Category Archives: Worship

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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What’s Our Thing?

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          I have learned, or relearned, about systems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

          I have learned, or relearned, about accepting responsibility.

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

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

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

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

          But all of us can do something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

          We see that in our Gospel reading from John.

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

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

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

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

          The woman is transfixed. The woman is transformed.

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

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

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

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

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

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Matthew 2:1-12

Persians (Iranians)
follow star
worship Jesus

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All Saints’ Day

Bread is broken,
wine is poured,
space transcended,
time torn;
and all in Christ
are one.

On All Saints’ Day – November 1, 1995, I had the privilege to worship at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Cape Town, South Africa. I had talked and preached about All Saints’ Day often. I have deep appreciation for the Communion of Saints. It is an important and profound dimension of my faith. Still, this was the first All Saints’ Day service I ever attended. It included the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and led me to write these words.

For all the saints, thanks be!

Cape Town, South Africa
2 November 1995

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World Communion Sunday 2019

One of my favorite days of the year.  The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone celebrated communion today. The Rev. Immanuel Bae officiated with me. Thanks to Anne Marie Russo for the photo.

IMG-0621

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Keep Faith

Keep Faith
4 August 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitesone
The Rev. Mark Koenig

This sermon was put together on the morning of Sunday, August 4, 2019 between about 8:00 AM and 11:00 AM. The scripture planned for the day was Luke 12:13-21. It is referenced in the sermon but does not serve as the text in the traditional sense. Beginning with the quote by the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson the material is adapted from a sermon originally preached in February, 2019. Apologies if I quoted anyone without attribution. What follows is a reconstruction based on the notes taken into the pulpit.

When Wiley likes one of my sermons, he shakes my hand and says, “You stuck the landing on that one, Mark.” I have a vision of a graceful female gymnast, both feet hitting the floor. Arms extended. Her smile filling the auditorium.

I like that. But I don’t usually think of myself as particularly graceful.

Today, I have a feeling the sermon may more closely resemble my breaking the springboard for the vault, knocking over the pommel horse, staggering away, hitting my head on the rings, walking into the supports for the parallel bar and bringing it down, careening into the balance bar, falling across it, and face-planting into the mat.

I am improvising today. At the church retreat, Leslie Mott talked about the importance of improvisation both in life and in ministry. It involves taking the situation we are given, saying yes, and making things work.

One form of improvisation for clergy involves being able to adapt to circumstances in the life of the congregation, the community, the nation and the world as we preach and lead worship.

I have done that before. Many times.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in Iowa on a Sunday morning, cutting paper apart with scissors. Removing passages. Changing the location of paragraphs. Furiously scribbling notes and adding them. Pasting things together.

Sean was about two at the time. His eyes got bigger and bigger. Finally, he asked, “What is daddy doing?”

“Just rewriting his sermon,” Tricia assured him.

I have often rewritten sermons on Sunday mornings in response to circumstances.

Never before today have I done so in the back of an Uber.

Never before today do I remember a Sunday when there were two mass shootings within 24 hours of when I preached.

Reports from last night are that at least twenty people died in a Walmart in El Paso. The shooter may have been motivated by racial hatred. An Internet post that is believed to be his talked about hating people of color and the United States being “invaded”. He made his way from the Dallas area to El Paso – a diverse town that straddles the border and so has many Mexican-American residents and is often visited by people from Mexico. At least three of the people killed have been identified as Mexican citizens who had crossed from Ciudad Juárez to shop.

This morning’s report says that at least 9 people died in Dayton. The shooting took place in a popular nightclub area late last night. Details are only now emerging.

Last weekend 4 people died in a shooting in Gilroy, California. One person was killed and 11 wounded at a celebration in Brooklyn.

Groups that monitor gun violence note that at least 7 other mass shootings occurred since we last gathered in this sanctuary.

Those are shootings where at least 4 people are shot in the same incident. It does not include shootings of individuals. It does not include individual deaths by suicide.

My heart is shattered. My mind reels. I grieve. I grieve for those who died. For those who are recovering from wounds. For families blown apart in an instant. For first responders. For witnesses. For medical personnel. I grieve to hear reports that people in El Paso did not go to medical care or to family reunion centers because they feared that ICE might be there. I pray those reports are inaccurate, but I fear they are true. And I grieve for the evil that is revealed if they are.

I rage at a world where the obscenity of mass shootings happens again. And again. And again. One of the most painful memes I saw on Facebook either this weekend read along the lines of: “I will pray for those killed in today’s shooting. The most painful word in that sentence is today’s.”

My grief almost breaks me. My rage threatens to consume me. But I will not fail. I will not falter. I will never give up. I will rise again. I rise again because of my faith in Jesus Christ. On Christ, by Christ, with Christ, in Christ I stand.

Many words have already been written about the shootings. More will come.

Among the words that speak to me are these attributed to Representative Veronica Escober, congresswoman from El Paso. She says: “We have a hate epidemic in this country.”

I agree with that, but I would add, we have a racism epidemic in this country. We have a white supremacy epidemic in this country. We have a white nationalist epidemic in this country. Again and again, those who commit mass shootings are not people of color. They are not Muslims. They are not migrants whose status is out of order. They are white men. If our country wants to ban people to make us safer, we might consider banning people who look like me.

We have a hate, racist, white supremacist epidemic in this country.

But I interrupted Congresswoman Escobar and I need to allow her to reclaim her time. She goes on to say: “We respond with abundance and love.”

We will love. That was the end of my original sermon for this morning. I talked about the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable who was motivated by greed and self-interest and fear. Those were his economic principles. Jesus, as he tells the parable, presents an alternative economic vision.

When people speak about money and things economic, the phrase “the bottom line” often appears in the presentations and conversations. The bottom line: “the primary or most important point.”[i] The bottom line in Christ’s eternal economy is that God loves us. God loves us and will never let us go.

In response to the hate and evil of mass shootings, I will stand with Jesus. I will love.

I will think and I will pray.

But if we think with the insight and wisdom of the greatest sages of the ages, but fail to act in love, we are noisy gongs.

If we pray with the fervency of Mary (a member of the congregation who has a profound gift for prayer that she has nurtured through her 97 years) and other spiritual masters, but fail to act in love we are clanging cymbals.

Love is a verb. It moves. It acts. It responds. It disrupts. It challenges. It changes.

It is time for love. Personally, and publicly. It is time for justice. Love in action in public is justice.

What might we do?

We might contact our elected representatives. We might ask them to work for responsible gun policies. They may reply that the President will not change things. Then we can remind our elected officials that they work for us. And we want them to work to end gun violence. I will do that.

We might research candidates for elected office. Who is receiving contributions from the gun lobby? Perhaps we might vote to someone who does not. Perhaps we might contribute to someone who does not. Perhaps we might volunteer for someone who does not. I will do that.

We might contribute to organizations working for responsible gun policies. There are many. I will research them and determine where I would like to make a small gift. If the Session approves, the list can be shared in The Lift.

We might witness. Perhaps when I return we can organize a vigil.

We can welcome neighbors and build community across the wondrous diversity that God creates. We can interrupt racism and disrupt white supremacy and challenge white nationalism. I will try to do better.

We can examine our culture and the role violence plays in it. The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of our General Assembly calls us to examine our culture. He notes that we live in a culture of violence. Violence has become a form of entertainment that ranges from

“toy guns and holsters, to movies and cartoons, to video games that simulate warfare and deaths by automatic weapons, including blood splatter. Violence on television provides actual blueprints for killing another person. And daily we watch the glamorizing of murder on our mobile devices and hear lyrics to songs declaring that there is something noble about killing another human being, including shooting the police.”[ii]

I was driving in Louisville a few years back with NPR on the radio. They were interviewing Dr. Cornell West about gun violence. In my head I was his one-person amen corner. “That’s right. Preach.”

Then he said something to the effect that, “Violence has become our new pornography. It entertains us. Stimulates us. Excites us.”

My video collection flashed before my eyes. And my amen corner said, “Slow down there, Dr. West. Now you are meddling.”

Preachers usually preach to ourselves when we are honest about what we are doing. I will consider what I use to entertain myself.

Mass shootings. Death by gun violence. This is a far cry from the Biblical vision of each person made in the image of God. Of each person beloved by God. Of the call of Jesus to transform a culture of violence to a culture of love and justice.

Followers of Jesus have sought to live according to his teachings both before the crucifixion and after the resurrection.

Reflecting on the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not murder,”[iii] John Calvin notes that each human life is loved and redeemed by God, and therefore, worthy of our love. He understands that in in this commandment violence and injustice, and every kind of harm from which our neighbor’s body suffers, is prohibited.[iv] Pro-actively, the commandment calls us to act to care for one another, protect each other, and do justice.

Those are some suggestions for responding to gun violence. They may prove helpful. They may not. Other ideas will be needed. The work will prove difficult. There is no other word for it. But it is work we as followers of Jesus must do. None of us can do it all. But everyone can do something.

To say nothing can be done is irresponsible. It breaks faith with those who have lost their lives to gun violence and those who wounded by gun violence and those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. It breaks faith with our ancestors famous and humble who faced situations of obscene injustice that violated God’s precious, beloved children and said, yes, yes, there is something I can do. It breaks faith with God who does new things. May we keep faith. May we love. May we work for justice. This day. And every day.

[i] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bottom-line.

[ii] The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, https://www.presbypeacefellowship.org/resources/sermon-the-difference-a-gun-can-make/

[iii] Exodus 19:13

[iv] Gun Violence and Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call; approved by the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); developed by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP); published in 2011; p. 9.

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Sanctuary: In Three Acts

Sanctuary: In Three Acts
Luke 11:1-4
Numbers 35:9-15
28 July 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig 

Sanctuary. A safe place. A refuge. Act I.

You can find following story online in the Tennessean and other sources. Often, the stories include video.[i]

A man drove home in Nashville. His 12-year-old son sat beside him in the van. Did they notice the car following them? They certainly did when they pulled into their driveway and the car stopped behind them.

Two men got out and identified themselves as ICE agents. They showed no identification and they never gave their names. A statement from an ICE spokesman said the officers had a removal order based on misdemeanor convictions of the man.

The man and his family understood that ICE agents cannot enter a vehicle or a home without a warrant signed by a judge. Or unless they receive permission to enter. The man refused. His wife and neighbors alerted their friends and support community.

Neighbors arrived. Family arrived. Media arrived. Immigrant rights activists arrived. City council members arrived. Nashville police arrived, called by the ICE officers. They assessed the situation, learned they had no warrants for either the man or his son and determined their only role would be to keep the peace.

The man and his son stayed in the car. Because it was hot, neighbors brought gasoline so the man could keep the car air conditioning running.

Eventually, the ICE officers determined to leave. The neighbors formed a protective shield around the car that extended to the front door of the house. The son and then the father ran quickly inside. Family, friends, neighbors, all cheered.

The practice of sanctuary – providing a safe place of refuge is ancient. In scripture, the idea appears in the book of Numbers. Here God gives the Hebrew people instructions for their life together as they made a new beginning after leaving enslavement in Egypt.

The culture at the time was based on vengeance. If I murdered someone, that person’s family could take vengeance on me and on my family. Who could then take vengeance on that person’s family and away the cycle of violence could spin.

When the laws in Numbers establish that those who commit murder, and only those who commit the murder, could be put to death, they disrupted this cycle. The principle the laws established of “an eye for an eye” sought to define justice and minimize vengeance. And then Jesus came along and disrupted this principle with teachings of nonviolent responses to violence.[ii]

The laws established in Numbers took another step toward disrupting blood violence. The verses Beth read for us today talk about “a slayer who kills a person without intent.” In modern terms, we might speak about unintentional killing as involuntary manslaughter.[iii]

Cities of refuge were created for people who committed such acts. They could flee to one of these cities and be safe until a trial could be held.

Over time this understanding of providing a place of refuge – providing sanctuary grew. During the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation, worship spaces in churches came to be seen not only as sanctuaries where God was worshiped, they came to be seen as sanctuaries where people could flee to take refuge and safety from the violence.

In churches and barns and homes, the Underground Railroad provided sanctuary to people fleeing enslavement for freedom.

Japan and China went to war in 1937. On December 13, 1937, the city of Nanjing fell to the Japanese.[iv] The events that followed are known as the Rape of Nanjing. Between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese people were killed. The numbers are contested. The people were killed brutally. Many were tortured. Perhaps as many as 20,000 women were raped.

Amid the horror, the Nanjing Safety Zone was established to offer sanctuary and refuge. Chinese and people in Nanjing from other countries helped create the Safety Zone. But scholars agree that the man who made it work was a businessman named John Rabe. Ready for a twist? John Rabe was German. John Rabe was the head of the Nazi Party in Nanjing. While his party was killing Jews and Slavs and gypsies and LGBTQ people by the millions in Europe, the sanctuary he helped establish and managed saved the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 people in Nanjing.[v] Rabe was not a “good person”. He was a person who served an obscenely evil cause. But for a moment, he did the right thing.

During the Holocaust, many people provided sanctuary for Jews. Muslims in Albania among them.[vi] My friend Steve Yamaguchi tells about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who had served in China and Finland, and ended up at the time of the Second World War in a solo diplomatic post in Lithuania. He became an Orthodox Christian along the way. At his wife Yukiko’s strong urging, he signed visas saving over 6,000 Polish Jews. Sugihara summarized his actions by saying, “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God.” His act of providing the sanctuary of Japanese ended his career as a diplomat. But within the Jewish community he is viewed with deep affection.[vii]

In the 1980s, people fled violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. They arrived in the United States as undocumented refugees. The Immigration and Naturalizations Service implemented a policy of returning people to their country without allowing them to apply for asylum. “On March 24, 1982, six congregations in Arizona and California declared themselves “sanctuaries” and began building communities of support for the growing number of refugees seeking asylum.”[viii] Other congregations across the country joined them. Other congregations and people of faith and good will joined in establishing safe places of refuge.

Fast forward to 2019. People come to the United State fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. The book of Leviticus teaches the people of God to treat the foreigner as a citizen.[ix] Jesus proclaims that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.[x]

Yet our government’s responses seem designed to deny safety and refuge to those in need. Families are separated. Individuals are detained in horrific conditions. The processing of asylum requests and citizenship processes slows to a crawl or a complete stall. That happens to people on the border and it happens to people in the country. As do deportations. We have begun to hear stories of citizens detained and deported; of immigrant men and women who have served in the United States military being deported.

Conversations about sanctuary have been ongoing for some time, perhaps since as long ago as 2007. They have taken on renewed urgency recently. Some congregations have opened their doors and host people in their buildings. Other congregations provide them support. Some congregations make sure their neighbors know their rights in relation to ICE. Individuals volunteer to accompany neighbors to ICE check-ins or deportation hearings. There are a variety of ways for individuals and congregations to become involved.

I invite you to pray and think about this situation. If the Holy Spirit moves you to learn more; if God calls you to consider how you or we together might respond, let me know. We can set up a conversation to explore what we might do.

Sanctuary. A safe place. A refuge. Act II.

In 1969, legal segregation remained the rule across much of the United States. Among other places, swimming pools had signs saying, “White only.” Just five years earlier a famous photo was taken of a hotel manager pouring acid into a swimming pool filled an interracial group of young people who were trying to integrate the pool.[xi]

May 9, 1969. A gentle, peacemaking Presbyterian minister enters the set of his children’s television show he has developed. I have not been able to track down the video, so I don’t know if Mr. Rogers sings, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”. I don’t know if he goes to the closet and carefully takes off his coat and put on his sweater and then zips it all the way up and then halfway back down.

From both the online episode summary and the book Peaceful Neighbor, I do know that he carries a wading pool. After carefully explaining what the pool is, he takes it outside and fills it with water.

He says that “on hot days he enjoys soaking his feet in cool water.” As he sprays his feet with a hose, Mr. Rogers spots Officer Clemmons nearby and invites him to sit down and join him. When Officer Clemmons says he does not have a towel, Mr. Rogers says they can share. Officer Clemmons pulls up a chair. He takes off his boots and socks, and the camera provides a closeup of four feet sharing the same small pool. Two white feet. Two black feet. When they are done, Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers share the same towel to dry off.[xii]

Remember that Mr. Rogers is also the Rev. Rogers. He knows the story of the Last Supper as told in John’s Gospel. Where Jesus washes the feet of his followers and then dries them. Jesus does so to model for his followers loving service.[xiii] The Rev. Fred Rogers got the message.

By sharing a cool pool and a dry towel on a hot day with an African American police officer, Mr. Rogers demonstrated that we are made for each other. We are not made for separation and enmity. We are made for love. For those of us who know and love Jesus, Mr. Rogers made that demonstration out of the Gospel.

And for a moment. He created sanctuary. In a segregated world, Mr. Rogers made a safe place. A refuge.

Friends, whether it is with family, with friends, with church members, with people we know only a little, with people we have just met, we can create sanctuary.

When we listen or provide help when requested.

When we smile and act kindly.

When we act for justice, show mercy, and do our best to walk with God.

When we love.

And when we pray for each other. We create sanctuary.

May we heed the urgings of the Holy Spirit to do so.

Sanctuary. A safe place. A refuge. Act III.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” It was a request from his disciples to Jesus.

“Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus provided the words the church has adapted a bit over time, and we know as the Lord’s Prayer.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

In prayer we turn to God. And God meets us, accepts us, loves us as we are. The gift of prayer is a gift of sanctuary. It is a safe place. A refuge.

As the Rev. Shawna Bowman posted on Facebook:

God hears our prayers,
broken prayers,
silent prayers,
angry prayers,
joyful prayers,
prayers given through tears,
prayers given with no conviction, rushed prayers,
prayers shouted with rage,
prayers that come from our deepest places,
prayers that connect us, one to another,
prayers that remind us that we belong to God.

Friends, pray. Open yourself to God. Tell God what is on your heart. Pray aloud. Pray in silence. Pray by thinking. Pray by calling images to mind … friends in needs … situations for which you are concerned.

Two ideas for how to pray when we need help.

First, Anne Lamott offers a three-fold pattern for prayer: Help. Thanks. Wow.[xiv]

God, help me with …

God, thank you for …

God, I stand in awe of …

Or we could use the prayer Jesus teaches us. Pray those familiar words again and again and again.

Pray. Knowing that when we pray for others, we help create a sanctuary for them.

Pray Knowing that however we pray when we take our lives—our joys—our concerns—our whole selves to God in prayer, God will take and shield us. And we will find a solace … a refuge … a safe place … a sanctuary there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/07/25/viral-video-ice-agents-tried-arrest-man-nashville-immigration/1828008001/ – this article, as well as other uncited online sources, provide the basis for the first eight paragraphs of the sermon.

[ii] Matthew 5:38-42

[iii] https://www.justia.com/criminal/offenses/homicide/involuntary-manslaughter/

[iv] http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/nanking.htm

[v] http://day1.org/614-who_is_my_neighbor and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanjing_Massacre and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rabe

[vi] https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/besa/index.asp

[vii] http://day1.org/614-who_is_my_neighbor

[viii] https://religionandpolitics.org/2017/02/21/the-sanctuary-movement-then-and-now/

[ix] Leviticus 19:34

[x] Matthew 25:35

[xi] https://www.npr.org/2014/06/13/321380585/remembering-a-civil-rights-swim-in-it-was-a-milestone

[xii] Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015),p. 88.

[xiii] John 13:3-10.

[xiv] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008EKMBDM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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