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Strong People

October 12, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 12, 2014. The photo that opens this post was taken at the Westchester People’s Assembly Against Poverty held on October 4. We were proud to host this event, organized by Community Voices Heard, at the White Plains Presbyterian Church. 

Isaiah 25:1-9          Philippians 4: 1-9

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This beloved passage from Isaiah, was written just before the Judean people were conquered by the Assyrians and their leaders driven into exile.  Isaiah’s lyric and compelling words are directed toward God, with a definite secondary audience:  the rulers and people of Judah.  The rulers and priests became corrupt, self-aggrandizing, and hungry for land.  As family farms fell into debt, the royal families would extend high interest loans, forcing them into bankruptcy and then gobble up the land.  In chapter 3, Isaiah cries out with unmistakable candor on behalf of God

The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples. The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts. (Isaiah 3: 13-15)

And in this passage from Isaiah 25, part of what has been nicknamed “the little apocalypse,” the prophet looks ahead to the time where God will set right what the powerful leaders of Judah have done.  For the fortified cities that God reduces to rubble, are not the “enemies of Judah” but the cities of Judah itself.  Isaiah’s vision of the future where God is the refuge of the poor and there is a lavish banquet prepared for the people of all nations, stands in stark contrast to the everyday reality all around him, where the rich get richer by making the poor poorer; where regular harvests fail and people are thrown into debt and then the vulturous lenders come, lending money to take advantage of them, where people who are sick or poor or immigrant are devoured.  That was the way of the world in Isaiah’s time.  But he was having none of it.  And in the name and with the voice of God, he spoke out powerfully, so powerfully that his words echo down three thousand years in history to us.

And right after Isaiah condemns his own nation for turning its back on God because it has turned its back on people made poor, just after he offers the image of God making the fortified city a ruin, he writes this interesting phrase,

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;

Cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

The first time I quickly skimmed this passage, I assumed strong peoples meant the rulers of Judah.  But the second time I read it, I realized that this made no sense.  For the rulers of Judah are not the strong ones.  The rulers of Judah are the “cities of ruthless nations” that should fear God.

When Isaiah writes, “therefore strong peoples will glorify you” he means to say that all those people in Judah – the majority of the people – who had been made poor by the policies of the rulers, the people who were scraping and trying to figure out how to survive, these are the strong people who rejoice because God has

been a refuge to the poor,

a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

I want to stop right there and have us pause for a moment and consider this; because Isaiah is saying something very profound and challenging.  Because often in our society, people who are poor or sick or otherwise vulnerable are considered victims. But Isaiah calls them strong. Strong people.

I want to invite up to the lectern a strong woman, Caryl S——.

For each of us in our own lives has faced times of violence, financial catastrophe, health crises, you name it, but we know that God is faithful, we know that we are not alone, and we know not only because of our prayer life, but because in our daily lives we support one another.  Sometimes that support is a listening ear.  Sometimes it’s a loan when it’s most needed.  Sometimes it’s sharing food.  Sometimes it’s accompanying one another to the hospital. The way we support one another takes many shapes. It is mutual support.  It is always out of the belief, a belief shared by Isaiah, that the strong people are not those that the world thinks are strong.  The strong people are the ones who endure and resist and challenge and hope together against the odds for the kind of loving world God desires and who, together, act like it now.

As Caryl speaks, I invite you (the congregation) to listen for God’s word to you.

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CARYL’S FAITH STORY

Good morning. For those of you who do not know me yet, my name is Caryl S——. I have been participating in the life of this congregation for the past three years, ever since Pastor Jeff met me on the sidewalk and invited me to worship. During these three years you have become family to me, and I just might cry as I try to explain how much that means to me, because I have literally found new life here.

I am a native New Yorker. I grew up in Brooklyn. I was baptized and confirmed in a tiny Reformed congregation of maybe 20 people where my mother used to play organ every Sunday. I don’t know how my family drifted away from the church, but once we stopped going it was hard to go back.

And then a lot of life happened, and I have a lot of stories. But the story I want to tell you today began eight years ago. I had arrived at the point in life that many people call “mid-life.” I had just turned forty – and then I had a stroke. It left me as you see me now, changed, but capable. Then, as I was recovering, I had a fire. I lost everything. I lost my home. I lost every material possession. In desperation I turned to a friend to take me in, but that landed me in an abusive relationship. It will not surprise you that it took me years to leave that guy. I know that you understand this because this congregation talks regularly about domestic violence, posts phone numbers for hotlines and legal services, and collects toiletries for women’s shelters. I found my way to one of these shelters. The night I left that relationship I went to the hospital. I was beaten up, and they took my clothes as evidence. I had nothing left but my life. It was so unreal I felt like I was living in Lifetime movie.

I stayed in one shelter, and then another, and then moved down the street to the YWCA. And that’s when I found my home here with you.

I need to say in front of all of you that I thank God for my life, for you, and for this church. I am overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. I found you when I needed you most. And you welcomed me and cared for me and made me part of this family. When I started coming here members of this church not only asked me who I was, but looked me in the eyes and listened to what I said. It had been so long since I knew true happiness that I had forgotten what it was like. Now I know it every day.

I have a chance to start my life over again. People who love me say that I deserve it. That’s easy to say. You have helped me do it. I have friends here who encourage me, pray for me, check on me. I have been made a part of your ministry. I serve on the Worship and Music Commission with some wonderful people, and I am now the person who will be coordinating memorial flowers for Sunday worship. I am looking forward to formally joining this congregation in a few weeks time. This is new life.

On November 1st I am moving to my own apartment. This church helped me pay the deposit, and others have offered to help me move. I will miss being in this neighborhood every day, and walking on North Broadway and shopping downtown. (Don’t worry, I will only be a bus ride away). But I cannot wait to close my door and just breath freely. And to use a bathroom without someone walking in on me. I could not have done this without this community.

I’m going to cry again. Thank you. Thank you God. Thank you Pastor Jeff and Noelle. Thank you Pastor Sarah and Will. Thank you Pastor Lynn. Thank you Carmen, who takes my blood pressure each month after church. Thank you, each one of you, who make this church possible, who welcome others with open arms, who demonstrate what God’s love looks like in action.

From my own experience I can now say, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)

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