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Sabbath Day – The AT in PA

July 20, 2016

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This post is for Thursday, July 14.

This was the day on which we gathered from all across the county for prayer and action in response to the killing of two black men by police officers: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. We were also coming together is response to the killing of five police officers and wounding of others by a lone gunman in Dallas. More of this later.

In honor of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, I set out earlier this year to hike 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail which runs 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Today I reached and surpassed this goal, completing 107 miles with a hike over Mt. Minsi and Mt. Kittatinny in the Delaware Water Gap. Next goal: either 10 percent of the whole trail or parts in all 14 states through which it passes. Which will come first?

To fit in a hike today I had to get up at 5:30. I was out the door a little after six and drove through beautiful Northern New Jersey to the state line. After crossing the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania, the first exit (310) is for Stroudsburg. There is a trailhead for the Appalachian Trail at the intersection of Mountain and Lake roads.

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It was a rainy day and the trails were misty. As I climbed Mt. Minsi and reached the summit, there was absolutely no view of the neighboring mountains or the gap itself. I could hear the water rushing by, but could see nothing. Three hours later, this was still the best I could manage.

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The hike took me from Mountain road, over Mt. Minsi, and along Kittatinny Ridge, through Tod’s Gap to Kirkridge Shelter and back. Thirteen miles.

Mt. Minsi has a ring of Rhododendron which are encountered on the way up one side and again on the way down the other. They form an arbor through which the trail moves – hauntingly beautiful in the mist. It was alive with the last of the pink summer blooms.

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Also in abundance were the mid-summer wine berries, ready for snacking.

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My last trail photo is the best view I had of Mt. Tammany, across the Gap.

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Back in White Plains, hundreds and hundreds gathered for an interfaith, county-wide march under the banner “The Line Has Been Crossed.”

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I counted nearly 40 Presbyterians at the march, with a good representation and participation from the congregation I serve. My colleague, The Rev. Lynn Dunn, offered one of the prayers along the way. It was great being with my church family on such an important evening.

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A Very Rich Day

July 19, 2016

Today was a very rich day. For the next two weeks I will be attending continuing education courses at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Today was the travel day. It is an eight hour drive from White Plains to Richmond, plus traffic, so I decided to break it up and make the most of it.

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I made my first stop just outside of Baltimore in Owings Mills, Maryland. I visited the St. Thomas Church, Garrison Woods. The church is on the National Historic Registry. It was founded in 1742 as a “chapel of ease” to serve the “foresters” living in “the woods.” My seventh great grandfather, Jonathan Plowman Jr. was a subscriber to help pay for the building of this church. His son, my sixth great-grandfather, Edward Plowman, was baptized here.

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The visit was extra exciting. When I arrived, I walked around the cemetery a little bit, and took a few photos of the church, and then put my hands to the original door to go inside. As soon as I opened the door, which was unlocked(!), alarms went off and a loud, authoritative, recorded voice announced “YOU ARE TRESPASSING ON PRIVATE PROPERTY. YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE HERE. LEAVE AT ONCE!  Klaxons and bells and whistles of all kinds went off in random patterns. I shut the door. Still, the alarms. I walked around the grounds a little bit and then went over to the church office to let them know the alarm was still ringing. (That’s the door, right behind me – the original entrance to the chapel).

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I found the office administrator at lunch, and after calling the alarm company to shut off the sirens, we had a nice conversation about the history of the church. She even gave me hardbound volumes one and two of the official church history, which includes references to my family. I totally enjoyed reading books like this. She also made me copies of the baptismal registry for Edward Plowman and his siblings. With the alarms now turned off, I was able to explore the original sanctuary within the sanctuary, imported brick floor (from England) and all.

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Back in the car, it was a quick trip over to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. There I parked at the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center and was just getting ready to hike when dark clouds suddenly filled the sky. I decided to wait out the rain. I had my lunch in the car, and then hit the trail. I used this hike to break in my brand new Vasque boots while climbing Loudoun Heights. I will walk in three different states today.

First step – crossing the Shenandoah River. Notice the rafters after the storm. That’s my mountain on the other side.

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Next step – follow the trail to the top. Notice the sun coming out – the rain didn’t cool off the day at all, only made the rocks slippery.

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Then pause to enjoy having my left foot in West Virginia and my right foot in Virginia. See my new boots!

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Then reach the summit and enjoy the views. This was taken from the bluff above the Potomac looking down upon Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah (coming in from the left). See how far I’ve come?

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After Antietam, recovering Union troops used these heights as a campground.

To make a loop, I had to improvise a bit, which I do not recommend. I made it back down to the highway, and walked across the Potomac on the Potomac Bridge to cross into Maryland, my third state for the day.

2016-07-18 17.48.03Descending from US304 brought me to the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, which coincides with the AT in Maryland. I walked along the river for a few miles and back toward Harpers Ferry, returning again to West Virginia over the footbridge (which you can also see above from the view on the cliffs). All in all, another nine miles on the AT and side trails.

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Back in West Virginia I found myself suddenly in front of John Brown’s Fort, the arsenal where Brown attempted to lead an slave insurrection in 1859. While deploring violence, I pondered how the right to bear arms was certainly never intended to apply to slaves, who may have been the chief reason white folks wanted arms. That is Loudoun Heights (which I had climbed two hours earlier) rising behind the fort. A full circle.

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Back in the car again, I decided to take the “blue highways” approach to getting to Richmond, avoiding the major highways as much as possible. Crossing into Virginia I found myself on the “Lord Fairfax Highway.” Another of my family lines has ties back to Fairfax. By chance, I came upon the “old Stonechapel” where Fairfax worshipped.

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It was just another three hours to Richmond, and I’ve arrived here safely. I’m staying is an airbnb right next to Maymont Park and a block from the James River. Class begins at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Goodnight.

 

The Hospitality of God

July 17, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016

Psalm 147         Luke 10:38-42

A couple of weeks ago we began reading the second half of the Gospel of Luke. It opens with Jesus, having completed his work in the Galilee, determined to go to Jerusalem. There he will speak and demonstrate God’s in-breaking kingdom among the occupying Roman forces and the leaders of the religious establishment. Jesus’ ministry of shared meals and communal goods, his non-violent response to a violent world and his building of a community committed to God and one another has set the pattern his disciples are to follow. All he could promise them was that the way would be hard – and by that he meant both the way of life they were to model and the physical way that was the road to Jerusalem – but that they were participating in bringing the kingdom of God near.

More than once along this hard way he sent scouts ahead to seek out people who might offer him hospitality. And so we come to our text for today: Luke 10:38-42.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

We have seen this pattern before, haven’t we? Someone comes to Jesus, in most cases someone who was on the edge of society, and Jesus welcomes them. And then another someone complains. So we have the woman who enters a home to wash Jesus feet, and the owner of the home tries to have her thrown out. Another woman brings costly oil to anoint Jesus before his death, and Judas complains that she could have used the money in a more productive way. A man with a withered arm comes to Jesus for healing, and a teacher of law instructs him to wait until the Sabbath is over. Each time, Jesus gently, or not so gently, rebukes the one with the complaint, and then extends an even broader hospitality that includes them both.

What’s Martha upset for? She’s got Jesus – in her house. Her sister Mary even came over to hear Jesus speak.

Now. This story hangs on what you think Jesus meant when he said, “There is need of only one thing.” I think Jesus meant “one thing” quite literally: the one dish of food that hospitality requires. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean hospitality is an art of excess. Dish upon dish of delicious food, each one surpassed by the next. While August was away at sleep-away camp this week, Noelle and I enjoyed a date night down at La Boca, the Italian restaurant over on Church Street. The owner, Tony, who is a friend, treated us to tastes and bites of all kind of things he was making, generously pouring wine, and slicing imported prosciutto, and coming by the table holding a chunk of pungent Calabrese cheese: “here” he sliced a piece, stuck it on the end of the knife and held it toward me. One night he stopped at our table just to show us a dish he had just made for somebody else, and Noelle said, “That’s such an Italian thing to do – to be so excited about the beauty, the smell of a meal that you have to show it around so everyone can enjoy appreciating it! After all, in an Italian family food is a primary way you express love and care.”

Martha is making a show for Jesus, a generous show of hospitality. Jesus wants her to be content with offering the one dish that hospitality requires, so that she can enjoy the hospitality that he is offering.

Noelle and I delivered a meal this week to Valerie, our Church Council Clerk, who had emergency back surgery on Monday. She’s doing well and recovering at home. She has a lot of hard physical therapy to do, but she will be fine. Anyway, we arrived with chicken parmesan laid out on our very best platter with designs of medieval forest creatures. We had a bowl of pasta, another of gravy, and third with healthy green vegetables. Noelle makes excellent chicken parm, the best actually, but she worried all the way over that this was not her best – and Val’s Italian and chicken parm is her favorite meal! Oh, and Val’s mother is also there.

Noelle had breaded a veritable mountain of chicken in preparing the meal, and reserved a plate for when August came back from camp last night. This way it would be a quick, homemade dinner. She got the chicken parm to the table and we all tucked in. Ewww. We chewed with quizzical expressions on our face. The chicken tasted oddly sweet. Now sweet isn’t what you’re going for when you season with garlic and oregano. August quietly peeled the mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce off and diplomatically said oh, I really like eating just the cheese I think, Mom. Could I have some more of the cheese and tomato sauce? Meanwhile Noelle and I were hungry so we kept eating but not happily. Noelle is shaking her head, trying to figure out what in the world. Then there were the ten frantic minutes of googling in fear that the chicken was bad and we were delivering not dinner, but death on a plate to poor Val and her whole family. We isolated ingredient after ingredient, tasting the sauce, no. The locattella? No. The chicken itself? No. What was this taste? Could it be the breadcrumbs? We ate some breadcrumbs – no. What about the flour? I asked. Oh it’s just flour. Flour is flour. It’s in the round Tupperware over there, pointed Noelle. Flour is flour, I thought, unless it’s not, I thought as I sniffed. What was this? Cake mix! Cake mix! Noelle had breaded the chicken with cake mix! Oh no! Oh yuck! Oh help, Val’s mom was there and she’s Italian! How embarrassing! Noelle grabbed her phone and started texting apologies and Val wrote back, “you know we tasted something sweet and couldn’t figure it out. I got the best laugh of the week,” she added with emojis. The one thing needful – perhaps was not the meal after all.

If we read Luke carefully, the Martha and Mary story is not a devaluation of Martha’s hard work to welcome Jesus into her family’s home. Martha’s hard work made it possible for others to have the opportunity to hear and interact with Jesus. Jesus is not criticizing Martha so much as he is reassuring her that all that is needful she has already provided. The one dish needful. To instruct Martha to let go of the extra doesn’t mean that Jesus and the guests didn’t need hospitality. They did! And Jesus valued Martha’s gift by enjoying it. Hospitality was an absolutely essential practice in the ancient world – it made the difference between life and death for travelers on the way. And visitors and hosts put their lives in one another’s hands when they sought and accepted hospitality.

Some of you may remember that a few weeks ago we had friends from Australia visiting, Natalie, Shawn, and their son Daniel. Shawn and I got talking about biblical studies and he mentioned a friend of his from Melbourne had just finished a book on the Gospel of Luke that he thought I’d enjoy. Turned out, I had just purchased it! It’s called The Hospitality of God. The author makes the argument that while in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the Kingdom of God refers to a realm of God’s sovereign action, in the Gospel of Luke, it is more like a Kingdom of Hospitality. The Kingdom of God as the Hospitality of God. In parables and narratives, God comes to visit us, hoping to find a welcome so that we can in turn be invited into an even greater hospitality, the hospitality of God, in which we can all be fully human with one another. For God is the one who welcomes – even when it’s dangerous.

This has been a tumultuous week with eighty some people killed tragically in Nice on Friday and an attempted coup in Istanbul on Friday. Meanwhile, South Sudan, the world’s newest country that was formed just five years ago after a fragile peace was made, erupted as government troops clashed with forces loyal to the vice president in Juba, the nation’s capitol. The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan asked urgently for prayers and the last word we have is that the ceasefire appears to be holding.

Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission, expressed gratitude for the tremendous support for mission co-worker Leisa Wagstaff and our Sudanese partners over these last few days saying,

Your expressions of concern and your prayers have been a source of hope to us all. Leisa Wagstaff and South Sudanese Presbyterians have placed themselves in harm’s way to educate children, heal the sick, build peace and grow the church across South Sudan. I’m deeply encouraged that U.S. Presbyterians responded so enthusiastically to the South Sudanese Presbyterian Church’s call to prayer and advocacy because these were the tools that pushed the nation’s political leaders to stop the fighting. I’m thankful for the solidarity of God’s Spirit that binds us together as one people.

The Rt. Rev. Peter Gai, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, told Horn of Africa regional liaison Michael Weller Wednesday afternoon that the ceasefire is holding. Weller said talks would involve church leaders because the church is such an important factor in the life of people in South Sudan. “We appreciate the prayers of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in the U.S. and we will not let go of the hope that the people of South Sudan can one day live in peace,” said Gai.

In 2013, when the conflict between opposing forces escalated into violence, Gai protected the lives of 5,000 people from various ethnic groups by allowing them inside the church compound in Malakal. He stood in front of the church compound to stop armed soldiers from entering.

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(l-to-r) The Rev. Tut Kony Nyang of the South Sudanese Evangelical Presbyterian Church; Debbie Braaksma, PC(USA) World Mission Africa area coordinator; and the Rt. Rev. Peter Gai Lual, Moderator of Presbyterian Church of South Sudan

Let me read that again. In 2013, when the conflict between opposing forces escalated into violence, Rev. Gai protected the lives of 5,000 people from various ethnic groups by allowing them inside the church compound in Malakal. He stood in front of the church compound to stop armed soldiers from entering. This is what the hospitality of God looks like. It involves courage, sacrifice, and concrete sharing of goods. It is about the choices we make to welcome others, even and especially when it is dangerous to acknowledge another person as the child of God that they are.

Sometimes when we see violence on the other side of the world we wonder, what can I really do? What can we really do. Well just yesterday, Rev. Gai urged Presbyterians to hold a day of prayer today for South Sudan and to advocate for humanitarian assistance for the South Sudanese people. “The United Nations estimates nearly 40,000 people have been displaced during the crisis while at least 7,000 of them took refuge in different churches or parishes,” the alert states. “To make matters worse, the central warehouse of the United Nations World Food Programme has been looted.” The warehouse held one month’s worth of food and nutrition supplies for more than 220,000 people.

The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness has put out an action alert email. We have set up a computer in the back of the sanctuary that you can use to send an email to President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, urging them to immediately increase humanitarian assistance. For those of you who already receive church emails, you should have just received this email on your smartphones or tablets an email with the appropriate links (and background info).

Rev. Gai explains, “advocacy is not only necessary to stop the fighting, it will provide hope so that the South Sudanese know that they are not alone and to know that people in the other part of the world are standing with them,” he said. “It will be very encouraging for Christians to know that members of the Presbyterian Church USA are actively advocating for peace. “

Today we have an opportunity to be part of God’s hospitality through our prayers and action in community with the people of South Sudan. As we journey through the gospel of Luke for the next several months, let us continue to look for examples of God’s hospitality, not only in the pages of the bible, but in the life of our church and the wider world. And let us share these stories, to bring joy and courage today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

 

Search and Seizure

July 11, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev/ Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016

 Psalm 82          Luke 10: 25-37

 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’  

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

*****

 At least two more black men lie dead at the hands of the police.
Alton Sterling. Philando Castile.
Say their names.
Remember their families and friends and all who grieve.
Black Lives Matter.
[1]

Now that five police officers are dead, and seven others wounded, by the attack of lone gunman trained to kill by and for his country, it is more important than ever to say, Black Lives still matter.  As Attorney General Loretta Lynch explained, “To our brothers and sisters who wear the badge, I want you to know that I am deeply grateful for the difficult and dangerous work that you do every day to keep our streets safe and our nation secure,” she said. To the protesters, she said, “Do not be discouraged by those who would use your lawful actions as a cover for their heinous violence.”[2]

*******

On Thursday evening, as my son and I were having dinner together, we listened to President Obama address the nation on the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “We are better than this,” the President told us. “We are better than this.” My son replied, “No, we’re not!” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Police kill black people every week. Every week. We’re not better than this. This is who we are as a country.”

I felt a little bit of me die as I said, “But I’d like us to be better. Don’t you?” And my nine-year old son told me, “It’s never going to happen.”

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This is a boy who for the last three years has worn hoodies, attended vigils, held candles, spoken out as a white child about racism and police violence at his lunch table, and endured endless discussion of mass incarceration, racial caste, modern-day slavery, and immigration reform in his home and at his church; a boy who began learning about the violation of fourth amendment rights and illegal search and seizure with his first matchbox car chases; a boy who knows from long personal experience that marching, organizing, and advocating can bring about significant change and who is applying that experience within his own school to change its recess policy. Yet when it comes to police violence and systemic racism, he is tempted to despair.[3]

He is not alone. As I have spoken with friends, colleagues, and neighbors (black and white) over the last few days, as I have spoken with some of you, I have heard this same despair, a sense of exhaustion and futility that leaves you feeling like a squeezed out like a lemon, alternately raging and wanting to close your eyes. That impulse of “here we go once again” as we cry “how long?” and “how many will it take?”

Now, I have had several conversations this week with my son about the difference between the despair experienced by black and brown communities who are targeted for broken-windows law enforcement and subjected to our misguided ‘war on drugs’, who experience environmental racism, mass incarceration, and economic marginalization, and the kind of despair experienced by white people, who see only overwhelming problems and unceasing violence, but who can throw up their hands, turn off their T.V.s, and still drive their cars without fear that a broken taillight will lead to their death, or feel the need to train their children how to act when the police stop them, if the police stop them.

But friends, as those called to recognize the precious image of God in each person, who are called to live as neighbors among strangers, who are to be generous with our goods and hospitable with our homes and tables, who are to refuse violence even in a violent world, who are called to keep faith with one another even-and-especially in a broken and fearful world, we are not permitted to despair. We may feel hopeless, but we may not fail in our commitment to stand up, speak out, and walk beside any who are beaten down, broken or subject to the daily crucifixions this world deals out.

A colleague wrote this week:

We know with certainty that the news will come, that yet another black man will be murdered, that undue force will be used and courts will excuse it. I find myself doubting if anything will ever change. Change and transformation, however, are at the heart of the Gospel that weaves us into community. Justice is the cord that binds us. Despair is not an option. Giving up in discouragement is not an option for those who choose to follow Jesus.[4]

*********

In response to a lawyer’s question, Jesus told a parable about a man who was beaten and left for dead by the side of the Jericho Road. Some passed by and failed to help.

Then came a Samaritan. An other. The least expected person.  Indeed, they were considered enemies.[5] And the Samaritan stopped to help. He bound the wounds of the beaten man and took him to an inn for further assistance. Go and do likewise, Jesus told the lawyer.

Hopefully the lawyer went forth to try and care for those beaten, battered, and wounded by life.

But then I think …

What would happen the next week if the Samaritan came along the Jericho Road and found another beaten person?

And the next week?

And the next?

How long would it take the Samaritan to realize that something had to change–that the Samaritan had to help change things–or there would be wounds to bind forever?

Perhaps the road needed widening. Or brush needed to be cleared. Or the economic conditions that led people to rob needed to be addressed.

Sooner or later, we realize that it is not enough simply to bind up those wounded and left along the Jericho roads of life. We realize that expressing love corporately involves seeking justice in corporate, public decisions, actions, and policies. We have to address the conditions that contribute to people being wounded. We have to transform the systems that inflict the wounds.

This is not a question of either binding wounds or transforming systems. We do not have to choose. We cannot choose. To recreate our society, we have to do both.

Change will involve working on laws and practices and it will involve working on attitudes and values.[6]

And it starts by telling the truth. My son is right. Black people are killed by the police every week. In response to the most recent murders of two men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) wrote:

Police departments charged with the responsibility to protect and serve remain unchecked by common citizens, because we are not calling powers and principalities into accountability as a response to the gospel message.[7]

This problem defines the everyday legal violence faced by black and brown communities, as well as the tragedy that unfolded Thursday night. We as a congregation have studied how

  • systemic racism, racial caste and a problematic colorblindness;
  • enlisting law enforcement in waging a War on Drugs and as agents of immigration enforcement;
  • as well as a series of judicial rulings over the last few decades;

all weave together to create a veritable cage within which people of color are ensnared and from which they are unable to escape. Three weeks ago we had yet another example of one of the bars of that cage being strengthened by the Supreme Court.

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The Supreme Court issued a ruling in Utah v. Strieff that took an expansive view of the limits the Constitution places on police misconduct, upholding the illegal search and seizure of a black man by a police officer in a situation where the officer broke the law but got “lucky” and an arrest was made. As we all learned from studying Michelle Alexander’s book earlier this year, the fourth amendment – which defines our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure – is routinely violated, and police are trained is all sorts of ways to get “legally” around it. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a powerful dissent to this ruling. It’s worth quoting in full:

“For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ —  instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger— all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them,” Sotomayor wrote.

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.[8]

Today I will not leave you with the false words, “peace, peace” when there is no peace.  Instead, I invite you to imagine what it means for us as a church to stand together like the Samaritan at the roadside where the broken tail light stops take place, over and over and over, and determine together how we will bear witness to love that is courageous in word and deed.

 

[1] Refrain lifted from a post by The Rev. Mark Koenig, cited below.

[2] NYTimes, July 8, 2016.

[3] See the moving article about the burden born by our children in the midst of this violence: “In the Turmoil Over Race and Policing, Children Pay a Steep Emotional Price.” NYTimes, Sunday, July 10, 2016.

[4] Pastoral Letter from our Synod Executive, Harold Delhagen.

[5] You’ll remember we read about the Samaritans two weeks ago when, for their lack of hospitality, James and John wanted call down fire from heaven upon them but Jesus said, no! He refused the violent response.

[6] This telling of the story is from a blog reflection by The Rev. Dr. Mark Koenig earlier this week.

[7] J. Herbert Nelson, Presbyterian Outlook, June 7, 2016.

[8][8] See “The Supreme Court Just Ruled in Favor of a Police State, and Sonia Sotomayor is Not Having It,” with links to the decision, Huffington Post legal affairs writer Cristian Farias, June 20, 2016.

Sabbath Day – Viewing the Berkshires

July 5, 2016

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After worship and pastoral responsibilities on July 3, I loaded my backpack with a tent, sleeping bag, and lots of water and headed to the Berkshires for a solo holiday. Noelle and August are spending the weekend in Montreal at the Jazz Festival, enjoying French cafe culture, open air markets, and lots of swimming during the day, with music all night. I camped under the stars beside waterfall, and ultimately put in 20 miles on the Appalachian Trail over two days.

The AT actually passes over several summits in the Lower Taconic range, with sweeping views of the Housatonic watershed, the neighboring Berkshires, and Mt. Greylock always visible to the North. My hike began in Salisbury, Connecticut with the steady rise of Undermountain Trail (which I cannot say without thinking of dwarfs.) This took me to Riga Junction and onto the AT. From there it was a very steep one mile ascent to the the summit of Bear Mountain, one believed to be the highest peak in Connecticut. The a steady descent to Sages Ravine, a poetic place to set up camp and read some philosophy before drifting off to sleep. The flowing water, forest creatures and night sounds served as a lullaby. In the distance, “bombs bursting in air” as local communities celebrated Independence Day.

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In the morning it took only 15 minutes to pack up camp, retrieve my food from the Bear Box. and be on my way. The next mile followed the ravine, which serves as the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts. I used stepping stones to cross the river, wash up, and begin my Independence Day in the state that brought us revolution.

sages

My campsite!

My trek then took me over Mt. Race and then past Race Brook Falls and back up again over Mt. Everett, the ninth highest peak in MA and the highest in the southern ranges. These heights afforded breathtaking views of the watershed nd most of Southern New England from several metamorphic rock outcrops. I could see not only into four states (NY, CT, MA, and VT), but the single tower in the far distance turned out to be Empire Plaza in Albany! I had never seen Mt. Greylock before, at the border of Massachusetts and Vermont, but I knew it instantly as the inspiration for Melville’s great white whale. Unmistakeable.

Climbing from the south I thought I had seen the last of the mountain laurel, but the northern slope revealed it in abundance. I met turkey and deer, but none of the famous rattlesnakes encountered by others. Lots of snakes; just none with rattles.

On the way down I stopped at Guilder Pond picnic area where I met Wilson and her husband Bob. Wilson section-hiked the AT back in 2011, and in gratitude has spent the last five years offering trail magic to thru-hikers on the 4th of July. Her hospitality included bacon cheeseburgers, buttered corn on the cob, chips, chocolate, bags of crunchy vegetables, home-made cookies, soda and water. And, of course, good hiking stories. Shout out. Welcome to Massachusetts, indeed!

I walked through the woods for a while and then climbed Mt. Bushnell, traversed several unnamed peaks and ascended the strenuous Jug End. A treacherous, rocky descent (I’m glad I wasn’t hiking the other direction) brought me to the gravel Jug End Road and what I though would be the end of my hike.

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My intent was to hitch back to my car at the Undermountain trail head. What’s up Massachusetts?  I walked another three miles(!) before finding two hikers willing to give me a lift, and NO ONE willing to pick me up off the road! My first attempt at hitching was a failure (which cost me a blister on my left sole). Luckily, I happened upon these two guys coming off a trial on US 41, and am grateful for their ride.

On the car ride home I jammed to a Further show from July 11, 2011 at Bethel Woods. I saw a number of shows on this tour – fantastic sound with Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti. Having just seen Sunshine Backer at a local Stella Blues show, check her out at the link above with the band on “Comes a Time.” A great end to a great weekend.

Sabbath Day – The State Line

July 5, 2016

prospect rock

I’m catching up on my Sabbath posts. And my Sabbath days. With my wife and son out of town, I hiked my little heart out last Saturday on the border of New York and New Jersey, combining two hikes to cover some beautiful territory in the lower Hudson Highlands.

eastern pinnacles

I used the first part of my day to climb the Eastern Pinnacles and Cat Rocks, in the Highlands. This was a moderately easy 4 miles round trip, during which I broke in my new Merrills. The photo above was taken at the Pinnacles, with the Cats appearing as a small dot on the far mountain. Below, the view from Cat Rocks looking back half and hour later.

cat rocks

I continued on the AT and turned around when the hike met up with the parking area from which I had previously set out for Fitzgerald Falls and Mombasha High Point a few weeks ago.

With time on my hands, (and the next day’s sermon already written!), I drove south on NY 210 to Greenwood Lake Marina and climbed the rocky State Line Trail to rejoin the AT further south. I then hiked toward Prospect Rock, on the border between New York and New Jersey, about a mile north of where the Appalachian Trail meets the State Line Trail. From there I could see Bear Mountain 30 miles to the north, and to the east Manhattan rising faintly above the hills. I could see 360 degrees with majestic views of the distant Taconics to the east, the Catskills to the north, and the Poconos far to the west. Below lay the beautiful Greenwood Lake. (photo at top).

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Travelling Light

July 5, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016

Luke 10: 1-11

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

This is a rich passage. In it we learn that disciples are not just called, but sent. Following Jesus means not just admiring him, but doing what he did. In an earlier passage, Jesus had sent “the twelve” to try and do everything they had seen him do. That they often failed, and that Jesus nevertheless loved and encouraged them, is one of the reasons we love him.

But in our scripture passage today, Jesus sends not only the core twelve, but seventy. Who were these people? Since Jesus just commissioned the twelve in chapter 9, we could take this as evidence that the kingdom movement was growing. Now there are seventy. But in the verses just before our reading today, (the one’s we read last week) Luke lists several excuses people were making for not following. So it may be that in the present chapter Jesus is sending not just the chosen leaders, but literally everyone able to take to the road. “All hands on deck.”  This is it. This is the whole community of followers.  Everyone is called, everyone is needed, everyone is sent.  As Luke reminds us “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.”  So Jesus pulls out all the stops and sends everybody out.  And he establishes a buddy system, offers some simple instructions, and sends them ahead of him to every town and place where he intended to go.

Now we should keep in mind that most ordinary people did not travel far from their homes in ancient times.  Aside from merchants, traveling philosophers, and very wealthy individuals, most folks stayed home, scratching out an existence in the city or on the land or sea, raised kids, tended animals and were born, lived and died pretty much in the same 10 square miles.  The exception to this would be to journey on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for particular holy days – and here we should not assume even that everyone went.  In our 21st century globalized world of cars, planes, and Skype, it is hard for us to even get our minds around what it would mean to send people out – not into a place that was familiar, but into unfamiliar towns and unfamiliar people with no purse, no bag, and no sandals.

Not only were they headed to unfamiliar territory; these 70 were going there ahead of Jesus.  I know the expression “I’ve got your back” is supposed to be reassuring. But I prefer the idea of Jesus already being there ahead of me, or at least “always with me” to the idea of being part of an advance team preparing the way.

Now when they got to a household in a new place, they were to announce the kingdom’s nearness by speaking “peace.”  They were to greet others with the word shalom, which in Jewish practice is both greeting and farewell. Perhaps Jesus is just instructing his disciples to say “Hi” before launching into tales of the kingdom, or perhaps they were meant to extend a blessing as in “The peace of Christ be with you. (And also with you).”  Or maybe it was a code word. Maybe Jesus was giving his followers a simple way to recognize friends. Think about it. If Jesus were really sending them everywhere he intended to go himself, then this must include Gentile lands. In that case, this simple Hebrew word, shalom, would help the missionaries identify Gentiles friendly to the God of Israel.

But the seventy were to do more than just speak peace.  They were to demonstrate the kingdom’s nearness by practicing peace:  by sharing in life together.  And not life together with people they already knew.  Rather, life together with people who were strangers, foreigners to them and to whom they would be strangers and foreigners as well.  Jesus sent his followers out to speak and live shalom in unfamiliar territory. And their only guidance (besides these marching orders) was Jesus’ own words and practices.

Now when we read passages in the bible we should try to refrain from reading them as if they are newspaper accounts of “what happened.”  First of all, nobody knows if there were 70 people; some ancient versions of Luke have 72; commentators point out that 70 is a “perfect” number.  For all we know there might have been 19, but the author of Luke wanted to pump up the numbers a bit to encourage the church!  Second, we should remember that the gospel of Luke (and the book of Acts which is the sequel to Luke) is addressed to followers of Jesus were trying to survive as a small, mostly Jewish movement under Roman occupation.  This passage is less an account of what took place between Jesus and 70 followers, than it is a reminder to the church to keep looking beyond their comfort zone; to speak and live shalom in unfamiliar and often unfriendly territory.  The writer assumed that the Christian assemblies would already have known central stories about Jesus; who he was and how he lived. This gospel was for the church – to help these small, early communities figure out how to live as Jesus lived.  So today’s passage presumes that you and I and our ancestors in the faith already know some basic things about Jesus and the practices of shalom (or just-peace) around which his ministry centered.

(So) I want to quickly highlight four basic practices that are alluded to in this passage, practices that defined Jesus’ ministry and that his disciples were to emulate.  Again we don’t see these practices in full within this passage – rather they are alluded to.  They are recounted and developed more fully in other gospel stories that we will read this summer.  But listen and see if you can hear the echoes of these practices in today’s passage.

all_nations_heritage

First, Jesus ate with others at tables that were open.  In his day, who one ate with said an awful lot about who one cared about.  At Jesus’ table, everyone was not only welcomed, but sought out. Rich, poor, young, old, sinner, saint, religious or not, everyone was welcome.  But no one was to leave the table unchanged.  The welcome-table became Jesus favorite image of the kind of life God intends for us — his favorite image of the covenant, which he called the Kingdom of God.  Did you hear the echo in today’s passage?  Take a look at verses 7 and 8.  What are people supposed to do?  Eat with each other.  Remember also from past sermons and study that who you ate with, what you ate and how you ate in the ancient world was determined by social and religious rules.  So when the 70 eat with strangers in a place they don’t know, eating “whatever is set before them” they were likely transgressing religious or social laws. And that’s OK with Jesus. This is what it means to be dependent on the hospitality of others.

crowd feeding

Second, Jesus shared all he had and expected us to share everything.  I believe the ‘primitive communism’ of the community in the second chapter of Acts is typical of how Jesus was shaping communities all around Palestine.  It is rooted in the sharing of manna in the wilderness: everyone gives according to their resources and everyone has according to their needs.  This is the basis for community life. Did you hear the echo in this passage?  What are the 70 sent out with?  (Absolutely nothing but a healing message and a willingness to work for their keep with the families where they are temporarily residing.

Third, Jesus practiced active nonviolence and expected the same from us. His nonviolence was rooted in the dignity belonging to all people, friend and foe alike, because we all bear the image of God .  This image is most fully seen when we are all included in the welcoming-sharing community whose boundaries are shaped not by punishment or revenge but by forgiveness and reconciliation.  Did you hear the echo in this passage?  The first word Jesus’ followers are to speak is “peace.”  And as they are being sent into unknown territory, possibly into hostile situations, that first word “peace” starts to sound a lot more like a prayer than a greeting!  Jesus’ followers, who of course in this passage become his heralds, his forbearers, speak peace and live peace.  They heal and support the communities to which they have been sent. And when they are rejected, they leave peacefully. (Again, this is more fully developed elsewhere, right down to Jesus’ final words on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” But we should hear the echoes of non-violent practice in this passage and in the early church).

hands-with-dirt-ww

Fourth, Jesus described these three practices together as faithfulness; as promise-keeping or covenanting with God and one another.  We can only live non-violently, with an open table, sharing all we have if we make a commitment to one another and to our common life before God.  Jesus compared this to the commitments we make in marriage and to family and to resisting empire.  But Jesus wanted our commitment to the common good to rival, indeed surpass, our commitment to marriage and family and government.  Do you hear the echo in this passage?  Again, Jesus is sending the seventy into unfamiliar territory.  They may be leaving behind family and friends to travel or they may be bringing their family with them and walking into an uncertain future together as they seek hospitality and live with strangers.  What the seventy are doing, however, is focused first on the quality of life together, and not who they are living with. They are to dare to live covenant even with people who may know nothing about God’s covenant promise.

So the seventy were sent into unfamiliar territory to speak and live shalom.  As the expression goes, they were to “make the path by walking.”  And we too are not only called but sent.  Our very experience of worship gathers us together in order to send us out into a broken and fearful world.  Because if we just listen to the stories about Jesus speaking and living shalom but don’t endeavor to do it ourselves, we have missed the whole gospel.  Jesus trusts us, sends us and expects us to go out and live these practices not only with kin and neighbors but with people we do not know.  So, let me make a few practical points:

First:  Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him, he went to them and he sent the seventy to them.  To where and to whom is God sending us as individuals and a church?  Who do we need to talk to?  Where do we need to go to meet them?

Second:  Jesus makes it clear to the seventy that they will find welcome in many places and disdain in some.  We should abide with those who welcome us, no matter how few or how many.  We do not need to, indeed should not, worry about outcomes.

Finally:  Think about the four practices: eating with others, sharing everything, practicing non-violence, keeping our promises to God and one another.  Which of these four practices which embody shalom do you need to work on right now?  Which of these four do we need to work on as a church?  Sometimes the easiest way to know is to look at our weaknesses (also often our fears) rather than our “gifts.”  When practicing piano it’s helpful to find the hardest part of the piece, slow it down, do one hand at a time, painstakingly put the hands together, do it over and over and over, until that hardest part becomes the easiest part of the entire piece.  What are the hard parts in our life and in our church’s life where we need to start practicing?  The only way to “get” these practices is to start doing them.  The only way the disciples experienced God’s power was to march out there and get started speaking and living shalom.  The same goes for us.  We don’t have to be perfect before we start.  Here that truism “practice makes perfect” applies.

In closing I want to mention the “e” word – evangelism.  This was purposefully not my first word but it is my last word. This passage from Luke reminds us that faith is more about practice and less about belief.  One of the reasons I avoid using the word evangelism is that it is often construed to mean “converting people to a set of particular convictions that they don’t already hold.”  But evangelism in the best sense is daring to live as neighbors with strangers.  Daring to allow ourselves to be the stranger, standing on the doorstep in a precarious position of dependency on anothers welcome.  Evangelism means daring to live as neighbors with strangers.  It asks us to overcome our fear of other people, our fear of rejection, our fear itself, and believe that through eating together, sharing all we have, practicing non-violence, and committing ourselves to one another and God – we can discover God’s kingdom is truly already among us. As our world seems to be tumbling apart, as our nations and would be nations celebrate and exploit our fears of one another, this is a task we, the church, are uniquely given. To speak peace, and live peace, that we may know peace.

At this table, we practice what he preached – a welcome table where lives and goods are shared, without violence, but as an act of faith and trust in one another. Here God meets us. And the kingdom comes near.

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