Skip to content

The Church in Song

June 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church celebrating “The Church in Song,” June 18, 2017

Psalm 100       1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

In her sermon last week, the Rev. Lynn talked to us about stories; in particular, the way stories give orientation and meaning to our individual lives and our life together. And she talked about how in worship, and through Scripture, our many different stories can be caught up in the great story of God in Christ working the redemption of all creation. It’s one of the reasons we come together each Sunday, to be caught up into something larger that moves us to both work and worship.

Just how important this is was driven home to me later in the week. On Tuesday Naomi Klein released a new book for our time. It is called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. In the first half of the book Klein describes ‘the shock doctrine’: how repressive political movements and corporations take advantage of our experience of shock and disorientation to push through social policies that would never stand a chance of being adopted democratically. Shock and disorientation can come through natural disasters, climate disruption, industrial failure, terror attacks, financial collapse, and war. As she puts it,

We don’t go into a state of shock when something big and bad happens; it has to be something big and bad that we do not yet understand. A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them. When we find ourselves in that position, WITHOUT A STORY, without our moorings, a great many people become vulnerable to authority figures telling us to fear one another and relinquish our rights for the greater good. (p. 7, emphasis added)

The only way to resist this, she writes, is to first understand how these shock politics work, and whose interest they serves, and then to tell a better story. Klein’s book tells a story about the global, branded, corporate takeover of our democratic institutions, and narrates an alternative path to a better world.

2017-06-14 18.54.35

Lynn asked us what stories we are telling right now. She said something like “story is that which you cannot not tell.”

And stories take different forms – not all stories are simply narratives of speaking or writing. When words meet music a thicker texture of meaning emerges – one that anchors the words in our memory, one that helps us pay closer attention to the words themselves through accenting or elongating syllables, one that sets a tone for the words of mystery or triumph, of inquiry or solace.

Throughout history, songs have helped cement the identities of peoples. Before it was known as a great text, the Iliad was a song. Before Psalms like the one we read together this morning were texts, they were call and response melodies; sung prayers that knit believers together and opened a wellspring of emotions that captured human experience of the divine. Sometimes insightful texts are made more memorable, like when Sweet Honey in the Rock transformed Kahlil Gibran’s passage from the Prophet “On Children” into a singable pneumonic of care.

2017-06-22 23.21.10 copy.jpg

When we human beings become frightened, one way we calm ourselves, is to sing. We may hum, we may sing a phrase over and over, we may tap into a lullaby from childhood. And sometimes the best pastoral care comes through song.

Here I told a story about a person well known to the congregation who had a health crisis and was accompanied to the hospital by a person she had just met. It was a very scary situation. Through a series of stressful tests, the companion sang to her, including all the way through a forty-five minute MRI, transforming an experience of being scared into an experience of sacred blessing.

When has song moved you from scared to sacred? Who has sung the faith to you when you could not find your voice? What melodies and lyrics sustain you – in times of trouble? What songs give you courage to face that from which otherwise you might shrink? Perhaps it’s something personal or perhaps too you have found that empowerment when singing out at a time when you were standing up publicly for what you thought was right.

If we are not to succumb to what Naomi Klein has termed shock politics, if we are to maintain our moorings against attempts to manipulate us in our fear, we must nourish our singing as well as our speaking. And our church’s hymnal is a repository of strength that we can carry with us on the way – whether we are facing a health crisis or a political crisis, whether we are in the solitude of our own reflection or the multitude of a community seeking a way forward, the hymns of our faith are gifts to us.

10991403_859565257439574_935183698419724848_n

So today as we sing I invite you to learn some of these lyrics and melodies by heart. Let them nest within you, that they may be a well-spring for you in good times and hard. Let us teach them to our children that they may build a repertoire of faith that will reside within them no matter where life may lead. And do not worry whether you can carry a tune. All God cares about is that you make a “joyful noise!” So

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.
     Worship our God with gladness;
     come into God’s presence with singing…

For God is good;
     God’s steadfast love endures forever,
     and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

Sabbath Day – A Ministry of Music

June 23, 2017

This is my Sabbath post for last Thursday, June 15

2017-06-22 23.19.53 copy.png

My copy of the new Companion to Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal finally arrived. Edited by Carl P. Daw, and weighing in at a little more than three and a half pounds, it is in many ways a more substantial volume than any of the other hymnal companions in my collection. This is not another volume of “hymns and their stories” but a thorough reference work on the history of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the Presbyterian Church, with commentary on authors, composer and with performance history and tips. The opening essay, Sing a New Song: An Historical Survey of American Presbyterian Hymnals by James Rawlings Sydnor was originally written at the time of the publication of The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), but has held up well. It was a very welcome gift as I was working last week toward a special worship service focused on “the church in song.” The service didn’t turn out at all like I had intended, but I learned a lot on the way.

I’ve been wondering about how the early settlers in White Plains sang and how our music ministry developed over time. To that end I’ve been spending time in the archives of the White Plains Presbyterian Church and taking notes, generating new questions with each bit of information. 

When our congregation first gathered for worship – the oldest grave in our historic cemetery dates to 1709 – Reformed music meant literal translations of psalms and biblical songs, sung without instrumental accompaniment. However, as we were forming a church in the Colony of New York, The Rev. Isaac Watts, in England, was beginning a revolution is sacred music. Watts, the inventor of the modern hymn, said:

While we sing the Praises of God in His Church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest a-kin to Heaven; and ‘tis pity that this of all others, should be performed the worst upon earth.

In 1707, Watts published a collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and in 1719 published his paraphrased Psalms of David. Both collections were published in the American colonies in 1741 by none other than Jonathan Edwards, an intimate friend of our pastor, The Rev. John Smith. In his lifetime, Watts would publish more than 600 hymns and psalms (including a congregational favorite, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun. I do not know when they were first introduced and sung here in White Plains, but our sister church in Rye had introduced Watt’s hymns in 1829, replacing something called The Village Songbook, then in use. 

We know that the congregation had an organ before 1854 because it was one of only three objects (including the pulpit bible and a pew door) that were saved when a fire destroyed our second sanctuary. The first organist to appear in our records is Miss Ianthe Willis, who in 1884 had been playing for some time, and is described with great admiration as both self-taught and a volunteer. Whether she was playing the same organ that survived the fire of 54 or not is unknown, but in 1886 the Church Session resolved “that the leader of the choir be clothed with power to procure a suitable person to blow the organ.” Around this same time, in the interest of promoting congregational singing, the Session did away with the paid choir. This was a trend that had started in 1857 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn and within just a few short years the experience of joining in song with this congregation of enthusiastic singers was said to rival hearing their pastor, and the nation’s leading preacher, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.  

Our now volunteer choir was expected to lead the congregation in song, rather than sing for them, though on June 30, 1889 the Session saw fit to allow that “several young men who are members of the church may be permitted to use violin, violin cello, and bass viol, [an instrument akin to a fiddle] in order to improve the music of the choir.” One can only wonder.

But at this point, finally, we know what the congregation was singing from its hymnals:

  • In 1889 the congregation purchased a new hymnal (suggesting that there had been an old one). They now sang from Hymns of the Faith.
  • In 1907 they purchased the The Hymnal , published by the Presbyterian Church.
  • In 1935 they purchased a new revision of The Hymnal (1934, the Green one) because “the responsive reading is so different in the new one. Some of the responsive readings in our present book are badly selected and not at all conducive to the proper attitude in the service.” 
  • I am astonished that we did not purchase another hymnal for corporate worship until The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990, Blue).   
  • In 2013 we purchase our current hymnal: Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Purple).

I am astounded that the congregation spent 83 years with the same basic hymnal!! This promotes knowing songs with one’s heart, obviously, but also fosters resistance to change. In 1931 the music committee reported that they “are unable to get any men for the choir at the present time.” It must have been a great concern for the Music Director, W.O. Stearns, because at that same time they were considering purchasing a new organ at the cost of $21,000. (This, during the depression). The level of anxiety about worship and music can be sensed shortly thereafter in the Council Minutes of 1934: 

The meeting on June 14 was given over to an exhaustive discussion at the morning service…

Great stress was laid up on the fact that the morning service was too long – that it did not begin on time and did not end on time and lacked life and pep. One thing was positively decided – that we cannot and will not go on any longer without a printed bulletin; that the money must be raised somehow. It was definitely recommended that announcements from the pulpit be eliminated entirely.

It was also definitely decided that the service drags; the hymns are played too slowly, that there is not enough life and color in the singing of the congregation. It was suggested that the sermon be put much nearer the beginning of the service before the people become tired out with fifty minutes of preliminaries. The sermon should be 30 minutes in length, as a pastor’s message cannot be adequately given out in less time than that, and then more of the worship service should come after the sermon. That there should be three hymns of reasonable length during the service, as congregational singing is much enjoyed, and the service should begin promptly at eleven o’clock, with Mrs. Ford starting the prelude at five minutes before 11, with the pastor in the pulpit at that time and the choir in their seats; that the service should close promptly at 12:15 unless there is some unusual reason for prolonging it. There should always be an Anthem as the Chorus Choir is greatly appreciated, and an occasional solo. That the Responsive Reading should not be cut out, as that is one of the few ways the congregation can participate in the service, and many like to enter into it personally. Several people spoke of the haphazard way in which many things in connection with the service are done. The choir does not rise soon enough, and the congregation rises in a disorganized and struggling way. Just as soon as the choir has risen all the elders should simultaneously rise thus leading the congregation to make a systematic and orderly rising. This has been brought up before to the Session more than once. Mrs. Ford plays too long an offertory. She should train herself to bring it to a stop when the ushers are through with the collection, and there should be some other sign for the ushers to come down the aisle than the nodding of the pastor’s or music director’s head. 

The subject of the way the hymns should be played and sang was discussed at length. They are dragged too much as before stated, by Mrs. Ford. They should be played with vim and spirit as they are a great source of inspiration to everyone.

Poor Mrs. Ford. I had a conversation this morning with John Timmons (now 93) who remembered her fondly, but without any complaints. Would that we could all be remembered for our contributions and not our faults. 

I continue to work on lists of organists, music directors, choir leaders, soloists, etc. There were also music performance groups at different times, hosted concerts, etc. And so much more. My next post will be the sermon preached the Sunday after all this research on “The Church in Song,” which has had favorable reviews. 

Happy Sabbath

 

 

Incomparable Riches

June 12, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for Church School Sunday, June 11, 2017

Children were our worship leaders/liturgists. The Call to Worship this morning was a responsive retelling of the story of Creation in Genesis 1. Scripture readings were the naming of the animals in Genesis 2, and the Deuteronomy reading calling upon us to keep all the words of instruction in our hearts and teach them diligently to our children. The chancel was decorated with large cloth and papier-mâché animal figures.

Prior to the sermon, the children were asked to name a favorite story and then use the sermon time to create something to help tell that story out of one of materials set out on several different tables in the front of the church. They were asked to leave their creations on the center table as their offering for the day when they finished.

Untitled

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, the work of our hands, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, our strength and our inspiration. Amen.

I want to thank the children who are leading us in worship today through their readings, prayers and music. Thank you, also, to you children who are participating in creative expression as I preach, and to the teachers helping them.

I begin my message to the adults by asking: What if all that ails us could be cured with a story? What kind of story would it be? Who would be the protagonist? Would there be a villain? What would the final outcome or resolution be? Most importantly, who would be the author of this story? I wonder.

What if a story could save us? If it could, what is it that this story would save us from, and what would it save us for, in this life, as it prepares us for eternity? Meaninglessness? Indecision? Isolation? Fear? Pain? Longing? Grief?

I asked the children earlier if they have any favorite stories, and I’d like to ask the adults to think for moment: what are yours? Of all the stories you know, books you’ve read as a child or adult, movies or TV series, what are your favorites? What are the novels you cherish? What TV series can you hardly wait to see, or look forward to binge-watching on DVR? Is it Orange is the New Black? House of Cards? Scandal? Game of Thrones? What about Movies?

Has a story every changed your life? Has it changed the way you look at the world? How have the stories you love shaped and formed you? Most importantly, the one question I would like you to carry with you as you leave today: What story do you tell about yourself and your life?

If you have heard me talk about our Church School curriculum, you know that our dedicated teachers teach the children by telling the core Bible stories by heart, using tangible materials to help tell the stories. The materials are a memory aid to the storyteller, and a visual prompt for the hearers, meant just to spark their imaginations, so they are quite simple. After we tell these sacred stories, we wonder together with the children about them. Some of the questions we ask are: Where would you be in this story, or what part of the story is about you? What parts of this story could you leave out, and still have all the story you need? These are big, open-ended questions, leaving lots of room to explore.

Doing a little fun research on stories and storytelling (sometimes known as “procrastination”), I came upon a website called, “102 of the Most Inspiring Storytelling Quotes of All Time.” Fascinating! Who doesn’t need another good quote from Alan Rickman in this day and age? I might even have just read you about 90 of them, and called it a sermon!   I found another website that posed the question, “what is a story?” and answered this humorously saying, “it’s the thing we can’t help telling the moment we open our mouths.”

That’s probably true: we are always telling stories! For it is through stories that we explain the world around us, factually, emotionally and spiritually– to ourselves and to others. Storytelling is how we communicate, educate and entertain. It is how we make sense of incoming information in ways that are retrievable and usable. It is how we connect the partial to the whole, and order things spatially, causally, and sequentially in time. And good stories simply delight us!

As Christians, we have been blessed with a treasury of incomparable riches in the form of the stories in our Bible. These stories are sacred because through them we trace the elusive presence of God throughout history and in our lives. In sacred stories we come right up alongside some great existential mysteries: Life, death, aloneness, agency, eternity. Through deep encounter with sacred stories we learn to recognize these mysteries, growing emotionally and spiritually in the process, and we may even experience healing. One doesn’t come close a great mystery in life often. If we aren’t prepared to recognize it we might miss it altogether. When we recognize it, it can move us, fill our lives with meaning, and transform us.

Narrative invites storyteller and listener to enter the story as collaborators in making or finding meaning together. It evokes a new way of seeing, allowing new insight and ideas to emerge collectively. The best stories create an openness within us, letting us drop our defenses for a time. Abstract intellectual argument and linear thinking polarize, as we array our facts and thoughts like an army deployed to defend what we already believe or think we know. Storytelling disarms as it delights us, as we are led into an alternative world where anything might be possible. Through storytelling, genuine conversion is possible as speaker and active listener cooperate in the search for truth and meaning. Think of the story of the great King David, who had sinned greatly in his lust for Bathsheba, sending her husband into battle to die, so he could take her. The prophet Nathan told him a story. It was the story of a man who had only one little ewe lamb that he loved dearly, but it was taken unjustly by a wealthy man who had many. The story enraged David, who said the wealthy man should be punished. When Nathan revealed that the story was really about David taking Bathsheba, David was convicted of his own sin. This is the power of story to disarm and transform.

I’ll give you a couple of examples from our classrooms, too. For Pentecost I told the story from our Godly Play curriculum. In the lesson, we first tell the story of the Tower of Babel, then transition to the story of the Apostles and their tongues of flame. To tell the Pentecost story by prefacing it with the Tower of Babel, is already to offer an interpretation, but it is a fairly classic juxtaposition in the history of Christian interpretation. As we began to wonder together about this story, I asked the children if there might be any part of this story we could leave out and still have all the story we need. One strong opinion was offered that we could leave out that part about the tower, because it didn’t seem to have much to do with the dancing flames of the Apostles. I repeated: we might leave out the part about the tower, and then I paused to let the children ponder that. In a moment the child who suggested leaving it out reconsidered and said, no, maybe we should leave it in, “because all it seems to be about communication.” Several others agreed. This was a creative leap in interpretation by a child that could only have been facilitated by simple story telling and open-ended wondering. I don’t believe any didactic method would have given the child the opportunity to make that insight his own.

Last week, we also held an open house upstairs in our classroom. Melanie asked each of the children to pick a story that they would like to tell to our visitors. One of the students brought together material from three different stories: the tabernacle in the wilderness, the Jerusalem temple, and then he pointed toward the lesson material for Jesus in the synagogue that turns into a church, indicating he might add that. I thought to myself, oh, this is good, he is going to trace the development of worship spaces over the ages. But then he surprised me and brought the model of Mt. Sinai and put it with everything else. I was puzzled at first. Then I realized something on a deep level: this is not just about the arrangement of worship spaces, but about the people of God gathering around the Word of God. For a young student to have made this abstract connection on his own, is deeply gratifying for his teachers. To watch the children connect the sacred stories in this way, so that newly recognized truths can emerge for both teachers and children is the kind of everyday miracle teachers love to see!

I recently purchased a children’s book for our program called Who Counts? 100 Sheep, 10 Coins, and 2 Sons, by Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, a leader in the area of spirituality and the arts and the author of many award-winning children’s books. This book is a retelling of 3 well known parables of Jesus. The authors have cast these stories in a fresh way to try to evoke how they might have sounded to the original listeners. In the notes at the end of the book Dr. Levine and Rabbi Sasso write:

“The Christian tradition has sometimes understood the parables to be allegories. It made connections between details in the parables and people or events in the world. For example, the sheep, the coin, and the prodigal son represent repenting sinners; the man who seeks the lost sheep and the father who welcomes the prodigal son are symbols for God. Ironically, the tradition less often sees the woman who seeks her coin as a symbol for God….

When we read parables, we should ask ourselves: Where am I in this story? How am I like the man who lost his sheep, the woman who lost her coin, the father who feels he may have lost both his sons? Do I ever feel like the lost one? How am I like the younger brother who does not want to stay home? How am I like the older brother who does everything his father tells him but who does not feel that he is loved?

The parable then prompts other questions: Have I lost something, or someone, and not paid attention? Is there someone I take for granted? What, or whom, have I forgotten to count?

If we take these questions seriously and act on them, we are better able to love our neighbors as ourselves….”

What story are you telling about your own life? Is it a story of hope, joy and love? Or is it of bitterness, regret and doom? What story would God tell about you? Not every story can or should be “happy,” but it can and should be set into the context of the larger story that is also true. We might need to let go of our private parables in favor of a story that has the power to transform us. Is the story you tell about who you are, where you are going, what your purpose is, how you relate to others, consistent with the Gospel?

I am not here today to offer you merely a few interesting words about storytelling, but to remind you of the one great story that can and does heal the world: That we were created as beloved by our Creator; that our Creator delights in us, but also weeps over us, because we are all sinners who disappoint our God every day in some way, small or large; yet by keeping our eyes and hearts fixed on Jesus, we find redemption and healing as we are formed more and more in the image of Christ, so that we will not, as the Psalmist wrote, “be counted as those who go down to the pit.”

May it be so!

 

 

Sabbath Day – ReSearching the Past

June 10, 2017

2017-06-08 12.44.18 copy

My Sabbath Day today was spent searching for an old house, one build prior to 1776 but apparently now lost. The home belonged to Gilbert Hatfield and was built on land inherited from his wife’s cousin, Daniel Knapp. (This is a second and older house than the Gilbert Hatfield house I wrote about last week). Daniel Knapp was my 12th great grandfather’s great great grandson (or my eleventh great grandfather’s brother’s great grandson). The land is now part of Westchester County’s Silver Lake Preserve, less than a mile form my present home. The family connection (stretched as it is) was fun to make, but if this home still stands it would be among the oldest in White Plains. 

Mostly, it was an excuse to hike in the woods with permission to leave the blazed trails and really discover the terrain of the land.

I thought the day would go well when I met this lovely deer on my path less than 100 yards up the trail into the woods. I asked her to guide me to the home.

2017-06-08 11.31.29.png

 

I walked half a dozen miles in a 100 acre wood, up and down ravines, looking in vain for the ruins of a rural home (which was last seen and photographed in 1975). It should lie somewhere east of Hall Avenue and about 400 yards from a granite outcropping with a four story fall formerly known as Mucklestone Rock. The Rock was a well known landmark and should not lie far from the road. It ought to be obvious enough to serve as a landmark, but I couldn’t find it either. Mucklestone Rock is described as a granite outcropping which, when approached from the West cannot be seen in what appears to be fairly flat land, but which falls off precipitously. The fall was both significant and surprising enough that during the War of Independence a British officer named Tilton  plummeted over it to his death. I found lots of rocks, but nothing fitting this description. 

2017-06-08 11.32.52

I found, and spent an hour simply tracing, Wolf Swamp Brook, which meanders down to what was once known as St. Mary’s Lake.

2017-06-08 12.18.39

Since I was looking for an obvious stone ledge and flat farmland, I was surprised that most of the wood above Silver Lake is rolling ridges  and glens, the Wolf Swamp Brook being the collection of various micro-watersheds. Once result of this uneven terrain is dozens of small shallow ponds that are well off any marked trail and so rarely visited.  

2017-06-08 11.47.28

Despite this, evidence of former use of the land was everywhere – the famous New England stone walls marking farming fields, pasturage or property lines. 

2017-06-08 11.41.05

The smaller stones in the wall above, and the relatively level soil, suggest this area was used for farming. After clearing the ground, the annual working of the soil would continue to reveal new and relatively smaller stone. The consistently larger stone in the wall below suggest pasture land for animals. Only the larger stone were moved when the land was cleared. The barway in the wall is another giveaway, and it allowed for cows and other animals to pass from one side to the other if desired, while a simple wooden bar could close the way for them.

2017-06-08 12.10.29

I found all kinds of creatures as I hiked, from ribbon snakes to woodpeckers, including this lovely painted turtle that I am told looks to be about 12 years old. 

2017-06-08 11.58.54 copy.png

Several times I crossed the White Plains Heritage Trail, which is currently so poorly marked through the Preserve as to be unfollowable (and one point I tried to follow it). The Heritage Trail itself is nearly 100 years old, and re-blazing it would be a good job for our local Boy Scouts. By chance I found my way into the Stony Hill Cemetery, a National Historical Site which I visited last week. But no old house and no landmark rock. I am, however, undeterred. The city archivist and city clerk have been tremendously helpful, pulling 300 year old maps from the shelves and digging up property records – I now know more about this land than I thought possible. And I have been “cruising” the land on Goole Earth. There are still some sections of woods near the County Park with No Trespassing signs posted which need to be explored. So hope remains.

If any reader of this blog has a clue that might help me in my search for the old Gilbert Hatfield House, I would appreciate it.

 

Happy Sabbath.

 

The Gift of Understanding

June 6, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017

Genesis 11: 1-9             Acts 2: 1-21

6f224659-fcc5-477c-bd77-bccd04a761d7

I consider it a privilege to have once had the opportunity to hear the late Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes address a gathering of Presbyterians. Peter Gomes was, for nearly forty years, the Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Professor of Christian Morals as Harvard Divinity School. He has been described by Harvard’s president “one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction.” The theme of his address was Presbyterians and Pentecost. During his presentation, Gomes chided Presbyterians for being Trinitarians who only spend two-thirds of their energy focused on only two-thirds of the Trinity, that is, the first two members, God and Jesus.

As an openly gay, self-proclaimed and practicing Baptist, Gomes was used to pushing against easy categories. He embodies the Caribbean heritage of his father with the African-American heritage of his mother. He was ordained in the First Baptist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts which today is a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation much like our own, but draws upon the same white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant origins as our more than 300 year-old congregation.

Gomes noted that talk of the Spirit makes most Presbyterians — world-famous for our concern with decency and order — frankly, nervous. For many Presbyterian churches, still mostly white, Pentecost is an annual and anemic nod toward the work of the Spirit. These Presbyterians tend on Pentecost to make a big deal about the chaotic, unsettling, foundation shaking work of the Spirit. They tend to notice the crowds and the urban disorder which Gomes likens to Harvard Square on a busy Saturday afternoon, or New York City, or Calcutta. And they notice the spirit-filled preaching of Peter that was confused with public drunkenness, which makes them think of contemporary Pentecostalism. Worship and music on Pentecost Sunday calls attention to the unpredicted and uncontained enthusiasm of God’s fear-overcoming and foundation shattering Spirit:

“Come Holy Spirit, rattle the rooms in which we are hiding;
shake the tired foundations until the institution crumbles;
break the rules that keep you out of our sacred spaces.”

That’s all interesting, Gomes told us, but then he said that if that were the message of a sermon delivered in his preaching class, he would only give it a ‘B’ not an ‘A’ – that they had only reached a ‘B’ point, not a ‘A’ point.

The ‘A’ point to make about the Spirit’s work at Pentecost, he says, is not so much the ecstasy of the moment, the spirit-filled experience of believers, but the spirit-induced understanding in community. “That,” he said,

was the thing that the Spirit did, and that was how the people could say that they each heard in their own language the wonderful works of God. The work of the Spirit is designed to foster understanding and ultimate reconciliation.

In other words, Pentecost is about the gift of understanding, understanding fostered by the creation of a new kind of community.

What Peter Gomes called the ‘A’ point connects the story of Pentecost with our reading today from Genesis. In Genesis, the scattering and confusion of language was God’s response to human efforts to consolidate power (in the hands of a few) and so become (or so they thought) like God. Unified language led to unified political power and the attempt to storm heaven and reach the house of God by force. Unity, or the attempt to impose unity, is a form of domination and control we find throughout our Bible. Think of the unity of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. The authors of the Genesis story, by naming the tower Babel, overtly invite us to recall the domination of the Babylonian Empire. God’s response to this kind of uniform unity is to create diversity as a way of limiting the effects of human sinfulness. But diversity, which is received as curse against sinful humankind, will become a gift in God’s plan of salvation.

In this way, the story of Pentecost has traditionally been understood as a reversal of Babel, as nations are brought back together at the birth of the church. But if diversity was God’s gift to counter the effects of sin, surely it is not something to be reversed or overcome. I want to notice particularly that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did not erase the differences between the people in the room, not in language or ethnicity, or particular way of hearing and understanding the story of Jesus. They were still Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia who danced around with flames on their head. Rather, each was able to hear as if in their own language, becoming one new body of Christ, the church, while retaining all their differences.

This is what we have attempted during our Easter Season this year. Inspired by our study of Paul during Lent, I tried to portray what Paul says about the Spirit: there are a variety of gifts but it is same spirit who calls us, draws us, and is served by all. A spirit of understanding.

  • On Emmaus Sunday we lifted of the gift-giving our volunteers who give time and talent to run everything from the church school to the tag sale, from our church finances to church picnics, and we stood to recognize one another’s contributions.
  • On May Day/International Labor Day we talked about the gift of having good work to do, work through which we serve God not just in worship and evangelism but through contributing to the good of our community and building a better world that allows for self-expression, fosters communal life and heals our relationship with the earth.
  • During Older Adult Week we spoke about the particular gifts older adults have to share in a truly intergenerational community, gifts of maturity that come with an honest coming-to-terms with failure and loss, that provide grace-filled guidance for younger generations. And we were anointed with prayers for healing and wholeness.
  • On Mother’s Day we explored the many ways we can mother and nurture one another, starting right here at the font where God mothers us all.
  • And on Heritage Sunday we treasured the gift of having a rich and useable past through which, and from which, the church can be a gift to the world.
  • Last week, on Disability Inclusion Sunday, we pushed at the edges of our image of inclusion to talk about the variety of physical and mental limits and abilities we embody as a congregation and what it would mean to listen to one another and truly welcome one another across these differences.

Through all this we were attending to the work of God’s Spirit in our midst. These conversations may not be ecstatic or seem as exciting as speaking in tongues, but if you can discern in our handling of these topics the work of God’s Spirit fostering understanding among a diverse people, then you can understand just how God truly shakes the foundations of this broken and fearful world and prepares us for another world that is coming.

Sabbath Day – Going Local

June 1, 2017

2017-06-01 21.07.20 copy 2.png

About a week ago I opened the archives of the White Plains Presbyterian Church, the congregation I serve, and started poking around. I do this from time to time when I have collected a new set of questions to explore. I was expecting beautiful weather over the weekend, with at least ten hours of sitting in a park while my son played with friends, so I grabbed a book of old church council records. In particular, council records from 1856-1891. It was riveting reading. These years mark both growth and controversy in the congregation. They include a congregation frustrated in their inability to get rid of a pro-slavery pastor on the eve of the Civil War, leading many to withdraw and found a new church in town. Even when the pastor finally left, few of these returned. And it included sixteen years of strong leadership by another pastor, which was not always welcome (by a small but vocal group), particularly on issues of race, stewardship, and the building of a new chapel. But the greatest discovery of the weekend was finding the records of church membership, baptisms, and deaths hiding in the back of the book. The church had long thought these records were lost. I even found a Mary Geary who joined the congregation in 1889 – a woman I had no previous knowledge of in my ancestry work.

2017-05-26 16.24.30 copy

Thus I anticipated my Sabbath day last night with a head full of history and an excitement to dig back in to the records. I stayed up quite late reading the archive. My head was full of a century and a half of names of church members and leaders when I finally went to bed to let what I had read simmer.

As soon as I woke up today I started reading again, and then patiently pursued a hunch. Could I be blood related to the founding families of the congregation I serve? These would be the founding families of the original village of White Plains and Westchester County.

2017-05-29 00.20.09 copy.png

Here’s what I found: As told in The Knapp Family in America: A Genealogy by Arthur Mason Knapp (1909), when Richard Saltonstall sailed the Arbella to New England in 1629, he had aboard two brothers, William and Nicholas Knapp (along with John Winthrop and Anne Bradstreet). As part of the Massachusetts’s Bay Colony, William’s children settled Watertown, Mass. I am 14 generations removed from William with only two name changes: Knapp>Scripture>Geary. The children of Nicholas settled Connecticut, Western Mass., and New York. In just two generations we find Nicholas’ grandson Timothy, (along with Timothy’s sons Moses, Daniel and Benjamin) on several of the founding documents of the White Plains Presbyterian Church dating 1727! We have a record of Moses measuring out a farm as early as 1720. The relationship is as follows:

Jeff Geary   b. 1969
   Alan Geary   b. 1942
      Albert Geary   b. 1916
         Clarence Geary   b. 1895
            William Geary   b. 1867
               Robert Geary   b. c.1839, married to
               Catherine Scripter   b. 1849
                  David Scripter   b. 1821

                     James Scripter   b. 1793
                        Samuel Scripture   b. 1755
                           John Scripture   b. 1716
                              John Scripture   b. 1688
                                 Samuel Scripture   b. 1649, married to 
                                 Elizabeth Knapp   b. 1654
                                    William Knapp II b. 1611 OR James Knapp c. 1626 (brothers)

                                       William Knapp Sr. b. 1578 (England) brother of
                                       Nicholas Knapp   b. 1606,
                                    Timothy Knapp   b. 1632 (who moved to Rye)
                                 Timothy Knapp Jr. b. 1680 (A Founder of White Plains Presbyterian)**
                              Moses Knapp   b. 1701 (laid out a tract of WP farmland in 1720)**
                              Daniel Knapp (owned land of the present Gilbert Hatfield House)**
                                 (Daniel’s cousin Lavinia Mead was married to Gilbert Hatfield)
                              Benjamin Knapp**
                              Gabriel Knapp  
                              Amos Knapp

** indicates these folks appear in the founding documents of the church.

2017-06-01 16.57.38 copy

on the Corner of Lake Street and N. Kensico/Hall Avenue

Incidentally, Timothy’s son Daniel owned property that when he died was divided between his wife, his brothers, and his cousin Lavinia – who was married to Gilbert Hatfield. Here I am standing in front of one of the two Gilbert Hatfield Houses, raised in the late 1700s. (I have yet to locate the other one). This house is just blocks from my current home. It has been renovated several times, and has a wrap around restaurant attached, but one can still see the double chimneys typical of the eighteenth century. 

2017-06-01 16.58.18 copy

With the rest of my day I visited the Stony Hill Cemetery, also on the White Plains Heritage Trail, did a lot of walking, a little reading, and attended my son’s elementary school ballroom dancing performance. All in all, a very satisfying and relaxing day.

2017-06-01 16.59.03 copy

People First: Disability Inclusion Sunday

May 29, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Disability Inclusion Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mark 10: 46-52

So, something happened to me when I climbed into the pulpit last week to read the scripture. For the first time, I couldn’t see the words. It had happened before, but always, if I took a deep breath, the words would come back into focus. Last week, however, they did not and I was grateful that I know my Bible well enough that I could “read” the Word, though it was blurry.

I have, of course, known that the day would come when I would need assistance to read. I’ve had glasses for a number of years, but I avoid using them. You see, I had a colleague once who got his first glasses in his 40s. Only for reading, mind you. But when he was in the pulpit, as he would look down at his text and then look up over his glasses at the congregation, it gave him an overly stern aspect. Looking over his glasses and out on the congregation created an image of arrogance, of looking down on the congregation, the sermon more of a lecture. And it created problems. It was all about perception, of course, but I have long said that when “I” began wearing glasses on Sunday morning I would tell this story and try to head off the perception.

2017-05-28-08-42-44.jpg

No one who wears glasses thinks of him or herself as having a disability. We don’t say we “have a problem” reading.  We just say we “need glasses” to read. Well, some people need a wheelchair or braces to move around. Others need a clear routine in order to feel safe. Some kids need to be able to move around if they’re going to pay attention in a classroom. These are just needs like other needs, not special needs. Certainly not “problems.” They are simply real needs, not unlike our universal needs for friendship, food, and love.

When we define certain people’s needs as problems, or label people according to their needs, we have lost sight of the whole person, the person God made, the person God loves, the person who bears God’s image.

Take our Gospel story today. In our pew Bible it is called the story of “Blind Bartimaeus.” Do you see the problem?

Then Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd came to Jericho. As they were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

This has long been one of my favorite stories for teaching. I used to act it out dramatically with my confirmation classes. I would assign one student to be Bartimaeus, several to be the crowd and others to be followers of Jesus; and of course one to be Jesus. I would give a blanket as a cloak to the young Bartimaeus to wrap him or herself in and to serve as something the crowd could toss coins into. I would instruct this student to call out in a loud voice, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” with permission to get as loud as needed until Jesus responded. I would instruct the followers of Jesus to do whatever they felt they needed to do to keep Jesus on his mission to Jerusalem without interruptions. And my Jesus I would instruct to respond to Bartimaeus only when his cry could no longer be ignored. And so we would proceed with the drama:

  • Bartimaeus crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me,” and the crowd shushing him.
  • Bartimaeus crying out, and the crowd telling him keep quiet.
  • Bartimaeus crying out, and the crowd shouting him down.
  • Bartimaeus shouting out, and the crowd pushing him, or mocking him.
  • Bartimaeus at the top of his voice, and the crowd trying to silence him.

And by then, my Jesus would stop.

“Call him to me,” he or she would say. And the crowd would invite Bartimaeus into Jesus presence, “Hey, he’s calling you,” as if they had just been trying to prevent this.

You see,

  • those from whom Bartimaeus was begging only saw his disability, a ‘blind beggar,’ and responded with charity (if they responded at all);
  • those following Jesus saw only a man shouting, a problem to be avoided, and responded by trying to silence him and move quickly by; while
  • Jesus says that he saw a person of great faith, such faith as to make one whole.

What did Jesus see? Jesus saw a man calling out. He saw a man calling out and refusing to be silenced. He saw a child of God insisting on being heard and paid attention to, and willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. Faith in this story is just this insistence in standing up and speaking out for oneself.

And then Jesus does what Jesus does so well. He assumes nothing, but stops and asks Bartimaeus “What would you like me to do for you?” He lets Bartimaeus define himself and his need, to speak for himself. Jesus does not presume that he knows anything about this man just because he is known to be blind.

Friends, if we are to be like Jesus, when someone calls out to us our job is to stop, ask good questions, and listen.

Today is Disability Inclusion Sunday in Presbyterian Churches everywhere. Kathie Snow writes,

People with disabilities constitute our nation’s largest minority group (one in five Americans has a disability). It is also the most inclusive and most diverse: both genders, any sexual orientation, and all ages, religions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels are represented. Yet people who have been diagnosed with disabilities are all different from one another. The only thing they have in common is being on the receiving end of societal misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination. Furthermore, this largest minority group is the only one which any person can join at any time! You can join at birth or later, through an accident, illness, [and on this Memorial Day weekend we must mention war, affecting both citizen and soldier], or the aging process. If and when it happens to you, will you have more in common with others who have disability diagnoses or with family, friends and co-workers? How will you want to be described? And how will you want to be treated?[i]

Too often when someone is given a medical diagnosis of either a mental or physical condition, we tend to think we know something important about that person. He has Asperger’s, she has cerebral palsy, mom has Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, ALS, bipolar disorder, depression, Parkinson’s. But we really haven’t learned anything about the person. I have found it helpful to think about the term disability as simply a social and political passport to services and legal status. “The disability criteria, of course, is different for early childhood, which is different from vocational-rehabilitation, which is different from special education, which is different from worker’s compensation, and so on.” Disability has to do with access.

Thus there is also a difference between impairment and disability. Impairments are the bodily limitations we carry. And they are as diverse as we are. Disability, on the other hand, is the result of societal barriers that exist in fully welcoming individuals with impairments. This reminds us that the disability is a social construct and points to a societal lack (not individual!). And this lack is something our community can work to remedy.

Think again a Bartimaeus. What he cries out is: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Most people hear the word mercy and think of something akin to pity. But just a few weeks ago I pointed out that in Hebrew the word from mercy is the same word used for a mother’s womb. It refers to an environment of protection and care, a place of nurture where life can grow and thrive. We also describe the waters of baptism that mark our entry into the community of the church as a womb, because this describes the kind of care and attention we are to provide to one another. This care includes the particular needs of each individual. I find this quite beautiful.

I’d like now to invite a member of the congregation to come up to the pulpit. She is going to share with us this morning her own story of being the mother of three children, all of whom were baptized here, and how she has learned, like Bartimaeus, to speak up for and advocate for them until she has been heard. In the context of our gospel story today, this is truly a story of faith.

 

 

[i] Kathie Snow, “People First Language.” Much of my information (the quotations) and many of the images in this sermon come from this article and conversations with parishioners over the last couple of weeks. I thank The Rev. Sarah Henkel for the distinction between physical limitation and social disability. Those interested in learning more should do a web search for Presbyterian for Disability Concerns.