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Sabbath Day – Debts

October 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Indigenous Peoples Day

October 9, 2017

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

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

Genesis 32:22-31

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

 

 

For the Birds – Blessing Animals

October 9, 2017

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

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 Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:25-29

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

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

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

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

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

Why be afraid? God is able.

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

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

Is someone here anxious because of bad health?

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

Surely God is able. 

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

How do we know this? How do we know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giotto di Bondone - St Francis Preaching To The Birds

Giotto: Saint Francis Preaching For the Birds

Sermon Hymn: Let All Things Now Living

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

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

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

[4] Previously endemic to that region of Brazil

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

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

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

Watershed Discipleship – River Sunday

September 24, 2017

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation – River Sunday – September 24, 2017

Ezekiel 47:1-12

On Wednesday afternoon August and I went canoeing on the Bronx River. We were down by Concrete Plant Park, in the Bronx, a reclamation project carried out by the NYC Parks and Rec Department to turn a former industrial site on the banks of the river into a welcoming community park. Today, under the shadow of the abandoned structures for moving, grinding and mixing stone are bike trails and benches, chessboards, an urban garden used by school children as well as an experimental food-way to attract pollinators and provide an opportunity for neighbors to forage everything from kitchen herbs to tea. The Bronx River Alliance, which for the last ten years has dedicated itself to protecting, improving and restoring our local watershed, was holding a free river paddle.

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However, when we arrived, Katie Lamboy, the community educator for the Alliance, told us she had actually just closed down the paddle. It was too windy, and she had to rescue too many people who were being blown down the river. But, since we had come all the way from Westchester, and August and I are experienced paddlers, she agreed to let us out by ourselves – provided we promise to call for help if we needed it.

We had a good workout, good conversation, good father-son time, as we navigated the Bronx River, the river that defines the natural community in which we live – and with our understanding of watershed discipleship, it is the river through which and around which God speaks to us.

Watershed discipleship means learning from – being students of – the natural community in which God has placed us, place being the operative word. We do not exist in abstract time and space, but in particular places, rich in history and need, different from all other places but through which we are connected to all others. Before fossil fuels, coal and oil, trains and cars, our rivers were our primary highways. Regional watersheds, the places where rainwater gathers and flows toward a common destination – are earth’s natural communities, and the Bronx River is ours. Ecosystems, early economies, even Eden itself, were defined by the rivers that run though them.[1]

Rivers run through our scripture as well, as Pastor Lynn has pointed out and beautifully rendered on our church’s Lenten banners, and rivers were particularly important to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel received his first vision of God beside a river, although it was not his river. It was not the river he called home. And in that fact we learn much that we need to know about the prophet and his message. Ezekiel had been a priest serving in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Babylonian Empire besieged his city. In the year 598, when the city’s defenses finally collapsed and Jerusalem was captured, the priest Ezekiel, along with nearly 10,000 of ancient Israel’s elite, was carried into exile and re-settled along the Chebar river – nearly 1500 miles from home. It was there, beside that river, ten years later, that Ezekiel received his vision of the final destruction and desecration of God’s Temple in God’s city. And it devastated him.

In this vision, Ezekiel felt himself transported back 1,500 miles to Jerusalem in order to witness first hand the city’s destruction. In this dream-state he sees the ‘Glory of God’ rise up above the temple, borne on the wings of cherubim and seraphim, angels riding on wheels within wheels, wheels capable of carrying God’s Glory off in any direction. The book of Ezekiel is made up almost entirely of such visions, all of which carry an unrelenting message: “Our home is lost. It was a mistake for us to put our trust in force of arms, military alliances, or believe in our own national greatness. In doing so we ignored the message of the prophets before us: messages that spoke of justice and peace, the distribution of resources with primary concern for the poor, the widow and the immigrant. Look back and you will see that before the end, God had abandoned our nation’s militarized borders, Jerusalem’s fortified walls, even our religious temple itself. God no longer even wanted to be there. In fact, God went into exile long before we did.” Whew. Reading Ezekiel is emotionally draining, its message one of unrelieved doom and gloom, imagery with very little relief.[2]

But there is a reason for that. He was trying to help God’s people to see what they did not want to see.

Gene Peterson has called Ezekiel our Bible’s “master of dealing with catastrophe.”

Catastrophe strikes [he writes,] and a person’s world falls apart. People respond variously, but two of the more common responses are denial and despair. Denial refuses to acknowledge the catastrophe. It shuts its eyes tight or looks the other way; it manages to act as if everything is going to be just fine; it takes refuge in distractions and lies and fantasies. Despair is paralyzed by the catastrophe and accepts it as the end of the world. It is unwilling to do anything, concluding that life for all intents and purposes is over. Despair listlessly closes its eyes to a world in which all the color is drained out, a world gone dead.[3]

Caught between those in denial and those who despair, Ezekiel sees; he sees the catastrophe, describes it in detail, offers it to others to see, insisting that God is still at work, even within the catastrophe. That is perhaps why I have been drawn to this prophet again and again over the last couple of months. In the midst of war and rumors of war (and an industry of war and the desire –on the part of some- for the next war); in the midst of fire, earthquake, wind and rain; Houston, Barbuda, Immokalee, Mexico City, Puerto Rico; in the midst of ongoing genocide in Myanmar (about which there is amazing silence among political leaders); in the midst of name calling between nuclear powers made more dangerous as US bombers flew off N. Korea’s coast just yesterday; in the midst of climate change, which has been famously described as a slow motion catastrophe; yes, in the midst of this I am find myself turning to the relentless and suffering voice of the Prophet Ezekiel to hear a word of hard won hope. Peterson, again:

Ezekiel found himself living among a people of God who (in ways astoundingly similar to us) stubbornly refused to see what was right in front of their eyes (the denial crowd). There were also some who were unwilling to see anything other than what was right before their eyes (the despair crowd).[4]

Ezekiel saw all this, but he also saw God.

While God’s call came to Ezekiel beside a river not his own, it ends with visions of dry bones coming back to life and of a natural world restored to health and fertility. But only those who can see clearly the death taking place all around them will see the possibility of new life also taking place. Yes, his final vision (which we read today) includes a homecoming, a restored Temple in Jerusalem, but it is a new kind of temple. Having once seen, Ezekiel cannot forget his initial vision of a God not bound by the temple but free to travel beyond the temple, borne by wheeled angels to the four compass points of the natural world, capable of being be revealed in all places as the God of those places too. He never forgets that the River Chebar in Babylon also serves God purpose.[5] And so in his vision of the New Jerusalem, a restored City of God, there flows an Eden-like river that nourishes and sustains the whole earth, bearing God’s presence and promise to all people. It is the restoration of the River of Life, first mentioned in Genesis, whose water flows East from Eden (Gen. 2: 10). “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” the psalmist sings. (Ps. 46: 4). And so in our reading today, Ezekiel envisions this wondrous river flowing out from the new temple – ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep – bringing life to all it touches. Stagnant water becomes fresh, providing habitat for fish, birds, and people, and watering the fruit trees on each side of the river (Ezekiel 47).[6] Even the Dead Sea, the Salt Sea, is purified to bring forth life again. This is no parochial temple, but a place where the worship of God flows out to restore all creation, where justice rolls down like a mighty river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Which brings us back to the need to listen to God in the particular places and watersheds God has placed us. This was one reason for my trip with August to paddle on the Bronx River. It was about connecting with our watershed. But there was another reason as well. I wanted to make a connection between our local water protectors and those I had met in Costa Rica this summer.

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Beatrice and Pastor Jeff beside the Rio Torres

During the last week that our travel seminar was together, we met a woman named Beatrice. Beatrice lives with her family beside the Torres River, in the capitol city of San Jose. Beatrice is the founder of a community organization called Amigos del Rio Torres, Friends of the River Torres. Rio Torres is almost exactly the same length and breadth of our Bronx River, meandering through as many different communities, and I immediately felt compassion for it. You see, unlike the Bronx River, which has received nearly 100 years of protection, improvement and restoration, the state of the Rio Torres is deplorable.

Not only are fecal matter and trash found in the river, but also toxic substances such as mercury and oil. It’s hard to imagine any living organism surviving in the rushing water, but believe it or not, people still bathe in the river. Untreated runoff from businesses and homes and untreated sewage are two of the leading causes of pollution.[7]

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Street and housing built right up to the Rio Torres. Notice the white discharge pipe in the greens.

Ten years ago Beatrice began organizing her community to care for the river. First, she organized them to clean up a public park beside the river, the park in which children, hers and others, met to play. Neighbors formed work groups to clean up the park, establish nature paths for walking, fixed up ball fields for team sports. With the community now present in the park and getting to know one another, they appealed to the government to step up its responsibility for the river; including water treatment plants all along the river. Community members reached out to local businesses, coffee houses and art galleries, asking them to come out and pitch in on community workdays, drag trash out of the river and work to keep it out in the fist place. With cleanup underway, businesses began to see the benefits of a clean and healthy river as well. One restaurant even built outdoor seating for the river-that-will-be. Older residents began sharing memories of playing beside the river as children, and began to teach the history of the river, telling stories about the coffee plantations that both depended on and used to pollute the river, beginning its long decline. Beatrice is proud of what has been accomplished in just ten years especially when I told her how long it took to clean up the Bronx. And she was thrilled that the presence of our group and the commitment of the Biblical University in Latin America to Watershed Discipleship promised to bring more churches into efforts for clean water and healthy neighborhoods.

One thing Amigos del Rio Torres is always looking for new ways to increase community interest in and commitment to the river. I mentioned the regular paddle trips organized by the Bronx River Alliance here, that bring children and adults right out onto and into the river. She was quite excited about the idea and could easily imagine how to make it happen. On Thursday morning I sent her photos of August and I on the river for inspiration.

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August and I on the Bronx River – making connections

We often think of our communion table as the place where we come together with sisters and brothers around the world. But this Sunday, perhaps we might think of the rivers as a place of meeting, as a source of nourishment, as a point of connection as they carry life around the planet. By the rivers of Babylon our ancestors laid down and wept for their home and for their nation. In these uncertain times, we lay down by the rivers to weep, yes, but also to remember our connection, our power, and the hope of new life flowing, knitting us together in common struggle and hope.

Sermon Hymn: My Life Flows On (in endless praise)

 

[1] See Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” in Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice, May 2014, as well as Ched Myers et. al. Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Cascade Books, 2016).

[2] Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust (Orbis, 1997).

[3] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2003.)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and the Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 18.

[6] Barbara Rossing in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads and H. Paul Santmire. (Fortress Press, 2011).

[7] http://www.ticotimes.net/2014/09/26/rio-torres-festival-aims-to-help-clean-up-one-of-san-joses-most-polluted-rivers

Sabbath Day – Housekeeping

September 24, 2017

Sabbath Day – My Weekly Reflection on What Really Matters
Thursday, September 21, 2017

Is there an autumn equivalent to the expression spring cleaning? If there is, it is what I did today. Today I:

  • Took out the recycling and the trash
  • Did all the dishes
  • Cleaned the stove
  • Washed the refrigerator door
  • Put the kitchen rug over the balcony railing and beat it
  • Cleaned the vacuum cleaner filter and then vacuumed all the carpets
  • Swept the floors
  • Steam mopped the kitchen floor
  • Did the same to the bathroom floor
  • Scrubbed the toilet
  • And the shower
  • Bought and put on a new slow close toilet seat
  • Washed ALL the towels and put them away
  • Have all the laundry in the house washed and put away
  • Bought a new curtain and rod for our bedroom and put them up
  • Cleaned the reptile cages
  • Bought meal worms and crickets for the reptiles so they could make a mess again
  • Helped my son clean his room
  • Swept and washed our third floor balcony
  • Made a pot of coffee and sat with a cup on the balcony with a very satisfied feeling

There is really nothing exciting here, but having everything done at once. What satisfaction!

I grew up with the expression “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I liked having my bedroom both straightened up AND clean. I took great satisfaction not only in putting things away, but in knowing how to put things away. My family would joke about OCD, but OCD has nothing to do with good organization and combatting clutter. Good organization simplifies much of life so that we have breathing space to deal with the really complex stuff. 

When we moved into our new apartment a couple of years ago I drew up a plan for every well deigned shelf in our (unheard of) four large storage closets. (No other building in White Plains had anything near the storage or design). We have the media shelf, the electronics shelf, the camping gear shelf, the genealogy (family heirlooms) shelf, the gift-giving/party shelf, the tools shelf, the art supplies shelf, etc. And we strive to limit our possessions to what will fit on the respective shelves. When we moved, we unloaded a lot of what we did not need. In the past few weeks, we have brought order to those shelves again.

What is the autumn equivalent of spring cleaning? 

It helps that the congregation I serve holds an annual fall tag sale where some of what we discard can (hopefully) find a new home.

Much housekeeping got done on this day because August had a friend over. And much more work (in the job-related-work sense) got done that nigh because August went away on a sleepover. 

Happy Sabbath,

Jeff

Sabbath Day – Goat/Walking

September 18, 2017

For Thursday, September 14

Goats and walking seem to have been themes running through this Sabbath Day, my first in some time. I began my day by walking my son to school.

Walking August to school is a real gift. I have walked him to school ever since his very first day at the Setauket Presbyterian Church Preschool. When we moved to White Plains, we chose his elementary school primarily so I could keep walking with him. For one year only, after we moved to our co-op apartment, August took the bus, but even then I walked him to the bus stop each day. Now he is in sixth grade and his school is just a block and a half from our apartment.

All last year he talked about how much he was looking forward to being able to walk himself to school this year – how he would no longer need a parent to drop him off or pick him up. Noelle and I, of course, walked him to school on the first day this year. But the next morning, as I was enjoying my morning coffee and he was getting ready to leave, he said, “Are you ready to go dad?” I admit I was turning backflips inside. He has continued ask me everyday to go with him. I know I am now walking at his invitation, so I will not miss a day as long as it lasts.

I spent the rest of the morning writing out the sermon I had preached from notes the previous Sunday. Limited time, parent responsibilities, and no small amount of anxiety for my mother and grandmother in Naples, Florida as Irma bore down on them meant that I was unable to write out the sermon last week. The sermon contained stories about my recent trip to Central America, and in posting it I spent time looking through my pictures from the trip. Here is a sheep and a goat I met at an ecological park in Guatemala. Later that evening I met a man in the street, walking his goat, who offered me milk. 

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I then spent a few hours with Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living – A Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom, which is his eco-spiritual memoir. Jim inspired so many people who inspire me, yet I have never read this book. It’s about partnership between humans and wild places, which seemed fitting as I prepared for Wilderness Sunday, the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation. The book had come up at a funeral, of all places, last week and I quickly ordered copies for myself and my new conversation partner. Chapter three is all about animal husbandry, and I read to August from the book when he got home from school, all about goat evolution, vision, appetite, hardiness, and how milking a goat is different form milking a cow. I found myself wishing I had taken up the offer in Guatemala for goat milk.

I even slipped a line from Jim’s book into my next sermon: “No way of living can be right that is part of a livelihood system that destroys rather than supports life.”

My imagination now somewhere in the Sonoran desert with Jim Corbett, I greeted August after school and took him to Greenburgh Nature Center where he volunteers taking care of the large animals and his adopted goat. We talking animatedly all the way out there about Jim’s claim that a person with a goat and the ability to forage could survive indefinitely in the wild, so August let me come in a say ‘hi’ to his goat Linden and Henrietta the turkey.  We then took a good walk around the Center grounds before going home.

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All in all, a very peaceful and reflective Sabbath day. 

Wishing one for all of you, Jeff

La Tierra No Se Vende – Wilderness Sunday

September 17, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation – Wilderness Sunday – September 17, 2017

1 Kings 21:1-29

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I saw a lot of street graffiti during my mission trip to Central America last month. For example, spray painted in fifteen inch black letters on the wall across the street from my first hotel room in downtown Guatemala City were the words La tierra no se vende, the land is not for sale. This phrase became something of a theme for our church delegation, whose purpose was to learn about the four principal extractive industries of logging, large-scale agribusiness, chemical mining and new hydroelectric projects that are intimately linked to conflict, poverty and corruption, as well as human rights and environmental abuses.

Two hours outside Guatemala City, in the central highlands just north of the rural community of San Jose del Golfo, I encountered these words again, La tierra no se vende, the land is not for sale. This time they were scrawled above an image of the Bishop Juan Gerardi, the great defender of human rights and indigenous communities in Guatemala. This time the words had a very specific meaning – the bishop’s image was one of many decorating a simple wooden platform erected beside a deeply rutted dirt road just outside the entrance to the El Tambor Gold Mine. The mine is run by a U.S. company with headquarters in Nevada. Each Sunday a priest offers mass from this platform to the hundreds of poor women and men who have blockaded the mine’s entrance twenty-four hours a day for the last five and a half-years. They have done so to protect their land, their water, their air and their lives from extractive industry. As a result, they have faced harassment from police and military, criminalization and arrest (on what were later proven to be false charges), slander, contempt, and attempts to buy them off with bribes.

Beside the image of Bishop Gerardi were also written prophetic words he spoke just before he was viciously murdered in 1998, two days after releasing Guatemala’s first human rights report that exposed the military and governmental involvement in the country’s genocide: “The construction of the kingdom of God entails risks, and only those who have the strength to confront those risks can be its builders.”

The words the land is not for sale, here on a rural stretch of dirt road, referred to the wild, uncultivated land that had served as the community’s essential watershed, wild land taken over for the chemical extraction of gold for jewelry, investment, and industry. What is left behind when the process is finished is a barren wasteland, as opposed to wild-land, the soil washed away, and large chemical leach pits full of acids, cyanide and other chemicals that can leak into groundwater. Here’s stunning fact I learned: The chemical processes used by the gold and silver mines we visited use as much water in one hour as a typical family in Guatemala uses in 20 years. That’s right. Take that in. The chemical mines use as much water in one hour as a typical family uses in 20 years. And it was the same story everywhere we went: in the city of Jalapa, in the community of San Rafael las Flores, in the town of Mataquescuintla, in the village of Casillas, in Nueva Santa Rosa. People insisting, at great risk to themselves, the land is not for sale.[1]

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Our delegation with members of the peaceful resistance on the public road in front of the El Tambor Mine

There is a basic principle enshrined in international law that local communities, especially indigenous communities, must be consulted about the use of their land. But time after time, when it comes to the profits of large multinational, transnational companies, this right is trampled on. Especially when the land belongs to poor or indigenous communities. Most of the time these mines are opened before the local community even knows what is happening. In other cases, when communities have been allowed to vote on whether they wish to open their land to mining, they have voted, in every case, with a resounding NO, with majorities between 98% and 99%. Yet the companies proceed anyway.

This is not new, of course. The settlement, colonization or expropriation of other people’s land is a practice as old as the ancient empires of that we meet in our scripture, and countering these practices is as old as the prophets. The prophets Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah declared time and again to their own kings that “neglect of divine law concerning land distribution by those who coveted and coercively seized the inherited fields and houses of others was the occasion of God’s judgment against Israel.” To give but one example, here’s Micah 2:2

They covet fields and seize them;
houses, and take them away;

They oppress householders and house,
people and their inheritance.[2]

Now, let’s take a look at our scripture reading this morning about Ahab and Jezebel, and Naboth and Elijah. How many of you had heard this story before? Not everyone, I see! Ahab, King of Israel, wants to annex the vineyard of Naboth, his neighbor – to incorporate it into the royal property. Ahab offers what seems to us to be a fair deal – he’ll compensate Naboth with similar land someplace else, or its fair-market price. But Naboth refuses. A dejected Ahab complains to his wife, Jezebel. Jezebel is not an Israelite and so doesn’t understand why Ahab is upset. Where she comes from, kings simply take what they want. So she sets out, through deception and murder, to acquire the property for her royal husband. Then, with Naboth out of the way, just as Ahab is about to take possession of what is not rightfully his, the prophet Elijah announces God’s judgment. And it is harsh.

So, there are a few things to note quickly about this story.[3]

  • First, Naboth is not a subsistence farmer, he is a vineyard keeper. Vineyards take years and years to cultivate and grow before they are productive. They are the product of great care and create fruit of very particular taste and flavor through a combination of unique soil and water. This, it is not as easy as Ahab seems to suggest, for Naboth to simply ‘start over’ someplace else. This land represents generations of care and stewardship of the soil and the vines. But Ahab isn’t interested in a vineyard; he wants to tear it down and plant for himself an annual vegetable garden.
  • Second, Ahab does not do this deed himself, nor does he seem to want to know or care how it is done. We won’t say more about that today, but in the end we should note that it is Ahab who reaps the benefit and Ahab who bears the blame.
  • Third, the tactics used to acquire the land are tactics we still see today. The whole ‘taking’ of Naboth’s vineyard perverts the legal process, using the laws and courts and public spaces and public officials, as well as outright lies and the buying off witnesses. What we see, though, is not the rule of law but the use of law to harm people rather than help people.
  • Finally, and we can only scratch the surface of this story this morning, we could have a rich conversation about repentance and judgment, about the fact that Ahab’s actions are said to have caused Israel, the state or people as a whole, to sin. About how the effects of sin are passed down through generations. About the way the King identifies the prophet as ‘his enemy.’ And so much more.

But most important, for our subject today, is to see how Ahab and Naboth represent different perspectives on the land.

At first Ahab tries to buy it, and cannot understand why Naboth will not sell. He tries to be fair. But Naboth responds, “God forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

Naboth also uses the Hebrew word nahalah, which is often translated “portion,” “possession,” or “inheritance,” all of which denote some form of property ownership. But this is precisely the connotation this word undermines: nahalah represents land given as a gift or trust, hearkening back in the original distribution of land to the twelve tribes. “Tribal ancestral lands” is a better translation, and this carries an implicit judgment upon King Ahab, whose offer represents a betrayal of the traditional system of land tenure established by [God at Sinai] which a [just] king is supposed to uphold.[4]

Sacred land might not be going too far, for it captures the difference between Naboth and Ahab. Naboth sees the land as an inalienable gift in which are rooted a divine way of life. Ahab is thinking of land as a commodity, a thing easily converted from one use into another, or convertible into cash. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, journalist Naomi Klein calls this kind of attitude extractivism.

Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue.  Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own – turning living complex ecosystems into ‘natural resources,’ mountains into ‘overburden’ (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations. In an extractivist economy, the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern.[5]

As I travelled in Central America I pondered how tempting it is to identify with Elijah, the prophet who speaks truth to power, who calls out the injustice of merchants and monarchs who take, settle and dispossess the poor for their own short term profit. I pondered the desire of our group to accompany the vital resistance movements fighting back against the industries that are wrecking their communities. And we must. But in this story, I have more in common with Ahab than with anyone else. As one author put it in an essay on Naboth that I carried with me throughout Guatemala: “The legacy of dispossession for the sake of economic profit remains one of the defining features of our history right up until the present time.” It was a sobering experience to realize that I, we, all of us are complicit with the Ahabs of our world (whether truly ignorant or conveniently turning a blind eye, as Ahab did), in the displacement and disruption of local and indigenous communities through ‘official duplicity and murder.’[6]

We know about this in general through our engagement with issues of divestment from fossil fuels. We as a congregation decided two years ago that we couldn’t profit from an industry whose only business plan involves significant harm to the earth with disproportionate consequences for the poorest people. Our congregation divested itself from oil, coal and gas, and urged our denomination to do the same. To date, the denomination has not divested. But another overture is coming to the next General Assembly in 2018 and this church and the Hudson River Presbytery are supporting it.

I was thinking about these things during my trip. After some discussion, while our PC(USA) delegation was in Guatemala meeting with communities affected but extractive mineral mining, we emailed our denominational office of Mission Responsibility through Investment to ask if the PC(USA) holds stock in the very gold or silver mines which the communities we were working with were working against. And the answer was, yes. Our Board of Pensions holds stock in some of the very companies that are pillaging Guatemalan communities without consulting with the populations, stealing the water which the communities depend upon for drinking and farming, and employing private security companies to be sure they get what they want. And as a shareholder, the PC(USA) Board of Pensions profits from this investment. And, in turn, all PC(USA) ministers and staff covered by the Board of Pensions for health care, life insurance, retirement – all of us are beneficiaries at the grave expense of these indigenous communities and the earth itself. That was a hard pill to swallow.

The church, through these investments, has made clergy and staff covered by the Board of Pensions, complicit in harm. But “no way of living can be right that is part of a livelihood system that destroys rather than supports life.”[7] In light of this, the delegation in which I participated is exploring numerous alternatives but has asked me to draft an overture to next year’s General Assembly, asking the Presbyterian Church to divest itself from these mining companies and so lend the moral weight of Christ’s church to the struggle for human rights and for the earth itself. Simply put, we must say no to profiting from harm.

But we are called not only to evaluate personal and collective actions in terms of how they impact of neighbors, here and around the world, but also to pursue concrete relationships with affected communities. I mentioned two weeks ago that we have an invitation to return to Guatemala with a mission trip of youth and others to work with local and indigenous communities reforesting the countryside. Because this kind of work and these kinds of relationships change us, transform us, and we learn in new ways what it means to love God and neighbor. We discuss the brokenness of our world, often in great detail, here in worship each week because worshipping together keeps all that we do and dare grounded in God’s love and delight with the created world and God’s unbounded mercy and care for creation. We have the privilege of seeking together a way to live that honors God and God’s creation in our very complex world. For, as we are about to sing, as a prayer:

We, created in your image, would a true reflection be
of your justice, grace and mercy and the truth that makes us free.[8]

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The back of my head, in conversation with members of the La Puya Peaceful Resistance

 

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20150116004657/http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4742-the-peaceful-anti-mining-resistance-at-qla-puyaq-celebrates-two-years-of-struggle

[2] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and The Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 124

[3] The Rev. Leslie Vogel presented man of these points in a daily devotion she led for our travel seminar and the staff of CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Education and Transformation in Guatemala.

[4] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and The Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 124

[5] Naomi Klein, “Beyond Extractivism: Confronting the Climate Denier Within” in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). p. 169.

[6] Matthew Humphrey, “A Pipeline Runs through Naboth’s Vineyard: From Abstraction to Action in Cascadia,” in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice edited by Ched Myers. (Cascade, 2016).

[7] Jim Corbett, Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living, A Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom. (Viking, 1991).

[8] “God, You Spin the Whirling Planets,” sung in honor of the Cassini Spacecraft that concluded its twenty-year mission around Saturn earlier this week. The phrases in italics are from the conclusion of my colleague Rebecca Todd Peter’s book Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World (Fortress Press, 2014), in which she offers solidarity as a new model for how people of faith in the first world can live with integrity in the midst of global injustice and shape a more just future.