The Parables of Jesus: Sweet Stories or Sharp Sticks?

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A Curious Faith will be on hiatus for July and August,
but we’ll be back in September with thought-provoking posts
from members and friends of Hudson River Presbytery.

The Sunday adult education class at First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown has been reading Short Stories by Jesus, a book written, not by Jesus, but by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominately Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.”

We have been challenged by her suggestion that our reaction to parables should be resistance, not acceptance. Jesus’s parables aren’t stories for children; they are stories asking us to look at our own lives, our values, and see how well we are “walking the talk.” Parables were a part of Jewish life at the time of Jesus. They appear in the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures of Torah, Nevi’im or Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings), they would have been told by ordinary people. They are a major part of Jewish culture Levine tells us.

We have enjoyed watching her on the DVD that accompanies the small group discussion guide-she’s intense, she’s funny, and most importantly she makes us think. She encourages us to start with the literal interpretation of a parable–“sometimes a mustard seed is just a mustard seed” she reminds us as we read the parable of the mustard seed as recounted by Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Some of us are hearing these parables as if for the first time. In some cases, Levine suggests new titles. The parable of the Prodigal Son becomes the parable of the LostSon, and suddenly we are looking at the two sons differently. The parable begins “Some man had two sons” and Levine asks who else had two sons? We know about Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob. She tells us that “all biblically literate listeners know to identify with the youngerson (italics mine).” But in this case the younger son isn’t the righteous Abel, or the faithful Isaac, or the clever Jacob.

Surprise! And then the punchline—who have we lost, who have we overlooked, who have we taken for granted?

As I listen, really listen, to the parables Jesus tells, I no longer hear “sweet stories” but instead I feel as though I am being poked with a “sharp stick.” I am being prodded, pushed to think more deeply than I might want to think, dared to ask what do I really value? And am I living those values?

Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder and a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown. She is a participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River Presbytery. Connie currently serves as Moderator-Elect of the Hudson River Presbytery during 2019.

 

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Present

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This time of year, you can’t swing a cat without knocking a mortarboard off someone’s head.  Everywhere you turn are graduations: on your calendar, on Facebook, in the local papers, live-streamed on the web.  All the smiling, hopeful faces of 2019 look so fresh and new, and at the same time, no different from you and me and our classmates, however many decades ago.

I attended a reunion for the very first time this past week, the 35thanniversary of my college graduation, so I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing about my own commencement festivities. Benny Goodman received an honorary degree that year.  Anchorman Ted Koppel gave an insightful and often hilarious Class Day speech, that included his spot-on impersonation of Henry Kissinger.  But the pièce de résistance– or perhaps the la atracción principal– was our commencement speaker: King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

A king.  Of a country.

The King gave an inspiring speech about I-have-no-idea-what, because I spent most of the time scratching my head and wondering: doesn’t he have anything better to do?  I mean, I had enough trouble trying to get away for a weekend from my weighty responsibilities as an undergraduate; this guy is in charge of an entire nation, and he has the time to share his thoughts with a bunch of 22-year-olds, who just moments before were batting around a beach ball?  Yet, the very notion that a king had decided he had nowhere better to be at that moment than there with us, and with me, made me sit up a little taller, a little prouder.

The psalmist had a similar note of wonderment in their voice when they asked, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”  Then came the real head-scratcher: God not only taking note, and God not only caring, but God actually coming to be among us.  Doesn’t the King of Heaven have anything better to do than hang around a bunch of knuckleheads like humankind?

And God said no.  In Jesus Christ, God said I don’t have anything better to do than to be there with you. As you celebrate and struggle, as you heal and hunger, as you laugh and weep and dance and sit among the ashes. I could be anywhere else at this moment, but have chosen to be with you.

What more do we need to convince us of our own worth?  What more do we need to convince us of the worth of everyone and everything else in this world that God so loved?  And what better way to give thanks for that presence than to be present for one another?

At a reunion panel, one of my classmates shared the devastating story of the loss of her two teenaged sons.  And when she was asked whether there was anything anyone had been able to do in the midst of her agony that actually helped, she said yes: just being there.   Not trying to fix the unfixable or explain the inexplicable, but just being there, to sit with her in her grief, and share the burden of her pain.

Every time we make ourselves present, truly present, to someone, we pass along one great gift of the incarnation: that Christ had nothing better to do.  And neither do we.

Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY.  She has one husband, two kids, one dog, four cats, and so much gratitude for her alma maters.

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The Playland Labyrinth

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Not far from the church here in Rye is Playland, the county-owned amusement park on the shore of Long Island Sound.  Aside from being one of the oldest such parks in the country, it is perhaps most known for its appearance in the Tom Hanks movie Big.  In the movie, Hank’s character – a middle school youth – has his wish fulfilled to be “big,” and the majority of the movie is a playful look at the adult world through the eyes of a youth.  Rye Playland is the place at the end of the movie where he finds the arcade game that allows him to undo his “bigness” and return to childhood.

For most of the summer, Playland will function in that same way.  It will be full of people enjoying a time of play – and the sound of the roller coasters and “joyful” screaming will be heard throughout town.

Ironically, tucked in the grassy park adjacent to Playland, is a hidden treasure that is pretty much the opposite experience.  The park, to my great surprise, has a labyrinth.

If you don’t know what one is, you are not alone.  It is an ancient spiritual practice that was adopted by the medieval church, with the best known example built into the floor of the Cathedral in Chartres. Unlike a maze, which has multiple ways to go (and get lost!), a labyrinth is a single path that leads eventually to “the center.”  For some, it was a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  For most, the labyrinth became a spiritual practice of prayer “along the way” as one slowly  and meditatively walks the path and finds their spiritual center.

We took our own middle school youth group to experience the labyrinth recently.  Like many such middle school experiences, it didn’t quite go as expected.  More in the spirit of Playland, they raced noisily along the path, bumping into each other, eager to find out where it led, with much jumping up and down in the center once they arrived.  Soon they sprinted out and on to the next activity.  Calming, meditative prayer?  Not so much.  Yet we hope that maybe in a quieter moment they will find their way back to this and other such slower, quieter practices.

As the busy days of the end of the school year lean toward the quiet of summer, may we all find refreshment on our labyrinth walk.  May there be time for long, slow, prayerful walks.  But like in the movie Big (worth watching again) may a dose of middle school enthusiasm be ours as well – jostling, curious, and playful – laughing together as we joyously run the path before us!

Dan Love is Co-Pastor at the Rye Presbyterian Church.

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On the Road to Damascus

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Since March of this year, as in every year, a collection of individuals travel to Springer Mountain, GA to begin a five to seven month “Thru Hike” of the Appalachian Trail. This trail wanders across the tops of the ridges which form the Appalachian Mountain range stretching from Springer Mountain to Mount Kathadin in Maine. And this trail wanders through Hudson River Presbytery, crossing the Hudson on our very own Bear Mountain Bridge, over Anthony’s Nose and Breakneck Ridge heading across I-84, Route 52 and then Route 22 near Pawling before heading to Connecticut.  Each hiker sets out on this journey with a goal in mind, ready to discover what effort is necessary to complete the task.  Those early hikers endure snow in Georgia and North Carolina in hopes of September or October clear days in Maine.

Along the trail there are conversations of encouragement or looking for information.  After a few days on the trail hikers discover folks who are traveling at a similar pace and loose groups form.  People you can look for to welcome in the shelter each night or who will be at the best vista of the day for a lunch break.  Some days the conversation is bubbling sharing of sights and animals seen on the trail.  Other days the quiet conversations are encouragement after a day wondering “What did I set out to do?,  This is really hard and all I see are trees?,  Will this rain ever stop so I can feel dry feet again?”

As in the stories of road experiences on the way to Damascus (Saul – Paul) or Emmaus (Jesus asking a telling of the Easter Story), walking requires effort.  Effort which is often made easier when conversation is possible. Saul had his friends and they were planning a strategy for events in Damascus – but God had other plans.

This past weekend was a celebration of “Trail Days”  in Damascus, VA.   This large group of hikers who began the Appalachian Trail in March/April found time in their journey to gather in a welcoming village.  Some had already passed, but took the time to travel back to encourage and support those behind.  Some had not made Damascus yet, but jumped ahead to find encouragement and energy from those clearing the path for them.  And of course there were outfitters and vendors in town to share their wares and provide a change of pace from a rather solitary life style on the trail.

IPicture1n the midst of this group “Chaunce” and “Sprout” found each other.  They have common roots, but only had heard of each other until they met in Damascus.  “Chaunce” is a mid 20’s veteran of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Colorado Crest Trail.  She could not resist this East Coast challenge of lower altitude and very different surroundings.   “Sprout” is a mid-career pastor/yoga instructor finding another challenge in her creative life.  She is breaking up the routine of trail life engaging in worship on Sundays in churches with thoughtful and powerful women pastors. They finally met in Damascus and shared stories, encouraged each other and will look for other connection points on their way north.  “Chaunce” is Juliana Chauncey from the Nauraushaun Church and “Sprout” is Cari Pattison who left the Bronxville Reformed Church to take on this change of pace and enlightening experience.

Who is waiting to meet you on the road in the days ahead?  How will God use you or your new acquaintance?

Peter Surgenor recently retired as the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center.  He was the moderator of Hudson River Presbytery in 2017.  He and his wife Cathy were Accompaniers with the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia in February of this year.  Peter and Cathy are regular volunteers with Habitat for Humanity in Newburgh where they now reside.

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A Tale of Four Churches

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I lost my breath last Tuesday. As the first images of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris came across my newsfeed, I was surprised by the depth of my grief. It is not a place that holds deep and abiding memories for me. I have fond memories of the cathedral, to be sure, but not the sort that would seem to evoke what I felt.  But seeing a holy space in such peril touched something in me. In the days since, I have been heartened, as we all have, by what has remained. And I have also been heartened by the outpouring of financial support and the commitment to preserve what we have left, and to rebuild. I believe that the world is starved enough for beauty and that whenever we lose something beautiful, the world becomes a little more broken.

I have also been chastened by the reminder that we have lost three African-American churches in Louisiana in recent months to arson, and that the kind of support that has come immediately for Notre Dame has been slow to come for these churches. What transpired in Paris on Tuesday was tragic. What transpired in Louisiana was evil, and yet we seem to have been less compelled to act. It is to be celebrated that the fire of the one church has brought attention to the fires at the three, and that donations to rebuild in Louisiana are now beginning to accrue. It is shameful that it took the burning of Notre Dame for our gaze to finally find its way to the sin in our back yard.

But as I have followed these two stories and their juxtaposition in the last week, I have been disturbed to hear, in some quarters, a note of judgment about the grief people expressed for the burning of Notre Dame and about the support for its rebuilding.  The argument, as I understand it, runs this way: we shouldn’t be expending resources on Notre Dame when there are more pressing crises that cry out for our support. The hundreds of thousands of dollars raised already for Notre Dame could have been better used for the work of social justice in Louisiana (or in Flint, or in Puerto Rico, or in…).

That is not the message I would hope that we take away from this tale of four churches.  That line of argument would have us believe that we can have either social justice or beauty, that the support for one cancels out support for the other.  It assumes a scarcity of resources which is, frankly, a canard. The sin is not that money has been raised quickly for the preservation and rebuilding of a magnificent work of art and of faith.  The sin has always been that, collectively, we have lacked the will to do the works of justice that so desperately need doing. We were failing the people of Louisiana, and of Flint, and of Puerto Rico long before Tuesday’s fire. The response to Notre Dame hasn’t made that failure qualitatively different, but it has brought it into sharp relief.

Finally, we need to be committed to creating and preserving beauty in the world AND we need to be committed to the work of social justice in the world. They are not mutually exclusive pursuits, but rather they are often mutually supportive. And it only plays into the hands of those who would have us stay on the sidelines when injustice occurs to buy into the narrative that we have to choose one or the other.

In the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, one of the young women marching to protest the working conditions in the Lawrence, MA mills carried a sign that said “Give us bread, but give us roses too.” May we as Christians respond to that claim on our resources. May we live into the abundance around us. May we work to bring this world closer to the Kin-dom of God, in all its beauty and in all its justice.

Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.  He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.

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Unexpected Grace

adrian-korte-76051-unsplashI am a singer, and an amateur musician, which means I can play three instruments (I’m counting tambourine) just enough to be annoying. There’s often music playing in the office, or in the car, and when out and about I realize I’ve am humming whatever was playing in the grocery store, or elevator, or waiting room. In a restaurant, I get distracted from the conversation if there’s music playing that I can’t yet identify. Am I alone in this? I don’t think so. Perhaps you’ve found yourself humming “Sugar, Sugar” walking out of the RiteAid.

So music is a big part of life, and joy, and, as I shared in the worship service at the Presbytery meeting a few weeks ago, for me, messages from the Divine. A colleague who shall remain nameless said, “So, not everyone gets spiritual direction on their Alexa.” Ok, it was Chip Low. Chip can now consider this mention a royalty. (That’s music talk for earning money.) For the Alexa story, the sermon will be posted in Hudson Happenings next week. And then I thought about it, and thought, “Well, why not?” Doesn’t God speak to us in music? Am I alone in this? I don’t think so. Perhaps that song that made you pause and reflect was the Lord trying to get your attention.

God get my attention most often when I’m not paying attention. Jung would call this the
unconscious. Apparently I’m unconscious quite a bit, because random songs will come to me at odd moments, and sometimes they are very funny, maybe from God’s point of view. My prayerful response? “Very funny. Har de har har.”

I often follow the discipline of the “morning pages” from The Artist’s Way, which is to write three pages when you first wake up, before anything else, no matter what. Often what I wake with is a song, and when I write the lyrics down, it’s pretty much on target about where I am spiritually. Sometimes it becomes my prayer to God or God’s response to me. A recent sampling of what music I have awoken with: “Roll With It” (when life it too much, roll with it baby!) by Steve Winwood; “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by the Police, “You Raise Me Up” by Selah; “Shallow,” (I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in (!) by Lady Gaga; “Roam,” by the B-52’s: “So Caught Up in You,” by .38 Special; Karma Chameleon” by Boy George; “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, and recently “Seems to Me,” by Joe Walsh: (Seems to me, you don’t want to talk about it; seems to me, you just turn your pretty head and walk away.) Har de har har.

A few years ago, I was in a snit. Rushed, frazzled, overscheduled. Luckily I was alone and did not take my hissy fit public. I had a few moments in between appointments and work and teaching, and I felt guilty because my dog hadn’t had his usual walk, so I grabbed three tennis balls and the “chucker” and went into the back yard to give him a brief run. I had my phone in my back pocket because I was expecting a call, too, and I said out loud, “Lord, I haven’t even prayed today and I’ve only got 10 minutes, so this is what you’re getting!” Luckily God is kind and does not respond to snark the way a human beloved might. I began to throw the tennis balls around the yard, walking and muttering, (cue crazy lady music) when my phone went off.

But not a ring. It was a song; I didn’t recognize it at first, and pulled out the phone to look. My my apple app was open (I don’t use it) and it said “Duets” but nothing else, and I started scrolling, but stopped as I began to listen instead – big orchestration, two voices, singing, “No more talk of darkness, forget these wide-eyed fears; I’m here, nothing can harm you, my words will warm and calm you. Let me be your freedom, let daylight dry your tears; I’m here, with you, beside you, to guard you and to guide you. . . . .”

As recognition dawned and as the tears filled my eyes, I began to laugh and said “Really?
Phantom of the Opera? “Let me be your shelter, let me be your light; you’re safe, no one will find you, your fears are far behind you . . .” My breathing slowed and I was able to look at the sky, the trees, to smile at the dog, to play, to laugh, to cry, and to sing.
Albert Einstein once said there are two ways to live your life. One is to believe that nothing is a miracle. The other is to believe that everything is a miracle. My miracles can happen every day; I just need to listen for the song that is in that moment. And yes it can happen via Alexa, or the phone, or the Key Food Muzak or dreams, or your car radio.

Am I alone in this? I don’t hink so. I think this might have even happened to Chip Low. (Another royalty for you Chip, and thanks.)

“I will praise God as long as I live; I will sing to God all my life.” – Psalm 146.2

Grace and Peace to you.

Leslie Mott ministers in the area of clergy care and nurture and is  Spiritual Director and Yoga teacher.

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Winning Isn’t the Only Thing

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“A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is when one plus one equals a thousand.” ― Frederick Buechner

So, the end came to Abbie’s (my daughter who plays college hockey) season last Saturday. Her team, Quinnipiac, had to beat the reigning national champion Clarkson to stay alive…at Clarkson where nobody wins.  But there it was 10.8 seconds left with Quinnipiac holding on to a one goal lead.  It looked like the season would stretch out another day at least. Face off, puck in the corner, it somehow slips out in front where the best scorer for Clarkson and in the nation is all alone.  She flings it at the net it eludes two diving Q players and Abbie who is completely screened. Impossibly, it went in with 1.1 seconds showing on the clock.  Quinnipiac players were strewn all over the ice not able to fathom or face what happened. That close.  And then in overtime Clarkson put it away after about ten or twelve minutes.  It was inevitable as they already broke the spirit of Quinnipiac with the last second goal.

Abbie played her heart out as they all did and came as close to winning as a team can. Excruciating.  But now the season was over, the seniors were done, and there was nothing but wait until next year for the rest.  Everyone who has ever played competitive sports knows how cruel it can be.  And this was very bitter to swallow.  Abbie did her best to put on a strong face and somehow be a sport about it but there were lots of tears.  And emptiness.  It hurts so much when you work so hard to win. And Abbie works really hard.

I have to say I worried how she would tolerate the disappointment.  I wasn’t doing well with it… I could only imagine her struggle. That night I didn’t sleep well at all.  I was too busy cursing the hockey gods and seeing that tying goal over and over.

Then… in the morning there was a text from Abbie.  No words just a picture.  At first, I couldn’t imagine why she sent it…a picture of Clarkson celebrating?  (Shown below) Even Abbie is not that good of a sport! But then I noticed her in the foreground, and her defense person next to her comforting her.  And then it made sense.  That’s what Abbie saw in that picture. That’s why she sent it.  Not the loss, not the failure, but her team and all they have meant to her. And there they were, two players who had each other.  A really sweet sentiment in the face of what had just happened.  The other player was Kenzie Prater who told Abbie “I couldn’t leave my goalie lying there face down on the ice.” There are great lessons in team sports but none greater than the value of the people around you. Abbie sent that picture to say that knowing and loving the girls on that team was better than winning. It has been the case all through her hockey career. The friendships and bonds formed don’t go away even when winning and losing is nearly forgotten.  I am very proud she could see it and wasn’t afraid to say it.  Still, it would have been nice to win that game!

For me the picture was pure grace.  My daughter able to see the true value of what she had gained (so very much) even in the midst of what she had lost (not that much in the long run).  A lesson for all of us, always.

Tim Ives is the minister at the Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is also a New York State licensed Psychoanalyst in private practice in Bedford Hills, New York.

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