Gathering Stones

One of the dearest ladies on the planet used to live at Jan Hus. Her name was Miss Esther Viola Rance. Some of you remember her by name. Nearly all of us would recognize her by face. Miss Essie was a Jamaican lady who came to the United States in 1960-something. Not too long after she arrived, she landed at Jan Hus. She lived here for 40 years before she passed away last February. Miss Essie was 94 years old.

Every weekday morning until close to the day she died, there was Miss Essie on the stairs. Carefully balanced against the railing, she would navigate four flights to the lobby where she would stop for a while and talk with Gerard or Josephine or Rob or Derrick or Jordan. Laughing. Always with bright eyes laughing as she headed out to volunteer, go to the post office, walk to the bank or pick up something to eat.

Every single afternoon, the scene would reverse. Coming back from her day around neighborhood, Miss Essie would stop in the lobby and sit. Jordan, Josephine, Derrick, Gerard, Rob weaving in and out in their day-to-day work in the Urban Outreach Center would stop and sit, too. There was always time to talk.

On Tuesdays, they’d share a meal –Miss Essie and Gerard, sometimes Derrick and Josephine and Jacquie. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, enjoying a piece of chicken. She would close her eyes and lick her fingers with a wide smile. It was always. “So good, pastor.”

But on Sundays, Miss Essie would stop. In between her comings and goings from her small room upstairs, in between her walks around the neighborhood and her loving conversations with everyone she saw, Miss Essie would stop in the sanctuary and tend to the house of the Lord. She cleaned the candlesticks; she set the communion table; she moved the chairs if they needed a nudge; she put some dollars in her offering envelope. Then she would sit. After the work was complete, she would sit and wait for worship.

Miss Essie is a saint who loved this church that was her family and her home: the people, the food, the sanctuary, the worship services: the hymns, the prayers, the communion every time it was served.

It’s this image of a lovely, faithful, hard-working Jamaican immigrant that’s pressed against my heart this last couple of weeks as we’ve been subjected to persistent, vitriolic commentary on immigrants from our nation’s elected officials and the voters that support them.---those hideous, damnable comments that have flashed across the newswires and twitter feeds, feeding American as well as international hate for people who are in places of despair.

As pastor of this church founded by immigrants, saints that they were to persevere in this City and build a church today that has saved thousands of saints from despair; a congregation founded by immigrants, and tended by immigrants and still helped to thrive by the work and dedication of immigrants who are turning the lights on certain mornings so others can live a better life, the nationalist commentary that put me over the top in the past week was President Trump’s announcement that US troops would treat rock-throwing immigrants as if they were carrying guns.

You heard it too, right? “Anybody throwing stones, rocks, like they did to Mexico and the Mexican military and Mexican police and where they badly hurt police and soldiers of Mexico, we will consider that a firearm.” (11/1/18). It was this speech that emboldened the Nigerian Prime Minister to unleash hell over the weekend, killing hundreds of his adversaries for, well, throwing rocks.

In our gospel reading today (John 11: 32-44), Jesus went to Bethany where Lazarus had been entombed for four days. Weeping, Jesus approached the tomb of his dear friend, the one dead, bound and buried.

He commanded that the stone the front of Lazarus’ tomb be thrown aside. We’ve just heard the story:

Jesus called for Lazarus to come out and he did. Jesus called for his bindings to be removed, and they did. Lazarus was resurrected – enabled to live by the mercy of the Lord, so that all who are feeling bound by their circumstances might be enabled to live freely today.

Just as Jesus commanded the people gathered to remove the stone so Lazarus could freely walk across the barrier to new life, Jesus is calling all his followers today to participate in the release  of those who are entombed by their circumstances so that they may be free to live in safety and good health, clothed, fed, satiated with love as well as fresh, clean water.

The truth of Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus transforms the question of whether those who throw stones should face death into a new and bolder question for us all.  The question for us now becomes, “How many people can we gather together to roll the heaviest, most difficult stones away?

Sometimes, that looks like millions of voters pulling the lever for what is right. Sometimes, that looks like a united front of Jesus followers who’re reassuring new immigrants that we will not enable our nation’s elected officials’ words to engage weapons of human destruction. Sometimes, that looks a lot like Miss Essie, a happy and loving Jamaican immigrant saint of our congregation who forward the cause of peace with her everyday walks around the neighborhood.

Someone’s Miss Essie is walking up from Guatemala right now. She went to church every Sunday and several days in between. She owned a beauty shop there like Miss Essie owned a beauty shop in Jamaica and now she wants to trim the unruly hair of the often-unruly people of the United States.

Someone’s Miss Essie is walking up from Nicaragua now. She is a nurse and she loves little children. She can’t wait to put her gifts to good use to help some kids in America.

Someone’s Miss Essie is walking up from Mexico right now. She dreams of a free and well stocked library where she can learn English and get the kind of education that will help the people who need her most – wherever they are; wherever they’re going.

A church founded by God and immigrants must not tolerate nationalist commentary that damns the saints and condemns those bound by their circumstances to be left for dead. A church founded by and enabled to thrive by immigrants making progress toward the mission of Jesus Christ must embolden a nation founded under God to act like God would act or not claim the privilege of being God’s people.

May we understand our privilege as the church of Jesus Christ living in this painfully challenging place and time. May we claim our responsibility to help those who are bound by circumstances. May we work for a day when the stones are rolled away and all people will know freedom and goodness, peace, security, health and love.

With thanks to God.

Amen

Pastor Beverly Dempsey

Neighborhood Esperanza

November 6, 2018

 

 

what is truth

Scripture: Romans 1: 16-18; 3: 21-25a, 28-30

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 

 The Word of the Lord

 

What is Truth

Yesterday morning, Gerard had a conversation with Claudia, an elderly woman from the Carter Burden Network Luncheon Club. Claudia was born in Switzerland. She hadn’t been back for years and years. Through her frequent conversations with our world-traveling hospitality specialist, Gerard, she remembered the Alps and roamed a mental map of the streets of Geneva. Yesterday, she lamented that she, her brothers and her sisters were estranged from one another. There had been a harsh word here and an argument there. There had been wonderings about who was first… and who was last. Gerard encouraged her to return to Switzerland and make peace with her family. That’s hard when you’re old and far away and the wounds are years-deep, but she agreed that she would think about it. Claudia quietly died a few hours later, passing away after a lovely lunch.

When you’re so, so far away and the wounds of your life story have grown so deep, there are often not many places we feel like we can turn to be reminded of one of the most important truths of scripture: You are loved, and you are not rejected. You are loved, and you are not rejected. Just like I am loved and not rejected. And we, as a collective of beings from all different points along the demographic spectrum, are loved and not rejected. Thanks to Gerard, Claudia was able to know this truth before she entered into her eternal home.

When God said Yes! to creation, that Yes! did not stop. God said Yes! to you, and about you, and for you; and God continues to say Yes! today. You and I are beloved children of God, created equally good in God’s image. This is Truth. Ours is first a God of love, and this truth must offset the many points of rejection we might otherwise feel.

 

Because so many of us are feeling that way today:  Rejected.

 

When a brother or sister turns on us,

like so many family members have turned on us

for what we have done and for what we have left undone,

we can occasionally be made to feel like we are less –

not quite the people God intends to protect; not quite the people God chose:

Rejected.

 

When so much of the world turns on us,

like so much of the world turned on dark skinned people during the dark period of slavery,

dark skinned people are occasionally pushed to feel like they are less –

not quite the people God intends to protect; not quite the people God chose:

Rejected.

 

When so much of the world turns on us,

like so much of the world has turned on women who turn on the men

who kick them over and over like a tin can down the street,

women are occasionally pushed to feel like they are less –

not quite the people God intends to protect; not quite the people God chose:

Rejected.

 

When so much of the world turns on us,

like so much of the world has turned on those in the GLTBQ community

who dance in the streets of New York City on Halloween Night

and every night get ridiculed by passersby if not their own family members,

they are occasionally pushed to feel like they are less –

not quite the people God intends to protect; not quite the people God chose:

Rejected.

 

When so much of the world turns on us,

like so much of the world turned on the Jews during the Holocaust,

some Jews are occasionally pushed to feel like they are less –

not quite the people God intends to protect; not quite the people God chose:

Rejected.

 

When acceptable language turns to language of hate

that enters into open dialogue through social media tweets, popular news sources, and political rallies,

- not-so-every day people with their now-seemingly-acceptable assaults -  

leave you are I to be occasionally left feeling like we are less –

not quite the people God intends to protect; not quite the people God chose:

Rejected.

 

This results in more and more of us who are feeling diminished and rejected, unworthy over time, not quite the people God chose, which we project onto other people we wish God hadn’t chose because, then, maybe there would be enough love for me.

 

These are the times when hate language becomes hateful acts that turn hurting people into murderers.

 

On Saturday, when Robert Bowers turned his semi-automatic rifle onto a large Jewish congregation in prayer at Tree of Life Synagogue, it turned the world on its ear. We heard gunshots and we heard shooting barbs over whose words stoked the fire of rejection in Bowers’ soul over time and whose words might be stoking the fire of hate across groups across America today.

 

Friends: Rejection must stop.

 

The language of rejection must stop. The acts of hate, rooted in fear of rejection must stop. Which is precisely what Paul intended to communicate when he wrote to the people of Rome 2000 years ago from a prison cell where he waited to be called home to the Lord.

 

The God of all salvation; the God who set the stars in the sky and the twinkle in your mother’s eye; the one who has as the thesis of being the very meaning of love wants us to know the truth of the good news: that true power lies in acceptance; that all are worthy of forgiveness just as all are prone to sin; that no one receives preferential treatment; no one gets priority seating; all are one in God’s eyes, all are equal recipients of God’s love and grace.

 

God’s acts of acceptance are not passive acts and ours cannot be, either. Paul wrote that the world really is a different place because of Christ’s presence in it. And Christ’s presence is known today through the grace and love that is shown every time we show our acceptance of others, especially those who are different:

Different from us; different because of us.

Different and loving it! Different and wishing things could be, well, different.

This. Is. Truth.        

…Elvis said it’s just like the sun.  

You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.

 

Unfortunately,  “What people believe prevails over the truth.” That’s Sophocles, 2500 years ago.

 

So, men and women of God, believe this truth: you are loved, you are forgiven and you are a blessing to the world.  And here is your privilege, as Christians out in the world, sent to love and serve: that you may be one who helps set truth free. That you may be one who shows a spirit of truth and acceptance to the world. That you may be the one who perpetuates the truth of the good news. Because in this truth, there is victory in heaven and on earth.

Thanks be to God. Amen

The Body of Christ must not remain a mystery

“The Body of Christ Must Not Remain a Mystery”

Ephesians 5:15-20 and John 6: 51-58

 

If anyone would have told me that my next sermon on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper would come together over a Bon Appétit blog on linguini von whatever means clam sauce, I’d’ve probably scorned him out of my liturgical kitchen. But a generous serving of culinary genius later, and here we are on Sunday morning.

It all began with last week’s email from the magazine’s Editor-In-Chief, Adam Rapoport. At the heart of this particular email was the conversation of three friends whom he’d met in Tuscany several years ago when he was first reporting for Bon Appétit. Rapaport had headed over to Italy to write a story on a famous chef who “would escape for a month to the country that inspires her celebrated restaurant.”[1] The day Rapaport arrived, the chef and her staff were hanging out in the kitchen talking about linguini whatever it’s called. Each shared the elements that make his or her dish great: who relied on what ingredient; who leaned more heavily on something else; what to do with the clams and when. That sort of banter, “on and on,” he wrote, never coming to consensus; agreeing that it’s more about the feel than the recipe.

And so, in the context of today’s Gospel Lesson, which I had read to start my week of preparation for this morning, I immediately felt a kindred spirit with those chefs.

As a pastor, I hear so many of us bantering on and on about the substance of religion: some sections of scripture we read literally, because we know them to be substantiated in history books. Take Jesus’ crucifixion. We have historical evidence to believe that this occurred; now we talk about it with authority. We read some scripture with a grain of salt. Think of Paul’s exhortation that wives should be submissive to their husbands. A grain of salt, right? Because, we reason, that was two thousand years ago and things were, well, different then. We read some scripture metaphorically, reasoning that Jesus healed the blind man from his lack of understanding of what information was presented to him rather than healing him from not seeing the physical substance of what was standing before his eyes. Most Presbyterians read only a very few texts with intentional “feeling” though in context of a situation or circumstance or the privacy of our favorite spot on a park bench or ocean front, the feeling of what God intends interrupts our brainwaves and sends us reeling to a certain place and time – maybe even deep into the future when we are to be at one with our Lord.

Our scripture for today is one of those texts that most of us don’t quite know what to do with. Smack in the middle of a chapter with John lifting up the immanent and the transcendent – the very present God and the one we seek to know, the one who fed the 5,000 and the one who walked on water, we hear Jesus telling us to eat. With the benefit of a book filled with good news, we know that this is a call to communion that we heard from Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But this time is different. He is not making this invitation to his last supper near the end of his life - on the night of his arrest. Rising in the middle of this Chapter of John; rising in the middle of his brief, three-year ministry, we’re invited into what reads to many of us to be a carnivorous experience with our supernatural Lord.

Suddenly, we are to suspend disbelief (or are we to suspend belief) and partake of an otherwise incomprehensible experience: eat his flesh and drink his blood in a manner and expectation of outcome akin to an ancient, Greco-Roman mystery religion which would have you eat the sacrifice offered to a god you would like to experience more fully. Eat his body - his flesh and blood that is rich with meaning and hope for all people food that will sustain us forever and carry us into eternal life. Is this another symbol or metaphor? Is this truth or the recipe for disaster? Heresy, possibly? Has Jesus gone mad? The people are curious. They find it difficult to understand.

It’s messy and it’s mysterious. Even with benefit of hindsight, we think so, too.

But the body of Christ should not be a mystery. The body of Christ to the Church of Jesus Christ living in the world today must not be a mystery. The body of Christ – the Church of Jesus Christ – must be very clearly experienced where the very present reality and the longed for future meet.

It’s that point of tangency that our City’s food insecure guests experience every Monday night at All Souls and Tuesday night at the urban out reach center at Jan Hus; Wednesday night at the Church of the Epiphany and Thursday night right here in the dining room downstairs at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and Friday night at St. James – five of our Upper East Side neighborhood churches like so many churches around New York City where a few hundred dollars stretches to feed up to 200 people who gather around the table each week in community, sharing joys and concerns, banter on over a common meal in this City that never seems to have enough places for vulnerable people to eat.

It’s that point of tangency that vulnerable people from all walks of life should find in the church that should exist to put salve on the wounds of the brokenhearted and combat the oppression and injustices that people all around our City and in fact the world experience every single day.

Unfortunately, studies on religiosity in America would affirm that while nearly every single person in America acknowledges the presence of the church (especially for particular purposes like weddings, funerals and baptisms), further digging might suggest that a good percentage of those people wonder from time to time if not every day, “Does the church care?”

As vulnerable people from all walks of life walk by our doors; as vulnerable men, women and children contemplate suicide if not take their own lives; as vulnerable people from all walks of life, whether they are food insecure, or housing insecure or chemically dependent or emotionally bankrupt; people from all walks of life who need a spiritual lift a friendly word from someone they wish they could meet don’t know what they can find in a Church of Jesus Christ. To them, the body of Christ remains a mystery. This means that those of us who are engaged in the life of the church; those of us who have had the privilege of being a part of the body of Christ for years if not for a lifetime; those of us who have read and heard and celebrated the stories of Christ’s saving life and death have a job to do.

But we have an uphill climb.

The church is climbing against a secular culture that prioritizes playgrounds over housing. The church is up against a secular culture that questions with its actions if not its words that all people should have a right to speak out and be heard. The church is up against a secular culture that denigrates men and women, boys and girls for their relationship preferences, resolve over who they will marry and choices of pronouns that suit them best. The church is up against a secular culture that dictates the definition of opportunity. And too often, the church yields the right of way.

A majority of the population in the United States doesn’t wonder about the presence of the church. The majority of the population wonders if the church cares. We have an uphill climb because too often, we have yielded the way. Rather than leading the march for the rights of all people, the church has too often stumbled behind secular culture, subordinating the rights of many segments of the world’s population out of convenient misrepresentations of the good news.

Deference to a less than Christ-like interpretation of scripture has encouraged the church to lag in its decisions to affirm the rights of all people and effectively care for those against whom it is much easier to hold a bias: women, and people of color, people who are too old or too young, people who are queer, people who are financially poor, people who are mentally fragile, people who are physically less able. Deference to a secularly grounded mindset against the less privileged – a culture of injustice that continues to permeate society today - has dragged the church’s heart away from those who need us most – most likely some who are sitting here today – and enabled the church to become a weekend place of respite rather than a day-to-day carrier of the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of God. The church becomes a cautious voice, a hesitant voice, a patient voice, a diplomatic voice, and ultimately a delinquent voice while bias of all sorts are left un-confronted and suffering persists in clear and even less visible ways. It becomes a morally artful dodge that enables the church to put off for tomorrow what the dominant voices of the world would rather not address and correct today, leaving too many people to not realize that the body of Christ has been broken for them, too.

How does it feel for you to be in communion with Jesus Christ? How does it feel for you to be at one with our Lord, who came down from heaven and gave of his life for the world?

The church of Jesus Christ in the world today and into eternity is a complicated and evolving recipe but it need not be a mystery. The Church of Jesus Christ – including you and I - must be living testimony to the word made flesh, dwelt among us. The body of Christ in the world today must live at that point of tangency where world’s most pressing needs and Christ’s transcendent truth for all people resides. The church right here and on my own congregation’s site only a few blocks away must have the goal of feeling at one with Jesus Christ, who lived and died and reigns not only as a presence on the church on nearly every third street corner of our nation’s cities, but also as the bread of life and the overflowing cup salvation for the world. This is the table of contents that has been set for us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Rev. Beverly Dempsey

@ Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

[1] Adam Rapaport, “Let’s talk about linguine vongole,” found in Bon Appétit, http://links.newsletter.bonappetit.com/servlet/MailView?ms=MjE0NzIxNjQS1&r=MTk2ODg3NTUwNzM1S0&j=MTI4MzYyNjk4OQS2&mt=1&rt=0, August 13, 2018.