Last weekend I drove down to Washington, DC to participate in the annual gathering of Christians known as Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD). EAD is three days of fellowship and learning, followed by a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill. Each year the gathering selects a theme. The theme for 2016 was Race, Class and Power. The workshops ran the gamut of issues from threats to voter rights and immigration reform to TPP’s corporate power grab and mass incarceration. The breadth and depth of information we were given was incredible. We were asked to examine not just the obvious ignorance and blatant prejudice that exists in world, but also to take a critical look at the structural and institutional racism that exists in our society, and even in our church. That’s right, I said it. There is racism within our very own church. And it’s high time we started to deal…
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A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Easter / Earth Weekend, April 24, 2016
1 Corinthians 16:13-14
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.
Let all that you do be done in love.
In the grey damp of yesterday morning, thirty children from our church’s Nursery School came galloping across the front lawn, parents in toe, making a beeline for the dark dirt on the east end of the front lawn. There amid shovels and seeds they gathered, eager to sink their hands in and plant – many for the first time – a garden. These small would-be farmers listened attentively and to my question: what do we need to grow a garden? They stretched their little arms up toward the sky, squirming with eagerness and calling out – water, sun, soil, seeds, shovels, rakes, air, more sun, more water, rain, sun again. And there’s one more thing. Puzzled looks all around. You! I exclaimed. Smiles, more excitement, scattered yelps.
I demonstrated how to mix the two types of soil in the beds, until it was the color of chocolate milk. Then I put a dish of seeds upon every bed and showed them how to plant, seed by seed. Each seed different. Carrot seeds, 4 inches apart, the width of their hand from their pinky to their thumb. Same for the peas – 4 inches. The purple bean seeds, every ten inches in little mounds that they would make with the cups of their hands. Zucchini seeds – one family took charge of the zucchini – and planted them, one seed in each corner and one in the middle. Then the lettuce and spinach seedlings, that had been cultivated for us by Will Summers, these fragile budding sproutlets, with root systems, planted together in even rows. Three rows of lettuce with spinach in between.
Once they were done planting, the children didn’t want to take their hands out of the dirt. They kept patting and spreading, and patting. While I had a neat picture of what the rows would look like, one parent confessed, well, we didn’t really go according to the plan. I said the only plan that mattered was children planting.
“Children are closer to the earth,” sang the children this morning. “Children are closer to the earth.” All week long I’ve been thinking about this. How are children closer to the earth? Children are innately interested in the natural world around them, and without fear. Worms? Yeah! Snakes? Oooo! Smelly soil? Ahhhh! Children are natural explorers, noticing the small things that adults pass by – the little violet in the midst of the curbside grass, the tiniest insect on a tender leaf, the slinky tracks in the soil whether from creature or rake. Look! they cry out in amazement, flower! Over here, no here – see? Bird! They crave the soil and grass and trees – the outside is all mystery and adventure and beauty. Yesterday morning, one of the little ones woke up and the first thing he said to his mom was, “I’m going to plant a garden today!” Children are nearer the earth. They immerse themselves, they play, they are unafraid of stains. They exult in mud, they tremble at the scent of the honeysuckle, they watch and dance after fireflies, longing for twilight to go on for hours. They pick and pluck and bring rocks home. They roll in the grass with glee. Children are closer to the earth.
As many of you know, Thursday is my Sabbath day, and this past Thursday, Noelle and I took a walk in the James Johnson Nature conservancy in Larchmont. As we wound around the pond, we saw children, well, ponding, in two different locations, netting bugs and small slugs – comparing their catches against diagrams of various insects and amphibians. This would be a perfect place to fish, we thought, and August loves to fish. We paused on a bench after walking for about an hour. Trying to not let the proximity of our cellphones call our attention elsewhere. There’s always so much, and the tendrils of necessity and schedule, have their way of creeping into even time set apart. I pulled out a book of poems. There was one by one of Noelle’s favorite poets, June Jordan. She had written it to author Alice Walker.
Redwood grove and war
You and me talking Congo
Gender, grief and ash
I say, “God! It’s all so huge.”
You say, “These sweet trees: this tree.”
There is something about being present to nature, that calls us back – not apart – but back to ourselves. In the midst of war, and economy, the stresses of jobs and relationships, the uncertainties and immensity of social problems that we know we’ve created and for which we are responsible and out of which we find it hard to climb together…These sweet trees: this tree. We are not taken apart. We remember we are a part. We remember life. We remember the particular. We are present. We are grounded. Not just for ourselves. But for all we’ve yet to do for our community. For our world. These sweet trees: this tree.
Thursday afternoon, as I was with August at Greenburgh Nature Center where he volunteers caring for the barnyard animals – feeding them, putting them in the barn at night – I smelled the infant leaves and heard the hum of tiny insects; the fierce rays of the afternoon sun beat on the back of my neck. Then my phone vibrated and it was Stella. She had called to tell me the terrible news that Carol Larsen had died. It was an awful shock. Unexpected. And as I got back to the church everyone was stunned, for Carol spent so much time in the office, helping, chatting, caring. And Carol’s death comes on the heels of the death of so many beloved people in this congregation. On Thursday it felt like a mountain of death, a mountain of grief, a mountain of helplessness. And I stood in the vestibule of Kingsley House and the doors opened and closed, opened and closed, sometimes opened and closed without people coming in or out, just passing near, opened and closed, and the police came. And Noelle collected August, and they opened and closed as they walked out into the parking lot.
On Friday I was with Norma and Carmen, reflecting on how unexpected Carol’s death was, and Carmen said, “We are born, we live, and we die.” Yes, I thought. “We are born, we live, and we die.” That is what it means to be human. We are not exempted from the cycle of life, we are born, we live, and we die. It happens to us all. To be human, to be part of nature, means we are born, we live, and we die. There was a relief in that confession. I found myself repeating it. It was a comfort to say it. And I thought about how this is Easter – the time when we think of resurrection. But that resurrection isn’t resuscitation. It isn’t about death defiance. Resurrection starts in this life. We die to sin and we live to Christ. And that living means we also die, but we have lived to Christ. “Stay awake, stand firm in your faith, be brave, be strong. Everything should be done in love,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians. This is what resurrection means. Resurrection is something we live. What we confess in our baptism and what we celebrate at this table is that we are born, we live, and we die, all in the arms of God. That nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God.
God’s hands are upon us, from the very beginning, mixing the soil, planting the seed, mounding the dirt, like the children’s hands, delighted in us and in who we will yet be. Planting, patting, spreading, patting. Delighted that we are and we will be a part of this mystery of life. We are born, we live, and we die, all in the arms of God. We confess that mystery: we are born, we live and we die, all in the arms of God.
We are born, we live, and we die; all in the arms of God.
* * * * * * *
 “Kusimama” by Jim Papoulis, translated as “Stand tall. I stand tall. With faith. With hope. Children are closer to the earth.”
 The classic study is Richard Louv’s award winning Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. (Algonquin Booksm 2008).
 Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy. (The University of Georgia Press, 2009)
This day had three parts, all quite different, each spent with different people.
The first was peace and quiet. Noelle and I headed out to the Larchmont Reservoir – James G. Johnson Jr. Nature Conservancy. We walked. We talked. We listened to birds sing and watched turtles swim. This week of warm weather has brought the trees to life. And I got to break in my new hiking shoes.
The second part was spent with August at the Greenburgh Nature Center, caring for the animals. August is a “Star Volunteer” and takes his job quite seriously. I watched him talk to a woman for 20 minutes today, sharing information about all the goats, sheep, chickens. He’s really good at this, full of confidence and care. We then stopped at the pet store to plot his new aquarium.
The final part of the day was spent with death and dying. First, the news of Prince’s passing. The internet is alive with beautiful tributes, one more moving than the next. So I was already weeping purple tears when I learned of a parishioner in the hospital. Then I was called about the shocking death of another. A few hours later, on my way home, I heard that my grandfather has begun to die. So much grief.
At the end of this day, I am grateful for the beginning. The beauty and vibrancy of nature alive has carried me through.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
On Sunday, April 17, the White Plains Presbyterian Church was led in worship by Dan Turk, one of our Presbyterian Mission Co-Workers in Madagascar. Dan led our children in a discovery of the rich but threatened bio-diversity of of this island country “on the other side of the world.” The kids were full of questions and observations, and learned about the challenges facing the 24 million Malagasy people.
Dan’s sermon echoed worship themes dear to our congregation: doing mission in partnership, fighting poverty and empowering people, supporting sustainable development, combating climate change and caring for the earth. His selection of scriptures for the day – the trees in Genesis 1 and the Tree of Life, the trees beside still water in Psalm 1, and the trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations in Rev. 22 – sounded as if he were reading right off our collection of tree banners.
After worship, Dan led an inter-generational class deeper into the mission in Madagascar, speaking and answering questions for over an hour. Our class was evenly split between adults and children, and there was never a time a child did not have a hand in the air. The kids wanted to know about language, school, worship attendance, access to libraries, diet, and climate. We learned that Madagascar is on the list of the 15 nations most threatened by climate change, and that many children never go to school. We learned about deforestation, habitat loss, and the important work our mission partners are supporting in the fields of health, education, environmental protection and enhancing the agricultural economy. We saw many photos of trees bearing fruit and lives being restored.
Dan left us with an image of all God’s people and people of conscience caring for one another and creation, such that the previously deforested hills of Madagascar will rejoice and the (new) trees will clap their hands. This is our mission partnership.
“Why, when all odds are against our thriving, do we move with so much resolution?”
Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenya
This sentence glows, in an essay of glowing prose by award winning African writer Binyavanga Wainaina (pictured above). The essay is an extract from his award winning book Discovering Home that appears in The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing. Wainaina is the editor of Kwani, a Nairobi-based literary magazine at the heart of the the Kenyan literary scene, and Discovering Home charts the authors literary and physical journey toward place.
In another essay in the anthology, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o (pictured below) described the birthday celebration of the fictional(?) dictator of a fictional African nation. In folkloric fashion, various advisors undergo european plastic surgery to exaggerate parts of their bodies to better serve the dictator: one get unusually large eyes to better “see” the needs of the people [or the ruler]; another get “ears like rabbit” to better “hear” the truth [and potential dissent from the ruler’s rule]. This is from the first new work by Thiong’o in more than 20 years. Thiong’o has won numerous awards, including the Man Booker Prize, for his writing and has been considered a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. As a result of his controversial approach to theater, he spent a year incarcerated as a prison of conscience in 1977 and was subsequently exiled.
The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry contains eleven poems by six Kenyan poets, including another prison of conscience, Maina wa Kinyatti. Kinyatti (pictured below), is the winner of the PEN Freedom to Write award in 1988, having spent six and a half years as a prisoner of conscience in 1983. Like so much Kenyan literature, including the authors above, Kinyatti’s poetry is shaped by the post-colonial struggles in general and the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi in particular.
Micere Githae Mugo (also below), another contributor the Penguin Anthology, was detained and exiled in 1982 by Moi. She has previously co-authored a play with Thiong’o, and has subsequently been named among the 100 most influential people in both century Kenyan history.
I was not familiar with any of these authors, and was unlikely to read them but for my commitment to use my Sabbath Days to read multi-national literature. I am grateful for each serendipity and surprise this commitment has brought, as well as the broadening of my sense of history, geography, and social justice.
This is my second post today. I slept in today, and read Yemeni poetry with my first cups of coffee before writing my first post.. The second half of this Sabbath day was spent with my son, who was home sick from school. We spent time playing quietly, invented board games, read folklore, ate pasta, wrestled and watched a movie.
“Poetry is a struggle for freedom, therefore it is a lifelong program”
Mansur Rajih, Yemen
One of the gifts of intentionally reading multi-national literature over these last fourteen months are the serendipities and surprises. In ways too numerous to count, the “literature of the week” has presented itself to me, rather than my having to search for it. For example: before today I have never heard of the poet Mansur Rajih, who spent fifteen years as a prisoner of conscience in Yemen. And yet the following poem welcomed me to this beautiful spring Sabbath day:
And Yet They Sing
The world is more beautiful than we can imagine
The world is a river
and the atmosphere is a bird’s song
and green trees
The tiny movement of the leaves
is a fine song
Dreams without borders
the progression of seasons
Here is how I came upon Rajih. I have spent the last ten weeks reading international prison literature, a focus that I happened upon because I am studying mass incarceration at my church. But last week I decided I was through, for now, with prison writings. What I really needed was a week with a quick read. Someone had recently given me a copy of I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by the young Yemeni girl who escaped her abusive husband and became the first in her country to acquire a legal divorce. I finished it in one sitting. I planned to cross YEMEN off my reading list.
But before bed last evening, in preparation for my Sabbath, I opened my Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, to check and see whether it had any poems from Yemen. It had just one, “The Fatherland” by Mansur Rajih, a poem that seem dangerously innocent and nostalgic after reading Nujood Ali’s story. That, and the fascist overtones that forever taint word “Fatherland.” Yet the author bio in the back of the book described Rajih as a revolutionary poet and political activist from Yemen, and political prisoner from 1983- 1998. I had stumbled upon another prison writer.
And so it was that first thing this morning I sought to learn more. In 1992, Amnesty International initially published the the story of his imprisonment, describing him as “a writer and poet and member of the political opposition in the former Yemen Arabic Republic, … sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.” I found a little more information here. Under pressure from an international campaign led by Amnesty and PEN International, Rajih was finally released after serving 15 years that included frequent torture. He now lives in exile in Norway.
I found several interviews with Rajih online, including this one (with several of his poems), in which he speaks about the influence of both prison and exile on his poetry:
“My time in prison was a daily struggle against death – the death penalty, darkness, hunger and fear. It was a battle. It is not easy to be in prison and forced to fight against the idea of prison itself. When you want to create poetry in prison, you are naturally going to write in opposition to it, fighting darkness with light.
The welcome surprise in this serendipity was the discovery, through Rajih, of ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, an independent international organization of cities and regions, offering safe havens for writers and artists at risk. I am reminded of Michelle Alexander’s notice that “it is not the prison time but the prison label that matters,” and realize that this is true not only in life but in art. Mansur Rajih now lives and writes in the ICORN city of Stavenger, Norway, as described in this interview in exile.
ICORN currently shelters 115 writers and artists in 53 cities worldwide. Radical hospitality indeed.
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016
The story that we have read this morning in two parts is often referred to as “The Conversion of Paul.” It is one of the better-known stories in our Bible, its drama and psychological power encouraging preacher, artist and believer alike to make it their own. The idiom “and scales fell from my eyes,” referring to sudden insight or understanding of the truth, comes from this story. Michelangelo, Bruegel and Caravaggio have all famously painted it. “I once was blind, but now I see,” wrote John Newton in Amazing Grace, describing the spiritual conversion that led him away from the Atlantic slave trade. This hope that even the most hardened soul can be reached and redeemed by God’s grace has spurred the prayers of countless generations. One of our own members told me just this week that she prays every day for the Sauls of this world to become Pauls.
But I want to linger this morning on the second half of this story, that part that describes “The Call of the Prophet Ananias.” Yes, I know the text calls Ananias simply a disciple, but this story includes all the elements of a prophetic call: the vision, the voice, the uncomfortable task, the resistance of the would-be prophet, and the divine push. Like Samuel and Isaiah, Ananias responds to his vision with the words, “Here I Am, Lord.” And like the prophets before him, no matter how difficult the task, the prophet Ananias acts according to God’s desire. Ananias appears only once in scripture, right here. But the role he plays in salvation history is pivotal, and one we should ponder for ourselves. His act of radical hospitality is one we are called to embrace right here.
I call this radical hospitality because Ananias extends God’s welcome to Saul even though he is afraid. God appeared to Ananias in a vision and sent him to a house on Straight Street where he is told he will find a man called Saul of Tarsus at prayer. Ananias was told to lay hands on this man and heal him. But Ananias has every reason to be afraid. ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ Indeed, Saul has detained, tortured and stoned followers of Jesus throughout Judea, and is now pursuing them in Damascus. Of course Ananias is afraid. But Ananias must overcome this fear if he is to be a part of the transformation God is working both in individual lives, like Saul’s, and in the world. For it is through Saul that the good news about Jesus will be shared with the gentile, or non-Jewish, world. For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church to this day celebrates the Martyrdom of Ananias on the same day as the Conversion of Paul. It is fitting to look at Ananias the prophet of radical hospitality, as we consider what it would mean for our congregation’s life today.
Let’s think concretely about what Ananias does. He listens to God. He acknowledges his own fear. He follows God’s command to welcome, despite his fear. He goes to Saul. He lays his hands upon him. He welcomes Saul into the community of Christ followers in Damascus.
If we are to embody radical hospitality in this congregation, it means that we too must listen to God, acknowledge our own fear but not let it control us, concretely and personally reach out to the one we fear, and welcome that person into this congregation.
Many of you know that during the season of Lent a good number of our congregation gathered each week to discuss Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. We ended our four weeks of study with a new commitment to work for the abolition of the mass incarceration system itself – not simply because it has become too expensive to maintain, or a political albatross, but for the purpose of ending the racial caste system upon which it has been built.
There are a number of us here who have family members or friends who are (or have been) in prison. Some of us have, been in prison ourselves. I want to pause to simply acknowledge this. When we talk, therefore, about people who are incarcerated, we are not talking about some distant “them out there.” We are talking about people we know and love, people we worship with; we are talking about us.
Now having said that, for some of you, it may come as a surprise to learn that some of us are connected so intimately to the prison system and have felt in our own lives the pain, the isolation, and the stigmatization that comes from being incarcerated or being connected to someone who is incarcerated. After all, Michelle Alexander reminds us, the most important thing to understand about the criminal justice system today is that it is not the prison time but the prison label that matters:
“Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern.”
And so many of those who have been labeled a criminal or the spouse or the daughter or the father of a criminal, are reluctant to speak openly about it – even in church, even in this place of love and healing. That reluctance is understandable. What would happen, after all, if people knew?
In our conversations about Alexander’s book, we were all quick to say we wanted to be a church where people released from prison or families of prisoners or even the men and women who were incarcerated but to whom we write and for whose children we help buy gifts for at Christmas – we wanted them all to feel comfortable here. And that’s commendable. But it’s not that easy.
Alice Pala, in fact, stopped us all in our tracks from this kind of easy affirmation. “Oh – well,” she said, “when a person who we know has been in prison sits down next to me, next to us, we immediately hold our pocketbook close and move away down the pew. But before that happens, before that awful physical pulling away happens, we move away first in our minds, in our hearts. We pull away first, invisibly,” she said.
What might it mean for us all to imagine ourselves as Ananias? Not that those of us who haven’t directly experienced the prison system are Ananias and people who have been incarcerated or their loved ones are Saul, but rather, that we are all Ananiases. We are all called to listen to God. We are all called to acknowledge our fears. We are all called to reach out in love toward one another, to create bonds of healing. We are all called to touch one another – to lay our hands in Christ’s peace upon one another. And to welcome each other, welcome each other, as sisters and brothers in this community of disciples, in this Damascus we call White Plains.
My friends, today we all are called to be disciples of the Lord. We are called to reach out beyond our fear, to embrace one another in love. And in so doing, become a witness to the radical hospitality that God has already extended to each one of us. May we all be Ananiases. In our words and in our deeds, may we show forth such love. Amen.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.