Category Archives: First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Candles, Fireworks, Hope

Romans 8:15-25
Candles, Fireworks, Hope
March 29, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

“In hope we were saved. Now who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

I think a lot about hope these days.

Singer and activist David LaMotte wrote, “These are hard days in so many ways. Much of the time, it seems like the headlines are in competition for the worst news. … Being alive is hard work. Some days, I don’t feel hopeful.”[i]

David wrote those words two years ago. The need to think about hope goes with us always. It presses upon us with urgency in the age of Covid-19.

Be clear. Hope differs from optimism. Dramatically.

Optimism says things will get better; things will work out as we want; things will happen in a way that fits our desires and understandings.

Optimism is important. Envisioning we can do something often plays a critical role in allowing us to succeed.

Hope is not optimism. Writer and politician Vaclav Havel, who resisted the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and worked for a new future for his people said, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit.”[ii]

Hope is the conviction that however things turn out, life will make sense and all will be well even when we cannot imagine that will be. Hope lies beyond our selves, beyond our capacities. Hope lies in God.

Hope can be elusive, difficult to experience. A quick look at world events and the lives of people we love underscores that. Covid-19 highlights this reality in a dramatic fashion.

How then do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? That our lives have meaning and purpose? That we can contribute to a more just, loving, peaceful society?

I don’t know that my thoughts and prayers about finding and nurturing hope have led to any absolute answers to those questions that will work for everyone. I have some ideas to share that help me understand and sustain hope. Perhaps they will prove of use to you.

Hope is relational. I cannot hope on my own. Relationships are key to hope. Hope is like lighting candles in the wind.

I had been in New York for a little over three months when the people of southern Sudan went to the polls in January 2011. The northern and southern parts of the country had engaged in violent conflict since before Sudan achieved independence. A peace had been brokered. The treaty provided that the people of the south could vote to remain part of Sudan or to become their own country.

An interfaith community gathered at the Church Center for the United Nations to pray for the people of Sudan as they voted. After prayer and scripture reading and song in the chapel, we went outside to light candles.

Cold and wind and big, wet snowflakes greeted us on the sidewalk along First Avenue. We lit our candles, but we had to work together to keep them lit. We relit each other’s candles when they went out. We used fingers and song sheets to shield the flames.

Lighting candles in the wind is relational. It takes a community. So does hope.

To hope, I need to be connected to God. I need to pray and read Scripture and worship. To hope, I need to be connected to others.

Hope is relational. It is experienced in the grace of God and in the wonder and love others who hope in me, hope for me, and hope with me.

Hope is surprising. I can open myself to hope. I can nurture hope. I cannot command or control hope.

13669846_1180325505322138_3800535346819562182_nSummer 2016. A Brooklyn Cyclones game with members of First Chinese Presbyterian Church. I have no idea of the score but in the eighth inning the end-of-game fireworks went off. We looked at each other in surprise. From the row behind me and about three seats to my left, Will Tsang said, “Work that into a sermon, Mark.” (The photo is from that night and was taken by Doreen Cheung.)

Check that challenge off the list. Hope, like eighth inning fireworks, is surprising.

If a baseball story isn’t convincing enough, here’s a Bible story.

Luke’s Gospel recounts that on the Sunday after Jesus’ death, two of his followers walked to Emmaus. The death of Jesus had crushed their hope.

As they walked, a third person joined them. They did not recognize the person, but we, who read the story now, realize it was the risen Christ. The story reminds us that Christ comes to us as we travel on the Emmaus roads of life, in hospitals resisting Covid-19, in jails and prisons, in nursing homes, at meal programs and homeless shelters, even in our homes today as we use telephones to worship. Wherever we are.

When they reached Emmaus, the followers of Jesus invited the third person to stay and the evening meal. As their guest, they asked the traveler to say grace.

The traveler. Took bread. Blessed it. Broke it. Gave it to them. They recognized him. Hope was reborn. And Jesus left them.

Hope comes in surprising, mysterious, unexpected ways. The moments do not last forever. Sometimes they do not last for long. But the moments may fill us and bless us and sustain us for living.

Hope may surprise us in a word in a sermon or in the lyrics of a song or in a passage of scripture. Hope may break through when we receive a kind word. Or when a family member or friend acts in an unexpected way; when we receive grace or mercy in the place of vengeance and punishment; when we welcome one another as God’s beloved children.

Hope may sprout when we hear of the consistent, persistent courage of first responders and medical personnel; the grace of the people who bag our groceries and who clean hospitals, medical facilities, and other essential places; the commitment of business owners who care for their employees in hard times.

Hope does not come through individuals who suggest that others should be sacrificed for the good of the economy. Hope most certainly comes—most certainly comes when individuals make sacrifices for one another.

A Minnesota state trooper stops a cardiologist for speeding. Instead of a ticket, the trooper gives the doctor some of his own N95 masks. Hope. In Italy, people step out on their balconies to make music for each other. Hope. People who live near a hospital in Vancouver open their windows to clap for the medical and support personnel at shift changes. Hope.

Because God, through Jesus, is the source of hope, we live in hope. We live in hope even when life is painful and challenging and horrifying. Hope is an act of resistance and resurrection. Hope says – let the worst happen, God is not done. God who creates and loves us; God who raises Jesus from death to life; God who pours the Holy Spirit out upon us; God will have the final word. And it will be a word of life and love and grace and hope.

“In hope we were saved. Now who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”


I have been thinking a lot about hope lately.

Like lighting candles in the wind, hope is relational.

Like baseball fireworks before the game ends, hope is surprising.

And rooted in God, hope is real.

Thanks be to God.




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We Are the Church

I Corinthians 12:12-27
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
22 March 2018
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

We’ve never done it that way before. We’ve never done it that way before.

A minister comes to a new call direct from seminary with a fresh vision and untried ideas. A minister comes to a new call after years of experience in other have tested and reshaped vision and possibilities.

A Session meeting happens. With enthusiasm and handouts and video clips, the minister proposes a new program or a new way of doing ministry.

The people listen respectfully. The minister finishes. And silence ensues.

After what seems like an eternity, but is only 12.8 seconds, someone says, “Yeah … that’s interesting. We’ve never done it that way before.” And there the idea ends.

Today we worship in a way that at least I have never done before. As are congregations across the country and around the world we are finding new ways to live as church in the age of Covid-19. Ways we have never done before.

On this first day we worship apart, it seems essential to me to affirm that we are the church. On this day and on all the days ahead with whatever they may bring, we are the church.

As Paul reminded the followers of Jesus in Corinth, the church is first and foremost the Body of Christ. The people who have come to faith in Jesus and are bound together in his love and by God’s grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

When we are together, we are the Body of Christ. When we are apart, we are the Body of Christ. Everyone on this phone call. Everyone we can call to mind—in other parts of the country or around the world. People we have never met and will never know. All are part of the Body of Christ. All are the church.

We are the church. Things have changed in this age of Covid-19. It is odd to preach looking at a phone instead of people. Other changes may occur in the days ahead. We don’t know.

But we know we are the church.

We are the church. We love God. We gather to worship by conference call. We will continue to explore ways to worship. We pray. I am sending a daily email with some form of prayer or spiritual nurture. Let me know if you are not receiving that. Pray in other ways. Read Scripture. Meditate. Sing. Sing as if no one is listening, goes an old saying. We can do that now. Find whatever ways keep you connected to God.

We are the church. We love neighbors. For those who can stay home, we love our neighbors by sitting on our couch. For those who have to go out, we show our love in the steps we take to show love and protect ourselves and others. For all of us, love is shown when we wash our hands and cover our mouths.

As we physically distance ourselves from one another, it is crucial that we socially connect. My friends Stephen and Laura learned of a family struggling to make ends meet. They shared the concern anonymously on Facebook and raised over $700 in small gifts. Susan is sewing face masks for a friend who is a nurse. We are going to ramp up our Flock program this week with Deacons and Elders checking on congregation members.

We can connect with family and friends. Call. Text. Send a card. I have four friends who are now working at home and caring for children. They feel a tad overwhelmed. I send them a simple text each week—no great solutions, just a  reminder that I am thinking of them. Facebook has issues but it is a way to remain in touch with each other and a broader community. Rex is willing to help you if you want to learn more about using Facebook. If we are financially able, we might consider buying a gift certificate at one of our favorite restaurants.

We can advocate for governments to respond to hateful, racist acts against Asian Americans. We can call the federal government to ensure that relief measures benefit people in need as well as corporations. We can prepare for the conversations that will be needed as our country recovers and restructures when the age of Covid-19 ends.

Keep looking for random acts of kindness and organized acts of justice that keep us socially connected while we physically distance ourselves.

We are the church. We love ourselves. We take care of ourselves. We ask for and accept help when we need it. If you need help, contact me or another member and we will do what we can. During the PAUSE as our governor calls us, learm something new. Practice a hobby. Laugh. Cry when tears are needed. Grieve when grief comes. Exercise. That gets tough. It’s 30 steps for a lap across and back my apartment. That’s 333 steps to get to 10,000. When I told my friend and trainer Nicole, she said: this is a perfect time to finally do those stretches I taught you. Eat well. Take a nap. Forgive someone. Forgive yourself. Give thanks to God daily.

We are the church. Much has changed. More will change. But we are the church.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo, the hobbit, reflects on the challenges facing the community as he talks to Gandalf the wizard.

“I wish this need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I certainly wish Covid-19 had not happened. I wish it had not happened in my time. But it has. It is. This is the time we have been given.

We decide what we do with this time. But we do not decide alone. Wherever we are and however we gather as the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, we are the Body of Christ, bound together with followers of Jesus around the world. Jesus is with us. We are the church. Thanks be to God. Amen.



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Of needs and sharing

We thank you God for your love,
your love that accompanies us even in hard times.
We thank you for those moments of grace
when we experienced the sharing of your good gifts,
and for those moments of grace
when we shared what you had given to us.
In the living of these days,
grant us the wisdom to seek help
when we stand in any form of need;
inspire us to act in love when
you have given us something to share when
our family, our friends, our neighbors stand in need.
We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Light a candle

Light a candle. It may be real. It may be imaginary.
When the candle is lit, pray the following prayer:

God, I open myself to your grace.
May this candle remind me
of your abiding presence
in this place and in all places;
may this candle remind me
of Christ’s unfailing love
for me and for all people;
may this candle remind me
of the Holy Spirit’s sustaining love
in this and all circumstances.

Lift up to God the challenges and problems you face. Ask God for what you need.
Give thanks to God for the good things in your life.

Please pray for those involved in education: teachers, aides, librarians, custodians, bus drivers, security personnel, students, parents, family–everyone involved in education. May God provide them strength and grace at this challenging time.

Please pray for Silvia and the family and friends of Silvia’s son who died recently. May God comfort them as they walk death’s shadowed valley.

Sit with the candle as long as you would like. Then, with a breath of kindness, blow it out.

Written by W. Mark Koenig

Check out this video resource for these days. Rest assured the video quality will get better as I work with it more. 


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A prayer attributed to St. Patrick

Today’s prayer is traditionally attributed to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland and a number of other places, including the Archdiocese of New York.

May the strength of God pilot us.
May the power of God preserve us.
May the wisdom of God instruct us.
May the hand of God protect us.
May the way of God direct us.
May the shield of God defend us.
May the host of God guard us
against the snares of evil
and the temptations of the world.

May Christ be with us,
Christ before us,
Christ in us,
Christ over us.
May thy Salvation, O Lord, be always ours
this day and for evermore. Amen.

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What’s Our Thing?


What’s Our Thing?
John 4:4-30
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
15 March 2020
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

I don’t know about you, but I have learned, or relearned, a great deal so far during this age of Covid-19 in the United States.

          I have learned, or relearned, about superheroes. They don’t all wear tights and capes.

A portrait of the author as superhero. No tights were involved

Superheroes wear medical gear. Nurses, doctors, technicians, researchers, medical care providers of all sorts.

          Superheroes wear work clothes. Janitors. Custodians. Cleaning services. Carry bottles of disinfectant and sanitizer. Clean our public places. Clean our streets. Check out our groceries. Deliver meals. Deliver packages.

          Superheroes wear uniforms. EMTs. Police. Firefighters. First responders of all shapes and size. Those who serve in our military.

          The people – all the people – who often labor in obscurity in ways I cannot remember or imagine or name this morning to make life better, fuller, more whole for us – they are the superheroes. They are your neighbors, whether you know their names or nor. They are your family. They are seated around you. They are you.

          I have learned, or relearned, about systems.

          We need a health care system that allows all people access.

          We need a public health system that can respond quickly, nimbly, creatively in moments of crisis and protects us all.

          We need an employment system that provides medical leave for all people and assists hard working people who fall on hard times.

          We need a housing system that provides a safe place for all people. That system must protect people who may receive abuse instead of love in their homes.

          We need a criminal justice system that protects the public at large but also respects the dignity and protects the lives of offenders.

          We need an economic system so structured that elected officials have no concern that closing schools will result in children going hungry. An economic system that responds to the needs of people more quickly than it responds to the corporations.

          I have learned, or relearned, about accepting responsibility.

          At 7:09 pm on April 12, 1945, the owner of a failed haberdashery from Independence, Missouri, who had only a high school education, was sworn in as President of the United States. On his desk, he placed a sign that read, “The buck stops here.” And while Harry S. Truman served as president the buck did stop there.

          I have learned, or relearned, that while none of us can do everything, all of us can do something.

          Zion Williamson is 19 years old. He plays basketball for the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA. He makes more in one month from salary and endorsements than most people will earn in a lifetime. The NBA suspended the season on Wednesday. On Friday, Zion Williamson announced he would pay the salary of every Smoothie King Center employee – that’s where the Pelicans play – he would pay their salary for the next 30 days. Other players and teams have made similar gestures–both basketball teams and hockey teams. My son Eric’s favorite player – Kevin Love appears to have been the first – “Love” – how about that for fulfilling your name. Still one thing sets Zion Williamson apart. He is 19 years old.

          My guess is that none of us here make $10 million dollars a year. None of us has a list of endorsements longer than today’s bulletin. None of us own a sports team.

          But all of us can do something.

          My friend from high school, Nancy, suggests we make care packages for the 90-year-olds who live in our neighborhoods. Toilet paper. Lysol. Hand sanitizer. Leave it anonymously. If we are caught, Nancy suggests that the appropriate response is “Please let me know if you need anything else.”

          Yzette, who I work with at the presbytery, has posted an offer on Facebook. Anyone who needs anything for their children can contact her and she will do whatever she can to help.

          Phil and Samson eat in Chinatown on a regular basis to support the restaurants and their employees. (Note: this was written before it was announced that restaurants would close except for deliveries and take-outs as of Tuesday, March 17).

          The First Presbyterian Church of Hastings, Nebraska has initiated a “meal ministry.” People are invited to double the recipe when they make a meal Half they eat. Half goes into the freezer. Appropriately packaged. When they hear of someone who has fallen ill, or someone who is homebound due to a quarantine or fear of going out, they deliver it to them. They are encouraged to include a note and a prayer with each meal they deliver.

          In the moments before this service began, the Deacons of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone voted to make a gift to support the work of City Harvest to rescue food to share with people who know hunger in New York.

          None of us can do everything. Each of us can do something.

          We see that in our Gospel reading from John.

          A woman. A Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at a well.

          At a time when men did not interact with women. Especially with no one else present. At a time when tensions tangled relationships between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus talks with her. Jesus talks with her.

          They talk about her life. Jesus knows everything. And there is a lot to know.

          They talk about living water. About life. Abundant, eternal, whole life.

          The woman is transfixed. The woman is transformed.

          And she knows the blessings that Jesus bestows are not just for her. They must be shared. She returns to her city to tell her friends, to tell anyone who would listen, to come and see Jesus.

          None of us can do everything. Each of us can do something. And that was the Samaritan woman’s thing. She had an experience of such power and wonder and grace that she simply had to share. To tell people about Jesus. To encourage people to meet Jesus.

          Some in her city came to believe because of her testimony about Jesus. More came to believe when they made the trek to the well and met him for themselves.

          None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something.

          As we live in this age of Covid-19, the challenge, the opportunity, the invitation we face, as individuals and as the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone is to ponder the question, “What’s our thing?” And when our discernment leads us to clarity, then we are called to act – and to do the something God calls us to do. By the grace of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the company of Jesus and all the saints, may we so live.

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Prayer 1

God of the ages,

grant us patience, courage, and grace;

grant us faith, hope, and love;

grant us all we need

for the living of our days

in the age of Covid-19.


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