Sermon about Wellstones
Maryann Edgar Budde,
October 27, 2002
Then Moses went up from the
plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite
Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land.The Lord said to him,
"This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob,
saying, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have et you see it with
your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." Then Moses, the servant
of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord' s command.
When the Pharisees heard that
he had silence 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?" He 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.' One these two
commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
What has become clear to you since last we met? Clarity, which is the recognition of truth, doesn't come to us all at once, in a whole piece, to take in and be done with. Rather it comes gradually, in time. Our capacity to receive truth and insight also grows in time, as indeed our very selves as human beings are not realized all at once, but in time. We grow and truth grows in us by increments. And of course things happen that change us and shift our perspective on the world. In a moment it happens. In a moment, a great man and political leader dies, along with his family and close associates. It happens in a moment. What has become clear to you now?
It has been a week of marking death for me, as it has for others, I know. On Monday I learned of the death of Dan Gifford's father, a quiet man who used to take walks with his wife past the church. On Tuesday I received word that the wife of a dear colleague had died after struggling for five years with a terrible disease. She was exactly my age, and like Mary McEvoy, who died with Paul Wellstone, she left behind three children. Waiting for me when I returned from her funeral was a note from a member of the parish I first served as a priest, telling me that her husband died. This was a man who had known and loved me in the early tentative years of my vocation, one who held my now strapping sons as babies much the same way Jack Wiborg holds the children in the here. Then came the terrible news on Friday of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, heralding a public as well as private loss. I'm certain that Paul Wellstone, of all people, would never want his death to be singled out over that of any other human being. He would want us to grieve the loss of any life, and in particular those who died with him on that plane. He would grieve the their deaths more than his own.
Yet it is clear to me that there are things to say about Paul Wellstone today. There are aspects of his life and character that we need to hold before us as we slowly begin to take in the harsh reality of what we have lost.
The first notable thing about Paul's Wellstone's public life was the way he on his initial election to the Senate, against all odds, drawing upon political principles and practices that harkened back to a time when campaigns were not driven by the cost of television advertisements, but by the tenacity of candidates to get out and make their case before the electorate. His was the quintessential grass roots campaign, inspiring countless idealistic men and women to believe in the political process gain, some of whom have gone on to seek elected office in much the same way.
Paul Wellstone was unapologetic and unwavering in his commitment to the moral and ethical principles of his own Jewish tradition, the Christian heritage of his wife, and the highest political ideals of American democracy. He never lost sight of people at the margins of our society, working tirelessly for those whose concerns are typically ignored. As many have said this weekend, his politics were reminiscent of the passionate days of 1930s New Deal liberalism and the fiery social transformation of the 1960s. He was always speaking against prevailing political winds, not with them, doing damage control, really, in a political climate driven by other agendas. As a result, decisive Wellstone victories in the legislative process were few. Yet his smaller victories on behalf of particular people or groups, by virtue of how he used his office and the legislative process, are too many to count. Practically everyone, it seems, has a Paul Wellstone story to tell.
Here's one: a few years ago ISAIAH, the faith-based community organization of which St. John's is a member, launched a campaign to preserve immigrant families, addressing the increasingly hostile treatment of immigrants in the metro area and the quagmire of inhumanity that passes nowadays US immigration law. When discussions with the local Immigration and Naturalization Service leadership proved futile, several of us were asked to contact our federal senators and congress people. All refused to help, except Paul Wellstone, who flew into Minneapolis bringing with him the national supervisor of the local INS leader. For three hours Wellstone lead the negotiations, while several hundred mostly undocumented workers, waited in a church sanctuary. When the negotiations ended, Wellstone had helped secure almost everything that ISAIAH had asked for-modest requests, actually, for basic courtesy, documents in Spanish, offices opened past working hours, so that more immigrants could find the elusive path to legitimacy in this country. Very few people gathered in that church would ever be able to vote for him, but he helped them anyway, on principle, as it was in his nature to do.
I personally admired the way Paul Wellstone handled the public disclosure of his health struggles, and his recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. He spoke honestly, matter-of-factly, as if to say, you know, we all have failing bodies, but that's no excuse to stop living. "I have a strong mind, strong heart, and a strong soul," he said, echoing the great commandment we heard this morning. "I just have a little bit of trouble with my right leg. All the work on all the issues continues."
I also admired his decision to seek a third term, after having stated publicly 12 years ago that he would only serve two. I admired his decision because I knew that it sprang from his own sense of political vocation and in response to the many in the Democratic Party who asked him not to step down. He changed his mind, and took the risk to run again even if it meant being accused of contradicting his most cherished ideals of honesty and integrity in public office. Yet it's striking how little fuel for the political fire there was for his opponents. He changed his mind, not his character. Accusations of Wellstone lacking integrity fell quickly on deaf ears. Indeed, every one of his political opponents who spoke of him this weekend referred to what Martin Luther King would have called the content of his character. How they admired and respected him for it.
Paul Wellstone was a man of peace. As a professor at Carleton College he protested loudly and persistently against the Viet Nam War, a position that almost cost him his job. In the Senate he voted against nearly every military initiative of his tenure, with the exception of the anti-terrorism legislation shortly after September 11th and salary increases for military personnel. Dove that he was, he nonetheless won the endorsement of Veteran's groups this year because of his tireless support for veteran's causes, in particular for veterans' health and housing needs. Disagree with military olicy, yes. Forget the men and women sent to fight our wars? Never.
And what a day it was when Wellstone announced his decision to vote against granting authority to President Bush to wage unilateral war in Iraq-only one of 26 Senators to do so and the only one running for reelection this year. What a day that was when he said publicly that he could not support the unilateral war effort, even though he had no illusions about Saddam Hussein and the danger he represents to all humanity. He knew the risks to his political future. But he acted according to what he knew was right.
He helped me with that vote to gain clarity for myself. I have been among those suspicious of this current administration's intense determination to go to war, and yet I hated being in the position of defending Saddam Hussein, one of the world's worst dictators, who only responds, as history emonstrates, to force. I felt strangely caught, with strong voices ringing in both my ears. Yet when Wellstone spoke, giving his reasons for voting against the war resolution, I knew that I could stand firm in my intuition that as a nation we were risking, yet again, making a dangerous part of the world more dangerous still by taking unilateral action just because we can. "If we invade Iraq unilaterally," Wellstone said, "we show Saddam our power.. If we act in conjunction with our allies, we demonstrate our strength." Whowill speak that word of courage now?
What has become clear to you since last we met? I tell you what's become clear to me: that life is too short for petty worries, the kind of corrosive anxiety that saps strength and distorts vision. It's too short for fretting over things that don't really matter, too short for wasting even a moment of joy with loved ones, too short for looking at anything except the horizon. At diocesan convention this weekend I took an informal poll of my colleagues, asking what they would say to the seven people who are to be ordained priests in December as I am preaching at that service. Our beloved Barbara Mraz said, "don't let the forces of darkness get you down. Because they're out there and they would like nothing more than to keep you frozen. Stay focused on the work you do well." I wrote those words down for myself.
The Scriptures speak this morning of another death, the death of Moses. He stood at last on the mountain overlooking the land of promise that he had labored all his life to enter, to lead his people from the land of bondage to their freedom at last. "This is the land," the Lord told him, "the land I promised to your ancestors; the land I will give to your descendents. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over." It is among the most poignant stories told in all the Hebrew Scriptures-Moses seeing from afar the promise he himself would never know. Martin Luther King referred to it in the last sermon of his life, the night before he died. "I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead," he said. "But it doesn't matter to me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. Like anyone else, I would like to live a long life. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up the mountain. And I've looked over. I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will see the Promised Land.
Like Moses, Martin, Paul, and all who died with him; like my colleague's wife, and all whom we have known and loved whose lives ended too soon, we may not live as long as we would like, not live long enough to see our children or grandchildren grow up, not to see our dreams fulfilled. Yet what matters in the end is not how long we live, but how well; not if we fulfill our dreams, but how we live them each day; not what we have in terms of accomplishments or possessions, but how we love and grow in truth, compassion, generosity, and wisdom. As I left the funeral for my colleague's wife on Thursday, he said to me "I'm certain that there is nothing Rhonda would have changed about her life. That's quite a thing to say, no matter when the end comes." You can't but think the same about Paul and Sheila Wellstone, that they lived so fully and deeply that, given the choice, they wouldn't have changed anything. May something of the same be said of you and of me when our time on this earth is ended-that we loved fully, gave generously, cared passionately, lived boldly, and walked faithfully with our God.
Blessing said at the end of church (attributed to William Sloane Coffin)
May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short; grace to risk something big for something good; grace to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth, and to small for anything but love.
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