A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday / Reception of New Members, October 26, 2014
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 Matthew 22: 34-40
After church last Sunday, I drove over to Hebrew Home and Rehabilitation Center and made my way down the first floor corridor, feet sweeping across the non-descript tan carpet, until I got to where Carmen Gray’s mother, Jane Scott, lives. Usually Carmen would be in her mother’s room, but this time she was across the hall, waiting for me in Milme Hoag’s room.
Many of you may know that Milme, a much beloved longtime member of this congregation, passed away on Tuesday. But this was last Sunday, and Carmen and I were there, at Milme’s request to baptize her. You see about a year ago, Milme shared with me that she had no memory of her baptism and that she had never heard her family talk about it. For a while she had begun to wonder, had she been baptized? She knew and we knew her sister had. But Milme?
Milme loved this church and the people in it and the people who, through this church, knew they were loved by others and by God. She was a stalwart member of the Nifty Thrifties, sorting and cataloging the donations received, helping organize and run the tag sales for year after year. She sat in worship almost every Sunday, right over there. But several years ago, she began to wonder, was I ever baptized? And, should I get baptized?
What do you know about your baptism? Were you a baby? A teen? An adult?
As for me, I don’t remember my baptism because I was a toddler, but it was the talk of Sunnycrest Community Church. That’s because when my parents said to the pastor that they wanted me to be baptized, the pastor refused saying he didn’t believe in baptizing babies – that it was “unscriptural.” Well Miss Peterson who had taught bible in the church for generations; taught bible probably since before that pastor was even born, wasn’t going to stand for that. She went in and challenged him until he confessed that there was “no scriptural warrant against it” and conceded to a private baptism. So I was baptized in the pastor’s office with my parents and grandparents looking on. There was no font, just a plastic cup filled with water. But it was enough.
Carmen and I greeted Milme. It had been a hard week. She had had another stroke. She wasn’t able to communicate well, but it was clear that she recognized us and was glad we’d come. After we spoke for a few moments, Carmen went to the sink to fill up the plastic cup with water and then she stepped to the side of the bed and picked up a hairbrush and began to brush Milme’s soft white hair.
Months before Milme confessed to me, “I am not sure I was ever baptized. And I want to be.” I went back and combed through our church’s records. I found her sister’s baptism duly recorded but nothing else. She and I chewed on this for a while. “I’d like my family to be there,” she said a few weeks later, “but I don’t know if I want to do it in church.” We talked about that and how the sacrament of baptism incorporated us into the body of Christ, how being in the midst of the community of faith who could witness and celebrate and welcome us, was part of it. She got it theologically. Her baptism was approved by the session. But she thought it would be nice to have her family there too. So we waited.
During worship last Sunday, I was handed a note during service from Carmen, saying she thought that Milme had had a stroke. She was prepared to come with me to Hebrew Home. So after church I called Milme’s daughter and told her I’d like to come that day to baptize Milme. She said, “the doctors said a month ago, that she probably had about two months to live. Go ahead and do the baptism without waiting for me.”
Standing on the side of the bed, I recalled with Milme, her desire to be baptized. I began the baptismal service, her milky eyes attentive and then distant. Carmen holding her hand. I picked up the plastic cup and dipped my hand into the cool water. I placed my wet hand on her head three times; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Her skin was warm and her hair soft beneath my hand. I prayed that God would guard and protect her, God’s own child, a sheep of God’s own fold. Her eyes gently looked at me, with peace, with wonder.
Jesus’ memorable summary of the commandments “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” are in the form of a pledge; you shall love. You shall love God and you shall love your neighbor and you shall love yourself (which of course is assumed but which, too often, we forget).
Through our baptism we pledge or are pledged to God, we are incorporated into the church – no longer an individual, no longer a nuclear family, but now part of a larger family, a family made up of people we know and don’t know, a family of people from different parts of the world, a family of people who are youngsters, middlers and elders – we pledge or are pledged to Christ’s family, the church. And that pledge is made from love, for love.
Milme was surrounded by and offered love to this church and to all whom this church served. And while it appears she had not been baptized until last Sunday, we know that baptism is but the outward sign of the invisible grace bestowed upon us by God. What order it comes in matters less, than the pledge God makes to us in love and the pledge we make in return.
This morning, friends in our midst have decided to affirm their baptisms and pledge themselves anew to loving God and others by joining this congregation; by allowing their lives to become entangled with ours; by offering their creativity, time and gifts to this community. And while each of them has made an individual decision to join, the journey they are becoming part of is not simply an individual journey; it’s about who we are together. For while many in our society would hear Jesus’ words as an individual maxim, those of us in the church know that it’s more than that – it’s about how we love God and our neighbor together; how we do this as a community, both inside our walls and beyond our walls. And in doing so we discover the stranger in our self and the familiar in another; we realize the ways as human beings that we are woven together – that we cannot quite separate out who I am from who we are. That’s quite a pledge, is it not? That’s quite a risk to join oneself to a community. But it makes all the difference. For there is so much we can do together, that we cannot do alone. Whether it’s rushing aid to people following a disaster or marching together to stop climate change, or it’s sorting and selling at the tag sale, or whether it’s praying together for one another, or whether it’s visiting one another in the hospital. When we join this community, we pledge ourselves to love. And it changes lives – it changes our life, it changes the lives of others, and it changes the life of the world.
This week we all have the opportunity to pledge ourselves again to love of God and love of neighbor through making a financial pledge to the church. For we can love with our money too, you know. And, well, the heater in this building doesn’t run on love, it runs on oil, and so we need some of that money too to keep it all going. It’s not complicated really and I’m not going to give you a hard sell. I’m just going to encourage you to give a financial pledge to this loving community, so that through our ministry and mission and welcome in this building and beyond, we can share God’s love and our love widely. You should have received a letter and a pledge card this week. There are letters and pledge cards on the table in the back if you didn’t or if you’d like to make a first time pledge to this church. Please bring them back to church with you next Sunday (or mail them in) so that we can dedicate them here in love and for love.
Milme, I think, wanted to be baptized as a way of pledging herself anew to God and to this congregation. It was a way of saying, “yes,” I love you God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. “Yes,” I love my neighbor and I will keep loving my neighbor. After Carmen hugged her and departed, I stayed with Milme, reading scripture and singing hymns to her. When I got to Blessed Assurance, she lit up. I continued singing as she fell asleep, and then as she slept, safe in God’s arms of love. I watched her for a while, thinking of Carmen and her tenderness, thinking of Milme’s hands that had folded so many clothes for the tag sale, thinking of her talking with others in the pew during one of the dialogue sermons, thinking of her love for her husband, thinking of her fierce faith and loyalty to God and this community. Then I picked up that plastic cup of water; not unlike the plastic cup from which I was baptized, overwhelmed by what love can do.
This guest sermon was preached by The Rev. Margeret E. Howland at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 19, 2014. Pastor Peggy was a parish associate here for twelve years following her official retirement, and now resides in Florida where she stays extraordinarily active. The “selfie” photo below started appearing on the pizza boxes delivered to my (Pastor Jeff’s) home earlier this year. The sentiment is so ubiquitous that my son has started asking us “Do you believe in your selfie?”
Psalm 96 Matthew 25: 31-46
Holy Spirit, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
What a pleasure to be here with you today! It was 6 years ago today that we celebrated together in this place the 50th Anniversary of my Ordination. This was the church that welcomed me and ministered to me, beginning 16 years ago, in the days following my retirement from 40 years of fulltime pastoral ministry, and you gave me a new place of ministry as your Parish Associate for more than 14 years.
I have been in love with the Bible since I was a young teenager. It was a desire to share the great love of God with others and to teach the truth I was discovering from the Bible message that led me to know that God was calling me to ministry in the church, even at a time when there was NOT YET ONE woman minister in the Presbyterian Church.
I remember as a young pastor early on, asking myself, HOW will I be able to think of something new to preach about every Sunday? …and do this year after year? But I discovered, to my amazement and delight, that God always had new things to teach ME out of the Bible, especially as we look at the events of our own day in the light of Jesus’s life and ministry and teachings!
Just such a new discovery and insight into Jesus’ words was a gift to me four months ago, in a message I heard at the General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church in Detroit. This insight came from a former staff member of this church, who pointed out the meaning of this very Bible story that I just read to you. The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer is now Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at ITC, the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and in great demand as a teacher and preacher throughout our church. I met her when I first came to this congregation, while she was Director of Christian Education and the Pastor’s Assistant.
In her talk at a meeting I attended in Detroit, she taught us some GREEK. She taught us something new that I had not considered before – about how this story of the judging of the nations by the Son of Man READS in the GREEK LANGUAGE of the New Testament.
I suspect that you probably think about these words of Jesus that are so familiar to us in much the same way that I have always thought of them. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me”. When you give food to my hungry brother you feed ME. When you give my thirsty sister something to drink, you quench MY thirst. When you bring your canned goods to church, and write a Christmas card to a prisoner in Sing Sing, or deliver flowers to a shut-in, or help with an ESL Class, English as a Second Language, you are visiting ME, you are welcoming ME, you are ministering to ME… JESUS.
And if you are like me, you have pictured these actions as your own personal devotion to Christ, your individual commitment as a Christian, to serve Christ by ministering to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the foreigner, the stranger in our midst, the persons society marginalizes, the needy, and those who cannot make it on their own. This is our Christian ministry and commitment as followers of Jesus.
But the Greek language gives us a different insight. It tells us this message is MORE than a personal mandate to the individual Christian.
It’s something we cannot see in modern English. We don’t notice it because today’s English uses the same word for YOU, meaning just ONE person, YOU, the individual to whom I am speaking…
And YOU plural, meaning a whole group of people, YOU, the whole congregation to whom I’m speaking right now.
We just don’t have words that distinguish the second person PLURAL, the YOU that means MORE than one person, in today’s American English, unless of course, you’re from the SOUTH, and the plural is “YOU ALL” or “Y’ALL” or even “ALL Y’ALL”. And if you’re from Pittsburgh, you might say “ALL YOUNS”, or in Brooklyn you might say “YOUSE GUYS”. I grew up in Philadelphia, where we’d say “HEY, YOU GUYS” and that included everybody we were talking to. That was our Philly equivalent of the Southern “HEY, Y’ALL”!
But then I made another discovery, from the dim distance of my youth, where I grew up on the King James Version of the Bible, full of its thee’s and thou’s in the Elizabethan English of 400 years ago. Did YOU memorize Bible verses when you were in Sunday School? I MEMORIZED lots of BIBLE PASSAGES in the King James English. And I have found myself going back to my King James Bible to help me here. Yes, I also took out my Greek New Testament to read some of these passages again in the original language. But even YOU can do it with a King James Bible, and you don’t have to learn Greek. Because old English had separate words for you singular and you plural!
“THOU” is singular, and “YE” is plural. while they are both just “YOU” in a modern English Bible.
THOU means you’re talking to an individual as the subject of a verb.
“THOU shalt have no other gods before me”. THOU shalt not steal” As in the ten commandments.
THEE is the object form for “you” meaning one person.
“How do I love THEE? Let me count the ways”, as in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem.
Those are singular forms.
YE is the plural form whenever YOU (meaning more-than-one-person) is the SUBJECT of a verb.
“Seek YE first the Kingdom of God” from the Sermon on the Mount.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come YE to the waters, and YE that have no money, come, buy, and eat.” from the Prophet Isaiah.
And actually, the word “YOU” does have a place in the old King James Bible – but only when YOU PLURAL is in the OBJECT form.
“Come to me, all YE who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give YOU rest,” was the invitation of Jesus.
“If YE forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive YOU” said by Jesus when he taught his disciples to pray.
IN OTHER WORDS, when it’s the subject….
THOU is singular, meaning one person.
YE is plural, meaning more than one or a group of people.
And YE is the word Jesus is using throughout this story of the judgment of the nations by the Son of Man. YE – second person plural.
So this teaching becomes for us, not merely an individual ethic, but an ethic for the church, for society, for Christendom, for the nations.
We live in a time when SELFIE is one of the newest words in the language, and putting myself in the picture makes me the center of attention. We live in an individualistic society, where I and my needs are paramount, and selfishness is considered a virtue more often than not. America was built on “rugged individualism”. But when you stop to think about it, this rugged individualism is not always good. It is the essence of what causes crime and gun violence, which are at epidemic proportions in our American society today.
It is a strong part of bullying and of hatred of those who are not like me, in nationality, in language, in culture, in sexual orientation, in race, in religion, and such self-centered prejudice is causing an epidemic of violence in our world. We are even fighting wars over it.
In Matthew 25, we have too often mis-understood YOU to mean THOU, when Jesus said YE.
Thank you, New Testament and Greek Professor Margaret Aymer for pointing this out to me.
“The truth is that most of us rarely consider the second person plural when we’re reading the Bible. We tend to read it as a personal message for our personal faith. So, in turning to Matthew 25 … “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” …. we hear a message directed to individual persons. We hear “Thou” when the text is saying “Ye.” We hear a call to the SELF when Jesus is issuing a call to COLLECTIVE action and collective responsibility.” (1)
This story encourages us, URGES us as a church, to become “counter-cultural”, to be different from the society and culture we live in. “When we gather as a church, as a congregation or as a whole denomination, to pray and worship and serve together – it is the second-person plural YOU, the “YE” in this and many other biblical passages that challenges our increasingly self-centered society, calling us back from self – to community, as a faithful response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (2)
This is the TRUE ETHIC of the Bible – what we as a church and society do in this world based on how we see other people. Our entire culture needs to SEE people differently, so we will ACT toward them with the same respect and love with which we would respond to Jesus.
This ethic of collective responsibility which Jesus taught in the Matthew 25 story, was also commanded again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament in the law and the prophets and the writings that were the only Bible Jesus knew in his day.
Now, all y’all have probably heard that this past week was designated by the Presbyterian Hunger Program and others as The Food Week of Action – from last Sunday Oct. 12 through today, Oct. 19. It included World Food Day on Thursday as well as the International Day for Rural Women on Friday and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty yesterday on Saturday. It was a time for thinking about issues for migrant farm workers, who pick our crops, to think about one billion people in the world who are malnourished and starving, including some 50 million in the United States who are malnourished and hungry, a large number of them children.
I am thankful that our Presbyterian Church sees our collective responsibility, not only that we as a denomination, along with our counterparts in other churches, are following the teaching of Jesus to feed the hungry, heal the sick and visit prisoners, but that we work together in ADVOCACY AND JUSTICE to see that our nation and the community of nations understand the imperative to provide food and healthcare for ALL, the imperative to rehabilitate our prison systems to help people and not merely to punish people. That we not just give water to thirsty people and welcome strangers, but that we advocate for our government and the governments of the world to improve safe and adequate water supplies for ALL people, to reform immigration laws in our own country and remove barriers to welcoming strangers, barriers that are most often based on racism and nationalism and privilege.
Because, dear friends, this story Jesus told is not a parable about sheep and goats. It is a story addressed to nations. In Greek, the word translated “nations” in our Bible is ETHNE – from which our word “ethnic” comes. The Son of Man, sometimes called “the Human One”, Jesus, will gather the nations and divide them, some to the right and some to the left, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. But it is the nations to whom Jesus is speaking, the ETHNE – the peoples and tribes and cultures and societies – to see that food justice and water justice and health justice and immigration justice and shelter and clothing justice and prison justice are provided for all people.
This is what Jesus is saying to ALL Y’ALL, to YOUNS, to ALL OF US TOGETHER. He’s saying it to us in the church, that WE are RESPONSIBLE TOGETHER.
Ah, but there’s a complication. It’s the question that always gets raised. Remember how the lawyer raised a question when Jesus pointed out to him the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. The lawyer asked, “And who is this neighbor that I am to love?”
Well, the “lawyers” in our midst, the people who aren’t sure that it is OUR collective responsibility to see that EVERYONE in need has food and water and healthcare and welcome and a hand up when they are down…. They will ask, well just which ones of the needy are we to love?
There is a long tradition, even in church charity, that only those who were considered the DESERVING NEEDY should be helped.
The part that is most difficult for us about this entire business of “the POOR among us” is that we do not recognize our own complicity in the systems of our society that benefit some, but are the underlying causes of poverty, hunger, homelessness, racism, crime, injustice, prejudice, violence, war, addictions, diseases, and so many other problems.
It is because we also benefit from the systems that create poverty, that we are unable to acknowledge our responsibility, our complicity, and our privileged status. That is why we ALL ask the question “And who is my neighbor?”
That is why we – you and I – all of us together – still need to hear Jesus tell us in our church and in our nation, “Just as YOU ALL did NOT help the needy who are my family members, my sisters and brothers, who are crying out in their suffering, YOU ALL did NOT SEE AND RESPOND TO MY suffering and need. YOU ALL DID NOT HELP ME.”
I hope we think about this as we go to the polls to vote next month. I’m not following New York political issues these days, but I know this message of Jesus will affect my vote in Florida, where these are important issues. And our congressional and state representatives need to hear from Christians about how we see our responsibility as a nation to 50 million hungry people.
Jesus tells us it’s about how we see people and whether our culture, our society, our nation, our church, recognize our common humanity, that humanity that Jesus shared with us and with all God’s children. ALL Y’ALL, are Y’ALL listening to Jesus?
(1) “Second Person Plural – Biblical Ethics and Matthew 25”, written for Presbyterian Voices for Justice at General Assembly June 17, 2014 –The Rev. Margaret Aymer, PhD
(2) Ibid, slightly altered
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 12, 2014. The photo that opens this post was taken at the Westchester People’s Assembly Against Poverty held on October 4. We were proud to host this event, organized by Community Voices Heard, at the White Plains Presbyterian Church.
Isaiah 25:1-9 Philippians 4: 1-9
This beloved passage from Isaiah, was written just before the Judean people were conquered by the Assyrians and their leaders driven into exile. Isaiah’s lyric and compelling words are directed toward God, with a definite secondary audience: the rulers and people of Judah. The rulers and priests became corrupt, self-aggrandizing, and hungry for land. As family farms fell into debt, the royal families would extend high interest loans, forcing them into bankruptcy and then gobble up the land. In chapter 3, Isaiah cries out with unmistakable candor on behalf of God
The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples. The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts. (Isaiah 3: 13-15)
And in this passage from Isaiah 25, part of what has been nicknamed “the little apocalypse,” the prophet looks ahead to the time where God will set right what the powerful leaders of Judah have done. For the fortified cities that God reduces to rubble, are not the “enemies of Judah” but the cities of Judah itself. Isaiah’s vision of the future where God is the refuge of the poor and there is a lavish banquet prepared for the people of all nations, stands in stark contrast to the everyday reality all around him, where the rich get richer by making the poor poorer; where regular harvests fail and people are thrown into debt and then the vulturous lenders come, lending money to take advantage of them, where people who are sick or poor or immigrant are devoured. That was the way of the world in Isaiah’s time. But he was having none of it. And in the name and with the voice of God, he spoke out powerfully, so powerfully that his words echo down three thousand years in history to us.
And right after Isaiah condemns his own nation for turning its back on God because it has turned its back on people made poor, just after he offers the image of God making the fortified city a ruin, he writes this interesting phrase,
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
Cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
The first time I quickly skimmed this passage, I assumed strong peoples meant the rulers of Judah. But the second time I read it, I realized that this made no sense. For the rulers of Judah are not the strong ones. The rulers of Judah are the “cities of ruthless nations” that should fear God.
When Isaiah writes, “therefore strong peoples will glorify you” he means to say that all those people in Judah – the majority of the people – who had been made poor by the policies of the rulers, the people who were scraping and trying to figure out how to survive, these are the strong people who rejoice because God has
been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
I want to stop right there and have us pause for a moment and consider this; because Isaiah is saying something very profound and challenging. Because often in our society, people who are poor or sick or otherwise vulnerable are considered victims. But Isaiah calls them strong. Strong people.
I want to invite up to the lectern a strong woman, Caryl S——.
For each of us in our own lives has faced times of violence, financial catastrophe, health crises, you name it, but we know that God is faithful, we know that we are not alone, and we know not only because of our prayer life, but because in our daily lives we support one another. Sometimes that support is a listening ear. Sometimes it’s a loan when it’s most needed. Sometimes it’s sharing food. Sometimes it’s accompanying one another to the hospital. The way we support one another takes many shapes. It is mutual support. It is always out of the belief, a belief shared by Isaiah, that the strong people are not those that the world thinks are strong. The strong people are the ones who endure and resist and challenge and hope together against the odds for the kind of loving world God desires and who, together, act like it now.
As Caryl speaks, I invite you (the congregation) to listen for God’s word to you.
CARYL’S FAITH STORY
Good morning. For those of you who do not know me yet, my name is Caryl S——. I have been participating in the life of this congregation for the past three years, ever since Pastor Jeff met me on the sidewalk and invited me to worship. During these three years you have become family to me, and I just might cry as I try to explain how much that means to me, because I have literally found new life here.
I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Brooklyn. I was baptized and confirmed in a tiny Reformed congregation of maybe 20 people where my mother used to play organ every Sunday. I don’t know how my family drifted away from the church, but once we stopped going it was hard to go back.
And then a lot of life happened, and I have a lot of stories. But the story I want to tell you today began eight years ago. I had arrived at the point in life that many people call “mid-life.” I had just turned forty – and then I had a stroke. It left me as you see me now, changed, but capable. Then, as I was recovering, I had a fire. I lost everything. I lost my home. I lost every material possession. In desperation I turned to a friend to take me in, but that landed me in an abusive relationship. It will not surprise you that it took me years to leave that guy. I know that you understand this because this congregation talks regularly about domestic violence, posts phone numbers for hotlines and legal services, and collects toiletries for women’s shelters. I found my way to one of these shelters. The night I left that relationship I went to the hospital. I was beaten up, and they took my clothes as evidence. I had nothing left but my life. It was so unreal I felt like I was living in Lifetime movie.
I stayed in one shelter, and then another, and then moved down the street to the YWCA. And that’s when I found my home here with you.
I need to say in front of all of you that I thank God for my life, for you, and for this church. I am overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. I found you when I needed you most. And you welcomed me and cared for me and made me part of this family. When I started coming here members of this church not only asked me who I was, but looked me in the eyes and listened to what I said. It had been so long since I knew true happiness that I had forgotten what it was like. Now I know it every day.
I have a chance to start my life over again. People who love me say that I deserve it. That’s easy to say. You have helped me do it. I have friends here who encourage me, pray for me, check on me. I have been made a part of your ministry. I serve on the Worship and Music Commission with some wonderful people, and I am now the person who will be coordinating memorial flowers for Sunday worship. I am looking forward to formally joining this congregation in a few weeks time. This is new life.
On November 1st I am moving to my own apartment. This church helped me pay the deposit, and others have offered to help me move. I will miss being in this neighborhood every day, and walking on North Broadway and shopping downtown. (Don’t worry, I will only be a bus ride away). But I cannot wait to close my door and just breath freely. And to use a bathroom without someone walking in on me. I could not have done this without this community.
I’m going to cry again. Thank you. Thank you God. Thank you Pastor Jeff and Noelle. Thank you Pastor Sarah and Will. Thank you Pastor Lynn. Thank you Carmen, who takes my blood pressure each month after church. Thank you, each one of you, who make this church possible, who welcome others with open arms, who demonstrate what God’s love looks like in action.
From my own experience I can now say, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)
I have grown very spotty with my sabbath day posts. (I have grown very spotty with my sabbath day practice). Nevertheless, I have kept more sabbaths than I have written about. I do not want this one to be lost, though most of how I spent my day is not of a public nature.
After dropping my son off at school, I drove up to Yorktown Heights and parked my car in the public lot across from the Trailside Cafe. My goal for the day was to hike the last 5.4 miles of the North County Trailway. I decided I would spend my time reflecting on a lifetime of friendships, a humbling experience to be sure. As I pondered love, friendship, experience, regret, shame, grace, growth, and reconciliation I was motivated to clock in something better than 3.5 miles per hour. I spent much time in prayer for myself and for the many amazing people I have known. I found myself moving between an adolescent wishing could do it all over again, Nietzsche’s affirmation of the eternal return, a twelve-step desire to apologize to those I have hurt, and sheer gratitude.
By completing my hike from Yorktown Heights to Baldwin Place (in Putnam County) I have completed the entire North-South Trailway, which marks my fourth complete hike across Westchester County from North to South. (I have also hiked the existing Hudson River Valley Greenway, the Old Croton Aqueduct, and the existing portions of the East Coast Greenway, as well as the Briarcliff-Peekskill Trailway). The North-South County Trailway is a 35 mile rails-to-trails project, converting the old Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad (the ‘Old Put’) into a trail for walkers and bikers. It is paved throughout, which makes for excellent biking but rough-on-the-feet walking.
This day completes 98 of the Westchester 100, a goal I have pursuing since last spring. At this point I am conscious that I can be almost anywhere in my county and be within a couple of miles of a forest, park, preserve, sanctuary, trail or greenway. And I have memories of every space, river, creek, or wetland.
The remainder of my day was spent in family planning, playground duty, housecleaning, and sermon prep.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Susan R. Andrews at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2014
Revelation 7:9-17 Isaiah 56:1-8
As we gather around our multi-cultural table this morning, there are many images that I carry in my heart:
- 1978 – sharing the bread and the cup in a simple adobe sanctuary in Quito, Ecuador, while children and chickens scampered around our feet;
- 1996 – joining hundreds of Palestinian Christians parading around a gilded sanctuary in Beit Sahour on the West Bank – bringing forward loaves of homemade bread, which after the sacramental feast, were given and shared with the poor;
- 2003 – listening to a 100 voice choir singing at the Bastos Presbyterian church in Yaounde, Cameroon – a congregation of 5000 people, with over 200 baptisms a year;
- 2004 – marveling at 400 Presbyterians singing and clapping in Baranquilla, Colombia, most of them young adults, a huge percentage of the membership of the Iglesia Presbyteriana de Colombia, a church thriving in the midst of danger and persecution.
Yes, my friends, it is these images of our brothers and sisters in Christ that come to mind – so different from us in many ways, and yet woven into our very body – the body of Christ called the church – our worldwide church that is held together by one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And it is these images that I see when I hear the words of our New Testament lesson for today – the great vision of Revelation – the God drenched vision of shalom – that great multitude singing and praising and marching before God – a multitude from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages.
But, let us not forget that for writer of Revelation, the multitude marching in joy and peace – these are also the ones who have come out of the great ordeal – out of the great tribulation – out of the real pain and suffering and brokenness of life. And we are reminded that God’s great promise does not protect us from struggle. Instead God’s great promise empowers us to endure in the midst of struggle, because God is with us – because God’s great love never abandons us. And so, this World Communion Day, I think of other images – images of tribulation, images of great ordeals, images of our broken, beautiful world today.
- 4000 Iraqis dead this week; 4000 Africans wiped out by the Ebola virus; hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by their own brutal dictator; four good people beheaded by ISIS fanatics; hundreds of children murdered in Gaza as helpless pawns in a Hamas/Israeli conflict;
Some would say that these are “political” images. But I say they are spiritual images – images of God’s precious people – victims in the unending reality of tribulation, the unending ordeals of human sin and human suffering. And my friends, God is as present in these later images as in the parades and feasts of hope.
Madeline Albright once served on a panel with Elie Wiesel, the great writer and Holocaust survivor. Wiesel asked the panelists to name the unhappiest character in the Bible. Some said Job, because of all his trials. Others said Moses, because he never did reach the Promised Land, others Mary because she witnessed the excruciating death of her son. Wiesel disagreed with all these choices. Weisel thinks that God is the unhappiest biblical character because of the pain God must feel in seeing all God’s children fight, abuse and kill each other, often in God’s name. (quoted in Context in June, 2005)
Over thirty years ago our Presbyterian denomination gave us a vision for how we can live faithfully and hopefully in this in between time – this time between the broken reality of the present and the promised wholeness of God’s future. Our General Assembly decided that Peacemaking is the Believer’s Calling. Peacemaking is the main vocation of our daily lives – a perspective, an attitude, a way of living that can help bring about peace – one person, one day, one congregation at a time. The special offering you receive this day is the Peacemaking Offering, a reaffirmation of this calling at the core of our Presbyterian discipleship.
Out text from Isaiah is one of the foundational texts for our call to be peacemakers – and it was the biblical theme for the meeting of the General Assembly in 2003, the year I was elected to serve as Moderator for our denomination. No passage better describes for me what it means to be a follower of Jesus in our particular, peculiar Presbyterian way.
It sounds and feels familiar – this ancient text from Isaiah. Though penned 2500 years ago, it describes the world in which we dwindling reformed Christians live today. In 2014, we sit in communities where demographic trends are transforming the culture in which we live. Buddhist temples, Islamic Cultural Centers and Pentecostal immigrant congregations are growing, while we Presbyterians shrink, And vegetables common in Guatemala and Vietnam and Kenya are filling the bins at our suburban markets, and sprouting in the furrows of our community gardens. But the Presbyterian Church is way behind the times in embracing all these creative changes.
In the Presbytery of Hudson River, most of our villages and cities are between 25 and 50% non- Caucasian – and yet our presbytery membership is only 9% non-European white.. And so our music and our food and our decision making and our outreach is failing to speak to the majority of our new neighbors. Thank goodness that congregations like the White Plains Presbyterian Church are slowly beginning to look like the world in which we live, and create communities of wholeness – celebrating difference and welcoming newness.
The context for today’s passage from Isaiah is this. The people of Israel are coming home after 50 years of painful, powerless exile. They are coming home to an Israel transformed by eclectic, global politics – a nation no longer comfortably, predictably Jewish. Yes, they are coming home to a Temple in ruins – and to an identity threatened by secular values at odds with their faith. But, rather than revving them up with a judgmental vision of exclusivity and superiority, Isaiah shakes them up with a new vision that pushes every boundary they have established in their lives.
Rather than returning to their glory days by rebuilding a gilded Temple of wealth and status, Isaiah invites them to become a different kind of dwelling place – a flesh and blood community shaped not by bricks and mortar, but by a gracious, prayerful heart. And the question of who is “in” and who is “out” receives a very different answer from Isaiah than it did from prophets in the past. God’s people are no longer those chosen by biology or pedigree or theological purity. No, the chosen ones turn out to be everybody – everybody, that is, who decides to worship God and honor God and live like God – to act out in their everyday lives, God’s holy covenant of justice and peace. Isaiah transforms the Temple from an exclusive club into a “house of prayer for all people.”
Now, in order to make his point – in order to illustrate just how radical this shift in vision is – Isaiah points to two categories of people – people who traditionally have been excluded from the exclusive club of God’s people. According to the Hebrew purity codes in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, “foreigners” and “eunuchs” are not allowed, are not “saved,” are not welcome within the sacred sanctuaries of Israel. Why? Because, according to the legal codes, they are ritually unclean. In one case – the eunuchs – they are considered unclean because of their supposedly sinful sexual identity. And in the other case the foreigners are considered unclean because they look and sound and eat differently than the comfortable norms of traditional Hebrew life.
But, in this astounding development in scripture, Isaiah simply rewrites the sacred texts. Isaiah re-imagines the wideness of God’s mercy. Isaiah reconfigures the political landscape of religious life. Yes, Isaiah blows open the stereotypes that have governed God’s people for centuries. And he ushers in a brand new kingdom of God – a kingdom of God that becomes real flesh and real blood in the radical compassion and hospitality of Jesus. Friends, Isaiah’s vision in ancient Israel is as huge and compelling and unfinished today as it was 2500 years ago. But it is the only vision that can capture the immensity of God and the hope of humanity in this bleeding, beloved world.
One of the buzz words in our 21st century world is “globalization” – a political and economic ideal that has caused great conflict, as well as great possibility. But as this word appears in the newspapers, we know that much of the globalization movement is about consumerism and economic profit – about engaging with poorer countries to create lower labor costs, so that goods in this country can be cheaper. Of course such economic development in the two-thirds world can and does increase the standard of living – but at what cost to values and cultures different from ours? And at what cost to basic human rights and dignity? Do we really want the whole world to wear blue jeans and drink coke, while uneducated teenagers work 10 hours a day producing our clothing?
I would like to suggest that globalization from a biblical and theological perspective means something very different. Godly globalization is not about profit, but about promise. It is not about economic wealth; it is about spiritual wealth. It is not about connecting corporations, but about connecting communities and companions around the world. And, the purpose of Godly globalization is to build a table big enough to hold the entire human family – a big round table where everyone is equal – a table that nourishes the hospitality and courage that can incarnate God’s dream of shalom – yes, a table that feeds all of those joyful saints from many nations marching away from tribulation – and toward the new creation.
One of the stories that delighted me this past week – as leaders from around the world continued to gather at the United Nations – was the description of the new Prime Minister of India’s participation at a dinner party at the White House. Narendra Modi is a charismatic leader who has captured the imagination of the majority poor in his home country. But, this week of all weeks, this devout man was fasting as part of a Hindu festival day, and so he was unable to eat any of the exquisite food prepared by the White House chef. But Mr. Modi sat at the table anyway – drinking warm water, and fully enjoying the eclectic, global guests whom President Obama had gathered for the evening. It was not the food, but instead the tapestry of differences, the unique tastes and experiences and skin colors that made that small dinner party into a tantalizing image of God’s kingdom table.
As we now gather at this global table, let us rejoice that God is opening us up, filling us with hope, and sending us out to welcome the whole world into the abundant life which is the birth right of all God’s children.
May it be so, for you and for me. Amen
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 28, 2014
Psalm 46 Rev 22:1-5
Rivers have fascinated me for a long time. When I was young my grandparents (my mother’s parents) would take me camping each summer along the Kankakee River. (The photo above is Rock Cut Creek in the Kankakee River State Park). The Kankakee watershed connects northwestern Indiana with northeastern Illinois. To me, it was a water road to the Mississippi, the river of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Jim. I have vivid memories of fishing with my grandfather, stalking crayfish with my cousin, and trying to build a small raft out of dry wood and fishing line so that I could cross over to this small island in the middle of the river. I imagined myself camping there, hunting for food, and finding adventure. From that island I knew the river could carry me all the way to St. Louis, to Memphis, and ultimately New Orleans.
Before fossil fuels, coal and oil, trains and cars, our rivers were our primary highways. And for millennia, the regional watersheds of which our rivers play a central role were natural communities. Each watershed sponsors a unique mix of habitats, “forests and wetlands, fields and meadows, [pools] and lakes, farms and towns” through which all life is inextricably linked by their common water source. “Every one of us lives in a watershed, no matter how ignorant we may be about it.” Snow or rain “hits ridges and either flows into our watershed or a neighboring one and is drained by a local creek, river, or stream (even if buried under concrete).” As Biblical scholar Ched Myers puts it “Watershed literacy was key to the survival and flourishing of all traditional societies. It remains so today.”
For the last two years I have been experiencing this anew. A year ago August, Noelle and I spent three weeks camping our way along the Lewis and Clark Trail. We first traced the Ohio River from Pennsylvania to the Mississippi. Four generations of my ancestors were river pilots on the Ohio River, carrying American settlers west and trade back east. We then followed the Missouri River from its big muddy mouth in St. Louis to its crystal source in a pristine spring just below the Lemhi Pass in the Beaver Mountains of Montana. From there we walked 200 feet over the continental divide and into Idaho to observe water now flowing west instead of east, feeding the Salmon River, and flowing ultimately out to the Pacific ocean by way of the Columbia River.
When we returned to New York, it was only a few weeks later that we witnessed the 2013 Colorado floods, and the ecological devastation of this river we had come to love. Each night we would hear news reports of raw sewage, thick oil spills and “produced water” (chemical fracking waste) flowing into the Missouri, and for weeks we could follow on our computers the toxic flume making its way slowly east in the waters, and we would remember each place we had stood on the rivers edge.
This year our family camping trip took us in the footsteps of Davy Crockett across Tennessee. We hiked through the Cumberland Gap, as my Scots-Irish ancestors had, and then rafted down the Cumberland River. Two weeks later, on the far side of the watershed, we met those same waters again as we stood on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi.
I am really proud that my son can now look at a map of the United States and identify the contours of our nation’s mountains and rivers. Some of these geographic features shaped the settlement of states. That funny border between Montana and Idaho is actually the Continental Divide, a high ridge and the boundary between two watersheds. I wish I had learned that in school, but it was much cooler to see it for ourselves. The great squiggly line that is the northern part of Kentucky is the Ohio River. The straight line at the bottom of Kentucky, however, is an arbitrary line on a map drawn by politicians, as are the lines that define all the “boxy states” like Kansas, Colorado, and Nevada. All of these lines, the river boundaries and the arbitrary lines, cut right through the earth’s natural communities, and divide people with natural economic and social interests.
John Wesley Powell was the first non-native to navigate the Colorado River in 1869, and to explore what we now know as the Grand Canyon. (Our friend Rev Peggy Howland, sitting in the front row this morning, once rafted for seven days and seven nights down the Colorado River in Powell’s path). Understanding the importance of water as a precious resource, that watersheds created communities with natural common interests, and that arbitrary lines would lead to endless conflict, Powell suggested that the boundaries of western states be determined by watersheds. He was ignored, but he was right. According a November 2013 Washington Post article, “water usage, especially along the Colorado River, is the subject of innumerable state vs. state lawsuits, strict rationing and increasing conflict between urban areas and agricultural industries.” Conflicts made worse by climate change and the prolonged drought in the American West: 100% of California is experiencing drought.
I have printed in the bulletin this morning a map of what the United States would look like if we had settled it according to natural communities rather than political interests. I hope you will spend some time with this map and consider what life would be like if we organized resources around natural watersheds rather than around human-designated political boundaries.
Interestingly, according to Barbara Rossing, rivers also play pivotal roles in biblical geography.
God encounters people at river crossings, such as the Jabbock River where Jacob wrestled with God, or the Jordan River where the Israelites crossed over on stones. River reeds protected the infant Moses, whose names means “I drew him out of the water.” (Exod. 2:3, 10). Rivers are locations of healing: for example, cleansing Naaman the Syrian from his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:12). “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” the psalmist sings. (Ps. 46: 4). The biblical river of life, first mentioned in Genesis, flows east from Eden (Gen. 2: 10). The prophet Ezekiel envisions a wondrous river flowing out from the new temple – ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep – bringing life to all it touches. Stagnant water becomes fresh, providing habitat for fish, birds, and people, and watering the fruit trees on each side of the river (Ezekiel 47).
In the New Testament, the river of life flows from the heart of Jesus in the Gospel of John, becoming for anyone who thirsts a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 7:37-38). Baptismal life centers around rivers, such as the place of prayer beside the river where Lydia and her community were baptized in Philippi (Acts 16). In Revelation, the river of the water of life flows out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, right through the middle of the city of God. The invitation is addressed to everyone who thirsts: “Come, take the water of life without cost” (Rev. 22:17, my translation).
Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the season of creation. We have in the last few weeks explored the significance of forests, soil and wilderness in God’s plan for creation. As we add rivers to our list this morning, it is important not only to note the presence of these geographic features in scripture, but to see that when orchards, land, wild places and living water appear in scripture, they appear as integrated ecologies that connect us to all life naturally in a local environment.
I had not taken sufficient notice of this before, but in our reading today those trees-whose-leaves-are-for-the-healing-of-the-nations in the New Jerusalem are part of an urban greenway made possible by the river. The orchard along the banks provides abundant food year-round. The curse on land and labor is lifted. And when the lamb, the Christ figure, is first introduced in chapter five, “A whole chorus of animals, sea creatures and creatures under the earth burst into songs of praise.” (5:13). All creation has been waiting for this moment when God’s home will again be on earth, “dwelling with creation and renewing it.”
In this congregation we understand earth-care to be a part of discipleship to Christ who sits on a throne in a restored creation. And we have been challenged to make Christ’s temple as large as the earth. The three members who traveled from our church to Peru earlier this year returned with stories of people concerned for their watershed, which depends on the rapidly shrinking glaciers for water. We have marched to demand of our leaders concrete goals to reduce carbon emissions, and to levy “polluter pays” taxes on destructive industries, and we purchase sustainably harvested palms for our Palm Sunday celebration because we are concerned with the destruction of our old growth forests in the Amazon. These actions are important, but they can seem distant or abstract.
To paraphrase Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum,
- We don’t save places we don’t love
- We can’t love places we don’t know
- We don’t know places we haven’t learned
A few days ago I did not know what our local watershed was. Most of us here live in the Bronx River watershed, federal I.D. 2030102, including the Bronx, Hutchison and Mamaroneck rivers. Our scripture leads me to ask, what must we do to make our own watershed, the Bronx River, a river that heals the nations, the kind of river that would make glad the city of God? I don’t know yet, but I am sure that the God who meets us where we are meets us in this Bronx Watershed, and has neighbors for us to meet, and work for us to do together.
On Friday evening I decided to join the Bronx River Alliance online. I did this because, for years, the river was a dumping ground. You couldn’t swim in it. People wouldn’t even touch it. It was called an open sewer. But over the last decade The Bronx River Alliance has worked to restore much of the river’s natural health. Understand – the Bronx River is only 24 miles long. They hauled out over 70 cars, 5000 tires, they planted trees and made paths and parks, and they gave the river a voice at community meetings, in government and in the streets. On their facebook page I learned that every September they participate in International Coastal Clean-Up Day. Over 300 volunteers turned out last week to haul more than 200 bags of debris from the water. I think International Coastal Clean-Up Day should be on our church calendar next year because,
- We don’t save places we don’t love
- We can’t love places we don’t know
- We don’t know places we haven’t learned
We can start by learning more about our local watershed. When I post this sermon online tomorrow I will include a web link to Geostories, which is part of National Geographic. There you will find a virtual tour of the Bronx River as well as a link to The Bronx River Alliance where you can learn what neighbors have already been doing. Let’s make this 300th anniversary year a watershed year in our congregation, connecting us to earth, to neighbor and to the God who loves us toward our common well-being.
 All citations in this paragraph are from Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” in Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice. May 2014.
 A modern version of Powell’s vision can be found at “The United States of Watersheds,’ Washington Post, November 19, 2013: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/11/19/map-the-united-states-of-watersheds/ . The full story is told by Wallace Stegner in Beyond the Hundredth meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Penguin Books, 1953).
 Barbara Rossing in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads and H. Paul Santmire. (Fortress Press, 2011).
 Citations also from Rossing.
 To learn more about how rivers connect us, visit http://www.americanrivers.org/blog/see-how-rivers-connect-us/. The link to the Bronx River tour is about halfway down the page.
I honor the sabbath on Thursdays. For several years now I have made it a habit to write about how I spent my day and to post it here. This helps me keep the sabbath and holds me accountable for using the day well.
This week our family used the day for a much needed visit to my father-in-law Tony in New Jersey. August had the day off school on account of Rosh Hashanah, and Noelle brought her work with her. It’s a two hour car ride, so we popped in Mozart’s Magic Flute to pass the time. Later this year we are going to visit Vienna, the city of Mozart and Beethoven, Husserl and Klimt, Freud and Godel. The music was great way to immerse ourselves in classical Vienna in preparation for our trip.
I also used this visit to divest myself of almost nine feet of vinyl records, dropping off a dozen boxes of great music at the Princeton Record Exchange. Though I could remember buying most of these, letting them go was not as hard as many imagine. Giving stuff away is habit forming and absolutely freeing. With a few dollars I got for one of the albums I walked over to Labyrinth Books in Princeton to buy Freud and the Non-European by the late Edward Said. This lecture was banned by the Freud Institute in Vienna and subsequently delivered in London. It brilliantly illumines the place of the non-european other in Freud’s writings, as well as reading and appropriating Freud from non-european perspectives in an ultimately liberating understanding of human identity.
We also used the day to apply for a renewal of August’s passport. He got his original passport in 2006 when he was just four months old in order the travel to Cuba.
One last adventure of the day brought us to the Princeton Cemetery. Though both Noelle and I attended Princeton Theological Seminary, neither of us had ever visited the cemetery. We stopped to see three graves: that of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards (with August above); President Grover Cleveland (with August below); and mathematician and physicist Kurt Godel. August is a collector of presidential history, and he knows Edwards well because I read (far too many) passages to him from George Marsden’s biography last spring. Kurt Godel is, of course, greatly admired by Noelle and was originally from Vienna. (While there we also saw the resting place of John Witherspoon, President of Princeton and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s first Vice-President who famously dueled Alexander Hamilton.)
After pizza and playtime, when everyone went to bed, I stayed up to a) work on my sermon, b) skim a book titled When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemprary Readings of Noah’s Flood by J. David Pleins, c) watch the not-quite-as-horrible-as-I-expected movie Noah, and d) read Said’s entirely satisfying and inspiring lecture on Freud. The conclusion of the evening was that I would shelve the Noah story for this week and preach on the other scriptures, saving the Noah sermon for a rainy day.