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A sermon on Luke 1:39-55
Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church
19 December 2021

From 2010 through 2016, I served as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church

Memories of precious people, painful international events, and amazing happenings swirl in my heart and mind.

Among my favorite memory is the moment I have come to call the good night ritual.                   .

Each night, I shut off my computer,
turned out the light,
and left the office.
I walked down the hall to the elevator
and pushed the call button.
When the cab arrived, I pushed “1” to go downstairs.
Hector would be there to see me out.
Always.
And always we spoke.
Sometimes we talked about weather or family.
Often, we talked sports. Conversations got interesting the week my Steelers beat Hector’s Jets.
After some conversation, I made for the door,
As I stepped across the hallway, I heard Hector’s final words:
always the same words,
always in the same, kind voice:
“Good night, Marko.
Get home safe.”

In Advent and Christmas, we think of home in many ways.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” sings Aaron Neville.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sings Oscar Peterson.[i]

Spoiler alert. If you have forgotten the ending of A Christmas Carol; if you have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I invite you to plug your ears for a moment. I will let you know when the spoilers are done.

After the visits of three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge sends a feast to Bob Cratchit’s home and then travels to celebrate at his nephew’s home.

After the visit of one rather ordinary angel second class, in the climactic moment of George Bailey’s renewal, he makes his way home. 

I see places I have lived at different times when I hear the word “home”.

Unique sights, smells, and sounds.

Home also recalls people. Beloved people. Family. Friends. Chosen family. Different in different homes. But always people.       

Home is a place.
123 Sesame St.
80 Main St., Apt. 23D

Home is people.

Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri observes that as a poor, unwed teenager, Mary was surrounded by dangers and uncertainty – both physical and societal. When she learned of her pregnancy, Mary sought a haven, a sanctuary, home.[ii]

Home for Mary was a place. The house of her relative Elizabeth.  Home was people. Zechariah was there. Silent, but there. More importantly, Elizabeth and the baby in her womb, were present.

They welcome and affirm Mary. And in a moment that Stephen Sondheim could have written, Mary breaks into a song. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Magnificat. A song that has been set in many ways over the centuries, including the Canticle of the Turning which we will sing shortly.

The Magnificat holds together the grittiness of life on the margins, the resilient hope of those who trust in God, and the power to image a new way of living.

My friend the Rev. Margaret Aymer suggests that we need to revise our view of Mary. Rather than gentle Mary, meek and mild, Margaret says Mary is better seen as Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama. A woman full of strength and courage and hope. An alternative vision fires her imagination. God’s vision of justice, equity, and peace. This vision, sung in Mary’s song, no doubt found its way into the lullabies she sang to Jesus and the stories she told him. It shaped him. It guided his living. His words and deeds exemplify his mama’s song.[iii]

Consider, church: the Triune God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit or whatever formula you use – exists in relationship.

Made in God’s image, we are made for relationships. The late bell hooks reminds us of this when she says that healing is an act of communion. Rarely, if ever, she says, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing comes through relationships. Life comes through relationships.[iv]

We are made for each other. We are made for relationships of integrity, compassion, justice, equity, solidarity, accountability, responsibility, and love. We are made to be home to one another.

The village of Le Chambon in France provided sanctuary and home to Jews during the Second World War. Fleeing the monstrous, sinful evil of the Nazis, Jews would arrive in this Huguenot village. They made their way to the building we Presbyterians would call the manse. They knocked and were usually greeted by Magda Trocme with the words, “Welcome. Come in.” The process of creating home began. Years later, asked why their village and people became a sanctuary of home, Magda replied, “They knocked. What else could we do?”[v]

This theology – that God has made us and called us to be home for one another –  was shared by those who ran the Underground Railroad. It is shared by those who welcome refugees, who support citizens returning from incarceration, and who offer sanctuary to individuals and families at risk of deportation to the violence-filled places they have fled.

Whether they are running for their lives or they are buffeted and battered by life, we will encounter people in need of refuge, haven, and sanctuary. Through Jesus Christ, God who is love, God who is our sanctuary and home, empowers us to say, “Welcome. Come in.”

Part of what allows us to create home is God’s gift of imagination. Our shared humanity allows us to imagine the pain and the fear of people in need.

More importantly, our faith allows us to imagine our relatedness to the entire human family. Each child is our child. Every person created and loved by God is a person to whom we are bound by the unbreakable cords of God’s love.

Imagination is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us nothing will change. Things will always be the same. There is nothing we can do about it.

Not so, says imagination. Not so. There can be, there is, another way. Imagination is the root of joy. Imagination is the source of hope. When we dare to imagine that Jesus just might be on to something when he tells us to love one another; we take the first steps toward loving one another.

At home with Elizabeth, Mary’s imagination inspired her to break into song about what God has done, what God will do, and what God is doing. Mary’s song, Rachel Held Evans reminds us, declares that God has chosen sides. [vi]

God has chosen not narcissistic rulers or leaders, but an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl for the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.

God has chosen not the powerful, but the humble.

Not the rich, but the poor.

Not the occupying force, but people pushed to the margins.  

God has made a home. That home, Jesus reveals, is among the people the world casts aside. Women. Children. The poor. Lepers. Samaritans. Tax collectors. Sinners. God’s home includes people of every sexual orientation and every gender identity, people living on the streets, people whose immigration papers do not match the government standards, people battling addiction, people dealing with mental illness, and anyone pushed aside by the culture of domination.

Any time we human creatures seek to keep some of God’s children out and we draw a line to exclude and we say, “you do not belong,” God wipes the line aside. “Hold my beer,” the Holy Spirit says, and she begins the patient, careful work of removing the line and welcoming all God’s children home.

Church, we know that does not happen quickly enough. We know people, too many precious people, are wounded in the time it takes God to erase the lines. That grieves us and God. But we also know that patiently, persistently God is at work. And God invites us to join that work.

In her defiant, prophetic, imaginative song, Mary—a dark-skinned woman who would become a refugee, a member of a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality: God makes a home for and with those who have been driven to the margins by the powerful. And we are invited to meet God there on the margins and be welcomed home.  

During Advent, we journey home.

During Advent, we work to create home.

During Advent and always, may we journey and work with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama – a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed that:

The powerful have already been humbled;

The vulnerable have already been lifted up;

The world is turning;

And it is turning toward home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Many artists have recorded both songs. The versions by Aaron Neville and Oscar Peterson were the first to appear in my iTunes Library.            

[ii] This comes from Vilmarie’s commentary on Luke 1:39-55 in the Sanctified Art Close to Home Sermon Planning Guide for this Sunday.

[iii] I found this image from the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer a couple years ago. I can no longer find the source.

[iv] https://www.uua.org/worship/words/quote/healing-act-communion.

[v] The story of Le Chambon is told by Philip Haille in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Chambon-sur-Lignon.

[vi] https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent.

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Commission on the Status of Women

 

 Between 2,000 and 4,000 women. And a few men.

Those will be my companions for the next two weeks.

Within that group, my circle will likely focus on 40 or so Presbyterians and some of our ecumenical partners..

The 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (“CSW” or “the Commission”) begins on Monday, February 27.

For Presbyterian participants things started last night with an orientation at the Church of the Covenant.

The CSW is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. Comprised of representatives of 45 UN Member States, the Commission gathers every year at United Nations Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide.

There are a number of places to follow the CSW including Swords into Plowshares where I blog for my work with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

Watch the plenary sessions of the Commission on UN Webcast.

Other sources of information include:

This morning we will take part in an orientation with our partners in Ecumenical Women.

Thanks to Grace Bickers who volunteers at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations for the picture.

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Begin again

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program has created a daily Advent devotion – Proclaiming the Good News of God’s Peace. I had the privilege of writing the devotion for today. You can order the booklet or read each day’s devotion.

Tuesday, November 29
Matthew 21:12-17

We think of Advent as a time to prepare to celebrate again the birth of Jesus. In today’s reading, we find not a baby but a  grown-up Jesus. Jesus entered the temple and saw people selling animals to the pilgrims for their obligatory sacrifices. They exchanged Roman currency into Jewish money so the temple tax could be paid in appropriate coinage. Jesus disrupted the scene, overturning tables and chairs.

This striking story seems more appropriate at the end of Jesus’ life than at its beginning. But here it is. We wonder: Did Jesus object to all commercial activity in the temple? Or just to the exploitation of the people by those who controlled the means of ritual purity and access to God? In either case, in both cases, his actions invite the people to change, to begin again.

Its placement here, in Advent, invites us to begin again as well. Begin again in our hearts, in our relationships with God, in our relationships with those we love and in our relationships with those we do not know. Begin again to live lives walking humbly with God, seeking peace, doing justice, and loving one another. Begin again with confidence because we know who was present at the beginning . . . who awaits us at the end . . . and who holds us in the meantime.

PRAYER
God of the ages, may this Advent season be a time of renewal and new beginnings in our lives of faithful discipleship following Jesus, whose birth we celebrate. In his name we pray. Amen.

Rev. W. Mark Koenig, director, Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, New York, New York

See you along the Trail.

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Around Christ’s table, under a rainbow flag

The West-Park Presbyterian Church congregation gathered around the communion table for the benediction and closing song. As I moved forward, I looked up. There I saw the rainbow flag hanging from the balcony (I should have taken a picture). I stood under the flag and around Christ’s table with the cross, the cup, the platen. A light went on for me.

West-Park Presbyterian is a “diverse and inclusive community of people. West-Park emphasizes a progressive, dynamic, and responsive theology that is ‘reformed and ever-reforming.'” The congregation has a deep, rich history of seeking justice – a history that is still being made as they engage in rebirth, working with their community to create a sweat-free neighborhood, and supporting programs ranging from the West Side Campaign Against Hunger to God’s Love We Deliver to Living Wage NY, Justice Will Be Served, the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association, the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness, and more.

The congregation is developing a partnership with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations as one way to make local-global connections. My colleague Ryan Smith was there last Sunday to speak of our ministry and global discipleship.

Today, West-Park’s pastor, and my friend, the Rev. Bob Brashear invited me to join him in a dialogue sermon. We reflected on changes in the Middle East and North Africa and how those will impact the work of the church, my passion in ministry, and the resources I use to keep current on events. The sharing of the offering and a hymn followed. Then, as is the custom, we gathered around the communion table.

There I saw the flag. There I realized that I had failed to share a wonderful joy during the time of prayer.

Yesterday, Scott Anderson – now the Rev. Scott Anderson – was ordained again as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Scott had been ordained but had set aside his ordination in 1990 when members of the congregation he was serving learned that he is gay and threatened to use that against him.

For over 20 years, Scott has remained faithful to Christ, faithful to Christ’s Church, faithful to that manifestation of Christ’s church known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). For over 20 years, Scott has remained steadfast to God’s call, serving in many capacities – most recently as the Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches.

For over 20 years, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had in place policies that denied Scott the possibility to serve in ordained ministry.

That changed this year with a change in the church’s constitution. The Rev. Scott Anderson’s took place because of that change.

That change occurred in part because of the witness of West-Park Presbyterian Church and other Presbyterians who have worked patiently, tirelessly, faithfully to open the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) to our GLBTQ sisters and brothers.

The More Light movement played an important role in this change. More Light congregations are those which made a public affirmation that sexual orientation alone would not be a bar to ordination. The first church in the denomination to make a formal statement from the pulpit declaring itself a More Light Church: West-Park Presbyterian Church.

I did not interrupt the response to the benediction; but when the last note ended, I slipped over to Bob and said, “You know, we should have given thanks for Scott’s ordination.” Bob did not miss a beat. He called the congregation back and around Christ’s table, we gave thanks to God.

See you along the Trail.

The photo shows the flag flown outside their living quarters by this year’s college staff at Ghost Ranch.

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Ribbons of Hope

I was in Louisville on September 11, 2001. I had just returned from the World Conference against Racism. A friend flew into town from the same conference – scheduled to arrive on the evening of September 10. Because of flight issues, my friend ended up taking a taxi from Cincinnati that arrived at the Louisville airport early on the morning of September 11. A phone call from another friend later that morning brought me the first word of the day’s event. It was a dazed day, even at that distance. In many ways, I continue to sort through the day and its meaning.

Now as the 10th Anniversary approaches, I find myself living in New York. The proximity fills the day with new meanings that lead me to ponder more deeply and work through in new ways.

I have not been to the World Trade Center site yet. Ever. I plan to take part in the events commemorating September 11 including the worship service of the Presbytery of New York City. I think I will go to the site before September 11.

I have helped the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gather resources for the anniversary. I have promoted the work of Prepare New York.

Today, in a worship service at the Church Center for the United Nations led by the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, we adapted a liturgy from the National Council of Churches created by written by the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner and the Rev. Jon Brown. In the places where the services suggested lighting candles, we invited people to write prayers of remembrance, comfort and hope on simple red ribbons. Ryan Smith read scripture; Peng Leong led the time of prayer; Kevin O’Hara from the Lutheran Office for World Community led the benediction. Thanks to all my friends who helped me pick a song!

These ribbons will become part of the Ribbons of Hope display in Battery Park on the weekend of Septmbe 11, 2011.

To paraphrase the blessing from the liturgy:
May memory now reside in us at peace. May comfort companion us in all our days. May hope spring forth in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. May we serve God in all that you do and say, witnessing to the reign and realm of God to come. Amen.

See you along the Trail.

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Manifestacion

They are scattered across the city, the Permanent Missions of the member states to the United Nations. I am still learning where they are.

Yesterday when my friend David Bowie and I left the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations we heard the chants of a demonstration. As we made our way up 44th Street toward Grand Central, the sound became louder. At the corner of 2nd Avenue, we saw the people – Syrians.

Men and women, old and young, under flying flags they called for justice and peace for their country.

From their courage and faith, hope leached into my heart as we stood and watched for a few moments. I waved and gave the peace sign as we passed by.

This evening David asked why the group had gathered there. Who did they hope to influence? Groups who come to the UN often do so on 1st Avenue – Ralph Bunche Park is a common location. We wondered if maybe they could not get a permit.

And then I looked up the address for the Permanent Mission of Syria. Sure enough – 820 Second Avenue – between 43rd and 44th – right across the street from where the crowd had gathered to make their witness. The people’s witness touched me; may their witness and the witness of their sisters and brothers in Syria touch their country’s leaders. May peace and justice prevail for Syria and for all peoples.

See you along the Trail.

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Looking forward to the return

I have not been posting as often as I hoped. I am still fighting with a cold.

Here’s one that I originally posted over on Swords into Plowshares:

There are two broad foci to the mission of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations:

  • Inspiring and equipping Presbyterians to live as disciples of Jesus in the global neighborhood
  • Bearing witness for peace and justice in the community of the United Nations, based on policy statements of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Of course these foci are essentially and inextricably intertwined as events today affirmed.

Wellshire Seminar October 14, 2010 001 A group of about twelve Presbyterians from Wellshire Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado visited the office this morning. They were the first group of Presbyterian visitors that I had the privilege and joy to host.

As the Presbyterians from Denver gathered in our large conference room, a delegation of church leaders from Sudan met in our small conference room. The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations helped with their visit based on long-standing Presbyterian involvement with our Sudanese sisters and brothers in Christ and on many statements of the General Assembly calling Presbyterians to work for and pray for a just peace in Sudan.

The Rev. Ramadan Chan, Secretary General of the Sudan Council of Churches, graciously agreed to speak with the Wellshire group.

He shared about the concerns that he and his colleagues share for their beloved country and the impending referendum in southern Sudan. He reiterated their view that violence and war might break out but it is not inevitable – that peace is possible if the nations of the world act swiftly and decisively to support peace and a fair and transparent referendum.

The Rev. Chan explained that he and the other church leaders from Sudan had two primary purposes for their visit. The first is to sound the alarm. They have done that in London with leaders of the United Kingdom. They are doing that in New York with the international community through meetings with Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, national missions at the United Nations, and international organizations and programs. They will do that in Washington, DC next week with leaders of the United States.

Their second purpose is to meet sisters and brothers in the churches of the United States – so we will know their story – we will hold them in prayer – we will advocate with our government.

Wellshire Seminar October 14, 2010 007 When the Rev. Chan had finished, we joined in prayer led by the Rev. Chan and the Rev. Patricia Kitchen of Wellshire Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Chan then left for a lunch engagement.

We talked a bit more about the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and about ways that our lives as disciples of Jesus intersect with the work of the United Nations . . . through the season of prayer for Sudan, prayers for United Nations Day, participation in Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, and the Red Hand Campaign to end the use of children as soldiers were discussed.

Our time ended with an invitation to Wellshire Presbyterian Church to return for a seminar at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. Looking forward to that day!

Photos by Ricky Velez-Negron of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

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Beginnings


Today marks the beginning of a new adventure. In just a few hours I head for New York and a new job. I will be serving as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. It will be a learning experience to figure out what that means – a learning experience that will happen at a fairly rapid rate. I will be living in a church-owned apartment in Morningside Gardens near Riverside Park. I will be wearing a suit a heck of a lot more. Actually I have done that for five days in a row last week. Not sure when that has happened before.

Today marks the beginning of a new effort at self care. That has not gone so well over the past month or so. But this is a new start. Much more walking will be required in New York City. I am counting on that to help, but intentionality will also be required.

Today marks the beginning of a new attempt to blog more regularly – at least to make notes of what happens and how the days go.

Today marks the beginning.

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