Every April, three movies appear on the viewing list:
It is a time to remember the genocide in Rwanda; to realize that my knowledge of the horror is extremely limited; and to ponder the work that is needed today.
I Corinthians 13
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
March 17, 2019
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
What comes to mind when you hear the word pie?
Perhaps your favorite pizza?
For me, the word takes me back to childhood. My mother made better pies than cakes. We celebrated my birthday with chocolate cream. My brother chose Boston Cream. My sister blueberry. At least one of us made a semi-healthy choice.
Of course, mathematicians may think not of pie but of pi. Pi. A number that designates the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.
In Greek, perimetros means circumference. Staying in Greek, Pi is the first letter in perimetros. Because of the influence of Greeks on early European mathematics, pi became the word used to describe this number.[i]
To put pi in numbers, one begins with 3.14. At some point in time, March 14 became known as Pi day. People share bad jokes. Bakeries and restaurants offer deals on pie.
Pi Day came last Thursday. I ate no pie. But I received reminders that Pi is both infinite.
Pi is infinite. It’s decimal representation never ends. It starts 3.14 and then goes on forever. Mathematician Emma Haruka Iwao recently computed over 31 trillion digits of pi. In an interview with the BBC, she said, “There is no end with pi, I would love to try with more digits.”[ii]
Reflecting on the infinite nature of Pi, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, Joanne Westin. Her teen-age daughter had died in a drowning accident. We talked of Jennifer and we talked of loss. And Joanne observed that, “Grief is infinite.” After a pause, she added, “And so is love.”
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[iii] Love is infinite, because God is love.
I know that. I believe that. I preach that. But I need to hear that this week. This heart-wrenching week.
In Louisville, I worked with the Rev. Robina Winbush, our church’s staff person for ecumenical and interfaith relations. On Tuesday morning, returning from a visit with our church partners in the Middle East, Robina stepped from the plane and into the everlasting, ever-loving arms of God. As she deplaned at JFK, Robina collapsed. Airline personnel and EMTs could not revive her.
Tuesday evening, Mike Miller, the acting chief financial officer for the national church in Louisville, died of a massive heart attack.
Wednesday evening, my phone buzzed with a text from Rex bearing the heartbreaking news that Byron Vasquez had died. A gentle, good man gone too soon, too young. Byron made a commitment and gave of himself to the United States – where too often the sin and hate of white supremacy “othered” him as it does to brown and black people. Labelling him as “less than” and telling him to return to his country.
On Friday, New Zealand time, white supremacy struck in New Zealand. A man who posted a statement rooted in white supremacy and white nationalism, opened fire in the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque in Christchurch. As the Muslim community gathered to worship. As they prayed. At least 50 people died; many others were wounded. In the words of the New Zealand Herald:
“They are fathers, mothers, grandparents, daughters and sons.
They are refugees, immigrants and New-Zealand born.
They are Kiwis.”[iv]
Around the world, white supremacists distort the message of the Gospel in a effort to justify their heinous and heretical beliefs. The good news of Jesus Christ diametrically opposes any idea of supremacy. The idea that one group of people is supreme in any way violates everything that Jesus taught. It is a sin. Jesus calls us to love. To love God. To love neighbors. To love neighbors who love us. To love neighbors who do not love us. To love neighbors who have many similarities to us. To love neighbors from whom we differ in every imaginable way. Love, not hate, not division, not superiority, not supremacy. Love is the message of the Gospel.
Friday evening, my phone buzzed. Rex and Camilla’s friend Eugene Lloyd had died. Another good man gone.
A heart-wrenching week.
Our passage from Luke shows Jesus lamenting Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”[v]
Jesus goes on to express a desire to gather the city and its people in a protective embrace of love. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”[vi] His lament continues as he acknowledges that will not happen. “You were not willing.”[vii]
Of course, we know the rest of the story. Jesus will proceed to Jerusalem. He will endure betrayal and denial. He will experience torture and execution. And three days later God will raise him from the dead. God’s infinite love will have the final word.
Valerie Kaur is a human rights activist and a member of the Sikh faith who knows something about love. She notes that the shooting in New Zealand transports her back to Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2012, a white supremacist opened fire at the gurdwara – the Sikh place of worship and gathering. The community was preparing their communal meal known as a langar. Kaur writes: “I see the blood of Sikh uncles & aunties in the prayer hall. What helped me breathe then… and now: love. Love as sustained practical care. Love as courage.”[viii]
At the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque, love as both courage and practical care were displayed. The first responders. People on the streets. I saw an interview with a woman who provided care to a wounded man. When told she was a hero, the woman responded. “I am not. I did what needed to be done.” That’s not a bad definition of a hero. It is certainly a definition of love.
Ava Parvin and her husband, Farid, left Bangladesh and settled in New Zealand in 1994. Farid grew ill and had to use a wheelchair. On Friday, as the terrorist aimed at Farid, Ara jumped in front of the bullets. He lived. She died. Love never ends.
Forty years ago, Haji Daoud Nabi fled war in his native Afghanistan and resettled his family in New Zealand. On Friday the 71-year old sat at the back of Al Noor Masjid. And when hate came through the door, Nabi shielded a friend with his body. Haji Nabi died. His friend lives. [ix] Love never ends.
Halfway through the shooting at the Al Noor mosque, Naeem Rashid rushed the shooter. He was killed. But in that instant, with no weapons, just his hands, he tried to stop the horror. [x] And when the shooter arrived at the Linwood Masjid, Abdul Aziz ran at him, throwing a credit card reader and then a gun that had been dropped. As the shooter drove away, Aziz continued to follow the car. Practical. Courageous.[xi] Love never ends.
My phone buzzed again on Thursday. The Session had begun the discussion that would result in the decision to receive an offering to help send Byron Vasquez’s body home. Words from a South African song from the days of apartheid went through my head:
Courage, our friend, you do not walk alone
We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home[xii]
Through our gifts, we will walk with Byron as his body returns to his home. Expressing the love that binds us together in Jesus Christ, we accompany Byron even as he is held in God’s eternal embrace of love.
I asked the Session if could I post about the offering on the church’s Facebook page and on my own Facebook page. I thought a friend or two might contribute.
Several have. Among them Janice Stamper. A Presbyterian minister, she left her church in Alaska to provide care for her aging father in Kentucky. After a lengthy illness, her father died a year ago. We prayed for her and “Ol Pap” as she called him. She sent me a message on Facebook asking how to mail a check. As I teared up, I typed back that this was amazingly kind. Jancie replied, “I sold my father’s truck. I have some money. People helped me bury my father. This is my turn to help someone else.” Love never ends.
In response to one of my first posts about the shooting in Christchurch, a friend wrote: “It’s a wicked world we live in, Mark.”
It’s a wicked world we live in. I have thought about those words ever since. I will probably continue to think about them for a long time to come.
And I don’t agree. I will stand with Louis Armstrong. We live in a wonderful world. God’s creation bears incredible beauty. People can be incredibly kind and loving. We experience tender mercies and moments of grace regularly.
People suffer. People die. People die suddenly and for reasons we may never understand. People die far too young. People die because they have difficulty accessing medical care.
Sin exists in this wonderful world. Evil exists. Wickedness, to use my friend’s word.
People do wicked things. Incredibly wicked things.
Systems and structures are shaped in ways that benefit some people and disadvantage and violate other people.
The world is broken and fearful and frightening.
In this broken, fearful, frightening world where sin, evil, and wickedness are so strong, I have chosen love. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say God’s love has chosen me and in response I choose to love as well as I am able.
“We love because God first loved us.”[xiii] We find those words in the first letter of John. They are the essence of the Biblical narrative. Out of love, God creates. For love, God creates. God makes us to love God and one another and again and again, God invites us to love. And God acts to show us how to love. Jesus lived, died, and has been raised to show God’s love for us and to open us to love.
God embraces us in merciful love that extends to the whole human family. God challenges us to address the issue of “othering” people from whom we differ. Othering is what Byron and so many people experience when they are falsely told they have less value, they do not belong, there is something wrong with them because of where who they are. In the place of such othering, God invites us – demands from us that we see all people as our siblings.
Tommy Sands sings:
Let the circle be wide ‘round the fireside
And we’ll soon make room for you
Let your heart have no fear, there are no strangers here,
Just friends that you never knew[xiv]
Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in more theological language: “God sent the Son and the Spirit to descend into humanity’s darkness and despair, bringing the light of love and hope … As God has embraced us in merciful love, we now warmly embrace the wounded and the excluded in world as a testimony to the merciful love of the Triune God.”[xv]
Or as Robina Winbush wrote in a reflection published on Valentine’s Day, “Love is the essence of God in our midst … [in God’s] love we discover that there is no “other” there is only LOVE manifested and waiting to be known.”[xvi]
In this wonderful, wicked world, love has encountered me, love has grasped me, and I have said yes. As well as I am able, I will love. And in love’s name, I will work to end hate, disrupt white supremacy, and create justice, equity, and peace.
For those who make the choice to love, phones will still buzz. People, friends will die. Wickedness will take place.
Heads will spin. Hearts will ache. Pain and wounds will be endured.
We will be hard pressed. But not broken.
For love never ends.
Love never ends.
Thanks be to God,
Love never ends.
After a brief pause, I issued the following invitation:
Loved by God, we can love one another. We can love at any time. We can love at every time. We can love now. I invite you to greet one another in the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
[iii] I Corinthians 13:6-7
[v] Luke 13:34
[xii] My first experience of this song is the use of these lines in Eric Bogle’s song, “Singing the Spirit Home.” Here is a video of the song being sung – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JidpXcKZits – in an incredibly brave move, I led the congregation in singing the song today
[xiii] I John 4:19
[xv] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Embracing the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). P. 169
At the Presbytery of New York City’s annual commemoration of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held on January 21, 2019 at Eastchester Presbyterian Church, I had the privilege of speaking to the Letter from Birmingham City Jail. These are the words I took into the lectern; they are close to what I said.
November 1962. Birmingham, Alabama.
An election changed the city’s form of government from three elected commissioners to a mayor and city council.
April 2, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama.
In Birmingham’s first mayoral election, Albert Boutwell defeated Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety who had oversight of the fire and police department in a close election. Connor attributed his defeat to the small number of African-American voters who he said voted for his opponent’s more moderate stance.[i] Due to a lawsuit about the change of government, Connor remained as Commissioner of Public Safety until May 1963.
April 3, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama.
Recognizing that a more moderate stance was simply a more refined version of the segregationist policies sustaining the Jim Crow status quo, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began coordinated nonviolent actions against the city’s practices of racial discrimination.[ii] The campaign included sit-ins, marches, boycotts of businesses, and a voter registration drive.[iii]
April 10, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama.
Commissioner Connor obtained an injunction banning nonviolent protests.[iv]
April 12, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama. Good Friday.
After a period of intense discernment, conversation, and prayer, fifty individuals violated the injunction and were arrested. Among them were the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[v]
That same day, eight white clergymen from Alabama published “A Call for Unity” that read in part:
[W]e are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.[vi]
April 12 – 20, 1963. Birmingham City Jail.
The Rev. Dr. King, Jr. was held in the jail. At some point, he saw a newspaper containing “A Call for Unity.” He began to write a response in longhand in the newspaper margins. His wrote on scraps of paper provided by a friendly black trusty. He finished on a pad provided by his attorneys.[vii]
This document which we now know as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail combines social and political analysis with theological insights and a clarion prophetic call to speak to the concerns of the white clergymen and to illustrate that the Birmingham Campaign was just and loving, rooted in faith, wise and timely.
The Rev. Dr. King, Jr. wrote about the interrelatedness the human family. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[viii]
He stated that “waiting for justice” is rooted in white privilege. “I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation … “wait” has almost always meant “never” … I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”[ix]
He addressed the criticism that the campaign involved breaking laws. “‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”[x]
He confessed his disappointment with white moderates who encouraged waiting and moving slowly. He directed specific criticisms at the church. “I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right … I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”[xi] “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”[xii]
The Letter from Birmingham City Jail notes that we are not destined to choose either to accommodate injustice or to resort to violence. There is a third way. The nonviolent way of Jesus. The letter provides a succinct and profound description of the theology and principles of nonviolent resistance.
The Rev. Dr. King, Jr. wrote out of love inviting his readers to join that “long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world”.[xiii] Addressed to eight white clergymen, the vision and the criticisms of the letter speak to the white community and the church in all times.
June 20, 2018. St. Louis, Missouri.
The 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to commend the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” for study as a resource that provides prophetic witness that inspires, challenges, and educates both church and world. The Assembly also voted to begin the process to include the Letter in the Book of Confessions which is part of the constitution of our church.[xiv]
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms multiple creeds and confessions that declare “to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.”[xv] Our creeds and confessions “arose in response to particular circumstances within the history of God’s people. They claim the truth of the Gospel at those points where their authors perceived that truth to be at risk. They are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition. They appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time. They affirm a common faith tradition, while also from time to time standing in tension with each other.”[xvi]
Should the Letter from Birmingham City Jail be added to the Book of Confessions, it would help shape and guide our church. The Letter from Birmingham City Jail would be one of the confessions that we agree will instruct and lead us in our ordination vows.[xvii]
January 21, 2019. The Bronx, New York.
How does this happen? What is the process that the 223rd General Assembly initiated?
We are Presbyterians. It starts with a committee.
The Office of the General Assembly appoints a study committee to consider the proposal. It consists of ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament with representation coming based on synods. That committee is currently being formed. If you would have interest in serving, let me know and I can help you make the appropriate connection.
That committee will report to the next General Assembly which meets in 2020 in Baltimore. That Assembly considers and votes on the committee’s report. If the Assembly votes to include the Letter from Birmingham Jail, it would send a proposed amendment to the presbyteries for a vote. If two-thirds of the presbyteries approve the amendment, then the General Assembly meeting in 2022 in Columbus, Ohio would confirm that action and the letter would be added to the Book of Confessions.
That’s a long process. It’s decent. It’s orderly. And in some ways, it is a form of ecclesiastical waiting.
But church, while we wait for the General Assembly’s action, we do not have to wait to put the words of the Letter from Birmingham Jail into action. The General Assembly has commended the letter to us for study and as a prophetic witness to inspire, challenge, and educate ourselves and the church and the world.
We can use the letter now to become, in a word from the letter, extremists. Extremists like Jesus. And the prophets. And Mrs. Rosa Parks. And the Rev. Dr. King, Jr. And so many others. Extremists for love. Extremists for justice. May it be so. May we be so. Amen.[xviii]
[xv] Book of Order, F-2.01 The Purpose of Confessional Statements
[xvii] Book of Order, W-4.0404c
This playlist was put together quickly as events developed through the day. It is in honor of those who participated in the Women’s March and in honor of Nathan Phillips.
Walking. Morningside Gardens.
Is Everybody Here – Walela
You’re a Brave One – Joanne Shenandoah
Gentle Rebellion – Rebecca Riots
The Art of Survival – Bill Miller
Native North American Child – Buffy Sainte-Marie
Compassion – Magdalen Hsu-Li
No More – Fawn Wood
Flawless – Beyonce
Hawai’i ’78 – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Quiet – MILCK
We Are Here – Sharon Burch
Tell Them We Exist – Luis Cachiguango
Four Women – Nina Simone
Golden Feather – Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
Respect – Aretha Franklin
This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The Declaration, and the commitment of UN Member States to affirm and implement its principles, has resulted in the dignity of people uplifted, untold human suffering prevented and the foundations for a most just world have been laid in the treaty regime built upon the Declaration. It is both an aspirational, visionary document and a set of standards that permeates international law.
The Declaration articulates a vision that has been built upon and used to extend rights and protect people around the globe. In a world where exploitation and violation are so strong, we can be grateful for the many ways in which the Declaration has had an impact. Its successes are many.
At the same time, violations of international law and human dignity are perpetrated in many countries. In a report released on Friday, a team of experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council noted that:
Recent memory is replete with multiple examples of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Impunity reigns supreme in many countries undergoing conflicts or political upheavals, encouraged by narrow national objectives, geopolitics and political impasse at the United Nations Security Council.
The report expressed concern that an “upsurge of nationalism and xenophobia seen in countries of asylum, at a time of rising forced-migration” is “reversing the gains of international humanitarian cooperation of the last 70 years.”
UN News notes that :In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, the UN is urging people everywhere to “Stand Up for Human Rights”.
One way to do that is to choose a place in the world where human rights are abused (including in the United States of America) and become informed. Take one action today that affirms and celebrates the worth and dignity and rights of others.
See you along the Trail.
Some teach in classrooms.
Some teach by how they live.
Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home has provided a gift of the November 2018 Gratitude Every Day calendar. I am using it as an opportuity to revisit photos and post them as they speak to gratitude.