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Candles, Fireworks, Hope

Romans 8:15-25
Candles, Fireworks, Hope
March 29, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

“In hope we were saved. Now who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

I think a lot about hope these days.

Singer and activist David LaMotte wrote, “These are hard days in so many ways. Much of the time, it seems like the headlines are in competition for the worst news. … Being alive is hard work. Some days, I don’t feel hopeful.”[i]

David wrote those words two years ago. The need to think about hope goes with us always. It presses upon us with urgency in the age of Covid-19.

Be clear. Hope differs from optimism. Dramatically.

Optimism says things will get better; things will work out as we want; things will happen in a way that fits our desires and understandings.

Optimism is important. Envisioning we can do something often plays a critical role in allowing us to succeed.

Hope is not optimism. Writer and politician Vaclav Havel, who resisted the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and worked for a new future for his people said, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit.”[ii]

Hope is the conviction that however things turn out, life will make sense and all will be well even when we cannot imagine that will be. Hope lies beyond our selves, beyond our capacities. Hope lies in God.

Hope can be elusive, difficult to experience. A quick look at world events and the lives of people we love underscores that. Covid-19 highlights this reality in a dramatic fashion.

How then do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? That our lives have meaning and purpose? That we can contribute to a more just, loving, peaceful society?

I don’t know that my thoughts and prayers about finding and nurturing hope have led to any absolute answers to those questions that will work for everyone. I have some ideas to share that help me understand and sustain hope. Perhaps they will prove of use to you.

Hope is relational. I cannot hope on my own. Relationships are key to hope. Hope is like lighting candles in the wind.

I had been in New York for a little over three months when the people of southern Sudan went to the polls in January 2011. The northern and southern parts of the country had engaged in violent conflict since before Sudan achieved independence. A peace had been brokered. The treaty provided that the people of the south could vote to remain part of Sudan or to become their own country.

An interfaith community gathered at the Church Center for the United Nations to pray for the people of Sudan as they voted. After prayer and scripture reading and song in the chapel, we went outside to light candles.

Cold and wind and big, wet snowflakes greeted us on the sidewalk along First Avenue. We lit our candles, but we had to work together to keep them lit. We relit each other’s candles when they went out. We used fingers and song sheets to shield the flames.

Lighting candles in the wind is relational. It takes a community. So does hope.

To hope, I need to be connected to God. I need to pray and read Scripture and worship. To hope, I need to be connected to others.

Hope is relational. It is experienced in the grace of God and in the wonder and love others who hope in me, hope for me, and hope with me.

Hope is surprising. I can open myself to hope. I can nurture hope. I cannot command or control hope.

13669846_1180325505322138_3800535346819562182_nSummer 2016. A Brooklyn Cyclones game with members of First Chinese Presbyterian Church. I have no idea of the score but in the eighth inning the end-of-game fireworks went off. We looked at each other in surprise. From the row behind me and about three seats to my left, Will Tsang said, “Work that into a sermon, Mark.” (The photo is from that night and was taken by Doreen Cheung.)

Check that challenge off the list. Hope, like eighth inning fireworks, is surprising.

If a baseball story isn’t convincing enough, here’s a Bible story.

Luke’s Gospel recounts that on the Sunday after Jesus’ death, two of his followers walked to Emmaus. The death of Jesus had crushed their hope.

As they walked, a third person joined them. They did not recognize the person, but we, who read the story now, realize it was the risen Christ. The story reminds us that Christ comes to us as we travel on the Emmaus roads of life, in hospitals resisting Covid-19, in jails and prisons, in nursing homes, at meal programs and homeless shelters, even in our homes today as we use telephones to worship. Wherever we are.

When they reached Emmaus, the followers of Jesus invited the third person to stay and the evening meal. As their guest, they asked the traveler to say grace.

The traveler. Took bread. Blessed it. Broke it. Gave it to them. They recognized him. Hope was reborn. And Jesus left them.

Hope comes in surprising, mysterious, unexpected ways. The moments do not last forever. Sometimes they do not last for long. But the moments may fill us and bless us and sustain us for living.

Hope may surprise us in a word in a sermon or in the lyrics of a song or in a passage of scripture. Hope may break through when we receive a kind word. Or when a family member or friend acts in an unexpected way; when we receive grace or mercy in the place of vengeance and punishment; when we welcome one another as God’s beloved children.

Hope may sprout when we hear of the consistent, persistent courage of first responders and medical personnel; the grace of the people who bag our groceries and who clean hospitals, medical facilities, and other essential places; the commitment of business owners who care for their employees in hard times.

Hope does not come through individuals who suggest that others should be sacrificed for the good of the economy. Hope most certainly comes—most certainly comes when individuals make sacrifices for one another.

A Minnesota state trooper stops a cardiologist for speeding. Instead of a ticket, the trooper gives the doctor some of his own N95 masks. Hope. In Italy, people step out on their balconies to make music for each other. Hope. People who live near a hospital in Vancouver open their windows to clap for the medical and support personnel at shift changes. Hope.

Because God, through Jesus, is the source of hope, we live in hope. We live in hope even when life is painful and challenging and horrifying. Hope is an act of resistance and resurrection. Hope says – let the worst happen, God is not done. God who creates and loves us; God who raises Jesus from death to life; God who pours the Holy Spirit out upon us; God will have the final word. And it will be a word of life and love and grace and hope.

“In hope we were saved. Now who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Hope.

I have been thinking a lot about hope lately.

Like lighting candles in the wind, hope is relational.

Like baseball fireworks before the game ends, hope is surprising.

And rooted in God, hope is real.

Thanks be to God.

 

[i] https://www.davidlamotte.com/2018/hard-days/

[ii] https://www.vhlf.org/havel-quotes/disturbing-the-peace/

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Grief and Hope

John 11:17-35
I Thessalonians 4:13-14
Grief and Hope
26 January 2020
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig

Record albums. Do you remember them? Do you have any of them? Younger folk, do you know what I am talking about?

The word album to describe audio recordings appears to have come into use in the early 20th century. Early recordings were made on cylinders. In flat discs came into use. Record players were made with a flat surface on which the discs were placed. A needle sat on the grooves. The flat surface turned, sound came out of the speaker.

Recordings were made with a speed regulator that showed the speed when the recording machine was running. This allowed for other recordings to be copied at the same speed. And they could be played back at the same speed.

As with many new products, it took some time to create consistency. Around the turn of the century, the new recording industry settled on 78 rpm – revolutions per minute. Music historian Oliver Read writes: “The literature does not disclose why 78 rpm was chosen for the phonograph industry, apparently this just happened to be the speed created by one of the early machines and, for no other reason continued to be used.”[i]

The 78s as they came to be called could hold about 5 minutes of music. Albums were born in the early 20th century as individual records were collected in a bound book resembling a photograph album. Record albums continued to evolve until after 1948, they were made as single 12-inch records, pressed in vinyl, played at 33 1/3 rpm. They are now enclosed in a paper sleeve and put within a light cardboard cover that is uniquely decorated.[ii]

Music may be recorded on audio tape as cassettes. When I was in college, the music industry flirted briefly with something called 8-track tapes. I’m not sure how those worked. I confess I did not do any research about them. Compact discs were first released in 1982.[iii] All those media are referred to at times as albums.

Music fans often have their favorite media. My friend Alonzo, for example, insists the only way to listen to music is on vinyl record albums.

About four days ago, Alonzo posted a photo of himself on Facebook. He held an album that featured rapper Big Bank Hank. His face showed sorrow. On the caption, Alonzo wrote: “Oh no! I can’t believe he is dead.”

Denise, a mutual friend, gently wrote, “Big Bank Hank died in 2014, Alonzo.”

Alonzo admitted that he had forgotten. He cited old age as the cause. That worries me because he is much younger than I am. He went on to say, “It still hurts.”

Denise replied, “Grief hits when grief hits.”

Grief hits when grief hits.

For Jesus, grief hit as he stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus, brother of his friends Mary and Martha who lived in Bethany.

Jesus knew Lazarus would die. Mary and Martha sent him a message telling of their brother’s illness. Jesus stayed where he was for two days.

Then he told his disciples that Lazarus had died and they would go to Bethany. The disciples wondered about the timing and about going to Judea where the people were not all that pleased with Jesus and his message. But Jesus insisted.

Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus and the disciples learned that Lazarus had been dead for four days. In separate conversations, Mary and Martha both said that if he had been there, Lazarus had would not have died.

Mary was weeping. Family friends were weeping. Jesus was “disturbed” and “moved” but he asked to be taken to the tomb, located in a cave.

There Jesus wept.

He had to know what would come next. Or at least have had some idea what might come next. He would have the stone before the cave removed. He would tell Lazarus to come out. Lazarus would come out.

Knowing that, Jesus wept.

Grief hits when grief hits.

We all know grief. We have experienced loss and grief individually and as a community over the past couple months. We know grief. It is how we respond to loss. Grief is our reaction and response to a broken bond of belonging. We grieve because we love. In many ways, grief is love when the person or ability or pet or musician or whomever or whatever it might be we love is gone.

We grieve loved ones who have died. We grieve our abilities vanishing through illness or age. We grieve children and family members leaving home. We grieve the paths we didn’t walk. We grieve things we did and things we failed to do. We grieve the suffering of humanity and the damage we inflict on God’s creation.

Grief acknowledges our values. We grieve to honor who and what is dear to us.

People share common elements in grief. We may weep as Jesus wept. We may ask questions. We may deny what happened. We may become angry, angry at ourselves, angry at our circumstances, angry at the loved one who died, even angry at God. We may try to bargain with God. Mary and Martha did a bit of this when they said to Jesus, “If only you had been here.” We may feel paralyzed and unable to function. We may blame ourselves. Guilt may threaten to overwhelm us. We may become overly social. We may want to withdraw completely.

Lutheran minister Granger Westberg did a great deal of research into grief. He notes that “no two people face even the same kind of loss in the same way”.[iv] Siblings grieve the death of a parent in different ways. Community members grieve the death of a beloved friend in different ways. We need to recognize that reality and allow one another the space to grief that each of us requires.

Ellen served as a chaplain at a women’s prison in Cleveland. When she first came to town, she would worship with Noble Road where Tricia and I served. Ellen could stay for most of our service before she had to leave to reach the prison. She often sat with Sean, our older son. Then she met Bob and I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding. After they had been married about a year, Ellen died. Unexpectedly. Too young. Of natural causes. I had the responsibility to officiate at her memorial service.

The Noble Road community gathered with ministers and elders from the presbytery and some people who worked at the prison, I said that we all loved Ellen, we all grieved for her loss, and no two of us would grieve the same way.

As a couple months passed after the service, I noticed that Ellen’s close friend Diana had missed a number of meetings and events that we should have attended together. Finally, I decided to call her. When I asked how she was, she replied that she was grieving. Then she said, “I am grieving in my own way. No two of us grieve in the same way. Did you listen to your sermon at all, Mark?”

Supporting family members and friends who grieve involves allowing them to take the lead. Listening. Gently asking questions. Meeting their requests and the needs they identify. Holding the space and providing the time they need to grieve.

Grief is the raggedy emotion. We never know what might snag our hearts and minds and cause us to grieve. It may be when we listen to music. It may be at holidays. Or dates that were important to us and the one we loved. Or when we see something that reminds us of a loved one. Or when we realize again that we cannot do something we once loved. We do not know what might lead us to grieve.

C.S. Lewis, the British lay theologian and author of The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia and more, never expected to marry. In 1950, he began a correspondence with American author, Joy Davidman. They were writers, they wrote each other letters. Joy moved to London in 1953. Lewis found her a place near his house. Three years later, the British government chose not to renew her visitor’s visa. In April 1956, Lewis and Joy married. A civil marriage so she could stay in the country. They continued to live in separate houses. As Joy walked across her kitchen in October of that year, she tripped and broke her leg. At the hospital, she received a diagnosis: bone cancer had metastasized from breast cancer. Facing tragedy, C.S. Lewis realized he loved Joy deeply and completely. They had a church wedding and lived together for almost four years – until her death.[v]

When Joy Davidman died, C.S. Lewis grieved. Grieved profoundly. He did not like grieve any better than anyone ever has. Lewis thought that grief might be lessened if he intentionally avoided the places he and Joy had frequented. In his walks, he went only those places where they had never been together. He switched grocery stores, tried pubs, walked only along streets and paths that he and Joy had never taken. But it didn’t work. Lewis discovered that Joy’s absences was “like the sky, spread over everything.”[vi] He could not escape grief. He had to grieve.

The Rev. Dr. Gordon Boak served as pastor of the church I attended in high school. I was a bit disillusioned when his daughter told me that he had never studied in Scotland. Still he was a good man and pastor. He played an important role in my faith development. When asked how a person might get over grief, Dr Boak responded that we never get over grief. We don’t get around grief. We don’t get under grief. We get through grief. We only get through grief by grieving.

When we suffer loses, we grieve. It is a price of love. We cry. We rage. We meditate. We sleep. We eat. We don’t eat. We talk. We find a counselor. We remember. We tell stories. We pray. We don’t pray. We do what we need to work through our grief.

From Blackfeet singer, songwriter, Jack Gladstone I learned what the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains know about how bison survive the brutal snow and ice storms that whip across the land. When a blizzard comes, bison face the storm and then start walking into the storm. In so doing, the bison minimize their exposure and the damage they receive from the blizzard.[vii]

I don’t know if Dr. Boak or C.S. Lewis knew about bison or the wisdom Indigenous people share. But they made the same point. Face the storm. Only through our grieving can we move forward in life. Things will never be the same after loss. But by God’s grace, we can rebuild and life can be good again.

Is this easy? Of course not. It is hard painful work. We will need to rely on one another at times.

Our grief will last, in one form or another, forever. But so will our faith.

The Apostle Paul reminds us of a dimension of grief that followers of Jesus have. To the Thessalonians, to all followers of Jesus, to us, Paul writes: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”[viii]

Through Jesus Christ, we have hope as we grieve. Hope for resurrection and reunion. Hope that, even though we may not feel it with certainty at times, God sustains us and supports us. Hope that we can turn to one another in our grief for comfort and strength.

You may have heard me quote my friend the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer. On many occasions. She is a New Testament scholar and a seminary professor. I quote her often.

Today I am not going to quote Margaret, but I am going to quote her husband, Laurent Oget. An immigrant born in French Guiana. A computer geek, although wizard might be a better word. A musician, Laurent plays most of the different styles of saxophone.

While I was finishing this sermon yesterday, Laurent posted on Facebook. He had recently learned that Jean, a Canadian friend of his, had died. When he posted, Laurent’s grief took the form of anger. Jean died of cancer. Laurent had some strong things to say against cancer. He used a couple of colorful metaphors in doing so. Accurate metaphors. Metaphors I agree with. But too colorful to quote in church. If you have had a loved one die from cancer, or maybe die from or suffer from any disease, you may have said something equally similar.

After his anger Laurent, the musician, segued to hope. He knows the strength of community. He asked everyone who knew Jean to raise a glass of red wine in his honor. Then he asked everyone who read his post to tell our friends that we love them.

I did not know Jean. I suspect that is my loss. I do not drink red wine.

So church, to honor Jean and because it is true, I love you. Each of you. All of you.

In the face of loss, we grieve for who and what we love. And that may be hard. And grief will hit us when grief hits us. And the only way to deal with grief is to grieve. But as we grieve, we remember the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

[i] Oliver Read, The Recording and Reproduction of Song, (Indianapolis, IN: 1952), pp. 12, 14, 15,.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Album served as the source for most of the information from the beginning of the sermon to this point.

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_disc

[iv] Granger Westbrook, Good Grief: A Companion for Every Loss, updated and expanded edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), p. 29.

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_Davidman#Life_with_C._S._Lewis

[vi] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), pp. 11-12.

[vii] https://www.jackgladstone.com/faces-the-blizzard.html

[viii] I Thessalonians 4:13-14.

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A New Scene Begins

72214504_10157395131336063_6548324250078412800_nA New Scene Begins
Micah 6:1-8
Matthew 5:1-16
13 October 2019
Installation of the Rev. Eric Koenig
Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

I will never forget the day that Eric returned from a youth conference and gushed: “Mark Lomax is a great preacher!” After he said that several times, my poker face must have failed me, because he quickly added, “But Dad, you are OK, too.”

The Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax is pastor of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia. Professor of homiletics and worship at the Interdenominational Theological Center. He is a friend. A faithful follower of Jesus. A superb preacher. But he is somewhere else today. And I am here. And that’s OK.

We gather today for the installation of an associate pastor. Remember our context as we do. Presbyterians believe that all who follow Jesus are called to serve Jesus. We witness to Christ in all we do and say wherever we may be. God requires that corporately, and individually, we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Jesus summons each of us and all of us. Jesus invites us to live as he lived as well as we are able and to trust in God’s grace when we fall short. Jesus calls us to love as he loved and to establish the justice which, as Dr. Cornell West reminds us, is love in public. “Will you – singular you and plural you – will you come and follow me?”

Presbyterians further believe that from the midst of God’s people, some are called to ordered ministries. These are roles within the Church that allow the ministry of the whole people of God to flourish. We ordain the people who fill those roles. We do so not because they are superior followers of Jesus but to recognize the specific role they play in the life of God’s people.

Of ordered ministries in the Presbyterian Church there are three. Three are the number of ordered ministries. Deacon. Elder. And … to be honest, we have had some question about the language to use for the third ordered ministy. We have used “ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” We have used “teaching elders.” The Book of Order has a passage that covers all the bases: “teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament).”

By whatever name, the church ordains people to the role. Ordained individuals are then installed to specific positions and tasks.

In response to the Holy Spirit and discernment by Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of New Castle, and Eric, with significant input from Essie, we gather today to install Eric as associate pastor.

As we do, I offer some insights I have gleaned through the years about ministry.  In the words of those classic theogians the Beatles, I so with a little help from my friends. Ginger, Babs, Mac, Bunty, Fowler, Nick and Fetcher.

Well they could be friends. If we had met. If they were real.

They are castmembers of a movie called Chicken Run – a claymation movie involving chickens, rats, dogs, and some humans.

Chicken Run is set in 1950s Great Britain on the Tweedy’s chicken farm. The chickens live ringed by barbed wire fences and guarded by large, nasty dogs.

The chickens are there to make money for the Tweedys  by laying eggs. Hens that fail to lay eggs soon make their final appearance. On the Tweedy’s dinner table.

The chickens, led by a hen named Ginger, become fed up with this life.  Ginger knows that the chickens deserve better – a life free from the demand to produce eggs, free from the threat of death, and free from the farm.  She shares her vision with the other chickens and convinces them to begin living out the vision in the only way possible – escape.

They devise a plan for escape and put it into operation. And they fail. Again. And again. And again. Every attempt fails and the chickens are caught. And every time they are caught the chickens attempt another escape.

Two events break this cycle. A rooster from the United States named Rocky arrives. He brashly promises to teach the chickens to fly across the fence that traps them. At the same time, Mrs. Tweedy decides that eggs are not profitable enough. The farm will produce chicken pies. This makes escape essential. As one chicken profoundly says, “I don’t want to end up as a pie. I don’t even like gravy.”

I will tell no more of the story so as not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it. But what does it say about ministry?

The Tweedys said the chickens’ role was to live on their farm in the conditions they established and produce wealth for the Tweedys.  Led by the prophet Ginger, the chickens had an alternative vision. They envisioned a world with no barbed wire, no dogs, no huts, and no quotas. Instead there would be freedom and abundance and sunshine and sharing.

Jesus proclaimed and lived an alternative vision. In the face of the domination of empire and the division of the human family along lines of class and gender and sexual identity and age and nationality, Jesus taught a vision of radical inclusion, expansive love, and unfailing justice. He envisioned a world turned upside down. And he calls us as his followers to live in that world.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Whether we use the traditional translation of “blessed” or whether we ride with the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer’s translation of “greatly honored,” the Beatitudes proclaim a radical disruption of the status quo. They contain an alternative vision for reality. Jesus lived and died and was raised for that vision. He summons us to live in it. We are invited to work together to bring that vision into reality. And we are freed to know that we will fall short and when we do, we can seek and accept forgiveness, and pick ourselves back up and trying anew. Vision is where we start.

Part of that vision involves recognizing who we are and whose we are. The chickens refused to accept the way in which they were assigned worth by the dominant culture. To the Tweedys, the chickens had worth only as means of production. Once they ceased to be productive they had no value and they were disposed of. The chickens knew that they were more than that. They knew they had value simply because they existed. We are talking some profoundly self aware chickens here.

Ministry involves accepting our own value and reminding others of their value. We are repeatedly told that our value comes from externals – skin color, wealth, status, gender or sexual identity, age, ability. The list goes on. Elaborate systems and structures are built upon human differences by the powerful for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing their power.

Ministry is knowing and claiming and living the awareness that I am God’s beloved child. And so are you. And so is everyone we meet. We should be treated as such. We should treat each other as such. We should challenge anyone who says otherwise. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, we move from treating people as others to embracing one another in God’s love. And then we work to dismantle systems that perpetuate privilege and inflict oppression.

The chickens created community. They understood that they were in it together. When one hen had problems laying eggs, others would share theirs.  Rocky points out that one or two chickens could easily escape. Ginger replies, “But that’s not the point. Either we all escape or none of us escape.”

Building, expanding, and nurturing community is an essential part of ministry today. Ministry is a corporate practice – a communal art. It is not for the professionals alone. It is for all of us.

The community created in Chicken Run crossed the usual lines.  Nick and Fetcher are rats. That’s not a comment on their character. That’s an identification of their species. They aren’t the brightest rats. They spend a good amount of time waiting for the eggs that Rocky, the rooster, has promised to lay for them. Still the rats become part of the community working together toward the goal of freedom and a better life for all.

Ministry involves reaching out to and serving with people from whom we differ. God creates and enjoys an amazing diversity. Our challenge and opportunity is to build a welcoming, including community. God calls us to create a place at the table for everyone born, to paraphrase Shirley Murray’s hymn. God calls us to break down and reshape, remake, and replace as needed. And to make sure that since everyone has a voice, every voice is heard.

Each chicken and rat has unique gifts to use in the effort. They live out the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero. “None of us can do everything. Each of us can do something.” Each chicken and rat contributes to the effort.

Ministry involves discerning the gifts we each have and then putting those gifts to use for the good of the community and the world.

Chicken Run includes a rooster named Fowler who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. “644th Squadron, Poultry Division – we were the mascots.” He fondly tells stories about, “Back in my day…” The time comes when his gifts are needed.  When he is asked to help, Fowler begs off. Ginger says, “Fowler you are always talking about back in your day. Well you are here now. And it is now that we need you. This is your day.”

Time has a way of jumbling together. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. We plan and dream into the future. But in the end, today is the only day we have. Today we follow. Today we serve.

Today we begin a new scene in God’s Master Story – a story that began in the act of creation and that will extend until the end of days and the fulfillment of all things. A story of Divine creativity and grace and love in which we are privileged to play a part for a time. It is the story that has brought us to this time and place. It is the story that draws us into the future. We do not know for sure where the story will take us. Members of the Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church who were here at the end of June may remember a long-haired, bearded preacher who referenced advice shared by the hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings:  “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

We do not know for sure where our part in God’s Master Story will lead us. But of this we may be certain. It will be a story of God’s grace and our response in ministry. And God will be with us. This day. Every day.

Thanks be to God.

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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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Filed under First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Worship

No Human Is Illegal

I Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
No Human Is Illegal
23 June 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

With thanks to a June 22 post on Presbyterians for Just Immigration that helped jump start this sermon.

If you are like me, you may need some context to understand what is happening in our passage from I Kings. It is story about politics and faith that comes as a part of a longer story about politics and faith.

One point to begin the story of Ahab and Jezebel and Elijah is in Egypt. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Then hunger came. As it so often does, hunger people from their homes. In this case, Jacob and his sons.

Because he could interpret dreams, Joseph had risen from his beginnings to a position of authority in the Pharaoh’s court. He had responsibility for storing and managing food. After Joseph messed with his brothers a bit, they reunited, and the family moved to Egypt.

The came to be called the Hebrews, the name for the people came from an Egyptian word meaning “outsider” or “nomad” or “workers of inferior status.” Still, life went well for the people.

Then Joseph died. And a new Pharaoh came to power. He feared the Hebrew people. They had become numerous and he saw them as a threat. He tried several ways to eliminate them. But God heard their cry and sent Moses to deliver the Hebrew people.

They made their way to Canaan, after forty-years of wandering. There they settled. For a time, judges ruled them. But the Hebrew people wanted a king. A king like all the other peoples.

“Bad idea,” said Samuel the prophet. “Really bad idea.” The people pushed. Following prayer, Samuel relented. Guided by God, he anointed Saul as the first king. Saul ruled over all twelve tribes of Israel – one for each of Jacob’s son.

Saul disobeyed commands from God given to him by Samuel. Guided by God, Samuel anointed the shepherd musician David to be King. Conflict follows. Saul dies. David becomes king.

David is recognized as the greatest king of Israel. Of course, he was not a perfect king. He stole Uriah’s wife and arranged to have Uriah killed. Like virtually every other servant of God in or out of the Bible, God did not choose David because he was worthy; God made David worthy because he chose him.

David’s son Solomon follows his father as the king. When Solomon’s son succeeds his father, the kingdom breaks into two parts. Israel in the north with nine tribes. Judah in the south with two. The tribe of Levi had taken on religious duties. Competition and conflict prevailed between the two kingdoms. Each had its own king.

After time, a king named Ahab came to rule in the Northern Kingdom. He married a woman named Jezebel. It seems likely this was an arranged marriage designed to strengthen ties between the kingdom of Israel and Phoenicia – Jezebel’s home country.

Jezebel worshiped a god named Baal. Ahab had a place of worship built for Baal and an altar to Baal erected there.

Not only did Jezebel promote the worship of Baal, she suppressed the worship of Yahweh, the God who appeared to Moses and proclaimed, “I am who I am.” The God who led the Hebrew people to freedom. The God of Jesus.

Jezebel had the prophets of Yahweh killed. Altars to Yahweh were destroyed. When a famine came, Jezebel used royal provisions to feed and support the prophets of Baal.

Elijah, faithful to Yahweh God, noticed a fracture in the community. Worship of Baal was increasing. Called by God, Elijah acted. He challenged the prophets of Baal to determine the true God.

They met on Mt. Carmel. Two altars were made. A bull sacrificed and placed on each. The prophets of Baal called upon Baal to send fire and consume their sacrifice. Nothing happened. Elijah called on Yahweh God. Fire came from heaven to burn up the sacrifice. Elijah ordered the people to seize and kill the prophets of Baal and other false gods. It was done.

Jezebel was a wee bit irked at this. With her husband Ahab, she still controlled the power of the state. She called for Elijah’s death. She told Elijah so. And he fled.

In fear and confusion and despair, Elijah fled. That’s where our reading for this morning picks up. With Jezebel’s death squads looking for him, Elijah ran for his life.

Into the wilderness Elijah went. He hid under a tree and asked God to take his life. But an angel appeared and told Elijah to eat and drink. Elijah found strength to continue his flight.

After forty days and nights, Elijah hid again. In a cave. This time, God visited him. God spoke to him. Not in wind or earthquake or fire. No special effects for God this time. God spoke to Elijah in the voice that pierced through the silence.

Elijah heard God say, “There is work for you to do.” “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.” Yet again, God does not call someone who is worthy. God calls frightened, confused, despairing Elijah and makes him worthy.

As I look at what is happening to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in our country, I experience some confusion about policies that are being put into place. I fear for my sisters, brothers, and family members who have come to the United States fleeing violence and poverty. I sometimes teeter on despair.

I am confused to see families separated. I understand that if I had been arrested and sent to prison thirty years ago when Sean and Eric were young, they would not have gone with me. But they had their mother and their church community and their schools. They had roots. They would not have ended up with other children in a cage.

I am confused about why we cannot provide enough attorneys and personnel to process asylum requests efficiently and quickly. People have the right to apply for asylum. It is not automatically guaranteed. But it appears that steps are being taken to make the process more difficult to traverse and to drag it out in terms of time.

I read of overcrowded facilities where children and adults are held. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found “standing room only conditions” at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, which has a maximum capacity of 125 migrants. On May 7 and 8, logs indicated that there were “approximately 750 and 900 detainees, respectively … We also observed detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space.” I learn that many of the detention centers are run for profit. As the Equal Justice Initiative reports, “Private detention companies are paid a set fee per detainee per night, and they negotiate contracts that guarantee a minimum daily headcount. Many run notoriously dangerous facilities with horrific conditions that operate far outside federal oversight.” And I hear that the government, my government, “went to federal court this week to argue that it shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, showers or even half a night’s sleep inside Border Patrol detention facilities.” I teeter on despair.

Immigration raids were announced to take place today in cities across the country. The planned raids raised fear in me and many others that “some immigrant children — many of whom are American citizens because they were born in the United States — would have faced the possibility of being forcibly separated from their families when ICE agents arrived to arrest and deport their undocumented parents.” Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times reported that the plans have been delayed. Still the fear remains. Fear that, whether it happens in an organized series of raids or it happens on a case-by-case basis, friends, people for whom I care deeply, and people I do not know may face separation and deportation. And that deportation may lead to death in their home countries.

I am in an Elijah moment facing the issue of immigration. I am confused. I am fearful. I teeter on despair. I wish I could hide hid in a cave. Maybe you do too.

I am in an Elijah moment. And I know that God has work for me to do. God has work for you too. God calls us. Not because we are certain. Not because we are free from fear. Not because we are far from despair. God calls us as we are. And God will grant us clarity and courage and hope and everything to leave the cave and follow where God leads.

What might that look like?

It begins with prayer. God will offer us the opportunity to pray. To pray for people who have fled their homes and those who care for them. To pray for those who work on the border both to provide humanitarian aid and to enforce laws. To pray for leaders in government. To pray that God’s love will be shared.

God will call us to challenge the language that is used in the discussion. We need to proclaim again and again that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. No human is illegal.

People can be fat. People can be bald. Peopled can be bearded. Heck, you may even know a fat, bald, bearded person. But people cannot be illegal.

People can do illegal things. A person may get a speeding ticket or two or more. That does not make the person an “illegal driver.” It makes the person a “person who breaks driving laws.” There are laws governing immigration, which people can break. That makes them people who have broken immigration laws or people who have entered the country illegally.

No human is illegal. The phrase originates with Elie Wiesel. Wiesel survived the Holocaust. He knows the absolute horror that can happen when language dehumanizes and demonizes and divide people. Once we accept that some people are “illegal”, there is no end to the abuse those people might be forced to endure and we might tolerate.

The Wakes are a band from Scotland. Their sound is described as traditional Celtic punk rock and funk. They have created a song with the title “No Human Is Illegal.” It is an upbeat melody with a powerful message that brings tears of hope to my eyes every time I hear it. Its lyrics contain a colorful metaphor or two or I would play it for us this morning. But here’s a couple important lines:

          No human is illegal
And everybody has their worth

Everybody has their worth. Those who follow Jesus know that worth comes because everybody is made in God’s image. Everybody is a beloved child of God. Everybody is someone for whom Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead.

“The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” That affirmation of the worth of every person comes from a truly radical source. The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Book of Order, G-1.0302.

A step out of the cave of fear, confusion, and despair involves a refusal to dehumanize and consistent persistent insistent affirmation of all people. Other steps may follow.

Maybe God will urge us to learn more about issues surrounding migration and human movement. A list of sources of information may be found in Fellmann Hall after service.

Maybe God will ask us to call our government to work with other nations to address the circumstances that cause people to leave their homes and make dangerous journeys to places they perceive as safe. Of course, some people migrate who are criminal; some people migrate to commit crime. There are always such people in any group.

But the vast majority of people migrate for safety or because they cannot sustain themselves in their home places. Joseph’s family journeyed to Egypt because of famine. Mary and Joseph took their baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the soldiers of Herod who sought to kill him. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes:

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Clearly the immigration system in our country needs corrections. But the solution to immigration lies not in reforming detention centers or keeping families together or speeding up the processing. All those and more need to happen. The poverty and violence that drives people from their homes must be overcome. A postcard to send to Congress and a sample script to call Congress are available in Fellmann Hall. You may fill it in and leave it and I will see it gets mailed or you may take it home and send yourself.

Maybe God will invite us to prepare family care plans for our own families or to share them with friends and community members who are at risk. Examples are available in Fellmann Hall.

Maybe God will nudge us to use a part of the treasure we have received to care for people in need. The Deacons have made a gift to Angry Tias and Abuelas, a group that provides care and advocates for people on the border from Brownsville to McAllen, Texas. Our One Great Hour of Sharing Offering supports the ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance with refugees and immigrants. There are other organizations to which we could give if we choose. Fellman Hall.

God will ask us to take care of ourselves in times of fear, confusion, and despair. Elijah took a nap. The angel gave him something to eat and drink. Anne Lamott reminds us that “Radical self-care is the secret of joy, resistance, freedom. When we care for ourselves as our very own beloved—with naps, healthy food, clean sheets, a lovely cup of tea—we can begin to give in wildly generous ways to the world, from abundance.”

And God will ask us to listen. God is still with us and, if we keep listening, God will remind us that the love that binds us all together is stronger than any fear. Any confusion. Any despair. God’s love is stronger, and it is in that love that we will find our way. May it be so. Amen.

 

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Filed under Antiracism, Current Events, Human Rights, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Of Love and π

Luke 13:31-35
I Corinthians 13
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
March 17, 2019
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

What comes to mind when you hear the word pie?

Perhaps your favorite pizza?

For me, the word takes me back to  childhood. My mother made better pies than cakes. We celebrated my birthday with chocolate cream. My brother chose Boston Cream. My sister blueberry. At least one of us made a semi-healthy choice.

Of course, mathematicians may think not of pie but of pi. Pi.  A number that designates the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

In Greek, perimetros means circumference. Staying in Greek, Pi is the first letter in perimetros. Because of the influence of Greeks on early European mathematics, pi became the word used to describe this number.[i]

To put pi in numbers, one begins with 3.14. At some point in time, March 14 became known as Pi day. People share bad jokes. Bakeries and restaurants offer deals on pie.

Pi Day came last Thursday. I ate no pie. But I received reminders that Pi is both infinite.

Pi is infinite. It’s decimal representation never ends. It starts 3.14 and then goes on forever. Mathematician Emma Haruka Iwao recently computed over 31 trillion digits of pi. In an interview with the BBC, she said, “There is no end with pi, I would love to try with more digits.”[ii]

Reflecting on the infinite nature of Pi, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, Joanne Westin. Her teen-age daughter had died in a drowning accident. We talked of Jennifer and we talked of loss. And Joanne observed that, “Grief is infinite.” After a pause, she added, “And so is love.”

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[iii] Love is infinite, because God is love.

I know that. I believe that. I preach that. But I need to hear that this week. This heart-wrenching week.

29542890_10214989437271181_7380570066821968457_nIn Louisville, I worked with the Rev. Robina Winbush, our church’s staff person for ecumenical and interfaith relations. On Tuesday morning, returning from a visit with our church partners in the Middle East, Robina stepped from the plane and into the everlasting, ever-loving arms of God. As she deplaned at JFK, Robina collapsed. Airline personnel and EMTs could not revive her.

Tuesday evening, Mike Miller, the acting chief financial officer for the national church in Louisville, died of a massive heart attack.

53786357_10156864546396063_7080109362454200320_nWednesday evening, my phone buzzed with a text from Rex bearing the heartbreaking news that Byron Vasquez had died. A gentle, good man gone too soon, too young. Byron made a commitment and gave of himself to the United States – where too often the sin and hate of white supremacy “othered” him as it does to brown and black people.  Labelling him as “less than” and telling him to return to his country.

On Friday, New Zealand time, white supremacy struck in New Zealand. A man who posted a statement rooted in white supremacy and white nationalism, opened fire in the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque in Christchurch. As the Muslim community gathered to worship. As they prayed. At least 50 people died; many others were wounded. In the words of the New Zealand Herald:

“They are fathers, mothers, grandparents, daughters and sons.
They are refugees, immigrants and New-Zealand born.
They are Kiwis.”[iv]

Around the world, white supremacists distort the message of the Gospel in a effort to justify their heinous and heretical beliefs. The good news of Jesus Christ diametrically opposes any idea of supremacy. The idea that one group of people is supreme in any way violates everything that Jesus taught. It is a sin. Jesus calls us to love. To love God. To love neighbors. To love neighbors who love us. To love neighbors who do not love us. To love neighbors who have many similarities to us. To love neighbors from whom we differ in every imaginable way. Love, not hate, not division, not superiority, not supremacy. Love is the message of the Gospel.

Friday evening, my phone buzzed. Rex and Camilla’s friend Eugene Lloyd had died. Another good man gone.

A heart-wrenching week.

Our passage from Luke shows Jesus lamenting Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”[v]

Jesus goes on to express a desire to gather the city and its people in a protective embrace of love. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”[vi] His lament continues as he acknowledges that will not happen. “You were not willing.”[vii]

Of course, we know the rest of the story. Jesus will proceed to Jerusalem. He will endure betrayal and denial. He will experience torture and execution. And three days later God will raise him from the dead. God’s infinite love will have the final word.

Valerie Kaur is a human rights activist and a member of the Sikh faith who knows something about love. She notes that the shooting in New Zealand transports her back to Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2012, a white supremacist opened fire at the gurdwara – the Sikh place of worship and gathering. The community was preparing their communal meal known as a langar. Kaur writes: “I see the blood of Sikh uncles & aunties in the prayer hall. What helped me breathe then… and now: love. Love as sustained practical care. Love as courage.”[viii]

At the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque, love as both courage and practical care were displayed. The first responders. People on the streets. I saw an interview with a woman who provided care to a wounded man. When told she was a hero, the woman responded. “I am not. I did what needed to be done.” That’s not a bad definition of a hero. It is certainly a definition of love.

Ava Parvin and her husband, Farid, left Bangladesh and settled in New Zealand in 1994. Farid grew ill and had to use a wheelchair. On Friday, as the terrorist aimed at Farid, Ara jumped in front of the bullets. He lived. She died. Love never ends.

Forty years ago, Haji Daoud Nabi fled war in his native Afghanistan and resettled his family in New Zealand. On Friday the 71-year old sat at the back of Al Noor Masjid. And when hate came through the door, Nabi shielded a friend with his body. Haji Nabi died. His friend lives. [ix] Love never ends.

Halfway through the shooting at the Al Noor mosque, Naeem Rashid rushed the shooter. He was killed. But in that instant, with no weapons, just his hands, he tried to stop the horror. [x] And when the shooter arrived at the Linwood Masjid, Abdul Aziz ran at him, throwing a credit card reader and then a gun that had been dropped. As the shooter drove away, Aziz continued to follow the car. Practical. Courageous.[xi] Love never ends.

My phone buzzed again on Thursday. The Session had begun the discussion that would result in the decision to receive an offering to help send Byron Vasquez’s body home. Words from a South African song from the days of apartheid went through my head:

Courage, our friend, you do not walk alone
We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home[xii]

Through our gifts, we will walk with Byron as his body returns to his home. Expressing the love that binds us together in Jesus Christ, we accompany Byron even as he is held in God’s eternal embrace of love.

I asked the Session if could I post about the offering on the church’s Facebook page and on my own Facebook page. I thought a friend or two might contribute.

Several have. Among them Janice Stamper. A Presbyterian minister, she left her church in Alaska to provide care for her aging father in Kentucky. After a lengthy illness, her father died a year ago. We prayed for her and “Ol Pap” as she called him. She sent me a message on Facebook asking how to mail a check. As I teared up, I typed back that this was amazingly kind. Jancie replied, “I sold my father’s truck. I have some money. People helped me bury my father. This is my turn to help someone else.” Love never ends.

In response to one of my first posts about the shooting in Christchurch, a friend wrote: “It’s a wicked world we live in, Mark.”

It’s a wicked world we live in. I have thought about those words ever since. I will probably continue to think about them for a long time to come.

And I don’t agree. I will stand with Louis Armstrong. We live in a wonderful world. God’s creation bears incredible beauty. People can be incredibly kind and loving. We experience tender mercies and moments of grace regularly.

People suffer. People die. People die suddenly and for reasons we may never understand. People die far too young. People die because they have difficulty accessing medical care.

Sin exists in this wonderful world. Evil exists. Wickedness, to use my friend’s word.

People do wicked things. Incredibly wicked things.

Systems and structures are shaped in ways that benefit some people and disadvantage and violate other people.

The world is broken and fearful and frightening.

In this broken, fearful, frightening world where sin, evil, and wickedness are so strong, I have chosen love. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say God’s love has chosen me and in response I choose to love as well as I am able.

“We love because God first loved us.”[xiii] We find those words in the first letter of John. They are the essence of the Biblical narrative. Out of love, God creates. For love, God creates. God makes us to love God and one another and again and again, God invites us to love. And God acts to show us how to love. Jesus lived, died, and has been raised to show God’s love for us and to open us to love.

God embraces us in merciful love that extends to the whole human family. God challenges us to address the issue of “othering” people from whom we differ. Othering is what Byron and so many people experience when they are falsely told they have less value, they do not belong, there is something wrong with them because of where who they are. In the place of such othering, God invites us – demands from us that we see all people as our siblings.

Tommy Sands sings:

Let the circle be wide ‘round the fireside
And we’ll soon make room for you
Let your heart have no fear, there are no strangers here,
Just friends that you never knew[xiv]

Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in more theological language: “God sent the Son and the Spirit to descend into humanity’s darkness and despair, bringing the light of love and hope … As God has embraced us in merciful love, we now warmly embrace the wounded and the excluded in world as a testimony to the merciful love of the Triune God.”[xv]

Or as Robina Winbush wrote in a reflection published on Valentine’s Day, “Love is the essence of God in our midst … [in God’s] love we discover that there is no “other” there is only LOVE manifested and waiting to be known.”[xvi]

In this wonderful, wicked world, love has encountered me, love has grasped me, and I have said yes. As well as I am able, I will love. And in love’s name, I will work to end hate, disrupt white supremacy, and create justice, equity, and peace.

For those who make the choice to love, phones will still buzz. People, friends will die. Wickedness will take place.

Heads will spin. Hearts will ache. Pain and wounds will be endured.

We will be hard pressed. But not broken.

For love never ends.

Love never ends.

Thanks be to God,

Love never ends.

After a brief pause, I issued the following invitation:

Loved by God, we can love one another. We can love at any time. We can love at every time. We can love now. I invite you to greet one another in the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

 

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi

[ii] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-47524760

[iii] I Corinthians 13:6-7

[iv] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12213358

[v] Luke 13:34

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] https://auburnseminary.org/voices/auburn-senior-fellows-respond-to-christchurcheart-auburn-senior-fellows/

[ix] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/15/among-new-zealand-mosque-victims-parents-children-refugees/?utm_term=.7784361577c4

[x] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/111335681/heroic-worshipper-tackled-gunman-at-linwood-mosque-during-christchurch-terror-attack

[xi] https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/03/17/492509/when-gunman-advanced-one-man-ran-at-him

[xii] My first experience of this song is the use of these lines in Eric Bogle’s song, “Singing the Spirit Home.” Here is a video of the song being sung – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JidpXcKZits – in an incredibly brave move, I led the congregation in singing the song today

[xiii] I John 4:19

[xiv] https://www.irish-folk-songs.com/let-the-circle-be-wide-lyrics-and-chords-by-tommy-sands.html

[xv] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Embracing the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). P. 169

[xvi] http://blog.oikoumene.org/posts/love-the-very-essence-of-god-in-our-midst

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Filed under Antiracism, Current Events, First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Friends, Gun Violence, Human Rights, New York, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Worship

The Refugee Jesus

A sermon preached at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on 22 November 2015. I rarely post sermons, however this one received enough positive feedback that I make an exception. Note that this is the manuscript that went into the pulpit; the sermon that came out no doubt differed in several ways.FullSizeRender

The Refugee Jesus
John 18:33-37
Rutgers Presbyterian Church
November 22, 1015
Christ the King Sunday 

Fear.We have to talk about fear this day if we wish to talk about refugees.

Fear always creeps into conversations about refugees and immigrants—a fear of the other—of people from whom we differ.

But this day, we gather after

a bombing in Baghdad

a bombing in Beirut

an attack with guns and bombs on Paris

a bombing in Yola, Nigeria

a bombing in Kano, Nigeria

an attack on a hotel in Bamako, Mali

yet more bombings in Baghdad.

And fear has entered the conversation.

Fear of Daesh and other terrorist groups.

Fear of Muslims even though Muslims have been the targets and victims of many of the attacks.

Fear of refugees, particularly refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Political leaders and candidates and pundits have pandered to the fear and fed the fear.

Governors have said their states will not accept refugees from Syria. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to make the vetting process for refugees from Syria and Iraq more difficult, it not impossible. Some leaders have essentially said “No Muslims need apply” or “Christians only.” Both phrases resonate with nativist and racist language from our past.

In at least one instance, the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II has been cited as a model for refusing Syrian refugees rather than the evil act of racism that is was.

And one candidate for President called for a mandatory registry of Muslims in the United States, a call that evokes the horror of the Holocaust.  The New York Times reports he may be pulling back from that position somewhat.[i]

We cannot talk about refugees on this day without talking about fear.

Some pastors may preach that we should be afraid. We should hunker and hide in fear. And we should allow fear to guide us in our behavior and relationships with refugees. I will not do that.

Surrendering to fear in relation to our brothers and sisters who flee for their lives flies in the face of everything I believe as a follower of Jesus. It goes against everything I believe as a citizen of this country and a resident of our great city where in the harbor stands a statue with a poem:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[ii]

And it goes against the policy statements and congregational actions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Presbyterians have supported refugee resettlement since the refugee crisis created by World War II. The 160th General Assembly (1948) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America stated, “The United States should pass legislation to bring in at least four hundred thousand displaced persons during the next four years.” (Minutes, PCUSA, 1948, Part I, p. 204). [iii] Presbyterian congregations have helped resettle thousands of our brothers and sisters through the years.

Some pastors may preach today that we have nothing to fear. After all, fear not is what Jesus told his disciples on several occasions. Sermons will proclaim that that God is completely in control, life is working out according to God’s plan, God will protect us, and we have no reason for fear. I will not do that.

The world is a broken and fearful place. I know that and you know that. I fear for my African American friends, Native American friends, Hispanic, Latino/Latina friends, Asian American friends in their encounters with law enforcement and in their daily lives within a racist system. I fear for the gun violence that too often tears lives and communities apart. I fear for the homeless on our streets, particularly as winter comes. I fear for my transgendered sisters and brothers. I fear for sisters and brothers who struggle with addiction, or lack access to health care, or who have lost jobs. I fear for those who serve in our military and come home to inadequate support and care. I fear what those who resort to terror might do. Acts of terror are, after all, a form of public theater intended to provoke fear. I fear the possibility, however small, that despite our best screening efforts, a person who wishes to commit and act of terror may be admitted to our country as a refugee. Megan McCardle observes, “There’s no perfect way to screen out Syrian terrorists from Syrian refugees. It may be that someone we let in will, eventually, do something horrible. In fact, that’s a risk with any immigrant we let in, or for that matter, any baby we allow to be born.”[iv]

We live in a broken and fearful world.

And so it is right and natural that we fear.

But, we fear as those who follow the Jesus – as those who proclaim Christ as ruler. And that makes all the difference.

We fear. But we refuse to allow fear to rule our actions and decisions.

We recognize that courage is not the absence of fear; it is going ahead despite our fear. Indeed as John McCutcheon puts it, “courage has no meaning without fear.”[v] Jesus had his moment in Gethsemane where he first prayed that the cup before him might be removed before he prayed that God’s will be done.

We realize that we need to understand fearful situations as well as we can. For example, we might learn about the vetting process for refugees. It is long and complicated. And it is available online from the White House. Refugees are the most carefully screened travelers to the United States.[vi] We might learn about our country’s history with refugees and immigrants. We might look at what other countries are doing in response to refugees and acts of terror. We might consider how important it is to integrate refugees into society.

We remember that Jesus was a refugee. The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”[vii] There was no UNHCR at the time. And the borders may not have been as clearly delineated as they are today. But under the terms of that definition, when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Egypt to keep him safe from Herod, they became refugees.[viii]

Jesus teaches us that what the way we individually and collectively treat the least of our sisters and brothers is the way we treat him. That would seem particularly appropriate in relation to our brothers and sisters who are refugees—in the world’s refugees we encounter the Refugee Jesus.

The Refugee Jesus is the one who we celebrate today on this Christ the King Sunday. Lots of causes and commitments and things vie to have first place in our hearts and minds and souls and strength. But today we reaffirm our intention that Jesus is Lord. Jesus and no one else. Jesus and nothing else. We know we we will fall and fail as we try to live out that proclamation, but we also know that by God’s grace we can pick ourselves back up and try again. We are not who we should be – but we are not who we used to be – and we know that God in Christ can help us become who we could be.

On this day, our Gospel reading seems a bit out of place. We are at the end of the church year—Christ the King Sunday. And we read part of the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate that follows his arrest and precedes his execution. It’s the stuff of Holy Week. But here it is for today.

The reason lies in the content of the discussion between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate wants to know who Jesus is. The buzz on the street says that Jesus is a king. The Twitter feeds were filled with #Jesus #King of the Jews. “King” is a political term. And Pilate is a political person. He needs to know what is going on.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.

Jesus turns the question back on Pilate. He asks Pilate the question he asked his followers—the question he asks all people—the question he asks us. “Who do you say, I am?” He does not put it that directly. But that’s the heart of Jesus’ response. For who we say Jesus is makes all the difference in how we live.

Pilate tries again. He notes that Jesus has been “delivered” to him by others. He wants to know why. “What have you done?”

Jesus ignores this question and returns to the idea of kingship.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  He is a different style of leader from what is contained in Pilate’s political understanding of being a king. The reign of Jesus is not “of the world” of political calculation, accusation, and contending interests.

Pilate, tries one more time: “So you are a king?”

Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king.” And again, Jesus describes what type of a king – a ruler – a leader – he is. Jesus spoke to Pilate – but his words have echoed to all people since – his words speak to us today.

The political understanding of a king involved struggle and domination. When we listen to Jesus – not just in this passage – but to his voice as consistently revealed in the Gospels – we know that his reign is about the dignity and equality of all – it is about love and caring and sharing.

Jesus’ ministry and mission is “to testify to the truth” – to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and grace – to call women and men to live in new ways –rooted in God’s love and justice – living as Jesus lived, loving as Jesus loves.

The reign of Christ has no geographical boundaries. Christ’s reign is about faith and hope and grace and love. His reign consists of followers who listen to his voice and seek to do his will and share love in his name and trust in his grace.

So we give thanks today for Jesus in whom God came among us.  We give thanks that the story of Jesus did not end in a cold, smelly barn.  It did not end as the Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt, becoming refugees. It did not end even on the cross.  God raised Jesus and the story continues.

We give thanks for Jesus who invites us to live in new, abundant ways.  We give thanks that Jesus calls us to enter into the story—to love one another. To welcome the newcomer. To build relationships across the diversities God creates.

As we consider responding to our sisters and brothers who are refugees, we quickly realize we cannot do everything to meet their needs. But as Archbishop Oscar Romero taught us, each of us can do something.

Perhaps we can write a letter to elected officials. Or give money. Or work with refugees who have arrived—providing transportation—becoming friends—helping gather needed household supplies. I have a number of friends who have recently had their first babies. They are participating in the Carry the Future project started by a mother from California that provides baby carriers to families that arrive in Greece.[ix] That is not everything. But it is something. And if you have ever carried a baby, you know it is something that can make a difference. Each of us can do something. Each of us can find concrete ways to love as we follow the Refugee Jesus who is Christ the King.

In his statement, “Choose welcome, not fear,” the Rev. Grady Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) noted that, after the crucifixion of Jesus, his disciples hid in fear. They gathered in an upper room and locked the doors. But God had other plans. Jesus appeared to them and said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’.[x] We who proclaim Christ as King were not meant to hide. We were meant to walk out in hope and compassion. Fear feeds terror. The Refugee Jesus calls us, invites us, challenges us, transforms us to witness to the Gospel with generous hospitality—to live as Jesus lived—to love as Jesus loves.[xi]

In the face of terror and in the face of fear, hope and faith and love are the way forward; they are the way to life.

As we follow the refugee Jesus; as we proclaim Christ the King, may we live in hope, faith, and love. Today and all days.

Amen.

 

 

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/us/politics/donald-trump-sets-off-a-furor-with-call-to-register-muslims-in-the-us.html?_r=0

[ii] http://www.libertystatepark.com/emma.htm

[iii]http://oga.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/call_to_write_for_syrian_refugees_and_governors%5B1%5D.pdf

[iv] http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-11-20/six-bad-arguments-for-u-s-to-take-in-syrian-refugees

[v] http://www.folkmusic.com/lyrics/here-islands

[vi] https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states

[vii] http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c125.html

[viii] Matthew 2:13-15

[ix] https://www.facebook.com/carrythefuture/

[x] John 20:21

[xi] This paragraph draws heavily on the Rev. Gradye Parsons’ statement posted at http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/11/17/choose-welcome-not-fear/

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