Tag Archives: church

Persistent. Resilient. Adaptive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider all they went through as they followed Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, consider all the disciples experienced.

They left much behind to follow Jesus.

Life on the road.

Prejudice breaking, mind expanding teachings.

Jesus with them.

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

Jesus resurrected. With them.

Jesus ascended. Not with them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After almost 149 years, we worship on Zoom Church.

We share the Lord’s Supper.

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

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

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

We celebrate birthdays.

We study.

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

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

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

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

We are Christ’s Church:

Persistent.

Resilient.

Adaptive.

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

[i] Mark 8:31-33

[ii] John 13:1-17

[iii] John 13:36-38

[iv] John 18:11

[v] Luke 9:58

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

[vii] Acts 1:6-7

[viii] Acts 1:8

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

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We Are the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we know we are the church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Now available: Healing Our Broken Humanity

51cLCp75G0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a world torn by division and conflict, how can we seek peace and reconciliation? In Healing Our Broken Humanity, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill explore Christian practices that can allow individuals and communities was to pursue reconciliation, justice, peace, and love. The book provides theological reflections on nine practices that can help heal our broken humanity. Each chapter includes questions for thought and discussion and suggestions for activities to explore further the ideas presented. Appendices include additional resources for engagement. Kim and Hill have provided a significant, practical resource for the church.

Healing Our Broken Humanity is now available from the publisher or on Amazon. You can also ask your local independent bookstore to order copies as well.

Enjoy this important book!

See you along the Trail.

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Healing Our Broken Humanity

IMG_8004 (1024x768)I’m looking forward to reading Healing Our Broken Humanity, the new book written by my friend Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill. It’s currently number two on my reading list.

You can read it too, ordering from the publisher or on Amazon.

Check out this reflection on the book originally posted in Outreach Magazine. And here’s a podcast featuring Grace talking about the book that originally appeared on Spirituality for Ordinary People.

I’ll post more about it as I read.

See you along the Trail.

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Easter 2017

lenten-reflections-on-the-confession-of-belhar“Brokenness, disunity, and hatred are evident all over the planet. The world needs the witness Belhar calls the church to live out in the world. The church’s primary responsibility is to love God so fully that God’s saving presence shines through her like light in the midst of darkness. The church then becomes a beacon of hope, a lighthouse on the shore of a storm-tossed sea. By confessing, internalizing, and living out the principles of Belhar in her own experience, the church positions herself to become what Henri Nouwen calls, ‘a wounded healer.'”
Mark Lomax
Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar

Christ is risen! Christ’s proclamation that God loves us and Christ’s call to love God and one another provide words of hope in this broken and fearful world.

This Lenten season have used a new resource to explore the Belhar Confession: Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar, edited by Kerri N. Allen and Donald K. McKim. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in which I serve as a teaching elder (pastor), added the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions in 2016. This confession came from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church during its historic struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I am grateful to Kerri and Donald and all the authors.

See you along the Trail.

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Lent 2017, day 43

lenten-reflections-on-the-confession-of-belhar“The church is not gilded sanctuaries, stained glass windows, padded pews, cushy carpets, table, and font. The church is people from every nation, culture, and ethnicity who (1) call on and believe in God through Christ; (2) are consequently filled with God’s Spirit and led by God’s word to light candles in the shadows of life; (3) live among and act in unity with people who’ve been abandoned, pushed to the margins of society, and disenfranchised; and (4) advocate for justice on the steps of the courthouse or the statehouse, serving the present age in ways that reconcile disparate peoples and groups.”
Mark Lomax
Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar

This Lenten season I am using a new resource to explore the Belhar Confession: Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar, edited by Kerri N. Allen and Donald K. McKim. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in which I serve as a teaching elder (pastor), added the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions in 2016. This confession came from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church during its historic struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

See you along the Trail.

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What We Need To Hear

Larissa Kwong Abazia, Vice-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reflects on what the story of an interaction between a Syrophoenician woman and Jesus teaches the church today.

What We Need To Hear.

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Show up for each other

The Rev. Dr. Neal Presa, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) participated in the orientation for Presbyterian delegation to the 58th Session to the Commission on the Status of Women.

After being in New York, he flew to Whitworth University in Spokane, WA for the Third Moderator’s Conversation on Unity with Difference on Race, Gender, and Religious Differences.

The Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz was among the speakers at the conversation. As always, Laura made an insightful, challenging, hopeful presentation on Power and the Black-White Binary: Forging Authentic Church Identities in the Midst of White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Being “Other Asian”.

Laura provides the following summary of her presentation:

Being church together is challenged by the ways in which various church communities and individual church members interact with power based on race and gender, not to mention class status and regional identity. The church, particularly the PC(USA), includes people with diverse capacities for a real conversation. Through exploring the place of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (who in the PC(USA) can check either “Korean” or “Other Asian” for demographic information on some forms) and others dislocated by the black-white binary in church and U.S. society, together we seek a way to move forward toward being a church that allows for complexities of identity and addresses real inequalities.
A couple of passages should encourage you to read the whole presentation:
Race and gender themselves are not the problems obstructing unity. The problems here are racism and sexism. Who we are isn’t the problem, but how we live into oppressive constructs that separate us from one another is. What I will say this morning is part of a longer conversation we in the church need to have with one another, because even though we have been in this conversation for decades, we have yet to diminish our capacity to sin when it comes to relationship with one another.
Our conversation cannot depend upon a generic experience of racism (usually defined by blackness) or sexism (usually defined by middle-aged white women) imposed upon other experiences. Racism is not just about color. It is also about language, culture, colonialism, national origin, and citizenship status. Sexism is not just about how many women get to be heads of staff of tall steeple churches or directors of church agencies. It is about how we continue to think about gender identity and gender roles, and how those thoughts are embedded in our culture and our policies. It is about earning potential; church policies around work hours, compensation, and family leave; about how well churches minister to the lived realities of women in their employ and women who choose to be part of churches. It is about the culture of church leading change in the culture of this country instead of propping up legal and cultural patriarchy.
 
Social issues are theological. It is a theological problem if Christians believe employment opportunity for those with varying levels of education, immigration, the criminal justice system, gun control, political gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, the financial services sector, hunger, poverty, and economic inequality are not the business of the church. These are things that have a disproportionate impact on the lives of people of color. These are the problems that keep us from attaining a shot at racial justice. These are the problems that shape our lives because we’re always negotiating with banks to allow our in-laws to keep their homes, or finding lawyers so our mothers can stay in the country, or finding people to write letters attesting to the character of our wrongfully accused sons, or looking for ways to feed our families. We have to worry about elected officials who don’t look like us or care about our communities. This takes up a lot of time and energy, and it is our faith that keeps us going. These are the circumstances we bring with us to church every single Sunday.
Laura also identifies resources for further conversations:
I have read Laura’s presentation several times. I will read it several more as I seek ways to respond to her invitation and challenge:
So if we of varying races, genders, and religious groups show up for each other, and if we of varying spiritual gifts show up for each other, maybe that is a way of finding how to be authentically church. Maybe that is how we can create change.
See you along the Trail.

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Samuel Johnson

I remembered Samuel Johnson today and I was revived.

The Samuel Johnson I remembered was not the English author – I did not pick up a copy of Boswell. I met this Samuel Johnson almost fifteen years ago during a hot summer week in Orangeburg, SC. He and I have been accompanying each other in the Communion of Saints ever since.

On Palm Sunday of that year, in a quiet grove of trees about eight miles outside of Orangeburg, the Butler Chapel AME Church burned. Four young men admitted responsibility for the fire, although they maintained that it was accidental. The fire did not totally destroy the church. It did cause enough damage that the church could neither be used nor repaired. After a season of prayer and discussion, the members of Butler Chapel determined to build a new church.

Volunteers came from across the country to work on the church; their labor coordinated by the Church of the Brethren. That August, a group of us went to Orangeburg from Cleveland; some of my friends from Louisville joined us. We spent a week working in extreme heat. We installed insulation and drywall and windows. We finished drywall. We laid brick. Each day was a little different. Each day had some elements in common – mostly the people of Butler Chapel – the wonderful people who welcomed us and fed us, prayed with us and worked beside us. Among them was Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson was a big man. Once he had been a strong man. A long-time member of Butler Chapel AME Church, Samuel had attended school in the building as a child. Samuel worked throughout his life. Worked well and hard. . . as a farmer . . . for the gas company.

When I met him, a stroke had stolen much of his strength. He walked with a cane.  He walked better when he can use his cane and someone’s shoulder. I remember. A couple of times he used mine.

Although the stroke had taken much of his one arm and leg, it did not take his mind or voice or spirit. Unable to stay away while his church was being rebuilt, he came to the work site as often as he could. He watched. He visited. And from time to time, his eyes filled with tears of frustration as he wished that one more time he could swing a hammer.

Toward the middle of a hot afternoon (they were all hot – I can’t remember which one), I was working alone on insulation. A friend’s voice interrupted me.  “Mark, go to the fellowship hall.”

“I’m busy.” I said.  “I want to get this finished.”

Bob persisted.  “Mark, stop what you are doing.  Go to fellowship hall.  You have to see what is going on.  Take a camera.”

Reluctantly I got up. I found the camera went to the fellowship hall.

There, on a 2” x 10”  board that rested on two overturned five-gallon paint buckets, sat Samuel Johnson.  Around him, on the concrete slab, sat many of the young people of our group.  Softly and slowly, Samuel spoke . . . telling them of his life . . . his family . . . his work . . . telling them of Orangeburg and his beloved church.  As he spun stories and answered questions, tears filled my eyes.  I was helping build a physical church; Samuel was building Christ’s body.

Why did I remember this story today? Who knows?

Perhaps it is because I have been thinking about the hurts of God’s people – the violence in Gaza and Israel, the children who flee Central America to come to the United States, bombing in South Kordofan, hunger around the world particularly in South Sudan and North Korea, gunfire on our country’s streets, on and on the list goes. It does not seem to end.

In the face of such violations, suffering, and pain, my efforts seem so small and insignificant. But Samuel Johnson reminds me of the importance of perspective.

I can look at life in terms of what I do not have – what I lack – what I cannot do. This is the view of scarcity.

In the case of Samuel Johnson, such a view has little time for an older man whose physical abilities appear to have been limited by a stroke. It would say he no longer has much to offer.

Alternately, I can choose to look at life in terms of what I have – what I can do – what I can share – the gifts I bear. This view is the view of abundance. When viewed in this way, the incredible gifts that Samuel has and shares leap into view. Samuel’s presence is an inspiration; Samuel’s prayers a source of strength; Samuel’s stories create and nurture community.

For me, the assumption of abundance frees me from working about what I cannot do – to focus on doing what I can – whatever that might be.

Remembering Samuel renews my spirit and challenges me to look at the gifts I have and figure out how to use those gifts. That work has begun and will continue and I expect I will bump into Samuel and a whole bunch of other saints as I do.

See you along the Trail.

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Purple flowers, North Church Queens

IMG_1299 (800x570)

Pushing through winter’s debris,
purple flowers
grace the grounds of
North Church Queens.

6 April 2014
North Church
Queens, New York

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