A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015. My wife, The Rev. Noelle Damico , shared the story of Janie Culbreth Rambeau, which was perfect for this sermon.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
In a time of distress, Jesus spoke an encouraging word to his disciples, and through our Gospel reading this morning, he speaks that same word to the church, “Do not be afraid.” Though we hear of wars and rumors of wars, witness nation rise up against nation, hear the earth itself cry out, this is not the end. These are mere historical events, terrible and terrifying as they may be, but they are not the end of all things. These things will take place, but “the end will not follow immediately.” Instead, what is opened up is time, time between the announcement of the God’s Reign and the fulfillment of all God’s promises. It is this for which we pray and actively wait in the season of Advent, the fulfillment of all God’s promises. But before that time comes, we will be called upon – are even now being called upon – to testify and bear witness with our very lives to the peculiar way of God in the world, a way of love, hope and peace. This is the only way to usher in God’s promised future. And by endurance, we will gain our souls.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” But we live in frightening times.
Since I was last in worship with you, we have all witnessed
- the violent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad and repeated attacks in Nigeria;
- the terrorist attack on the Radison Blu Hotel in Mali and now the bombardment of UN Peacekeeping troops there;
- the mass shooting in Colorado Springs in which a 57 year old white male carried out a one-man siege on Planned Parenthood;
- the release of the Chicago police dashcam video of an officer shooting a fleeing black teenage boy after seven security tapes from the local Burger King — that would have told the fuller story – were mysteriously erased.
- 196 million cubic feet of mud and iron ore tailings that originated from the Samarco Mine disaster three weeks ago in Minas Gerais, Brazil, finally reached the ocean, killing rivers, ecosystems and marine life along the way and leaving multiple human communities uninhabitable in what is being called Brazil’s worst environmental disaster;
- And of course this week Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on its way to Syria and now Russia and France have aligned while the U.S. has backed up Turkey. The stand-off between Putin and Erdogan threatens to overwhelm the long anticipated Climate Talks, which begin tomorrow in Paris, and social media has lit up with the unanswered question “is this World War III?”
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” But contemporary America is full of fear, and fear mongering.
Pastor Sarah spoke eloquently last week about the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric that divides the world into some form of “us” and “them.”
Donald Trump alone, and he is not alone, has suggested making Muslims carry special ID cards and putting mosques, houses of worship, under surveillance.
“Fear,” however, “is not a Christian habit of mind.” Or so writes author Marilynn Robinson.
You may know Marilynn Robinson’s recent novels Gilead, Home, and Lila. Or perhaps you’ll recall that President Obama quoted her during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney. Last week I had the privilege of meeting Marilynn at the American Academy of Religion which gave her an award. Robinson insists that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” She explains,
As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We learned that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made… The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, or primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.
Robinson echoes Jesus here: our lives may or may not be forfeit – that is not the issue. What is the issue is whether we will live with courage and joy in the time given to us, trusting God, loving our neighbor, witnessing to the just world that God intends. We are freed to do this because as followers of Christ we are not afraid of death. Jesus, knowing the Roman Empire and its collaborators would move on him and, after his death, on his disciples, prepares them with this speech. He tells them to expect trouble; to expect arrest, trial, jailing. For here Jesus speaks not as a prophet but as one who reads the signs of the times – he knows full well how Rome deals with any who stir up the people; they crucify them by the thousands. He and his disciples will not be exceptions. By the time Luke is writing his gospel two generations later, many followers had been jailed, persecuted and killed. If the followers of Christ were to continue, were to witness to a new way of life together according to God’s covenant, they needed to be prepared that the Empire would not take their resistance laying down: it would push back.
Janie Culbreth Rambeau, one of the students expelled from Albany State College in southwest Georgia for participating in the Civil Rights Movement looked back on how that movement coalesced in her college town. She remembers the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s, plans to demonstrate against segregated conditions from parks to water fountains to restrooms. Looking back more than 50 years later she reflects on why being prepared to go to jail was so important writing,
Soon we decided to demonstrate against these conditions, even though it meant going to jail. One of the main reasons we went to jail was to remove the hammer that the power structure held over our heads. For years, black people were threatened with jail. Jail became the representation of fear. The trumped-up charges, unfair trails, and regular beatings in jail were weapons in the white South’s arsenal of oppression. Thus, in an effort to maintain control of an already oppressed people, the hammer of jail hung heavily. To remove the threat, people moved against it. Hear God’s people singing, “We are not afraid.” [and here I actually sang, and we sang, “we are not afraid.”]
Jesus is calling to his disciples saying – know what the world gives to those who speak truth to power, and get ready. But do not be afraid.
Janie Culbreth Rambeau continues,
So we marched knowing we faced certain arrest and jail. I marched in the first large Albany demonstration on a cold, rainy morning in December 1961. Several hundred – old and young – marched down Jackson Street toward the jail, singing, “We Shall Overcome.” Policemen tried to break up the demonstrations, but the people were determined. Chief Laurie Pritchett came on the bullhorn, yelling in frustration, “You are all under arrest.” We continued to march and sing.
In this time when nation rises up against nation, when terror’s violence knows no national boundaries, when climate catastrophe looms, we must march and sing. For as the unforgettable Sweet Honey in the Rock song says, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes, ‘til the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons, We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Chicago #BlackLivesMatter on Black Friday
Jesus knew this — listen to his words
“The temple may have come to an end, but that is not the end;
peace will come to an end and be swallowed by war, but war is not the way the world ends;
security will end, shaken in earthquakes, but fear and certainty are not the end either.
Do not be terrified. You have an opportunity to testify. By endurance you will gain your souls.”
“Do not be terrified. You have an opportunity to testify. By endurance you will gain your souls.”
For the opposite of fear is not peace – it is freedom. And we who believe in freedom cannot rest today, we cannot rest tomorrow, we cannot rest this Advent, we cannot rest until it comes.
Climate March in Quezon City, Philippines
 “Ripe for the Picking,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, p. 93.
 Paul Willson, Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion, 2015.
I am several posts behind in my year-long journey of reading multi-national literature. From now on I am going to separate these posts from my regular sabbath posts. I am behind on these posts because my last three sabbath days were spent (1) on retreat in the IronBound district of New Jersey; (2) on study leave in Atlanta; and (3) observing Thanksgiving, albeit with a highly critical counter-narrative.
Duke University has just published a splendid little political ethnography by Audra Simpson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, called Mohawk Interrptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (2014). Prof. Simpson is herself Kahnawà:ke and grew up on the reservation in Southwestern Quebec along the St. Lawrence River. At least the reservation was on the St. Lawrence until Canada built the St. Lawrence Seaway Canal right through the reservation in 1954, cutting the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk off from their traditional way of life on the river. In modern times the Mohawk specialized in iron works, many of them building New York City and its bridges up to today.
The Kahnawà:ke Mohawk, whose name means “Keepers of the Eastern Gate,” are part of the League of Six Nations, and in the United States were known as ‘the Iroquois.” The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas and was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision making.
Often described as the oldest, participatory democracy on Earth, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s constitution is believed to be a model for the American Constitution. What makes it stand out as unique to other systems around the world is its blending of law and values. For the Haudenosaunee, law, society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role.
Treaties, such as the Two Row Wampum, are still in effect (if ignored by the U.S) and predicate peace between the Indigenous and Settler peoples on care for creation. In 2013 the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign marked the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum Treaty with a statewide advocacy and educational campaign which sought to polish the chain of friendship established by the Two Row (between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch immigrants) and continued with the French, British and United States. Environmental cleanup and preservation were the core components of this campaign. As I post this, we are on the eve of the COP21 Climate Negotiations in Paris, of which First Nations and Indigenous Peoples worldwide have the greatest stake.
Audra Simpson’s book details the many strategies employed by the contemporary Kahnawà:ke to maintain national sovereignty within the “teeth of settler governance” (i.e., the United States and Canada.) That this is possible is a contention of the book. So, for example,
On April 2010, three Mohawk of the Kahnawà:ke were detained in El Salvador for seventeen days. They were flying back from the International Climate Change Conference in Bolivia and were traveling on Haudenosaunee passports. They refused to allow Canada to issue them “emergency travel documents” (which amounts to a passport). They waited instead for ten more days, and they were permitted reentry into Canada via Iroquois Confederacy passports. (page 18)
This, and numerous other stories in the book, tell a story of steadfast but often misunderstood attempts to retain and maintain sovereignty within the settler states and overarching structures of empire that seek to define the conditions for native existence in their own terms. Other act of “refusal” include maintenance of the sovereign right to determine membership, and the refusal of the Iroquois National Lacrosse Team to appear at the 2010 International Championships as guest of the U.S. or Canada after their Iroquois passports were denied for through-transit in New York. Throughout, Simpson contends that “refusal” is a sovereign political act and savvy alternative to “recognition” on terms defined by the occupying state. This refusal also denies closure to the liberal narrative of occupation in which former inhabitants of the land are either assimilated/accommodated or disappeared. Refusal of any “gift” by the colonial powers enacts sovereignty – even when, or especially when, the indigenous peoples seem to lose.
Simpson’s work was based upon contemporary struggle and extensive interviews. In more traditional literature I also continued to mine the anthology Genocide of the Mind: New Native American Writing; reading this week pieces by Maurice Kenny, a Mohawk poet; Steven Elm, an Oneida author; Eric Gansworth, an Onandaga writer; Barbara-Helen Hill, a visual artist of the Cayuga/Mohawk; and James Aronhiotas Stevens of the Akwesasane Mohawk, who traces the loss of native language.
Exactly right. “Is your Christmas shopping more urgent than civilian shootings? Are you too busy for Black Lives to Matter? Then go on with your business… but don’t celebrate Christmas. Don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. If you’re not interested interruptions, go on with your winter. Don’t let the birth of the Savior, the Advent of the Upside Down kingdom, the justice rolling down like a mighty stream, don’t let it disrupt your wishlist.”
Originally posted on gathering the stones:
“Some of the most important moments in your ministry will happen in the interruptions,” a professor told me while I was in my first week of seminary. As I walked down Michigan Ave, speeding to keep up with the 15-year-old from my church, I wished I could say this to the shoppers around me.
Today, let yourself be interrupted. By God, let yourself be interrupted. I understand white Christians who are reluctant to take to the streets in protest–but I do not understand white Christians who justify the police’s murder of Laquan McDonald and find black anger “disruptive.” Injustice should be disruptive.
In some media accounts, the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting seems to be the spark for this week’s protests. But this is about so much more than Laquan. The moment that interrupted my business as usual was last week, while I listened to a reporter describe the process…
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A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reign of Christ Sunday, November 22, 2015
Today is the day the church marks as Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. Reign of Christ Sunday always falls on the Sunday before we enter into Advent, the season of waiting for the arrival of Christ, who entered the world as a vulnerable baby.
Today’s chosen gospel reading, which we will not read together, comes from the book of John, chapter 18:37, the conversation between Pilate and Jesus as Jesus faces the threat of execution. In this conversation “Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’”[i]
We are invited on this Sunday to wonder together as we read scripture in community, “What is the nature of God’s kingdom – or kin-dom? What kind of ruler is Jesus? How do we live as ones who belong to the truth and listen to Jesus’ voice?”
These are not simply spiritual meditations. As nations war against nations, as the media shows an unending ticker of violence, as walls are raised and doors shut, these questions become serious inquiries into how we as Christians are called to act in the world and to whom we pledge our allegiance.
To guide our questions this morning we’re going to delve into the book of Daniel, chapter 7:1-18, an incredibly vivid apocalyptic vision of crumbling Empires and God’s eternal reign. Daniel was a prophet who lived under the oppressive Seleucid rule of Antiochus IV, a ruler who sought to obliterate the Judean community. What we are about to hear is one of Daniel’s visions or dreams, rich in symbolism and imagery. I invite you to let your mind run wild with these images, picture them, don’t try to make sense of them, but feel the impact of the sight that Daniel saw and then we will wonder together what it means for us today.
Visions of the Four Beasts
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
Judgment before the Ancient One
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Daniel’s Visions Interpreted
As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Though these apocalyptic visions from Daniel are not common Sunday School material, the narrative stories in the first half of the book of Daniel are and perhaps you remember some of them. In the chapters leading up to this first apocalyptic vision:
-Daniel refuses to eat the King’s food in violation of his religious tradition. He and his friends only ate vegetables and water, not the wine and meat offered by the oppressive King.
-Daniel’s friends Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego refuse to bow down and worship the golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar and they are thrown into a fiery furnace. They walk out untouched by the flames.
-Daniel prays to God in spite of the King’s prohibition which lands him in the Lion’s Den. He stays there overnight but is untouched by the Lions.
In her book, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, Anathea Portier-Young describes the book of Daniel as resistance literature.[ii] The narrative stories of nonviolent resistance put together with apocalyptic visions in which power is stripped from earthly rulers and recentered in God offered strength and hope to the Judeans living under oppressive power.
The apocalyptic vision that Daniel offers is descriptive rather than predictive. Daniel is not describing future signs of the end times; his vision paints, in vivid symbolism, a reconciling of what was occurring then and there. The eternal reign of the Ancient of Days that Daniel described is not a statement of future hope in the next life or the end of times. This vision was, instead, a defiant statement of confidence in the One who is the true Creator and Ruler of those present times and of ours today.
It’s easy to think of Daniel’s vision as a foretelling of our present moment. I have heard the word apocalypse with great frequency in these past weeks as we’ve witnessed continued violence around the world. The description of the beasts of empire actually doesn’t feel too dramatic a description for the reality in which we’re living in which greed and fear of the other devour human lives.
In conversations this week, I’ve heard friends and coworkers wondering if they could hold all the grief this world churns out. I’ve spoken with others over meals about what it is we need to do to resist the forces of fear. In the multifaith community where I live, these conversations are ongoing and raw, tender to the touch.
Late this week, Laila Lalami wrote an essay for the New York Times titled, ‘My Life as a Muslim in the West’s Gray Zone?’ Laila describes an ISIS document that focuses its threats on Muslims who are in the “gray zone”.[iii] This document describes the gray zone as “the space inhabited by any Muslim who has not joined the ranks of either ISIS or the crusaders.”[iv] Layla describes her so-called “gray” life that weaves together time spent in many countries, friendships with people of many different religions or no religions at all, the complex and beautiful mixing of cultures, languages, and stories that shapes her life and her community.
She writes, “Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed in America. Other times, especially when people are scared, gray lives become targets. Hate crimes against Muslims spike after every major terrorist attack. But rather than stigmatize this hate, politicians and pundits often stoke it with fiery rhetoric, further diminishing the gray zone.”[v]
This week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to further scrutinize the resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the United States. As refugees continue to flee violence and persecution, this additional scrutiny would translate into devastating delays for families seeking safety. It has been suggested by several politicians that the U.S. lend its support only to Christian refugees. In myriad ways, the voices in power in the U.S. have spent time in the aftermath of tragedy creating a vision of the world that divides into two camps. They’ve painted a picture of a world that is “us” versus “them” and – according to these world powers – we are to choose our sides.
In the midst of the terrifying proposals made this week alone by national voices in the U.S. – to parse and divide this nation by religious and cultural identities – Daniel’s vision gives us strength to resist the pull of fearful divisions manufactured by nations at war. “The writers of Daniel resisted with language and symbol,” Portier-Young writes, “limiting and even negating the power of Antiochus by writing, proclaiming, and teaching an alternative vision of reality. Weaving together story, vision, liturgical prayer, and revelatory discourse, they crafted a composite work of powerfully resistant counter-discourse to Seleucid hegemony. They also presented their readers with a program of active nonviolent resistance.”[vi] With great creativity they poked holes in the reality of the Seleucid Empire to show a better way.
On Reign of Christ Sunday we are invited to write and pray, teach and enact the alternative vision of Christ’s reign, which continues to be at odds with the powers of this world. As I wrote this sermon, I was following a conversation between pastors and other people of faith in upstate NY as they plan for an action outside the office of a Christian Congressman who voted to increase the difficulty of Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement in the U.S. The action being planned will feature a live nativity scene to remind the Congressman of Jesus’ beginnings as a refugee, fleeing to Egypt with his parents shortly after his birth. The last I checked, no donkey was available for the action, though a goat has been secured.
The word apocalypse comes from the Ancient Greek meaning a disclosure of knowledge, revelation or unveiling. Daniel’s text unveils the truth of God’s justice and everlasting power. Daniel’s vision reveals that fear is not our ruler, God is. This is the truth that Jesus confirmed in his living and dying. We belong to that truth. Amen.
[ii] Portier-Young, Anathea, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
[iii] Layla Lalami, “My Life as a Muslim in the West’s Gray Zone,” New York Times Magazine, November 20, 2015. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/magazine/my-life-as-a-muslim-in-the-wests-gray-zone.html
[vi] Portier-Young, 277.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Caregiving Sunday, November 8, 2015
Psalm 23 John 14:25-27
‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Ah, the peace which passes all understanding, the untroubled heart. It’s quite elusive isn’t it?
I mean, I know Edna Shaw enters this building every Monday morning as a “nifty thrifty” and declares that she is “too blessed to be stressed,” and maybe she is. To see Edna sing and dance her way to work in the sorting room is to witness someone who knows in a profound way that the presence of God and God’s people in her life makes it possible for her to face whatever challenges may come her way, and, more importantly, they help her accompany others through their troubles. I thank God for Edna.
But on a day-to-day basis – from hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute, how many of us could say we are too blessed to be stressed?
This is our third year observing Caregiver Sunday. November is National Caregiver Month (as I was reminded when I picked up my free issue of the Westchester Healthcare News at the bus-stop – a special issue dedicated to family caregivers). The Presbyterian Church marks the second Sunday of November with an invitation to remember that it is not only patients, but caregivers, who also need the comfort and support of the church community, and to encourage the caregivers among us accept the help of any who can competently offer it. It has been said that there are four kinds of people in the world;
- those who are caregivers,
- those who will be caregivers,
- those who have been caregivers, and
- those who will need”
In other words, this is – sooner or later – about all of us. More than 65 million people, 29% of the U.S. population, are providing care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member or friend during any given year. How many of you are or have been the primary caregiver for a loved one? Then you know that the responsibilities and challenges of caring for a loved one can cause significant stress for the caregiver and the caregiver’s family. This morning I’m not going to talk about the particular challenges caregivers face in dealing with loving someone who may no longer recognizes you, the exhausting ups and downs of chronic mental illness, the interminable navigation of medical and legal issues, loneliness, compassion fatigue, and guilt. Instead I want to start a conversation about stress and stress management. Because caregivers are stressed people. And that’s something we could all use help with.
Stress is a normal part of life. We are blessed to be stressed! It is our body’s response to stimulation. It is impossible to live without stress. Without stimulation and stress, life would be boring. I’m told that if you look at an EKG of a normal heart and then look again – the heart’s response to the emotions of both fear and joy is the same. Stress is simply part of living and being human.
But not all stress is the same. Positive, healthy stress might include “being with a loved one, getting married, getting a job promotion, receiving a college degree, having children.” I know that buying our first home was a major stress on my family last year, manifest in all forms of irritability, anxiety, and headaches. It is said that a healthy body can handle about three major life-stressors at a time, generally within a twelve-month period, which is a good reason to monitor even these positive stressors.
Then there is negative stress, the type that undermines our mental and physical health. Prolonged, excessive stress comes from many different sources but certainly includes “work, family life, unexpected change, natural catastrophe, loss of job, financial problems, and sexual problems, to name just a few.” Caregiving is certainly a cause of persistent stress. We often speak about caregivers with great admiration, applauding their commitment and compassion, their sacrifice and long-suffering, but what we are really talking about are stressed-out people.
If there are both positive and negative forms of stress, there are also positive and negative ways of coping with stress. We are familiar with the more obvious negatives: smoking, excessive drinking, legal and illegal drugs. Almost every week prayer requests come forward during worship for people who are coping in these ways. On the other hand, we tend to overlook (or even admire) the workaholic, or the over-committed volunteer. But addictions such as work, sex, shopping and eating can all be ways of coping with persistent stress that actually undermine our well-being and health. Positive coping includes regular exercise (or even a quick walk), time outdoors in nature, meditation, prayer, journaling, eating a healthy diet, and time spent with good friends.
The problem is, many of us aren’t very good at recognizing the signs of stress, even though our bodies speak clearly to us. Physical signs of stress include
- Muscle tension or lower back pain
- Chest pain
- Stomach upset, or
- Sleep problems.
I experience stress physically in my legs. When I ignore or deny the stress I am experiencing for too long, my legs get heavy and sluggish and ache constantly. That means I need to stop and ask for help.
But stress also appears as
- A general anxiety
- Lack of motivation or inability to focus
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression.
These are, of course, the symptoms that others notice first, our family and friends. They are also the symptoms that make it particularly hard for us to ask for help. Restless and anxious people try to help themselves, unmotivated people don’t even try, and when we’re angry, of course, we are disposed to see other people as the source of our problem. Every caregiver, whether parent, spouse, or adult child, has experienced resentment for the person they are caring for, no matter how much they love them.
When I recognize that I am experiencing stress, I go for a walk outdoors or a hike in the woods. It is especially beautiful to walk at this time of the year, with the leaves changing color, and the squirrels stocking up for winter, and the sound of nuts cracking and leaves crunching beneath my feet. I also listen to music – anything I can dance to, but mostly the Grateful Dead. And I read, a lot – novels and history – and seek out people to talk to about what I’m learning. I am actually quite good at making the physical symptoms of stress dissipate by simply finding a place to sit quietly and breathe, getting back into my body as a form of prayer. This is why Sabbath is so central to my own spiritual practice. And of course, no one complains when I want to clean a closet or a room as a form of stress reduction.
Then there is the need for community, for other people. Stress isolates. Each of us need to develop or utilize a support system: friends, colleagues, and relatives with whom we can share our struggles.
I talk to a lot of stressed out people. In fact, that’s often why I’m talking with someone – they have recognized one of the signs above and want to talk about what’s going on in their life, what they’re going through, what they’re dealing with. The talk itself may be the most powerful thing they could do. “There is a catharsis involves in sharing our stresses. Often new insights are gained simply through the process of articulation.” And talking with others makes it more likely we will avail ourselves of other healthy habits of self-care.
What stressors are you facing right now? What are the symptoms? How are you dealing with them?
My hope with this sermon this morning is simply to start a conversation about how we coping with the inevitable stresses that are part of living and being human. I have had the most interesting conversations all week long that began with little more than my saying I wanted to preach about stress, and then letting the conversation lead where it will. Everyone has had something to say, to offer, often opening up parts of their lives (and my life) we didn’t expect to the talking about.
You know, the best way to learn self-care is from people struggling to take care of themselves.
On Friday, I spoke with a woman who is experiencing an unexpected trauma in her immediate family. We talked a long time, but when we were done she said, “You and I know something, don’t we? Something not everyone knows. We know the peace deep down in our souls that only God can give, that despite all we must go through, we are loved and capable of love, and all will be well.” And I do know. Peace not as a panacea that makes everything better, or as a narcotic that numbs me to reality, but the peace that truly passes all understanding that comes from the presence of God and God’s people in my life. A peace that makes it possible for me to face whatever challenges may come my way, and, more importantly, help me accompany others through theirs.
And I began to sing,
I’ve got a peace-that-passes-understanding down in my heart. Down in my heart. Down in my heart.
I’ve got a peace-that-passes-understanding down in my heart. Down in my heart today.
Do you know this peace? Do you want to know this peace? Start with good self-care and a caring community. And you will find God always near when you cry out.
[We then sang Precious Lord, Take My Hand]
 Dr. Al Tatarunis, “The Mind Game Called Life and How to Play It.” Presentation to Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church, November 6, 2015.
 Anthony Pappas. Pastoral Stress: Sources of Tension, Resources for Transformation. Alban Institute.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Stewardship Commitment / All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2015. This was also marked by the Presbyterian Church (USA) as Christian and Citizen Sunday (the Sunday nearest the election). A free four week devotional call Advocacy as Discipleship: A People Called to Witness is available from our Washington Office.
Psalm 24 Hebrews 12:1
“We are humans – which mean we not only have problems but are problems.”
This is Wendell Berry, explaining why mechanical or technical solutions to the problems we face are at best insufficient and at worst dangerous. Since fully committing ourselves to anything, a place, a discipline, a life’s work, a child, a family, a community, requires something akin to love, Berry strips us of the illusion that what we need is more knowledge. But this is not a recommendation for ignorance. He writes,
our decisions can also be informed – our loves both limited and strengthened – by those patterns of value and restraint, principle and expectation, memory, familiarity, and understanding that, inwardly, add up to character and, outwardly, to culture. Because of these patterns, and only because of them, we are not alone in the bewilderments of the human condition and human love, but have the company and the comfort of the best of our kind, living and dead.
Today is the All Saint’s Day. In worship we celebrate the great cloud of witnesses, and remember those who have inspired us. I’m grateful for Berry’s reminder that what we need in the church for character, culture and spiritual formation is the living examples of saints who have gone before us and the saints who surround us.
Saints model Christian practice for us, the attention to God’s presence in the everyday normal acts of living, eating, playing, working and resting, and among the everyday, ordinary people with whom we share these acts. They demonstrate an everyday spirituality which is not about dogma or doctrine, but about a way to live lives which are pleasing to God in the concrete settings of life: family, friendship, work, the economy and politics. Saints teach us to trust in the sovereignty of God, and inspire us to act together until no one is oppressed. They challenge us to live and work for peace amid violence. How deeply we still need such a way to live!
In the early church the designation “saint” referred to the baptized church members and to the faithful departed, a designation revived by the Protestant reformers. Thus we are all saints, and part of the community of saints, potentially and actually reflecting the sacred which is God. During times of persecution, the designation “saint” clung to those who died for their faith, often violently, at the hands of Roman rule. Thus Saint Paul, according to tradition beheaded in Rome, and St. Peter, crucified upside down, both during Nero’s persecutions. Still later, sainthood was recognized in those who separated themselves from the world to lead lives of purity in the desert, like Saint Anthony, who ironically from the desert became one of the most powerful advisers to political rulers as a result of his dedication to a reality larger than the world of power. Still later, sainthood recognized moral leaders and model Christians in monastic and religious orders, during which time women such as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen, women whose visions and music inspired the church and underscored women’s leadership.
Remembering the early church’s designation of all baptized members living and dead as saints, I want to invite us as a congregation to think about who has inspired and formed us in our witness to God’s just peace in the world? Who are those saints who demand that we stay open to the movement of God’s spirit? Right now, take a pink prayer slip from the pew holder and hang onto it. As I preach I invite you to think about who the saints are who have influenced our congregation’s life and witness. And following the sermon, write their name just their name, on that pink slip. And when the ushers collect prayer requests during the hymn, hand your slip (perhaps a long with a prayer request) to the usher, so that we may give thanks for them this morning.
When we think of saints we often think of today’s passage from Hebrews – that great cloud of witnesses that helps us run toward faith’s goal. But usually we think of this great cloud as comprised of people who have died, rather than those who are living. And we usually think of them as a cloud made up of individuals, rather than a cloud with common witness. Similarly, here on earth, we tend to think of individuals not groups who shape our faith.
Recently someone asked me why Presbyterians have not generated social or communal movements such as our Catholic siblings have, both within and without the church. For example, why don’t we have a Presbyterian Dorothy Day and hundreds of Presbyterian Worker Houses? Why aren’t there dozens of alternative communities shaped by particular understandings of the gospel? Why not modern “Calvinists,” like the modern Franciscans, committed to communal lives of simplicity, study and peace?
Upon reflection, I think part of the answer lies with our understanding of CONSCIENCE. The responsibility of exercising one’s own and respecting another’s conscience has been written into our church constitution for over 200 years, and is an inheritance of our much misunderstood Calvinist and Puritan past. The following, for example, was adopted in 1788 by the first Presbyterian General Assembly in this country.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of [men] which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.
The Roman Catholic Church appropriates difference and dissent by making room within its structure for alternative, bodies with particular understandings of the gospel: monks and mendicants in the middle ages, Catholic Workers today. The responsibilities and contours of conscience are, if you will, lodged with these bodies. But Reformed Christians have always located conscience (for good and for ill) with the individual. We believe the spirit moves and is discerned within the church through the DEMOCRATIC PARTICIPATION of our people exercising their individual conscience. And this process is often contentious and noisy and never as clear as we would like it to be. But we must also consider how carefully and intentionally our ancestors nurtured a fragile democratic culture using the more identifiable Christian practices of hospitality, forgiveness, prayer, humility. It is one of our Reformed traditions greatest gifts not only to ourselves but to our nation and our world: individual conscience wedded to democratic deliberation.
Do you remember a time here in this congregation when an individual stood up and spoke out on a matter of conscience? How did that shape the church? And when have you seen our congregation bring its members together in a deliberate, democratic process – at council perhaps, or maybe even during a congregational meeting — to discuss important issues or make important decisions?
But if individual conscience and democracy suggest why Presbyterians have not fostered alternative movements within the church, our understanding of public CITIZENSHIP may suggest why we have not historically been identified with alternative communal movements in society. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Reformed Christians both nurtured and promoted the modern idea of citizenship. One cannot read John Calvin or the early puritan revolutionaries without seeing that they had no interest in creating alternative societies, like the Amish for example, because they were dead set on transforming whole nations through the agency of a mobilized citizenry. Presbyterians simply brought their scripture-shaped consciences into public life and set out to change everything. Back in the 60s, Princeton University political scientist Michael Walzer traced the origin of radical politics to the conscience of the Calvinist citizen, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson has recently updated this story in her particularly fine essay on Margaret of Navarre. Reformed Christians have long reveled in King George’s labeling the American Revolution the “Presbyterian Rebellion” (a quarter of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians!) and cherished the idea that our church polity gave shape to the U.S. Constitution.
On this all saints day, we remember that saints are those people who have helped form our faith – some are living, some are now part of the great cloud of witnesses. Some of these people we have met, others, we know only through the witness of others. Who are the saints who have shaped our congregation’s faith? And what have they taught you? How have they inspired you? For what ends have they summoned you to strive?
Take a moment and think of someone you know or someone whose legacy has influence the life and witness of this congregation. These are our saints. And for them we give thanks.
My Thursday Sabbath posts are a way of keeping myself accountable, in a public way, for observing the Sabbath.
As you all know, I have not had a full Sabbath day in over a month. Important things keep intruding.
This is one reason my project of reading multinational literature is so important to me. It allows to me find small Sabbath times every day to make up for what has been several months often inevitable interruptions of Sabbath days.
That said, my day today began joyously over breakfast with colleagues from Concerned Clergy for Choice / Family Planning Advocates, meeting to support women’s lives and the work of Planned Parenthood. This has been a rough time (is there ever NOT a rough time?) for Planned Parenthood. Deceptively edited videos and outright lies have dominated the Republican candidates race and FOX News cycle. Today the interfaith clergy celebrated and supported the good work of Planned Parenthood for reproductive choice. The photo below is from a demonstration I participated in last year. We all know that Planned Parenthood got its start in the Brooklyn, but we have a local connection here – Margaret Sanger, founder of PP, began her nursing career at what would become White Plains Hospital.
After this breakfast I had a few hours of work-related errands to run.
Earlier this week Pakistan and Afghanistan were hit by a massive earthquake which has left hundreds dead and thousands injured.The following day our church book group was discussing I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai, the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize for being “the bravest girl in the world,” and used the award to establish The Malala Fund which works to raise girls voices and ensure that every girl has access to 12 years of free, safe, quality primary and secondary education. I decided to make Malala part of my program of reading multi-national literature even though, as it turned out, I could not attend the discussion. I have called this post Pakistan I because I have another Pakistani novel on my shelf I am eager to read but could not work in this week. More on that in a few months.
As we go forward, please pray for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan at this difficult time.