Category Archives: First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Breath, Fire, Witness

101362404_10157797057209440_9130668230082297856_nPentecost.

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

Chaos and excitement.

The birth of the church.

Through the years, Pentecost worship services sought to capture the excitement of the day.

Red paraments. Red stoles. Red clothes.

One year each person at worship received a roll of crepe paper—red, yellow or orange. At the appropriate moment, they tossed their roll into the air creating a cascade of fire colors.

Another year we stationed large fans in the sanctuary corners. Turned on when the scripture reading mentioned wind. Some ideas work better than others.

Worshipers were given homemade pompoms with the instructions to wave them whenever the preacher said, “Holy Spirit.” Pinwheels played the same role one year.

A djembe drummer began a slow, soft cadence at the beginning of the scripture reading. The drumming increased in volume and became wildly uninhibited as the story continued reaching a climax when the crowd said in the followers of Jesus were drunk.

Every Pentecost service differed slightly from every other. Every Pentecost service contained similar themes.

Today’s Pentecost service is the most different Pentecost service I have experienced. But those themes remain.

Breath.

Fire.

Witness.

The Greek word “pneuma” that is used in the Pentecost story is related to the Hebrew word “ruah”. In each language, the word is closely linked to wind, spirit, and breath.[i]

Let’s think in terms of breath today.

Breath keeps us alive. Indeed, it gives us life. According to the account of creation found in Genesis 2, God formed the human creature from the dust of the ground. And then God breathed life into the creature.[ii]

Breath gives life. Sustains life. Provides life. It is a reflex process, one of our most natural abilities.[iii] Until it is not. The age of COVID-19 has taught us that.

As the Rev. Angela Denker of Minneapolis notes, “People who die of Covid often die because they can’t breathe, the virus engulfing their lungs and suffocating them. Sometimes a machine breathes for them, for long enough that their lungs can heal and gather strength again.”[iv]

When we go out, we wear masks. They provide a measure of protection to the people we meet in the event we have coronavirus either with or without symptoms. They also offer a smaller measure of protection to us, the person wearing the mask.[v] As we breathe in and even more so as we breathe out, the mask reduces the number of air droplets that may contain germs.

Last Monday we received another startling, sobering reminder of the importance of breath.

“I can’t breathe.”

The Washington Post reports that “On May 25, Minneapolis resident George Floyd was pinned facedown on the ground, in handcuffs, by a white police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. He was unresponsive when paramedics arrived, and he was pronounced dead later.”[vi]

Under that knee, bearing the full weight of white supremacy culture, racism, and prejudice George Floyd died. Among his final words, “I can’t breathe.” The same words uttered by Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold on Staten Island almost six years ago in an encounter that was also captured on video.[vii]

The racism that claimed the lives of George Floyd and Eric Garner; the racism that that threatened the life of Christian Cooper in the Bramble and claimed the lives of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia and Tony McDade in Tallahassee and so many other black and brown people in so many places; that racism has been present in this country since its beginning. Racism has always contaminated the air we breathe. Writing from Minneapolis a few days ago, Angela Denker notes that we cannot ignore the “death in the air any longer. It burns bright orange.”[viii]

Fire.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, people took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd. In Louisville, people took to the streets to protest the killing of Breonna Taylor. In New York and cities across the country, people took to the streets to stand in solidarity, to protest other killings, and to protest the existing impacts of racism on black people and people of color. Those impacts are seen in who is imprisoned; who has more wealth; who has better jobs. Efforts to make it more difficult to vote appear to focus on black people and other people of color.[ix] Racism appears in the age of COVID-19. Blacks and Latinx/Hispanics die in disproportionate numbers of the disease. People who continue to work during the pandemic, often in less safe conditions, are black and brown. “African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer,” states Kareem Abdul-Jabar.[x]

This underlying reality, when combined with over acts of violence, leads people to protest. Most protest is peaceful. Some is not. Some is met with overt  violence by police. Sometimes agent provocateurs incite and commit violence to discredit the legitimate protest or for other reasons.[xi] Sometimes all that happens at the same time. And sometimes it leads to fire. In Minneapolis. Louisville. New York. Philadelphia.

Angry fire, purifying fire, destructive fire. Different, on first glance, from the holy fire that brought understanding and unification on Pentecost. Yet the hope remains that God, who raised Jesus from the dead, can take flames of death and transform fire into new life and hope for the future. Phoenix-like, from the flames and ash, by God’s grace, new life may emerge.[xii] God does new things. We have witnessed resurrection before. We will witness God’s marvelous acts again.

Witness.

Jesus commissions his followers to be witnesses.[xiii] To bear witness to what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ.

Witness, Dr. Eric Barreto of Princeton Seminary, reminds us is not just about our words or even our tweets.[xiv] Dr. Barreto notes that the kind of witness Jesus calls for involves seeing and listening. Witness trusts the testimony of people who have been oppressed, even when there is no video to view. Witness believes people who have been harmed.[xv]

Witness holds the hand and looks into the eyes of someone who is dying, not as a spectator, but as people whose lives are intertwined. Witness also leads us to stand with people who are oppressed.

Witness marches on the streets. Votes with love. And advocates with those who are elected.

As followers of Jesus, we bear witness to an innocent man crucified by the empire. It seems important this week to remember that crucifixion killed by putting the weight of the body on the person’s chest so that the person … Jesus … could not breathe.[xvi]

After the wind. After the fire. The followers of Jesus witnessed. They told the crowd in Jerusalem what they had seen and heard and learned with Jesus. Luke included that long list of peoples and places in this passage for a reason. And it was not to make life difficult for Eric or whoever reads the lesson aloud. It to say that the Holy Spirit is for all the world. For everyone. As Dr. Shively Smith of the Boston University School of Theology, puts it: on Pentecost all “nations heard the gospel preached in all the many languages that … reflect the glory of the God who created and sustains them all.[xvii]

Pentecost reminds us that the God who created the world inhabits the breath and speech of all our siblings throughout the entire earth. God creates a wondrous diversity in the human family. God revels in that diversity. God is present in that diversity. And God is present when diverse people who love and care for each other.

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit … God’s breath and fire … that reminds us that it is only together with all people that we truly express the image of God. We receive inspiration to witness to that image in our words and in our actions.

If Pentecost reminds us of God’s love for diversity and the value of all people then on Pentecost and every day after, followers of Jesus must denounce racism and white supremacy culture and the actions that it empowers. We must listen and learn. And then witness in word and deed to a different world, a world where all are welcome, loved, and cherished. And when we have done that, we must do so again. And again. And again.

The effort to disrupt racism and white supremacy culture and dismantle systems of oppression is not something we do once and check off a box. It is a calling for a lifetime. It is our calling. For that calling, God gives us the Holy Spirit with its many gifts. Touched by the Holy Spirit, we can be persistent, resilient, and adaptive.

This day, and every day.

In the face of systemic evil, the Holy Spirit empowers us to follow Jesus and work to build a different world. I know I will make mistakes in that work. I will fall short. But I know that each time I fall I can pick myself up again, certain that God will have the final word and it will be a word of grace.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/pentecost

[ii] Genesis 2:7

[iii] Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, Christian Theological Seminary, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

[iv] Rev. Angela Denker, Minnesota Pastor and Veteran Journalist, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

[v] https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2020/03/coronavirus-face-masks.php

[vi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/30/video-timeline-george-floyd-death/?arc404=true

[vii] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/nyregion/eric-garner-police-chokehold-staten-island.html

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/

[x] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-30/dont-understand-the-protests-what-youre-seeing-is-people-pushed-to-the-edge

[xi] https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/pkyb9b/far-right-extremists-are-hoping-to-turn-the-george-floyd-protests-into-a-new-civil-war

[xii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(mythology)

[xiii] See Acts1:8

[xiv] Dr. Eric Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament, Princeton Theological Seminary, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/apr/08/thisweekssciencequestions#maincontent

[xvii] Dr. Shively T. J. Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Boston University School of Theology, https://churchanew.org/blog/2020/05/29/various

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Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive.

98350027_2933499853406610_1310349137090183168_oActs 1:1-11
May 24, 2020
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
(Image by the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow)

Whatever else they were, the early followers of Jesus were a persistent, resilient, adaptive group of people.

Yes, they failed to understand what Jesus taught them. They made mistakes. They fell short. Often. At the end, Judas betrayed Jesus. The other men fled when he was arrested.

Then there was Peter. No follower demonstrates their shortcomings as clearly as Peter.

When Jesus taught his disciples that he would suffer and die, Peter “took Jesus aside” and objected to the teaching. This may have been a set-up. Because the gospel says that when Jesus replied, he looked first at his disciples and then rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan.”[i]  I don’t know about you, but I would have something of a problem following someone who called me Satan. Peter hung with Jesus.

John’s Gospel tells us that there was something of an awkward moment when Jesus went to wash the disciples’ feet at the meal we call the Last Supper. Peter said no. Jesus explained why. Peter said wash my hands and head too. Jesus explained why not. Twice in one conversation, Peter got it wrong.[ii]

He did so again when Jesus talked about his coming death. “I’ll lay down my life for you,” Peter said. Jesus answered, “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”[iii] After Jesus’ arrest, Peter did exactly as Jesus predicted.

At the arrest of Jesus, A disciples took out a sword and started hacking away. All three gospels include this story. John names the disciple. Peter. A noble gesture to protect Jesus. But misguided. “Put away the sword,” the nonviolent Jesus said.[iv]

But, for all the times that Peter fell short, and for all the times that the others fell short, I still say those first disciples were persistent, resilient, and adaptive.

Consider all they went through as they followed Jesus.

They left their families behind. Not always easy to do.

They left their homes and employment. I do not know how much a fisherperson earned in the time of Jesus, but it had to be more than one could earn following an itinerant preacher and teacher with no place to lay his head.[v]

Jesus expanded their understanding of who God loved. To the Jewish people, Jesus added: Samaritans, Gentiles, Romans, Syrophoenicians, women, children, people with illnesses that normally put them outside the community, and everyone. Each act of kindness and healing and welcome on the part of Jesus meant his followers had to draw love’s circle wider and wider until it disappeared, and they realized that each person is a beloved child of God.

The length of Jesus’ ministry is not precisely known. Many scholars suggest between 3 and 3.5 years.[vi] Others think it was shorter. However long, his disciples spent most of that time with Jesus.

Then  came the arrest and crucifixion. And Jesus was gone. His disciples left alone. They struggled with what to do.

Three days later, the resurrected Jesus appeared to them again. After some confusion, they rejoiced.

Then came the Ascension. The return of Jesus to heaven. The events described in today’s passage. As did many of the people of the day, his disciples still had political expectations of him. They still thought he would establish an earthly kingdom, so they asked if he would do that now. Jesus responded that that was not for them to know. God controls the time.[vii]

Jesus then promised the Holy Spirit.[viii] I invite you to join us next Sunday at the same Zoom time and the same Zoom channel to learn, or hear again, what became of that promise.

For now, consider all the disciples experienced.

They left much behind to follow Jesus.

Life on the road.

Prejudice breaking, mind expanding teachings.

Jesus with them.

Jesus arrested and put to death in a state-sanctioned execution. Not with them.

Jesus resurrected. With them.

Jesus ascended. Not with them.

They lived a whirlwind life following Jesus. And for the record it that whirlwind would continue as they continued to follow.

Through it all, they were persistent, resilient, and adaptive. Persistent. They stayed the course. Resilient. They recovered from difficult events kept on going. Adaptive. They changed again and again and again.

Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. These are not named in the Bible as either the fruits or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I believe they are both. Because without them, the movement that started with those first followers of Jesus could never have grown to be the church that it is today.

This weekend, one of the conversations in our nation has been about opening churches and other house of worship. But to talk about opening churches is to address the wrong question.

Buildings played, play, and will play an important role in the life of the church through the ages. But the Church is the people—people who have committed to follow Jesus and covenanted to do so together.

I was confirmed as a member and ordained as a minister of the Word and Sacrament inside the physical facility known as East Main Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania. But that building has undergone many renovations and additions, as I noticed when I returned three years ago for my mother’s memorial service.

As it is and as I remember it, it holds a warm spot in my heart. But far warmer are the spots filled with people – Rev. Gordon Boak, Rev. Jack Dunlap, Nancy Paxton, Polly Beech, Becky May, the list goes on and on. Because the Church … the Church is the people. People who have committed to follow Jesus Christ and who have covenanted to follow together.

A church is not closed because the doors to its building are temporarily shut.

A church is not closed because the people have made the difficult choice to provide sacred distance and care for its members and community—particularly the most vulnerable people in its community—by not meeting in person for a season.

A church only closes when its people fail to love. Only closes when its people stop proclaiming the word. Only closes when its people no longer reach out to one another and the community and the world.

Churches have not closed. The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has not closed. We do not need to open or even reopen the church because we never closed the church. We and many others closed church buildings. And when the time is right and the risk can be minimized, we and congregations and mosques and synagogues and other houses of worship will return to our buildings.

Until then, we will be persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. The first followers of Jesus did this. And the Church of Jesus Christ has done this since the day of Pentecost. Teaser alert: tune in next week, same Zoom time, same Zoom channel to learn more about that day.

The Roman Christians of the third century who from time to time worshiped underground in the catacombs would be stunned to take part in a Zoom worship service.[ix] But after a while, and after they learned English, they would figure out that gathered around devices the likes of which they never imagined, we are worshiping Jesus.

Despite all the movies I have watched, I really have no idea what it would have been like to worship in a massive cathedral during the middle ages. I have no desire to invent a time machine and go back and find out. I do not want to study Latin for one thing. But if I did, I would learn what to do and see the connections.

Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive. That is the story of the Church. That is the story of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone.

Presbyterians have gathered for almost 149 years on the corner of 15th and 149th. The building has changed over the years. I first saw our building about 10 years ago. Fellman Hall and the lift were not there. Programs changed over the years. But the essence of the Church has remained the same. The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has always consisted and consists today of followers of Jesus Christ who have proclaimed the Good News of God’s grace and witnessed to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

After almost 149 years, we worship on Zoom Church.

We share the Lord’s Supper.

We sing. That is a challenge for us and for everyone using Zoom, but we have figured out a way to make it work.

We pray for each other and for needs in God’s world.

When one hurts, we all hurt. When one rejoices, we all give thanks to God.

We celebrate birthdays.

We study.

We have learned a new way to reach out to neighbors who hunger.

We have received the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering to support caring ministries in our nation and around the world.

We have trained officers. We will ordain and install them next Sunday.

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone is open, serving God, and following Jesus.

We are Christ’s Church:

Persistent.

Resilient.

Adaptive.

And one last time, I invite you to join us next week at the same Zoom time, the same Zoom channel to hear about the Holy Spirit who gives us those gifts. Amen.

[i] Mark 8:31-33

[ii] John 13:1-17

[iii] John 13:36-38

[iv] John 18:11

[v] Luke 9:58

[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Jesus

[vii] Acts 1:6-7

[viii] Acts 1:8

[ix] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/catacombs.html

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Never Left Alone

John 14:15-21
17 May 2020
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig 

I have heard many sermons about love over the years. I have preached many sermons about love over the years. You have heard some of them. Today you will here one more.

Working on this sermon, I received some insight into why that happens. Statistics. Courtesy of Jaime Clark-Soles. Writing in the Feasting on the Gospels commentary, he notes that John’s Gospel uses verb forms of the word love fifty times, Matthew thirteen times, Mark six, and Luke fifteen. Nouns for love appear thirteen times in John, Matthew two times, and Luke sixteen.[i]

That totals 115 times. And that’s only in the Gospels. The Bible has 62 more books.[ii] To quote Fats Domino that’s a “Whole Lot of Lovin’”[iii]

In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus returns to love. John wrote these words some time after Jesus had returned to heaven. Perhaps as many as fifty years had passed. It is unlikely that anyone for whom John wrote had ever met Jesus. Most of the first followers of Jesus had died. The Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair notes that John’s “words of living hope” were addressed to “a community for whom Jesus was a holy memory.”[iv]

This morning we return to the upper room with Jesus and the disciples. He washed their feet. They shared a meal. And Jesus gave them a new commandment to love one another.[v]

After Judas left to betray Jesus. After Peter promised to lay down his life for Jesus. After Jesus replied Jesus that Peter would deny him. Three times. Before the morning came. After all that, Jesus returned to love.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

Straightforward. Clear. Concrete. Leaves little doubt about what people  should do. But difficult. Complicated. Challenging. Even for us as individuals.

We often love. We celebrate a special man’s special day. We feed those who hunger. We say the kind word. We offer a shoulder to cry on. We write a letter to an elected official for justice.

But I join the Rev. Jill Duffield in confessing that when I look at the world, I do not always see a whole lot of lovin’ going on. The cross on which Jesus died provides the prime example that sometimes, love is met with violence. White supremacy and patriarchy are woven into the fabric of our society and deny equity to many people. COVID-19’s toll grows. The pandemic impacts nearly every aspect of life in almost every place. Rev. Duffield observes that we have reached the point that using, or not using face masks proves divisive.[vi]

Like those first disciples, we sometimes fail to act in love. Even the most loving relationships know challenges—particularly when we quarantine together as the days blur together. It is not easy. The age of COVID-19 has led to an increase in domestic violence around the world.[vii]

But the challenges do not need to rise to that level. A friend told me yesterday, “We all get grumpy from time to time. We have been short on patience with one another.” There are five members of his family. “It’s tough staying home and not being able to go anywhere.”

That happens to those of us who live alone too. I got somewhat testy on a Zoom meeting on Thursday. I raised my voice. Said some unkind things. Turned off Zoom and left the meeting. Fortunately, the problem was that the sound on my computer was not working. No one heard me. I stood up. Made another cup of coffee. Figured out a workaround and joined the meeting again.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

I know I can’t live up to that all the time. I suspect I am not alone in feeling that way. I suspect his first disciples did. Love does not always lead to love. Again and again, they failed to understand what Jesus said. Again and again, they made mistakes. We do the same.

In our passage for today, Jesus addresses the challenge of living up to the commandment to love. He tells us that God will provide resources so his people can live faithfully.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. The Spirit of truth abides with you and will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

Jesus says that while he would no longer be seen teaching and healing, but his ministry and witness would continue. In his followers. In us. As difficult as it may be, when we love – Jesus will be revealed to the world.

And Jesus says we do not attempt to love in response to Jesus unaided. We are not abandoned. We are not orphaned. We are never left alone. God sends the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to bind us together in Christ. It is together that we can best love. It is together that we most nearly follow Jesus.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair notes that a principle of mountain climbing helps illustrate this point. I have hiked up and down a couple of mountains following well-marked trails. In high school, I climbed Baldy Mountain in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts–over 12,000 feet up and down. I had more hair then. My whole family trudged down Mount Washington in New Hampshire one summer our sons were younger.

Both those experiences and any other close encounters I have had with mountains involved putting one foot in front of the other and staying on the trail. No equipment needed.

The Rev. Dr. Blair points out that on larger mountains and expeditions, climbers tie themselves to one another. They do so to keep from getting lost or from walking over a cliff. Climbers further say that when they are tied together – and when the going gets tough – and one of the climbers is tempted to say, “I have had enough,” they know they are physically connected. The rope commits them to one another. No individual can turn around and go home. On they go, step by step by step, carefully, surely, climbing up or climbing down together. [iv]

As we try to follow Jesus, we may have challenges loving. We may want to give up. Throw up our hands, say some words we don’t want any others to hear, and quit. Jesus knew this well.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.” We are made one by the Holy Spirit. One in the Spirit, we can trust in one who is greater than we can understand, to keep us moving on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd, to strengthen us when loving seems difficult.

We are God’s beloved children, in whom God delights. Jesus says if we love him, we will keep his commandments. We are never left alone; the Holy Spirit binds us to Jesus and to one another. One in the Spirit, one in the Lord, we can walk with each other. Sometimes hand in hand and sometimes six feet apart. We can work with each other. Sometimes side by side and sometimes at an appropriate physical distance. However we walk; wherever we work, the world will know we are Christians by our love.[ix] This day and every day. Amen.

[i] Jarvis, Cynthia A.; Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Feasting on the Gospels–John, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 5172-5176). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/bible/

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_Lotta_Lovin%27_(Fats_Domino_song)

[iv] https://secondpresby.org/sermons/never-orphaned-never-alone/

[v] John 13:35

[vi] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/05/6th-sunday-of-easter-may-17-2020/

[vii] https://chescocf.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Domestic-Abuse-Rises-Worldwide-New-York-Times.pdf

[viii] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/05/6th-sunday-of-easter-may-17-2020/

[ix] Peter Scholtes, “We Are One in the Spirit”, No. 300 in the Glory to God hymnal

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A prayer about being freed to love

God of our joyous laughter,
God of our ugly cries,
God of moments between and beyond,
we give you thanks that
Christ is risen.
And Christ reminds us of your love.
You love us.
You love us and nothing can change that.
By your grace in Jesus
We are freed to love:
to love you,
to love our family,
to love our friends,
to love our neighbors,
to love our enemies,
to love all people,
even to love ourselves.
When we are OK,
when we are not OK,
when we are between and beyond,
help us live in love
as you love us.
Amen

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Freed to Love

John 20:19-31
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

After the empty tomb; after the encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden; the followers of Jesus gathered behind locked doors. They were afraid. Afraid without Jesus. Afraid of arrest. Afraid of death. Maybe even afraid of life:  afraid of what Jesus might ask of them if Jesus really were resurrected.

It seems appropriate to note that the disciples physically distanced themselves from the people gathered in Jerusalem. They met the qualification of not meeting in groups bigger than 10. Judas had left after the betrayal. And Thomas. Well Thomas was not there. Perhaps they could not score an InstaCamel or DonkeyPod delivery and he was out foraging. Perhaps he was grieving in his own way. We are not told. All we know is Thomas was not there.

Behind the locked door and beyond the fear, Jesus appears to them.  He gives them his peace. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them. He sends them into the world with work to do. It’s like group CPR.

The resurrection is for the purpose of re-creation after death, and re-creation before death. The resurrection is about the life to come. It is about this life. The resurrection of Jesus leads to the resurrection of his followers – the creation of the Church – so that through the power and ministry of our life together, the people of Jesus might become God’s continuing presence in the world.

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, and the stage is set . . . the disciples are ready to go . . . it is a new beginning in the great adventure of life in faith . . . except someone is missing. Thomas is not there. Jesus must come back and pick him up.  For no one can be forgotten. No one can be left out. The new life is for the people of Jesus . . . all the people.

Jesus returns when Thomas is present. Jesus displays his wounds. And Thomas believes. “My Lord and my God!” The words of Thomas serve as the basic affirmation of faith for followers of Jesus. And they serve as the basis for every formal affirmation that has followed.

This year, this passage resonates with me in ways it has never done before. Our lives parallel that of the disciples. Life after the execution of Jesus was not OK for first disciples. Life today is not OK for me. I venture it is not OK for you.

We grieve. Death. Dashed dreams. Lost hopes. Unmet expectations fill our individual hearts and our collective consciousness.[i] The other day, a friend responded to my “How are you” text with: “I had a long, ugly cry today.” I replied that one of my favorite songs features Rosey Grier, a gentle giant, former Pro Bowl defensive lineman singing, “It’s Alight to Cry.”[ii] We grieve.

We shelter in place. We pause. Out of a need to protect others and ourselves, we establish and maintain physical distances. We isolate and separate.

We fear. Writing in The Presbyterian Outlook, the Rev. Jill Duffield notes, “Our fear is utterly understandable. The death toll of this virus mounts. The extent of the economic fallout is yet to be determined, but we know it is, and will continue to be, huge. We’ve seen the suffering, the wounds inflicted, the crucifixion completed. No wonder we shelter in place in anxiety, with no sense of when the world will take a turn for the better.”[iii]

The similarities are striking. Psychologically, emotionally, even physically, we share  great deal with the first disciples. That’s where the Good News of this story finds us.

Christ the Lord is risen today. The gifts he brought his first followers behind locked doors, he brings to us.

The Rev. Duffield names those gifts. The Holy Spirit to inspire us. Hope in the face of fear. Peace amid chaos. Belief in life no matter how deadly the circumstances.[iv] A ministry and a mission.

And that brings us to Kelly Clarkson. I had to look her up. She won the first season of American Idol in 2002. I did not know that because I have never watched an episode of the show in all the years it has been on the air. Her victory led to a recording contract and launched her career as a singer-songwriter, actress, author, and television personality.[v] You may know more. I have told you everything I know.

Except. My friend So Jung Kim posted the news that Kelly Clarkson released a new song this week. “I Dare You.” She released six versions of the song in six different languages. Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and English.[vi]

Clarkson says the song is “about love and all its forms, in the face of adversity. Choosing to love instead of fear.”[vii] She believes that message will connect globally at this moment in time.[viii]

In English, the chorus says:

I dare you to love
Oh, I dare you to love
Even if you’re hurt and you can only see the worst
Even if you think it’s not enough
Oh, I dare you to love.[ix]

I believe that when the Risen Christ entered that locked room to meet the ten and then the eleven, he provided his followers what they – what we – need to take that dare.

In their fear, in the chaos, in their anxiety, the Risen Christ gave his followers the gifts they needed to love one another, to love neighbors, to love themselves, as God in Christ loved them. He freed them to love. He equipped them to love.

And he does the same for us.

Christ the Lord is risen today. The Risen Christ gives us the Holy Spirit, provides hope for our fears, peace in chaos, faith in life in deadly circumstances.[x] The Risen Christ does not magically make all our challenges and afflictions go away. Rather the Risen Christ equips us for the living of our days. And frees us to love.

Even when we are not OK. Especially when we are not OK. Jesus reminds us of God’s unending love for us – come what may, God loves us. And by the grace of God, we too can love. This day and every day, we are freed to love. Thanks be to God.

[i] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/04/2nd-sunday-of-easter-april-19-2020/

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y52bs0aX6v8

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Clarkson

[vi] https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a32187398/kelly-clarkson-new-song-i-dare-you-6-languages/

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] https://genius.com/Kelly-clarkson-i-dare-you-lyrics

[x] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/04/2nd-sunday-of-easter-april-19-2020/

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A prayer for Easter, 2020

God of the empty tomb,

God of the temporarily empty building,

God of our lives,

We thank you for

the resurrection of Jesus.

May this day remind us

that you will have the final word.

Always you will have the final word.

And your word will be a word of

hope and

grace and

faith and

love.

Christ is risen.

We thank you Christ is risen.

In his name we pray.

Amen.

The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

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Empty

John 20:1-10
Easter Sunday
April 12, 2020
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Christ is risen.

We gather at the end of a Holy Week different from any other on an Easter Sunday different from any other.

Every year has unique features. Christians have observed Holy Week and Easter in periods of persecution, during armed conflict and war, and while plague ravaged the land.

Still Easter 2020; Easter in the age of COVID-19 differs widely and wildly from any Easter we and most followers of Jesus have celebrated.

No egg hunts. No visits with family. No trips to restaurants. No crowded gatherings around a table straining under the weight of a feast. No new clothes or bonnets for many of us.

IMG-0618We gather in separate places today. Our church building stands empty for the moment. It does so not out of fear. As such buildings do across our country and around the world, that temporarily empty building on the corner of 149th and 15th offers a profound witness to our faith. It proclaims that we are a people of life even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It represents an incredible act of revolutionary love, amazing grace, and spiritual solidarity. Thanks be to God.

Dr. William Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary points out that this year’s Easter celebration with a temporarily empty building may be among the most biblical Easters we have experienced.[i] The Easter proclamation of resurrection begins with the discovery of the empty tomb.

After the crucifixion, early on the first day of the week, in the darkness, John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Madgalene went to the tomb. Heart broken, soul sick, spirit sore, she made a lonely, courageous journey.

She went to see where they had placed her teacher, her friend. She went to pay her respects even after her death. She went because nothing else made sense.

At the tomb, she found the stone rolled aside. What more indignity can there be, she must have wondered? She went to get others. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” return to the tomb with her. Entering they find emptiness. No body of Jesus; only the cloths from his burial.

Each Gospel tells a slightly different version of the encounter with the empty tomb. They all share two common features. Women first. Women went to the tomb first. Women become the first to tell the good news. While the number varies from gospel to gospel, it is always small. Large numbers of followers did not cram together as close as they could on that day of resurrection. It began with a tomb emptied of death and women.

We know not how the resurrection of Jesus happened. No one witnessed God raising Jesus.

The resurrection of the followers of Jesus proved something more of a process. It did not happen in an instant. As the Rev. Denise Anderson notes, the “women who were first at the tomb to find it empty were rocked to their core. But even when they shared the news, the ones with whom they shared it weren’t instantly changed for hearing it. They hardly even believed it.”[ii]

The Rev. Anderson goes on: for the first followers of Jesus on that day of resurrection, “there was still grief. There was still despair. There was still anxiety. There was still waiting. Wondering. Worrying.”[iii] But. God had raised Jesus. God’s work had been accomplished. Christ was risen. Christ is risen.

Perhaps more starkly than have other Easters, this day reminds us that we live in the tension of believing in resurrection even as we feel keenly the impact of suffering and death. Much of what gave us balance and equilibrium in life has been smashed off kilter. We grieve. Uncertainty grips us. We find ourselves in a similar position to the women and the first followers of Jesus.

And  yet, we have the witness not only of Mary and the other women who went to the tomb. We have the witness of women through the ages … and some men, too. People who lived as Jesus calls us to live; people who loved who as Jesus called us to love. People who though stricken with grief and filled with fear, lived and loved. And in the living and in the loving, they encountered the risen Christ. As we live and as we love following Jesus, we too have encountered the risen Christ. We encounter the risen Christ now. We will encounter the risen Christ in the future.

Grief and doubt and fear do not deny the resurrection. They cannot.

Grief and doubt and fear do not indicate the absence of hope and faith and love; they are fellow travelers. They go together, as the Rev. Ben Perry notes.[iv]

Christ is risen, and we mourn for those who have died and we ache for those who are ill and we endure heartbreak for those who are abused, neglected, and forgotten.

Christ is risen, and COVID-19 grips our city and God’s world.

Christ is risen, and we can love one another.

Christ is risen, and there is work to do to ensure that all people in our society have access to safe homes, meaningful and safe work, health care, good food, and the necessities of living.

Christ is risen, and the Matthew 25 vision invites us to make sure that the least of the human family, the people pushed to the margins, receive our attention and our care.

Christ is risen, and the resurrection reminds us that the worst things are never the last things.[v]

Though we tremble at the tomb, though alleluias quaver on our lips, Christ is risen. This Easter day and every day may we know the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil;

Love is stronger than hate;

Light is stronger than darkness;

Life is stronger than death;

Victory is ours through Him who loves us.[vi]

Christ is risen.

People of the empty tomb, people of the temporarily empty building,

Christ is risen!

Alleluia.

[i] https://www.ctsnet.edu/the-life-giving-emptiness-of-this-easter/

[ii] This comes from a Facebook by the Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), on April 12, 2020.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] This and the next several paragraphs are inspired by words written by the Rev. Ben Perry and posted on Facebook.

[v] Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Michael Granzen for this image.

[vi] Desmond Tutu, “Victory Is Ours” in An African Prayer Book (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1995), p. 80.

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All distance falls away

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All distance falls away at the Lord’s table.

Today, with the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, I will celebrate and participate in virtual communion. We will spiritually connect as we physically distance.

To prepare, I offered the invitation to explore the meaning of communion by reflecting on past experiences of the sacrament. What did they have to teach us? What might we learn for today’s service?

Listening to myself for once, I did that. While I was washing the dishes, I recalled a communion service ten years ago.

During Holy Week of 2010, I took part in a meeting related to the Accompaniment Program of the Presbyterian Church in Colombia, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Leaders in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia are taking great risks in their human rights work and their support of the communities of Colombians who have been displaced by the over forty years of violence in their country. They have asked Presbyterians from the United States to act as international accompaniers in order to provide a measure of safety—international eyes—for their work. The program started in 2004 and continues today. Over 100 accompaniers have served to date. Learn more about the program here:.

Since it was Holy Week, I had the privilege to worship with the Communidad del Camino in Barranquilla. The community honored me by inviting me to preach. Germán Zárate translated my words.

With the Rev. Adriano Portillo and the Rev. Dayro Aranzalez, I helped celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

The precious memory flooded over me as the water flowed over the dishes in my sink.

And I knew that whenever and wherever bread is broken and the cup is shared (in whatever form they take), the people of the Communidad del Camino, the people of the church in Colombia, the people of the church around the world, the people whose names I know, whose names I have forgotten, whose names I never knew, they all meet at the table. Miles apart, in Christ we are together.

Tonight, we gather at separate tables, scattered around Queens and Manhattan in my case. But in Christ, those tables become one—Christ’s table. Though physically distant, we gather in spiritual solidarity. And we gather with the church in all places and all times. One body. As we share in the meal Christ has prepared for us this night, I will remember that and smile.

All distance falls away at the Lord’s table.

 

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A prayer when we are not OK

Gracious God,
help us remember that it is OK not to be OK.
We grieve.
We worry.
We fear.
Help us remember that it is OK not to be OK.
Frustration,
anxiety,
disquiet
swirl within us.
Help us remember that it is OK not to be OK.
Loneliness,
restlessness,
unease
fill our days.
Help us remember that it is OK not to be OK.
We wonder.
We doubt.
We dread.
Help us remember that it is OK not to be OK.
And help us remember you love us
you love us just as we are.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

7 April 2020
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
with thanks to the Rev. Yena K. Hwang
who used the image “It is OK not to be OK”
at the 2018 Montreat Youth Conference

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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.”

Hope.

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.

 

[i] https://www.davidlamotte.com/2018/hard-days/

[ii] https://www.vhlf.org/havel-quotes/disturbing-the-peace/

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