Bread for the Day
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter , May 25, 2014 – Orange Day, Memorial Day Weekend
John 14: 15-21 Acts 17: 22-31
I want to begin by acknowledging that it is very moving to see so many of you wearing orange today. Violence against women and girls is a global problem, which is why the United Nations has organized a special campaign called UNiTE to End Violence Against Women and Girls. On the 25th of every month we join with people of faith and conscience around the world in wearing orange to remind ourselves and others to be honest about the problem and as a way of pledging ourselves to making a difference.
During our last two years of wearing orange each month, we have, as a congregation, talked honestly with one another about sexual violence, domestic violence, our own histories of rape and healing, named particular ways women and girls suffer in places of conflict and warfare (as we are witnessing today in Nigeria), and declared that men have a particular responsibility both to speak out against the violence and to break the cycles of violence. We have also, in worship, spoken and sung about our need for healthier images of our own bodies, our sexualities, and our relationships with one another. We have offered our building to the YWCA for programs on women’s empowerment, welcomed Hope’s Door to lead a series on domestic violence, we collect toiletries every week for Samaritan’s Purse, a local women’s shelter, and raised awareness about the women’s advocacy programs offered by My Sister’s Place.
I had intended on preaching a sermon this morning called “A Colorful Witness” which would have brought together our wearing of orange, our aspiration to be green, and the multicolored nature of who we are as God’s people, along with an inspiring and challenging story about John Woolman. Woolman was an American Quaker in the colonial period. He worked as a tailor, but refused to wear anything himself other than plain white clothing, including his hat, because all the dye for clothing in colonial America was transported here on slave ships. I intended the sermon to be a partial answer to a question I asked last week: why did our Quaker neighbors in Harrison feel so compelled to free their slaves, and why did the Presbyterians feel no such urgency? It was, in part, because of John Woolman’s colorful (or maybe I should say colorless) witness.
As I said, I had intended on saying all that in a well-developed sermon. But something happened on Friday evening that caused me to set that sermon aside. Instead, I need to tell you a story about two young women.
The first young woman – I’ll call her Jane even though many of you will know who I am speaking about – this young woman was living here in White Plains a couple of years ago. She found her way to worship with us because she had read one of my sermons on my blog and wanted to discuss some of the questions she had posted online about it. So we met. She was a young woman, early thirties, recently married, had graduated from law school, passed the Bar, and had already worked as a lawyer; she was a runner, and could often be seen in her fluorescent running shoes throughout the city. When we met she was depressed because she was out of work, but that also gave her time, time she used to get to know some of us, to visit a couple of Bible studies, to develop an interest in environmental missions, and to offer some free legal advice when we really needed it. She had plans to join the church, and then suddenly she moved to another state. I was shocked to learn a couple of months later that she had taken her own life.
A profound sadness came over me. I wept for her and for her husband and felt for her family and friends. I grew frustrated with what I had not known, what no one knew, she was struggling with. In my own grief, I am sorry to say, I failed to reach out to her husband, though others did, for which I am grateful.
I still think about her from time to time: at a corner in the city where we met during one of her runs, when I visit Sarah and Will’s garden where we had dinner, when I read particular prayers or in my own prayers. I quietly had her removed from church mailing lists last year, but it was only last week that I removed her from the contact list in my iPhone.
Which is perhaps why I was so surprised on Friday evening when her best friend, I’ll call her Tess, reached out to me through our church Facebook page. Tess lives in the south, and it was, I learned, in her apartment that Jane took her own life. Now, more than a year later, Tess still has many of her friend’s possessions, and found herself this week going through them; in particular she had come across a sermon of mine and two books of prayers by Walter Brueggemann that I had recommended. Tess was contacting me to say thank you, and to tell me a part of the story I had never heard.
You see, awhile back Tess herself was contemplating suicide, and not knowing or suspecting what her best friend was going through, she told Jane. And Jane tenderly offered her love and support. Jane gave one of my sermons to Tess because it had proven so helpful to her, and the books of prayers followed. In subsequent weeks, Jane would copy out particular prayers and Tess’ inbox would gather these email prayers, painful yet hopeful intercessions about hurt and loss, failure and shame, honestly held before God, in God’s presence; prayers about the unseen but always expected newness of life.
These prayers, these words, this community, had sustained Jane through many months, and she hoped it would do so for her friend Tess.
What Tess told me on Friday is that they saved her life. At the moment when Tess most desperately needed them, the prayers that Jane sent to her made the difference.
I want to say couple of things.
First, if something inspires you, gives you encouragement, lifts your spirits or just makes sense; when you find something that sustains you and gives you life; share it, pass it on, don’t keep it to yourself. These things that give us life can be hard to find when we desperately need them; sometimes they can only come to us from someone else. And somebody needs them every day. Share them, pass them on, give them to someone else.
Second, I share this story with you this morning because it is complex, the way life is complex. This is not Disney; happy endings are not guaranteed. The care and support that this congregation offered to Jane was real, and for a while she could receive it. That Jane ultimately took her own life, that for a moment she could not find what she needed, or could not receive it, does not change the reality of the care and support offered to her. We don’t know all the reasons why she took her life, and we won’t know.
But even as Jane herself suffered, she passed along that care and support, the encouragement and prayer she had received to Tess. And that is what I want you to see. No matter how hurt, or how broken, Jane was; perhaps because of how hurt and broken she was, she could still offer help to others. Not because she had everything together herself. Not because she knew all the answers. Certainly not because she had it all figured out. But simply because she could recognize in her friend a plea for help, a plea for daily bread and knew what it looked like. And because she knew what was helping her.
Finally, I want to say there is so much we never know about what is going on inside those around us. We are good offering care to those whose needs are obvious: the wife who has just lost her husband after years of patient caregiving, the friend who has just received a life shattering diagnosis, the parent whose child has totaled the car, again. But there are so many who suffer quietly. Suffer privately. Who keep their needs out of sight because they believe we do not want to see them. Do not want to know them. Might be frightened by what they have to say. Might be overwhelmed because there are no easy answers. I am suddenly aware again that we are all wearing orange today, because of violence against women and girls, violence which overwhelmingly happens in the privacy of the home and is kept out of sight because of shame.
If you come to this place of worship and are heavily burdened, if you need a place where you can talk honestly and safely, if there is something that troubles you and you want or need to tell someone, there are people here who will listen. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid. You can speak with me, or with Pastor Sarah or with Pastor Lynn. There are prayer ministers available every Sunday after worship, who are waiting, waiting to pray with you. And they will hold you in prayer all week long.
I’ll conclude by offering one of Walter Brueggemann’s prayers, one of the prayers that was passed from hand the hand, from Jane to Tess, and which was read at Jane’s funeral. It is called…
Waiting for Bread . . . and for God’s Future
We are strange mixtures of loss and hope.
As we are able, we submit our losses to you
We know about sickness and dying, about death and mortality, about failure and disappointment.
And now for a moment we do our failing and our dying in your presence, you who attend to us in loss.
As we are able, we submit our hopes to you.
We know about self-focused fantasy and notions of control.
But we also know that our futures are out beyond us, held in your good hand.
Our hopes are filled with promises of well-being, justice, and mercy.
Move us this day beyond our fears and anxieties into your land of goodness.
We wait for your coming, we pray for your kingdom.
In the meantime, give us bread for the day.
image by James Johnson Art
© 2014, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
White Plains Presbyterian Church