Sunday, November 22, 2015

Unlearning War in an Age of Terror

Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness                                                                                    
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah                                                       
November 22, 2015

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-9; Mark 1:12-15

One preacher tells the story of what happened when all the animals in the forest decided that now was the time to establish the peaceable kingdom once and for all. They issued a proclamation that all the animals in the forest would henceforth live in peace. Shortly after the proclamation was issued, a lamb saw a sleeping lion and nuzzled up to the lion, using the lion’s mane as a pillow. Then the lion woke up and ate the lamb. The moral of the story is that there’s always going to be someone who didn’t read the announcement. (from Presbyterian pastor Rick Spaulding, who is currently the chaplain at Williams College).

Isaiah’s vision of all the animals living in peace doesn’t seem very realistic. It’s beautiful poetry. Or it’s a beautiful image, as painted by the American folk painter Edward Hicks. Hicks repainted the Peaceable Kingdom at least sixty-two times, but even Hicks grew increasingly discouraged by the conflicts of his time, and each time he repainted the scene he made the predators more ferocious. (John Dillenberger, The Visual Arts in America, Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984, pp. 130-132).  

The Peaceable Kingdom (1833). Worcester Art Museum.
Painted by Edward Hicks (1780-1849).

A few chapters earlier in Isaiah, the prophet offered another utopian vision. The prophet speaks of a day when then nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The people who first heard Isaiah’s message were devastated. What was happening a little more than 700 years before the birth of Christ was that the Kingdom of Judah was caught up in the Syro-Ephraimite War. Some people have referred to this as the first Jewish Holocaust. The holy city of Jerusalem itself was threatened with destruction. Their hope for rescue seemed cut off; their fortunes looking no better than a dead stump.

But still Isaiah dreamed of the day when the nations would no longer learn war. The proclamation of Isaiah 2:2-4 is repeated in Micah 4:1-3, with Micah echoing Isaiah’s hopes for a time when the nations would beat their swords into plowshares; and their spears into pruning hooks; but then Micah added an additional line to that beautiful oracle of hope …

Micah proclaimed, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” Micah moves from the universal desire for peace among all nations to the individual’s desire to feel safe.

We don’t need a biblical scholar to help us decode what Micah is talking about. We don’t need a historian to help us make Micah relevant to the present day, because we can hear this ancient promise that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid,” and we can immediately translate that to our own time ...

We can imagine Micah saying, “They shall all travel on planes, trains, and automobiles over the Thanksgiving holidays, or they shall stroll through Times Square in New York City or the Mall in Washington, D.C. or through the streets of London or Paris or Istanbul or Cairo, and no one shall make them afraid.”

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and now Mali, we have seen terrorists learn new ways of waging war. How do we defend ourselves against those who are willing to blow themselves up to inflict harm on others? Isaiah and Micah dream of a day when the nations will not learn war anymore, but can we really unlearn war in an age of terror?

Before we simply dismiss the prophets Isaiah and Micah as unrealistic dreamers, notice what they both say after they speak of the nations unlearning war. Neither prophet promises that this vision will come true simply by magic. Isaiah says, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” And Micah says, “We will walk in the name of the Lord our God.”

Peacemaking is a journey--a long, ongoing, step by step journey, in which we strive to remain faithful to the vision of peace that God has given us.

Anita Datar was a U.S. Citizen, a resident of Tacoma Park, Maryland, who lost her life on Friday when terrorists sieged the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali. She was a public health worker who had dedicated her life to working for the well-being of others.

It is in these devastating moments when the peacemakers loose their lives, that we are reminded that peacemaking is a long, long journey, full of many heartbreaking setbacks.

A few weeks after September 11th, 2001, Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, spoke at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. She said,
There are different ways of waiting. There is waiting without carrying hope within ourselves, sitting—waiting for salvation to come from the outside …
And there are those who wait with faith and who fight for truth even when they are defeated and beaten back a hundred times. This is the kind of waiting that sends forth seeds out of which change and progress may one day grow. The difference is between waiting for lilies to appear that have never been planted, and doing your utmost to help good seeds find nourishment in rocky soil.

She went on to say,
It is, of course, beyond our power to turn the clock back before September 11th, 2001. But we can choose to use the waiting time wisely: to be the doers, not hearers only; to acknowledge the presence of evil, but never lose sight of the good; to endure terrible blows, but never give in to those who would have us betray our principles, or surrender our faith. (as quoted in a sermon by John Buchanan, preached at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, December 9, 2001).

Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the Sunday when we look forward to the day when Christ’s reign will be fully realized. Long ago, the prophet Isaiah dreamed of the time when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah dreamed of a time when the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.

And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” And right before Jesus made that proclamation, the Gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild beasts. Isn’t that an intriguing detail?

Could it be that there in the wilderness, the wolf was already nuzzling up to the lamb, and the leopard was already lying down with the kid? Could it be that signs of the reign of Christ were already there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear?

No matter how bleak the future seems. Even when we feel cut off from a future for which we had dearly hoped, we can dare to imagine a future in which green shoots do indeed grow out of dead stumps.

Where, in your lives, have you felt cut off? Perhaps you lost a job that you absolutely loved. Perhaps you’ve been cut from a family member or a loved one, and nothing exacerbates the pain of separation more than the holidays. Perhaps you are deeply worried about the state of our nation and the state of our world.

In whatever way you feel cut off, you can dare to imagine a green shoot growing out of a dead stump, even in these barren late November days.

I’m not trying to suggest that figuring out the next steps is ever easy or automatic. You’ll not hear me preach any sermons entitled, “Nine easy steps to get the lion to lie down with the lamb.” If Isaiah’s vision were easy to achieve, we would have already done it. But I believe this vision is enough to give us hope.

Several years ago, a future United States Senator was working as a tenements rights lawyer in Newark, New Jersey. He was walking around the neighborhood trying to offer his services. One day he knocked on the door of one Mrs. Virginia Jones. Virginia walked out of her tenement building and asked him to follow her. She said to him, “Tell me what you see?” He said, “I see crack houses and run-down buildings and gang graffiti.” Virginia replied, “Then, you can’t help me.” And she walked off. He went chasing after her and said, “Wait, you have to tell me more. Why are you walking away?” She said, “Young man, you need to learn something. If all you see is hopelessness and despair, then it’s a reflection of what’s inside you and you can’t help me. But, if you see signs of hope, new life, even the face of God, then we can get started.” (from a 2007 interview on NPR with Cory Booker, who at the time was the mayor of Newark).

What do you see? Do you see the stump—the evidence of heartache and tragedy?

Or do you see the green shoot?—the sign that the reign of Christ is already breaking through?

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Sermon in Response to Last Week's Terrorist Attacks, using Elisha as our model for honest grieving and faithful response.

A sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah, New York 

November 15, 2015

This sermon was originally written as a companion piece to chapter 12 in Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking, and it was rewritten in response to the past week’s devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad.

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-15

Our ancestors in the faith, the ancient Israelites, told and retold the central stories of their faith. They told the story of God using Moses to deliver the people out of slavery. And the people kept telling these stories. And they needed to keep telling these stories, because in the Hebrew Bible, Pharaoh does not meet his end in the book of Exodus, when the waters of the Red Sea close over his chariot.

In fact, Pharaoh lives on, as he later "haunts Israel in the form of its own kings who, intoxicated and blinded by political power, forget that the God under whose authority they serve not only despises tyrants, but also is inclined to intervene against them if they lead the people to apostasy or oppress the most vulnerable among them.” (Trevor Eppehimer, “Theological Perspective: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p. 174).

The story of God intervening on behalf of the most vulnerable and those who are being oppressed gets retold again and again. Just as Moses was God’s spokesperson on behalf of those who were being oppressed, so Elijah also becomes God’s spokesperson in the face of tyranny.

This message is captured in the words of the African American spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which we will sing later in the service. It’s based on the story of Elijah’s fiery chariot ride into heaven. Written by Wallis Willis around 1862, the spiritual begins,

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, 

Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me, 
Coming for to carry me home.”

The chariot likely both represents the hope of deliverance as well as a challenge to the institution of slavery. And the reference to the Jordan River also evokes an association with the Ohio River, because the Ohio River divided the Slave states from the Free States, and thus, freedom awaited, on the other side of the Ohio, on that far side of Jordan. (see comments by Haywood Barringer Spangler, “Homiletical Perspective: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14” in Feasting on the Word, p. 175).

The Prophet Elijah in the cave (below) and on a chariot of fire. A fresco from Rila Monastery, Bulgaria, medieval Orthodox tradition, renovated 20th century.

When Elijah crossed the Jordan, he returned to the vicinity of Mount Nebo, where Moses had surveyed the Promised Land right before he died. And just as Moses once chose Joshua as his successor, so Elijah had come upon Elisha one day as Elisha was plowing the fields, and Elijah threw his mantle, or his cloak, upon Elisha, and Elisha said let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and then I will follow you, and from that point on, Elisha followed Elijah.

And when it was time for Elijah to depart, Elisha asked for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Now, Elisha was not asking to become twice the prophet that Elijah was. In this case, a double share means twice what anyone else would get, or a 2/3rds share, which is what the oldest son would inherit. In other words, Elisha was asking to be recognized as Elijah’s true heir.

Now, suspense enters the story, because we do not know until the very end whether or not Elisha will receive that double share of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha himself does not know, until he parts the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle. We can almost hear Elisha ask himself, “Will I see Elijah ascend? Will I be able to part the Jordan as Elijah did? Will the Lord grant me the spirit? The suspense Elisha must feel, parallels the suspense we feel in moments of transition and vulnerability. Will the cancer treatment work? Will I be downsized out of a job? Will my child make it through high school? (Spangler, p. 177).

And this story evokes our unease and uncertainty about the state of our world. After Friday night’s devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, which had been preceded by suicide bombings in Beirut and Baghdad, what happens now? All the events of these past few days have brought back memories of 9/11 and all those feelings of fear and uncertainty.

We do not know what the future holds.

Elisha does a couple of things in the face of his own uncertainty and fear. First of all, he persists in accompanying Elijah. Three times Elijah pleads with his disciple to abandon him, and three times Elisha refuses. Elisha becomes a model of persistence, of staying true to what he believed his calling to be, even in the face of frightening and uncertain times.

And notice what else Elisha does. When the company of prophets taunts Elisha about Elijah’s pending departure, Elisha tells them to be quiet. Thus, Elisha calls for silence or stillness rather than premature conclusions.

With all the talk after Friday night’s attacks in Paris, we need the sanity of an Elisha to warn us against premature conclusions about the dangers of giving shelter to refugees. We need someone to warn us not to give in to our preconceived notions.

We need a model of faithfulness. Elisha has no guarantee that God will give him the same gifts that Elijah received. But Elisha pursues his call, even without that guarantee. Elisha follows what he understands to be God’s will, although he does not yet know clearly what God’s will for him is.
Elisha must discern God’s call by participating in events. He must watch the chariot and the whirlwind. He must pick up the mantle. He must attempt to part the Jordan. Elisha confirms his call through his actions. Elisha becomes our model for faithfulness. He embraced the suspense and ambiguity that is a part of life, and he asked himself, “What is God calling me to do in this situation?” (Spangler, p. 177).

But almost everything I’ve said up until now is really next week’s sermon, or perhaps even the sermon for the week after next. Because you see, before Elisha can become our model for faithfulness, he is first our model for honest grieving. Before he picked up the mantle, before he started to test his calling, in that moment when Elisha realized that Elijah had been taken out of his sight, he ripped his clothes in half, which was a profound sign of grief.

What would Elisha do on the third day after devastating terrorist attacks in Paris? He would rip his cloak in two and weep.

Before this preacher or any other preacher attempts to give you easy answers, let our response be one of honest grieving and crying out to God with our fears.

The composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922 he was suddenly stricken by cancer while working on his last opera, Turandot, which many now consider his best. Puccini said to his students, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.” Shortly afterward he died. Puccini’s students studied the opera carefully and soon completed it.

In 1926 the world premiere of Turandot was performed in Milan with Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing. Everything went beautifully until the opera reached the point where Puccini had been forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscanini’s face. He stopped the music, turned to his audience, and cried out, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.”

A vast silence filled the opera house.

Then, Toscanini smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “But his disciples finished his work.” He then turned back around and resumed directing. When Turandot ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause. (as told by Carrie N. Mitchell, “Pastoral Perspective: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14” in Feasting on the Word, p. 176).

With Elisha as a model for honest grieving and for faithfulness, we, too, can turn to God with our grief and our fears, and, when the time is right, we can finish our story, as we live out God’s calling upon our lives.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Forward Together

This is a stewardship sermon preached on November 8, 2015, reflecting themes that we've been covering in our discussion of Brian McLaren's book We Make the Road by Walking.

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13

The Hollywood depictions of Moses have never been that convincing, whether it’s Charleton Heston with a fake beard, or the cartoon version in the Prince of Egypt. To quote Frederick Buechner, if anything, Moses probably more closely resembled Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof after going ten rounds with a prize fighter. As Buechner writes,

Forty years of tramping around the wilderness with the Israelites was enough to take it out of anybody. When they weren’t raising heck about running out of food, they were raising it about running out of water. They were always hankering after the fleshpots of Egypt and making bitter remarks about how they should have stayed home and let well enough alone. As soon as Moses turned his back, the Israelites started whooping it up around the Golden Calf, and, later when someone named Korah stood up and said Moses ought to be thrown out, the motion was seconded by thousands. Any spare time Moses had left after taking care of things like that he spent trying to persuade God to be merciful to the people anyway. (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 110-111).

Paintings on the ceiling of the Sala Superiore (1575-77)
Moses drawing water from the rock

Oil on canv
as, 550 x 520 cm
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

The people of Israel were on a journey. And it was a difficult journey. In chapter ten of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking, McLaren writes that

we have much to learn from the stories of Moses and his companions. We, too, must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead, it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress, and strain. In those wild places, character is formed—The personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness. Like those who have walked before us, we need to know that grumbling and complaining can be more dangerous than poisonous snakes or the hot desert sun. Like them, we must be forewarned about the danger of catastrophizing the present and romanticizing the past. Like them, we must remember that going forward may be difficult, but going back is disastrous. (Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, New York: Jericho Books, 2014, p. 42).

For many years now, church theologians have been comparing the present situation of the church to the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. In some ways, this metaphor works, and in some ways, it doesn’t. For instance, this sanctuary has stood in this location since 1900, and there are many of you who have been worshipping in this sanctuary regularly for 40 or 50 years or more. And if your name is Bud Davis, you’ve been here since 1945! You are rooted here. This is home. You don’t feel like you’re wandering around. In one of our small groups that is reading the Brian McLaren book together, someone was quite honest in saying that they didn’t feel like they’ve had a lot of wilderness experiences. So, the metaphor of the wilderness doesn’t work for everyone.

But where it’s more applicable, I think, is in trying to describe the landscape outside. This sanctuary and the worshipping community it houses has stood firm, but the surrounding cultural landscape has changed. The church no longer enjoys the place of cultural privilege it once took for granted. More and more people, particularly those under the age of 30, are claiming not to have any religious affiliation whatsoever. There are voices in the church expressing a certain nostalgia for the days when our sanctuaries were full to overflowing, and when Sunday was a day set aside for worship and rest.
But we cannot go back. Those days are gone. We have to find our way forward.

As one preacher writes,

The children of Israel, 3,500 years ago, were not naïve or gullible. Of all people they understood that God does not guarantee physical protection and safety. As they looked back on it from the perspective of history, their survival in the wilderness was nothing short of miraculous. But they were realists. People did get hungry and sick. People did die on the way.

Unlike the God marked by purveyors of the [Prosperity Gospel]—a God who promises to make you wealthy, healthy, and happy if you simply think positive, pray hard, “name it and claim it,”--the God they were learning to trust did not guarantee their health and safety and welfare. It was something deeper and more important than that even: a God who was with them on bad days and good days, a God whose loving presence in the very midst of darkness and suffering and death gave them power and stamina and courage to live on, a God who does not simply dispense good gifts but a God who pours himself out in love; [a God whom the prophet Isaiah compared to a mother who will never abandon her nursing child.] (from a sermon by John Buchanan, preached at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, September 28, 2008).

That’s a God unlike any other. And centuries later, when Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he introduced an early Christian hymn by exhorting his hearers to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself.”

The Chilean author Isabel Allende was interviewed a few years ago as part of the NPR segment entitled, This I Believe. In that interview Allende said:

I have lived with passion and in a hurry, trying to accomplish too many things. I never had time to think about my beliefs until my twenty-eight-year-old daughter Paula fell ill. She was in a coma for a year, and I took care of her at home until she died in my arms. There was nothing to do but cry and remember and to reflect on my journey and the principles that hold me together …
Paralyzed and silent and in her bed, my daughter Paula taught me a lesson that is now my mantra: You only have what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich. Paula had given her life away essentially. Gave her life to others, serving, helping, volunteering. When she died she had nothing—but a heart full of love.

Allende continued:

The pain of losing my child was a cleansing experience. I had to throw overboard all excess baggage and keep only what is essential. Because of Paula I don’t cling to anything anymore. Now I like to give more than to receive. I am happier when I love than when I am loved.

She concluded:

Give, give, give …..what is the point of having experience, wisdom, or talent if I don’t give it away? What is the point of having wealth if I don’t share it?” (Isabel Allende in This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007, pp. 13-15).

The challenge for us on this wilderness journey is to discover for ourselves what is truly essential. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we, too, are always one generation away from extinction. We cannot simply assume that this church will always be here. The only way to assure that this church will be here when the job is eliminated, or the diagnosis comes, or the baby is baptized, or the wedding is celebrated, or the mother dies…

The only way there will be a church school for your kids to learn how to navigate in life when there are too many choices, too many pressures, and too many temptations…

the only way to reach out to all those served by our deacons…
the only way we can continue to provide ministry and witness to hope …

is to keep on supporting as generously as you can this church, which is here to share good news with needy people, to offer consolation in times of despair, to lift up the love of God when people feel bereft of love, to provide shelter and hospitality in the name of Christ when people have no shelter through the winter night.

The only way all of this can keep on going is if you and I take the risk of being generous: of committing a portion of our income to the weekly support of this church.

The Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has estimated that at any given time during a church stewardship campaign, 26% of the people are annoyed. That statistic may actually seem surprisingly low. 

But setting aside any annoyance for the moment, what we are trying to do here is to tell a story. That’s why we presented a narrative or visionary budget this year. It details how we hope to move “forward together” in worship, in Christian Education, in fellowship, in evangelism, with our facilities, and in mission.

We are trying to tell a story. This is why we’ve been inviting church members once a month to share their story of how this church has transformed them and why generosity is so important. If you’ve missed any of these heartfelt testimonies, you can go to our church website and read them in our Pres-Notes newsletter. You’ll find stories shared by Bob Whitton, Peggy Martin, Sharon Ballen, Don Coe, Sue Hassett, Heidi Cambareri, Bill Pelletier, and Joyce Dupee, each of them sharing their personal stories about the difference this church makes.

Today we dedicate our estimates of giving for 2016. If you’re not quite ready to do that today, we invite you to consider doing so in the next few weeks.

The challenge before us, those of us who love this church and what it does in the world, those of us who want to follow Jesus, who aspire, literally, to have the same mind in us that was in him, the one who emptied himself—the challenge before us, is to take stock, to decide what to take along with us on the journey, and to trust the goodness and faithfulness of God, in the good times and the not so good. (paraphrased from the conclusion of the John Buchanan sermon).

That is the challenge!

And yet, it is also a gracious invitation to discover that we truly own what we give away—our wealth, our love, our lives—and that in letting go, emptying self, you and I become fully alive.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.