Enough

“Enough” Sermon on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 for August 11, 2019

Rev. Alice Rose Tewell, The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church 

 

Enough.

I often feel like many of are living lives through two different sets of lenses.  There is the lens of relative security and the freedoms that come from that.  In my family, I think of this lens as our regular routine.  

For the summer it is getting kids up and dressed and to camp in the morning, enjoying a cup of coffee often while on the move, and during this time of the year taking in a last moments of summer while considering a new backpack and some school supplies

In preparation for kindergarten. But that hope of new beginnings also brings in the fear that comes with the other lens too. 

This lens of violence is one that is the primary reality for so many in our country. Rebecca Davis, who will give us a Moment for Mission on her work on gun violence prevention, pointed me towards everytownresearch.org providing research of gun violence. 

Nearly 2/3 of gun deaths are from suicide.  Most people who attempt suicide do not die unless it is by a gun.  Our suicide rate in the US is 10 times that of other high income countries.  

I have shared with some of you that suicide has affected by life personally. In my work in my sharing, I have found that my story is too common.  Suicide creates trauma that can’t be undone and whose affects reach deep into family histories. It is epidemic in our country that stays largely out of public conversation — perhaps because we are afraid.  

Enough.   

One third of gun deaths are by homicide, and black males are fifteen times more likely to be shot than white males in our country.  Friday was the 5th anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. 

Enough.  

Firearms are the second leading cause of death for children and teens in our country and the leading cause of death for Black children and teens. 

In 2019, 31 children were shot in Washington DC and 15 from Ward 8. 

Enough. 

From domestic violence, Women are 21 times more likely to be killed by firearm violence than women in other high income countries. 

Enough. 

According to the Washington Post homicide tracker, there have been 174 homicides in the DMV in 2019.  126 of them were from shootings.   

Enough.  

In 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive there have been 254 mass shootings including people who were injured only.  

Mother Jones reports on the most tragic of 4 of more victims including death in 2019 in  

Sebring, Fl, State College, PA,  Aurora, IL,  Virginia Beach, VA,  Gilroy, CA,  El Paso, Tx, 

Dayton, Ohio.

Enough.  

When, O Lord, when will we stop?

———

The reading from Isaiah 1 is not something that I would often pick out of the lectionary choices for today on an August summer morning.   It feels so heavy, but that weightiness is what our souls need today.

We are reeling as a country over this violence we wreck against our very bodies. We are scared.  And for those of us who still enjoy a lens of relative security, we are scared because this violence that we have often tried to shut out:  Gun violence in places where people of power often do not live – that most of us do not live — like Ward 7 and 8. Violence committed onto black and brown bodies; Violence committed at home through suicide and domestic violence. Our relative silence is a sin. 

Violence has creeped into our schools — so that lockdowns are a norm — that our kindergarteners already know how to hide in a closet — that our teenagers are having to lead the movement in gun violence prevention.  Many of us check the exits when entering a public place from movie theaters to markets to even church. 

This kind of existence of fear must end.  

As has become the slogan this last few months,  Our Thoughts and Prayers are not Enough — or at least not the pithy thoughts and prayers that lead to no action.  

The pithy thought and prayers used as something to say to fill the void — to make it look as though our leaders are doing something — is an abomination.  This kind of prayer that doesn’t really mean anything is using God’s name in vein.  This kind of prayer is equating God’s power to something feeble that is inconclusive that makes no substantial change.  

I do not worship or pray to a feeble God. 

I pray to the God who created the heavens and the earth who lead the Israelites out of slavery to was born a human to deeply know the realities and the pains of being human— who was killed by the authorities — and who has defeated evil being resurrected to new life.  I worship the God of the resurrection — the God who calls us into mutuality in the same way that God has entered into mutuality with all of creation.I worship the God who calls us God’s own beloved children.  

I pray to this Triune God confessing my sins of where I have turned to the lens of comfort and security and turned a blind eye to those who are suffering.  I pray to this Triune God that I am tired and filled with anxiety and anger about the deep suffering in this world.  I pray to God asking for strength, for courage, and for hope.  

I pray to God pleading for prophetic action.  

———

That is the message I hear all over our Isaiah text for today.  Perhaps you will read it as I do as a prayer of lament, a prayer of anger, and prayer that says that in order to live — in order for our souls to survive – we must turn towards God’s redemption.  

It is a prayer put in the words of God.  Verse 2 opens with God speaking.  The English doesn’t fully capture what the Hebrew does here.  Normally, in the Hebrew the verb comes first followed by the subject.   But here, the subject, the name for God — YHWH — comes first with the verb ‘to speak” following emphasizing that this indictment comes directly from God.  

The religious and political leaders are compared to the rulers of Sodam and Gomorrah who with so much sin turned to a pile of salt.  And we hear the Word of God: 

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says the Lord?  I have had enough of your burnt offerings… Trample my courts no more.”I hear the message — I have heard enough of your empty thoughts and prayers.  Enough.  No more.  

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan theologian, in his book Falling Upward says that our religiosity has become like a Greek tragedy.  We are filled with pride and delusion.  

We create religious camps of infighting — denomination against denomination – conservative vs. liberal.  We forget that what makes us Christian — what makes us followers of Christ is never about our politics.  What makes us followers of Christ is believing in God’s divine revelation for the world where we are invited to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the window. 

Rohr puts it this way:“The genius of the biblical revelation is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates failing to achieve only promised wholeness… Jesus is never upset at sinners; he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners.” (Rohr, 59)

Rohr continues that we as clergy and as the church have gotten into the business of sin management rather than sin transformation. “We have blamed the victim, or have had little pity for the victims while daring to worship an victim image of God.”  

We have been so horrified by this gun violence that we have often stood by paralyzed by horror.  Whether it is children being murdered in our streets, whether it is black and brown men and women being killed by police, whether is the the family tragedy of suicide, domestic abuse pushed into the shadows, or mass shootings stoked by the vile rhetoric and defense of white supremacy from our leaders with the most power, we as people who follow after the God of the resurrection, as people of faith with must 

rise up in mutuality with victims and with all power and strength proclaim prophetic action that comes only from the the power of God.

From the brink of rebellion, resurrection is what God offers the people.  Commentator Gary W. Light suggests we can read verse 18 and 19 two ways: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; 

they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The Hebrew might invite us to see these as an an interrogative: “If your sins are like scarlet, can they become like snow?  If they are red like crimson, can they become like wool?”

Whatever Israel tries, it cannot make itself innocent again.  Their sins are real; God’s accusations are accurate. Yet, there is also the possibility of God’s grace.  

This is not cheap grace where God says “Don’t worry about things. I’ll take care of them.” But God is merciful, and God’ recognizes that on their own the people are powerless to change.

God is offering a transforming presence of change — return from rebellion to obedience — return from death to life, says the Lord.  

If you look after the verse 20 where I stopped today, there is a break where commentators suggest there should be a pause.  In this space of silence, the court holds it breathe — God gives the people the choice:

“If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the mouth of the sword.” After that all that the defendant, the people, the leaders, We today need to say that “We are willing.”

If you read on, that is not how the people of Isaiah’s day responded, but we can be different. 

That is the hope.  We will not choose silence. We will choose action. We will choose resurrection because our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.  Amen.

Sources:

Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr

Isaiah Interpretation Bible Study by Gary W. Light

http://everytown.org

 

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What You Can Do to Help Your Immigrant Neighbors in this Time of Crisis

Please read this post from Kathy Doan, a Ruling Elder (Session member) and Executive Director of the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition. 

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Photo from https://faithinaction.org/federation/congregation-action-network/

As the Executive Director of the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition, the only non-profit immigration legal service provider in the Washington area focused exclusively on assisting the over 2000 immigrant men, women and children detained on a daily basis in 12 detention centers in Maryland and Virginia, I am frequently asked what can be done to help immigrants under threat in our communities, as well as respond to the horrific treatment of immigrant children and families at the border.

While it is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, there is much that we can and should be doing to protect our immigrant neighbors and fight for justice for those seeking refuge in our country.  

  1. First, we can demand that our elected leaders pursue policies that are in accord with our obligations under international law to provide an opportunity for those fleeing violence in their homelands to apply for asylum and not be relegated to long and dangerous waits in Mexico. 
  2. Second, we can demand that our elected leaders ensure that policies put into place to protect unaccompanied immigrant children are enforced. 
  3. Third, we can demand that our elected leaders pursue policies that address the factors that are forcing men, women and children to abandon their home countries in order to survive. 
  4. Fourth, we can weave a strong safety net around the immigrants in our own communities who are threatened with detention and deportation by supporting local efforts to educate immigrants on their rights in an encounter with ICE, join a “Rapid Response” team to respond to an ICE raid, accompany an immigrant to their ICE check-in and support local families impacted by the detention of a loved one.

The good news is that there is already a robust local network of congregations, non-profit immigration service providers and advocacy organizations in the DMV that provide many opportunities to engage in the fight for more just and compassionate immigration laws and policies.  NYAPC is one of dozens of congregations that belong to the Congregation Action Network (formerly DMV Sanctuary Congregational Network).  CAN is divided into three clusters: DC, Northern Virginia and Montgomery/PG Counties.  The DC Cluster meets once a month at National City Christian Church.  A number of members of NYAPC church, including Fritz and myself, regularly attend these meetings.  The DC Cluster is divided into various committees focusing on both local and national efforts to defend immigrants and advocate for more just laws and policies.  We need more people to join us!  If you would like to know more about CAN, please email me at kathryndoan@yahoo.com

Another opportunity to help detained immigrants in our area is to volunteer with the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition.  We need volunteers to assist on jail visits, staff our detention hotline and assist with translation needs. For more information go to https://www.caircoalition.org/how-to-help/volunteering.

Finally, know the numbers to call in the event of the detention of a friend or family member: 

https://www.facebook.com/CAIRCoalitionDC/photos/a.187505218087245/1222891381215285/?type=3&theater

As you can see, there are many ways to put your “faith in action” on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, so chose something and get going!

Kathy Doan and Omar Angel Perez -- 3

 

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General View of the Demonstration - 3

Njoro Sunday – An Opportunity to Give Thanks for our Kenya Partnership

Here is a post from Rev. Beth Braxton on the NYAPC partnership with the Orphans and Vulnerable Children Ministry in Njoro, Kenya.  This message as preached on June 16, 2019.

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“God has done so much for me, that I cannot tell it all.” This is a chorus we learned in Swahili and English last summer on our church’s mission trip to Njoro, Kenya.

It is the background music in the eight-minute video put together by one of the participants, Kelvin Njoroge, a member of the Goshen International Church in Henrico County, a congregation that partners with us to care for thirty-three Orphan and Vulnerable Children.  (Goshen International is an immigrant church of persons from Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya)

On Sunday June 16, I indeed felt that there was so much of God’s grace to witness to that we could not tell it all.  The video which we showed at the end of the worship service (and may be seen on our church website), is a quick history of the 2018 mission trip to Njoro: who participated, what we did, what it meant, and where we stayed. The Minute for Mission was given by two members of the Steering Committee, John Clark who participated in the mission trip and Brian Carlson who desires to go on the 2020 upcoming trip; Brian and John did a question and answer time to give our congregation an idea of what a mission trip to Njoro is like.  There are many stories of this inspiring journey; and it is a challenge to tell it all.

For “Njoro Sunday” we chose the theme of Hope; OR rather – the lectionary scripture for the day Romans 5:1-5 chose us! The Saturday program of Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVC) is just such a place of Hope for the students (most of whom are youth ages 12 through 20 – no longer young children!) This year especially, participants are getting not just spiritual nurture, help with homework, nourishing cooked lunch – but also are participating in a small mentoring group, led by one of the adult members of the Njoro OVC Committee – including the church pastor and the social worker.

One student who stood out for us last summer was Matthew Mokoa, a thirteen year old in Class 8 (we would say eighth grade).  Several of us visited his home , a two-room rental (no electricity or indoor plumbing) where his single mom, brother and sister all reside.  His mother does casual labor (doing laundry, gardening for $2.00 per day) when she can get work.  What was noticeable about the rooms was starkness and the soot on the walls from the kerosene lamp and the cooking fire.  The mother showed us that the lamp did not work properly so they had no lamp at night.  I asked Francis Muchemi, chair of the OVC ministry, about what it would cost to get a new properly-functioning lantern.  He suggested getting a solar lamp, which cost Ksh 2,500. or about $25.00.  We left that amount and a solar lamp was then purchased for Matthew’s home.

Matthew along with everyone else in Class level 8 throughout the country of Kenya has to take a National Exam near completion – and result of that one set of exams determines where (and whether) one will go to high school – a local day school, a national boarding school, just a technical school or even dropping out of school.  Matthew scored high enough to qualify for a National School!  Here is what he wrote and I share with you from my sermon –a sign of hope.  

“ the programme (OVC) provided a Solar Lamp, which made me happy and more encouraged. I thanked God because now I had opportunity to study to my limits. I used to wake up early to study. I was happy because the Lamp had no negative effect, like the other on, which I used to use. That one produced a lot of smoke which made me cough every time. When I got the Solar Lamp, I thanked the member. Then I had hope of passing my (national) exam.

I studied until the last minute. The day of Exam came. I did my best to achieve what I desired. I completed the exams( ended)  and I patiently waited for the results. When the results came I was happy because I persevered to score 379 marks out of 500. This result enabled me to have hope of joining a National school. I really thank God because if it were not for the Solar Lamp I don’t know what I would have scored in the exams.  After some weeks passed, I was glad because I got an invitation letter to a National school by the name Baricho Boys’ High School.  … I thanked God because the school had everything that I had desired for – when I was at home! The school had enough waters. I was happy of that, because the water was throughout. So I had no excuse of not washing my clothes. The school also has electricity throughout. Now I can read any time.  This school also has clean and healthful environment. Flowers and trees are planted all over the school (property) to ensure that there is enough aeration of air in the compound. There are CCTV (security cameras) ensuring security every time (all the time). The school also has improved equipment – e.g., computers, musical instruments and many other.

In reading materials, the school is rich in books and any other required material. So I have no reason why I should fail…. It has enough dormitories for every student has his own bed. The dorms are also well aerated (ventilated) and there are Inner bathrooms… The school is also the best in balanced diet. It provides different kinds of all types. I am pleased because some of the foods I have never seen them in my lifetime. I really thank the OVC programme for such a wonderful deed to me.

Hope is a solar lamp! 

Njoro Sunday is a gift and an opportunity to present to the congregation a connect with this engaging and inspiring ministry through testimony, photos, music, arts and craft, and a taste of mandazis and samosas from Kenya.  Thank you, church!

It is such a gift to be a part of NYAPC and connect with the justice issues of Washington, DC, through Radcliffe Room, Community Club, McClendon Center, 7 2 9. Scholars –in-Residence, and now the Day Service Center!  It is a gift as well to be able to connect relationally with persons in our Cuba Partnership and in a developing country such as Kenya, East Africa. The Presbyterian Church of East Africa membership of four million to five million is 10 percent of the country’s population! In Kenya, the Presbyterian Church is strong and growing.  Evidence for me – in the seven years I have been at the NYAPC and providing leadership to three mission trips to Njoro, the parish has expanded into three congregations! Their faith is contagious and encouraging and hopeful for all of us.  

The apostle Paul’s words are powerful: “Hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.”

Let me say it this way as I did in my sermon on Njoro Sunday — Because our transcendent creator God who put the planets in their courses, unique fingerprints on all 5 billion people on this earth, and the brilliant color in the butterfly wings and the immanent God who came to us in the human being Jesus who wept for Jerusalem and washed his friends feet and cared for the bent-over woman, spoke truth to power – this God, this transcendent immanent God, this magnificent embracing God of love has been poured into our hearts!! 

And Because of that powerful love, Hope will NOT disappoint us!  It is the fiber of our being that can help us make a better world and give us all the grace we need to enjoy it!! 

Living that love is life!

Out of the Shadows – Sermon from June 23, 2019

I preached this sermon Sunday June 23, 2019 at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.  This sermon was preached honoring world Refugee Sunday.  We gave thanks for the refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in our church and communities.   The first scripture was Psalm 42.  The second scripture, which this sermon is based on was the story of Jesus and the Demonic from Luke 8:26-39. 

I would love to hear from you response and stories to the question asked here:   How has Jesus Christ saved your life?    

Blessings, Alice 

—–

The weekend after Travon Martin was shot, we said nothing in church.  He wasn’t lifted up in the time of confession, in the sermon or in the prayer time.  His presence wasn’t included amongst us that day.

I grew up in a multi-cultural Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s.  We lived near immigrants from Central America and Vietnam, and I am multi-ethnic in my own identity — half Chinese and half white.  We celebrated our cultural diversity by appreciating different languages and ethnic foods — yet by not talking about race directly, I was implicitly taught that we were living in post racial America.  Or, as it is also known today — I was taught color blindness. 

For my first call into ministry, my husband and I moved to Ithaca, New York from Washington DC.   We lived downtown, where the majority of our neighbors were white, and the church I served was majority white people except for a large contingent of Karen ethnic minority refugees from Burma.  I held three false assumptions:  #1 There were very few people of color, including black people, living in this town; #2 There were no racial tensions and because of these first two  #3 Race didn’t need to be addressed.

But then that week happened.  Travyon Martin, an unarmed black boy, was shot in Florida.  The news covered it.  Our friends were talking about it.  But neither my colleague, who is white, or I said anything. 

Jesus appeared that day in the form of Professor M, who is black,  a Professor at Cornell University.  I had baptized Lorraine’s grandchildren. She had been on my search committee. I had sat across from her at many a Wednesday night church potluck supper.   With a combination of directness and kindness, Professor M let me know in no uncertain terms that we had missed the Gospel message for that day.  She let me know that she expected me to do better.   It was through Professor M that Jesus appeared opening up the opportunity to be set free from some racist assumptions, to be opened to the reality of violence against people of color, especially those who are considered to be black and brown in our country. 

Where has Jesus spoken into your life setting you free from the power of sin and death inviting you instead to life lived abundantly in the power of the resurrection?  Or put more simply, think of a story, in your own life when Jesus set you free….

———

The story of Jesus and the demonic is that kind of story of God’s freeing power. It is indeed a strange one —-  this idea of processing a man.  Many us avoid this kind of story.  We aren’t sure what to make of it.  We think of demons either in terms of some kind of cartoon caricature dressed in red with horns and a spiky tail or something much more scary buried deep within our world and maybe even within our very souls.  

These demons are not something we are comfortable talking about;  Just like the community did to Legion —  we try to shackle them, bury them, put them in the tomb, and it is for that very reason that we are called by Jesus to stare directly into the face of these demons and command them to come out.  

———

I started with the demon of racism.  We each are coming to our own stories of when we began to see; stories where we are called to dig deep into our assumptions and our stereotypes.  

Xenophobia is another demon driving our country apart.  We have read about the horrors going on inside the detention facilities on own country’s southern boarder:  

  • There are three girls ages 11 to 15 who are taking shifts caring for a sick 2 year old boy because there is no adult around caring for them.  
  • Other children report eating frozen food that hasn’t been heated or rice for every meal. 
  • Some children report not having a shower in two weeks.
  • There are no toothbrushes, no soap, the only blankets are foil ones.  
  • Lights are on all night long, the a/c is blasting too cold, there isn’t enough access to bathroom facilities.    

These thousands of children sleeping on concrete floors are the same ages as the ones who come up here for children’s time. As a country we are giving into the demons of fear,  turning to a brutal anger,  which have turned to abuse.  

Our hearts break.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  This is not who we are.

 ———

When we were living in Ithaca, NY we got to know some of the refugees from the Karen minority group from Burma.  Ms. H was one of the high schoolers in that community.  She lived in a refugee camp in Thailand until she was 14, living in basic conditions, sometimes without enough food or medicine, but always with her family.  

Her family came to Ithaca to be resettled when she was about to start high school.  She had gone to school in the refugee camp in Thailand, so she knew some English.  It was hard, but teachers and people from the church gave her extra tutoring.  In 2014 she graduated from high school and was the first person in that refugee community to go onto college.  After college, she went on to get her masters in nursing.  For the past five years as she has continued her education, she has returned back to that refugee camp bringing methods for water purification, a medical clinic, and English and math classes.  She has encouraged others who came to upstate New York as refugees to do well in school and join her in going back in the summers bringing back knowledge and hope.  I look at Ms. H and I see Legion, the man that Jesus set free.  

She is different from Legion, of course.   She hasn’t had to battle the demons of the mind or of the heart.  Her immediate community and family have been her rock and support.  She was never cast out.   But outside of her nuclear family, like Legion she bore the wounds of warfare and religious persecution.  They tried to kill her family and to wipe out everyone in her ethnic group. She grew up with family but in a refugee camp isolated and excluded from all the privileges of being a citizen of this world.  

Her story is more hopeful.  But we know too of millions of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, who because of violence and economic desolation live a life unrecognizable to most of us.  It is an act of hope in the face of death — it is in hopes of the resurrection —  that we see families and individuals crossing desserts and mountains and rivers on flimsy rafts trying to get to this country, a country built on the resilience and faith of immigrants. These citizens of the world, who come with gumption, bravery and resilience are being turned right back to the literal tombs they are escaping from.

We will not stand for this kind of demon to take over the souls of our country.

———

This Biblical story connects deeply with our own story today. It begins in the county of the Gerasenes. There are two important things to notice here:  First, the good news of Jesus’s message that all are called as God’s beloved created in the image of God, this Good News has traveled beyond the immediate audience of the Jewish people. This good news has spread abroad to the world.  And second, the country of the Gerasenes is on the opposite side of the sea of Galilee. Just like Jesus telling the story of the Samaritan man, opening us up to the story of the foreigner, Jesus in this story of the demonic is literally crossing to the other side — crossing over to wrong side of the religious tracks.  He is going to the place considered to be the abyss.  

When Jesus arrives, he meets Legion.   This is a clue in the story that those first century listeners would have cued into. Legion is the Roman name for a large military unit meaning that the Roman army is the cause of this man’s violent and destructive behavior and the whole society is possessed by the effects of violence of the empire.

When we read the story this way that this man is possessed by the powers of empire and that the community too is possessed by these powers that seek to control, this story starts to feel not so far removed.  This story is our story today.

There are the demons in this world, demons that get their power from those political and social forces that we give into at the expense of the Gospel message.  

These are demons that we seek to push away  until they appear with devastating regularity

  • with a shooting of a person who looks black or brown by police
  • with gun violence in our very city, that some 29 people over Memorial Day weekend where victims of gun violence, a violence that we have ignored because it has mostly been on the other side of the river, where the people with power do not live
  • and with the demons of what is going on in the detention facilities on the border — with children the same age as mine the same age as the one I still nurse at my breast and the one I teaching how to read.

I am afraid for the soul of our country.  But I am not without hope.  

———

This hope comes when we dig deep and recall our own stories —  that story I asked you to consider in the beginning: Where in our own life has Jesus set you free?  It is a question that might catch us off guard.We don’t often talk about our personal experiences with Jesus. But at the heart of it,  these stories of personal experiences are what drive us, define us, and what embolden us to dig deeper into who we are called to be.   

In the letter to the Philippians, in the section that is called the Christ hymn, we hear those life changing words that Jesus, though he was in the form of God,  emptied himself taking on the form of a slave, taking on on the form of human flesh, bearing our sufferings and knowing our joys.

 It is this Jesus who knows us so deeply — this Jesus who has already bore our deepest sins, who knows us in the core of our beings,  who commands the demon within Legion to come out — and then who sends Legion,  right back to be the healer of that very community that had shackled him.  Jesus not only heals Legion but makes him a healer. 

With the power of knowing the weight of the shackles and deep experience of the desperation of the living in the shadow of the death of the tombs, Legion is called to tell his story of Jesus setting him free.And because the community knows his story, they will listen. 

We are Legion. We are the community. We are the ones who have been commissioned as healers. We are the ones who must be healed.  

What is your healing story?  

Where has Jesus set you free?  

Tell it so that we may live. 

 

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A Miracle of Community – Pentecost Sermon

 

 

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Here is the Pentecost sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 that I  preached on June 9, 2019.  I am so thankful for the collaboration and support of the community from the liturgical dancing and dove waving, music, choral reading, life-sharing, and celebration of different languages.  We concluded the service with members leading the benediction in languages they know including Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese,  and German.  

Peace and blessings to you, Alice 

 

——

A little lending library just opened in the entryway of my daughter’s preschool. I love it. On days when we don’t have to get home right away, we stop and she pulls book after book for me to read. We read the first few pages and then she gets me another, and another and another.

Like a lot of the books we have back in the children’s area here in the sanctuary,
Through the humor of the familiar of mealtimes and bedtimes, and sometimes through the invitation to the serious, these books communicate that all are welcome,
that the differences in our skin color and background are what bring beauty to this world, and that we must train ourselves to be attuned to one another.

This idea that beauty comes in diversity is center to the lived mission of the school. When my older son attended there, he learned to count to ten in Spanish and in Arabic before he could do so in English. Before he could be influenced by the awful stereotypes of this world, he understood the hijab to be a practice of faith to be admired and even inspirational. At 5 pm, coming in from traffic and facing the pressures of the dinner-prep witching hour, I’m so thankful that the school has created this little space for intentionality. It is a miracle of community that they have carved into our day.

On this day of Pentecost, we too in the church celebrate this miracle of community flung open by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we heard in the choral reading,
the Holy Spirit comes in waves first seen then heard. The fiery tongues are turned into the gift of other tongues, and as Biblical Scholar William Willimon reflects,
the first gift of the Spirit is the gift of different languages creating an opportunity for proclamation.

It is in this moment that the gathered community is invited to take a risk — to venture from where they were hiding inside in that upper room to outside where the Gospel message is already drawing a crowd. Bystanders look on, and because there are no reasonable expectations for this sudden power of the spirit, they come with their own explanation: “They have drunk too much wine.” It is a moment of holy spirit humor pointing us towards times when we come up with non-sensical explanations for things that we don’t understand. But as we well know this kind of fearful attitude towards things we don’t understand also has the potential to turn fatally dangerous.

As we in this country and those in the Europe celebrated the anniversary of D Day,
we were reminded how fear turned to fascism — and then to nazism leading our world to seeing some of the worst evils ever perpetrated.

For the millions of Jewish people and many others who were killed, we did not act soon enough. It is a sin that we as a world will forever have to atone for. But when we finally did come together I am reminded too of the bravery of so many from all religions and all backgrounds facing down that evil.

As a nation, we are the most divided we have been in my lifetime and perhaps yours as well. The left demonizes the right and the right the left. When we so desperately need the work of immigrants in this country, we hear the horrifying messages calling immigrants all sorts of horrible names, hear of children in detention facilities that have been compared to a prison, kindergartners having to defend themselves without a lawyer, and funding that provide for English lessons have been cut.

The immigrants I know are the ones who take the jobs in the chicken factories in Kentucky because no one else wants those jobs, the people who work 15 hour days in the California and Texas sun picking our crops, the mothers who carry a young child strapped to their back while dropping another off at school, my children’s’ pediatrician, the owner of my favorite coffee shop, and one of my favorite college professors.

Our soundbite world has trained us into giving way to stereotypes. It is deepest calling of the church to stand firm against the way we are becoming every so further divided, for it is this division that is tearing not only our country but our very souls apart. We can’t give way to the divisions, white vs. black; immigrant vs. citizen, rural vs. urban.

My assumption about rural communities were deeply challenged this past February as I drove from here to rural Indiana for my dear friend Amy’s memorial service. On the drive, I took the opportunity to grieve the death of my friend and to take in a part of the country that only living on either coast, I have never seen before. I got off the highway and drove through towns where houses seemed to have given way to disrepair, a clear result of so few businesses left. The opioid epidemic in rural America came clearly into view.

I turned on talk radio and the broadcaster was spouting the same message we hear from some on cable media — in order to protect yourself, stick with your tribe; don’t let foreigners in.

When I arrived in their small town, I girded myself for the feeling of tribalism and xenophobia spouted out on cable radio. But that wasn’t the case at all. The downtown was bustling on that Thursday evening with food trucks camped out for those who came for Trivia night. The whole community was out.

As I looked deeper, on the hotel, on the coffee shop, on the court building, and on neighboring churches were signs celebrating Amy’s memory. The whole town was showing up in support.

Still hesitant, I looked around and noticed that most of the population was white, so I thought maybe this is how they show up for those who look like the majority — for those in the tribe.

The next day, my stereotypes continued to be challenged. First off, I didn’t expect many of Amy’s out of town friends to be be people of color. And then at the reception, I didn’t expect to see a friendly intermingling prompted by the people of the church and community who created intentional spaces for introduction and inclusion.

I dug in later with Amy’s husband, who is the Pastor of the Presbyterian church in town and a local civic leader. He said he well knows the stereotypes, and believes that it is the calling of the church to defy those things. The children’s section in his church is full of the same kinds of books we have here and at my children’s preschool. He preaches on and prays over privilege and racism. The church works to support local businesses so that the downtown may thrive.

The devastating thing is indeed the opioids epidemic, especially among older youth and young adults. It was the work of my friend as the local judge, and the work of the local faith community working together to provide for teen outreach, support, and ultimately hope. They want to create a community where every voice is heard and where those in pain will realize that they are not alone. Here is the hope of Gospel.

The Pentecost story is often contrasted with the ancient Babel story that Sam read.
As Biblical scholar Ted Heibert offers, God’s problem with the Tower of Babel was not about human pride but rather about cultural homogeneity. In the Babel story, the threat to humanity comes when the people want to live in one place and be a uniform culture. God, intervenes against this false sense of human intent and scatters the people throughout the world creating multiple languages and perspectives. Diversity is God’s intention for this world.

We are intentionally trying to embody this kind of diversity here at NYAPC. You’ll notice in your bulletins there is an insert to the new Vision and Mission that the Vision Strategy group has been working on for over a year now. At the heart of the vision is the hope of inclusion that comes from a deep embrace of diversity. Our hope is not just about general message of welcome. Our hope is that inclusion takes root in the specificity of human relationships: That those with power of the microphone and status will take time for deep relational listening; That those who come from other parts of the world will speak and the rest of us will listen so that can blow change amongst us; That we will listen to the leadership of our children and youth that from caring for the diversity of creation to embracing the diversity of humanity we might work toward kingdom of God made manifest in this world.

We are indeed in a very scary time in our country and in our world. I deeply believe the Holy Spirit is moving in and through us at NYAPC preparing us to be repairers of the breach.

Think our location just a few blocks form the seat of power, the thousands of people literally from all backgrounds who either pass by our front door or come inside each day.

Think of the groups who already feel comfortable in our building from the Poor People’s Campaign, to the McClendon Scholar in Residence programs talked where Senator Coons talked and both progressives and conservatives responded, to different groups advocating for those who live without homes feel.

You come from different places city and rural, from DC and not, those born here and those who bring another culture.  You come from diverse perspectives.  You are willing to have our minds changed about how given the right push — perhaps a personal story, you are willing to turn away from stereotypes.

Then think of this building, particularly Peter Marshall Hall, proudly reflecting the work of Community Club and the McClendon Mental Health Program on its walls.  Consider how we could be the perfect space for continuing to host intentional conversations with those who in the eyes of the world are so different,
yet in the heart of God are loved just the same.

We would start with the things we have in common, our love of our kids, our love of our work, maybe in a shared passion for baseball – always beginning from the fundamental place that God creates us good. We could take a cue from Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast and then dig deeper the question “what is the spiritual background of your childhood?” It is a question meant to get us thinking to who we are, who the other person is, and whose we are together. We would begin the conversations with the premise that each person is good and beloved child of God. And then and only when those abiding relationships are established would be dig directly into the places of conflict that tear us apart. Given the right atmosphere, ground rules of openness, honestly and hospitality, these kind of civil conversations would go a long ways towards the healing of our country and the healing of our very souls.

Following after our deep conviction that it is our calling to follow God into places of brokenness and joy, to express God’s love, to engage in God’s justice, it is our calling to be that miracle of community for the world.

Do you feel the power of the Spirit blowing through this place?

I do.

Amen.

 

 

 

My Story by Marie Meka

Ms. Marie Meka is an ordained Ruling Elder currently serving on the Session at NYAPC.  She is also an ordained Diaconal Minister (Deacon).  She shared her story with us in worship on Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019.  Here are her powerful words.

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Here, Marie Meka (Eagle microphone), along with Erica Morgan and Kasey Kelly are sharing the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from Acts chapter 2.

——

 

Psalm 33:12 ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.’

This passage was my grandmother’s favorite bible quote to every happy event in her life. My name is Marie Noel Meka. I was born on Christmas day which is reflected in the name Noel. Daughter of believers, my grandfather was a catechist, my grandfather a deacon, my mother a choir singer and deaconess, my little sister and my little brother both church elders. 

Originally from South Cameroon, I was baptized as a child at the Cameroonian Presbyterian Church in the consistory and parish of Nkoumadjap by the Reverend Pastor Essame Etoutou Jean Desire who was also the moderator of the said parish. Since I was a child, I have been involved in children’s worship activities. We did sketches during religious holidays to celebrate Christmas, Easter and every Sunday we danced to the rhythm of drums and tambourines; as it is written, The Lord God is worthy of praise. 

I grew up with a Christian education, which is very important to my family. This education made me an exceptional child. When I had to leave home to go to high school about 7 miles from my family home, my Christian values set me apart from other girls through love and respect for my neighbor, faith, forgiveness, and grace. At the age of 10, I received my first communion. I also sang in various choirs, Hope of Nkoumadjap, a New Generation of Zoetele Town Center, the messiah singers of Corneillet Yaoundé-Cameroon, Lyon and Paris in France, Geneva in Switzerland.

From high school, I was taken under the wing of my uncle, the reverend pastor Simon Pierre Ngomo whom I followed in the parishes and chapels of which he was the moderator. I participated in the construction of several of them, such as Corneillet Yaoundé and Paris. I was involved within the Youth Protestant and Evangelical Action and later as a deaconess. We travelled through Europe during his pastoral tours to announce the good news of Christ as written in the Acts of the Apostles.

I lived in Europe for 6 years from 2000 to 2006 and then started going back and forth between Paris and Washington, D.C. Finally, in 2008 I decided to settle definitively in the United States up to this day. As soon as I arrived here, a new life began for me but the always true in my heart were my Christian values. I joined the American Presbyterian Church first as a Diaconal Minister and today I am proud and happy to be a church elder. I am happy to be a full member of this very welcoming family NYAPC. 

I am certain of one thing, as different as our lives are, our journeys, our origins, all of us, men and women, young and old, tall and short, white and black, we are all children of the same father, the Almighty God. We all have the same goal and purpose here in this house, which is to raise the name of the Lord and have a special place in the kingdom of heaven. This is my spiritual heritage that I wanted to share with you on this day. May God bless you.

Head of Staff and Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Roger J. Gench Retires after 17 years of Ministry at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Pastor Gench’s final sermon “Charged” at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, June 2, 2019

 

After 17 years of serving as the Senior Pastor and Head of Staff at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, on Sunday June 2, 2019, Pastor Roger retired from his called ministry at NYAPC.

The day began with worship at 10 am including the Sacrament of Communion and the opportunity for anyone in the congregation to come forward to re-affirm their baptism with Pastor Roger.   Kathryn Sparks offered a beautiful dance interpretation to Psalm 90.  Roger preached on Romans 12:1-13 reflecting on how as the church we are charged to be “in the world, with the world, through the world, against and for the world.”

The Rev. Lyman Smith from the National Capital Presbytery (Committee on Ministry) shared with the congregation of the Covenant of Closure explaining to the congregation and Pastor Roger that while friendships will surely remain between Pastor Roger and the congregation, the pastoral relationship is now dissolved.  The congregation should wish Roger well into retirement and not come to him for pastoral care or other needs.

The Adult chancel choir commissioned two special pieces for Pastor Gench.  The first piece, “Benediction Response,” composed by Luke Ratcliffe, was shared in worship based on Roger’s famous benediction “Lift up the Brokenhearted, Stand with the Oppressed,  and Let all of it be in Love, Alleluia Amen.”  The second piece, “Hello, People” (to the tune of Hello Dolly) was part of the reception, a more humorous piece featuring some of our favorite “Roger-isms” including “Cruciformity” and “Palpable.”

The reception was wonderfully planned by the Diaconal Ministers and the Nurture Committee, led by Karen Dunlap.  The program for the reception was planned by Miriam Dewhurst, Paul Dornan, Stan Engebretson, Paul Gebhard, Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe, Meg Neill, Mike Smith, James Spearman, and Rev. Alice Rose Tewell.  Rev. Spuhler McCabe provided the “MC” for the program.

Speakers including representatives from BUILD and Brown Memorial in Baltimore as well as members and staff from NYAPC including Mike Smith, Sarah McGinnis, Helen Anthony, and Raymond Newman (in addition to those not named above) gave thanks for the ministry of both Roger and Frances Gench at NYAPC.

Those who were baptized by Roger (including many children and a few adults) were invited up front to help Roger reaffirm his baptism.  The History Committee, represented by Len Shabman, presented Roger with his portrait to be hung amongst the pastors pictures in the JQA room in the church.  Kathryn Sparks, our Director of Liturgical Dance and Minister of Music at Wesley Seminary, concluded the program with a community-engaged dance into the world.

Roger, we give you thanks, for your ministry at NYAPC.  We pray at in the years ahead, you will have the space to reflect deeply, act boldly, and pray fully, doing it all in love.  Thank you!

with blessings, Alice Tewell

*Photos by photographer Stephen Reasonover

 

 

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