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).

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.

 

 

 

A Garrison Keillor Sermon on Hospitality

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor

Now that Garrison Keillor is no longer hosting the weekly “A Prairie Home Companion” on American Public Media, he is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post of his essays or sermons that combine humor with a serious subtext.

The serious message in his latest essay is hospitality or loving your neighbor.  He says at the end, “We survive by virtue of people extending themselves, welcoming the young, showing sympathy for the suffering, taking pleasure in each other’s good fortune. We are here for a brief time. We would like our stay to mean something. Do the right thing. Travel light. Be sweet.”[1]  (Emphasis added.)

Along the way, he laments “the high-pitched oratory on behalf of the embittered rich and people with ingrown toenails and what not. Apparently we are on the verge of losing our Second Amendment rights and will need to defend ourselves with tent stakes and bug spray.”

His Uncle Gene told him, ““There are things more important than being right.” Thus, Gene as a “born-again” had no problems with obtaining his opium-based medicine for hemorrhoids from a Roman Catholic druggist.

Garrison also celebrates “the common decency, the common crucial values which are about marriage, parenthood, friendship, work, faith and attitude” of small towns, in Minnesota, of course. A Syrian refuge in such a town should go to church suppers and buy a raffle ticket and “sit down with a plate of beans and baked chicken, potato salad, a roll, a slab of pie, and learn the art of small talk.”

Keillor’s message was anticipated by Jesus when He said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 36-40) (Emphasis added.)

Thank you, Garrison. Keep it up. “Make the most of your brief time on Earth!”

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[1] Keillor, Make the most of your brief time on Earth, Wash. Post (Aug. 17, 2016).

 

Peripatetic People and Religious Faith

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

On June 5, worshippers at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church heard a fascinating sermon on Bacalaureate Sunday to celebrate those members who had just been graduated from high school, college or graduate school. Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon–“Can Faith Guide Our Future?”–did just that and more. It spoke to all of us, no matter whether or when we had graduated from any of these institutions.[1]

1 Samuel 7: 3-16

The Scriptural text for the day was from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, 1 Samuel 7:3-16, which states (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord ‘” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.’ So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.”
  • “When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines.The people of Israel said to Samuel, ‘Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.’ So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.”
  • Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.He went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places.”

The Sermon

The sermon opened with these words: “One of the most common ways Scripture speaks about the people of God is to talk about them as being on the move…The Exodus is a journey out of Egypt to a Land of Promise…The Exile to Babylon is a forced relocation from Jerusalem…Paul’s missionary journeys across the eastern Mediterranean keep the Apostle always traveling.”

“Even the life of Jesus is peripatetic as he roams the hills of Galilee. To be his follower is to be on the move, a pilgrim on the way.”

“Jews and Christians are not the only ones who have at the center of their religious narrative the idea of pilgrimage…Hindus go to the Ganges River. Muslims go on hajj to Mecca. People of faith in every tradition are on the move.”

Rev. Hart-Andersen then discussed the “recurring themes” of the past four annual pilgrimages he and his wife, Rev. Beth Hart-Andersen, have taken in Europe, each of which has been a “spiritually and physically and emotionally rich experience that invites reflection and brings balance.”

‘Some of the paths [on these pilgrimages] have been marked clearly; some were not marked at all and we spent a lot of time discerning the right direction to follow.”

This thought, Rev. Hart-Andersen said, undoubtedly was the case for the new graduates. Indeed, it also was the case for Tim’s “own pilgrimage after graduating from college. I had no particular direction. I meandered, seriously. In the space of about five years. I was a graduate student, a teacher (twice in two different states), a construction worker, a security guard, a custodian, and a civil servant. I graduated from college in 1974; I was ordained a minister in 1985, more than a decade later. Meander is a good word to describe the route I took, but along the way my faith kept quietly telling me (and, I hope assuring my parents!) that God would work through my life, and the way forward would be clear.”

“How do we find our way [on our own pilgrimages]?”

“It’s a matter of paying attention.” This was illustrated on his and Beth’s hike “on a lonely stretch of Welsh coastline [when] the path disappeared into overgrown ferns. They were so thick we couldn’t see where to go and we were on top of a steep cliff. But then we saw a sheep up ahead. It knew the path, and we followed. Sometimes help comes from the least expected places.”

“How do we know what direction to take as we move through life?”

This was often true, exhilarating, terrifying and chaotic for those just finishing school or college or graduate school. In such situations, “It helps to know we’re not the first to take the path. Many have walked it before us, getting there in different ways and heading toward different destinations. It’s good to watch for signs of them having passed by, to learn from them.”

As an illustration he cited a hike in “the wet, cloud-covered hills of the Lake District in England. No marked path and no other walkers to follow. Even the sheep were hard to see through the fog. A compass helped in a general way – we were heading east – but the footing was treacherous and we needed something more specific. We came to depend on rock cairns, stacks of rocks that would emerge from the mist and offer direction. We were never quite sure if a cairn marked our path, but we usually went that direction anyway, because it had been someone’s path.”

“There are many ways to get where we’re going. The rocks themselves in those cairns weren’t offering direction; it was the prior pilgrims who had marked the way. We found ourselves depending on people we would never meet, people who might have come that way decades or even centuries before, people like us, looking for direction. We assumed they had seen other rocks cairns left by earlier walkers. Often we would stop and add a stone in gratitude for what we had received.”

“That’s what Samuel and the people of Israel do when God brings them through a particularly rough patch in their journey. They’re facing huge odds against the Philistines preparing to attack them. The Israelites are outnumbered. Divided and confused. Losing focus on the one God and following other gods. Near panic. In disarray.”

“Like some of us on our journey as we try to figure out what to do with our lives, no matter our age.”

“Samuel tells them, over and over again: ‘Direct your heart to the Lord.’ By that he means, trust God to lead you through. Trust God not to abandon you. There are larger things at work than you can see. You are not alone. Trust that the way forward will be made clear.”

Direct your heart to the Lord. That’s good advice for anyone setting out on a journey, especially one where the direction isn’t clear. Don’t turn inward, counting only on yourself. Keep your eyes on God’s love and justice and pursue it with all you’ve got, trusting that God will be at work in it.”

“When God does help them through their predicament with the Philistines, Samuel marks their gratitude by raising a large rock. They call it an Ebenezer, from two Hebrew words eben haezer meaning “stone of help.” Every time they pass that stone of help it reminds them people had been that way before, and God had brought them through a time of trial.”

“’Here I raise my Ebenezer,’ we will sing in the final hymn this morning. ‘Hither by thy help I’m come. And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.’ (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, vs. 2)”[2]

“A few weeks ago I spoke to a young woman who grew up in this church and graduated from college several years ago. After wandering a bit she has now found her passion and is pursuing it. She lives in another state. I mentioned I hoped she would still consider Westminster her community. ‘Are you kidding?’ she said. ‘This place is home for me. It keeps me grounded. I’ll always be part of Westminster.’”

“She went on to describe mission trips and global travel and youth group and choir and Cabaret – all things that make up the Westminster journey for our young people. It occurred to me that this congregation had become for her a kind of ecclesiastical Ebenezer, a living reminder that God is with her, that God will not abandon her, that she can trust God to see her through.”

“Westminster and its partner communities of faith can be Ebenezers for the entire city, reminders that God is present, that justice will triumph in the end, that love is more powerful than hatred or violence.”

“The signs wishing our Muslim neighbors a Blessed Ramadan are little cardboard Ebenezers, defying the human tendency to vilify those not like us, pointing in a direction of mutual respect and humility, reminding us of the full humanity of all our neighbors.”[3]

“If we are to be a community reflecting God’s intentions that will be the way forward: each one of us and all of us together, living Ebenezers, signs of God’s love.”

Can faith guide our future? The answer is yes, if we are ready to let it, if we direct our hearts to God, if we trust that God is at work in our lives, even when it’s not obvious.”

“We who follow Jesus are a people on the move. Our faith will help us find our way – if we can see the signs all around that God is present on the journey with us. Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

As indicated in a prior post, I have wondered about the seemingly strange Biblical reference to the Ebenezer erected a long time ago by the Jewish people and concluded that Samuel publicly dedicated this stone “as a monument to God’s help, God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal covenant. And as the people got on with their lives, the stone stood there, visible to all who passed that way, a reminder of judgment and repentance, mercy and restoration.” Thus, I said, “‘Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come’ is a metaphorical way of saying that I recognize that God has helped me reach this point in my life and that it is important for me to create an outward expression of this recognition and gratitude.”

The June 5 sermon added to my understanding by stressing everyone’s need for help from those who have gone before and the importance of outward signs of those previous pilgrims and of the interconnectedness of the generations of believers.

The sermon’s emphasis on journeys also says to me that no one is defined by where they are from or where they are currently living. We all are children of God no matter where we live. And we need to live like God’s children wherever we happen to be.

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[1] The bulletin for the service is online as is the text of the sermon.

[2] A prior post discusses the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

[3] Westminster is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.” (Minn. Council of Churches, To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan; Hopfensperger, Minnesota council offers ways to support Muslim neighbors in Ramadan, StarTribune (June 8, 2016).)

Thoughts About “The River Runs Through It”

Bill Linder-Scholer’s illuminating post about the novel “The River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean raises many fascinating points. Here are some additional reactions to the novel and to Bill’s post from a fellow member of Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Book Group.

When I first tried to read this novel several years ago and again this last Fall, I was put off by the novel’s first line’s equating religion (Christianity) and fly fishing. In my boyhood and for the last nearly 35 years, I have been seeking to be a Christian, but I am not now, and never have been, a fisherman of any sort, much less a fly fisherman. To equate the two seemed absurd.

Moreover, I was baffled Bill’s reference to fly fishermen’s being the “penultimate” or next-to-last species of anglers. Who was the first or “ultimate” species of anglers, I wondered. Bill told me what should have been obvious to this Presbyterian Christian: the ultimate angler is God through Jesus. After all, in the New Testament, Jesus recruits two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, to be “fishers of men.” (Matthew 4: 18-20; Mark 1:16-18) I also relooked at the first paragraph of the novel, which says that the two brothers’ father, the Scottish Presbyterian minister (John Norman Maclean), reminded them that “Christ’s disciples [were] fishermen” and that the two brothers were left to assume “that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite [disciple of Jesus], was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Bill’s allusion to the ultimate angler suggests another interpretation of the novel’s extensive (too extensive?) discussion of Paul and Norman’s careful selection of different lures to catch different kinds of fish in different kinds of waters. In short, the lure that works for one kind of fish does not work for another kind. Accordingly, Jesus’ disciples, including us, need to develop different ways of explaining our faith or evangelizing to different kinds of people in different circumstances. “One size does not fit all.”

I also was surprised by the novel’s second paragraph’s telling us that the Scottish minister-father repeatedly stressed to his two sons the importance of the first question of The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” and its answer “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Although that document is one of 11 confessions and creeds contained in The Book of Confessions of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I do not recall any sermon or other discussion of that document in my years of being a Presbyterian. Perhaps its importance to the novel’s Scottish father-minister is due to the fact that it was written in 1646 and 1647 by the Westminster Assembly, a synod of English and Scottish theologians intended to bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland to produce a means of educating children and those of “weaker capacity” about the Reformed Christian faith.

This emphasis on the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism also seems to oversimplify what Jesus endorsed as the greatest commandment: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-37)

According to the older brother’s narration, his father held what I see as a very un-Presbyterian and un-Reform notion of God’s grace. For the father, the narrator says, “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” This statement suggests that grace is earned by an individual’s good works, which is the very antithesis of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, God provides many gifts by grace to many people; the gifts are not earned by the individual’s efforts. The individual, on the other hand, must first accept the gift and then develop and improve the gift by dedication and diligence so that it becomes an art. In the novel we see this in Paul’s skill and art of fly-fishing. Another example would be an individual who has a God-given musical gift of playing the violin. He or she could ignore or reject that gift and not do anything with it. If, on the other hand, he or she accepts that gift and hones it through many hours of study and practice, then he or she develops the art of playing skillfully and beautifully. In so doing, the individual glorifies God, in the parlance of the Shorter Catechism and of the novel’s father.

Finally the novel’s theme of the relationships between the two brothers and with their parents is analogous in some ways to those relationships in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), an important Biblical passage for me as discussed in a prior post. In the novel and Parable, the younger brother is wayward while the older one is dutiful. Yet the fathers (and the mother in the novel) lavish love and attention on the younger brothers while ignoring the older brothers. In the Parable, the older one shows understandable signs of resentment of this treatment, but in the novel the older brother, who is the narrator, sounds like an objective bystander without any such resentment or jealousy. I find it difficult to accept the novel’s older brother’s lack of any emotion about this difference.

Perhaps Norman’s feelings on this issue leak out in his comments about the family’s Last Supper when their mother “was especially nice to me, since she hadn’t paid much attention to me so far, but soon she was back with fresh rolls, and she buttered Paul’s [but not mine]. ‘Here is your favorite chokecherry jelly,’ she said passing it to him [not me]. . . . Somewhere along the line she had forgotten that it was I who liked chokecherry jelly, a gentle confusion that none of her men minded.”

Thanks, Bill, for sharing your analysis of the novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Group Tackles Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”

Bill Linder-Scholer [1]

 

Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean

For its monthly book read for November 2015, the Men’s Book Group of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis chose Norman Maclean’s short novel, “A River Runs Through It.” By the end of our 90-minute discussion about the novel, most of our members were convinced that Maclean’s novella is much more than a story about three men who like to fly fish the rough rivers of western Montana. We cast our questions widely to open up the deeper pools of the story’s meanings by looking to the text, to the facts of Maclean’s life, and to the images of water and the Biblical Word for guidance. We shared thoughts about the author’s direct use of Presbyterian theology to structure his plot and meaning. And in the final analysis, we acknowledged that although the novel ends with a haunting tragedy, it also leaves us with the abiding consolation provided by notions of a loving God and grace-filled moments in each of our lives.

 

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“A River Runs Through It” is the story of Maclean’s family of origin, a religious family in which, as the author tells us famously in the novel’s opening line, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Maclean is the older son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. From their father, Norman and his younger brother Paul receive training in theology, fly fishing, and writing, but since fishing is religion in the Maclean world and fly fishermen the penultimate species of anglers, the novel’s key scenes involve fly fishing on rivers between Missoula and Helena, in the summer of 1937. “It is hard work,” Maclean insists, “living in such fast water all the time” (page 63 in the 25th Anniversary Edition by the Univ. of Chicago Press), a comment not only about the tenacious trout these men seek to catch, but also about the younger brother, whose stubborn habits of drinking too much, fighting local customs, and getting in over his head in serious gambling games means he is always swimming against the current. The story line ends with Paul’s brutal death at the hands of angry gambling partners, which leaves Norman and his parents with deep grief and few answers about why.

Key to our discussion of this novel were two obvious points–”A River Runs Through It” is a deeply Presbyterian work as well a carefully contrived story in which the characters and the events are reflective of an overriding message about family relationships, our individual search for success and meaning, and the mystery of God’s grace.

From the opening paragraphs, Maclean uses Presbyterian theology to give meaning and order to the events of the story. His quote from the Westminster Shorter Catechism [2]–that “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever”–provides a way of understanding why the Reverend Maclean taught his sons to appreciate the glory of the Montana setting and to find enjoyment in working the Big Blackfoot River in search of the perfect catch. Such purposeful activity in beautiful surroundings reflects Maclean’s sense of how to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the divine.

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If “fly fishing stands for life” in this story, as Roger Ebert suggested in his 1992 review of the Robert Redford movie version of the novel, then it is no surprise that Norman and Paul take to the river to fish whenever they can, and in our discussion we noted the ways in which the fishing scenes are bookmarks around which the rest of the story is built–a story with the characteristics of a good trout fishing river (pp. 61-63): first the fast action of the rapids, then the inevitable complications of the deep pools, and finally the calm waters resolving at the end.

The first fishing scene of the story (pages 12-21) tells us a good deal about the brothers and the basis of their relationship, flawed though it is. Norman works diligently if slavishly to replicate his father’s approach to fly fishing (“an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock”) and has admirable if moderate success, whereas his younger brother Paul has all the grace and power of a natural and soon exceeds the mechanical limitations of his father’s discipline to attain a masterful casting technique (“shadow casting,” Maclean calls it, as if to emphasize its origins in a world beyond ours) which his father can only describe as “beautiful.” About his younger brother, Norman says (with potent foreshadowing): “ He was a master of an art. He did not want any big brother advice or money or help, and in the end, I could not help him” (p. 6). “Helping” is a code-word for relating to and loving others, in Maclean’s taxonomy.

The notion of salvation by grace through faith is the other point of Presbyterian theology that helps structure the story as well as hint at its ultimate meanings. “My father,” says Norman, “was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things–trout as well as eternal salvation–come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easily” (p. 4). Of course, Maclean has given the standard Presbyterian line a bit of a twist, adding in the role of art, the human effort to glorify God, as part of the essential human response to the promise of grace. So it is that the Reverend Maclean believes his son Paul is simply, divinely “beautiful” in his fishing artistry.

But then our discussion foundered on the obvious dilemma of this story: why is it that Paul–the wayward son eventually overcome by his own shortcomings–is the one who is described by his minister father as “beautiful,” with the implication that Paul more than the others has attained something extraordinary, something akin to divine perfection? (At one point of climax in a fishing scene, Maclean describes Paul as surrounded by a “halo” of water” as he performs his miracle cast [p. 21].) This led our discussion to the paradoxical mystery of divine grace, a grace given without qualifying effort on our part (but which also engenders effort to “glorify”).

For the Maclean brothers, these are troubled waters and when the police call Norman to come to the station house to rescue his drunken brother and girlfriend, Norman is not surprised. Despite his mastery of fly fishing, Paul seems bent on a destructive life course, drinking heavily and slipping dangerously into debt at the famed Lolo poker game. The brothers try to reach out to each other, but neither understands the other well enough to be helpful. The best they can do is to set up another fishing trip. To that end, they agree to take Norman’s no-count brother-in-law fishing, a trip that (literally) reveals the brother-in-law as a true failure but helps bring the Maclean brothers together in support of one another at least temporarily. But how should we understand their relationship?

Our deepest point of discussion of “A River Runs Through It” focused finally on two Biblical themes–the Genesis story of Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the New Testament parable of the prodigal son [3].

The notion of the younger Maclean brother Paul as a ‘prodigal son’ provides both motive and meaning. It is clear from the start of the story that the family thinks highly of Paul despite his indiscretions, and desperate to understand and love their younger son, the parents go to great lengths to show their love for Paul, nowhere more clearly than in the humorous dinner scene at the family home the evening before what proves to be Paul’s final fishing trip. The mother fusses over Paul and gratuitously butters his dinner roll for him; father and brother eagerly ask to hear Paul’s latest stories. But when Paul leaves the house early (to go gambling), the party collapses. “Although only one left,” Norman says, “all the voices had gone” (p. 80). The Rev. Maclean tries to express his (mixed) feelings about Paul to Norman, but he can only muster his conclusion that “help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly…[and so it is] that we can seldom help anybody” (p. 81). But Paul is gone; this prodigal son can’t quite make it all the way home, it seems.

By the same token, Norman is burdened from the start by his perceived sense of duty to help his younger, troubled brother. But Paul doesn’t want his help, and in fact when Norman gets in trouble with his wife and her family for the fiasco fishing trip with the brother-in-law, Paul overtly offers to “help” Norman by setting up yet another fishing trip, this one to include their father as well, on the Big Blackfoot River, their cherished chapel in the woods. When Paul suggests that they fish together, Norman says “I knew then that he was still taking care of me, because we almost always split up when we fished” (p. 85). Despite the their imperfect relationship and Paul’s growing troubles, the brothers find a moment of unity in this fishing trip, when “all things came together.” Thin place moments of sacred unity abound when the brothers are together, fishing the waters of the Blackfoot. Watching Paul catch his limit of trout on this trip, the father exclaims, “He is beautiful,” but by the very next day Norman has to deliver the news of Paul’s death to their dumbfounded parents.

Running through the book are the rivers, their waters providing thematic momentum. Like the flow of life that captures us all, the characters of this novel live and breathe and have their being on the water. After Paul’s death, Norman remembers him “both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter” (p. 101). In the end, Norman admits that, some thirty years after the events of the story, he is still “haunted by waters.”

So it is that, in the Maclean scheme of things, we labor mightily to glorify God, each in our own way, and to love one another despite the distance that inevitably separates us one from another. When Reverend Maclean struggles to make sense of Paul’s life and death, Norman reminds himthat “you can love completely without complete understanding” (p. 103).

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[1] Bill Linder-Scholer is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis and an enthusiastic participant in its Men’s Book Study Group. Prior to his retirement in 2011, Bill was a foundation executive and consultant on strategic corporate philanthropy and public education. His participation in the Westminster men’s book group reflects his stint in teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he completed a Ph.D. in English literature and taught classes in rhetoric and fiction.

[2] The Westminster Shorter Catechism from 1646-1647 is one of 11 creeds and confessions contained in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (as of 2014). In such creeds and confessions, according to the Church’s Book of Order (Section F-2.01), “the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do; they also “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions [and] guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures.” Such creeds and confessions, however, “are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.” (Id. Section F-2.02.)

[3] For the “brother’s keeper” theme, see Genesis 4:1-16, where Cain responds to God’s inquiry about the missing (murdered) younger brother, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus’s teaching via the parable of the prodigal and his brother is recounted in the Gospel of Luke 15: 11-32. For a detailed explication of the use of this parable in Maclean’s novel, see Dooley, Patrick K. “The Prodigal Son Parable and Maclean’s “A River Runs Through it,” RENASCENCE 58.2 (Winter 2005): 165-175.

Other Thoughts About Gratitude

E. J. Dionne Jr.
E. J. Dionne Jr.

On Thanksgiving Day, E. J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post columnist, added his thoughts about the discipline of gratitude.

“Thanksgiving is about gratitude,” he says, “which is a disposition, a virtue and a way of thinking all at once.” Indeed, it “is a form of discipline. Often those with hard lives and little wealth express enormous gratitude for what they do have, sometimes simply for life itself. Perhaps those with the least best understand Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.’”

When Dionne congratulated Yuval Levin, the conservative editor, writer and political theorist, for his great success by his age of 38, Levin responded “that ‘luck and chance go a long way,’” and that “Ecclesiastes 9:11 should be stamped on luxury cars and Harvard degrees.” That passage in the New International Version of the Bible states:

  • “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

“Gratitude,” said Dionne, “requires the swift, the strong, the wise, the wealthy, the brilliant and the learned (or those whom the world recognizes as such) to beware of their temptation to arrogance.”

“No matter how hard we might have toiled or how much we might have struggled, the bounty we enjoy is inescapably linked to unearned blessings. We need to remember what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said “’Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love.’”

Dionne’s thoughts echo those of Arthur C. Brooks that were summarized in a prior post [1] as well as those about my own gratitude.[2]

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[1] Another Perspective on Gratitude (Nov. 23, 2015)

[2] Gratitude I (March 15, 2012); Gratitude II (April 11, 2012); Gratitude III (April 13, 2012); Gratitude Revisited (June 13, 2015).