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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The second Sunday in Easter; Seeing is believing


The men from Texas had questions

It’s the second Sunday in Easter.  We begin by singing our Alleluias…And a classic Easter hymn: Christ the Lord is Risen Today . We read Acts 4:32-35
32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
 Then the Hebrew psalm our friends from Theatre Dzieci used to frame their Passion: Psalm 133 Hinay ma tov umanayim, chevet achim gan yahad….how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in one….the banner SPSA hung to welcome B’Nai Jeshurun. And then our gospel, John 20: 19-31
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, (better religious authorities)  Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
And so begin our reflection:

This series is about Rising…the ongoing process of exploring what it means to live in the Resurrection. Today we begin with Seeing is believing

Today our guide is one of my favorite Biblical characters, Thomas. Or as he is popularly known, Doubting Thomas.. First, there’s nothing wrong with doubt. All of us from Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Jr to Mother Theresa know what it is to doubt. The spaces carved out inside of us by doubt only increase the depth of our faith as we move through those times.

Thomas himself is much maligned. He had his own gospel, by the way, which didn’t make it in. There was a theological style conflict between followers of John and followers of Thomas that shows up in John’s Gospel. Keep that in mind. Thomas is pretty much rehabilitated at this point. His Gospel was included in the Jesus Seminar’s Five Gospels. And Union Seminary’s Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament. Our friend Mario Biagini from the Grotowski Work Center turns Thomas’ sayings  into old school gospel call and response songs. However….

Thomas Is not going to believe unless he sees, touches the marks. Words are fine, Thomas wants flesh and blood proof. For him it was Jesus’ going to the cross that made him Jesus. And here’s what’s important to me…keep seeing the images of the risen Christ we get in the Bible.  Last week, Mary mistook him for the gardener. This week, the risen, resurrected Christ still has his wounds. You’d expect a flawless, perfect body, wouldn’t you?  But no…because it is those wounds that make Jesus who he is. Like the voice that spoke to Mary, it is the cross that identifies him.

It’s like that with us…even in resurrection living, the wounds stay with us…they make us who we are…every experience, every hurt, every pain…it’s not about retaining a sense of being a victim, it is about knowing that even when healed, the wounds remain…they make us who we are. Jesus’ acknowledges Thomas but says blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe…which would be namely, us.

But wait a minute, is it really us? Or are we like Thomas, needing to see in order to believe? Don’t we need to see something in order to keep doing this? What do we need to, want to see?

I heard a panel of young adults talk one time about what they needed to see in a church to want to belong. The answer was quick, radical discipleship…What is that? they were asked. The answer was, I’m not sure but I know it when I see it…

All right then…

Seems to me that’s what the Acts story of the early church is all about…what is seen…listen again…

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in commonWith great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

That’s pretty explicit, isn’t it? The closest I’ve heard to it is..
From each according to his ability, to each according to his is a slogan first used by Louis Blanc in 1851[1] (although an earlier version of the saying appeared in √Čtienne-Gabriel Morelly's The Code of Nature[2]) and popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program.[3] 

No metaphor here. That is a hard saying. How can we possibly live up to that?

What do people see here? Before we get too depressed…consider this…
Last Sunday when we served Easter dinner to the women at the homeless shelter at SPSA, there was a real dinner…table cloths, glass ware, silverware…ham…and lamb…because sister Kate Baum believes everyone deserves Sunday dinner…the other nights at the shelter the guests are served sandwiches and pizza.. What do they see when they see West-Park?

The top of our baptismal font, used when we baptized Brandon Ayala two weeks ago….came from the mother of an occupier who was returned to his life by having lived at west-park…he was lost, then found…what does she see when she sees West-Park?

Or the immigrant food service workers who had West-Park members welcome them and stand with them and help them in their struggle with Hope and Teddy on the front lines as West-Park people…what did they see?

Last week, I attended a gathering of veterans of nearly 40 years of struggle for lgbtq inclusion in the PCUSA. Across the country, hundreds if not thousands had their lives changed, their lives saved, through the witness of the West-Park session…and it’s More Light statement (see below)…what did they see? (Hope, for one thing…)

This Tuesday is a mass action called for by the Mass Incarceration Network (they meet here regularly, did you know that?) Did you know that at the 2014 PCUSA General Assembly a call to action from this church became an overtire from NYC Presbytery calling the whole church to action on this issue?

It’s easy to forget these things. So what do we need to see day by day, week to week, Sunday to Sunday to make it clear what we believe? That’s a question…what would we need to do here every Sunday so that anyone who walked in would see?  Let that question live with you awhile….share your reflections with each other…

Let’s make it visible for each other so that others may see….

We concluded our service singing Dona Nobis Pacem in three languages, English, Hebrew and Arabic… Dona nobis pacem,pacem, dona nobis pacem
Sim shalom, sim shalom,sim shalom, Sim shalom aleinu
Rabu habna salamann tamman,  rabu  habna, salamann

It was moving to look around our circle and see our Texas visitors from last week back again. And some folks from Montana who found us on line…one was a retired long time missionary…looking for a breath of fresh air. (And I had felt anxious…been in New York City too long…)

Visitors from Texas....back again

Our Session met to catch up on things. Went out to get coffee and ran into our Texas visitors…the men had some  serious questions about the resurrection…great sidewalk conversation.

The day would end with a flamenco singing lesson….

West-Park More Light Statement
In harmony with the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, West-Park Church affirms the civil rights of all person. Further, in keeping with our General Assembly’s guidelines, this community of faith welcomes as members homosexual persons who both seek and have found Christ’s love. This local congregation will not select one particular element from a person’s total humanity as a basis for denying full participation and service in the body of Christ. Nor will this community of faith condemn or judge our brothers and sisters who declare their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and promise disciple- ship to Him. We affirm that in meeting each other in Christian love. God’s spirit frees us all to live and grow, liberated from the oppression invoked upon us by our- selves and others.
Within this context, West-Park Presbyterian Church reaches out to Christian and non-Christian homosexual persons with a ministry of support, caring and openness—a ministry in which the creative, liberating power of the Holy Spirit rules and guides.
 September 1978

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Guest blog: The owls are not what they seem. A review of the Representatives' "Beddy Tear"

The Representatives' Beddy Tear cast

“The owls are not what they seem…”

The following review is a guest blog by Eli Y. Jack, former arts critic for 10 years with the Oklahoma Eagle, the leading black newspaper in Oklahoma, and also long time critic for the Tulsa Free Press, and now retired. Mr. Jack appears by invitation of Bob Brashear. The review is heavily  informed by conversations at the after parties following the performances at West-Park.

Beddy Tear, the latest offering of the Representatives, just concluded at West-Park, is easily the most challenging, creative and entertainig yet of the Richardson/Steiner oeuvre. Billed as a live audience pilot run of a crime/thriller web series, BT asks a lot of its audience. While Richardson’s plays always demand paying close attention to every word and detail, BT does so in spades, from the moment you walk into the 19th century gymnasium playing space.

The video playing as you walk in and the music and French narration coming through your headphones helps draw you into the liminal reality of the place we are entering. (Did I mention it helps to be familiar with the 1962 French sci-fi time travel short film La Jetee’?) This time around, Representatives’ everyman Matt Steiner finds himself in a post-modern neo-Calvinist noir David Lynchian landscape moebius strip journey somewhere between Mulholland Drive and Coney Island.

Questions of levels of reality are always present watching the interplay of live and video with us watching and a roving cameraman filming us watching. The meta nature of the journey comes into play as even the cameraman and director Richardson and his sotto voce stage directions become part of the narrative experience. Why do some characters only appear on film? Is that tech problem real? Or part of the performance? (Seriously, Windows 9 was it?) Where are we in this? What's in my headphones and what's "on stage"? Some audience members kept one  ear free of headphones. What am I supposed to watch? By the end, the live action is looping like a video or digital performance.. and time travels that moebius strip in disturbing ways. Words and references in the framing web show come back to enter into present reality and bend back again. Even negligees are important.

As New Yorkers, the Reps give us a world where the city is a place of rationality where you can keep your bearings (well, except for serial assault accusers) and the middle America of St.Louis with its Gateway to the West arch becomes a nightmarish world where reality comes unhinged. (Travel tip: the action takes place in St.Louis’ hip West End. If you go there, forget the tourist theme park by the river and head to the West End…) The server at the microbrewery Blueberry Hill is  from Dallas, a place where presidents get assassinated and empires take no prisoners..And we wind up in ecotopian Seattle, home to serial killers. (Twin Peaks was set in the Pacific Northwest.)

On the other hand, no one skewers the New York hip cultural liberal like Stan Richardson. From microbrew chic to attitudes about race and Ferguson and transgender, he nails it.  And throw in shifting understandings of our sexual interactions.

The performances by Reps regulars and newcomers are uniformly strong. But Alma Cuervo’s piercing eyed riveting airplane passenger monologue deserves special mention.

The play concludes with a song, I’ve already forgotten everything you said  by Brooklyn Indie group, the Dig. (Go check out that video…) Or does it? Overheard at the afterparty, Jeez, even the food is 1970’s cocktail party hors d’oevres…Like I said, don’t miss a detail.

Beddy Tear is the most boundary stretching work to play in the Berlin meets Brooklyn ambiance on the Upper West Side of West-Park since the Woodshed Collective’s 2011 immersive site-specific production of the Tenant. Yes, it’s that good.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's Easter Sunday


It’s Easter Sunday. My friend Uli  from Berlin and I have come from the site of All Angels’ Church in Central Park. Where the foundation stones have risen from the buried Seneca Village. On a chilly morning, Uli played his violin, first a traditional German  Easter hymn. And  then Jesu joy of man’s desiring. (
Uli plays violin in Central Park
We stop for coffee along the way.

At the church, Stephen S at work. Pat K and Larry are decorating the place for Easter. Lilies will line the steps. Jed ( is preparing the musicians for the service. Andre is back and Olivia is here with her cello and Jeremy M has a new Easter suite. 
Easter musicians with Pastor Bob: Jed, Olivia, Jeremy and Andre

The congregation is arriving. Regulars. Friends we haven’t seen in awhile. Neighbors. Visitors from Texas. It feels good.

We open with Alleuia, alleluia, alleluia! Sung to the tune of Will the circle be unbroken…and the traditional Easter greeting:
One: Christ is risen!
All: Christ is risen indeed!

Our OPENING HYMN  is the traditional Jesus Christ Is Risen Today. Andre does his free jazz interpretation of  Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24. The Epistle lesson is in  1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 which contains one of my favorite verses: By the grace of God I am what I am and God’s grace to me has not been in vain..which I’ve set in a  doo-wop style.

And then the Easter story from John 20: 1-18.
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

-1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark……early in the morning…while it was still dark…

What it’s like…early in the morning…sometimes I wake…I hear the birds…their first stirrings…and I know the day is about to begin….again…If you’re in Central Park, you look across, the sun is rising out there, in the east, above the 5th Avenue apartments..before the first runners arrive..….something peaceful and quiet…can you bring to mind a sunrise you remember?

 I remember that morning, on the steps of St. Paul’s Chapel…a few weeks after 9/11 . We (our West-Park team) had  been serving food to  first responders, rescue workers, soldiers, police, sanitation workers….all night long…the pit of Ground Zero still smoldering behind us, ash falling from the sky….and yet ….there was something about the certainty of dawn rising again….

That’s when Easter comes to us….while it’s still dark…my friend Uli and I went on a Good Friday march…a stations of the cross…commemorating innocent black and brown lives lost to police violence …stopping at symbolic places of the mass incarceration movement…like the courts…and the TOMBS…finishing at 1 Police Plaza…in the month of March alone more people were killed by police than in the last eleven years in the United Kingdom….let’s be clear….it’s still dark out there…

We want to come to this resurrection morning and have it all be ok…but each of our lives are still unfinished in some way…maybe some of us have experienced the fullness of new life, of new beginning….but  for most of us, we can just now hear the birds….but it’s still early in the morning…

Let’s follow our witnesses…

Who do we have?
First Mary, remember, she doesn’t know what has happened…for all she knows, all she will find is a body…it is love that has brought her..everyone else., all those brave men, turned and ran when it looked like once again everything they had put their faith in had come to nothing…once again hopes raised and then…clearly this one was NOT the one…but he had loved her….helped her reclaim herself…and that love brought her back…she didn’t need a conquering victorious hero...she would honor the one who had loved her.

Remember…the Bible is not a history book…this is
not a news report…Imagine them telling their stories…Imagine social media…Facebook..checking in, Simon’s tomb…
Or imagine , if you will, tweets…
Hey…stone’s rolled away tomb’s empty…#wtf

 Yes Mary doesn’t care…this one had loved her…and regardless of how it all turned out…that was enough….love drew her back…

She goes to tell Peter and John…they MUST go to see for themselves…they find the stone rolled away and note this detail…
the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself…..what is this telling us? (One of my colleagues said, Jesus  cleaned up the place before he left…) and they just returned to their homes.

This story  is mainly about  Mary…
1.   She assumes  it’s a grave robbery or political plot
2.   She doesn’t recognize Jesus…no halos, no flowing robes, flashing lights, glowing robes.. he looks like a gardener…( a friend says..because he was a gardener..) a simple working man…like you or me..
3.   She only recognizes him when  she hears her name, her own name said in  that intimate way only he could say it…then she knowslove drew her there…love showed her the truth…
Can you feel the intimacy of this?
Listen…whose voice do you hear?
Can you hear the voice of Jesus that close, that intimate?

So how are we supposed to know? We who weren’t able to be there?
The earliest witness in the Bible  is not the  gospels…but Paul…writing only decades later…he never saw the risen Lord in the flesh…but he heard his name too…His experience of the appearance is the same as theirs even though he never sees Jesus in the flesh…and the key factor for Paul…as for me…is experienced GRACE….

50 years ago this weekend, Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated….yet he is still very much with us…Archbishop Romero said They can kill a bishop but I will rise again in  the Salvadoran people.

Story of woman’s witness…on the subway…At the Good Friday stations march, an African-American woman described being groped on the subway. When she got off at the next stop, she saw two police. Then hesitated. What would they do to the black man who had  groped her? It’s complicated she said. I give up my body for you….

This afternoon, people will march in Harlem…the people rise…is the rallying cry…

Then there is this… I remember my grandmother warm and soft wrapping me in her arms. Her last few years were stolen by Alzheimer's. She would curse at the nurses. Not know me. It was unpleasant to go there. That was all I could see. And then, while doing her funeral, I felt her warm arms around me again. She had been returned to me.

So…how do we know?...We know because we are we believe…or want to believe…and will believe or live our way towards believing…

As we celebrate our Eucharist today, let us remember, it is we who are the risen Christ…we together the risen body….Amen.

We prepare for prayer by singing
Be not afraid, sing out for joy! Christ is risen, Alleluia!
Be not afraid, sing out for joy! Christ is risen, Alleluia!

Hugo asks for prayers for his daughter Anna, going in to the hospital for tests tomorrow. Later I will have  special prayer with him and Arcadia. And I will feel his strong hug.

For our offertory, Andre sings the haunting  Now the green blade riseth as an art song.

For our Eucharist reflection, Jeremy plays his Easter suite accompanied by Olivia. A steady stream of people come  forward to receive.
Receiving the eucharist from Deacon James and Elder Nirka
And we conclude with Beethoven’s Joyful , Joyful We adore Thee. As we gather in a circle, I almost feel tears. As she does every year, Leila has Easter eggs for the congregation.
One of Leila's eggs
 I feel the grace of the people accepting and trusting me as pastor. I could stop right here. Feeling this beauty.

And all say: Alleluia, Amen!


Easter will continue…as the Koreans are coming in, I skype with Micah and Dan in Berlin. Later I will go to the Riverside rehab facility with a lily and communion for Deacon Ruby and Elder Philip. 
Serving Easter dinner

Stall later, we will gather at the women’s homeless shelter at SPSA to share Easter dinner with the guests. Kate provides not only ham but lamb as well.

It was a beautiful Easter. Easter as it should be.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.