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Sabbath Day – Meditation on the Move

June 1, 2019

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“Do not give credence to any thought that was not born outdoors
while one moved about freely – in which the muscles
are not celebrating a feast, too.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, who walked daily.

I used my Sabbath Day this week to continue my southbound walk along the AT in New Jersey. Fourteen-plus miles of gorgeous green woods, mountain lakes and moors, and grand summit vistas brought me from the offices of High Point State Park to Culver’s Gap. It was day of vivid contrasts and great beauty.

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I left my car at the trailhead on NJ23 at 6:50 AM and entered the woods. I immediately found a half-dozen deer holding the ridge above me. They watched me pass with all their attention but did not yield the high ground. The next half mile or so was the lushest fern forest I have ever seen. (Alas, no photos). The previous night’s rain and the rising sun created an elegant world of light and shadow with delicately changing patterns. Herbert Durand wrote his classic Field Book of Common Ferns to help people like me appreciate what he called the ‘natural treasures of the wild.’ It was a most auspicious beginning to my day.

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I took very few pictures but appreciated as many micro-changes in my day as I could – the moment when the early morning chatter of birds gave way to true birdsong, the protected cool air in hollows between mountain tops, the arrival of mosquitoes when the day began to warm, the great show given me by three startled turkey vultures, the sudden leap of a deer ten feet in front of me who either didn’t hear me coming or thought I was heading somewhere else. 

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The path was at times all stone, and often mud, then gave way to needles strewn and soft, only the a ridge run along solid slabs of rock. The temperature was in the mid-70s, but a week of rain left everything feeling damp and alive. It was the kind of day Robert Moor describes in his bestselling On Trails: An Exploration: “I inhaled the fir-sweet  air, exhaled fog. The forest gave off a faint chlorophyllic glow.” Nevertheless, I was kissed by the sun, uncomfortably so.

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Everything felt so alive. David Cooper refers to the way a walker constructs the world into a mysterious whole as ‘meditation on the move,’ an apt term for the engagement of body and mind in both constructing, deconstructing, and discovering the mystery at the heart of creation. All day I was engaged in such mediation, and it was joy.

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I had plenty of time to look up, to look down, to look all around, and to look inside.

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By lunch time I was in Culver’s Gap where the Mountain House Tavern and Grill for a well deserved local beer and bowl of homemade chile. Afterward I relaxed in a beach chair beside Kittatinny Lake (behind the Mountain House) while waiting for Mark, my Lyft driver, to take me back to my car. 

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Oh, Happy Sabbath.

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Sabbath Day – The Great Animal Orchestra

May 25, 2019

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The twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen remarked that for him, ‘the only real music’ was ‘in the sounds of nature’, especially in the singing of birds. That may be an eccentric view, but we could agree that ‘the great animal orchestra of nature’, as one musicologist calls it, is the origin of the music that human beings have come to create and enjoy. Whether or not, at the end of the day, birdsong is labeled ‘music’ is less important than the fact that it is hard to hear it as being other than musical or music-like.[i]

I started my hike this week with these thoughts about music in my head. I walked, attuned not only to the ‘great animal orchestra’ of Northern New Jersey but also to the burbling rhythms of living water and the chorus of trees, plants and mountain top being played by the advance winds of an approaching thunderstorm. This section of the trail is an ideal location for listening, as the path passes through the Wallkill Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the only national wildlife refuge on the whole AT.

My hike began on the boardwalk, where I left off last week, and took me up and over Pochuck Mountain (were I took the first photo below), across the Wallkill Valley (across which I am looking), to High Point State Park in the Kittatinny Mountains (seen in the far distance in the same photo). A total of 17 miles.

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In fact, standing at the overlook to take the photo above I could just make out High Point Monument on the other side of the valley toward which I would wend and walk all day. An obelisk in High Point State Park marks the highest point in New Jersey at 1,803 ft. The monument was erected in 1930 and dedicated to those who lost their lives in our nation’s wars, past and future. It was so far away it can’t even be made out in the photo. Three hours later I caught sight of it again, and uttered an expletive. It was both so much closer, and yet still so far away. Am I going to make it before the thunderstorm? I felt distinctly like Bilbo Baggins and the Company of Dwarves when the eagles set them down on the Carrock in the middle of the River Anduin and they could finally see their goal, the Lonely Mountain. Having come so far, there was so far to go. 

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At the five and a half hour mark I finally stood below the monument.

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The view was unequaled. From here I could

Look east to view the Kittaninny Valley with Pochuck Mountain in the forground and Wawayanda Mountain on the horizon. Look southeast and you may be able to see the New York City Skyline. Delaware Water Gap is to the southwest, and Lake Marcia and Highpoint Lodge with the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania are to the west. The Catskill Plateau is to the northwest, and High Point Monument is to the north.[ii]

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Looking back at Pochunk Mountain where I took the first photo above

The overcast day did not allow me to see the city, but I was able to see the upper reaches of the Delaware River that I will following south on my next several weeks of hiking toward the Gap.

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To get to this point I had traversed Jersey wetlands and lowlands, bogs and marshes on boardwalks, bridges, dikes and sometimes simply through mud; climbed mountains stairs and descended stones strewn paths, and enjoyed some lovely forest trails. I encountered singing songbirds beyond belief (including a beautiful crane family), herons and hawks, duck, geese, and a regal swan ,as well as frogs and turtles, snakes, spiders, centipedes, squirrels and chipmunks, the odd mouse and a startled groundhog, and fields of flowers filled with honey bees in paradise doing what they do. And cows. And horses. As well as evidence of dogs, deer, fox, and something even larger.

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The trail was actually crowded, not with thru-hikers, but with north bound flip-floppers who started a month or two ago at the mid-way point of the AT in Harper’s Ferry. They will then flip back to complete the southern route by mid-summer. This way they avoid some of the extreme weather associated with thru-hiking. 

As I descended from High Point Summit the thunder sounded and the wind picked up. The rain began as I emerged from the woods in sight of the State Park Office. I had intended another three miles, but I stopped there and called for a Lyft. As I waited for Muhammed to take me back to my car at the trailhead, I enjoyed the smell of rain and ozone. I watched the steam rise from the sun warmed roof. And I listened to the birds. 

Happy Sabbath

 

[i] Cited in David E. Cooper, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life. (Routledge, 2018)

[ii] Victoria Logue, Frank Logue and Leonard M. Adkins, The Best of the Appalachian Trail: Overnight Hikes. (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 1994/2004).

 

 

 

Sabbath Day – Pushing Myself

May 17, 2019

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The Vernon Valley, New Jersey

“This is the kind of day you just want to go back to sleep,” my son said to me at 5:30 AM.

He was right, I wanted to go back to sleep.

But I had used my last hour before going the bed the night before planning my first long hike of the season on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. I had completed most of New York two years ago, and then spent last year biking. Having touched the NY/NJ state line just last week, I figured a couple of Sabbath Days, and a judicious use of Uber and asking for lifts to avoid loop hiking, would allow me to knock out the mere 72 miles of the AT in  New Jersey in a few short weeks.

I parked my car, illegally it turns out, where the trail crosses the Warwick Turnpike just west of the entrance to Wawayanda State Park in Vernon Township. Wawayanda, a Lenape word which means “water no the mountain”, was the name given by the original inhabitants of this area to a local river I would cross later in the day. 

Three miles northbound from my car would connect me to where the AT intersects the State-Line Trail which I had hiked with Katie just last week. And then, of course, three miles back.  

Back at my car I crossed the Turnpike and started walking southbound. My ‘stated’ destination for the day was Pinwheel’s Vista, four and a half miles steadily up. I figured a nine-mile loop ‘there and back again’ would give me a good workout and a pleasant day and get me back to my car in time drive home in time to attend August’s lacrosse game at 4:15.

That’s not quite what happened.

It was a gorgeous day to be out. The temperature was in the mid-50s when I started and was rapidly climbing to 70. The sun was out and the sky was blue, and the sound of fast flowing water accompanying birdsong was music. The trees shelter me from direct sunlight.

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Recent rains meant that much the trail was muddy and whole sections were hiked by hopping from stone to stick to keep my feet dry. Later, when the whole trail was nothing but stone, I would miss the mud. Rivers and lakes were well above their normal levels.

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I never got a picture from Pinwheel’s Vista. As I approach the summit I stopped to sign the trial log and read messages left by other hikers. As I turned toward the summit, and just before I was to have found the side path which would give me the promised stunning 360 degree views of the region, I got a phone call from the church. In taking it, and talking while walking, I got turned around and began hiking north again. I did not immediately recognize my error (walking while talking on the phone, one does not really take in the surroundings and hiking a trail in reverse in not quickly recognized). When I finally turned around to find the right direction again I bypassed the vista again. I can only imagine what the views would have been like from the few peeks I got through the trees.

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One error led to another. By the time I realized I had hiked significantly past the Pinwheel’s Vista I was descending rapidly on the far side of the mountain. The trail was nothing but stone and occasionally stone steps. I felt like a goat.

I’m not the first person to get turned around at the Pinwheel. Perhaps half a mile (down) from the summit I found this sign that would have been hepful earlier. 

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Now I like hopping from stone to stone like a goat. So I kept going down. But by time I got over the fun I realized I did not want to hike back up again. At this point I was beginning to encounter hikers coming up and they were sweat covered and panting. But their presence in such numbers suggested a trailhead nearby.

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yes, this is the “trail!” – see the white blaze up ahead?

So… I consulted my GPS and decided that another mile would get me off the mountain and take me to Route 94 where I could try and hitch ride back to my car. So I kept going.

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This is a look back at the Wawayanda Mountain I had come over.
(It didn’t photograph impressively). 

However, once I made it to Route 94, the trail continued over the road and across a cow pasture via a thin boardwalk. The cows were up to their knees in mud, munching away. I had energy (because I didn’t go back up and over). I had time (if I could get a ride back to my car). There was a parking lot full of cars belonging to day hikers like myself (so I was optimistic about getting a ride). I knew another two and a half miles would link up to the only other New Jersey hike I had hiked in 2016 which would complete this section of the AT. So I pushed myself and kept going. I could always hitch a ride from the next highway, right?

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Just after the cows …

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… and over the railroad tracks …

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… and across half a mile of boardwalk into the woods …

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and through the swamp, I came to the swollen Pochuck Creek – which should have warned me what was coming. 

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I was in familiar territory now. I had hiked through Pochuck Crossing back in 2016 with Noelle and August. I recognized the path and its bridges and boardwalks. However, the path soon became uncrossable. At least for me. The only way through the waterlogged swamp was by wading. Several hikers removed their shoes and were bare-footing it though the water. But that’s where I stopped. I’m protective of my feet. I’d been here before, anyway. I turned around and went back to Route 94.

I met a man named Paul (and his dog) who gave me ride back to my car, and I made it home just in time for the lacrosse game in New Rochelle. (Our team lost). But still … blue skies.

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Here’s a map of my hike. Including the six-mile round trip from Warwick Turnpike to the Trail in the Abram S. Hewitt State Park, and the short double back from the Pochuck Creek, my total walk was 13 miles.  Just 72 miles to go to Pennsylvania!

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Happy Sabbath.

 

Sabbath Day – Hiking Together

May 10, 2019

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Last week I reclaimed my sabbath day after a long hiatus. It felt good.

About that same time a good colleague and friend asked if I would join her for a hike this week. Katie’s a “trail walker, not a hiker,” so this was going to be a new experience. We chose a trail, described by Daniel Chazin as “one of the most spectacular hikes in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area”: a four and a half mile loop in the Abram S. Hewitt State Forest that intersects with the State Line Trail and the Appalachian Trail. The hike begins with a 600 foot ascent of Bearfort Ridge above Greenwood Lake, so I packed hiking poles.

When I threw my gear in the car to take my son to school in the morning, he asked me why I had two sets of poles. “Because I’m hiking with Katie today,” I said.

“Wait. You’re hiking with someone? You never hike with anyone but me!” Which is not entirely true, but close enough. Something new for me too.

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It was a good enough day to be out, with the temperature in the mid 50s and the sky gray and overcast. That made walking and breathing fairly easy. The first steep ascent up Bearfort Mountain brought us to a breathtaking overlook from which we could see two states, five counties, and a half dozen lakes. The Bearfort Ridge (which we would be traversing) is the beginning of the Wawayanda Plateau, a glacially formed ridge that stretches southwest across Northern New Jersey. For perspective, 

The ancient granite and syenite bedrock is about a billion years old, some of the oldest bedrock in North America. The Wawayanda Plateau is the geological name of this corner of New Jersey. It is all that remains of Himalayan-sized mountains that once rose out of the sea between Vernon and Manhattan. The effects of weathering and repeated assaults by ice have worn the entire area flat, except for the erosion-resistant remnants of these mountains and the Kittatinny Ridge to the west. (source)

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This part of the ridge is also known for its unusual pinkish-purpleish puddingstone conglomerate rock and marbleized granite (also, no photos). The upland forest is predominantly hemlock, oak, and pitch pine, and, despite the elevation, contains marshes and wetlands as well as two lakes. Streams crisscrossed our path continually and we found ourselves hopping from stone to stone to cross them.

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The trail was a bit more strenuous than advertised. After the initial climb we thought we would mostly be walking along the ridge, but we found ourselves doing a considerable amount of rock scrambling and, at times, climbing! The loop trail was only four and half miles long, but it took us four hours with all the ups and downs.

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For a short time we intersected with and walked along the Appalachian Trail with its famous white blazes, sending photos to our friend Cari Pattison who is thru-hiking the AT this year. Cari’s approaching her 500 mile mark, and we figured she was hiking toward us a mere 870 miles down the trail. (Cari is blogging for The Trek, and you can follow her here.)

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The best part of the day was the opportunity to spend the better part of a day with a friend, to walk and talk about our lives without agenda, and to offer encouragement to one another. 

The latter part of the trail took us through a rhododendron tunnel, though a bit too early for the blossoms to be out. Spring flowers, like mountain laurel, were just beginning to show their buds, while solitary patches of pink, purple, white and yellow flowers we could not name reminded us that spring has started.  We met only three other hikers while we were out. For the most part we were accompanied only by birdsong, little critters and, once, a mouse making its way below the leaf litter. But here among the rhododendron we startled two large white-tailed deer just off the trail who ran from us and doubled back again to reach higher ground. 

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Katie, thanks for inviting me out and for making this such an enjoyable Sabbath day.

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Sabbathing

May 4, 2019

“If you do not observe the sabbath as a sabbath, you will not see the Father.”
Gospel of Thomas, 27:2

FINALLY!

A conjunction of beautiful weather and a pause in the urgencies that have kept me from taking more than partial sabbath for months now. I thank all those who have been watching me carefully and urged me to take this day, and those whose Sabbath practice inspires me.

After eight weeks without coffee (:o), on Thursday I relished a half dozen cups while reading a commentary on the Gospel of John by Allen Dwight Callahan. (I know, that doesn’t sound like Sabbath, but it is what I really wanted to do in the morning. I’m gearing up to teach the Johannine literature on Monday evenings and was pursuing lots of personal questions. I tinkered with several other books before giving in to what I really wanted to read with the capacious time of what promised to be a whole day). The morning sun was so warm and bright on the balcony where I was reading that I had to apply sunscreen and don sunglasses. 

I also did four loads of laundry.

By noon I was restless and hearing the voice of a colleague and friend encouraging me to get out on my bike. At this time last year I was cycling in Palestine. I dusted off and adjusted my helmet, pumped the tires to 90 psi, and took out my Crosstrek for a rather comfortable ten-plus miles along the Bronx River to the Kensico Dam and back. This was my first ride of the year. I had experienced some leg trauma the day before, so I was taking it easy. Nevertheless, it felt great to be out and I kept dreaming of twenty, thirty, forty miles next time out. Ambition and desire reignited. 

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On my way home I parked my bike and enjoyed a gourmet vegetarian ‘hot dog’ at the Dog Den near the train station (and nearly home), a ritual I developed while cycling last year. After seven months a vegetarian, it was simply not the same. 

While eating my meal, and reading eco-theology on my kindle app, I received a text from another colleague inviting me to go hiking with her next Thursday. Really? Two sabbaths in a row? Doing what I love and what gives me life? Restoring rhythms that feed my soul? Yes, I replied. Yes. 

Back home, and a hot shower later, I sank into a memoir given me by a member of the congregation I serve because she understands my love of genealogy. I read nearly half of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love while folding laundry, listening to Dylan, sitting on the lacrosse field, playing taxi driver for Noelle and August, and just fussing around the house. Every two dozen pages or so I would stop and poke around my own ancestry.com page, exploring and comparing DNA Circles. How could my sister and I, my cousins and I, receive such different genetic packages?

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It became obvious to me that my Sabbath involved enjoying gifts and encouragement given to me by others. I am grateful.

There was a nap in there somewhere, Indian take-out, assisting August with his homework, and a greyhound (gin and grapefruit). Also St. Augustine, Irenaeus, (and, yes,  about an hour of work related phone conversation.)

And then the rain came. 

For which I am also grateful, because the soil I prepared on my previous “sabbath day” for the church, and planted with 30 nursery school children over the weekend, needed the water. A week later, those seeds we planted are poking through the soil.

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All in all, a fulfilling, rewarding day that left me craving more.

I think the Gospel of Thomas got it right, “If you do not observe the sabbath as a sabbath, you will not see God.” The sabbath is the foundation of both justice and health, which is God doing what God always and ever does, giving God’s own life to us to participate in and enjoy.

Oh Sabbath, how I missed you. Need you. Was withering without you. 

Thank you.

The Secret of Life: An Easter Sermon

April 22, 2019
Wheat field and blue sky with white clouds

Wheat field and blue sky with clouds

THE SECRET OF LIFE is a sermon about the mystery of life and death preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. It was inspired by a provocative piece of writing by Asian eco-feminist Jea Sophia Oh, “Seeds, Cross and a Paradox of Life from Death: A Postcolonial Eco-Theology.” Oh utilizes the two Korean terms to distinguish the enlivening principle of life in all living things (which includes death as a part of life) and the principle of violence and social pathology that is fundamentally anti-life. In our scripture for the day, Jesus speaks of his violent death and glorious resurrection as a form of natural bio-power that enlivens the children of God. This becomes an invitation to “come ands see” life as lived by God’s people in the church.

 

Isaiah 65:17-25         John 12:20-24

“In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree…
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

Hymn of Promise, sung just before the sermon

American composer, Natalie Sleeth, wrote this hymn back in 1986. She says about that time that she was “pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawakening of the world that happens every spring.” She was inspired by a line from T.S. Eliot, “in my end is my beginning,” which she adapted and used to start the third stanza. The hymn grew from there. Shortly after completing the hymn, Natalie’s husband was diagnosed with what turned out to be a terminal malignancy. He died shortly thereafter. The original anthem version of this hymn was sung at his funeral. Natalie herself died of cancer just six years later. Her music has inspired a generation to understand that the meaning of life and death are deeply intertwined, not as opposites, but parts of a greater mystery.[i]

In our gospel reading today, Jesus draws upon the same kind of imagery to speak of his own dying and rising to new life, a mystery that we are called to participate in. You see, we, we, are the good fruit and abundant harvest that comes from Jesus’ death. His life now lives in us, enabling us to lead lives of love, joy, peace and purpose with courage and without fear. That is what it means to live resurrection.

Hear our reading from the Gospel According to John

Now among those who went up to worship at the [annual Passover] festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Human One to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

The Word of God, for the People of God. Thanks be to God.[ii]

I find it startling if not downright disconcerting to hear Jesus so casually compare his violent death on a cross at the hands of Roman authority to a seed that falls to the ground and dies. But this verse contains what Asian eco-feminist theologian Jea Sophia Oh calls ‘the secret of life,’ which is beyond the conventional meaning of death as the opposite of life.

Death is not the opposite of life; it is a part of life and always already exists as a necessary aspect of the circle of life. Life reflects the full cycle of birth, growth, death and transformation into different forms… The opposite of life, killing (jugim, a Korean term meaning killing, a whole package of social pathology), is not [the same as] death… Killing refers not only to the destruction of living organism but also to all attitudes that are contrary to the natural process of becoming. Nevertheless, the cross symbolizes salim (another Korean term that means “making things alive, enlivening) in the midst of jugim (violence).

In seeds, death and life, disintegration and proliferation, are intertwined. A seed has the potential to bear fruit because there is life in it. All living organisms have this potential. But, if it remains only a single seed, it eventually loses this life.[iii]

You see, the significance for understanding Jesus’ death lies and the contrast between remaining solitary – “just a single grain” – and many, bearing “very much fruit”. In John’s Gospel, fruit is Jesus’ metaphor for the life of the whole risen community of faith. Jesus uses the seed parable to show that the saving power of his life and death resides in the community that is gathered around him and empowered by him. The saving power of Jesus’ life and death IS the community gathered and enlivened because of him. And that’s us. Jesus’ life, now lives in us. We are invited to live resurrection.[iv]

What does this new life look like?

I believe one of the greatest gifts of Christian community is that we gather regularly, not just to be inspired, comforted, and challenged, but to share with one another life’s most difficult moments, painful experiences, and broken places. Death and life, together. Because as Easter people, as resurrection people, we know we have nothing to fear: there is nothing can stop God’s love.

I want to say a word of special greeting to those of you who are visiting with us today.  Some of you are here visiting family in White Plains, others of you live here but are visiting this congregation for the first time. If you are visiting from another congregation, we hope you will bring our warmest greetings back home to your congregation. But If you happen to be looking for a church home, we hope you will visit us again and learn more about this particular community of God’s people.

If you want to know what resurrection life looks like, what this life demands of us as we follow Jesus, what this life makes possible for us and for the world as we give ourselves in service, come back on any regular Sunday and see for yourself. I don’t know what all you brought with you this morning, but …

  • This is a community that knows how to hold someone who is grieving, to honor the pain and bewilderment that is the loss of a loved one and to offer the support of a community of memory;
  • We know how to sit in the discomfort of dissolving or destructive relationships, alienation within families, estrangement between spouses; We both provide opportunities to continue doing good even as life seems to be falling apart, as well as provide good counsel to make healthy and healing choices for renewed life;
  • We know – here, in this community – how to lift up caregivers struggling to make compassionate and truly caring choices for a parent, a friend, a neighbor, when every choice looks like failure and guilt overwhelms us;
  • We are not a community of perfection, but of grace, mercy, assistance, accompaniment, and care. “Everybody cares” – because everybody needs care and everybody can care – that’s the motto of the ministry led by Deirdre L. and Ruth D.;
  • We support one another as parents, helping our children navigate the life choices, conflicting voices and competing values of post-modern adulthood;
  • We know how to hold each other in prayer;

If you want to know what resurrection life looks like, come join us for Bible study on Monday evening – we are a fabulous, funny and focused gathering (just ask Jackie C. all about it – BTW, today is Jackie’s birthday) – or join us on Sunday mornings for bible and prayer, or Monday afternoons at Kingsley House. Come join us in our work to build sustainability in this age of irreversible climate change, or join our conversations on undoing structural racism and combatting systemic poverty. Pick up an extra bag of groceries the next time you’re out and bring it here to the church. We’ll deliver it to our local food pantry for our neighbors.

If you want to know what resurrection life looks like …

  • Get to know our council clerk Valerie D. and her passion for human rights, and in particular, for prison reform and housing reform;
  • Meet Kathy D. and learn about her passion for solar energy and zero waste.
  • Talk with Olga or Carmen or Sharon from the prayer ministry about how holding others in prayer feeds their own spiritual growth and capacity to love;
  • Find Patty N., who is an advisor to our youth group and a mentor to many musicians; listen to her carefully and you will see what faithfulness looks like;
  • Sit and talk with Cora F. and let her tell you about how God speaks to her in her daily bible reading, and about how transforming that has been over her 90 years.

This is how the dying and rising Christ bears fruit. In us. This is how resurrection life changes the world. If you are looking for a community of God’s people living resurrection, you have found it here.

* * *

Six and a half weeks ago, we as a congregation planted some broccoli seeds as a symbol of this mystery of life and death, of dying and rising, of tender nurture and slow, hidden growth that is part of the spiritual journeys of Lent and of our lives. The seeds we planted are now small green plants, growing food, a tray of life, getting ready to bear fruit. All the way back on Ash Wednesday …

  • We mixed our ashes with good soil – they have long since become one;
  • Four days later, our church school children planted seeds, and watered them with water from the font – those seeds are all gone, having given themselves to the growth;
  • One week we had sprouts, and in a matter of a few weeks more they had become a field of green, so abundant we had to thin the trays – only one plant per square survived the thinning, but each plant is getting ready to bear fruit;
  • These plants will be placed in our garden next week by children in our nursery school during their annual ‘bloom and grow’ earth day celebration;
  • Once ripe, each plant will be able to be harvested two to three times over a three-month period. If we are successful, these plants will produce twenty-four to thirty-six pounds of broccoli.

We could have had no idea back then when we planted the seeds that our congregation would experience the death of four of our members during this short season. So much grief. But also so much life. We have, also, I must say, marked the birth of a new baby, we expect news of another birth in the next few days, and look forward to two more births this summer. With baptisms to follow. A young couple has gotten engaged, eight youth are preparing to be confirmed in the Christian Faith, members have demonstrated care for one another, and, after worship today, many of you will share Easter joy by delivering all these beautiful lilies to homebound or hospitalized friends.

Jesus’ life lives in us, enabling us to lead lives of love, joy, peace and purpose with courage and without fear. We are the fruit of his life and death. As we will sing in a moment,

“Because you live O Christ,
the garden of the world has come to flower.”[v]

 

[i] My go to for hymn stories right now is Carl P Daw, Glory to God: A Companion. (WJK, 2016). For more on Natalie Sleeth, see the UMC History of Hymns web page.

[ii] My exegetical process involved several pages of writing on Philip, the “come and see” disciple who brings people to Jesus. Philip and Andrew are the only two “of the twelve” with clearly Greek names. It seems that when “outsides” or “newcomers” look to connect with Jesus (or a congregation) they often look for someone who looks like or sounds like them. That this is at least part of what is happening in this story, it ultimately determined my approach to this sermon – a mediated invitation to “come and see.”

Another reflection that guided my thinking was the early church’s conviction (via Tertullian) that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As Ignatius put it, shortly before his own death:

Just pray that I will have the strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, that I might not merely be called a Christian, but actually prove to be one. . . . Let me be food for wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I might prove to be pure bread.

Wes Howard-Brook notes that sowing bread wheat was, in the ancient world, women’s work. Thus Jesus’ metaphor for understanding the meaning of his life and death is a feminine one. See WHB, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis, 1994).

[iii] Jea Sophia Oh, “Seeds, Cross and a Paradox of Life from Death: A Postcolonial Eco-Theology” in Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Hilda P. Koster. (Fortress Press, 2017). Oh explores the implications of genetic engineering that has written the life out of many seeds. See also this helpful abstract of her essay in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

[iv] “In order to live, one must die. This is the paradox of life from death, which is the principle of life.” Jea Sohi Oh.

[v] “Because You Live, O Christ,” Shirley Erena Murray, 1987.

Jesus Trusts Women

April 8, 2019

JESUS TRUSTS WOMEN is a sermon on reproductive justice, preached at the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 7, 2019. The absolutely stunning image below is from a painting by artist Lalo Gutierrez titled You Have Anointed My Head with Oil You Have Filled My Glass to the Brim. Please visit his website to see more inspirational paintings like this.

you-have-anointed-my-head-with-oil-you-have-filled-my-glass-to-the-brim-lalo-gutierrez

 Psalm 126          Mark 14:3-9

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ (Mark 14:3-9)

 “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole word, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

It is said that “All thought begins with remembrance.”[i]

In our Lenten book study after worship each Sunday we have been exploring what authors Borg and Crossan call ‘the two passions of Jesus.’ The first passion refers to what Jesus was passionate about – what we are most used to calling the Kingdom of God. A better translation would be Empire of God, or Realm of God. Feminists have captured the idea of a new family or new people of God with the clever term ‘Kin-dom of God.’ Martin Luther King Jr. called it the Beloved Community. Wendell Berry has called it the Great Economy. Whatever we call it, Jesus’ vision for God’s people was not about violence, kingship and glory, but nonviolence, service and love. It was Jesus unwavering commitment to pursuing this passion, even in the face of violent opposition, that led to his second passion, here meaning his suffering and death at the hands of the authorities in Roman controlled Jerusalem.

This second passion, Jesus’ suffering and death, is bracketed by two anointings. The anointing of Jesus’ head by an unnamed woman in our gospel reading this morning prepares Jesus for the suffering betrayal, denial, and torture and death of Holy Week, while another set of women will come to anoint him for burial on Easter morning, only to find the tomb empty. These anointing surround Jesus’ embrace of death and resurrection, dying and rising.

It would not be too much to say that without this unnamed woman there would be no messiah. She does what no one else has been able to do – acknowledge the road Jesus is walking, the risks, the likely outcome. While the men argue which of them is the greatest (9:34), how to exercise power (10:43), who will sit in glory when God’s reign is realized (10:36), policing the boundaries of the community (9:38) and even silencing some who want access to Jesus (10:48), all the while denying Jesus’ clear instructions (8:32) and even countering Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence (14:47) – while the men argue about these things, only she understands and acts. Prophetically. Peter had earlier announced to Jesus, “you are the anointed one,” but he clearly did not understand what he was saying. In fact he misunderstood what being God’s anointed means. But this woman understands that anointing Jesus means suffering and death. To be messiah, the anointed one, does not mean to be anointed as king, but to be anointed and appointed for death and resurrection.

Why? Why was she, and later the other women, the only one to understand? Jesus often wondered why the men closest to him cannot understand. He repeatedly calls them deaf, dumb, blind and slow to understand.

Do you still not perceive or understand?
Are your hearts hardened? 
Do you have eyes, and fail to see?
Do you have ears, and fail to hear?
And do you not remember? (Mark 8:17)

Memory is everything. Remember? “All thought begins with remembrance.”

Maybe Jesus could not understand why only the women understood because he was a man.

In my sermon last week I mentioned that I have been reading, as part of my own Lenten practices, a Brazilian born, Lebanese theologian named Ivone Gebara. Earlier this week I came upon this passage in her book Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation:

It is commonplace to leave to women the care of the sick and the dead because they are expected to be the main witnesses to life and death. Rubbing shoulders with the extremes of life is women’s assigned role. And since their bodies give life in the midst of pain and joy, culture seems to have fashioned them to welcome proximity to sickness and death. Women are often the ones to receive into their arms the wounded from war, suffering children, and dying old men.[ii]

Gebara is clearly not making an essentialist point, that women are naturally this way, but that this is a role, and a suffering, imposed upon women by patriarchy. Nevertheless, it is a cultural position from which women can see and understand what others cannot. In the gospel, women are the only ones not to shy away from the dying part of dying and rising.

In addition to being one of the leading liberation and eco-feminist theologians in Latin America, Ivone Gebara is a Roman Catholic Sister of Notre Dame who dedicated her life to serving among the poor in Recife, Brazil. After decades of liberating work in solidarity with poor women in particular, she knew intimately the material lives and choices of these women, including their sexual and reproductive choices. Recognizing that abortion is a normal part of women’s lives and that the decision to end a pregnancy is just as moral a decision as the decision to have a baby, just as how one, and whether one, can raise a child, is a moral question – that women make moral decisions about their bodies and their resources, family and community everyday – Gebara became an advocate for abortion as a woman’s legal right and for understanding abortion as a moral good. As a result, she was silenced by the Vatican for two years and forced to undergo ‘reeducation’ because of her theological views.

She emerged from her imposed silence and study with a second PhD., even stronger views, a book on the silencing of women, and a restored right to speak and teach.

So, in light of the newest wave of restrictive legislation aimed at controlling women’s choices (yes, I am thinking of the recent legislation in Georgia and Alabama), all aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court, let me add a few facts I have not yet seen in the newspapers.[iii]

Every year in the United States, 6.4 million women get pregnant, and half of these pregnancies are unplanned. […] 50 to 60 percent of the women who have abortions were using birth control during the months that they got pregnant. And here’s another relevant statistic: Forty percent of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, meaning that roughly one-third of US women will have an abortion by age forty-five. Whether planned, unplanned, chosen, avoided, or unattainable, pregnancies are part of the stories of women’s lives. Yet, considering that one in three women have abortions, we can see that abortion is also a normal part of women’s reproductive lives.[iv]

Yet women who have abortions are routinely shamed and judged, and safe and affordable access to abortion is under relentless assault, with the most devastating impact on poor women and women of color.[v]

I have a friend and colleague, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters, who is both a Presbyterian minister and social ethicist. She published a book last year called Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice that is just out in paperback. In it she argues that this shaming and judging reflects deep, often unspoken patriarchal and racist assumptions about women and women’s sexual activity. These assumptions are at the heart of what she calls the ‘justification framework,’ which governs our public debate about abortion and disrupts our ability to have authentic public discussions about the health and well-being of women and their families.

51SVBHFZGgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

if you purchase the book on amazon via our church website, a small
donation will be made the my congregation for our ministry and mission

 

Abortion, she writes, “isn’t the social problem we should be focusing on. The problem is our inability to trust women to act as rational, capable, responsible moral agents who must weigh the concrete moral question of what to do when they are pregnant or when there are problems during a pregnancy.”

Dr. Peters describes what trusting women (and women trusting themselves) looks like is a series of chapters with titles like

  • You shouldn’t have a baby just because you’re pregnant
  • Motherhood is a moral choice
  • Misogyny is exhausting [my favorite]
  • Celebrating the moral courage of women

So again, in light of the new wave of restrictions on women’s ability to make moral choices about babies, birth and motherhood and community, and in light of the prevalent shaming of women who make these choices, we need to remember that JESUS TRUSTED WOMEN. Women were his first and truest disciples. He defended their choices regarding how they used their resources – to the point of silencing the men. Women were faithful to his vision of God’s Realm even when others fled. They were with him when he died and they visited him at his tomb. They were thus the first to witness the resurrection.

If we take this seriously, “it means that the struggle against patriarchy and misogyny is at the heart of the church Jesus was calling forth,” though the history of the church that actually emerged ignored Jesus on this matter. “For centuries, Christianity has been used and abused to shape how people think about women, sexuality and families.” In fact, the majority of those who are working today to restrict women’s reproductive rights claim to be Christian. This is why the work of reproductive justice must be taken up by the church, and why we, who would trust women no less than Jesus, must be vocal.[vi]

All thought begins with remembrance. Remembering is what we do, in order to understand what work God’s spirit calls us to today. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole word, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

As we come to the sacramental table, we are often reminded that Jesus asked his friends to “do this in remembrance of me.” This morning, as we remember the meal Jesus shared at the home of Simon the leper, and as we prepare to enter Holy Week, let us honor this unnamed woman, who prophetically anointed Jesus as Messiah, and “do this in remembrance of her.”

Following the sermon, the congregation sang Brian Wren’s “A Prophet Woman Broke a Jar,” commissioned in 1993 by St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s acceptance of women in ordained ministry.”[vii]

A prophet woman broke a jar, 
by Love’s divine appointing.
With rare perfume she filled the room, 
presiding and anointing. 
A prophet woman broke a jar, 
the sneers of scorn defying. 
With rare perfume she filled the room, 
preparing Christ for dying.

A faithful woman left a tomb 
by Love’s divine commission.
She saw, she heard, she preached the Word,
arising from submission. 
A faithful woman left a tomb,
with resurrection gospel. 
She saw, she heard, she preached the Word,
apostle to apostle.

Though woman wisdom, woman truth,
for centuries were hidden,
unsung, unwritten and unheard,
derided and forbidden, 
the Spirit’s breath, the Spirit’s fire,
on free and slave descending, 
can tumble our dividing walls,
our shame and sadness mending.

The Spirit knows, the Spirit calls,
by Love’s divine ordaining, 
the friends we need, to serve and lead,
their powers and gifts unchaining.
The Spirit knows, the Spirit calls,
from women, men and children, 
the friends we need, to serve and lead.
Rejoice and make them welcome.

[i] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, cited in the introduction to Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s Tenth Anniversary Edition of In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (Fortress, anniversary edition, 1994). Arendt is citing accepted wisdom, and expanding upon it. The full citation is as follows: “If it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure until it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself. . . . What saves the affairs of mortal human beings from their inherent futility is nothing but this incessant talk about them, which in its turn remains futile unless certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference, arise out of it.”

[ii] Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation. (Fortress, 2002) p. 19.

[iii] In Alabama (https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/04/02/us/ap-us-xgr-abortion-ban-.html) and Georgia (https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/04/02/us/ap-us-abortion-georgia-alyssa-milano.html) and the state of ignorance (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/05/opinion/sex-women-facts-education.html).

[iv]Rebecca Todd Peters, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. (Beacon Press, 2018). (p. 2).

[v] This paragraph and the next are adapted from the publishers’ website.

[vi] “…the struggle against patriarchy and misogyny…” Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain, (Orbis, 1996) p. 184; “For centuries, Christianity has been…” Peters, Trust Women. p. 9.

[vii] Hymn lyric and information: https://www.musiklus.com/anthology/item/370/a-prophet-woman-broke-a-jar