Pandemic Journal (# 27): More Reflections on the Pandemic

The July 26 New York Times proclaims the statistics of the pandemic’s toll: [1]

  • For the world, there have been 16,034,200 cases in nearly every country with 644,925 deaths while the number of new cases is growing faster than ever with a daily average of more than 200,000.
  • The U.S. (including four territories), with at least 4,190,400 total cases has the most of any country in the world while recoding 146,314 deaths. “Case numbers are surging throughout most of the United States, including in many states that were among the first to reopen. Because the number of people hospitalized and the percentage of people testing positive also are rising in many of those places, the case spike cannot be solely explained by increased testing. Still, coronavirus deaths remain well below their peak levels. And as some places reimpose restrictions, others continue to reopen their economies.”
  • The State of Minnesota has had at least 50,331 cases and 1,611 deaths. “Over the past week, there have been an average of 689 cases per day, an increase of 22 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

The pandemic has been having and continues to have a major negative impact on the world and U.S. economies. For the week ending July 25, the initial U.S. jobless claims rose to 1.4 million. This increase was the first in nearly four months, “a sign the jobs recovery could be faltering.” Now the $600/week jobless aid is nearing an end. Evictions loom for millions who cannot afford their rent while foreclosures loom for homeowners who cannot pay their mortgages. And the U.S. federal government recorded a budget deficit of $ 3 Trillion for the 12 months ending this June.[2]

These calamities have had a disproportionate impact on our African-American brothers and sisters. For example, in Minnesota 48% of Black workers have filed for unemployment compensation versus 22% of white workers. “One of the big reasons for the unemployment disparity in Minnesota is that Black Minnesotans are more likely to be employed at hotels, restaurants, retail, health and other service-related industries that have seen the most job losses because of stay-at-home orders and other pandemic-induced slowdowns.” In addition, “the pandemic also has disproportionately hurt American Indian, Latino and Asian American employment in the state. Women, younger workers and those with less education have also taken a bigger hit.”[3]

In the midst of these immense problems and challenges, President Trump continues to lie and demonstrate his incompetence. As a result, the rest of the world is shocked and dismayed.[4] I worry that Trump will attempt in some fashion to try to steal the election.[5]

Although I am retired with good health and financial savings and thus not personally affected (so far) by these woes, I worry about the impact of these crises on my sons and grandchildren. More generally I am worried about the negative impact of these crises on people and countries all over the world and the U.S. in particular that will linger for all their lives as I believe happened to those who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

“Investing in the Future” was the sermon today at Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer. It drew upon Jeremiah 19: 1-14, where the Prophet sends a letter to the Jewish people who have been taken into exile in Babylon after the Babylonians had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. God tells the exiles, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

This passage of Jeremiah continues. “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will [the Lord] visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to [Jerusalem]. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord., and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you [Jerusalem] into exile.”

According to Rev. Brouwer, this passage reminds us today to shed our expertise and judgment, relearn old ways and accept marginal status in the current pandemic in order later to flourish.

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[1] Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak, N.Y.Times (July 26, 2020, 9.21 a.m. EDT); Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, N.Y.Times (July 26,2020, 9.21 a.m. EDT); Minnesota Coronavirus Map and Case Count, N.Y.Times (July 26,2020, 9:21 a.m. EDT); Hyatt, Minnesota COVID-19 cases up by 871; 3 more deaths reported, StarTribune (July 26, 2020). See also List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: Pandemic Journal.

[2] Davidson, Coronavirus Spending Pushes U.S. Budget Deficit to $ 3 Trillion for 12 Months Through June, W.S.J. (July 13, 2020); Kiernan, Evictions Loom for Millions Who Can’t Afford Rent, W.S.J. (July 16, 2020); Chaney & Mackrael, Jobs Recovery Shows Signs of Slowing as Coronavirus Surges, W.S.J. (July 17, 2020);Benoit, What Banks Tell Us About Business: Everybody Is Struggling, W.S.J. (July 18, 2020); Morath & Chen, As $600-a-week Jobless Aid Nears End, Congress Faces a Quandary, W.S.J. (July 19, 2020).

[3] Kumar, Half of Black workers in Minnesota have lost work during pandemic, StarTribune (July 18, 2020).

[4] E.g., Achenbach, Wan, Brulliard & Janes, The crisis that shocked the world: America’s response to the coronavirus, Wash. Post (July 19, 2020).

[5] E..g., Sonmez, Trump declines to say whether he will accept November election results, Wash. Post (July 19, 2020). See also, Election Officials’ Dread About This Year’s U.S. Election, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2020).

 

 

Pandemic Journal (# 26): Reflections on Life During the Pandemic  

Here are my latest reflections on living through this pandemic.

The morning news on July 1 reported that there have been 10,483,100 people in the world who have been sickened with the coronavirus with 511,540 deaths, all occurring in nearly every country in the world. For the U.S. the numbers are 2,653,200 cases and 127,461 deaths. The recent hotspots are Arizona, Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Washington and Mississippi.[1] My state of Minnesota has had 36,338 cases and 1,476 deaths.[2]

On June 30 in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said  the rate of new coronavirus infections could more than double to 100,000 a day if current outbreaks were not contained, warning that the virus’s march across the South and the West “puts the entire country at risk.” He added, ““I can’t make an accurate prediction, but it is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that [3]because when you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they are doing well, they are vulnerable.”

These are grim statistics and predictions that are endlessly noted in newspapers and television and radio news programs. As an 81-year-old who has been isolated in his downtown Minneapolis condo building since March 19, all I can do is continue to spend time in my condo with my wife, wear a face mask and “physical distance” at least six feet from other people when I leave the condo to buy groceries, walk in nearby parks and go biking.

While in the condo most of my time is spent reading multiple newspapers on my computer and writing blog posts, usually watching MSNBC at night and occasionally other programs. I have to make time to read books for my men’s book group. Within the last week our building’s swimming pool, hot tub and exercise facilities have re-opened to one or two persons at a time, and I have started to use them again.

I have noted the reports that on June 28, Gilead Sciences announced the pricing for the drug remdesivir, the first drug authorized by the U.S. for treatment of COVID-19. The prices were $3,120 for commercially insured U.S. patients (for the shorter treatment course at $520 per dose) and $5,720 for the longer treatment course. For certain U.S. government programs (but not Medicare or Medicaid) and the rest of the world, the price will be $2,340 (for the shorter course at $390 per dose) and $4,290 (for the longer treatment course).These prices were deemed reasonable by the supposedly independent Institute for Clinical and Economic Review on the basis that use of the drug was expected to enable earlier discharge from the hospital and thereby “save” additional hospital expenses. Gilead’s shares suffered a small decline after the announcement based on certain analysts’ belief that the prices for the drug would be higher.[4]

In my opinion, this is a strange way to assess whether a price is reasonable. The proper method, I thought, was to calculate the cost of producing the drug or other product, after subtracting any costs that had been paid for by the government (or by converting that financial contribution into common or preferred stock and paying dividends to the government), and then adding a percentage of the cost as profit, whose reasonableness could then be assessed.

On May 25th I was shocked to hear the news that George Floyd, an African-American man, had been killed by Minneapolis police in south Minneapolis about 3.5 miles from our condo building. To see the teenage bystander’s video of the last minutes of this human being’s life was excruciating. I did not attend any of the immediate protests at this site, but a couple of weeks ago on a pleasant weekday morning, my wife and I visited the site, which felt like visiting the memorial to a martyred saint. As a result, most of my blog posts since then have been about this killing and the related issues of reforming the Minneapolis and other police departments.

Although I believe that the Minneapolis Police Department needs various reforms, I do not support the City Council’s proposed amendment to the City Charter, which will be discussed in a future post.

I also worry about the U.S. and world economy and the financial struggles of so many people, small businesses, political campaigns and our many worthy nonprofit organizations. This concern was voiced in the June 30th testimony of  Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell before the House Financial Services Committee. He stated that although May employment and sales numbers were better than expected, the path forward would depend on both how the virus evolved and a willingness at all levels of government to provide policy support as long as necessary.[5]

I continue to be grateful that I am retired and not worried about keeping or finding a job. Instead I sort through the many requests for contributions and notices of webinars and other ZOOM meetings. I try to respond as I am able.

My church, Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Minneapolis, is shut down because of the pandemic. But every Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m.it has a worship service on ZOOM that is broadcast in the afternoon on local TV station KSTP. Also available on ZOOM are other services on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. and on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. Adult education is available on Sundays at 9:15—10:15 a.m. on Zoom. Check the church’s Livestream button for details.

Especially enriching have been Westminster’s conversations with other pastors and theologians about important issues. A future post will discuss the June 21st “Conversation on Big Questions for a Changing Church” between Westminster’s Scholar for Adult Education, Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner, who is a Professor at Luther Seminary, with Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

I also continue to be shocked by the incompetence and outrageous comments from the mouth of President Trump and have to restrain myself from letting them distract me.

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[1] Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2020, 9:32 am (EDT)); Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2020, 9:32 am (EDT).

[2] Minnesota Coronavirus Map and Case Count, N.Y. Times (July 1, 2020, 9:32 am (EDT)); Carlson, Minnesota deaths up 6, to 1,441, in COVID-19 pandemic, StarTribune (June 30, 2020).

[3] Stelberg & Weiland, Fauci Says U.S. Could Reach 100,000 Virus cases a Day as Warnings Grow Darker, N.Y. Times (June 30 & July 1, 2020)/

[4] Walker, Covid-19 Drug Remdesivir to Cost $3,120 for Typical Patient, W.S.J. (June 29, 2020); Grant, Gilead Is Wise to Leave Remdesivir Money on the Table, W.S.J. (June 29, 2020); Carlson, COVID-19 drug price deemed ‘reasonable,’ StarTribune (June 29, 2020).

[5] Rappeport & Smialek, Mnuchin and Powell Offer Mixed Views of Economic Recovery, N.Y. Times (June 30, 2020).

 

 

Pandemic Journal (# 2): Westminster Presbyterian Church Service (03/22/20)

“The Power of Community” was the title of the March 22 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (delivered in a live-streaming service with around 2,000 watching at home) It provided this blogger with comfort and courage for living with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic.{1}

Scripture for the Day

 The Scripture for the day was Ephesians 3: 1-21 (NRSV):

  • “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
  • “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.“
  • For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
  • “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen

The Sermon

“As the coronavirus sweeps across the globe causing a rising level of fear, and leaving anguish in its wake, it’s tempting for us to be overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.”

“But there is a power of community that will be examined by “how scripture views it, how the church uses it, and how we can benefit from it as we face this crisis together.”

“One of the impulses driving creation, as the story unfolds in the Book of Genesis, is the divine desire to generate human community. When humanity is made in the image of God and placed in the Garden, we’re told to steward the earth. We usually think of that solely in terms of the environment – but we are also stewards of the gift of human community.”

“The Presbyterian Church’s Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1991, says: “In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community.” (emphasis mine)

“Today we might say, ‘male, female, and non-binary,’ but the point of this affirmation of faith is that the goodness of God’s love – the imago dei – is embedded in all of us. God’s image is seen most clearly in us when the human family lives as one community.” (Emphasis added.)

“The author of Ephesians speaks of the creation of community that heals a fractured humanity. This new community – really the recovery of the one humanity envisioned at Creation – is made known in Jesus Christ.”

 “’In former generations,” the writer says,”this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed…by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:5-6) (Emphasis added.)

“The promise of our faith is that the human family is one. The Gentiles – previously outside the circle – have become fellow heirs, members of the same body. The gospel makes the bold claim that the human family is no longer divided. We are one community, and there is power when we are united in purpose.” (Emphases added.)

“A friend who has been in recovery for many years told me their AA group met this week via Zoom technology. They didn’t know how to start the meeting, so my friend suggested they begin with the first of the 12 steps: ‘I am powerless.’ As they talked they acknowledged their individual powerlessness, something started to happen. They began to find strength in one another, even though they were not actually together. My friend said, ‘The sense of community was palpable.’” (Emphasis added.)

That’s the power of human community.” (Emphasis added.)

“One of the ironies of this time of being apart from one another, isolated in our homes, perhaps feeling helpless, is that the power of community is so much more evident. Just when we thought our culture and our politics and our nation were flying apart, now that we are apart we’re suddenly and keenly aware of what was missing, because we’re discovering it anew.” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s as if the biblical story of the purpose of human life has been instantly clarified: we exist to live together, as one community. Our insistence on the independence of the individual is giving way to an awareness that we cannot live long without one another. The best chance we have against the coronavirus is to exercise the power we have as a community to stay isolated and work together. All of us. If the community acts as one, we will slow the pandemic.” (Emphases added.)

The power of community.” (emphasis added.)

“Last week the New York Times ran a story with the headline, When the World Falls Apart, People Come Together. It was a report on the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, a disaster of biblical proportions visited upon the young city of Anchorage. With a magnitude of 9.2 that lasted four and half minutes, the earthquake destroyed much of the city of 100,000 people.”

““Life,” one person said, ‘Was ripping into a before and af

“That may be happening among us now, if only more slowly. In the future we may come to reckon time in terms of before and after the pandemic of 2020.”

“What will we remember most about this time? That question was the focus of the article on the Alaska earthquake. Experts had predicted that survivors of a major disaster would be desperate and panicked, and that pandemonium and chaos would reign. When researchers arrived on the scene only 28 hours after the quake, they were stunned at what they found.”

People immediately began helping others, pulling them from the rubble and leading them to safety. Boy Scouts entered a damaged hospital to help patients find their way to the cars that had pulled up to ferry them to another facility.” (Emphasis added.)

“Now, an earthquake is not a pandemic. The one occurs instantaneously and is fairly localized; the other is slower-moving and global. But neither is predictable. Neither is a respecter of persons. And the traumatic impact of both depends largely on people’s response to them.”

“’Everybody was trying to do a little bit of everything for everybody,’ one man in Anchorage said. That’s what people remembered.”

“What will endure from our experience of the pandemic unfolding around us?”

“A nurse named Dolly Fleming was in a stairway that day in Anchorage when the earthquake began. She saw a young boy in front of her being thrown around. Instinctively, she grabbed him and held him close to keep him calm and protected as they rode out the shaking together. Nurse Fleming would report many decades later at age 93 that being with that child was her lasting memory of the disaster.”

“’Something surprising had been shaken loose in Anchorage’ – the researchers in Alaska concluded – ‘A dormant capacity — even an impulse — for people to come together and care for one another that felt largely inaccessible in ordinary life.’ (NYTimes, March 15, 2020)”(Emphasis added.)

“They had discovered the power of community. That power is at the heart of the Christian gospel. It was the center of the ministry of Jesus. It is God’s hope for the world. And it is the mission of the Church. Jesus came to save us from our human tendency to break apart into divided groups: the Gentiles – in the language of that era…those deemed “other” then, or in our time– have become fellow heirs, members of the same body. We are in this together. We all share in the promises and risks of life.” (Emphasis added.)

Our best hope right now is that we would recognize the power in our being one, and acting together, like nurse Fleming, to protect one another.” (Emphasis added.)

“Children understand this instinctively. They crave community where they can belong and be safe. In this time of separation parents are helping them meet that need creatively. Technology helps. Our nephew sent a photo of his nine-year old daughter, isolated with the family at home in Portland for some weeks now, sitting before a computer having a play-date with about ten friends, all on the screen at the same time.”

“We will get through this together, even when apart. There is power in community.”

“I used to think that connections through technology were not genuine, but I ‘ve gotten over that. It’s real community. Like this worship service: this is not virtual worship. This is genuine worship. Our prayers are real, the sermon is actual, the shared experience of the music is authentic. We may be apart, but we are worshipping God together as the one Body of Christ.”

 “A Westminster member living alone at home emailed this week to tell me that online worship has become an anchor in their week. Without it, they said, the cycle of time in their life is so disrupted that it’s disorienting. Another member isolated at home alone emailed to say they watched all four of our online services last week, and each was a “lifeline.” (Emphasis added.)

“They were finding that they still belonged, were still loved.”

The gospel’s claim of the power of community is fundamental and foundational to our humanity. A recent article relates the story of anthropologist Margaret Mead being “asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture…Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. This particular bone had been broken and had healed…A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.’”  (Emphasis added.)

The church’s role in combating this pandemic is to remind the world around us of our oneness. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, insider or outsider, for all are one in the human family. That was God’s intention from the start.” (Emphasis added.)

“The power of community gives us strength and resilience.”

We are not powerless. The coronavirus is stirring the community to life, awakening an old memory that we are rooted and grounded in love for one another. “ (Emphasis added.)

“In this crisis moment the church – you and I, as followers of Jesus – the church is called to help the community know “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love for all of us, equally and unconditionally. (Ephesians 3:18)”

“That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the One whom we follow in this challenging time.”

The One who, ‘by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’ (Ephesians 3:20)” (Emphasis added.)

Comments

The Scripture for the Day  from Ephesians and its discussion by Rev. Hart-Andersen uncovered for me a new and more powerful meaning. Previously I had thought that the English- word “gentile” (translated from the Greek) referred to the non-Jewish people that Apostle Paul traveled to meet in the Roman Empire. Now I see the word as referring to all non-Jews. In short, the Jewish prophets and scribes were dividing the entire world into two groups: Jews and non-Jews or Jews and all other people or Jews and gentiles.

Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, Scholar for Adult Education at Westminster and a friend, provided the following in response to my question about the meaning of “gentile” in the New Testament: “From a first-century Jewish perspective, indeed anyone who wasn’t a Jew was a “gentile.” The Greek term rendered “gentiles” (ethnē) means “nations.” The New Testament and other early Christian literature adopts this same usage, describing the world in terms of Jews and gentiles. The Letter to the Ephesians places strong emphasis on the idea of the divisions between Jews and gentiles being destroyed through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The result of that is ‘a new humanity.’ See Ephesians 2:14-16 for a succinct statement of this. The basis of all that emphasis comes from the conviction that law obedience isn’t necessary for gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit and participate fully in the people of God (the church). The letter takes the notion of there being no special advantage or privileged standing before God and regards that as a new, singular humanity coming into existence.”

This fits within my sense that every human being in the world is a child of God regardless of race, color of skin and the specific religion they profess or none at all. All of these characteristics paint a wide variety of human beings. But nevertheless they all are children of God. Therefore, we need to be kind and generous to everyone.

When you recognize this and especially when you gather together with other human beings, there is power in community.

As Rev. Hart-Andersen said in his sermon, “The church’s role in combating this pandemic is to remind the world around us of our oneness. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, insider or outsider, for all are one in the human family. That was God’s intention from the start.”

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[1] This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about living through the  current pandemic. See Pandemic Journal (# 1): Kristof and Osterholm Analyses, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 23, 2020).

 

 

 

 

How Does Jesus See Love?

This was the question addressed in Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s November 10, 2019, sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church and in his reflections on his gathering four days earlier with  15 other U.S. and Cuban clergy and lay leaders on a rooftop in Havana.[1]

As previously noted in this blog, Westminster has had partnerships with the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba for nearly 19 years,[2] and the purpose of the recent gathering in Havana was to meet with the leaders of the Seminario de Evangelico de Teologia (SET) and learn about their vision for establishing a facility in Havana to supplement the offerings at its main facilities in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island east of Havana.[3]

According to Rev. Hart-Andersen, “It’s an exciting time for the church in Cuba, full of possibility. There’s a great awakening of spiritual hunger on the island as it emerges from decades of atheism and isolation. With its unique circumstances, Cuba offers the Church a living laboratory for spreading the faith.”

“Younger Cubans have virtually no experience of Christianity. They were raised in a system that rejected religion. As a result, for our Presbyterian sisters and brothers and other Christians on the island, it’s if they were starting the church all over.”

“Differing versions of the faith are rushing in to try to fill the void. Some cling to a traditional, conservative Roman Catholicism. Others mix African-traditions with Christianity. Some proclaim an imported, privatized, prosperity gospel designed to meet individual need. And others – including our Seminary partners – pursue a gospel that seeks justice and works to transform individuals and systems.”

“We have our own competing versions of Christianity . . . [in the U.S.] There’s little consensus among us in our land about what it means to be faithful. In our country today, religion is as divided as politics – and sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.”

“Whether in Cuba or . . . [the U.S.], those seeking to live as God’s people are struggling with how to do that in our time. The old ways are not working; we need a refresher course in following Jesus. What do we do?”

The response to this question for us [in the U.S.] and for the church in Cuba comes from Jesus when He answered  the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ answer: “‘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.”[4]

How does Jesus see love? It has more than one dimension, and it moves in multiple directions. It starts with each individual human being, created in the image of God, each one of us a living expression of the love of God – and then moves outward, in visible ways to those near us and into our communities, and in invisible ways, to God who joins us in loving the world. It’s a trinity of love: God, neighbor, self. In choosing to follow Jesus, you and I wrestle with finding the right balance among the three – and oftentimes we find ourselves tilting in the direction of self. And we get into trouble when we do that.”

These thoughts occurred to Rev. Hart-Andersen as he and the others on a Havana rooftop sang this hymn:

“Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see your face.

Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see.

Open our ears, Lord. Help us to hear your voice.

Open our ears, Lord. Help us to hear.”

Said Rev. Hart-Andersen, “We looked out at the city [of Havana]  and saw its many-hued people, beginning to meet the challenges of another day in a difficult time and place. Help us to see.” We heard “the sounds of children and babies crying and car horns honking, laughter and shouts rose from the streets below to accompany our song. Help us to hear.”

“Our rooftop singing [of this song] placed the worship of God right where worship should be: in the midst of the world. We were no longer hidden and quiet behind walls. It was love of God meets love of neighbor.”

“The practice of Christianity requires a context as close to the real world as possible, and that was the real world. Love needs someone to love. A “neighbor” is not theoretical. We can’t love by staying inside these walls [of our church in Minneapolis or Havana]. . . . Loving our neighbor requires that we encounter our neighbor.”

From the Havana rooftop, “we looked into a city teeming with life, yet impoverished materially and spiritually. And as we looked, we caught a glimpse of the makings of the Beloved Community—people working together, hoping for a better future, refusing to be overwhelmed by their circumstance, wanting to be loved by one another.”

“That’s how Jesus sees love—as a community of people reconciled to God and reconciled to one another, eager to worship and ready to serve.” (Emphasis in original.)

 State Department’s Contrary Opinion of Cuban Religious Freedom[5]

This sermon also implicitly contradicts the U.S. State Department’s December 20th addition of Cuba to the Department’s  Special Watch List of countries engaging in or tolerating “severe violations of religious freedom” while not meeting all of the criteria for the worse status of Countries of Particular Concern.

The Department did not provide any purported factual basis for this action regarding Cuba even though only six  months earlier, on June 21, 2019,  the Department’s latest annual report on this subject for every country in the world had harsh, and unjustified, criticism of Cuba, but did not designate the island as a member of the “Special Watch List” or as a “Country of Particular Concern.’ [6]

Conclusion

Jesus’ reminder that we all are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourself should remind us that each of us and everyone else (and every country) often fail to meet these obligations and, therefore, need forgiveness. We need to be humble.

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[1] Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Sermon: How Does Jesus See Love? (Nov. 10, 2019).

[2]  As its website says, SET is an ecumenical seminary that “was founded on October 1, 1946,” and that now “is governed by a Board of Directors, with representative, legislative, consultative and executive functions; composed of ten members of the Cuban founding Churches: Episcopal Church of Cuba (4), Presbyterian-Reformed in Cuba (4); and by a representative of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba (1) and of the Los Amigos Church “Quakers” (1).” SET works “in the academic, ecumenical, ethical, moral and spiritual formation of those who feel called by God to exercise the ordained ministry, and other ministries in the Church, as well as in the training of the faithful who wish to serve in the work of the Lord through the broadest universal ministry of International believers, through regular and special courses, in permanent residence or through meetings, among others. We are also engaged in the development of an ethical, theological and biblical culture and, for this purpose, we are open to people who do not intend to enter the Christian ministry in any of its forms.”

[3] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba, dwkcommentareis.com (Jan.13, 2015); Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church Celebrates U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation, (Jan. 4, 2015) dwkcommentaries. com (Jan. 4, 2015).

[4] Matthew 22: 34-40Mark 12: 28-31Luke 10: 25-28. This answer from Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible that would have been well known to the individuals asking this question: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

[5]  State Dep’t, Press Statement: United States Takes Action Against Violators of Religious Freedom (Dec. 20, 2019).

[6] See State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019); U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 18, 2019); U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom,  dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 19, 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom

The State Department’s recent 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, while not characterizing Cuba as a Country of Particular Interest or placing it on the Special Watch List, for the worst violators of religious freedom, nonetheless did have harsh words for the island.[1]

Cuban Religious Demography

Keep in mind that although “there is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of [Cuban] religious groups,” the report uses the following estimates of the sizes of different religious groups:

Category Denominations/Groups Number
Christian Roman Catholic (lower estimate, 6,660,0000) 7,700,000
Protestant:
Assemblies of God    150,000
Baptists    100,000
Jehovah’s’ Witnesses      96,000
Methodists      50,000
Seventh-day Adventists      35,000
Presbyterians      25,000
Anglicans      22,500
Episcopalians        6,000
Apostolic Movement        4,000
Quakers        1,000
Moravians           750
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints           150
Other        8,250
Protestant Subtotal    555,000
Christianity Subtotal 8,255,000
Jewish         1,200
Muslims         3,000
Non-religious  2,840,800
TOTAL 11,096,000

In addition, the Report said, “Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basisn, known collectively as Santaria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate their total membership.”

The large numbers of different religious groups and of their estimated memberships, in and of themselves, tend to show religious freedom.

U.S. Report’s Executive Summary

“The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. . . . [The Communist Party’s  Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice] continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.. . . Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.”

 U.S. Report’s Methodology

This report purportedly adheres to the Department’s ’guiding principle’ of trying “to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible” and not attempting “to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis added.) But each of  its various paragraphs invariably start with the allegations of violations of this freedom followed by contradictory information. This structure thereby implicitly and improperly gives greater credence to the allegations.[2]

Another legitimate criticism of this country report is its failure to consider the island’s relatively poor economic circumstances, especially with the implosion of Venezuela, which has been the island’s principal ally and financial backer, and the report’s implicitly using as its gauge of propriety the status of churches in the prosperous U.S.

The report on Cuba also fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has had and continues to have various surreptitious programs seeking to undermine the Cuban government, which, therefore, has reasonable grounds to be suspicious of some supposedly religious ventures from the U.S.

Sources of Information

Moreover, most of the adverse allegations come from only two sources: Christianity Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) with headquarters in London and EchoCuba based in Miami, Florida without setting forth any analysis of the credibility of those organizations.

CSW’s website says its “vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone can practice a religion or belief of their choice” and that it has a “team of specialist advocates [who] work on over 20 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and protected.” https://www.csw.org.uk/about.htm Another page of the website describes various religious events on the island.

CSW was started in 1977 by Merwyn Thomas, who might have been a Roman Catholic priest and math teacher at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana.[3]

EchoCuba, which was founded in 1994 or 1995 and is based in Miami, Florida says that it is “dedicated to strengthening the Cuban church and helping coordinate mission and social efforts from the United States in Cuba. It began as an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of the independent Christian church in Cuba in 1994, by supplying them with medical and humanitarian assistance.” But very little information about the group was uncovered on its own website or through Internet research.

On the other hand, the U.S. report only made the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): “Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

This, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.[4]

Relevant here is the subsequent statement (on or about July 17, 2019) by the CIC in response to the recent announced intent to create the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches by the Cuban evangelical churches that are not members of the CIC:[5]

We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto “United to Serve “which states:

  • “We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “
  • “Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.”
  • “Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church. “
  • “The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers. “

“Therefore, it is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.”

“In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”

“On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”

“God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”

“The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Conclusion

For approximately the last 17 years, my Minneapolis church—Westminster Presbyterian Church—has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba on the north shore of the island east of Havana, and I have been on three mission trips to Cuba to visit this and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches on the island. In Havana I have visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and its Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the offices of the CIC as well as the Seminario Evangélico de Teologia in Matanzas. As a result, I have gotten to know pastors and members of these churches and other religious institutions and have had the honor and pleasure to welcome some of them to my church in Minneapolis. On one of my trips, the Westminster group delivered a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel to a scholar at the main synagogue in Havana, and on another trip we delivered an icon from Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church to the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana. I also have read about religion in Cuba and many of the essays by a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, Rev. Sergio Arce, as reflected in my blog posts on the subject.

Therefore, I can testify from personal knowledge that despite limited financial and other resources, there is significant religious freedom on the island. In other words, the State Department’s recent report on religious freedom in Cuba paints an erroneous picture.[6]

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[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (“Overview and Acknowledgements”) (June 21, 2019).

[3] Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Wikipedia.

[4] World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Cuban Council of Churches (Consejo de Iglesias), About us.

[5] Council of Churches of Cuba, United To Serve (July 2019); The official Council of Churches declares its attachment to the new Constitution and defends that there is ‘religious freedom’ in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 17, 2019).

[6] See the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011); U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba (Jan. 5, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the U.S. Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (Jan. 8, 2012); Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom (Apr. 4, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom (Aug. 3, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report) (May 25, 2013); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) (May 27, 2013); Other Voices on Cuban Religious Freedom (June 19, 2013);  U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights (Mar. 7, 2014); Other Details about Congressional Briefing by Cuban Religious Leaders Mar. 7, 2014); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Takes Actions Regarding Cuba (June 26, 2014); Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders (Nov. 19, 2014); Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014); The First Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 21, 2015); The Second Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 22, 2015); The Third Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 25, 2015); The Fourth Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 26, 2015); A Protestant Christian’s Reaction to Pope Francis’ Missions to the Cuban and American People (Oct. 26, 2015); U.S. State Department Statement on Cuban Religious Freedom (July 28, 2016); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (May 28, 2018); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department (May 29, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

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

[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

Blogging About Westminster Presbyterian Church

Attending worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church usually is an enriching experience for me. I especially appreciate our service’s being divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word with the reading of the Scripture and the sermon in the center section of the service. That structure helps me and, I assume, others at the service or watching on livestream to focus on the central message of the day from Scriptures and the sermon.

Moreover, I often have discovered that being present at the service is not enough. Afterwards when the text of the sermon is available in hard copy or on the church’s website, I frequently read the Scriptures for that day plus the sermon and the prayers printed in the bulletin as well as occasionally conducting independent research on the topics.

I then write an essay about all of this. In the process I deepen my knowledge of, and appreciation for, the sermon and the issues it explores. This research and writing process usually takes several hours. Typically I then leave that draft on my computer overnight and revise and add other thoughts the next day or so.

I then publish these essays on my blog to share my thoughts with whomever in the world follows my blog or finds them on the web. I hope that they provoke thoughts by others, which when shared by commenting on the blog’s website will stimulate additional reflections by me and others.

For example, an especially meaningful service for me was on November 18, 2018, with the tale of Ruth and Naomi in Ruth 1: 1-18 and the sermon “Whose People Will Be Our People?” by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen. I, therefore, wrote and published a post with the title of that sermon. After quoting the Prayer of Confession, the Scripture and the entire text of the sermon, I entered my Reflections, which was my way of Responding to the Word.

In addition, I write other blog posts about different aspects of Westminster’s life to share the good news. I see all of these blog messages as my way of doing evangelism.

 

 

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

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

Preparing for the Word

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

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

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

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

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

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

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

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

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

The Sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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

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

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

 

“What Is the Highest Law?”

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

Preparing for the Word

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

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

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

 Listening for the Word

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

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

Sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But he doesn’t stop there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s all there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon was especially powerful for  me.

As I wrote in my eighth blog post in April 2011, “”The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ The lawyer replied, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that.”[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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