Skip to content

Going Home: Scots-Irish Settlers

February 12, 2019

This is the fourth of in a series of posts called Going Home, all about the local watershed and the history of Chicago Heights, in general, and the First Presbyterian Church in Chicago Heights, in particular. The occasion for my recent trip ‘home’ was to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the congregation. 

2018-12-01 08.27.17

The First Presbyterian Church in Chicago Heights was founded in 1843 by a group of Scots-Irish settlers. The Rev. John McMaster of Princeton, Indiana, accompanied by Mr. William McCornack, an elder in the church at Deerfield, Illinois, met in the home of Joseph Caldwell and constituted a church session. This first session, formally installed on Thursday, December 7, included Joseph Caldwell as well as John McEldwoney, Jr. and Samuel Hood. With the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on the following Sunday, December 10, 1843, twenty-five persons were welcomed into membership, with two more women joining the Sunday after that. Twenty-two of these founding members were interrelated in just four families: the Caldwell, McEldowney, Hood, and Wallace. The other three included the Glenny family and a Mr. Beckley. (Beckley was Chicago Heights’ first carpenter.) These families formed the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Thorn Grove.


Joseph Caldwell

These settlers had begun constructing homes in the area just ten years earlier. See my earlier posts about the first white settler, Absalom Wells (1833), who lived to the North of Mr. Caldwell; Adam Brown (1833), the first permanent settler, who lived to the South of the Caldwells; and John and Sabra McCoy (1834), who lived to the West. The latter by way of the Erie Canal (which had opened in 1825). Their travel from Scotland brought them first to Vermont, and then to Canada before settling in the new State of Illinois. The McCoy’s baby daughter Lovinia was the first child born in Chicago Heights. We don’t know exactly when the founding families of the congregation arrived, but we do know that by the time Indian Removal was in full swing and the Potawatomi forcibly marched away in 1838 – the year the State put land up for public sale – all of the church families were able to claim possession of their property based on ‘improvement’ and previous occupation.


Worship took place in the Caldwell home until the first sanctuary was built in 1846 (above, now destroyed). The Caldwell house was a log cabin located on the corner of 26th Street and Chicago Road. Chicago Road was the Vincennes Trail connecting Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River on Lake Michigan and Vincennes, Indiana 240 miles away. Vincennes served as the first Capitol of Indiana Territory, and of trade, and, ‘is the oldest continually-inhabited European settlement in Indiana and one of the oldest settlements west of the Appalachians’ (according to wikipedia). In 1822, a trader named Gurdon Hubbard was regularly moving good from Chicago to markets in Vincenes along this trail, and in 1834, as the first settlers in what later became Chicago Heights were building their first homes, the Hubbard Trail (or Hubbard’s Trace) was named named it the first official State road: Route 1.

I do not, at this time, know the religious and political inclinations of these early Scots-Irish settlers, or the specific reasons for their migration (beyond the promise of cheap land), only that they almost immediately connected with the radical Covenanters of Princeton, Indiana, making the Reformed Church of Thorn Grove something of a mission church of this movement. The Scottish Covenanters were a Presbyterian movement in the 17th century – and in the eighteenth century entire communities had relocated to North America – principally in the South. The Scottish Covenanters had always been fierce abolitionists. When they arrived in North America by way or Northern Ireland, they became some of the most vocal advocates for independence from England. But after the revolution, as religious abolitionists, they refused allegiance to the new republic because the United States Constitution sanctioned slave-holding. During the war of 1812, the Federal Government actually created a special pledge for covenanters who would not swear loyalty to the republic, but who could promise at least not aid the country’s ‘enemies.’ It became increasingly difficult to be a political abolitionist in the South after the war, and most Covenanters simply picked up and moved their communities and congregations north into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Now in exile from their South Carolina homes, they brought with them a powerful sense of mission – nothing less than the redemption of the country from the sin of slavery. Though most of the early settlers in Chicago Heights came directly (or near-directly) from Northern Ireland, many of the family names there are identified with covenanter families also found in South Carolina (including the illustrious name of Orr). The congregation’s first pastor, The Rev. John Morrison, came from this tradition (he was born in South Carolina in 1813) and connected the community of Thorn Grove to abolition networks across the north.


Rev. John Morrison

For more on this fascinating history, see Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution. (Oxford University Press: 2016). In my reading of Moore’s book, following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation many Reformed congregations struggled with their sense of mission. Without a strong social cause, congregations drifted toward fundamentalism, their former radicalism increasingly looking like anti-modernism. Rev. Morrison left the ministry and joined the Freedman’s Bureau. The Reformed Congregation of Thorn Grove (now known as Bloom) left the fold and in 1892 joined the Presbyterian Church and increasing participated in the social gospel movement. Their name was changed to the First Presbyterian Church in what was now known as Chicago Heights. The next generation threw themselves into building up this new community.

img_9458 (002)

Of the three elders who formed the original Session in December 1843, one had a little baby. William J. McEldowney was born in June 1843 to John McEldowney, Jr (third row, left, above) and Anne Wallace McEldowney (bottom left). Thus, there were three full generations present in this nascent church – John McEldowney Sr. (top left) also being a member. William (not pictured) was presumably the first baptism in the congregation. This brief bio in the Chicago Tribune only hints at the driving force William McEldowney was in the development of Chicago Heights as an industrial suburb of the rapidly growing City of Chicago.


William McEldwoney’s first home was located at the top of a hill on Chicago Road, though it was later moved to 149 W. 14th Street, just a quarter mile from the Thorn Creek. You can see a picture of William standing in front of the home at its original location on the website of the Chicago Heights Preservation Advisory Committee. The home, in its present location, is pictured at the top of this post. 

Descendants of the founding families and first settlers still worship at the First Presbyterian Church. Members of all the founding families (along the Rev. Morrison, who married Martha McEldowney, daughter of John McEldowney Sr.) can be found buried in the Bloom Presbyterian Cemetery and Resthaven, near the site of the original church building (now gone) on Chicago Road. Midwest Cemetery Preservation has documented restoration and preservation work at the cemetery, including a map of all burials, and featuring the nice photo of the original sanctuary built in 1846 (seen above).

2018-12-02 14.06.29


The Voice that says, “I love you”

January 20, 2019

THE VOICE, a Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 13, 2019, in which we learn that love is God’s first and last word, surrounding entirely God’s call for whole-life transformation. 

Isaiah 43:107         Luke 3:15-22
This is an abbreviated version of the sermon I preached last Sunday morning…

When have you heard the voice of God speaking to you?

Last Sunday Pastor Lynn and I introduced ‘star words’ to the congregation as a spiritual practice for 2019. Just as the magi followed the light of a star to find the infant Jesus, so we invited each of you to follow a ‘star word’ through the coming year, letting it lead you where it will. At the front of the sanctuary we had a basket of white stars, and on each star a unique word. This word was a gift and came with an invitation. ‘Pray over it. Pray with it. See where it leads you.’ Some people immediately resonated with the word they were given. Others rankled at the word they chose. But we promise, it is a gift waiting to be unwrapped. We have already heard some amazing stories about the work these words have begun to do.

It has been impressive hearing about the work these words are already doing in your lives. On the way out of church last week one member told me she had accidentally picked up two words. She returned one and told me that the other was exactly the word she needed to navigate the coming year. Another member also picked up two. Noticing this, Pastor Lynn accepted the second word as her own and it turned out to be exactly the word she was hoping for. On Monday morning a member texted me a photo of her word pasted into her daily planner where it would be the first thing she sees every day. An hour later another member told me she really wanted a particular word (patience) because that is something she needs to work on, but instead got something else. I promised her it was a gift, and that the word she wanted and the word she received were not unrelated.

Some people have really disliked the word they were given. It has seemed an affront, or a challenge. These will likely turn out to be the most powerful experiences of the year. At Bible study, an older member explained that she does not know what her word has to do with a spiritual life. The next day another came to me because she did not understand her word – clarity. I quickly thought of several expressions having to do with ‘achieving clarity,’ and of the hymn “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord.” But then I started to hear Jimmy Cliff singing

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
(and I sang this in the pulpit)

That made me think about how we turn to music for understanding, particularly our feelings. In the office this week I was sitting with someone anticipating great grief. When we finished meeting she saw the star words and chose one. She received ‘assurance,’ and we started to sing together “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” Another woman who has taken on the role of caregiver for a loved one received, with tears, the word ‘Brave.’ (there were more stories than these…)

When have you heard the voice of God speaking to you? [i]

Central to our scripture readings today is The Voice. In our reading form the prophets we encounter the Voice of God speaking through the priest Isaiah. And what we hear is

Do not fear…
I have redeemed you…
I have called you… you are mine…
You are precious in my sight, and honored, and
I love you.

This is the only place in scripture in which we hear the voice of God say, “I love you.”

(At this point in the sermon a one-year old looked up with full attention. Each time I repeated, “I love you,” she stopped and paid attention. Her mother realized that at these moments her daughter was hearing in church familiar words from home.)

In our Gospel reading we learn that this same Isaiah anticipated The Voice of one crying in the wilderness, calling all to repentance and transformation. To changed lives. It is said that God loves us just the way we are, but loves us so much that she is not willing to let us stay this way. John the Baptist appears with practical advice for turning our lives around. He used his voice not only to speak to those who came out to hear him but also to those who tried to hide from him. His voice judged Herod Antipas and his illegal pursuit of power through an adulterous marriage alliance.

The central reading for the Sunday on which we remember Jesus’ own baptism is the reading in which we see the heavens opened and the spirit descends as a dove, and a Voice comes from heaven, declaring, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”


I am struck by the symmetry in these readings, that begin and end with love, that surround the call for our whole-life transformation with love, that make God’s love for us the first and last word but does not fail be honest with our need to confront all that is wrong both in our world and in ourselves.

This is The Voice that spoke to each of us in our own baptism – I love you. Be transformed by (and into) the image of Christ. And remember, you are loved.

But hearing this, and believing this, or living this, are very different matters. Earlier this week, while working with my own star word, I came upon this passage by the late Henri Nouwen:

One of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life is self-rejection. When we say, “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me,” we choose the road toward darkness. Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God’s eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God’s beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth.[ii]

My friends, one thing that is true and never changes. It is this: God has loved you, she loves you still, and she will love you always. May the Voice that makes this promise, enable us to live in its light. Amen.

Note: After preaching this sermon I can upon another highly relevant passage in Nouwen:

Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, “Prove that you are a good person.” Another voice says, “You’d better be ashamed of yourself.” There is also a voice that says, “Nobody really cares about you,” and one that says, “Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.” But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, “You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.” That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us “my Beloved.”[iii]

© 2019, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

[i] Steven Charleston, Chapter 3: The Voice, in The Four Visions Quests of Jesus (Morehouse, 2015).

[ii] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. (HarperCollins, 1997), January 10.

[iii] Ibid. January 13

The Promise: Epiphany

January 8, 2019

THE PROMISE, a sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019, in which we discover that God’s promise of conversion, hope, solidarity, and a new way of life have become flesh-among-us.

Matthew 2:1-12          Matthew 2:13-23

The traditional reading for Epiphany, the Visitation of the Magi, was read on Sunday from the pulpit. After this reading Pastor Lynn read or paraphrased sections from Barbara Brown Taylor’s new children’s book, Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story. (Flyaway Books, 2018). When the children has left, I entered the pulpit and asked…

Were the magi really so politically naïve? Are their actions in this story what passes for wisdom? Did they not realize the betraying a famously paranoid king would lead to all that followed – would set a motion a series of event that would mean death and suffering for so many?

We miss something important if our observance of Epiphany watches the wise ones returning home ‘by another way’ and does not also look at Herod’s anger at being betrayed by them and what he does with the information they gave him.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Were they so naive politically as to go to an actually existing king and ask about a future King? In the book that Pastor Lynn just read to the children, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the wise ones may have thought, at first, that Herod was this new and great king for Israel. 

His self-promotion certainly suggested as much.

Herod billed himself as ‘Herod the Great.’ Everything was about greatness. He expanded and renovated the temple in Jerusalem to make it a wonder of the Mediterranean world. It was by many accounts the most impressive temple from Egypt to Rome. He built a ‘court of the gentiles’ so that non-Jews, whether tourist or pilgrim, could be welcomed within a precinct of the temple. In Hebron, to further promote tourism, Herod built the Tomb of the Patriarchs with the same massive stones used for the temple. Here, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah lay in rest in an ancient cave, now there was huge memorial, used today as both a synagogue and a mosque. Herod built the Port of Caesarea Martima , renamed and rebuilt the city of Caesarea Philippi, and constructed an aqueduct from the hill country around Bethlehem to bring water into Jerusalem, all in order to integrate Judea culturally and economically into the vast trade networks of the Roman Empire. All at great cost to the countryside, its people and land, giving rise to decades of protest and resistance. All to promote Herod’s ‘greatness.’[i]

By sharing with him their following of a rising star and the promise of a new king to shepherd Israel, these magi alerted Judea’s ‘Great King’ to a potential rival.

If the magi were not naïve, they were at the very least dangerous.


photo credit: Amiens Cathedral

Herod the Great was greatly paranoid. When he was given rule of all Israel by no less that Caesar Augustus himself during the Roman Civil Wars, Herod had the ugly task of pacifying his own people on behalf of Rome, a task he undertook with relish. When the conflict settled down, Herod sought legitimation as a ‘rightful’ ruler by marrying into the very family he had replaced. His wife, Mariamne, was a Hasmonean, the famous family that had led Israel in its short period of Independence before the coming of the Romans. However, it was not too long before Herod realized that the lineage in which he had sought legitimacy could also inspire the loyalty of those who dreamed of liberation. Thus, Herod came to see his own sons as potential rivals; and so, one by one, he had them killed, and then murdered Mariamne herself. Herod was paranoid, but that didn’t mean that there were not people who wanted him gone. In the wake of Mariamne’s murder, families who still dreamed of future liberation began naming daughters after her, calling them Mary. You see, Mary came by her revolutionary song, the Magnificat, in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly person lifted high, quite naturally. She had been raised for resistance.[ii]

While there is no evidence that Herod actually ordered the mass murder of children, as he does in this story, the violence of the tale captures well the paranoid and violent nature of Herod himself. Herod did have thousands upon thousands of his critics crucified as traitors and disloyal; others who stood in the way of his ambition were simply murdered or removed and exiled. Thousands upon thousands of rivals, prophets, and would-be messiahs, or simply those gathered in protest, were killed and crucified during his reign.[iii]

Why, I wonder, didn’t the Magi go back and say to Herod that they had not found anything? That the prophecies were false? The star and false lead? That would have prevented the killings instead of setting the stage for what the church calls ‘the massacre of the innocents.’ Instead, God had to appear again to Joseph to warn him in a dream, and then again and again to keep the family safe. Three times. Why not to the other parents?

I don’t have to answer these questions. But I do want to invite all of you to come back next Sunday to participate in our first adult education class of the year. We will have with us next week Elizabeth Wind who will lead us in an experience of Bibliodrama. If you have not experienced this before you are in for a treat. Bibliodrama is a method for allowing the narrative of scripture to deeply engage with our own cognitive and emotional lives as we role play the dilemmas and decisions in a story. Liz’s topic next week will be the story of the women who saved Moses’ life and kept God’s dream from dying in infancy: Miriam, his sister; Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives; and the unnamed daughter of the Pharaoh himself.[iv]

There are obvious parallels to that story and one Matthew tells – the child of God’s promise is threatened by a tyrannical and paranoid ruler, and children everywhere are threatened with violence. There is a similarity of action between Joseph and Miriam, each of which carries a child beyond the reach of a horrid ruler; the magi are not unlike the midwives who disobey and betray the powerful; and Herod certainly plays the role of a contemporary Pharaoh. The irony is that in the time of Jesus, the very Egypt from which Moses led God’s people has become the place of sanctuary from one of Israel’s own oppression.

Of course, making these connections backwards in our sacred story urges us to play them forward as well. This past week, on New Year’s Day, several hundred of us gathered to stand beside two Westchester families who have had their husbands and fathers separated from them by ICE. Manuel Arpi and Manuel Zhinin are among 25 immigrants currently being held nearly a thousand miles away in Alabama. The detention center is alleged to be among the worst used by ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. In December there was a county-wide fundraiser that collected nearly $10,000 to help the wives visit their husbands and children visit their fathers before Christmas, but after making the journey the Alabama they were told that the facility didn’t even have a meeting room, so the visits couldn’t happen. They were not told this when before the lengthy and expensive trip! Organized by our friends at the Hudson Valley Community Coalition, those who gathered on January 1 wanted the begin the new year with a strong witness to the importance of keeping families together. “Bring Manuel home,” we chanted repeatedly in the chill air, our breath rising like prayer. (As a result of the action, Rep. Eliot Engel of the Bronx has already written to the chair of DHS urging the return of all New Yorkers).


photo credit: Rev. Noelle Damico

My colleague, The Rev. Drew Patton of the Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, spoke as a Christian. Among the words he spoke were these:

Long have there been Herods.
Long have the innocent been crucified
in the name of law and order.

Long have families fled in search of sanctuary.
Long have they been pursued and threatened with violence.

The gospel writer introduces his tale saying,
“In the time of Herod…”
And so it was.
And so it is.

We too live in the time of Herod –
when tyrants hold sway and children suffer…
but it is and has always been into this time that Christ is born –
that God’s fierce, world-upending, border-busting love
is unleashed into the world among the poor and the oppressed
and all those closest to the hurt.

Someday this Herod – like every other before him –
will become food for the worms.
Empires fall. Walls crumble.
But the love and justice of God will never rest,
until all of God’s children are free.

The feast of epiphany, the season of epiphany, is usually drenched in light: the light that comes into the world to Illumine dark places, the light that shines on the word to help us understand, the light which brings life and love into our lives. Epiphany means ‘made manifest,’ ‘shown forth,’ ‘revealed.’ For all the world to see.  God’s promises being fulfilled, and the promise of future understanding. On Epiphany we focus on the coming of the magi, gentile foreigners who acknowledge the coming of a promised one in Israel. We celebrate that God’s promise can now be seen by all the world. It is a story full of irony, as the present king as clearly not risen to the demands of the office. They come to find a king, but instead find a child. And they come bearing gifts.

Pastor Lynn and I have cooked up a gift for the church. Really, it was her idea and she did all the work, but I loved it immediately and share it with you enthusiastically. Just as the magi followed the light of a star to Bethlehem, we have prepared for each of you a ‘star word’ to follow in the coming year. Here, at the front of the sanctuary, is a basket of white stars, and on each star a unique word for each worshipper. This word is a gift to you. Pray over it. Pray with it. See where it leads you. Some of you will immediately resonate with the word you are given. Others will rankle at the word you chose. But I promise, it is a gift waiting to be unwrapped.[v]


photo credit: Rev. Lynn Dunn

I did a practice like this a number of years ago. The word I was given to carry for a year was ‘remember.’ I carried that little slip of paper carefully folded in my wallet. I would see it whenever I had to show I.D. or when I was making purchases or was showing pictures. (Yes, this was before I carried a cell-phone photo gallery and still carried pictures in my pocket.) The word worked on me all year long, opening new avenues for spiritual reflection and highlighting new aspects of scripture such that this word become my favorite word. This was so apparent in my ministry that when I left that congregation some members went to Build-a-Bear and made me this bear [lifting up my bear] which they baptized with the name Remember.

These words are for you. You may share them if you wish. We will find times and ways to check in with one another during this journey so that we may be blessings for one another and so that these star journeys can become gifts for the whole congregation.

Come, as we sing, and receive a star to follow.





© 2019, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

[*] “conversion, hope, solidarity and a new way of life” is borrowed from Megan McKenna, Like a Hammer Shattering Rock: Hearing the Gospels Today (Image, 2013). 

[i] Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans. (South Carolina, 1996).

[ii] Hasmonean names (including John, Simon, Judas, Salome, and Mariamne) became widespread in the time of Jesus among those who still dreamt of Judean independence. See Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus. (Trinity Press international, 2000).

[iii] Richard Horsley and John S. Hanson. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. (Harper Collins, 1985).

[iv] The founder of Bibliodrama is Peter A. Pitzele. See his Scripture Windows: Toward a Practice of Bibliodrama. Alef, 1998) and other writings.

[v] Kristin Stroble, “Star Words: A Spiritual Practice for Epiphany.’ Presbyterian Outlook, January 6, 2016.

Christmas Eve – The Light of the World

December 27, 2018


A sermon preached The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve 2018.

Isaiah 9:2-7          Psalm 96          Luke 2:1-14

I had the joy of being together with my entire family over Thanksgiving.  The gathering was the brainchild of my 12-year-old niece, who also made all of the sleeping arrangements at my sister’s house. She let her mom and dad, our hosts, keep their own room with the family dog, which doubled as an office for my brother-in-law who had to work through much of the day. All of the kids, my nieces and nephews, slept together in the basement on a combination of couches, cots, and air mattresses. Noelle and I got to share a room, but not a bed; I slept in my niece’s very small twin, while Noelle took the more comfortable mat on the floor. My other sister took the 12-year-old’s room, sleeping on a blowup bed that took a up all the room, a room that she shared with her dog and a bearded dragon. Every morning my sister woke up to witness a staring contest between the dog and dragon – each trying to claim the territory as theirs. My mother got the smallest room, the guestroom (and sometimes hideout), that she shared with her ailing and aging and too-grumpy-for-company dog. So, everyone got a corner somewhere, animals at all.

Many of you know that I imagine the birth of Jesus took place in setting something like this – in the two-room private home of one of Joseph’s relatives. Joseph and Mary were traveling to the City of David, Joseph’s hometown, because the Roman governor in Damascus had called for every man, woman and child; every animal, crop and field; to be counted so they could be maximally taxed and duly exploited. We learn that Joseph is of the line of David. And we may remember that God had forbidden David when he was king from taking a census because counting people was a prelude to oppression. Thus, it was not a happy time, but the hospitality of hearth and home would have made things easier, and perhaps even joyous. When they first arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary could have presented themselves at the home of any member of Joseph’s family, a cousin perhaps, or possibly even Joseph’s parents, and would have found a ready welcome.

We are told that the guestroom, erroneously translated for generations as “the inn,” had no room for them, which either meant it was already occupied with other guests, extended family, or other travelers who had come to register to be taxed, OR that there was literally “no room”: the small guestroom that had been able to accommodate Mary and Joseph while they awaited ‘the big day’ could fit Mary and Joseph on a mat on the floor, but did not have enough room for labor and delivery. So, there being no room in the guestroom, Jesus would have been born in the living room and laid in the manger – the stone bowl or wooden trough that divided the living room from where the animals were kept at night. There is no crowded inn or heartless innkeeper in this scene, no stable out back for a lonely couple, no cave or grotto far from the village life, but an ordinary peasant home full of warmth and light and love. And the hospitality and welcome practiced by people everywhere. Small and cramped, perhaps, but room enough and love enough for a savior to be born.

It is the ordinariness and the warmth of this image that should strike us. The excited chatter of adults in conversation, the sight of busy midwives caring for Mary and the newborn, the knocks on the door followed by the oohs and ahhs of neighbors come to see this child of hope – for every child is a sign of hope, the smells of food being prepared and shared and eaten, the reassuring or comforting touch or even embrace between generations. The cry of the baby. The voice of Mary, singing her song, her revolutionary lullaby about the world made right for and by this child.

An ordinary scene of domestic life repeated every day for forty days until Jesus, Mary, and Joseph returned to Nazareth by way of Jerusalem.

We set this night apart for worship, we light our vigil lights and sing songs of reverence, joy and hope, because of what we believe happened this night, and what became of this new and vulnerable life. The light of the world was kindled against the darkness. The life of God entered this world as flesh and took up residence with, entered into the struggles of, and took sides beside, ordinary people. The warm and generous love of God’s people, then and now, in receiving him, demonstrates through hospitality the way, the truth and life of God for the healing of our world.

The Christmas messages is pretty simple. God so loves this world that God gives to us this child that we may not perish as those who do not have hope, but so that we may participate in the life divine.

  • For those of you experiencing grief, old or new, this season: know that God loves you and understands you.
  • For those consumed with worry or anxiety, for a loved one who is ill, or addicted, or struggling – even if that person is yourself – know that God hears your cry and that the spirit intercedes for you.
  • For those of you who experience want, or hunger, or loneliness, know that there is a family of God’s people here for you, and that we will make room for you.
  • For those who despair of the times we live in – and that is very easy to do – know that there have been dark times before, and the darkness never wins. Not completely. Because God raises up prophets and people to fight back the darkness, and
  • For those who are lost, have lost your way, have lost hope, or feel like you have lost everything, know that on this night hope is born anew. It may be small, it may flicker, it may beg to be sheltered from the winds that buffet and blow, but it is here. A gift. A piece of divine light reflected in your neighbor.

For this is what the guiding light that has come into this world reveals to us. As poet Joyce Rupp has written,

There is a piece of light in all of us.

Seen or unseen, the light is there,
ready to kindle, eager to expand,
refusing to be rightly contained.
As soon as the tiniest space is allowed
it quickly emerges, floods outward,
illuminating the darkest places.

One single candle lights a little dark space.
Many candles light a world full of people
desperately in need of each other’s glow.

Each lone light makes us stronger
when we all stand together.

B the light that shines in us, that shone so clearly in Jesus, has its origin in the uncreated light and life divine. We honor Christ by being together this holy night, in worship, in vigil, and in hope. Merry Christmas.


© 2018, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary


Articles about where Jesus was born circulate pretty regularly on the internet at this time of the year. I’ve got a file with a number of very good exegetical papers by a variety of scholars, but the most accessible piece is by Kenneth Bailey, author of Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. It is called Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama (Intervarsity Press, 2015).

Joyce Rupp. “A Piece of Light” in A Maryknoll Book of Poetry: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness from Around the World, edited by Michael Leach, Doris Goodnough and Helen Phillips. (Orbit, 2014).


Advent 4: Hearth Lights

December 27, 2018


A sermon preached by The Rev Jeffrey A. Geary on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018. This is the fourth in a series on the lights, divine and human, that comfort, challenge, gather and guide us through life.

This is a place-holder, awaiting my text.

Advent 3: Vigil Lights

December 27, 2018


2018-12-16 10.39.25

A service prepared by The Rev Allyn Dunn for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2018. This is the third in a series on the lights, divine and human, that comfort, challenge, gather and guide us through life.

2018-12-16 10.44.53

The third Sunday is Advent always includes the church school christmas pageant – some variation on lessons and carols with a tableau of sheep and shepherds, angels, wise ones, Herod and Roman soldiers, as well as a holy family with the newest infant in the congregation. This year was no exception.

2018-12-16 10.48.23

But we also continued to light additional lights in the sanctuary to accompany the candles in the Advent wreath. Up this week were Vigil Lights – those memorial candles around which we gather to remember or honor a loved one as we tend to our grief, or those vigil candles we carry out into the streets where we meet with other to protest hatred and injustice and loudly demand peace and justice. We have lit memorial candles in our sanctuary on All-Saints Day, as well as after mass shootings and tremendous loss as a result of extreme weather. As a congregation we have met our neighbors while lifting candles to declare ‘welcome’ for immigrants and refugees, to insist that black lives matter, to protest the painting of anti-Semitic imagery on walls at our local college campus and near our train station, to witness again the President’s Muslim-ban, to demand changes in our county, state and national gun laws, and in prayer for the International Climate Conferences.

2018-12-16 11.16.07

Rev. Henkel and Rev. Rossi have already well described the imagery of their sermons on NightLights and Porch Lights. Since the pageant was not expressly about vigil lights, other than a reference to the star, I include this week the Advent Wreath liturgy used for the entire Advent-Christmas season. It was written by the Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea after one of our group brainstorming session. It may not be used without permission. If you wish to use or adapt it, simply write to Katie ( and ask.

2018-12-16 10.06.36

ADVENT WREATH LIGHTING (Nightlight – Psalm 25)

O holy God, we light the first candle of Advent.  (Light first candle.)

Like a nightlight in the hallway, we light this candle because the gathering darkness makes us nervous, makes us afraid.  So we light the candle for safety and to be saved from falling.

We say with the Psalmist: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; only let them be ashamed who are treacherous.”

Mighty God, this Advent make us to know your ways, O Lord; teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth, and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation; for you we wait all day (and all night) long.  This Advent, we light our nightlight candle and hope. Amen.

ADVENT WREATH LIGHTING (Porchlight—Luke 1:67-69)

O holy God, we light the second candle of Advent.  (Light two candles.)

Like a porch light we put on when we are expecting visitors who are arriving late, we light this candle to show our presence here.  We light the candle to prepare the way for those who are seeking us and seeking you.  We light this candle to show this sanctuary is dwelt in and readying for the awaited.

The Gospel writer Luke reminds us that John the Baptist was for the people of God the porchlight turned on and beckoning.  To those who needed a change, who needed it all to be different, to mean something, to be right, John the Baptist went ahead of the Lord “to prepare the way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people.”

Merciful God, this Advent show us the way home.  May your homey light break in upon us, giving light to those who journey on in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  You are the God of our salvation; for you we wait all day (and all night) long.  This Advent, we light our porchlight candle and pray for arriving to peace. Amen.

ADVENT CANDLE LIGHTING (Vigil lights—Zephaniah 3:14-15; Isaiah 12:2-6)

O holy God, we light the third candle of Advent.  (Light three candles.)

Like vigil lights gathered and sparkling in a public space, we light this candle to show that we have emerged from our individual spaces to be present together. So we light the candle for exultation of hearts, for the turning away of enemies, for the Lord in our midst, and the end of fear.

We join our voices with Isaiah saying: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  With joy we draw water from our communal well and give thanks to God out in the open for all to see and hear.

Glorious God, this Advent bolster us in you growing light, O Lord; gather us out in the world together shining your light.  Connect us in your love light shining, even as we gather to vigil and wait for your coming all day (and all night) long.  This Advent, we light our vigil candles and are warmed by love.  Amen.

ADVENT WREATH LIGHTING (Hearth Light—Micah 5:2-5a)

O holy God, we light the fourth candle of Advent.  (Light four candle.)

Like a cheery hearth fire, we light this candle because to come home to you is to come home to comfort and joy in the gathering.  So we light the candle for joyful coming together in restful and cozy happiness.

We are warmed by the words of Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”  He shall bring home all his kindred.  “And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.  And they shall live secure.”

Creator God, this Advent bring us home again, O Lord, to a community of open, redeemed, unfearful homes and hearths that welcome and restore neighbor and stranger, steadfast and prodigals, sinners and righteous alike.  For this, for you, we wait all day (and all night) long.  This Advent, we light our hearth fire candle and enjoy.  Amen.

ADVENT WREATH LIGHTING (LighthouseIsaiah 9:2, Luke 2:8-10)

O holy God, this night we light the Advent candles and the Christ Candle.

Journeying through Advent we have been grounded and comforted, encouraged and welcomed by home lights: nightlights, porchlights, vigil lights, and hearth lights that have seen us through, but which all are eclipsed by the lighthouse you have given us all in your Son Jesus.  Like a lighthouse, the Christ-child appears when we need him most and he guides us through danger.  He sees us safely onward to our destination.

We declare with the prophets, the gospels, and the churches: Behold, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”  We shout: Look there, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  We re-member and re-collect the night when shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night stood terrified in the presence of the angel of the Lord.  The glory of the Lord shone around them, but they trembled.  So the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Father and Mother God, this Advent make us to know your ways of love and grace; teach us to navigate the rough seas guided by your light.  Lead us with your peace, your joy, your hope, your love.  You are the God of our salvation.  For your son we wait all day (and all night) long.  On this Christmas Eve, we light our lighthouse candle, the Christ candle, and say, “Hallelujah!”  Amen.

(c) Katie Rivera-Torea. All Rights Reserved.

Going Home: Indigenous Land and People

December 18, 2018


Scene on the Wabash, George Winter, 1837

I do not travel anymore without inquiring into who the original inhabitants of the land I am passing through were. Going Home to preach for the 175th Anniversary of the Chicago Heights Presbyterian Church, where I was raised, brought me to the land of the Potawatomi. The Potawatomi, or Anishinaabe, natives of the Southern shores of Lake Michigan and their extended watersheds, were part of the Council of Three Fires, along with the Ojibwe and Odawa (Ottawa). They reside today in Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oklahoma; in diaspora throughout the Unites States, and in Canada.

Living mostly in autonomous villages, the Potawatomi participated in the Great Lakes fur trade with the Americans, the British, the French and the Spanish. But what John Bowes has called ‘the American gaze of development’ had long coveted the lands west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River – ever since a young land surveyor named George Washington came to map them. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 was only the latest act, then, in a long campaign of genocide that had always been part of the American dream. In 1832, congress passed “An Act to Enable the President to Extinguish Indian Land Title within the State of Indiana, Illinois, and the State of Michigan,” and the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, stated his intentions to “extinguish entirely” the indigenous population and remove them west of the Mississippi. Later that year the so called Black Hawk War was fought to do just that. Local history records a scene in what would become Chicago Heights (then known as Thorn Grove) in which Gurdon Hubbard raced south on the trail, later known as Hubbard’s Trail (now part of Dixie Highway), to get reinforcements for Fort Dearborn (now Chicago). The reinforcements were not needed – most Potawatomi wanting no part of the conflict. Hubbard’s ‘ride’ was a matter of white panic.

In 1833, the Potawatomi signed the Treaty of Chicago, which was the legal agreement, and fig leaf, for Indian Removal. Actual removal did not take place until 1838, the year the government land office oversaw the ‘legal’ sale of land on which squatters had already build homes and raised farms. The Potawatomi were violently and forcibly marched to Kansas in what has come to be known as the Trail of Death. William Polke, charged with conducting the men, women and children to their ‘new home’ kept a diary, The Journal of an Emigrating Party of Pottawattomie Indians, 1838, with one or more deaths recorded almost every day, almost always including children and infants. It is grim and shameful reading. Less than 30 days later, the first settlers in Chicago Heights purchased their land from the State of Illinois.

2018-11-30 13.54.50

Up until that time, though, the early settlers (squatters) appear to have gotten on well with the native inhabitants. Absalom Wells, who built his home in 1833 beside the Thorn Creek on the land pictured above, married a Potawatomi woman. He left with the Potawatomi nation during the removal in 1838. For several years before removal, John and Sabra McCoy welcomed the nation’s semi-annual trek from winter to summer homes to camp on their farm, on the site pictured below. The McCoys were Methodists, and Sabra was a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence; her father had died on a British prison ship. Patriots for liberty with skin in the game, Sabra McCoy was an advocate of indigenous rights, and the McCoys would later offer their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad (more on that in another post).

2018-11-30 15.09.27

2018-11-30 14.45.57

I can think of no better introduction to Potawatomi culture than the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a ‘mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.’ Kimmerer is one of my favorite essayists, writing on topics of place and placedness, biology and ecology, spirituality and culture, history and local knowledge. Her first book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, has won numerous awards and is on my short list to ‘to-read’ books as I resume hiking int eh spring. I cited her more recent Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants in my sermon on December 4 in Chicago Heights. In her essay, “In the Footsteps of the Nanaboaho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,” she uses biology to challenge and advance the work of place-based writers like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder who speak of ‘becoming indigenous.’ In biology, non-native species can never ‘become indigenous’ or ‘native.’ In contrast to ‘invasive species,’ however, there is a category of life that is referred to as ‘naturalized’: non-native species that take a place within a local ecology without displacing or destroying the indigenous. 

It is no surprise, then, that we use the same term, naturalization, for immigration – naturalization is to join and become a part of a national culture.  When this works, it means adopting and advancing the practices of democracy. More often, or simultaneously, however, it involves accepting the myths of an invasive settler culture as ‘manifest destiny.’ There is much to be interrogated here.


Annual Gathering, or Powow, of the Potawatomi


While a member of the Potawatomi, Kimmerer lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York, home of the Haudenosaunee Federation, the land of the Five Nations of the Iroquois. In 1613, the Haudenosaunee signed a treaty with the Dutch goverment known as the Two Row Wampum.

The agreement outlines a mutual, three-part commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever (as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west). Throughout the years, the Haudenosaunee have sought to honor this mutual vision and have increasingly emphasized that ecological stewardship is a fundamental prerequisite for this continuing friendship. (cite)

In July and August of 2013, the congregation I serve was privileged to give prayerful support to the 400th Anniversary celebration of the treaty and to witness the 300 mile canoe and kayak renewal journey down the Hudson River from Onondaga to the United Nations. The Rev. Sarah Henkel preached on the significance of the event and kept the issues before us in prayer. The celebration sought to renew the ecological commitments in advance of the Paris Climate Conference in 2014, and to redress violations of treaties by New York State, the United States, and Canada. It also highlighted the promise of the United Nations Declaration n the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted on September 13, 2007.

How far we have to go is illustrated by one last story from my watershed walk in Chicago Heights. When I stopped to take a quiet moment onto land that John and Sarah McCoy recognized as traditional camp grounds of the Potawatomi, I thought about Indian removal – about the past. As I turned back toward the paved walking trail through the woods I was struck by a sign beside the path. Looking further into the trees, which I could do because it was December and all the leaves had fallen, I saw a string of similar signs posted as far as I could see in either direction. I later said to my twelve year old son, “Today I visited land that had once been used as a traditional campground by native peoples and early settlers. There is a monument to that history erected there, beside which I took  a picture. But there was also another, disturbing sign. Can yo guess what it was?” Without hesitation he said, “An oil pipeline!” My son worried about me two years ago when I travelled to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. His ready answer, “an oil pipeline,” is a real reminder that the exploitation of indigenous land and people is not past, but present. And that native peoples are not just past, but present. And that we (non-native people) who now live on stolen land must work toward reconciliation and reparation with indigenous peoples, work built on the foundation of mutual care for the earth.

2018-11-30 15.10.22

Indispensable to this work of remembrance and reparation is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014). On the land hunger and manifest destiny mythology of the founders of the early republic, see William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake: George Washington, Mad Anthony Wayne, and the Invasion that Opened the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). On the less famous process and ideology of Indian Removal in the North (compared the the Trail of Tears in the South), see Mary Stickwell, The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians (Westholme, 2016) and John P. Bowes, Land Too Good For Indians: Northern Indian Removal (Oklahoma, 2016), the latter with an entire chapter on the Potawatomi. On Illinois in particular, see (among many good accounts) Kerry A. Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (Holt, 2006).

This is the third of in a series of posts called Going Home, all about the local watershed and the history of Chicago Heights, in general, and the First Presbyterian Church in Chicago Heights, in particular. The occasion for my recent trip ‘home’ was to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the congregation.