28 October 2018
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Bartimaeus – the son of honor. Once could see. Lost his sight. Encountered Jesus. The crowd tried to keep him away. Jesus called Bartimaeus to him. The man who was blind threw off his cloak and went to Jesus. After a conversation, Jesus healed him. He regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way. Remember Bartimaeus who threw off his cloak. We will come back to him.
Events of the week rocked my world.
People make up a significant part of our worlds. Family. Friends. Members of Christ’s body. They touch and enrich us.
Values make up a significant part of our worlds. Faith in Jesus Christ. The principles which guide us. The practices by which we act.
Places make up a significant part of our worlds. Places we have lived. Places we have visited. Places that shape and form us and give us meaning. In the words of Archibald Graham, the one-time baseball player who found his true calling as a doctor in small-town Minnesota in the movie Field of Dreams, “This is my most special place in all the world. Once a place touches you like that, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.”
People. Values. Places. Events rocked all three of those parts of my life this week.
People. On Wednesday my brother’s father-in-law had died. Charles Wilt – Chuck as we all called him – had been ill for a while, but still his death was a bit unexpected. He worked for state of Pennsylvania on water safety. I saw him at every family gathering. He was a kind, gentle, thoughtful man with one flaw. He liked Notre Dame football. He was buried yesterday wearing Notre Dame socks. It was a blessing to know him.
Values. Today we mark Reformation Sunday. We Presbyterians trace our roots in the Reformed tradition to John Calvin.
John Calvin followed Jesus and knew that Jesus was a refugee. Fearing what Herod might do, Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to Egypt for safety (Matthew 2:13-15). Calvin was French, he left his home and went to Switzerland where he eventually found a leadership role among the followers of Jesus in Geneva.
These itinerant experiences of our ancestors have made welcome an important value for my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and to be in ministry. The separation of families at our border grieves me. What impact does that have on the parents and children involved? What does that say about us as a nation that such separations have happened and continue?
Many responses to the people coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and other countries grieve me. People are leaving their homes and making a perilous journey to what they perceive as greater safety. “These individuals are largely asylum seekers, families of people who are seeking safety. How we react to them says a lot about how we value them as human beings,” said Teresa Waggener, immigration attorney for the PC(USA)’s Office of Immigration Issues. How we react to them says even more about who we are as human beings. For whatever reason they flee their homes, they all have rights under international law. They all have a claim on us as people made in the image of God. What does it say about us as a nation that our leaders encourage us to respond with fear rather than to love?
By training, Calvin was an attorney. He believed that God is God, as I heard in a sermon last week. God is God. And God is God of all of life. We follow Jesus in all our living. Every part. That includes our public life – our life together – the ways in which policies are made and implemented. Calvin referred to the office of “civil magistrate” – the authorities – as the “most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.”
While I have never had the desire to be a civil magistrate or to run for public office, I have long understood advocacy as part of my calling as a follower of Jesus and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian church. This involves communicating with elected officials and supporting positions on issues. It does not involve publicly supporting any individual candidates. I will encourage you to vote. I will never say vote for a specific individual. But I will say vote.
My heart broke in June 2017 when a gunman opened fire on Republican congress people as they practiced on a baseball field. My heart broke this week as I learned that pipe bombs described by the FBI as “potentially destructive devices” were mailed to people across the country. The recipients include Democratic public officials, former government employees, and a funder of progressive candidates and causes. Any political violence – in whatever form, be it overt or subtle – tears at my values and rips at our society.
Places. On Wednesday, Mr. Maurice Stallard and Ms. Vickie Jones were killed at a Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. Race played a role in the killings. Mr. Stallard and Ms. Jones were African-American. The shooter is white. He tried to enter an African-American Baptist Church before going to the Kroger. I lived in Jeffersontown for six years when I worked in Louisville. My go-to grocery store was the Kroger on Taylorsville Road where Mr. Stallard and Vickie Jones were killed.
Yesterday, a shooting took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. 11 people are reported to have been killed and 4 police officers and two others wounded. The gunman reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks during the shooting. In addition, his social media account indicates his anti-Semitism. It is also reported he expressed criticism of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for its work with immigrants and refugees. The link between HIAS and the Tree of Life remains unclear; one report indicates the synagogue recently hosted a HIAS event.
I noted that the names of those killed at the Tree of Life had been released shortly before our service but I had not been able to find them. Clerk of Session Lisa Sisenwein did so during the service and I read the names:
- Joyce Fienberg, 75, of Oakland;
- Richard Gottfried, 65, of Ross;
- Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill;
- Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood;
- brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill;
- married couple Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg; Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg;
- Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill;
- Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill;
- Irving Younger, 69, of Mount Washington.
Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It’s Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. He lived there. A Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers was not a member of a congregation. But he was an active participant in Sixth Presbyterian Church, located about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue. On Saturday evening, Sixth Presbyterian Church hosted an interfaith prayer vigil with neighbors – neighbors – of all faiths and no faith. While I never actually lived in Pittsburgh, I spent most of my early life in Western Pennsylvania – within the orbit of Pittsburgh. It remains one of my “most special places.” When pushed to name a place as home, I reference Pittsburgh.
Events of the past week rocked the people, values, and places of my world. Perhaps these or other events rocked your world.
What do we do? What do we who follow Jesus do in times such as these?
We grieve. We weep. We rail and rant and rave. Sometimes we grieve hard.
We pray. We light candles. We make music and sing songs, even when they are cold and broken Hallelujahs. As another Leonard, Bernstein in this case, once said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
We remember that, as challenging as life becomes, God is God and God is with us. God never promises to make life go the way we would like. God never promises a life free of pain and struggle. What God promises is God’s presence. In all things. Whatever life brings. God holds us . . . strengthens us to rebuild . . . frees us to care for one another . . . inspires us to work for new beginnings . . . God loves us . . . God leads us to new life.
We remember Jesus. Jesus knew the sorrow and pain of this life. He lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire He encountered sickness and hunger. His earthly life ended in arrest, torture, and execution. And his closest friends? His followers? One betrayed him. One denied him. Others fled from him. Only the women remained.
But, God raised Jesus from death to life overcoming the power of sin and death. In so doing, God affirmed Jesus’ life and witness that we are made for each other. We are made to be loved. We are made to be love.
We remember the followers of Jesus. The disciples through the centuries. Those who took in the spirit of Bartimaeus, I told you he would be back. We remember the people who heard the call of Jesus and jumped up and threw off their cloaks and followed him.
This seems a particularly appropriate day to remember Jesus’ followers. Today we celebrate 147 years of witness and ministry by that part of Christ’s body known as the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. We stand in the long tradition of followers of Jesus. Particularly, we stand in the tradition of those good folk who threw off their cloaks and followed Jesus in Queens. Some are long gone, and we follow in their footsteps. Others sit in the pews around us. We remember that today. And we give thanks that we do not have to work alone.
Because after we grieve and after we remember, we have work to do. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, and other attacks on places of worship and acts of hate, reveal that “the fabric holding our nation together is fraying. It is our task to ensure that it does not come apart.” We have work to do.
We need to challenge speech that is hateful or that incites violence when we hear it expressed. Words do not pull the trigger on guns. Words do not build explosive devices. But words create an atmosphere in which some people think it is OK to build and send bombs and shoot guns. Pastor Gregory Bentley reminds us that “Words create worlds. The power of life and death is in the tongue. Choose life and speak life!” When we hear words that express hate or stoke violence, we need to find ways to respond. We can tell the President and other public servants to stop the hate. We can stand up to bullies. We can refuse to laugh at jokes or comments that demean or degrade.
We need to recognize that all people are made in God’s image. All people are precious to God. Anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices and systems that divide us and that say some have people have more value than others, cannot go unconfronted. When we find ourselves in gatherings where someone says something racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or otherwise hateful, those of us who hear can no longer look at each other uncomfortably. This has to end. We – I – have to find the courage to disrupt such thinking whether it is our living room or on the Internet or at public events. We must also work to dismantle the systems build on such lies. The Rev. William Barber tweeted “I am reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: ‘we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.’”
We need to learn about the issues we face. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has created a resource about addressing gun violence. We could do a study about that if we wanted to do so. Our Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and Office of Immigration have made available resources to help us learn about the people fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A few copies of those resources are on the table in Fellman Hall. We can make more. Various organizations including the Presbyterian Church can help us address racism. More Light Presbyterians and others provide insight and support for overcoming the oppression of our LGBTQ siblings.
We can welcome each other. We can share our condolences and support with our Jewish friends. Or we can make the effort to make Jewish friends.
We can give. I made a small contribution to Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue, a fund started by Muslims in Pittsburgh to help with the expenses faced by families who had a loved one killed or wounded in the shooting. I am happy to tell anyone who might like to consider making such a gift. I know that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is in conversation with Pittsburgh Presbytery and may provide opportunities for giving. But there is something immensely satisfying to me to be a Christian contributing to a fund organized by Muslims to reach out to a Jewish community in the aftermath of religious violence that can strike any faith community.
We can reach out to our African-American friends. We can reach across the wondrous diversity that God creates and build the community for which God creates us, for which Jesus redeems us, and for which the Holy Spirit inspires us. To adapt a statement by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush of Auburn Seminary, this is time for “people of all faiths [and no faith] to come together, reject the hate and work for the future of our nation where there is no supremacy by any one group, and all are welcome, there is equity for all and that the tree of life bears fruit for all.”
To do that, we double down on love. It might be tempting to withdraw from the world around us. To try to create insulated pockets of safety. To circle the wagons and hunker down. To make it through life as individuals. Safe and secure.
But Jesus revealed that God does not make us for isolation. God does not make us to live as individuals. God does not make us for safety and security. Jesus revealed that God makes us for relationships. God makes us for love.
And as Lin-Manuel Miranda, speaking as he received a Tony award about twenty-four hours after the horrific slaughter of members of the LGBTQ community at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
In the face of difficult days and troubling events that shake our worlds, we have the opportunity to be like Bart. To hear the call of Jesus and throw off our cloaks and with hearts shattered in pieces and tears streaming down our faces and voices cracking with emotion and knees knocking with fear, to love one another, to love everyone as disciples of Jesus. To love fiercely. To love graciously. To love, by the grace of God, as well as we are able. May it be so. Amen.