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My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

April 19, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the Ecumenical Good Friday Service, held at the First Baptist Church in White Plains on April 18, 2014. Rev. Dunn is the Minister of Christian Education and Spiritual Formation at the White Plains Presbyterian Church.

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THE FOURTH WORD FROM THE CROSS

“My God, why have you forsaken me? “ These are frightful words uttered on a dark afternoon. The meaning of these words was debated at the very foot of the cross: Was he calling for Elijah? What did he say?

Forsaken: We are shaken to our core to think that God could abandon Jesus at this terrible hour. Jesus — fully human and fully God– how could God forsake him? How could God abandon this beloved son who has walked obediently before God, healing, teaching and showing the love and compassion of God in ways that transform lives and excite multitudes. Could God abandon God’s own self? It confounds our understanding.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? These last words are terrible words. And these words are lasting because we recognize them as true. In these words, what Barbara Brown Taylor terms our “sunny spirituality,” is confronted by our own inner knowing of what life is often really like.  In the crucifixion, the illusion an ever-present and all-powerful God ruling a morally coherent universe is shattered. The just are unjustly condemned. The loving and compassionate are derided. Death comes to the One who has given life to all he encountered.

If Jesus could suffer and die, what hope do we have? It seems that the body of Christ, broken for us, is yet also the bread of affliction.

Where is God? God is absent, for God, who is the Holy One of Israel, righteous and just, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, could not have been present at such an unrighteous, unjust and cruel time as the crucifixion of Jesus. God is absent, as people in all their ignorance and mendacity do their worst: the innocent suffer and die, and love is crucified, as political expediency carries the day.

From the cross Jesus cried out the first words of Psalm 22, this ancient Hebrew poetry, a Psalm of lament. The whole of Psalm 22 in all its richness and complexity says much about the life of faith, affirming God’s saving acts in history and looking for redemption based upon that assurance.

Even in death, by uttering these words from the cross, Jesus models the way of life-giving prayer. He is not just quoting Psalm 22, he is praying, using these words he knows well. They are words that have formed and shaped him, and the worldview he inhabited. Jesus lived and breathed the sacred Scriptures, so fully that he enacted them. He was so familiar with the Psalms and Prophets that he embodied them. He enacted in his own body this song of lament.

N.T. Wright has pointed out how vitally important the Psalms are for understanding the whole New Testament. He says of the Psalms, “they call us to live at the intersection of sacred space… and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.” They “invoke the past and anticipate the future.” “They speak of change, but more importantly, they are agents of change… as [our] transformed lives bring God’s kindness and justice into the world.”

This insight helps us understand how God could be absent, for Jesus has been abandoned by the people whom he had called to inhabit this space with him, the space of God’s justice, kindness and mercy. God is not present in injustice.

Yet Jesus’ words from the cross are not hopeless, for in uttering these words, he is praying this whole Psalm of lament, he is remembering God’s saving acts and anticipating that future generations will know and proclaim God’s deliverance.

The Psalms of lament are a great asset in the life of faith. The idea that God could be anywhere absent conflicts with a shallow spirituality that we often convey to children. Hoping to somehow shield them from the harsh realities of life, we do not equip them with the words that convey the injustice, anguish and betrayals they will one day encounter.

There are some stories in the Bible that would terrify children, but I think we underestimate just how much children know and ponder. Many children among us know the reality of terror, pain, and suffering. We all probably know children who have experienced domestic violence, divorce, cancer, death, poverty, or alcoholism. These children would certainly cry out along with Jesus, my God, why have you forsaken me?

William Willimon notes wryly that it is interesting that we teach children Psalm 23, but not Psalm 22. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for the life of faith if children were taught how to lament, praying honestly to God about their sense of abandonment, enabling them to have that sense of intimacy with God that Jesus shared in this urgent prayer?

If we believe God is everywhere present– then what is the point of praying: “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Come, Holy Spirit”? If we are taught that God is everywhere, then we become spiritually lazy, not attending to the life of prayer and to our own faithful actions, and then blaming the ever-present God for our ever-present difficulties.

Walter Brueggemann describes the effects of picking and choosing the happier Psalms, and the “Costly Loss of Lament:” “We may unwittingly endorse a ‘False Self’ that can take no initiative toward an omnipotent God. We may also unwittingly endorse unjust systems about which no questions can properly be raised…. Both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility may be derived from the loss of these texts.”

My God, why have you forsaken me? The curtain of the temple is rent asunder, akin to the ancient act of mourning. The prophet Joel had earlier declared on God’s behalf: Rend your hearts and not your garment.   Perhaps the rending of the temple curtain is God’s act of mourning for all humankind who must suffer and die. In this death of Jesus, God’s own heart must be rent asunder by grief.

God is not present in injustice. The day has grown dark, but as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “darkness is the setting for humanity’s closest encounters with the divine.” The prophet Amos, anticipates this dark and terrible day of the Lord, and charges us to let justice roll down like water.

The hope in these words is in Jesus’ compassion and solidarity with us, who live and will one day die, lamenting the sorrow, but looking forward, for in the words of the Psalmist, “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” (Ps 22:24)

May it be so!

 

 

The Westchester 100: Hikes 41-50

April 19, 2014

In 2009, the New York – New Jersey Trail Conference published Walkable Westchestera marvelous guide to where to walk in this beautiful county where I live. The trail guides and commentary were compiled by Jane and Walt Daniels. Inspired by the book, the Westchester Trails Association created The Westchester 100, which involves hiking the more than 600 miles of trails in over 180 parks, preserves, reservations, arboretums and sanctuaries in Westchester County.

This is the record of my progress.

Note: the first half of these hikes were taken Fall 2013, the latter half this spring 2014

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(41 and 42) Hike #69 and #70: Bronx River Reservation (12.3 miles from Kensico Dam in Valhalla to Palmer Road in Bronxville)

I began this walk on a Sunday afternoon with my son. Noelle dropped us off at Kensico Dam and we began our walk South toward Bronxville. It was the middle of the heat wave, and August gave out after only two miles. I kept going as far as the Scarsdale Train Station, where I had enough time for a dish of ice cream before being picked up. According to the inscription on the Valhalla Bridge, there are thirty-seven bridges and viaducts and sixty foot bridges on this twelve mile walk.

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I repeated this routine four days later on my sabbath day, walking from Bronxville North toward Scarsdale. On the Southern half of this route the almost inaudible Bronx River of the Northern part becomes a babbling, falling companion everywhere. The photo below is the dam at Crestwood Lake as the river drops into Tuckahoe.

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(43) Hike #61: Sprain Ridge Park (Yonkers)

There are more than nine miles of trails in the Sprain Ridge Park, many of them for mountain bikes. My son and I spent a good while in this park in his first “off road” bike adventure: I walked, and he rode. At the top of one ridge we stepped out of the park into this break and he took off down the path. Can you spot him? He’s the tiny red dot lying down in the tick infested grass!

We spent a delightful several hours here and decided that this was a park we were bringing his mom back to. LOTS of up and down over rocks. There is also plenty of shaded picnic areas and grills, which seem generally available on a weeknight. Before leaving, August joined a group of older kids playing on the playground behind the pool area.

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(44) Hike #60: Saxon Woods Park and Weinberg Nature Center (Scarsdale)

On a summer afternoon when we needed to give “mom” some quiet time in the house, August and I headed out with the goal of at least a four mile walk. We took ourselves on some previously unexplored paths in Saxon Woods (we usually stay close to the pool) and wound our way along both sides of the Hutchison River Parkway (named after Anne Hutchison). The world has become so interesting for this seven year old that we can’t make much better than a one mile an hour “saunter” – stopping to look at snakes, frogs, spiders, interesting leaves, and stunning sunlight.

August also got a new knife yesterday – his second since his birthday two weeks ago. This one has a blade-lock so that he can whittle. Whittling is his “new favorite thing,” so our hiking was punctuated by periods of standing or sitting on rocks and shaving wood.

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Coming out the southwest corner of the park at Saxon Woods Golf Course, we crossed the parkway and entered Weinberg Nature Center. There we picked fresh berries and enjoyed the smell of “green” until “mom” could pick us up.

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And that was it for 2013. In March 2014 I continued my pursuit of the Westchester 100 with my 45th hike

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(45) Hike # 49: Arthur G. Butler Memorial Preserve (Mt. Kisko)

Oh what a long winter is has been! Long, cold, unpredictable, with a malaise that affected health and spirits. But what a pleasure to be outside and walking the land where I live. In just 20 minutes I remembered who I was, a self that had felt dormant during the winter months. My pulse quickened, I broke a sweat, and I found that familiar walking rhythm that is just not same on the city street or the neighborhood.

Butler Preserve is 6.6 miles of trail up, down and around local rock formation with running water all around. Very little green was visible on this, my first hike of the year. Snow was still to be found in several places, and the water was cold.

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I will remember this hike particularly because during my fifth mile I received a call from a friend in Istanbul asking whether I could officiate at his wedding. My first question was whether this involved a trip to Turkey. It does not. But we have a date in October and I will long remember this conjunction of the great outdoors and the globally connected planet.

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(46a) Hike #99a: Larchmont Reservoir AND James G. Johnson Conservancy

This summer I am going to trace the Colonial Greenway, 15 miles of trail through Scarsdale, Mamaroneck and New Rochelle. Today I followed the center trail, or Blue Blaze, which extends from one end of the Leatherstocking Trail in Mamaroneck to the Hutchison River Parkway in Scarsdale, along the way passing through the James G. Johnson Conservancy and Ward Acres Park. This photo is of my friend Anne just below the Larchmont Reservoir and Sheldrake Lake area in Wykagyl.

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Westchester is full of small gems like this park. The Sheldrake River, which feeds the reservoir where this photo was taken, was  the source of drinking water for Larchmont from the 1750s until the 1970s. It has seen a saw mill, a grist mill and a cotton mill: an original mill stone is still visible next to the old stone toll house near Goodliffe Pond. There is such surprising beauty hidden all over our county. The fresh air did us good.

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(46b) Hike #94a: Bye Preserve, Carolin’s Grove and Clark Preserve (Pound Ridge)

There is a longer story here, told in my sabbath day reflections for these weeks. The following hike (47) took place on the same day as the previous (46a). These three pocket parks were part of a Pound Ridge experience that I simply stumbled upon.

 

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(47) Hike # 21: Warburg Park (Millwood)

Early afternoon found Noelle and I finishing summer camp plans for our son August, and beginning to plan some vacation time for our family. After that, we picked up August from school and went out for our first family hike of the year. We settled on the very accesible Warburg Park in Millwood, just off the Pine Bridge Road exit on the Taconic Parkway. This park is a set of loops around the village composting center, tracing the streams that feed into Wood Duck Pond. The trails pass through several habitats, including vernal ponds, one of which was still completely frozen over and on which August was comfortable standing. It also contains impressive stone formation which led to off trail adventures, rock climbing, and “cave” exploring. August’s imagination was fully alive.

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When we returned to the trail head we used the Yelp app to find a good place to eat, and found ourselves minutes later at Maya Riviera in Briarcliff Manor – sitting beside a beautiful gas fireplace and enjoying excellent Mexican food.

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(48) Hike # 44: Ward Acres Park (New Rochelle)

I passed through Ward Acres Park as part of my walk on the Colonial Greenway. I particularly noted the community garden that is located in this park which is best known for its dog walks. The congregation that I serve is at this time applying for a grant to break ground for a community garden on our property, as well as a series of workshops on healthy eating, cooking, canning, jarring, and preserving.

Although we just passed though, both coming and going we took different trails each time, exploring different parts of the park. This may be only the second park that I have failed to ale a picture of, though.

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(49) Hike #14: Pound Ridge Town Park (Pound Ridge)

Part of my Pound Ridge Adventure. Though the first impression of this park included a lovely pond, I mostly saw the tennis courts, basketball courts, and pool facilities. Behind all of these are extensive trails full of wildlife and plenty of opportunity to be lost in nature.

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(50) Hike #64: Westchester Wilderness Walk (Pound Ridge)

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I want to consider this as hike #50 in my pursuit of the Westchester 100, although this was the first hike in a whole day wandering all over Pound Ridge, from tiny parks (between one and two miles of trails) like Bye Preserve, Carolin’s Grove (photo above) and Clark Preserve to larger parks like the Pound Ridge Town Park and the Westchester Wilderness Walk. The later comprises 6.7 miles of interconnected trails traversing vernal ponds and marshland, through forest and elevated ridges. It was beautiful to hop from rock to rock through all the spring wetness (photo below), and taste the snow melt running over rocks on its way down to the Mianus River Gorge and on to the Long Island Sound. The paths are well marked and easy to follow, ideal for hiking with children. Helpful and humorous signs can be found all along the trail, and the southern loop sports a series of lettered boxes containing ink stamps so children can map and mark their progress. The park has a bit of everything. I will definitely return later in the year to observe the developed habitats.

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This completes the first 50 hike in the Westchester 100. They amount to over 215 miles of hiking through something like 12000 acres of green space. Hooray! 

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See my other hikes

A Cheering, Chanting, Dizzy Crowd

April 14, 2014

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday, April 13, 2014

Matthew 21: 7-9          Philippians 2: 5-11

Some of our best theology is found not in textbooks or treatises but in our hymns. The passage I just read from Philippians was a hymn that circulated in the early church, a song that daringly paid homage to Jesus even to the point of imaging “every knee,” including the Roman Emperor’s, bowing down.  Was this song whispered in the homes of Christ-followers?  Was it ever sung boldly?  What would happen if it were overheard?

Hymns are not merely “breaks” in the liturgy, nice music to break up the monotony of words during worship.  No!  Our hymns convey the diversity of God’s people, help us explore our deepest questions, doubts and fears, and invoke the mystery of the divine at the heart of creation.   Our hymns reveal and interrogate; they prod and proclaim.

Do you want to know what the church is all about? Open the hymnal to number 409 and read “God is Here! As we your people meet to offer prayer and praise. Here are symbols to remind us of our lifelong need for grace.” Listen to the Earth itself speak in St. Francis’ hymn of creation, “All Creatures of Our God and King.”  Consider what it means to live today as urban people in hymn 351, “All Who Love and Serve Your City” or simply cry out “Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, help me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” Take a hymn like “Joy to the World” that we are used to singing during Christmas, sing it out of season like we did on Epiphany, and discover that it is not really about Christmas at all but is vision of all creation redeemed and restored to Eden’s good purpose.

Our first hymn today, “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” is traditionally sung on Palm Sunday. It is all celebration, full of children’s voices and the triumph of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Here Jesus is the King of Israel, Royal David’s Son, come to his people, high exalted in shout and song as sweet hosannas ring!” It is translated from a much longer Latin poem composed in the ninth century by Theodulf of Orleans, the leading theologian in the court of Charlemagne. So we should not be surprised to find that Theodulf portrays Jesus as the divine model for the earthly king.  Or perhaps we might say that Theodulf imagined Jesus through his experience of Charlemagne’s royal welcome and power.  And this is the trickiness of Palm Sunday.  For there is a short and slippery slope between proclaiming Jesus as king and glorifying any reining power.  It is far too easy for us to get swept up in the excitement, the surge of the crowd, we cry “Hosanna!” We wave, our breasts swell with the victorious reign that Jesus will establish.

Indeed my wife Noelle once wrote that

Our Palm Sunday liturgy lures us into participation in order to condemn us. For it is our very “Hosannas!” that are truly our first words of betrayal of the Jesus we claim to love.  When we sang and marched and blessed the palms, we were initiating ourselves into a divine reenactment, a remembrance of our own betrayal of Jesus. Our liturgy glorifies the grand mistake. Our shouts of hosanna, proclaim Jesus as the King that he is not. [Jesus is not Charlemagne.  Jesus is not Caesar. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem as the conquering hero.] This Sunday is called both Palm and Passion Sunday to remind us of how deaf we are to the non-violent message of a humble leader who announces shalom, a just peace to the world. And we are reminded of how, when the Jesus of scripture fails to meet our criteria of what is rational, pragmatic, or fair, when he tells us to love our enemies, when he tells us that the one who would be greatest must be the slave of all, when he turns the other cheek, that our response is to turn away by either trivializing his call or by warping Jesus’ message into our own agenda.

I was struck speechless on Tuesday as I was preparing for worship today. I had set aside a new hymn, the one we will sing in a few moments called “A Cheering, Chanting Dizzy Crowd.” I like Tom Troeger’s hymns. I have used his texts for sermons on a number of occasions. The sermon I preached on his hymn “Silence Frenzied Unclean Spirit,” is one of the most popular posts my blog. On Tuesday when I read again the first line of the hymn I got no further than

The cheering, chanting, dizzy crowd it stripped the green trees bare,

And hailing Christ as king aloud, waved branches in the air.

You see, I had just finished watching the first episode of the new miniseries and climate change. Called, “Years of Living Dangerously,” it was produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger with an All-Star cast to explain what climate change means for human beings.  Just prior to reading Tom’s hymn, I had flown over Indonesia with Harrison Ford to witness the stripping and the wholesale burning of old-growth forest, so the forest could be replaced by palm trees. Palm oil is one of the most in-demand products on the market today, found in everything from soaps and shampoos to foods.[1]

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With that image of devastation fresh in my mind, I zeroed in on the line

the cheering, chanting, dizzy crowd it stripped the green trees bare.

The destruction of excited crowds; the stripping of the trees for a moment of celebration. I could not help but think of the long theological tradition that focuses exclusively on people:  that Jesus came to save human beings, not, as the Bible says, all creation.

For many generations our celebration of Palm Sunday has been a driving force for poor communities elsewhere in the world to rapidly strip bare their trees in order to supply our annual celebration here in the US.  Typically workers, paid a pittance, are instructed to harvest as much as possible – not as much as is sustainable.  After all, the product is only used on this one day – then churches throw them away (or burn them for ashes or bend them into crosses) – but there’s a once a year window to get millions of pounds of palms shipped from one part of the earth to another so we can wave them in worship.  People’s poverty and the destruction of trees have for too long been the result of our mindless Palm Sunday celebrations.  This is no way to welcome Jesus.

That’s why for the past few years our congregation has been purchasing eco-palms, harvested in sustainable, careful ways by people who are paid a fair wage.  You can read more about these palms online.  Does purchasing sustainable palms deal with the systemic problems of climate change or deforestation?  No.  But it is a step forward that helps communities preserve their trees and earn a decent wage for their families, while reminding us that what we do in our liturgy and in our lives has repercussions around the world.

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This Palm Sunday is neither about despair nor about making everything better.  That’s way too easy and neither are the gospel message.  Palm/Passion Sunday is about being able to sit squarely within the broken relationships between people and between people and the planet, to begin to see how easily we too can be seduced into complicity – even in our liturgy – and to ask the hard questions of ourselves and of one another; questions like:  if the crowds following Jesus got it wrong, how and when are we like the crowds?  How might we use this opportunity to nourish a more complex faith, one that questions as much as it cheers; one that remembers not only our neighbors beside us, but our neighbors around the world; a faith that explores what it means that God came to redeem not only humanity but all of creation.

They laid their garments in the road and spread his path with palms

and vows of lasting love bestowed with royal hymns and psalms.

When day dimmed down to deepening dark the crowd began to fade

till only trampled leaves and bark were left from the parade.

As we enter into Holy Week, let us enter cognizant of how our betrayal begins with the call of Hosanna.  Let us enter prepared to have our visions of who Jesus is and how God acts challenged so that they can be reborn.  Let us enter as Jesus did, humbly, riding on a colt.  Let us follow him to the Passover table.  Let us try to pray in the garden.  Let us have the courage to follow him to the cross, even if we be like the women who stood at a distance.  This Holy Week, may we face our fear of going against the crowd, of our desire to be accepted by society, of our insatiable drive for security over peace.  May we confront these hosanna-like claims that shut the true and living God out of our lives, so that God can speak to us anew.  May our liturgical remembering transform our palms into crosses.  May our liturgical remembering transform our lives until we can understand that we walk with Jesus to the cross, that we might experience his new life on Easter morning.

                Lest we be fooled because our hearts have surged with passing praise,

                Remind us, God, as this week starts where Christ has fixed his gaze.

                Instead of palms, a winding sheet will have to be unrolled,

                A carpet much more fit to greet the king a cross will hold.

 

 

[1] Years of Living Dangerously premiered on Showtime this Sunday and will run for nine weeks (Sunday evenings at 10:00). The first episode is available free on youtube. In conjunction with 350.org our congregation hosted a “watch-Party” in the sanctuary and invited our neighbors to watch this show with us and think about what it is calling us to do.

Sabbath Day – Overdoing It

April 11, 2014

Sabbath Post for Thursday, April 10, 2014

So, I wanted to take a walk today.

The weather was going to be beautiful – 65 degrees and sunny.

Spring seems finally to have taken hold.

So I wanted to take a walk.

Noelle needed the car in the middle of the day, so I plotted out a way she could drop me off at a trailhead after we dropped our son off at school. She could then have the car for the day and pick me up whenever her meetings were over.

The idea looked good on paper. A long, continuous cross-county trail that I could walk on all day. Starting just a few miles from home.

By 8:45 I was headed into the woods, following the last two miles of the South and then moving on to the North County Trail. This is a Rails-to-Trails conversion project running 40 miles through Westchester following the path of the old New York Central Railroad, Putnam Division.

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I walked until 2:30.

I walked 19 miles.

Slightly uphill all the way.

I’m sore, have blisters, and can barely move.

It was a good day.

Week three of blooming things has produced an array of color – yellow, red, pink, purple, greens, orange!, and grey-fuzzy.

I saw deer, snakes, squirrels, more snakes, lots of birds, evidence of owls, and a great big bumble bee that smacked me in the face.

At one point I realized that I hadn’t had a thought in maybe a mile and a half. I was  simply walking and watching.

Cool.

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I crossed streams and rivers,  wetlands, a reservoir and an amazing old train bridge. I passed parks and preserves I have already hiked, and several I plan to. I rested briefly beside a secluded lake. I greeted bikers and hikers and group of men fishing.

I got sunburnt.

I finished my hike at the Trailside Cafe enjoying a very refreshing green apple, cucumber, celery juice. I had walked from Elmsford/Eastview to Yorktown Heights.

Then I sent 90 minutes on the playground with August after school.

When I got home I took a long bath.

And went to bed.

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Lent 5: Thirty Years (What Future?)

April 6, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

 

A little over 30 years ago, 1983 to be exact, I entered a project in my eighth grade school science fair. My topic: pollution. Growing up in the southern skyline of Chicago, I was very aware of pollution. I had grown up with Ranger Rick. I took my pledge to be a Smokey Bear Jr. Forest Ranger. I was disturbed by the image of the Native American chief on a television commercial weeping over our pollution of the land.  It was clear from looking at the Chicago skyline, or in cities like Gary, Indiana, that real pollution was entering the air from massive factories. I could count the big smokestacks belching billows of black smoke into the air as I drove down the highway with my father to go a baseball game or to accompany him to work.

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As I look at the kind of work produced by eighth-graders today I’m embarrassed by how little science was a part of my actual science project; but also how much heart was in it. What gave me such high marks in the project was that my father had one of the first video cameras around.  We lugged that thing that was the size of a large suitcase all around Chicago, Illinois and Gary, Indiana filming my observations. I took the film to my uncle’s house and edited it together with a soundtrack that was largely comprised of the Beatles and Elvis Presley.  One of the lasting lessons from the project as I put together the soundtrack is that the music could convey my sense of lament better than any narration.

The science of the project had to do with researching filters that were then being developed to clean the emissions of our factories. The video images I was creating were of what a “clean factory” would look like. And I ended with hope and optimism that our future would be different.

My 13 year-old self was hopeful that, with technology and the dedication of good corporations, we could eliminate pollution and set our planet on a better course.

Last week I sat in this pew down here and listened to Norma Smikle and Wanda Van Woert speak about what they observed while they were in the cities of Lima and La Oroya, Peru. They spoke powerfully about the Doe Run Corporation which operates a lead smelting plant in La Oroya – the most toxic place on our planet. They narrated how the company had been required to meet environmental regulations, how the company pleaded for 10 years for extensions of the compliance deadlines, and how when the deadline finally came they pleaded lack of funds, even as they were shipping money out of the country. Norma narrated how the company has subsequently sued the government of Peru for lost earnings or potential earnings. This is sinful. It is greedy. And Wanda then explained that 99% of the children living in La Oroya have lead poisoning, as well as the adults.

My 44 year-old self is more sanguine.  The only way corporations change is if they are forced to change.  But I wonder, given that Doe Run has now sued the nation of Peru for forcing it to keep its word on payments it promised to make, who has the power to hold them accountable.  The answer right now is, no one.  But the question is whether the people of Peru and the people of the US and other nations will  stand idly by or stand together to oppose this with all our strength.

The prophet Ezekiel spoke to God’s people in a time of bitter despair. Thirty years earlier they had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem.

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision. He reports that he saw a valley of bones – very dry bones. Those bones would have been sitting in the desert for just about three decades.  But did you ever wonder, whose bones were they?  They would have been the bones of soldiers and elites of Judea who were marched into exile after the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem. They were the bones of Babylonian soldiers compelling God’s people off to their exile in Babylon. They were the bones of people who never even made it to the place of despair.  Death took them first.  The rest marched onward, leaving loved ones and friends behind in the desert wilds to rot in the harsh desert sun or to be eaten by wild animals.  They continued onward, grieving, losing hope with every step.  And now, thirty years has passed.  Whatever remnant of hope they once may have held, lay in tatters.

So God gave a vision to Ezekiel the prophet. He saw valley of bones, very dry bones.  And God asked a direct question of the prophet and the exiled Judeans:  can these bones yet live?

The obvious answer is: no.  But the prophet was smart enough to answer, “Almighty God, only you know.”  In other words, Ezekiel recognized God’s sovereignty over all of life, including death.  Ezekiel recognized that God was not constrained by human beings and our limited notions of the possible.

You see this vision is about more than putting the pieces back together again. It is about more than fixing something that is broken.  This is not a biblical happy ending to the fairy tale “Humpty Dumpty.”  Rather it is a story of the re-creation of a new people out of the bones of the past, out of the pain and the mistakes and the despair and the death; God breathes life into them, and they begin to rattle.

On Monday, the United Nations released its second report on climate change. And the consensus of scientific experts is that things are worse, far worse than we thought. The report said “that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.”[1]  It continued, “While the impact of global warming may actually be moderated by factors like economic or technological change, the report found, the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. That will be especially so if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace… It cited the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.”[2]

 

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A central problem will be the food supply.  With hotter temperatures farmers will not be able to grow as much food and it is the poorest nations that overwhelmingly will suffer.  “When supply falls below demand, somebody doesn’t have enough food,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist who helped write the new report. “When some people don’t have food, you get starvation. Yes, I’m worried.”[3]

Of course the report noted that poor countries would need about $100 billion dollars in aid each year offset the effects of climate change. Right now, at best they receive a few billion from rich countries.  But that $100 billion figure was eliminated from the UN’s 48 page executive summary given to the world’s top political leaders, who worry that it is impolitic to double foreign aid at a time of economic distress at home.  Of course keeping foreign aid the same won’t avert the catastrophe that’s approaching.

Basically, according to Jennifer Sahn, we’ve got about thirty years until world’s natural systems begin shutting down.  We have reached every frightening benchmark faster than anyone expected; way ahead of schedule.  An example:  We have over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the record we once thought we would not hit for another hundred years. And to make matters worse we have done very little to change our ways.[4]

In another thirty years, I will be 74 years old. My son will be 37. If he has any children they will still be very young. Will there be any hope? Will we have made the necessary changes? Or will my grandchildren live in a world system that is slowly shutting down? Will human society be past the point where ingenuity, technological fixes, and simpler living will make any difference? It is not inconceivable. It is, in fact, likely. If that happens, what will they say when they look back at our dry bones? Will the next generation want to see us put back together again? And if so, what questions would they put to us?

When the city of White Plains celebrated it’s 300th anniversary in 1983, they planted the Time Capsule in our cemetery with plans to open it 300 years later in the year 2283. We plan conclude our own church’s 300th celebration by planting another time capsule in our cemetery. But we plan for it to be opened in 30 years – not within all of our lifetimes, probably not in most of our lifetimes, but within the lifetime of our children or grandchildren.   And what will be our sign to them?  What will we put in our time capsule?

I think our task is not to put a monument in the ground as a sign of what was the latest and greatest technology, the NY Times’ best selling book, or a roster of church leaders and hope that some future generation will read it and care.  Rather I think our task with this time capsule would be to make a pledge to future generations 30 and 300 years out that starting right now we will live responsibly on God’s earth, that we will dedicate our lives to correcting those natural, corporate and human systems that have placed our planet in such precarity, and that we will raise the youngest generation of Christians to do likewise.  And I think our task is to articulate to future generations both a prayer for forgiveness as well as what our hopes are for them, on the other side of the world food crisis and when there is no longer drinking water to sustain earth’s population.

For some this may sound depressing – that I’ve given into despair; I would disagree.  The UN report tells us we may be facing a valley of dry bones in thirty years.  We may not be able to turn our planet around in time, even assuming our best, unflinching efforts.  This is not hysteria or ideology, this is the best scientific and I will add conservative, estimation of where our planet is headed.

What I am asking all of us to do is something that is hard to do.  I want us to look squarely in the face of death and devastation.  I want us to look squarely at the results of humankind’s careless and cavalier behavior.  I want us to not mince words.  I want us to sit with these anticipated consequences and to think hard and to pray hard about what we are prepared to do with the time that has been given to us.  We are the ones living here and now.  It is to us that the faces of our grandchildren and great grandchildren will turn and say, “Daddy, Grandmom, what did you do?”  And so that those who dig up our time capsule will say – “This is what they pledged to do. This was the urgent task to which they sensed God calling them. This is how they planned to ensure life for us and the generations to come.”

To place such letters in the time capsule is not to give in to despair. Rather it is to articulate hope and commitment. Such letters dare not be naïve. We must be clear that we know what the challenges and the stakes are. As citizens we must demand policy that ensures public heath, energy security and water supply in our local communities and require clean energy and efficiency that will help us migrate toward sustainability within corporate supply chains as well.[5]

Our messages should bristle with courage as we pledge ourselves to confront powerful people and corporations and systems that are larger than any one of us. And these letters should remind future generations as well as us, that we are not alone in this resistance.

During their visit to Peru three of our members witnessed the rapidly disappearing Andean icecap, which is the source of drinking water for all of Lima, the fifth most populous city in South America. As Norma put it so well, we who are insulated from the everyday realities of climate change have had the luxury to debate whether or not it is happening. But our neighbors around the world are already trying to think about what we will require to be able to live in the future. We are not alone – our sisters and brothers in Peru have already begun this journey, as have countless people around the world.

And Ezekiel prophesied as he had been commanded:  and as he prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling…  (here our music director created the sound of rattling bones, swelling as I continued speaking)

A rattling… there’s a rattling going on right now. It’s rattling at the United Nations. It’s rattling in La Oroya, Peru. And it’s rattling in White Plains, NY. There’s a rattling happening everywhere where people are facing up to what lies before us, trusting God and, with our own hands, hearts, voices and strength devoting ourselves to the earth’s re-creation. May God’s spirit keep on rattling!

Rattle on, Spirit! Rattle on!

 

 

 

[1] “Panel’s Warning On Climate Risk: The Worst is Yet to Come,” Justin Gillis, New York Times, March 31, 2014.  Accessed April 5, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/science/earth/climate.html?_r=0 .

[2] ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jennifer Sahn, Thirty Year Plan: Thirty Writers on What We Need for a Better Future. Orion Books, 2012.

[5] Adapted from the speech to the oil and gas industry by the UN’s top climate change official, Christiana Figueres on April 3, 2014.  http://unfccc.int/files/press/press_releases_advisories/application/pdf/pr20140304_ipieca.pdf

Sabbath Day in Pound Ridge

April 4, 2014

edit bench

My seven year old son and I woke at 6:00 AM today. We loaded our car with all the food that had been donated and collected at our church and delivered it to the local food pantry. This is one of August’s jobs every month as one of two young “food stewards” in our congregation. We arrived at 7:00, just as the doors were opening, and were greeted by Lorraine, the director of the program. We delivered our ten bags or so of food to be shared with our neighbors and then walked down the street to a small diner to enjoy ourselves a breakfast of pancakes and corned beef hash.

Over breakfast we finished the last dozen or so pages in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We had stayed up late last night reading, leaving only these pages for today. I was completely unprepared to openly weep in the diner, but I did, and had to stop multiple times because I was choked up witnessing Harry’s grief for Sirius Black and the support given Harry by his friends. August was patient with me. Then, having sat with that emotion just about as long as a seven-year old could, we had just enough time left before school began to rush headlong into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Oh Cornelius Fudge!

My goal for this sabbath was to spend as much of the day outdoors as I could and to enjoy the wonderfully warm weather. I left straight from school, planning to hike the Mianus River Gorge in Bedford. The trail was slated to open on April 1, but when I arrived I found that the opening has been postponed another week due to ice on the trail. Disappointed, but ready for whatever surprises now lay ahead, I opened my copy of Walkable Westchester and looked for a nearby Park. Thus, my discovery of Pound Ridge.

I pause here  to remind my readers that a year ago I set out to walk every park, preserve, sanctuary, conservancy, farm, reservation and trail in Westchester, using Jane and Walt Daniels’ Walkable Westchester as a guide. The Westchester Trails Association has since combined and organized the over 180 trail systems in this book into 100 hikes known as the Westchester 100. My joy today was to reach my half-way point by hiking over 13 miles and completing my 50th walk.

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I spent all day walking. I wandered all over Pound Ridge, from tiny parks (between one and two miles of trails) like Bye Preserve, Carolin’s Grove (photo above) and Clark Preserve to larger parks like the Pound Ridge Town Park and the Westchester Wilderness Walk. The later comprises 6.7 miles of interconnected trails traversing vernal ponds and marshland, through forest and elevated ridges. It was beautiful to hop from rock to rock through all the spring wetness (photo below), and taste the snow melt running over rocks on its way down to the Mianus River Gorge and on to the Long Island Sound. The paths are well marked and easy to follow, ideal for hiking with children. Helpful and humorous signs can be found all along the trail, and the southern loop sports a series of lettered boxes containing ink stamps so children can map and mark their progress. The park has a bit of everything. I will definitely return later in the year to observe the developed habitats.

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And what a difference a week makes. I have been hiking again over the last two weeks, but this week the spring peepers were out and LOUD, skunk cabbage spears were everywhere, the ice was gone, and I saw three snakes, five deer, and countless birds.

snake

After a quick slice of pizza in Scotts Corners (population 711), I drove in circles before finally finding my last hike of the day: Halle Ravine Nature Preserve/Pine Terrance Preserve. It is unmarked with only a small pull-off for maybe two cars in front of a dilapidated white fence. But what a find! A flat, gently rising upper path provides great views over the ravine through which a much more interesting path passes back and forth over the stream.

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Back home in the evening, I enjoyed the monthly Oktoberfest menu at Dunne’s Pub in White Plains. Our table was filled with sauerbraten, veal schnitzel, a variety of wursts, red cabbage, potato pancakes, applesauce and pints of Spaten.

How do you find rest and refreshment this week?

 

 

Lent 4: Never Miss An Opportunity

March 31, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 30, 2014

John 9: 1-41

When I woke up yesterday morning, I did not know that a mere four hours later I would be dancing the samba with complete strangers in a café in Peekskill. In fact, when I woke up, I didn’t know how to samba! Here’s how that came about.

A little more than a year ago I received a phone call here at the church from Sarah B. who was inquiring whether the church had space for Professor Cabação Teixeira to teach classes in capoeira. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form combining traditional dance and music, martial arts without physical contact, communication, improvisation, and gymnastics, as well as some rudimentary Portuguese. I had never heard of Capoeira, and being interested, once the arrangements were made for classes to be held at the church on Sunday and Tuesday evenings, I began visiting the Church House to see what it was all about. Eventually my son August developed an interest as well, and after Christmas he began his training.

Capoeira is very interesting to watch: it involves a number of kicks, swings, sweeps, spins, acrobatic flips and cartwheels, all built around a basic dance move called ginga, a shifting back and forth from foot to foot in balance and rhythm. Capoeira originated in Brazil among slaves during the 16th century as a form of cultural expression, self-defense, and training for resistance. Because of its vast territory, Brazil received more than 40% of the black Africans who were transported into bondage as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Capoeira was a fighting style “disguised as dance in order to prevent its capoeiristas from punishment or execution for learning how to fight and defend themselves, which was forbidden to those who were legally defined as property.”[1] Today it is considered part of the intangible cultural heritage of Brazil. To the extent that it still contains a fighting style, it remains hidden within the dance.

It was important to Noelle and I, as parents, that there is never any contact, only communication, between those who today “play” capoeira; each partner announces their own and anticipates the other’s actions, all through bodily movement, in an improvisational choreography rather than “fighting.” Participants stand in a circle, called a rota, dancing ginga and clapping along with African drums and the berimbaus (a traditional single-stringed instrument), waiting their turn to come to the center of the circle and “play capoeira” with one partner or another. Tag-team style.

Like other forms of martial arts there is today a colored belt, or cord, system, which demonstrates one’s physical and mental achievement. As practitioners develop skill and agility, they may demonstrate their progress for their professor in an event that, for new students, is called a batizado, literally a baptism. Yesterday morning, children from as far as Manhattan and Danbury and from both sides of the Hudson River gathered at the Arts Center in Peekskill to dance the ginga and play capoeira for their professor in order to show what they have learned and to earn a new colored cord. My son August earned his turquoise cord, the first step of advancement for children.

Ian's Photo

I tell you all this because my interest in capoeira began with my desire to know the people who spend time in this building. Our facility here hums all week long. We host Zumba classes six days a week, nursery school five days a week, Capoeira, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and a host of recovery groups, black business women, Local 1199 SEIU (United Healthcare Workers), as well as clergy meetings, two other congregations, the strategic planning team of the Presbyterian Camp in Holmes, a thrift shop, our own church meetings, ESL Classes, Farm CSA, and soon community gardeners. Community is being formed through shared activity all the time as people, dance, sing, plan, share, learn, grow and play together. Our church is a place of encounter where people meet one another. I like getting to know the people with whom we share this building and our outdoor grounds.

But I want to tell you about capoeira because I am impressed with the way it forms community. Imagine what practicing our faith would be like if:

  • We understood our baptism to be a commitment to life-long rigorous training, both physical and spiritual, and as preparation for resistance to all that threatens life;
  • We prized the engagement and not just the result;
  • We looked at not only what we were doing, but how others were responding;
  • We anticipated (like the slaves who originated capoeira) both acclamation and resistance to how we live our lives of faith and prepared ourselves spiritually and physically to be nimble and to keep moving.

I think about the strength required to play capoeira. The muscles are formed, however, by practicing over and over – not by lifting weights or supplements – but by encounter in one another’s space, by leaving just enough room for each of us to breathe, by allowing each other to practice with one another without ever hurting the other – that we are always practicing not performing…

I think about the way different people rotate in and out – no one controlling, everyone required to interact with everyone else, all sensing and responding to the skill and focus of the other.

The tag-team nature of the play is that you play with everyone, you cannot have a safe partner who you know well but must learn to move and play with many kinds. The adults play with the children, making themselves as small as possible so a child can sweep their leg over the adults head, or laying flat on the ground so a child can do a cart wheel over their back. And the children learn from and aspire to the strength of their elders.

After the rota event yesterday the entire group of children, parents, and adult learners walked down the street to the Beanrunner Café in Peekskill. Food was ordered, a group of African drummers appeared, space was cleared and together everyone in the café learned to Samba. See, I told you I’d get back to that! I tried to stand back with my cup of coffee, but was told that coffee was simply not permitted. I was pulled into the circle. I learned to move my feet, and jump in time, and swing my hips, and many other things; and then I was pushed into the circle with first one, and then another person. I was way out of my comfort zone. But I was having an encounter with other people. The moment, the meeting, mattered. And it felt great.

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As I mentioned to the children (in the children’s message), there is much to be done here at the church over the next couple of months. There is tag sale to prepare for and cleanup from; a sacramental soup luncheon on Emmaus Sunday, sponsored by the deacons who are themselves a bit shorthanded right now; two anniversary celebrations. Many hands do make light work. And we need many hands. But the reason to come together at the church is not to get work done but to have an encounter with one another. We should never, never, gather to do the work of the church and miss the opportunity to learn something new about those we have gathered with. Or to miss the chance to play and dance. To samba – literally or figuratively. What I have most enjoyed about the way we have been sharing in the Lenten education classes sponsored by our green team has been hearing Leslie say that she never knew Barbara Barnes was a small-town girl, or the several people who said that they had never seen Wanda Van Woert laugh so hard or smile so much as when she was talking about her travels in Peru, or the realization during our conversation about ‘stuff’ that the teachers among us both have the most stuff and the most organized stuff. That is how we form community. And there are many occasions coming up to do so.

In our gospel text today, Jesus healed a man born blind. They are the only two who actually have an encounter. It should have been an occasion for giving glory to God, and for strengthening the community of family, neighborhood and religious association as they all participate in the miracle in their midst. But with the exception of Jesus and the blind man, everybody fails to meet the situation. The family fails. The community fails. The religious authorities fail.[2] Everyone has another agenda – to play it safe, the avoid controversy, to protect their traditional notions of faith. All fail the encounter because they cannot see who is in their midst, either the divine presence or the human neighbor. They cannot make themselves available to what has been made available to them in Christ. They will not acknowledge the vulnerability which alone ushers in the new world of God’s making. May we never miss such opportunities.

Holy God, why is it that we look, but do not see?

Bring us again and again into your light

until your ways become visible to us,

and bear fruit in us.

Touch us so that we are utterly changed,

a “before” and “after,”

a “now” and “then”;

that we may also say,

“one thing I do know,

that though I was blind, now I see.”

In Christ’s light, we pray. Amen.[3]

 

 

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capoeira

[2] Deborah J. Kapp in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide. Edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[3]Feasting on the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year A, Volume 1 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).

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