Perhaps I should have felt disappointed. Our tea with Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu was canceled. I had looked forward to this visit. We were to meet him and to share tea with him at his home on Bishop’s Court. However, his schedule became very hectic during the days when we were in Cape Town. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Archbishop had to change his hectic schedule. I complain about how full my calendar gets – imagine what his looks like! At any rate, the tea with our group from Cleveland was dropped from Archbishop Tutu’s schedule because he had to go to Johannesburg during that time.
On Thursday, November 2, we rose early. We arrived at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town for the 8:00 am All Soul’s Day mass. Archbishop Tutu was the celebrant. Brightness and life beamed from him as he prayed his way through the mass. When the time came to pass the peace, he came among us and wished the peace of Christ upon us. The service continued. The moment of the Eucharist arrived. We made our way forward. From the hands of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we received the host. From his eyes, loved shone on each person. From his face, welcome emanated, surrounding us each and all and embracing the world.
As the service ended, Archbishop Tutu asked that we be introduced to the congregation of about thirty or so. He greeted us warmly. We presented him with a “Rainbow Children” stole. In joy he put it on. We could sense his excitement although he did manage to refrain from dancing! It took an effort. Then he asked if we were really from the United States – because no one was ready to take pictures. The cameras came out and, with gracious exuberance, Archbishop Tutu posed with the group and with each of us individually. Then he was gone.
Perhaps I should feel disappointed. But I do not. If you had a choice between sharing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu either a spot of tea or the cup of Christ – how would you choose?
For the life and faith and love of witness of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, thanks be to God.
Cape Town, South Africa 2 November 1995 revised North East, Maryland 26 December 2021
A sermon on Luke 1:39-55 Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church 19 December 2021
From 2010 through 2016, I served as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.
Memories of precious people, painful international events, and amazing happenings swirl in my heart and mind.
Among my favorite memory is the moment I have come to call the good night ritual. .
Each night, I shut off my computer, turned out the light, and left the office. I walked down the hall to the elevator and pushed the call button. When the cab arrived, I pushed “1” to go downstairs. Hector would be there to see me out. Always. And always we spoke. Sometimes we talked about weather or family. Often, we talked sports. Conversations got interesting the week my Steelers beat Hector’s Jets. After some conversation, I made for the door, As I stepped across the hallway, I heard Hector’s final words: always the same words, always in the same, kind voice: “Good night, Marko. Get home safe.”
In Advent and Christmas, we think of home in many ways.
“Please Come Home for Christmas,” sings Aaron Neville.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sings Oscar Peterson.[i]
Spoiler alert. If you have forgotten the ending of A Christmas Carol; if you have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I invite you to plug your ears for a moment. I will let you know when the spoilers are done.
After the visits of three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge sends a feast to Bob Cratchit’s home and then travels to celebrate at his nephew’s home.
After the visit of one rather ordinary angel second class, in the climactic moment of George Bailey’s renewal, he makes his way home.
I see places I have lived at different times when I hear the word “home”.
Unique sights, smells, and sounds.
Home also recalls people. Beloved people. Family. Friends. Chosen family. Different in different homes. But always people.
Home is a place. 123 Sesame St. 80 Main St., Apt. 23D
Home is people.
Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri observes that as a poor, unwed teenager, Mary was surrounded by dangers and uncertainty – both physical and societal. When she learned of her pregnancy, Mary sought a haven, a sanctuary, home.[ii]
Home for Mary was a place. The house of her relative Elizabeth. Home was people. Zechariah was there. Silent, but there. More importantly, Elizabeth and the baby in her womb, were present.
They welcome and affirm Mary. And in a moment that Stephen Sondheim could have written, Mary breaks into a song. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Magnificat. A song that has been set in many ways over the centuries, including the Canticle of the Turning which we will sing shortly.
The Magnificat holds together the grittiness of life on the margins, the resilient hope of those who trust in God, and the power to image a new way of living.
My friend the Rev. Margaret Aymer suggests that we need to revise our view of Mary. Rather than gentle Mary, meek and mild, Margaret says Mary is better seen as Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama. A woman full of strength and courage and hope. An alternative vision fires her imagination. God’s vision of justice, equity, and peace. This vision, sung in Mary’s song, no doubt found its way into the lullabies she sang to Jesus and the stories she told him. It shaped him. It guided his living. His words and deeds exemplify his mama’s song.[iii]
Consider, church: the Triune God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit or whatever formula you use – exists in relationship.
Made in God’s image, we are made for relationships. The late bell hooks reminds us of this when she says that healing is an act of communion. Rarely, if ever, she says, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing comes through relationships. Life comes through relationships.[iv]
We are made for each other. We are made for relationships of integrity, compassion, justice, equity, solidarity, accountability, responsibility, and love. We are made to be home to one another.
The village of Le Chambon in France provided sanctuary and home to Jews during the Second World War. Fleeing the monstrous, sinful evil of the Nazis, Jews would arrive in this Huguenot village. They made their way to the building we Presbyterians would call the manse. They knocked and were usually greeted by Magda Trocme with the words, “Welcome. Come in.” The process of creating home began. Years later, asked why their village and people became a sanctuary of home, Magda replied, “They knocked. What else could we do?”[v]
This theology – that God has made us and called us to be home for one another – was shared by those who ran the Underground Railroad. It is shared by those who welcome refugees, who support citizens returning from incarceration, and who offer sanctuary to individuals and families at risk of deportation to the violence-filled places they have fled.
Whether they are running for their lives or they are buffeted and battered by life, we will encounter people in need of refuge, haven, and sanctuary. Through Jesus Christ, God who is love, God who is our sanctuary and home, empowers us to say, “Welcome. Come in.”
Part of what allows us to create home is God’s gift of imagination. Our shared humanity allows us to imagine the pain and the fear of people in need.
More importantly, our faith allows us to imagine our relatedness to the entire human family. Each child is our child. Every person created and loved by God is a person to whom we are bound by the unbreakable cords of God’s love.
Imagination is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us nothing will change. Things will always be the same. There is nothing we can do about it.
Not so, says imagination. Not so. There can be, there is, another way. Imagination is the root of joy. Imagination is the source of hope. When we dare to imagine that Jesus just might be on to something when he tells us to love one another; we take the first steps toward loving one another.
At home with Elizabeth, Mary’s imagination inspired her to break into song about what God has done, what God will do, and what God is doing. Mary’s song, Rachel Held Evans reminds us, declares that God has chosen sides.[vi]
God has chosen not narcissistic rulers or leaders, but an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl for the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
God has chosen not the powerful, but the humble.
Not the rich, but the poor.
Not the occupying force, but people pushed to the margins.
God has made a home. That home, Jesus reveals, is among the people the world casts aside. Women. Children. The poor. Lepers. Samaritans. Tax collectors. Sinners. God’s home includes people of every sexual orientation and every gender identity, people living on the streets, people whose immigration papers do not match the government standards, people battling addiction, people dealing with mental illness, and anyone pushed aside by the culture of domination.
Any time we human creatures seek to keep some of God’s children out and we draw a line to exclude and we say, “you do not belong,” God wipes the line aside. “Hold my beer,” the Holy Spirit says, and she begins the patient, careful work of removing the line and welcoming all God’s children home.
Church, we know that does not happen quickly enough. We know people, too many precious people, are wounded in the time it takes God to erase the lines. That grieves us and God. But we also know that patiently, persistently God is at work. And God invites us to join that work.
In her defiant, prophetic, imaginative song, Mary—a dark-skinned woman who would become a refugee, a member of a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality: God makes a home for and with those who have been driven to the margins by the powerful. And we are invited to meet God there on the margins and be welcomed home.
During Advent, we journey home.
During Advent, we work to create home.
During Advent and always, may we journey and work with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama – a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed that:
The powerful have already been humbled;
The vulnerable have already been lifted up;
The world is turning;
And it is turning toward home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Many artists have recorded both songs. The versions by Aaron Neville and Oscar Peterson were the first to appear in my iTunes Library.
[ii] This comes from Vilmarie’s commentary on Luke 1:39-55 in the Sanctified Art Close to Home Sermon Planning Guide for this Sunday.
[iii] I found this image from the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer a couple years ago. I can no longer find the source.
A sermon preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on 28 February 2021 on the occasion of the end of service as interim pastor.
What is your favorite Christmas Carol? Not the kind of question you would expect on the Second Sunday of Lent, is it.
While I have rarely met a Christmas carol I do not like, I have a favorite: “Once in Royal David’s City.”
As an eight-year-old boy soprano I sang a solo verse of that carol at the Presbyterian Church on Neville Island, Pennsylvania.
My voice has changed since then. It happens. Now I am more of a baritone. Which as my brother points out means “Mark sings and the rest of us have to bear the tone.”
Rest easy, I will not sing. But a song has been an earworm these last few days.
In Act II of the musical Hamilton, George Washington informs Alexander Hamilton that he will not run for a third term as president. Washington asks Hamilton to help write his farewell address. Their conversation plays out in the song: “One Last Time.”
One last time The people will hear from me One last time And if we get this right We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say Goodbye You and I[i]
It is a song about beginnings and endings. An ending for George Washington as and a beginning for the country. As Washington sings “the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”[ii]
Beginnings and endings; endings and beginnings have occupied a great deal of my thoughts and feelings this week. I have been reminded of how closely beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings blur together.
Sometimes endings are built into the fabric of beginnings. They are inseparable. For example, an interim pastor serves to help a congregation prepare for the next installed pastor. And then leaves. That is the point of an interim relationship. It is intended to end. When I began serving as the interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on March 1, 2018 the clock started running. It would only be a matter of time until our service together ended.
Now that day has arrived.
To return to Broadway, the curtain will fall on my ministry tonight at midnight. Seconds after midnight, the curtain will rise Pastor Janice’s ministry. There is some sorrow at this moment. At least for me. But there is greater joy about what the future will bring. Thanks be to God. Today we say goodbye.
We have shared time together. We have dealt with difficulties. We have experienced joy. We have wonderful memories. We have done significant ministry. I am and will forever be grateful. But we say goodbye.
You will always be in my head and in my heart. We are bound in the Communion of Saints. To paraphrase Paul, “I will thank God every time I remember you. I will pray for each of you and for all of you. I will give thanks for how we have shared in ministry and living the gospel from the first day of March 1, 2018 until now.”[iii] But we say goodbye.
I hope you will pray for me a time or two or ten. Each day. Maybe more often. But we say goodbye.
That is what interim pastors and the congregations they serve do. Saying goodbye creates a healthy boundary to allow the new pastor to flourish. Saying goodbye does not diminish what we have done for each other or what we mean to each other. It does not alter my affection for you. It clears the deck and opens the way to the future. I am no longer the pastor. Pastor Janice is. I will no longer be here. She will. Together with Pastor Janice you will move on in your life and ministry as a congregation. And I will move on as well.
President Washington, at least according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, moved on to sit under his own vine and fig tree and take a moment alone in the shade.[iv]
I have no vine. Nor a fig tree. If I did, they would probably make me sneeze.
My plan is to take some time and figure out what my plan is. I am grateful to Tricia for giving me the space to do that. Retirement may be out there. Or I may look for some form of ministry. Time, and the movement of theHoly Spirit will tell. What comes after goodbye for me remains unclear.
As we say goodbye, I offer some insights I have gleaned through the years about ministry. In the words of those classic theologians the Beatles, I do so with a little help from my friends. Ginger, Babs, Mac, Bunty, Fowler, Nick, and Fetcher.
Well, they could be my friends. If we had met. And if they were real.
They appear in Chicken Run – a claymation movie involving chickens, rats, dogs, and some humans.
Chicken Run is set in 1950s Great Britain on Tweedy’s chicken farm. The chickens live ringed by barbed wire fences. The chickens make money for the Tweedys by laying eggs. Hens that fail to lay eggs soon make their final appearance. On the Tweedy’s dinner table.
The chickens, led by a hen named Ginger, become fed up with this life. Ginger knows that the chickens deserve better – a life free from the demand to produce eggs, free from the threat of death, and free from the farm. She shares her vision with the other chickens and convinces them to begin living out the vision in the only way possible – escape.
They devise a plan for escape and put it into operation. And they fail. Many attempts are made. Each attempt fails. And every time the chickens try again.
Two events break this cycle. A rooster from the United States named Rocky arrives. He brashly promises to teach the chickens to fly across the fence that traps them. At the same time, Mrs. Tweedy decides that eggs are not profitable enough. The farm will produce chicken pies. Escape becomes essential. As one chicken profoundly says, “I don’t want to end up as a pie. I don’t even like gravy.”
I will tell no more of the story so as not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it. But what does it say about ministry?
The Tweedys said the chickens’ role was to live on their farm in the conditions they established and produce wealth for the Tweedys. Led by the prophet Ginger, the chickens had an alternative vision. They envisioned a world with no barbed wire, no dogs, no huts, and no quotas. Instead, there would be freedom and abundance and sunshine and sharing.
Jesus proclaimed and lived an alternative vision. In the face of the domination of empire and the division of the human family along lines of class and gender and sexual identity and age and nationality, Jesus taught a vision of radical inclusion, expansive love, and unfailing justice. He envisioned a world turned upside down.
Part of that vision involves recognizing who we are and whose we are. The chickens refused to accept the way in which they were assigned worth by the dominant culture. To the Tweedys, the chickens had worth only as means of production. Once they ceased to be productive they had no value and they were disposed of. The chickens knew that they were more than that. They knew they had value simply because they existed.`
Ministry involves accepting our own value and reminding others of their value. We are repeatedly told that our value comes from externals – skin color, wealth, status, gender or sexual identity, age, ability. The list goes on. Elaborate systems and structures are built upon human differences by the powerful to maintain and enhance their power and privilege.
Ministry is knowing and claiming and living the awareness that I am God’s beloved child. And so are you. And so is everyone we meet. We should be treated as such. We should treat each other as such. We should challenge anyone who says otherwise. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, we move from treating people as others to embracing one another in God’s love.[v] And then we work to dismantle systems that perpetuate privilege and inflict oppression.
The community created in Chicken Run crossed usual lines. Nick and Fetcher are rats. That’s not a comment on their character. That’s an identification of their species. They aren’t the brightest rats. They spend a good amount of time waiting for the eggs that Rocky, the rooster, has promised to lay for them. Still the rats become part of the community working together toward the goal of freedom and a better life for all.
Ministry involves reaching out to and serving with people from whom we differ. God creates and enjoys an amazing diversity. Our challenge and opportunity is to build a welcoming, including community. God calls us to create a place at the table for everyone born, as Shirley Murray writes. God calls us to break down and reshape, remake, and replace as needed. And to make sure that not only does everyone have a place, everyone can share their voice, and every voice is heard.
The chickens created a community that worked together. When one hen had problems laying eggs, others would share theirs. Rocky points out that one or two chickens could easily escape. Ginger replies, “But that’s not the point. Either we all escape or none of us escape.” Ministry involves commitment and caring for one another.
Each chicken, and rat, had gifts they used to help one another. Everyone did something when needed. Ministry is a corporate practice – a communal art. It is not for the professionals alone. It is for everyone. It involves discerning the gifts we each have and then using those gifts for the good of the community and the world.
Chicken Run includes a rooster named Fowler who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. “644th Squadron, Poultry Division – we were the mascots.” He fondly tells stories about, “Back in my day…” The time comes when his gifts are needed. When asked to help, Fowler begs off. Ginger says, “Fowler you are always talking about back in your day. Well you are here now. And it is now that we need you. This is your day.”
Beginnings and endings blur. Time has a way of jumbling together. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. We plan and dream into the future. But in the end, today is the only day we have. Today we follow. Today we serve.
Today we make a transition. To return to Broadway one last time, one scene ends tonight. Tomorrow we begin a new scene in God’s Master Story – a story that began in the act of creation and that will extend until the end of days and the fulfillment of all things. A story of Divine creativity and grace and love in which we are privileged to play roles for a time. It is the story that has brought us to this moment and place. It is the story that draws us into the future.
We do not know for sure what the future will bring. But of this we may be certain. Whatever roles we play, we will be part of God’s Master Story of God’s grace and our response in ministry. I will, someday, figure out what comes next for me. You and Pastor Janice will engage in amazing ministry. And God will be with us all. This day. Every day. Thanks be to God.
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.
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]
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.
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.
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” (Matthew 8:20, NRSV)
“It offends me [that politicians demand that our temples be open] because such assertions pretend to limit the worship of God’s people to a building, […] because Jesus was a teacher of mountains, deserts, rivers, boats and seas.”
– Marissa Galván-Valle
A bit of the litany in English:
We worship from our homes,
Mountain Teacher, because our gratitude goes beyond
the sanctuary pews and the temple walls
We reflect in isolation,
Desert Mystic, because our soul is strengthened
by the silence of active listening and the quietness of your presence.
Acts 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 have learned a new way to reach out to neighbors who hunger.
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.
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.
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.
We 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: