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Sabbath Day – World Book Day

March 6, 2015

 

erin-berger-white-plains-ny

The day began at 5:30 AM when we got a text from the school district announcing that there would be no school today due to “inclement weather.” It was actually a quite beautiful snowy day as seen from our new apartment, made more beautiful by the fact that we no longer have to shovel. The photo above is of the park behind our apartment, our new “back yard.”

For most of the day my spouse was working quietly in some corner of our home, and my son had another boy over for a play date. I spent some time helping a friend grieve, helped get the laundry done, and took the two boys out in the snow storm for lunch at Five Guys Burgers. Supervising a play date takes more time than might be imagined; nevertheless I managed to finish several reading projects that I began after my sabbath day last week.

You may recall that as we are settling into our new home I am rediscovering books that have been packed away for years – I spent most of my last sabbath day reading the autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre. Well, this kicked off a week of reading French authors. I followed Sartre with André Gide, discovering that I had two copies of The Immoralist on my shelf. Gide won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, his writing contributing to anti-colonialism. It was a disturbing book of life and death and desperation.

Last night I read a dozen of Victor Hugo’s poems and this morning finished his most famous short story, “The Last Days of Condemned Man.” I had completely forgotten that I had read this story before, but with each page I not only remembered the story, an argument against capital punishment, but was overwhelmed with a flood of memories. In 2004 Noelle and I spent a few weeks in Paris and picnicked one afternoon at the Place des Vosage, where Hugo lived while writing Les Miserables. I read the story while lounging on the grass, imagining the whole things taking place within the confines of this park – the windows of the prison, the chaining of the galley-slaves, the scaffold of the guillotine. I remembered the complete relaxation of our day there, with nothing to do but sit in the sun, enjoy bread and cheese and a bit of wine, and share some good books. After lunch I remember reading to Noelle from The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. What a wonderful place to re-visit during today’s snowstorm.

800px-Paris_PlaceDesVosges_NordNordEst

With what time I could find between other activities today I continued to poke around a few French authors. Simone de Beauvoir occupied most of my morning, flipping through the dozen of her books I have on my shelves, but her novels are all longer than I am up to tackling this winter. I finally settled down after lunch to read Albert Camus’ The Stranger. (Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957). I had not read this book in twenty-five years, but like Hugo’s story it brought me back to where I first read it, in this case Decatur, Il where I went to college. The main character Meursault is particularly vulnerable to the heat, and when he spends a day at the beach with his new girlfriend and his “best pal” Raymond, he lays down with his cheek against the hot sand and falls asleep (right before committing the murder at the center of the book). I read this short novel in one sitting beside Crystal Lake one summer after sailing a regatta. I vividly remember that it was a hot day similar to that described in the book, but that I could not stop reading long enough to seek shade for myself. The connection made a strong impression on me. The photo below is Crystal Lake, another nice place to visit on a snowy day.

crystal7

Which brings me to this evening. Good friends came over and joined us for dinner tonight, sharing stories of adventure we had not heard before. Today was also WORLD BOOK DAY, so over dessert we enjoyed a game of twenty-questions: Who is the only author to have published books in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal system?

I thank Oliver Tearle over at Interesting Literature for the answer to this question and for 30 more interesting facts about books today. Check out his blog – it is always worth reading.

So as this WORLD BOOK DAY draws to a close, I ask YOU: What are YOU reading?

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Lent 2: Community

March 2, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2015

Mark 1: 40-45 

God of Grace, we are provided today with a seemingly simple narrative in our Scripture. Help us to hear it with some of its complexity and challenge, that this story may be your word to us. Amen.

* * * * * * *

Our scripture reading this morning addresses hurting and healing. It is embedded with controversy, though it may not appear so at first. Jesus’ healings were dangerous because they empowered people who had been left out of the community.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that when Jesus heals a leper there is more than a “medical miracle” happening. It is an example of how God restores the community and its members to wholeness. Listen for the word of God: Mark 1: 40-45.

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

We are used to thinking of ourselves in the role of Christ, those who bring healing to the world. After all, we are called to be imitators of Christ. But what if we are the leper; the ones in need of healing? How do we do that?

How do we as hurt and broken people, pastors, leaders, congregations, seek the healing of Christ for ourselves and for one another?

When I used to act out this story of the leper’s healing with confirmation classes, every year the social miracle astound would astound us more than the medical one. To be made whole by being welcomed, included, by belonging – physically healed or not – would amaze us. To be embraced, not on any terms or conditions, but as we are.

Jesus Wept, by Daniel Bonnell, used with permission

I remember when my mother-in-law was undergoing radiation after her breast cancer surgery in 1993. She stopped going to church. Not because she stopped needing church. She needed it more than ever. But because as she was losing weight and losing her hair and developing a sallow complexion, she thought her presence would ‘bring down’ others; that her presence would make uncomfortable the people who came to church to be ‘lifted up’ and inspired. A colleague of mine tells a story about a friend who, after leaving the doctor’s office upon hearing his positive diagnosis for HIV, walked down Madison Avenue in a daze; the only word he could think of was “unclean.” And he comments, “It was bad enough to know he was ill, but quite another to feel the social ostracism he might suffer, not only from people who didn’t understand his illness, but also from his friend who he believed would now look down on him.”

Though my title is “Community,” this is not a ‘church membership’ sermon, or ‘go get those lost ones’ or a ‘notice who is missing and call them’ message. Of course, people who have been away for a while from the church need welcoming too. Rather this is a “let’s look at ourselves honestly” sermon and consider what it might mean for us as individuals and as a congregation to come before God for our own healing. No games – not trying to be the martyr that inspires others. No conditions – not self-righteously demanding that others change if they want to be truly part of the body of Christ.

What if being here meant opening ourselves to pain, to hearing about pain, to hearing about brokenness, mistakes, the ugly stuff we often want to be clean of. The stuff some of us, frankly, come to church to escape from.

Jesus didn’t just walk up to this man with leprosy and heal him. The man came before Jesus and asked him to make him clean. Jesus made him clean. Jesus restored him to community because he asked. What might we be able to be for one another? What might we be able to be and do for the world? What might we discover about God? If we asked Jesus to make us clean – to restore us to community?

Let’s be honest. Some of us are really angry, we may be angry about our job or things in our family and act out of that anger here in the church. Other times we’re angry at the church and let it be known. But when a member is angry, we don’t stop loving them. Someone’s being angry doesn’t make them any less a part of Christ’s body. And as the body of Christ we seek ways to listen for what is true in the midst of that anger and to support our friends as they learn to hold and use their anger in ways that don’t harm others or themselves.

Let’s be honest. Some of us here are really depressed. We may be depressed about our lives, about a relationship, about our future. We may be depressed because we are running through savings with health care bills – or lost our jobs and there’s very little on the horizon. Some of us have lost the sense that God loves us more deeply than we could ever imagine. And some of us desperately need to know and experience that love from the folks in this room. But too often our depression is dressed up with a smile, or a joke, or a platitude, because we fear telling others how terrible the pain really is. We even fear telling others – hey, I’ve been seeing a therapist about this. And we worry – can we be vulnerable? If people know that I’m depressed, will it be used against me? Will someone think I’m crazy or not fit to serve on the church council or to teach our children? But someone’s being depressed doesn’t make them any less a part of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we support one another when we feel desperate and alone, knowing that these feelings happen to most of us at some time. And sometimes depression can be so deeply devastating that we need one another to believe for us, to help us get help, and to believe in us. So we refuse to lose hope and continue to love even and especially when others cannot love themselves.

Let’s be honest. Some of us are in relationships that are broken beyond repair or straining under weight that they cannot bear. Some of us feel like our marriage, a friendship, the nurture of our children has become a burden that we can no longer carry – and that there’s no help and no hope. Others of us are addicted – to alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling – or we’ve really screwed things up, we’ve had an affair, we’ve deeply hurt another, we’ve committed a crime. And we are ashamed. We worry that church is the place where “families” go or “good people” go and that, because of what we’re going through, we no longer belong in church. But being in broken relationships does not mean you are no longer a part of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we reach out to one another…

Let’s be honest. Some of us are mourning. Some of us miss loved ones who have died so much we don’t know where to turn. Some of us have had miscarriages. Some of us feel that a part of ourselves has died and that we’ll never ever be able to love or hope again as we did. Some of us cry, long and hard. Some of us just feel hard inside and out. And so we come to church straining for some real sense of resurrection – some experience of God’s beloved care for us in life and beyond. Yet grieving and longing for a sense of resurrection that we may not yet experience does not make anyone less a part of the body of Christ. And as we as the body of Christ share our memories, our hopes, our experiences, we share in the communion meal together with the saints in heaven and we long together for the full presence of Christ.

Now I’m not suggesting that we have no distinctions between the private and the public. That beginning immediately we indiscriminately walk around baring our souls to anyone and everyone. No. I’m not advocating “exhibitionism,” I’m advocating healthy risk. I’m asking us to share honestly about ourselves– about not only the difficult things but the truly amazing things – because sharing both involves risk. Each of us must make decisions about what to share, when to share, and with whom – a small group? A prayer minister? A pastor? A friend in choir? A member of the bible study? A youth leader? Part of the role of a pastor is to support members of a congregation in taking as much risk as is appropriate so that we can build a trusting, caring community, capable of receiving and sharing God’s healing.

I invite you to join me in making our church a place of welcome, a place where we can ask to be healed; to be restored to community, that all who belong and all who are or feel exiled may experience and share God’s transforming love.

Just look who gathers at this table!

 

Following the sermon we sang Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table! by Tom Troeger, which includes the lines:

Look who gathers at Christ’s table! Hear the stories that they bring.

Some are weeping; some are laughing; some have songs they want to sing.

Others ask why they’re invited, burdened by the wrong they’ve done.

Christ insists they all are welcome. There is room for everyone.

Sabbath Day: Hell and Heaven

February 27, 2015

“I began my life as I shall no doubt end it – amidst books.”

- Jean-Paul Sartre.

Today was a very cold, intermittently snowy day in White Plains. I began my sabbath by sleeping an extra four hours – a luxury a don’t take lightly. I am reminded through sabbath practice that my body works better when rested, my mind is clearer, both patience and happiness are easier.

Waking to an empty and quiet house, I made a pot of coffee and settled in to the sunlight with a few good books. One of the pleasures of moving recently is that I am re-discovering books I have kept packed away for years as we create our new library in room #3. Yesterday I unboxed the auto-biography of Jean-Paul Sartre which I have been intending to read for 25 years. This book has lived with me in four houses, three apartments, two dorm rooms and been tossed into countless backpacks. The last time I intended to read it was before visiting the grave of Sartre and De Beauvoir  in the Montparnasse Cemetery (Paris) about ten years ago, but I could not find it (the book, that is). Published the same year (1964) that Sartre was awarded but refused the Nobel Prize in Literature, The Words (Les Mots) is Sartre’s ironic farewell to literature which he believed substituted for commitment and action in the world. Not for nothing does the writing remind one of Marcel Proust.

So it was with pleasure that I read Sartre’s descriptions of his Alsatian origin (part of my own heritage) and discovered that his mother Anne-Marie was first-cousin to Albert Schweitzer. I did not know he had a cat!

jean-paul-sartre

Finishing up the book by early afternoon, I of course had to read a play. “Hell is other people,” declares Garcin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” Garcin and two women, Inez and Estelle, find themselves locked together in a spacious Second Empire style room. I say locked, but the door is eventually wide open. What locks them together is their desperate need for love and comfort from another being. It is also their character, formed over a lifetime, that dooms them to torture each other for eternity. As they reveal their darkest secrets, they form alliances and misalliances, re-creating and retreating into their unchanging character in hell. The change required of them in order to leave care for one another and thus leave ‘hell’ is beyond their imagination.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ short novel The Great Divorce in which a bus leaves hell for the outskirts of heaven everyday. Few ever get on board, and almost all who do return to hell because they cannot face the changes required of them if they are to walk the rest of the way into heaven.

Does our character doom us? I overheard someone say at a coffee table today, “That’s just the way she is. She’s not going to change.”

Carol Bly insists that character formation and moral growth are indeed possible, though they require training and hard work. In contrast to Sartre’s rejection of literature as an evasion of moral commitment, Bly’s Changing the Bully Who Rules the World blends great literature and tough ethical reflection in order to stimulate moral growth. This has become my Lenten reading.

I was also reminded last evening that if “hell is other people,” then so is heaven. My colleague, the Rev. Sarah Henkel, hosted a simple soup supper for our congregation on the first Wednesday of Lent, and we were pleasantly surprised at the attendance. Until coming to White Plains I had shared my Wednesday evenings during the season of Lent with other people for as long as I could remember. But that tradition did not exist here. It was a joy to introduce it. Pastor Sarah made Monastery soup with ingredients from our church sponsored CSA and from Stony Point Center, and her husband Will baked the bread. We were inspired by each others as we shared different Lenten practices, and laughed as we invented gestures of gratitude. I think we ranged in age from two to ninety.

photo

At one point Sarah asked us to write down what we were grateful for during Lent and what we could do to keep ourselves open to that gratitude. I wrote that I was grateful for the focus Lent provides, and that sharing this journey with others keeps me focused and grateful. Many in the room were especially grateful for their family: including both biological and chosen family as well as church family.

Heaven, too, will certainly involve other people. The people who have chosen the hard journey of character formation and moral growth we call discipleship.

What practices do you take up during Lent, or whatever time you set aside for intentional growth? With whom do you share this journey and find support?

Shabbath Shalom

 

Lent 1: Mortality

February 23, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Lent, February 22, 2015

Mark 8:31-37

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Human was bound to suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scholars, and be killed, and after three days rise up. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Then Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me: for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the kingdom, will save it. For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? Indeed, what can you give in return for your life?                                                                                                                  (adapted)

* * * * * * *

On Thursday, Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine, announced in the New York Times that he has terminal cancer.

A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.[1]

Sacks is the author of several books, such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which have led some to call him “medicine’s poet.” He goes on to write,

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. . . . The cancer cannot be halted. It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. . . . I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential.

Jesus tried to say something like this to his disciples, and they couldn’t hear it. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was quite open about the fact that he was going to die, and that his closest friends responded with a resounding “No! No way. Not you. Especially not you”

But Jesus tells them that denial is of the devil. Or perhaps, it is simply all too human. Jesus is trying to prepare himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his own death.

But, like the disciples, we don’t want to talk about this. We don’t want to think about our own death, let alone the death of those we love. So thank God Jesus brought it up first.

We are all going to die. This church is a place where we can talk openly about it; and where we can be surrounded by others who do not avoid the topic, but can help us plan and prepare as best we are able.

I have been reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a profound meditation on the choices we face at the end of life, and what it means to live meaningfully in the face of our inevitable end. Gawande is a medical doctor who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and his New York Times bestselling book tells the story of how our society treats old age and the process of dying as a medical problem to be cured rather than a natural part of the lifecyle of all beings.

While medicine and nursing care can prolong life, and numerous options exist (if you can afford them) for (relatively) independent living, he writes,

Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new question arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?

This is not a book of easy answers, but a perspective shifter on a whole range of questions concerning the old age, or as John Timmons has taught me to say, seniority. Death by old age, or seniority, is actually a relatively new phenomenon. In Jesus’ day, average life expectancy was 30. Accident, illness, violence, childbirth, exhaustion – these were how people died. Perhaps all that courage Jesus had to confront all that was wrong in his world came from the fact that he was already an old man at 30. His mother, still living, would have been ancient of days, venerated in her village for her longevity. As the philosopher Montaigne wrote, observing late sixteenth century life, “To die of age is a rare, singular, and extraordinary death, and so much less natural than others: it is the last and extremist kind of dying.”[2]

But today, a life of seventy years is expected, and 80, 90, even 100 not uncommon. And this means anticipating a number of years in which we will either be in need of assistance or completely dependent on others. “We do not like to think about this eventuality,” writes Gawande, and “As a result, most of us are unprepared for it. We rarely pay more than glancing attention to how we will live when we need help until it’s too late to do much about it.[3]

Gawande’s book commends courage, the strength to face with knowledge what is to be hoped and feared, and still to be able to act. (Isn’t this what Jesus was trying to instill in his disciples?) We have many reasons to shrink from facing up to our mortality, and knowing how to act when we do is not always clear. This would be hard enough, but the book really aims to change to way our society treats the dying. In many, many ways, the institutions we have for dealing with the dying, from our hospitals to our nursing homes often seem designed to deny that facing death with courage is important to the dying. Instead, the elderly are left with a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems, a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.” There are better ways.[4]

In this church we acknowledge that life and death are intimately connected. Our ability to die well is connected with having learned to live well. And living well is connected with our readiness to die to all that stands in the way of the fullness of life God intends for all people. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not our own. We belong to God.

We practice these rhythms of living and dying in worship each week. Here we practice dying so that we can live. In our baptism, we die with Christ, symbolically drowned and drawn again out of the water. In confession, repentance, new commitment, we practice letting go of all that is inessential and redirecting ourselves to the life God intends. Those who cannot forsake THIS life will never find TRUE life. But this is not life denying. On the contrary. Our faith is life-affirming. In this same place, in the chancel of the sanctuary and in these pews, we baptize new life, we confirm faith, we celebrate and marry deep love, we offer our sins and wounds, our infirmities and perplexities, our desire and hope alongside our need and fear. Here we gather when loved ones die to weep and shout and grieve the their loss, to rail at the injustice of violent or unexpected death. We grieve unique lives, never to be replaced, even as we are reminded that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves. We remember that our truest life always has and always will belong to God, that, when we die, this community will continue to grieve us, and that as long as this community gathers, birth and life and hope and loss, death and new life will be celebrated here.

I invite you to take some time to think about dying in the moments that follow. To think about it not as something morbid, but as something natural. For what over the course of your life have you been grateful? How do you hope to be remembered? Are there things unsaid or undone that you believe are important for you to say or do? With whom would it be important to have a conversation about dying? Perhaps you’d like to take one of the pink prayer slips and jot some notes to yourself.[5]

As you reflect, remember this promise “in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. We belong to God.”

* * * * * * *

After the sermon, we sang “Go to Dark Gethsemene” which includes the line, “learn from Jesus Christ to die.” Then the Rev. Sarah Henkel offered the following prayer…

God, creator and shaper of our lives, we give you thanks for this present moment. We give you thanks for life and breath.

Our time here on earth is brief, filled with wonder, pain, ecstasy, loss. From the earth you formed us, breathed movement into our bodies, and when our breath is gone you lovingly receive us home.

We pray for release from the fear of death.

We pray for patience as our bodies grow older and our abilities change.

We pray for the grace to claim our dependence on one another.

God you created us, knit together our bodies and souls, the finite and infinite.   We give thanks that not even in death can we be separated from your love. This is our hope. It is our comfort as we mourn, as we age, as we, in our daily living, come face to face with death.

We pray for communities where grief is heavy, where death comes through violence much too early and too often: for communities living in the midst of war, for communities who don’t have access to the basic necessities for life, for communities broken apart by gun violence.

We pray especially for the family lost to gun violence last night in Harrison. For the grief counselors who will be the helpers there today, who will hold the space for questions and lament. For the friends and teachers who will be holding one another close as they mourn the loss of Alyssa and Deana and their father, Glenn, and struggle to comprehend what happened. In this Lenten season – in which we confess our sin – we grieve together the brokenness that Glenn faced.

God receive these prayers, the sorrow and rejoicing that shape our lives, and create within us praise that flows with every breath.

[1] New York Times, February 19, 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?_r=0).

[2] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. (Metropolis Books, New York) p.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. (Metropolis Books, New York) p. 55.

[4] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. (Metropolis Books, New York) Page 108.

[5] A description of various forms of living wills was included in the bulletin, as well as a link to a document called “Five Wishes.” Members were encouraged to use this or similar documents in planning for their own dying and talking with their loved ones.

Sabbath Day: Courage

February 20, 2015

Last night I dreamt that I was hiking to a mountain in order to climb. I was barefoot, but the trail was smooth and soft. I had to keep shedding responsibilities and projects, dropping them beside the trail, if I were to keep walking. It was exhilarating to finally reach the granite outcroppings and actually begin to climb, my bare feet now performing, alternately, like boots and climbing shoes. I don’t remember reaching the summit. The dream was all about getting there.

No doubt, the dream was born of my sermon last week, called Mountain Climbing: On Transfiguration Sunday. It also came from reading Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. Certainly, it was spurred on by renewing my membership at The Cliff’s in Valhalla and introducing my nephew to indoor climbing. I am sure that watching video of Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s history making ascent of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park played no small part.

Mostly, I think the long winter is wearing on me and I am anxious to be outdoors.

elcapitan-finish-10_87835_990x742

I spent today entirely indoors, reading, cleaning, and organizing. We are still settling into our new home and there is much to do. The project today was to complete the installation of the bookshelves in the library. Unpacking books was very satisfying – like visiting old friends.

I also began and nearly finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. This is a profound meditation on the choices we face at the end of life, and what it means to live meaningfully in the face of our inevitable end. Medicine and nursing care can prolong life, and numerous options exist (if you can afford them) for (relatively) independent living, but

Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new questions arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?

Gawande’s book commends courage, the strength to face with knowledge what is to be hoped and feared, and still to be able to act. We have many reasons to shrink from facing up to our mortality, and knowing how to act when we do is not always clear. This is hard enough, but the book really aims to change to way our society treats the dying. In many, many ways, we deny that facing death with courage is important to the dying. Instead, and often with the aim of keeping aging dependents safe (from themselves), we offer lifeless and soulless options for their final days, months, years. There are better ways.

I am reminded of Ernst Becker’s classic The Denial of Death, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Becker’s book spoke of heroism, the chief characteristic of which is courage, as the necessary response to what would otherwise be a crippling fear of death. Martin Luther said that the fear of death is death itself. Facing that fear and still acting with meaning takes courage. It both requires and fosters life.

Much to think on here as I head into Lent.

I hope I dream of climbing again.

 

Mountain Climbing: Transfiguration Sunday

February 17, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 15, 2015. This was also the occasion of our annual Mardi Gras covered dish meal.

Mark 9:2-9

Many of you know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being alone in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.

A couple of summers ago I hiked the Camp Smith Trail, up Manitou Mountain. It was one of my more satisfying experiences when I first began hiking in Westchester. It was a vigorous 4.8 miles of steep climbing and great views, and entirely fun. (I even startled a family of grouse). It was a humid day in June and I had set aside six hours for the adventure. Noelle and August dropped me off at the Bear Mountain Tollhouse on Route 6/206 with my backpack and cell phone, and I began my climb. It is said that the more difficult climb northwards provides more invitations to stop and take in the view than the same trail heading south, and I believe it. The first ten minutes were an exciting series of rapid ascents higher and higher above the road. And then it became work. Alternately walking and then scrambling over rock, I was glad for my Merrill hiking boots, my careful preparations in rationing water and trail mix, and my map.

My goal was to make the climb up Manitou Mountain, reach the summit at Anthony’s Nose, take a sweaty selfie for my blog, descend again to the highway, cross the bridge and walk into Bear Mountain State Park on the far side of the river. Noelle and August were going to play over there and take out a boat on Hessian Lake, and when I arrived, they would drive me home. When I reached the peak several hours later, the view of the Hudson River was breathtaking: sweeping vistas of rolling green and shimmering blue, the gateway to the Hudson Highlands. To the south, I could see Bear Mountain (where Noelle and August were hiking), Thunder Mountain, Iona Mountain, and far to the south I knew was the ocean. The satisfaction I felt as I took that selfie was profound. I was extraordinarily grateful that all this beauty existed in the world and that I was living here. It was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

You know, I’ve preached on this passage for almost 20 years and it was only this week as I read it that I thought of Jesus and his three friends as mountain climbers. I mean, the mountain is a great spiritual metaphor, but before that it is a mountain: ancient, inviting, and requiring real effort to climb. Ascending Mt. Tabor, or the Mount of Transfiguration, would have been an all day affair, requiring them to set out before dawn and return well after sunset. This was no afternoon hike, the kind of thing what might decide to do; it was an all day affair, the kind of thing one trained to do. I am not surprised at all that when they reached the summit, Peter, James and John suddenly found themselves in the company of other great climbers, and understood Jesus in this same light. I would have (and have) done the same myself.

Mt. Tabor is located about 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus ministry began. It’s name, Tabor, means navel, as in the bellybutton, as in the center of the earth. And indeed, it stands alone: a huge, but gentle, rounded form in the middle of a wide plain north of Megiddo. It is covered in bright green mosses under stands of pine, oak, and cypress trees. And it has attracted climbers since the beginning of human history. Egeria, the Spanish nun and inveterate traveler concluded her famous pilgrimage in the year 384 with a climb up Mt. Tabor. Saint Helena, the wife of Emperor Constantine, shared Peter’s impulse to build booths, and built a church there. A group of Carmelite monks still occupy the chapel they built there in the thirteenth century. And in the seventh century, an Armenian pilgrim named Elisaeus kept a journal about his own ascent:

Concerning the beauty of the mountain and the delightfulness of the spot, if you wish to lend me a willing ear I shall briefly describe the appearance of the charming place. Around it are springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink. . . . The path by which our Lord ascended is winding, twisting this way and that; [but] whosever wishes to climb and to pray can easily make the ascent.[1]

holy-land--mount-tabor-munir-alawi

Of course, Mt. Tabor has an elevation of nearly 1900 feet, whereas Anthony’s Nose on the Camp Smith Trail is a mere 900 feet. The ancient saints had a very different notion of what made for an easy ascent. As I said, this was not a relaxing stroll with Jesus – it was a physically taxing all day enterprise. It’s the kind of climb where you are with your friends, but you’re not chatting along the way. You’re focusing on your breathing. Perhaps you stop a few times for brief water breaks, but not conversation; you have to keep going. Your time is spent placing one foot after the other and paying keen attention to your surroundings. And when you get to the summit, you’re not on retreat, sitting around praying, you spend maybe an hour or so taking in where you are and what you have done, and then heading back down in order to reach the bottom by dark. This is an intensely physical experience.

But it IS a mountain, and when they get to the top, they can see … everything. From 1900 feet, the Jezreel Valley sweeps out for miles in every direction. And beyond that:

  • Gilboa, to the West, where King Saul met his end;
  • Carmel, to the southwest, home of the prophet Elijah and site where he defeated the prophets of Baal;
  • Gilead, with its famous balm, to the east;
  • All of Upper and Lower Galilee to the northeast, the place all four men called home.
  • And far, far in the North, visible on a clear day, Mt. Hermon, whose winter snow and summer dew are the source of the Jordan River and all life in the valley.

It must be breathtaking.

And they sense themselves in the company of Moses and Elijah. And that doesn’t surprise me at all. Not simply because these were prophets whose home or final resting places are in view, but because they were mountain climbers too! Moses and Elijah ascended and descended, scrambled and exerted themselves in their quest to see, experience and understand God. Moses ascending the Sinai to receive God’s words and coming back forever changed; Elijah also climbing Sinai to hear God’s still, small voice.

Peter, James and John have just climbed seven breathless hours behind Jesus to the top of Tabor, the navel at the center of the world. And as the world spreads out all around them, they realize they company they keep. Here is one like the prophets of old. But not only do they understand Jesus something of Jesus, that he is a mountain climbing prophet beloved of God, but they come to understand themselves in this same light. They feel a kinship with everyone those who have made this climb before them. They stand in the company of Moses and Elijah. Of course they do. That’s part of the reward for all the hard work. Heck, I’ve felt like Moses when reaching a summit and looking out at what looks like promised land all around me. I’ve heard God, like Elijah, in that quiet peace of just sitting still, very still, high above the noise of daily life. Whenever I work hard on a hike I feel a sense of kinship with everyone who had come this particular way before, often adding my own stone to the Ebenezer’s raised by fellow hikers and pilgrims before me. And increasingly I feel this kinship with all who have trekked up trails in their search for God: the desert father and mothers, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross, and John Muir, the preacher’s kid whose worship of God’s natural temple would led him to found the Sierra Club. For just this reason, I’m going (indoor) climbing with my sister Janel and my nephew Caden this afternoon.

There is a profound connection between physical exertion and spiritual ecstasy. We often have spiritual experiences at times of heightened physical pleasure or pain. It can happen when we experience bodily illness, physical suffering, or during the hard work of rehab; it can happen during physical training, athletic competition, and even during sex; it certainly happens during shared meals, like the one we will share today, and when we share the very real bread and juice at this table. Our encounters with Christ or experience of divine power is wrapped up with physical experience.

Now, our physical bodies are not simply empty receptacles into which spiritual stuff, the real stuff, is poured. Rather our physical bodies are the conduits for our spiritual life. For those of us who are struggling with limitations or illness, this does not always feel like a blessing. We may wish to be rid of our bodies, because they cause us pain, they stop us from doing what we want to do, they sometimes fail and betray us. But in saying that our physical bodies are the conduits for our spiritual life, I do NOT mean to say that poor health or injury is some kind of punishment. Or that fit, healthy people are somehow more spiritual. Rather it is simply to state the fact that as human beings we are embodied. We know through our bodies. And we can know all kinds of things. Some people have felt God’s closeness during pain, others God’s acute absence. Either way, our bodies matter.

In a few moments we are going to ordain a new class of ruling elders by laying hands upon them. Through this ritual, physical act, we connect ourselves spiritually with all who have been ordained before, from the time Jesus first laid hands upon Peter, or Elisha laid hands on Elisha, or Moses laid hands on Aaron and Joshua. The touch of these hands, conveying blessing and purpose across thousands of years, knits us together as one community across time and space.

And the voice of God speaks: here are my beloved children, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to them.

[1] Cited in Belden lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. (Oxford, 1998).

Exorcising Anxiety: A Sermon

February 1, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 1, 2015. This was also the Sunday of our Annual Congregational Meeting.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20         Mark 1:14-21

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

When Jesus emerged from the desert after his baptism he began to declare, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Be changed and trust in God.” Our gospel reading this morning is part of a larger story arc in which Jesus establishes God’s kingdom through deeds of healing, challenging existing religious and social practice, and the establishment of a new community. Taken together, this dynamic of freeing people from whatever binds them, disfigures them or destroys them; dealing with the fear that generates in the community; and finally building a new community, describes what it means to announce and enact the in-breaking of divine rule. In this first, brief story, Jesus enters a synagogue on the sabbath and teaches with authority. His presence produces anxiety in the community, and a man with an unclean spirit gives voice to that anxiety – “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us” But Jesus rebukes the anxiety, exorcising it and making it come out. By bringing out, rather than ignoring the anxiety in the community, Jesus reduces the power that anxiety had over the community.

And all were amazed by his authority. We may wish that Jesus would appear right hear and now and do the same with the anxieties we all carry as individuals and as a community of faith, but Jesus imagined a different way. The authority he exercises in this passage, he later gives to all his followers: “And he appointed twelve and sent them out to proclaim the kingdom and to have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:14). We have been empowered in Jesus name, to identify, bring out and name our anxieties so that they no longer have control over us.

Sometimes when we become anxious in our own personal lives or in our congregational life, we can imagine that something is going wrong; that perhaps we have done something wrong; or that we are not following in God’s way – for wouldn’t following in God’s way mean that we weren’t anxious about anything?

But this passage gives us a different picture. Remember this passage is part of the long story arc of Jesus ushering in God’s kingdom by healing, challenging existing religious and social practices, and establishing a new way of life together. Such change, such challenge, is bound to cause anxiety – even among those who welcome the change. This passage underscores that anxiety in the face of change is something we as individuals and communities experience. It’s not surprising; in fact, perhaps we should even expect it.

But it is also clear that exorcising those anxieties is necessary if God is to truly reign, if the coming of God’s kingdom is to be a reality in our lives.

So we should expect that when we are engaged in doing God’s work we will become fearful and anxious about many things. The question is, what happens next? Will we allow our anxieties and fears to drive us, to control us in our decision-making? Or will we bring these fears before Jesus and one another, allow them to see the light of day – examined them but not be driven by them? Jesus never denies there is an unclean spirit – the unclean spirit is there; the question is will it continue to control this man and that synagogue.

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When we come to the communion table, we come with all of who we are, we bring our fears and anxieties as well as our faith and eagerness to the table. And here we encounter a loving God who honors us by taking our fears seriously. But we also encounter a God who unburdens us, inviting us to lay those fears down at the table, to name and examine those fears together, and in so doing, stop those fears from controlling us, even as we open ourselves to new possibilities in our individual and congregational lives.

With Jesus, nothing is swept UNDER the table. There is no escaping or denying the fears. And there’s no “quick fix.” Rather, there is an exorcism. When we put our fears ON the table, together, we get control of them, rather than they of us. When Jesus called that unclean spirit out of the man, he freed that man from its dominion over him and that synagogue.

So perhaps you are anxious about whether you’ll be able to make rent this month. That’s real. Money is tight. You can either allow that anxiety to keep you awake at night, or you can allow it to come forward, to name it, to say “Hello anxiety! Thank you for reminding me to be careful with my spending.” But then move forward. You’ll still need to spend money and you’ll do the best we can. You acknowledge your anxiety, you keep moving forward.

Another example. Remember how the council made the decision to allow the board of deacons to dissolve? And remember the wonderful way everyone has started to step forward to visit one another, to help set up communion and more? Well there was another piece to that decision. When the board of deacons was dissolved the Council decided to expand the number of seats on the Council. Now there was no small anxiety around the table and with the nominating committee as to whether we would be able to fill these seats. After all, we never did quite fill the deacon board. Would we have the same trouble here? Everyone has busy lives and it is a big commitment that people make when they agree to serve. They say, “yes” we are willing to gather monthly and sometimes a little more, to discern God’s will and make our best decisions so that the congregation can show God’s love in everything we do. So we voiced our anxiety, but we then carried forward in the nominating process. From time to time someone would get very anxious and we’d talk about it and then keep going. Well guess what. We are so excited to report that we have filled all five seats for the Council and four of those five seats are being filled by deeply committed members who have never served on our Council before. By not letting our anxiety control us, the Session and Nominating committee were able to discover new and able and eager people to serve in this important way.

Friends, placing our anxiety on the table allows us to make room for God’s power. Because this passage from the Gospel according to Mark reminds us that if our anxiety is in control, then God is not. Let me say this again, if our anxiety is in control, then God is not.

But 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. In a famous invocation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped his congregation name their anxieties so that they would not 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.

This morning, as you come to the table, I invite you to bring your anxieties with you, and as you line up to receive the bread and juice to name in your heart those fears that are driving you right now; name them and bring them before God. And as you receive the bread and juice together with everyone, allow God and this community to help you walk in a new way, a way of courage and compassion, of honesty and hope.

For God is able. Surely, God is able.

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