from the gloomy past.”

Fifth, I give thanks for the inclusion of this hymn in the worship service on Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday at Westminster. I also give thanks for the witness of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson and my taking the time to re-read the lyrics, to do the research reflected in this post and to reflect on the meaning of those lyrics.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] James Weldon Johnson, Wikipedia.

[3] Lift Every Voice and Sing, Wikipedia; Stanton College Preparatory School, Wikipedia; Booker T. Washington, Wikipedia; J. Rosamond Johnson, Wikipedia.

[4] Lyrics, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Hymnary.org.

Langston Hughes’ Poem Sung at Minneapolis Westminster Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) Cantus, a male vocal ensemble, sang ‘America Will Be!” as the Offertory Anthem at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The text of the anthem was Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “Let America Be America Again” with music by Paul J. Ridoi, composer and a tenor vocalist with Cantus.[1]

Afterwards I discovered the actual title of the poem, retrieved and read and re-read the words of the poem and conducted Internet research about the poem and Hughes and after reflection came to powerful conclusions about the poem.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

First, Hughes (1902-1967), an African-American, was a poet, novelist and author and an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He flirted with communism, but never became a member of the Party, and as a result in the 1950’s was subpoenaed by a Senate committee led by Joseph McCarthy, which was portrayed in a play at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.[2]

Second, the poem was written in 1935 in the midst of The Great Depression and originally published in the July 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine.

As another commentator said, the poem speaks of the American dream that never existed for blacks and lower-class Americans and the freedom and equality that they and every immigrant hoped for but never achieved. The poem besides criticizing their unfair life in America conveys a sense of hope or call to action to make the American Dream soon come.[3]

Third, the actual text of the poem is the following:

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”

Fourth, the poem’s first three stanzas (minus the first three parenthetical statements) open with a common statement of the American Dream. But it soon becomes apparent the poet speaks for those who are left out of that Dream.

That certainly includes all members of his own race—blacks– who have been repressed and disadvantaged by the Great Depression: “American never was America to me . . . It never was America for me . . . There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free,’ . . . I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, . . . I am the Negro, servant to you all . . . And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came . . . The land that’s mine–… Negro’s, ME.”

But the poet also speaks for others who are similarly repressed and disadvantaged—(a) “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart;” (b) “I am the red man driven from the land;” (c) “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek;” (d) “I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that endless chain Of profit, power, pain, of grab the Land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” (e) I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil;” (f) “I am the worker sold to the machine.” (g) “I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today;” (h) “I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years;” (i) “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea;” (j) one of “the millions on relief today, the millions shot down when we strike, the millions who have nothing for our pay;” and (k) “the land That’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s.”

Yet all of these now repressed and disadvantaged people are the ones “who dreamt our basic dream . . . to build a ‘homeland of the free. . . who “made America.”

The poem’s opening lines by using the passive verb “let” suggests that the desired changes in America will just happen by some outside forces. The concluding lines of the poem, however, reject that interpretation and instead become a call to action by the repressed and disadvantaged: who “Must bring back our mighty dream again . . . We must take back our land again, America! . . . And yet I swear this oath—America will be! . . . We the people must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain—All, all the stretch of those great green states—And make America great again!”

I especially invite comments from those who have studied Hughes’ life and works more extensively than I have.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] Langston Hughes BiographyLangston Hughes, Wikipedia; U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2012).

[3] Poem, Let America Be America Again, PoemHunter.com; Let America be America Again, Wikipedia. The title of this poem was used in a 2004 presidential campaign song by John Kerry, then a U.S. Senator. I will resist the temptation to wonder whether Donald Trump’s incessant campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was drawn from this poem. I doubt it, and Hughes, I am confident, would be appalled at any such use of his words.

 

 

Jesus’ Inaugural Address       

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Jesus’ Inaugural Address was re-delivered at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on January 22, 2016, by its Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Biblical Text for the Day

Jesus’ original address was set forth in Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV),which sets the scene as the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath day, someone asked him to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah [61: 1-2]. He did just that with these words from the scroll:

  • “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After sitting down, Jesus told the members of the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Prompted then by comments and questions from members of the congregation, Jesus added, “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

“When [the members of the congregation] heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

The Old Testament passage was Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, which described how the priest read the book of the law of Moses to the people and which is referenced in the sermon.

The Sermon

The sermon reminded us that according to Luke, “Jesus has been out on the hustings, working his way through the towns and villages of Galilee. Having been baptized in the Jordan by John and tested by temptation in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus has been on a preaching tour. He’s been campaigning his way across the rugged hill country, teaching, healing, and listening. Meeting and greeting.”

“Now he comes home, to the hill town of Nazareth. Many there have heard about Jesus’ Galilean tour, about his preaching and healing in Capernaum and other villages. They’ve been expecting something similar when he got back home; perhaps they even felt they now deserved his attention.”

“It’s a dramatic moment for Jesus: part-coming out, part-opening act. Joseph’s son, the carpenter, enters the synagogue for Shabbat worship as he’s done hundreds of times. He’s there with friends and neighbors who’ve known him all his life. He’s now about 30 years old – no longer the little boy, no more the teenager, but a mature man.”

“People find their usual places in the synagogue that evening as the service begins. After the opening words, probably a sung psalm or two, Jesus walks to the front of the gathered crowd and unrolls a scroll, apparently prepared by him beforehand.”

“It’s is an age-old scene for Jewish worshippers. We just heard a passage from the book of Nehemiah from 600 years before the time of Jesus, describing the ritual that day in the synagogue in Nazareth: ‘So they read from the book,’ the text says, ‘From the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.’ (Nehemiah 8:8) That was the heart of the Jewish worship experience: a reading of the ancient word of God, and a sermon interpreting it. And that’s what takes place in Nazareth. Jesus reads scripture and then he ‘gives the sense, so that the people understand the reading.’ That day the carpenter becomes a preacher.”

“Jesus reads the previously quoted words of Isaiah, concluding with the words ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,’ which sometimes is translated as ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ These words refer ‘to the day when God’s reign would break forth in concrete ways: the poor would be lifted up, the oppressed set free, forgiveness extended, debts relieved, slaves released. The acceptable year of the Lord. It points to the long-awaited year of Jubilee, when all relationships would be made right and God’s intentions for the human family would take root. It’s nothing short of a realigning of human relations, a reconfiguration of human community based on God’s expectations – and that’s where Jesus starts: as the theme for his inauguration speech. Jesus chooses the acceptable year of the Lord.”

“That text from the old prophet becomes the focus of his first sermon, and it will frame his entire ministry, from beginning to end. That’s the signal he’s giving by choosing this passage. Call it the plumb line for his life, or the bottom line of the gospel, or a theological line of justice in the sand, here Jesus declares his core values. His life will be defined and measured by those values.”

“Having finished the reading, Jesus carefully rolls up the scroll and gives it back to the attendant. He then sits down to preach, as was the custom, and when he sits, Luke tells us, all eyes are riveted on him. ‘Today,’ he says, ‘this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21) The time for which you faithful people of God have waited for generations, he says, that day has finally come.”

“There’s a murmur of approval across the congregation. There’s delight among them. The people in the synagogue are pleased with what they hear from Jesus at the start of the sermon. Their homegrown preacher-prophet healer seems to be saying God is about to bless the Hebrew nation in a major way, and Nazareth, perhaps, in particular. So they’re happy as he starts out.”

“Remember this is a people living under Roman occupation, a people dominated by outside forces for as long as anyone can recall, a humiliated people. Jesus reads Isaiah’s Jubilee text and announces that God’s promises are now being fulfilled. The congregation in Nazareth takes that as an affirmation of their hope for themselves. Their nation, they imagine, will finally be made great again, by God’s own hand.”

“But then Jesus really begins to preach, and the sermon takes a turn they don’t like. To describe how he understands the acceptable year of the Lord, Jesus cites two stories from Hebrew tradition, the tradition the people gathered there know well.”

“First, he reaches back to the time of Elijah, when there was famine in the land. It had not rained for three years and six months. Nothing was growing, No harvest at all. People were starving, including the prophet Elijah. So the prophet cries out to God and is saved from death not by an Israelite, Jesus reminds them, but by a foreign woman, a non-Jew, and a widow, at that. There were many widows in Israel, Jesus says, if God had needed to work through a widow, but God chose instead to work through the most vulnerable person imaginable, a widow not even from the Hebrew tribe, to save the man of God.”

“As if to say: what do we learn from that story?

“Then Jesus reminds them of the story of the prophet Elisha. In his time, Jesus says, there were many people suffering from leprosy, but God chose a foreigner called Naaman, a Syrian with leprosy, not an Israelite, but instead a foreigner to be healed by the power of God through the ministry of Elisha. Jesus is making the point here that the acceptable year of the Lord is coming not only to the Hebrew people but to all God’s children. Things will be turned upside down when the Jubilee begins. Women will have power. Foreigners will be blessed. Gentiles will be included in the promise of God. All those excluded now from the circle, he is saying, those despised because of who they are or what they believe or where they come from, those deemed by cultural and political norms to be outside God’s reach, are now welcomed in.”

“That is the acceptable year of the Lord.”

“The people of Nazareth are now not happy at all. They’re not cheered by this message from Jesus. They had assumed all along that God’s love was primarily for them, that they had an exceptional place in the heart of the Almighty. But now they hear that God’s love will reach to the poor everywhere who will be lifted up, to the oppressed everywhere who will be set free, to the hungry and thirsty everywhere who will be satisfied.”

“God’s favor is not reserved exclusively for one tribe or own nation or one religion.”

“Jesus is telling his friends and neighbors they are not the sole recipients of God’s grace. And they do not like that word. In fact, it’s too much for them to bear, and in their rage they turn on him. They drive him out of the synagogue, out to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff, but it’s not yet his time. Jesus breaks free from the crowd and leaves Nazareth as fast as he can.”

“The prophet is not welcome in his own town. Jesus is one of them, but our nation first is not the plumb line this carpenter will use.”

“At the heart of Jesus’ concern are the wounded and lonely, the lost and rejected; those living in poverty, barred from and broken by systems of power and privilege. A plumb line for the poor will set the course for his life, and the life of the church. The bottom line of God’s inclusive love becomes the measure of his ministry, and of our faithfulness. A line in the sand, a justice line in the sand for those whom God loves this whole world over, determines his agenda.”

“And it determines ours as well, as Christians in these troubled times.”

“It is not acceptable that racial disparities still pervade our national life. Every person is made in God’s image.”

“It is not acceptable that some are paid less for the same work, or that many are not paid a livable wage while others make millions. God’s children are all of equal value.”

“It is not acceptable that many in our land are ensnared in generational poverty. God lifts up the poor.”

“It is not acceptable that American prisons are overflowing. God sets the prisoners free.”

“It is not acceptable that good health care is out of reach for many. God heals the sick.”

“It is not acceptable to ignore the impact humanity has on the earth and its climate. God calls us to be stewards of creation.”

“It is not acceptable to demean those of other faith traditions. God goes by a thousand different names.”

“In his sermon in the synagogue that day Jesus declares it is now the acceptable year of the Lord. In so doing, he defines the ministry of the church, our ministry, yours and mine, and the ministry of this congregation.”

“It is time for the unacceptable to end. We can be complacent no longer. We have been called, urgently summoned, to love God and to love neighbor.”

“It is not simply the inauguration speech of Jesus that day in Nazareth; it is ours, as well.”

“Now the work begins.”

“ Thanks be to God.”

Westminster’s Congregational Reaction

Everyone in the congregation that day, knowing that this rendition of Jesus’ inaugural address came only two days after the inaugural address of President Donald Trump, rose in a standing ovation to the sermon and the challenge to begin our work to end the unacceptable in our land.

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[1] The bulletin the text of the sermon and a video for this service are available online.

 

 

 

Contemplations of Life and Death  

My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts.[1] Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.[2]

Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”

We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”

“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”

If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”

All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]

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[1] Previous posts: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (Apr. 8, 2014); Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality (Apr. 11, 2014); Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); Further Reflections on Ezekiel Emmanuel’s Desire to Die at 75 (Sept. 30, 2014); Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom (Dec. 3, 2016).

[2] Kaag & Martin, Looking Death in the Face, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2016),

[3] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).

Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings?

A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.

Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.[1]

Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.

My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.

I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:

  • “The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”

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[1] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.”  Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.

“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts

“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”

“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”

“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”

In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”

“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”

“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”

“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”

“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”

“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”

“The dead whisper to us, they console us, they admonish us. Love more, love better. Do not . . . go gentle into that good night.

Other Columns

Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.

In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”

The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”

Another May 2015 column, “The Presence of the Past, ” contained these observations about how we experience the past:

  • “As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
  • “Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
  • “Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
  • “Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”

His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:

  • “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
  • “I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”

This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:

  • “’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
  • “’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
  • “In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”

The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:

  • “It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
  • “What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
  • “There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”

Cohen’s Biography[1]

Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.

That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels.  In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.

Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).

Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.

One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.

Conclusion

Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.

Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.

As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.

Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.

These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.

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[1] Roger Cohen’s biography may be found in the New York TImes, Wikipedia and Jewage.