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Sabbath Day – U.S.A.

August 28, 2015

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Today was the last sabbath day of summer to spend with my son. At this time next week he will be in school. We spent most of our day cleaning the apartment and especially his room. The goal was to clear all the floor space so that we could vacuum. Mission accomplished. We interpsersed  our work with part of the movie “The Book of Kells” and a bit of reading. Then he went to Rye Playland with some friends.

It has been a month since I have written a sabbath reflection, mostly because I have been on vacation. I will blog more fully about our trip later, but essentially we spent a week exploring New England and another week in Florida. The latter included a fishing expedition with my family, including my son and nephew. The photo above is of my proud son’s catch of a 14 inch grouper.

I read a lot on vacation, but returned this week to my intentional reading of multi-national literature. This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in part because my nephew will be reading it in school this year, and in part because of our family fishing expedition. Hemingway wrote this novel while living in Cuba, and it was nostalgic to imagine the lights of Havana by night along the Malecon. In the novel, the old man Sebastian imagines sharpening his knife in Guanabacoa. I visited the statue of Hemingway which sits in Guanabacoa harbor during my second visit to Cuba in 1998. This short novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

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Dying, Grieving, Living Well

August 24, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on August 23, 2015.

John 21:1-17

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“I am perfectly at ease with whatever comes.” That’s what former President Jimmy Carter said this past week when announcing that he has been diagnosed with cancer that it has spread to his brain.

How many of us could say that, if we were given a terminal diagnosis? It is an important question, because we ALL have a terminal diagnosis. We live in a culture that is not only profoundly unhealthy but also works hard to deny the inevitability of death, is “death phobic.” We live in denial, and that robs us of the life God truly intends.

“Everyone knows they’re going to die,” writes Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.

But the vast majority of people are caught off guard, unprepared even after having been given a terminal diagnosis. Doctors are so accustomed to holding out the chance of survival, that they often encourage hope where there is none – and that discourages patients from dealing with a difficult business of death. It’s an approach that arises from compassion, but it doesn’t allow the end of life to be what it should be: an important event, like being born or getting married. “We end without any ending,” writes Jenkinson. “We are gone without any leaving.”

When Jesus knew that his death was approaching, he didn’t keep going about his days as if nothing [was] wrong. He gathered his apostles for the last supper. He fed them. He told him he was about to die. It was a defining moment in Christianity – and a stark contrast to the modern expectation that dying patients should ignore the inevitable, stay positive, and, as Jenkinson puts it, “not let them see you sweat.[1]

In what all the newspapers have called typical Carter fashion, our former president and man of faith announced his diagnosis himself, talking honestly with the press from the Carter Center in Atlanta and answering questions about his life. He says he has “hope with acceptance.” That he has had a full and meaningful life. That he will slow down and, in the words of his son, watch more of his grandson’s baseball games. And that he will be with Rosalyn every step of the way.

Jimmy Carter has done more with his post presidency than any other modern president, and there will be time to talk about all of that. But it may well be the very normalizing way in which he talked about his diagnosis, his treatment, the medical procedures; the way in which he made it clear that no one is exempt from the details of dying, or difficult talks with their doctors; the way in which he spoke about the process of dying in a way we can all understand, candidly exposing his desire to continue making contributions while realistically assessing his energy and sorting out what is most important – that may be his final gift to us: dying well.

And we need models in this. Just yesterday my grandparents in Arizona, Leroy and Gertrude Sass, entered into hospice together. Their doctor of nearly forty years came to see them at their care facility in order to enroll them personally. That gave my grandmother such joy and peace that, even though it was very late, she had to call my mother and share the news.

The flip side of dying well is grieving well. And in this we need models as well.

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the 21st chapter of the Gospel of John, verses 1-17. We are told that “This was now the third time that the Jesus had appeared before his disciples after he was raised from the dead.” Let’s review the first two.

Recall that the disciples had given three years of their lives to Jesus, in order to learn from his life, to share his life, because what they thought they saw in him was real life, abundant life, new life. But in the end, Jesus died, and with him their hope. But more than that, he was taken from them, killed, and they had betrayed him, abandoned him, failed him. Rumor of the resurrection had reached them through the women, but they were not yet ready for good news, and so they were afraid.

And so week later, the gospel tells us, Jesus comes to his disciples who have locked themselves together in a room. He comes and addresses their fear, gives them peace, breathes on them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out to be his witnesses in all the world. This was the first appearance.

And yet a week after that, they are still in the room. Jesus had given them a mission, but still the hide. They have been given peace, but still they fear. They have been given the gift of the spirit, new life gently breathed upon them the same way God first breathed life into Adam, yet still the prefer a death-like fear, locked away in a tomb of their own making.

And so Jesus comes to them a second time. This time Thomas is there. Jesus again gives them his peace, his spirit, and his mission. He sends them all out to be his witnesses. . . . . (and now we come to the setting for this morning’s) . . . and what do they do? They go fishing. They try to go back to business as usual, life before Jesus. Back to where they first met him, and were called by him, and given a mission by him, and given life by him. As if nothing different had happened. But of course – when someone we love has died, there is no real going back.

The death of someone we love is a profound experience. It is life changing. And no matter how hard we try to return to business as usual, to normality, to fishing, we cannot, because the world within us has changed. The world around us has changed. Loss has entered not only into us, but into our world, and the absence of the one we love is present everywhere.

In his book The Eyes of the Heart, Presbyterian author Fred Buechner describes how in writing about his own brother’s death he finds he must write about his own grief, or he will not get his brother’s story right. About his brother he writes

Jamie, died as I was writing these last pages. He was 2 1/2 years younger than I am and would have been 70 on his next birthday. We were the only two children in our family. I can’t imagine the world without him. I can’t imagine him without the world.

I want to get him right… I want especially to get his way of laughing right. I want to get it right about how on his visits to see us in Vermont when everybody else was dithering around trying to decide what to do next, he would sit out on the lawn in his sweater and khaki pants reading the Times in utter peace as he puffed on one of the appalling little cigars he wasn’t allowed to smoke inside. I want to get it right about the way he took life as it came instead of like me brooding about the past or worrying himself sick about the future.

But in getting his brother right, Buechner does not want to neglect his own grief.

I also want to get it right about whatever it is that is going on inside me know. There is the level of feeling where, after moments when the clouds seem to be lifting a little, it is suddenly all I can do to see the hand in front of my face. And there is the level of thinking, thinking back especially over our last few conversations, including the one within only three or four hours of his death when we said goodbye for good. But deeper down still there is a level that I know nothing about at all except that whatever I am doing there, it is absolutely exhausting. It is as if great quantities of furniture have to be moved from one place to another. There seem to be endless cartons of God only knows what to sort through somehow. The earth itself has to be bulldozed and shifted around and reshaped. A whole new landscape has come into being.

Buechner describes grief as hard, exhausting work in which whole landscapes of life are reshaped formed. Death changes everything.

It was by reading our gospel story in this light, and in the wake of my own father’s death eleven years ago, that I think I first understood this encounter between the disciples and the strange figure on the shore. John’s story is a beautifully, richly written story about the necessary failure of every attempt to go back to normal. The disciples cannot forget the last three years. Long before he actually arrives, the disciples find Jesus everywhere.

They are, after all, on the Sea of Galilee. Was this not the very sea where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed 5000? The sea across which he walked during that terrible storm? Are they not doing exactly what they had been doing when Jesus first called to them? No matter where they run, no matter what they do – even if it’s the same old thing they did before they met Jesus, nothing will ever be quite the same. In a very nice irony, though Jesus has sent his disciples out to be his witnesses, it is the landscape itself and the things that they do that will not let them forget.

“Remember when . . . ?”

And then a stranger appears on the shore. The disciples have been up late. They have caught no fish. He suggests they try one more time, on the other side of the boat. Wham! Jesus again. They’ve been here before, done EXACTLY this before, with Jesus. Sure enough, 153 fish. While Thomas, Nathaniel and the others struggle with the fish, Peter crazily (is he thinking, not thinking, can he think?) – puts ON his clothes and jumps in the water. Wham! He has just responded to this stranger on the shore in the same way he responded to Jesus. And without even the pretense of faith, of walking on the water, he just jumps rights in and heads for land.

And the stranger? He has loaves and fishes. And now suddenly, the rumors of resurrection begin to take, to settle in their lives, to be part of life and not an interruption of it. Jesus presence, and not his absence, is everywhere around them. And then, just like the living Jesus and less like a memory, he moves inside them.

Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep? Do you love me? Feed my lambs.

Right to the heart. That’s Jesus. To Peter’s denial. The disciples’ failure. To a love that knows them so intimately it cannot be betrayed even when they let him down. That’s Jesus. That’s really Jesus.

I can imagine him asking them, “Did I really need to appear to you three times?” Maybe he did.

Maybe it took that long to realize that as profoundly as death changes everything, Jesus life changes everything, even death itself. That even Jesus death could not betray the gift of life he gave to them.

Have you noticed that all the elements of these stories appear in our practice of baptism. Memory cast out in deep waters, and then a call, a promise of peace, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a naming of us at our most vulnerable, a crazy jump into the water, and a welcome to eat with Jesus at his table. Baptism is not the beginning of a journey of life toward death, or even life beyond death, but a crazy jump from life into life, real life, abundant life, new life.

 

[1] The citations are from an interview with Jenkinson conducted by Eric Hoffer in The Sun Magazine, “As We Lay Dying: Stephen Jenkinson on How We Deny Our Mortality,” Issue 476.

Sabbath Day: Nicaragua

July 30, 2015

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So, a quick post on my way out the door. I am performing a wedding on Long Island this weekend and then off for vacation, beginning Sunday. On this sabbath day I helped my son deliver food to the local food pantry, shared  communion with a member of the church I serve, and did a lot of laundry. For dinner we celebrated National Cheesecake Day with half-price slices at The Cheesecake Factory. Now, we’re off.

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This past week of reading multi-national literature focused on Nicaragua and Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal was already an accomplished poet when he came to Colombia University. But if I had ever known, I had certainly forgotten, that after Cardenal experienced his religious transformation in New York he then spent two years at the Abbey of Gethsemane with Thomas Merton. There, in Kentucky, he became the man I first met by reading The Gospel in Solentiname. I visited these stories again this week, reading a different discourse each day from this brilliant, peasant led interaction with the Christian gospel story. The image at the top of this post is of the Solentiname islands.

I began the week reading With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems 1949-1954. This collection reads like a vision quest, re-narrating the Central American experience of brutal colonization. It is dream-like, or rather nightmare like.

Grateful for the opportunity afforded by my sabbath practice to reach back and look at this stuff again.

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When Jesus was baptised in the Bronx River

July 26, 2015

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On Sunday, June 26, I shared the following story with my congregation. I wrote it during a retreat on bioregional theology led by Ched Myers and held at the Maryknoll Mission Institute. Last Sunday we used the sermon reflection time to test our watershed literacy. This week we deepened our biblical literacy by reading closely the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:4-20.

And we tried to imagine: If Jesus came to our watershed…

  • In what body of water would Jesus be baptized?
  • What prophetic figure from our region plays a role analogous to John?
  • What wilderness would John have come from and would Jesus have gone out to?
  • What local bird, rich with symbolism, would have descended upon Jesus?
  • What flora would have sustained him during his temptation, and what would those temptations have been in this place?
  • Who are the marginal people Jesus would have organized in bringing ‘good news’?
  • Is there a critical moment in our history that Jesus would have interrogated?

Here is how I imagine it might have happened.

This is the story of how Jesus came to the natural community known today as the Bronx River Watershed. Native peoples knew it as the Aquehung River. It was a rich forest area filled with American Chestnuts, home to beaver, bear, and an abundance of fish, shellfish and birds. The river provided home for several Algonquin tribes, known locally as “the people of the shells.” All that remains from this time are mounds of shells.

With the coming of Europeans – Dutch merchants, English Puritans, and French trappers – life around the river changed. First came the farmers who settled here in 1683, drawn by the rich and fertile soil of quaropas – meaning White Plains. But within the first hundred years of colonization, the native people were gone, slaves were imported, two wars were fought, and the river was damned/damed (in both senses of the term). With the coming of the dams, migratory fish disappeared from the upper reaches of the river. During the American War of Independence the valley suffered under the double occupation of both British and patriot alike – with battles fought up and down the length of the river. Native Places like Bear Swamp were renamed after the war’s carnage, Dead Man’s Swamp.

In the second hundred years of colonization, the combination of population growth, urbanization, increasing land shortage on Manhattan Island, and rapid industrialization amidst an ever-uncertain economy, profoundly changed the valley. The river was forced to serve bleach companies, paint companies, textiles and die plants and even weapons manufacture. Despite the growing thirst of New York City, our southern neighbor, the Bronx River was repeatedly passed over as a water source because it was too foul to drink. Hungry poor families, victims of this new economy, fled the city, often seeking refuge around the wealthy towns of the once wild Westchester. Laws were passed to keep them out.

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At this time a strange man appeared, wearing garments made entirely of leather. They were, in fact, hand fashioned from discarded workboots. He lived in the remaining wild places, finding shelter in old caves no doubt known to the First Nations of the valley. He walked continuously a 365 mile route through three watersheds: The Connecticut River, the Bronx River, and the Lower Hudson. It took him 34 days to complete his circular pilgrimage, carrying all he owned, including a French prayerbook, in a leather bag of his own making. He asked for and received hospitality from those he visited. He never spoke a word. But his presence evoked pity and fear, and most importantly, human kindness. So regular were his visits it is said that men could set their watches by his arrival, and women would bake bread in anticipation of his visit. Tables will be set up outside their homes. He always ate outside under the blue sky. No one knew his name, nor would he give it, if asked, so he was simply called “The Old Leatherman.” A man out of time, his presence hearkened back to a simpler time when neighbors took care of one another and welcomed strangers with hospitality.

It was at this time that Jesus came to the valley. He met the Old Leatherman on one of his pilgrimages through the Bronx Watershed. Jesus offered the old man a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and in turn Jesus was taken down into the waters of the river. With an oyster shell taken from one of the many memorial piles — Ebenezers, evoking the memory of the first inhabitants of the valley, the Leatherman baptized Jesus into the aquehung.

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Immediately a famished red tailed hawk descended on Jesus and began to pluck at his eyes and pinch flesh from his head. And Jesus realized that the hawk was hungry because the mice and hare and frogs and snakes and, most of all, the fish who belonged to the river were gone.

Immediately, Jesus set out to trace the Leatherman’s path in reverse – working backwards through the history of this region to take account of where errors were made and to ‘unsettle’ the present people.

This Jesus never left the Bronx valley. He never made it to the other valleys, the Connecticut or Hudson. Jesus would have to arrive differently there.

Wading through the river, Jesus became sick through contact with the waters, and he began to understand what had happened to the animals. They had been poisoned by toxins in the water, their habitats destroyed by invasive species. By the time he reached the only remaining old growth forest just above 182nd street bridge, Jesus needed rest, and he sought shelter in one of the Leatherman’s old caves for forty days.

In this barren place, Jesus longed for the company of the animals whose cries continually rose up out of cages and enclosures of the Bronx Zoo, for there were no animals left to attend him by the river. He hungered for the lush fruit trees of all varieties in the manicured and utterly artificial wilds of the NY Botanical Gardens, for there was nothing left but the invasive and bitter mustard root. Mad with thirst, he could not drink the water. It was essentially an open sewer. So he went down to the river to pray.

And Jesus said, “I am living water. Let all who thirst, come to me.” And from that time Jesus entered the river and from that time spoke only as the river. And he began to draw disciples.

He drew scientists from the Bronx Zoo who were embarrassed by the offensive smell coming of the river, and the Wildlife Conservation Society was born.

He drew Italian, German, Jewish, African American, and Latino neighborhoods to work together to reclaim the abandoned vanity projects of the rich as new green spaces and community spaces.

He called William Niles to design the nation’s first parkway to build a buffer between human pollution and the water’s fragile banks.

He drew the legislatures of NYC’s poorest borough and wealthiest suburbs to recognize the shared nature of this river and work together for the good of the whole natural community.

He called children and youth to pick up trash and remove invasive species at the plant new trees.

And he called citizen activists to form the Bronx River Alliance to re-inhabit the watershed through river rambles, canoe trips, local history and watershed literacy projects.

Today, the Jesus who entered into the river has become incarnate in its citizens who listened to his voice.

This is also a resurrection story. Today, the river is healthier than at anytime in the last 300 years. In 2007 a beaver named José returned to the river, the first since the 18th century. And in 2010 he was joined by another beaver named Justin. With the building of a fish ladder at the Roaring Falls, the very site where Jesus entered into the river, alewife herring and eel have returned to the upper river. Now, even the churches are awakening and beginning to work in their watersheds.

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For more information on our local watershed, check out Stephen Paul DeVillo’s brand new The Bronx River in History and Folklore (2015) as well as Maarten de Kadt’s The Bronx River: An Environmental and Social History (2011). I also preached on the watershed last year on River Sunday. By coincidence, Canoe through the Bronx, appeared in this week’s Washington Post. Check it out, please.

Baptism, Grief, and Anointing

July 25, 2015
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A few weeks ago Pastor Sarah shared some of these thoughts in a very moving sermon at White Plains Presbyterian Church. The grief of Jesus, and the weariness of his disciples, is the context for tomorrow’s sermon about loaves and fishes.

Originally posted on A Curious Faith:

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Do you remember your baptism? Do you remember the one who baptized you?

I was dedicated as an infant in the Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois and baptized when I was 15 years old on the eve of my confirmation in the Reformed Church. Friends and family gathered at a congregation member’s above ground pool. My father, the pastor at the Reformed Church of Secaucus, and Elva Grace, an elder at the church, stood in the pool with me and baptized me in the name of the Holy Three in One. It was September and the water was cold as I was submerged three times. Afterwards we feasted together as a church family.

In this past Sunday’s lectionary, we remembered the death of John the Baptist as told in Mark’s gospel. It is a painful story to hear. Imagine what Jesus must have felt upon hearing the news. When…

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Sabbath Day: Brazil

July 24, 2015

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My sabbath day this week was fabulous. The two young men above, Jeff and Ethan, volunteered to help me clean out the History Archive at the church – something that has not been done in a long, long time. We took five hours to remove items, move filing cabinets, sweep, sort, and restock the shelves. It was a sometimes tedious, very dirty, but always fascinating way to spend a day. “I thought this would be boring but it turned out to be a lot of fun,” said one of the volunteers. With music going, lots of jokes, and some serious story-telling, we accomplished a project that has been on the books for years. Both young men came to the church via the White Plains Youth Bureau, looking for a way to spend a meaningful day. They found it.

I had an early dinner with Noelle at Wild Fusion – vegetable sushi roll – and then found a quiet, public place to finish reading Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011). This fascinating read has been working itself into my imagination over the last couple of weeks. Woodward argues that “The United States is a federation comprised of the whole or part of eleven regional nations, some of which truly do not see eye to eye with one another.” Here is a nice description of the argument, while this provides a one sentence description of each nation. Rich with information and analysis. I am trying to hold this and the bioregions vision together. Fascinating.

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My week of reading multi-national literature began at Maryknoll last week when I came upon a poem by Dom Helder Camara called “Water, My Sister.” It begins

When you were created / did you know / how many would be / the things you must do, / from the most noble / and beautiful / to the most base / and desolate?

I will read this someday before, or during, a baptism.

That same day our retreat group was led in remembering Dorothy Stang, an American nun who was murdered in 2005 because of her witness on behalf of the God’s creation and her support for Brazilian workers who were organizing to protect the Amazon rainforest. Walking alone in the forest, she was confronted by gunmen who asked her if she had any weapons. In response she took out her Bible and said, “This is the only weapon I have.” And she began to read. The gunmen listened for a moment, shot her through the hand which held her Bible, and then shot her six more times.  I have spent part of everyday this week in contemplation of Dorothy and the light of our planet. The whole story is told in Martyr of the Amazon: The Life of Sister Dorothy Stang by Roseanne Murphy.

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I rounded out the week with more poetry. I have two volumes of Dom Helder Camara on my shelves, A Thousand Reasons for Living and his poetic theology of liberation The Desert is Fertile. Camara was a bishop in Rio de Janeiro from 1952-1964 and Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in North-East Brazil. In his writings, the spirituality of justice, liberation and peace for people and the planet sounds so simple. Sister Dorothy is a reminder of the great cost that goes with such simple spirituality.

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Finally, my Ecco Anthology of International Poetry introduced me to another half-dozen contemporary poets from Brazil, including Adléia Prado, who moved me with the line

How could we know how to live a better life than this,

when even weeping it feels so good to be together?

Amen. Happy sabbathing…

Sunday Morning: Watershed Literacy

July 22, 2015

The White Plains Presbyterian Church is part of the Bronx River Watershed. Watersheds are earth’s natural communities. They are defined by the water that runs through them and the ridges that cause water to flow into one watershed or another. Everyone lives in a watershed. This past Sunday, as part of our sermon reflection time, we tested our literacy of this place we call home.

I took as my text, “And when Jesus came to that place…”  I didn’t cite any particular chapter and verse because this phrase or one like it can be found in almost every chapter of Mark’s gospel. (In chapter six alone Jesus is seen racing from place to place). We thought about the importance of particular places in scripture, and wondered what it would be like for Jesus to visit “our place.”

Which raised an important question: Do we like this place?

One of the last things that Kurt Vonnegut wrote is a prose-poem he called Requium.

The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
“Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do.”

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
perhaps
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
”It is done.”
People did not like it here.

So I asked, “Do we like it here? Do we even know where here is?”

The importance of this question about place is underscored by Baba Dioum, a forest engineer from Senegal:

We won’t save places we don’t love;

We can’t love places we don’t know.

We don’t know places we haven’t learned.

I asked my congregation “What is the one question you can count on every child asking from the back seat of the car during along road trip?” And the congregation responded, “Are we there yet?”

I responded that the question running through our worship service would be, “Are we here yet?”

For the remainder of our reflection time I shared a series of questions from a watershed literacy quizdeveloped by Kevin Kelly called The Big Here. You can read the questions yourself and see how well you know the place where YOU live. The congregation on Sunday discovered that they could pretty easily identify local flowers, the time of sunset, even the source of our drinking water. But they struggled to know (specifically) where our trash is taken, who uses our recycling, and where solid wastes go when we flush them.(I had answers for all of these). There are many more, and much more challenging questions in the quiz.

Over the next several months I will be collecting this information on my blog as a sort of “watershed welcome” for new residents in White Plains. If you know an answer to a question pertaining to the Bronx River Watershed, please send it along to me. The EPA also has this cool tool to help you find out what watershed YOU live in.

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