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Sabbath Day – Let it Snow

December 14, 2018

Today was a sick day. Not for me, but for my son. He came home from school yesterday not feeling well at all so, when he got off the bus, we went straight to the doctors office. He tested negative for strep but was running a little fever, so, sick day.

That his sick day coincided with my Sabbath day was a gift for both of us. We both refused to set alarms and each to sleep in, which we both really needed. And we got to spend a quiet day together.

When we did, finally, get up, it was snowing. Not heavy, just large, beautiful balls of snow like little stars falling form the sky. The snow was a surprise. we sat on the couch and watched them.

A couple of weeks ago my sister had given me a copy of Let it Snow: Three Holiday Romances by three of bestselling young adult novels. She gave it to me because the second story was contributed by John Green, who I quite enjoy. August has watched all of Green’s Crash Course episodes on youtube, and because he knows I admire Green he has been interested in the novels as well. But I have insisted that the novels are a bit mature for him as a twelve year old.  

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Nevertheless, on a whim, and because of the snow, I offered to read Green’s novelette out loud as we spent our day largely quiet, still, and on the couch. Reading together is something August and I have done all his life. Something I love more than almost anything. To share a story in our imaginations, to grow excited or tense together as the plot unfolds. To cheer or yell at characters as they are about to make wiser foolish decisions. And to talk, about ourselves. And so we did.

The novelette opens with a high school student home alone on Christmas Eve because his parents are snowed in in Boston. We both paused to watch the snow fall, and then dove in to the story. 

The plot was both absurd and completely believable. “So teenager,” August said, with no little disdain. Yet, as we laughed, and laughed, and laughed at the outrageous adventures of Tobin, the Duke, and JP, three teenage best-friends on a twenty minute car ride that took all night as Christmas Eve became Christmas Day, we brought the novelette to life in our special way.

Note: Ever since he was little August has enjoyed bringing stories to life as I read to him. When he was very little he liked to dress in costume, and act out scenes. Later he would draw and sketch, or make notes in a notebook. More recently he has designed virtual worlds as I read – you should see the virtual castle stalked by Shakespeare’s Hamlet that he created this past summer. Today we were much more practical. Apart from the snow we were watching…

  • The story centers around a trip to the Waffle House for waffles and hash browns. So we made waffles.
  • An eccentric character has a cup of noodles for dinner. Noelle made us fresh chicken noodle soup (not from a can) which he did not want but tasted because it was in the story.
  • Delivering a game of Twister plays an important part in the story. August got ours from the game closet and we played a few goofy rounds, collapsing in laughter at the end of each round.
  • A young woman buys a bag of Cheetos at a convenience store. We don’t keep stuff like that in the house so I was sent to the store to get some. 
  • August asked lots of stories about what I was like as a teenager, and he talked quite a bit about what it is like in middle school today. 

And then there was the awkward reading about adolescent romance – teenage desire, the dream (or fantasy) of sex, the constant (and sometimes disparaging) talk about bodies (and body parts), the sexist banter that kids have to work their way through, and the very real need to be seen for who we are or who we wish to be. An early, and crude, joke by one of the characters (“The Waffle House is like Lindsay Lohan’s legs: always open.”) almost made me put the book down, but I pressed on and, true to form, John Green delivered all the honest complexity and beauty and vulnerability and struggle of adolescence that he is renowned for in his writing. Noelle passed through the room as the two characters were on the verge of acknowledging their (previously unthought) feelings for one another, and she sat on the edge of her seat until the scene climaxed, young male cluelessness notwithstanding. And all of that is now in our father-son vocabulary. 

Still, this was a romance novel, and my son is only 12, so when the story ended with a “first kiss” of sorts, he exclaimed, “I was afraid of this. That’s how they chose to end the story? What a disappointment.”

The balance of our day was spend playing board games, talking, playing with our reptiles, and watching a movie. 

This day was a gift. An unexpected grace. And received as such. 

Happy Sabbath. J

 

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Going Home: The Thorn Creek Watershed

December 6, 2018

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Watershed Theology is the practice of listening to, learning from, and in turn loving the particular natural communities to which God has led us and in which God has placed us. Watersheds are the earth’s natural communities, and they demand attention and care for the unique ecology each watershed is if we are to live into the sustainable (meaning eternal) life God intends for all. 

While visiting my home town recently to help celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago Heights, the congregation in which I was raised and first heard the message of God’s love for me and for the world, I made a point of beginning my visit by walking the local watershed. Or at least part of it. For the first time!

The congregation was organized on November 30, 1843 with the sacrament of communion shared among 25 individuals and two pastors from sponsoring communities in Princeton, Indiana and Deerfield, Illinois. A church council (aka, session) was elected, and a strongly identified, recently immigrated, scotch-irish settler congregation was formed. All had arrived from Scotland or Northern Ireland directly or during the previous ten years. The four families that constituted 22 of the original 25 members were intermarried and had settled along the Thorn Creek beginning in 1835. The watershed begins in a natural spring on the current campus of Governor’s State University in Park Forest which becomes the Thorn Creek, meandering northeast through Chicago Heights, receiving the Deer Creek and the Butterfield Creek before flowing into the Little Calumet River and thence into Lake Michigan. It is traced today by the Thorn Creek Trail, encompassing the Thorn Creek Trail System, the Sauk Trail Woods, Indian Hill Woods, Woodrow Wilson Woods and Joe Orr Woods. This is the ONLY watershed in Illinois that flows toward the Great Lakes. It is set apart by the Valparaiso Moraine, a terminal moraine formed by glaciers 30,000 years ago, the elevation of which gave the area its name, ‘the heights.’ Literally. The rest of the state of Illinois all flows toward and into the Mississippi River. No wonder this narrow area around the great lakes and its extended watershed was important to the indigenous Potawatomi. 

I walked the seven miles of this watershed from the corner of Western Avenue and Steger Road to the place where the creek crosses what is today Joe Orr Road. This seven mile stretch of land defined and nurtured the earliest settlements, encompassing the homes of the McEldowneys, Hoods, Caldwells, Wallaces, McCoys, Browns, Wells, Bachelards, and others. As I walked, I allowed my imaginations to wonder and wander around the stories of these and the indigenous people of this land which I had immersed myself in over the last two months. 

I began my walk at the corner of Steger Road and Western Avenue, the start of the paved Thorn Creek Trail System. About 30 minutes into my walk I came upon a marker, erected by the D.A.R in 1926, commemorating the McCoy family property where the Potawatomi were always welcome to stay during their semi-annual sojourn between winter and summer camps. By all accounts, this (methodist) settler family and the indigenous population got on well, despite the government’s determination that the native population would be removed from the land one way or another. Sabra McCoy, a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, opposed Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and worked locally for Indian Rights. To little avail.

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Before making this journey home I had read the journal kept by William Polke, documenting horrors of the Trail of Death upon which the Potawatomi were forced in October, 1838. It was moving to stand here and think of what might have been had settler and native coexisted. And, perhaps, the naiveté and opportunism of the settlers who retained the land after indian removal.  

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But them abruptly, not 20 feet away, was another sign – modern and functional – indicating that an oil pipeline was buried beneath this ground and that anyone contemplating digging here, despite the fact that it was a Cook County administered park, should call the indicated number. I later told my twelve year old son that I had visited the site of an old indian camp and that I had seen a disturbing sign nearby. I asked it what he thought I saw and “oil pipeline” was his first guess. Sign o’ the times.  As it was and ever shall be? Not if we can say anything about it.

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Another half hour brought me to Sauk Lake, surrounded by steep, sand bluffs, created by a dam at 26th street, the southern border on the original settlement of Thorn Creek, later known as Bloom Township and eventually Chicago Heights. I do not, at this time, know who built the dam. 

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I paused along time to listen to the honking of geese over the lake, a constant circulation of about five flocks circling the lake before eventually settling on the surface. Deer, mice, moles, squirrels, mallards, countless birds and insects made themselves known (and were greeted by me) as I sat beside the lake and the marshes, imagining the early household economies that sustained this area.

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 What began as a spring in “Park Forest” which I could hop across, was at the beginning of my walk a stream I could jump across. It had become an articifical lake I could swim across and was now a creek I could wade across. By the time it had reached what is now known as Woodrow Wilson Woods (and the approximate location of where I was born), it had become an actual river. Seen below is the western shore of what was the settlement of Absalom Wells, the very first settler (squatter) in Thorn Creek/Bloom/Chicago Heights. Absalom, the first white settler on the Thorn Creek,  married a Potawatami woman and chose exile with her people rather than permanent settlement. At present, I have no more information on his fate.

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In an earlier post you can see a photo was taken by my sister Janel on the opposite side of the Thorn Creek as pictured here. In that photo I am standing beside a marker commemorating the side of the Absalom Wells Home, the first white settler on the Thorn Creek (eventually Chicago Heights).  I was born 136 year later not 500 feet from this site.

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Flowing northeast, the creek leaves the land worked by Absalom Wells, crosses Dixie Highway, and then Halsted Avenue as it meanders through land once owned, I believe, by a founding family of the church, the McEldowneys, and now known as Joe Orr Woods. 

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It is easy to see by foot how the creek created community and invited settlement both for the indigenous population of Sak and Potawatomi that travelled back and forth across this land, the more southerly people of the Illinois Confederation (Illiniwek) visiting the Lake region, and later for the colonial settlers. 

The paved walking/biking trail continues north of Joe Orr Road into the Chicago Heights Country Club, running for a while alongside West End Avenue and the old C&E tracks (now Union Pacific). I am told the trail continues all the way to the Little Calumet River and then on to Lake Michigan. That will have to wait for another visit and be done on my bike. I look forward to it.

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Note: Before my travel home I read two book that opened new areas for exploration in watershed theology in my hometown, and which were certainly in my mind as I walked. The first was the Bancroft Prize winning history by William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1992). The other was Dan Egan’s finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (2017).  

Going Home: Crossroads

December 6, 2018

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Thomas Wolfe, 1940

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This is where I was born on October 1, 1969. It is St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights. My mother was working as nurse here, a night-shift ER nurse, when I was born. My father had been, among his many jobs, a security guard at this hospital when my mom and dad first met.  Both of my sisters, Janel and Alane, were also born in this hospital.

But it is more accurate to say it was St. James Hospital because after more than 100 years in this location, Franciscan Health Care which ran the hospital recently closed its Chicago Heights operations and relocated to a newer facility in Olympia Fields. It is a great loss for historic Chicago Heights. 

The hospital sits at the intersection of Dixie Highway and Lincoln Highway, the ‘Crossroads of America,’ where the two original transcontinental highways met.  Both highways were the dream-work of Carl Fisher – the Lincoln Highway running from Times Square in NYC to Lincoln Park in San Francisco in 1912, and the Dixie Highway running from Chicago to Miami by 1929. 

The Dixie Highway, at least in the northern midwest, was originally known as Hubbard’s Trail, named after the young fur trader Gurdon Hubbard as early as 1822, of which many stories and legends exists.

Two miles south of the hospital, Hubbard’s Trail (Dixie Highway/Chicago Road/Rt. 1) intersects Sauk Trail, an ancient native path travelled by the Sak and Potawatomi tribes between winter and summer camp grounds. The Potawatomi often camped in what was then known by the white settlers (squatters) as Thorn Grove (later Bloom Township and even later as the City of Chicago Heights), named after the Thorn Creek that runs through the area and along which the early settlers built their homes. 

This is where I was born. This is also where the white settlement of Thorn Grove was born 136 years earlier. Settler homes were laid out along a two mile stretch south of here along Hubbard’s Trail, beside the Thorn Creek. Caddy-corner to the hospital is a monument erected where the first white settler, Absalom Wells, built his home in the spring of 1833. Here I am at the stone marker, about to dozen feet off Dixie Highway with the hospital visible in the background. It is said that during the process of Northern Indian Removal, when the Potowatomi were forced along what they refer to as the Trail of Death in 1838, Absalom Wells, who had married a Potawatomi woman, moved with them. 

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The Thorn Creek, of which I will write in another post, runs in a quarter circle through the property, about 500 feet beyond the monument. 

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Two miles south, where Hubbard’s Trail crossed the Sauk Trail, is another monument marking the southern end of the original settlement of Thorn Grove. This one marks the location of the cabin, fields and orchards of Adam Brown, the first permanent settler. This was known as Brown’s Corner and was the only intersection of trails in the area.

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Other early colonial settlers built homes along the two miles of Sauk Trail to the west of this marker, creating large L-shaped community of neighbors and friends, most of whom were recent Scots-Irish immigrants. More on them in another post.

Growing up here I did not know any of this, although I was driven, and later drove myself, along these highways, often daily. 

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of post called Going Home, all about the local watershed and the history of Chicago Heights, in general, and the First Presbyterian Church in Chicago Heights, in particular. The occasion for my recent trip ‘home’ was to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the congregation. 

 

Advent 1: The Nightlights

December 5, 2018

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A sermon preached by The Rev Sarah Henkel on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018. This is the first in a series on the lights, divine and human, that comfort, challenge and guide us through life. The themes for worship are described below.

Before we read this morning’s Gospel text, I want to spend a little time introducing the lights that will surround our Advent wreath during this season. As Pastor Jeff wrote in the Mid-Week email:

“The season of advent is a period of four weeks during which we are prepared for experiencing the incarnation of God in our flesh. The themes for each of our worship services this year were created by The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea (Haverstraw Presbyterian), The Rev. Abbie Huff (Germonds Presbyterian), and The Rev. Jeff Geary in a collaborative series of writing sessions. Drawing on themes found in the scripture readings, they draw us from isolation to connection, from nostalgia to vision, from fear to unshakeable hope.

  • Confronting Fear with our night-lights
  • Welcoming guests with our porch-lights
  • Connecting with others around our vigil-lights
  • Gathering together around the hearth-lights
  • Being guided by divine light

In addition to the lights on our wreath, we will light night-lights and porch-lights and vigil-lights and hearth-lights until we transform our church and congregation into the Beacon-light our mission statement says we are. Come, let us learn to live in the light.”

We begin this week with confronting fear with our night lights. I don’t know about you but just the mention of night lights brings about a flood of memories for me. I remember clearly my childhood nighttime routine of a parent tucking me into bed, praying with me, kissing me goodnight, and as they got up to leave the room, my nightly reminder: “Don’t forget to the leave the hall light on!” They would leave the hall light on and the door to my bedroom slightly ajar so that the darkness was not complete.

Raising a young child myself now has reintroduced me to the use of night lights and also reminded me of how acutely I feared the dark as a child. I was recently reunited with my favorite children’s album. I listened to Strong as Strong Can be by Cathy Winter and Betsy Rose on tape over and over again as a child until the tape wore out and finally found it on CD.   The theme of nightlights immediately reminded me of a song on their album called “Don’t Cut Out the Lights on Me” by Casse Culver. Here’s some of the lyrics:

Cracks in the ceilings and lumps in the wall,
Sometimes at night they seem 10 feet tall,
They turn into horrible shapes in the night,
So I’m begging you please don’t touch that light. 

So please, I’m a grown up person outside,
But, please, I’m a scared little person inside,
So, Please, you’d be messing with my sanity.
So, please, please, please,
Don’t put out that light on me. 

Well I can remember when I was just two,
I never told no one but I’m telling you,
But I bet you could help me if you really cared,
By letting me know when you’re also scared.

Listening to the song lyrics carefully this week as I prepared to preach, I realized this song is not sung by a child – as I had assumed as a child -but by an adult still gripped by fear of the nighttime and the isolating darkness it brings. The song also describes the type of ‘night light’ that would make the night bearable for the scared little person: that night light is simply another person who is also scared and willing to admit it and willing to sit by side through the night.

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There is much to be afraid of in our current reality but there are also many lights to guide us through the night, to give communities strength to confront fear and bear hope in the world. Our text this morning does not end in fear but with hope that change is coming for all of creation. Hear the words from the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 21, verses 25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

The Word of God for the People of God – Thanks be to God.

Jesus – like us – saw the signs of the end and they were terrifying. When the gospel was still circulating as an oral story in small communities of hope, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans was imminent, violent revolution was about to boil over, the world – as they knew it – was ending. But this text isn’t about cowering in fear. It is about being awake and watchful; ready for what is beginning as the old falls away. Placed in the middle of his words of warning, Jesus’ parable of the fig tree tells us that we are to focus not on the signs of destruction but on the signs of new growth, the green leaves sprouting on the fig tree that are signs of new life emerging, that are lights in the darkness.

If you signed up for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Advent reflection series, Growing the Light, you may have already read Brian McLaren’s reflection on this Gospel passage. He explores how it is we are called to wait for the coming of the ‘Son of Man’. He writes,

“…what does that pregnant phrase “son of man” mean? The term “son of” means “new generation of,” and “man” means “humanity.” So here, I think, is the promise: As things get worse and worse, as anguish and turbulence intensify, as terror and instability shake the status quo, at that very moment look for signs of the emergence of a new humanity.

The term, rooted in the visionary poetry of Daniel 7, describes an individual, but ultimately refers to a community (“the saints of the most high”).

To apply these words to our contemporary context, we could say this: as [individuals filled with racism] increase their virulence, a new generation of humanity is emerging, humanity that doesn’t fear difference but sees it as a sign of strength. As we witness a morally repulsive resurgence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we also witness a new generation of humanity that is building a movement of multi-faith solidarity. As resentful and frightened people use immigrants as a scapegoat, a new generation of humanity is emerging that cares about immigrants and works to protect them from further abuse. And as the wealthy and powerful hoard more wealth and power, a new generation of humanity is being activated to care for the poor and too-often forgotten, including farm workers, whose labor is so often devalued…

During Advent, we dare to believe that this new generation of humanity, embodied in a tiny vulnerable baby, will not be defeated. We dare to believe that the worst of times can be a seedbed for the best of humanity, and that the poor and marginalized and their allies, armed only with a heart for justice, compassion, and truth, will continue to rise like dawn, even during dark times.”

I would like to share two short stories of the new humanity emerging or, otherwise stated, two stories of night-lights burning brightly during the nighttime of fear.

Will, Leland, and I just returned from a trip to Texas to visit family. As Pastor Jeff wrote in the mid-week we were on the U.S./Mexico border. This prompted some concerned calls and many prayers for us, which we appreciated though we were in no danger. The border is huge and though we were in sight of Mexico we were nowhere near the site at the border last week in Tijuana when U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement tear gassed families, children attempting to cross the border. The photos of children running from the tear gas are nothing short of apocalyptic. Compared to that section of the border, the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border crossing seems practically sleepy…but it is not. As we spent time with Will’s mom and Aunt we learned of their work with a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance-run site that hosts nearly 200 people released from immigrant detention every night. These individuals and families have been released to await their court hearings with family or friends in the United States. They stay 1 to 2 nights in this church site as volunteers help them buy bus tickets and temporary cell phones to begin the next leg of their journey to places as far away as New York and Delaware. As the border becomes increasingly militarized and our government’s response to people seeking asylum terrifyingly inhumane, a long line of people of conscience – as long as the border – are holding lights in the darkness to guide new immigrants toward safety. They are the new humanity emerging.

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The second story is about our friend, Beryl Dilworth, who now rests in the arms of God. When Will and I first moved to White Plains in 2011 and into the house right here on Rockledge we immediately began plans to plant a garden in the backyard. When the ground began to thaw in the Spring I began the work of double digging the soil for the garden beds. It was hard work. One afternoon when I was out there, I heard some tapping on a window in Kingsley House, followed by Beryl’s voice informing me that she was watching me. I waved back. On Sundays she would congratulate me on my hard work. And during the week we’d repeat the cycle – I’d get back to work, she’d remind me – with a tap on the window – she was there keeping watch. What Beryl didn’t know was how afraid I was at the moment in my life. I was in a lot of pain and without a diagnosis my mind was running wild with the horrific scenarios the future might hold. Working in the garden was one of the best ways I found to calm those thoughts and even more so with Beryl there with me. She was a light for me in that dark time…and perhaps I was for her, too? Together we were not alone.

This Advent as the days grow shorter and the nights lengthen, we are called to focus our eyes on the light of the new humanity emerging from the fearful shadows and to live in that light. We are reminded to turn to one another for strength as we await the dawn. May we do so in active hope. Amen.

 

 

Fall Sermons 2018

December 4, 2018

It has been nearly a year since I have entered the pulpit on a Sunday morning with a completed manuscript. Beginning last Advent, I started making notes toward my sermons in a little red notebook that I carried everywhere, testing ideas with friends and colleagues weeks in advance, taking long weekly walks in the woods while my son cared for the barnyard animals and I preached to the trees, and then would get up in the pulpit on Sunday morning to preach what was on my mind and in my heart. I have sometimes been surprised by the shape of the sermon. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the congregation, though this preacher has spent each Sunday afternoon thinking of things I could have said (better), should have said (or omitted), or which I had completely forgot to say. It has been quite liberating, this new way of preaching, and my sermon notes have become little more than an outline on a single page and perhaps a quotation or two from the NYTimes or a contemporary theologian. 

I do feel I owe an apology, however, to those who read my sermons online. For the first half the year I was able to spend a few hours on Sunday afternoon writing out, more or less, what I had said. That completely broke down this fall. I’m sorry.

I DO miss having a record of the sermons I have preached, though. I will try to do better in the coming year. Sermons that do not appear here include

  • Oct. 14: The Second Paradox: 
  • Oct. 21: The Third Paradox: The Greatest of These
  • Oct. 28: Woven Together – My Reformation Day Sermon
  • Nov. 4: My All Saint’s Sermon
  • Nov. 11: Caregiving Sunday
  • Nov. 18: Keep Watch! Stay Awake! (concluding a year of reading Mark’s Gospel) 
  • Nov. 25: Guest sermon by Union Theological Seminary Senior Stephanie Quintana-Martínez

The Second Paradox: Redistributing Power (Reflections on this past week)

October 2, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday in the Season of Creation: Biodiversity Sunday, September 30, 2018

 Mark 10:1-16

In 1987 I wrote a college essay called “I am a feminist.” “I am a feminist,” it began.

I am a feminist because I believe the simple truth that women are human beings. I’m a feminist because men and women should enjoy equality, but do not. The long history of patriarchy is the history of men treating women as property, as possession, and as playthings, with impunity.

I went on to say a great deal about the history of patriarchy, and male privilege, and unequal power. Only late in the paper did I identify myself as male, and the implications of being a male feminist. I said that men themselves, and male patterns of behavior, need to be fundamentally changed.

A couple of weeks later, my mother and father were lying in bed. My dad was watching television, as he often did to wind down and fall asleep, and my mom was reading. My mom asked my dad if he could listen for a couple of minutes, that he might find what she was reading very interesting, and she began to read my paper aloud. After a couple of sentences my father asked what she was reading. I think he actually said something like “What is this crap?” My mother said, “It is a paper your son just wrote for school.”

I loved my dad. Everyone liked him. He was easy to like. So long as the very traditional world, the world of familiar traditions, that he’d come to expect was not deeply challenged. (I could talk about that for a long time.) My point is simply that people can look one way when they are enjoying their privilege and look very different when that privilege is threatened.

Our scripture reading this morning continues our reading straight through of the Gospel of Mark right where we left off last week, with a discussion of divorce, marriage, and children. I have never preached on this passage before. I have never wanted to preach on this passage before. In fact, I have avoided this passage through most of my ministry. As I hope we will see you in a couple minutes, Jesus does not mean what he has been taken to mean by generations of male church leaders.

Read Mark 10:1-16

We often hear these words of Jesus out of context, cited as if Jesus were making pronouncements on doctrine or universal ethics. He is not. I have avoided this passage because divorce is such a painful experience for those who go through it, for friends and family who watch the pain of a couple coming apart, for the judgments made from the outside about whether a couple has worked hard enough or just given up. Speculation is rife about deeper problems violence, abuse, or addiction. Generations of clergy have sent women back into unhealthy relationships with no advice but to pray for their husbands, when in fact they should have encouraged and helped women to flee the violence and abuse. Divorce is tragic, even when it is liberating. It is painful, and it hurts. And the pain is not settled by law.

This passage does not offer any comfort in the midst of such pain, and so I have not preached on it before.

But since we are trying to hear the whole story of Mark this year, I will try and place this passage about divorce and children in context this morning by inviting you to imagine three concentric circles. We will begin in the center, in the smallest circle – the immediate context for our scripture story today – and work our way out to ever-greater contexts. I will try and use these circles to track our progress this morning.

Circle One: Responding to a Hostile Question

First, the context for this specific encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is that the Pharisees, as representatives of the Temple traditions, have come to question Jesus in order to entrap him. Their question, you see, is hostile. The Pharisees have been conspiring to destroy Jesus ever since he healed a man on the Sabbath (3:6). Now that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, their territory, they need a pretext to have him arrested. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Divorce was a contested topic in Jesus’ day, and there were a range of answers to the Pharisees’ question among Jesus’ contemporaries. Some forbid men to remarry if their wife was still alive (the Essenes on the shores of the Dead Sea), other Rabbis stipulated ever more liberal conditions in which a man may “put away his wife” under a variety of conditions (the schools of Hillel), even to the extent of a man simply finding another woman more attractive (the school of Shammai). It is possible that the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to weigh in with his own opinion on divorce among his followers, but that is hardly a trap to destroy him.

Rather, they are most likely trying to get Jesus to take a position critical of Herod Antipas, as John the Baptist had done. You will remember that Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee, had divorced his own wife in order to marry his brother’s wife. It was a marriage of ambition. Among the elite, divorce and remarriage was often a form of political maneuvering, status improvement, and financial advancement. By marrying his brother Philip’s wife, Antipas was attaching himself to a high priestly and politically important family in a bid to be recognized by Rome as King over all Israel. For calling this divorce immoral and against the will of God, John the Baptist had been arrested and killed. (Think Henry the VIII and Sir Thomas More.) The Pharisees were either silent or accommodated.[i]

What ensues is classic Jesus, refusing the terms of the question and in turn asking his own. Whenever Jesus asks a question he challenges the assumptions of his disciples and his opponents alike, revealing their intentions, their commitments, and their purpose. Jesus always interrogates those who hold power over others.

“What did Moses command you?” he asks. The Pharisees respond by citing Deut. 24: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” This answer nicely reveals the patriarchal and male centered basis of divorce, according to the Temple. Jesus however rejects the authority of Moses, as he has before (7:1-13), as mere human authority and an accommodation to hard-heartedness. Being hard-hearted is, of course, Pharaoh’s disease, a stance against God’s intentions.

Instead, Jesus changes the subject of the exchange from divorce to one of marriage and God’s original intention in creation – relationships of equality, mutuality and life-giving support. He has escaped the trap.

But notice what comes next. When he is again alone with his disciples he both recognizes that divorce happens, but also recognizes the ability of both men and women to initiate the divorce. While this was common practice among the Greeks and Romans, this was well beyond the bounds of Jewish practice. While barring divorce for the purpose of remarriage, it yet gives women a new power of control within marriage.  

Circle Two: A Lesson in Redistributing Power

Let us now move on the second, slightly larger circle, encompassing the first. This circle includes the context for this challenge and riposte between the Pharisees and Jesus within Mark’s Gospel story. To remind you what we have covered in recent weeks, Jesus is on his way, traveling again over all the territory he had previously visited in his campaigns of healing, freeing, feeding and teaching, only this time with the purpose of going to Jerusalem. He has gathered around him a mixed group of Galileans and Gentiles, and he is preparing them for what is to come when he confronts the Temple authorities and their Roman rulers during the lead up to Passover. Most recently, the disciples have been discussing who among them might be the greatest in the kingdom movement, revealing that they still fundamentally misunderstand what Jesus has been showing them about renewing covenant community and practicing mutual care. So, Jesus offers them a paradox, something like a Zen koan, to chew on. This is the second paradox Jesus offers ‘on the way.’ Jesus tells them that “Whoever wants to be first must be last,” that those who aspire to be great must serve the least and most vulnerable. This requires attending to inequalities in power and redistributing resources and power in the community. He then illustrates this paradox in all kinds of ways.

  • First Jesus turns his followers’ attention to a small child. Children were among the most vulnerable, and here represent all who are made vulnerable. Children were not the repositories of hope for the future, as we think of them. They were non-entities, considered not yet human. In the first century there was 30 percent infant mortality. It was 60 percent by age 16. No wonder so many parents, both Jew and Gentile, brought children to Jesus for a blessing.[ii]
  • Second, Jesus points his followers to the fact that there is good being done “outside” the community that Jesus’ has gathered around him. Attending to these ‘others’ who do good in integral to this community. They must never neglect to acknowledge good when they see it.
  • Third, an in contrast to the good being done “outside” the community, Jesus points out that there is also wrongdoing “inside” the movement. He warns them that those who cause harm or “scandal” to “these little ones,” would be better off cutting off the hand or foot, or plucking out the eye, that caused the harm and cauterizing the wound with salt and fire. There is a Rabbinic tradition that suggests the scandal being referred to is sexual scandal – what we would recognize today as sexual violence or abuse. But it certainly applies to the neglect or abuse of any vulnerable person – those made poor, the immigrant in our midst, our children.[iii]
  • In our passage today, Jesus redistributes power in the family, giving women equal standing and control in marriage, and attends to children, those most often harmed in divorce. Unequal power, even in our most intimate relationships, makes home and family still the most dangerous place for women and children.
  • Finally, this whole section which we have called a Community Catechism is about the kind life we share in covenant community and the just relations between persons we foster, with particular attention to those who are vulnerable to abuses of power. “Since intimate relationships of marriage, family, and children live at the heart of a community’s life, [our scripture reading today] holds both personal and deeply social implications.” When Jesus says that we must receive the kingdom as a child, he is not suggesting adopting some kind of romantic simplicity or naïve trust but insisting that we must consider the perspective of victims and those made vulnerable in our society. Further, we must be willing to actually become ourselves the last and the least, risking our comfort, our status, our power and the pursuit of ‘greatness’ in order to serve others in justice and peace and speak truth to power.[iv]

Mark will conclude this section of his Gospel on Jesus’ paradoxical teaching with a story about a rich man who Jesus invites to distribute his wealth among the poor, and we will see that he is unable to do it.

The point Mark is making is that this kingdom movement that Jesus is building, the kingdom movement that we are a part of, is not a way to pursue power, prestige, status, greatness. It is service to one another, with particular care for the last and the least.

Let all Herod’s (and would-be Herod’s) be warned!

Circle Three: The Word in Our World

So . . . what shall we make of this Word as we look at our world this week?

My throat tightens up even now as I think about the display of patriarchy, male privilege, and pursuit of power that was on display this past week in the Senate Judiciary hearing.

Like many of you, I spent Thursday morning watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and Thursday afternoon watching Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s tirade. I was glued to my computer screen as Dr. Blasey Ford spoke about what happened to her at a party – what Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge did to her – when she was in high school. To be very clear, I found Professor Blasey Ford compelling, and I believe her. I also believe Judge Kavanaugh demonstrated in his personal demeanor and in his angry defense both why he is unfit for the lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, and why so many are working hard to put him there.

As I watched my computer screen, my insides were twisted in knots and my chest felt constricted. I could not sit still listening to Dr. Blasey Ford with measured tones describe her attack. I kept leaping to my feet to walk around the room. I could feel my blood pumping as she told her story and shouted at the committee members when they interrogated her. My eyes burned, and I wept angry tears each time one of the committee members attempted to tell her her own story, or commend her for her “courage,” or patronized her by explaining the difference between a legal proceeding and this informal hearing. I understand most of what was said by committee members on Thursday was said for the congressional record and the television audience, with everyone’s eye on their political future. I know the hearing was never intended, to be anything like the safe space of a therapist’s office. Nevertheless, I ached for repetition of trauma each time I saw Professor Blasey Ford pull her chin back as it physically trying to retreat from the speech directed at her, and knew this was being experienced by women watching all around the world. I felt complete helplessness when she described her most lasting memory: “Indelible on the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two – and they are having fun at my expense. They were laughing with each other. … I was underneath one of them while the two laughed.”

I am less interested today in calling Dr. Ford a profile in courage, or a hero, than I am in recognizing and respecting what she called her civic duty and responsibility to come forward and tell her story, and in making sure that what she has both done and endured was not done in vain.

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This fabukous graphic is by Nicole Vosper at emptycagesdesign.org

What lessons are we to learn? Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic,

The country learned a lot, this week, about the rarefied culture of prep schools and colleges and the elite institutions into which those schools feed. It learned a lot, at the same time, about winking impunities. It learned a lot about what America’s power brokers value, and whom they value. And, conversely, whom they do not.[v]

Just this morning Charles M. Blow wrote that the message sent by the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to survivors, mostly women, but also many men, is this:

Your pain is not our problem. Your bodies are not your own. Your voice, even at its strongest, is still weaker than any man’s, no matter how sniveling and snide. We are here to protect the order, an old order, in which men rule, even when unruly and reprobate.

“What those senators are saying to all of us,” he continued,

is that, for them, patriarchy and privilege occupy positions of primacy in this country. And, when that primacy is threatened, it is perfectly reasonable that those affected would whine and rage at the possibility of being denied that to which they are owed, as birthright and gender benefit. [vi]

Earlier in the week, Michelle Goldberg published an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Pigs All the Way Down” that captures what needs to change and suggests how we change it. As the nation waited to hear Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony, Ms. Goldberg wrote that “Regardless of what happens to Kavanaugh, however, this scandal has given us an x-ray view of the rotten foundations of elite male power… Kavanaugh’s nomination shows how sick the cultures that produce … our ruling class … can be.” But she alerted us that

Watching all this unfold is radicalizing for reasons far beyond Republican mistreatment of Kavanaugh’s accusers. His story shows, in lurid microcosm, how a certain class of men guard and perpetuate their privileges. Women who struggle ceaselessly to be smart enough, attractive enough, ambitious enough and likable enough have been playing a rigged game. As they realize that, their incandescent fury is remaking our politics. We’ll know things have changed when palling around with sexual abusers carries more stigma than being abused does.[vii]

Exactly!

The always eloquent Rebecca Solnit, whose groundbreaking text on sexual violence, Men Explain Things to Me, the book that spawned the term “mansplaining,” has recently written,

Feminism needs men. For one thing, the men who hate and despise women will be changed, if they change, by a culture in which doing horrible things to, or saying horrible things about, women will undermine rather than enhance a man’s standing with other men.[viii]

Jesus would wholeheartedly agree! We need a redistribution of power in our culture and even in our most intimate relationships. Rebecca Solnit again:

If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign.[ix]

Can this happen? It can. It is happening. And it is what Jesus need us to lean in and continue to do today. Especially men.

In searching for a hopeful word, but one born in hopeful anger, I finish this morning with the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. But I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.[x]

May we be, and bring about, the change God needs us to be.

 

 

 

[i] R. Allen Culpepper, “Mark 10:1-12, Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark (A Feasting on the Word Commentary), edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. (WJK, 2014).

[ii] Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross. (Orbis, 2014).

[iii] Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. (Orbis, 1996)

[iv] Culpepper, ibid.

[v] Megan Garber, “The Pernicious Double Standards Around Brett Kavanaugh’s Drinking.” The Atlantic, September 28, 2018.

[vi] Charles Blow, “Victimizing the Victims Again: In the Kavanaugh Hearings, Republicans Made it Clear that the Old, Male-dominated Order Will Prevail.” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2018. I saw this piece only after I had finished preaching.

[vii]  Michelle Goldberg, “Pigs All The Way Down: Kavanaugh and Our Rotten Ruling Class.” New York Times, Sept. 24, 2018. The last is important, because whether the charged are leally substantiated, Brett Kavanaugh keeps a sordid company.

[viii] Rebecca Solnit, “Feminism: The Men Arrive,” in The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminist Essays from the author of Men Explain Things to Me.” (Haymarket Books, 2017). P. 87.

[ix] Solnit, “A Short History of Silence,” in ibid., p. 23.

[x] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, We Should All Be Feminists. (Anchor, 2015).

The Second Paradox: The First and Last

October 2, 2018

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Third Sunday in the Season of Creation: Sustainable Energy Sunday, September 23, 2018

 Mark 9:30-50

Just like two weeks ago, I preached an extempore sermon this week on Jesus’ teaching that those who would be first must be last and least of all. This post will hold a place in my sermon catalog until I can get my thoughts from that day written down. If I get them written down… alas. Apologies to my online readers.