A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-8 (Transfiguration) 2 Peter 17:16-20 (Eyewitness)
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Thanks be you, O God, for this your Holy Word, and to your name let there always be praise. Amen.
Many of you know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.
Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” Many of the great saints were hikers and climbers. The more contemporary literature of walking, from Rousseau and Nietzsche to Thoreau, Muir and Proust, reminds us of a way of living all but lost to us today. Health and heart, body and soul, I know I am at my best when I stay connected to the world God made at the pace God intended.
Being outdoors also has many health benefits. I’ve recently read, for example, that a ninety minute walk in nature can significantly reduce rumination – the negative or obsessive thoughts so many of us experience, which take us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. Walking outdoors can reduce activity in the part of the brain associated with mental illness and is shown to significantly increase creativity and problem solving.
Since this past week was both so beautiful, with unseasonable temperatures in the 60s, as well as school vacation, I took my son out after worship last Sunday for a traipse along the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. Traipse in a great word for a particular kind of walking. We parked our car beside the Housatonic River (the name means “river of the mountain place” in Mohican) and scrambled hand over hand up St. John’s Ledges and hiked over to Caleb’s Peak with majestic views of the Taconic Mountain range. We followed animal tracks, identified the cries of raptors, and observed various kinds of scat. As we walked we reflected on the Biblical stories behind the names of landscape we were tracing – Caleb the scout who spied out the promised land, and John – and we thought of John the Baptist who baptized in the Jordan River, John the disciple of Jesus who climbed Mt. Tabor and witnessed his transfiguration, and John the writer of Revelation, bearer of the vision of ‘a new heaven and new earth’ that concludes our Bible. We spoke of today’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration, noting that it took place after a day of rigorous mountain climbing which ended with Jesus enjoying the company of Moses and Elijah at the peak’s summit noting both Moses and Elijah themselves were accustomed to ascending and descending mountains in their search for God. And, as we always do, August and I remembered other hikes we have taken together, of lessons we have learned, and people we have met. The great joy of hiking as a spiritual practice means that our day together on the mountain was not just a single event but part of our growing relationship with one another, our world and its maker/creator. We are conscious of being a part of something larger than ourselves.
The holiest of moments (the moment of wholeness, for us) took place on a snow covered forest floor nestled between two ridges where, “the world in solemn stillness lay” below the bright blue sky. We had escaped the busy world, for a while, and could hear not a sound about us. We simply stood, silent ourselves, and content together. When next we spoke, we were ready to head home.
We need practices of self-care that keep us connected to others and that immerse us in this world that God loves so much; practices that bring us regularly to places of health and wholeness and return us to lives of loving our neighbor.
We need the mountain places, both metaphorical and literal, that lift us above our work in the world, if only for a moment, to remind us of the God who watches over us and works through us – who was at work in Jesus and who is now at work in us – so that we may look again at this world and see it as the “theater of God’s Glory.” Second Peter calls this metaphorical mountain place the Majestic Glory of God at work to redeem all creation. Second Peter hopes that the memory of Jesus, the stories of Jesus, will be for us like a lamp shining in a dark place, building us up in hope until the day dawns “when justice is at home” among us and when this light rises “in our hearts.” The language of darkness and rising is the language of death and resurrection. Peter envisions an earthly future for the beloved community similar to the one described in John’s Revelation which we are to “wait for and work to hasten” (3:11), because it will be “in accordance with God’s promise, … ‘for a new heaven and a new earth where justice is at home.’” (3:13)
David Cortes-Fuentes, who serves with his wife Josey Saez-Acevado as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Cuba, writes
For many people who witness the lack of justice and live as victims of injustice, this declaration [of a new heaven and new earth where justice is at home] summarizes the hope of the letter and their own hope. The current system that perpetuates injustice by destroying natural resources, exploiting people, and putting too many resources in the hands of the few while too many people live in poverty and need, cannot represent the final word of Scripture. This letter’s call to faithfulness and hope is grounded in the certainty that believers will live “where justice is at home.”
The hope expressed here for new heavens and new earth finds its echo in the hope of many immigrants who come to the United States searching for a better life. My own experience as a first generation Puerto Rican helps me understand this hope with a double perspective. First, I am keenly aware that not everyone experiences justice or enjoys the same opportunities to succeed. Second, I hear the message of the gospel as in invitation to continue the struggle for justice, and as an assurance that although there is still much to be done, God’s promise is secure and firm. This hope sustains our struggles and strengthens our solidarity as people of God, waiting and working for a better future.”
But waiting and hoping is not passive. In chapter 3, verse 11, Second Peter asks the question, “what kind of persons ought we to be” while we wait for and work to hasten this day?
I invite you to take a moment and reflect on this question, and then, when I chime the bell, to scoot near a neighbor in your pew or a neighboring pew and share “what kind of persons ought we to be” while we wait for and work to hasten the day of God’s justice?
I left here a time for reflections and sharing. At the end of this time the choir start singing the hymn “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” in harmony, as a way to bring everyone’s attention back. I had intended to have the congregation call out some their responses, but was conscious that we had still to ordain new leaders and that our Mardi Gras luncheon was waiting. Instead, I concluded by praying, “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God. Amen.”
 For a fascinating introduction to this far from simple letter, see George Aichele, The Letters of Jude and Second Peter: Paranoia and the Slaves of Christ (Phoenix Guides to the New Testament). (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012).
 See Belden Lane, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. (Oxford, 2015).
 One of many such books on my shelves is the beautifully written Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2000).
 Think about it. Before fossil fuels, and coal in particular, the fastest any human being moved was that of a running horse, and that not often. Coal, and steam engines, accelerated out lives, shrunk our world, and altered life forever. See Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Eerdmans, 2013), especially Chapter 2, “Coal, Cosmos and Creation.”
 The NRSV translates this as “where righteousness is at home.” But this is needless religious language that mystifies and (too often) personalized what the New Testament writers are speaking about. Justice is the better translation.
 David Cortés-Fuentes, “Introduction of 2 Peter” in The People’s Bible NRSV (Fortress Press, 2009).
Forgive me friends, it has been a month since my last Sabbath post. (Please let this contribution to my Presbytery’s blog stand in).
Many of you in the Presbytery know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.
Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John…
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A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, February 5, 2017
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The community of Christ followers in Antioch, to whom Matthew wrote his gospel, lived in an imperial city that divided people by their ethnos (their nation, language, and culture). Matthew’s small community, however, gathered people together. In an empire that ruled over many peoples through a strategy of “divide and conquer,” here was a small but powerful sign of resistance; an assembly of people from different, conquered nations who had pledged themselves to one another in the name of Christ, and who were demonstrating and advocating this unusual allegiance to one another’s well-being, far and wide. They not only stood out because of who they were, but also because of what they did, namely, practicing mercy, peacemaking and perseverance in the pursuit of justice in an inhospitable and unjust world.
Jesus said that those who practice this new way of life are the salt of the earth and a light to the world. John Calvin interestingly argued that “salt” and “light” are not descriptions of what the church is, but what the church is called to do. We are called to salt a world that is dying and to light a world that lives in shadows. In other words, Jesus is describing the vocation of God’s people. Salt was a sign of the covenant way of life in ancient Israel; the Prophet Isaiah describes Israel as a light to all nations (Isaiah 42:6), and announces that our light shall shine only when we confront injustice, practice radical hospitality and demonstrate God’s superabundant generosity.
This has been the church’s vocation in all ages. One way that Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding pastor of Riverside Church in 1930, and Howard Thurman, founding pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Nations in 1944, helped the church carry out its vocation of salting and lighting the world, was to intentionally create interracial Christian congregations here in the United States. From the beginning, Riverside Church was described as “international, inter-racial, inter-religious”, and the Church for the Fellowship of All Nations was an experiment, testing Thurman’s belief that “experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than experiences which divide them.”
Like Matthew’s community, by their very nature these congregations posed a challenge, as well as a hope, to the broader society of their day.
And here at White Plains Presbyterian we too are a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-national congregation, navigating our way in a world where such communities are still too rare, in a world that still fosters division and discrimination, and yet a world hungry for a better, fuller sense of the value of all of its people.
A week ago Friday, President Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the US. Yesterday that ban was overturned by a federal judge in Seattle, Washington. It will surely be challenged by the administration. As this news was breaking, I was meeting with the worship and music committee in my office to discuss the liturgical season of Lent that is coming, flowers, memorials, and receiving new members. Following our meeting Dierdre Lewin and Jackie Copeland and I crossed the street to attend a rally for immigrant and refugee rights that was convened by NYS Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
As I stood in the crowd that filled the Pace Law School’s lawn, I saw people of all ages, ethnicities, and races. I saw politicians and clergy, labor leaders and teachers, representatives from domestic violence shelters and immigrant rights coalitions. On the stage were two flags – one of the State of New York, the other, the American flag. And there was my son, holding that American flag steady as the wind billowed the symbol of our democracy this way and that. The crowd was filled with signs that read “We all belong!” “Lady Liberty says welcome!” “We are all God’s children!”
I was greeted by Florence McCue from NYSUT – retirees, other clergy, and a number of politicians, many of whom were at our congregation’s 300th anniversary and know what we’re about. And I thought about our congregation, the diversity of backgrounds that we represent and the unity of love that we endeavor to show toward one another and toward our neighbors. And I found myself feeling a resurgence of hope.
Like Matthew’s faithful community long ago, we bear witness in this congregation to this hope – for we are a diverse community, united in Christ, demonstrating our love for one another and the world. We are a community that welcomes everyone who comes through that door back there – or this front door over here – and we recognize every person as a unique child of God. Each of us with a call. Each of us called to love one another and our neighbor. Each of us an irreplaceable member of this family of God.
Right after this service, during our annual meeting, we will elect women and men to serve as our congregation’s leaders. And all confirmed members of this church, young and old alike, are eligible to speak and to vote. Women as well as men hold leadership positions in this congregation. And we believe that God’s spirit anoints women and men to prophesy and preach and serve. As the Apostle Paul once wrote, in our baptism “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (adapted from Galatians 3:28).
The mission statement of the White Plains Presbyterian Church proclaims: God calls us to be a beacon in the community to draw people into relationship and service with Jesus Christ. We are called to make a difference in ourselves, our church community and those around us.” Jesus agrees, saying “you are a city set upon a hill.”
And a “city on a hill cannot be hid.” What we are – an inter-racial, inter-generational, egalitarian and inclusive community born of God’s love – makes us stand out, draws the notice of the wider society, whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready for it or not. But who we are, we should never hide, warns Jesus. Rather we should shine it all around, to illumine and inspire. Who we are is a gift to the wider church and to the world. We are Christ’s church.
In just a few moments we are going to invite twelve new members forward to profess their faith and to follow Christ by making commitments to community, conscience and caring. Let us welcome them.
 Howard Thurman. Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. Wipf Stick: Eugene Oregon, 1959/2009. p. 24.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017. This is the third of three sermons on what it means to answer the call of Christ by making three commitments to community, to conscience and to caring.
It is a joy to serve a congregation already so deeply to committed to combating climate change, rooting out racism, welcoming the immigrant and refugee, and confronting economic inequality that we could – on this day – talk about caring for ourselves and one another. Addressing the political challenges ahead of us in this country – all specifically named in our prayers today – will depend on our ability simultaneously to care for one another.
A couple of years ago my mother turned over to me the first volume of my baby book. Yes, the first volume. Like many other parents with a first born child, my mom and dad copiously recorded my earliest years, in word and picture, so that I can now look back at my first words (da da, nite nite, and Hi Chief, the name of my dog), first foods (rice, barley, and oat meal) and other trivia (my favorite word at 15 months was READ). I have two younger sisters, and neither of them have multi-volume baby books. In fact, my youngest sister barely has anything written in her book. Although, to be fair to my parents evolving record-keeping of their children, while I only have one box full of what I think of as the physical remains of childhood (baptismal gown, school awards, early artwork, etc.), my sisters each have multiple boxes of security blankets, stuffed animals, ballet slippers, report cards and dried corsages.
Our call to worship this morning contained the phrase: “day and night we fish in our customary places, but we have no catch.” We cast our nets, unsuccessfully, in familiar waters. There is a photo in my baby book that captures this for me. I’m about four years old, and the picture shows me sitting on a small stool in my backyard. I have made a fishing pole out of a stick and some string and I am dangling my line in the waters of a blue, plastic baby pool. But the expression on my face is so hopeful. I’m clearly excited. Maybe, maybe I will catch something.
But you know that I won’t, for there are not fish in the pool. It doesn’t matter how long I wait or how hard I fish, I’m not going to catch anything as long as my line in dangling in a blue, plastic baby pool.
How often do we fish in waters that never produce anything? How often do we go back to the same old baby pool with no fish in it when what we want is change in our lives, food for our spirits, or something meaningful to fill our days? We do the same old thing again and again, even thought we know it isn’t working, rather than try something new. And it is our comfort that breeds our attitude of expectation.
At such times, Jesus calls us further out, to deeper waters.
The second volume of my baby book, with pictures of me just a few years older, contains a picture I treasure. It shows me on a Saturday afternoon during my first fishing trip with my dad. I am standing on the beach with my back to the water and facing the campground where mom has been waiting to prepare dinner. She took the picture. I am wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and I am holding the smallest of fish. It was about this big. Though we probably should have thrown it back, the look on my face is one of unmistakable pride. But when I look at the picture, I remember the brand new sense of self-confidence that that fish represented, and I remember knowing that my dad loved me.
After the experience in the swimming pool, my father had taken me to deeper waters. He had taken me out and bought me a brand new fishing rod, a real fishing rod and planned a family camping weekend so that he could teach me how to fish. He had rented a boat for the day, and he and I went out on the lake where I learned about baiting a hook, and casting a line, and reeling it in. My ambitious goal, which I stated to my mom before I left, was to bring home dinner. And I caught a fish. Not that little fish which I can still see in the photograph, but a large fish, a huge fish, a fish SO BIG . . . that it pulled my brand new fishing pole and my hopes of bringing home dinner right out of my hands. I had just enough time to say “I’ve got something” and then it was gone. I watched, helplessly, as my pole hit the water and slowly sank to the bottom of the lake. And I thought, “Uh-oh. I’m in big trouble.” I’d lost my new pole. I had lost the hope of bringing home dinner. I’d messed up my dad’s plans for the weekend, ruined the nice day we were having. I’d failed.
And I would love my dad forever for what he did next. He didn’t yell, or laugh, or steer the boat for home. He didn’t catch a fish for me. He gave me his pole. Even though I had just proven that I couldn’t hold on to my own, he gave me his pole, and he sat down behind me, and I caught that little fish in the picture with my dad’s loving arms around me.
It may not have taken a miracle for the disciples to catch their load of fish, but they would always remember that Jesus was with them when they caught it. Jesus hadn’t even asked them to try something new, simply to try one more time to cast their nets in water they had fished all night without catching anything. What was new was their decision to follow Jesus. After hearing him speak to the people all morning, they trusted him, they allowed him into their boat, and when they returned to the shore with a boat overflowing with fish, they left their nets and followed him.
What I learned about my dad while we were fishing, the disciples learned about Jesus by following. He could be trusted, he would hold them as they learned, as they tried, as they practiced living in God’s kingdom. That he wanted the absolute best for them, and that they need have no fear of failure, because he was with them, helping them, all the way.
That kind of total, loving, attention from another person can be both what we long for, but can also be so overwhelming it frightens us. So much so that we find ourselves putting it off onto someone else. When God called Moses, spoke to him right out of the burning bush, Moses told God to speak with his brother Aaron instead. The prophet Jeremiah said he was too young to be called by God. But what did God say? “Don’t worry, I will give you the words to say.” In our first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah doubted himself. “Surely, if it were really God calling, God should want someone else, someone cleaner, purer, better.” In our scripture, when it is God calling, the script is always the same.
(At this point, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed a member of the congregation in the sanctuary. Our conversation went something like this…)
God: Hello, Alexis, this is God.
Alexis: Did you say, God?
Alexis: How can I help you, God?
God: I want you to do something for me.
Alexis: Ok, what?
God: I want you to volunteer to be part of a drama in church on Sunday.
Alexis: What?! Are you kidding? I am definitely not good at acting.
God: Well, I don’t know about that. But I know you can do the job.
Alexis: But what about Shian. I am sure she would be better than me.
God: That may or may not be true. But I’m asking you to step up and accept the challenge.
Alexis: Are you sure you want me to do it? I am really not kidding, I think you would do much better with someone else.
God: Alexis, I’m asking you. And I will be there all the way. If you mess up, I’ll help you with the lines.
Alexis: Ok. I’ll do it. What’s the drama about?
God: It is about a person who gets a phone call and gets asked to take part in a drama at church.
When God calls, and we answer, God’s offer is always the same. Do not fear, for I am with you. I send you. I go with you. I prepare a way for you. I give you my words. I love you.
The call to follow comes to us all the time, even and especially in the midst of difficult times: for example, receiving a diagnosis of serious illness. How do I follow Jesus in this situation? What demands are asked of me? What strengths will this require of me? What comforts will be offered me? The call to follow comes with the birth of a child, the loss of a job, while studying in school. When we’ve retired and thought we knew how we were going to spend our days, God’s call comes. Though we don’t know how it will come, or with whose voice it will speak, the call to follow comes to us all the time. And when it comes, we find ourselves again and again held and supported by loving arms.
God’s intentions are sovereign even over powerful political systems that seem impenetrable and whose oppression seems inevitable. God’s faithfulness calls out to us through our scripture, imploring us to remember that God can and does bring about newness – but not absent our efforts. Remember, Simon, James and John had to cast out their nets one more time, in deeper waters, where Jesus directed.
This is the third of three sermons on what it means to be a member of the church. Being a part of the church means responding to Christ’s call with three commitments: to community, to conscience, and to caring. Two weeks ago I spoke about our commitment to be community to one another, to be present and active in one another’s lives, and to encourage one another by standing with one another. To be church is to be together: in worship, in learning, in giving, and in sharing. Last week Pastor Sarah preached powerfully about how our Christian conscience commits us to stand with all who are held in dishonor by the powers of this world. That words and deeds go together so that, as the prophet says, we may do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Our theme today is caring. Being a part of the church means embracing and being embraced in a network of care. Last weekend, as many from this congregation participated in the various Women’s Marches, one of our members was heard to say – “Now, more than ever, in the midst of this important work, we need to care for one another.” Because the threats to our communities and needs for conscientious action can wear us down.
And so, we rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. We hold one another, and help one another, are generous with our gifts and patient with one another’s faults; we forgive freely. We pray when one is sick, deliver flowers, cook a meal, visit the hospital, write a card. We pick up the phone when we notice someone is missing. We show up at rallies in the streets and at airports to insist human rights be respected. We put our arms around anyone who is threatened. As we often sing…
We share our mutual woes; our mutual burdens bear.
And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.
When Simon, James, and John left their nets on the shore to follow Jesus, he showed them how to care for others as he had cared for them; how to care in such a way that it empowered others. And then he sent them out two-by-two just for this purpose, to teach and to heal. Jesus showed the disciples how to put their arms around another, without condemning or taking over, and to strengthen others to follow God’s call, just as my dad did that day when he gave me his fishing pole and put his arms around me.
For the way we concretely know God is with us, is by being cared for by others. As St. Teresa of Avila famously said,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
Let us renew our commitment to community, conscience and caring, to carrying forward Jesus’ ministry every day – believing in God’s power to bring about profound change in our world through our partnership in caring. May our worship and our work be one, announcing God’s new way. Amen.
Following the sermon, and completely unplanned, a member of the congregation who has been ill rose to give thanks to God for her recovery and to give thanks for the loving care she had received from the congregation. This was testimony heard by the thirteen people who today confessed their faith and made the three commitments of membership to community, conscience and caring. Praise be to God.
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah E. Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017. This is the second of three sermons on what it means to answer the call of Christ by making three commitments to community, conscience and caring.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
After sharing some expressions of gratitude for all in attendance and those who had invited him to the pulpit of Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his prophetic sermon on that date almost 50 years ago with these words, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” For the next hour King preached about the unrelenting violence of the war in Vietnam suffered not only by the poor of Vietnam but also by the poor of the United States, who directly experienced the drain of economic resources as it was siphoned off to fund military spending.
The sermon was titled, “Beyond Vietnam” and alternately called “A Time to Break Silence.” King preached this sermon one year to the day that he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee where he had traveled in support of African American sanitation workers who were on strike because of dangerous working conditions and racial discrimination.
I listened to the full sermon twice in this past week with the Community of Living Traditions, the multifaith community where I live and work, as we contemplated what King’s words mean for us – all of us – today. I can’t recommend strongly enough the opportunity to listen to King’s Beyond Vietnam speech in full if you have not done so already…and even if you have already, to do so again as we approach the 50th anniversary of its delivery this April. I will ask Pastor Jeff to include a link to the audio with the posting of this morning’s sermon.
Dr. King’s voice in this sermon speaks in a steady almost unmodulated tone. He is said to have read the sermon – word for word – and you can hear the weight in the words that he is sharing. They are heavy with sorrow and disappointment. They are also weighted with powerful momentum toward a vision for a new America.
Listen to these words of Dr. King urging his listeners to a new way. He testifies,
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
The day after King preached this sermon, 168 major newspapers condemned his words and many of his allies in the fight for civil rights fell away.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’ words to us this morning from Matthew’s gospel are strengthening food and a clear call for us as people of faith, as a community of conscience, as we continue to struggle against the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism still wreaking havoc in our world.
The first Bible study I participated in after becoming a part of the life of this congregation was Dr. Margaret Aymer’s Presbyterian Women Horizons study called, “Confessing the Beatitudes.” It deeply transformed my understanding of the Beatitudes and the action to which they call us. I have heard the beatitudes interpreted and preached many times as God’s blessing over people in dire straits, a blessing that promises future heavenly reward but does little to shift the current reality, to transform the Jericho road. Dr. Aymer’s study shared a much different perspective of the beatitudes as call to action for Jesus’ followers.
The study began by pointing to a discrepancy in most translations that gets us started on the wrong foot. Rather than translating the Greek word makarios as “Blessed are” the Greek would be more faithfully translated as “Greatly honored are.” Greatly honored are those who mourn, Greatly honored are those who hunger and thirst after justice. Here’s why that translation shift makes a difference:
Matthew, the Gospel writer’s, community was suffering under military conquest that had displaced many people from their homes, crippling economic oppression carried out by the Roman Empire, and stigmatization based on their Judean roots. This is the context of those who are hearing the beatitudes as Matthew records them. Rather than a divine action of blessing, the words “Greatly honored are” spoken by Jesus function as a call to action to the community. Dr. Aymer writes, “By putting these makarisms [these honoring statements] into the mouth of Jesus, Matthew is demanding a response from her traumatized community, an ascription of honor – “a public validation” – toward every group that Jesus names.”
Public validation and honoring of those who are downtrodden, lamenting, and made low, those who crave justice, love mercy, and build toward peace despite persecution: this was the call of Jesus’ disciples, this is the call of the church throughout the world in all times and place, and of this community of conscience right here and now in White Plains.
Last week Pastor Jeff spoke of our commitment to be community to one another, to be present and active in one another’s lives, to invite one another “to commitment and courage in dark times,” and to act when conscience calls. This is about living into the call of the beatitudes to stand with all who are brought low by the forces of Empire. This is about the revolution of values that Dr. King spoke of as our only way into a new world. What does this look like?
It looks like public prayer with farmworkers in front of businesses slow to offer basic rights and weekly congregational prayers offered for family and friends shut out from reliable employment and housing.
It looks like a packed photo of congregants smiling behind a sign reading, ‘White Plains welcomes refugees,’ and the packed streets of White Plains where we have marched for justice for Trayvon Martin, for Eric Garner, for Kenneth Chamberlain, for all black lives.
It looks like monthly bursts of orange clothing on the 25th of each month to call for an end to violence against women and girls and the regular celebration of women’s strength within this congregation.
It looks like an openness to wherever God calls us next…to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, to stand side by side with the Muslim community in the face of threats, to be louder and bolder in our welcome to LGBTQ community members, to advocate for affordable health care for all, to encourage each other beyond comfort zones and into conflict zones to speak out with strong voices about God’s love in the face of hatred.
Over the past two days millions of people have marched in the streets of this nation and all over the world to give voice and presence and public validation to a revolution of values. As we face the uncertainty of a new presidency, there is a rising cry in our country and in communities of faith like ours to follow God and God alone into the hope for a new future.
Our Reformed tradition is clear that God alone is Lord of the conscience. A study of this central belief undertaken by our denomination in the 1980’s stresses, “When the government ignores or corrupts its role, flouts justice and endangers peace, it is no longer fulfilling the purpose for which God gave us the gift of civil authority. When that happens, Christians, one by one and as the church, must search consciences and seek the Spirit’s guidance to discover what it will mean in a particular time to obey God rather than men.”
We will continue together in this congregation to seek the Spirit’s guidance, to hear and obey God’s word, and to go where we are sent. This is not easy or risk-free work. It is also not solitary work. In our conversations about King’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon this week, we were reminded about the number of deep connections and friendships that called him forward to offer those words of challenge. There were his letters exchanged with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who wrote about the devastation he witnessed first-hand and entrusted his friend Martin with the call for peace; his difficult conversations with young black men in the North who demanded he take on the epic violence being dealt by the U.S. government before critiquing violent tactics of revolution in American streets; his close partnership with his Mennonite friend Vincent Harding who drafted and helped bring to life the text of ‘Beyond Vietnam’; the worshipping communities King visited – of many faith traditions – that gave courage to “the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world.”
We are called as a community to encourage one another to choose to follow God’s voice, the call of our conscience to stand with all held in dishonor by the powers of this world. In the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down.” In gratitude and awe of this world turning gospel and its call on our lives, we say: Amen.
Prayers of the People
God of our Conscience,
We give you thanks for the stir of your Spirit in our lives,
For the Spirit of restlessness that settles in us when become complacent,
For the Spirit of courage that leads us where we fear to go,
For the Spirit of companionship that reminds us we do not go alone.
You call us to acts of justice, love, and mercy.
We pray for a world that is wounded by injustice, violence, and greed.
May our prayers lead us to act, may our actions become living prayers.
We pray for this earth that sustains and holds us, giving thanks and praying for the healing of all creation.
We pray for all nations of this earth, especially those experiencing extreme violence and war: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Turkey, Somalia, The Philippines, Yemen, Libya, Darfur, Nigeria, South Sudan, Israel, Palestine.
We pray for this nation as we face the future together, as people in this country inaugurate a renewed commitment to stand with and to honor all who are brought low the forces of injustice. We give thanks for the millions of people who marched and sang out the way of justice this week and especially for the voices of women who led the way as organizers and visionaries in cities across the world.
We pray for the witness of the church and of all communities of faith as we discern God’s call above the voice of fear and division.
We pray for….
God of compassion, be present to us in this place and in this world. Give us courage to bear your light and your love all along this journey for goodness is stronger than evil and love is stronger than hate. May this truth thrive and grow. Hear us as we join our voices in hope to pray, “Our Father…
 King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, April 4, 1967, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/speeches/Beyond_Vietnam.pdf
 King, “Beyond Vietnam”
 “The Story of King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ Speech,” Interview with Tavis Smiley (National Public Radio, March 30, 2010), http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125355148
 Aymer, Margaret, “Matthew’s Beatitudes, Community Ethics and Poverty,” Accessed on Academia.edu, January 2017, http://www.academia.edu/7635055/Matthews_Beatitudes_Community_Ethics_and_Poverty
 “God Alone is Lord of Conscience,” A Policy Statement Adopted by the 200th General Assembly (1988), Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
 King, “Beyond Vietnam”
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.