America's Heart

7 Pentecost Proper C9                     
Rev. Dr. D.K. Schroeder
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30 (Proper A9 Gospel) Sermon
July 7, 2013

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & Elsewhere):
----- "God Of Grace & God Of Glory"
----- "O Beautiful For Spacious Skies"
123 "Our God, Our Help In Ages Past"
575 "Before The Lord We Bow"
577 "God Bless Our Native Land"


TEXT (vs. 18, 19, 28):  “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her actions. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

            September 11, 2001 is a date that most of us will never forget.  That of course was the day when those hijacked airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which brought those massive towers in New York City crashing to the ground.

            This situation affected virtually every American citizen.  There were feelings of shock, disbelief, and horror to name a few.  Many innocent lives had been lost, and people began to rally and band together.  There had been a pre-meditated and vicious attack on American soil.

            Sitting in his home in Missouri, a man by the name of Jacob heard the news of the 9-11 attacks.  It affected him too; but what could he do?  He was half a continent away, and would have been pretty much incapable to help in the efforts, even if he were there. 

            But his emotions and feelings ran deep, and so he began to paint as a way of expressing what he was feeling and what he witnessed.  Each and every brush stroke was carefully planned and calculated, so that the painting would contain exactly one brush stroke for each of the casualties of the 9-11 attack.

            The end result of his work is depicted on your bulletin cover this morning (at the top of the sermon if you’re reading this on the internet).  What you see is the Statue of Liberty set against the backdrop of the New York City skyline; and above it all is the American flag in the shape of a heart.  The title of this piece is simply, “America’s Heart.”

            Jacob visualized his painting becoming a mural in New York City overlooking the ground zero site.  And so he went to New York City and contacted the various building owners with the hope of finding someone willing to have this mural displayed on their building.  He also worked with the city officials to be sure everything would be done according to code.

            Jacob said,  "For the longest time it looked like it was simply an impossibility to make this work, meet the codes, find an appropriate building, and even find someone to put a mural this huge up; then I found out that the owners of the building at 90 West Street lived in Iowa. I was ready to hop a plane to present my vision in person to the owners; but once they heard the concept, they loved the idea and agreed to let the mural go up on their building."

            Jacob contacted a company in Ohio to make the 200 by 135 foot mural.  It cost him $100,000 out of his own pocket to have them do the job.  And then sixty people from the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union Local 137 in New York City volunteered their time to put the mural in place. 

            It was a battle against the clock.  They spent the pre-dawn hours of September 11, 2002 getting it all into place. And then, when the sun rose and the people gathered for the one year anniversary of 9-11, this mural was the backdrop for the whole event.  The mural was pictured as you see it here, with words underneath reading:  “The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart.”

            The sight was breathtaking.  All of the network news broadcasts featured the mural, and it was shown almost continually on that day.  Jacob’s dream had come true; and in his own way, he was able to give support and encouragement to those whose lives were forever changed because of this event.

            Jacob made this comment:  "Along with so many people, I was stunned as I watched the images on television on the morning of September 11; and what made this devastation even more grievous was to know that what I was watching was coming from New York harbor, which is the home of the Statue of Liberty. She had to stand there and watch our American landscape changing in front of her very eyes, never to be the same. And yet she stood there, together and strong without wavering. I think it's a wonderful metaphor for all of us, to stand there, together and strong, without wavering, in love and not fear."

            Jacob however remained an anonymous artist for quite some time.  Nobody knew that day who had painstakingly made one brush stroke for every casualty.  Nobody knew who had spent a great deal of money out of his own pocket and a whole year trying to bring this project to fruition.  Nobody knew the artist whose heart was mourning.

            So let me tell you a little bit about Jacob.  Jacob was an art professor; however it wasn’t in this country.  His native home was in the city of Odessa in the Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union.  At the age of 27, he came to the United States.  His first glimpse of the USA was the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.  And then on July 4, 1986, on Ellis Island, Jacob was sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America.  This coincided with the rededication of the Statue of Liberty following some well needed renovations.

            But why was Jacob’s identity kept a secret for so long?  It was mainly because of who Jacob was.  He was not born on American soil.  He came from a Soviet communist background.  He had only been an American citizen for fifteen years. 

            But more than that, it was how we know him and how he is identified by our society.  We don’t know him as Jacob, but by the way the name Jacob is said in the Russian language, which is Yakov.  Yes, Jacob is none other than the famous Yakov Smirnoff, the Soviet turned American stand-up comedian, who has delighted audiences for years.

            He explains that the main reason he wanted his identity to be kept confidential, was because he felt that people wouldn’t take him or his labor of love seriously.  He wanted to express his grief and show his love and support for his new homeland; and he wanted to do so without any pre-conceived notions or public opinions. 

            People tend to have some ideas in their heads about what a patriot should be like.  Maybe people think of someone like General Patton, or McCarthy, or Eisenhower.  The average American really can’t comprehend a stand-up comedian who speaks with a thick Russian accent as being the epitome of a patriot.

            I think that the story of Yakov Smirnoff is a fascinating one, and I told it this morning for several reasons.  First of all, I usually try to have a sermon dealing with patriotism around this time of the year, this being the 4th of July weekend and all.

            But our Gospel lesson for this morning is illustrated here in a couple of ways.  Let’s look at verses 18 and 19 again:  “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her actions.”

            Here we have two Biblical figures—John the Baptist, and Jesus.  The unfortunate thing is that neither of these two people fit people’s idea of what a man of God should be like.

            John the Baptist was a real rugged character who dressed in clothing made of camel hair, and ate off the land—the pods of the locust tree (or some believe it was the locust insect) and wild honey, to be exact.  He didn’t consume any type of alcoholic beverages either.  And here this rough character, this social mis-fit comes and starts preaching.  Many people didn’t believe that such a character could be a spokesman for God, so they accuse him of being possessed by a demon.

            And then Jesus comes.  This is the true Son of God, the Saviour of the world.  Unlike John, Jesus could be found at more social functions.  He would eat the food, he would drink beverages that contained alcohol, and he frequently accepted dinner invitations from people whom the Jews of the day detested.  He could be found amongst the tax collectors, the gentiles, the prostitutes, and other people they classified as “sinners.”  So they accuse him of gluttony and drunkenness, and associating with society’s ne’er-do-wells.

            People formulate opinions about others based upon some pretty flimsy evidence.  But it’s something we all do all of the time, don’t we?  We formulate a type of stereotypical picture in our minds about what certain people should be like; and when people don’t fit that mold, then we tend to dismiss them as not being genuine.

            The old saying that goes along with this is “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”  This is one of the points Jesus is making in our Gospel lesson this morning.  John the Baptist wasn’t possessed by a demon, nor was Jesus a glutton and a drunkard.  These were the type of accusations people had formulated in their own minds because neither of these two individuals fit their preconceived notions.

            In the final part of verse 19, Jesus makes the statement:   “But wisdom is proved right by her actions.”  You can’t make judgments based upon flimsy appearances.  The person who is truly wise looks at the actions.

            In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus speaks about the woe that will befall the unrepentant cities.  He had shown himself to be the Saviour.  He had done many miracles.  And yet, places like Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum refused to believe in him because of their preconceived notions.  He wanted them to repent and believe, but they refused.  And because of this, they brought judgment upon themselves.  And Jesus laments this fact.  He loved them, he wanted them to be a part of his kingdom, but they opted to go their own way instead.

            If we look at ourselves, we know that we’re guilty of making judgments based upon our own bad logic.   Our sinful human condition causes us to look at things with faulty reasoning, and Jesus knows this. 

            That’s why Jesus gives us these words of comfort at the close of our Gospel today.  He begins by telling us in verse 28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”   He knows that we are sinners in need of a Saviour.  He knows that we are like strangers and foreigners needing to find our homeland.  And so he invites everyone to come to him through faith.  And when we do, we find the burden of sin lifted from our shoulders, and we find the rest for our souls that only Jesus can give to us. 

            I mentioned earlier that I told the Yakov Smirnoff story for a couple reasons.  The first reason is the preconceived notions people have about someone who is a patriot. The second reason is the Statue of Liberty and what that meant to Yakov.  He made it the central figure in his “America’s Heart” painting, and he did so for good reason.

            Inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus, entitled “The Collosus,” and it goes like this:  Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land; here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name, Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

            Jesus looks at the whole human race and sees a world where Satan has wreaked havoc and laid humanity to waste.  Jesus knows that sinful humans are tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free.  And so he says in our Gospel today, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  For this, Jesus requires no citizenship test, no passport, no green card, and no visa.  This is ours through faith alone.

            During my brief vacation in Branson, Missouri some five years ago, I went to Yakov Smirnoff’s theatre and saw his show.  It was very good too.  He told jokes, and people laughed.  He had some dancers who performed some very complicated and well choreographed Russian folk dances.  It was, without a doubt worth every penny of the admission price.

            Yakov related the story about first coming to America with his family.  He didn’t speak a word of English, they had virtually no money, and pretty much just the clothes on their backs.  He told about being in their first apartment in New York City.  The land lady had rented to them, accepting what little money they had.  As they were sitting in their apartment, a knock came at the door.  They were frightened, remembering that in the Soviet Union, a knock often meant police harassment. 

            But when they opened the door, they saw that the hallway was full of people.  These people had clothes, and food, and dishes, and pans, and utensils, and furniture, and linens, and all sorts of stuff.  These people didn’t know Yakov’s family from a bar of soap, and yet here they were.  They were their neighbors.  They knew someone needed help, and they shared what they could.

            Being at Yakov’s theatre gave me an opportunity to see something I hadn’t seen before.  For once in my life, I was able to see the United States and the Statue of Liberty through the eyes of a frightened 27 year old immigrant from the Soviet Union.  This is a sight that few people born in this country will ever see.

            I learned a lesson in patriotism, and it came from what we might think is a very unlikely source.  Who would think that we could learn a lesson in patriotism from a Soviet born comedian speaking with a thick accent?  But I can assure you that nobody left that theatre without a deeper appreciation for the United States, and the blessings that we have as citizens.  I even had the opportunity to visit very briefly with Yakov in the lobby after the show.  My parting words to him were, “Thank you for your patriotism, it means a lot.”

            You might be wondering what happened to that 200 by 135 foot mural that hung in New York City.  It lasted just a little over a year, when a windstorm damaged it so badly that it had to be removed.  But be that as it may, it still made a lasting impression.  Truly it was a labor of love from a thankful immigrant who showed support for his adopted country the only way he could.

            Today, let us all give thanks to God for the blessings he has given us through the country in which we live.  May he open our eyes to appreciate those things we take for granted.  And may we continue to be faithful patriotic citizens as we live in this world with our faith firmly rooted in Christ our Saviour.