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The Third Slave: Another World is Possible

November 22, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Psalm 123           Matthew 25:14-30

I delivered this sermon with the Bible in one hand and a new book in the other,
and only a couple of notes on a piece of paper. This is more or less an outline of what I said.

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“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

So we have a parable this morning, one with a long history of misinterpretation. I am sure you have heard sermons in which the first two slaves have been taken as a models for financial stewardship, or in which Jesus’ seems to encourage those to whom much has been ‘given’ to use those gifts responsibly, or in which the third slave as a cautionary tale about laziness and fear while we wait the full coming of God’s kingdom. All of these readings serve pastors well as this reading always falls in the season of Stewardship and Thanksgiving, and as we turn to the Advent season of hope and expectation.

But surely even a moment’s attention to the details of the story Jesus actually tells makes all of these reading outrageous. We’ve covered this before: we must never assume that when Jesus tells a parable that God is to be equated with the most powerful figure in the story, or that Jesus is the king or master. Rather, when Jesus tells as story, it is often the rich and powerful who are being held up for lampoon and ridicule.

At the very time Jesus was telling this story, Rome was imposing a brutal slave-economy atop the various forms of subsistence and tributary economies of Ancient Palestine. Told among the peasants and tax-collectors among who Jesus made his home, this parable would have been heard in a very different way.[1]

First, Jesus is speaking a truism. When he says, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” he is simply speaking a truism. That’s the way the world works. It is the way the world is organized to work, to the advantage of a few. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And slave masters are cruel, vindictive, harsh, and merciless, as the third slave says. Those who fail increase the wealth of the already wealthy are considered worthless, capable of being dismissed, let go, even punished. Those who question the system, tell the truth about the systems cruelty, or try to change the way the world is set up to work for the benefit of a few may find themselves sharing the fate of the final slave, cast into outer darkness. Which is, of course, how gospel understands as the fate of Jesus.[2]

Second, every Galilean peasant who heard Jesus tell this story would have considered the third slave, the one who hid the one talent in the ground, to be the hero of the story. This is the slave who resisted, who practiced non-participation in the slave master’s business. He took care of what was given him, yes, but no more than that. He did not work to increase the wealth, to benefit the one to whom he was enslaved. Maybe he had heard Jesus say, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s” and so gave back to the his owner (for the slave was possession too) only what he had been given – the slave master’s share. In addition, it was understood in the biblical world that the only way to get rich is to take from others. The rich are rich because of greed and exploitation of others. The third slave would have been commended for not adding to the master’s wealth by not depriving others! He should be praised for refusing to play this unjust economic game.[3] I can hear the chant…

Tell me what resistance looks like.
This is what resistance looks like.

Third, the slave master is a tyrant who behaves in ways, and with values, inimical to Jesus express teachings. Our traditional misreading of the parable assumes the perspective of the elite and wealthy, while Jesus constantly takes the side of the poor. Remember when Jesus counseled a rich man to “divest himself of wealth so that give it to the poor in a move toward a more just society.”

There is support for this reading. It turns out that there is first century rabbinic teaching in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) that says the safest way to protect property that has been entrusted to you is to bury it in the ground. So clear is this teaching that it specifies that if the treasure is dug up and stolen, it is not your fault!

There is also the witness of another early gospel known as the Gospel of the Nazarenes.[4] We have fragments of what is essentially an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew, identical with Matthew for the most part but with a few significant differences. This parable is one of the more famous differences. My own sense is that the Gospel of the Nazarenes reflects the tradition closest to Jesus.

In the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the parable begins like the one we are familiar with. A slave master prepares to leave on a trip, and entrusts portions of his wealth to his slaves for safekeeping. The first slave, however, takes and spends the money greedily on himself, on what the text calls “dissolute living”; wine and women. The second slave uses the treasure greedily on behalf of his master, as in the parable we know, investing and increasing it. The third slave buries the treasure. However, when the slave master returns in this parable, the third slave who kept his master’s possessions safe by burying them is received with joy. The one who invested it is sharply rebuked for greed, while the one who spent it on self is cast into prison.

It is a sign of how much we have been changed as human beings, in human thinking, that we read parables automatically from the perspective of the rulers rather than the ruled, the rich rather than the poor, the haves rather than the have-nots. That we read with capitalist eyes that assume turning a profit or collecting interest is a good thing – rather than suspect behavior – believe the master who says the slave is lazy, and disbelieve the slave who says his master is a cruel tyrant.

I’ve just finished reading a new book by Raj Patel and Jason Moore called A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet. The authors make three big points.[5]

First, they attempt to describe accurately the nature of the world we live in today. All human life emerged and evolved during the Holocene Age, named for the life friendly climate provided by our sun. Scientists today, however, increasingly describe our current age as the Anthropocene, an age dominated by significant and irreversible impact of human activity on the earth’s ecology. Patel and Moore, however, note that the human activity driving the system is global capitalism, an economic system that has colonized all of life and disproportionately serves a very few. The authors point out thought that it is not people in general, but very specifically a way of life rigged for the few at the top. They prefer the term Capitalocene as a description of our contemporary world: the Rule of Capital.

Second, thinking our way beyond the Capitalocene requires a great deal of imagination, something we’ll return to in a moment. Patel and Moore attempt to imagine the way toward another, more just, world in the final chapter of the book.

But the bulk of the their book elaborates a third point. Capitalism has come to dominate our world and our minds through a process they call cheapness.

At this point in the sermon I described my own understanding of the book. But since I can’t remember exactly what I said, I excerpt here the introduction to an interview describing the role of cheapness, and provide the link to the full interview in a footnote:

Capitalism has been the world’s dominant economic system for more than 700 years. And as it brings the planet to new crises, author Raj Patel believes it’s important to imagine what might replace it. Capitalism values cheapness above all else.

But reform won’t happen unless we understand capitalism’s appeal and historical rise, says Patel, a food justice activist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s remarkably resilient and can be traced to a process he calls “cheapness.”

The seven “things” of the title aren’t physical objects as much as they are a hidden social, ecological and economic infrastructure: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. The point being that cheapness is a process of responding to economic crises by devaluing each of those forces so that capitalism can continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy. In that sense, “cheap nature” refers to the way in which land and its resources are systematically given away to businesses for exploitation, “cheap work” refers to slavery and other anti-worker tactics that keep wages low, and so on.

Capitalism values cheapness above all else. And through this lens, Patel and Moore explore the evolution of capitalism from its roots in the late medieval period with the collapse of feudalism in Western Europe caused by climate change and the Black Death to—now.[6]

I know I mentioned that the seven things that have been devalued and made cheap represent some of the most important things in life; they form the basis of life itself. I then read from the introduction of the book a case study in cheapness, the modern chicken nugget, touching on and illustrating all seven ‘things’: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. I won’t reproduce it for copyright reasons, but encourage you to pick up the book. The illustration ends by pointing out many ways “humans fight back.”

Humans can and do fight back!

I have though all week long about the parallels between the story Jesus tells about the master and his slaves and the story Patel and Moore tell about how capitalism and resistance. Just as Jesus tells a story to help the peasants, tax collectors and slaves who gathered around him accurately name the source of their oppression, Patel and Moore tell a centuries long story of how we got into our current predicament. Just as Jesus tells a story of a slave who resists and refuses participation in the exploitation of others, Patel and Moore describe a long history of human resistance, from indigenous movements, slave rebellions, domestic worker strikes, and contemporary social justice movements. Finally, while Jesus parable creates room for his listeners to imagine another kind of world, so Patel and Moore invite us to just such an act of imagination for, as they say, ‘capitalism can’t last forever.’

In his book, Faithful Resistance, Rick Ufford-Chase (who is well known to all of you in the congregation) wonders what it would take for us to become ‘the church of the third slave.’[7] It’s a good question. It would obviously involve:

  • Naming the way our world works for a few at the expense of the many
  • Practicing non-cooperation with the systems that oppress us, refusing the make the wealthy wealthier (The current GOP tax plan), giving Caesar no more than is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s; and
  • Refusing to benefit from the exploitation of others (which might involve us in forms of boycott, divestment and reparation); but above all
  • Imagining a different world – daring to believe the world can work differently than it does now, that another world is possible.

I closed by inviting the congregation to sing the hymn “God Whose Giving Knows No Ending” because it imagines a God who is the polar opposite of the slave master in the parable, a God who gives to us in abundance without expectation of any return, a God who give so that we may share with one another and in creating (through us) a world of generous abundance provides the a real occasion for praise.

 

 

[1] Roland Boer, Times of Trouble: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity. (Fortress Press, May 2017). For the implications of this framework, see also Boar, In the Vale of Tears: On Marxism and Theology V. (Haymarket Books, 2014). p. 102.

[2] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress 1992).

[3] Warren Carter, Matthew at the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. (Orbis, 2000).

[4] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress 1992), though Elaine Wainwright, agreeing with interpretations, see the Greek text of Matthew not approving of the third slave; see Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew. The Earth Bible Commentary (Sheffield Phoenix, 2016).

[5] Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet. (University of California Press, October 2017).

[6] http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/raj-patel-on-how-to-break-away-from-capitalism-20171023

[7] Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire. (UnShelved, 2016).

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Eating with Grandma: Caregiver Sunday

November 16, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Presbyterian Caregiver Sunday, November 22, 2017

 Psalm 23          John 14:25-27          Beatitudes for Caregivers

November is National Caregiver Month, and the second Sunday of November is, in the Presbyterian Church, Caregiver Sunday, an opportunity to make very clear within our congregation that it is not only patients, but caregivers, who need the comfort and support of the church community, and to invite the caregivers among us accept the help of any who can competently offer it.

Each and every Sunday there are quite a few of us here in worship who are (or have been) caring for a parent, spouse, sibling or child with chronic or mental illness. It has been said that

“There are four kinds of people in the world; those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, those who have been caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”

In other words, caregiving is – sooner or later – about all of us. More than 65 million people, or 29% of the U.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year. As the church, we are in a unique position to pray for and offer practical help to caregivers through a variety of means to share hope, care, and provide rest for the soul. 

What does family caregiving mean? According to the National Family Caregivers Association…[i]

[and here I read a resource which you can find on page 3 here
but cannot reproduce without violating copyright.
I encourage you to follow the link]

…And a whole lot more.

This past Tuesday I flew down to Florida to spend time with my grandmother, Gertrude, and to celebrate her 97th birthday. Most of you know that my mother spent most of 2016 and the first half of 2017 as the full-time caregiver for her mother, my grandmother. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s, though most of the time she knows what’s going on and who we are. However, this past June my mom found she could not continue emotionally or physically to care for my grandmother at home, something she had realized a couple of times a month for almost half a year, but had managed to keep going because a daughter’s guilt and lack of energy to make a change made it easier to just keep going. Can anyone relate? But finally, my grandmother moved to a local memory-care facility where she is thriving and where the staff are amazing.

I cannot sing the praises of the health team at the memory-are facility highly enough, particularly for their care of their residents during Hurricane Irma. [Here I recounted part of that story].

Our plan for my grandmother’s birthday was to take her out to lunch, which meant arranging for the facility’s wheelchair accessible bus. The driver’s name is Jack. He’s the facilities supervisor, handyman, and also the chaplain. As we were loading my grandmother onto the bus, I thanked him for the great job he and staff did during Hurricane Irma, which passed right over the care facility.

“That was a stressful time,” he said. “You have no idea.” I thanked him again because, as professional staff, I was not supposed to know about their stress, only that my grandmother was receiving the best possible care. They have their own staff meetings and counselors to help with their stress. But it is different with us, my friends. When we become stressed in our care for another, we need to let someone know.

How can I tell is caregiving is putting too much stress on me? Caregiving may be putting too much stress on you if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Becoming easily irritated or angered
  • Feeling constantly worried
  • Often feeling sad
  • Frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs[ii]

If this is you, it is time to speak to one of the pastors or prayers ministers, who will not only talk and pray with you but also suggest talking with a counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional right away before your stress leads you to physically or emotionally harm the person you are caring for. Give yourself credit for doing the best you can in one of the toughest jobs there is!

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I spent some good time visiting with my grandmother this week. A typical visit was late morning for an hour or two, and sometimes including, lunch. Once, we gave my mother the morning off, and she just went and walked around the mall, doing nothing and thinking about nothing. My aunt and I took my grandmother for a walk outdoors that day, pushing her chair around the facility to inspect the damage from the hurricane. Or else we would simply sit on the bench beside a water fountain in front of the building and just watch life happen.

  • “Look, there’s someone riding a bike.”
  • “My, there are a lot of white cars on the road today.”
  • “Do you see that bird? That plane? Those pretty flowers?”
  • And as we took our walk around the building, “It smells like snake out here?” (I don’t even know what that means).

Of her birthday lunch I will remember her eating. Every single bite. Fish, fries, mussels, chocolate cake. I should say that we ordered a large piece of chocolate cake with a candle in it, and five forks for sharing, but that when my aunt reached out with her fork and asked, for politeness sake, “May I have a bite,” my grandmother gave a definitive “No! It’s mine.” And she finished every single crumb, even the one hiding under her napkin. “There’s always room for more food,” she told us. When she was finished I wiped the chocolate from her lips and gave her my finger to suck, after which she laughed out loud and said, “I love you, Jeffrey.” 

I want to end my thoughts this morning this morning by sharing again the Beatitudes for Caregivers, published anonymously and modeled on Jesus’ words about the kind of people who bear and share God’s blessings in the world.[iii]

  • Blessed are those who care and who are not afraid to show it — they will let people know they are loved.
  • Blessed are those who are gentle and patient — they will help people to grow as the sun helps the buds to open and blossom.
  • Blessed are those who have the ability to listen — they will lighten many a burden.
  • Blessed are those who know how and when to let go — they will have the joy of seeing people find themselves.
  • Blessed are those who, when nothing can be done or said, do not walk away, but remain to provide a comforting and supportive presence — they will help the sufferer to bear the unbearable.
  • Blessed are those who recognize their own need to receive, and who receive with graciousness — they will be able to give all the better.
  • Blessed are those who give without hope of return — they will give people an experience of God.

Besides a very strong AMEN, I would add that the qualities described here (caring, patience, listening, letting go, remaining present) are spiritual gifts, gifts of the spirit, and that those who exercise them deserve our gratitude and appreciation.

 

 

[i] http://www.phewacommunity.org/images/caregiversunday10.pdf

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

According to the Word of God

October 30, 2017

A sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017.

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Readings: Psalm 90,
Matthew 22:34-46,
Deuteronomy 34:1-12

1. The Protestant Reformation

Today is Reformation Sunday– the last Sunday in October each year, when we look over our shoulders and remember our theological roots.

The date was October 31, 1517, when a devout monk named Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.  We are approaching not just any anniversary, but the 500th anniversary of this epoch-defining event.

Sixteenth century Europe saw new ideas and new global realities converge to impel the religious toward re-imagining Christian identity through a recovery of ancient Christian doctrine that could enlighten human life and solve the ultimate questions troubling humanity.  The next 130 years saw religious upheaval, violence and warfare causing widespread famine, poverty and disease across the continent.

The printing press made new ideas widely available, and this was the century of the Copernican revolution, the Portuguese beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, Spanish conquests in the New World, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire deep into Europe and Africa, the establishment of Portuguese trade with Japan, the artistic achievements of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and so much more.  The European’s concept of the world and the self changed dramatically.

While the reformers did not initially set out to form a new church in response, nevertheless that is what happened. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God” is the motto expressing the ideals of the Reformation.[1]

2. Our Scripture Lesson

The readings for today are rich and appropriate for a reflection on the Protestant Reformation.  The Gospel reading seems to capture the irreducible essence of what Jesus Christ taught, a summation of all Scripture, including the Law and the Prophets.  The Old Testament reading powerfully expresses that tension between the old and the new, what lies behind and what lies ahead, that has particular resonance for both the era of the Reformation and a time such as our own.

The story of Moses on Mt. Nebo seems almost cinematic in its broad descriptive sweep, and its dramatic climax. And it is poignant:  we feel for this man and recognize his goodness.  The story seems to fill our own hearts with yearning, perhaps tinged with regret. Some of us cannot read this passage and not hear echoing in our minds the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last public sermon in Memphis, the night before he was assassinated.  This story is so powerful that it has inspired and empowered generations of reformers to work, perhaps to fight, for freedom, dignity and equality.

Maps and photos cannot capture the view that Moses saw.  The maps show the distances as improbable.  The photos of the supposed view show a hazy blending of sky into horizon, perhaps due to the desert dust refracting the light, giving the photos an unreal, almost mystic quality.  Was this a panoramic view, or a mystic vision—a vision of “that homeland of the soul?” No, we must take this as a landscape of the mind– Moses looking across the wide expanse of space, regarding the whole sweep of geography and history.

We know the story of Moses’ life, and if we have been paying attention to the earlier chapters, we already know that because of his sin at Meribah, Moses will not be permitted to cross over. He has been told this clearly by God, but we can scarcely believe it.  This is Moses, after all– the man who knew God face to face. How could he not be allowed to enter the Promised Land? We might be moved to pity for that single, fateful moment of sin, or we may tremble with fear as we regard our own shortcomings and wonder if we, too, will be denied entry into this broad and spacious place.  I sometimes wonder: was there enough joy in just that glimpse, to make it all seem worthwhile?

As I so often do when I teach a Bible story to the children, I will ask you now: I wonder where you are in this story, or what part of this story is about you?  In the broader context of the church, where are we in this story?  What part of this story is about us?

This is a story of new beginnings, but also of a time of ending.  It is a time of reappraisal of history and wondering what the future holds.  But there is another reason this text is appropriate for Reformation Sunday.  If you were in Adult Education last week with Dr. Phyllis Trible, you may remember her mentioning the Torah Scroll that was found at the time of King Josiah and verified by the Prophet Huldah.  This book of Deuteronomy is essentially that scroll.  The reading of the scroll so moved the people of Josiah’s time, in the late seventh century B.C.E., that they repented, destroyed their idols, and recommitted themselves to purer and more sincere forms of worship.  This was the time of Josiah’s reformation (2 Kings 22-23).  It is thought perhaps that this last chapter of Deuteronomy, the death of Moses, was added later, at the end of the Babylonian exile, to help prepare returnees to re-enter this land, as they also recommitted themselves to a pure form of worship.  And so, this text functions on multiple levels– the story level and the historical level to inspire a reformation that is also a returning, to a purer, simpler faith.

3. The Gifts of the Reformation

If the Reformation represents not innovation, but a returning to a purer form of faith in order to cope with a changed world, what gifts of the Reformation might equip us for today?

“A vision of the church reformed and always being reformed is one of the gifts the Reformed have to bring to the wider Christian church,” according to pastor and scholar Anna Case-Winters.[2]  But this saying favors neither liberals nor conservatives, calling all to an ever more faithful response to God, as revealed in Scripture.

One of the most important Reformation concepts is sola scriptura (Scripture alone).  The Word written in Holy Scripture is declared to be itself reforming and transformative, as Martin Luther preached:

…[I]t is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of men as the potter molds the clay and fashion them at my pleasure…. I can get no farther than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach…. We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure…. For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Psalm 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners…. In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion.[3]

Our Reformed worship is always structured around the Word– the reading of it, the proclamation or preaching of it, our response to it (in the form of commitments and sacraments), and our taking the Word of God out into the world with us, weaving it into our everyday lives.  Are there ways of interpreting Scripture that make it relevant for us today?  

4. Personal Reflection

I still remember the moment I knew for sure that I was a Presbyterian.  I can’t tell you the exact date, or even where I was going that day, but I clearly remember the moment: I was on an airplane, sitting towards the rear, on the right.  I am not particularly afraid of air travel, but this time, mid-flight, the aircraft hit turbulence that went on for a long time, punctuated by several moments of what felt like free fall.  I was suddenly acutely aware that we were in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground, wondered if we might fall out of the sky, and felt overwhelming panic.  My first thought was for my family, and I felt sad for them if were to die and leave them.  The very next thought, however, was this:  “In life and in death, we belong to God.”[4]  A sense peace immediately came over me, and I rode out the turbulence in a perplexed state of calm.  It is hard to explain, but almost simultaneously, as the opening to the words of the Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith came to me, I thought, “how odd!”  How odd, indeed, that those words came to me in a moment of panic as I was contemplating my own potential demise!  Odder still, I thought, that they gave me comfort.  This was not a moment of conversion, but this was the clarifying moment: I knew for certain I belonged to the Reformed tradition.

We had studied the Brief Statement of Faith in an adult education class.  Later, when I served as a deacon, the church gave all officers a copy of the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. I was intrigued and read both all the way through—there was so much I didn’t understand!  What resonated most with me were the Reformation values of simplicity, humility and gratitude. 

To be honest, I was not always “on board” with all of the preaching, or all of the music, and even the people in the church were sometimes puzzling, or disappointing, and occasionally even irritating.  But none of that seemed to matter to me as much as a golden thread of ancient doctrine that kept me attached and kept me coming back. 

One of the three Reformation era documents in our Book of Confessions is the Heidelberg Catechism.  A catechism is an ancient teaching format of questions and answers.  It’s like a 16th century FAQ of faith, which could be committed to memory by the student. 

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is this:  “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”  The answer: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” When I first read this, it puzzled me.  Honestly, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.  If this was true, I was hanging by a delicate thread, indeed. It took me a very long time to recognize that this was nothing less than a complete reversal of everything that popular culture tells us about our lives and our selves. 

5. Where Are We Now?

So where are we now?  In Deuteronomy Moses instructs and blesses the people, to equip them for their new life in a new land.  I wonder: Have the instructions and blessings of the church of yesterday equipped us, as we step forward into an uncertain future?  Do the ways we use our sacred texts, songs, prayers and preaching lead us forward into the future, or do they trap us like a fly in amber?  Are we nimble enough of mind to find new ways to interpret the old stories and sing the old songs? 

“Jesus proclaimed the reign of God,”[5] but do I really need to recount the challenges of this age?  Hashtag activism declares #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and so much more. Is this the new form of prophecy? This year we also observe the 5th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder, hurricane Sandy, and the Newtown massacre, and in these years what has changed? 

Interpreting Christian history, and all history, for a new era is a prerequisite to change.  In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes to his nephew of the importance of understanding history in order to be released from it:

… it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.  It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them…. You must accept them with love.  For these innocent people have no other hope.  They are in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”[6]

It seems lately that we have been engaged in a national effort to reinterpret history.  Some find this effort confusing or even angering.  But it is necessary to challenge the accepted wisdom in order to move forward into the broad and spacious place God has promised us.  I will quote Baldwin again (from a later work) here, as I think he captured the essence of this age:

An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill.”[7]

Some days it almost feels that we are in a free fall.  Perhaps the message of the Reformation for such a time as this is:  “In life and in death, we are not our own, but we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”  Ponder that idea, let it permeate your thoughts, and let it free you, so you are empowered to go forth from this place in faith to serve God in all that you do each day.  In the words of the prophet Micah may you go forth, “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

To Jesus Christ, our Savior, “Glory and honor, praise, adoration, now and forevermore be thine!”[8]  Amen. 

[1] This motto is written into the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Book of Order, Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-2.02.

[2] Anna Case-Winters. “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda,” Presbyterians Today, May, 2004.

[3] Martin Luther, Second Sermon, Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, 1522.

[4] A Brief Statement of Faith, PC(USA), 1983, line 1.

[5] Brief Statement of Faith, line 9.

[6] “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”

[7] James Baldwin. No Name In the Street (1972). With thanks to the Rev. Jane Ann Groom, for sharing this quote.

[8] Final verse of the hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus,” our second hymn.

Small Clarifications

October 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2017

Mark 12: 38-44

I knew five months ago that the text for our annual stewardship sermon would be this story about a woman and two small coins. About that time Miranda B—- and Steven D—- met me at the back door of the sanctuary, as they do almost every Sunday. Miranda always asks me to remember her to my wife, Noelle, and asks after my son August. It’s weekly gesture that means so much to me. But on this Sunday so many months ago, in addition to their greetings, they handed me an envelope. Inside was a small coin, about the size of the nail on my pinky, a first century B.C.E. coin made of bronze, two of which, our gospel story tells us, were worth a penny.

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This was the smallest coin in circulation in Jesus’ day, and unlike the coins we were talking about last week that bore the image of the Roman Caesar, this coin was struck during the period of Jewish Independence, during the reign of the Hasmonean kings. The oldest coins bear an image on one side of a double horn of plenty with a pomegranate in the center, symbols of abundance from the Temple in Jerusalem. On the other side is written in Hebrew the name of the high priest. (The coin above, like mine, bears Greek influence: there is a ship’s anchor of trade on one side and an eight pointed star on teh other, also bearing the name of the high priest who now calls himself a king). Miranda and Steven said they had searched long and hard for it, knowing what it would mean to me, and I was deeply touched by their effort. It is a gift I value because of the spirit with which it was given.[i]

It is certainly true, as John Calvin said of our gospel story about a woman and two coins, that the gifts of the poor are valuable even if small, and that the rich should not be proud just because their gifts are large. Many small contributions can make a political campaign, as we were reminded by Bernie Sanders, or can sustain a church budget. In fact, as our congregation has fewer and fewer large contributors, the participation of everyone, at every level, is important. Sustainable ministry and mission involve everyone doing what we can.

And I can tell you that when I think about your church council’s stewardship of your financial gifts, or contemplate purchases for the office or outreach, it is the smallest gifts, given in faith and love, that I remember. Is this program really worth someone’s entire pledge? Would he, or she, or they, be proud to have made this mission possible?

True as all this may be, it is not what this passage in the gospel is about. What I want you to do right now is to throw out all you have ever learned about the story of “the widow’s mite” and forget every stewardship sermon you have heard that used this woman as an example of faithful giving. Because Jesus is not lifting this woman up as a model of faith; he is showing his disciples that the religious and political system that is supposed to take care of her is actually exploiting her, and Jesus is redirecting his disciples toward true religion.

This story takes place during what we think of as Holy Week. Holy Week begins with Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers – disrupting the practices of those who bought and sold and profited from the religious obligations of others. For three days Jesus sits in the temple debating the nature of religious authority, and the purpose of religious practice, and the failures of the religious elite. He is asked questions about the public role of religion, paying taxes, the nature of marriage, and the importance of law – and Jesus notes the insincerity behind each and every question. The greatest commandment, he says, is love – but love in biblical, covenantal religion, carries obligations to care for those Jesus elsewhere calls “the least of these.” Instead, what he sees is a whole host of hypocrisies.

So Jesus sits down opposite the treasury – opposite, as in opposed to – and watches people putting in money. The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez suggests that this may be the main teaching of the story – the Temple was the heart of religious, economic and political power in Jerusalem, and a very large place, but Jesus’ chooses to sit down in a specific place, in the right position to be able to see (as Marvin Gaye put it) “what’s going on.”[ii]

Jesus sees the gifts of the wealthy, given out of their abundance, and then he sees a widow – putting inout of her povertyeverything she hadall she had to live on.

This is not right. This is not the practice of biblical, covenantal religion. It is exploitation. She is a widow, as in “the widows and orphans” – the biblical way of saying “the poor of Israel” who the abundance of others is supposed to lift up and protect, not take from.

If there is a contrast between the two types of characters, between the scribes and the widows, it is that the scribes make a show of their faith, praying ostentatiously, seeking public recognition, enjoying the best seats at the banquet tables, all the while devouring the homes and livelihoods of the poor, while the widow, her poverty and her need, is barely noticed. In fact, Jesus has to point her out to his disciples who would otherwise have missed her. But Jesus knows how to see what really matters, and how to teach us to see. Biblical, covenantal religion sees the poor, the widow, the orphan, those without other means of support, and cares for them – it does not exploit them, or ignore them. Sustainable ministry not only involves everyone but sustains us all.

In a few moments we are going to stand and sing together a song that grew out of the renaissance in hymn singing that took place in Spain during the 1970s. This renaissance grew out of the reforms of Vatican II and the rise of liberation theology, reforms that reminded us to focus on social action rather than individual salvation as the place to look for evidence of God’s activity. While this hymn is identified in our hymnal by its first line – in English, “When the Poor Ones,” in Spanish, Cuando el pobre – the original title was Pequenas aclaraciones, SMALL CLARIFICATIONS. Think about that for a moment. It makes a series of small clarifications about true religion, about where God is to be found; it is clear about the ultimate value of seemingly small things.

When a poor one who has nothing shares with strangers,
When the thirsty water give unto us all,
When the crippled in their weakness strengthen others,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us.

This is, first of all, a [somewhat ironic] reminder that evidence of God’s sovereignty in our lives often depends on small deeds of mercy and generosity rather than on grand gestures. The emphasis is also an [indirect] reference to the biblical basis of this song in Matthew 25:31-46, the reminder that Christians are called to behold Christ in “the least of these.”

The theme of recognizing Christ, connects the stanzas with the refrain,

Then we know that God still goes that road with us.

This, of course, is a reference to the road-to-Emmaus story, where two followers of Jesus fail to recognize him even while he is telling them how his life and death fulfilled “Moses and the prophets.” But their eyes are opened in the sharing of simple gifts of bread and wine. In the third verse, we join Jesus at the table, the visible sign of invisible grace

When our joy fills up our cup to overflowing,
When our lips can speak no words other than true,
When we know that love for simple things is better,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us.

From seeming poverty to true abundance, the whole song is set up to show us that when the events describes in the stanzas happen, when we who have been created by God and given to one another share our lives together in joy and in sorrow to build the coming reign of God, then the assurance declared in the refrain will be evident.  Then we know that God still goes that road with us. [iii]

All of us at some point in our lives wonder – what is our legacy.  Long after we’ve departed this earth we wonder, will our lives have made a difference?  Will we, through our words and our actions, have helped sustain the earth and all it’s people?

As members of this church, right now, you are building this church’s legacy. 20 years from now, 200 years from now, what will the history books say about this church?

I think they will say that we understood the precarious moment we are in, where earth’s very ability to sustain itself hangs in the balance.  I think history will record that we invested in a future that is not dependent on the fossil fuels that have so squeezed our planet’s resources, but that we invested in the future; that we installed solar panels to generate over 80% of our energy not simply because it was cost effective but because it was necessary for our earth’s survival. I think they will look back on the lawsuit which came from our oil spill and say, the question was not, did it spill, but what did the church do.  And I think the future members of our church and community will say, “they did all they could to repair the damage and to build a new future.”

I think 20 or 200 years from now, people will look back and say, “they decided that standing up for what is right, for the kind of strong, inclusive, and loving community that God desires” was critical at this time. To speak the truth in love; to not stay quiet when rights or livelihoods are at stake; to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors, affirming the image of God in all of us and say, “we all belong” – that will be the litmus by which future generations will be able to tell – we did not swerve from the hard demands of love, even at risk to ourselves.

Financial stewardship, at the end of the day, is about sustainability, about involving everyone, in every way we can, for the good of all. It is about what we are prepared to contribute to ensure that the vision of God’s good purpose can be realized today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Most of you pledge so faithfully that all I need to do is thank you, and I do thank you, encourage you to get your financial pledge in on time, and to consider a modest increase. A number of you give faithfully but do not pledge, and I thank you, and I would encourage you to consider making a pledge for 2018 to help our church council better plan for the coming year.

We have some financial challenges ahead, to be sure, but the investments we are making in our building, our life together, our children and youth, and our democracy are made as a witness to God’s love in difficult times and a pledge that says to our membership and to the broader White Plains community: we will be here, with faith in the city.

Friends, I have no doubt that Christ goes this road with us, because I see him in every act that you do, small and large. God created us and made us for relationship with one another. Our love of God is bound up with our love of neighbor. In our practice biblical religion, our love is guided through covenantal relationships that are more than random acts of kindness, that seek to preserve the dignity of all involved when charity is given, and has a long vision that tends toward justice.

 

 

 

[i] There are several different types of Widow’s Mite coins. (http://www.jtv.com/library/widows-mite-history.html)

[ii] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year. (Orbis, 1997).

[iii] The allusions in this hymn are elaborated, much as described here, in Carl P. Daw Jr. Glory to God: A Companion. (Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Sabbath Day – Debts

October 19, 2017

Sabbath Day – My Weekly Reflection on What Really Matters
Thursday, October 19, 2017

Weekly post? It’s been a month since my last full Sabbath day. No walking, hiking, climbing. Instead, I’ve made time to read.

I spent a little time over the last two weeks figuring out why Presbyterian and Reformed Christians say ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” when we say the Lord’s Prayer. The rest of the English speaking world says “forgive us our trespasses…” or, more recently, “forgive us our sins…”

It’s more than “because that’s what the Bible says.” The Biblical trajectory of debt forgiveness, Sabbath and Jubilee is one story, and the Gospel trajectory of debt to trespass (within Matthew’s gospel) and trespass to sin (Luke’s gospel) is another. Debt forgiveness and restorative justice are central to any Biblical understanding of how we are to live. Think of the discussion happening right now about forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt. 

But the historical story about why we pray as we do is one of Biblical translation, liturgical development, national identity, colonialism, and resistance. It’s a story of Martin Bucer’s hopes for the EnglishReformation, John Knox’s Scottish Liturgy, Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Commons Prayer, Westminster’s Long Parliament, and a lot of racism, fear and hysteria. And a civil war. 

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Now when I pray these words I know they not only invoke the justice of the prophets and the hope of liberation for the oppressed, but that they remember a refusal to bow to overreaching authority and promise resistance to all tyranny. It’s part of the ‘protest’ in Protestant.

Or at least that’s a good story. I’ll share the full story with my Monday evening Bible study next week.

Indigenous Peoples Day

October 9, 2017

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Native American and Presbyterian leaders meeting this summer to work
on a report for our General Assembly concerning the Doctrine of Discovery.

Here are a few of the main points I made in the sermon I preached on October 8, 2017 at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, marking Indigenous People’s Day. Early in the worship service we confessed that while much of the country would be celebrating Columbus Day, it is no secret that Columbus’ landing in Hispaniola in 1492 initiated a period of violence and oppression, theft of land and resources, slavery and genocide, all justified using the Christian faith. In confession, we sought to own this legacy of colonialism and reclaim our faith that Christ came to love and to serve, not to conquer and enslave. 

Genesis 32:22-31

  • On Wednesday evening, the Historical Preservation Commission of the City of White Plains voted to designate our cemetery, the “Presbyterian Burying Ground,” as a Local Landmark. In the final deliberations it was noted that the oldest grave in the cemetery (1709) represented one of the earliest items of archeological evidence for the settlement of White Plains. This was more than a dozen years before the Royal Patent. The family names of all the earliest settlers are represented in the cemetery, including those who signed a treaty with the native inhabitants of this area known by them as Quarropus (white marsh), along the the Aquehung River (later Bronc’s River or the Bronx River).
  • We reflected on the life of Jacob, who began wrestling with his brother Esau while still in the womb. He was born grasping, and lived through extortion and deceit. I said that none of the good Jacob achieved justifies the means through which he pursued it or acquired it. Only by using a super-long lens that is willing to ignore his victims could one believe, as his mother did, that Jacob was chosen by God to be the bearer of the covenant.
  • In our scripture reading, we find Jacob hoping to return home but still bargaining with the lives of those around him. Does he send his wives and concubines and children and all his flocks and possessions ahead of him as a bribe for acceptance, or as a sacrifice to discover his brothers intent: will he find welcome or warfare? In the dark of night, Jacob wrestles with a human-like figure: is it God, an angel, his brother, a sentry keeping watch, himself, his past? Whether one or all together, as a result of his wrestling, Jacob can only move forward with a limp.
  • On Wednesday, after a discussion of our cemetery, the Historical Preservation Commission had to wrestle with the status of the Columbus Statue in the park across from our sanctuary. It was also being recommended to Local Landmark Status. I noted that this it was now 25 years since the Quincentenary of Columbus’ 1492 landing, a 500 year celebration that never really happened. Instead, 1992 marked a resurgence of indigenous activism that has empowered indigenous communities and raised the consciousness of those descended from European settlers and all who inherit this legacy. The past 25 years have brought about many symbolic but important gestures, like the numerous cities that have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Just this week Salt Lake City voted to mark both together.
  • 2017 is also the 10th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, another result of the last 25 years of consciousness raising, advocacy and struggle. The United States, with our history of unresolved Native claims, has still not signed on. (Elaine Enns has published in Sojourners a helpful recap of these last few decades, part of which I shared in my sermon You can be read it here.) Violations of indigenous rights, of course, continue. In this last gasp and grasp of the fossil fuel economy, they are increasing. We remembered our year of advocacy and prayer for the Standing Rock Sioux, and more locally, the Ramampo Nation. We may also have remembered stories I have shared over the last five week of indigenous women I met with over the summer in Guatemala and Costa Rica.
  • I mentioned that almost every member of the Historical Preservation Commission went on record that the legacy of Columbus was nothing to celebrate, or was at best a story that must be told in all its complexity. In our deliberations (I sit on the commission) I spoke specifically about the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal bulls that created the legal basis and justification for conquest, the theft of labor and resources, slavery and the systemic denial of human rights. I recalled that the Presbyterian Church has officially repudiated this doctrine and is learning what forms reparation might take. I mentioned that walking past this statue every morning reminds me that the legacy of colonialism remains (and for that matter is still practiced), and that it requires concrete work on our part to undue and to build a different future. (Here is helpful document on the Doctrine of Discovery by the PC(USA))
  • The Commission DID vote to mark the statue as a Local Landmark, because there is no indication that the statue was put up (like the statues of confederate generals in the south) to demean another group. Instead, it was erected by the local Italian-America community in White Plains to mark their arrival, acceptance and assimilation. Annual ceremonies are still held in front of the statue by the Italian community to remember the Italian immigrants who built Kensico Dam, our aqueduct system which brings drinking water to New York City, and many of our historical stone buildings. I recalled that in 1905 the White Plains Presbyterian Church hired a missionary, Mary Kellogg, to work with the immigrant population, building up a congregation of Italian speaking protestants. In 1915, the same the year the Columbus statue was erected, the Church of the Savior built their own sanctuary and moved from our building down to Ferris Avenue. Arrival indeed.
  • Our past and our histories are messy, all of them, whether we are talking about our own personal history or our shared history. We have all helped and been helped. We have all hurt and been hurt. But there is never any blessing to be found until we wrestle honestly with God, with those we have hurt, with our own defensiveness and hurt, with our past as it lives on in the present. Only then, when we have wrestled without denial of what has been done or despair that that it can be worked through, only then do we encounter the God who has made us, who loves us, and has a future for us that included reconciliation – with one another and with the earth.
  • It is a future, though, that we must limp into. Like Jacob, we limp because we have (God has?) shattered the illusion that we have ever walked straight. We have discovered that we have never walked rightly. Limping is a mark that we are learning, finally, to walk together.
  • Our sermon hymn was Many and Great, about which I shared the following story: Wakantanka / “Many and Great”. Words & Music: Joseph R. Renville (1779-1846); This song was written by Joseph R. Renville and first appeared in the “Dakota Odawan”, also known as “Dakota Dowanpi Kin” published in Boston in 1842). Of the hymns published in that book, this is the only one for which the original melody is known to have been a traditional Dakota tune. The tune is LACQUIPARLE, French for ‘lake that speaks.’ This was sung by thirty-eight Dakota as they were escorted to the gallows, at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in American history” according to Rev. Sidney Bird, Dakota Presbyterian minister whose ancestor was acquitted of charges by Lincoln. “The Sioux Uprising” began August 17, 1862 after the Dakota had demanded annuities promised by treaty directly from their agent. Traders refused to provide any more supplies on credit and negotiations reached an impasse. (From a resource prepared by the Native American Ministries of the PC(USA) I also found this liturgy helpful in crafting our own order of worship for the day).

 

 

For the Birds – Blessing Animals

October 9, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on World Communion Sunday and the Blessing of the Animals, October 1, 2017

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 Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:25-29

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by being anxious add a single hour to your span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…

Reading from a Sermon of St Francis: ‘Peace, birds, peace!’

My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love him always. He gave you feathers to wear, and wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among his creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air, so that, though you do not sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.

In a well-known invocation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped his congregation name their anxieties so that they would no longer reign over them. He wrote,

Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death?

Why be afraid? God is able.

Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, or the waywardness of a child?

Why despair? God is able to give us the power
to endure that which cannot be changed.

Is someone here anxious because of bad health?

Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.

Surely God is able. 

If there’s one thing we learn from the Christian story, it is that God is able. God is able to bring life from death. God is able to make a way where there is no way. God is able.

How do we know this? How do we know?

Jesus suggests that to understand how God cares for us we should be mindful of the earth and observe its creatures. Jesus is attentive to the earth and its rhythms.

Ancient Israel and our biblical tradition had always paid attention to the land, its frailty, its rainfall, its possession and its distribution, its fragile ecosystems. The very life of ancient Israel, was a way of living lightly on the earth and in complete dependence upon the gifts from the earth which God provided every morning.  Every time Israel forgot the earth and God’s sustenance of them through the earth, they suffered, and, as the prophets tell us, the earth suffered too.[1]

It is a profound experience to worship with animals in our sanctuary this morning. To hear their rustlings and voices, to feel the warmth of their bodies or the tickle of a claw or horn or beak upon our hands reminds us of how alienated we are from the rhythms and processes of the natural world. There is something that feels “right” when the animals are with us. Just this morning the Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded to three scientists who have demonstrated this connection at the cellular level. 

The biblical world as well as much of the church’s history, involve animals and nature and revolve around their rhythms – when they pasture, where they wander, where they are kept, how they are fed. In famous cathedrals like Chartres – we find animals of all sorts and images of nature – wheat, fruits, olive trees, shrubs, deserts represented as a natural part not only of the biblical story but of the church’s story. Animals were valued possessions; providing essential subsistence for ancient families – food, clothing, milk, warmth, dung used in building. They were usually kept inside the house with the family at night for the animals’ protection. In fact the Christmas story of Jesus being born in a stable makes it sound like there was some barn out back when in reality, the animals would have been inside the house where they stayed, living with the family on a regular basis.

It was a profound experience for me to stay once with a couple in Cuba. When I was first taken to their home I spent an hour or two in conversation in their backyard, the chickens scratching all around us. When I returned for dinner that night, one of the chickens was on the table. A sumptuous gift for me as the guest. These days in the US most of us would just drop by the grocery store and pick up a package of precut chicken breasts – maybe even pre-seasoned as well! The distance between the farmyard and the table is stretched to include industrial farming, often animal cruelty, certainly processing, some with chemicals, a network of distribution, and then display at the store. We rarely meet the chicken we eat. But just a generation ago, my mom’s family and Noelle’s mother’s and father’s families all raised chickens in the backyard for food; just like in Cuba. A re-reading of the beloved book Charlotte’s Web, makes that past experience palpable again.

All of this is backdrop for our passage today to remind us, in this industrialized setting where chicken appears in a grocery store or in a box with spices from Blue Apron, where farms aren’t inside White Plains and we have to be deliberate to support and share in their bounty through our CSA and by visiting the farmer’s market, that we should remember how interconnected people’s and animal’s and the earth’s life were.

So it is unsurprising that when looking for an example of God’s provision for our needs, Jesus calls attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He lifts up what later theologians would call the Book of Nature, God’s first book. God’s revelation in the natural world, the world God loved so much God sent Jesus to live as part of it, incarnate in it.

The point of our gospel reading this morning is very clear. It is a challenge to us not to be anxious. Six times (in the full passage) Jesus warns against anxiety: three times as instruction, twice as a question, and once as a description.[2]

As we sit with our pets – animals we’re not planning on eating but animals which bring joy to us, show love, demonstrate curiosity, make us laugh, and remind us that we too belong to the animal kingdom – as we rejoice that God’s love redeems not only human beings but all creatures and the earth itself, we are reassured. And yet in this precarious time, when earth’s life hangs in the balance, as animal species are made extinct and natural disasters increase because of, because of our human carelessness and greed, what do Jesus’ words “consider the birds” have to say to us? When we can no longer look to the Great Auk, the passenger pigeon, the Dodo or the Bachman’s Warbler[3] because they no longer have one surviving member living on our planet? When we can no longer consider the Rio de Janiero myrtle,[4] Thismia Americana,[5] or the Falls of the Ohio Scurfpea[6] because their beauty and their pollen that sustains all life have been eradicated utterly?

First, Jesus’ words remind us of the gravity of our situation. They should not be heard as words of escape. His words were offered in a context that no longer exists. So his words invite us to a reckoning of what we human beings have done.

Second, his words invite us to remember and recreate patterns of life that are mutually beneficial, as God intended. We cannot just think of what makes human life easier – a kind of mindless, so-called “progress” that destroys the very ground upon which we live. We cannot allow titans of industry or ambitious politicians or greedy developers to say these concerns are “for the birds.” We must think about how our human well-being is entwined with that of all creatures and the earth. We must develop a mutual mindset that truly IS “for the birds” and the fish and the topsoil and…us![7]

God is able. But so are we. Jesus’s words point us to God’s desire to sustain all life through this beautiful, fragile world in which we live; to provide for all creatures what we need. So, as we trust God’s promise, may we do our part – in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our community, and in our world – acts that are small (like composting), acts that are sustainable (like planting trees), acts that are wide-reaching (like policies to slow climate change), that we may join God in creating a world that is truly “for the birds.”

Giotto di Bondone - St Francis Preaching To The Birds

Giotto: Saint Francis Preaching For the Birds

Sermon Hymn: Let All Things Now Living

[1] See Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading the Bible. (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

[2] See Elaine M. Wainwright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew. The Earth Bible Commentary Series, Vo. 6. Edited by Norman Habel. (Sheffield Phoenix, 2016).

[3] Special thanks to Lisa Curtis, President of the Westchester Audubon Society for texting me list, particularly the warbler that has not been seen since the 1960s and which will soon be added to the list of extinct species. We’re proud to host the Audubon Society at White Plains Presbyterian Church.

[4] Previously endemic to that region of Brazil

[5] Previously lived in wetlands by Lake Calumet in the 1910s which became an industrial neighborhood.

[6] Was enmic to Rock Island in the Falls of the Ohio, an area of rocky limestone outcroppings in Kentucky’s portion of the OH river. The plant’s population may have collapsed following the eradication of buffalo. If this factor alone had not extirpated Orbexilum stipulatum already, Rock Island and the associated rapids were flooded in the 1920s by the creation of US Dam 21, which sealed the fate for Orbexilum stipulatum at the Falls of the Ohio.

[7] For a recent example of what it might mean not just to look at the birds but to listen to them, see H. Paul Santmire, “The Two Voices of Nature: Further Encounters with the Integrity of Nature” in Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril, edited by Lisa Dahil and James B. Martin-Schramm. (Cascade Books, 2017).