Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another perspective on the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan was offered by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue in his July 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Rev. Brennan Blue
Westminster Presbyterian Church

 

 

 

The Holy Scripture

The Parable itself is expressed in Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSV) as follows:

  • “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’”
  • “But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

The Sermon

 In “the parable of the Good Samaritan, why it is that even the most well-trained priest or Levite may walk on by a neighbor in need?”

“On the one hand, this parable reminds us that we are called to put our faith and love into action, plain and simple. Yet this parable occurs in a vacuum. There is one person of need, one act of love to counter the one great injustice at hand.” (Emphasis added.)

 “But what happens when there’s another neighbor in need along the way? Do you set aside the first to help the second? What if each step brings another worry or need, bigger and more complex than the one before it?”

“Perhaps you know the feeling. Confronted with a complex constellation of needs and problems surrounding our lives and communities, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Another election argument, another policy change, another broken relationship. Another act of hate and discrimination, another single parent facing another night on the street with her family, another police shooting in our city. Another setback, another neighbor in need.”

“How can you or I keep up with it all, let alone make a difference? Maybe it’s best to just take a break from the headlines, find a new game on our smartphone and just sort of take our mind off of things.”

Apathy subdues our action. Despair clouds our hope. Distraction does exactly what it describes – it dis-tractions us and robs us of a way forward. These invasive influences make it easier to check out than dig in.” (Emphasis added.)

“I’ve always sort of assumed that the young lawyer in this parable is asking the question ‘who is my neighbor’ from a relatively blank slate. But it’s clear that this young lawyer knows his stuff. Remember, Jesus asks him what is written in the Scriptures regarding eternal life, and that beautifully succinct response of ‘you shall all love God, and love your neighbor as yourself’ comes from him.”

“So what if his follow-up question – who is my neighbor? – is coming less from a place of innocence or ignorance and more from a place of knowing exhaustion? What if this young lawyer has eyes to see the many people around him who represent his neighbor and with a dizzying head is simply trying to figure out where to even begin?” [2]

“I found help and hope for this very question on the second workday of our high school ]mission] trip while building new trails at Young Gulch, a beloved national forest area now closed to the public due to past fire and flooding damage. With hardhats, picks, shovels, ropes and rock bars, we hiked a mile and half up and into our new worksite carrying the hope of a new day. It was there, while shoveling, sawing, lifting and hauling, that we were introduced to the art of trail building and the important work of finding the critical edge.” (Emphasis added.)

“In terms of trail building, the critical edge forms the crucial guiding line from which you begin and orient your work. It is the marker between path and planet, trail and wilderness. Your footing and direction are both determined from there, and though countless shrubs and boulders may lie ahead and around, the critical edge marks where you will carve out your 30” wide path, and that is what makes the work doable. So for our team of 30 students and 6 adults, this critical edge became our path by which to walk and work. And work we did! It was like being blessed with the gift of traction. Our critical edge to guide us, we literally dug in and blazed new trails that others, we hope, may follow and enjoy for years to come.” (Emphases added.)

“This process of finding traction for our work was brought home in a new workshop that we incorporated into our mission trips this year. A workshop called ‘Mission Possible.’

“Essentially, Mission Possible is an exercise that challenges multiple groups to take on a complex and often overwhelming social problem using a very limited set of ‘dealt resources.’ The creative challenge is to find which crucial slice of the problem your team wants to focus on and then leverage your limited resources to make the greatest possible impact.” (Emphases added.)

“Middle schoolers using glass jars to build empathy. High school students using wooden baskets to raise awareness via social media. Neither of these ideas will knock out the layered, complex problems of bullying and climate change, but they do provide a way forward, a critical edge to ward off apathy and dig into action. The goal here is to root out those invasive influences of distraction and despair, and then live out our calling by putting our faith into action. We don’t have to move every boulder, but we do need to discern and then do our part.” (Emphasis added.)

“That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at in this parable: connecting exposed belief to explicit action. Even if this young lawyer is asking ‘who is my neighbor’  from a place of overwhelming apathy and despair, there is hope is Jesus’ simple response. Know who you are and who your neighbors are, and even if can only reach out to one, do it. Put your faith into action, even if others are walking by. Be that very inspiration. Host a book read; plant a rain garden; start a justice choir; advocate for mental health programs. Find your critical edge and dig in.” (Emphases added.)

“Friends, this is the work we have been doing together as a community throughout the entire Open Doors, Open Futures process. . . . In fact, in seeking to find our own critical edge, Westminster has set aside serious time . . . to ask of God and one another this young lawyer’s question – “who is our neighbor?” In the midst of our work and worship, we’ve [been] wrestling and discerning questions about our gifts, resources, and partnerships, seeking to understand where God is calling us as a community. “

“By engaging these very questions, we are finding action in place of apathy, hope in the midst of despair, and the blessing of traction for our ministry even in our changing downtown context.”

“That’s what the love of God and neighbor demands of us: find your place of calling, your critical edge, and dig in. It’s as simple as that and as hard as that.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the continuum of apathy and action, where do you fall today? What are your gifts? Who is your neighbor? Have you found your critical edge? May God bless us with traction for lives and ministries.” (Emphasis added.)

The Prayer of Confession

Before the reading of the Holy Scripture and the sermon, the congregation joined in the following prayer of confession:

  • “Gracious God, our sins and sorrows are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name and what our hearts can no longer bear. Set us free from a past that we cannot change and open to us a future in which we can be changed. May the light of your love open our eyes to the grace that is already calling us home. By your grace, may we grow ever more in your way of justice, mercy, and peace.”

Conclusion

Another frequent, and appropriate, interpretation of this parable emphasizes that the Levite and the priest who passed by the injured man were of higher status in Israel at the time whereas the Samaritans were not well-regarded. Thus, one’s status in the community is not the mark of a good neighbor. Instead, what counts is what one does to help the injured man. In this instance, the Samaritan is clearly a good neighbor.

However, the overall message of Jesus, for me, is that anyone and everyone is my neighbor. Thus, the question arises as to whether and how any individual can help everyone. The answer to this question is clearly “No,” and the result of such reflection, as the sermon suggests, can be incapacitation of the individual and failure to be kind to a neighbor, failure to provide help to a neighbor.

That leads to the second 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).

But Jesus is not calling each of us to try to do everything that needs doing in the world.

Important in my own struggles with this dilemma is the following homily often attributed to my personal saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero, but actually written in November 1979 by Kenneth Edward Untener, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, for a memorial mass for deceased priests:[3]

  • “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”
  • “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”
  • “No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”
  • “That is what we are all about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”
  • “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
  • “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a  future that is not our own.”

Rev. Blue’s questions at the end of his sermon are very helpful. Find your place of calling or critical edge. Then, dig in and do what you can to help your neighbor, knowing and accepting that it may not be perfect or complete.

Another Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way. Each of us needs to find his or her vocation which “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.”[4]

Vocation, for me, 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.

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.[5]

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Another interpretation of this Parable does not see the lawyer as honestly seeking guidance from Jesus. Instead the lawyer is seen as cleverly asking trick questions to elicit answers from Jesus that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus, however, more cleverly declines to answer the questions and instead induces the lawyer to answer his own questions, the second  after Jesus tells a story. (My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).)

[3] Ken Untener, The Practical Prophet : Pastoral Writings at iii (Paulist Press; New York 2007) (Untener called this prayer “Reflection on Ministry”).

[4] See My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014).

[5] See My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

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).

 

 

Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

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

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

Calls to Prayer

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

Voices Around the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding in Gratitude

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

Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

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

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

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

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

Music

Interspersed throughout the Service were pieces of wonderful music.

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Vocations

The words and music about vocation at the January 26th and February 9th worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church have inspired my general thoughts about vocation set forth in a prior post. Now I reflect on my own vocations.

Until I was in my early 40’s, I had no religious beliefs after high school and no sense of vocation.

That started to change in 1981 when I joined Westminster and embraced what I now see as my first vocation: serving the church as a ruling elder (1985-1991) and over time as an active member of several of its committees (Spiritual Growth, Communications and Global Partnerships). More recently I joined its Global Choir. After all, a new member covenants to find “a definite place of usefulness” in the church.

For 10 years (2003-2013) I served as chair of Global Partnerships, which supervises the church’s partnerships with churches and other organizations in Cuba, Cameroon, Palestine and for a time in Brazil. This lead to my going on three mission trips to Cuba, one to Cameroon and another to Brazil. As a result, I established personal friendships with people in those countries as part of our collective, and my personal, vocation of being present with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and standing in solidarity with them. I also learned about the history, culture and current issues of those countries. This in turn lead to a strong interest in promoting reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba and Cuban religious freedom, and as a U.S. citizen I have endeavored to do just that.

This sense of religious institutional vocation also encompassed my serving on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities for another 10-year period (1988-1998). In my small way, I helped nurture future ministers of the church. In the process I got to know interesting members of the faculty, administration and board and about the life of U.S. seminaries.

I, however, initially struggled with how to integrate my newly reclaimed religious beliefs and my life as a practicing lawyer, and over the years found ways to share this struggle with others, especially with my fellow lawyers.

One way I discovered a vocation in the practice of law resulted from experiencing the bitterness and lack of reconciliation between opposing parties in litigation and, too often, as well between their lawyers, including myself. This experience lead in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s to a personal interest in, and writing and speaking about, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), one of whose objectives is resolution of such disputes more amicably, and to my active participation in the ADR Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Another and more powerful vocation involving my professional life emerged when a senior partner of my law firm in the mid-1980’s asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church (“ALC” and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The problem: how should the ALC respond to information that the U.S. immigration agency (INS) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible-study meetings at ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that provided sanctuary or safe places to Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars.

The conclusion of this engagement was the ALC and the Presbyterian Church (USA)—my own denomination—jointly suing the U.S. government to challenge the constitutionality of such spying. Eventually the U.S. district court in Arizona held that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “free exercise” of religion clause protected churches from unreasonable government investigations.

U.S. immigration law was in the background of this case, but I did not know anything about that law. I, therefore, sought to remedy that deficiency by taking a training course in asylum law from the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.

I then volunteered to be a pro bono lawyer for a Salvadoran seeking asylum in the U.S. because of his claim to a well-founded fear of persecution in his home country because of his political opinions and actions opposing its government. Again, my initial motivation for this action was to be a better lawyer for the ALC.

I discovered, however, that being a pro bono asylum lawyer was my passionate vocation while I was still practicing law and continued doing so until I retired from the practice in the summer of 2001. In addition to El Salvador, my other clients came from Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia. I was able to assist them in obtaining asylum and thereby escape persecution. In the process, I learned more about asylum law and other aspects of immigration law as well as the horrible things that were happening in many parts of the world. I was able to use my experience and gifts in investigating and presenting facts and legal arguments to courts and officials and came to see this as one of the most important and rewarding vocations I have ever had.

In the process of this asylum work, I also learned for the first time about the humbling and courageous ministry and vocation of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in March 1980 because he repeatedly spoke out against human rights violations in his country. He now is my personal saint. I also learned about the important and courageous work in that country by the Jesuit priests and professors at the University of Central America, six of whom were murdered in November 1989 for the same reason, and they too have become heroes for me.

Another Salvadoran I met on my first trip to that country enriched my sense of the potential for vocation in practicing law. He was Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the Lutheran Church’s human rights office, who spoke about the joy he experienced in his work.

After retiring from the full-time practice of law in 2001, I served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School (2002 through 2010) to co-teach international human rights law. I thereby hoped to encourage law students to become interested in the field and to include such work in their future professional lives. Thus, this became another vocation with the side benefit of enabling me to learn more about the broader field of international human rights.

I chose another retirement in 2011, this time from part-time teaching, in order to start this blog about law, politics, history and religion. I came to see it as yet another vocation. I think it important to share my religious experiences and beliefs in the midst of active consideration of legal and political issues and demonstrate that it is possible for an educated, intelligent individual to have such beliefs.

In 2011 as a member of the planning committee for my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion. I thought we should do more to remember our deceased classmates than merely list their names in our reunion booklet. I, therefore, suggested that if each committee member wrote five or six obituaries, we would have written memorials for all of our departed classmates. However, no one else volunteered to participate in this project so I did it all myself except for a few written by spouses. After the reunion, I continued to do this when the need arises.

Although this project required a lot of work, I came to see it as pastoral work and rewarding as I learned about the lives of people, many of whom I had not really known when we were together as students. I drew special satisfaction when I learned that a classmate who had died in his 30’s had two sons who had never seen the College annuals that had a lot of photographs of their father as a physics student and co-captain of the football team, and I managed to find a set of those annuals which were sent to the sons. I thus came to see this as a vocation.

Many of these vocations resulted from invitations from others to do something, which I accepted. Initially the invitations did not seem to be calls for a vocation, and it was only after doing these things and reflecting upon them that I saw them as such.

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. I have learned about different areas of the law, different countries and the lives of interesting people, living and dead.

I feel blessed that I have discovered at least some of the work that God has called me to do, in Frederick Buechner’s words, “the work that I need most to do and that the world most needs to have done.”

Or as Rev. Hart-Andersen said on February 9th, “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.”

What’s next?

 

 

 

 

 

 

My General Thoughts on Vocation

In prior blog posts we have reviewed several facets about vocation from the January 26th worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Vocation also has been discussed by Frederick Buechner, 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.”

All of these points have inspired reflections on my vocations that will be discussed in my next post.

Preliminarily, however, vocation, for me, 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 an invitation or request to do something from someone else. Others embark on a vocation which 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.

As the anthem “Forth in thy Name, O Lord, I Go” makes clear, even after we decide we have a vocation, we sometimes fail to fulfill the vocation. We get caught in the “snares” or traps of our callings and in the “gilded baits of worldly love.”

Yet, at least we Christians believe that as stated in the Lord’s Prayer God stands ready to forgive us our “debts” or “trespasses” and thereby enable us to go forward in life.

What, dear readers, do you think about these observations?


[1] The Bulletin for the January 26th service with the words to the anthem is available online along with the text and audio recording of the sermon as well as a video recording of the service. Prior posts have discussed this service’s (a) Prayer of Confession; (b) an anthem beginning with the words “God be in my head;” (c) passages from the Bible’s book of Acts and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments concerning the vocations of Tabitha, Peter, Lydia and Paul; (d) a passage from Paul’s epistle from a Roman prison and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments about the preacher’s and her people’s vocations; (e) a hymn, “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord;”  (f) another hymn, “Give Thanks, O Christian People;” and (g) an anthem, “Forth in They Name, O Lord, I Go.” Clicking on “Westminster Presbyterian Church” in the Tag Cloud at the top right of the blog will give you all of the posts about the church in reverse chronological order of posting.