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The Church for the World

May 21, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Ascension Sunday / Founding Day, May 21, 2017. The recorded history of the White Plains Presbyterian Church begins on May 27, 1714. On that day The Rev. Christopher Bridges received a donation of land from Mr. John Frost of Rye on which to begin construction of their planned first sanctuary. We celebrated our 300th Anniversary in 2014 and now mark the Sunday leading up to this anniversary each year as Founding Day.

Luke 24:44-53         Acts 1:1-11

On the first Sunday after Easter, the risen Christ made his first appearance to the disciples on the Emmaus Road. He opened the scriptures to them and broke bread with them, and then vanished from their sight. This is the shape of the Easter story in Luke’s gospel. Jesus appears, the church is formed, and the message goes out to transform the world.

Our text from the Acts of the Apostles continues this story by telling us that for forty days Jesus spoke with his disciples about the Kingdom. What message did the risen Jesus give the early church? It was the same message he had embodied in his life and ministry. The God who creates us, loves us, and calls us to love one another. Into the political, social, and economic mess of first century Palestine, into the alienation of neighbor from neighbor, and the despair of any kind of hopeful change, God has come, will come, will come again. The Kingdom is in our midst. The poor will be lifted up, the rich brought low, the humble inherit the earth and the peacemakers, the pursuers of justice, and the lovers of enemy will be blessed. For this, Christ died. When the going got tough, the people, including the disciples – though not the women, fled, denied, and those who had eagerly embraced him yet fell away.

But God so loved the world. . .; God sent the son to embrace life, and though he died, yet he lives. For nothing can stop God’s love. Alive again, the message of the risen Christ is that not even flight, denial or failure; not even death can stop God’s love. God is faithful, period, to all of creation and to us. God embraces us and will yet accomplish through us God’s good purpose.

Which is why I find the story we have today to be so sad. Picture it: the risen Christ has been appearing to the disciple for forty days, bearing witness to God’s amazing faithfulness, gathering together and creating his church. And then he ascends, like a cloud – subtly shifting and changing till it is gone and you cannot quite say when it was no longer there. He has left his disciples with a church and a promise: I am sending you a Spirit who will help you bear witness even unto the ends of the earth. But the disciples, all those gathered on the hill, are still gazing at the sky. The church is happening right here, taking shape, forming, but his disciples are staring up in to the clouds. When the two angels appear and ask them “So, what are you looking at?”, am I the only one who hears hear the voice of another angel saying, “He is not here. He is risen. Go and tell the others.”?

Walter Brueggemann is right to say that the stories of the Acts of the Apostles have a decidedly “churchly tilt”. Which means they are about us. With Jesus ascended, the church is now Christ’s body here on earth. This story marks the Bible’s shift from the gospel stories about the life of Jesus, to the letters, revelations and stories that directly address the life of the church.

And to such are promised an advocate, a comforter, the spark of creation, divine breath, the Holy Spirit. To such will come the gift of Pentecost.

The Easter season embodies this rhythm. The forty days from Resurrection to Ascension see the church being gathered together. The ten days from Ascensions to Pentecost see the church expectant and waiting – praying – actively praying for God’s future vision to come alive, be ignited, be inspired. And then comes Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks. This, finally, is about the church on fire with, blown away by, inspirited with and inspired by the Spirit of God, ready to bear and follow God’s word into a world of need and unto the ends of the earth.

You see, Jesus gathered and empowered his disciples for a purpose: that we might embody the justice, generosity, and joy of God for the good of the world. As we say,  ‘gathering is for the church, but the church is for the world.’ And so we have been, for 303 years!

The White Plains Presbyterian Church was founded by a group of farming families who came over to White Plains from Town of Rye in 1683. In that year, the Old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam had been surrendered to the British and was renamed New York. The first governor of the British colony, however, desired uniformity and loyalty from the churches in his territory and had sent a Church of England priest to the Town of Rye, and the priest confiscated the church building where the Presbyterians had been worshipping. This was too much for our founders, men and women who valued religious liberty and freedom of conscience above all else, so they picked up and moved here to build a new church. Conscience was indeed the watchword: They didn’t think it right for one religious tradition to impose itself on another. And they were vehemently opposed to government demanding fidelity to a particular religion. Only God could command the heart. The importance of what we now know as the separation of church and state, has been part of our church’s theological DNA from the very beginning. And it is a gift worth preserving.

No one is more identified with the founding period than the Reverend John Smith, whose gravestone can be found in the hallway here just outside the sanctuary. Rev. Smith was not only Pastor for more than 30 years, but he was also the physician for the village of White Plains and for those who lived around it. This in the era when modern medicine was just beginning. Faith and science are still recognized as siblings by those of us here. I look out and I see medical professionals, nurses and physicians, from the front to the back of the sanctuary.

Some of you may be looking around and thinking, but this sanctuary doesn’t look like it was built in the 1600s! And you’d be right. For our church’s first sanctuary was burned down during the Battle of White Plains in 1776.

But interestingly, our ancestors in faith did not build another sanctuary until 1825 – 49 years later! Instead, they worked with and worshipped with our neighbors.  Presbyterian Ann Miller welcomed the first Methodist minister in town by erecting a pulpit in her living room so that he could preach from a proper pulpit, as befits the Word of God. The members of this church twice help raise funds for the building of the Methodist Church, recognizing the Methodists, through their campaigns to abolish slavery and their insistence and seeing evidence of a redeemed life, kindred theological spirits. And it was, after all, a child of this congregation, Daniel D. Tompkins, who, when he became governor in 1807, who abolished slavery in New York. This generation of faith ancestors realized the truth that the church is not a building – it is a people. And it is not a people gathered for themselves, but for the world.

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needlepoint image of the second sanctuary (1825-1854)

On the eve of the Civil War, the congregation discovered that their pastor, Rev. Teese, took the side of slaveholders and agreed with their claims of states’ rights, as were some in the congregation with strong business ties to the south. Finding it difficult to remove him, most of the families in the church left. Permanently. Dealing with political issues as congregations has never been easy, but it is part of what our scripture today means by preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are called to challenge systems of oppression, proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind and good news to the poor. In this case Rev. Teese was on the wrong side of history, and he did not last long after the conclusion of the war. I think this story is worth remembering, though, as we seek to find the path of faithfulness in the midst of the issues of our own day.

We can find episodes in every period of our history that connect with much that we do now – our commitment to strong Christian education reminds me of those who built first the upper room chapel and lecture hall, and then the church house, and finally this building behind me, primarily for adult and church school education; our advocacy on behalf immigrants in the early years of this century reminds me of the work of this congregation to support Italian immigrants who were stone masons building the Kensico Dam the beginning of the 20th century, and with a member of this congregation that served in the denomination special task force and immigration in the 60s and who went on to found a school for children on the US-Mexico border. Our interest in fair food and justice for farmworkers reminds me of the member of this church who became a missionary in India and worked with small farmers on issues of food sovereignty. The list goes on and on. And in our own day we are paving a new path by working to bring an end to the age of fossil fuels by having divesting our church portfolio, and through solar panels and other measures to build a future upon renewable energy sources and working to convince our denomination to do likewise.

I think my favorite story of all, though, is the church council’s first act of civil disobedience. When the town of White Plains was incorporated as a city in 1916, all the cemeteries within the city bounds were closed to future burials. However, there was a gentleman buried in the cemetery who was survived by his wife. She lived until a couple years after this new law passed.  Unable to officially bury her, the church council held a “called meeting” at midnight with instructions that each member should “bring his own shovel.” And there, under cover of darkness in the middle of the night, they buried her themselves, laying her beside her husband. May our church councils always be so compassionate and creative.

‘Gathering is for the church, but the church is for the world.’ This is the story of the Acts of the Apostles, and the message for Ascension Day. May this place be, may we be, may the White Plains Presbyterian Church always be, a spirit-filled, living prayer for the City of White Plains and for the world.

Sabbath Day – Beren and Luthien

May 21, 2017

Thursday, May 18.

I am currently reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to my ten year old son. He knows the basic story from the 1980’s dramatized radio program (which we have listened to on many road trips), from the animated movies, and (alas) from the Peter Jackson films. We have also read sections before. But this is our first every word read straight through. What a ball. August is willing to forsake just about everything right now to make more time for reading – before school, after school, at bedtime. I’m having fun. 

Last night we finished the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, and will move on tonight with the preparations for “The Journey South.” As the fellowship packs and prepares, I know the hobbits will have the chance to hear the entire Lay of Luthien in the Hall of Fire. So… I spent my day today reading the whole alliterative poem as it is published in the History of Middle Earth, Vol. 3. I did most of my reading outdoors, in parks and coffee shops, or on our balcony. I did so because I also know that Christopher Tolkien’s new Beren and Luthien will be published next week and wanted to be sure I had read every source for this tale before reading his rendition of the story. It’s telling forms the center of Tolkien’s Legendarium.

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Today was also a good day for hope. I’ve needed some, what with the 24 hour horrors of the presidential news cycle and the need for resistance everywhere. This week our nation was expected to renege on commitments to combating climate change, which has now been delayed, and so the earth was much on my mind. I picked up a copy of Paul Hawkins new edited volume, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Do yourself and favor and go pick it up. The premise of the book is that as we build a sustainable future we need to know not only what we are against, but what we are for. In coffee-table-book style, over 200 scientists, researchers and writers describe 100 ideas that promise ‘cascading benefits to human health, security, prosperity, and well-being’ for us all, plus another 20 whose time is just around the corner. Beautiful and inspiring. After a quick start, my plan is to read an idea a day for 100 days as a way of sustaining hope for a better future. 

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  • The rest of my sabbath involved the usual visit to the nature center and an evening of reading with August. 

Who Is My Mother?

May 14, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Easter / Mothering Sunday, May 14, 2017

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 Mark 3:31-35

My mother is not going to church today. What she really needs today is a space to sit quietly with God without her role as mother (and daughter) being highlighted in some form of untroubled celebration of moms or thanksgiving for moms. After my grandfather passed away at just this time last year, my mom took her mom in to live with her, and took on the role of full-time caregiver. Those of you who have done this yourselves know the difficult questions, doubts, guilts and ambiguities this raises about our relationships as parents and children. I searched the words ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ on Amazon.com the other day and found twenty pages of books with these words in the title. Subtitles typically involved some variations on healing relationships, restoring health, stress, strain and family secrets.

I wager that if you stopped almost anyone on the street today and asked them what today is, they could, without blinking, answer “Mother’s Day.” So I thought we might take a look at Jesus’ understanding of “mothering” and the implications of mothering for us, as we struggle to be witnesses to Jesus and his gospel.

Mothering. The act of being a mother. Seems innocuous enough, right? Hah! This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing of women’s experience. It’s wiley and sly; always a step ahead, metamorphosing at every corner into a new set of questions, ways of being, and challenges. Mothering exposes cultural assumptions about women’s identity and role in society: is biology destiny? For that matter, how do gay men mother their children? Mothering is metaphorically iconoclastic: what if we, as the church, were to embrace as normative, the scriptural and experiential images of God as mother? Like hymn #7, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth,” utilizing the language of the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich. And is it not still the case that our image of mothers plummets from pedestals to ridicule by adding the simple adjective “welfare” before their name; as if lack of income indicates a lack of morality. Clearly mothering is much more than apple pie and flowers.[i]

Mothering. Where to start. I think that one of our most “natural” impulses is to think of mothering in terms of our biological mothers. So let’s start by exploring the nature of women’s bodies and the birth process: how women are created to create. Let’s reflect, for a moment, on the sense of hospitality and wonder related to the conception and growth of life within women’s bodies. The sacrifice of bodily nutrients, the taught roundness of an expanding belly that jerks with life within, the strangeness of physically experiencing the growth of another human, the womb as perhaps that watery chaos at the dawn of creation, that prerequisite habitat supporting and suspending life every day, every hour, every minute, every second; the womb as a place of safety and development; a place of grace. In Hebrew, in our Bible, the word for mercy and womb are the same. To speak of God’s mercy is to speak of abiding in God’s womb. We recall this every time we baptize a child as we speak of the font as a “womb of new birth.” What a privilege to realize within your own bodies such a physical haven of mercy. And of course the birth; the pain and delight; the solitary, sometimes supported adventure of bearing, of pushing, a fragile, wrinkled, howling person into life. The magnitude of that first deep, cleansing, breath after delivery. What was once within, has broken forth; the one have become two. The mother as liberator: the one who nurtures in order to set free.

But as wondrous and fertile as the image of “giving birth” is, it is not uncomplicated as a primary image of mothering. Listen to these words from Tickva Frymer-Kensky, a Jewish professor of Biblical Studies, a mother, and expert on ancient near-eastern birth narratives. She writes this about the value placed on giving birth,

The first principle is the assumption that having children is an important activity. It is not the easiest of enterprises, for it involves dedication and self-sacrifice, even during the months of pregnancy, and certainly for the rest of child rearing. It has also often been the occasion of much sorrow for women, often fatal, almost always painful, and sometimes ending with the tragedy of miscarriage, stillbirth, and perinatal death. Birth also defined women [in the ancient world] and limited their roles in society. Biology was destiny: women were expected to have children, women who did not give birth were considered “barren” and unfortunate, and a woman who did not want to have children was somehow unnatural, unwomanly, devoid of the “maternal instinct.” Society had [and has] a vested interest in women’s wombs and sought to guard them by excluding women from occupations that might endanger their reproductive powers.[ii]

In our Bible, we find story after story where women are exalted because of the progeny they produce. They are famous or infamous because they were barren and their wombs were opened (Sarah and Hannah) or they were virgins (Mary), because they laughed, argued, or were “receptive” to God’s creation of a child. It was their primary defining role. Their raison d’être. Without a child, they are insignificant, less favored, if you will. And while all this miraculous kind of birthing we find in the bible underscores the activity of a God beyond (though in relationship with) humanity, it seems also to devalue women’s ordinary experience of conception, pregnancy, and birth. After all, most women in the birthing rooms at White Plains Hospital aren’t claiming a virginal conception. Yet is it any less miraculous?

And what of mothers who have chosen to adopt children? Certainly, the nourishing relationship formed between mother and child is not diminished on account of biology. And what of those of us who are unable to have children. Too much of an emphasis on mothering as birthing runs the risk of diminishing the regard for the female body that has not conceived, or that has suffered a miscarriage — even to the point of devaluing the woman herself. Think about our religious rituals for a moment. We have memorial services for both the death of children and adults. But we whisper sorrowfully, awkwardly about a woman’s miscarriage. Many times, she fears to make it public. It becomes a private, profound, solitary grief — devoid of a spiritual framework from the church in which to wrest meaning from the experience.

I have two colleagues who pastor a church here in New York who were expecting twins this summer. The twins were delivered stillborn last month. The parents named the boys, the congregation held a memorial service and mourned their loss, and celebrated the joy the boys-to-be had already brought their parents in expectation. One of them writes,

Within the English language, as tragic as it is, there is a word to describe parentless children – orphans. A word for wives without husbands – widows. And for husbands without wives – widowers. Yet, remarkably, there is no word within our language that captures the reality and the pain of a childless mother. Perhaps the absence of this language speaks volumes.[iii]

I am thinking of and praying for this couple this mother’s day as they stand to lead worship, and for all those like them.

To elevate “giving birth” as the pinnacle of mothering makes the body the principal measure of our humanity and of woman-ness. Understanding ourselves as embodied is good and revelatory in incredible ways, but our bodies should be our ground of being, not our cage. They are the starting point for life’s meaning making, but our flesh and organs are not the sum of who we are. We know that mothering by women is much more than simply contributing an X chromosome and a lot of labor. We know that there is much more. Women who have given birth, we know that you are much more.

Mothering also makes us think about the family. Who constitutes our family? There are families that live together and families whose members live apart. Our families have people of all sexualities in them – gay, bi, lesbian, trans, straight parents and kids and relatives. The old “Leave it to Beaver” paradigm is, thank goodness, giving way to a more honest, freeing, and expansive understanding of the many different ways we are family within American culture in particular.

Many of us in this congregation come from homes where our houses burst with family and where the door is always open. Great-grandparents help prepare the meals, great-aunts discipline the children, siblings do the wash and cook together with mom, dads share the tasks of making the household run — in-laws move in for months at a time each year. “Family” somewhat loosely defined, are in and out of each others’ homes, feed each other’s kids, borrow money, and take up the task of nurturing another generation. Or the reverse is true: in many first-generation immigrant families it is the children who teach their elders how to speak English. The sisters and brothers and aunts and great-grandparents and cousins ‘mother and father’ each other.

What I’m saying is: mother may be the one who gave you birth. But mothering; the sense of being raised? Why it takes the whole neighborhood.

And what of the times when we assume a mother role outside the family? The times when we inspire children through our tenacity and care for them. When we teach them how to read and how to cooperate in our schools. The times when a therapist takes the part of a mother to enable his client to speak freely. The time when a 17-year-old student crumbled into my arms on a mission trip, saying, “I just miss home so much.” The times when we are honored as god-parents of others’ children.[iv]

In the Episcopal Church, there is a celebration during Lent called “Mothering Sunday” that dates back many centuries. On this day, members remember their church as “mother.” One of the most fascinating things I read about the celebration of Mothering Sunday, was the English custom of “clipping” or hugging that was practiced. The congregation would walk outside, grasp hands, surround the church and hug the church, their mother. What a really powerful image of community, of strength and thanksgiving. What if we turned the image around a bit. What if we, the people who make up church, both women and men, are the mothers who give birth to faith alive in this world. I suppose we would need then, to hug each other. [NOTE: we did just this as part of our benediction] But shouldn’t we want to reach and touch each other in thanksgiving for those times another has held our hand for strength. For a tender word in a time of grief. For patience when we were angry. For encouragement when we were discouraged. For hope when we were immobilized.

It’s fascinating that my own son seems to have trouble keeping mom and dad straight. I get called “mom” all the time – when he needs help with homework, or to thread a needle, or a second helping of breakfast or when he wants to play imaginary games. Noelle gets called dad, as well, when he wants to know where his clean shirts are, or needs help cooking dinner, or just needs someone to pay attention to what he is doing. What he is looking for from each of us, of course, is love.

“Love heals,” write Maya Angelou in her memoir about her relationship with her own mom, Mom & Me & Mom. “Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins… love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths.” [v]

What does it mean to love, to show love, in this way? Sometimes it means moving beyond the cultural straight jackets society places on us. It means as a man to stitch a doll’s dress. It means as a woman teaching our daughters strength and pride, not just humility. It means to dare to reinvent concepts and experiences such as mothering, enlarging them metaphorically until they embrace our larger world. Because that’s what Jesus did! Recall the interesting story we haerd today from the Gospel of Mark:

While Jesus is teaching a crowd, they call to him that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for him. “And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” [NRSV, Mark 3:33-35.]

To do the will of God. What a provocative (and biblical) definition of mothering.

Jesus asks us to expand our notion of mothering beyond the household to the world. To sacrifice, stand up on behalf of, to risk, even our lives, for the will of God. This is the gospel.

Jesus redefines mothering, moving it beyond the household in order to speak of a way of justice and courage that cares for all people and that is concerned especially for the most vulnerable. Perhaps today Jesus is calling out to us in the eternal words of Dr. Seuss (P.D. Eastman), “Are you my mother?”

[Following the sermon, we sang a new hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette called “You Formed Us In Your Image, Lord,” which brought home all the point above in song. It can be found at www.carolynshymns.com.  At the end of the service we surrounded the sanctuary (from the inside) and held hands to hug the church, and then one another. f anyone took a photo, I’ll post it here.]

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[i] Among many provocative studies, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. (University of California Press, 1982).

[ii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Motherprayer: A Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995):xvi.

[iii] Patrick and Jenna are blogging about their experience at: https://endoftherainbow.blog/2017/05/13/a-childless-mother-on-mothers-day/. I recommend their site for those who have experience such loss.

[iv] Wayne Oates writes, “Getting an ‘overview’ of Jesus’ and Paul’s perception of the family enables you and me to see to it that the component parts of the whole human community as a living system of face-to-face relationships are mobilized around the nurture ad the enlargement of children’s life. They are not shut up to the suffocation of an unventilated nuclear family. God has other faces and forms in addition to those of mother, father, brother, sister. Basic sources of hope are not shut up to these significant persons alone.” See “The Extended Family” in When Children Suffer: A Sourcebook for Ministry with Children,” cited in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, ed. Allen, at al. (Westminster John Knox, 2011).

[v] Maya Angelou, Mom & Me & Mom. (Random House, 2013). p. x.

*This sermon was adapted from and built upon a sermon The Rev. Noelle Damico preached in 1997 after I came home from a weekend of study with Dr. Frymer-Kensky. I thank Nikola for finding the image above after worship this morning.

The Gift of Maturity

May 8, 2017

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A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Easter, May 7, 2017. This was the beginning of Older Adult Week in the PC(USA). Above: playing Uno with my son and my grandmother earlier this year.

 Matthew 5:1-10         Psalm 71:17-19

O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.

So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.

Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens.
You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.

You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again. (Psalm 71:17-19, NRSV)

A friend of mine used to say, “Getting old isn’t hard. It just takes time. Growing up, however, now that’s hard work.” What he is talking about is the difference between age and maturity. Age is a factor of time, some are granted long life. Maturity, however, takes effort, intention, and involves no little grace. It is something we work on throughout life, at every stage of life, though in different ways. When I used to discuss maturity with the kids in my youth groups and confirmation classes, I would speak of maturity in terms of the common tasks of the first half of life – establishing an identity and sense of belonging; discerning their gifts, desires, aspirations and call, what one author describes as “creating a proper container for one’s life.” But in the second half of life maturity means “finding the actual contents that this container is meant to hold and deliver.” While questions of identity and belonging continue, maturity now also means coming to terms with life’s many losses, limits and ambiguities.[1]

The difference between maturity and age is an essential part of many world religions. In Judaism and Christianity it is a defining feature of the wisdom traditions, which for us includes many psalms.

Psalm 71, which we share this morning, has traditionally been understood to have been written by an older person. [2] The psalmist speaks as one of advanced age;

  • Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you. (v. 9)
  • O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (v. 18)

and looks back on a long life;

  • Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent. (v. 6)
  • So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. (v. 17)

Psalm 71 appears to be a cut-and-paste job where the author cobbles together snippets from different psalms. It’s primarily a pastiche of psalms 22 and 31, but it includes others as well. It is as if the psalmist is collecting a set of familiar verses that have served him or her well throughout life. Each of the original psalms cited express a cry for help, a lament that acknowledges loss and grief, or indicates a present injustice or oppression; but in each case the psalmist works through the cry for help to a place of confidence in God’s justice, judgment through which one may know joy in God’s presence. The psalmist is moved from prayer to praise.[3]

This, despite the fact, that the confidence is often counterfactual. God’s justice is not always visible, or apparent, and help is not “real.” At least not yet. It is certainly not experienced in the present. But standing on the side of God’s justice in the midst of great injustice, expressing confidence in God’s desire to help while still remaining in a place of need – this is where God’s people are called to be. And we know God’s justice, if at all, because God’s people bear witness to it not only with our liturgy but with our lives.

Psalm 71, however, is unusual in making this affirmation not once but three times. Because it is a cut and paste job, it moves from lament to praise, from protest to presence, again and again and once more again. The effect is to leave an impression of very deep trust in God’s justice, a trust that is not the working out of a single prayer or litany, but of a lifetime. It is wisdom, a gift that may come only with maturity.

After my father died, my mom worked for years first as a hospice nurse, and then as a parish nurse in her local Presbyterian Church. I called her the other day to ask about resources for aging well, and she recommended Richard Rohr’s recent book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar who runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Father Richard uses the metaphor of falling, an image often associated with aging, but which has its own religious association with failing, to introduce the challenges of the second half of life so that we might learn to fall upward (toward maturity) rather than simply accept falling down(ward) as a fact of life.

“We grow spiritually,” he writes, “much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

This is why I have called it “falling upward.” Those who are ready will see that this message is self-evident: those who have gone “down” are the only ones who understand “up.” Those who have somehow fallen, and fallen well, are the only ones who can go up and not misuse “up.” I want to describe what “up” in the second half of life will look like – and could look like! And, most especially, I want to explore how we transition from one to the other – and how it is not by our own willpower or moral perfection. It will be nothing like what we might have imagined beforehand, and we can’t engineer it by ourselves. It is done to us.

One more warning, if that is the right word: you will not know for sure that the message is true until you are on the “up” side. You will never imagine it to be true until you have gone through the “down” yourself and come out on the other side in larger form. You must be pressured “from on high,” by fate, circumstance, love, or God, because nothing in you wants to believe it, or wants to go through it. Falling upward is a “secret” of the soul, known not by thinking about it or proving it but only by risking it – at least once. And by allowing yourself to be led – at least once. Those who have allowed it know it is true, but only after the fact.

This is probably why Jesus praised faith and trust even more than love. It takes a foundational trust to fall or to fail – and not to fall apart.[4]

Here we learn that maturity comes through loss, through failure, he calls it the central insight of many world religions. Only when we have hit bottom, convert (in the sense of having our life turned completely around), have a life threatening or life-challenging experience the places everything else in perspective, that reorients our lives, do we begin to grow in wisdom. Some of us, of course, begin this quite early. (If we don’t outright protect ourselves from it. That is also a central truth, that we are prone to hiding ourselves from the pain of loss and grief.)

My friend lost his job this week. After more than twenty-five years as a medical professional, ten with the same company, the company let him go, in part – of course, because his years of experience meant his salary was higher than other more recently hired employees. He’s 56 years old. He has a wife and a daughter heading off to college next year. The odds of finding a comparable job with comparable compensation are steep. So with this loss of job comes the loss of income, the loss of health care, potentially the loss of his house, and a great deal of uncertainty for a long time to come. He just applied for a job a Trader Joe’s.

When we talk about growing older we must be careful not to do so in an insular environment. We are growing older in an environment in which health care and Medicaid and any form of social safety net are being joyously shredded by our own government. Most of us enter the second half of life still struggling with the tasks of the first half, identity, income, securing a place in the world.

Nor do I want to be romantic about aging. Someone every day, voices the complaints that come with age, the body is failing us, limiting abilities, the loss of sharp focus and energy. The health crisis that is not specific but systemic, just one thing on top of another. Mary Louise Bringle, who wrote the song that our choir sang earlier, wanted to acknowledge that “especially in developed countries, people are living longer than in earlier eras, yet many abilities do not endure through these added years.” She wrote the hymn to affirm that “although our human memories fade and our human arms weaken, the memory and arms of God uphold us everlastingly.”[5] She set the words to a very familiar tune, FINLANDIA, to which we used to singing, “Be Still my soul, the Lord is on thy side,” a song about deep peace within one’s being. We also sing “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine,” a song about the kind of spiritual maturity necessary for international peace. The same confidence these songs express, confidence in God’s abiding presence for both healing and hope, in our lives and the life of the world, comes through as we hear Bringle’s hymn about growing older. She helps bring us to the place of affirmation that underlies Psalm 71 and aging psalmist: peace and praise.

O God of life and healing power, empower us with patient courage, by your grace infused.
We grieve the waning, yet rejoice, believing your arms unwearied, shall uphold us still.

This morning we are offering prayer and anointing to any and all who wish it. This is an act of healing. But healing from what? Not from aging. Not from precarity. Not from limitation or the inevitable aches and pains. But healing from those things that prevent us from facing the challenges of this world secure in God’s love and trusting each other. So healing from what? Healing from the illusion of control, perfection, strength, and independence that siphon such energy and joy that we would otherwise receive from our own selves, from our friends, from our community, and indeed from God! When I talk about anointing for healing this morning, it is an invitation to the gifts of maturity – no matter your age – the gift of honesty (with oneself, with others and with God), of openness and compassion, of self-compassion, of recognizing our strengths and not only our weaknesses, of inter-dependency of each of us on one another. The invitation to healing is an invitation to becoming whole in a process of coming to terms with who we are, who we have been, and who we yet may be.

As God’s baptized people, as those called and gifted by God to journey through the two halves of life, we come to the this table to be nurtured and strengthened. As you come forward, members of our prayer ministry are making themselves available today for an anointing with oil and laying on of hands.[6]

The prayer minister will offer you a blessing, anoint your head with a specially prepared oil and a healing touch. Healing is not magic. It doesn’t make problems or illnesses disappear. Rather, healing is a process of being knit together – of being strengthened within and of being supported without by this community. Healing is an invitation to deeper trust in yourself, in God, and in this community that the array of challenges we face as individuals and as a society would not define us but rather can open us to one another in courage, in comfort, and in care.

Come, for all has been prepared. Come, and find strength for the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The tasks for the two halves of life were first described by Carl Jung. I cite them here from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[2] “Psalm 71” in James Luther Mays, PsalmsInterpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (John Knox Press, 1994).

[3] “Psalm 71” in J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Psalms, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. (Abingdon, 1996).

[4] My mom also recommended Amy Hanson, Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50. (Jossey-Bass, 2010), pp. XXV-XXVI.

[5] Hymn note to “When Memory Fades” (Hymn 808) in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013). This is not the first time we had sung this hymn at WPPC.

[6] During the Eucharist, prayer ministers stood beside the elders and elements with vials of oil to offer this pastoral ministry. It was a very moving addition to our service that we have already heard requests to repeat. Our liturgy drew from the Book of Common Worship as well as from Abigail Rian Evans, Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life (Westminster John Knox, 2004). A reformed theology of anointing is described in The Companion to the Book of Common Worship, edited by Peter C. Bower (Geneva Press, 2003).

Sabbath Day – Little Things of Color

May 7, 2017

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My Sabbath Day this week found me stir crazy, having suffered for a week with allergies and then a cold. I spent my morning reading a short work by J.R.R. Tolkien and my new book on contemplative theology (Blue Sapphire of the Mind’s Eye), and then I just had to be outside. Allergies be damned. So I dosed myself with antihistamines and headed out for a walk. 

This week I walked south of White Plains on the Bronx River Parkway, down to Scarsdale and back. It was a beautiful day in the low 70s, perfect for walking. 

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Parts of this path were renovated and landscaped just last year. Detritus from a recent river clean-up have been left at places along the path, an effective reminder of how carelessly people have treated the river in the past, and how ongoing work by the good folks at the Bronx River Alliance is required to keep it healthy. 

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Spring flowers were up everywhere, and I have way too many photos to post. But trees were also in bloom – some on the way to bloom and others already dropping flowers. In fact, by the time of this writing (a few days later and the day White Plains celebrates the Cherry Blossom Festival in the park behind our apartment) most the cherry blossoms have already fallen.

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Greens were vibrant around the pond near the Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, where my attention was drawn to an egret hiding in a tree, having fled there after being bullied by Canadian Geese.

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One great joy for the day was finding this little blue egg. It indicated that somewhere in the ecological neighborhood there was a new baby robin redbreast. I took several videos along the water, and the birdsong was bountiful and beautiful.

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If you’re looking for a walk near White Plains, don’t miss the Bronx River Parkway Path in the spring. 

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Much of the rest of the day was spent with my son building Legos, reading The Fellowship of the Ring, and getting to bed early. (Yes, I needed that too). 

Happy Sabbath

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The Gift of Good Work

April 30, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Easter, April 30, 2017
In Honor of May Day

 Prayer of St. Francis         Romans 12

Our Scripture reading this morning, from the twelfth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, is the job description for the church. It describes the good work to which we are all called, by the waters of our baptism. [I then read the entire chapter from The Scholars Version]

Whenever I read this chapter in worship, I simply want to say Amen and sit down. This is our job description as a church, and Paul describes it so completely. It is not for each of us individually, but for us-as-community, the community itself helping each of us along so that together we may become the body of Christ.

The themes for today’s worship service are spread throughout our liturgy. Together, we have both said and sung that there are rhythms of work and rest built into the very fabric of creation. And that by participating in these rhythms of work and rest, we imitate our Creator, in whose image we are made.[1]

We have confessed that God gave us work as a way of expressing joy in life, our gratitude for God’s love, for making use of our own creativity, for daring and doing, and that this work is a reflection of our creative God-still creating. Work well done enables community and a sustainable, thriving life for people, all creatures, and the earth itself. [2]

Thomas Aquinas said that there could be no joy in life without joy at work. Of course much work is also utterly unsatisfying, boring, and meaningless. Some work is dehumanizing and exploitative. And some work actively contributes to violence and injustice in our world. So we have also confessed that the way we work can be corrupted and corrupting, distorting and blurring God’s good intentions for us. Indeed our work may become a source of self-glorification, a site for envy, or the basis of contempt toward others. The kind of work we do is used by our society, and truly ourselves, as a measure of esteem and worth, but the scale of judgment is skewed by our market economy with some types of work being ridiculously over compensated while other types of work don’t even allow a person to put food on the table for themselves and their family.[3]

At the same time, scripture teaches us that that good work has its own dignity, conferring meaning and purpose on life. Good work is a basic human need. This is why Adam and Eve were given the job of serving and preserving the natural world in Paradise, tilling and keeping it so that it would thrive. Long before the difficulties of labor, which are associated with the Fall, the work of Adam and Eve gave life meaning and purpose. Good work allows for self-expression, fosters communal life and heals our relationship with the earth.[4]

In a few moments, we will give thanks to God for all our opportunities to work and serve, to use the gifts we have for a greater good and to develop new skills for a future yet to be. We will give thanks for the satisfaction of work well done, and remember those who are diminished and devalued by our economy. We will pray for one another. And then after worship will have the chance to do some work together.

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During the winter, branches and sticks fell from the trees and are lying all over our lawn and in our cemetery. Immediately following worship, I would like to invite those who are able to come out to the front lawn to engage in the concrete work of picking up sticks and carrying them to the curb. Vicente started mowing the lawn this week, which requires first picking up all the sticks. When done by one person it takes a long time. So let’s give him a hand. If a number of us work on this together, it will take no time at all. You may remember we did this a couple of years ago. And it’s kind of fun. I particularly remember that Vanessa – Pam’s Vanessa – was the youngest participant, and I believe Beryl Dilworth was our oldest.

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Which brings us back to our job description as a church. “Don’t accept the life of this age as your model, but let yourself be remodeled by the recovery of your true mind, so that you may discern what is consistent with God’s purposes.” Liberationist and feminist theologian, Dorothee Soelle, has written in her book To Work and To Love, “If we understand life as a school, the training ground in which we strive to become something more that we are at present, our work becomes creative practice.” For as William Sloan Coffin so famously put it, “God loves is just the way we are, but God loves us too much to leave us this way.”

Friends, you’ve heard our job description. We are summoned to nothing less that participating in a divine way of life in the world, to be the images of God we were created to be by reflecting God’s image with our lives. We are summoned to follow the way of Christ in loving God and loving our neighbor, to being nothing less than a provisional demonstration of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Such a way of life in not entered into lightly, nor should it be. There is a reason we compare each baptism to a death by drowning – it is a dying and rising to life, a new kind of life, which is only lived with the aid God’s spirit at work within us.

It is hard work. But it is good work.

Come, labor on.[5]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Liturgy for this service was drawn from “Work of Our Lives (Presbyterian)” in Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life by Abigail Rian Evans. Our opening hymn was “God, Who Spins the Whirling Planets.”

[2] “God’s Work in Our Hands: Employment, Community and Christian Vocation.” Approved by the 207th General Assembly (1995) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

[3] On gender, inequality and double standards, see yesterday NYTimes opinion section, “Are Women Allowed to Love Their Jobs?”. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/sunday/are-women-allowed-to-love-their-jobs.html?ref=opinion&_r=0. These issues were also brought up in the prayers of the day.

[4] An accessible theology of work is developed by Dorothee Soelle and Shirley A. Cloyes in To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation (Orbis, 1984).

[5] Come, Labor On was our sermon hymn. The service concluded with Lord, You Give the Great Commission.

Sabbath Day – The Fabled Four

April 28, 2017

“It’s an obsession, but it’s pleasin.”

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Among the first tapes I was given when I began officially trading Grateful Dead concerts, as opposed to purchasing bootlegs in the then newly emerging CD market, was a pristine version of 5/8/77, the legendary concert at Barton Hall, Cornell University. I still remember listening to the second set opening Scarlet>Fire for the first time, with Phil sliding up and bounding down fret, and feeling like I’d never really heard the song before. The show lived in my car’s cassette deck all summer as I drove back and forth to work trimming ivy in Princeton. Though some decry it as overrated, 5/8/1977 is an outstanding concert. It was one of the fabled four, including 5/5/77 in New Haven, 5/7/77 in Boston and the amazing 5/9/1977 in Buffalo. 

In a little more than a week, the concert(s) will be 40 years old! 

So I just turned off my phone and enjoyed a Sabbath Day. I spent most of it, in one way or another, listening to the first three shows. (I’m listening to the second set of Cornell as I write). All morning I covered the phones in the church office (which rarely rang) and reading, with New Haven playing on my desk. (I know, that’s not really a Sabbath rest, but it had to be done).

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I then took a long walk while listening to Boston – I just had to be moving. I put in my earbuds and walked to the store and bought new lightbulbs for our bathroom, and walked home to install them. I sat under a tree eating beef jerky and waving at neighbors. I walked through the blooming cherry blossoms, taking pictures, while jamming to the music. I went grocery shopping, and to the bank. At the nature center I left August with the animals and went walking in the woods. It was a beautiful day, and a pleasure to be moving through it.

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To mark the anniversary of the concerts, and the commercial release of of the original Betty Boards for all four shows, Peter Conners has just published Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Magnificence of The Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall. For Cornell University Press, naturally. It’s a quick read (I read it today), and largely manages to keep its focus on this single show, while trying to describe the show’s cultural significance. Through interviews and anecdotes, it is constantly entertaining. He aims too high in his epilogue by trying to give the Dead’s music cosmic significance: “There is a place in the universe where Dark Star is always playing,” in the sense that “Dark Star is woven into the fabric of the universe,’ part of a “larger truth” at “play for all eternity.” OK. This music absolutely feeds my soul, but remember: this is the guy who also wrote Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. 

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For larger truth, I turn to another new book I am reading this week, Douglas Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Christie draws on contemplative traditions of early Christian desert spirituality and monasticism, contemporary ecological writings, and practitioners of attention to explore how “these traditions can help us cultivate the simple, spacious awareness of the enduring beauty and wholeness of the natural world that will be necessary if we are to live with greater purpose and meaning, and with less harm to the planet.” Music plays its part. Blue Sapphire is a book to be read slowly, turned over and digested with time. 

There are no unsacred places,”
the poet Wendell Berry has written.
“There are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”

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All outdoor photos were taken at Greenburgh Nature Center today.