My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, 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, . . . 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 of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

==========================

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

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

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

“What Is Your Call Story?”

This was the title of the moving February 17 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen.

As mentioned in previous posts, Westminster’s worship services are divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word; Listening for the Word; and Responding to the Word. After looking at the main points of the first part of the service, this post will quote the main parts of the second section: the sermon and its Biblical texts. The post will conclude with attention to the main parts of the third part of the service while my personal response to the sermon and Biblical texts will be set forth in a subsequent post.

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude was J.S. Bach’s Duet for Violin and Viola, as played by Becca Hanson and Jim Hanson, in memory of Lois Hanson (Jim’s mother and Becca’s grandmother) with Melanie Ohnstad, piano.

Then the congregation sang the Processional Hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” by William Williams, Wales’ most famous hymn writer (1717-1791), followed by Associate Pastor, Rev. David Shinn, leading the congregation in the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Almighty God, you love us, but we have not loved you. You call, but we have not listened. We walk away from neighbors in need, wrapped in our own concerns. We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed. God of grace, help us to admit our sin, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent, turn to you, and receive forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our redeemer.”

The Assurance of Forgiveness was then spoken by Rev. Shinn.

Listening for the Word

The Biblical Texts

Isaiah 6: 1-8 (RSV) 

“In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’”

“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’”

Luke 19: 1-10 (RSV)  

“[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchae′us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ And Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’”

The Sermon

“Our biblical texts this morning introduce us to two very different persons. One, a powerful prophet of God born in the 8th century before the Common Era, the other a local tax collector in the time of Jesus. Each is summoned by God, called by the voice of God, and each responds positively.”

“Isaiah has a vision of a wild and smoky room, where the Lord is seated high and mighty, on a throne. Winged seraphim and cherubim are flying around. There’s fire and noise and holy cacophony. It’s like a scene out of a Steven Spielberg movie, and it terrifies Isaiah, who suddenly feels tiny and helpless and woefully inadequate – and he says so. But one of the winged creatures flies to him and cleanses his lips with a burning coal, which emboldens him.”

“A little fire, some smoke, flying creatures and burning coals. Just another day at the office for an 8th century prophet of God.”

“When a voice booms out asking, ‘Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?’ the suddenly brave Isaiah replies, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“At the other end of the call spectrum we have Zacchaeus, a wealthy little man in the town of Jericho, made rich by his tax collecting job. His neighbors don’t care much for him; he takes from them on behalf of the Romans, the occupying empire, and makes out like a thief. This is no prophet of God.”

When Jesus and his entourage come to town one day, everyone wants to see the renowned teacher and healer. Because of [Zacchaeus’] small stature and also, I suspect, because it kept him out of reach of his hostile neighbors, [he] climbs a sycamore tree to watch the parade.”

“Our Westminster travel group was in Jericho three weeks ago. Our bus did a drive-by viewing of the Greek Orthodox church built as a shrine over the old stump of the ‘actual tree.’ There, or near there, Zacchaeus had his leafy encounter with Jesus.”

“It’s a more mundane call story than Isaiah’s, but it does have some drama. Imagine Jesus and a crowd coming into town, something like the Palm Sunday procession. All of a sudden Jesus stops, and all eyes are on him. Everyone else stops. He looks up. Everyone else looks up. And there, perched in the branches of that sycamore tree, sits everyone’s favorite tax collector to hate. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and tells him to hurry and come down because he’s going to stay at his home. The crowd is shocked. The most despised man in town, the one colluding with the Romans, is the one Jesus chooses to favor?”

“‘Why would he go to the house of a sinner?’ they ask.”

“In the course of the visit with Jesus at his home, Zacchaeus announces he will change how he collects taxes. If he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back fourfold – and why would he say that if he had not already cheated someone? And he makes a commitment to give half of his wealth to support the poor. Zacchaeus is a transformed man.”

“That happens when God calls, and we respond. Just ask Hannah in the older testament when God calls, she responds, and Samuel is born…or Sarah when Isaac was born or Elizabeth when John was born or Mary when Jesus is born. When God calls, wonderful, transformative things happen.”

“A thread runs through these two call stories. Neither Isaiah nor Zacchaeus nor those women in scripture assumed they were the ones God would choose. None expected to be summoned by God. And yet they all listened and said yes – and with that yes came a change in the direction of their lives. That happens when God calls, and we respond.”

What’s your call story? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t mean you have to run off to seminary because only clergy are truly called. Zacchaeus kept on collecting taxes; he just did it now with honesty and integrity. James and John, Andrew and Simon, the fishermen summoned by Jesus, went on fishing, only this time for people – and I suspect they didn’t entirely leave their nets behind.”

“I grew up in a family where the description of ‘being called’ was quite common. I suppose that’s how it should be in a Presbyterian minister’s household. Calling, or vocation, has always been important in our tradition. John Calvin, writing in 16th century Geneva, argued that God’s calling was essential for anyone wanting to find their way through life.”

“‘The Lord bids each one of us,’ Calvin wrote, ‘In all life’s actions to look for God’s calling.’ (All quotes from Calvin are taken from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter X, section 6 [Philadelphia: John Knox Press, 1960], p. 724)”

“Then sounding like a critic of multi-tasking, he goes on to say,

  • ‘For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambitions long to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest everything…be turned topsy-turvy, God has appointed duties for everyone in a particular way of life.’”

“Sixteenth-century advice, sound advice, for a 21st century world: slow down, center yourself, find your purpose, and focus your life.”

“Calvin then says, ‘God has named these various kinds of living ‘callings.’”

What’s your call story? What gives your life meaning?”

“Each individual,” Calvin continues,

  • ‘Has their own kind of living assigned to them by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that they may not heedlessly wander about through life.’”

“To discern our calling is to have the foundation we need to live sound and healthy lives. To find our calling means to discover our life purpose.”

“ . . . . Calvin was trying to help believers come to see that how they live vocationally can – and in the best of circumstances will – reflect the love and life of God. And that brings profound contentment in life, not so much victory or triumph, but, rather, gladness, and gratitude.”

“When we say, as we Christians do, ‘The peace of Christ be with you,’ we mean may you find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in your life. May you find your calling in life, because then you will have found the peace of Christ.”

“My father spoke often of his being called to ministry. It was commonly assumed around our house that each of us was called; of the four children in our family, he would say, one was called to teach, one to practice law, one to ministry, and one to banking.”

“When my father reached retirement he faced a deep challenge – an existential crisis not unlike many who reach that milestone: what to ‘do’ with one’s life now that the purpose is gone?”

“My dad struggled for a full year after retirement from the last church he served. He’d always had a specific calling to fulfill, to one church or another. And then that calling was gone. He wondered if his life was coming to an end because it no longer had purpose. During that first traumatic year he slowly came to understand that retirement itself could be a vocation. He discerned a ‘call to retire,’ wrote a paper about it, and went on a mini-speaking tour to describe his discovery – all the retirees loved it. He dubbed it ‘the penultimate call.’” [2]

“I had a conversation recently with a retired business executive. He had been invited to serve on a community board and wanted to talk about whether he should do it. In the course of the our conversation he began to speak about the board role as offering him a chance to make a difference, to focus on something that mattered. He was making the decision on the basis of direction and purpose. We didn’t use ‘called’ language in that conversation, but that’s what we were talking about.”

“What’s your call story?”

“Most of us reflexively leave the notion of ‘being called’ to the clergy, thinking that only they receive a summons to a vocation. We reserve the terminology for clergy; we ‘call’ them to serve. They have terms of call. When they leave the church the congregation dissolves the call.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t use such language with other vocations. Why not try it? Try speaking of your job –working or retirement – with that language. If someone asks, ‘When did you start teaching at that school?’ trying answering, ‘I was called there four years ago.’”

“‘When did you start working for Target?’ [Response:] “I was called there two years ago.”

“‘What kind of job are you looking for?’”

“‘I feel called to a retail clothing sales position…or called to be a mail carrier…or called to be a car mechanic…or called to do social work…or called to be a doula…or called to run for public office…or called to make music… Try using that language the next chance you get, when talking about your work, your vocation, what it is you do that gives you meaning in life.”

“Martin Luther King referred to our calling as our blueprint for life. He used to speak with school children and explain how builders use blueprints in order to follow the architect’s design. Then King would ask the school children, ‘What’s your life’s blueprint?’”

“Yesterday more than a thousand people gathered in this room to celebrate the life of Jim Dayton, who died unexpectedly on Wednesday. An awful loss. He was a person who clearly had found his calling, his life’s blueprint, in design and architecture. We see that every time we enter the new wing he created. In his life he produced blueprints for human community. Thanks be to God for his life.” [3]

“Without a blueprint we run the risk of having no direction in life. We lose our way. That’s what had happened to Isaiah. Remember when God summons him through all that smoke and noise, and he says he’s not up to it: ‘Woe is me, for I am lost. I don’t know where I’m going. I have no direction. I have no focus. I’m lost. How could you be calling me, God?’”

“The same thing had happened in Zacchaeus’ life, and it’s why Jesus called to him in that sycamore tree. When the people of Jericho complain about Jesus choosing to go to the home of a tax collector and, therefore, a sinner in their eyes, Jesus replies, ‘The Son of humankind came to seek and to save the lost.’”

“Zacchaeus had lost his way. Doesn’t that describe many of us on our worst, purpose-less days – as being lost?”

“‘Wandering about heedlessly through life,’ in Calvin’s terms? No sense of calling, no purpose, no focus in life?”

“Jesus came for people like us. And like Zacchaeus, and Hannah, and Sarah, and Isaiah, and Mary.”

“At the heart of the ministry of Jesus was his desire to help people find their calling – their way – our way – of serving God in life. He knew that once we find our calling, we are fulfilled, and begin to live as people transformed. We become part of the unfolding reign of God, which we are all in together.”

“In a moment we will baptize little Elsie Anne and Evelyn Marie. Baptism is the beginning of Christian vocation. It’s the first sign of a calling in life. It happens there, in the water. We make the promise, essentially, to help those being baptized find their purpose in life, their calling.”

“Calvin summed it up this way: ‘The Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-being.’”

“So when God calls, let us be prepared to come down from that sycamore tree and respond by saying, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“Thanks be to God.”

“Amen.”

Responding to the Word

Following the Sacrament of Baptism of two children, the congregation stated their Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the United Church of Canada:

  • “We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer then gave the Pastoral Prayer and led the congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

The Offertory, accompanying the taking of the offering, was “Greater Love Hath No Man” by English composer and music teacher, John Ireland  (1879-1962).

The congregation also sang two hymns: “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” by contemporary American composer Ronald S. Cole-Turner and “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John L. Bell, a contemporary Church of Scotland minister and member of the Iona Community. 

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

[2] See In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 29, 2012).

[3] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s Meditation at Jim Dayton’s Memorial service is also on the church’s website.  An obituary for Jim.appeared in the StarTribune

Powerful Call to Service in Sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

In the January 28 sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen delivered a powerful call for all to go out into the world and serve those in need.[1]

Reading from Holy Scripture

The Bible text was Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV):

  • “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
  • “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘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.’”

  • “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, 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[a]in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they 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 Sermon: “What Is Jesus Up To?”

“The preacher that day in Nazareth was on a roll when he came to town. He’d been on a speaking tour throughout Galilee, visiting the villages and synagogues there, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and things were going his way. The response was good. He was being praised everywhere. His reputation was growing.”

“esus is strategic in starting his ministry. He comes out of 40 days in the Judean wilderness and does not go home first. Instead, he goes to the larger towns in the area and begins preaching there – in Capernaum and Magdala, home to the woman we will come to know as Mary Magdalene.”

“Two years ago Beth and I walked from Nazareth down to the Sea of Galilee. It took us four days. On the pilgrimage we visited the ancient synagogues of Magdala and Capernaum where Jesus had taught before going home to Nazareth. Those villages were quite different from his hilltop hometown. They were on the Sea of Galilee, along busy trade routes, coming from Egypt and going on to Syria. In contrast, Nazareth was off the beaten path, high in the hills. It was a small, isolated village – maybe 300-400 people – full of conservative, traditional Jews, and somewhat closed off, sheltered from the rest of the world.”

“By the time Jesus finally gets back to his hometown he’s made a real name for himself in the more cosmopolitan region along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The people of Nazareth have heard all about him. They expect him to do for them what he has done for those down in Capernaum and the other towns.”

“Jesus goes to his family synagogue on the Sabbath Day. He’s going to be guest preacher there. He’s handed the scroll of Isaiah and unrolls it to a familiar passage about the hoped-for Messiah who would open a new era, a new day of justice and peace among the people of God. And then he begins his sermon this way:”

“’Today,’  he says, ‘This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

“So far, so good. Hometown boy makes a name for himself.”

“It will be the first and only time he ever gets that close to an outright claim to the messiah mantle. He should have stopped there, but Jesus keeps going. Jesus is up to something else, and that’s when he gets into trouble. The preacher’s good run is about to come crashing to a halt – and I have great sympathy for him.”

“God, he says, is breaking into history and calling them to account for the way they live. To illustrate this, he mentions two times in Hebrew history when God had intervened to save the people from certain destruction, through famine or drought. The problem is that both times God chose to work not through the most pious believers, like those seated in the synagogue that day, but, rather, through unexpected people, even reviled people – a non-Jewish widow and a non-Jew with leprosy, neither of whom had any standing whatsoever among those assumed to be God’s people.”

“That was too much for the congregation in Nazareth. First to equate himself with the long-awaited Messiah – sounding like blasphemy! And then to imply they were not among those through whom God would work – sounding like heresy!”

“Professor Tom Long says of preaching that at its heart is ‘the astonishing cry of the witness, ‘Something has happened! Everything has changed!.’”’ (Why I’ve focused on form and function,” Christian Century, 12/20/17, p. 29)

“That’s what the preacher is up to that day in Nazareth. That’s what Jesus is saying. Something has happened. Everything has changed!”

“But his listeners have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. Their hearts are closed. That will be the story of the rest of the ministry of Jesus.”

“Those who are the most religiously observant will not be the ones who believe that something has happened and everything has changed. It will be the women and children, who don’t count for anything in that time, whom he honors. It will be the people rejected because of disease or disability or age or status in life, whom he heals and loves. It will be the sinners condemned by everyone else, whom he accepts. They will hear him. They will believe. Their lives will be changed.”

“But the people in Nazareth in the synagogue that day aren’t ready for that. They’re furious at Jesus for suggesting they’re not in God’s good graces. In their fury they push Jesus out of the synagogue and into the streets and to the edge of town and nearly throw him off the cliff.”

“Surely that experience reminded Jesus what he had just gone through in the desert temptations, when the devil took him to a high tower and told him to jump and the angels would save him. We don’t learn what saves him that day in Nazareth, but he breaks free and walks away, unscathed, and heads back down toward the towns along the Sea of Galilee.”

“In a way, the townspeople do exactly what Jesus calls them to do: they leave the confines of the synagogue and go out into the streets, out into the town, out among the people who are at the center of God’s concern. A summons to go out into the city should sound familiar to us at Westminster – something of a recurring theme these days.”

“If they are ‘to bring good news to the poor’ and ‘proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (and) let the oppressed go free,”’that will not happen inside their house of worship. We will never address the crying needs of so many in our world if we sit behind these walls, comfortable in our religious rituals and never go outside to encounter the world. And if we do go outside we will not be able to do much by ourselves.”

“Ministry in the 21st century necessarily draws us out of the protection of our own way of doing religion and into coalitions with people of other faiths or of good will. This afternoon’s interfaith gathering in our sanctuary, Bold Hope in the North, will help prevent homelessness because we’re working with thousands of others whose religious practice requires them – as does ours – to leave their houses of worship and work together in the streets of the city for the common good.”[2]

“If we want to  join Jesus in proclaiming ‘the year of the Lord’s favor’ we will find ourselves having to stand up for things we had at one time counted on someone else to deal with. We will need to speak out against what we had previously accepted or ignored or let slide. We will go places we have not gone before.”

“We know those places, and we try to avoid them. It’s simpler to hide behind the mantle of our professed religion and go through the motions than it is truly to practice our faith. And it’s always easier to see that kind of hypocrisy happening in others, especially if they are within our own tradition, than to see it in ourselves. I am guilty of this.”

“This week when I read about Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, saying that evangelical Christians were tired of being ‘kicked around’ by the previous administration in Washington and, referring to the current administration, ‘are finally glad there’s somebody on the playground…willing to punch the bully.’ I reacted to that.”

“When asked about the injunction to turn the other cheek, Perkins said, ‘You know, you only have two cheeks. Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.’”

“Tell that to Jesus as he’s pushed out of the synagogue by his pious countrymen and nearly thrown off the cliff, as he’s persecuted and hounded by the religious and political authorities of his time, and as he’s walking up the hill to Calvary.”

“Too often self-described evangelicals seem willing to set aside the kind of biblical mandate Jesus lays on us in Nazareth for short-term political gain. Not all evangelicals agree; in fact, there’s quite a discussion among them now. Many of them are wondering if the term ‘evangelical’ still has any shred of meaning.”

“But before we judge our sisters and brothers in the faith too harshly let’s remember that Jesus was speaking not only to them, but to us, as well. We should take care not to become obsessed with the speck in someone else’s eye and not notice the log in our own. In the cultural and political and religious climate of America today it is so easy, and – shall we not confess it – sosatisfying, to see all that is wrong in somebody else, in the other, those with whom we disagree.”

“The danger with putting on such blinders, of course, is that we can’t see where we fall short, as well. And then we become the righteously offended worshippers in the synagogue in Nazareth. We imagine Jesus is talking about someone else, not us, when he repeats those words from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, and when he says that God will choose to work through not those in the synagogue, not those in the sanctuary, but through the last people we would expect.”

“’Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ Jesus says of Isaiah’s words. Something has happened. Everything has changed!”

“That synagogue scene is the start of the public ministry of Jesus. He’s not come to Nazareth to meet the religious expectations of his fellow townspeople or to play into their prejudice and affirm it. He’s not there to talk about religious things at all, really, about tithing, or keeping the Sabbath, or following the religious proscriptions about eating and farming and marriage and sex and family life – there were rules for everything, 613 of them in the Torah – but Jesus does not turn to them in his one and only sermon in his hometown synagogue.”

“That’s because Jesus isn’t focused on religion for its own sake. And he’s especially not interested in religiosity, that is, adhering to the rules, keeping the tradition, following the path trod for centuries, but missing the point of it altogether. As if nothing had happened and everything were the same.”

“If our faith doesn’t shake us up and wake us up and turn us around then we’re not paying attention. And in Jesus’ eyes there’s nothing worse than mouthing the faith and not meaning it. His most strident words in the gospel are reserved for hypocrites, those who profess religion but have no intention of practicing what God desires of us.”

“Jesus is challenging those of us who would follow him to reexamine our lives. Not somebody else’s life; our lives.”

“I know at certain points in my life I’ve found it was time to take stock of how I was living. Most recently that occurred when my parents died. Those of you who have gone through the death of a loved one know what I mean: something happens and everything changes. And we find ourselves asking big questions about the purpose of life. We look for new approaches, make new discoveries about ourselves, draw new conclusions about what really matters. We wonder what difference we’re making in life.”

“And if we profess to follow Jesus, as most of us do, we might ask how we’re part of the unfolding reign of God of which Isaiah speaks.”.

“Jesus is not concerned with getting the doctrine right. He’s focused instead on getting the practice of our faith right. He wants to get relationships right – not only personal relationships, but relationships among the human family, within our communities. Our faith is fundamentally about God’s hope for humanity, about just relationships among neighbors and among nations, about loving the most vulnerable among us – not about a religious creed or system, and getting it just right.”

“The preacher that day in Nazareth was digging deep and hitting home:  ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

“It was not about their religion. It was about their lives. It was, and it is, about our lives.”

“Something has happened. Everything has changed.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

Yes, everyone in the world, Christian or not, should go out into the world and help others. Yet no one can do everything that needs to be done and that thought often is daunting and debilitating. Therefore, one needs to go through a process of discernment to determine what your vocation is or should be and then you need to go out and work to further that vocation. Also one needs to recognize that your vocation may change over time. Just get started.[3]

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

[2] See Minneapolis Interfaith Gathering To End Homelessness, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 29, 2018)

[3] See these posts to this blog: My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); Another Powerful Worship Service about Vocation (Feb.  2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

The Tragic Extinguishment of the Eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy

Most Americans remember or know about Robert F. Kennedy or “RFK” (1925-1968): brother to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General in his brother’s administration, U.S. Senator from New York, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, and assassinated by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan  on June 6, 1968, at a Los Angeles hotel campaign event.

Less generally remembered or known was RFK’s eloquence, undoubtedly aided by his speechwriters: Adam Walinsky Richard Goodwin and Allard Lowenstein.[1]

One prominent example of Kennedy’s eloquence occurred on April 4, 1968, immediately after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Speaking to a campaign crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana, Kennedy shocked everyone by announcing the news of the assassination and then went on to refer to his own grief at the 1963 assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert added, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”[2]

Kennedy that night went on to say, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . . Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”

The next day in Cleveland, Ohio, Kennedy spoke against the “mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” He added, “Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve justice among our fellow citizens. . . . We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for advancement of others. . . . We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.”[3]

Two other examples of his eloquence were inscribed on Kennedy’s memorial  in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery:

  • “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.” (University of Cape Town, South Africa, June 6, 1966)
  • “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?'” (1968)

Yet others were included in the previously mentioned June 6, 1966, speech at the University of Cape Town. They all seem, to this observer, to be indirect references to Jesus’ injunction “to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself” and to the Christian notion of vocation.[4] They are the following:

  • First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I weep again at our loss of this inspiring, eloquent and passionate man. How I wish he were still here and our president so that we did not have to listen to the constant falsehoods and drivel from the man who now ineptly occupies that office.

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[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon at 373 (Random House; New York, 2016).

[2] Edwin O. Guthman & C. Richard Allen (eds.), RFK: Collected Speeches at 355-58 (Viking; New York, 1993). See Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 10, 2014).

[3] Guthman & Allen at 358-62.

[4] Tye at 410-12; Guthman & Allen at 231-46. See Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

Jesus’ Question: Who Do You Say That I Am?

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?” was the title of the August 20 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Brennan Blue

 

 

 

 

 

Here are extracts of that sermon along with the main Scripture reading of the day and two of the prayers.

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession: “Merciful God, you call us home with compassion and grace, but we fail to listen. You love and name us as your own, but we fail to respond in kind. We turn our backs on our neighbors’ needs, consumed with our own concerns. We look the other way while violence, prejudice, and greed run rampant in our communities. God of grace, help us to admit our sins and shortcomings, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent and find a new way of being. At home in your compassion and care, may we find that we ourselves are new beings.”

Listening for the Word

Reading of the Holy Scripture: Mark 8: 27-33 (NRSV):[2]

  • “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist;’ and others, ‘Elijah;’ and still others, ‘one of the prophets.’  [Jesus then] asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] . . . sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
  • Then [Jesus] . . . began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Sermon (Excerpts):

“Biblical scholars cite this passage [from Mark] as a literary and theological hinge; the single most important passage in the whole of the gospel, for it reveals the truth of Jesus’ identity that only he has known all along: Jesus is the Messiah, and nothing will ever be the same.[3][

“Countless sermons, books, dissertations, and devotions have been written about just what this means that Jesus is the Messiah. Today, I ask us to step back and wonder at what may be one of Jesus’ greatest strengths. He knows who he is. He understands and even embraces his identity, both human and divine.”

“Jesus knows his gifts and graces, his desire to teach and pray and heal. He shares these freely from places of deep love and mercy. But he also knows the hard things that come with his identity. He knows that he will suffer, and must suffer freely in service of others. He probably knows that his will be a lonely road.”

“One that, ultimately, he will have to walk alone. This too Jesus embraces from a place of deep love and mercy.”

“I doubt that Jesus could so faithfully walk the road before him without knowing fully and faithfully who he is. But by the grace of God, Jesus does and Jesus will.”

“And if we are to follow Jesus, then it’s important that we not only know this Messiah, but that we follow in his steps and know ourselves, as well.”

“That’s what it’s going to take. Honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces. It means speaking out while also searching in; leading from our identity, even if we’re working to change that identity. This is as true of our advocacy, as it is of our worship, our service, our care.”

“In short, it takes being and bringing all of ourselves to the table, trusting that God can handle us – all of us – as we are. That’s why we gather each week to confess our sins, hear God’s Word, and pray for the hurts of our lives and world.”

“So may we live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may be not only written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

[May we be able to answer Jesus’ question: “‘But who do you say that I am?” An answer that is truthful for each of us. An answer that is persuasive for others.]

“May we may know and love ourselves for who we are.”

“May we may know and love our neighbors for who they are.”

“As we together seek to know and follow Christ.”

Responding to the Word

The Pastoral Prayer was provided by Rev. Dr. Margaret McCray, the Executive Director of the Westminster Counseling Center, with these words:

“How it must grieve you, our loving Parent, that as we grow into our adulthood from the wide open spaces of our childhood dreams and aspirations we can lose our way, neglecting and even denigrating the unique beauty within ourselves and within every person we meet: the different but equally useful and remarkable talents you endow us with; the different ways we express our sexuality;  our different colors of skin and varied cultural traditions and life experiences; the different and deeply spiritual ways we worship you.”

“Forgive us, Loving God, for making our lives tiny and restricted, contenting ourselves with small, selfish ideas and actions. Forgive us for cutting ourselves off from engaging with our sisters and brothers from all over this exquisite home you gave us to live in, a home we are rapidly destroying by our thoughtless abuse of its once abundant resources.  Heal us, mend us, embolden us, Gracious God.”

“We pray for those who live in fear and anger, for those who know the horror and grief of terrorist attacks, for those who live in poverty and hunger, for those in the midst of war, displacement and hatred, for those affected by drought, mudslides and the effects of climate change.   The world cries out for us to be vessels of the love you created in us at our birth, the love you poured out in Jesus the Christ, who showed us how to live that love.”

“Give us energy and commitment to act on behalf others. Embolden us to live lives of generosity and compassion, to show kindness and act justly towards all people.  Give us courage to speak out against injustice, to honor the rich, fertile multitude of the different bodies, talents, skills, traditions and imaginations you have given us.  Heal our wounded hearts, help us to nurture the unique possibilities of our own bodies and minds. May we go to sleep each night and wake each morning knowing that whatever the day may bring we will meet it with gratitude and love in our body, mind and soul, for it is from this deep well that we draw the love and justice we show others.  This is what saves us.  This is what gives us hope.  This is what inspires us.  This is how you created us to be.  Amen.”

Conclusion

Jesus’ first question to his disciples–Who do people say that I am? — might be seen as His seeking information about whether His message was getting through to the people. When the disciples provided multiple, conflicting answers, Jesus clearly was dissatisfied and thus asked his  follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Presumably the disciples were much more familiar with what Jesus had said and done and would have better answers. Indeed, only one answer was necessary when Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”

That follow-up question also was addressed to everyone in Jesus’ time and to everyone since then. There obviously have been and continue to be many different answers to this question. Some will say, “I do not know.” Others, “He was a man who lived many years ago who claimed to be the Son of God.” And so on.

For those of us who claim to be Christians, the question is a challenge to have an answer that is direct and authentic. For me, Jesus was a favored Son of God, who by his words and actions courageously demonstrated the kind of life that God wants every human being to live. As Jesus affirmed, “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, therefore, commands our love and worship, as we strive to follow Him and live the life that He demonstrated.

Striving to follow Him involves reflection, prayer and conversation with others as we struggle to discern our gifts and talents and how to use them to advance God’s kingdom on earth and thereby discover and advance our own vocation. [4] As Rev. Blue said in his sermon, following Jesus requires “honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces.” In so doing, we “live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may not only be written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

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

[2] The other scriptures were Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Galatians 3:23-29.

[3]  Jeffery S. Siker, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 237, 239.

[4] Other posts have reflected on the concept of vocation and my own sense of vocation: My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014);  (Feb. 15, 2014); Another Powerful Worship Service About Vocation (Feb. 15, 2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); What Happens When Jesus Calls? (Feb. 19, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).