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Sabbath Day – Discerning Hospitality

January 20, 2017

This seems to be a familiar pattern for a winter Sabbath Day.

  • Took in a show at Garcia’s last night: Finder Keepers bringing the music of the Jerry Garcia Band.
  • It was warm enough to take my morning coffee on the balcony today. Then sat in the sun with a good book. Today I was reading Strangers, Gods and Monsters by Richard Kearney (about whom I wrote last week). This is the third and final volume his trilogy  “Philosophy of the Limits.”
  • At noon I took a walk in the city, got a haircut, and had a bowl of outstanding clam chowder.
  • Stopped at the grocery store to buy what I needed to make dinner. Brought it home and prepared my ‘brisket and brussels sprouts.’
  • Emptied my son’s dresser drawers, sorted his clothes (removing those he has outgrown), refolded everything and put it away.
  • Dinner with the family
  • Finished the Strangers, Gods and Monsters. which death with ethics and discernment at the liminal experiences of life. The other books in this trilogy are The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion which develops Kearney’s post-metaphysical approach to divinity, and On Stories which demonstrates narrative as one mean of developing and sustaining oneself-as-another (the phase is Paul Ricoeur’s) as an ethical alternative to either modern egoism or nihilism. I read the God book last weekend. I will read the narrative book on the plane this weekend (I am traveling). All three explore how we exercise moral discernment in welcoming the truly unexpected Other.

I end this day with a prayer for all who are traveling this weekend for the Women’s March (including my wife), praying for their collective safety and powerful witness that women’s rights are human rights. Many more are heading to sister marches in New York City and elsewhere. Wherever you are, join in prayer for our nations from the perspective of the most threatened  communities.

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Called to Community

January 17, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017. This is the first of three sermons on what it means to answer the call of Christ by making three commitments to community, conscience and caring.

 Psalm 27:1, 4-9          Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Last Sunday my ten-year old son read scripture to the younger children during the children’s message. He read to them from The Family Story Bible, by Ralph Milton. I sat over there, with the choir, and felt such pride: my son, reading scripture, with meaning, for others. I thank each one of you who came up to him after worship and during fellowship time to tell him you thought he read well, or to comment on how much he has grown since he first came here at age four. And I thought to myself, “you-all have a stake in him, you really do, in his growth and development, in who he is and who he is becoming. You are the community that is keeping the promises made at his baptism. And when it is time for confirmation, that time for him to decide whether he will join the church as a member, he will be able to think back over his life to the many ways you have nurtured and encouraged him.  And we will look forward to his answer.

In our Gospel text this morning we find Jesus keeping God’s promise to bring light to those who sit in darkness. And right there we learn something important. There is darkness in the world, and there are people in it, sitting in darkness. Some are trapped in darkness, unable to find a way out; others have embraced the darkness, using it to hide themselves or their actions from the sight of others. In darkness, we are easily lost, stripped of one of our primary senses, one we depend on to make our way in the world. Biblically, darkness represents the absence of God’s guiding light, being cut-off from God’s overflowing and generous life. Darkness is that which is contrary to God’s life-giving purposes. Psalm 81 says those who walk in darkness are those who do injustice to (make life difficult for) the weak and needy, while Psalm 111 says the righteous are those who deal in justice, give to the poor, and are lights in the darkness. Darkness isolates us, though we were created to enjoy abundant life in community. Light allows us to see our neighbors.

It is interesting to me that Matthew does not say that Jesus brought light into the world by preaching, teaching, and healing, but my making a home in a particular place, beside the sea, and meeting his neighbors. It is with them that he will preach, teach and heal, talk about God and God’s love for the world, but he fulfills the prophecy by making his home – “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea (a fishing village with a population of about 1000), so that the words of the prophet might be fulfilled: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

Jesus proclaims repentance, for “the kingdom of God is at hand.” And the first sign of this coming kingdom is the calling of people to be a part of it – those who will learn to live this new way of life together, to walk in the light. And Jesus walked by the sea … saying to those he found there, ordinary people, going about their daily tasks, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

When we first moved to White Plains I was reading to my son from the same story bible he read to the younger children last week. And we were reading this story about Jesus calling friends. Ralph Milton calls it “Simon Gets a Job.” The story weaves together several seaside narratives, but says that Simon was tired. He had been trying to catch fish all night long. But there didn’t seem to be any fish.

Simon was cleaning his fishing net on the shore. He saw Jesus walking toward him. A crowd of people was following Jesus.
“Simon,” called Jesus, “may I use your boat?”
“Sure,” said Simon. “Why?”
“If you stop it near the shore, I can sit in the boat and talk to the people.”
When Jesus was finished talking to the people, he asked Simon, “How many fish did you catch?”
“There aren’t any fish out there,” Simon grumbled.
“Sure, there are,” laughed Jesus. “Get back into your boat and go where the water is deep. Then try again.”
“Wow!” shouted Simon after he started fishing again. “Look at all these fish. My boat is full. Look out! It might sink.”
It was hard to row that boat full of fish back to the shore. As he rowed, Simon thought about Jesus. He thought about the things he had just heard Jesus saying.
Then Simon felt sad. “I can’t live in God’s way,” he thought. “I tell lies. I get angry. I’m ugly. I do stupid things. Jesus wouldn’t want to be my friend.”
Jesus was standing on the shore waiting for Simon. “Simon,” said Jesus, “I’d like to talk to you.”
“You shouldn’t be talking to me,” Simon said to Jesus. “I’m not a good person. I do bad things. And I’m not very smart.”
“Simon,” said Jesus. “I helped you with your work. Why don’t you come help me with mine?”
“But all I can do is catch fish!”
“Fine,” laughed Jesus. “Come, help me catch people.”
That’s how Simon became one of Jesus special helpers. Other women and men also became Jesus special helpers. The Bible calls them disciples.[1]

The first time I read this story to August, when he was four years old, his response was hysterical laughter. Fall on the floor, don’t forget to breath, laughter. “Catch People. Ha ha ha. Jesus is so silly, dad.”  Which is probably true. But when he stopped laughing August asked me, “Was Simon helpful?”

Right there I gained a new appreciation for the power of story to capture our imagination and of a simple request to set in motion the stirring of our souls.  The story is as much about Simon’s willingness to follow as it is about Jesus’ call to him. It’s about call and response, both of which are necessary for following Christ. Was Simon helpful to Jesus? Yes. Yes he was.  He wasn’t always on target, he got some things really wrong, he even turned away from Jesus and denied him.  But Simon was helpful to Jesus.

To bring light to the darkness, Jesus began calling people together to share a holy way of being in the world. He calls each one of us, but not for ourselves alone, Jesus always calls people into community to reflect God’s light to the world.

Twenty years ago my wife Noelle was part of the planning team for a church mission fair at church I was serving. She suggested they design a T-shirt for the church. They wanted the shirt to reflect the values of the church, to invite questions about the church, and to use words that everyone could understand, but that, in combination, would suggest something new. Noelle came up with the words: community, conscience, and caring. Wearing that shirt for a decade while talking about what it meant to be church, those words settled into a very deep place in my heart and have come to describe for me what it means to respond to the call of Christ.

  • We are called into and commit ourselves to community;
  • When Christ stirs our conscience, we must act;
  • and we are drawn by Christ to a network of caring.

My stump speech for years and what it means to be a member of the church is: in response to the call of Christ, to make a commitment to community, conscience, and caring. Our participation in and belonging to the church of Christ can be measured by the visible ways we live this out each day.

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The church is not a membership organization. It is a mission, God’s mission, in a broken and fearful world. It does not have a mission, it IS a mission. It is the movement of God’s people on our way to reconciliation: Ephesians. It is the body of Christ, in the flesh, in our flesh, today. Every Easter we sing “Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” The church is a response to God’s call, then and now, for when God calls, God always call us together.

One must be a member of the church to vote in congregational meetings. One must ordinarily be a member of the church to present a child for baptism. One cannot be elected to service in the church as a ruling elder unless one has declared a commitment to membership before the church council. But everyone may worship here. Everyone may ask for prayers from our prayer ministers, or come by for conversation with the pastors, or help out in church events.  While the church has members, the church is not a club or a membership organization.  The point of the church is not to “increase membership” but to participate in God’s mission.  When Jesus and Simon aim to “catch people,” it’s not about numbers, it’s about catching them up in God’s spirit – it’s about inviting commitment and courage in dark times, it’s about building community.  Unlike a shareholder in a corporation, one doesn’t become a member in order to “diversify your portfolio” or “increase your value;” you become a member because the values of this community and the values you hold, align.  When one becomes a member, you are making and intentional decision to join your life with a community of God’s people who are sharing a way of life.

Some of you here today are members, others have sojourned with us for many years but have, for whatever reason, decided not to join, still others here are exploring membership in this congregation, and others are visitors who happened in.  All are welcome.  And all are important.  But if you have ever wondered what it means to be a member, it means to make a commitment to this congregation that you will join your life with the life of this community. That you will make a home here; like Jesus did in Capernaum.  If that sounds like something you’d like to explore, do it.  Explore it.  And allow yourself to imagine how God might be calling you, as a part of this congregation, to help bring light to those who sit in darkness.  Amen.

[1] Ralph Milton and Margaret Kyle. The Lectionary Story Bible. Three Volumes: Years A, B, and C. Woodlake Publishers, 2007. Milton and Kyle have also published the one volume Family Story Bible, also with Woodlake Publishers, which is hands down the best “Children’s Bible” on the market.

Sabbath Day – Irish Postmodernism

January 16, 2017

This late post looks back to my Sabbath Day last Thursday, the 12th of January, 2017.

Though I got up early to read an dialogue between Richard Kearney and Catherine Keller, most of my day was a gift to my son (described below). Kearney is an Irish Catholic postmodern philosopher, developing a mediating hermeneutics of religion that finds grounds for a “possibilizing God” between the apophatic phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion and the “messianicity without messianism” of Jacques Derrida or the theopoetics of John Caputo – all of whom oppose the God of ontological being. Kearney calls this anatheism – “the hermeneutic recovery of the divine after the death of the metaphysical God,” an idea he develops in a book of the same name. Keller is a process-feminist theologian who is in rich conversation with contemporary physics. Together, they bring of strong ethical focus to the postmodern turn to God. The dialogue took place in a Manhattan tea-room in March of 2014, and is published in Reimagining the Sacred: Richard Kearney Debates God, a collection of eleven such conversations, edited by Kearney and Jens Zimmerman.

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A postmodern response to God with an Irish twist

That was my morning coffee. The rest of my day was spent cleaning my son’s room. It was an all-day project – Legos, Pokemon, books, blocks, the detritus of homework projects, art supplies, action figures, stuffed animals, building supplies, a tent, and an aquarium with nothing left living in it. At the end of the day, the floor could be vacuumed. As a result, he and I could (on Saturday) sort his unbuilt legos (or at least some of them) into master builder boxes for future projects. While working, my head was filled with philosophy from my morning coffee.

It was a beautiful day on Thursday, one I wish I could have been hiking on. It was in the high fifties on Jan. 12!!! But this project day has left us more ready to ride out the rest of the winter indoors, if need be. And joy, joy, from my son in appreciation. Worth it!

Happy Sabbath

Sabbath Day – Twelfth Night

January 6, 2017

So this is Twelfth Night, the last of the twelve days of Christmas and evening before Epiphany. I actually started my sabbath day late last night. It’s been a rich 24 hours.

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  • Took in a show at Garcias last night with Betty and the Boards, a groovy Dead cover band. My friend Bill Bonnaci sat in on the second set and soared.
  • Spent my whole morning reading the correspondence between Rene Descartes and Princes Elizabeth of Bohemia, who he claimed was the only person who understood everything he had written. Problem is, she knew he was wrong, about a great many things. Elizabeth offers a picture of an alternative modernity – a road not taken.
  • As an avid hiker/walker, I was pleased to discover that the hymn “This is My Father’s World” which I used to love singing as a kid, was written by a Presbyterian pastor in Lockport, NY, inspired by his daily walks in God’s creation. Added hiking in Lockport (near Niagara Falls) to my bucket list.
  • After lunch I read an essay by Michel de Certeau on walking in the city (where I am more likely to walk during the winter), which involves a ‘grammar of motion’ writing ‘spatial stories of resistance.’ So I took a walk in my city, and sat on a storefront stoop with my eyes closed listening to footsteps. Clear in the cold. Came home to to read about international walking clubs in Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, a story that echoed the idea of walking as resistance to modernity.
  • Planned my next long hike.
  • Picked up a pizza for dinner and watched a little bit of Captain America: Civil War with August. The little guy was not feeling well (neither was I, the biggest reason my day was filled with reading rather than hiking), so he begged off his responsibility with the goats at the Nature Center and we then curled up on the couch to read The Golden Compass together.
  • After he went to bed, I finished Season 1 of Marvel’s Daredevil and began Jessica Jones. Slowly marching my way through the new Marvel universe.

I took this photo at the concert last night. While we were hiking on the Appalachian Trail this summer, my son gave me the trail name “Grateful Dad.” I saw this t-shirt hanging on the wall, folded just so, and couldn’t resist the photo: Good ole Grateful Dad. At the end of this Sabbath Day, that’s exactly what I am.

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The Perseverance of the Few

January 3, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday After Christmas, New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017

Hebrews 10: 19-25

In ancient times and cultures the New Year was a great feast of rebirth. These days, instead of rebirth, we do “resolutions.”  But the resolve involved in making and keeping them is another story.

It’s somewhat trite to talk about resolutions. Everybody makes them. Everybody breaks them. My wife was at the gym yesterday, and the line was out the door with people signing up for a new gym memberships. We already know that most of them are only making a financial donation to the gym.

But if you were looking for a resolution to make this year, a REAL resolution – look no further than our New Testament reading today.

So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body. So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps God’s word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.

I have read this from The Message, Gene Peterson’s presentation of the Bible in contemporary language because it is, frankly, easier to understand than your pew Bibles. In Gene’s translation, the first verses sound almost like an invitation to communion; the body and blood of Christ promise to usher us into God’s presence. “So let’s do it!” writes the author. Let’s claim those promises, of a new day, and a new name, and new song, and a new way. The author of Hebrews reminds us that if we take up this resolution together, we can count on God’s help. That’s what he means when he says, God is faithful.

And here is the resolution: Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, and spurring each other on.

How inventive can you be in encouraging love and helping out?

Because we’ll need to be able to count on one another in the days ahead.

*****

The letter to the Hebrews was written as a word of encouragement for a people of God who are hard pressed by persecution. The author wants them to know that God is and will be faithful, though the people cannot see how right now. The author wants them to know that the faithfulness that God requires can be costly. He is clear that the community to which he writes has suffered all forms of public ridicule, physical abuse, imprisonment and theft, though he notes ominously, no one has been killed… yet. While he counsels endurance, he does not glorify or justify unjust suffering.  He simply promises that God is with us as we suffer. Should we ever get confused, or doubt this, we have only to look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We don’t really know anything else about the author or the community to which he is writing. It is possible that what the author calls their “hard struggle with sufferings” in chapter 10 verse 32, refers to the expulsion of the Jewish community from Rome. In the year 41, the Emperor Claudius rounded up all the Jews in the Capitol city and its environs and deported them. Paul’s coworkers in Corinth, the husband and wife team of Prisca and Aquila, had suffered in this way. That’s why they were in Corinth. And when the author says that in the current struggle no has died, yet, it is probable that he is referring to the persecution of Christians under the tyrannical Nero, around the time the letter was being written, a persecution that took the lives of both Peter and Paul and countless others. Whatever the case, in the past, they had stood strong.

But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

But obviously, some had doubts. That’s why we have the letter. Some were quietly slipping away from the community before things got rough, counting the cost of being “partners with those ill treated” and finding it too high. Others, seeing the same writing on the wall that caused the author to say no one had been killed “yet,” wondered just what hope could mean in a seemingly hopeless situation.

How do we hope against hope? What does it mean to persevere?

I’m currently reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh to help me think about how the church can resist tyranny. In 1933, Bonhoeffer was an academic professor and newly licensed preacher, who found himself leading the churches in resistance to Hitler. As the majority of the church welcomed the dictator as “Jesus Christ for Germany,” Bonhoeffer helped found and nurture the Confessing Church, a faithful church, a church in resistance. For a while he led an underground seminary for students who wished to learn spiritual practices to help them persevere in the face of persecution and to prepare them for the church of the future. When that was forcibly closed, and several of the students arrested, Bonhoeffer created a school-without-walls that paired students with faithful pastors who could mentor them. When that was discovered, he created a discipline of prayer that could be practiced covertly. Bonhoeffer was endlessly inventive in spurring others on.

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I tell you this because the Confessing Church has for a long time been for me a model of perseverance against the powers of death. And yet, when the going got tough and the price became high, most capitulated. When an oath of allegiance to Hitler was demanded of all clergy, on pain of imprisonment, most signed. And so, writes Marsh,

the perseverance of these few (writes Marsh) would finally be overshadowed by the expediency of the many. The difficulty of holding out was not a new one in Christian history: “I shall strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered abroad.” When ministers of the Confessing Church met on June 11, 1938. Bonhoeffer was depressed to learn that the majority had taken the oath of allegiance to Hitler: 60% in the Rhineland, 70% in Brandenburg, 78% in Saxony, 80% in Pomerania, 82% in Salesia, 89% in Grenzmark.

The perseverance of these few would finally be overshadowed by the expediency of the many.   The few pastors of the confessing church who remained faithful to Christ, suffered the high cost of discipleship – detention, martyrdom, exile, confiscation; Bonhoeffer himself was sent to a concentration camp and executed.  I tell this story because when we, in this time and place, resolve to stand with any who are vulnerable, we must stand with the full measure of our strength, with the full measure of our commitment.  Standing with those who are vulnerable cannot be a nice slogan – these cannot be PR words whose content is not backed up by action.  The stakes are too high.  So let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, and spurring each other on.

Some of us hear these words from Hebrews and we think also of our personal lives – the challenges we face – and we wonder will we be able to stand up to what lay ahead?  And we worry, will anyone stand with us?  Will we be able to persevere?

When I think of these questions of perseverance, I think of my friend Chris Pendergast. In 1993, Chris was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Doctors told him he had 2 to 3 years to live. Five if he was lucky. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. These nerve cells control voluntary movements. As the disease progresses, patients lose their ability to move their arms, their legs, and eventually, to breathe. There is no cure.

Chris’s initial reaction was that he had received a death sentence, as indeed he had. So he chose not to waste a moment of the time he had left.

In 1998 Chris founded the Ride for Life, riding his electric scooter from Yankee Stadium to Washington D.C. over the course of 16 days in order to raise awareness of ALS. After three rides to Washington, Chris moved the Ride for Life to Long Island, making an annual trip from Montauk to Manhattan, ending at Yankee Stadium. And he invited others with ALS, and their families, to ride with him. Along the way Chris will stop at any school, community center or church that will have him to talk about ALS. That’s how we met. I used to have Chris come each year and speak with my junior high youth group about courage and perseverance. Chris would tell them about “meeting the challenges of life regardless of the problem or difficulty. He would tell them to never give up and never quit – try to find a solution rather than complaining.” And his message was compelling because they could see him living it.

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Chris brought hope to a situation that appeared hopeless. Patients ride with him to make a difference, if not for themselves, then for others. The annual ride brings hope for a cure, sure, but it involves patients in actively caring for one another, it builds community, it raises awareness, and it brings out heroic courage in those facing a slow death.

The Ride for Life is now in its 20th year, and Chris is still with us. Despite the progression of his illness – today he has no use of his arms or legs, and uses a feeding tube and a noninvasive ventilator – Chris still makes the entire ride each year. It’s physical exhausting, like running a marathon, but he doesn’t let the challenges of the ride stop him from his work promoting ALS awareness. He perseveres, because he believes that God had a plan for him, and that was to use his time to speak for so many ALS patients and to advocate for all of those families who are busy taking care of their loved ones who are battling ALS.[1]

We can resolve this day to make our personal challenges the locus for despair or love, for closing down or for opening up, for retreating from help to asking for help and inspiring us to help one another.  In our personal lives, let us resolve this day to persevere.

Today is the first day of the new year.  And you will see that the candle of fellowship we lit on Christmas Eve is burning this day and will burn the year long.  So let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, and spurring each other on.

 

[1] I have borrowed liberally from a Riverhead Patch article by Ashley Pinciario from a few years ago in telling Chris’s story. http://patch.com/new-york/riverhead/after-17-years-chris-pendergast-still-riding-for-life

Lighting the Candle of Fellowship

December 25, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve (at the 8:00 Choral Service), December 24, 2016

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When I was a child, I was an acolyte. As an acolyte, it was my responsibility to light the candles for worship. Before the service began I would go to the ushers closet, take a candle lighter – like this one – from its hook on the wall, inspect the wax taper to be sure it was long enough (and replace it if it was not), and then meet my pastor by the sanctuary doors. When the organ prelude began, I would light the candle (with a little Bic lighter) and I would walk, side by side with my pastor, down the aisle. I was proud to walk beside my pastor, but learned to pay attention because there were so many ways for the candle to go out. I learned to walk with one hand cupped in front of the tiny flame lest the flame blow out, and the thumb of my other hand on this little lever here to push the wax taper up lest the flame be snuffed out. I would first light the Christ Candle on the communion table, and then the candles in the candelabras, much like these. During the service the acolyte had a reserved seat in the front pew.

At the end of the service, when the postlude began, I would come forward again and extinguish the candles in the candelabras with the bell, or candlesnuffer, working in reverse order, and then move back to the communion table. There, I would take the flame from the Christ Candle and bring it back to my taper before extinguishing the candle. And with my pastor I would walk the flame back down the aisle and out of the sanctuary.

This ritual was part of my experience of worship as a child. It shaped in me a sense of the sacred; that sensing the sacred required attention and care (and practice). How I entered the sanctuary mattered. If I entered worship to quickly or thoughtlessly, the candle would go out. If I paid attention too much attention to myself, or to others, or to others paying attention to me, I might forget to raise the taper, and the flame would go out. I must be on time, or something crucial would be lost.

I don’t remember what age I was when I began to feel uncomfortable with blowing out the taper after leaving the sanctuary. This flame, after all, had been a part of our worship, had helped the entire congregation focus on why we were together – gathered together. We hoped that God would meet us, speak to us, guide us, comfort and challenge us – hopes as fragile as the flame. Simply blowing it out felt wrong, until, one day, I realized that we were to bear this light in our lives when we left the sanctuary.

Christmas is the feast of incarnation – the story of God becoming flesh. Athanasius, an early church father, put it this way: God became human so that humans can become God. But the Gospel of John actually says flesh – the Word became flesh – rather than merely human. And by flesh, John meant to include all of life, all material life, in Christ’s scope of salvation; all of nature is encompassed in God’s wide embrace. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”[1]

Luke emphasizes that God becoming flesh shows us Emmanuel, God-with-us, as one-of-us. But the incarnation also shows us ourselves, as we can be, and we should be, as we were meant to be. Each of us, one life amidst life – and death – but decidedly on the side of life, abundant.

In John’s gospel, light becomes the metaphor for God-with-us, especially in the darkest times. Receiving Jesus, the light of the world, and bearing our light, not hiding it under a bushel, is the movement of salvation. The light is God’s love which meets the world’s suffering, which comprehends and rights injustice. It is love which we receive from outside but which becomes real as we trust that love, emulate that love, and walk together in love.”

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Four weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, I printed the words of Howard Thurman on the top of the bulletin, and they remained throughout each of our Sundays of preparation. They are there tonight. Thurman was the black pastor of one of the first intentionally interracial congregations in the country. While Thurman has many famous poems and writings, there was a passage I came across when reading his book The Mood of Christmas that struck me, the acolyte. He writes,

I will light the candle a fellowship this Christmas. I know that the experiences of unity in human relations are more compelling the concepts, the fears, the prejudices, which divide. Despite the tendency to feel my race superior, my nation the greatest nation, my faith the true faith, I must beat down the boundaries of my exclusiveness until my sense of separateness is completely involved in a sense of fellowship. There must be free and easy access by all, to all the rich resources accumulated by groups and individuals in years of living and experiencing. I will light the candle of fellowship this Christmas, a candle that must burn all the year long.[2]

In other words, the light of this night must burn brightly all year. This night of quiet reflection before the great mystery of life and love and joy and peace, must extend into our living, our discipleship, our following and following up. We must follow the light, follow up on this night, by bringing light to the world.

This past Tuesday I participated in a Christmas Vigil organized by my colleague The Rev. Sarah Henkel and the Community of Living Traditions at Stony Point Center. During the service members of the community reflected on the last couple of years and spoke about finding hope in Black Lives Matter movement; love in the Standing Rock and Split Rock struggles for indigenous sovereignty and our common earth; joy is lighting candles and lifting voices at protests for farmworker rights; and true peace in the community and fellowship formed through working for the common good. We ended out time together by singing Silent Night, and then transitioning into “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”[3]

The vigil allowed us to collect energy through fellowship and reflection because bearing God’s light in the world is not an easy task. It requires courage and commitment.

Thirty years ago, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, an order of the Pretoria regime forbid the singing of Christmas carols in the Black townships because they stirred up such energy and hope. A newspaper report quoted a South African police agent as saying: “Carols are too emotional to be sung in a time of unrest…Candles have become revolutionary symbols.” And so they were outlawed. The term “silent night” took on an ominous new meaning as the carols were silenced and the candles extinguished.

The Rev. Allan Boesak, Reformed pastor in South Africa asked, “Why is it a crime to light a candle? We teach our children that it symbolizes hope and love. This has been a Christian tradition since the beginning of the church.” But bearing light and holding hope in dark times is revolutionary.

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Boesak, speaking at an outlawed candlelight service said the church would not be silenced or intimidated into acquiescence. “The church is persecuted because it stands up for truth and justice and for the weak,” he said. “As long as this church exists in this place, we shall preach the word of God as truthfully as we can.”[4] Amen?

The darkness of the hate and violence and oppression in our world makes us fearful, angry, uncertain. And the candle in our hand seems very small, indeed insufficient against the terror of the darkness all around. But none of us bears this light alone. We are not individual acolytes out in the vast night, each with our little light, flickering. We bear God’s light together. This congregation is a place of sanctuary where we are strengthened together as a church and where we join with others in our community and our world to enlarge that light. Even as we hoist our little light our own path is enlightened by the light born by those around us. And if our candle should falter we take heart. Because are surrounded by a veritable host of lights that will ignite and relight the way.

Jesus Christ, light of the world, promises and provokes. Christ heals and hastens us toward each other. May we bear the light of love from this sanctuary into our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our community, and our world. May we dare to walk together, to depend on one another, and to extend our hand to our neighbor. May we walk in the light, that beautiful light. May we receive and share that light and may it abound!

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[1] See the essay by eco-womanist Karen Baker-Fletcher in Constructive Theology: A Contempoary Approach to Classical Themes, edited by Serene Jones and Paul Lakeland. Fortress Press, 2005.

[2] Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas. (Richmond, 1973). p. 19.

[3] Watch our video on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFtA3Zi_T8I

[4] “South Africa Cracks Down on Christmas.” (http://articles.latimes.com/1985-12-25/news/mn-21091_1_black-christmas). See also a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent by Bill Wylie-Kellerman (https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2016/11/29/advent-1-sermon/) from which I borrowed the fist two lines of this story.

Sabbath Day – Sleeping through the Revolution

December 23, 2016

It’s almost Christmas, and this Sabbath Day reflects a change in rhythm, but never took me far from preparations for the Feast of the Nativity on Saturday.

I left bed early today to read a philosophical essay on the phenomenology of prayer. With a full pot of coffee I then worked away throughout the morning on my meditation for Christmas Eve – while doing loads of laundry.

Noontime brought me to La Chinita Poblana in Irvington to have lunch and catch up with a friend I’ve not seen in two years. It was nice to discover how our lives have both changed and stayed the same over the last couple of years. A block from the restaurant is the famous statue of Rip Van Winkle, after the story by Washington Irving (for whom Irvington is named).

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I paused for reflection, remembering Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous use of this story in his Commencement Address for the graduating class of Oberlin College in 1965. King invited the students, all of whom were about to leave “the safe security of the academic environment” to think with him on the subject “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

I’m sure that you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle. The thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years. But there is another point in that story that is almost always completely overlooked: it was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world – indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.

There is a lot of talk today about what it means to “stay woke.” Only the revolution we are living through is regressive, more of a devolution. We don’t seem in danger of history passing us by, like Rip van Winkle, but of history dragging us backwards. And by God, we won’t go back! We require vigilance on every front. King offered advice on staying awake: he counseled cultivating a world perspective; the hard work of confronting racial injustice; and the eternal work of combatting hatred, violence and war.  Nothing would make me happier today than if you finished this post and dedicated five minutes to reading King’s speech: “Never allow it to be said that you are silent onlookers, detached spectators, but that you are involved participants in the struggle to make justice a reality.” (use the link is above)

I hear the voice of Jesus asking, “Can you not stay awake with me one hour?” And I pray for strength to see everything, to feel everything, to refuse to look away and to make my life worthy of this moment.

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I left Rip van Winkle to reflect while walking a quick couple of miles along the Croton Aqueduct Path south of Irvington, steps I’ve walked before. Then back to White Plains to pick my son up from school and take him to his volunteer positions at Greenburgh Nature Center.

This was a special visit because August’s goat, Locust, is going to church with us on Christmas Eve. August is going to deliver the shepherd’s monologue about how the good news was delivered first to poor shepherds, and he will have his goat by his side. Goats consitently made up 1/3 of a typical shepherd’s flock throughout successive ages in the ancient world, significant evidence that the cast majority of people lived a bare subsistence lifestyle, and the shepherds in poverty. (See Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, for a fascinating read of the Biblical world’s four legged friends).

Family Worship (with the goat) at 5:00 PM. Choral Service at 8:00 PM.

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Back at home we settled for Chinese take-out, and while mom was out at a meeting August and I did homework, baked cakes, folded laundry, read, and watched parts of a documentary, American Native, about the Ramapough Lenape Nation we visited last week. I made a number of phone calls to arrange bits of the Xmas Eve services, and revised the bulletin. Sabbath Day light!

And finally bedtime/blogtime. August and I are currently reading together Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass which contains the marvelous sentence: “The Alethiometer [the Golden Compass] tells the truth. As for how to read it, you’ll have to learn yourself.” This day comes full circle (where it began at 6:00 AM) to the hermeneutical/phenomenological/cultural task of hearing the “Call of God” amidst the noise of this world. It’s there, but we cannot hear it above the din of our greed, violence and opportunistic hatred. As Edmund Sears wrote in “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”:

But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long!
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!