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Devotion

Cardboard on sidewalk,
he bows, prays

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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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Stand with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers

This material is probably most helpful to Presbyterians and people who live in New York City. But as long as it is assembled, it seems worth sharing … if it can help one person in such a time as this.

FOR IMMIGRANTS, REFUGEES, ASYLUM SEEKERS AND THEIR FAMILY AND FRIENDS

Helpful Numbers
Call the ActionNYC hotline at 1-800-354-0365 to receive free and safe immigration legal help.

Report an ICE Raid to the New Sanctuary Coalition. Call 646-395-2925 or send an email to info@newsanctuarynyc.org.

Know Your Rights
Know Your Rights – The Immigrant Defense Project provides two-page flyers in multiple languages that explain what your rights are and what to do in an encounter with ICE.

Know Your Rights Community Toolkit – these toolkits are available from the New York Immigration Coalition in many languages.

Know Your Rights – New Sanctuary Coalition

Immigrants & New York – a coalition of groups has created this infographic resource for immigrants in English, Spanish, and French.

Home Raids Poster – The Immigrant Defense Project provides a poster to hang in the home (and your church) with a reminder of your rights, what to say, and what to document in case of an ICE raid.

Preparations
How to Prepare Yourself for an Immigration Raid – Informed Immigrant

Prepare for an ICE Raid – New Sanctuary Coalition

Discernment and Planning Tools for Those Facing Deportation – this resource can help individuals who face deportation and their families explore options – PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues

Use an English or Spanish Family Care to help undocumented members individuals prepare a family care plan so that they can ensure that their children will be cared for, their prescriptions can be filled, and they can have some sense of control over their lives in the event that they are detained – PC(USA) Office of Immigrations

Sanctuary
Find Sanctuary in New York – New Sanctuary Coalition

Sanctuary – what do people who may want to enter sanctuary need to think about – PC(USA Office of Immigration Issues

Sanctuary Discernment Guide – the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness offers this guide for congregations considering declaring themselves as a sanctuary congregation.

WHAT CAN WE DO? FOR EVERYONE
Pray.

Build and nurture relationships with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in your neighborhood.

Contact Senator Gillibrand and Senator Schumer. Contact your Representative (or call 202-225-3121 and ask for your Representative by name to be connected to their office). Share your concerns. Ask what they will to do.

Help Detained Children identifies organizations providing aid to migrants. Donate, volunteer, and support these organizations.

Participate in the July 12th, 2019, Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps – 7:00 PM on Foley Square.

Support the New Sanctuary Coalition’s Live In Faith Everyday Bond Fund that bonds out individuals who are detained so they can fight their cases from their communities instead of behind. It matters to children.

Learn about the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Accompaniment Program in Aqua Prieta.

Give to and volunteer with groups working on immigration issues in New York City:

Use the We Choose Welcome Action Guide from the PC(USA) to welcome refugees.

Join Presbyterians for Just Immigration to receive information updates and action suggestions.

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Are you from Pittsburgh?

“Excuse me. Are you from Pittsburgh?” the woman spoke gently.
“Lenore is,” Charles replied.
“We heard you talking about Pittsburgh,” the woman said, gesturing to the radiant, bald, younger woman with whom she shared the table.
Of course they heard us. It’s New York. Restaurants put tables pretty much on top of one another.
Lenore Williams had come from Pittsburgh to New York. She arranged to meet Charles Atkins Jr and me to talk about the Presbyterian Church’s Freedom Rising Initiative to address the impact of racism on African-American men.
We met at the TGIFridays in Penn Station. Charles’ son is playing in one of the New Jersey state basketball championship semifinal games tonight. This location made it easy for him to join us and then to get home for the game.
We talked about the work being done by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh and by the Presbytery of New York City. We explored how the presbyteries might support one another and partner for effetive ministry.
Our conversation touched on the city of Pittsburgh. Lenore lived there almost all her life; Charles had recently been there for a meeting; part of my childhood was spent on Neville Island.
After a fruitful conversation, and when we finished our meal, Charles stood to leave for his son’s basketball game. That’s when the woman stood, took the half step needed to cross the aisle in the restaurant and spoke.
“My daughter Erin goes to school outside Pittsburgh,” she informed us. We smiled at Erin who sat with her back to the wall. It appeared she was returning to Pittsburgh. She had her suitcase with her.
“We heard you praying,” the woman stated. “Erin has cancer. We were wondering. Would you pray with her?”
We would. We did.
Lenore and I stood beside Charles. Erin and her mother stood. We joined hands and prayed.
We prayed for Erin. For healing. For strength. For courage. For grace.
We prayed for Erin’s mother and family. For Erin’s friends. For the medical personnel who care for her.
When we finished, we realized we had blocked the aisle. We moved so others who had waited patiently, at least outwardly, could get by.
A man stepped toward the exit. Our eyes locked for a moment. He must have been allergic to something in the restaurant because moisture rimmed his eyes, a little bit leaking out of one corner.
The restaurant’s host came from the other direction. He had been a tad grumpy when we asked for more napkins. Now a grin stretched from ear to ear. “Thank you,” he said. “That was wonderful. Thank you.”
Erin and her mother thanked us. Hugs were shared, by all save one person. I did smile a lot and shake everyone’s hand.
We are made from dust. And to the dust we will all return. But until we do, moments of grace will find us. Thanks be to God.

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A Cup of Water

Mark 9:38-41
A Cup of Water
30 September 2018
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

On the night of December 13, 1862, the Confederate army held the high ground outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. They had dug in behind a stone wall on Marye’s Heights that rose about 50 feet above an empty plain that stretched some 600 yards from the town itself.

That day, fifteen different Federal units had attacked the Heights – moving across the plain in futile rush after futile rush. The closest the Federal troops came to the wall was 25 yards in some locations, 40 yards in others.

In the darkness, ambulances removed the wounded soldiers. But they could not reach the men who had advanced the farthest against the storm of lead that poured upon them from behind the wall.

As the dawn broke on December 14, wounded, dying men still lay where they had fallen. They called for loved ones. They cried out for a merciful death to ease their pain. They begged for water.

After what must have seemed an eternity, an amazing thing happened. A Confederate soldier crossed the wall and went to the wounded, dying men to offer water from a canteen. When they realized what he was doing, the Federals held their fire. The man, probably Sergeant Richard Kirkland from South Carolina, is known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” because of his efforts to ease the suffering of those from the other side.[i] Sergeant Kirkland was killed in action before the war ended; that is one of the reasons the identity of the Angel is uncertain.

Jesus taught that in the least of the human family, in the most oppressed, the most vulnerable, we meet him.[ii] A soldier lying wounded under the guns of those who are called the enemy seems to be vulnerable, seems to be the least. What the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” did was certainly done to Jesus.

image_123923953“I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

I may never fully appreciate the power of Jesus’s words. I have been thirsty from time to time. There have been days when the water has been shut off for a few hours. I can remember once or twice when we had to boil water. But for 99% of my life, I have been able to turn on a spigot and receive safe, clean water.

People who live in Flint, Michigan. People who live on the Navajo Nation. People who live in other places in our country and around the world where there is no water, or the water is filled with lead or some mineral runoff or other poison know too well how important water is.

The people who heard Jesus understood. The land where Jesus lived is not a desert in the sense of miles and miles of sand dunes. But it is an arid land. It is a place where water is scarce and water is precious. The people who lived in Judea and Samaria almost 2,000 years ago knew well what the indigenous peoples who gathered at Standing Rock to protect the Missouri River remind the world: “Mni Wiconi – water is life.” Little reason that Jesus praised giving a cup of water to drink as a sacred act.

Our country passed through an emotional wringer this past week. The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court has been contentious and controversial from the moment it was made. The drama and the trauma exploded exponentially when women came forward with allegations of sexual assault by the nominee.

After much wrangling, the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to hear one of those women, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testify. On Thursday, Dr. Blasey Ford told her story to the committee and responded to questions. The nominee did the same. It was a grueling day for those in Washington and for those across the country who relieved painful violations as the questioning proceeded and the news media dissected every statement.

The Committee reconvened on Friday to consider what to say to the full Senate. After several hours of statements and debate the Senators voted, along straight party lines, to send the nomination forward with a recommendation for approval. Although, one Senator voted yes only with the understanding that there be an FBI investigation, within a week, of Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations. Such an investigation appears to be moving forward.

The process was emotional. Painful. Wrenching. Disconcerting. Anger, deep anger, bubbled near the surface and sometimes spewed forth like unrestrained lava bursting from a volcano. Two exceptions, two individuals who showed no little or anger, were Dr. Blasey Ford and attorney Rachel Mitchell who asked questions for the Republicans for a portion of the hearing. Both women.

Senators behaved badly. Barely restraining their words. Attacking each other. Raising their voices. Resorting to exaggeration and hyperbole. Demeaning each other. Attributing base motives to their colleagues with no evidence.

Twitter and social media exploded with fury at all the parties involved. In the days before the hearing, we learned that Dr. Blasey Ford had received death threats. During the hearing, we learned that Judge Kavanaugh had received death threats. After the hearing, we learned that Senator Flake who helped broker the compromise to have an FBI investigation, has received death threats.

This was far from the Senate’s finest moment. This was far from the finest moment for the United States.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing takes place at a time when we have heard a great deal about sexual assault, sexual violence, and sexual abuse. Bill Cosby was recently sentenced to prison following his conviction on charges of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home 14 years ago. As many as 60 other women have made similar charges.[iii]

Women, and men, have charged other individuals with inappropriate sexual contact of various sorts. Some have lost jobs. Some appear to go on with life as though nothing had happened. A few, a very few, have admitted their actions and resigned from their jobs or stepped out of the limelight.

Sexual assault is primarily directed against women and girls, but it happens to men and boys as well. Most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, but there are a few instances of women perpetrating such assaults against men or other women.

The church is not immune. Recent reports from Germany and Pennsylvania indicate widespread abuse of children by a number of Roman Catholic clergy over extended periods of time.[iv][v]

But abuse is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. It has happened in our own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Children have been abused on the mission field where Presbyterians served.[vi] Abuse has also occurred by Presbyterian youth leaders and pastors in this country.[vii]

A 2016 study revealed that 84 percent of Presbyterian female clergy have experienced discrimination, prejudice or harassment based upon their gender.[viii] While discrimination, prejudice, and harassment do not necessarily rise to the level of assault, they may. And they create an atmosphere in which assault may occur. Former Co-Moderator, the Rev. Denise Anderson writes, “most heinous behaviors have their beginnings elsewhere. They are undergirded by our commonly accepted practices and the things we never interrogate. When we don’t take care to pay women with equity, it doesn’t happen. When we aren’t intentional about examining our biases and respecting women’s leadership, it doesn’t happen. And if we can’t even trust women to make decisions about something as simple as their hair, how will we ever believe them when they come forward with their stories of abuse?”[ix]

The multiple allegations spurred the #MeToo movement in which women, transgender people, and men, told their stories and added the hashtag #MeToo. For people unwilling to share their story, who found it too painful to tell their story, who felt unsafe if they were to tell their story, who could not bring themselves to tell one more time a story that had been consistently disbelieved, denied and dismissed, the simple use of the #metoo hashtag served to affirm their experience.

#ChurchToo became used to refer to assault or abuse in the church. One of my seminary professors writes “I can’t even remember the names of all the men on my #ChurchToo list.”[x]What she remembers is the power and the privilege they held. In the end, sexual assault is not about sex. It is about power and control; privilege and violence.

No matter the gender or age of the person who commits the assault; no matter the gender or age of the person who is assaulted; all such actions are sin. The state defines different actions as different types of crime. To those who follow Jesus, all such actions violate the image of God in which each person is made and so are sin.

There’s a lot to process in what I have already said. I have identified some important dynamics and pointed in some necessary directions. I am happy to have further conversations with folks about the issues and concerns I have raised.

This morning, I want to say two more things.

First, we have witnessed amazing courage this week. Bruce Springsteen sings about “courage you can understand.”[xi] As I watched Dr. Blasey Ford testify, I saw courage I cannot understand. I stood in awe of her grace and strength as she presented her story and responded to questions in a hostile setting under enormous pressure and the glare of the world media. Her courage proved contagious and people found their voices and told their stories because of her.

But know this. If someone has sexually abused or sexually assaulted you and you are a human being, you are courageous. You are courageous for working through and living with that trauma every single day. You are courageous if you find your voice and lift it protest and a call for justice. And you are courageous even if you never speak a word aloud. You are courageous. You are not alone. You are stronger than you imagine. And you are beloved by God. Do not ever forget that.[xii]

Second, I believe that amid the stress and trauma of the days before the hearing and the stress and the trauma of the hearing and the vote and the stress and trauma of waiting for what comes next, I believe there were moments of kindness, glimpses of grace, tender mercies, acts of love. To use the image of Jesus in our gospel lesson, cups of water were shared.

We learned that 10-year-old Liza Kavanagh prayed for Dr. Blasey Ford. A cup of water.

Maria Gallagher from Westchester and Ana Maria Archila, who is a native of Queens confronted Arizona Senator Jeff Flake at an elevator inside the U.S. Capitol.[xiii] As they spoke, Mr. Flake nodded and looked down, his eyes darting between the women, the floor, and the elevator walls. “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Ms. Gallagher said. “I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter.” Fighting back tears, she demanded the senator’s attention. “Don’t look away from me,” she said. “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.” This marked one of the first times either woman had publicly shared their accounts of sexual assault. Ms. Archila said she was moved to tell her story after seeing Dr. Blasey’s testimony.[xiv] Sometimes cups of water are delivered with tough love.

Senator Flake took his stand for an FBI investigation after conversation with colleagues, Republican and Democrat alike. While reports indicate he talked to several Senators, it seems likely that his conversation with Senator Chris Coons proved pivotal. Senators Flake and Coons rarely vote together but they have become friends. For a moment that friendship became a cup of water as friendships often do.

Women and men, who had profoundly painful memories rekindled, and grievous wounds reopened, found comfort in Facebook posts by strangers and in the presence of friends. Cups of water.

Friends I have known for years thanked me for my simple words of kindness and support posted on Facebook. They shared parts of their story with me that I did not know and for which I weep. They reminded me that courage is contagious. And sometimes we do not know when we pass along a cup of water.

18836062_10155210720946063_1533898934229885746_n“I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

In the week ahead, I give you two homework assignments.

Look around you for people who are sharing cups of water.

Look around you for ways you can share cups of water in the name of Christ.

Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Fred Rogers, or Mister Rogers as he is better known, said that “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”[xv]

I believe that in our passage for today, Jesus says something similar with the image of sharing a cup of water.

When scary things happen, when life become unsettling and threatening, look for the people who are acting with kindness, who are showing love, who are sharing cups of water.

When scary things happen, when life become unsettling and threatening, be the people who act with kindness, who love, who share cups of water in the name of Jesus.

May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/the-angel-of-maryes-heights/

[ii] Matthew 25:31-46

[iii] https://www.thewrap.com/60-bill-cosby-accusers-complete-list-breakdown-guilty/

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/world/europe/german-church-sex-abuse-children.html. A study in Germany reports that more than 3,600 children, most age 13 or younger, were sexually abused by Catholic clergy members over the past seven decades by at least 1,670 church workers.

[v] https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/19/us/catholics-react-pennsylania-sex-abuse/index.html. In August, a study notes that over the past 70 years in six Pennsylvania dioceses, 300 Catholic priests abused more than 1,000 children.

[vi] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/iarp_final_report.pdf

[vii] https://pres-outlook.org/2018/09/a-letter-to-church-that-i-love/

[viii] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/1217-convo/

[ix] http://www.ecclesio.com/2018/02/never-starts-assault-overlooked-ways-church-enables-abuse-denise-anderson/

[x] https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/i-cant-even-remember-names-all-men-my-churchtoo-list

[xi] “Nothing Man,” https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3458764513820554674/.

[xii] This paragraph grew out of a Facebook exchange with Hannah Truxell.

[xiii] http://gothamist.com/2018/09/28/jeff_flake_elevator_protest.php

[xiv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/28/us/politics/jeff-flake-protesters-kavanaugh.html

[xv] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/mister-rogers-helpers-quote_n_2318793.html

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Churches across the world invited to pray for Korean reunification

The international ecumenical community has invited churches and individuals to join in prayer for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula on August 13. People of any faith or no faith may join.
  Churches across the world invited to pray for Korean reunification

Photo:WCC

24 July 2017

On 13 August, churches across the world are invited to show solidarity with Korean churches by joining a “Sunday of Prayer for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”

The theme for the prayer is based on Romans 14:19: “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” The day of prayer occurs two days before Liberation Day in Korea (15 August), during which people celebrate Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization.

The joint prayer was prepared by the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) from North Korea and the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) from South Korea.

In a letter of invitation to member churches, World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit and World Communion of Reformed Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Chris Ferguson invited parishes and individuals across the world to pray for the reconciliation and healing of the divided Korean Peninsula.

“The prayer is an important part of our growing movement to overcome the antagonism that divides the Korean Peninsula and continue to open interaction between communities, churches and people,” the letter reads. “We believe churches across the world can, through prayer, help foster an environment in which peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula can flourish.”

Links:

Material Global Prayer Day on 13 August, 2017

Letter to member churches WCC and WCRC

WCC Member churches in Korea

WCRC statement on the Korean peninsula 7 July, 2017

WCC statement on the Korean peninsula 11 June, 2017

Mutuality and cooperation focus at Korean peace meeting in Leipzig (WCC press release 14 July, 2017)

See you along the Trail.

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