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Advent 2: Repent and Repair

December 4, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016 

Malachi 3:1-4         Matthew 3:1-12

Our second reading this morning comes from the Prophet Malachi. Malachi is the last of the prophets. His writings appear in the Hebrew Scripture, or Jewish Bible, as part of the Book of the Twelve. But in the Jewish Bible, the Prophets are followed by the Writings: the histories, legends, and wisdom, as well as the poetry and psalms. Not so in the Christian Old Testament. Christians give the prophets the final word, and Malachi the very last word of all: and that word is expectation. Malachi writes of God’s deep and abiding love for ancient Israel, of the hypocrisy and failure of its temple leaders, and of a coming Day of Lord – a day of judgment which will be (quickly) followed by a kingdom of heaven.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to God in justice. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who (lie and) swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the immigrant and alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Wow. Malachi announces that the messenger of the covenant is coming. We, like his first hearers, are delighted, and the announcement generates excitement and hope. But we must be careful, Malachi warns, the messenger we long to receive will come “like a refiner’s fire” to painfully purify us. Will we be able to stand it?

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When it comes to the New Testament, all four of the gospels place John the Baptist, another prophet, at the very beginning. John appears dressed like the prophet Elijah, quoting the prophet Isaiah, and talking about a coming judgment in ways that sound similar to Malachi. He too is looking forward to one who is to come.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out (in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord), make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

As Christians, we hear the words of these prophets in the context of the birth and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We have a tendency, though, to keep focused on the impending happy event of the birth and can miss the other dimension of Advent – Christ’s coming in judgment. Our passage from Matthew 3 alludes to this dimension of Advent. Prepare a straight path for God’s coming. John the Baptist quotes from Isaiah to capture the impossible possibility of a world utterly rearranged in the time of God’s coming.

With the social pressure and commercial hype leading up to Christmas, it is easy to trivialize the coming of the covenant messenger (to stick with Malachi’s title). At the worst, it’s a time of wild acquisition and social obligation. At its best, we romanticize it into a starry-eyed day of universal good-will, when (we hope) the world will take a “break” from war, violence, and hatred. But Malachi’s and John’s message is a stern one: God doesn’t want us to “take a break” from injustice and violence. We are not to be amnesiacs who forget our connection to the world in both its splendor and its horror. Instead, God wants us to repent and repair our world so that our celebration upholds covenant faithfulness rather than simply rote convention or warm platitudes.

Malachi invites us to ask: Do our lives and the excesses of the holiday season honor God’s covenant? Who made the running shoes that we bought for our daughter? Was it another child? Who is enriched by our excessive consumption? Who is made poor? Are we ready to answer for the ways in which our purchases and other daily choices disrupt and rend our covenant with sisters and brothers around the world?

Needless to say, these are not the kinds of words we want to hear during a busy holiday season. Stressed out by family, church, work, and social expectations, we long for a God who will come to affirm, not refine, us! But perhaps the ‘messenger of the covenant’ offers us something ultimately more valuable than affirmation and that is freedom – freedom from the hopeless cycle of getting and spending that does not truly create the kind of family or world we desire. In this Advent season, we are offered a way out; it may burn, but it will save us. Will we choose it?

One response to Malachi might be to try and withdraw from the world and in that way keep ourselves “pure”. Being “pure” does not involve being separate from the world, but rather having priorities different from those of people who simply follow what he vividly describes as “the god of the belly.”

Paul echoes this call in his letter to the Philippians when he encourages and prays for the church, that they will be found pure and blameless on the day of Christ because they have produced a harvest of justice. He explains that we are to live on earth – but as citizens of heaven. Indeed, as Jesus’ followers we pray every day (and every week with our children here) that it may be “on earth as in heaven.” But our heavenly citizenship means that we work to make heaven’s priorities those of earth as well, that we may produce a harvest of justice that gives honor to God and assures our neighbor’s – all our neighbors – well being.

In concrete terms it means that for those of us who are poor, for those of us who are on the underside of power, for those of us who already are pretty exhausted with figuring out how to make ends meet, how to keep a roof over our and our family’s heads, how to stay safe – it means stepping up to chart the way forward for our church, our community, our society. It means those who are poor and vulnerable are the ones – the only ones – who know how to turn a crooked path into a “straight path for God’s coming.” They are the ones to chart the path forward, to lay the blueprint.

And those of us who are not poor help turn crooked paths straight by working side by side, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with those who are poor. This means show “hesed” – loyalty – to not walk away, to not allow money or job or seeming security to anethestize or insulate, but to put our power, our social standing, our resources at the disposal of this re-charting of the way from crooked path to straight so that God’s vision of covenant community can move from dream to reality, from what should be done to what we are doing together.

This is not a fantasy – glimpses of God’s covenant community have been seen in different ways in different times, from farmworkers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and consumers across the nation compelling the largest retail corporations in the world to utterly transform the tomato fields of seven states from sites of exploitation to exemplars of human rights in the workplace. To truth and reconciliation committees in 1990s Peru that exposed and memorialized the violence of the Shining Path and Peruvian Armed Forces that shattered the republic and whose horrors claimed so many lives, allowing these lessons to be woven into the nation’s democracy. To movements afoot right now in our nation, such as the growing awareness and the more than 2,000 military veterans who are standing with Standing Rock: crooked paths are made straight by repentance and repair. But they can only be made straight when those who have been made vulnerable architect the way and those who have more power help re-route the road.

May this Advent be a time of planning and construction. In our own relationships, church, neighborhood and world, may we join the hopeful and essential work of making crooked paths straight.

Sabbath Day: From Battery Park to Bear Mountain

December 3, 2016

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Today, Thursday, Dec. 1, I completed a three-month long hiking project: a 56 mile walk from Battery Park in Manhattan all the way to Bear Mountain. Known by shore walkers as the Batt to Bear Trail, it forms part of the Hudson River Greenway.

I like the title BATT TO BEAR
For those who like walking from here to there.
– the late Pete Seeger

Readers of my blog will have read about and seen photos from earlier parts of this journey, though I avoided naming them as parts of a larger hike. My final leg on this trail consisted of a six mile walk north from the Stony Point State Park, the location of a battlefield and historic lighthouse to my destination at Bear Mountain.

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North of Stony Point, a quarry, a Con Edison facility, private property, and the route of the fiercely resisted SPECTRA/AIM Pipeline require walkers to utilize 9W for several miles from Tomkins Cove up to Dunderberg Mountain at the Southern end of Harriman State Park. Uninspired walking! West Shore road does allow one to leave 9W for a mile or so and stay close to the water, but only under the very suspicious eyes of numerous police officers wary of those rightfully opposing the pipeline construction.

Along the way, I passed a monument to the Hudson River Defense Reserve – the site where nearly two hundred obsolete WWII ships were once stored – in case they should be needed again – but which mostly served as storage facilities for surplus grain. Directly across the river can be seen Indian Point Nuclear Facility, obsolete and currently operating without a permit. The SPECTRA gas pipeline, if completed, will pass within 400 feet of the pipeline. What, me worry?

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Just north of this monument walkers can follow River Road to a dead end where the Jones Path Trail leads into a lovely wooded walk above the railroad tracks but quietly below 9W. The path leads around Jones Point, formerly Kidd’s Point – the supposed location of Captain Kidd’s lost treasure.

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On this day, the real treasure was the beautiful and wet world created by the last several days of non-stop and much needed rain. The sound of running water was constant off Dunderberg Mountain, as streams and ravines flowed toward the Queen of Rivers, the Hudson. Stretches of the trail were 2-4 inches deep in running water (and I was grateful for my purchase this year of my completely water proof Vasque hiking boots, which performed marvelously). Along the way I found both deer and coyote tracks as well as several piles of hair-infused scat of a large carnivore.

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The final stretch of the Jones Path brought me in sight of the wetlands surrounding Iona Island, a national landmark. The walk out to island was well worth taking. The wind moving among the fragmites left me with the sensation that people (or spirits) were constantly whispering about me, while at another point I heard what sounded distinctly like a typewriter – for a moment I actually (and absurdly) considered whether a writer could be hiding among the reeds. I assume it was a bird of some sort…

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The last mile or so toward Bear Mountain was familiar, having walked it several times on my way to Oktoberfest when it was still held around Hessain Lake. Here, across the Iona Marsh, the Bear Mountain Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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I had intended to finish my hike with a celebratory hamburger at the Bear Mountain Inn. For some reason I really wanted a hamburger (the BATT to BEAR has afforded some unexpected eating opportunities). Instead, I got a call from a friend and had the opportunity for good conversation – always more nourishing than food.

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Those who wish to learn more about this stretch of the Hudson River Greenway should check out Cy Adler’s Walking the Hudson: From the Battery to Bear Mountain, or explore New York City’s shorewalkers.org. A complete map of the BtB trail can be found here. I have blogged about most of my hikes along this trail.

I hope all of you, too, have found time to observe the Sabbath in this most busy time of year. It is essential to perspective, humility and inspiration. Happy Sabbathing!

Advent 1: Skeletons in the Closet

November 27, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016. The pastoral prayer was written and led by The Rev. Sarah Henkel.

“These things that are told to you from the past have a value that is your responsibility to carry. They not only have value because they had use in the past but you must also give them value.”

– Wisdom of the Great Sioux Nation

Matthew 1:1-17 (18-25)

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Many of you know how fascinated I am with genealogy. A few years ago I took what I already knew about my family, along with the many holes, mysteries and dead ends in my family story, pieced it together with photographs inherited from a great aunt, inscriptions in the front of family bibles, notes from distant relatives, and uploaded it all on ancentry.com. Within a very short time I was meeting new branches of my family tree, swapping information online, answering some of my questions and discovering new ones. I was pleased to find several generations of “solid citizens”: The Rev Fielding Washington Love and a number of other Baptist pastors, benefactors of an Episcopal church in Maryland, as well as innkeepers in Pennsylvania, railroad workers, steamboat captains, wine growers, and lots of farmers.

I am less sure what to think of the Illinois father who named his youngest son William Tecumseh Sherman in 1876. Presumably he intended to honor the civil war general whose practice of ‘total war’ had captured Atlanta and whose memoir had come out the year before. But this same general was at that time carrying out the government’s genocidal policy against indigenous people in the Great Sioux War of 1876. That’s a tough name to live with. In any case, my William Tecumseh Sherman became a baker. Several family members learned to live with serious physical disabilities, including loss of limbs. And then there were the truly colorful characters: Richard the pig thief who came to the Colony of Virginia as an indentured servant as punishment for his crime. And Elizabeth Knapp, the “Witch of Groton” Massachusetts, who was the first recorded case of spiritual possession in the new world. And Jonathan Plowman, who was a spy, a patriot and a privateer (read pirate) during the Revolutionary War.

I realized the other day that I’ve never preached a sermon on the genealogy of Jesus, though I did used to require every one of my confirmation students to create their own. Because where we come from tells us a lot about who we are. If you were to sketch your own genealogy, how far back could you trace? Any eyebrow-raising characters in your history?

The anonymous author of the Gospel we have attributed to Matthew was only the second person to try his hand at writing a biography of Jesus. Mark was the first, and he set the pattern others would follow. Twenty years later, Matthew had Mark’s Gospel, along with a collection of Jesus’ sayings, before him as he wrote. Of the 661 verses in Mark, Matthew copies all but 53 of them. In creating his own gospel story, however, Matthew omits some things, adds or expands others things, and re-orders, revises or abbreviates still others, to create a new biography of Jesus. And it begins right here with the genealogy. Mark didn’t have one; he began his story with John the Baptist beside the Jordan River. But Matthew, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus.[1]

In the ancient world, biographies often began with long genealogies. A genealogy established a lineage of wealth, power, and prestige, which the subject must live up to, or sketched the history of character, distinct bloodlines, or divine favor one had inherited. The many biographies of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor when Jesus was born, all spoke of his miraculous conception, divine calling, and mission to bring peace (through conquest) to all the world. The point of a genealogy is to build expectation for the life to come. Jesus’ genealogy would be no different.

The genealogy of Jesus the Christ immediately evokes the entire sweep of Hebrew scripture and Hebrew history, from God’s creation of the heavens and the earth down to the present day, which is the effect Matthew is after. He wants us to feel caught up into a much larger story, the story of God’s purposes being worked out both in hearts and in history. And he wants to show us the hinge on which this history turns, the work of Jesus: in forgiving sins, freeing us from oppression, and establishing God’s reign among us. It will take him the whole gospel to show us what this means. But it is all foreshadowed in this genealogy. [2]

Matthew wrote his gospel for a community of Jesus’ followers in the Syrian city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, just behind Alexandria and Rome itself.

Matthew’s community was small, perhaps a few hundred in the city of 200,000. He writes in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, destruction of everything sure and certain about Jewish life. His community may well have included refugees from Palestine, as Rome refused to let any Jews remain there after Jerusalem was sacked. The Gospel of Mark, written in Palestine, had encouraged Jesus’ followers not to defend their city, but to flee to the hills. Perhaps it was just this kind of refugee who carried Mark’s Gospel to Antioch in the first place.

Whatever the case may be, Matthew’s opening words, “This is the Genealogy of Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” assured his community that no matter what loss they had experienced as Jews, no matter how hard pressed they were by Rome, God was still sovereign over history.

In contrast to the genealogies of emperors and kings, Jesus’ genealogy has both men and women; it has not only Jews but Gentiles too; and it features second-born sons. Despite the thoroughly patriarchal society in which Matthew was writing, he lifts up four women, two of whom were Gentiles – Ruth was a Moabite and Rahab was a Cannanite – and another, Bathsheba, was married to Uriah the Hittite. All four of the women mentioned fought fiercely to secure God’s promise for themselves and their descendants. They are each defined certainly by their sexual encounters with men – Tamar who slept with her father-in-law to provide an heir, Ruth who laid with Boaz in order to support her mother-in-law Naomi, Rahab a prostitute in Jericho without whom Joshua would never have conquered the city, Bathsheba who was raped by David and yet ensured her son inherited the title of King.[3]

And in a society in which privilege goes to the firstborn son, Matthew’s genealogy shows that God often selects the second, third, or even fourth to bear the promise. Isaac was Abraham’s second son. Jacob was Isaac’s second son. Judah was Jacob’s fourth son, and it is through his line that Jesus descends.

And while Jesus’ family includes fifteen kings, only two – Hezekiah and Josiah – were considered to be good kings. Six received rather mixed reviews in scripture, and seven were considered downright evil. They failed to walk in the way of kings and uphold God’s justice.

So like the thief and the witch and the pirate in my own family tree, like the steamboat captain and the utterly unimportant poor Appalachian farmer in my bloodline, those whom the society of that time would have considered “insignificant” or even “skeletons” are on full display in Jesus’ genealogy. As one theologian has put it,

The gospel writer did not hide the skeletons in Jesus’ closet, but listed them, so that we may know that the Savior has really come to be one of us – not just one of the high-and mighty, the aristocratic with impeccable bloodlines, but one of us.[4]

You can imagine Joseph, Jesus’ dad, telling him where he came from; walking him back through his family’s history – the good, the bad, the ugly – and reminding him of how God’s people had endured and hoped and dreamed across the generations. How they used all that they had and all of who they were to secure God’s promise in each generation at great sacrifice often to themselves and without certainty of success. And how the next part of God’s story was up to him.

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Looking back over this storied history, and with the help of a dream, Joseph could see God at work. Looking toward the future with the same expectation, Joseph named his infant son Jesus, after the Old Testament figure Joshua who led God’s people into the promised land. His name means, God is our salvation.

O come, desire of Nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and discord cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

As we remember Jesus’ genealogy, let us also remember our own. Let us remember our ancestors’ struggle and sacrifice; let us remember the desire and risk and uncertainty that has brought us this far by faith, and let us, as heirs of this rich story, play our part. Our God saves.

Pastoral Prayer

Creator God,
Your saving story journeys through all generations
and into our present.

We thank you for the witnesses,
the ancestors whose wisdom and whose mistakes
accompany and inform us if we listen.

We pray for this generation and age in which we live and breathe.
We pray that there may be ways of violence and greed that stop with us.
We pray that there may be restored life and hope –
   the work of generations and generations before us –
that now bears fruit through us.

We pray for this planet earth who no longer can wait generations until we get it right.
We pray for wisdom now for the healing of our relationship
to the water,the soil, the air, all plants and animals.

We pray for the Water Protectors from hundreds of Native American nations gathered now with the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota to protect the Cannonball River, the Missouri River, the Oglala aquifer from the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline.  We pray for the protection of life as militarized police forces bear weapons to confront nonviolent water protectors. We pray with generations of Indigenous people who have been praying over this land for centuries through genocide and war and greed that seems without end. May there be an end. May freedom be born to this generation.

We pray for all who in these days are nurturing a spirituality of resistance to all that bears violence and hate.  Giving thanks for the hundreds who gathered in White Plains on Friday to say yes to strong communities and no to the politics of fear and division.

We pray for the nation of Cuba, for those who mourn Fidel Castro’s passing, for all who are anxious about the transitions of power in Cuba and in the U.S.  We pray for strength and clarity for the people of Cuba.

We pray for peace in all nations living with the daily realities of war.

We pray for the stories of joy and pain that are woven through our days…

(Prayer petitions from the congregation were offered)

Holy Spirit, move us out into this world to love. Continue to enliven this generations-long story of love that is stronger than death.  We pray in the name of Emmanuel, God with us, now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] Warren Carter, Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. (Hendrickson, 1996).

[2] “To Save His People from Their Sins (Matthew 1:21): Rome’s Empire and Matthew’s Salvation as Sovereignty” in Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Exploration. (Trinity Press international, 2001).

[3] Amy Jill Levine, cited in Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. (Orbis Press, 2000). See also Elaine Wainwright, Shall We Look for Another?: A Feminist Re-Reading of Matthew’s Jesus. (Orbis, 1998).

[4] Justo Gonzalez, in The People’s Bible, (Fortress Press, 2009), p. 1414.

And He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word

November 21, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2016. The sermon was written by The Rev. Noelle Damico as a meditation for Good Friday in 2003, but is as relevant today as it was then. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Luke 23:32-38

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  This first word of Jesus from the cross is a word of compassion and of comfort.  They who crucified Jesus did not know what they were doing.  And we, two-thousand years later, who read this in worship or ritually participate each Good Friday in the crucifixion narrative, hear these words with relief.  They are a salve upon the ragged cry that we raise in the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus”, “’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied You; I crucified You.”  We don’t know what we are doing either.  It is reassuring to have this first word of Jesus from the cross.  It makes bearable the unbearable.  It makes it possible for us to continue on, chastened, but helpless through this troubled world.  “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

But it was likely never spoken.  This “first word” of Jesus, is a highly disputed verse – many ancient manuscripts actually lack this verse entirely.  In fact in the New Revised Standard Version, this phrase is in brackets to indicate just how questionable it is.  Further, our gospels creatively stage the drama of the crucifixion decades after it happened – the gospel writers are not reporting “live from Golgatha.”  It is more likely that, Jesus’ crucifixion took place like the African American Spiritual, “They crucified my Lord, and He never said a mumbalin’ word.  Not a word.  Not a word, not a word, not a word.”

How might it change this story for us if Jesus said, “not a word?”

For the way we typically receive this first word “forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” allows us to pretend that we are little children, sinning by foolishness or by mistake or by the unintended consequences of our noble actions.  It makes us helpless sinners who don’t know any better and can’t do any better, even with God’s forgiveness.  We’re hopeless cases you and I.  We keep on sinning and God keeps on forgiving.  It’s the best we can expect in this crazy, mixed up world.  But such an understanding of sin and forgiveness runs completely counter to the entire ministry of Jesus.

First, Jesus didn’t walk around meek and mild, forgiving people right and left.  Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day vituperously accusing them of seizing the property and livelihood of the poor for the temple.  Just two chapters earlier in Luke we read, “In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.  Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; and he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins” (Lk 20:45-42).

Jesus confronted the authority of the Roman Empire as well.  Jerusalem and all of Palestine was under the control of the Empire that had violently subdued the Jewish people living there; thousands were slaughtered, thousands were enslaved, thousands were crucified.  Pilate was installed by Rome as governor of Judea and charged with “keeping the peace” by the Emperor.  Luke, in the verses just before our reading, describes how the assembly of the elders of the people the chief priests and the scribes brought Jesus before Pilate saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2).  Pilate asks him “Are you the king of the Jews” – in other words, are you setting yourself up as King of this subdued and conquered people, and threatening allegiance to the Emperor?  Jesus says “You say so.”

Jesus’ confrontation continues beyond his sentencing and even after his flogging.  On the road to his own crucifixion, Jesus calls out to the crowds, to women who were mourning publicly saying, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”

If we read the narrative that leads us to the crucifixion in the gospel of Luke, we do not find Jesus forgiving or showing mercy toward the religious and political authorities who colluded to crucify him, or to the energized mob in their uncritical furor.  Instead, we find him turning over tables in the temple, predicting the overthrow of Jerusalem by armies, and refusing to give an inch to the Romans or the Religious leaders.  Now this is not to say that Jesus did not show mercy in his ministry.  In fact his three year ministry was all about mercy.  But mercy to whom?  To the poor, to the excluded, to the beaten down. Jesus did bless those who were poor, comfort those who were grieving, forgive and heal those who were sick, and welcome those who were excluded by religious and cultural practices whether they were prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers or children.  But Jesus never forgave the Roman Empire or offered mercy to the religious authorities who hounded him and his disciples.  To them he had harsh words of condemnation.

So it strains credulity that with his first breath, upon being crucified as an enemy of the state, he would say “Father; forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  For he knew that they knew exactly what they were doing.

And the corollary of this is, of course, that we know what we’re doing as well.

Is the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion simply that confused people, thousands of years ago, accidentally crucified God?  Is that what is so terrible and so shocking?  Is that what we, by extension, need forgiveness for?   No.

In Jesus, God became human, walked among us, observing the covenant God established with Abraham and continued with Moses, and the prophets, and he was crucified for that.  Not for being “God” in some abstract metaphysical sense, but for acting as God in the world – acting as God commanded us to act in the world — for that is a true threat to the powers and principalities.

Jesus stirred up the poor and the powerless to live with him in ways that challenged reigning social, economic and religious assumptions and injustices.  Jesus publicly confronted political and religious authorities that oppressed the people – even when they did so for patriotic or pious reasons, and he did so in the name of God and was hailed as King.  And that’s why he was crucified.  The religious authorities and the Romans knew exactly what they were doing.  And the crowd was easily inflamed.  And the soldiers, well, they just did their duty.

The terrible and shocking thing of Jesus’ crucifixion is that it was so ordinary.  Rome crucified thousands upon thousands of people.  It was the world working as our world works every day.  And it is for this that we seek forgiveness.  But Jesus?  He never said a mumbalin’ word.  Not a word.  Not a word.

By God becoming Human, living among us and being killed by us, God has laid down the ultimate challenge before us.  We have seen our own power.  We can no longer claim ignorance or innocence.  We have a choice to make.  Will we continue with our lives as usual, or will we, like Jesus, nonviolently and tenaciously confront the powers of our day that continue to exploit, demean, and crucify?   

Perhaps what we most need to hear from the cross is this silence, for this silence allows us to see the truth of our situation, of our complicity and of our responsibility for change.  It is an urgent silence.  And it is we, not Jesus, who are the ones who must break that silence; and in so doing, find forgiveness.  Amen.

© 2003, The Rev. Noelle Damico

Sabbath Day: The NYC Waterfront Greenway

November 19, 2016

 

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In my sermon last Sunday I cited my Synod Executive, The Rev. Harold Delhagen, as saying that in this era of President-Elect Trump, our congregations must become places of sanctuary and lighthouses of justice reflecting the Reign of God. I have a pilgrim’s kind of mind – and this Sabbath Day promised warm temps in the mid 60’s and beautiful sunny day – so I got up early and caught a 6:00 am train to the city for a long anticipated hike.

I began at Battery Park, the southernmost point of Manhattan, with a wonderful early morning view of the Statue of Liberty announcing the United States as a place of sanctuary for the worlds oppressed and impoverished. Central to the Battery Park is Castle Clinton (built to defend New York during the War of 1812) and a sculpture by Luis Sanguine (1934) which depicts the struggle of immigrants, including (from the era) an Eastern European Jew, a freed African slave, a priest, and a worker.

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And there, in the early morning light, was Lady Liberty. It seems impossible, after this election, that her welcome of the world’s “huddled masses” could be a symbol for our nation:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Far beyond her was visible the Iron Bound international docks of Port Elizabeth, which handles 95% of all consumer goods purchased in the Northeast. Environmental racism is the name of the game in the Iron Bound, with immigrant detentions centers, prisons, overflowing waste disposal and water treatment plants, toxic school yards, and a robust citizen action coalition fighting for a better future.

Across the Hudson River, seemingly oblivious to all this, the sun reflected off Jersey City.

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This same sun would eventually leave me tanned and burnt, unexpected in November.

My plan for the day was to walk the West Side of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway from Battery Park to the Little Red Lighthouse (of justice?) all along the majestic Hudson River. With great views of One World Trade Center, Trinity Church, SoHo, Chelsea Pier, the Intrepid, Tribeca, the Empire State Building, the Cherry Walk, Grant’s Tomb and Riverside Church…

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…as well as fellow walkers, joggers, shufflers, practitioners of Tai-Chi, cyclers, skateboarders, and eccentric idlers, I walked the 11.2 miles to the Little Red Lighthouse. The juxtaposition of the urban-built and crafted-natural was entirely pleasant, as I knew this path could/would lead me – eventually – to genuine wilderness in the Catskills.

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The whole walk only took a matter of hours, but the mental break, as well as space to think clearly, were invaluable Sabbath gifts. Installation art can be found throughout the path. Beyond squirrels and birds, my most exotic companion was this little baby snake.

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It took a little less than four hours to walk from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge where my present walk would link up with previous walks. This time I got to watch the salt flats of New Jersey growing into the impressive Palisades. The autumn colors had not changed much since my walk across the GW, but there were many fewer leaves.

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At last I made it to the Little Red Lighthouse, to pose again where I had almost exactly a month ago, having hiked down from the north.

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Today, however, I continued my walk north of the bridge, past the Grecian Temple, Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters all the way to Inwood Hill Park and the Harlem River. At that point I caught a bus and then a train back home…

…just in time to get my son August Xavier off the bus and to his volunteer job at the Greenburgh Nature Center where her takes care of the large animals -goats, sheep, turkey, pheasants and chickens. He is the goat whisperer. If walking didn’t do it, nuzzling a goat is a sure way to reduce stress.

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I fell into bed tired and sore footed, but relaxed, non-anxious, and more hopeful than I had the night before. The day had been one long walking prayer for our earth, my companions, and my local urban watershed. There is nothing like 19 miles of walking to make on feel grounded – literally.

Time to Testify

November 13, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016, five days after the 2016 election.

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Luke 21:7-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

I am tempted to sit down right now and simply let Jesus’ words work on us, on you and me. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, when the world around you seems to be coming to an end, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Yes, there will be “dreadful portents,” but before the end the faithful will be brought before the powers that be as an opportunity to testify. So the end is not here yet, and our only call is to persevere in speaking out on behalf of love, light, caring, and sacrifice. The church must rise every morning, pray for strength, and continue to believe in and speak of the God who is Love.[1]

Jesus’ easily distracted disciples are all too impressed with the large stones of their civilization, but Jesus can imagine a day when those stones will no longer stand. The Temple was, truly, a sight to behold, one of architectural wonders of the ancient world. It was constructed by Herod (yes, that Herod) over the course of a century as both a temple and a tourist site to compete with other glories of the Roman World. The stones that awed the disciples were seven feet by nine feet by sixty feet long! They would have been covered with gold, polished so that when the sun shone upon them at dawn one would be forced to look away as if one were trying to look upon the sun itself. From a distance, the unadorned stone shone white like a beacon, the original a city on a hill. It was a symbol of hope and achievement and worship (and commerce). But Jesus could imagine a time when it would all be gone. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, it was gone, along with all Jerusalem, systematically destroyed and dismantled, stone by stone, by Imperial Rome. This is the trauma that every Gospel writer remembers, the event in light of which they remember Jesus, the end of one world and its replacement by another.

But if the disciples’ question about the destruction of the temple was the occasion for Jesus’ thinking about the future, this question quickly drops away as Jesus’ subject becomes the future of Jerusalem, which in turn becomes a symbol of the future time when God’s kingdom will be truly established. Jesus words are unsettling, “all this will be thrown down,” and the disciples ask for a sign so that they may know when these things are to take place.[2]

Every generation wants a sign, doesn’t it? A key for reading historical events that tell us what time it is. What is demanded of us. Who or what we are called be and do. To understand ‘What’s going on?’ “We seek signs to get a sense of security about our lives, a sense of control over the precarity of life in the same way that [Jesus disciples sought signs of the coming Reign of God] to help them feel less unsettled about all the turmoil going on around them with the Roman occupation of their land.”[3]

Jesus doesn’t offer one.

Instead, all he promises is that “this is not the end.” He warns his disciples about would be prophets and messiahs, those who promise the easy fulfillment of all their dreams. He cautions them about “false hopes and expectations arising out of events that might reasonably have been seen as signs that the final days were at hand – leading to intense disillusionment and loss of faith when these expectations were not fulfilled.” No, before God’s reign comes Jesus foresees persecution, protest, prison, and what he calls dreadful portents – wars and rumors of wars, ecological breakdown, hunger and health crisis. Families and neighbors will turn on one another, and some will die. But, my friends, as long as those things are happening, we know the end has not come. This time, he says, this present time, is given to you, that you may testify. And by your endurance, you will gain your souls.

Gee, thanks Jesus.

I have been, like many of you, profoundly, even physically sad, since Tuesday evening. I have found it hard to concentrate. I’ve cried reading the newspaper, and I have read it obsessively. I have had no words to describe my feelings, and then far too many. While I hope and pray that I am wrong, I resonate with the worst fears and predictions for our nation, that the American experiment in democracy is over; that the global order painstakingly constructed over the last century, flawed as it is, will unravel as the U.S. threatens to pull out of NATO, our United Nations obligations, and international treaties; it is certain that four years of new and unregulated fossil-fuel infrastructure will be an absolute death sentence for the planet. And closer to home and more immediately, a rash of racist and hateful attacks has swept across the country this week, displaying the vilest kind of hatred that we always knew was there but which now shows itself proudly in the light of day. “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible,” tweeted the French ambassador to the United States on Wednesday. “A world is collapsing before our eyes.”[4]

What’s going on? What time is it?

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, when the world around you seems to be coming to an end, do not be terrified; these things will take place, but the end will not follow immediately.” As long as we can stand before the powers that be and speak out on behalf of love, light, caring, and sacrifice, we have not come to the end. This is the time given to us. Time to testify.

I want to share with you a pastoral letter I received from our Synod Executive, The Rev. Harold Delhagen, earlier this week. He writes

While we may have differing positions on some issues, we find a powerful consensus upon the Gospel values that form our Christian witness.  We stand in whole-hearted solidarity with those who have been marginalized in the past and for whom the current political environment offers only a greater threat of hatred, violence and further marginalization.

We will stand together with our siblings of color, of those within our LGBTQ community, for those who have immigrated into our country and for those who still dream of finding a home among us. We will stand arm in arm with people of all faiths and will especially stand with our siblings within the Muslim community. We will remain passionate in our commitment to gender equality. We recognize the need to begin with common lament and that words will just not be enough.

We will renew our commitment to a greater vision that embraces these Gospel values. We will intentionally create ways to listen carefully to one another’s stories, our fears and our deep hope for our future. [May our] congregations [be] places of sanctuary and lighthouses of justice reflecting the reign of God.[5]

I am reminded of the words of the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for standing on the side of those made poor and those persecuted by their own government: “Try not to depend on hope, because unfulfilled hope leads to despair, and we have no need of a despairing people. Try instead to be faithful… to get up each day and do that which needs to be done.”[7]

Friends, I am exceedingly grateful that within this community, when we say the things that must be said to confront this new era of mainstreamed bigotry and mainstreaming of white supremacist violence, when we stand up and speak out against the racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamophobia unleashed by our President-elect, it will not be for the first time. We have some practice in this, and we have made some amazing partners and relationships along the way. Many of us, by color or gender or sexuality or nationality or immigration status or income have experience we can draw on as we seek to speak and act faithfully. And we have a particular task as Christians as we confront the white fundamentalist Christians who, as Carmen has said so many times, seem to be reading from a different bible than we do.[6]

We must re-commit ourselves to the work of justice, love and peace, within and without, so that we may be not be found wanting when God’s reign comes. Which means deepening our prayer lives, sinking ourselves in our scriptures, keeping this time of worship together a priority in our lives so that we can experience and share the love and grace of our amazing God with a deeply hurting, and rightfully fearful world. Only then will our lives be so trained and disciplined that we will not need to prepare our words, as Jesus said, but will be always ready to say what needs to be said, for this is the task of our time – to testify.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

[1] I thank my colleague Rev. Martin McGeachy, with whom I spoke about my hopes and fears on Monday, for capturing my reading of this text and writing it out in this way.

[2] Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Liturgical Press, 2015.

[3] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “Luke” in True to Our native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Fortress Press, 2007. p. 181.

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/world/donald-trumps-victory-promises-to-upend-the-international-order.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-abc-region&region=span-abc-region&WT.nav=span-abc-region&_r=0

[5] http://us13.campaign-archive2.com/?u=59611cd4148e1d99d0b44ec43&id=b94d9779f4&e=a76c7b28bd

[6] The phrase “mainstreamed bigotry and mainstreaming white supremacist violence” appeared earlier this week in an article by Sarah Kendzior about Presbyterian publisher and martyr Elijah Lovejoy. https://thecorrespondent.com/5575/our-fate-was-sealed-long-before-november-8-and-not-because-the-elections-rigged/1576889402275-7591b019

[7] This quotation was shared online earlier this week by Rick Ufford-Chase, Member of the intentionally interfaith Community of Living Traditions, and Co-Director of the Stony Point Center.

My Young River Keeper

November 10, 2016

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My son August Xavier is a fan of rivers. This comes from living near the Hudson River and taking family vacations which traced the Delaware, Potomac, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Platte and Salmon Rivers. As a three-year old he was awed by Niagara Falls and took his first extended river walk that same year in the Monongahela. As a little boy he would go hiking with me, putting on big rubber boots and walking not on the trails but against the flow of early spring water in local creeks. He has since rafted on the Kennebec, Cumberland and Missouri rivers, kayaked in the Mystic and Long Island Sound, and makes an annual trip to view the St. Lawrence from the Canadian side. As an eight year old he was once asked to draw a picture of the United States; but he didn’t draw the state lines – he drew the rivers.

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The concept of watershed comes naturally to August. We talk about it, of course, but we also live it. We live in an urban co-op in downtown White Plains, NY, exactly 1,670 steps from the Mamaroneck River to the east, and 1,670 steps from the Bronx River to the west. Our building sits on the ridge between two watersheds. It is a completely built environment, of course, but still we can literally watch water flowing in two opposite directions from our building during heavy rainfall. The storm drains at either end of our street take this water to the Long Island Sound and to the Hudson River.

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Nearly a month ago my son and I learned of American Rivers’ Virtual Landfill project. Using the hashtag #rivercleanup, participants pledge to pick up “25 pieces of trash in 25 days” and post photos online. The invitation noted that “storm drains, parking lots, and rain; they’re all connected when it comes to moving trash into rivers.” Keeping this trash from getting into the storm sewers in the first place is a practical way to contribute to cleaner rivers that everyone can do wherever they are – even us city dwellers. Though we have several times filled trash bags during on our walks along the Bronx River, August is still too young to participate in any of the organized Annual Coastal Cleanup projects sponsored by our local river activists, the Bronx River Alliance. This, on the other hand, we could handle. We pledged ourselves immediately.

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Most of the trash has been picked up coming to or from the school bus, on our way to the stores and restaurants on Main Street, or walking to church. It’s become part of our daily routine. Because of our proximity to a shopping district we primarily found discarded plastic bags, consumer packaging, receipts, unwanted advertising cards, food wrappers and soiled utensils. This trash would have ended up in the four storm drains on our street. All of it was carelessly and needlessly tossed aside: there are trash cans at either end of the street. Beyond that, there are two parks nearby, each of which contains more than ten trash cans each.

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The hardest part of the pledge was not the picking up of one piece of trash each day. That was easy, and we will continue to do so long after our 25 days are complete. No, the hardest part was resisting the lure to pick up ALL of the trash. We could have done it, a few times, but we would never have sustained it as a daily practice. Instead, we have become more willing to say something when we see someone littering. And we pick up something. We discovered that there is a need for a trash can in the middle of the block, as in fact there used to be; something we are trying to correct. We also want to give a shout out to our building supervisor who we watch everyday pick up trash in front of our building. We’ve come to see the building supervisors throughout our city as unrecognized river keepers by keeping this stuff out of our rivers in the first place.

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Today, was day 23 out of 25. We’ll be done in a few days, but will continue to work keeping our street and sewers clean. When we look at our street, we think about the rivers. So, how about you? Are you up for the challenge? Visit American Rivers online and sign up today.