A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, May 29, 2016
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:1-14 Ephesians 3:14-20
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
What is it that sustains you? What is it that sustains you? Or maybe, we should ask, who is it that sustains you? Who gives you the strength to go on? Who gives you the solid hope to push that soft sheet off your stomach in the morning and forge through the darkness to greet another day of life? Is it your child? Is it your beloved? Is it your friend? Is it your dream? Is it your job? … Is it habit?
Does life seem more like a routine, a getup, put on the coffee, take a seven minute shower, iron the shirt, drink the coffee, brush the teeth, grab your stuff and rush to the car to get to the highway to get to work to sit at the desk to go through the papers and yak with your boss so you can swallow lunch in a half-hour in order to catch up on yesterday’s work and pick the children up from day camp to make a hot dog and drive to ball practice and yell a bit and stuff everyone back in the car so you can hit the mall before you get home to see the last half of Jimmy Fallon after bedding down the kids?
Or do you stay in your home most of the day, working, and cleaning, and designing? Or do you spend your hours remembering the way things used to be, how you used to make more decisions, but no having grown older and living in a different place, in a different world, you find a certain apathy protects you from the pain of not being able to do everything you want. Or perhaps you’ve been waiting for that part-time job to come through and it hasn’t. Your old place laid you off and the money’s running out. Dazed you sit by the front window and watch the world scurry by like a bunch of ants with busy-work. You used to be a part — and when you were in the thick of the hustle it seemed meaningful. Now it just seems temporary, uncertain craziness, and here you are, hoping against hope to be identified with that crowd again, to jump back into the rat race as maybe rat number 3, 842 when you used to be rat number 9.
What is it that nourishes you? What keeps you going? The writer of Ephesians says, “I pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” When was the last time you felt strengthened in your inner being? Was it during a crisis? Was it one evening as the sun set in its orange beauty? Was it at the birth of your baby? Was it when your love touched you gently? Was it when your mother told you she thought the way you handled a problem was wonderful? Was it during prayer last week in church? We may or may not feel it right now, but God is at work within all of us giving us strength for today and even tomorrow. Giving us power to live, to change, to grow, to yearn, to reach, to love, to be.
Christ seeks to make a home in our hearts. To dwell, to abide. To stay with us during the night. To rise with us in the morning. To nest in the complex fibers of our loves and worries and just be. Christ will dwell with us as we are being rooted and grounded in love.
What does it mean to be “rooted and grounded in love?” Imagine holding a fragile plant with roots dangling and dirt caught in between. Now imagine digging and securing this plant into rich black soil. Being rooted and grounded in love means to have a fertile place from which to grow and blossom. Perhaps this place is in this church, or in your family, or with a close friend, with a therapist, with a sponsor, with your partner. This is a safe place where we can expose our roots, our origins, our anchorings, our deepest parts, because this place, this dirt, cherishes them as essential. For it is these dangling roots that grasp into the soil and moor the plant, encouraging us to nudge forward, green, stretch, blossom, burst, yawn toward the light. This is one way of being rooted and grounded.
Spinach planted by our children in the church garden
And yet, when we say rooted and grounded in love, we realize that sometimes we must pull out our roots from where they are and transplant. Sometimes this is a painful ripping out from friends and family, from work, from school, so our future relationships will not be mired in strangling tangles or so that the roots can grasp for more dirt. We may be transplanted so that our roots can sink deeper and allow us to be more flexible, to bend more with the winds of the Spirit. Transplanting can be part of the process of being rooted and grounded in love.
And still another sense of being rooted and grounded in love, may be our radical willingness to be uprooted. For to be rooted in love means to be rooted in an unfathomable journey of faith, where part of the strength for the journey comes from “letting go.” To be rooted in love may mean for us to uproot from family and from our possessions and follow Jesus. And not to just follow Jesus generally, but to follow him specifically from Nazareth through Galilee, by the seas, in the midst of crowds, to the lepers on the outskirts of town, to the hill overlooking Jerusalem, to the table in that cramped upper room and to the cross of betrayal, and finally to a life of resurrection. What kind of rootedness is such uprootedness? Surely only an uprooted rootedness that could come from God. Surely only an ungrounded groundedness in our mysterious creator could thrive on such sustenance. This is a sustenance that experiences the vibrancy of life as the dance of God, not merely the recitation of a creed.
An Indian philosopher named Samkara once said, “To know is to be.” To know is to be. In order to know or to understand the fullness of God, we must be it. We must live with God. We must allow God to be with us, in us, through us, before us, behind us, beside us. And this does not happen all at once. As we walk with God, we become more conscious of how our Creator is moving in and through us.
Solomon asked God to give him an understanding mind, that he would be able to discern between good and evil. Another, more literal translation of the Hebrew is for God to give him a listening heart. A listening heart to govern God’s people. Solomon seeks wisdom. And wisdom is granted as a by-product of walking in God’s ways, as an outgrowth of keeping God’s commands. Wisdom is not some unchangeable and eternal thing, some hunk of truth that falls out of the heavens, some book that intellectuals put together on how the world works, some code to the universe, or key to some hitherto “hidden prophesy.” Rather, wisdom is a natural by-product of walking with God. Wisdom is not the premise; it is the result of the walk. One does not start out with wisdom and then follow God. Wisdom comes as we follow God. A wise and discerning mind is a mind that is open to God as we journey through life, whether we are king or school teacher, plumber, minister, or artist.
In a book that is aptly titled Listening Hearts, several spiritual directors, pastors, and theologians describe what discernment is.
“The ability to discern develops in a relationship with God, as one becomes rooted and grounded in the heart of God…As we move toward spiritual maturity, we move beyond the need for specific rules and answers into the darkness of God where we must act in faith rather than certainty.
Because the evidence and experiences on which we act are usually conflicting and ambivalent, and because we are by nature vulnerable to our capacity for self-deception, discernment is often tentative and uncertain. We may not feel a great sense of having found the truth. Discernment can be like driving an automobile at night: the headlights cast only enough light for us to see the next small bit of road immediately in front of us. Discernment does not imply fully comprehending God’s will, but rather it raises the question, What is the next step God wants me to take? Ultimately, discernment requires our willingness to act in faith on our sense of what God wants us to do next. We need to risk making mistakes. We can dare to make mistakes because we know that God has forgiven us when we are wrong. What is important is that we act on what we have discerned. In obedience to discernment, more discernment will come.
And so we ask this morning, “What is the next step God wants me to take?” And as a congregation, “What is the next step God wants us to take?”
May God honor our wisdom seeking by rooting and grounding us in God’s own vibrant heart. Amen.
 Excerpted from Listening Hearts, Farnham et al., Morehouse Publishing, Inc., c.1991, pp.25-27.
My son August and I are now officially AT Section Hikers!
I used my Sabbath day this week to take an overnight backpacking trip with my son. We have been fascinated with the Appalachian Trail for a couple of years, ever since reading the “Bear Scene” from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and digesting Jeff Alt’s Walk for Sunshine together during our Tennessee camping trip in 2014. At that time we walked 12 miles along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, including the highest point the entire trail at Clingman’s Dome (which you can read about in an earlier post). And while we enjoy camping, this was our first trip carrying everything on our backs.
We spent weeks getting advice from friends and fellow hikers about the kind of equipment to pack, and an evening at REI getting outfitted with backpacks. We woke up on Thursday morning, ate a hearty breakfast Noelle prepared for us, and hit the road. By 10 o’clock we had registered with the park police at Bear Mountain State Park, and were on our way up our first mountain. The Bear Mountain Zoo is the lowest point on the entire AT, a mere 115.4 feet above sea level. Bear Mountain will rise 1305 feet in little less than two miles – a good portion of which is blazed over stone staircases with occasional sweeping views of the Hudson River, the Isle of Iona, and the Bear Mountain Bridge.
We ate our lunch at Perkin’s Observatory at the summit of the mountain, and then began our first descent. A few hours later we were approaching the summit of West Mountain, where we sat on this rock outcropping to eat a snack of trail mix and bananna. We had come all the way over from Bear Mountain, the lower portion of which is seen on the left side of this photo below.
In all, we climbed five mountains in two days: Bear Mountain, West Mountain, Black Mountain, Letterrock Mountain and Goshen Mountain. We made our camp just beside the lean-to on the north slope ascent of Letterrock Mountain. We shared the camp with a thru hiker who stayed in the lean-to, and a couple of college students trying out the trail for the first time in anticipation of a thru hike later this summer. There was another couple thru hiking who camped a few hundred feet away. We shared salami and crackers for dinner, hung our food well out of reach of bears, and escaped into our tent from the mosquitoes and gnats. We were sore beyond belief, each of us having “quit” at least once on the climb up the last mountain – but the anticipation of a good night’s rest kept us going.
In the morning August was up at 6 o’clock insisting that we eat breakfast and pack camp up as quickly as possible. By 7 o’clock we were back on the trail.
While we had each been concerned about the weight of our backpacks when we set out, they turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. Mine was a mere 40 pounds, and his weighed in a 25. The real challenge was to our bodies, which were not prepared for the steep ascents. August carried a pair of walking poles, which were a last minute inspiration on my part. They made the trip for him.
We learned many lessons about ourselves along the way. We talked about dreams and fears; August continued to catalog the world around him. We took advice from each thru hiker we met, learned to use our filter to purify water from streams, and were shown how to properly secure a bear canister. We overpacked our food, we did not drink enough water, and we did not rest often enough or long enough. But we also learned that we can do more together than we thought we could could. We took real pride in our accomplishment, and were grateful for every creature we share the path with.
We encountered many deer; a tiny fawn; centipedes, beetles and bugs of all kinds; a mother turkey with about 20 poults; this turtle (above) who was crossing the trail; several snakes, a skink, and a five foot long black racer; a zillion squirrels and chipmunks; and some really beautiful birds.
I was particularly impressed that August could give voice to everything he felt, including the feeling that he could not go on, but he never let that stop them from putting one foot in front of another and eventually finding his second wind to push up another ascent. He has my deepest respect for his commitment to the hike, and for letting nothing stop him, not even himself. (I think it helped that I had moments of genuine struggle myself, like when my left calf cramped impressively partway up one mountain and was in visible trauma. Not enough water!).
We are grateful to our friend Sarah Henkel who picked us up by the banks of Lake Tiorati and shuttled us back to our car. Or mouths hung open as we looked back of the way we had traveled.
I would not trade these couple of days for anything.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016
Psalm 8 John 16:12-15
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight – our strength and our song – Amen.
A couple of years ago The Onion published a story called “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity.” The Onion is a satirical newspaper that has been publishing sharp commentary on contemporary society for nearly 30 years and has been hailed as “the best comedy writing in the country.” Now entirely online, The Onion’s alarmist stories about ordinary events and its political farce are frequently passed off as actual news stories. I’ve been taken in more than once.
So, with defunding, downsizing, and austerity measures appearing as a global orthodoxy, The Onion reported that these dynamic as universal and inescapable. Here’s the story:
HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity “overstaffed and over budget,” God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. “Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision,” God said. “The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services [on April 20]. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo.”
Recognizing that the word for spirit in both Hebrew and Greek is feminine, one reader wondered if this was a conspiracy to make the Trinity wholly male. Others discovered an aspect of the divine they could relate to – having been “restructured” out of jobs themselves. One astute reader suggested the Spirit might now have a chance in retirement to visit churches it had never been to before.
Good satire makes us think, and this piece gave me much to think about. But mostly, I wondered how clear are we about the Spirit’s job and how essential it is to our lives.
Trinity Sunday reminds us that there is richness found only in the fullness of God. Rather than sing some of our great Trinitarian hymns, I have chosen today to sing one hymn each for our Creator, our brother Christ, and the Holy Spirit, drawing out different aspects of our relationship to God and the inescapable relationships that are part of God. The very idea of the Trinity is our testimony that as Christians we do not know how to talk about God without talking about Jesus; and that we cannot talk about Jesus without talking about God; and that we cannot talk about the spirit of the relationship between God and Jesus without talking about that spirit’s relationship to us. To love Jesus is to be drawn into the spirit of his relationship with God. To love God is to be drawn into the spirit of God’s relationship with Jesus. And to love this spirit is to be drawn into God’s relationship with us.
This morning I want to share an insight with you about the Spirit. It came to me a little more than a week ago, on a Tuesday morning. I had been approached by the Westchester Children’s Association to host a press conference in front of the church. Our welcoming and well-known red sanctuary doors would be the backdrop for presenting Governor Cuomo, Majority Leader Flannigan and Speaker Heastie with a letter signed by more 37 Westchester clergy (including myself, Pastor Sarah, Rev. Damico and Dr. de George), urging passage of legislation that would raise the age of criminal responsibility in the State of New York from 16 to 18. Until recently, I had not known that 16 and 17 year olds were automatically tried as adults in New York, and I was happy both to sign the letter and host the event. Only two states in the union currently prosecute juveniles as adults. Can you guess what the other state is? North Carolina – of bathroom discrimination fame. We like to think of ourselves as fairly progressive in New York, but this association made me both embarrassed and angry.
Prosecuting juveniles as adults means
- that they can be jailed without informing their parents and held without bond; and
- that they are held in adult facilities that “do not focus on rehabilitation and are not designed to meet the needs of children.”
We know, for example,
- that adolescents who are confined with adults are more likely to face traumatic physical and sexual abuse than those held in juvenile facilities;
- that young people who go through the adult system are more likely to reoffend, with those transferred to adult facilities having approximately 34% more rearrests for felony crimes; and that
- research has proven that the adolescent’s brain is not fully developed until they are in their 20s, which is why youth are sometimes more impulsive — and also why youth are more receptive to rehabilitative services.
“As faith leaders from many backgrounds, traditions and beliefs, we stand here united by our great concern for the future of children in our communities,” I said in opening the press conference, and interfaith colleagues from across the county made a compelling case to #RaisetheAge of criminal responsibility to 18.
You may have seen the opinion piece in Thursday’s Journal News, highlighting the fact that legislation to #RaisetheAge has been in the hopper since 2012, that it is one of the Governor’s priorities, but that like other “priorities,” has repeatedly been dropped from the final budget approved each April. “There are priorities, and then there are priorities,” the editorial surmised, speaking of the bargaining process that is how laws are made. The purpose of our press conference was to be sure our voices, those of the faith community and communities of conscience, were heard in Albany.
This is advocacy. From the Latin, ad-vocare. My son is taking Latin and he translated this as “speaking to” or “speaking toward.” Speaking to be heard. An advocate comes before another to teach, to inform, to inspire, to persuade. An advocate seeks a hearing, wishes to be heard, sometimes demands to be heard.
Now here’s where my insight took place. Scripture speaks about the Holy Spirit as an advocate, and I have always taken that to mean that the Spirit advocates on our behalf, like an attorney making a defense for someone accused. Scriptures says that
- the Holy Spirit stands beside us in times of temptation and trial;
- that the Spirit speaks on our behalf with groans to deep for words when we cannot find words for ourselves;
- that when we are dragged before the courts of this world to give an account of the faith that is in us we are not to worry over our defense, for the Spirit will give us the words.
- In this sense the Spirit is God’s Comforter, standing beside us, assuring us of God’s grace, reminding us of God’s love, and speaking of God’s promised presence.
Standing on our front steps, with cameras and microphones in front of us, and a letter to the governor in my hand, it occurred to me – this is what it means for the Holy Spirit to be an advocate: the Spirit is God’s advocate, testifying to us what God would have us know. The Spirit “teaches” as our Gospel says today, that which we were not ready for yesterday. The Spirit brings before us God’s concern, and begs a hearing, and urges us to be and do what God would have us be and do.
Imagine yourself the governor of this life you have been given, and daily the Spirit seeks an audience with you, bringing before you those parts of your life you have neglected or ignored, the concerns of neighbors you did not know you had, perspectives on the world around you had never imagined, knowledge you did not know you lacked. Would you not welcome such an opportunity as what it is, a gift from God, and seek to incorporate this into your life?
If that is a helpful image, I encourage you to run with it. If not, let it go. I’ve found it fruitful this week in helping me identify all sorts of things, even unwelcome things, as potentially God’s Spirit urging, pushing, prodding me to speak, to act, or to humbly receive.
But I will be quick to point our that in John’s gospel, at least, the Spirit is given less to individuals than to the community. The Spirit is not the nurturer of our individual relationship s with God, but is the one who leads the community “into all truth.” And by “truth” John means Jesus – who is the way, the truth, and the life. Which mean leading us to the God of Jesus, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham Sarah and Hagar, the God of ancient Israel and the prophets, the God who speaks still to us today.
That’s no small job: to unite the living community with the living Christ, in this and every age!
Friends, let us stand as we are able and sing our Hymn of Christ, no. 246:
Women and men, in age and youth,
Can feel the Spirit, hear the call,
And find the way, the life, the truth,
Revealed in Jesus, freed for all.
Christ is Alive! Let Christian Sing.
 I thank Claudio Carvalhaes, Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship at McCormick Theological Seminary, for reposting this on Facebook. The comments I reference were on his post feed.
–Walt Whitman, from Song of the Open Road
So this marks my second week of return to the trails. Last week saw modest miles on the Appalachian Trail in New York and New Jersey. This week I see out, after seeing August off to school on the bus, for Connecticut, squeezing in as much hiking as I could before racing back to meet the bus again.
Bulls Bridge, Kent. This is one of the few remaining covered bridges in Connecticut, and the only one still carrying cars. Growing up, my parents always stopped at wooden bridges so we can get out and walk across. Indiana, where my father was born, was famous for them. I remember one vacation with another family during which one of our cars broke down, and our two families had to pile into the remaining vehicle. Getting out to walk across a bridge was a welcome relief from cramped quarters and siblings. This bridge overlooks the beautiful Housatonic River, which since adolescence I have associated with the fabled Miskatonic River from the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Just beyond the bridge, the westernmost leg of the Appalachian trail in Connecticut ascends a mountain and then descends into New York. It was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods.
My goal was to reach the top of Ten Mile Hill and take in the sweeping views of the Housatonic Valley. I kept up quite a pace, met several thru hikers and day hikers, and made the crest in little more than 90 minutes. The sign on the tree told me exactly where I was on the trail, and made me hungry to take in more and more of the AT. I have a dim hope of seeing Katahdin later this summer.
I pressed on a few more miles before turning around, but wanted to leave myself enough time for lunch and play. I hopped and skipped across rocks so that I could sit in the confluence of Ten Mile River and the Housatonic. Here I sat and had my lunch, my naked feet hung deep in the ice cold water. I had a book with me on the mysticism of place, but it made me so dreamy I just closed my eyes and listened to the water rushing by, my feet slowly turning numb.
Eventually I had to head home, but not without taking in views of the water that I had had my back to on my hike in. Having been in the water, the views that much more inviting.
Back home (in time), I took August straight from the bus stop to his responsibilities at Greenburgh Nature Center. There I had the unexpected chance to overcome one of my fears. Cockroaches have always freaked me out, so I thought I would spend some time playing with this one. The legs are unlike other insects, more like little sticks. While the hissing can be disconcerting, it’s easy to get over. It’s even predictable if you pet the cockroach in a certain way. Cockroaches no longer freak me out.
I received more comments on this photo when I posted it on Facebook that anything I have shared in a while. Obviously, we have a very visceral relationship to his insect. That’s what I wanted to face, and I did.
With all homework done quickly, August and I simply enjoyed one another’s company for a while before turning in for a good night sleep. A very satisfying sabbath day. Definitely needed.
Twice last week I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Both were short hikes (though long drives), but each was more restorative than anything I have done in a while.
On Thursday, I drove up north of Pawling, NY to where the AT crosses Route 22. Seven miles to the east through the Pawling Nature Preserve is Connecticut. I hiked west through the Great Swamp, the second-largest freshwater wetlands in New York, encompassing thousands of acres along its length of 20 miles. A long boardwalk extends through the swamp, which is ideal for birdwatching. Red-winged black bird were everywhere, singing.
At the edge of the swamp, the walk gives way to path and the AT heads steadily up Corbin Hill. Two more miles and I was standing at the top looking out over farm fields below, West Mountain and Cat Rocks to the west, and Waldo Hill and Sharp Hills to the north. I strolled among the wildflowers for a while before heading back down. I had thrown my back out the week prior, and this was enough of an initiation for my summer hiking.
Two days later, though, I found myself taking Noelle and August to Pochuck Crossing, where the AT winds through more fields, swamps and marshes near Wawayanda Mountain, New Jersey. The drive alone felt like a mini-vacation (with all our usual family stress involved). August chose to take the boardwalk alone. It was quite fun to watch him a quarter to half a mile ahead of us, still occasionally visible because of the orange sneaker and red camelback he was wearing. He’s grown so much. He walks with great posture.
We finished this family day with a play: Shakespeare’s A Mid Summer Night’s Dream performed by The National Players in the auditorium at Westchester Community College. This highly talented ensemble drew out Shakespeare’s humor and complemented it with physical comedy that kept us laughing out loud. When your son wraps himself in your arms (which he did alternately with both Noelle and I) and snuggles up because he is having such a good time, you know you are where you are and supposed to be, and all is well.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter / Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016
Rev 21:10, 22-22:5 John 14:23-29
The vision of John of Patmos, the vision of an earthly city where all live perpetually in the unmediated presence of God, is a vision of life perfected. There is no temple because there is no need – God is not only everywhere but is known by everyone. There is no need for hymnals because the song sung is life itself. Certainly no sermons, scriptures, priests or prophets … because justice flows in that crystal river and the means of life grow freely and the peoples of the world are healed. This vision puts all this (gesturing to our sanctuary) in rather stark perspective.
For we are not perfect. Not yet.
We need the prophets to call us out of self-preoccupation, the scriptures to guide us, the songbooks to expand our vocabulary of praise; we need a place – this place – to meet again and again as we walk together toward that promised city.
And so Jesus speaks words of comfort to those who follow his way: “Peace I leave you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.” These are words spoken for those of us still on our way, still struggling to get it right, to make it right, to be better. But how do we know this peace? How do we let constant anxiety go? What calms our fears?
It is simply this: To believe: God loves us, just as we are, and as we may yet become.
And it is important that this good news, which we allude to so often, sometimes be spoken just this clearly: God loves us. But this can be hard to remember; harder to believe.
I called my mom the other day. Not because Mother’s Day was coming. Rather, I called and asked her if she would tell me a story. Because it was late, she asked if I wanted a bedtime story, and for just a moment I did. Like a child, sure that all was well with the world because I had the security of getting tucked in at night and having my mom tell me a story. But the reason I called was to hear again the story of the time our family was asked to be in the annual Christmas Pageant.
No one in my family remembers the pageant exactly, only that it involved our family curled up as on a winter’s night upon two love seats that had been arranged around the Christmas tree on the chancel. I’m sure it involved my parents telling the story of Jesus’ birth and my sisters and I asking questions. We had an agreement that we were not going to memorize the script, keeping our words close – but I memorized my lines anyway in an attempt, no doubt, to show off.
That’s not the part of the story I was listening for. I wanted her to tell me what happened after the pageant, for I remembered she was upset because members of the church came up and told her we were the perfect family. We were perfect for the pageant, because the Gearys modeled what a “Christian family” should be.
I could hear the scare quotes as she retold the story. I could hear the frustration and the sense that we weren’t being seen for who we were. And a sense of helplessness that angered her. For it is upsetting when people are judged by ridiculous standards. And I still heard, decades later, the rather crushing guilt caused by our not realizing a standards of “model Christian family” that was unrealistic to begin with. Because none of us is perfect. And if we think someone else is, we’re not looking close enough. “We were not awful,” she is quick to say. “But we were not perfect.”
One of the things that I love most about this congregation is that we do not have those kinds of false expectations of one another.
Ten days ago we held the funeral for Carole Larsen here in this sanctuary. We said goodbye to a dear friend, praying our way through grief and trusting Carole to God’s care and keeping. During the service I reminded everyone that Carole often said that this church and Al-Anon saved her life. I had thought about that a lot. For those of us who knew her, Carole is what saved looks like. It’s not a perfect life, free from the troubles that beset us all. It’s not worry free, anxiety free, or even dramatically freed from the past. But it is a consciousness that God walks with us, helping us one day at a time. It is finding a way to bring love into all situations. It is having those around us who can pick us up when we fall, and offering our own hand to those who need one. It is being a part of something much larger than oneself, the community of God’s people with a share of God’s work in the world. Being saved means bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things. It means knowing that God. Loves. Us.
Paul Tillich, considered among the most prominent theologians of the twentieth century, preached regularly for chapel services at Union Theological Seminary during the nineteen thirties and forties. In one of his sermons, he describes the experience of having God’s love break through. God’s love surprises us when
year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment it is as if a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as if a voice were saying:”
“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will too much. Do not seek for anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual proposition, nothing but acceptance.
My friends, God is here! Offering acceptance, welcome, and love. Will you receive it? God is here! Calling us not to be perfect, but to be perfected by love, which is not our doing, but is God’s. Do you believe it? God is here! Inviting us anew to participate in the great drama of life, the stuff of struggle and hope, as a blessing to the world. Will you answer, yes, yes? God is here!
Lord of all, of church and kingdom,
In an age of change and doubt
Keep us faithful to the gospel;
Help us work your purpose out.
Here, in this day’s dedication,
all we have to give, receive:
We, who cannot live without you,
We adore you! We believe.
 Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted.” In The Shaking of the Foundations. (Scribners, 1948).
This year is 18 weeks old.
I have violated my Sabbath day eleven times (meaning more than three hours of work each day). Or seen from another perspective, I have only observed a complete Sabbath (no work) only three times.
I have good friends who never rest. Who work through their weekends. My plight is not uncommon. I know. Nevertheless, I want to mark this as a loss…
of biblical proportions.
Thus, this strange week.
I stayed home during the day on Monday, rather than go to my office, in an attempt to regain Sabbath time (even though I was to spend four hours at the church that evening). My day of doing laundry and reading theology and travel memoirs was nevertheless rejuvenating.
On Wednesday, I found myself with a surprisingly free hour at church which I used to move boxes. Up stairs and down stairs. At one point, shelving financial records from 2002, my lower back recoiled. I stopped, and moved on with my day. Not knowing what that “whine” in my back foretold.
On Thursday, my reputed Sabbath day, I woke up in pain. Hours of tossing and turning in bed had told me I was in trouble even before the day began. My back was in so much pain I was frequently nauseous throughout the day. Coincidently, my son woke up with a fever, so we stayed home together, each trying to rest and mend. Despite my pain, I attended a Yom ha Shoah vigil a noon time. A human rights obligation but a health mistake. Ninety minutes standing outside set me back. I felt lucky to make it back home without being sick.
Friday found us (my son and I) sharing the same virus, restless but resting. We built legos, took naps, commiserated. Neither of us ate (feed a fever, starve a cold?) until the obligatory “movie/pizza night”. My back felt marginally but markedly better.
I got to share two days with my son.
With no energy for play, or for work, we read to one another. Not to let even this sickly opportunity be wasted, we began reading Homer out loud. The Iliad. Never did I imagine that reading Homer would be … funny. Over and over we have fallen to the floor laughing at the ridiculous boasting, bragging, and buffoonery of Paris, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. “If only,” August thought, “Achilles would have killed Agamemnon by page six, the whole war would have been averted.” We only stop reading when the story became too exciting.
… and …
we also imbibed Shakespeare, in the Kenneth Branagh production of Much Ado About Nothing. With just few moments of censorship, we thoroughly enjoyed this movie, laughing out loud and uncontrollably at the scheming and deception of Benedick, Beatrice, Don John and Claudio. August had seen a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado last summer, so knew the story, dimly. We are attending a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream tomorrow, and this helped us “get our Shakespeare on.”
Many of my Friday obligations will be postponed to tomorrow, or to Sunday. My two days at home, while necessitated by care for my son, were also spent in self-care for my own body in pain. My back is better, if tender. None of this was my vision for a Sabbath day, yet it was what was called for. And surprisingly rich. If not what I would have wished. It made for Sabbath day I will remember for a long time to come…