Of Quarries, Gardens, and Justice

June 14, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 51:1-4; Luke 13:18-21

I had never seen Joe Pye Weed until one summer many years ago when this strange plant showed up and kept growing higher and higher in my mother-in-law’s garden in the backyard – Carolyn’s garden.

Eupatorium fistulosum. Joe Pye Weed grows seven or eight feet tall and is crowned with purplish-pink flowers. It’s a native prairie plant, a perennial that pushes its way up through the earth later than most plants in the garden, and blooms as summer is winding down.

Every spring my mother-in-law would get anxious that it was not going to come up this year. “Where’s the Joe Pye Weed?” she would ask, peering into the unbroken soil behind the daffodils and iris and peonies.

And then it would finally return.

Holy Scripture uses the image of a garden, of seeds planted, to remind us of the life God gives even when circumstances seem to say there is no life.  “For the LORD will comfort Zion,” the prophet says.

“God will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD.” (Isaiah 51:3)

There’s an unstoppable quality to a garden, an inevitability to the cycles of the earth. The Bible uses the rhythms of creation as a cadence to accompany God’s love.

“Weeping may linger through the night,” the psalmist says, “But joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” Isaiah says, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom.” (Isaiah 35:1)

“They shall again live beneath my shadow,” God says through the prophet. “They shall flourish as a garden.” (Hosea 14:7)

A garden reminds us of the promise of life after the winter of waiting. It offers hope that God’s love will one day lead us through the night of shadows into the light of justice, no matter how long it takes.

Scripture understands a garden as a kind of living legacy. Someone plants it and tends it, and it returns after they’re gone, a reminder of those who came before and of their trust in God’s good future.

Today we want to think about legacy – something handed down from one generation to the next in anticipation of tomorrow. We think of legacy often in financial terms, a gift from a person’s will or estate that helps sustain the ongoing work of an organization. Each year the church receives several such bequests; the garden is replenished and it blossoms anew.

But a legacy is much more than merely a financial gift. We see that in the lives of those who have been active in our congregation’s ministry and mission and have died. Their faithful service and their commitment remain with us; their legacy lives on in the work of the church.

On Legacy Sunday we could go back and describe the life and witness of Charles Thompson, who left the bequest to Westminster that established the endowment more than 100 years ago. But, instead, today I want to touch on the lives of three members of the church’s Legacy Circle who only recently joined the Church Triumphant – three lives that show what we mean when we speak of legacy in this church.

Marion Etzwiler died after a brief illness in the early fall of 2017, when the Joe Pye was tall and in full bloom, but her spirit remains active in the life of Westminster.

Marion was a woman of grace, courage, and determination. She was a trailblazer in every role – scientist and engineer, CEO and feminist, wife and mother, grandmother, friend, civic leader, mentor, church elder and trustee, advocate for justice.

Only woman to major in physics in her college graduation class. First woman President of the Minneapolis Foundation. First woman on the board of the Minneapolis Club and – she was especially pleased with this achievement – first Woman of the Year in its Fitness Center.

Right up to the time of her death at age 88, Marion chaired the personnel committee at Westminster and led the Affordable Housing Ministry Team. She knew how to run a committee meeting, an important skill in a Presbyterian church.  She deftly included all voices, refusing to let anyone dominate, gently pushing for resolution, managing the process to successful conclusion.

Marion thought big and went bold, and brought the rest of us along.

We often ran into roadblocks in our effort to develop 150 new units of low-income housing downtown. Her unrelenting optimism and confidence kept us going. She always pressed on, sure we could find a way. Against the odds in many of her leadership roles in church and community, she persisted, nevertheless.

Marion made a financial gift in her will to the church she served so well. “For almost 60 years,” she said, “Westminster has been central to my life. I hope future generations carry on this amazing community of faith.”

After her death a Westminster member wrote to me. “Most of us,” she said,

“Aspire to be Christians, to figure out what it looks like and what we act like to lead Christian lives. Marion achieved it. The last thing Marion taught us is how to keep going and keep giving.”

The prophet reminds us: They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden.

Harlan Verke died in January last year. He was a member of Westminster for more than 30 years.

Harlan grew up in a Lutheran church in a small North Dakota town. At age four, his Sunday School class learned to sing Jesus Loves Me, and he was chosen to sing the song in front of the congregation. “I was terrified,” he said…but not so terrified that he didn’t sing it.

It’s the perfect song for any Christian, of whatever age: Jesus loves me; that’s all I really need to know. Harlan knew that, from an early age – and he spent a lifetime sharing that love with others.

Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others.” Harlan did that. His husband Rick said to me, “Harlan’s smile lit up the world.” That was his light shining.

I remember meeting Harlan when I first came to Westminster nearly 21 years ago. He was a kind, generous, thoughtful man, who loved to laugh. As I sat with him the last time I saw him we held hands. That memory, especially in the time of Covid, sticks with me. It was a simple gesture of mutual support. He was caring for me, as much as I was for him.

Westminster elected Harlan a deacon. Deacons are ordained to a ministry of “compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.” (Book of Order, G-2.0201)

Has there ever been a person more naturally suited to be a deacon than Harlan? Over the years that he volunteered with Open Arms and FEAST, Harlan quietly showed tender concern to those in need. His love of cooking and hosting meals, combined with his unceasing willingness to help others, made him a wonderful deacon.

Harlan made a financial gift to Westminster in his will. His legacy of selfless service lives on. Another church member described Harlan as “one of the most gracious and giving people we have ever known.”

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, says the prophet. The desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Nancy Slaughter died 11 months ago, suddenly – which is probably how she wanted to leave this earth: nobody fussing over her. She was the one who fussed over all of us.

Nancy grew up at First Presbyterian in Stillwater, Minnesota. Quite early in life she showed the kind of take-charge approach we all came to know and love about her. While still a toddler, barely able to walk, she commandeered the baby carriage with her older sister Sally sitting in it, even though little Nancy couldn’t see where she was headed. Never mind about that…she was going.

That was just the beginning. Nancy never really slowed down, never stopped leading, never stopped organizing, the rest of her life.

Nancy understood the importance of belonging to a community. She nurtured life with others wherever she went. Relationships mattered. Nancy was deeply loyal to friends and family, and to the institutions in her life. Having observed her for 20 years at both Westminster and Macalester College, her alma mater, I can report there was no more committed person in either institution. And in some ways, she ran them both. When she received her diploma at Macalester, the college president didn’t shake her hand – he saluted her. She was in charge, after all.

Nancy was a consummate community-builder. At Westminster she started programs to help people connect and get to know one another. Her “engagement energy” is still active at the church. She cheered on others, especially young people. She built networks before that was the popular thing to do. For more than three decades she served on the church’s personnel committee, caring for and supporting all the staff members.

Nancy made a financial gift to the church in her will. “Adding Westminster to my will seemed almost automatic,” she said.

“It’s my spiritual home, and I want to make sure the next generation has similar opportunities that I’ve had through Westminster: to lead in creating a better society, to mentor others, and to serve the greater good.”

The central principle in Nancy’s life, she once said, was stewardship. It now becomes her legacy.

The prophet Isaiah encourages us to think about legacy. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” he says, “And to the quarry from which you were dug.”

That’s good advice for faithful members of a church, like these three and so many others who look to the rock of our faith as we follow Jesus.

But it’s also good advice for citizens of a nation.

As Americans, right now we’re struggling mightily with the legacy of this land. For too long we’ve drawn from the wrong quarry. We have hewn out of the rock of racism the hard stone of inequality and disparity, of prejudice and violence. From that rock we have shaped the displacement of Native peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the mistreatment of immigrants, the disenfranchisement of those not like those in power, and systems that perpetuate cruelty and even death.

We need to go back to a different quarry…or, perhaps the prophet’s image of a garden is better suited to help us imagine a new way. We need to ask the people who were here first, and those brought in bondage to this land, and those who’ve dreamed of an America full of opportunity, to guide us through the wilderness to the place where the desert blooms – where we can, together, reap a different harvest.

That effort is underway now, all around us, and it has been for a long time, if only we had paid attention. The witness of Westminster past and present and future is part of it. We will help grow that new legacy.

The prophets remind us that when blossoms break out in the desert, God’s justice will light a new way for the people.

That will take time, because sometimes flowers open late in the summer, and grow slowly.

My mother-in-law Carolyn died early this spring, before eupatorium fistulosum found its way into our garden again. In a seamless passing on of the family legacy, we all took over worrying about the Joe Pye Weed.

“I’m not sure it’s coming up this year,” we kept saying as we wandered back by Carolyn’s garden to check on it.

But it did come up, and it’s now about two feet high, well on its way to blooming strong and tall.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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