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The Season of Creation: A Sermon Cycle

September 29, 2016

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At the urging of colleagues, I am collecting here twelve sermons that I have preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church during our first three years of observing the Season of Creation. This is a (relatively) new liturgical season recognizing God’s original work and our place within it. It runs from the first Sunday in September through the Feast of St. Francis on October 4. The season includes a complete three year lectionary with an increasing number of web resources for support. The basic and incredibly useful print resource is Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, edited by Norman Habel and David Rhoads. Habel also maintains an international website with liturgy and hymns, while Rhoads maintains a similar site for the more specific U.S. church context. My friend Natalie Sims maintains a very useful ecumenical site, Singing from the Lectionary, which includes annotated notes on songs and hymns for all twelve creation Sundays with a diversity of styles and from a variety of traditions. Our worship in White Plains has been enriched by all of these.

So, here are a dozen sermons on themes often overlooked by traditional lectionary preaching.

Year A – 2014

Year B – 2015

Year C – 2016

OK. We had a guest preacher on Cosmos Sunday in 2016 who took us in another important direction, so the sermon above comes from our annual Science Sunday Celebration (the Sunday closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12). These twelve sermons now present a fair survey of the themes of creation’s season. I have dozens of other sermons on environmental themes that are collected on my blog under the heading of Earth Care, which may also be of interest to those reading this post. My own favorite is still the first, Living Lightly on a New Eaarth (which is not a typo).

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Sabbath Day – A Short Walk on the Long Path

September 23, 2016

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August and I had a smooth morning getting ready for school. He got up early to do extra homework, and needed help, so we skipped the bus and I drove him to school. From school I drove directly West  over the Hudson River and down 9A to Piedmont. My plan for the day was to talk The Long Path (a 358 mile trail with characteristic aqua blazes from the George Washington Bridge all the way to Albany; it passes conveniently through down town Piedmont) all the way to Nyack, and come back by another way. I followed directions in Daniel Chazin’s Hike of the Week: A Year of Hikes in the New York Metro Area. Chazin is a member of the New York – New Jersey Trail Conference., which also has online resources for hiking the trail. Almost immediately, I met this friend relaxing beside the path.   

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The trail took me through Rockland Cemetery, where I walked right by the gravestone of John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president in 1856. We commiserated for a moment on the current election.

The Path then took me through Clausland Mountain Park, Tackamack Park, and Blauvelt State Park before climbing the Palisades above Nyack. Here I began to catch glimpses (and hear the sounds) of the work on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, though better views would come on my walk back. At the summit of a ridge above Nyack I could simultaneously see the Hudson River and the Bridge, the New York City skyline, and Newark.

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Descending from the ridge I then left the Path to walk down (a lot of down) into Nyack, past the college, and over the highway. At this point I picked up the path of the Old Erie Railroad, now a rails-to-trails project, for a quick, level walk back to Piedmont. Eleven miles.

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After changing back into walking shoes, as opposed to hiking boots, I walk another mile round trip out to the Pier to look back upon where I had been. In the picture below, I had traced the ridge going north, and come back on the straight trail midway up the sides and in the trees. (And then out to the pier, where I took this photo). The Pier marks the Southern terminus of the original Erie Railroad, the pier being a transfer point for goods bound for shipment as near as NYC, NJ, or further.

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After my walk, I stopped for lunch at the Piermont Sidewalk Bistro, a favorite French place we like to take Noelle every year on Mother’s Day. I was engrossed reading The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson, and taking a sip of my beer (without looking), when I felt intense pain on my lip. To keep from being swallowed, a bee had stung me on my upper lip and then clung tightly with every leg to keep from being flung away. Spitting on the sidewalk and clawing at my face, I dispatched the bee (poor bee) and removed the stinger. I thought I was calmly telling my server what had happened and that I was ok, but she said “Are you sure you’re ok? You’re acting kind of weird.” With tears in my eyes, I accepted her offer of Children’s Benadryl, finished my lunch (without being able to feel my lip) and headed home. With August off the bus (“Dad, what’s wrong with your lip!?” he wanted to know immediately), I promptly fell asleep while he did his homework.

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Together, we made it a much needed early night.

The New Nature – Storm Sunday

September 19, 2016

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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 18, 2016

  Psalm 29          Luke 8: 22-25

When I was a child, I would get excited whenever I heard the sound of an air horn. Now, in order to understand with that meant to me, you need to know that I grew up in the Midwest. And when the air horn sounded it meant that a tornado had been spotted nearby and I should move to a relatively safe location. In Westchester, the sound of the air horn means that there has been an incident at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant or that a test is being conducted. The last time I heard that horn I was out hiking, without cell service, and at least an hour away from anybody who could tell me what was going on. That was a very different feeling, and there was no relatively safe place to go, so I kept hiking. But when I was a child in Illinois, I found the sound of the air horn signaling a tornado exciting. The very idea of a storm that could generate winds that then took on a life of their own, powerful enough to lift up houses and uproot trees, fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. It was an experience of awe, not unlike that we heard in Psalm 29:

The God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of God is powerful; full of majesty.
God’s voice breaks the cedars; makes them skip like a calf;
It flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Almighty shakes the wilderness;
causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”

Illinois, where I grew up, averages 35 tornadoes a year; 25 of which are strong enough to cause significant damage. (By contrast, Texas averages 139 a year). A tornado meant automatic family time. First we would open all the windows in the house, and then my sister Janel and I would go to the basement, pull the white and gold craft table up next to the steel desk, and hide underneath. We would be absorbed listening to the gale winds and pounding rain assault the house, while counting after every BOOM of thunder (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…) until we saw the lightning flash in the window wells. In this way we could calculate how far away the storm was. If the electricity went out, we would pray that the water would not start seeping up into the basement. When the worst was over, we would tell stories until we could safely go back upstairs. This was quality family time, Midwest style.

I was awed by the power of a storm that could shake a whole house. I remember one time I had to go upstairs to investigate a loud banging on the side of the house. The cupola from our neighbor’s roof that held their weather vane had blown down and was being battered back and forth between the houses. I stood transfixed at the open window as the box, that was larger than me, was blown around like a napkin. Two neighbor boys, teenagers, went outside and wrestled the thing to the ground — something that stood out in my childhood mind as a model of courage — although as I think about it now it seems more than a bit foolish and quite dangerous.

The best part of every thunderstorm was the smell afterward. I would lie down on my stomach in the bay window at the front of the house, by the open windows and inhale deeply. I loved, and still love, the smell of a storm. I’ve learned that that smell is made up primarily of three things. Two of them come from the ground, while the third falls from the sky. The “rich earthy smell” comes from bacteria in the soil that secretes something called geosmin, spores that are released into the air when the rain hits them. Petrichor, another earthy scent, is released by plant oils when they get wet. All plants excrete oils during dry periods that slow the growth process, which keep them from overgrowing and needing more water. The oils gather on plants surfaces, soil and rock, and are released, like the geosmin, by the rain. The final scent, the one that comes from the sky is ozone, produced by electrically charged nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere and pushed down by the storm above. Have you ever smelled a storm coming? That’s ozone. And taken together with the temperature change storms bring, produces that cool, crisp, clean smell after the storm.[1]

When I was two and three years old I would draw the same cartoon over and over. It would show stick figure construction workers building a house. Piece by piece it would come together. I’d draw little doors and windows; a chimney. Eventually a family would move in, a flower would go in the window, and smoke would rise from the fireplace. And then a tornado would come. I’d draw the twister, taking the house apart again, piece by piece. (I never seemed to worry about the people. They were obviously safe in the basement). And then the crews would come back and begin the process of rebuilding. The story would always end with the flower back in the window and the smoke curling from the chimney – the signal of a family warm and safe inside.

*******

During the Season of Creation we have been reading scripture passages that assure us that God made this world in wisdom, that it bears the mark of its creator. In our story today, we encounter Jesus calming the storm. The power of the story is the disciples’ recognition that Jesus exercises divine power over the waters, bringing order to chaos. What I have been pondering, though, is that we don’t live in that world anymore. No longer is the elemental structure of nature, of our world, only of God’s making; it is also of our own. Our impact on the natural world has been so profound that many scientist believe we have entered a new age they call the Anthropocene, an era we have never experienced before, an era characterized by the over-determining impact that humans now have on nature.[2]

Does Jesus bring calm to the “natural storms” of our own making?  If so, what does that “calming” of the storm look like?  It certainly can’t look like climate change denial – don’t worry, nothing is happening or don’t worry we’ll just build it back – whether that’s a dam or a coastline or a neighborhood or the entire Norfolk Virginia shoreline!

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A couple of weeks ago I commended to you an article in the New York Times on the perils of rising sea levels and wholesale rebuilding efforts by states and municipalities. A colleague of mine, a history professor at The College of St. Rose, got her response to the article printed in the paper last week:

To the Editor: Your article clearly laid out the imminent perils of rising sea levels for the Atlantic Coast states. Flooding has become the norm in cities like Miami Beach and Norfolk and Alexandria, Va. Recounting the enormous efforts underway and the billions upon billions of dollars it will take to shore up infrastructure, elevate homes and raise sea walls, it becomes clear that such efforts to keep these areas habitable would be in vain. Since that is the case, then why throw away billions of dollars trying to fight the momentous forces of nature just to buy a little more time? With foresight and understanding about rising sea levels, use that money to gradually depopulate the coastal areas that will be affected and discourage new development there. If people want to live on the water — like the rich — they can do so at their own risk and on their own dime. They will be hard pressed to find insurance companies willing to cover their properties.

Ordinary people who own homes and small businesses can be gradually bought out and relocated when disaster strikes and federal funds are dispensed, as New York is doing with some areas of Long Island that are being lost to erosion and suffered irreparable damage from Hurricane Sandy. There is time to do this in an intelligent and economical manner if the political will is there. It is foolish to waste precious resources on a losing game.[3]

“Meanwhile in Washington, Congress is gridlocked on climate change.  This means the United States lacks not only a broad national policy on sea-level rise, it has something close to the opposite: The federal government spends billions of taxpayer dollars in ways that add to the risks, by subsidizing local governments and homeowners who build in imperiled locations along the coast.”[4]

How does Jesus bring calm to this storm?  We cry out with the old words of the hymn, singing them not only as metaphor but as literal reality as well

Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass came from thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

While we may cry to Jesus like the disciples did saying, “Save us!” I can imagine Jesus saying, “I cannot save you from the storms of your own making.  But I can give you the grace and the forbearance to do the hard thing.  To confess your wrongdoing, to take responsibility, and to begin to halt the destruction and repair what may yet still be saved.”

There is no magic bullet.  There is no 11th hour rescue.  There is no apocalyptic rapture.  For this kind of thinking – a God who rescues no matter what – allows us to continue heedless of the destruction we continue to produce and the creatures and nature we imperil.  That is not consistent with the kind of God we know in the Bible.  God is a God of love; but that does not mean God is a pushover or that God doesn’t care about the damage our sin creates.  Rather this God of love is a God who gives us the grace to acknowledge our wrong doing and the strength to do the hard thing – to repent, to turn and go in a completely different direction.

Where I see Jesus, where I hear his calm voice is when I hear or read the words of people who, without exaggeration or inflammatory rhetoric, simply spell out, map out, where we stand now as a planet, and the choices that remain to us as a people. Folks like Bill McKibben, who lays out the facts about what is happening right NOW on a globe that is

“suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”[5]

Or ecologist Eric Sanderson, whose book Terra Nova: The New World after Oil, Cars, and Suburbs traces energy choices we have made over the last century and the alternatives before us.[6]

The problems we will experience in the next fifty to a hundred years – droughts, floods, famines, ocean dead-zones, disease, hunger and decline – are not eventualities but continuations of present reality. Which we can change. Meanwhile

  • Super Typhoon Meranti made landfall in Taiwan on Tuesday. Though it only killed one civilian, it was the most powerful storm since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
  • Also on Tuesday, Tropical Storm Julia formed over Jacksonville, Florida, marking a rare occurrence. Storms do not typically reach a tropical status over land.
  • Tropical Storm Julia unleashed heavy rain Wednesday morning along the northeastern coast of Florida and southeastern Georgia. The slow-moving storm caused flash flooding and produced 3 to 6 inches of rain across portions of eastern Georgia and South Carolina.
  • And Tropical Storm Karl may be our fifth hurricane of the season.[7]

As the winds rise and the seas churn, in the midst of these storms and storms to come, even as we support the urgent work of disaster preparedness and assistance, let us allow the calm voice of Jesus to remind us of where we stand, what is still possible for this earth, of what we must let go, and where we may begin to live consciously and carefully upon this earth.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/causes-smell-rain/

[2] In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben has crafted a new word EAARTH (E.A.A.R.T.H.) to describe the planet on which we now live, which is a fundamentally different planet than the one on which life first emerged and on which life has thrived for millions of years. With 7 billion of us on the planet, more than 390 carbon parts per million in the atmosphere, our ecological life support systems are failing. And there is no going back. Conditions have changed. The environment no longer behaves the way it has over the eons during which life and civilization evolved. As McKibbon writes, “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it EAARTH.”

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/sunday/saving-our-coastlines.html (Letter by Jenise Depinto).

[4] From the original article. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/science/flooding-of-coast-caused-by-global-warming-has-already-begun.html

[5] Bill McKibbon, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010).

[6] Eric Sanderson. Terra Nova: The new World of Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. (Wildlife Conservation Society, 2013).

[7] Straight from http://www.accuweather.com news for the day.

Be What You Are – Animal Sunday

September 11, 2016

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A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 11, 2016. This is not
entirely
a repeat of my Sabbath Day post.

 Job 39          Psalm 104

Thursday is my Sabbath Day. One day in seven that I set aside – religiously, if you will – to break the patterns of work; to rest and recreate myself through prayer, study, and time with nature. A perfect Sabbath Day involves coffee, a good book, a long walk, a rambling conversation with God, listening (to the world around me and the conflicts in my own heart), dinner with my family at the end of the day, and a good night’s sleep.

This past Thursday, however, I found myself involved in a number of church programs – including the welcome and orientation for new parents in our Nursery School program. It was, therefore, more important than ever that I took the first part of my day to hike a new trail, which I did along the western shore of the Hudson. Hiking the Lower Hudson felt like an initiation into part of the history of this congregation – a statement that requires some explanation.

I am the 25th pastor to serve the White Plains Presbyterian Church in its 302 year history. The first Presbyterian to shepherd this flock was The Rev. John Smith, whose gravestone says he was “worn out by many duties” as pastor here. (He should have taken more Sabbath Days!)

In 1722, Smith was twenty years old and living with his mother, Madam Susanna, in Manhattan. As devout New England Calvinists, the Smiths had been members of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, but the new Scottish pastor of the church overstepped his authority (which meant stepping on the well developed colonial style of church democracy) and Susanna led a group out of the church and into her home where she established a small Presbyterian Church – New England style. The congregation eventually found a meeting place on Williams Street, near the docks, and began to search for a pastor. Yale University sent them a very young Jonathan Edwards – yes, THE Jonathan Edwards, the voice of the Great Awakening – to serve as un-ordained stated supply. The nineteen year-old Edwards and the twenty-year old Smith struck up a fast friendship. Edwards wrote in his journal that the two Johns would often take long walks along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore” to contemplate the beauty of nature and the sacrificial compassion of Christ to which all nature pointed.

When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see his love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of the birds, are emanations of his infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines [are] shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of his sweet grace and beauty.

Edward’s most intense and interior writings come from this period when he was regularly walking along the river with Smith, who he describes as a spiritual brother and a soul mate. His diary is filled with observations of animals and plant life, waterfalls and blue skies, all manifesting the Glory of God of which the two men felt a part. During these walks, they committed their lives together to doing all they could to advance God’s kingdom. In more ways than one, but certainly by theological affinity and through service to the congregation Smith helped establish, I am heir to their experience of nature and subsequent spiritual commitment.[1]

These are thoughts I was thinking as I hiked an eight-mile loop along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore.” Exit 1 on the Palisades Parkways is Englewood Boat Basin, through which the white blazed Undercliff Trail passes and meanders along the river. I hiked north along the rocky path … and along stretches of hidden beach … eventually climbing the Palisades to look out upon the river… and back down upon the path I had been walking.

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While hiking, I was particularly attentive to the fauna of the park. I was intrigued that parts of the white trail are underwater twice a day at high tide, as evidenced by water lines on rocks and the ever-present smell of exposed sea life. I found quite a few dead fish on the path, left behind, I believe, by the omnipresent raptors. I saw huge osprey, gulls, hawks and heron, as well as lots of ducks; blue and black butterflies; a fair number of snakes; as well as squirrels and chipmunks. On the return path, I was surrounded by the omni-present singing of crickets and cicadas as well as birdsong. And deer; including two that had been hit by cars and crawled into the shelter of the trees to die. Several creeks and waterfalls cross the path, and I found clam shells dropped by large birds all the way up beside the Palisades Parkway. Once, feeling just like a little kid, I pried up a stone to see what little life might skitter and squirm away back into the dark earth.

It was fun to think that John Smith and Jonathan Edwards saw all this life beside the river (and more) and found in it the beautiful and joyous voice of all creation singing praise to God. So do I.

Psalm 104, which we have read last week and this week, gives us “a positive theology of nature wherein animals are not just passive receptors of God’s grace, but actively doing God’s work with their very existence.”[2] Animals give praise to God by being what they are: the lion is a lion, the lamb a lamb, the snake and ostrich, goat, birds and coney, all being themselves. (The snake and ostrich, in case you are wondering, are mentioned in the passage in Job 39, which we did not read, and a coney is a rabbit). I think this is one of the reasons little children are fascinated with learning about animals – animals do what animals do: the cow goes moo, the pig goes oink, the sheep goes baa, and the rooster goes “cock-a-doodle-doo.”  And maybe it’s why the song “What does the fox say?” was a global blockbuster!

In a dark and satiric short story published almost twenty years ago, award winning author Julian Barnes retold the story of Noah’s Ark form the perspective of a stowaway, one of the animals Noah did not want on the ark: the head of a small family of termites. Near the end of the story, the termite says:

The voyage taught us a lot of things, you see, and the main thing is this: that humanity is a very un-evolved species compared to the animals. We don’t deny, of course, your cleverness, your considerable potential. But you are, as yet, at an early stage of your development. We, for instance, are always ourselves: that is what it means to be evolved. We are what we are, and we know what that is. You don’t expect a cat suddenly to start barking, do you, or a pig to start lowering? But this is what, in a manner of speaking, those of us who made the voyage on the Ark learned to expect from your species. One moment you bark, one moment you mew; one moment you wish to be wild, one moment you wish to be tame. We knew where we were with Noah only in this one respect: that we never knew where we were with him.[3]

What can animals expect of us? What should they? We use many terms for this: we are to be good stewards, caretakers, kin with the creatures. Genesis teaches that our human vocation is to serve and preserve all creation that it might forever sing God’s praise; we are what God intended us to be when we allow all creatures to be what they are. That we do not do this well, or with any kind of consistency, and are in fact – according to some scientists – leading the planet into a sixth major species extinction, is a sign of how lost we are. Barnes’ story makes an important point: we are the one species that can forget who we are. But Psalm 104 already knew as much: at the end of the litany of animals praising God by being what God made them, it notes: ‘Meanwhile, men and women go out to work, busy at their jobs until evening.” Occupied with ourselves, we miss much that God would have us see and that could teach us a better way. But caring for animals has a way of calling us back to who we truly are.

While my family was away on vacation this summer, an older woman who lives in our apartment building fell and broke her leg. We had not met before, but August and I met her “walking her dog” in front of the building.  She had her arm braced against the front wall of the building as the dog did its business.   It was obvious that taking the dog out was causing her a lot of pain – just standing was painful, let alone walking and bending down to clean up after it, so I said, “I know a young man who loves animals and would enjoy taking your dog out every day.” And with that, August took over care of little Minnie, a 13 year-old white Shih Tzu with brown mottling who we discovered is both deaf & blind.

Over these past weeks as August has collected Minnie to walk her, he began to notice certain things changing.  Minnie now expects him at 6pm each evening and is waiting at the door.  Minnie is no longer terrified of walking over the crack between the floor of the apartment building and the floor of the elevator.  Minnie poops promptly once she is deposited gently on the soft grass in the park.  Minnie is daily more curious about the outside world, walking farther, sniffing out new smells, reclining in new spots.  The consistency and care August has shown has led what was once an apartment only, elderly, blind and deaf dog, to trust and explore.

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And August is learning what it means to have an animal and a neighbor depend upon you.  He’s experiencing and grappling with how to receive such gratitude from a neighbor.  He’s experiencing the pride of explaining about the dog to his friends – particularly her new skill of walking in and out of the elevator – not to mention the thrill of caring for this “companion animal” in an apartment building that is otherwise pet-free.

As August has walked Minnie and we’ve accompanied him, we’ve also ended up connecting with a whole set of neighbors around the block who are out walking their dogs, corralling their children, or strolling through the park.  People love to stop and talk about the animals with one another.  Smiles come unbidden to faces, interest about a limp quickly breaks the safe public distance as we and the people we’ve just encountered look closely at the dog, details about great vets, and funny or heartwarming stories about pets start flowing out.  And of course we find out interesting things about people we already knew.  We were wondering where we might get Minnie washed when we ran into Z whose child attended the church’s pre-school.  She said she does dog baths and would be happy to help out.  We then of course chatted about lots of other things – how the children were doing at school, what was great about the neighborhood, and the twilight began to glisten as the sun faded away.

Whether pets or wild, when we connect to our fellow animals within the animal kingdom, when our species, homo sapiens, finds its place within the fauna, we interestingly deepen connections within our own species.  As we humans locate ourselves as one animal among many, many others, we can then properly examine how we have been protector and predator, friend and faithless.  From a position of being a part of (not over) creation who are charged with stewarding this wild, wonderful world, we are better able to give and receive, to explore and trust not only other animals but our own human sisters and brothers as well.  Thanks be to God.

[1] On the friendship between Smith and Edwards, see George Marsden’s magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003), which won the Bancroft Prize. I grabbed the citation from Edward’s journal from Belden Lane’s wonderful book on creation spirituality Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford, 2011).

[2] Leah Schade, at http://www.letallcreationpraise.org

[3] Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. (Vintage Books: 1989).

Sabbath Day – Hudson Hiking

September 9, 2016

mastheadphoto

Though today was my Sabbath Day, I found myself involved in a number of church programs. It was, therefore, more important than ever that I took the first part of my day to hike a new trail. Hiking the Hudson felt like an initiation into part of the history of the congregation I serve – which requires some explanation.

I am the 25th pastor to serve the White Plains Presbyterian Church in its 302 year history. The first Presbyterian to shepherd this flock was The Rev. John Smith, whose gravestone says he was “worn out by many duties” as pastor here. (He should have taken more Sabbath Days!)

In 1722, Smith was twenty years old and living with his mother, Madam Susanna, in Manhattan. As devout New England Calvinists, the Smiths had been members of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, but the new Scottish pastor of the church overstepped his authority (which meant stepping on the well developed colonial style of church democracy) and Susanna led a group out of the church and into her home where she established a small Presbyterian Church – New England style. The congregation eventually found a meeting place on Williams Street, near the docks, and began to search for a pastor. Yale University sent them a very young Jonathan Edwards – yes, THE Jonathan Edwards, the voice of the Great Awakening – to serve as unordained stated supply. The nineteen year old Edwards and the twenty-year old Smith struck up a fast friendship. Edwards wrote in his journal that the two Johns would often take long walks along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore” to contemplate the beauty of nature and the sacrificial compassion of Christ to which all nature pointed.

When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see his love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of the birds, are emanations of his infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines [are] shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of his sweet grace and beauty.

Edward’s most intense and interior writings come from this period when he was regularly walking along the river with Smith, who he describes as a spiritual brother and a soul mate. His diary is filled with observations of animals and plant life, waterfalls and blue skies, all manifesting the Glory of God of which the two men felt a part. During these walks, they committed their lives together to doing all they could to advance God’s kingdom. In more ways than one, but certainly by theological affinity and through service to the congregation Smith helped establish, I am heir to their experience of nature and subsequent spiritual commitment.

These are thoughts I was thinking as I hiked an eight mile loop along “the wilds of the Hudson’s shore.” Exit 1 on the Palisades Parkways is Englewood Boat Basin, through which the white blazed Undercliff Trail passes and meanders along the river. I hiked north along the rocky path…

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and along stretches of hidden beach…

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eventually climbing the Palisades to look out upon the river…

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and down upon the path I had been walking.

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The photo above was taken at High Tom Point, which I found while hiking back toward my car along the Long Path. The Long Path is a 357 mile path  extending from Fort Lee (below the George Washington Bridge) all the way to Altamont, near Albany. This stretch ran along the top of the Palisades through the Palisades Interstate Park (and along the highway).

While hiking, I was particularly attentive to the fauna of the park. I was intrigued that parts of the white trail are underwater twice a day at high tide, as evidenced by water lines on rocks and the ever present smell of exposed sea life. I found quite a few dead fish on the path, left behind, I believe, by the omnipresent raptors. I saw huge osprey, gulls, hawks and heron, as well as lots of ducks; blue and black butterflies; a fair number of snakes; as well as squirrels and chipmunks. On the Long Path I was surrounded by the omnipresent singing of crickets and cicadas, and well as birdsong. And deer (including two that had been hit by cars and crawled into the shelter of the trees to die). Several creeks and waterfalls cross the path, and I found clamshells dropped by large birds all the way up beside the Palisades Parkway. Once, feeling like a little kid, I pried up a stone to see what little life might skitter and squirm back into the dark earth.

This Sunday will be observed as Animal Sunday at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, the Second Sunday in the Season of Creation. It was fun to think that John Smith and Jonathan Edwards saw all this life beside the river (and more) and found in it the voice of creation singing praise to God. So do I.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

On the friendship between Smith and Edwards, see George Marsden’s magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003), which won the Bancroft Prize. I grabbed the citation from Edward’s journal from Belden Lane’s wonderful book on creation spirituality Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford, 2011).

 

 

God-Like Power – Ocean Sunday

September 6, 2016

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation, September 4, 2016. September 1 was proclaimed as the World Day of Prayer for Creation by the Orthodox Church in 1989, and many other Christian churches have joined since then, with Pope Francis most recently in 2015. It was then extended to be a month-long Season of Creation, ending on October 4 (Feast of St. Francis). This is our third year observing the Season of Creation. On this Sunday particular we worshiped with the oceans of Earth, created by the Wisdom of God. We joined the Psalmists and called the sea to roar with songs of praise. We sang with the seven seas and celebrate the wondrous creatures of the watery deep. With our Creator, we rejoiced with whales, dolphins and other ‘sea creatures.’ With the Spirit, we groaned with animal species and humans that are suffering from our human acts of pollution, destruction and climate change.

 Psalm 104:24-30         Job 38:1-18

Our second scripture reading this morning brings us the voice of God, addressing the aggrieved Job, from out of a whirlwind. I am actually disappointed that we do not have the mighty winds of Hurricane Hermine as a backdrop this morning, as God challenges and awes Job with the power of creation.

[Read Job 38:1-18]

About a year ago I preached my first, ever, sermon on Job. I did so to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking book The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation. McKibben is a writer, environmentalist, United Methodist Sunday School teacher, and the founder of 350.org. With seventy-three pages of elegant prose, Bill describes Job as a frustrated man, up against an orthodoxy he can no longer believe in (the good always triumph, evil is inevitably thwarted), but Job is surrounded by a society that continues to insist that its accumulated “wisdom” on these matters is the only truth. Job is only liberated, finally, from this worn out wisdom by being given a “whirlwind tour” of all creation – with God as the tour guide.

Job, of course, had questions. Don’t we all? Job’s questions were good questions, questions to keep one up at night. But God does not explain to Job why the innocent sometimes suffer or the wicked prosper, why some die too young, why trouble seems to seek some out while others seem immune.

God simply appears in a whirlwind and reminds Job that he, Job, is not God. God is. And with biting sarcasm, which you no doubt heard in our text today, God overthrows the idea that human beings are, or should be, at the center of God’s attention by reminding Job of the immense, beautiful, wild, sometimes frightening and occasionally grotesque creation that is the object of God’s love, a world – God’s world – of which human beings are but a part. Job learns that our doctrines about how God does, or should, work according to our very human ideas of justice and fair play are just that, our doctrines, and don’t begin to touch the wild glory of God-in-Creation. And so, in what Bill McKibben has called the first great piece of modern nature writing (chapters 38-41, but especially 41), the God of life, the God of all life, SPEAKS, and Job is introduced both to a God and a created world he never knew. 

The entire Book of Job is, in fact, an invitation to both humility and a profound joy, a taking to heart of the great mystery that we are but small part of a much larger Creation, a Created World that was made not for us, but for the sheer pleasure of its Creator.

In Psalm 104, we heard that the oceans, the seven seas, were made in wisdom and manifest the glory of God for the pleasure of God. “Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” Down below, deeper still, than the little ships used for human trade, is Leviathan, the great sea monster, who exists for no other reason than to play – I imagine it as the rubber duckie in God’s vast bathtub – there only for God’s enjoyment.

It is not that God does not care for human beings. God does; but in his encounter with God Job is reminded that we are made of the same stuff, the dust of the ground, as every creature on earth. (We, too, were made solely for God’s pleasure). And so Job learns the humility that is a proper part of our human vocation – to serve not just ourselves but the whole-of-this-world. Job encounters the Creator of the Natural World, and in doing so Job discovers a joy beyond human pleasure.

Well. That was then. This is now. While Job may have been comforted that only God could alter weather and fix the boundaries of the sea (or engineer new species – another fact God claims as an exclusive privilege), this is no longer the case, is it? Today we can do, and have done, all of this and more. We alter the weather, shape the boundaries of the sea, and preside at the origin of new species. Human-caused climate change is rapidly warming the ocean, melting the ice caps, and shifting the boundaries of the sea with rising water. In the New York Times yesterday, Justin Gillis wrote that

For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.

Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.[1]

Warmer oceans mean a warmer atmosphere and more extreme weather. It seems we are now experiencing the legendary 500-year storm every couple of years. The sea not only overwhelms the land, as in Louisiana, but the “new normal” of alternating drought and flood is washing our soil out to sea. As for the creation of new species, GMO plants and animals can be found in every link of our food chain, and dominate our flower shops. We have assumed (or presumed) the powers that were once the exclusive preserve of God. We read the words that God spoke to Job from the whirlwind, and we easily respond “Been there, done that. What else have you got?”

Realizing how little we know and understand about creation was supposed to humble the arrogance and hubris of the being human. The words ‘knowledge,’ ‘know,’ ‘comprehend’ and ‘understand’ are prominent in God’s questions to Job.[2]

But we now know so much about the world that Job could not –Which is not to say that all human progress is negative. We are, after all, a congregation that celebrates, at least once a year, Science Sunday. Scientific endeavor has not only challenged old superstitions and increased human understanding but made our lives unmistakably better. And who would go back? But if the limits of knowledge were for Job an occasion for humility and joy, we now accept them a challenge. We face choices every day of what to do with our God-like power, choices Job couldn’t imagine. And with great power has come awesome new responsibility.

We need new kinds of reminders today of the precarity of our planet and our place upon it if we are to experience God speaking in the natural world.

Many of you know that I love to hike, to be out alone in the wildest places I can find, letting my thinking mind rest and letting my body and breathing lead the way up mountains and back down. Twice this summer, though, I found myself startlingly conscious that I was the guest in a place made for others: first, when I encountered a mother black bear and her cub foraging in Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and the second time in Parc Nationale de Jacques Cartier in Quebec, when I came upon a moose and her calf, grazing beside the trail.

When I first encountered the bears – and I would encounter a dozen during my hikes in Virginia – I was genuinely afraid. I know bears prefer to avoid human contact, a fact which offered surprisingly little comfort. On the contrary, I was acutely conscious of danger. Despite the well-worn trail I was following, this was their home and I was intruding. They were larger, stronger, and faster than me, and while I fantasized climbing a tree, I know they could reach the top of a tree before I could even pull myself up on a branch. I retreated, walking backward, as far as I could, and texted Noelle my location (just in case).  I took a book out of my backpack to try and pass the time, but couldn’t concentrate as every snapped twig and rustled leaf reminded me that there were bears nearby. I texted my sisters, one of whom asked if I had taken any pictures. I said that reaching for my camera was not my first thought.

When I came upon the moose, though, I was prepared. A French-speaking hiker from Korea coming down the path in the other direction had told me “I don’t know how to say. Big. Horse. But not horse.” I understood, and proceeded quietly and carefully. Seeing a moose while hiking was on my bucket-list. And it was majestic, six-and-a-half feet at the shoulder, silent, and obviously powerful. Of course, moose attack more people every year than bears do – especially in early summer when mothers care for their calves, and in the late fall when bulls try to mate. But I did not feel afraid. This cow kept her ears alert, and her eyes on me, always careful to keep herself between me and the calf. For 15 minutes we watched one another, and then I moved on, leaving her be. As I walked on, I gave thanks for the pure grace of our encounter.

This was my whirlwind. In both cases, bear and moose, I was reminded that this world was made for more than me, that any danger I felt was but the other side of a protective love great creatures have for one another. And some of that love rubbed off on me. I felt acutely, gazing into the eyes of the moose, a need to work harder to care for the wild places on our earth and in our oceans so that creatures like these can flourish in peace.

The earth, after all, belongs to God, and everything in it, the oceans and seas and all who live in them. We who exercise power over creation, must love this world with a force more powerful. We who have God-like powers, must nurture God-like LOVE so that we can enjoy peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and share love like an ocean.

[1] NYTimes, Saturday, September 3, 2016

[2] Season of Creation Commentary, online at Let All Creation Praise, by Lisa Schrade.

A House Divided

August 22, 2016

A sermon preached by Lori Hylton at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016. Ms. Hylton is well known to the congregation and serves as the Hunger Action Enabler for the Hudson River Presbytery.

 Luke 12: 49-53

Upon my first reading of the day’s text I was left a bit speechless. Jesus comes to bring division, not peace.  This is one of those texts that most of us want to avoid. And when I say us, I don’t mean preachers, I mean Christians. It makes us very uncomfortable. Where is the Jesus who talks about loving your neighbor and feeding the poor? Get him back in here.  And so in preparing this morning I read through several different version of the passage.  King James, New King James, NIV, Good News, but no matter how many versions I read, there was no softening, no polite avoidance of these words, and this reality. Jesus and the gospels are radical, and divisive.  Radical and divisive then, radical and divisive today.  So, what do I mean when I say that, well I mean that the world in not always ready and willing to hear what Jesus has to say and that’s where the division creeps in. The words may be peaceful but the reception that they receive is mixed, even within the church.              

In the scripture Jesus talks about a divided house and I don’t think the world has ever felt more divided than it does at this moment in time.  Every day we turn on the news and what we see is so disheartening. The news cycle is relentless in its constant drumbeat of death and destruction. The country in the midst of yet another election cycle has devolved into red states and blue states, the church is divided into fundamentalists and reformed believers, and now even our communities and even our homes are divided into camps of black lives vs. blue lives. Where is the understanding? Where is the compassion? Where is love?

And so it’s natural for us to want to retreat to a place where we can find some peace. It’s natural to want to tune out the onslaught of frustration and sadness. We need to be able to let go and as the saying goes “let God take the wheel”. But letting God take the wheel doesn’t mean abandoning the ship. Now more than ever we are needed to match hatred with love.

Jesus didn’t come to make our lives and the world around us more palatable. He came he to fulfill the prophesy, to abolish the law, to be the light of the world, to seek the lost, to save the sinner, to destroy the works of the devil, to bring the fire. He came to turn the world on its ear with his message of love. But he didn’t come to make things more comfortable for us.  And if the result is division then so be it.

As followers of Christ each and every one of us, have been charged with carrying Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness out into the world. So what does that mean? What does that look like? What does it mean to be the bearer of a radical message of love in the world today? It means standing up for justice, when it would be much easier to sit down. It means raising our voices to demand change and it means each of us speaking out against hate when it would be so much more convenient for someone else to do it.

Over the past two years, the nation has been rocked by the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Laquan McDonald, Yvette Smith, Tamir Rice, Rakia Boyd,  Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and many, many others, at the hands of the police.   It seems that we don’t make it through a week without hearing a report of police brutality or an extrajudicial killing. In fact, just this morning we have started to hear about violent demonstration overnight in the city of Milwaukee over the shooting of yet another man. But the reality is that these incidents are not new, they are not one offs. They are just more visible.  They are part of a pattern of behavior on the part of law enforcement in this country that predates the end of the Civil War. Last month when after seeing the videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I was angry, but mostly I was afraid. Afraid that one day my son who is 10 but looks older because he is tall will one day be on the receiving end of the kind of brutality practiced against people of color that we’ve witnessed over and over in this country. I could no longer try to pretend that teaching him to obey the rules and appear respectable would shield him from the reality of the world. And so I held him and I cried. But that is not enough.  And after the deaths of the police officers in Dallas: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamaripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens and Baton Rouge: Montrell Jackson, Matther Gerald, and Brad Garafola I moved from afraid to terrified. But it’s not enough for us to cry and hide in the church.

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As followers of Christ we are compelled allow our faith to be our shield, and go out into the world to deliver Jesus’ message of love, despite our fears. And when I ask myself what that looks like, I’m reminded of Cornel West’s famous words “Just as tenderness is what love looks like in private, Justice is what love looks like in public”.  So practicing love in the way that Jesus describes is naturally going to be divisive, because seeking justice means overturning the status quo. In Jesus’ day that meant questioning the religious, economic and even political beliefs of those around you.  And in our time it means much the same.  But it’s time for us to set aside concerns about getting involved in politics and bring the voice and moral compass of the church to these conversations.  When we see people of any color being brutalized and murdered over and over we need to ask ourselves, what is at the heart of this hatred and then ask ourselves what are we going to do about it? What are we as Christians and human beings going to do about it? Because when we don’t act, when we don’t ask why, when we don’t demand justice we are complicit. We cannot afford to offer empty prayers, by rote asking God, to heal the wounds that are around us, while doing nothing.

In the book, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s call to Justice, the author Mark Labberton, uses the metaphor of a sleeping church very well to describe how easy it is fill one’s life with the many details, rituals, tasks, and legitimate personal crisis’s that can overwhelm us, making it difficult to look beyond our own circumstances. But in the scriptures Jesus calls us to act, to step out of the protective arms of the church and engage the community beyond our doors.

So how do we begin this kind of engagement? We begin by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, because much of what is happening around us will make us uncomfortable. By facing the fear, and the hate, and the violence with love.  We begin by getting used to the idea of living our faith rather than just professing it.  We begin by building trust in our community, intentionally entering into relationships with people who are different than we are, people whose voices have been marginalized our society.  And we important, we make room for those people not just in our churches, or on our streets, but in our hearts.

Engaging the world around us means that churches and individuals can no longer allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by ritual. It means the church has to wake up and “Stay Woke”.