I spent most of this past week on the banks of the Hudson River at the beautiful Garrison Institute with my colleagues in the GreenFaith Fellows Program. We are a multi-faith group of religious leaders committed to resisting further climate change while simultaneously building communities that can live lightly, carefully and gracefully on this new eaarth. With the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference scheduled for Paris in November, there is a lot of work to do. Countries are submitting voluntary goals for emissions reductions – but it is already clear there will be a sizable gap between these voluntary limits and the necessary changes to prevent more than a 2 degree rise in global temperatures and irreversible change. With the conference scheduled to open on November 30th, we are inviting folks to WEAR GREEN ON THE 30TH DAY OF EACH MONTH from now until the conference begins as we speak and pray for a strong climate treaty.
As for my continued multinational reading, I spent this week among WEST AFRICAN authors (Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde Islands, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leonne). In 2001 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Lameh Gbowee (2011) shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to ending the war in LIBERIA. I read Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War, back in 2012. This week I read Sirleaf’s biography, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life. Liberian Finance Minister, member of the World Bank, investigator of the Rwandan genocide, participant in successive Liberian governments or exiled in resistance, and finally her return to become Africa’s first women president. I also read a crime thriller, Murder in the Cassava Patch by Bai T. Moore, which is still required reading for high school student in Liberia. A truly disturbing story, which gave me pause thinking about the violence of the civil war.
I also read the first part of Lamin Sanneh’s autobiography, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African. Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of World Christianity at Yale University. I only read this memoir through his childhood in Gambia and his conversion during adolscence from Islam to Christianity.
Finally, I toured most of the other West African countries with two anthologies in hand, Guns and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing collected short stories and excerpts from new novels, while The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry provided riches on every page. With the poetry in particular I wept, held my breath, got lost in thought, and underlined, underlined, underlined.
“The hatred one has eaten / can never be destroyed” (Joseph Miezan Bonging, Cote d’Ivoire)
“It has been a hard life since I ran out of cynicism” (Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Cameroon)
“The fire of metaphors the venom of verse” (Syl Cheney-Coker, Sierra Leonne)
“Let me breath the smell of our dead, let me contemplate and repeat their living voice, let me learn / To live before I sink, deeper than the diver, into the lofty depth of sleep” (Léopold Sédar Senghor, First President of Senegal, 1960)
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday of Easter / Ascension, May 24, 2015
1 John 5: 9-13
So the presidential field continues to widen and in this year before the election year, we are treated to a wide array of testimony by candidates about what they believe. There are interviews and books and, Mitt Romney even went two rounds in the ring with Evander Holyfield … I’m not sure to what that was meant to testify. But we soak up these various publications and performances because, I think, we hunger to hear true, personal testimony about how the candidates’ beliefs have been shaped by their lives. And also because of what we all know is the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Testimony has a long and powerful history in the Christian church. It is a unique form of speech that blends personal experience with faith commitment. In some Christian traditions, testimony is a regular part of worship as individuals stand and bear witness to how God is moving in their lives to heal, to save, to empower. In our congregation we often have members come and share their testimony as Dorothy did last week. Because we know that when we speak from our hearts about how we have seen God at work in our lives, in the church and in the world, that telling does something. It creates community. The telling allows hearers to find the resonances within their own lives and experiences; allowing space for the differences as well as similarities and so creating a nuanced web of connections between and among the speaker and the listeners.
And it does something else. It provides a form through which individuals bring to voice that which is central to who they are and in the process helps individuals claim their story publicly. It’s a process of bringing something in shadows or inchoate into the light, into speech. It can have a similar effect upon the speaker as when you’re searching and searching for the right word and then to your relief and joy, you find it. I think of the many people who have given their testimony here – (Caryl, Leslie, Kelly, Wanda, Sedinam – three times -, Deirdre, Will, Awa, and Norma). I think of the strength and intimacy and community that has been born from their courage to talk about the ordinary, terrifying, surprising and healing encounters they have had with others, with themselves and with God.
This morning’s scripture invites us to think about something related and yet different. What is God’s testimony? How does God testify? And what does God say and do?
The author of First John writes that “the testimony that God has given concerning the Son…is [that] God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” OK, we think. That’s a bit, well, dense and doctrinal. For the writer of First John, Jesus Christ is the word of God – Jesus Christ is the testimony of God. Jesus Christ, the person called Son of God and Human One, in word and deed is the testimony of God. Jesus doesn’t just testify about God, rather God’s testimony is made known through Jesus.
Now First John is related in style and language to the gospel of John. And in the gospel of John we have a different kind of picture of Jesus from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses a lot of broad metaphors to describe who he is and what God’s purpose is. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the gate of the sheepfoldl.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” All of these metaphors point to the way that God shapes the world and cares for the world. And they underscore, through their imagery, that testimony is not only about words – it is also about how those words are lived. How is Jesus the gate of the sheepfold? How is Jesus the light of the world? How is Jesus the bread of life? And that’s where our testimony comes in. We are the ones who answer the “how” questions. We are the ones who bear witness to that how. God’s testimony in Jesus in this wonderful way, leaves space, for our testimony. Indeed, one is not complete without the other.
Our confession today which is taken from the Belhar Confession further develops this question of “how” and brings testimony from the terrain of the purely personal to the terrain of the collective. The now twelve confessions that are part of the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions are confessions not of Jeff G.— or of Betty P.— or of Pam N.— or of Vinodh V.—. These confessions are testimonies of the church. These statements, collected over 20 centuries of Christian witness, are OUR testimony as the church to the way we see God at work in our lives and in the life of the world. They come from various contexts, are stated in a variety of ways and, interestingly enough, their testimony can rub up against one another. But they are our testimony as the church. The Belhar Confession is the first confession to be added since the Brief Statement in 1990, and the first full confession since 1967. And if you look up and down the walls of the sanctuary, you will see banners, very old banners, whose dim yet stalwart witness, reminds us of the different confessions of the church and the way those confessions stand side by side as our common testimony of faith.
The Belhar Confession drives home that testimony is not only about what we say, it’s about what we do. We all know the expression “actions speak louder than words” and “do what I say, not what I do.” But that’s not what I mean. Words are not more important than actions and actions are not more important than words. Words and actions are equally important. Words are, in linguistic theory, considered “speech acts” insofar as they act upon the subject reading or hearing them; they have effect. In the section from Belhar, we are reminded that the unity that we proclaim is established by God’s spirit, is “simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.”
Again Belhar reminds us “that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another.”
As we close the Easter Season and our time with First John – it is fitting for us to consider: How have we seen God at work in our life as a congregation? I invite you to a time of silence and, upon my signal, to write on the index card how you have seen God at work in this congregation. When the offering is taken up, please place your card into the plate. We will then take these cards and place them on a banner in the church house so that we can see our testimony and rejoice in how our testimony completes God’s own.
This is our testimony.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2015
So one of the great things about the Internet is that the bible is online. It’s great when you want to look up a verse that you almost remember from 1 Peter but not quite since by a few words together and coupling them with 1 Peter and NRSV will probably get you a hit pretty quickly.
The other thing that you can do is quickly and easily check parallel translations of the same text and note the nuances. The translation I use the most, because it is most accurate in the translation of Koine Greek, is the New Revised Standard Version. As I prepared to write this sermon I looked up this morning’s lectionary passage on bible.oremus.org which sports the online NRSV translation, because I always like to put the passage I’m preaching on at the top of the sermon I’m writing. When I got out there, I noticed that someone had put a title on this passage (something that’s not in the original Greek), “Faith Conquers the World.”
Now this title comes from the passage itself that says,
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
But what does it really mean to say that, “faith conquers the world.” Is that something that we want faith to do? I mean our 300th anniversary phrase is “Faith In the City” not “Faith Conquers the City!” And while “the world” suffers and struggles, strives and sorrows, is conquer what we really want to do? Is it what Jesus calls us to?
The writer of I John uses the phrase “the world” to mean the forces the determine our lives- the powers and principalities that endeavor to define the contours of our physical and moral world unjustly, violently, hatefully.
Now the interesting thing, of course, is that the writer of first John lifts up that to believe in Jesus as the Son of God means to love – to love decisively and sacrificially. In this week’s passage we read “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” The blood is a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. So the irony is that the writer urges us to conquer the world through emulating Jesus…who was crucified…by the world. That sounds more like being conquered than conquering, frankly to most of us.
So what does it mean that, “faith conquers the world?” It’s not a message that if you believe you will be saved from suffering. It’s not a message that everything will be fine once we get to heaven. It’s not a message of faith in Christ subduing other beliefs. I think what the author of First John is after is that when we persist in love, when we are confronted with hatred, selfishness, greed, violence, expediency, and yet persist in love, we will, in the end, overcome., transform, yes conquer. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Only love can do that.
The Belhar Confession was written by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986 as a theological challenge to apartheid. For several years, the PC(USA) has been studying and considering it for adoption as a part of our Book of Confessions. And that finally happened last week as a majority of presbyteries voted in favor of including this Confession.
In a Letter on from the Special Committee on Belhar, entitled “Why Belhar? Why Now?” members wrote,
While the Confession of Belhar arose from the struggle of South African Christians to give witness to the Gospel amidst the injustice of apartheid, we are also being called to give witness in the face of injustice here among us in the U.S.A. We see that injustice in the faces of thousands of First Nation peoples who still live in dire poverty on reservations; in young African American men who are incarcerated disproportionate to their percentage of the population; in the “legal limbo” status of immigrants, and in both native born Latinos who are subject to question in virtually every quarter of the nation; in public policies such as “stop and frisk” and “stand your ground” that put poor, black and brown young men at risk in the public square.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) confesses its commitment to God and to the biblical principles of unity, justice, and reconciliation because in times like these in which we live, we need to remind ourselves and others of our discipleship to Christ and follow God’s mission in the world…[and] As we claim the church’s earliest confession, JESUS IS LORD, we put on notice, every principality and power, that the only Sovereign in heaven and earth is on the move. 
As we come to the close of our 300th year of ministry in this city, our slogan Faith In the City invites us to ask anew, how we are persisting in love within these walls and out into the community. The challenges before us are many, but love, love is up to the task.
I began this day with a long walk. After dropping August off at school I dropped by the church to answer an important email and then sat in the warm sun in front of Hastings Tea Room with a good book. At home I did a week’s worth of laundry, listened to some Grateful Dead and read some more. August went to a friend’s house after school, so I spent time cleaning up his room and took a nap. My dinner hour was spent with the White Plains Historical Society who held their annual meeting at the C.V. Rich Mansion. Our speaker was Mark Will-Weber, author of Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking. Yes, I had a mint julep!
My reading of Palestinian literature last week, and in particular on Gaza, left me thinking about apartheid, so this week I read some great works out of South Africa. This was doubly fitting because the Presbyterian Church (USA) announced this week that a majority of presbyteries had voted to add the Belhar Confession (1982) to our constitution. The Belhar Confession of Faith emerged out of the black reformed church in South Africa after the World Communion of Reformed Churches declared the white reformed church to be “not a true church” because of it’s support for apartheid. This is the first non-white confession from the third world and south of the equator to become an official creed of our church. We will read from it in worship this coming week. Listen to it being read here.
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Two South African’s have received the Nobel Prize in Literature: Nadine Gordimer (“who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”) and J.M. Coetzee (“who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider”).
Gordimer, who received the prize in 1991 died last year at the age of 90. I have had The Late Bourgeois World on my shelf for over 20 years – an example of the kind of book I re-discovered after our move to our new home in January. The book was banned in South Africa for over 10 years. I picked it up last weekend and was immediately engrossed in the lyric prose, reading the book through in (almost) one sitting.
In the course of my week I also read several short stories from her collection Beethoven was one-sixteenth black and other stories as well as her 1981 novel, July’s People (also banned). In the latter, when black South Africa rises up against white South Africans and the system of apartheid (in a fictional civil war), the Smales family (white liberals) depend on their black servant July for protection and safety and must come to terms with the reversal of roles:
“The decently-paid and contented male servant, living in their yard since they had married, clothed by them in two sets of uniforms, khaki pants for rough housework, white drill for waiting at table, given Wednesdays and alternate Sundays free, allowed to have his friends visit him and his town woman sleep with him in his room — he turned out to be the chosen one in whose hands their lives were to be held; frog prince, saviour, July.”
This novel was also banned until the end of apartheid in 1994. (Below: Gordimer and South African President Nelson Mandela in 1994).
J.M. Coetzee received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He also has the rare distinction of being awarded the Man-Booker Prize twice, for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and for Disgrace in 1999. I only managed to read Life and Times this week, set in the same fictional civil war described by Gordimer in The Late Bourgeois World, although I found a copy of Disgrace for sale at the library for 25 cents. Michael K’s life will haunt me for a long time – Coetzee’s prose being so rich, perceptive and compassionate.
Finally, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country may the most widely studied novel to emerge from South Africa, and has been adapted twice for film, including the 1995 movie featuring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, (Darth Vader and Dumbledore) which I watched late one night this week. Paton published the book in 1948, just as official apartheid emerged with the election of Afrikaner nationalists. He remained an anti-apartheid activist throughout his life.
A portrait of the faith that sustained him in this work was handed to me a few weeks ago by a member of my congregation in the form of Paton’s 1968 Instrument of Thy Peace,a beautifully written reflection on the Prayer of St. Francis. It is a manifesto for the hard work of allowing our selves to be transformed even as we work to transform the world. It is the kind of self-assured, both humble and confident, Christian faith that characterized he era of church-triumphant ecumenicity of the 1950s and 1960s that still stirs a deep part of my soul. Yet the fifteen years between Instrument and Belhar teach important lessons about how change happens – and about a God who chooses sides.
And so finally, since this week of reading emerged from my immersion in Palestinian literature and an anti-racist confession of faith, I commend this piece published by Mondoweiss called “God Bless the young folks who took to the streets” about a recent conference drawing connections between South African apartheid, Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the recent uprising in Baltimore. The conference was held at the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., which was served from 1958-1964 by one of my predecessors here in White Plains, The Rev. Donald Jones, who still holds the title pastor emeritus. I have worshiped with the second speaker of the conference, The Rev. Grayland Hagler, several times and have never failed to be moved and challenged by his sermons.
My recent contribution to “Curious Faith” – the blog of the Hudson River Presbytery
Originally posted on A Curious Faith:
I would like to introduce you to Dorothy Levitt, a pioneer woman motorist who provided the inspiration for the modern rearview mirror. In her 1906 book, The Woman and the Car, Dorothy Levitt “advised women to carry a hand mirror in the car’s tool chest located under the driver’s seat. Levitt suggested that the lady’s mirror could be used not only to restore her makeup after a windy drive but could also be held aloft frequently to check on the traffic behind her.”
In The Old Hermit’s Almanac, Roman Catholic liturgist and storyteller Edward Hays suggests that the next time we find ourselves glancing in our rearview mirrors, we should say a prayer of gratitude for Dorothy Levitt’s idea about being a good driver by watching the traffic behind us, and then goes on to suggest that “prayer is also a rearview mirror in which we can glance…
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A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2015
A week ago early Friday morning, an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day, my son August and I pulled the car up on the side of Martine Avenue in front of the Slater Center to deliver bags of groceries that had been donated to the Emergency Food Pantry by our church. Piled with at least 6 bags in his arms – look Dad I can carry this with my pinky; my PINKY dad! – he made his way surefootedly into the building, through two sets of double-doors into a big gathering room. Maybe a hundred people were already gathered there to pick up their food. We walked past them down to the food storage room. Hi August, the man who coordinates deliveries called. Hi, August enthusiastically replied. We signed the paper on the door that said all donations were from White Plains Presbyterian Church. And as August kept putting up bags, I went over to Loraine Buonoconto’s desk to say hi. And August bounced over and they talked about school. Then we returned to the car and continued on our way to George Washington elementary and the day moved forward. A regular day. Nothing extraordinary. But a day in which we abided in God and God abided in us.
The texts arrived on her friend’s phone one after the other – he’s not right, he’s upset, he’s going to the hospital and the friend texted back – are you OK? How is he now? Shall I come by? No, came the reply, we’re OK. Then, he’s not but he’s at the hospital now. Looks like they’re keeping him. And the friend texted back – let me know how things go. I’m praying. It’s ok to call even if last. Oops, late. A day with an unexpected and unresolved turn, but a day where a friend’s love was dependable. A day in which we abided in God and God abided in us.
Last fall members of our church gathered together to talk about race, about policing, about gun violence following the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. It wasn’t the first time we had gathered to talk. We’d been talking together, studying together, praying together about violence, the criminal justice system and race as we discussed the General Assembly’s study on gun violence back in 2012. And in 2013 more than thirty of our members had marched together in downtown White Plains after the court returned a non-guilty verdict for the man who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, in order to draw attention to the need for dialogue and reform here in our own community as well. So we’ve not only talked but publicly witnessed as well.
But that night last fall we gathered together with others in the presbytery and began to share experiences from our own lives, hard things, things some of us had never spoken of before, things that needed to be said, to be un-silenced. And we listened; listened intently to one another; listened without looking to get a word in edgewise; listened without worrying what the right response would be. This past week following the horrifying injury and death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police, I witnessed that kind of listening, that kind of being present to one another, happening again in the hallways and meeting rooms of our church. Days in which we hear news that we’ve tragically and shamefully heard before, days when we are both in need of talking and exhausted from talking, days in which we hear one another into speech and loving action, days when we abide in God and God abides in us.
They were there to sort again this past Friday – the Nifty Thrifties. The stupendously successful tag sale of the weekend before now behind them, there they were, four women in the hallway, sorting through new donations, carrying items from the foyer, down the hallway, down the stairs, around to the basement room, ordering clothing, dishes, bric a brac, laughing and planning for the next sale. It was an ordinary Friday, nothing unusual, but we were abiding in God and God was abiding in us.
I played with a little baby this week. I watched as he toddled around and made those wonderful baby noises. I smelled his fresh, sweet baby hair, bounced him on my knee, and walked with him up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down the stairs as his mom and dad joined Rev. Sarah Henkel in a cable TV interview about our CSA that will begin its second year here at the church. Basic details about what Community Supported Agriculture is were shared and the farmers – Jen and John, the baby’s parents – spoke about why their produce was organic, the kinds of fresh vegetables that were provided to the community, and Sarah talked how the left overs were donated to a nearby Muslim food pantry. I remembered the wide array of members and neighbors who came each Saturday morning last year to load bags full of kale and carrots, tomatoes and eggplant and thought about how, through supporting local food, we began naturally to talk with one another – about ourselves, our community, our life together. Ordinary people figuring out how to enable healthy, justly grown produce find a home in our corner of the city. We were abiding in God; God was abiding in us.
The most common synonym for abide is to dwell – to make a home with. We sometimes call our homes, abodes, drawing from the same root. When the writer of 1 John talks about love that abides, he’s not talking about dramatic one-time gestures or random acts of kindness. He’s inviting us to normalize God’s extraordinary love within our very ordinary lives. To become “at home” with love; to have the kind of familiarity with one another and with God that we can bother each other and God. We can call on and count on one another and God. We can disagree and agree and remain committed to one another and to God. We can dare new projects, invent new ways of living together with one another and with God.
Such abiding love is truly sacramental love – a visible sign of an invisible grace; the extraordinary found precisely, exactly within the ordinary. Imagine this: that God took human form and walked among us, abided with us. Imagine this: that in this bread and this cup we taste and see God’s goodness together with the faithful across millennia. Imagine this: that before we were born, now and into life beyond death God abides with us.
We had a council meeting on Tuesday night; it was not extraordinary. It was a meeting much like other meetings, chock full of business but also chock full of love. Midway through the evening we did something wonderful. We paused and reflected on how very difficult it is for formerly incarcerated persons to obtain employment. You may remember our congregation send cards to people incarcerated in nearby prisons and purchases gifts so men and women who are in prison can send presents to their children at Christmas. As the council talked, I thought about how, through our church’s mission, we care for others. Before us was a proposal to “ban the box” – an effort to prohibit employers from inquiring about criminal convictions of job applicants on a job application form or during the initial application process and prior to the end of the first interview. While background checks and later interviews could explore such convictions, eliminating inquiry and check boxes from the initial form and interview gives ex-convicts a chance to be judged not on their misdeeds but on their work experience. We discussed it and voted to recommend it to you and invite you to join us in signing the petition that is enclosed in your bulletin.
Tomorrow night is a hearing by White Plains Common Council to consider whether White Plains will join Yonkers and other municipalities in banning the box and giving ex-convicts a chance at new life. It’s just a box, right? But eliminating that small square from the initial form allows formerly incarcerated women and men to be seen first as women and men. A simple change that is not so simple after all.
This day, each day, we are invited to abide in God and allow God to abide in us, to make a room with us, to settle down with us, to be “at home” with us. And of course when we make room to love others, when we settle down and love others, when we are “at home” with loving others, when we abide with others, that is precisely when God abides with us. For God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.