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Forty Days in Nineveh with Jonah

March 20, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 7.50.22 AM

“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during the Lenten Season 2018.
This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018.
Today’s illustration of Jesus walking out of the village of Nazareth is by

Simon Smith, a British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.
I am using it to capture the act of Jonah walking into the great city.

 Mark 1:12-15         Jonah 3:1-10

The Book of Jonah is a familiar story to many of us, but like familiar stories, is worth rehearsing in outline. I would like to remind you of the basic story, as recounted by Julian Barnes in his novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, with all his usual wit and humor.

[Here I read the two paragraphs on pages 175-176 from the book][ii]

Julian’s purpose in retelling the story is to argue that there is really not much of a plot, particularly because God holds all the cards. Julian believes the main point – Jonah’s anger over God’s mercy – is on the whole forgotten as most of us remember little besides the prophet’s three-day stay in the belly of the big fish. Our good friend Phyllis Trible would of course disagree, having written the book on the interpretation of Jonah, finding in it endless avenues of interpretation once we gives any one aspect of the story more than a moments thought. The Book of Jonah is, after all, a rich parable. What we bring to it shapes what we find.[iii]

I wonder what Jesus brought to this story…

Our interest in the Parable of Jonah, and the way it fits into our Lenten sermon series on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, is with the commission Jonah is given to preach for forty days ‘the message that God gives him.’ Jonah is to cry out against the city because it’s wickedness has come up before God.

[Read Jonah 3:1-10]

We all like to think of Jonah as the prophet who ran away, learned his lesson, and then did what God asked. But the Jonah we find here in chapter 3 is still the reluctant prophet, and remains so to the end, doing the bare minimum, like petulant teenager or a passive colleague who does just enough to say “But I did what you asked!”

We are told that the great City of Nineveh is so large that it would take three days to walk through it. Jonah marches one day into the city and utters a single sentence, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And then turns on his heels and leaves. Jonah is given forty days to name Nineveh’s wickedness, to let them know that God has seen their violence, heard the cry of those they oppress, seen their wanton wealth, and cry “Repent, repent, turn back, change your ways and be saved.”

But he does not.

Because he hates Nineveh.

Instead, he climbs a hill and perches there to await the promised destruction. We can almost picture him with a bag of popcorn, relishing the downfall of the city. We can imagine Jonah repeating with some pride the words of the Psalmist, “I have hated your enemies, O God, with a perfect hatred. I count them my own enemies.” Let’s leave Jonah there on his hilltop for a moment.[iv]

We began this Lenten sermon series with a movie reference: I compared the time of testing undertaken by Jesus in the wilderness to the visions quests undertaken by King T’Challa in Black Panther. I want to end the series with another movie reference to A Wrinkle In Time, as well as to the book series it is a part of and to its author, the fabulous Madeleine L’Engle, because the entire quintet of novels is about visions quests and about testing, or being tested, in one form or another.[v]

In Ava DuVernay’s cinematic depiction of A Wrinkle in Time, a 30-foot-tall Oprah Winfrey, playing the angelic Mrs. Which, tells young Meg, “You will be tested.” When 30-foot-tall Oprah speaks, you listen!

Like both Jesus and T’Challa, in her ‘vision quest’ Meg will meet leave the world of the familiar, spend time with wild creatures, and be waited upon by angels; the difference is that in Madeleine L’Engle’s universe when we face our time of testing, we are never alone. Instead, we are surrounded both by those who love us and those who bear gifts we need. Meg is accompanied every step of the way – by here brother Charles Wallace, by Calvin, by angelic guides, and in a later book by the principle of her school and by the universe itself. The idea of testing becomes explicit in the sequel, A Wind in the Door, in which Meg, like Jesus delving into the stories of faith and the history of his people, must undergo three tests which have the look and feel of Jesus’ own temptations – temptation here understood as a testing of one’s self in difficult situations. Meg must recognize her affinity to Adam, the true namer of all things, and she must learn that to name something or someone rightly is to love them. Meg’s three tests involve learning how to love those who seem unlovable, or difficult to love, most especially herself.[vi]

This is what Jonah cannot do. (Meg could teach him a thing or two).

It might interest you to know that Madeleine L’Engle has also written a play about Jonah. In it I find a historical note in the form of a dialogue between four animals – a goose, a catbird, and owl and a jay – who recount the story of the historical Jonah as found in 2 Kings 14. This real Jonah (as opposed to the fictional character in our parable) prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (786-756) during is vassalage to Assyria and its capitol city Nineveh. One of the animals calls Jonah a “profitable prophet” because he used his prophetic gifts to urge King Jeroboam to reclaim, through battle, territory that had been lost to the Assyrians. Basically, he urged a war of liberation or what we might even call decolonization. And they were successful in liberating the land.[vii]

But here is what I take away from this portrayal of the profitable prophet: demonizing one’s enemy is really easy when one is in a struggle for freedom and liberation. One gains much through hatred and ‘othering,’ and the temptation is difficult to resist.[viii]

To illustrate, we need only look at the Prophet Nahum, whose short book appears a few pages after Jonah, which could serve as a useful background for our story. Nahum help us understand what Nineveh meant to those who heard the story of Jonah, and to understand Jonah’s hatred for the Assyrians, his reluctance to offer them God’s Word, his bitterness at their repentance and redemption. Listen to him:

Woe to the bloody city,
All full of lies and booty
All who hear the news of you
Clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your unceasing evil?

And that is the kindest thing Nahum can say about Nineveh. Thus the Assyrians had a reputation for violence and terrorism, exploitation and conquest, and the great city served a symbol of all that opposed God and God’s people.[ix]

The Book of Jonah, then, presents a prophet with the new kind of task: to judge the path of a city and an empire while declaring that God does not wish the destruction of any (remember Noah?). He must genuinely love an enemy into repentance, and win them as a friend. Jonah fails, in the loving part, but even his reluctant effort does not thwart God’s purpose. This is a kind of good news in the story. Nineveh uses their forty days to seek mercy and change their ways, from the king to the 120,000 persons all the way down the smallest animals. And God relents.[x]

But the lesson is larger than the story.

Working as an ally with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been a part of my Lenten experience for more than fifteen years. The month of March is campaign season, as corporations are often preparing to hold annual meetings. Campaign season means marches, short ones through cities or 240 mile marches across entire states; it means demonstrations in front of fast-food restaurants and corporate headquarters; it means fasting – one day, five days, ten days – to place bodies and lives on the line, demonstrating the daily hunger faced by exploited and often poorly paid farmworkers. It means liturgy and prayer, street theater, it means crying out that God has seen the wickedness and declaring that time is up. #TimesUpWendys

As most of you know, the CIW completed a five-day fast this past Thursday evening.[xi] There was a joyful, colorful march from Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in NYC to the offices of Nelson Peltz, who sits on the Board of Directors of Wendy’s and who is responsible for Wendy’s moving their produce purchasing to Mexico rather than finding a way to ensure fair food in the United States. This particular campaign highlighted the sexual exploitation of women that happens in fields not protected by the Fair Food Program, sexual exploitation enabled by Wendy’s refusal. At the end of the march, back at Dag Hammarskjold as an amazing band wrapped up their set that left the crowd cheering, those who had been without food climbed the platform. A solemn candle was lit to hallow the moment and Pastor Miguel Estrada of Misión Peniel in Immokallee addressed the farmworkers, leading them through their final moments before breaking bread and breaking their fast.

[To capture something of this moment for the congregation, I then shared
a short video from the end of a 240-mile march in 2013 in which Pastor Miguel
describes both how and why we struggle. We listened in Spanish
and then I read the translation (substituting Wendy’s for Publix)
for those who did not already understand.][xii]

For tonight, and for this circumstance,
I want to give two messages.
First, to all those who are marching.
The tiredness you feel on the march
is small compared to the exhaustion of the exploitation
you’ve received for a long time.
The second message if for Publix.
Because they too need to hear something tonight.
And from the bottom of my heart I want to say
that shopping at Publix is not a pleasure, it is a nightmare.
Because buying from them today
means being on the side of those who oppress and exploit workers.
It will only be a pleasure when Publix is on the right side.
We are not against Publix.
We are against injustice.
We are inviting them to come to the table.
Listen to our reasons. Learn from farmworkers.
We are certain that you will change your mind Publix.

That is the voice we should have heard from Jonah.

This is the voice we hear in Jesus. Throughout Lent, we have explored in worship what Jesus went out to see, and what he went out to do, during his own time of testing. It has been our conviction that during his forty days in the wilderness Jesus was diving deep in the stories of faith and the history of his people, discerning in them the paths that lead toward God, and those that lead away; tracing the footsteps that lead us to embrace God and God’s people and all God’s creation, as well as tracking those paths that lead us back to empire, collude with oppression, and even use religious language to bless what should never be blessed. Returning from his own forty days in the wilderness, we have imagined Jesus

  • Contemplating the cost of violence in the story of Noah, and embracing God’s first covenant – a treaty of nonviolence with all creation;
  • Learning to stand with Moses on the side of the oppressed and exploited, the imprisoned and enslaved, and embracing God’s second covenant – not as a set of laws to regulate lives, but as a way of life to set us free;
  • We have seen how Jesus, like Elijah, was nourished in the wild, fed by animals and strangers, but how he also had to come face to face with his own fears, as Elijah did, and consider the consequences of his actions;
  • And now finally with the story of Jonah we see Jesus taking the path not chosen, pressing on for the ultimate winning over of even those he must oppose.

The hymn we will sing after this sermon is called “All Who Love and Serve Your City.” It is a hymn of vocation for we who know that we have been called in this time and in this place both to judge the destructive paths we partake in and to offer the good news of a better way. It is a hymn for those who know and love the city. I am reminded of the logo we adopted when we celebrated the 300th anniversary of those congregation in 2014 – White Plains Presbyterian Church – Faith in the City.

The hymn was written during a Scottish hymn writing festival that had been called to correct the absence of hymns focused on urban problems. The writer, Eric Routley, tells us he was in his room trying to compose a new tune, but that the sound of another composer in the adjoining room made that impossible so he settled for writing new words to a familiar tune. A final side note before we sing: both movies that I have mentioned during Lent include visions for redemptive work within cities. Black Panther ends with King T’Challa and his sister Shuri opening a community center in Oakland, California, home of the very real Black Panthers who did similar work. And both the Murray and O’Keefe families in DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time come straight outa Compton. “All Who Love and Serve Your City” was written with Oakland, specifically, in mind.



[i] I want to give a shout out to my partner in exegetical brainstorming, The Rev. Katie Rivera-Torea, who has spent the two months ‘thinking forty’ with me. We have taken time each week to inspire and challenge one another, with Katie particularly good at calling out those moments in which we needed to just sit in silence (like our prophets of forty) with what he had done and let it sink in. Thank you, Katie!!

[ii] Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters: A Novel. (Vintage International, 1989). pp. 175-176. Barnes believes the power of the story comes not from plot or theological purpose but from tapping a basic biological fear of being eaten by a large animal.

[iii] Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah. Guides to Biblical Scholarship, edited by Gene Tucker. (Fortress Press, 1998). See especially chapter 10, ‘Guidelines for Continuing,’ Section B, ‘Subjectivity’: “The label ‘subjective’ need not mean that all interpretations are equally valid or even valid. No, the text itself sets limits to subjectivity.” p. 231. See also John A Miles, Jr. “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody. Jewish Quarterly Review. New Series. Vol. 65. No. 3. (Jan. 1975). pp. 168-181. Miles presents a strong contextual reading of the Book as an all inclusive parody of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

[iv] Psalm 139:22.

[v] Re-reading this series during Lent this year has underscored this. In addition to the two examples mentioned in the sermon, the third book is literally about Native American vision quests, as Charles Wallace kythes through time in ‘be within’ a Wampanoag seer (A Swiftly Tilting Planet), and the fourth book involves the eldest brothers Sandys and Dennys travelling back to the days of Noah in order to indwell that story and its lessons for us today (Many Waters

[vi] See especially the chapter “The Real Mr. Jenkins” in Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973).

[vii] Madeleine L’Engle, The Journey of Jonah. Illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967 and 1978). The relevant section appears as three animals discuss the prophet Jonah’s past:


Is he a real prophet?


Yes, and a profitable one.


(Pointedly ignoring Catbird)
The national program of territorial enlargement carried out by Jeroboam the Second was instigated by the prophet.


(Explaining for the thoroughly bewildered Goose)
Jonah’s first successful prophecy, goosey, was to go to King Jeroboam and tell him to go into battle with the Assyrians and reclaim some of the land they had taken from us in the first place. Which he did. Is that quite clear?


But what do the Assyrians have to do with Nineveh, Jay?


Nineveh is the capitol of Assyria, Goose, and I don’t blame Jonah one bit for not wanting to warn them. They’re nasty, wicked people.

[viii] For an insightful and challenging look at the problems with associating God with ethnic or national interests, which the Book of Jonah was arguably written to cautions against, see Rosemary Radford Reuther and Herman J. Reuther, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. (Fortress Press, 2002).

[ix] James Limberg, Hosea – Micah. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (John Knox Press, 1988). p. 139.

[x] Wes Howard-Brook suggest that this is part of the parody as well, that empires cannot and do not repent (no biblical prophet was successful in this matter). See “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010), p. 223. For other critical readings and reflections on the responsibility of Christians within empire, see Theology from the Belly of the Whale: A Frederick Herzog Reader edited by Joerg Reiger (Trinity Press International, 1999) and the brief reflection in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Anniversary Edition (Orbis, 2008), p. 454.

[xi] Here’s a day-by-day summary video, including the march.



Forty Days Hiding in Fear with Elijah

March 12, 2018


“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during the Lenten Season 2018. This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018. Today’s illustration of Jesus seeking out a cave in which to hide himself, just as Elijah did, is by Simon Smith, a British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Our gospel reading this morning is the same one we have shared each Sunday during Lent and which has given us our theme: Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wild. We extend the gospel reading this morning beyond Jesus’s time apart from civilization and among the wild animals to include his return to Galilee, for reasons that I hope will be clear later on.

[Read Mark 1:12-15]

Our reading from the Older Testament this morning comes from 1 Kings 19 – the fearful flight of the prophet Elijah. We pick up the story after Elijah and Yahweh have won a huge, perhaps a decisive, victory over the forces of Baal, against Ahab (the corrupt King of Israel), and against Jezebel (the king’s foreign born wife). Elijah had both proposed and prevailed in a contest between himself and the false prophets, between his God and the foreign god, between the ‘people’s prophet’ and the King who serves the interests of a foreign power. The struggle, however, was not yet finished. Having won the contest, Queen Jezebel proclaims a death sentence for the prophet, and Elijah flees in stark terror.[i]

[Read 1 Kings 19:1-21][ii]

Have you ever been paralyzed with fear? You know, so afraid that you knew that as soon as you could you would run away? Most of my elemental fears have had to do with running into bears or snakes while out hiking. But fear can happen in more intimate settings, like trying to say something honest about ourselves to someone who has hurt us before, or it can happen in more public settings, like being put on the spot to say something perhaps controversial or unpopular (or just self-revealing) when the public space is not necessarily safe.[iii]

When I used to teach outdoor education and do high ropes work with youth groups, hauling kids 40 feet up into the tree line to traverse obstacle courses in the hopes of learning something about themselves and working with others, I would describe our experience as falling within one of three concentric circles. The first and smallest circle I would describe as our comfort zone. This circle contains all that is familiar and routine, it is navigable, it is our ‘home’ space. It is where we encounter our family and closest friends. Here we are safe. Stepping outside our comfort zone brings us to the next circle where we encounter the unfamiliar, where we try new things and have new experience. Here is where we take the risks through which we learn to encounter our world and trust ourselves. This somewhat larger circle I would call the learning zone. Beyond this circle is yet one more that I would call the danger zone. Out here we become preoccupied with personal safety. At this point, where fear takes over, we no longer have the capacity for learning but try everything we can do to retreat. Now, I always wanted my students to be in the learning zone, because I wanted them to learn valuable lessons. That is why we practiced what we called “challenge by choice.” The problem is, faithfulness to God’s call sometimes takes us further to that place not only of risk but also of danger.[iv]

I would like to think that Jesus spent part of his forty days in the wilderness, as he traced the history of his people, contemplating the prophet Elijah and facing his own fears so that when he returned he would be prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

In his book, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire, which we have been studying in our Adult Class during Lent, Rick Ufford-Chase has written that “Fear is the overarching characteristic of the broader culture in the United States today.”

Look just below the belligerences and bravado of our politicians, and it is easy to intuit the deep sense of insecurity in the general population to which they are responding. We feel unsafe about our livelihoods. Many of us feel alienated and disconnected from our neighbors. We are concerned that our kids won’t be able to find secure jobs to care for their families. Too many of us are just a medical crisis away from economic disaster. Many of us are trying to juggle the responsibilities of our own families with the livelihoods of others who work for us in small businesses that never quite make it economic stability.

As citizens, we are anxious about the constant state of a war on terror to which our country has committed itself, fearful as terrorist attacks are replayed endlessly in the media. Our fear of anyone – and perhaps everyone – who is ‘different’ from us is intentionally fueled by public discourse that suggests building walls on our borders, patrolling our neighborhoods, arming ourselves to ‘stand our ground,’ locking up criminals, and refusing entry to all we see as enemies (currently, Muslims). Our growing fear is not accidental – it is the result of a well-funded and ceaseless campaign by the powers and principalities that stand to gain big while our anxiety grows, as we buy into the myth that redemptive violence can make us safer.[v]

Now Rick’s examples of fear remind me that alongside flight, which is my preferred stance when I am afraid, there is also the option to fight. Fight or flight, right? While I like to back away, some people attack that which scares them, or take an aggressive (and therefore distancing) stance in conversation, intimidating others into submission.

But fear, we have said many times before, is only overcome by action. Rick cites 1 John, “perfect love cast out fear.” It is true, but the love that casts out fear is not a thought or a feeling. Rick makes it clear that what love-in-action looks like is solidarity: standing with or walking beside someone else. Fear is not overcome in thought, but through acts of courage – a standing up for, or even better, standing with another.

A couple of moths ago, when a small group in the church was discussing responses to gun violence that would involve action by our congregation beyond lobbying for changes in legislation, we identified fear as our chief problem. Guns make us afraid. That is their point. And in a debate over gun control, one side is armed. Well, since then, the high school students of Parkland have shown us what courage looks like, haven’t they. Once one has been shot at, I suppose there is little left to fear.

As the prophet Elijah reflect in Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Fifth Mountain, “fear exists until the moment when the unavoidable happens. After that, we must waste none of our energy on it.”[vi]

During our small group discussion, I shared a story that I have been asked to share with the congregation. It comes from the time I spent (along with Rev. Sarah Henkel and Will Summers) in Standing Rock, North Dakota, as part of the clergy gathering of solidarity in November 2016. You will recall that the Standing Rock Sioux, joined by representatives of nearly every North American tribal body with support from non-indigenous people across the country, were occupying a portion of their own un-ceded land through which Dakota Access Pipeline was being laid to carry oil for export from the Bakkan shale oil fields in North Dakota all the way to ports in Louisiana. At issue was both indigenous sovereignty, which the United States has never respected, and clean water, on which the Standing Rock Sioux, and all of us, depend. By protecting their own watershed, the “water protectors” were protecting all of us.

The frontline of protest was the pipeline path, but while we were there a decision was made to take the protest to the governor in the capitol city of Bismarck. We gathered at the capitol building and a small group occupied the lobby. This group was told that the governor has already left the building – whether he was hiding or had fled we don’t know – and when they insisted the governor either come down or come back this first group was arrested and bussed away to jail. Those of us outside were then ordered to disburse. Instead, we marched three-blocks to the governor’s mansion and gathered on the sidewalk across the street from his home. The governor came out to watch us, but refused to meet with the indigenous leaders who wanted, among other things, a stop to the intense police violence at the protest site. That, after all, was the reason over 1000 clergy had come – to stand in solidarity beside indigenous leaders who were daily being beaten up, gassed, shot, infiltrated and chased by dogs. When the governor chose to watch rather than talk, standing behind the line of perhaps twenty armed police officers, four persons from our group crossed the street, stepped onto the governor’s property, and knelt down to pray for the meeting to take place.

At this point nearly a hundred militarized police appeared in full riot gear with masked helmets, shields, clubs, and assault weapons. They appeared from where they had been waiting around the corner for just this moment. They came from every direction. A young Sioux was snatched from our line and taken hostage by the police. With each order for our immediate dispersal, the line of police would advance toward us across the street. Our leadership was negotiating the release of the prisoner. And the weapons kept getting closer. We were offered a “free speech zone” several blocks away where we could continue our protest – out of sight of the governor, out of sight of the neighbors, and most importantly out of sight of the commuters now returning home from work. One very smart and experienced organizer suggested we walk back and forth on the sidewalk, moving but staying on public property, continuing to exercise our first amendment rights, and removing any legal basis for arresting us.

Now here is my point. I’ve been to enough protests and marches to know this was smart move. I leapt on the opportunity to start moving rather than simply standing in front of the advancing police line. And I experience no small amount of relief from the fact that we were, for the moment, marching away form the weapons. Back and forth we went, I went, weighing my relief with my fear and a sense of cowardice, not feeling good about myself, but also not wanting to be hit. But when it became clear that the indigenous leadership was not moving, that one them was still a prisoner, that negotiations were continuing … when it became clear that they were staying, then it became really clear where I belonged, come what may. At that point my sense fear evaporated, I had a sense of resolve instead, and I took my place again on the line.

Knowing where to stand, or who to stand with: this is the key. This is love, not as thought or feeling, but as solidarity. And this love casts out fear.

I would like to think Jesus spent part of his time in the wilderness wrestling with his own personal fears, including arrest, torture and execution under Roman occupation. Having confronted his people’s legacy of violence, and the theologies used to justify it (Forty Days with Noah); having decided to take sides in the conflicts of his day, to side with the oppressed against the oppressors (Forty Days with Moses); he now had to face the implications of those choices – actual conflict with the rulers of the age. His companion was Elijah, the prophet who fled in fear from the consequences of his words and action, but who was also most decidedly sent back to continue his work, come what may. Interestingly, I learned this week that “within the history of the Elijah tradition, “fear” was subtly changed to “awareness” – a simple alliteration in vowels in Hebrew – so that the mighty prophet is represented as running away not because he is frightened but because he “sees”; he is prudently aware of Jezebel’s implicit threat.” Perhaps, but he also returned with eyes wide open. I said earlier that I would tell you why we read the extended gospel reading. It was to include that Jesus emerged from the wilderness precisely when John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus stepped in, and stepped up, to continue John’s work of denouncing injustice and calling for repentance, even after John had been jailed for that very message. Only Jesus’ message was strengthened and enriched by his testing in the wild.[vii]

I encourage you to reflect this week, our fourth in Lent, on your own fears; to join a rich conversation with others here about the kinds of fears that hold you back from doing what you know God is calling you to do. Elijah, by the way, never had trouble hearing God. Many preachers have used this passage to tell us that God was not in all the noise – of earthquake, wind or fire – but instead needed Elijah to be still and quiet enough to hear God whisper. But the passage does not locate God in a “still small voice,” but as a clear voice that came after an expectant silence. My favorite translation of moment comes from a French Bible that describes this as “the sound of a vanishing silence.” In other words, a moment of anticipation in which silence passes away, or is about to pass away, into speech – a moment of expectancy. I take this to mean that God is found in the readiness to hear, and to respond.[viii]

Thich Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, has written that “We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future.” Joy, however, is found in the present. Or as Jesus said, “The time is now. Now, is the acceptable, or accepting, time. Believe the good news. The kingdom is near.” [ix]




[i] Adapted from Walter Brueggemann. 1 & 2 Kings: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. (Smyth and Helwys, 2000). For an analysis of what was probably the original Elijah narrative, and the differences between it and our present text, see Davie Napier, The Best of Davie Napier: Come Sweet Death; Time of Burning; Word of God Word of Earth. (Abingdon, 1970, 1976, 1981 respectively. Collection, 1991). I was sorely tempted to use the reconstructed original text in worship, as it reads so well, but the ’40 days’ motif would have disappeared, being a later addition to further correlate Elijah with Moses, Horeb with Sinai.

[ii] Ahab was remembered for having practiced both idolatry and injustice. Wes Howard-Brook is particularly clear, however, that “the ‘religious’ charge of worshipping false gods is never separate from the socioeconomic charge of practicing injustice. Scholars who have attempted to separate ‘cultic’ from ‘social justice’ questions in the prophets have radically misunderstood the integrated perspective that the prophets proclaim.” On Ahab serving as a vassal of the Assyrian Empire, see Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010). Pp. 161-165.

[iii] There was a particularly pertinent article about fear in this morning’s Washington Post that I wish I had incorporated into this sermon. Called, provocatively, “At Yale, We Conducted an Experiment to Turn Conservatives into Liberals,” the authors describe not only a wealth of research but a recent experiment that demonstrated that a subjects sense of personal safety significantly altered their answers to questions on a range of divisive social issues. “All of us believe,” they write

that our social and political attitudes are based on good reasons and reflect our important values. But we also need to recognize how much they can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know this already and attempt to manipulate our votes and party allegiances by appealing to these potent feelings of fear and of safety.

Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.

[iv] Fascinating article in The Washington Post this morning about how our personal experience of safety and security shapes the way we interpret and respond to the world, and how fear affects out political judgments. The substance is neither new nor surprising. We all understand how easily fear can be manipulated, but the experiment was able to produce a sense of safety significant enough to affect political judgment by simply asking participants to imagine themselves with superpowers, one of which was invulnerability. The affect was immediate.

[v] Rick Ufford-Chase, Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire. (UnShelved, 2016). p. 167. Wrestling with the myth of redemptive violence, I imagined earlier, was part of Jesus wilderness experience. I examined this through the story of Noah’s forty days on Ararat. On Solidarity, see in particular the reflection by Aric Clark in chapter 9.

[vi] Paulo Coelho, The Fifth Mountain. (HarperCollins, 1998). p. 142. The words are actually spoken by the governor of Zaraphath, but the paragraph continues, “Elijah felt the same way, though he was ashamed to recognize it.” This is why I has changed the quote to “Elijah echoed” rather than “He said to Elijah.”

[vii] On fear and prudent awareness, see Davie Napier, The Best of Davie Napier: Come Sweet Death; Time of Burning; Word of God Word of Earth. (Abingdon, 1991) p. 150. See also Brueggemann. 1 & 2 Kings, for a description of how this silence, “whatever is was,” served to get Elijah’s attention.

[viii] A. Chouraqui, cited in Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity. (Wipf and Stock, French 1988, English 1991). p. 34.

[ix] Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting through the Storm. (HarperOne, 2012).

Forty Days of Imaginative Fiction

March 9, 2018


I learned early on that imagination is an important part not only of preaching but of exegesis (Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet). While preparing for my current sermon series, and journeying with it through Lent, I have dropped into a series of novels about biblical characters who, like Jesus, spent forty days and forty nights in the wild, beyond the reach of civilization. The sermon series covers Noah, Moses, Elijah, Jonah and Jesus, with concomitant experiences of identity formation, renunciation of violence, a choosing of sides and a place on which to stand, an overcoming of fear with acts of courage, and an opening toward one’s enemy.

I keep a vast shelf of quality biblical fiction, not all of which I have read. And I mention quality because there is loads of pious crap out there. So a few weeks ago I grabbed a handful of novels that I had not previously read and started in. Here’s how they go with my project:

Quarantine, by Jim Crace (about Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness);
Many Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle (the Murray twins time travel to visit Noah);
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes (a meditation of the flood);
Moses: The Epic Story of His Rebellion in the Court of Egypt
, by Howard Fast (Moses’ early life);

The Fifth Mountain, by Paulo Coelho (about the Prophet Elijah’s time in exile in now Lebanon);
The Journey with Jonah, by Madeleine L’Engle (a play about Jonah’s bitterness);
When God was Flesh and Wild, by Bob Haverluck (short stories, including one on Holy Week).

Only one of the novels is overtly pious in intent. And only one is by a trained theologian (it is not the pious one). Two are by atheists (both English), one by a Jewish communist, and one by a Brazilian new-ager. L’Engle is (unusually) the only woman on my list this time, but she is on here twice. (A special shout out for her as A Wrinkle in Time opens tomorrow). This collection may not represent the best novels about these figures (although Barnes’ is outstanding), but they all fit my purpose in preaching.

Quarantine is probably the quirkiest, as Jesus appears only a couple of times in this novel that is really about four other figures also hiding out in the wilderness. But his presence is life-changing in a way that surprised even  the author when he wrote it. The physical description of the wilderness below Jericho is mesmerizing.

I had not read this particular book by L’Engle before, the fourth in her Time Quintet, and found it a meditation on the futility of  violence; how to live amidst catastrophe (climate change, nuclear threat, and the birth of a planet); a reflection on science and faith as equally imaginative apprehensions of reality, involving observation and wonder; and L’Engle’s take on providence. It is also her (first?) exploration of puberty, budding adolescent sexual attraction, and heap load of traditional gender roles, judgement and shame. The latter was tedious.

The History of the World in 10 1/2 Weeks is a tour de force of cultural responses to the scriptural story of the flood. Barnes’ wit and irreverence never ceases to entertain and enlighten. 

Moses focuses on the emergence, in Egypt, of monotheism and the role it played in the thirteenth BCE slave rebellion. It tells of the transformation of Moses, a young Prince of Egypt, into a fiercely independent outsider who both envisions and aspires to bring about the end of Egypt’s empire. 

The Fifth Mountain has sat on my shelf unread for years, suspicion of Coelho outweighing my interest in reading it. This was my first read in Lent this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed the weaving of a novel around just a few paragraphs of scripture to turn out a story about place and placedness, the power and limits of empire, armed rebellion, independent politics, but also a morality play on the kind of tasks we should rightly take up in the absence of a clear call from God. Reluctant prophet, indeed.

The Journey with Jonah is a play I actually produced with my youth group in my former congregation on Long Island. This will be a quick read next week. But I must also mention that Story Number Two, in the chapter called “Three Short Stories” in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is all about Jonah. If I can find the time, I’d like to re-read Zora Neal Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which is not a take on the biblical story but a riff on the theme of the fourth chapter. (Hurston did write the wonderful Moses, Man of the Mountain, published the same year – 1939 – as Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, and both equally suspicious – in their own way – of nationalist leaders and stories of racial liberation).

IMG_5119 (002)

Finally, Bob Haverluck’s brand new series of short stories, subtitled Stories in Defense of the Earth, have been read and re-read all season. Four stories (Daniel and Nabuchadnezzar, Jesus’ Baptism, Holy Week, and the Apocalypse of John) including artwork by the author. Each story is accompanied by exegetical notes in an appendix.  

I would love suggestions here of other novel about biblical characters… 


Forty Day Learning to Live with Moses

March 4, 2018


“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during Lent 2018. This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018. Todays illustration of Jesus looking beyond the horizon of the possible is by Simon Smith, and British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Acts 7:17-39         Mark 1:12-13

James Douglas, the great theologian of peace, opens his most recent book, Lightning from East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, with the following observation:

We are told that Jesus once asked the people about John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” The question is an even more interesting one, though, when we turn it back on Jesus, because Jesus like John was a man of the wilderness. The question, when turned back on Jesus is, “What did you, Jesus, go out into the wilderness to see?”

Throughout Lent, we are exploring in worship what Jesus went out to see, and what he went out to do, during his time of testing. It has been our conviction that during his forty days in the wilderness Jesus was diving deep in the stories of faith and the history of his people, discerning in them the paths that lead toward God, and those that lead away; tracing the footsteps that lead us to embrace God and God’s people and all God’s creation, as well as tracking those paths that lead us back to empire, collude with oppression, and even use religious language to bless what should never be blessed.[i]

Last week we looked at the story of Noah. Noah experienced God’s grief over a world gone wrong as forty days and forty nights of rain, a year afloat on an ocean, and another forty days and forty nights of looking into an uncertain future. We found in that story that God not only sees and judges human evil, but ultimately rejects the very idea of a just violence, a ‘redemptive’ violence that saves or purifies. God instead makes a covenant with God’s people that love, not violence, will be used to achieve God’s purposes in creation. It is God’s Great Peace Treaty with all people and the whole earth. God and God’s people will be identified by compassion, not violence. Having worked through this story, Jesus can use this covenant to help discern the presence of God running through his people’s history. Stories that legitimate violence are antithetical to God.[ii]

Today, we shift our focus to the story of Moses.

The rescue of Moses in the reed basket, his life in the palace, his murder of a slave-driver, Moses vs. Pharaoh, the plagues, the crossing of the sea, the burning bush, the Ten Commandments given atop Mt. Sinai, the golden calf, the gift of daily bread in the form of manna, and camping in the desert. There are so many ways we could enter the story of Moses. We do so today, however, through the words, the speech or sermon, of St. Stephen. Stephen was the early Jesus Movement’s first martyr, and his story is told in the Acts of the Apostles. In preparing the Acts, the author has clearly modeled the telling of Stephen’s life and death on that of Jesus. What more can any of us hope for than to have our lives described as having been modeled on Jesus? Yea Stephen!

But what I want to highlight today is that Stephen is also doing what Jesus did in the wilderness: he is, in his sermon, diving deep into the stories of faith and history of his people to interpret his present moment. The story he tells in the whole of chapter seven reviews the history of ancient Israel in three parts, three eras, if you will: that of Abraham, that of Moses, and that of the Temple, both Solomon’s Temple built with slave labor as well as the Persian-sponsored, imperially compromised second-temple right down to Jesus’ day.[iii]

Stephen’s point in his speech is that in every era God’s people have been torn between the distinct and difficult way of life identified with the God who makes peace with creation, and a way of life associated with the pursuit of privilege and power (identified with the god’s of Egypt and Empire – no matter what name they go under – including when they are smuggled in under the name of Israel’s God). It is for pointing this out that Stephen, like Jesus before him, will be killed.[iv]

We are going to look at just the middle portion of Stephen’s sermon, the part about he the Moses Era, because he recounts Moses’ life as itself containing three different periods, each of them forty years long.[v] Listen for God’s word:

[Read Acts 7:7-39]

I want to make a comment about each of these periods in Moses’ life, and then focus on the disjunctions between them, for each break contains an important choice faced by Moses, the kind of choices Jesus was searching for in the wilderness.

First: the period of privilege and power in the palace of Pharaoh. Moses is a Prince of Egypt. He is living in the belly of the beast, in the heart of religiously legitimized empire. But it did not begin this way.

As Todd Wynward puts it:

The ancient stories tell us that Moses was an Israelite orphan adopted as baby into Pharaoh’s household. As a youth, he was raised in the luxurious lap of [power and privilege], as a part of the royal elite whose opulent lifestyle depended on the backbreaking labor of Israelite slaves. [Do you see any parallels to our situation today?] As a grown man, Moses sees the suffering of his own people and wakes up to his own complicity with an oppressive system. He rejects entitled court life, and in a rage against Egyptian injustice, strikes down a cruel overseer who was mistreating an Israelite slave (Exodus 2:12).


Moses kills a man and commits class treason and is suddenly on [the] empires most wanted list. Confused, alone, pursued by power, he flees the only home he knows and [head into the wilderness] … to the far side of the desert, deep in un-colonized, undomesticated space.[vi]

The disjuncture takes place when Moses becomes downwardly mobile, when he chooses to side with the oppressed, to recognize them as his own kin (Isaiah 58:7). Note that by growing up in the palace of privilege, Moses spent his first forty years in exile from himself, his own true self, and from God. To let all that go, to choose sides, to identify down rather than up, is to come home to himself. This is what is means to be a “child of God, beloved, in whom God is well pleased.” Jesus surely took note of this as he was working out his own identity, for when he returned from his wilderness test he lived his own life among the excluded, the broken, those whose lives were possessed by another, the ritually unclean and those made poor.[vii]

The second forty years of Moses life were another form of exile away from his people, out in the Arabian wilderness. Here it is that he will marry among the Midianites, raise a family, and learn from the Bedouin a new way of life far from the lure of empire. This is the kingdom of good shepherds. It is here, in the wild, that he will meet God for the first time, upon holy ground. But it is also from here that he will be sent back by God for the hard work of liberation.

The break comes when Moses discovers that God, the living God, is a God who hears the cry of the people, a God who takes sides in the conflicts of every age, who takes the side of the poor, oppressed, the disgraced. And not just hears and takes sides but does something about it. This God sends Moses back to Egypt to demand of pharaoh “Let my people go.” Moses can no longer enjoy the settled and secure life, but must stand where God stands, beside God’s people against the powers, principalities and forces of death in this world. Jesus will emerge from his own time in the wild, proclaiming, “Hear, believe good news. Turn your life around. Follow me.”[viii]

The third and final era of Moses’ life, after the exodus event, involves another forty years in the wild, learning to live a new kind of life, a difficult and distinctive life apart from the nations, a covenant life. It has been said that it took forty days to get the people out of Egypt, but forty years to get the Egypt out of the people. The habits of empire are hard to break. But God tells them, “I humble and test you to know what is in your heart.” (Deut. 8:2).

You see, the choice between two distinct ways of living, what I have long called the Way of God and the Way of Empire, runs through scripture. The Way of God is based on the loving relationship between God and God’s people, not on the violent or coercive relationship between a king or pharaoh and the people. Atop Mt. Sinai, over a period of forty days, Moses meets with God and carves in stone an outline of this covenant way. The Ten Commandments are expressions of what life is like when we honor the covenant between us, when God is in our midst, when we live the way we should.

People act according to the Way of Empire when they are afraid: afraid there will not be enough (to eat, to bless, to live), afraid they will die, afraid of their neighbor, afraid that they have to secure and protect whatever they can in this life. The Way of God begins with an announcement of love and presence. “I love you and I will be with you,” says God. “Remember, I brought you out of Egypt.” The point of the first commandment is not that there is only one God. Lots of people believe that. The point is what kind of God they believe in. This God values our freedom and well-being. This God cares for the poor and oppressed. This God chooses to take up with the downtrodden and to give them a new way of life.

In this new way of life we do not create images of God because we should not forget that God is beyond any of our ideas and so that we do not confuse our God with other gods. We are careful with God’s name so that we don’t use it inappropriately to bless what should not be blessed. We remember to rest once a week because only free people can stop working. Slaves and work-a-holics cannot keep Sabbath. Anyone who remembers the family drama in Genesis knows why respect for parents and siblings is important, why we guard our jealousy and rage so that they do not become murderous, why sex is such a powerful force both for good and bad – and why we handle it carefully, how deceit can poison trust in families, between brothers, among nations. And coveting is a failure to trust that what God provides for us will always be enough.

Or at least it should be.

There is much here for Jesus to ponder in the wild, and for us to ponder on our Lenten journey: the accounting for and letting go privilege, the taking sides amidst the vast inequities and inequalities of empire, the practices of good shepherds, the leadership of a people who do not always appreciate liberation but long for comfort, the discovery of who we really are.[ix]

It is a liturgical custom, one that we don’t often follow, to read the Ten Commandments before coming to the communion table, as we will in a few moments. Today, as we reflect on the lessons of Moses’ story, we will sing them.

Sermon Hymn: “I Have Brought You Out of Egypt,” by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette[x]






[i] Did you see the pictures of worshipers in Pennsylvania clutching their AK-47s and wearing ‘crowns’ made out of spent bullet casings as their pastor blessed the them and their right to protect themselves and their God-given right to bear arms? The images are even more disturbing than the story:

[ii] For an exegesis of the covenant in the context of biblical peace treatys with creation, see Bob Haverluck, When God Was Flesh and Wild: Stories in Defense of the Earth. (Liturgical Press, 2017) p. 52, etc.

[iii] For a caution about avoiding anti-Semitic readings of this troubled text, see The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler.

[iv] I have often distinguished between what I call the Way of God and the Way of Empire when teaching the Bible. Ihave recently discovered that Wes Howard Brook uses the terms Religion of Creation and Religion of Empire as an interpretive lens for reading the entire scripture, very much as I am imagining Jesus to do throughout this sermon series, in Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010).

[v] Burton Visotsky notes that the rabbis had a fondness for symmetries like this. See Burton L. Visotzky, The Road to Redemption: Lessons from Exodus on Leadership and Community. ((Crown Publishers, 1998).

[vi] In “Better Living through Testing,” chapter two in Todd Wynward, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God. (Herald Press, 2015).

[vii] For an imaginative approach to the kind of questions that could have led to Moses’ conscientization, with an emphasis on class betrayal, see the novel by Howard Fast, Moses: The Epic Story of His Rebellion n the Court of Egypt. (Simon and Schuster, 1958). For an approach to the story through African-American folklore, while resisting having the exodus subsumed into legitimation of racial identity, see Zora Neal Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain. (Harper, 1939).

[viii] For an overview of mystical approaches to Sinai, see Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spiritualties. (Oxford, 1998).

[ix] Moses as leader and liberator was cherished in the Galilee of Jesus. Moses the lawgiver, on the other hand, was taught and defended in Judea (by the scribes in particular, but also by the Pharisees who subscribed to “the traditions of the elders). Ever since the Persians sponsored the rebuilding of the temple, the Torah of Moses was the ‘law of the land,’ quite literally the Constitution of the Second Temple-State. For those keeping score, we pick up with another figure particularly cherished in Northern tradition of Galilee, Elijah the Tishbite. See especially “Jesus vs. the Pharisees: Contesting the Tradition” in Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. (WJK, 2001).


Forty Days Grieving with Noah

March 3, 2018


“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during Lent 2018. This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday of Lent, February 25, 2018. Today’s illustration of Jesus watching the rain come down is by Simon Smith, and British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Genesis [6:5-6], 7:1–5, 11–19; 8:6–18; 9:8–13           Mark 1:12-13

We started our Lenten journey last Sunday by contemplating what Jesus did during his forty days in the wilderness. I suggested that Jesus was on something like a Native American vision quest, a spiritual journey to discover his identity, his direction, and the path ahead of him. I illustrated the point by referring to the vision quests undertaken by T’Challa and Erik Killmonger in the movie Black Panther. Alone in the wilderness, Jesus was tracing the footsteps of his people through sacred history to see where things went wrong. He faced again the forces that lured God’s people into historical dead ends of idolatry and empire and discovered in himself the possibility of the just reign of God come near.[i]

Throughout Lent we too are going to follow some of these same footprints, paying attention to other scriptural stories that feature the number forty. Today, we are going to begin at the beginning, with Noah.[ii]

We read in Genesis 6:5-6 that “God saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually and God regretted that God had made humankind on the earth and it grieved God to the heart.” And so God decided to unmake creation and start over. But Noah, we are told, found favor with God. And so we read …

[read Genesis text][iii]

Flood stories appear in 217 cultures around the world… 95% of the stories talk about a global flood… 73% say animals and a boat or involved, and 35% claim the bird was sent out at the end. I don’t know what these kind of statistics mean, other than that the story is deeply rooted in our human consciousness. But each cultural telling is specific. [iv]

As Walter Brueggemann puts it, ancient Israel’s story “faces a basic incongruity of human life. On the one hand, God has called the world into being to be God’s faithful covenant partner… But on the other hand, it has not worked out that way.” The world has betrayed God’s intent. The same incongruity is true of God’s people. We were created to be God’s faithful covenant partner, but it has not worked out that way. We daily betray God’s intention for our world, and that betrayal has become systemic and cultural. The world as we know it, and as we live it, is the source of grief to God. I find it fascinating and suggestive that the word for grief here is the same word used to describe the pain of a woman in childbirth, and the labors of men working in the field. Both pains/griefs are ultimately productive of good, and St. Paul will pick up this image of all creation groaning as in labor pain for the arrival of responsible human beings so that the earth can be healed, but in our scripture text today we encounter a God who appears to be having his or her first encounter with grief, an immature God, and God does not yet seem to know what to do with it except to wish it and its cause all away.[v]

The story speaks of God’s sweeping judgment on civilization as it had come to be, on the empires of the earth, and their great cities and kings. This is not the way it was supposed to work out. This is not what God intended. God is still passionate about what God created, or God would not be grieved. Yet, “God is less like a tyrant and more like an utterly frustrated parent:” God simply wants to just sweep it all away. Or, perhaps a better analogy would be that God is like a young child trying to build with blocks, who smash her project and sends blocks crashing when what she has made is not perfect.[vi]

But note carefully how human evil affects even God. There is a powerful image in this story of how destructive regret can be, and what grief can lead us to do. In grief, has God become what God deplores, destructive of human life and planetary life? Is God’s violence a mirror of human violence? Is this how violence perpetuates itself?

There’s an also an insight here into the important role humanity plays as part of creation. “As we go, so goes the whole world.” In an age of “widespread oppression, corporate greed, gross income inequality, and global climate change,” that should give us pause.[vii]

God tries to start over, to make a second creation. As the flood waters rise, they return the earth to its primal state, waste and void, tohu wabohu, the way it was in the beginning. Watery chaos. The second creation begins with the appearance of dry ground. The birds sent out of the ark remind us of the God’s spirit hovering over the water in Genesis 1:1. This should be a world made new.

God tries to start over, but it doesn’t work! “The animals that emerge from the ark have not changed their natures, and neither have the humans. The human heart can still conceive of evil. All the terror of the waters has not changed that.” But it has worked “an irreversible change in God, who now will approach creation with an unlimited patience and forbearance.”[viii]

And so this time God makes a covenant. A promise. An unconditional promise. And the promise is this: violence is off the table. The rainbow that God hangs in the sky is a war bow. God un-notches the arrow of wrath from his war bow and breaks it, and God hangs the bow in sky, never to be used again. God renounces violence and destruction as ways of dealing with grief, disappointment, and frustration. God will find another way.

That does not mean God’s people have ceased to resort to violence. There is no question that Jesus, wandering for forty days in the uncultivated wilderness by the Jordan River, could see all the ways in which his people, Israel, return to violence again and again: to wage war against their enemies, to draw sharp lines between who is in and who is out, to suppress dissent – all in the name of God. To wander the wilderness of Palestine was to wander through ancient battlefields and places of conflict, ancient sites of worship and contests between prophets and kings. But that was not God’s way, not the real God’s way, not the way of YHWH who spoke to Jesus at his baptism. This God’s way is one of covenant, commitment, patience and relationship. This God’s way does rejects violence.

I want you to consider that every claim to justify violence, subsequent to the flood, to resort to violence, to believe that violence is ever redemptive, is blasphemy. Even when it occurs in scripture. Even when biblical ancestors claimed that God called for the violence or claimed God himself[!] exacted vengeance. I certainly believe that Jesus experienced the grief of God in the wilderness and returned from the wilderness with a conviction that violence was not the way of God, but the way of every earthly empire from ancient times to the present.[ix]

When the ark came to rest on Ararat, Noah spent another forty days looking out upon this new creation. I want to linger with Noah here on the mountain top, because if God has grown through this encounter, Noah has a lot of learning and growing to do as well. And what he fails to do is important. We are told that Noah was righteous, blameless in his generation, and that he walked with God. Well, that may have been good enough “in his generation” that could conceive only evil. But from our perspective, Noah seems cold toward his fellow human beings and the earth. Psychopathic even. If God had seen how human hearts conceived of evil, Noah seems heartless. Not once does he ever appeal to God to save others. He just gets to work to save himself, his family, (and, I will grant, all the animals), but focusing on saving the animals comes close to justifying all the violence and death.

Where are Noah’s tears? I want tears for all those who have died, human, plant and animal ( a lot of animals died). I want tears of regret. Rivers of tears, Oceans of tears. World enveloping floods of tears. I would like to think that Jesus spent some of his time in the wilderness crying, joining himself through his tears to all those who have died by violent means.[x]

When the news broke about the mass murder of students at the high school in Parkland, Florida, the despair was palpable. We mixed this despair with our tears on Ash Wednesday. The next day, Thursday, the New York Times ran a piece titled,

“Gunfire erupts at school.
Leaders offer prayers.
Children are buried.

But in the last ten days, everything has changed, hasn’t it. The unrelenting pressure of students who are processing their trauma life in front of the nation, has forced a CNN town hall meeting, got new commitments from congressman Marco Rubio, pressured the President to call for a ban on bump stocks, have led advertisers and corporations to drop the NRA, and raised millions for a national march next month. We have (the potential for) a new national discussion.[xi]

Of course, we also seem to be sliding into an acceptance of arming teachers. An idea that two weeks ago seemed crazy – is happening de facto. Embracing violence as a solution, despite the fact that all the evidence-based research tells us students are not safer when teachers are armed and that our schools will be more dangerous with guns present. An Internet meme emerged this week – “would you want to be the black teacher holding a gun when the police arrive?” This whole conversation needs to be brought back together with the conversation initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement and Michelle Alexander’s work on racial bias in policing, law enforcement, and the prison system. We need to remember that guns are most often used for male suicide, and for the murder by men of intimate partners and immediate family: of girlfriends, wives and children. Our problem with guns is not just about mass shootings. We have not yet begun to talk about holding gun manufacturers responsible for their products and marketing, or how our nation was born in racist violence and with genocidal practices against indigenous peoples that depended on armed citizens – the origins of our Second Amendment – violence we do know yet not know how to repent of. Our gun violence is acted out in the context of our nation being the largest purveyor of violence and arms trafficking in the world.[xii] Just this morning, Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times,

The American idea is caught up in carnage. Its very beginning is rooted in gun violence. It is by the barrel that this land was acquired. It is by the barrel that the slave was subdued and his rebellions squashed. And that is to say nothing of our wars.

We have venerated the gun and valorized its usage. America is violent and the gun is a preferred instrument of that violence. America, in many ways, is the gun.[xiii]

These are wilderness thoughts, I know. But Jesus, in his time of testing, was surely thinking beyond ways of tinkering with the Roman Empire to make it a little safer, a little less oppressive, a little more fair. He was going to the root of the problem itself, the human heart and our history of turning to violence to save us. This is the path ultimately rejected by God.

I was to invite you during this second week of Lent to imagine sitting with Noah for forty days and forty nights on the top of Mount Ararat: there is a chance at a new future him, but Noah has no idea what it is or what it will involve. If God has hung up the war bow, how will we now walk with God? Can you imagine a world without violence? I want to invite you to sit in that moment this week. The world as we know it, is not what God intended. But the time of judgment is over. It is past. It is now time to build something new. It is, in fact, to be something new. But what?[xiv]

Our sermon-hymn this morning captures this moment of pause, this moment of waiting and expectation. It expresses a deep trust in the God who is and will remain faithful to us, but an uncertainty about where we are going and what comes next. It is a plea for guidance, to know what the “next” will require of us. And in song, it helps us offer ourselves up to walk with God, discerning with God a new way into a new world.

Sing: “God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us.”


[i] Paraphrased from Ched Myers, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. (Orbis, 1996).

[ii] For a fascinating look at several avenues with this story, in particular the relationship between science and faith and our desire to root our faith in the world, themes which are not taken up in this sermon, see J. David Plains, When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood. (Oxford, 2003).

[iii] Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1996).

[iv] Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land through the Bible. (William Morrow, 2001)

[v] The images of covenant and grief are derived from Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). (John Knox Press, 1982). The image of God’s immaturity is explored in Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation. (Doubleday, 1996). See also Jack Miles, God: A Biography. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. (Vintage, 1996).

[vi] Brueggemann (God as frustrated parent) and Moyers, et al. (God as parent and child).

[vii] Rodney Sadler, Jr. “Genesis” in Gale Yee, Hugh Page Jr., and Matthew Coomber, eds. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha. (Fortress Press, 2014).

[viii] For “Creation has not changed…” see Ellen Frankel. The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah. (Harper, 1996). For a similar sentiment, “There seemed to be less and less point to the flood.” see the novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Many Waters, the fourth in her time Quintet. For the irreversible change in God, see Brueggemann. 

[ix] In my admittedly limited reading I have not found a concern with the violence in any other flood story. For a reading of the flood alongside the Enuma Elish and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, see Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010). For a couple Native American stories that justify the violence, see American Indian Myths and Legends, Selected and Edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. Pantheon Books, 1984).

[x] On the healing power of tears, see Bob Haverluck, When God was Flesh and Wild: Stories in Defense of the Earth. (Liturgical Press, 2017).


[xii] James E. Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. (Cascade Books, 2012). See also Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. (City Lights Open Media, 2017).


[xiv] On Ararat, from Bruce Fieler, Walking the Bible. “Mount Ararat is a perfect volcanic pier amid 16,000, 984 feet high, with a junior volcano, a little Ararat, attached to his hip. The highest peak in the middle east (and the second highest in Europe), Big Ararat is holy to everyone around it. The Turks call is Agri Dagi, The Mountain of Pain. The Kurds call it the Mountain of Fire. Armenians also worship the mountain, which was in their homeland until [the genocide of] 1915. … Mount Ararat is the first place mentioned in the Bible that could be located with any degree of certainty.” The Turkish title is particularly interesting in light of the linguistic relationship between Pain and Grief.


Forty Days in the Wild with Jesus

March 3, 2018


“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during Lent 2018. This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018. Today’s illustration of Jesus contemplating fragility, dependence, and slow growth is by Simon Smith, and British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Mark 1:9-15

Each year we begin the Season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with an invitation to observe a Holy Lent. It is an invitation to renew ourselves in the paschal mystery in preparation for the celebration of Easter. The words come right from the Book of Common Worship:

I invite you therefore, in the name of Christ,
to observe a holy Lent
by self-examination and penitence,
by prayer and fasting,
by works of love,
and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.

This is how we are to fill our forty days of preparation: with prayer and fasting, study and service. Prayer means entering into daily conversation with God, which requires us to be in touch with ourselves – for we must bring all of who we are to the conversation. Fasting means withdrawing from habits and practices that get in the way of our prayer, breaking with fixed patterns and experiencing reasonable self-denial to remind ourselves of our ultimate dependence on that which is beyond our control. Service is a central part of Lenten practice, because it reminds us that we belong to one another, that we live in community, that none of us is an island, that we cannot live the Christian life alone because there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Study not only means immersing ourselves in our scripture story and the heritage of faith, the history that shapes who we are, but also engaging in a close examination of the world in which we live, it’s conflicts and possibilities and the choices we must make to see God’s promised realm come near.

What can you do with forty days? I turned to and entered “40 Days” in the search engine to see what I might find. In addition to lots of forty-day devotionals designed for use during Lent, I found

  • forty-day spiritual journeys with various saints, religious and secular;
  • there are forty-day exercise programs, therapy inventories, and diets;
  • a yogi in New Jersey offers forty days to a “personal revolution” through breathing;
  • one book uses forty days to get rid of toxic vocabulary, another to “keep your mouth shut”;
  • programs for learning a new language in forty days;
  • one book offered nutritional guidance for nourishing a new mother (and babies) during their important first forty days;
  • there is even a facial cream for tightening one’s skin ‘in just forty days.’

Why forty? Biblically, forty days just means “a long time” or more particularly “enough” time. We might think of it in term of “as long as it takes.” For example, when a music student asks his teacher how long he must practice, or an athlete asks her coach how long she should drill, or a couple wants to know how much time they must spend in marital therapy, the answer is, “as long as it takes.”[i]

[At this point, I showed a short video called “40”
about Jesus’ time in the wilderness with illustrations by Simon Smith]

So let’s clear some space for our forty-day journey together.

The first thing I want you to do is set aside the idea that Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a time of ‘temptation.’ I know that is the English translation in our pew bibles, and for many of us the story of wilderness wandering automatically conjures up the image of a devil offering Jesus three tempting choices, but ‘temptation’ is the story that Matthew and Luke tell in their gospels. What Mark wants to convey in his gospel is better translated as a period of testing or a time of trial. I will translate this in various ways over the coming weeks to help keep this before us.[ii]

Secondly, what might this test or trial have involved?[iii] I want to suggest that it might have been something like the pattern we find in twelve-step programs – a careful examination of one’s self and one’s past, a coming to terms with who we are and who we have hurt through our choices, owning up to our addictions (personal and cultural) and attempting reconciliation, a setting things right, all in the context of an ultimate dependency on a higher power. But the framework of AA focuses on the individual. Jesus’ time in the wild was surely about entering deeply into the history of his people. A better model for thinking about what Jesus did in the wilderness would be something like a Native American Vision Quest.[iv]

A vision quest is an experience of at least four days of fasting in the wilderness alone to receive a spirit guardian (often an animal) and a secret name. (We find both features in Jesus baptism and testing). As a rite of passage, it is a revelatory and often mystical experience. When asked whether there are still youth who undertook the vision quest at the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations today, Dallas Chief Eagle, a Sioux hoop dancer, says “Yes, absolutely, and I wish more youth would, because the vision quest teaches simplicity, humility, and it certainly adjusts one’s attitude in a spiritual way.” He continues, “I think all youths – non-Indian as well as Indian – who have reached the age of puberty should go on a vision quest. Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob went on vision quests. Moses went on a vision quest for forty days and obtained the Ten Commandments. Christ himself went on a vision quest for forty days. The term ‘vision quest’ wasn’t used, but we are talking about the same thing.”[v]

Just in time for this sermon, we have a marvelous illustration of a vision quest in the movie Black Panther, which opened on Friday. You will all want to see and talk about his movie (if you can handle the violence). Black Panther is a comic book hero who brings to the screen an Afro-centric perspective on our world, features complex characters and strong writing, with cast made up almost entirely of persons-of-color, both men and women. My challenge is to say something here without ruining the film.

When not in costume, the Black Panther is T’Challa, the new king of Wakanda, a hitherto hidden, technologically advanced and egalitarian African nation. In the film T’Challa undertakes two vision quests, but they are very different experiences. Both quests involve drinking the juice of a sacred plant, being buried in sand (which connotes not only wilderness but is also definite reference to death and resurrection) while the supportive community chants “praise be the ancestors.”

In the first quest, T’Challa receives assurance that he is up to the challenge of being king, that he has within himself all the gifts he needs to lead, and that his ancestors have fully prepared him for just this moment. This all comes to him in a dream-like scene of an intimate conversation with his father, the former king, now deceased, of Wakanda. Standing behind his father are all T’Challa’s ancestors, generations of Wakandan kings.


The second quest, however, is different. The second vision quest calls into question the teachings of these very ancestors, revealing the truths and half-truths that he has inherited. T’Challa confronts them with the hidden history of Wakanda, and the legacy of their mistakes. The way forward, not only for the king but for the whole of his people, will involve a choice about what to do with that knowledge.

This last point is important: In the wilderness, Jesus (like T’Challa) is discovering in his own life the life of his people, and in the history of his people his own purpose. In the choices before him, he has an opportunity to do things differently.

A book I have had close to me in preparing for this Lenten season is called Jesus on the Mountain. In the section on Jesus wilderness wanderings, I find this illuminating note:

Jesus was called to live out in his own experience the Sonship that was to have characterized Israel – a relationship with God which involves dependence on [God] for the provision of needs, trust in [God’s] presence without the need for demonstration, and acceptance of sovereignty only on [God’s] terms. … Such a view of the Messiah as a corporate personality who sums up in himself all that Israel was called to be … is a profound piece of theological work.”[vi]

“To sum up in himself all that Israel was called to be.” That is the task Jesus faces during his forty days in the wilderness. Hearing God’s voice declare that he is God’s child, beloved, in whom God is well pleased, Jesus enters the wilderness to understand what this means. We might ask ourselves the same question. What does it mean to be a child of God, beloved of God, and pleasing to God? For forty days and forty nights Jesus will immerse himself in the story of his people, discovering where mistakes had been made and opportunities missed. Throughout Lent we will do just this, revisit stories, particularly the stories of Noah, Moses, Elijah and Jonah (all of which involve wilderness sojourns of forty days) so that we can understand for ourselves the meaning of being God’s people and share the conviction that Jesus will emerge from the wilderness with – namely that God’s sovereignty, God’s kingdom is not just coming but can be present now.

* * * * * * *

[i] Many researchers say that it takes twenty-one days to change a behavior, break a habit, or pick up a new practice. Forty seems to be the biblical equivalent of ‘enough’ time to bring about something new. The number carries a combined sense of difficulty and expectation, as we will see in the coming weeks, so it should come as no surprise that forty weeks is the length of human pregnancy.

[ii] Novels often accompany my personal Lenten journey. For a rich description of the wilderness caves around Jericho near the Jordan, see Quarantine by James Crace, which won the Whitbread Prize in 1998. From Frank Kermode’s review for the NYTimes, “The wilderness setting of this story is rendered in obsessive detail: the geography and geology of the area, its birds and animals, insects and plants, its folk beliefs and superstitions. As often with Crace, there are words one needs to look up in a dictionary, and in fact there are some I can’t find in any of mine. It doesn’t matter; this, for the moment, is his world or continent, and this is its language. The effect is of an almost hallucinatory concentration.”

[iii] Jim Douglass has written, “We are told that Jesus once asked the people about John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” The question is an even more interesting one, though, when we turn it back on Jesus, because Jesus like John was a man of the wilderness. The question, when turned back on Jesus is, “What did you, Jesus, go out into the wilderness to see?” James W. Douglass, Lightning Easter to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age. (Wipf and Stock, 2006).

[iv] Known as hanbleceya, or ‘vision seeking,’ the vision quest is a tradition of the Plains people. Ched Myers made this connection in his work on Mark’s Gospel, most fully in Who Will Roll Away the Stone: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians. (Orbis, 1994.) For a description of indigenous practice, see American Indian Myths and Legends, Selected and Edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 69. Patricia Hersch illustrates the power of the vision quest for even privileged adolescents in A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (Ballantine, 1998).

[v] Brad Steiger, Indian Medicine Power. (Schiffer Publishing, 1995).

[vi] Terence Donaldson, Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthean Theology. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 8. (JSOT, 1985). p. 92.

Sabbath Day – The North 40

March 2, 2018


It has been good long while since I have written a Sabbath Post. There is so much going on in my life that I do not know how to write about, and at the end of most sabbath days I have simply wanted to go to bed rather than reflect in writing. 

Readers of my blog will also have noticed that I have not posted a sermon in over a month. I have been trying something new at church – entering the pulpit with only a few notes and perhaps a quotation or two. It has been tremendous fun, though incredibly nerve-wracking. I feel confident while speaking, but always uncertain about what I have said when it is done. The response, however, has been quite positive. By giving up the idea of ‘writing’ the sermon, I have found that I can relax and spend more time with my family on a Saturday, and can even go to bed on Saturday evening and sleep peacefully (which I have never been able to do before without a written manuscript). 

Last fall I started a new Bible study with my church on the Gospel of Mark (which is the organizing text for Lectionary Year B). I have not led a weekly Bible study for seven years now, and the folks I gather with each Monday evening have reawakened all kinds of hopes and confidences in me. I used to work through this gospel personally, with adult small groups and Bible studies and confirmations classes on an annual basis over a decade and a half in my previous congregation. It is still the lens through which I read the rest of scripture. I have been catching up on more recent scholarship, especially recent archeology and history, and find I am doing exegesis with part of my mind seemingly all week long. The challenge in the pulpit is to stay focused. My upcoming trip to Palestine has also fired my imagination.

2018-03-01 16.48.23

Today’s sabbath hike was special, and the banner photo at the top of this post requires explanation. I took today’s hike with my son (our first together this year) on a trail known as the North 40. It was the best part of my day. The significance for me is twofold. I am currently in the midst of a Lenten Sermon Series called “Forty Days in the Wild with Jesus.” Assuming (with good reason) that what Jesus was doing during his period of testing in the wilderness was working through his people’s history – reliving decisive moments, mistakes made, and making new decisions – I am exploring in my sermons each Sunday that same people’s history through the lens of other biblical figures who also spent 40 days in the wild: Noah, Moses, Elijah and Jonah. Moses and Elijah in particular were favorites in the “northern” tradition of Ancient Israel, centered in the Galilee where Jesus was from. This tradition emphasized leadership and liberation, rather than law, as the center of community life. Thus the significance of our hike today – the North 40, for the Northern Prophetic Tradition.

2018-03-01 16.41.38

We met lots of animals on the trail, but the most interesting was this skunk who we followed for a while at what we hoped was a safe distance. 

2018-03-01 16.46.19

All in all, a beautiful day to have been outdoors and together in creation.
– Happy Sabbath

2018-03-01 16.42.40