On Their Behalf

In honor of Memorial Day, I preached this sermon based in the Gospel Lection of John 17:6-19 yesterday at the First Congregational Church in Chappaqua, New York.

I am asking on their behalf. These are the first words of Jesus’ prayer at the end of a long speech in the Gospel of John just before the Passion narrative begins. I am asking on their behalf.

On their behalf, I gathered with a group of my fellow seminarians to pray. That night when the death toll of American troops in the war in Iraq reached 2,000, we prayed on their behalf. On their behalf, we lit candles and sat in silence. We told stories of friends and loved ones. And on their behalf, we sang. Though it was completely out of season, we sang out of tune into the night:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease
Fill all the world with heaven's peace
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

It’s a song for Advent. It’s a song that we sing into the bleak winter longing for the presence of God to break through our darkness. That night, we sang on their behalf not knowing how else to express the longing in our hearts. We sang for peace and comfort. We sang for God’s presence.

But, maybe it didn’t matter. You must have read that story in the New York Times a few months ago. If you didn’t happen to catch it, it basically debunked any power a group of praying seminarians might have – in one sentence. In the first sentence, the article read:

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.

I have not read this large and long-awaited study and in no way do I want to claim that religion trumps science every time. But, maybe despite these recent findings, you too need to feel the power of the prayer that Emmanuel shall come to you. Though this is a song for Advent, perhaps this is the deepest prayer on our hearts seven weeks after Easter. We have shared and rejoiced in the miracle of Easter. We’ve cleaned up the Palm Sunday parade and finally enjoyed the marshmallow Peeps that just reached the perfect staleness last week. We have heard the stories of Mary and Thomas, and even heard about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples hiding behind locked doors. But, seven weeks after Easter, we wonder when shall Jesus come to us?

For this, Jesus offers us words. After four chapters of this long speech, Jesus not only offers us more words, but talks about the concept of words. They have kept your word, he says. Jesus has given us these words that he has received from God. And so we have these words of truth. Words. Words. In the 338 words of this prayer, Jesus talks about words four times. Four times Jesus offers us words. Can’t you just hear Eliza Dolittle singing?

Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

Are we sick of words like Eliza? Or do these words have meaning to us? What does it mean that right here – right before the Easter narrative begins – that Jesus sits down and prays? Whether he prayed with his hands clasped close to hold God in or he reached to touch God in the heavens, Jesus utters words of prayer. Whether or not scientific studies question his purpose, Jesus prays.

I am asking on their behalf. It seems that Jesus should be praying for himself, instead of their behalf. Some might even argue that he does, and who can really blame him as he moves toward death?

But, perhaps that’s it. Perhaps this is the moment of clarity just before Jesus’ death. His life doesn’t flash before his eyes. But, it seems that suddenly everything has become very clear to him. Somehow in his approach to death, Jesus’ vision of what would happen to those closest to him becomes crystal clear. Without telling his friends these thoughts, Jesus prays.

I am asking on their behalf. Holy One, he prays. Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. These are powerful words. Perhaps these are words that have great meaning to us. But, if I can be so bold, I want to complain about this prayer. I want to echo Eliza’s frustration and wonder why Jesus limited this prayer to words. I admit that my complaint may be the artist within me. But, as many times as I chided little Mary to “use her words” during her toddler years, I really wish that Jesus would realize that perhaps… perhaps… there are no words. Perhaps this prayer is just too big for words.

So that they may be one, as we are one. I wonder if we miss the connection buried in the 338 words of this prayer. I wonder if these words are more than we need. And yet, on their behalf, Jesus prays.

338 words. You have heard my complaint. And now, you can ignore it. Because even as I stand here complaining, you already know about the word. You know that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It doesn’t matter that the words of this prayer are more than we need. Because Jesus is already there.

Remember? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. God is already present. God is already there. And because of this, in his last moments, Jesus the Word offers us the connection on our own behalf for what “we need to see.”

Perhaps it’s not what we expect. Jesus doesn’t give us the same word that Eliza agonized over learning. This word, the word that Jesus offers to us in prayer, is the “total utterance that has resulted in everything visible and invisible.” The total utterance of everything visible and invisible. This word is that we need to see.

This is the word that continues to live among us. It is this word that Jesus prayed for so long ago that still surprises us in unlikely places, as it did for Miles Goodwin. On his way home from serving in the Vietnam War, Miles explains, in his own words,

I sat, in uniform, in a window seat, chain-smoking and avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers. No one was sitting in the seat next to me, which added to my isolation. A young girl, not more than 10 years old, suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and, without a word, timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering, her quiet "welcome home." All I could say was, "Thank you." I do not know where she sat down or who she was with because right after accepting the magazine from her, I turned to the window and wept. Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in a long time.

In this connection, Miles found what he needed to see. It’s not a grand vision. Perhaps it’s not what you might expect. But it was something that Miles needed very much after coming home from war. Miles may never describe this moment as an experience of the Word of God.

But, then again, neither would a group of scientists who concluded that prayer is ineffective for heart surgery patients. Perhaps these scientists failed to discover the power of prayer because they did not need to see. Certainly, they were capable of seeing. But perhaps if they had opened their hearts to a simple “Welcome Home,” these scientists might be able to claim with Miles,

I believe in the connection between strangers when they reach out to one another.

Maybe if we are open to the moment and realize the powerful connection between strangers, between each of us, without seeking particular results or data, we will discover what we need to see. We will discover Jesus praying on our behalf.

And we can finally sing, even when it is entirely out of season,

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.


Day Laborers Site

Driving through Mount Kisco today, I saw a sign reading "Day Laborers Site" pointing to an area just out of sight. The sign included a logo for an organization called Neighbors Link. Of course, as I almost drove off the rode in shock, I had to google this organization to see what I could find. Sure enough. Neighbors Link was founded in 2000 "to meet the needs of 3,000 Latino immigrants who represent 26% of Mount Kisco's total population. When problems at many levels became apparent, concerned members of the community raised private funds to convert a masonry warehouse into a community center for low-income working people." Don't believe me? The website can be found at http://www.neighborslink.org/. See for yourself. And then you too can squeal with delight and perhaps nearly swerve off the road.

But, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. Maybe the area surrounding my hometown cares more about the least of these than I ever imagined. Having preached about Matthew 20:1-16 in my hometown reflecting upon the situation of these day laborers only to be met by cold shoulders, I am surprised to see this kind of motivation. I'm delighted by this forward thinking but I must admit that I'm surprised.

Though these areas marked "Day Laborers Site" may be kept from our sight, the hope of the good news seems to be working right here in Mount Kisco. It seems that hope is indeed very much alive. Amen.


"I'm Living the American Dream!"

After becoming the next American Idol, Taylor Hicks screamed these words between verses while he sang. Is it the American Dream that Taylor is living? Or does the "American Dream" even exist anymore? Can these words be screamed from a stage flanked with celebrities and impressionible young people while immigrants struggle for their rights?

Perhaps the problem with this imbalance lies in the fact that more people voted for the American Idol than voters turned out to utilize their right to vote for their President. Or so they said on the air. If this is true... If this is the American Dream... I fear we have a lot to learn. I'm almost certain that this is not the American Dream.


Crazy Seminarians

When seminarians gather to celebrate, interesting things tend to happen. They might sip beers into the wee hours of the morning singing folk songs in languages that only half of them understand. Or they might create art with the materials at hand. Or they might do both. While our singing might not be performance worthy, our art surely is. Here is our creation. And I must admit that I forget the title. Something about four perspectives. But, it's been a crazy weekend. I'm allowed to forget.




yeah, claudio is part of the art, it seems.


How I will miss the craziness of seminarians. Sniff sniff.


Goodbye to Union

In our Commencement Communion service this morning at Union Theological Seminary, I bid these ivory towers farewell with these words (loosely exegeted from Ephesians 6:18-24):

“Life is combat.” These are not my words. In fact, I know these words by Walter Wink were far from my mind when I first sat in Room 207 for orientation three years ago. I didn’t think that answering my call into God’s service had anything to do with combat. Sitting in Room 207, like so many of you, I was concerned about poverty, sexism, racism and homophobia. Like you, I came to Union to make our world better.

Life certainly wasn’t combat for me. And, thankfully, Walter Wink didn’t stop with this sentence. He continues, “ours is neither a perfect nor a perfectible world; it is a theater of perpetual conflict which the prize goes to the strong.” If life is the “theatre of perpetual conflict,” then I think we as graduates of Union Theological Seminary, do indeed have a fighting chance.

If our combat is theater, let’s set the stage and put on our costumes. On this end of Broadway, we like to get dressed up. If you don’t believe me, just ask Brian Cave. Whether singing Carmina Burana or swinging from the rafters at the Pub on Mardi Gras, we like to get dressed up.

Three years ago, I remember that I had very carefully chosen my costume for my debut in Room 207. It was the first time I had adorned the armor of God. And even though I carefully planned and selected my attire, I only remember that the shoes for my feet were flip-flops. Flip-flops have probably been my favorite choice for the shoes on my feet in these three years. Whether I was rolling out of bed for an 8 am Preaching and Worship class or dashing to noon chapel in order to earn my perfect attendance award, I was in flip-flops.

However, I don’t think that flip-flops are really a good choice for armor. In fact, I’m not sure that they are a good choice for the theater. During these three years, we have each played with our choice in costumes. Some of us may never have referred to our dressing up as the “wiles of the devil” as in this letter to the Ephesians. And even as we leave here, we might never want to say that.

But, these are wiles that we are very familiar with. These wiles have dominated our conversations in caucus meetings, classroom discussions or even in conversations in the shelter of the Sukkah in the wee hours of the morning after wine night. The wiles of empire. These wiles have gathered us together here. These wiles have inspired us to march down Madison Avenue protesting war under the Social Action banner. These wiles provoked Angela Escueta and I to terrify the incoming second years with a civil disobedience training in preparation for the Republican National Convention. While I clearly provided some leadership for the Social Action Caucus, we were each motivated by these wiles. So, what did you wear?

What did you wear when you first donned the armor of God? Did you read Scripture in chapel in a t-shirt that proclaimed “Value your Vagina. Vote.”? Or one that announced “Christian in Action”? What did you wear when you first struggled against the cosmic powers of this present darkness?

And what will you wear as you leave? What will your armor of truth, righteousness and peace look like?

As I go from here, I will wear this place as my armor. I will adorn the prophetic words of Delores Williams and James Cone. I will wear the loving embrace of Wyn Wright who reminded me again and again of why I continue with all of this. I will get all dolled up in the courage that Janet Walton continues to give me to believe in the power of art in our worship. I will show off the confidence that Barbara Lundblad gave me to preach. I will wrap myself in the Word that Hal Taussig challenged me to reclaim, even if Revelation is still a mystery to me. I will sail off wearing the quiet sarcasm and wisdom of Troy Messenger. I will I wrap myself in the self-care practice of 7th floor of Hastings sharing marathon upon marathon of Law and Order episodes. I will get decked out in the loving community of women who are proud to announce from the pulpit, “Value your Vagina.”

I will wear the breastplate of this community. I will wear the belt of each of you. And I will go out into the “theatre of perpetual conflict” wearing fantastic shoes on my feet, ready to proclaim the gospel of peace because Walter Wink was right. The prize will go to the strong. The prize will go to the strong because each of you will be in every one of my steps.


Leaving New York

I am in the process of boxing up the place that I have called home for the past three years. I am leaving New York in a mere two weeks after living here for six years. It's a sad departure, even though I never actually thought that I would live here. But, here I am getting ready to leave this fair city. And I have to admit, I'm a little excited. I'm excited to see grass that I don't have to traverse miles of concrete to discover. I can't begin to explain my excitement.

And yet, it seems that I have to find some way to explain this excitement. I have had two phone interviews already where I have been asked how I feel about not being in New York. It's funny to hear this question. I don't think about myself as a New Yorker. I am. I know I am. But, I don't feel like a New Yorker. Perhaps because I'm so excited to leave.

I am excited to leave behind the weird sense of community in New York. It's a city with wonderful cultural resources and tremendous diversity. But, theater tickets are more expensive than museum entry fees. And we don't really relish in the wonder of our own diversity. We live in compartments where neighbors don't know each other by name or face. We travel underground together but become annoyed when anyone crowds our space. We don't want to touch anyone in this city. We want to live without connections while complaining about our lack of community. We forget to realize the fantastic wealth around us.

I'm ready to leave this behind. I'm ready to engage in real community where I bump into neighbors while grocery shopping or down the street. I don't really know what this will look like. But, I know that I am very ready to leave New York.