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A House Divided

August 22, 2016

A sermon preached by Lori Hylton at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016. Ms. Hylton is well known to the congregation and serves as the Hunger Action Enabler for the Hudson River Presbytery.

 Luke 12: 49-53

Upon my first reading of the day’s text I was left a bit speechless. Jesus comes to bring division, not peace.  This is one of those texts that most of us want to avoid. And when I say us, I don’t mean preachers, I mean Christians. It makes us very uncomfortable. Where is the Jesus who talks about loving your neighbor and feeding the poor? Get him back in here.  And so in preparing this morning I read through several different version of the passage.  King James, New King James, NIV, Good News, but no matter how many versions I read, there was no softening, no polite avoidance of these words, and this reality. Jesus and the gospels are radical, and divisive.  Radical and divisive then, radical and divisive today.  So, what do I mean when I say that, well I mean that the world in not always ready and willing to hear what Jesus has to say and that’s where the division creeps in. The words may be peaceful but the reception that they receive is mixed, even within the church.              

In the scripture Jesus talks about a divided house and I don’t think the world has ever felt more divided than it does at this moment in time.  Every day we turn on the news and what we see is so disheartening. The news cycle is relentless in its constant drumbeat of death and destruction. The country in the midst of yet another election cycle has devolved into red states and blue states, the church is divided into fundamentalists and reformed believers, and now even our communities and even our homes are divided into camps of black lives vs. blue lives. Where is the understanding? Where is the compassion? Where is love?

And so it’s natural for us to want to retreat to a place where we can find some peace. It’s natural to want to tune out the onslaught of frustration and sadness. We need to be able to let go and as the saying goes “let God take the wheel”. But letting God take the wheel doesn’t mean abandoning the ship. Now more than ever we are needed to match hatred with love.

Jesus didn’t come to make our lives and the world around us more palatable. He came he to fulfill the prophesy, to abolish the law, to be the light of the world, to seek the lost, to save the sinner, to destroy the works of the devil, to bring the fire. He came to turn the world on its ear with his message of love. But he didn’t come to make things more comfortable for us.  And if the result is division then so be it.

As followers of Christ each and every one of us, have been charged with carrying Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness out into the world. So what does that mean? What does that look like? What does it mean to be the bearer of a radical message of love in the world today? It means standing up for justice, when it would be much easier to sit down. It means raising our voices to demand change and it means each of us speaking out against hate when it would be so much more convenient for someone else to do it.

Over the past two years, the nation has been rocked by the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Laquan McDonald, Yvette Smith, Tamir Rice, Rakia Boyd,  Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and many, many others, at the hands of the police.   It seems that we don’t make it through a week without hearing a report of police brutality or an extrajudicial killing. In fact, just this morning we have started to hear about violent demonstration overnight in the city of Milwaukee over the shooting of yet another man. But the reality is that these incidents are not new, they are not one offs. They are just more visible.  They are part of a pattern of behavior on the part of law enforcement in this country that predates the end of the Civil War. Last month when after seeing the videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I was angry, but mostly I was afraid. Afraid that one day my son who is 10 but looks older because he is tall will one day be on the receiving end of the kind of brutality practiced against people of color that we’ve witnessed over and over in this country. I could no longer try to pretend that teaching him to obey the rules and appear respectable would shield him from the reality of the world. And so I held him and I cried. But that is not enough.  And after the deaths of the police officers in Dallas: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamaripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens and Baton Rouge: Montrell Jackson, Matther Gerald, and Brad Garafola I moved from afraid to terrified. But it’s not enough for us to cry and hide in the church.

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As followers of Christ we are compelled allow our faith to be our shield, and go out into the world to deliver Jesus’ message of love, despite our fears. And when I ask myself what that looks like, I’m reminded of Cornel West’s famous words “Just as tenderness is what love looks like in private, Justice is what love looks like in public”.  So practicing love in the way that Jesus describes is naturally going to be divisive, because seeking justice means overturning the status quo. In Jesus’ day that meant questioning the religious, economic and even political beliefs of those around you.  And in our time it means much the same.  But it’s time for us to set aside concerns about getting involved in politics and bring the voice and moral compass of the church to these conversations.  When we see people of any color being brutalized and murdered over and over we need to ask ourselves, what is at the heart of this hatred and then ask ourselves what are we going to do about it? What are we as Christians and human beings going to do about it? Because when we don’t act, when we don’t ask why, when we don’t demand justice we are complicit. We cannot afford to offer empty prayers, by rote asking God, to heal the wounds that are around us, while doing nothing.

In the book, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s call to Justice, the author Mark Labberton, uses the metaphor of a sleeping church very well to describe how easy it is fill one’s life with the many details, rituals, tasks, and legitimate personal crisis’s that can overwhelm us, making it difficult to look beyond our own circumstances. But in the scriptures Jesus calls us to act, to step out of the protective arms of the church and engage the community beyond our doors.

So how do we begin this kind of engagement? We begin by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, because much of what is happening around us will make us uncomfortable. By facing the fear, and the hate, and the violence with love.  We begin by getting used to the idea of living our faith rather than just professing it.  We begin by building trust in our community, intentionally entering into relationships with people who are different than we are, people whose voices have been marginalized our society.  And we important, we make room for those people not just in our churches, or on our streets, but in our hearts.

Engaging the world around us means that churches and individuals can no longer allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by ritual. It means the church has to wake up and “Stay Woke”.

God’s Invitation to Joy that Lasts

August 9, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost, August 7, 2016. 

Today’s reading comes from Luke 12: 32-48.  It continues in a long series of teachings that Jesus shares on the journey to Jerusalem.  Last week we heard the Parable of the Rich Fool, who tried to secure himself against tomorrow.  Today begins with the end of a longer discourse on letting go of fear and worry because God will provide.  Receive these words from the Gospel:

“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

“Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit.  Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door.  Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them. Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn.  But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into.  You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.” [CEB]

Over the past year I’ve heard many people talking about a book called, The Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.  It has gained lots of popularity in the U.S. where the art of accumulating things is well practiced.  I have friends who have read the book and then proceeded to get rid of half of their clothes.  The basic premise is that you are to pick up an item of clothing or other possession, hold it to your heart, and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”  If it does, you can keep it.  If it doesn’t, you thank the item for its service and give it away.

Of course, this method of paring down possessions is directed squarely at people who have too much, those of us who are not worrying about covering basic needs but have padded our lives with backups of replacements of questionably necessary things.

There are many who have pointed out the inherent privilege of this kind of minimalism.  In an article for The Atlantic, Arielle Bernstein, the granddaughter of refugees, writes,

“It’s particularly ironic that the KonMari method has taken hold now, during a major refugee crisis, when the news constantly shows scenes of people fleeing their homes and everything they have… For a project titled “The Most Important Thing,” the photographer Brian Sokol asks refugees to show him the most important thing they kept from the place they left behind. The items they proffer range from the necessary (crutches), to the practical (a sewing machine), to the deeply sentimental (photographs of someone deeply loved, treasured instruments, family pets).

Against this backdrop, Kondo’s advice to live in the moment and discard the things you don’t need seems to ignore some important truths about what it means to be human. It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones. That we can only guess at the things we’ll need in the future and that we don’t always know how deeply we love something until it’s gone.”

Possessions are perilous.  Those who have accumulated much will tell you that the joy their possessions spark is fleeting and the security their stuff offers is full of holes.   Those who have lost all will tell you that possessions can come and go in an instant.  At a global level possessions are pawns of war and greed. The accumulation and stockpiling of things, of wealth, of weapons, of natural resources causes the citizens of some nations to flee their homes leaving everything behind while more powerful nations bar the doors to safe haven to protect what is held inside. Possessions are perilous.

Today’s reading from Luke, begins powerfully with a phrase that is repeated throughout the Scriptures, Don’t be afraid.  Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.  God takes joy in giving you life in abundance, a new creation where justice and mercy are fulfilled.  Because God delights in giving all to God’s creatures, we are free from fear, the accurate fear that no matter how much we accumulate we will not be able to protect ourselves from tomorrow with our belongings, our status, our education, or anything of our own making.  Jesus says, lay down this fear and be freed to serve from the abundance God gives.  The Study Bible I used puts it this way, “Jesus’ disciples are liberated from the peril of possessions and enabled to reorder their lives so as to care for [those in need].”

The reordered life that Jesus describes is about joy that is secure, placing trust in a vision for the future that is certain and that is visible even now.  He describes a banquet at which God will arrive to serve us if we are ready, if we open the door.  Jesus is speaking about the end times in a way that would have surprised his listeners.  In the Roman household the master does not serve the servants.  What kind of meal is this?  What kind of God is this?  Jesus describes a joyous feast where honor is given to the people at the bottom, where the Human One prepares the feast.

Our readiness for this feast requires practice in creating community that enables us to release fear, to live lives of service, and to treasure the joy of our communion.  Last week you all welcomed the “Farm the Land, Grow the Spirit” Summer Institute from Stony Point Center into worship.  They are a group of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian young adults who spent the last six weeks tending the gardens together, sharing deeply about their faith practices, and living together in one big house.  I’ve learned a lot from them – not only about their different cultural and religious backgrounds – but about how to cultivate care and joy in the midst of a lot of uncertainty.  They were all uprooted in a sense – some more than others – away from home, removed from most of their stuff, but with a clear vision on investing their time and energy in whatever God would grow from their time together.

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One of the participants, Ahed, left her home in Syria after the intense fighting and bombing of war made it nearly impossible for her to stay and stay alive.  She shared with us how hard it has been to be so far away as the city she loves, Aleppo, is currently under siege.  Since July over 250,000 Syrians have lived under siege in Aleppo with extremely limited access to food and medical care.  (Since the writing of this sermon, the siege in Aleppo was broken.  I read it on the news yesterday and then heard Ahed announce the news yesterday at lunch followed by a roar of applause and cheers from the Summer Institute.)

After worship last week,  Ahed connected with Heather, a member here at WPPC, who lived in Syria for several years and who knows Aleppo from her time there.  They spoke briefly and afterwards Ahed came to me with tears in her eyes, saying, “She knows Aleppo! She knows my city and the restaurants.  She knows where I’m from.”  She was crying though her voice spoke with joy at sharing precious memories, of being recognized by this community, of feeling a connection to home.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Don’t be afraid, little flock” as they left all their things behind and followed him, depending on hospitality as they journeyed, hoping that they would be recognized in the villages they passed through and invited in to break bread and eat together.  While they ate, they would remember the vision of the banquet that Jesus described and know that this was a foretaste of that feast.

The table that we come to today is God’s table.  The Human One, Jesus, prepares this meal for us.  It is a meal during which we practice fearlessness, in which we receive all and are called to give all, in which we recognize the treasure of God’s community as we are fed at one table.  May we keep the joy of this meal burning until fear is no more. Amen.

Sabbath Weekend – Oh Shenandoah

July 31, 2016

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Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you. Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you. Away, I’m bound away, across the wide Missouri.

I’ve spent the last two weeks studying Church Business Administration at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. As mentioned in a previous Sabbath post, I tried to make the most of study trip by simultaneously tracking down some of family history in Virginia (particularly the Morgan, Alley, and Allen lines) as well as Maryland (my Plowman ancestors). I also used the trip down to hike parts of the Appalachian Trail in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland (including a walk across the Shenandoah River.

But two full weeks in class studying finance, budgets, communications, HR, insurance, etc., meant missing two Sabbaths. So I used the weekend in between classes to hike the AT in the Blue Ridge Mountains overlooking the Shenandoah Valley.

Right after class on Friday I headed for the trail. I had five miles to hike to reach camp, and I did not make it before dark. My last mile of switchbacks included hiking with my flashlight and startling a coyote. Met a pretty cool father overnighting with his two sons when I finally reached the Paul Wolf Shelter. Discovered that I can put up my tent in the dark (which is good to know).

Saturday was a 20 mile round trip up Humpback Mountain (an elevation gain of at least 1500 feet) and back down, plus the five miles from Paul Wolf back to my car. Humpback Rocks was stunning. And crowded. While I climbed seven miles to get there, there is a picnic area and parking lot just a mile below the rocks. I met a whole busload of touring high school orchestra students. (And thus plenty of someones to take my photo).

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After reaching the rocks I continued another mile and half up to the summit to look over the other side. Then the long walk back down. Most exciting were the seven bear, including the mother with her cub. Sitting on the path! I tried to be quiet and think invisible thoughts, but couldn’t help thinking that my fingers smelled like the beef jerky I ate for lunch.

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The point of the weekend was to meet a personal goal: hiking 20 miles in a day with all my gear on the Appalachian Trail. I found my trail legs doing 25 mile out and back from Rockfish Gap to Mill Creek and over Humpback Mountain.

For the record, with the exception of the nights of rain, I managed to take a significant walks each evening I was in Richmond. The Airbnb I stayed at was just a block from Maymont Park and the James River. I hike the North Bank Trail South one evening along the East Tuckahoe River, and North on another along the James. I spent another evening on Bell Island, wading in the water.

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I visited the Japanese Gardens and the Italian Garden in Maymont, as well as taking in a stunning sunset over a boat pond. (Lots of photos on my Facebook page).

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And on yet another evening I walked the six mile Richmond Slave Trail from the Manchester Docks on the south shore of the James River, over the Mayo Island Bridge, into the heart of slave trading Richmond. “No state traded more slaves than Virginia, and no city more than Richmond.” The Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site and African Burying Ground are currently under redevelopment and could not be visited.

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Truly, the two weeks of study at Union were a great investment by my church which will bear fruit for years to come, but these hikes and walks fed my soul. It has taken me a long time to figure out how enjoy and learn from the places I have gone to study. This feels like a breakthrough for me.:)

Barn Building

July 31, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 31, 2016

Psalm 107:1-9, 43          Luke 12:13-21

Most of you know I’m originally from the Midwest. I grew up in the South Suburbs of Chicago and later attended Millikin University, one of our Presbyterian Colleges in Decatur, Illinois. Where is Decatur? I’m glad you asked. Well, as college students we used to say, “Picture Illinois. Decatur is at the dead center, with the emphasis on the word dead.” Decatur is the buckle in our nation’s corn belt. It’s the “Soybean Capitol of the World.” On weekends we could get in our cars and drive for hours in any direction with nothing to see but mono-crops, agribusiness retail shops, and dry bulk storage silos for unprocessed grain. And every year, the same signs and cycles of growing corn.

In the early summer you can delight in watching the tiny green plants struggle through the soil to be nurtured by the slippery rain and warmed in the arms of the sun. Just about now, hairy, leaf swaddled bundles are beginning to spring from the plants, weighing them down and making them sway precariously in the wind. The corn stalks are taller than the average person, so it’s a great time to jump a fence and disappear into a field as in a maze.

Soon, the corn plant will grow skinny and turn a bland color of tan. Its leaves, once erect, will curl inward as if to protect the aging stalk. And then the combine’s whirling blades will whip the tired plants onto their final dusty resting place. The fields will resemble men – half-shaven – the ground supporting only tiny, awkward stubble. And in the distance, the shabby barns and modern silos filled with new deposits awaiting transport to the next stop on the food chain.

Abundance.  Sown.  Attended.  Collected.  Stored.

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“And Jesus told the parable saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And the man said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat drink and be merry,” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for themselves and is not rich toward God.”

Why is the rich man a fool? Why is the rich man a fool? Option one: the rich man is a fool because he laid up treasure. Therefore, we think, those who are rich, or savers of goods, or pejoratively speaking “Hoarders”, are fools. This is a parable clearly directed at the 1%. After all, we, like Jesus, scorn big barns, at least when they are bigger than our own.

Why is the rich man a fool? Option Two: The rich man is a fool because he was not rich toward God. You see, it’s o.k. to have lots of stuff just as long as you are spiritually unattached to it. This makes us feel great because we are purveyors of spiritual wealth. We are pretty sure we are being spiritually rich toward God when we attend worship (at least sometimes). We are the people baptized into the image of Jesus, dedicated to his ministry and mission in the world. Ahhhh. What a relief.  It is not our money that God wants, but our hearts and our minds. It’s a good thing that we remember that being rich toward God is our foundational principle.

Why is the rich man a fool? Option Three: The rich man is a fool because he has provided for himself and not for others. Perhaps, we think, this rich man didn’t let the poor glean in his field, as the Bible commands. He allowed his riches to isolate him. He assumed that all that was important was that he enjoy retirement, that he get to eat, drink, and be merry. We, however, recognize that we have responsibilities to our families, our community and our church. Ahhhh. We thank God that we’ve been taught the Protestant work ethic and that we lead responsible, reasonable lives.

Why is the rich man a fool? Why is the rich man a fool? The rich man is NOT a fool because he laid up treasure, or because he was not “rich” toward God, nor even because he did not provide for others. The rich man is foolish because he thought he could secure himself against tomorrow. That he could secure himself against tomorrow! And by using his energy securing himself against tomorrow, he thought he could anesthetize himself from the insecurity of today.  The folly of the rich man lies not only in his riches or his attachment to them, or even in his selfish irresponsibility; the folly of the rich man lies in his desire to build a bigger barn for security in an insecure world. Barn raising was his folly.

Now what do I mean by barn-raising? The thought of barn raising immediately conjures in my mind a picture of that wonderful scene from the movie Witness. Large wooden slats are furiously nailed together by Amish men while the sun splays golden hues everywhere and the women pass jars of water to the perspiring workers. Such a Hollywood act of solidarity is not what I mean by barn raising.

Our barn raising is a much slower process; it is an act we do individually, progressively and deliberately. When we are still relatively young people, we begin to make assumptions about our lives, and accommodations to secure our future. Our society tells us we are not entitled to economic security so we better be good financial planners; we better get into the best college; we better have a good paying job; we better marry right. Notice that all of these things assume that we are self-made people; we are individuals whose point and purpose is to secure ourselves and our future because, after all, no one else will!

This is not life! This is what the Bible calls death. In her book, Death By Bread Alone, feminist and liberationist theologian Dorothee Soelle describes it as “a slow and dreadful death in which all human relationships are mutilated and strangled. Of course, such a death does not mean we cease to exist. Our bodies still function. We still go about our chores and routines of life; we accomplish things; we breathe; we produce and consume [and excrete]; we come, go, and speak.” But we have lost the fullness of life and our quest for security has killed us. “I have a neighbor,” Dorothee writes,

an elderly, childless man whose wife died not long ago. One day he called me over to show me some damage, the scratches some children had made on his property with their bicycles. “Just look at what they have done,” he said, “this house is all we have.” … My neighbor had worked for what he had. He lived in that house, kept it in repair, took care of it. “This house is all we have,” he had said. Suddenly it dawned on me that this man was dead. He had died from no longer having any kind of relationship with another human being.

This is what the Bible means when it speaks of death. Death is what takes place within us when we look upon others not as gift, blessing, or stimulus but as threat, danger, competition. … This is the death that the Bible fears and gives us good reason to fear. It is not the final departure we usually think of when we speak of death; it is that purposeless, empty existence devoid of genuine human relationships and filled with anxiety, silence, and loneliness.

Indeed. The gospel provides us a different vision, one of interdependence as the way to weather times of plenty and want. Over the past six weeks, in sermons, we have attended to how Jesus was renewing the covenant communities of Ancient Israel, renewing peoples’ sense of need for one another, care for one another, and vulnerability before one another. We have heard him ask us to place our personal reputations in the hands of the community, open our kitchen tables and sacramental tables to those who experience welcome nowhere else, use all our goods for the common good, become dependent on the hospitality of our neighbors and stranger alike, and to make peace with our enemies. He meant it. And because he meant it, he taught us to pray: Our Father . . .

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive our debts
as we forgive those in debt to us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.

Contrast this vision with that of the anxious rich man.  Even this rich man, a man with more money than all the hearers of this parable would have been able to amass in a lifetime, cannot secure himself.

God does not promise us security; God promises us community whose covenant life makes it possible for us not only to face and surmount adversity but also to grieve together when that is not possible, and not be destroyed. I am looking at people who have held one another in hard times. This covenant community not only supports us, but helps us name and confront the injustice within systems that make some of us terribly, wrongly and needlessly vulnerable. We pray and speak and act to address the sexual and racial violence, economic inequality, and environmental devastation that works death among us.

Why is the rich man a fool? The rich man is a fool because he thinks he can and must provide for himself, and secure himself against the future.  The emphasis of this passage is not that “we’ll all die someday and we can’t take it with us.”  No!! This passage exposes the futility of the man himself.  Those who try to protect themselves live lives of futility.  Lives of anxiety. Lives of certain death. They are the walking dead. They live the life of a fool.

Jesus insists we “Stop building (barns, walls, whatever we think will secure us in an insecure world) !”  Because our treasure consists not in what we can provide for ourselves but in what God provides for us: the way of covenant community. Our treasure in heaven is God, who loves us so much that the embodiment of such love was sent us and walked among us to remind us of our covenant commitments to one another and to model life together.  We do not need to build barns of false security as a defense against the world, but to walk with Jesus and one another through it.  The Christian life is not a life that promises security but companionship with our loving God.

 

Rising Up in Prayer and Action

July 25, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 24, 2016.

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Prayer has been a topic in many conversations as of late.  In the Multifaith community where Will and I live we regularly converse about how our traditions teach us to pray – for what and for whom do we pray, how do we pray, why do we pray, and what does prayer matter?  That last question is one I’ve heard uttered often in these past weeks: What does prayer matter?  We keep praying and the world keeps crumbling around us. I’ve heard and thought this question myself.  Our prayers alone are not enough.  We can’t just pray and expect God to handle the rest.

And that’s true.  When I was 13 I traveled with my parents and a group from Peaceworks International to work with a sister peace organization in Nicaragua.  We delivered much needed supplies for their medical clinic, helped lay the foundation of an alcoholic rehabilitation center, and celebrated hope in the midst of political and economic turmoil.  We also appreciated the beauty of the country by spending a day at the beach on the Pacific Ocean.  My mother and I swam out in the warm water over gentle waves.  We went far from shore until our arms were tired and then turned to head back in.  But we quickly realized that our strokes and efforts were not getting us anywhere.  We called to shore and realized that no one could hear us.  We continued to swim with no progress and then I panicked.  I knew we would die and frantically I began to recite the Lord’s Prayer.  My mother joined me, more calmly, and once we spoke the word, “Amen,” she turned to me and said, “Now shut up and swim.”  

It’s not enough to just pray, we must act.  But it is of equal, perhaps greater, importance in these days filled with violence of our own human creation to know that it is not enough to just act, we must pray.  Today’s text speaks of the nature of the One to whom pray, God who is generous beyond all human conception and whose kingdom (or hospitality) of justice, forgiveness, and peace is emerging in our midst as we pray that God’s kingdom come.  In prayer we create space for connection with this Generous God….and this connection changes our lives, in fact, it changes the world.  

Jesus offers the Lord’s Prayer as a world-altering model for ushering in God’s reign through prayer.  It is what theologian John Dominic Crossan calls a revolutionary prayer.  I spent time this week reading Crossan’s book, “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering  the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer,” which begins with these notes on the peculiarity of this prayer,

The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer.  It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer.  It is prayed by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions the church. It is prayed on all Sundays, but it never mentions Sunday. It is called the ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ but it never mentions ‘Lord.’

You could respond, of course, that there is nothing strange there at all. It is, you might say, a Jewish prayer from the Jewish Jesus; hence nothing Christian or even Jewish Christian is present. But that only invites us to start the question of strangeness all over again. It does not mention covenant or law, Temple or Torah, circumcision or purity, and so on.

What if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor yet a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is…a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is…a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?

What if?  I’ll admit that I needed to be reminded of the depth of what we are asking when we join together with the children every Sunday to say the Lord’s prayer not only to reclaim the power in that prayer but to think with you about how we go about prayer in general within this sanctuary and beyond.

A few notes on the revolutionary nature of the prayer Jesus teaches us…

Jesus prays to Father.  This address, a human metaphor for a God beyond definition, invites us into a close personal relationship with the Father, a term the disciples would have recognized to refer to the head of the household.  It is a term that may hold meaning – both negative and positive – for many of us.  But God is not the typical head of household understood under patriarchy. God is not even limited to the best version of a human parent. God is eternally generous and compassionate, the God of what Crossan calls, “Enoughness.”  Our daily bread and the daily bread of the world is provided for.  We want for nothing when God is guiding the household of this world.  

If God is named as our parent, then we are all God’s children.  We are co-heirs with Christ and with all creation. The language of this prayer reminds us that we do not come to prayer alone – we come with all who are the children, the creation of God.  There is no “I” spoken in this prayer, only “our”, “us” and “we.”  Though this prayer is personal, it is not individual in any way.  We cannot pray for individual salvation that is disconnected from the saving of all people and all creation.  We cannot pray for individual forgiveness because no sin affects only one person.  The forgiveness that God offers is for the earth and all that dwells on it.

When we pray for God’s kingdom, God’s hospitality to come to earth – with Enoughness, with forgiveness, with deliverance from trial, we are praying ourselves out of inaction.  Jesus taught the disciples that the vision of God’s reign was already taking shape around them. God needs participants. “It is not, he [Jesus] said, about intervention by God, but about participation with God,” writes Crossan. “God’s Great Cleanup of the World does not begin, cannot continue, and will not conclude without our divinely empowered participation and transcendentally driven collaboration.”  

A couple months before I started seminary, while I was still living in Texas, I drove down to a Missionary Oblate home on the Gulf Coast called Lebh Shomea, the Listening Heart to spend three days in silence and prayer.  The silence intimidated me more than I had expected. I quickly scheduled a spiritual direction session so I could speak and hear another person’s voice.  In that session I was quietly urged to return to prayer and contemplation.  At the end of three days I had only begun to quiet my mind to hear what God might be saying, might be calling me to do.  I bought the book written by the spiritual director I spoke with, a book called “Contemplation,” and asked him to sign it.  The inscription has been present in mind since then: “To Sarah – May you always let God pray you. Father Nemeck”

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May you always let God pray you.  This is an important corrective if we begin to think that the efficacy of our prayers depends on the words we choose, even the appropriateness of our desires. When we pray, it is God who prays through us.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.  We invite God to move in us and affect what we thought it was we were praying for, to affect how we move into the world with love and with compassion.  This is the most revolutionary essence of all prayer.

In his later years, theologian Karl Barth said, ‘To fold one’s hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”  These words stand true in our present:

  • To proclaim God’s hospitality in this election season, in a firestorm of anti-immigrant propaganda;
  • To call God and all God’s creation holy as the fact that Black Lives Matter is not upheld in this nation;
  • To claim the inheritance of God who says there is enough for all, as farmworkers in NY state are excluded from a day of rest;  
  • To forgive debts as banks accumulate interest on burdensome loans and mortgages;  
  • To live these prayers into action in this world is nothing short of an uprising.

May we pray boldly.  May we act humbly.  May we always let God pray us.

Sabbath Day – The AT in PA

July 20, 2016

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This post is for Thursday, July 14.

This was the day on which we gathered from all across the county for prayer and action in response to the killing of two black men by police officers: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. We were also coming together is response to the killing of five police officers and wounding of others by a lone gunman in Dallas. More of this later.

In honor of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, I set out earlier this year to hike 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail which runs 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Today I reached and surpassed this goal, completing 107 miles with a hike over Mt. Minsi and Mt. Kittatinny in the Delaware Water Gap. Next goal: either 10 percent of the whole trail or parts in all 14 states through which it passes. Which will come first?

To fit in a hike today I had to get up at 5:30. I was out the door a little after six and drove through beautiful Northern New Jersey to the state line. After crossing the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania, the first exit (310) is for Stroudsburg. There is a trailhead for the Appalachian Trail at the intersection of Mountain and Lake roads.

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It was a rainy day and the trails were misty. As I climbed Mt. Minsi and reached the summit, there was absolutely no view of the neighboring mountains or the gap itself. I could hear the water rushing by, but could see nothing. Three hours later, this was still the best I could manage.

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The hike took me from Mountain road, over Mt. Minsi, and along Kittatinny Ridge, through Tod’s Gap to Kirkridge Shelter and back. Thirteen miles.

Mt. Minsi has a ring of Rhododendron which are encountered on the way up one side and again on the way down the other. They form an arbor through which the trail moves – hauntingly beautiful in the mist. It was alive with the last of the pink summer blooms.

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Also in abundance were the mid-summer wine berries, ready for snacking.

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My last trail photo is the best view I had of Mt. Tammany, across the Gap.

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Back in White Plains, hundreds and hundreds gathered for an interfaith, county-wide march under the banner “The Line Has Been Crossed.”

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I counted nearly 40 Presbyterians at the march, with a good representation and participation from the congregation I serve. My colleague, The Rev. Lynn Dunn, offered one of the prayers along the way. It was great being with my church family on such an important evening.

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A Very Rich Day

July 19, 2016

Today was a very rich day. For the next two weeks I will be attending continuing education courses at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Today was the travel day. It is an eight hour drive from White Plains to Richmond, plus traffic, so I decided to break it up and make the most of it.

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I made my first stop just outside of Baltimore in Owings Mills, Maryland. I visited the St. Thomas Church, Garrison Woods. The church is on the National Historic Registry. It was founded in 1742 as a “chapel of ease” to serve the “foresters” living in “the woods.” My seventh great grandfather, Jonathan Plowman Jr. was a subscriber to help pay for the building of this church. His son, my sixth great-grandfather, Edward Plowman, was baptized here.

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The visit was extra exciting. When I arrived, I walked around the cemetery a little bit, and took a few photos of the church, and then put my hands to the original door to go inside. As soon as I opened the door, which was unlocked(!), alarms went off and a loud, authoritative, recorded voice announced “YOU ARE TRESPASSING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY. YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE HERE. LEAVE AT ONCE!  Klaxons and bells and whistles of all kinds went off in random patterns. I shut the door. Still, the alarms. I walked around the grounds a little bit and then went over to the church office to let them know the alarm was still ringing. (That’s the door, right behind me – the original entrance to the chapel).

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I found the office administrator at lunch, and after calling the alarm company to shut off the sirens, we had a nice conversation about the history of the church. She even gave me hardbound volumes one and two of the official church history, which includes references to my family. I totally enjoyed reading books like this. She also made me copies of the baptismal registry for Edward Plowman and his siblings. With the alarms now turned off, I was able to explore the original sanctuary within the sanctuary, imported brick floor (from England) and all.

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Back in the car, it was a quick trip over to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. There I parked at the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center and was just getting ready to hike when dark clouds suddenly filled the sky. I decided to wait out the rain. I had my lunch in the car, and then hit the trail. I used this hike to break in my brand new Vasque boots while climbing Loudoun Heights. I will walk in three different states today.

First step – crossing the Shenandoah River. Notice the rafters after the storm. That’s my mountain on the other side.

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Next step – follow the trail to the top. Notice the sun coming out – the rain didn’t cool off the day at all, only made the rocks slippery.

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Then pause to enjoy having my left foot in West Virginia and my right foot in Virginia. See my new boots!

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Then reach the summit and enjoy the views. This was taken from the bluff above the Potomac looking down upon Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah (coming in from the left). See how far I’ve come?

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After Antietam, recovering Union troops used these heights as a campground.

To make a loop, I had to improvise a bit, which I do not recommend. I made it back down to the highway, and walked across the Potomac on the Potomac Bridge to cross into Maryland, my third state for the day.

2016-07-18 17.48.03Descending from US304 brought me to the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, which coincides with the AT in Maryland. I walked along the river for a few miles and back toward Harpers Ferry, returning again to West Virginia over the footbridge (which you can also see above from the view on the cliffs). All in all, another nine miles on the AT and side trails.

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Back in West Virginia I found myself suddenly in front of John Brown’s Fort, the arsenal where Brown attempted to lead an slave insurrection in 1859. While deploring violence, I pondered how the right to bear arms was certainly never intended to apply to slaves, who may have been the chief reason white folks wanted arms. That is Loudoun Heights (which I had climbed two hours earlier) rising behind the fort. A full circle.

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Back in the car again, I decided to take the “blue highways” approach to getting to Richmond, avoiding the major highways as much as possible. Crossing into Virginia I found myself on the “Lord Fairfax Highway.” Another of my family lines has ties back to Fairfax. By chance, I came upon the “old Stonechapel” where Fairfax worshipped.

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It was just another three hours to Richmond, and I’ve arrived here safely. I’m staying is an airbnb right next to Maymont Park and a block from the James River. Class begins at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Goodnight.

 

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