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Pentecost: Struggle and Dream

May 22, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-12

God never gives, nor did he ever give a gift, merely that we might have it and be content with it. No, all gifts which God gave in heaven or on earth, God gave with one sole purpose – to make one single gift: God’s very self. With all God’s gifts, God desires only to prepare us for the one gift, which is God’s very life.

– Meister Eckhart

So the story goes that the crucified and risen Jesus appeared to his disciples for a period of forty days. As we learned all throughout Lent, forty days is symbolic of “enough”: enough time to effect significant change, to look back and work through our past in order to emerge a new person.

  • Noah spent forty days atop Mt. Ararat, contemplating a legacy of violence and the possibility of peace.
  • Moses spent forty day atop Mt. Sinai, communing with God, conveying his complaints, and receiving the rules for a new way of life.
  • Elijah spent forty days hiding in a cave on Mt. Horeb, coming to terms with the consequences of his courageous action atop Mt. Carmel that almost cost him his life, and he received the comfort of God’s presence in a still small voice.
  • Jonah gave the imperial city of Nineveh forty days to repent, and they did, while Jonah parked his sorry self on a nearby hilltop to nurture his personal hatred for this enemy that had now become God’s friend.
  • Jesus himself spent forty days in desert, communing with God, the wild animals and the earth, confronting the temptations that lead God’s people astray and emerging with a clear vision of the kingdom to which all are called.

Now, with death defeated, the risen Christ had appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days; enough time to offer (again) his presence, his peace, and his promise of a coming kingdom.

And then he left.

He left them, with instructions to wait for the one who was coming.

To wait for the Holy Spirit. God’s advocate. The comforter. The one who will lead us into all truth, above all the truth of God’s abiding love and presence among us working for the redemption of our lives, our relationships, and all creation.

Ten long days they waited. Until Pentecost.

Pentecost simply means fifty days, and was a traditional liturgical event, the Feast of Weeks, a harvest festival. It was during this festival that the spirit descended upon the forlorn but expectant and waiting disciples – amidst a mass of pilgrims from all over the world – as a mighty wind and a burning flame.

We’ve met this spirit before. It appeared to Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan River by the fiery preacher, John the Baptist. John was leading renewal movement among the people, readying them for something new. The crowds who came out to him at the Jordan River – from Galilee, Jerusalem and all Judea and the regions beyond the Jordan – could not believe that John himself was not this new thing. John spoke like the prophets of old, called to account the corrupt leaders – soldier, statesman and priest alike – but also the lax, complicit and competitive lives of ordinary people, and his words spoke to, called to Jesus, called him to be a part of a movement larger than the life he had led so far. “Are you not the one we are waiting for?” the crowds asked John. “No,” he said. “I baptize you with water, but one is coming who will baptize you with holy spirit and with fire.” Is this a violent event, like the fire called down by the prophet Elijah upon the false prophets and sycophantic priests? Or would it be something else, purifying and cleansing, like a refiner’s fire?

The crowds did not know, but when Jesus was baptized they heard a voice from heaven declaring, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22). And the heavens opened and God’s spirit descended upon him like a dove of peace.

I visited the Jordan River during my recent trip to Israel and Palestine, at the site where tradition tells us Jesus was baptized, and I renewed the promises of my own baptism. But it was a complicated experience.

The first time I approached the Jordan River, to visit the site where Jesus was purportedly baptized, I came with my biking group. I had been biking with five others for four days at that point, from the Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jenin all the way to the Jordan River on our way to the Dead Sea. We turned off the highway – Jericho Detour Road 90, a bypass highway under Israeli control built so that Jews can avoid the Palestinian city of Jericho. We turned toward the river and made our way down a long strip of black pavement flanked by olive trees in the middle of the desert. A security checkpoint warned us that we were entering a military zone. Security cameras documented our approach. On either side of the long drive were fences that created a tunnel through which we passed. An abandoned church was on our right, filled with triggered explosives leftover from the war with Jordan. On the other side of the fences, buried in the ground, were thousands of land mines, still in place after 50 years.

The sun was hot on our backs as we approached the gate. It was perhaps 3:00 o clock in the afternoon. A sign indicated that the site would be open until 5:00, but the IDF soldiers who manned the checkpoint had decided to kick off early and had gone home. The river was closed.

This was my first encounter with the holy site

  • where Moses led the newly liberated and freedom seeking slaves,
  • where Joshua re-enacted the Exodus each year by crossing again through the waters,
  • where Elijah ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot,
  • where John called all people to a new way of life,
  • where Jesus himself was initiated into a counter-imperial movement against the many forces (physical and spiritual) occupying his land.

It is now administered by the Israeli Civil Administration (subordinate to the military) and the Ministry of Tourism. It is protected by razor wire, fences and explosives. And we could not enter. We turned our backs on the checkpoint, got back on our bikes, and rode back into toward the sun.

I returned to the Jordan River a week later with the Mosaic of Peace, 43 Presbyterians called to witness for peace and wholeness in this land ‘called’ holy. We came this time on a tour bus, people chatting excitedly and taking pictures, our tour guide Faraj reading from scripture and giving us instruction on how to approach the water. There were changing rooms for those who wished to enter the water, showers to rinse off afterward, white robes available for purchase, and a gift shop with ice cream on this hot day and souvenirs to remember our visit.

Being present was even more disconcerting than being turned away. There were several church groups singing and reading liturgy, in English, Russian, Greek, and Korean. We were one of these groups, reciting our own liturgy and noisily renewing our baptismal vows. I entered the water with Angela, a doctoral student from Moldova. Not knowing that Angela could understand her, a mother nearby and in the water was cursing our group in Russian for ruining her ‘private’ moment at the river with her daughter. We removed our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, stepped into the murky brown water, held one anothers hands as water that was poured over us, holding one another with care as we spoke the words, “Angela/Jeff, you are a beloved child of God.” The whole group responding, “With you God is well pleased.”

2018-05-08 15.08.23 copy

The heavens did not open up. It was a meaningful, but not particularly moving experience. And then a dove descended upon two women, Anne and Rebecca, as they were remembering their identity as children of God. While first we all gasped in awe, raising our eyes we noticed that the doves are raised and kept in the bell tower of a church on the Jordanian side, not 50 feet away. Less miracle; more shtick. Amusingly enough, the same dove that alighted on Anne and Rebecca, shat on our tour leader, Carl, who heads up the Peacemaking ministry for the PC(USA), preventing us from taking the dove thing too seriously.

And so we renewed our vows, dipping ourselves in the Jordan River, trying not to think too hard about the fact that the river has been an environmental cleanup site for the last several years because of the extraordinary amount of fecal matter in the river from sewage upstream, the pedantic, planted doves cooing 50 feet away, the razor wire near the perimeter, the long line of touristy pilgrims waiting and gabbing irritatingly to get near this holy site.

It didn’t feel particularly holy. It felt strained – as if we were all trying too hard, hoping our performance might wring a miracle in this place that felt so overpoweringly abandoned by the holy.

And yet the promise of Pentecost is that the spirit comes. Even into the midst of the commercialism, the uncertainty, and yes, even the violence. Of our world. And of our lives.

What better place for the spirit to come; to alight on that international line of people impatient and cross because it was taking too long to get to the river? What might it mean if the spirit not only descended but, like all earthly birds, shat? What if being holy had little to do with reenactment and more to do with realization; the realization that our world is so very far from the vision of international understanding and mutual joy that we find expressed in our scripture passage today? But what was that world prior to the Spirit’s coming? It was Jerusalem, under Roman occupation, with crucifixions cementing the terror, with Jesus having died and now departed, with hardship and uncertainty and poverty … and after that Spirit descended, after the understanding of the gospel, after the spirit led them deeper into the truth, the world did not transform miraculously. Rather the disciples and followers were left perhaps feeling a little more like Carl and a little less like Anne and Rebecca.

They struggled, and they dreamed dreams, as the Prophet Joel promised. The dreaming was not separate from the struggle for a more loving, more just world. And this Pentecost, as we remember God’s spirit pouring out on all flesh, we too struggle and dream, struggle and dream, struggle and dream.




A Sense of Place: Earth Day 2018

May 17, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Easter / Earth Day, April 22, 2018

Exodus 20:12         Deut. 11:8-12


I cannot tell you how excited I am for my upcoming trip to Israel and Palestine. One week from now I will be on a plane to Istanbul, Turkey, where I will spend a day with good friends adjusting to the time change and preparing myself for my travels. I am going to spend eight days cycling through the hills of the occupied West Bank in Palestine, four days of interfaith peacemaking work in Israel with Presbyterian colleagues as part of the Mosaic of Peace, and four more days hiking the Jesus Trail in Galilee with a smaller group off friends. I will bike the entire route Mary and Joseph traveled to be registered for the imperial census and for Jesus to be born. And I will hike from Jesus’ hometown to the town he made his home on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee – Capernaum, where he called and taught his first disciples.

Abba Anthony, one of the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century, used to say that he could spot the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim a mile away. Tourists travel to see things, to take in the sights/sites, to say they had been there; pilgrims travel because they are seeking something, because they are searching. There is an aspect in which I am a pilgrim on this trip, although I do not know what I seek. I am open to finding, and that, in my experience, is often enough. But I am too protestant to call this the ‘holy land’; no object or space is more holy than another, not even the ground on which Jesus walked. At the same time, I am sacramental enough to consider all creation holy, all land sacred, unique and challenging, charging us with a particular vocation in the place God had ‘placed’ us.

So, I travel as a pilgrim, yes, but also a witness: I want to see first-hand and learn about from locals the effect of the Israeli occupation both on Palestinians and on Israelis themselves. This is my reason for participating in the Mosaic of Peace with forty Presbyterian colleagues for a few days of peacemaking work; all of this in anticipation of our upcoming General Assembly.

But first and foremost, above all, I travel to experience the land itself, the particular ecology that gave birth to our faith.


(c) 2018 Beside the Sea of Galilee – photo by The Rev. Gretchen Sausville
taken during the 2018 PC(USA) Mosaic of Peace. Used with Permission.


The land of the Jordan Valley, the upper reaches of a rift valley that extends all the way through Egypt and connects to the Great Rift running down through Africa, is a unique ecology, among the most biodiverse places on earth, and including the lowest spot – the Dead Sea – on the planet. It is the place where our scripture was written. I learned long ago from Professor Ellen Davis that because our scriptures reflect a particular land ethic, they could not have been written anywhere else.

Certainly, the Scriptures of ancient Israel know where they come from. They reflect the narrow and precariously balanced ecological niche that is the hill country of ancient Judah and Samaria – “A strip of land between two seas,” as they say, with water to the west and relatively barren wilderness to the east. The Israelite farmers knew that they survived in the steep and semi-arid land by the grace of God and their own wise practices. And it was no small part of Israelite wisdom to recognize that, unlike their neighbors – the Philistines on the fertile plains of Sharon, the Egyptians and Babylonians ranged along the banks and canals of their great rivers – they had only the slightest margin for negligence, ignorance, or error. The Bible as we have it could not have been written beside the irrigation canals a Babylon, or the perennially flooding Nile, anymore than it could have emerged from the vast for tile plains of the North American continent. For revelation addresses the necessities of a place as well as a people. Therefore, ancient Israel’s scripture bespeaks throughout an awareness of belonging to a place that is at once extremely fragile and infinitely precious. Fragility belongs essentially to the character of this land and may even contribute to its value. Seasonal aridity and periodic drought, a thin layer of topsoil, susceptibility to erosion – these mark the land of Canaan as a place under immediate, particular care of God.[1]

The author of Deuteronomy 11, she continues, is a skilled preacher, “urging the Israelites to reimagine their land as blessed precisely in the fragility that necessitates and therefore guarantees God’s unwavering attention. Thus, the preacher commands the people’s caring attention to their land.”[2]

We might say that this is the indigenous vision of Scripture: a land ethic for living lightly on the earth the way God intended. There is much to unpack here, but I want to make the simple point, again today, that if we are not to read scripture simply for what it was then, but as God’s word to us today, then we must learn to do with they did then, but in our own place and time. We must learn from the land where God has placed us. And cultivate the same kind of wisdom that our forebears did there.[3]

Remember the fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. This is about the intergenerational wisdom that comes from living in one place and learning from that place, over time, how to live. It is about having a sense of place and a space in time.[4]


In 2008, the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved the document “The Power to Change”, a resolution that reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to challenging the threat climate change poses to all of God’s creation.  “The Power to Change” reminded us that,

Together with people all around the world, Christians at the outset of the 21st century must respond to this climate crisis by developing a new way of living in harmony with Earth’s energy resources and in solidarity with all of God’s creatures. This moral obligation involves our commitment to the poor and marginalized among the present generation, but it especially includes our responsibilities to future generations. Actions taken or not taken today will impact the welfare of the planet for centuries to come.

Well, another decade has now passed and the threat of climate change has not diminished nor have we sufficiently responded to how the deepening crisis is shouldered primarily by communities in the Global South.

Each year, Creation Justice Ministries, and outgrowth of the National Council of Churches, provides resources and a guide for Earth Day celebrations. The theme is chosen each year based on what this group of ecumenical leaders believe are the most pressing of the day. This year, the theme is “a sense of place,” The urgency of embracing “sense of place” is expressed this way:  

On any given day in the United States, it is possible to drink coffee from Guatemala, while wearing clothes made in Bangladesh, while sheltered under a roof that was partly manufactured in China. The average U.S. adult devotes approximately ten hours a day to consuming media, spends 87 percent of their time indoors and passes another six percent of their time inside a vehicle. Today, connecting with our local communities requires intention.[5]

Which is the wisdom of Deuteronomy 11: mindfulness and attention to the place God has called us to serve. I am reminded of a poignant line from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man: “If you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are.”

As we have talked about before, and as we are learning together right now, the particular challenge for individuals and congregations is to embrace spiritual practices that help us be more present to one another and our local watersheds; bioregional faith practices such as familiarizing ourselves with our watersheds and using them as a frame of reference for gatherings, and learning from them what faithfulness looks like in our particular place God has placed us. It means remembering whose land this was before “we” came, whoever we are. The Palestinian theologian Munther Isaac writes, “A church in a particular place exists for the sake of that land and takes her mission agenda from it. The church, in other words, derives much of its purpose from its locale.”[6]


We have immersed ourselves many times in the recent years in our local watershed, learning to practicing what we have come to know as Watershed Discipleship, learning faithfulness and the requirements of faithfulness, from our local and most natural community. So, a few questions to test how well we know “where we are” so that we may know “who we are” and “what God requires of us.”

  • Where is the headwater of the Bronx River? (Today it is the Davis Brook, in Valhalla, though it used to be between the Bryam and Mamaroneck rivers, now submersed behind the Kensico Dam).
  • Where is the mouth of the Bronx River? (The Long Island Sound, between Soundview Park and Hunt’s Point Riverside Park).
  • How long is the river? (Today, 23 miles).
  • Where does the Bronx River get its name? (from Jonas Bronc, a Swiss immigrant)
  • Here I recounted Bronx’s relationship with the Indigenous inhabitants of what we know today and the Bronx and Westchester, including Bronc’s immigration in 1639, made possible (and attractive and profitable) because of New Amsterdam’s Governor’s war agains the native peoples, known as Kieft’s War, which eliminated the Siwanoy and Weequaesageek inhabitants. The last stand of the later is rumored to have taken place here in White Plains on Mount Misery – above the Stop n Shop Center, by the hand of Indian killer John Underhill.
  • Of the five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx), only The Bronx takes its name from its watershed, thus the “the” in its name.
  • As part of earth day weekend, local water protectors and riverkeepers spent the day cleaning the river. I had the chance to cheer on cub scouts in Bronxville. I asked the congregation how much trash they imagined was pulled from the lower river yesterday (the part we will be canoeing) during the earth day clean up? In the morning alone – over 2000 pounds.
  • Among the oldest structures in the Bronx is the dam at Roaring Falls, at the southern end of the Bronx Zoo. It was originally constructed as part of a snuff mill. This construction marked the beginning of decline of life on the river. [Here I recounted stories I had learned during events hosted by the White Plains History Roundtable and the earth Day events hosted by the Tuckahoe Community Center, both of which I attended during the previous week, particularly the stories of alewife herring, American eel, and the construction of the fish ladder at Roaring Falls].[7]

[Remembering the fifth commandment which safeguards intergenerational knowledge for the sake on the earth, its creatures, and human habitation, I shared the good work of Erin Provenzano, a young woman who organized the Earth Day events along the river with t-shirts (which I was wearing in the pulpit) proclaiming “we are the Bronx River.” I had heard Erin earlier in the week at a presentation at our local library where she showed pictures of her mother and grandmother as they grew up beside the river. This has given Erin intergenerational knowledge in her own work with the Bronx River Alliance. I closed with an appeal to participate in the Bronx River canoe trip, as a team member, sponsor or cheerleader.]


Did you know? Funds raised at The Amazing Bronx River Flotilla on Saturday, May 19will make canoeing available to 1,000 Bronx kids and their families for the 2018 canoe season.

The Bronx River is a rich learning laboratory. Our Education Program not only brings students out on paddling adventures but also engages students in educational activities along the river.

In 2017, students from Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School explored the river right across the Sheridan Expressway from where their school is located. For many, this was their first time exploring the river by boat; for others, it was a welcome return to a place they perceive as a fun extension of their classroom space. 

If you are not canoeing, there is a celebration at Hunt’s Point Riverside Park where the flotilla will finish. Music, food, beer, festivities. Also a chance to learn about the river. Stephen Devillo, the river’s historian, will be offering a river ramble, a leisurely walk and talk along the river for those who want to participate but cannot canoe. There is something for everyone.[8]

Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, once tried his hand at re-writing Deut. 11 for our time. I leave you with his words as we let God’s Word sink deeply in our hearts and prepare to sing:

Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth.[9]

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Forward by Wendell Berry. (Cambridge, 2009). p. 26.

[2] I love the idea that those things that are fragile a blessed precisely in their fragility and necessitate bot our and God’s immediate care.

[3] “This is what Scott Russell Sanders attempts to do in his thoughtful mediation on place, Staying Put, offering a kind of bioregional reading of the ancient spiritual ideal: ‘The likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one . . . . If our interior journeys are cut loose entirely from . . . place, then both we and the neighborhood suffer.’” Cited in Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind. ((Oxford, 2013). p. 27.

[4] This is what Reformed theologian Kathryn Tanner identifies as “practice,” though inflected in an agrarian key. See Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology. (Fortress, 1997). See also Davis, ibid. and Eric Freyfolge, ed. The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life. (Island Press, 2001).

[5] This section of the sermon cribs from the Action Alert of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, dated April 19, 2018, the PC(USA) as well as the document Power to Change: U.S. Energy Policy and Global Warming, as well as the Earth Day 2018 resource, Sense of Place, published by Creation Justice Ministries.

[6] Cited in Sense of Place, above. See also Munther Isaac, Lands to Lands, from Eden to a Renewed Earth: A Christ-Centered Theology of the Promised Land. (Langham Monographs, 2015).


[8] This is mostly from a fundraising appeal sent out this week by Maggie Scott Greenfield, Executive Director of the Alliance.

[9] Wes Jackson, Altars of Unhewn Stone: Science and the Earth. (Wooster Book Company, 2006).

Facing Fears that Overwhelm

April 15, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Easter, April 15, 2018

2 Esdras 13:1-3, 25-6, 32, 51-52         Mark 6:45-52

There was a preface on the readings from 2 Esdras and their relationship
to the Mark story. I have not included it here. The Gospel is read
within the body of the sermon.


A couple of words before we begin about where we are and where we are going, at least in terms of scripture and sermons for the next couple of months. It is the highlight of my week to dig deep in the Gospel of Mark with the Monday evening Bible study. It so happens that 2018 is also the year that we are reading the Gospel Mark in worship. Since we began in Advent, we have read the entire first chapter together as well as everything from the thirteenth chapter to the end. From mid-May through the end of July we will – in worship – read the first half of Mark’s gospel straight through, slowly, chapter-by-chapter and story by story. It is a very nice coincidence that when I am hiking and biking in Israel and Palestine in a few weeks I will be following the tracks of Jesus as they appear in the first part of Mark, so my preaching the rest of this year will allow me to share some of my stories and experiences.

On Easter Sunday I noted that Mark’s gospel does not include any appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Instead, it ends, importantly, with an empty tomb and an invitation for the disciples to go back to Galilee where everything began.

A return to Galilee means a return to the place where they first met Jesus. The angel invites them to go back to the start – with all that they now know from years of ministry with Jesus – and to take up again the work of silencing the demons that claim to rule this world, of binding up the brokenhearted, healing the sick, and sharing with one another. For in doing so, Mark believes that they will discover that Jesus is still with them, has in fact gone ahead of them in order to meet them. For the first followers of Jesus, the empty tomb was not proof; it was simply possibility. The resurrection became real, as they put it into practice; as the women and the twelve practiced what Jesus preached, and learned to do what Jesus did; this time trusting their own hands, their own hearts, their own minds.[i]

So, as we turn the pages back toward the beginning of the gospel, I want to pause here in chapter six and read this outstanding little story about Jesus walking on the water. Some scholars believe that this is actually a misplaced resurrection appearance, which may be the case. The ghostly appearance of Jesus on the sea certainly has all the marks of an appearance of the Lord of Life to his frightened followers. But Mark also knew what she was doing when she put the story here – it is to remind us that Jesus had been teaching the disciples the lessons of resurrection all along.

Listen for the word of God:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:45-52)

We must remember that up until this point Jesus ministry in Galilee has been widely successful and well received among his own people, while Jesus has met opposition only from Judeans, Pharisees, scribes and Herodians, representatives of the temple and the state, religious and political authority. Indeed, Jesus has increasingly been asking his disciples to do for themselves what they have seen him doing: silencing the demons that claim to rule this world, binding up the brokenhearted, healing the sick, and sharing with one another. In the story immediately before this sea crossing, the feeding of five thousand, when the disciples tell Jesus that the crowds following him are hungry, Jesus says to them, “You give them something to eat.” And for the first time, the twelve balked. “It can’t be done,” they reply. And so Jesus patiently demonstrates the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of resources until there is enough for everyone.

As our present story opens, Jesus removes the disciples from the crowd and sends them off in a boat to (again) carry on by themselves, this time in the territory of the Gentiles. Perhaps the disciples are reluctant to go. Perhaps they’re starting to get cold feet and don’t want Jesus to be away from them. Perhaps they are also struggling with what he seems to be asking them to do. How could they feed such a large crowd by themselves? they still wonder. And so Jesus has to order them to get into the boat and go. Various translations say he “insisted” or “obliged” – what seems clear is that Jesus had to compel them to go. Jesus then goes off by himself to the mountain to pray, “leaving the task of getting to the other side up to them entirely.”[ii]

What happens next is very different from the disciple’s last journey on the sea. That time Jesus was asleep in the boat with them when they panicked out of fear and woke him. This time they are not in any danger at all. They are simply rowing against the wind and having a hard time making progress. And indeed, they are having a hard time of it – a hard time of being followers of Jesus. The storm and conflict seems to be as much inside them as it is surrounding them. But Jesus has sent them off alone on purpose. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “we’re going to try this again until we get it right.”[iii]

This deeper sense of purpose is further underscored when Jesus finally appears upon the sea. He is not unaware of the trouble they are in. Nevertheless, he desires to pass them by. Could it be that he was willing to offer direction, but not assistance? Could it be that they are supposed to be able to get out of this jam on their own? Isn’t this what Jesus has been preparing them for?

But they are overwhelmed. In their fear, they cannot see their friend. Instead they take him to be a ghost. Perhaps they were already filled with a vision of the dead coming to take them down below the waters, perhaps their lives were flashing before their eyes – certainly a ghost was not a good omen.

Finally, they realize it’s him: their friend, their teacher, someone who they’ve given up everything to follow; someone they trust more than anyone in the world. The storms (inside and out) are calmed. But the journey has failed, they failed to reach the other side, and so they return with Jesus to the shore they had set out from. What Jesus intends for them will have to wait for another day.

We’ve known this kind of fear, haven’t we? The fear that wakes us up at night to find ourselves in a pool of sticky sweat, our heart pounding in our chest? The panic that makes us want to run, or the fear that paralyzes us and leaves you unable to move, to act, to choose or decide. That feeling of fear that makes us stop thinking creatively and lock ourselves in old patterns of thought and behavior. A friend sent me a meme yesterday, “Pray, before you overthink.” You know, thinking something is not bad. Critical thinking is very important. Revisiting choices and weighing how they are going is healthy and helpful. But then there’s the fear that breeds paralysis in thinking and action. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to “the paralysis of analysis!” That unhelpful cycle of thinking and rethinking that feeds on anxiety and craves information. That kind of thinking and rethinking that makes it impossible to make or to stand by any decision. It’s like wheels turning in the mud, spinning faster and faster and just ending up more stuck. I’d wager that it doesn’t take us each very long to identify times when this fear-based paralysis has happened in our lives or even perhaps in the life of this church.

Our fears can keep us from making any progress if we don’t face them head on. But they’re slippery., these fears. They’re not only hard to face, they talk back. Our fears lie. They question our ability or authority: “You can’t do this. You’ll fail at that. It won’t make any difference anyway.” Or “Just who do you think you are? Nobody wants to hear what you have to say, or see you do what you want to do.” Perhaps the most debilitating lie is not the one that keeps us from action by the lure of a quick fix. “If only you do this, everything will work out.” But God doesn’t promise everything will work out all right. God promises that things will work for the good for those who love God. That doesn’t mean that we won’t falter, won’t suffer, won’t fear, won’t stumble. It means that God keeps on calling us, when we do falter, when we do suffer, when we do fear, when we do stumble. Across the water Jesus comes to us and leads us on.

I was talking with Sarah after our Presbytery meeting this week and mentioned I was preaching about fear, and she forwarded to me a short reflection by Philip Berrigan that she has been meditating on, and for which I am grateful. Phil writes

I don’t gather that God wants us to pretend our fear doesn’t exist, to deny it, or eviscerate it. Fear is a reminder that we are creatures – fragile, vulnerable, totally dependent on God. But fear shouldn’t dominate or control or define us. Rather, it should submit to faith and love. Otherwise, fear can make us unbelieving, slavish, and inhuman. I have seen that struggle: containing my fear, rejecting its rule, recognizing that it saw only appearances, while faith and love saw substance, saw reality, saw God’s bailiwick, so to speak: “Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid!”[iv]

Fear sees appearances. Faith sees substance. To the extent that we know what we fear, we can face our fears and learn from them. But some of our fears we won’t know until we’ve already set out on the journey of faith. That is of course why Jesus compelled his disciples to get into a boat and set off on their own. It is why Jesus compels us to take up new tasks and challenges in our discipleship.

We struggle with many things, you and I, in the struggle between love and fear, and if we are honest, our fear often wins over us. These are not the primitive fears with which a scary novel or movie thriller can entertain us, but profound fears that interrupt our relationships and God’s hopes for us. What fears should we confront with confession? Fear of trusting? Fear of ridicule? Fear of death? Fear of making ourselves vulnerable in a relationship of love? Fear of still loving someone who has betrayed us? ear of being alone? Fear of helplessness? Fear of confronting power and losing? Fear of risking faith without proof? Fear that there will not be “enough?” What are your fears? What wakes you up in the pool of sweat, your heart hammering away in your chest? What makes you pick up the phone to call a friend and repeat the same sad story of hurt you have told many times before but that now possesses you one more time and keep you from moving forward?

How instead might we orient ourselves toward Jesus, coming to us over the water, and move forward with our fear certain of God’s love and purpose that accompanies us and intends to go head of us?

Christians have always read the stories of the sea crossings as parables. As with the earlier gospel story, so here “the boat seems to represent the church, buffeted with temptations, trials and persecutions [, but also simple incomprehension and confusion]. In every case, Jesus appears as the church’s champion, who is strong enough to save those who call on him in faith.” Which seems to mean that to face our fears, is to find ourselves in the boat with other pilgrims, on a journey through which Jesus himself has sent us. To find faith is to realize that we are not left alone with our fears. That our fears can open us to newness. That the first step of faith requires courage.[v]

The 13th Century mystic Julian of Norwich once wrote, “fear and love are sisters; our fears can lead us to the fear of God, which is love.” As we step forward in love and fear, may we hear Jesus’ voice across the water, calming the storms that beset us, beckoning us forward as well as lifting us up from the cold waters of paralysis and fear, and placing us into this boat of faith, together.



[ii] The exegesis in the paragraph, including a few sentences here and elsewhere in the sermon, are taken from Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross. (Orbis, 2006). The quote in bold is from Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto. (Exploration Press, 2003).

[iii] The quotation in bold is again from Ted Jennings, The Insurrection of the Crucified.

[iv] The Daily Dig for February 27. Source, Johann Christoph Arnold, Seeking Peace: Notes and Conversations Along the Way. Second Edition (Plough Publishing House, 2014).

[v] The quotation is from Douglas Hare (1993) Matthew – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press.

An Empty Tomb: My Easter Sermon on Mark

April 12, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 

Acts 10:34-43         Mark 16:1-8


When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

In the year 66 a Roman army led by the future emperor Vespasian marched south from Syria through Galilee and Samaria toward Jerusalem. Judean partisans and zealots took up arms and fortified the city. Armed bandits, remembering the guerrilla leader Judas Maccabaeus, attempted lightning raids on the occupying Roman forces, and then retreated to the hills. Other Jewish leaders, knowing that armed resistance was futile and would end with utter defeat and massive death, counseled capitulation. In the midst of this moment, when no one knew what was going to happen, the Gospel of Mark was written.[1]

Judgment on human evils and empires, nonviolent resistance, covenant communities, and hope – hope of another way offered even to one’s enemies: these are the topics of Mark’s gospel.[2]

Mark’s gospel is unique in the way that he brings his story to a close, or perhaps I should say the way he refuses to let this story close.[3]

Three women go to the tomb early in the morning: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a third woman named Salome. All three women had stayed with Jesus throughout his crucifixion. They had watched and waited. They were there when he breathed his last and died. They saw where he was buried. But these women seem to also know that the God Jesus was always talking about always has a way of surprising us. That if God was in fact bringing about a non-violent reign of justice and peace, even Jesus’ defeat and death might not be the final word. And so, early in the morning they headed to the tomb, and they found it empty.

A young man tells them that Jesus is risen and will meet them again in Galilee, and the women flee in terror and amazement.

That is how Mark concludes his story. There are no appearances by the risen Jesus to the women, no resurrected savior gliding through a locked door where the twelve have hidden themselves, no breakfast with disciples by the lakeshore, no appearance on the road to Emmaus, no appearance to a persecutor named Saul on the Damascus Road.

There is just an empty tomb. And a promise.

“Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

What Mark offers us is simply a story whose ending can only be written in the lives of its hearers and readers. Mark invites his hearers and readers to return to Galilee – to the place where they first met Jesus. He invites them to go back to the start – with all that they now know from years of ministry with Jesus – and to take up the challenge of silencing the demons that claim to rule this world, of binding up the brokenhearted, healing the sick, sharing with one another. For in doing so, Mark believes that they will discover that that Jesus is still with them, has in fact gone ahead of them in order to meet them. For the first followers of Jesus, the empty tomb was not proof; it was simply possibility. The resurrection became real, as they put it into practice; as the women and the twelve practiced what Jesus preached, and learned to do what Jesus did; this time trusting their own hands, their own hearts, their own minds. So they went back to Galilee, a place teetering on the edge of war, a war that would, not too long later, bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of the temple. They went back to their farms and their nets in the uncertain, violent, turbulent province of Galilee – and there, there they tried to live resurrection.[4]

And this is what we too are called to do. It is not as easy as simply confessing, “Christ is risen!” Because it means embracing uncertainty; it means risking, trusting without proof; it means practicing resurrection in the face of continued death.

This morning, we like the women, stand outside the empty tomb. We do not see Jesus; we see only an empty tomb – something both bleak and hopeful. Something profoundly uncertain. Something profoundly unfinished.

Even after a year in which our very democracy has been under assault, when lies have replaced truth, when torches in Charlottesville and sweeps by ICE have terrorized our people, when swastikas were painted on bridges here in Westchester, and in the wake of mass shootings… even now we are seeing something new arise. A cry and determination that hate will have no home here. From the covenant our church signed together with others in Westchester, to the new movement arising from the horror of the Parkland shooting, those who have been victimized are refusing to remain victims. Together we are speaking out, marching, and dedicating ourselves to creating a world without victims in the very face of violence and hatred.[5]

And it’s not just here that we see hope arising. In the wake of a suicide bombing on Friday in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, citizens have undertaken hunger strike for peace. They have asked both the Taliban and the Afghan government for simply a two-day ceasefire and they are prepared to hungerstrike and march to achieve it. They are demanding that the Taliban and the government and all the people recognize their common humanity and stop what has been ceaseless violence that has devastated that nation. “We are not asking for much,” they say. Just two days. But they are risking everything. Even their very lives.[6]

A friend of mine shared this poem last weekend, just as we began Holy Week. It’s by Gerardo Oberman, a pastor/poet/liturgist who is the current President of the Dutch Reformed Church in Argentina as well as a professor at the seminary in Buenos Aires. He captures that potency of the empty tomb in the midst of the world’s cruelty and machinations writing,

Concerning crosses and resurrections
our story is still plagued
with Fridays of nothing holy
of crosses full of innocents,
of victims of false allegations,
crowds applauding torture
and demanding young deaths.
Religious and political powers
continue plotting,
seeking to silence testimonies
in favor of life, of justice,
of equity, of dignity.
Any proposal that smells of solidarity
wakes up the neo-pharisees
and mobilizes the Ciaphases,
always attentive to any threat
to their privileges and comfort.
And while the Pilates
wash their hands
in poisoned water bowls
of prejudice, of hypocrisy,
of bravery and betrayal,
on Modern Golgathas
good lives suffer and bleed.

But resurrections are also renewed,
the blessed manifestations of life,
which illuminate from the edges of hope
the cruel and harsh realities of everyday walking.
Resurrections Marching
claiming Rights,
fighting for what makes existence full,
screaming in the face of corrupt power,
smiling, because joy
subverts hatred
and the Light of tenderness,
is shining in the countenances of those
who see the horizons of justice
they expect to reach.
Resurrections that embrace
the causes that no one wants to embrace
because they’re the ones who extend a hand,
the ones who lift up those who have fallen,
who encourage those who cry and suffer,
who stand up to the structures that oppress,
who unmask perversions,
who are driven to keep believing.
Because no cross could
nor could ever
tear life
from those who sincerely and purely love.[i]

The empty tomb leaves us with a choice. Will we dare to live resurrection in our own lives, against the odds, for the sake of one another? Will we, as Gerardo Oberman puts it, be those who sincerely and purely love? If so, than we too will see resurrections marching, claiming rights, tasting life in all its fullness. Mark invites us at the edge of the empty tomb, to return to the hard work before us, to take up with our own hands the work that Christ began, to bear in our own bodies, with our own voices, and in our life together the hope of new life, of human dignity, of the fullness God wishes for all of us. For resurrection is not simply something that happened two thousand years ago – it is happening today, every time we choose to stand and walk together in courage, faith, and love. Step by step, day by day, may we practice resurrection![7]




[1] Richard Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. (WJK, 2001).

[2] These were also the themes explored in my sermon series “Forty Days” during lent 2018.

[3] See Robert Beck, Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark. (Orbis, 1996).

[4] Ched Myers, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. (Orbis, 1996).

[5] See Albert Camus, “Neither Victims nor Executioners” in Camus in Combat: Writings 1944-1947.Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. (Princeton University Press, 2006).

[6] As I was preparing the sermon, I read, among others, as well as The strike ended on Easter Sunday, after the hospitalization of several participants and an agreement with the Ulema Council:

[7] Our hymn following the sermon was “Christ is Alive” by Brian Wren, which includes the line “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving healing, here and now, an touching every place and time.” Revised in 1995, the hymn was originally written for Easter 1968, which fell just ten days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. But consider what it means to read Christ in Palestine today, see Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes. (Orbis, 2014).

[i] Thanks to Shannan Vance-Ocampo who found this poem and shared it on Facebook. The English translation of Comenzando la Semana Santa here was largely done by The Rev. Noelle Damico.


De cruces y resurrecciones
Nuestra historia sigue plagada 
de viernes nada santos,
de cruces llenas de inocentes,
de víctimas de denuncias falsas,
de multitudes aplaudiendo torturas
y exigiendo muertes jóvenes.
Los poderes religiosos y políticos 
continúan complotándose,
buscando acallar los testimonios
en favor de la vida, de la justicia,
de la equidad, de la dignidad.
Cualquier propuesta que huela a solidaridad 
despierta los neo-fariseísmos 
y moviliza a los caifases, 
siempre atentos a cualquier amenaza 
a sus privilegios y a su comodidad.
Y mientras los pilatos y las pilatas 
se lavan las manos
en cuencos de agua envenenada
de prejuicios, de hipocresías,
de cobardías y de traiciones,
en los modernos gólgotas
sufren y se desangran las vidas buenas.

Pero también se renuevan las resurrecciones, 
las benditas manifestaciones de la vida,
que iluminan desde los bordes de la esperanza
las realidades crueles y duras del cotidiano andar.
Resurrecciones que marchan
reclamando derechos,
luchando por lo que plenifica la existencia,
gritando en la cara del poder corrupto,
sonriendo, porque la alegría 
subvierte los odios ponzoñosos
y alumbra insurrecciones de ternura,
brillando en las miradas 
que vislumbran horizontes de justicia
que esperan ser alcanzados.
Resurrecciones que abrazan 
las causas que nadie quiere abrazar
porque son las que tienden la mano,
las que levantan a las personas caídas,
las que animan a quienes lloran y sufren,
las que se sublevan ante las estructuras que oprimen,
las que desenmascaran las perversions,
las que impulsan a seguir creyendo.
Porque ninguna cruz 
pudo ni puede ni podrá jamás
arrancarle la vida 
a los amores sinceros y puros.


Rising to the Challenge

April 11, 2018

On Sunday, April 8, I got to speak to a packed house at White Plains Presbyterian Church, reminding all gathered that this church has been a catalyst for democracy and a haven for revolutionaries for more than 300 years as local elected and community leaders joined hundreds in welcoming NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who was addressing us on how we can fill in, fight back, and work to create social and economic justice in these challenging times. Here’s what I said:


Good afternoon. I am The Rev. Jeff Geary, Senior Pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church. Let me tell you quickly that bathrooms are available through this door to my right, your left, including an accessible bathroom and a water fountain. There are also bathrooms at the back and down the stairs, as well as a quiet room and place to change a diaper at the back of the sanctuary. We also have an activity table up here at the front of the sanctuary for children to draw and color and occupy their hands as we talk together this afternoon.

For more than 300 years this this congregation has been a catalyst of democracy and a haven for revolutionaries, so it is a delight to welcome you here today.

Our multi-racial congregation – we come from more than 30 countries with many first-generation immigrants – our congregation has identified climate change, structural racism and systemic inequality as the three deadly challenges that our faith calls us to confront in this time and place.

Through partnerships, acts of compassion, direct action, advocacy, and financial support, our church endeavors to be a force for resistance and an agent of change. 

And so we are not just hosts, providing a building, but neighbors prepared to walk together with you and with the many millions who are even now rising up in every corner of this county, state, and nation.

As we listen, and question, and imagine together, know that the lights illumining this space are running on solar power, which provides 80% of our church’s electricity.  And we’re making the opportunity to solarize your congregations, businesses, organizations, and homes available at discounted rates throughout the county.  To learn more about this solarize program, brochures are available near the windows and by the entry at the back of the sanctuary. []


In this time when the very sinews of democracy are under attack, when tyrannical power targets the poorest and most vulnerable among us while undermining the rights of all of us, we remember that “we the people” have always responded to history’s summons with courage and commitment.

From Harriet Tubman’s north star journeys to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from Seneca Falls to Stonewall, we the people have risen to the challenge, no matter how great the odds.

So, as we confront the Goliath of unaccountable power in this time and place, if we should begin to waver and wonder, will it be possible, remember this: we have, we can, and we will.

It is now my distinct honor to introduce Juanita Lewis, Hudson Valley Organizing Director of Community Voices Heard.  Community Voices Heard has been the conscience of this county when it comes to issues of housing, jobs, and transportation.  A woman who helps us create democracy that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people” every day, won’t you join me in welcoming Juanita. 



Forty Days in Nineveh with Jonah

March 20, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 7.50.22 AM

“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during the Lenten Season 2018.
This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018.
Today’s illustration of Jesus walking out of the village of Nazareth is by

Simon Smith, a British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.
I am using it to capture the act of Jonah walking into the great city.

 Mark 1:12-15         Jonah 3:1-10

The Book of Jonah is a familiar story to many of us, but like familiar stories, is worth rehearsing in outline. I would like to remind you of the basic story, as recounted by Julian Barnes in his novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, with all his usual wit and humor.

[Here I read the two paragraphs on pages 175-176 from the book][ii]

Julian’s purpose in retelling the story is to argue that there is really not much of a plot, particularly because God holds all the cards. Julian believes the main point – Jonah’s anger over God’s mercy – is on the whole forgotten as most of us remember little besides the prophet’s three-day stay in the belly of the big fish. Our good friend Phyllis Trible would of course disagree, having written the book on the interpretation of Jonah, finding in it endless avenues of interpretation once we gives any one aspect of the story more than a moments thought. The Book of Jonah is, after all, a rich parable. What we bring to it shapes what we find.[iii]

I wonder what Jesus brought to this story…

Our interest in the Parable of Jonah, and the way it fits into our Lenten sermon series on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, is with the commission Jonah is given to preach for forty days ‘the message that God gives him.’ Jonah is to cry out against the city because it’s wickedness has come up before God.

[Read Jonah 3:1-10]

We all like to think of Jonah as the prophet who ran away, learned his lesson, and then did what God asked. But the Jonah we find here in chapter 3 is still the reluctant prophet, and remains so to the end, doing the bare minimum, like petulant teenager or a passive colleague who does just enough to say “But I did what you asked!”

We are told that the great City of Nineveh is so large that it would take three days to walk through it. Jonah marches one day into the city and utters a single sentence, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And then turns on his heels and leaves. Jonah is given forty days to name Nineveh’s wickedness, to let them know that God has seen their violence, heard the cry of those they oppress, seen their wanton wealth, and cry “Repent, repent, turn back, change your ways and be saved.”

But he does not.

Because he hates Nineveh.

Instead, he climbs a hill and perches there to await the promised destruction. We can almost picture him with a bag of popcorn, relishing the downfall of the city. We can imagine Jonah repeating with some pride the words of the Psalmist, “I have hated your enemies, O God, with a perfect hatred. I count them my own enemies.” Let’s leave Jonah there on his hilltop for a moment.[iv]

We began this Lenten sermon series with a movie reference: I compared the time of testing undertaken by Jesus in the wilderness to the visions quests undertaken by King T’Challa in Black Panther. I want to end the series with another movie reference to A Wrinkle In Time, as well as to the book series it is a part of and to its author, the fabulous Madeleine L’Engle, because the entire quintet of novels is about visions quests and about testing, or being tested, in one form or another.[v]

In Ava DuVernay’s cinematic depiction of A Wrinkle in Time, a 30-foot-tall Oprah Winfrey, playing the angelic Mrs. Which, tells young Meg, “You will be tested.” When 30-foot-tall Oprah speaks, you listen!

Like both Jesus and T’Challa, in her ‘vision quest’ Meg will meet leave the world of the familiar, spend time with wild creatures, and be waited upon by angels; the difference is that in Madeleine L’Engle’s universe when we face our time of testing, we are never alone. Instead, we are surrounded both by those who love us and those who bear gifts we need. Meg is accompanied every step of the way – by here brother Charles Wallace, by Calvin, by angelic guides, and in a later book by the principle of her school and by the universe itself. The idea of testing becomes explicit in the sequel, A Wind in the Door, in which Meg, like Jesus delving into the stories of faith and the history of his people, must undergo three tests which have the look and feel of Jesus’ own temptations – temptation here understood as a testing of one’s self in difficult situations. Meg must recognize her affinity to Adam, the true namer of all things, and she must learn that to name something or someone rightly is to love them. Meg’s three tests involve learning how to love those who seem unlovable, or difficult to love, most especially herself.[vi]

This is what Jonah cannot do. (Meg could teach him a thing or two).

It might interest you to know that Madeleine L’Engle has also written a play about Jonah. In it I find a historical note in the form of a dialogue between four animals – a goose, a catbird, and owl and a jay – who recount the story of the historical Jonah as found in 2 Kings 14. This real Jonah (as opposed to the fictional character in our parable) prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (786-756) during is vassalage to Assyria and its capitol city Nineveh. One of the animals calls Jonah a “profitable prophet” because he used his prophetic gifts to urge King Jeroboam to reclaim, through battle, territory that had been lost to the Assyrians. Basically, he urged a war of liberation or what we might even call decolonization. And they were successful in liberating the land.[vii]

But here is what I take away from this portrayal of the profitable prophet: demonizing one’s enemy is really easy when one is in a struggle for freedom and liberation. One gains much through hatred and ‘othering,’ and the temptation is difficult to resist.[viii]

To illustrate, we need only look at the Prophet Nahum, whose short book appears a few pages after Jonah, which could serve as a useful background for our story. Nahum help us understand what Nineveh meant to those who heard the story of Jonah, and to understand Jonah’s hatred for the Assyrians, his reluctance to offer them God’s Word, his bitterness at their repentance and redemption. Listen to him:

Woe to the bloody city,
All full of lies and booty
All who hear the news of you
Clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your unceasing evil?

And that is the kindest thing Nahum can say about Nineveh. Thus the Assyrians had a reputation for violence and terrorism, exploitation and conquest, and the great city served a symbol of all that opposed God and God’s people.[ix]

The Book of Jonah, then, presents a prophet with the new kind of task: to judge the path of a city and an empire while declaring that God does not wish the destruction of any (remember Noah?). He must genuinely love an enemy into repentance, and win them as a friend. Jonah fails, in the loving part, but even his reluctant effort does not thwart God’s purpose. This is a kind of good news in the story. Nineveh uses their forty days to seek mercy and change their ways, from the king to the 120,000 persons all the way down the smallest animals. And God relents.[x]

But the lesson is larger than the story.

Working as an ally with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been a part of my Lenten experience for more than fifteen years. The month of March is campaign season, as corporations are often preparing to hold annual meetings. Campaign season means marches, short ones through cities or 240 mile marches across entire states; it means demonstrations in front of fast-food restaurants and corporate headquarters; it means fasting – one day, five days, ten days – to place bodies and lives on the line, demonstrating the daily hunger faced by exploited and often poorly paid farmworkers. It means liturgy and prayer, street theater, it means crying out that God has seen the wickedness and declaring that time is up. #TimesUpWendys

As most of you know, the CIW completed a five-day fast this past Thursday evening.[xi] There was a joyful, colorful march from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in NYC to the offices of Nelson Peltz, who sits on the Board of Directors of Wendy’s and who is responsible for Wendy’s moving their produce purchasing to Mexico rather than finding a way to ensure fair food in the United States. This particular campaign highlighted the sexual exploitation of women that happens in fields not protected by the Fair Food Program, sexual exploitation enabled by Wendy’s refusal. At the end of the march, back at Dag Hammarskjold as an amazing band wrapped up their set that left the crowd cheering, those who had been without food climbed the platform. A solemn candle was lit to hallow the moment and Pastor Miguel Estrada of Misión Peniel in Immokallee addressed the farmworkers, leading them through their final moments before breaking bread and breaking their fast.

[To capture something of this moment for the congregation, I then shared
a short video from the end of a 240-mile march in 2013 in which Pastor Miguel
describes both how and why we struggle. We listened in Spanish
and then I read the translation (substituting Wendy’s for Publix)
for those who did not already understand.][xii]

For tonight, and for this circumstance,
I want to give two messages.
First, to all those who are marching.
The tiredness you feel on the march
is small compared to the exhaustion of the exploitation
you’ve received for a long time.
The second message if for Publix.
Because they too need to hear something tonight.
And from the bottom of my heart I want to say
that shopping at Publix is not a pleasure, it is a nightmare.
Because buying from them today
means being on the side of those who oppress and exploit workers.
It will only be a pleasure when Publix is on the right side.
We are not against Publix.
We are against injustice.
We are inviting them to come to the table.
Listen to our reasons. Learn from farmworkers.
We are certain that you will change your mind Publix.

That is the voice we should have heard from Jonah.

This is the voice we hear in Jesus. Throughout Lent, we have explored in worship what Jesus went out to see, and what he went out to do, during his own time of testing. It has been our conviction that during his forty days in the wilderness Jesus was diving deep in the stories of faith and the history of his people, discerning in them the paths that lead toward God, and those that lead away; tracing the footsteps that lead us to embrace God and God’s people and all God’s creation, as well as tracking those paths that lead us back to empire, collude with oppression, and even use religious language to bless what should never be blessed. Returning from his own forty days in the wilderness, we have imagined Jesus

  • Contemplating the cost of violence in the story of Noah, and embracing God’s first covenant – a treaty of nonviolence with all creation;
  • Learning to stand with Moses on the side of the oppressed and exploited, the imprisoned and enslaved, and embracing God’s second covenant – not as a set of laws to regulate lives, but as a way of life to set us free;
  • We have seen how Jesus, like Elijah, was nourished in the wild, fed by animals and strangers, but how he also had to come face to face with his own fears, as Elijah did, and consider the consequences of his actions;
  • And now finally with the story of Jonah we see Jesus taking the path not chosen, pressing on for the ultimate winning over of even those he must oppose.

The hymn we will sing after this sermon is called “All Who Love and Serve Your City.” It is a hymn of vocation for we who know that we have been called in this time and in this place both to judge the destructive paths we partake in and to offer the good news of a better way. It is a hymn for those who know and love the city. I am reminded of the logo we adopted when we celebrated the 300th anniversary of those congregation in 2014 – White Plains Presbyterian Church – Faith in the City.

The hymn was written during a Scottish hymn writing festival that had been called to correct the absence of hymns focused on urban problems. The writer, Eric Routley, tells us he was in his room trying to compose a new tune, but that the sound of another composer in the adjoining room made that impossible so he settled for writing new words to a familiar tune. A final side note before we sing: both movies that I have mentioned during Lent include visions for redemptive work within cities. Black Panther ends with King T’Challa and his sister Shuri opening a community center in Oakland, California, home of the very real Black Panthers who did similar work. And both the Murray and O’Keefe families in DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time come straight outa Compton. “All Who Love and Serve Your City” was written with Oakland, specifically, in mind.



[i] I want to give a shout out to my partner in exegetical brainstorming, The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea, who has spent the two months ‘thinking forty’ with me. We have taken time each week to inspire and challenge one another, with Katie particularly good at calling out those moments in which we needed to just sit in silence (like our prophets of forty) with what he had done and let it sink in. Thank you, Katie!!

[ii] Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters: A Novel. (Vintage International, 1989). pp. 175-176. Barnes believes the power of the story comes not from plot or theological purpose but from tapping a basic biological fear of being eaten by a large animal.

[iii] Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah. Guides to Biblical Scholarship, edited by Gene Tucker. (Fortress Press, 1998). See especially chapter 10, ‘Guidelines for Continuing,’ Section B, ‘Subjectivity’: “The label ‘subjective’ need not mean that all interpretations are equally valid or even valid. No, the text itself sets limits to subjectivity.” p. 231. See also John A Miles, Jr. “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody. Jewish Quarterly Review. New Series. Vol. 65. No. 3. (Jan. 1975). pp. 168-181. Miles presents a strong contextual reading of the Book as an all inclusive parody of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

[iv] Psalm 139:22.

[v] Re-reading this series during Lent this year has underscored this. In addition to the two examples mentioned in the sermon, the third book is literally about Native American vision quests, as Charles Wallace kythes through time in ‘be within’ a Wampanoag seer (A Swiftly Tilting Planet), and the fourth book involves the eldest brothers Sandys and Dennys travelling back to the days of Noah in order to indwell that story and its lessons for us today (Many Waters

[vi] See especially the chapter “The Real Mr. Jenkins” in Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973).

[vii] Madeleine L’Engle, The Journey of Jonah. Illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967 and 1978). The relevant section appears as three animals discuss the prophet Jonah’s past:


Is he a real prophet?


Yes, and a profitable one.


(Pointedly ignoring Catbird)
The national program of territorial enlargement carried out by Jeroboam the Second was instigated by the prophet.


(Explaining for the thoroughly bewildered Goose)
Jonah’s first successful prophecy, goosey, was to go to King Jeroboam and tell him to go into battle with the Assyrians and reclaim some of the land they had taken from us in the first place. Which he did. Is that quite clear?


But what do the Assyrians have to do with Nineveh, Jay?


Nineveh is the capitol of Assyria, Goose, and I don’t blame Jonah one bit for not wanting to warn them. They’re nasty, wicked people.

[viii] For an insightful and challenging look at the problems with associating God with ethnic or national interests, which the Book of Jonah was arguably written to cautions against, see Rosemary Radford Reuther and Herman J. Reuther, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. (Fortress Press, 2002).

[ix] James Limberg, Hosea – Micah. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (John Knox Press, 1988). p. 139.

[x] Wes Howard-Brook suggest that this is part of the parody as well, that empires cannot and do not repent (no biblical prophet was successful in this matter). See “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010), p. 223. For other critical readings and reflections on the responsibility of Christians within empire, see Theology from the Belly of the Whale: A Frederick Herzog Reader edited by Joerg Reiger (Trinity Press International, 1999) and the brief reflection in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Anniversary Edition (Orbis, 2008), p. 454.

[xi] Here’s a day-by-day summary video, including the march.


Forty Days Hiding in Fear with Elijah

March 12, 2018


“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during the Lenten Season 2018. This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018. Today’s illustration of Jesus seeking out a cave in which to hide himself, just as Elijah did, is by Simon Smith, a British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Our gospel reading this morning is the same one we have shared each Sunday during Lent and which has given us our theme: Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wild. We extend the gospel reading this morning beyond Jesus’s time apart from civilization and among the wild animals to include his return to Galilee, for reasons that I hope will be clear later on.

[Read Mark 1:12-15]

Our reading from the Older Testament this morning comes from 1 Kings 19 – the fearful flight of the prophet Elijah. We pick up the story after Elijah and Yahweh have won a huge, perhaps a decisive, victory over the forces of Baal, against Ahab (the corrupt King of Israel), and against Jezebel (the king’s foreign born wife). Elijah had both proposed and prevailed in a contest between himself and the false prophets, between his God and the foreign god, between the ‘people’s prophet’ and the King who serves the interests of a foreign power. The struggle, however, was not yet finished. Having won the contest, Queen Jezebel proclaims a death sentence for the prophet, and Elijah flees in stark terror.[i]

[Read 1 Kings 19:1-21][ii]

Have you ever been paralyzed with fear? You know, so afraid that you knew that as soon as you could you would run away? Most of my elemental fears have had to do with running into bears or snakes while out hiking. But fear can happen in more intimate settings, like trying to say something honest about ourselves to someone who has hurt us before, or it can happen in more public settings, like being put on the spot to say something perhaps controversial or unpopular (or just self-revealing) when the public space is not necessarily safe.[iii]

When I used to teach outdoor education and do high ropes work with youth groups, hauling kids 40 feet up into the tree line to traverse obstacle courses in the hopes of learning something about themselves and working with others, I would describe our experience as falling within one of three concentric circles. The first and smallest circle I would describe as our comfort zone. This circle contains all that is familiar and routine, it is navigable, it is our ‘home’ space. It is where we encounter our family and closest friends. Here we are safe. Stepping outside our comfort zone brings us to the next circle where we encounter the unfamiliar, where we try new things and have new experience. Here is where we take the risks through which we learn to encounter our world and trust ourselves. This somewhat larger circle I would call the learning zone. Beyond this circle is yet one more that I would call the danger zone. Out here we become preoccupied with personal safety. At this point, where fear takes over, we no longer have the capacity for learning but try everything we can do to retreat. Now, I always wanted my students to be in the learning zone, because I wanted them to learn valuable lessons. That is why we practiced what we called “challenge by choice.” The problem is, faithfulness to God’s call sometimes takes us further to that place not only of risk but also of danger.[iv]

I would like to think that Jesus spent part of his forty days in the wilderness, as he traced the history of his people, contemplating the prophet Elijah and facing his own fears so that when he returned he would be prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

In his book, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire, which we have been studying in our Adult Class during Lent, Rick Ufford-Chase has written that “Fear is the overarching characteristic of the broader culture in the United States today.”

Look just below the belligerences and bravado of our politicians, and it is easy to intuit the deep sense of insecurity in the general population to which they are responding. We feel unsafe about our livelihoods. Many of us feel alienated and disconnected from our neighbors. We are concerned that our kids won’t be able to find secure jobs to care for their families. Too many of us are just a medical crisis away from economic disaster. Many of us are trying to juggle the responsibilities of our own families with the livelihoods of others who work for us in small businesses that never quite make it economic stability.

As citizens, we are anxious about the constant state of a war on terror to which our country has committed itself, fearful as terrorist attacks are replayed endlessly in the media. Our fear of anyone – and perhaps everyone – who is ‘different’ from us is intentionally fueled by public discourse that suggests building walls on our borders, patrolling our neighborhoods, arming ourselves to ‘stand our ground,’ locking up criminals, and refusing entry to all we see as enemies (currently, Muslims). Our growing fear is not accidental – it is the result of a well-funded and ceaseless campaign by the powers and principalities that stand to gain big while our anxiety grows, as we buy into the myth that redemptive violence can make us safer.[v]

Now Rick’s examples of fear remind me that alongside flight, which is my preferred stance when I am afraid, there is also the option to fight. Fight or flight, right? While I like to back away, some people attack that which scares them, or take an aggressive (and therefore distancing) stance in conversation, intimidating others into submission.

But fear, we have said many times before, is only overcome by action. Rick cites 1 John, “perfect love cast out fear.” It is true, but the love that casts out fear is not a thought or a feeling. Rick makes it clear that what love-in-action looks like is solidarity: standing with or walking beside someone else. Fear is not overcome in thought, but through acts of courage – a standing up for, or even better, standing with another.

A couple of moths ago, when a small group in the church was discussing responses to gun violence that would involve action by our congregation beyond lobbying for changes in legislation, we identified fear as our chief problem. Guns make us afraid. That is their point. And in a debate over gun control, one side is armed. Well, since then, the high school students of Parkland have shown us what courage looks like, haven’t they. Once one has been shot at, I suppose there is little left to fear.

As the prophet Elijah reflect in Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Fifth Mountain, “fear exists until the moment when the unavoidable happens. After that, we must waste none of our energy on it.”[vi]

During our small group discussion, I shared a story that I have been asked to share with the congregation. It comes from the time I spent (along with Rev. Sarah Henkel and Will Summers) in Standing Rock, North Dakota, as part of the clergy gathering of solidarity in November 2016. You will recall that the Standing Rock Sioux, joined by representatives of nearly every North American tribal body with support from non-indigenous people across the country, were occupying a portion of their own un-ceded land through which Dakota Access Pipeline was being laid to carry oil for export from the Bakkan shale oil fields in North Dakota all the way to ports in Louisiana. At issue was both indigenous sovereignty, which the United States has never respected, and clean water, on which the Standing Rock Sioux, and all of us, depend. By protecting their own watershed, the “water protectors” were protecting all of us.

The frontline of protest was the pipeline path, but while we were there a decision was made to take the protest to the governor in the capitol city of Bismarck. We gathered at the capitol building and a small group occupied the lobby. This group was told that the governor has already left the building – whether he was hiding or had fled we don’t know – and when they insisted the governor either come down or come back this first group was arrested and bussed away to jail. Those of us outside were then ordered to disburse. Instead, we marched three-blocks to the governor’s mansion and gathered on the sidewalk across the street from his home. The governor came out to watch us, but refused to meet with the indigenous leaders who wanted, among other things, a stop to the intense police violence at the protest site. That, after all, was the reason over 1000 clergy had come – to stand in solidarity beside indigenous leaders who were daily being beaten up, gassed, shot, infiltrated and chased by dogs. When the governor chose to watch rather than talk, standing behind the line of perhaps twenty armed police officers, four persons from our group crossed the street, stepped onto the governor’s property, and knelt down to pray for the meeting to take place.

At this point nearly a hundred militarized police appeared in full riot gear with masked helmets, shields, clubs, and assault weapons. They appeared from where they had been waiting around the corner for just this moment. They came from every direction. A young Sioux was snatched from our line and taken hostage by the police. With each order for our immediate dispersal, the line of police would advance toward us across the street. Our leadership was negotiating the release of the prisoner. And the weapons kept getting closer. We were offered a “free speech zone” several blocks away where we could continue our protest – out of sight of the governor, out of sight of the neighbors, and most importantly out of sight of the commuters now returning home from work. One very smart and experienced organizer suggested we walk back and forth on the sidewalk, moving but staying on public property, continuing to exercise our first amendment rights, and removing any legal basis for arresting us.

Now here is my point. I’ve been to enough protests and marches to know this was smart move. I leapt on the opportunity to start moving rather than simply standing in front of the advancing police line. And I experience no small amount of relief from the fact that we were, for the moment, marching away form the weapons. Back and forth we went, I went, weighing my relief with my fear and a sense of cowardice, not feeling good about myself, but also not wanting to be hit. But when it became clear that the indigenous leadership was not moving, that one them was still a prisoner, that negotiations were continuing … when it became clear that they were staying, then it became really clear where I belonged, come what may. At that point my sense fear evaporated, I had a sense of resolve instead, and I took my place again on the line.

Knowing where to stand, or who to stand with: this is the key. This is love, not as thought or feeling, but as solidarity. And this love casts out fear.

I would like to think Jesus spent part of his time in the wilderness wrestling with his own personal fears, including arrest, torture and execution under Roman occupation. Having confronted his people’s legacy of violence, and the theologies used to justify it (Forty Days with Noah); having decided to take sides in the conflicts of his day, to side with the oppressed against the oppressors (Forty Days with Moses); he now had to face the implications of those choices – actual conflict with the rulers of the age. His companion was Elijah, the prophet who fled in fear from the consequences of his words and action, but who was also most decidedly sent back to continue his work, come what may. Interestingly, I learned this week that “within the history of the Elijah tradition, “fear” was subtly changed to “awareness” – a simple alliteration in vowels in Hebrew – so that the mighty prophet is represented as running away not because he is frightened but because he “sees”; he is prudently aware of Jezebel’s implicit threat.” Perhaps, but he also returned with eyes wide open. I said earlier that I would tell you why we read the extended gospel reading. It was to include that Jesus emerged from the wilderness precisely when John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus stepped in, and stepped up, to continue John’s work of denouncing injustice and calling for repentance, even after John had been jailed for that very message. Only Jesus’ message was strengthened and enriched by his testing in the wild.[vii]

I encourage you to reflect this week, our fourth in Lent, on your own fears; to join a rich conversation with others here about the kinds of fears that hold you back from doing what you know God is calling you to do. Elijah, by the way, never had trouble hearing God. Many preachers have used this passage to tell us that God was not in all the noise – of earthquake, wind or fire – but instead needed Elijah to be still and quiet enough to hear God whisper. But the passage does not locate God in a “still small voice,” but as a clear voice that came after an expectant silence. My favorite translation of moment comes from a French Bible that describes this as “the sound of a vanishing silence.” In other words, a moment of anticipation in which silence passes away, or is about to pass away, into speech – a moment of expectancy. I take this to mean that God is found in the readiness to hear, and to respond.[viii]

Thich Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, has written that “We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future.” Joy, however, is found in the present. Or as Jesus said, “The time is now. Now, is the acceptable, or accepting, time. Believe the good news. The kingdom is near.” [ix]




[i] Adapted from Walter Brueggemann. 1 & 2 Kings: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. (Smyth and Helwys, 2000). For an analysis of what was probably the original Elijah narrative, and the differences between it and our present text, see Davie Napier, The Best of Davie Napier: Come Sweet Death; Time of Burning; Word of God Word of Earth. (Abingdon, 1970, 1976, 1981 respectively. Collection, 1991). I was sorely tempted to use the reconstructed original text in worship, as it reads so well, but the ’40 days’ motif would have disappeared, being a later addition to further correlate Elijah with Moses, Horeb with Sinai.

[ii] Ahab was remembered for having practiced both idolatry and injustice. Wes Howard-Brook is particularly clear, however, that “the ‘religious’ charge of worshipping false gods is never separate from the socioeconomic charge of practicing injustice. Scholars who have attempted to separate ‘cultic’ from ‘social justice’ questions in the prophets have radically misunderstood the integrated perspective that the prophets proclaim.” On Ahab serving as a vassal of the Assyrian Empire, see Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010). Pp. 161-165.

[iii] There was a particularly pertinent article about fear in this morning’s Washington Post that I wish I had incorporated into this sermon. Called, provocatively, “At Yale, We Conducted an Experiment to Turn Conservatives into Liberals,” the authors describe not only a wealth of research but a recent experiment that demonstrated that a subjects sense of personal safety significantly altered their answers to questions on a range of divisive social issues. “All of us believe,” they write

that our social and political attitudes are based on good reasons and reflect our important values. But we also need to recognize how much they can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know this already and attempt to manipulate our votes and party allegiances by appealing to these potent feelings of fear and of safety.

Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.

[iv] Fascinating article in The Washington Post this morning about how our personal experience of safety and security shapes the way we interpret and respond to the world, and how fear affects out political judgments. The substance is neither new nor surprising. We all understand how easily fear can be manipulated, but the experiment was able to produce a sense of safety significant enough to affect political judgment by simply asking participants to imagine themselves with superpowers, one of which was invulnerability. The affect was immediate.

[v] Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire. (UnShelved, 2016). p. 167. Wrestling with the myth of redemptive violence, I imagined earlier, was part of Jesus wilderness experience. I examined this through the story of Noah’s forty days on Ararat. On Solidarity, see in particular the reflection by Aric Clark in chapter 9.

[vi] Paulo Coelho, The Fifth Mountain. (HarperCollins, 1998). p. 142. The words are actually spoken by the governor of Zaraphath, but the paragraph continues, “Elijah felt the same way, though he was ashamed to recognize it.” This is why I has changed the quote to “Elijah echoed” rather than “He said to Elijah.”

[vii] On fear and prudent awareness, see Davie Napier, The Best of Davie Napier: Come Sweet Death; Time of Burning; Word of God Word of Earth. (Abingdon, 1991) p. 150. See also Brueggemann. 1 & 2 Kings, for a description of how this silence, “whatever is was,” served to get Elijah’s attention.

[viii] A. Chouraqui, cited in Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity. (Wipf and Stock, French 1988, English 1991). p. 34.

[ix] Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting through the Storm. (HarperOne, 2012).