Sermon for 14 Pentecost Yr B

14 Pentecost Yr B, 29/08/2021

Ps 15; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mk 7:1-8

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“On faithfulness” 

Faithfulness. This Sunday, all of our Bible passages contain the theme of faithfulness. They describe what it means to be a faithful people of God. You and I, everyone, at times, have our struggles to be faithful people of God. There are many words of wisdom in today’s Bible passages, so let’s have a closer look at them. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible gives Psalm 15 the following title: “Who Shall Abide in God’s Sanctuary?” The Good News Bible has this title: “What God Requires.” The Lutheran Study Bibleidentifies Psalm 15 as a liturgy for entering the temple. 

Verse 1 contains two questions: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” Both of these questions are similar in nature. One line following another like this containing a similar theme, is called parallelism, and there are several examples of it in the Bible. Reference to “tent,” and “holy hill” describe the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Most likely the people as they are about to enter the temple ask these two questions. Then, in the following verses, a priest would answer the questions. The priest’s answer in verses 2-5 emphasise faithfulness, how people live and treat one another. 

I like the CEV’s rendering of verses 2 and 3: “They speak the truth and don’t spread gossip; they treat others fairly and don’t say cruel things.” The passage from James also addresses the power of the tongue and the need to control it. In verse 26, James gives this advice: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle (do not control) their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” The gospel passage also addresses this theme, Mark quotes from Isaiah 29:13: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” In other words, they are not faithful and truthful because their words contradict how they live and treat one another. 

That reminds me of one of my faithful parishioners many years ago, who passed the following poem on to me concerning how powerful our tongue is. The poem was written by Joseph Hough, one of her relatives, and is called “The Tongue,” and goes like this:

My subject of discourse I’m compelled to use,/Please keep your tongue silent, nay, do not refuse,/For a babel of tongues is shocking to hear,/In bridled ones there is nothing to fear,/Would’est thou enjoy life and be happy for aye,/Keeping the tongue from evil is the very best way./It’s the organ of taste, the instrument of sound,/Giving great thoughts, deep ones profound,/Crushing a broken heart, or filling it with bliss,/It must be mysterious to have power like this./Now I am going to sit, some of you may rise,/Deal gently with your tongues if you should criticise,/For there’s a very old adage you’ve oft heard said:/It takes a still tongue to make a wise head:/But I heard that reversed when, very, very, young:/It takes a wise head to make a still tongue.

This poem and verses 2 and 3 of our psalm, and verse 26 of our James text all are, in a way a commentary on the 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” That reminds me too, of Luther’s explanation of the Commandment in his Small Catechism, which perhaps you remember, it goes like this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Would that everyone obey these words of wisdom! Then there would be no fake news that leads so many people astray these days, and the gossip tabloids and magazines, etc., would no longer exist! 

Continuing now with verse 4 of our psalm, another requirement for God’s people to be faithful and to worship in the temple was to: “stand by their oath even to their hurt.” That reminds me of the following story.

Disregard for a moment your convictions about gambling, and take note of something special in this news story.

On Friday, March 29, 1984, Robert Cunningham ate a meal of linguine and clam sauce at his favourite restaurant, Sal’s pizzeria, where he had been a regular customer for seven years. His waitress, Phyllis Penza, had worked at Sal’s for nineteen years. 

After his meal Cunningham made a good-natured offer to Penza. He said she could either have a tip or split his winnings if his number was drawn in the upcoming New York lotto. Penza chose to take a chance on the lottery, and she and Cunningham chose the numbers together.

On Saturday night, Cunningham won. The jackpot was six million dollars. Then he faced the moment of truth. Would he keep his promise? Would he give the waitress a “tip” of three million dollars?

Cunningham, a police sergeant, husband, father of four, and grandfather of three, said, “I won’t back out. Besides, friendship means more than money.”

Promises are to be kept no matter what the cost.1

Speaking of money, verse five addresses the matter of money-lending, interest, and taking bribes. The Message puts it like this: “Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe. You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.” That reminds me of the following story.

Like many other Canadian pioneers, the first Jew to settle permanently in Ottawa was a colourful and exciting personality. Moses Bilsky was born in Russian Poland in 1829, and he reached Ottawa from New York in 1858. He faithfully adhered to the Jewish dietary laws as well as to other traditional religious practices.

Bilsky was one of those unique men for whom Jewish belief and tradition constituted a way of life. As a banker, he was reputed never to have charged interest on loans to poor persons, Jew or Gentile. When he encountered a Jew who showed no interest in the religious community, or who lacked proper conduct, he refused to lend him money at all. Reverend Mirsky tells how one night, during a fierce blizzard, Bilsky appeared outside his door covered with snow. He was dragging a sleigh piled high with fruit, loaves of bread, vegetables, milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.

Bilsky took hold of a string tied to the sleigh and pulling it behind him, walked by (Reverend Mirsky’s) side. With the snow beating his face (Bilsky) told him that he had just learned that the family of the rascal whom he had refused a loan was in want. He would not cross the threshold of his house; but he wanted (Reverend Mirsky) to bring the cargo to the needy folks.2

Now that is faith, it describes God’s faithful people who practice verse 5 of our psalm, keeping the commandments in our Deuteronomy passage, and follows James’ exhortation to be doers, not merely hearers of the word. 

May God grant you and I the grace to be faithful to God and one another in thought, word and deed! Amen. 

1 Craig Brian Larson, Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers and Writers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books a division of Baker Book House Co., 1996), p. 190.

2 Stuart E. Rosenberg, The Jewish Community In Canada: Volume 1 A History (Toronto/Montreal: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1970), pp. 92-93. 

Sermon for 12 Pentecost Yr B

12 Pentecost Yr B, 15/08/2021

1 Sam 21 & Ps 34:9-14

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Revere God, don’t tell lies, and enjoy life”

Psalm 34 has the following superscription: “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” This superscription has a background story involving David in 1 Samuel 21. David is on the run, fleeing from Saul, fearing for his life. He flees to the city of Nob, which is located between Gibeah, Saul’s hometown, and Jerusalem. Nob was a city of priests, and David approaches the priest Ahimelech, who gives the holy bread to David and his men. David then continued to flee from Saul, going into enemy territory, to the Philistine King Achish of Gath—perhaps he was hoping he’d be safe there, and offer his services as a soldier. At any rate, David, wondering how the Philistine king will receive him, puts on an insanity act, scratching the doors of the gate and letting spittle run down his beard. King Achish has no time for such insane behaviour, he has too many other crazy folks to deal with, and so David continues to flee from Gath, escaping to the cave of Adullam. 

The NRSV Lutheran Study Bible, with this background story in mind, gives Psalm 34 the following title: “Praise for Deliverance from Trouble,” the deliverance from trouble being the threat of Saul and the enemy King Achish. So, David would have praised and thanked God for such a deliverance. The Good News Bible has this title: “In Praise of God’s Goodness.” At any rate, Psalm 34 is a song of thanksgiving. However, it is also an acrostic poem, meaning that each line or section begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition to it being a song of thanksgiving and an acrostic poem, our verses for today, 9-14, contain similarities to wisdom psalms. 

Verse 9 begins with a major theme of the Bible’s wisdom writings in both the psalms and the Book of Proverbs—namely, an admonition to “fear the LORD.” The Good News Bible renders verse 9 like this: “Have reverence for the LORD, all his people; those who obey him have all they need.” The REB, translates it like this: “Fear the LORD, you his holy people; those who fear him lack for nothing.” To fear the LORD involves being in a close and healthy relationship with God by worshipping, loving, obeying, respecting, and revering God. 

When we fear the LORD, by being in reverence of God and obeying God, our psalmist goes on to spell out the consequences, the blessings that go along with fearing the LORD, revering and obeying God. Verses 12 to 14 highlight the consequences, the blessings. Basically the psalmist is saying: “Revere God, don’t tell lies, and enjoy life.” Or, to put it another way, these verses of Psalm 34 are a commentary on the commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour,” (Exodus 20:16).

That reminds me of two stories that I’d like to share with you today. The first one goes like this: A man went to his rabbi with a question. “Rabbi,” he said, “I understand almost all of the law. I understand the commandment not to kill. I understand the commandment not to steal. What I don’t understand is why there is a commandment against slandering the neighbour.”

The rabbi looked at the man and said, “I will give you an answer, but first I have a task for you. I would like you to gather a sack of feathers and place a single feather on the doorstep of each house in the village. When you have finished, return for your answer.” 

The man did as was told and soon returned to the rabbi to announce that the task was complete. “Now, Rabbi, give me the answer to my question. Why is it wrong to slander my neighbour?” 

“Ah,” the rabbi said. “One more thing. I want you to go back and collect all the feathers before I give you the answer.” 

“But Rabbi,” the man protested, “the feathers will be impossible to collect. The wind will have blown them away.” 

“So it is with the lies we tell about our neighbours,” the rabbi said. “They can never be retrieved. They are like feathers in the wind.”1 If one tells lies about others and others find out the lies are not true, the liar can end up losing their respect, as well as losing a friend or neighbour, or the liar may even end up losing their means of making a living. There is also the Jewish tradition of linking illness caused by speaking evil of someone or telling lies. For example, Moses’ sister Miriam criticized Moses for marrying a Cushite wife, and Miriam ended up with a skin disease, her skin turned as white as snow (Numbers 12:10). 

That reminds me of the following story: The People’s Power revolt that toppled Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in February, 1986, was perhaps the most thoroughly chronicled popular uprising in modern times. Legions of foreign journalists covered it, and each scene of the unfolding drama was instantly broadcast around the world. Yet remarkably few details emerged about how the rebellion began and why Marcos failed to overcome the lightly armed rebel forces once it was under way. The result, says Bryan Johnson, who was in Manila for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, is a “massive misunderstanding” of the revolt that brought President Corazon Aquino to power. 

According to Johnson, the rebellion’s most durable myth concerns the role of Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defence minister, and the reformist military officers who supported his challenge to Marcos. After Enrile barricaded himself in Manila’s Camp Aguinaldo along with Deputy Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Fidel Ramos and 200 armed men, Marcos went on national T.V. to accuse his colleague of planning a coup. At the time, most Filipinos dismissed Marcos’s charges as another charade by a pathological liar. But those involved now admit that before Marcos discovered their plot, they had planned to attack the presidential palace, imprison the first family and set up a provisional ruling council. “For once in his life, Marcos was telling the truth,” says one of the cabal. “And nobody believed him.”

This is a tragic example of someone who ruined their reputation because of their lies. Marcos had lied to the Philippine people so much that the people had totally lost their trust in him. They believed he was no longer capable of speaking the truth.2 Marcos’s lying led him to take refuge in Hawaii. Perhaps all of his lying was linked to his death in Honolulu of kidney, heart and lung failure. Over the years, there have been several law suits, and many victims and victims’ families of Marcos’s brutal dictatorship have been compensated. 

So, as the psalmist so wisely teaches: “Would you like to enjoy life? Then fear the LORD, revere and obey God, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.” Then you do not have to worry about looking for feathers that have blown away in the wind; or having to flee to another country for refuge because of the consequences of telling lies. Your life will be blessed, and you will be a blessing for others as well. Amen—by God’s grace, may it be so for each one of us! 

1 Wm. R. White, Stories For Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p. 73.

2 Maclean’s, May 18, 1987, p. 54. 

Book Review: The Righteous

The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes Of The Holocaust 

Author: Martin Gilbert

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, hardcover, 529 pages, including: List Of Maps, Preface, Acknowledgements, Afterword, Maps Of Places Mentioned In The Text, Bibliography, Illustration Credits, and Index

The Author

At the time this volume was published in 2003, Sir Martin Gilbert had published eight books on Holocaust themes, a subject he had been writing on for forty years. He was an Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he taught and did research for many years. In 1995 he was knighted, and in 1999 he was awarded a Doctorate of Literature by the University of Oxford for the totality of his published work. He also taught Jewish History at the University of California and Hillsdale College, Michigan. 

Content

In addition to the sections of this volume mentioned above, this work contains seventeen chapters, titled: 1 Rescue in the East, 2 Eastern Galicia, 3 Vilna, 4 Lithuania, 5 Poland: The General-Government, 6 Warsaw, 7 Western Galicia, 8 Germany and Austria, 9 Germans beyond Germany, 10 Central Europe and the Balkans, 11 Norway, Finland and Denmark, 12 France, 13 Belgium and Luxembourg, 14 Holland, 15 Italy and the Vatican, 16 Hungary, 17 In the Camps and on the Death Marches. 

Observations

As a historian of the Holocaust, Gilbert has been thorough in the compilation of this volume. In addition to travelling to many of the places mentioned, he has relied on correspondence and conversations from Holocaust survivors and their family members, “the Righteous” (those who helped Jews and saved them by hiding them), and archives, especially from the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations Archive, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photo Archive, as well as newspaper and journal articles, and books on the Holocaust.

The stories of the Jews who escaped the Nazis and survived the Holocaust because of “the Righteous” Gentiles who hid them are very similar—though, of course, there are unique factors in each of them. 

When asked why “the Righteous” Gentiles hid the Jews, knowing that if the Nazis caught them, they too could be killed (and many of them were, or they too were taken to concentration camps); one of the most common answers was quite modest: “We are not heroes, we only did our duty, what needed to be done.” Some said that it was their Christian faith that motivated them to do the right thing. 

Many of them expected nothing in return from the Jews; and some hid them for long periods of time, even years, until the war was over. However, they not only hid the Jews, they also provided them with food, drink, and sometimes clothing, and even medical care when needed. Those Righteous who could hide Jews only for a short period of time, were often instrumental in moving the Jews to other safe places.

Some of the hiding places were small, crowded, and dark—requiring the Jews to lay down or sit in a position quietly for lengthy periods of time, until it was safe for them to come out of such hiding places. 

In a number of cases, Jews had to be constantly on the move, from one temporarily safe hiding place to another, in order to keep one step ahead of the Nazis. Tragically, many Jews had hidden somewhere safely for a lengthy period of time, only to be discovered close to the end of the war and then murdered, along with “the Righteous” who had hidden them. Also, tragically, Gentile neighbours would betray their neighbours who were hiding Jews. Even after the war, some of “the Righteous” Gentiles were murdered by their neighbours; or they realised that they were not safe where they lived and had to move elsewhere.

“The Righteous” who saved Jews came from all walks of life and backgrounds. Some of them prior to the war had Jewish friends and neighbours and colleagues, and supported Jewish businesses; others had no Jewish friends, neighbours or colleagues. 

On rare occasions, even enemy soldiers would disobey orders knowing they could be killed if they were caught saving Jews. Some soldiers would tell the Jews that they were opposed to Hitler’s “final solution.” 

The Italians, even though they were Germany’s ally in the war, refused to cooperate with the Nazis, and did not kill their Jews, nor did they allow them to be sent to the concentration camps. It was only after the Nazis occupied Italy that the Jews were killed and sent to the camps. 

Many religious authorities, pastors and priests, etc., issued baptismal certificates and false identity documents to save Jews. Some of them protested adamantly to the Nazis authorities and were willing to sacrifice their own lives to save Jews. 

Many of the Jews who were saved by “the Righteous” did their best to show their gratitude to them—sometimes keeping in touch with them all of their lives, and even providing financial support to them. They also publicly honoured them as “the Righteous” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 

Several of the stories shared in this volume are indeed heart-warming, highlighting the love, humanity, and benevolent care of “the Righteous” in a time of violent evil, hatred and destruction. 

This volume will remain a helpful and instructive one for Holocaust historians in particular, as well as a general audience. The detailed, extensive Bibliography is most impressive, and will serve as an important reference for readers who wish to study the history of the Holocaust further. Highly recommended!