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Love and Torture: A Wedding Homily

December 16, 2014

Laura and David were married at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Saturday, December 13th. This is the first part of the homily I addressed to the congregation, based on the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews the couple had chosen for their wedding day. The scripture passage mentioned, among other things, mutual love, prison and torture. This in the same week the Senate released its report on the U.S. torture of prisoners. 

Hebrews 13: 1-6

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all…. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’

Laura and David have selected a passage from scripture that puts their love in the context of our commitment as people of faith, to love one another. The love which is unwrapped in this passage, is not simply between lovers or even between friends. It is a love that extends beyond kin and beyond familiarity to embrace the stranger in need and the prisoner who is being tortured. It is a love that knows not to place things before people; money before relationships.

It is a passage that reminds us that love is always and everywhere contextual, by which I mean it is lived out and lived out in a given time and place. How fitting that Laura and David’s scripture reminds us to remember those who are being tortured in prison this week. To remember, as if we ourselves were being tortured.

Now for goodness sake you all may be wondering, why are we talking about torture during a wedding sermon! Please stop ruining this once in a lifetime moment! Can we please get on to the part of happiness and joy? But what Laura and David have offered us is an opportunity to look at the strength of love as a resource by which we face all that we must face – as individuals, as couples, as families, as nations. They are a couple whose love does not protect them FROM the world, but rather whose love opens them up TO the world. And that world is as harsh as it is beautiful, is as painful as it is hopeful.

This passage from Hebrews points us to a love that is for all seasons – a love that does more than simply weather the worst. It is a love that is able to go to the very heart of wounds, our own, others’, the worlds, and heal them – not through magic, but through our own risk to care and feel and stretch toward one another.

When this passage is read in church, typically we leave out one verse. And we leave it OUT because to leave it IN means we’d have to deal with it and it reads rather awkwardly to our 21st century sensibilities – it discusses honoring the marriage bed and warns that God will judge “fornicators and adulterers.” And well that language makes us all a little uncomfortable. But I’d like to put it back in for a moment, because this verse underscores (albeit in negative language) something very life-giving. It insists that our sexual relationships must also promote the dignity, equality and well-being of one another. We are invited to love in all dimensions of our lives – our personal, familial, sexual, economic, and social lives, we are to love in ways that are compassionate and just.

To embody such love requires courage. The word courage comes from the French word, coer – or heart. It requires heart-strength. You remember in the Wizard of Oz, that the lion is given a heart as a sign of his courage. For to be courageous means to face the world with empathy – to cry and suffer and laugh and wonder – to dare to feel; to refuse to insulate oneself from pain or from joy.   It involves risk – the risk of vulnerability with one another and with the wider world. Courage is not about shutting down but about opening up. It means willingly removing unnecessary defenses.

Yet with that vulnerability comes the ability to discover what is most fully human in ourselves and to touch what is deeply human in another. David and Laura are people who are willing to risk. They are large-hearted. And they they leap, intellectually, emotionally, relationally toward, always toward the other and toward God – whose very name is Love.

David and Laura love ideas – they hunger to find words for that which is inchoate, they tenaciously go at difficult puzzles (mathematical or psychological). And they are passionate – whether directing that intensity toward making cheesy delectables in the kitchen or making music together or asking huge questions of life and society of faith and purpose. Encountering them, one is overwhelmed with their joie de vivre, their delightful mix of introverted ebullience. Yet they also embody this reservoir of stillness, which has an enormous capacity to draw out from others what we hope for, that invites us, in turn, to leap toward them.

The homily continued, but the rest does not need to be shared here…

Thank you Laura and David for this opportunity to link the kind of love you share with the kind of work we must do to build a world we can all live in. You are an incredibly fun couple, and since one of your other readings was a passage from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I could not resist this image … as a suitable end to this post.

funny-Harry-Potter-bag-love

Advent Action: Stepping Up

December 14, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014

 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11            1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Our lectionary text from the book of Isaiah is about stepping up.  In it we read of a person who, having sensed God’s call, takes responsibility for enacting justice in the broader community.  “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” proclaims this empowered agent, “because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”

The speaker is not a bystander watching horrors unfold but a believer who announces change that she is prepared and acting.  The human speaker is the one who will act with compassion and justice that mirrors God’s own jubilee (the year of God’s favor) where debts are forgiven, land is returned and slaves are freed.  This moment is also one of God’s vengeance which redistributes resources that have been wrongfully accumulated by the powerful, until they are shared as God intends.  Many will recall that Jesus read just this passage from the scroll of Isaiah when he inaugurated his own ministry, insisting that God’s justice was not something of the past or future but something to be lived now.

As the passage continues we see God honors this “stepping up,” revealing God’s own deep longing.  For God is not sitting idly in the heavens, cold and unmoved by human suffering and injustice.  No!  God is a lover of justice and the faithful ones who dare to act are the ones who will hear and know God’s promise of everlasting covenant. The speaker responds in joy, because the whole earth shall be like a garden where justice and praise spring up.  It is not only that the speaker casts aside any despair herself, it is that God’s promise is for the whole earth – all the nations shall see it.

The words of Isaiah are not facile, inflationary oratory they are words that were written following the people’s exile in Babylon. The people had suffered greatly and now that they had returned, they faced the challenge of how they would build their society anew.  Would they again build it on the backs of the poor?  Or would they dare proclaim and enact a whole new world.  These words from Isaiah reminded the people of their commitment to a fundamentally just society, marked by regular redistribution of resources and covenant care in times of need.[1]

Last Sunday during my sermon reflecting on the outcry after the grand jury did not indict the police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner, I extended an invitation for members of the congregation to join me at a meeting of the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform.  And three people “stepped up.”  We connected with our neighbors and are planning next steps together.

Last Sunday night, nearly seventy people gathered in the church house to pray and recommit ourselves to reversing Climate Change.  Following a moving interfaith service of song and prayer we went out onto the sidewalk on North Broadway with candles.  Praying for the negotiators of the Climate talks in Lima, and witnessing to our dedication to step up to make a difference.

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Last week we also celebrated an Advent brunch together with families who have a parent in prison as an extension of our Angel Tree program.  Through that program members of the congregation purchased over 35 gifts on behalf of parents who are in prison, for their children.  Now these weren’t gifts we thought would be good, but rather, they were the gifts that the parents would buy for their children if they could.  Many hands worked hard to setup the brunch, to make and serve the food, to purchase the gifts, and to clean up.  So many of you stepped up.

And these steps lead to others – because when you’re on God’s journey of justice and compassion, the road unfolds as you walk it together.  This week members from the mission committee stepped up, criss-crossing Westchester county as they delivered Angel Tree gifts to families who were not able to come to the brunch.

In preparing to travel to one home, they called ahead only to discover that a little boy Jeremiah who was to receive a gift has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is having surgery on Wednesday.  After speaking with the family, several members will be visiting the hospital this week.  They are stepping up.

This Advent there is much to lament in our world.  But the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God has not thrown divine hands up in despair with our world.  Rather God is looking for partners who are ready to step up. And people are.  Health workers and volunteers are stepping up in the wake of a paltry response by governments, risking their lives to help Ebola stricken communities. This week there are members of the armed forces who are speaking out publicly at risk to their reputation and careers about the unconscionable use of torture by our government following the release of the Senate’s report on the CIA.  They are stepping up.

In ways that we can see and in ways that we don’t yet know, people are stepping up.  And when we step up, heeding God’s call to justice and compassion, we also, necessarily step out and toward one another, we experience what is most human in ourselves and others, we break our isolation and desperation, and find the animation, the motivation of the spirit that sustains us.

So let us keep stepping up!  Let us keep stepping out!  Let us keep faith with one another, with God and our neighbor.  For as we continue to step up, will see upon the ground before us, shoots of justice springing up.  This is the promise of God.

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NOTE – My three Advent sermons are connected through the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah and function to describe a particular kind of advent longing through the experience of protest, grief, and action. They are usefully read together and in order: Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort; followed by Advent Grief: Enough is Enough; and Advent Action: Stepping Up. Thus may we prepare the way of the one who is always coming.

[1] The exegetical material here was prepared by The Rev. Noelle Damico for the International Interfaith Weekend of Prayer and Action Against Ebola, organized by the U.S. – Africa Ebola Working Group. Used with her permission.

Advent Grief: Enough is Enough

December 10, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40: 1-11           Mark 1:1-8

On Friday afternoon I was part of a protest here in White Plains, like those across the country, shouting “Enough is enough.” The grand jury decision this week not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by choking him to death for allegedly selling cigarettes, sparked outrage across our country. If some folks found wiggle room in the conflicting testimony of witnesses in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner’s death, captured on videotape, has elicited questions about our justice system from across the political spectrum. The 75 people gathered in Renaissance Square on Friday chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” At one point we dropped to the ground, a die-in where we laid motionless and silent on the hard, cold cement for seven minutes, the time Eric Garner lay on the ground without any attempt at resuscitation or medical attention. Then we marched up Mamaroneck to turn onto Martine until we reached the Westchester County Legislative Building. There we circled up near the steps where Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., whose father was shot and killed in his own apartment by White Plains police just three years ago, led us in the cry, “Enough is enough.” “We aren’t against the police. But they must be accountable. Enough is enough.”

The demonstration was well attended by clergy from all over Westchester, including thirteen Presbyterian ministers. We stood together as people from across the county, people of different races, different faith traditions, people of all ages, and there was this sense of anger yet possibility, an outrage that was being channeled into purposeful and thoughtful engagement. Later on Friday evening, there was a vigil in Nyack with hundreds of people standing witness with candles against the cold, dark night, together, searching, committing, grieving, hoping.

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But this week I have also heard despair voiced by a number of people I really respect. Nothing is going to change. In a few weeks “we” will have forgotten, or moved on to other things, returned to normal – I can only image ‘we’ means white people – while Black and Brown people will return to some combination of anger and acceptance because, after all, nothing is going to change. And that despair is real and, frankly rational. Because police brutality directed toward men and boys of color has happened as far back as we can remember and continues to happen with chilling regularity. That is the backdrop for the two recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – these were not anomalous, singular problems, but rather the killing of these men was emblematic of the violence deployed against African-American and Latino men and boys by law enforcement with impunity. “Indict the System,” read one sign at a NYC protest last week. And that, to me, is accurate. For grand juries have, over and over, refused to indict police officers for brutality and that’s one of the reasons for the push for independent prosecutors rather than grand juries to investigate these cases. But the system is, of course, bigger than simply the justice system. The system means those social, political, and economic forces that replicate discrimination and violence in the daily fabric of our life together.

A few weeks ago, here in this sanctuary, twenty five people from Hudson River Presbytery engaged in a conversation called “Beyond Ferguson: Race, Racism, Privilege and Power.” When asked what we feared most about the conversation we were about to have, several participants said “I fear that we will talk honestly tonight, and then do nothing;” that these kinds of conversations would be too sporadic across our nation to effect any real change. Through personal sharing and small group conversations, the four co-presenters, including Elder Leslie Mardenborough and the Rev. Sarah Henkel, led us through an in-depth presentation of the historical, socio-economic, and political context of the tragedy in Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson.

At the time of our conversation, neither grand jury decision had yet been made. But that even if there were indictments, we were keenly aware that those indictments alone would not bring resolution to the deep-seeded structural inequities in our communities. The conversation on November 20th ended with this question “What one thing do you commit to do?”

Last year community members and several clergy came together to form the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform. The coalition works to make our own community safer with improved community-police relations and greater police accountability and transparency. They meet on the second Thursday evening every month, which as many of you know is my Sabbath day and the reason I cannot attend regularly. But I will be there this week and it would be wonderful if we could get a delegation from our church to go, so we can think together about how we will step into the future together. The meetings take place at Memorial Methodist Church on Bryant Ave.

God sent Isaiah to speak words of comfort to a people who were no longer looking for it; to a people who had given up hope. And he said, “in the wilderness, prepare a way of the Lord.” In the wilderness – in the place beyond safety, prepare the way of the Lord. In the place where it seems nothing will ever grow, prepare the way of the Lord. In the very valley of despair; prepare the way of the Lord.

To this hopeless people, the prophet says, don’t give up. To this exhausted people, the prophet says, you shall not be doing this alone. To people who had seen it all, Isaiah promises that they will yet see something extraordinary – the very glory of God revealed.

Isaiah’s words echo to us across the generations reminding us that when God comes “all people shall see it together.”

Following the sermon we sang hymn 138: “Who Would Think That What Was Needed”

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NOTE – My three Advent sermons are connected through the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah and function to describe a particular kind of advent longing through the experience of protest, grief, and action. They are usefully read together and in order: Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort; followed by Advent Grief: Enough is Enough; and Advent Action: Stepping Up. Thus may we prepare the way of the one who is always coming.

Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort

November 30, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014

 Isaiah 64: 1-9          1 Corinthians 1:3-9

 This text of Isaiah has been described as “a cry of pain seeking understanding.” It is part of a longer lament that asks why God does not act in the world today the way God acted in the past. The lament begins in chapter 63, verse 7. The prophet declares

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the God, because of all that the God has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel, that God has shown them according to God’s mercy, according to the abundance of God’s steadfast love.

The Exodus, the acts with which God drew God’s people out of bondage in Egypt and delivered them to a promised land, is in the forefront of the prophet’s memory. But where is this God now?

  • where is the God who tended God’s people like a shepherd tends his flock?
  • where is the God who marched with Moses and led God’s people through the divided waters of the sea?
  • where is the God who guided God’s people through the wilderness to a place of rest?

Three times Isaiah asks for God’s presence, but it appears that God is hiding from God’s people”[1] In fact, Isaiah accuses God saying, “you were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”  Don’t trot out some excuse that we’re not faithful God, because if we’re not faithful, it’s your own fault, cries the prophet in frustration!  It’s your fault because you hid yourself.

And so the prophet shouts, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

  • make the mountains quake as you did of old
  • fire the water so that it boils
  • make your name known to your adversaries and
  • let the nations quake in fear.

lightning_storm

The poet Robert Browning may have written that “God’s in His heaven, [and] all’s right with the world!” but a God who stays hidden up in the heavens is no comfort to this prophet.

Isaiah wants God to stop hiding up in heaven and to act to redeem and save.  Now!

We really don’t need to know much more about the context of Third Isaiah than this to understand the prophet, do we? The desire to have God act in some clear and obvious way to heal our bodies and restore our communities, to correct injustice and direct our common life is both understandable and important. It is part of naming what is wrong in our world.

When the Grand Jury announced on Monday that Officer Darren Wilson would not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I found myself wishing for some great display of divine justice. With nearly 15,000 dead in West Africa as a result of Ebola epidemic, “the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times,” I would like to see an act of divine deliverance.[2] Thirty dead in the Syrian city of Kobani yesterday as rival terrorist organizations blew one another up. And in the midst of the particular acts of injustice, catastrophe and violence there is the regularized violence where every day 17,000 children under five die from preventable causes.[3]

Where is God in the middle of all this?

And so the prophet cries out.  And, truth be told, we cry out too.

In the face of all that is wrong, the biblical prophets lament, complain and protest. Hebrew Bible scholar Marvin Chaney describes the prophets’ cry as a kind of appeals process. When courts fail to deliver justice, when the threat to human life beyond what we can cope with, when the very systems we create to establish order and community are subverted, when it seems there is no place else we can turn, the prophets appeal to a higher court. They demand a hearing before a higher law. And in giving voice to the pain and grief and loss of the community, the prophet’s cry

  • re-constitutes God’s people by drawing on their collective memory of the past
  • refuses to despair of the present, in order to
  • authorize the community to act in ways that bring hope for the future.

You see, by giving voice to the anger and despair of the community, the cry of the prophet becomes the cry of the community, something they need. They are lifted above being mere “yes” men and “yes” women in God’s house, who can speak only the language of praise and thanksgiving. Instead, they are honest about all that is wrong, and so truly longing for what God can bring. By lifting up the pain and grief and loss of God’s people, these become public property, facts as real as the failure all around them. The cry is directed to God, but it is meant for the people as well. For when these words become liturgy, recited together, they form a people the way a parent nurtures a child, or a potter molds the clay.

Yet, Almighty One, you are our father, you are our mother,

We are the clay, your are the potter;

We are all the work of your hand.

We are all your people.

And here is where Isaiah finds his answer. In crying out to God, the community has in turn been called by God to be aware of and to take responsibility for their situation. For failed justice systems, cultural barriers to communication and community, the deaths of thousands of children in our world, are not solved by divine fiat.

In contrast to a hidden God, the image of God as parent and potter suggests closeness and personal connection. Yet neither image suggests a God who “would tear open the heavens.” Instead they evoke a God whose mode of action looks more like that of the artist or the parent than that of the superhero. God forms and shapes the people as a father over time shapes the character of his children, as a potter lovingly molds her clay. Isaiah calls on Israel to be malleable in the hands of God, and he reminds God to fulfill the task of forming Israel into a people.[4]

pottershands

Last week many of you may recall that Noelle and I attended the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion that were jointly meeting in San Diego. These professional societies annually bring together scholars teaching in universities, colleges and seminaries from around the world.

In one of the sessions I attended, Marvin Chaney, the biblical scholar to whom I referred earlier, was responding to a paper.  He was speaking about the terribly manipulative and pervasive practice in ancient Judah and Israel of powerful landowners manipulating the terms of agricultural debt to harm the weaker party.  You see the wealthy landowners made loans to desperate people who were about to lose their land.  They would make these loans in silver, but then demand repayment in crops.  What this practically meant is that the borrowers were taken advantage of because the crops in harvest season were plentiful and worth less.  Therefore they paid far more than the original loan was worth, increasing the payment taken by the landowner.  The courts upheld these loans and over and over judged in favor of the unscrupulous landowners.

It is the prophet Isaiah who recounts how these greedy men added “field to field,” enlarging their property holdings by gobbling up the land of the poorer small farmers.  The justice system truly rendered no justice for the people who were losing their land.  And they cried out over and over to no avail.  As Chaney put it in his presentation, the landowners were “too big to jail.”

With every door closed to them and their land being ripped out from under them, Isaiah the prophet indicts the courts in the name of God.  Isaiah is an auditor of YHWH, reversing on appeal the decisions of the unjust courts.  God’s court is the court of last resort; but its claims are prosecuted not by the divine, but by the courageous prophets who insist on an alternative.

On this first Sunday of Advent, this text from Isaiah invites us to contemplate the difference between intervention and incarnation.  We are invited to join our ancient ancestors in their lament. For as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said in his book The Prophets, “Few are guilty; all are responsible.” This is an incarnational pivot whose focus is not about blame – blaming perpetrators or blaming God — but about repair, tikuun olam.  It does not expect a miracle from afar, but rather a slow knitting together from below, a knitting together that requires all of us, and will take all we can muster.  It does not offer answers so much as openings, openings revealed by our willingness to lament and to stretch out our arms to one another and make the path by walking.

Sing Hymn #795: Healer of Our Every Ill

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NOTE – My three Advent sermons are connected through the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah and function to describe a particular kind of advent longing through the experience of protest, grief, and action. They are usefully read together and in order: Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort; followed by Advent Grief: Enough is Enough; and Advent Action: Stepping Up. Thus may we prepare the way of the one who is always coming.

[1] Scott Bader-Saye. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2] Margaret Chan of the World Health Organization. West African countries have reported over 6,000 death by the virus, the WHO and CDC estimate the reality is two to three times higher.

[3] UNICEF, September 2014, http://www.childmortality.org/#, [accessed 11/29/14].

[4] Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.

Waiting Together

November 29, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 9, 2014

Matthew 25: 1-13

This morning’s text describes ten women, bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive.   We have no idea how long the bridesmaids waited for the bridegroom but he was quite delayed and we are told that some of the bridesmaids were better prepared for the wait than others.

Waiting is hard; especially waiting that requires us to be ready at a moment’s notice. My most vivid memories of waiting are from the weeks preceding the four births I have attended as a birth doula. A doula is a non-medical birth assistant who provides physical, emotional, and informational support to a birthing mother and her partner. As a birth doula I am on call for a 6-week range during which the baby could arrive at any time. Those weeks of waiting are a full body experience. Careful planning is required: is my phone charged and on? Am I within a 45 minute drive of the birthing mother? Is my bag packed with comfort supplies for the mother and her partner? Am I well rested? Those are just the logistical details.

There is much internal work to be done: reviewing the birth process so that I can be a calm and informed presence, spending time in prayer for the new life, taking time to meditate and still the other demands in my life so that I can be fully present when the time comes.   There are also communal responsibilities: letting colleagues and family members know I may be gone for a day when I receive the call from the mother and communicating consistently with the pregnant mom and partner about how they are feeling as the day nears.

This is the kind of active waiting that is very much connected to the waiting we are called to as Christians. We are living in the in-between of Christ’s Resurrection and Christ’s coming again. We await the second coming…but what does that waiting involve? Some doula notes for us as followers of Christ:

Waiting involves daily preparation.   Faithful waiting transforms who we are on a daily basis. Our days are shaped by the hope of God’s reign. With the Left Behind series now on the big screen, it’s important to distinguish that active preparation is different than hyper vigilance. All ten bridesmaids fell asleep. Stockpiling canned goods and weapons and guessing at the day of Christ’s return is not active waiting. Holed up in fear, we would never see the in-breaking of God’s kin-dom happening here and now. Daily acts of love, orientation of our time toward community, testimonies of hope, dedicated periods of rest and meditation – these are acts of preparation that shape our days of waiting.

The waiting that we do is focused on new life. Remaining alert means tuning our ears and opening our eyes to the new life being born through the Spirit in this world. This means that we wait with joy, watching and helping even the small signs of hope in the world unfold into the bigger picture of the new creation.

Waiting is not an individual enterprise; it is done in community. We are called to dwell together in peace – now – not just in the vision of the New Jerusalem. Reconciliation, reparations, and forgiveness are the acts of faith done in community that plant the seeds of the new creation here on earth.

Waiting is a central practice of Christian community, which is why this parable feels so troubling. The writer of Matthew draws a sharp line between the wise and foolish bridesmaids from the outset of the parable. Initially all ten bridesmaids wait together – they all bring lanterns, they all fall asleep, and they all spring to action when the bridegroom is announced.

As it turns out the foolish bridesmaids are foolish because they did not bring enough oil. The bridegroom is delayed and when he arrives their lights are barely flickering. The foolish bridesmaids ask of the wise bridesmaids, “Can you spare some of your oil, since you have plenty?” To which the wise bridesmaids offer a flat refusal and direct the foolish bridesmaids to go search for oil to buy in the marketplace. The foolish bridesmaids return, presumably with oil in their lamps, and still they are denied entrance into the wedding feast because they are late. The doors are shut.

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This is deeply upsetting, not just for the foolish bridesmaids but for the wise ones as well. Half of the community is left out in the dark. We can imagine a wedding feast beginning that is half full or, better stated, half empty. The absence of the foolish bridesmaids would be noted, especially as they knocked on the door to gain entrance but were sent away. Is the kingdom of heaven really like wise bridesmaids who refuse to share? And a lord who refuses entry to the foolish bridesmaids simply because they arrived late with their lanterns burning?

Matthew drives the point home that preparedness is key in the time of waiting, which could be much longer than originally expected. But this sharp binary – between the foolish and the wise – splits the community in two. That, mostly likely, was the gospel writer’s intention: to warn a group of false teachers, “foolish ones,” who were disrupting the community because they did not have what the others had. They were not filled with oil – the acts of love and grace by which the community was known. This parable was an exhortation to the community to address their divisions now, before the bridegroom’s arrival.

When we preach and share this text, we must be careful to read ourselves into both parts, the wise and the foolish. Yes, we seek to fill our lamps with the oil of goodness, love, generosity, God active within us but we have also experienced days, weeks, perhaps years when those oil reserves felt low. We have depended on one another and long difficult periods of wrestling with God to be filled again with what it takes to be love and hope in this waiting time.

Many have reimagined this parable ending in a different way, holding forth a different picture of the community awaiting Christ as one that welcomes the lost and the least and even the late-arrivers. How differently this parable would read if the wise bridesmaids had been willing to share or if the foolish bridesmaids had decided to stay, with their lamps barely flickering, confident in the fullness of light that would be present at the wedding feast.  At the banquet, it is God who lights up the feast. Once we are inside there is no need for our lanterns or our reserves. The host provides.

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We need each other as we wait to catch glimpses of the joy of that heavenly feast through the works of compassion and justice that we do and experience together. We tend to one another’s preparedness by dwelling together in community, regularly checking on each other’s oil reserves, the light of hope within. And we nurture in one another the trust in a God of grace kept in balance with today’s text. God who demands much of us as we with live our faith in this world. God who seeks after those who are lost or late.

Yesterday was the last day of this season of the Community Supported Agriculture program run through our church in partnership with Lineage Farm. When we began the season last June, one of the members was a little less than 3 months pregnant. We watched her belly grow as each Saturday pick up went by. Then right around her due date, she and her husband missed a week or two, and I knew that the baby was born. Her husband was there yesterday to pick up vegetables. I asked if it was a boy or a girl and what was her name. He answered and then, beaming, said, “She changed my whole life.” It was a sacred moment to share with him, to see his unfiltered joy. It was sacred to wait with that couple over these 23 weeks as a vegetable eating community of all kinds of people from this congregation and around White Plains. How beautiful that our door was open to wait together in that way! I left feeling anointed not just by that interaction but by conversations and stories shared throughout the season.

We rehearse and practice God’s kind-dom here and now. We await the day of Jesus’ return and also recognize that God’s hope is discovered among us and far beyond us on a daily basis.   The work that we do together in community prepares the way to birth hope and its arrival shapes us, it changes our whole life.

Amen.

Praise and Protest

November 26, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah Henkel at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reign of Christ Sunday, November 23, 2014

 Ephesians 1: 15-23

doxology

In seminary I took a class titled, “Worship as Resistance,” taught by Rev. Dr. Luke Powery.  I was drawn in by the title and by the question that immediately followed in my mind when I heard the title.  What do we resist through our worship?  There are many ways to answer that question.  This morning I want to suggest that what we resist is a view of the world as too fast-paced, too hopeless, too conflicted, and too violent to prioritize our praise of God.

I’ll always remember a story we read in that class by Reverend Fred Craddock, a brilliant story-teller and preacher.  In the story Rev. Craddock describes a moment of rest on his back porch as night was falling when suddenly an “Idea,” not a new idea but a very old idea, comes to him.  The idea is that doxology – the praise of God – should accompany him everywhere he goes.  In the story he imagines Doxology as a friend or companion.  Doxology – praise of God – goes with his family on vacation and is present in conversations with neighbors and friends downtown.  Craddock praises God in mundane interactions and in small ordinary things that no longer seem so ordinary.  But there are moments when it isn’t as easy to live with Doxology at his side.

“…I had to make a stop at St. Mary’s Hospital to see Betty. Betty was dying with cancer, and the gravity of my visit prompted me to leave Doxology in the car.  Doxology insisted on going in and was not at all convinced by my reasons for considering it inappropriate to take Doxology into the room of a dying patient.  I locked Doxology in the car.

Betty was awake and glad to see me. I awkwardly skirted the subject of death.

‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I know, and I have worked it through. God has blessed me with a wonderful family, good friends, and much happiness.  I am grateful.  I do not want to die, but I am not bitter.’  Before I left, it was she who had the prayer.

Back at the car, Doxology asked, ‘Should I have been there?’

‘Yes. I’m sorry I did not understand.’”[i]

What do we resist when we bring the worship of God into all times and places? We resist any inkling, any idea that God’s love is absent from any moment in our lives or any place in this world.  We resist a society that moves too quickly to take note of God’s presence here and now and in all things.

Paul’s words to the Church at Ephesus are a Doxology, a prayer of Thanksgiving.  He gives thanks for the congregation and prays for their wisdom, he give thanks for God who has made Christ ruler over all things and reconciled all people.  Now, this prayer stood at tension with the felt reality of a struggling new community of faith, trying to deal with the conflict between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ, the reality of a multicultural church.  Jesus may have brought down the dividing wall of hostility but there was some rubble and grumblings being held between the distinct parts of the community.

What this prayer of praise opens is a space amidst that conflict to remember Christ’s presence and God’s unfolding plans.  It creates a space to notice and dwell in God’s faithful plan for reconciliation.  A space for worship to resist the overwhelming narrative that these conflicts – in those days and in ours – will be impossible to overcome.

Now how many of you struggle to find space in your day for…anything?!  This morning we are going to practice together an experience of bringing space for wonder, awe, and thanksgiving into a very common activity. In your pew you should have a bag of raisins.  I invite you to take at least one and pass them along.

At last week’s Prayer Breakfast Rev. Ted Miller shared about the benefits of Mindfulness Based stressed reduction in being present to people in times of struggle and pain.  These practices, which include meditation, focus on our breath, centering prayer, and stretching bring mind, body, and spirit to a grounded place, conscious of God.  They are a form of praise, bringing awareness to the joy and privilege of simply being.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has made Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction practices popular in this country created a Raisin Eating exercise to give people a sensory experience of mindfulness meditation to open us to the present moment.  We’ll practice together what it feels like to be in the here and now, mindful of this one raisin, one tiny piece of God’s abundance.

raisin

Eating One Raisin: A First Taste of Mindfulness[ii]

Holding: First, take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb.

Focusing on it, imagine that you’ve just dropped in from Mars and have never seen an object like this before in your life.

Seeing: Take time to really see it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention.

Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges, and any asymmetries or unique features.

Touching:  Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture, maybe with your eyes closed if that enhances your sense of touch.

Smelling: Holding the raisin beneath your nose, with each inhalation drink in any smell, aroma, or fragrance that may arise, noticing as you do this anything interesting that may be happening in your mouth or stomach.

Placing: Now slowly bring the raisin up to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. Gently place the raisin in your mouth, without chewing, noticing how it gets into your mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.

Tasting: When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noticing how and where it needs to be for chewing. Then, very consciously, take one or two bites into it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you continue chewing. Without swallowing yet, notice the bare sensations of taste and texture in the mouth and how these may change over time, moment by moment, as well as any changes in the object itself.

Swallowing: When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow the raisin.

Following: Finally, see if you can feel what is left of the raisin moving down into your stomach, and sense how the body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise in mindful eating.

How did that feel?

Maybe it felt like the first bite of real nourishment you have tasted all week…

Maybe this felt a little silly or forced to you, perhaps it feels too small an act in the face of such immense world issues…

Maybe this was the first time you have slowed down all week to focus on one thing at a time…

I want to connect this very small act of awareness and centeredness that we just did here to what is happening on the ground now in Ferguson, MO.  Though the media continues to portray the presence of community activists, protestors, and faith leaders in the streets of Ferguson as chaos, masses to be feared, that is not the truth of what is happening.  The reality is that there is a large and growing non-violent presence, focused and grounded on the clear message that Black and Brown lives matter.  This kind of sustained movement for justice, like others before it, requires mindfulness, attention to the importance of one single life that represents many many others.  This movement, furthermore, is grounded in praise and hope.  A fast-paced, violent world says that people are expendable.  The God we worship resists that fallacy.

We praise God who created all things and called them good.  We worship God who, through Christ, reconciles all people and out of our worship of God we are led to speak about what is happening in Ferguson to pray and act toward the vision of a reality where we do not lose brothers and sisters to violence, where injustice and racism no longer divide and endanger lives.

When Paul prays for the congregation at Ephesus he prays for their wisdom, that is to say their ability to love each other across cultural divides.  He prays that their hearts be enlightened, that they be centered on the hope of Christ’s reconciling love. He offers a prayer of doxology that sings above and through the conflicts.

May Doxology be our constant companion and our guide through the pain and challenges of these days until Christ comes again. Amen.

[i] Craddock, Fred. Craddock Stories, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p.154.

[ii] Eating One Raisin: A First Taste of Mindfulness, http://hfhc.ext.wvu.edu/r/download/114469, accessed November 21, 2014.

Bearing Fruit that Leads to Growth

November 16, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, November 16, 2014

Colossians 1: 1-14         Luke 10: 25-37

The longer I am in ministry, the fonder I become of the pastoral letters. I particularly resonate with the initial greetings because they offer gratitude for the gifts and faithful ministry of local congregations. They demonstrate a desire both to hear and to share news of how God is at work in different locales, offer encouragement in the face of difficulty (and there is always difficulty), and they hold out the promise that God is not finished working in, with and through us. The pastoral letters offer an assurance that God is up to something in the world – and that we (WE) are privileged to participate in what God is doing. This gives rise to a hope that cannot be shaken under any circumstances.

In this opening passage, Paul and Timothy tell the congregation in Colossae how the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the world, even as it has been bearing fruit among the Colossians. The prayer of Paul and Timothy, therefore, is that the congregation in bearing fruit will grow in the knowledge of God so that they may lead lives worthy of God. Let me say that again: The gospel is bearing fruit and growing in (all) the world, therefore Paul and Timothy have not ceased praying that as the Colossians bear fruit they may grow in the knowledge of God.

I said that twice because I had to read this passage a few times myself to realize what bothered me about it. And then I noticed that Paul and Timothy have reversed the usual order of things. The usual progression is that plants grow, and then they bear fruit! As Jesus once said,

The kingdom of God is as if

someone would scatter seed on the ground,

and would sleep and rise night and day,

and the seed would sprout and grow,

he does not know how.

For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself;

first the blade, then the ear,

after that the full corn in the ear.

In other words, things grow and then bear fruit. Fruit is result of growth. But this text suggests otherwise.

202-raspberries-power

I asked my eight year old son last night, “Which comes first, growing or bearing fruit?” and he said “Growing, of course.” I then told him that the Bible open in front of me said “bearing fruit leads to growth” and he said, “How?”

Well, it may be obvious that the faith, hope and love of the Colossians must become “visible and embodied in the daily life of the church” – “bearing fruit in all good works” – but it is the working out their faith in concrete practice that enables them to grow in the knowledge of God and God’s will.

We are, of course, most familiar with the former

  • faith without works is dead
  • be hearers and doers of the word

And we assume the one should always lead to the other. Faith>Works; Hearing>Doing.

But the authors of this letter seem to be suggesting something like

  • we make the road by walking, or more simply
  • we learn from experience.

This really caught my attention because I have been pondering the relationship between knowledge and action in preparation for a retreat I will be attending this week on environmental stewardship. And what I have been reading suggests that we are very poor at translating faith into action, hearing into doing; that what we know rarely influences what we do.

For example, I read an article on Tuesday called “The Secret to Turning Consumers Green” which is subtitled, “It isn’t incentives. It isn’t information. It’s guilt.” The author says that, “though about two-thirds of Americans [report] that they are active in or sympathetic with the environmental movement, it has proven tough to get the average consumer to make even relatively simple changes, like using energy-efficient light bulbs or caulking drafty windows.”[1]

Apparently no amount of consumer information about how such action would save money, reduce carbon emissions, or embody social responsibility, NOR the offering of generous financial incentives, leads consumer and homeowners to make necessary changes in the behavior. The magic ingredient, the secret of the articles title, it seems, is peer pressure.

Consider this study involving those placards in hotel bathrooms that urge guests to reuse towels. Over a three-month period, researchers tested two different placards in a 190-room, midprice chain hotel.

One card was headlined “Help Save the Environment” and urged visitors to “show your respect for nature” by reusing towels. The second read, “Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment” and noted that 75% of guests participated in the towel-reuse program. The guests who were exposed to the peer pressure—the fact that so many of their fellow travelers were doing it—were 25% more likely to reuse towels.

A follow-up study found that tweaking the wording on the placard so it was specific to the guest’s room (as in: nearly 75% of guests who stayed here in Room 331 reused their towels) yielded even better [results].

Another study involved “public-service messages hung on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes in San Marcos, Calif. All urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but they gave different reasons for doing so.

Some residents learned they could save $54 a month on their utility bill. Others, that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month. A third group was told it was the socially responsible thing to do. And a fourth group was informed that 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning, a decision described as “your community’s popular choice!”

Meter readings found that those presented with the “everyone’s doing it” argument reduced their energy consumption by 10% compared with a control group. No other group reduced energy use by more than 3% compared with the control group. All four of the non-control groups slipped in the long run, conserving less as time went on, but those exposed to peer pressure continued to record the lowest average daily energy use.

The point is that while we like to think that our actions are driven by ethical or noble motives, or by practical concerns about money, they often boil down to that old mantra, “monkey see, monkey do.” Our behavior is driven by what we know, or perceive, our neighbors to be doing.

I can’t resist one more example from Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book Fostering Sustainable Behavior:

A college gym’s locker room displayed a prominent sign urging students to conserve water by turning off the shower while they soaped. Only 6% did so initially. But when researchers planted an accomplice who shut off his water midshower, 49% of students followed suit. When there were two accomplices, compliance jumped to 67%, even though the accomplices didn’t discuss their actions or make eye contact with other students.

McKenzie-Mohr asks, with all these studies, “Is it warranted to believe that by enhancing knowledge, or altering attitudes, behavior will change? Apparently not! Education alone often has little or no effect upon … behavior.” We need our neighbors!

It was with this in mind that I turned to Paul’s and Timothy’s Letter to the Colossians. The letter implies that at some point, if not right from the very beginning, our capacity to understand the will of God, to discern the way of God among us, depends on our having already made certain changes in our lives or of hearing of such change in the lives of others. We bear fruit, and grow in understanding.

The capacity to change is of course first and foremost recognized as a blessing of God – in the sense that it is God’s power at work within us. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power.” But it is clearly enabled by testimony to how the gospel is bearing fruit (elsewhere) in the world and by the encouragement of others.

I thought about this as we received testimony and encouragement during our Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning. The Rev. Ted Miller helped us understand how to pray (or be prayerful) with people who are troubled. He did this essentially by telling us stories, sharing with us his own successes and failures as a pastor and hospital chaplain. He didn’t give us a how-to-manual for visiting the sick or distressed, or a list of scriptures to read or prayers to recite – he certainly gave us a lot to think about – but above all he demonstrated for us his own practice of mindfulness in ministry: First, trusting his relationship with God and offering himself to be used by God; second, bearing fruit by listening, sympathizing and suffering with, offering the unconditional hospitality of God to, the person he is visiting; and then, only then, perhaps, and in time, coming to understand what God was up to in the encounter.

In a very different way I received encouragement on Friday in the form of an email from Bill McKibben of 350.org. It offered an interpretation of the announcement earlier this week that the world’s two biggest polluters – the United States and China – have agreed to limit our carbon emissions by the year 2030. Bill said that this announcement is first of all historic (in the sense that this is the first time a developing nation has agreed to eventually limit our emissions), he noted that it is not binding, and it is not remotely enough to keep us out of climate trouble, but, BUT – most importantly – coming just six weeks after nearly 400,000 of us participated in the Peoples Climate March and 22,000 simultaneous vigils were held around the world, it is testimony to the power of social movements to bring about change. It is now hoped that the announcement by President Obama and Premier Xi will, in turn, bring pressure on countries like India who have likewise resisted targets of any sort to come back to the table with announcements of their own.[2]

10671440_776485132412336_2304031922612299833_n

This is how change happens, in our world and in our own lives and in our congregations: by testimony, mutual encouragement, hope, and taking risks. We need our neighbors to help us do what we know is possible, and it requires us to be neighbor by example for one another.

With all this I mind, I would like to conclude by inviting you to listen to the final verses of the Letter to the Colossians – that long list of greetings that is easy to skip over – and to see how the pastoral letters are, at least in part, about making people who live in distant places neighbor to one another in mutual encouragement.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow-servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.

Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.’

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

I thank God that I am part this church community, for it helps me both to bear fruit in good works and to grow in my understanding of God’s way among us. I thank God. I know you do too.

 

 

[1] Stephanie Simon, “The Secret to Turning Consumers Green” Wall Street Journal October 18, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704575304575296243891721972

[2] Also published in the Huffington Post: http://350.org/bill-mckibben-the-big-climate-deal-what-it-is-and-what-it-isnt/

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