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Lent 5: The Mystery of Death and Life

March 29, 2020

Online Worship Resources during the Covid-19 Pandemic

The ancient liturgy of the church includes the line, “In the midst of life, we are in the midst of death.” This reminds us of our mortality, that we are born, we live, and we die; that life is both precarious and precious. It is also a recognition of the inequities and injustices being worked in our world, of lives being treated carelessly and valued little, of Death (with a capitol D) being dealt.

But the reverse is equally true: “in the midst of death, we are in the midst of life.” We live resurrection in community, and rise when we turn toward God’s dream for us. Life and love are are our task and our calling. We can light up the darkness. Welcome to worship.

Worship elements today include:

  • A piano prelude in our Sanctuary by director of Music Ministry, Ty Lundman;
  • Scripture and Prayer with Pastor Jeff, from the middle of the Presbyterian Burying Ground, our historic cemetery;
  • A chance to sing and clap along with Gabe, playing “Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me” on his sax (the words are posted);
  • the children’s message will post on Wednesday in the Mid-week email;
  • Pastor Sarah leading Prayers of the People from the green cathedral of life on Stony Point Center’s greenhouse;
  • Soprano Phyllis Worthington singing “His Voice, as the sound of the dulcimer sweet” last year;
  • a film clip (if you are interested) from the post-apocalyptic pandemic film “I am Legend,” with Will Smith and Alice Braga (2007) referred to by Pastor Jeff in his meditation;
  • a postlude, “I love You, Lord,” sung by Ty;
  • and an invitation to join a virtual fellowship hour from the comfort of your home from 11:30 to 12:30 on Zoom.

Videos for this week can be found here.

Lent 4: Jesus and Judas

March 29, 2020

Guest Post: A sermon preached by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea for Haverstraw Central Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020. This is Pastor Katie’s fourth sermon in the Cross River Sermon Series she and Pastor Jeff were working on. Worship in White Plains and Haverstraw were online this week due to Covid-19. 

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Judas Iscariot. Engraving by Shyuble. Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com

Mark 14:1-11, 41b-45

We have reached the 4th Sunday of Lent.  We are now closer to Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus than we are to Ash Wednesday.  So much has happened in the world around us since we began our Lenten journey this year.  And we find ourselves in a strange mixture of the whirlwind and the quiet of isolation.  Our faith is being put to the test.  Can we be holy as our God is holy in less than ideal conditions?  And I think we probably find ourselves grateful that Jesus taught by example to forgive, and forgive, and forgive.

I have determined to keep to the Lenten sermon series I began four weeks ago because I believe it continues to be instructive and illuminating.  Further, I believe that in our faith, and our practices, and our gathering for worship, we are more than the mere circumstances around us.  Concerns about COVID-19 may wait for us at the door, and lurk if they must.  But as we enter the sanctuary of shared worship, we are free to focus on the only thing that is required: enjoying the presence of Jesus Christ, son of God, whom we pause to honor and show regard.

Having read Mark’s telling of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, let us now recall the context of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.  The brothers are employed differently.  Cain tends crops in the field.  Abel tends the herd of sheep.  Both determine to honor God with an offering from their work.  They both set out to worship God.  It was, however, in this context of giving their best and dedicating it to God that a problem arose.  It seemed to one brother that undeserved preference was given to the other brother’s offering.  Cain noted God’s interest in Abel offering and became angry to the point of lethal violence against his brother.

In Cain’s thinking, what needed to happen, didn’t happen.  Therefore in his anger he took action that stopped his brother from doing anything else he didn’t want him to do.  Cain didn’t understand something that was happening between Abel and God, but whatever it was, Cain didn’t like it, and he was going to make it stop.  Cain killed Abel; and instead of continuing forward in the same life (just minus his brother), Cain was thrust into exile—a whole different life, with a whole set of different problems.

Consider now our reading from Mark 14.  It was two days before the Passover, a major day of worship for the People of God, yet brothers in faith were set against one another.  The Chief Priests and the Scribes were looking for a way to arrest (that is stop) Jesus in an undetected way, and then kill him, just as Cain took his brother out of view to stop him, to kill him.  And remember, brothers, other people, same thing in God’s eyes.  So these external threats have intensified and are pressing in on Jesus and his disciples.  I remember saying to the Rev. Jeff Geary in an early discussion about this sermon series that “People get fatigued and then hit each other over the head.  Fatigue and anxiety are the perfect combination for someone to get bonked on the head.”[1]  All of a sudden, under pressure, the “Cain and Abel dynamic” re-emerges, this time among Jesus and his disciples.  Judas, who was known and trusted intimately enough to carry the common purse for Jesus and the disciples, turns under pressure, and probably fatigue, and betrays Jesus.

Perhaps Judas didn’t like the way things were going.  Perhaps he couldn’t see just what God and Jesus were working out for the salvation of the world.  And since he couldn’t see it, he couldn’t understand it; and since he couldn’t understand it, and things were heating up all around them in Jerusalem, his anxiety rose.  Judas decided he knew better than Jesus and decided to take over.  Whatever the case, fatigue and anxiety made him vulnerable to the sin crouching at the door, and thus, like Cain, Judas did not choose the good.  He did not do well.  This is, of course, a lesson for us all.  We humans have to be on guard.  Walter Brueggemann says it so well.  “There is danger to the life of Cain in how he handles his rage and depression.”[2]  There is danger to each and every one of our lives in how we handle our rage and our depression too.

What do we do then?  We return to Martha and Mary.  Jesus said to Martha: you have scattered your concerns everywhere, but only one thing is necessary.  So, we learn.  We learn to center ourselves upon the necessary thing.  In our reading today, the woman came to Jesus and anointed him with expensive perfume and the disciples flipped out at the waste of it all.  “But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her?  She has performed a good service for me.’”  This is instructive for us, Jesus’ disciples today, because, truly, the work is all around us.  There is plenty to do in our living, and in our ministries, and in our caring for those around us.  But to do all those things a very necessary thing must be attended to, making our offering of regard to God, centering our attention and our life force on the Holy One.

Well, I could go on and on, but I will try to wrap up our reflection for today with these thoughts.  I wonder what it was like when Jesus and Judas stood facing each other, with men holding weapons standing behind Judas.  I wonder what each of them was feeling when Judas stepped right up close to Jesus and kissed him on the cheek in greeting.  I wonder if we can actually access those feelings in our own memory banks because we have been betrayed by someone very close to us . . . because we have betrayed someone very close to us . . .  And thus I wonder how do you feel to realize that like Cain, Judas has been marked for all time as betrayer, as culpable, as sinner; remembering that the mark on Cain was condemnation and grace at once?  Judas too had to go forward in the world, making his way in, now, irrevocably altered circumstances, trying to do better with the life he still held, his own.

And how does it make you feel to realize that here, at last, the echoing story of Cain and Abel is replayed with an entirely different outcome?  Jesus does not stay dead; and grace, forgiveness for sins, is extended to all who repent and call upon him to be the Lord of their lives.  I hope you feel the joy of the Good News!  I hope you see why it is such good news, that a dynamic that has haunted humanity can be dismantled.  Jesus restores what was lost and begins the healing of the world.  And we have been called to follow in his way, the way of life, and truth.  That’s enough for today.  Amen.

[1] Conversation with Jeff Geary, February 2020, Westchester County, NY, I think we were in a car…

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, p.58.

Lent 4: We Are One Body, wherever we are

March 22, 2020

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Welcome to Worship

Not in the dark of buildings confining,
not in some heaven, light years away:
here in this (virtual) place the new light is shining;
now is the kingdom and now is the day.
Gather us in …

Greetings Church,

Wherever, whenever, and with whoever you gather for worship today, know that we are part of one large body, interconnected and dependent on one another, holy and fragile as our Creator made us. While this has always been true, we are conscious of this in new ways this week as we begin to shelter-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The service below is recorded in parts for you, as none of your worship leaders have physically met together for two weeks now. Ty Lundman offers an organ prelude to call us to worship and a postlude to conclude worship; Pastor Jeff leads us in worship and word, reflecting on St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; and Pastor Sarah welcomes us to a spacious place of prayer, lifting up our joys and concerns. In addition, Pastor Lynn provides a children’s message and virtual church school classroom for student of all ages. Pastor Jeff’s presentation was modeled on the pen and ink drawing (above) that for many years evoked the historic mission and ministry of our congregation. Come, let us worship God.

Friends, I totally meant to end my refection by sharing the lyrics of our hymn for the day, “Sacred the Body,” by Ruth Duck. The words take on added meaning in light of the “social body of Christ” that Paul speak about it today’s scripture reading and during this time of physical distancing, or what we learned to call last week “spacious solidarity.” Here they are:

     Sacred the body, God has created,
temple of
 Spirit that dwells deep inside.
     Cherish each person, nurture creation.
     Treat flesh as holy that love may abide.

     Bodies are varied, made in all sizes,
     pale, full of color, both fragile and strong.
     Holy the difference, gift of the Maker,
     so let us honor each story and song.     Love respects persons, bodies and boundaries.
Love does not batter, neglect, or abuse.
Love touches gently, never coercing.
Love leaves the other with power to choose.

Holy of holies, God ever loving,
make us your temples; indwell all we do.
May we be careful, tender and caring,
so may our bodies give honor to you.

– Pastor Jeff

In addition:
Here is the article, commended by Pastor Jeff in his sermon, byDaniel Kantor, “My father died amid the Coronavirus and I cannot gather with loved ones to mourn.” Dallas Morning News, March 20, 2020.

And here is an inspiring blog post from the Coalition of  Immokalee Workers called ‘Yon Sel Ko: Timely Wisdom from the hatiain Peasant Movement at the Root of the CIW.” In it Greg  Asbed describes how the most vulnerable put Paul’s analogy of the body to use in egalitarian terms to fight for all our freedoms. They remain some of the most vulnerable through this pandemic. Please pray for them.

Lent 3: Working with the Children of Cain

March 17, 2020

Guest Post: A sermon preached by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea at Haverstraw Central Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2020. This is Pastor Katie’s third sermon in the Cross River Sermon Series she and Pastor Jeff are working on. Worship was not held in White Plains this week due to Covid-19. Necessarily left out of Katie’s and Jeff’s reflections this week are the rich narratives of the Book of Ruth, on which they spent a good deal of time working on.

Picture1“Christ Visits Martha and Mary Detail,” Mikhail Nesterov, 1918.  Artist’s copy of a mural on the northern wall of the Church of Intercession at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow. Gouache, distemper, lead pencil on paper mounted on cardboard. 49×54 cm, Tretyakov Gallery.

Luke 10:38-42

I was looking for a graphic for the bulletin this week and I was feeling really disgusted because pictures of Mary and Martha tend to have this vibe of them vying for Jesus’ attention, but in a romantic sense.  You know in a “Jesus is my boyfriend, and you can’t have him” kind of way.  Unfortunately this in one of the outcomes of patriarchy, if the story involves women, it will be sexualized.  But going through that thought process helped me come back to the linking point between this story and the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain and Abel make their offerings to God as a means of worship, worship being attention and regard.  Martha and Mary do the same.  They make their offerings to Jesus—the son of God, that is, God incarnate—from their work as well.

Martha makes her home available to Jesus and the disciples, and in making the home open to them she is now also responsible for the hospitality extended to her guests.  She has offered up her homemaking—that is her work, just as Cain made a grain offering from his work.  Martha’s sister, Mary, takes a seat at Jesus’ feet and offers up her attention—attention that actually signals that she would like to be taught as a disciple.  Now consider, we read in Genesis 4:4, “and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.”  God acknowledges the gift of life force given by Abel.  Jesus also acknowledges the offering of self that Mary gives.

How is Mary making an offering of herself?  She steps away from her employment of hospitality and commits her time to the presence of Jesus as a teacher.  Do the acknowledgements of Abel and Mary’s offerings diminish the value of the offerings made by Cain and Martha?  They seem to think so, thus reacting in anger.  They feel slighted, Cain because of his rightful position of preference as the first born and heir; Martha because she is the instigator and the primary source of the respite offered to Jesus.

Feeling less preferred is hard.  If we think we deserve preference, we often try to re-establish our prominence. Among men, as we see with Cain and Abel, that can be attempted through physical attack.  Among women, we can see with Martha and Mary, that is often attempted through chastisement and shaming.  Martha says to Jesus, tell Mary to get back to work with me, chastise her for stepping out of place.  Jesus says to Martha: No, Mary’s offering gets to stand.  And in the same comment mentions to Martha that her attention seems to be on a lot of things.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

What is the one thing?  Compare this to what God says to Cain in Genesis 4:6&7, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?”  Then keep in mind that for women doing hospitality well can be a high stakes endeavor.  Status and esteem are involved. Thus, providing hospitality can be a concern that indeed has us running around distracted and worried about many things, diminishing our attention to the one thing we set out to do in the first place: honor our guests.  We want so to do well and be accepted, and the consequences are often more than just vanity.  So Martha’s distraction is understandable, but what is the one thing that is necessary?  I leave that for your pondering, but might it be that Jesus is just being a really good guest?  Maybe he is saying, “I see you are stressing about being a good host, but I only need one thing to feel welcome and that is to enjoy your company.”

The Rev. Jeff Geary mentioned in his sermon last Sunday in White Plains that the central faith story of Cain and Abel plays out again and again in the scriptures with new additions, and new circumstances, and new progressions. “Each time the sibling conflict is portrayed in scripture, alternative avenues are available, new options are offered, promising paths are provided to the seemingly endless cycles of conflict and violence. Humanity is always reaching toward reconciliation.”  I add, God is working with the children of Cain!  And moves us again and again toward the good, toward reconciliation also.  Geary continued, “And as the children of Cain play the legacy out again and again, it is done better.  We learn, and develop more skill for better self-management, and reconciliation, until the good news can be received: there is enough of God’s blessing for all.  God’s love is unlimited.”

Thus, Martha and Mary’s honoring of Jesus does not play out exactly as Cain and Abel’s worship of God did.  In fact, there is a significant change.  In the presences of Jesus, even as the sense of competition rises, the negative outcomes of the Cain and Abel story are completely mitigated.  No one is killed and no one is exiled.  In fact, the sisters remain bonded.  This is a most desired outcome and I think the statement, the good news the Gospel writer shares here, is that the presences of Jesus accomplishes this.  Worship does not in this case lead to discord and competition, progress has been made.  Worship of Jesus invites the “other” in, the sibling in, to greater learning, and understanding, and goodness of life.  Amen.

Lent 2: Reaching For Reconciliation

March 10, 2020

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Second Sunday in the Season of Lent, March 8, 2020. This is the second sermon in a Cross River Sermon Series being preached by Revs Jeff Geary and Katie Rivera-Torea. Check out last week’s sermon and liturgy, and please also read Pastor Katie’s sermon on these same texts.

Charles McCullough

“Jacob and Esau” by Charles McCullough, residing in Pastor Jeff’s office. Photo by Rev. Lynn Dunn.

Genesis 4:13-22          Matthew 18:21-22

Friends, we continue today our Lenten meditations on the story of Cain and Abel.

We read the first part of the narrative last week, hearing the tale of Abel’s receiving divine favor, Cain’s subsequent envy, anger, and ultimate killing of his brother, his denial of responsibility, and the curse emerging from the ground. This morning we read the consequences of Cain’s action, his fear of retribution, and the legacy left for future generations.

Cain said to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then God said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And God put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

Then Cain went away from the presence of God, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech.

Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

LEGACIES OF CAIN

This is a difficult story. After the first murder, God places mark on Cain. It is both a sign of protection and a reminder of his guilt. He can live neither in denial, nor in hiding. He must live with the consequences of his actions. And he does. Subsequent generations channel this into art, culture, and civilization. But it also generates a deepening spiral of violence. Lamech, a sixth-generation descendant of Cain boasts that if Cain is to be avenged seven-fold for the murder of his brother, he, Lamech, will be avenged seventy-seven-fold. Is Lamech proportionally more guilty than Cain? He has, after all, killed a young man for merely striking him. Is this a self-defeating attempt to inhibit further violence with further violence? Disproportionate violence with disproportionate violence? Where does it end?

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus reaches back across the generations to respond to Lamech. If Lamech promises or fears a seventy-seven-fold vengeance, Jesus offers his own seventy-seven-fold mercy.

Peter comes to Jesus and says to him,

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”[i]

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out my well-read copy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to read again during Lent. I was touched to find inside it a sheaf of paper nearly twenty years old written by a high school student named Megan with whom I was having a loooong conversation about Cain and Abel. She wrote, “Dear Jeff. In Cain’s defense, I bring up the point that what Cain did was, and is, in human nature.” Violence, she argued, is inherent to who we are as human beings and cannot be eradicated, and she cites as her authority song lyrics by Marilyn Manson![ii]

Megan had a long history of interpretation on her side. From the time this story entered the Hebrew canon as scripture, all the way down through St. Augustine’s fourth century Christian philosophy that contrasted the City of God (associated with Abel) with the merely Human City (associate with Cain, the founder of the first city), the story of Cain and Abel has been used to justify violence as an inevitable part of being human. It has been held that violence in inherent to who we are, that Cain is simply demonstrating human fallibility and our knee-jerk tendency to seek solutions to problems in violence.[iii]

But the story of these two brothers was written to say exactly the opposite. These opening stories in Genesis (the non-violent creation of the world with nothing but a word, the Eve and Adam stories in which humankind is created for stewardship rather than slavery, even Cain and Abel in which sin may yet be mastered and Cain is committed to live with the consequences) all were written to suggest that violence is not inevitable. It may be early, but it is not inevitable. It may be a fact into which most of us are born, but it is not fate. In fact, is has been argued that the Cain and Abel narrative offers a model for breaking cycles of violence.

Throughout the narrative, God challenges Cain and then Cain’s community to see the world differently and to respond to the wrongs they feel they have experienced in ways that lessen instead of increase violence. This is seen in God reminding Cain that he had a choice in how he deals with anger. It is seen in God asking Cain what he has done and then reminding Cain that his actions have consequences, but only for himself but for the entire earth. Finally, God’s challenge to lessen violence is seen in the protection that is placed on Cain.[iv]

In our reading today, Cain is terrified of a growing cycle of violence in which others seek to punish him for the killing of his brother. So, God places a mark of protection upon him.

The mark of Cain is not part of a punitive program, despite centuries of misinterpretations of the mark as a stigma. Cain is not stigmatized and forced to live as an outcast. The mark serves as his protection as he is granted his life. Cain settles in the land of Nod, literally translated as ‘wandering’ (4:12, 14). In his new place he marries, fathers a son, builds a city, and becomes the founder of arts, music and culture. It is this mixed blessing of punishment and protection, of exposure and provision, that pushed Cain along to the road of moral growth. This is not a straight path that progresses easily from crime to redemption. Rather, Cain learns to bear the memory of guilt and to integrate its presence into his identity. He learns to master the ‘sin lurking at the door’ that causes him to disregard the human dignity of his brother. His new relationships are built upon his ability to honor the memory of his victim. [v]

The bible definitely understands what we find ourselves always and already in the midst of cycles of violence, of troubled family systems, inherited guilt, histories of hurt. But is presents us always with choice. “The choices we have are certainly shaped by our families or origin, by emotional and psychological factors.” But as the scriptural narrative unfolds it presents alternative paths for responding to the ‘sin crouching at the door.’ According to The Rev. Jen Dresser, “Helping people address these root causes may increase the ability of individuals to relate to one another in healthier ways and decrease incidents of violence.” Our scripture readings today point to a notion of justice that in not retributive, which is what Cain expected, but restorative, which is what God provided.[vi]

REACHING FOR RECONCILIATION

I said last week that the story of Cain and Abel is one of our foundational myths: this story of enemy brothers, of sibling rivalry, plays itself out in scripture, and I want to narrate some of that for you this morning and invite you to contemplate how God plays the long game with us. This is the reason for the sculpture of Jacob and Esau’s realization of reconciliation that sits on the communion table this morning and that is portrayed on the cover your bulletin.[vii]

So, let’s look at the plot-lines in this first book of Genesis, which James Joyce called ‘the first book of jealousies.” God calls Abram of Haran and Sarai, his wife, and makes them a promise. Follow me into a new land, trust me to be your God, and I will bless you with a son, and you will be the parents of a whole nation. And they do follow God into a new land, and they wait for a son. And they wait. And they wait. And when they get tired of waiting, Abraham takes matters into his own hands and has a child by Hagar, Sarah’s maid. This child is Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, the just recipient of Abraham’s blessing.[viii]

In ancient, patriarchal societies, the first-born son inherited everything. To receive the blessing of the father meant not only receiving the good wishes of a parent but total inheritance. The oldest son got the property, the land, the sheep and wealth, and the right to decide family and tribal matters like a judge. Parental blessing and divine favor were understood, as Cain had understood them, to be scarce commodities and limited possessions.

When Sarah finally has a child of her own, she names him Isaac, which means laughter, because she laughed at God’s promise and thought it would never come true. Isaac is not the first-born, but he is the child of promise.

When Sarah looks upon the two little boys, Ishmael and Isaac playing together, she imagines a conflict that is not simply there. She projects on them the conflict she has with Hagar. And the conflict she has with her husband. And she anticipates the conflict over the blessing and inheritance. So, Sarah chooses for Hagar and Ishmael the curse of Cain – to be exiled, sent packing, sent away. And Abraham sends them away. But the surprise in the story is that God travels with Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, blessing them too, protecting them too. While Sarah could see only conflict and competition, and Abraham could only imagine scarcity of blessing, God provides divine favor for Hagar and Ishmael equal to that of Isaac. In order to bless Isaac, the younger son, the child of perceived promise, Abraham imposes exile (and for all he knows, death) on his oldest son. These two young men, Ishmael and Isaac, parted by their parents, will come together only once, enjoy only the briefest of reconciliations, when they bury their father. It’s all they can manage.

IMG_4210

I have a photo hanging in my office. It is a picture of me as an infant, in my father’s arms. And beside my father is his father, and beside his father is his father. Four generations of first-born sons. It reminds me that when I read Genesis 12-50, I am reading the story of one single family over four generations, each generation trying to figure out how to do better than the generation before, to learn from family history, to heal a history of hurts, to correct intergenerational mistakes, to overcome inherited guilts.

When Isaac grows older, marries, and has his own children, he is determined not to make the mistakes his father made. There will be no confusion among his children about the inheritance. No favoritism. From the time they are born, Esau the older, and Jacob the younger, will know that Esau is going to be blessed. But Jacob’s mother favors him, and so, apparently, does God. With the help of his mother, Jacob steals the birthright from his brother, and then with deceit receives the blessing, and inheritance, from his father. Isaac in his old age is blind to what is going on in his family. He literally cannot see what is happening around him. And so, he participates in perpetuating conflict into another generation. When Jacob’s machinations are discovered, Esau is murderously angry and wants to kill his younger brother. But Rebecca, their mother, chooses for her favorite son the curse of Cain: to be exiled, sent packing, sent away. As a result, Jacob is forced to spend the next 20 years or so running for his life from his brother, hiding out with his uncle Laban in faraway Haran, and learning hard lessons.

In exile, Jacob the trickster becomes the tricked. Jacob, who learned deception from his mother, forgets that she learned the arts of deceit from her brother Laban. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s youngest daughter, Laban tricks him into marrying the older sister Leah instead. Because that’s the way it is done! The older sibling goes first! In order to marry Rachel, whom he loves, Jacob ultimately agrees to fourteen years of indentured labor. Fourteen years to contemplate the mixed blessing of punishment and protections that he is living.[ix]

It is interesting that Jacob’s marrying of these two sisters sets them against one another such that Rachel may say, “With Godlike wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed,” almost exactly the same language Jacob will use to describe his encounter wrestling with his brother / an angel / with God. It’s as if the scripture wants to be clear that the story of enemy brothers can be the story of enemy sisters, enemy siblings, enemy neighbors, nations, enemies of nature.[x]

By the time Jacob returns home to his brother Esau, nearly twenty years after their first fight, he has long lived with his actions and learned a few lessons. He is a different man. And what he dearly wants more than anything is reconciliation with his older brother. Jacob travels home with his family. And when he and his brother meet one another,  Jacob comes out with great fear, and hope for reconciliation, while Esau comes out with learned suspicion and with armed soldiers. He comes, sword in hand, to meet his brother.

This piece of sculpture you see on the table this morning captures the moment reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Leah is on her knees, urging a frightened Jacob forward. A soldier stands behind Esau, armed and ready for this to be another of Jacob’s tricks. What you cannot see in the photo, but can see in the sculpture, is that Esau has let his sword drop from his hand in order to embrace his brother. He has made a choice, renouncing vengeance and violence, and choosing reconciliation.

Each time the sibling conflict is portrayed in scripture, alternative avenues are available, new options are offered, promising paths are provided to the seemingly endless cycles of conflict and violence. Humanity is always reaching toward reconciliation.

Jacob had twelve sons (and one daughter). If Abraham favored his youngest son according to divine promise, and Isaac favored his older son according to tradition, Jacob, in his generation, throws all caution to the wind and simply favors the child he loves the most – Joseph, the firstborn of the wife he loves the most. Jacob showers affection and gifts on Joseph. This special treatment from dad angered the other brothers. And Joseph is no help to himself. He flaunts himself before his brothers, showing off that he gets to stay home while they all have to work. And while the other brothers are not exactly murderous, they are angry enough to fake his death, willing to grieve their father, to bury their guilt, and sell young Joseph into slavery. The curse of Cain: to be exiled, sent packing, sent away.

I will not rehearse the rest of the story, because you know that in the end Joseph and his brothers are reconciled. It will be Jacobs’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers for what they had done to him. And Joseph does. (Genesis 50:15ff)

I love the full sweep of Genesis because only in readying it all together can we see what God is working out, through this single family, over time – a reaching toward a reconciliation – the envies and jealousies,  and the hurts and guilts, across generations, slowly being undone. East of Eden, Cain and Abel experienced a world of scarcity. It felt as if there was not enough blessing for all, that God’s love was limited. This legacy, left to Lamech, was threat, vengeance and violence.[xi]

Lamentably, only late, do we learn.

  • Abraham thought there was only enough blessing for one child;
  • Isaac thought there was only enough blessing for one child;
  • Jacob thought, at first, that there was only enough blessing for one child.

But by the end of the story, Jacob finds a way to bless all twelve of his children (Genesis 49), placing his hand upon each and every one of them. And in a final moment, he finds a way to launch a new generation on a new path. He takes his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s boys, and blesses both of them together. One is older, one is younger, but it doesn’t matter. Jacob reaches out his hands, his right and his left, in blessing. But he crosses his arms, so that his right hand is placed on the head of the boy on his left, and his left hand is placed on the head of the boy on his right – confounding every pretense of preference – and he gives them one singular blessing, “By you will Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” By you, second person singular, one blessing for both boys equally.[xii]

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

There is no scarcity when it comes to God’s care for us, God’s love for us, God’s attention toward us, God’s blessing and being with us. God cares for us all. There is enough, of all we need, for everyone. Seventy-seven-fold. Seventy-times-seven-fold.

Violence, exclusion, dishonesty, deception, are choices that we make only when we can’t see past what we have experienced, how we have been hurt, and what we feel – in isolation.

Charles McCullough

I concluded this sermon with an invitation for the congregation to come forward and contemplate the sculpture of the moment when Jacob and Esau are reconciled. What could be seen from the pews, what can be perceived from the photo (above), is only one perspective. To fully take in the sculpture/story requires walking around it, seeing it from every angle, expressing empathy for everyone’s experience. To see the anguished, hopeful, fearful faces of Jacob and Esau requires seeing what each one cannot see in the embrace – the face of the other. To see the soldier, in the sculpture, head hung in shame, or embarrassment, or confusion, one needs to kneel down. One cannot appreciate both Leah and the soldier at the same time. Jacob’s displaced hip can only be discerned from an angle that does not allow one to look upon his face. That the brothers are embracing, and not wrestling or engaged in deadly combat, can only be read by looking at the total context. I suggested that this we must do the same when reading scripture – we must move around and read every story from every perspective, feeling our way through the various jealousies, hurts, and hopes. Looking for the different avenues for ending the cycles of hurt, and violence. And that this is what we must do with and for one another: looking carefully, listening carefully, to how we are each experiencing life. And providing seventy-times-seven-fold mercy and understanding, accountability and acceptance, punishment and protection, reaching past retribution toward redemption, restoration, and reconciliation.

Hymn: Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive

O cleanse the depths within our souls and bid resentment cease.
Them by your mercy reconciled, our lives will spread your peace.

 

[i] For an explication of what Jesus means here, see my earlier sermon “How Many Times?” September 11, 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11.

[ii] Marilyn Manson, “…despite the advance of civilization, mankind [sic] remains determined to destroy itself … Cain had no slasher movies to persuade him to kill Abel.” See also Peter Vronsky, in Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present (Berkley, 2018), argues that violence is in our DNA, a legacy of homo sapiens’ long and genocidal war with Neanderthals and other hominid competitors.

 [iii] For accessibility, see Saint Augustine, The City of God, abridged for modern readers. (Vintage, 1958). Especially  Book XV: “The City of God in Early Biblical History.”

[iv] Jen Dresser, Cain and Abel: Reimagining Stories of Violence. A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Theology in Candidacy for the Bachelor of Theology. University of Winnipeg, Manitoba. April 2012.

[v] Katharina Von Kellenbach in The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators. (Oxford, 2013). page 12.

[vi] Both citations are from the conclusion to Dresser’s, “Cain and Abel.”

[vii] James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. (Trinity Press International, 1991), especially chapter two, “Enemy Brothers.” (pp. 33-67). Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes that after Genesis explores this ‘reaching for reconciliation’ between individual family members, the book of Exodus and the prophets explore it as a goal between peoples. Disney’s Dreamworks production of Prince of Egypt famously portrayed the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh as that of brothers, while scripture explores the relationships between Moses (the younger brother) and Abel (his older brother) and Miriam (his older sister). Even in the New Testament, there are hints of Jesus relationship with his older brother James, and a relationship of rivalry between Jesus and Judas.

[viii] James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, which is largely a story of Eve and Adam, Cain and Abel. (page 106).

[ix] See above, Von Kellenbach in The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators. (Oxford, 2013).

[x] Arthur Waskow, GodWrestling -Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths. (Jewish Lights, 1996). On Rachel wrestling with her sister, see p. 24, 39.

[xi] Mark McEntire’s book, The Blood of Abel: The Violent Plot in the Hebrew Bible (Mercer, 1999) contains a brief account of the positive role of wilderness in scripture as a place of learning, of leaving behind old habits and forging new ones, as a threshold or crucible through which we pass on the way to new life. “Interlude Three: God’s People in the Wilderness,” (pp. 61-63). This theme continues right on down through the appearance of John the Baptist and Jesus’ forty day vision quest in the wild.

[xii] “Reaching toward Reconciliation” is a phrase I learned from Rabbi Arthur Waskow long ago in his own telling of these narratives, as is the expression “found their resolution.” Arthur Waskow has written a joint autobiography with his own brother, Howard Waskow, and contemplating the long arc of the Cain and Abel story in scripture, called Becoming Brothers (Free Press, 1993). He reflects of the tales of enemy brothers in Genesis in “Brothers War / Brother’s Peace,” the first section of GodWrestling – Round  2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths. (Jewish Lights, 1996). I was digesting these books as I wrote my first confirmation curriculum in the 1990s, learning to tell these family stories and national stories as our stories.

Lent 2: Legacy of Violence

March 10, 2020

Guest Post: A sermon preached by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea at Haverstraw Central Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020. This is Pastor Katie’s second sermon in the Cross River Sermon Series she and Pastor Jeff are working on. Check out their earlier collaboration in preaching and prayer, Lent 1: Cain and Abel.

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Genesis 4:13-22

13Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. 18To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Me/hu/ja/el, and Me/hu/ja/el the father of Meth/u/sha/el, and Meth/u/sha/el the father of Lamech.

19Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20Adah bore Ja/bal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. 21His brother’s name was Ju/bal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Na/amah.

23Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Matthew 18:21-22

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Deborah Prothrow-Stith, of the Harvard School of Public Health writes, “We are a country that’s infatuated with violence.  Some of us are in love with violence and addicted to it.  We celebrate it.  We’re entertained by it.  We run to read about it, to see it.  We encourage children sometimes to fight. . . .  As I travel across the country, one thing I see pretty universally among American children is an admiration of violence.”[1]  Why?  Because adults admire violence.  Because violence can get you power, and who doesn’t love power? 

Genesis presents us with the growth of this problem in the first 16 chapters of the book.  We focused in on it here in our continuation of the story of Cain.  Five generations out from Cain is a descendant who brags to his wives in song about violent vengeance he exacted on a younger man.  He killed this younger man who struck him.  Lamech crows: seven-fold vengeance for killing Cain, watch out! 77-fold vengeance for attacking Lamech.  Violence and vendetta have taken hold and grown.  Now they are something to brag about, not repent of.  That is not good.  Here begins the glorification of violence, the one-ups-man-ship, the machismo, the carrying of big sticks and concealed firearms.  Here we go.

In the play Cain, Lord Byron wrote, “Who shall heal murder?”  In other words, how can the cycles of escalating violence be stopped?[2]  Jesus gives us the answer: stop participating.  Forgive.  I feel certain Jesus was referring to the boast of Lamech when he made his answer about how many times we are required to forgive someone.   Give up your interest in vengeance—77 times.

Our reading from Genesis 4 began this morning with Cain declaring to God that “My punishment is greater than I can bear!  Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”  Which is not what has actually happened.  In fact, the ground rejected Cain and cursed him.  The ground refused to yield its strength to Cain further.  God protects Cain’s life, even though Cain did not protect his brother’s life.  God is loving and steadfast.  God marked Cain so that anyone who encountered him would know not to kill him.  This mark, then, is forever a sign of his guilt AND of God’s grace, just like the ashes we wear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  The marks say: culpable AND redeemed.

Now, the word “brother” in the story of Cain and Abel works two ways.  This is a story about brothers and about the people around us.  Brother and neighbor, one and the same.  Cain’s name comes from a root word that means “productive” in Hebrew.  And Abel’s name comes from a root word that means “a puff of air.”  Walter Brueggeman writes, “The story itself dismisses Abel—his name means ‘nothing.’”[3]  This seems harsh.  But it is real.  There are people who are dismissed all the time.  There are people all over the place being assigned little worth and concern.  But by assigning the title of “brother” to the other person in the story (the one who was called a puff of air, of little value), the writer shows us the real value of the “other” in God’s eyes—as dear as the closest possible family member.  It is rather horrifying to kill a close family member.  God wants us to know that destroying the life of one of the “least of these” among humans is the same as.

True to his name, Cain does indeed produce, not only offspring, but the first city as well.  The names of children of Cain are all variation on the theme of productivity and loveliness, and thus, says Brueggemann, are suggestive of a celebration of life.[4]  So there is progress in Cain’s life.  He moves forward as God had allowed him into productive life.  And the product of the offspring of Cain are the arts, and culture, and society.  They represent the channeling of desire and the attempt to master sin crouching at the door.  But what you know, and I know, and everyone who has ever heard the stories of humanity knows, is that wherever people have been, there also has been violence perpetrated against one another, and other creatures, and creation.  So much so that we tell our story as if human violence is inevitable and simply part of who we are, written into our DNA.  We are all descendants of Cain, after all.  Maybe striking and killing was just the way we were made.  Maybe it has been what made us as successful as we are today as a species (even if we seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns). 

But this is not the case, or at least not the whole story.  Sure, we bit the apple, but we are not utterly fallen.  We can master sin.  God says so.  So how do we move from the rule of returning harm 77 times greater to the rule of forgiving harm 77 times over?  How do we repent of enthrallment with violence?  How do we walk a Christ’s path into whole and peaceable life?  The first step is to believe what God has said most clearly: we are created and called good.  We are made to do well.  We are responsible for our neighbors, even the least of them.  And Jesus will show us the way.  The first step is to believe it.  The second step is to do what Cain must have done: Cain must have taken responsibility for himself.  He must have focused on his capacity to be greater than the beast crouching at the door.  He must have come to realize that within the mark upon him that said “culpable and redeemed,” there was embedded a promise that he was also capable of being in balance with good creation.

Krista Tippet hosts a program called OnBeing.  This week she had a conversation with Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale, and author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.  Christakis asserts that despite the headlines, in reality we humans really do seem to be hardwired for goodness.  Tippet comments: “Christakis compellingly demonstrates that we come to social goodness as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations.  Most of us know in life what he describes through sociological research: that capacities like friendship and love, teaching and learning, have tremendous, constant, practical force — even to redeem the hardest of circumstances. .”[5]  Yet we don’t seem to take these very regular qualities of goodness as seriously as the bad ones.  And we never really think about these qualities as naturally selected in our evolution and development as humans.

Christakis asserts: “There is no society on Earth that has an easy job of suppressing our innate tendencies to love, friendship, and cooperation.”  Even at our cooperative worst, loving-kindness seems to persistently spring up among the downtrodden like dandelions in the cracks of a sidewalk.  His research shows that we are, in fact, each other’s keepers, and resiliently so.  When down and out, even in the worst circumstances (usually in the worst circumstances) we seem to turn to one another and have enough to share and a hand to lend.  And for every place on earth where there are monstrous boasts of bloody violence and promises of bone crushing harm, there are also those who walk the path of Christ by being present, being helpful, extending aid and care and witness.  For every person using violence for power over others, there are those who refuse to participate or to be draw away from vigilant shepherding and tending of those in their care.  These ones are the seeds of God’s good creation redeemed and fulfilled.  These will have the last word.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Public Affairs Television, Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, NY: Double Day (1996) p.57.

[2] Cain is a dramatic work by Lord Byron published in 1821.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, “Genesis,” Atlanta: John Knox Press (1982) p.56.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, “Genesis,” Atlanta: John Knox Press (1982) p.65.

[5] Krista Tippet, https://onbeing.org/programs/nicholas-christakis-how-were-wired-for-goodness/, March 2020.

Lent 1: Cain and Abel

March 6, 2020

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Cain and Abel” by Charles Woods, 2009, compressed charcoal and
white chalk on toned paper, Beaufort, SC. Used with permission

They’re back! The liturgical plotters, Katie and Jeff. On the First Sunday of Lent, 2020, Katie Rivera-Torea and I began a new sermon series on the foundational myth of Cain and Abel. This is the most fun we’ve had working together yet. On this first day of collaboration, Katie wrote the sermon and Jeff wrote the communion liturgy. Because Jeff is a geek, the single page prayer has two pages of footnotes. These latter suggest the kinds of rich conversations we two preachers have had over the last two months. Katie found the artwork for week one, which sat on our desks as we worked, and we are grateful to the artist, Charles Woods, for his permission to share it here. 

THE SERMON

In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote, “Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning.  We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the stories of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel . . . I don’t understand them at all but I feel them.  Liza gets angry with me.  She says I should not try to understand them.  She says why should we try to explain a verity.”  The story of Cain and Abel is just the truth.  It presents to us a fundamentally important representation of the human problem.  The story is spare and short on details.  It leave us with a lot of questions which we have felt certain we knew the answers to throughout time, so we have inserted them into our explanations of the story as we have told it.  Nevertheless, the story itself is so true of humanity that has continued onward to the present and will continue on past us, informing and inspiring so many inquiries into and reportings of what it means to be human. 

The story of Cain and Abel is being referenced, echoed, and addressed throughout the whole Bible, and how could it not be?  It is presented to us as the fundamental act of violence by humans—and so much more: the first picture of us interacting with God outside of Eden, the first picture of us worshiping, the second picture of us making a choice.  So we are going to consider the story of Cain and Abel in a variety of scriptures throughout this Lenten season, less with the intention of explaining a verity, and more with the intention of letting it illuminate the truth of us to ourselves.  I want to say that again.  We are going to be tinkering with the legacy of Cain and Abel for all five Sundays of Lent.  It is not a simple story and I encourage you to wonder about every assumption you’ve ever had or certainty you’ve ever felt about the story.

Here is the story of envy, competition, preference, humiliation, anger, and violent othering.  Here is the story of Cain and Abel.  We have read it this morning.  Eve bears two sons.  They grow up together and one works with the fields and one works with the cattle, both on behalf of the family.  The brothers decide to make an offering to God from their work.  Cain brings a grain offering and makes a gift of it, while Abel slaughters a lamb and makes a sacrifice of it.  God looks at Abel’s offering but doesn’t look at Cain’s offering.  Why?  Why?  Why?

And so it began, the series of events that would echo through time and we would all have a part in.  Cain, we read, became very angry and his face fell.  Haven’t you been angry?  Haven’t you felt your face fall when you were disappointed?  Haven’t you competed?  Haven’t you striven to be preferred?  Haven’t you been humiliated?  Haven’t you been hurt by someone?  Haven’t you hurt someone close to you?  Haven’t you distanced another person from you and had no pity on them?  Here is the story of Cain and Abel.  Here is the story of us all.  And it all began with the inclination Cain and Abel had to show regard to God in an offering from their work.

Christopher Leighton writes in his essay entitled, “The Legacy of Cain”: “Remember that the expression of worship was not commanded, but reflected among other things a primal desire to reach beyond oneself in gratitude and wonder.”[1]  Therefore, “the terrifying irony of the story resides in the fact that it is in the religious pursuit that the brothers become locked in a violent rivalry that produces winners and losers, perpetrators and victims, but not the harmony and equity that the reader yearns for.”[2]  Shouldn’t human relationship with God generate harmony and equity?  Isn’t that what we not just yearn to read about but yearn to live?  And yet here we all live, a planet full of humans, living in the Anthropocene, vying to be winners not losers, and if necessary perpetrators so as not to be the victims. It’s a futile, ultimately self-destructive struggle.

Jesus Christ comes as the conduit to correct this terrible state of affairs.  The Apostle Paul assures us that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us.  He writes to the Christians in Corinth that Jesus brings to us the gift of a new way to live.  He writes, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]  It makes the whole story of us and God strangely simple then when we come to the communion table that Jesus prepares for us, because it is a table of reconciliation, of us, with God and all creation.  What we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper is setting right of the fundamental human brokenness and the brokenness of the world.  Pieced back together is the inclination to honor God by two people who belong to one another and are responsible for one another in a family.

The first offerings, the first gifts: Abel’s gift—the blood offering and Cain’s gift—the grain offering are here brought by Jesus and set before us.  But they are not set on the altar to be judged and either accepted or rejected.  Instead he refines them and brings the wine and the bread to the table and invites all to partake.  Contest and preference are done away with in the offering of Jesus of himself, overcome in his gift of reconciliation and love.  The old life where sin is crouching at the door is gone; a new life is begun, a new life in God’s divine approval and peace with one another and ourselves.  Eternal life.  Blessed life.  Affirmed, beloved life.  As we meet at Christ’s table again today, may you know this goodness.  Amen.

[1] Public Affairs Television, Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, NY: Double Day (1996) p.51.

[2] Public Affairs Television, Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, NY: Double Day (1996) p.52.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, NRSV.

THE PRAYER OF GREAT THANKSGIVING

The Lord be with you.   And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.   We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.   It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise,
loving God, creator and sustainer of life.

You spread out the dazzling canopy of the heavens
and established the deep foundations of the earth;
you lifted up mountains and hills, high and stately,
and poured out oceans and rivers, flowing free, giving birth to creation.
you made all creatures of the earth to show your glory,
and human beings, in your image, to care for the world,
your good gift, our beautiful, precious, precarious home.[i]

But we transgressed the limits set by you for the flourishing of all;[ii]
we saw that which looked good to us, and
not thinking of Creator nor Creation, we did as we pleased,
we took and we seized for ourselves what belonged to all. [iii]
Already in paradise, Adam and Eve hid from God,
Where are you?” God asked them.
and the apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Surely the story of Adam and Eve is our story.[iv]

East of Eden, transgression begat rivalry,
and rivalry begat violence,
and violence begat death,
and death begat fear, evasion, dishonesty —
the corruption of our very souls, and the brokenness of the world.
Where is your brother, your sister?” You asked them, and us.[v]
In turning on, and turning our back on, one another
we lay waste to your good creation[vi]
and ‘Earth bears the curse for us.’
From the ground Abel’s blood cries to you, our God.[vii]Surely the story of Cain and Abel is our story.[viii]

Yet we are marked, as Cain was, not only our sin but by your unfailing love.[ix]
You gifted your people with a law and a land,[x]
have sent prophets and teachers to heal us and help us find our way home;
repairers of the breach between creature and creator,
between brother and sister, neighbor and nation,
and all with earth.[xi]

And then, in the fullness of time
out of your great love for the world
you sent Jesus Christ to redeem and restore,
healing our brokenness and making all things new.[xii]

Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.

Here, in this sacrament,
the sacrifice of Abel, in blood freely given,
and the sacrifice of Cain, in the bread earned through hard toil in the soil,
become gifts offered together
accepted and acceptable to you,
gifts not of an altar, but of a table.[xiii]
Here your gifts to us, presented back to you in gratitude,
become not occasion for division but of reconciliation.
With them we offer our very selves to you,
and our faces are not downcast
but high and lifted up.[xiv]

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine
that the bread we break and the cup we bless
may be participation in the body and blood of Christ. [xv]

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
and one with all who share this meal,
united in ministry in every place.
as this bread is Christ’s body for us,
send us out to be Christ’s body for the world.

Keep us faithful until that time
when they will not hurt or destroy
on all your holy mountain,
when the earth will be full of your glory
as the waters cover the sea.

Hasten the coming of the day
when the wolf shall live in peace with the lamb
and the leopard shall lie down with the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all honor and glory are yours, almighty God,
now and forever. Amen.

 

[i]This first paragraph is taken from the “Service for the Care of Creation – Great Thanksgiving” in the Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018), p. 566. The prayer begins in the world as intended and created. It is amended by adding the words “giving birth to creation” in the fifth line. See the great description of this biblical image of God giving birth in Supposing Him to Be the Gardener: An Earth Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John by Margaret Daly-Denton, particularly Section 14.5. (See Psalm 90:2. Job 38:8, and Norman Habel’s reading of Genesis 1:9.) I have also added to word “precarious” to the final line. It is important to me that precarity was present from the beginning, and not as curse or consequence of human action alone.

[ii] Transgressing limits built into creation itself, rather than some form of interpersonal human disobedience to divine command, or the exercise of curiosity, desire, or even giving in to temptation, subtly recast popular understandings of ‘what happened’ in the garden in ways helpful to use understanding our place in the world today.

[iii] “We saw what looked good for us and, not thinking of God, did as we pleased.” This line, along with “Surely this story…” are adapted from Rev. Steven Plymale, “The Story of Adam and eve is Our Story – 21st Century Resource for the First Sunday of Lent – Year A” for Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church. March 7, 2011. I’ve changed “not thinking of God” to “not thinking of Creator nor Creature” because all sin is relational and no sin in solely against God. See Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology. Revised edition (1989). The line, “we too and seized…” is my own, intending a chiasm with transgressed boundaries and echoing biblical parallelism.

[iv] “Already in paradise…” is adapted from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Matthew. 3 Volumes. The line about the apple is taken from Am I My Brother’s Keeper, the play by myself and Noelle which will be presented later in Lent. The final statement returns us to Steven Plymale’s resource. .

[v] East of Eden – John Steinbeck, of course, evoking the extraordinary longevity of this story’s appeal. The rest is meant to evoke the theory of mimetic rivalry, violence and foundational murder in the writings of Rene Girard, particularly Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World. (1987), pp 144-149. See the video short from Noah: The Movie, directed by Daaron Aronofsky. (Clip) With reference to the eucharist.

[vi] Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018), p. 566.

[vii] This lines comes from liturgy used by the South Sydney Uniting Church for Land Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 14, 2014.

[viii] Adapting and making a refrain from the line by Rev. Plymale.

[ix] It is important the ‘mark’ placed on Cain be seen not a punishment, but as consequence and protection.

[x] The single phrase from Brian Wren’s hymn “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness” is meant to evoke the whole journey of God’s people East of Eden.

[xi] Division is a central element in the Cain and Abel narrative. The evocation of ‘repairers of the breach’ from Isaiah 58 is intended to highlight the fact of division and restoration of relationship of the Animal-Earth-Divine.

[xii] Adapted from Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church (USA), 2018), p. 566

[xiii] This reflects the long conversations between Revs. Katie Rivera-Torea and Jeff Geary on sacrifice and gift, arbitrary favor, and the various symbolism of bread and wine. As we were talking, I discovered a post on Internet Monk called “Cain, Abel, and a Theology of the Table” which included this reflection:

And so I turn to the Table every week and find a hope that lies buried in the story of Cain and Abel. In the bread and the wine I see the body and blood of Christ. The Sacrificial Lamb. Abel’s sacrifice presented to the Lord. In the bread and the wine I also see the fruit of the harvest. Grain and grape. Cain’s crops presented to the Lord. // At the Communion table are both the brothers’ sacrifices, brought together. In the bread and the wine I see both the harvest and the lamb. Both Cain and Abel. The two brothers, reunited. The enmity between them—between all of us—forever healed, yesterday, today, and forever. At the table, violence is put to death and resurrected as peace.

[xiv] This is mine. The reference is to Genesis 4:6, Cain’s countenance being cast down as a result of, at best, perceived divine indifference and, in the worst case, divine rejection. It is contrasted with, on the one hand, the theology of glorification in John 12:27-36, where the human one (and the children of God) must be lifted up, and, no the other, with John Calvin’s theology of ascent and gratitude in the eucharist which lifts us up to participation in divine life. See Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdman’s, 2010) or Brian Gerrish, The Grace and Gratitude: Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin. (1993).

[xv] From here, prayers of the people or intercessions may be included. The prayer concludes using the remained of the liturgy on page 567 in the Book of Common Worship.

Turning the Other Cheek: On Nonviolent Resistance

March 6, 2020

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Charles McCollough, “Turn the Other Cheek”

On Sunday, February 28, 2020, Transfiguration Sunday, I grabbed a volunteer from the congregation and acted out Walter Wink’s exegesis of Matthew 5:38-48 on turning the other cheek. I’ve done this so many times in confirmation classes and on Sunday mornings that I didn’t have any notes. Linda, a Korean-American woman, gave me a fantastic punch to get us going.  I love my congregation. Violence and non-violence are big themes this year during Lent, and the lessons of this Sunday morning will long linger. 

Here’s how Walter describes this passage. Thanks to wiki preacher for making it available. 

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Why the right cheek?  A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent.  An open-handed slap would also strike the left cheek.  To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks.  Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days’ penance.   The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.  We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight.  The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place…   A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors.  Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal.  The only normal response would be cowering submission.  Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus’ audience was.  In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you…wants to sue you…forces you to go one mile…”).  There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. ?Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek?  Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.  The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again.  Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect.  I deny you the power to humiliate me.  I am a human being just like you.  Your status does not alter that fact.  You cannot demean me.” ?     Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker.  Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him?  He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem).   If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer.  But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality.  Even if the superior orders the person flogged for such “cheeky” behavior (this is certainly no way to avoid conflict!), the point has been irrevocably made.  He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being.  In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate.   He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.  As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.”
– Walter Wink, from “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way”
http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm

 

Growing Together

February 21, 2020

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A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2020

1 Corinthians 3:1-9          Matthew 13:1-12

We have two scripture readings this morning: the first from First Corinthians and the second from the Gospel according to Matthew. The Corinthians reading is part of our continued reading of Paul’s letter to the house churches in New Corinth that we have been reading throughout the Season of Epiphany. The selection from Matthew was chosen to prepare us to hear the anthem that the choir is going to sing as an offertory this morning. We will be singing “The Parable of the Sower” by former White Plains Presbyterian Church Music Director, Don McAfee. Putting these two scripture passages together, one from the lectionary for the day and the other at the suggestion of our currentDirector of Music Ministry, left your preacher the task of figuring out what, if anything, holds them together in a unity.

So, let’s listen to the word of First Corinthians 3, the first nine verses.

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field [“you are what God is growing,” and Paul adds, “you are…], God’s building.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the thirteenth chapter, we find Jesus telling a parable about growth.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

So, my short reflection this morning is simply called, “Growing Together,” taken from Paul’s words about working together, but with and for the the purpose growing together. It seems to me that what unifies these two passages is that they are both interested in growth. Not capitalist growth, not cancerous growth, not eternal growth … endless growth … growth as the solution to all problems, certainly not church growth. But spiritual growth. Growing deeper – growth with deep roots in community with one another, the earth and with God.

But what these two passages have in common is that they each, in their own way, draw out attention to that which inhibits our growth, that which gets in the way of our growth, the obstacles that must be overcome on the path to spiritual growth. The things holding us back.

On the one hand, Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seeds draws out attention to the things around us – what we might call our environment: our culture, our society, the context in which we find ourselves and that inhibit us, Jesus mentions

  • the cares and troubles of the world
  • the lures of wealth
  • persecution and difficulty

There is a nod toward that which we might think of as internal or inward (though I am not entirely convinced that this is what the passage means) when Jesus speaks of what we can call shallow commitment. This may be an environmental factor as well.

These are the things around us or (perhaps) within us that inhibit our spiritual growth.

On the other hand, when Paul speaks to the house churches in Corinth, he draws our attention to that which is between us – the relationships we have, the barriers we construct and put up between one another, the way we presumptively (or conveniently) label one another and put one another in boxes that keep us apart and ‘other,’ and place us in competition or conflict.

The list seems fairly complete (if only suggestive of the myriad specifics).

The question arising from the texts, if we let them address us, is this, “What is it within us, what is it around us, and what is it between us, that is inhibiting our growth? What is inhibiting our growing together in relationship with one another, with God and with the earth.

This seems to me very much a pre-Lenten reflection, a question to ask as we approach Lent.  We re two weeks, a week and a half, away from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Many of us are accustomed to the Lenten discipline of giving something up, while others of us take on an added practice of devotion – scripture reading, fasting and prayer. But these passages suggest that there may be a useful Lenten disciple of cleaning up, or cleaning out, or sweeping clear – a practice of naming those things that are inhibiting our growth at this moment and doing something about them. I cannot do that for you, that is for you to do; but I suspect you already have an idea of what is getting in the way of your growing.

What is inhibiting your growth at this time? What is holding you back from the life together that God is calling you to live?[i]

Earlier this week, Pastor Lynn and I had an opportunity to gather together with local clergy. We have a local clergy association that is particularly strong and especially close. The two of us, Lynn and I, depend on our colleagues in ministry. And as we look ahead to my sabbatical time in the Fall, I know that you as a congregation will get to know some of these colleagues as this congregation turns and depends on them for help and support through those months to come. For example, Rabbi Fredda Cohen, who is the staff chaplain at White Plains Hospital, will be the first clergy most of you see should you go to the hospital. Rabbi Cohen will be preaching here at the very beginning of my sabbatical, and again in the middle, so that she will be a familiar face and presence for you.

Something happened at our meeting this week that I want to share with you. A few days before our meeting, the scheduled speaker – a local pastor who has written a book on the things that happen in marital relationships that inhibit growth as a couple and how married couples can address these and grow together – our scheduled speaker informed us that he had been in an accident and would be unable to attend as planned. He was fine, he assured us, and he would be ok, but he could not present at the meeting as planned. Then, the day before the meeting, our colleague Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Temple Kol Ami, the current president of the White Plains Religious Leaders, informed us that she was ill and would not be attending. Instead, she suggested in an email that we all bring a scripture reading from our tradition that is particularly important to us – that inspires us – and be ready to share with one another.

So, as we gathered this past Thursday at Memorial Methodist Church, we talked about what was going on in our lives, and what was happening in our congregations. And everyone had brought a scripture. We talked about it meant to us, how it inspired us, what it led us to think and feel, and how it helped us to grow.  The very last person in the room to share was Rabbi Les Bronstein of Temple Bet Am Shalom. He looked around the room, put his hands on his face (like this) and he simply said (something like), “I am overwhelmed at the richness of the stories I have just heard, of the inspiring work happening in all of your congregations and in your lives. I am overwhelmed. And blessed.” And he said, “It reminds me that God is at work all around us all the time. But unless we take the time to share what is going on in our lives, we just might not know it.” And then he said, “It’s as If the phone is always ringing; and we just need to answer it.” (What he actually said, I later recalled, was “It’s as if the radio is always broadcasting, and we just need to tune in.” My mis-remembering, though, led nicely into the next hymn, “God is calling in the whisper.”)[ii]

That struck home. My friends, God is always calling to us. The phone is always ringing (the radio is always broadcasting). But we need opportunities to sit down with one another and talk with one another, so that we can answer the call together.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton (1915-1968) who was a mystic and man who fought in the resistance against the Vietnam War. He said that “if you want to know me, don’t ask where I live, what I like to eat, how I part my hair; rather, ask me what I live for, in every detail, and ask me what in my view prevents me from living fully for the thing I really want to live for.”[iii]

Because both Jesus’ and Paul’s understanding of spiritual growth has to do with what we are and do together, as a community. We are to grow together.

 

 

[i] Yes, for a simple meditation, I’m throwing some of my favorite ideas together. But I intend them with the richness suggested by, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.

[ii] I am reminded on Norah Jones’ song, “One Flight Down”:

One flight down / There’s a song on low / And your mind just picked up on the sound / Now you know that you’re wrong / Because it drifts like smoke / And it’s been there playing all along / Now you know / Now you know

[iii] This marvelous quote is cited in Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. (Fortress, 2001).

Celebrating Scientific Inquiry: A Sermon

February 11, 2020

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A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany, February 9, 2020. Science Sunday is celebrated every year on the Sunday nearest Charles Darwin’s birthday during Black History Month.

Matthew 5:13-20          1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Pastor Lynn delivered a children’s message this Sunday on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 using Monica Clark Robinson’s book, Let the Children March. The book ends with the young girl who narrates the story saying, “Our march made the difference. We children led the way.” Pastor Lynn asked the children if they thought they could make a difference in the world through marching, speaking up, taking risks and telling the truth. The children said they did.

After the children left and the congregation has sung our prayer for illumination, I asked the congregation…

Can we make a difference in the world?

Listen to the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Amen!

The Gospel According to John describes Jesus as “the way the truth and the life.” This is the language of wisdom – the personified principles with which God made the world. In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is also portrayed as living water, as the host of a banquet, as the food on table, and as the voice that calls to God’s people in the midst of a marketplace in which everything is for sale, including justice.

The guiding principle of the Gospel of John is that this Divine Wisdom is available to all, to everyone, but that it is often ignored. (i.e. She was in the world, and the world came into being through her, yet the world did not know her. – John 1:10)

Why?

Well that is a good question. In some places in scripture God’s Wisdom is ignored out of fear: fear of death, fear of loss, fear of grief, fear of violence, fear of others – name your fear. It drives us to ignore, or at least not to trust, the patterns with which this world is woven that bring this way, truth and life to us. Elsewhere in scripture, prophets like Isaiah and Jesus suggest Divine Wisdom is ignored because people choose to live in denial: there are always those who have ears to hear but refuse to listen, there are those with eyes to see who simply do not want to see. Right?

For Paul the Apostle, God’s Wisdom simply flies in the face of ambition and grasping for power and the attempt to control. God’s Wisdom is the opposite of empire. Because its strength is weakness and self-giving, it is overlooked or discounted. Because in the eyes of those whose mantra is worldly success, it looks like failure. But it is, Paul says, nothing less than the principle of nonviolent love at work in the world. It is foolishness, he says, but it is divine. And when it is at work in our lives, it is salt and it is light.

Listen to this next portion of our continued reading of Paul’s Letter to the house churches in New Corinth.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or [worldly] wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of [worldly] wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

* * * * * * *

At the beginning of the western scientific revolution in the 16th century, Nicholas Copernicus – who demonstrated that the earth and planets of our solar system revolve around our sun, who made possible our call to worship this morning about the earth and our orbital journey through space – Nicholas Copernicus said:

To know the mighty works of God, comprehend God’s wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate in degree the wonderful working of God’s laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.

Copernicus was reflecting the ancient idea that God has metaphorically authored two books of revelation: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Because God is the author of both, these books cannot in principle be in conflict. There is no conflict between the study of creation and the practice of faith because God addresses us in both.[i]

This tradition of two books was nothing new. It was shared by ancient Jews; it was known to early Christians. It is part of the wisdom tradition that Paul spoke in this Letters to the Corinthians. It is built on the idea that the created world reflected the wisdom of God, which Paul also speaks about in his Letter to the house churches in Rome.[ii]

And theologians from the second to the twentieth century have taught this, from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Aquinas. Even John Calvin’s famous opening line in his Institutes of Christian Religion, initiating our Reformed faith tradition, said that there are two forms of knowledge: the knowledge of God and human knowledge, and that they speaks to the consistent way God about how God and God’s world can come to be known. Yes, Calvin was infamous for suspicion: insisting that fallible human beings could twist human science to perverse ends. But he was equally adamant that fallible human beings twist scripture to perverse ends. Thus, the importance of education, and study, and method, and community in his thought and our Reformed faith

But if Calvin was concerned about the fallibility of human knowledge about the heavens and the earth, Augustine was mostly embarrassed by the willful ignorance of certain Christians. He railed against scriptural literalists who would deny the evidence of the senses in order to defend some so-called meaning of scripture. This is around the year 400. Augustine says,

Often a non-Christians knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge they hold with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for a non-Christian to hear Christians talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what they are saying is ‘based in Scripture.’ We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.[iii]

This problems of science and religion – fundamentalism, literalism, anti-intellectualism – have always been with us – but they are not primarily problems between science and religion.

Science Sunday exists for three reasons.

First, contrary to all that I have just said, there is still a widely perceived conflict between religion and science. And this perceived conflict has, at times, been made real, with real consequences: the ghost of Galileo still haunts us, and the present denial of climate change is criminal and dangerous, even as it is led by some “Christian” churches. Sure, religion can be slow to adapt to evolving human understanding and is sometimes willfully resistant. This is that perverse twisting that embarrassed Augustine and concerned Calvin. But it can also, and often has, led the way.[iv]

Second, Science Sunday is observed in a growing number of congregations because of a survey that was conducted almost a decade ago by the Barna Group. This survey found that this perceived conflict, actively promoted in many churches, is one of the leading reasons youth between the ages of 18 and 25 are leaving churches. A significant number of young people reported that they rarely hear science spoken of affirmatively. They hear it spoken of negatively, as a threat to faith, or as simply irrelevant to matters of faith. 29% percent of these young adults said in 2011 that “churches are out of step with the scientific world in which we live,” and 25% said that “Christianity is anti-science.” And they could be excused for thinking this if they don’t hear about, learn about, and celebrate scientific discovery, in church. And in worship.[v]

Finally, Science Sunday is an important liturgical practice because we live in an age when truth and facts, science and scientists, are under attack. And the ghost of Galileo continues to walk among us.

Science Sunday is observed on the Sunday nearest to February 12, which is Charles Darwin’s birthday. Four years ago, we started placing on our communion table for this day a votive candle with Darwin’s picture on it, naming him a “secular saint” whose discoveries of natural selection and evolutionary history have profoundly shaped our understanding of the world. Darwin’s theory of evolution, or more specifically, adaptive variation, is still one of the most elegant theories in science.[vi] [vii]

What I want to do with the time I have today is to simply mark two achievements in science, to celebrate them, and then introduce our next hymn.

I want to read – in the pulpit – the name of Christina Koch. Have you all been following Christina this past year, and the news articles about her this past week? Christina returned to earth on Thursday. She and Jessica Meir conducted the first all-woman spacewalk last year. During her 328 days in space Christina conducted “six spacewalks, set a duration record for time in space and contributed enormously to space science.” As part of her mission she conducted research on the effects of microgravity of whole-plant health, experimenting with mustard greens. There is much to be said about her and her work. The NYTimes lifted up the fact that not only was this a record for a first all-woman walk in space, anticipating the first walk of a woman on the moon, but with this walk and this all-woman team, we have crossed a threshold where women in space is the norm. It is normal and not the exception. Let’s remember her name the way we remember Sally Ride, and the way we have learned the names of the black women mathematicians who made space flight possible: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson[viii]

The second achievement I want to hold up is something I discovered last fall while researching the history of this congregation. As Crystal Blue Cleaning Service was settling in to manage our physical facilities, we discovered a brass plaque in a box in the basement. I don’t know where it came from, or what it was originally attached to. It’s clearly in keeping with the style of plaques put up before 1950. It read

flora

In Memory of
Flora Lounsbury Hobby
Founder
Presented By
The S.O.S. Circle

Now I have heard around here the names of both of these families, the Hobby and Lounsbury, but I asked widely and no one could tell me who Flora was. So Pastor Lynn and I did a bit of research and it is a really fun story we discovered.

Flora Lounsbury and her husband Theodore Hobby were New York City Presbyterians. Flora was born in 1881, was baptized in 1887. She and her husband married in 1907 and began raising a family. Flora was a public-school teacher in Manhattan, and her husband was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. They moved to White Plains after the First World War with their two daughters, Winifred and Gladys, both of whom went to White Plains High School and then to Vassar. Gladys graduated from Vassar with a degree in chemistry in 1931, from Columbia a year later with a degree in bacteriology, and in 1935 received a PhD in the same field. During that time, she was part of a three-person research team on the potential uses for penicillin, which had been discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. This team discovered how to make what was then only a lab experiment of little interest into something practical for human use – right on the eve of the Second World War.

How many of you have taken penicillin? Or are allergic to penicillin? (Nearly all hands were up, with much laughter).

Gladys was in the confirmation class here in 1925. Clearly, we are part of a faith tradition here that stresses education and learning, and particularly in science. If you remember my story about the Dusenbury family last fall, Gladys was in the same confirmation class and the same graduating class as Arthur Dusenbury, who went to Princeton to study micro-paleontology. Gladys was also the co-discoverer or Terramycin and developer of Viomycin which was the treatment then for tuberculosis.

hobbyandflemHobby with Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin

I can’t image the 1940s without the life-saving medicines Gladys was working on. She was a life-long advocate for women in science and literally wrote the book on the discovery and practical use of penicillin.[ix]

The plaque honoring her mother, Flora, must have been put some time around 1928 when Flora died while Gladys and Winifred were in college.

Who knows what our kids will grow up to do, right? And we try to be careful and faithful with the messages that we share and the lessons that are taught here so that we can make a difference in the world.

We’re going to sing one of my favorite hymns next, Earth and All Stars. It was in our old Blue Hymnal; it’s in our purple hymnal. But I want you to note right now that there are two verses in the bulletin. We’re going to sing verses one and four from the hymnal and then we will sing the two verses that are printed in the bulletin. The editorial team for our new hymnal took out the verse about “athletes and bands, loud boiling test tubes” The words were originally written in 1964 for the 90th Anniversary of St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, and the editors of our hymnal somehow thought the life of a university was not relevant to the life of a worshipping congregation on Sunday morning. My goodness. I sing this hymn and I think about all of our students in school and away in college. I think about Noah and Gabe who provided special music for us this morning, and the students are not here regularly because they are on the sports field. In the summer I think about the young children learning STEM at Destination Science Camp in our Church House.

The editors took out the line about test tubes because, well, test tubes don’t actually boil loudly. But its such an evocative image. It’s a wonderfully vivid image and an affirmation of scientific curiosity and research as part of our worship of God. Let us sing.

© 2020 The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
White Plains Presbyterian Church

 

 

[i] Statement by the 222 General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) called “Affirmation of Creation,” which re-affirms the  church commitment of science and evolution in an age of anti-science. I believe our call to worship, which I have carried around for years, originated with Edward Hays, a Roman catholic poet and priest. Here it is:

O Divine Parent, the earth is turning from its vast vision of countless star-suns to look once again with great joy upon one star, our sun. A new day has dawned, and with it come fresh challenges to grow more mindful of you and of the web that unites me with life.

As a planetary pilgrim, I marvel that I have traveled over a million miles in space since yesterday morning. My personal journey this day will be small in distance, but I pray it will be significant and sacred in my drawing close to you. As the earth turns toward the sun, I turn my whole self toward you, my God, as I now enter into worship.

[ii]A Wild Journey,” Sept. 2014; “Mountain Climbing,” Feb. 2015; “Wonder, Awe and Hope,” Feb. 2015; “Curious Minds,” May 2016; “What Kind of Persons Ought We To Be?,” Feb. 2017.

[iii] Augustine, A Literal Commentary on Genesis. Augustine writes this commentary as a literal commentary in contrast to allegorical commentary. What he means by literal, though, might best be translated as literate, or literary – even historical. Certainly not what is meant by literalists today.

[iv] A good read about the confluence of the best religious and scientific thought, with a critical look at the positivism underlying certain approaches to science and the fideism benath certain approaches to religious, see Marylinne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. (2010).

[v] Barna Group, Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church. Sept. 27, 2011.

[vi] The sermon from our first Science Sunday: “Wonder, Awe, and Hope.

[vii] Francisco Jose Ayala has written a short description of Darwin’s discovery, and offers a rebuttal of the contemporary Intelligent Design Movement (IDM) as not-science and bad-theology, in Darwin and Intelligent Design (Fortress, 2006).

[viii] Mary Robinette Kowal, “Christina Koch Lands on Earth, and Crosses a Threshold for Women in Space.” NYTimes, Feb. 6, 2020.

[ix] Gladys Hobby, Vassar Encyclopedia.