“Give Thanks in ALL Circumstances???”

9 Dec



A sermon preached for the 105th Anniversary

of South Presbyterian Church of Yonkers, NY

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Thessalonians 5:18

What a wonderful theme you have chosen to celebrate the 105th anniversary of this congregation –

 “Give thanks in all circumstances;

       for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

                              Who could argue with that?

 ……..   I have three stories!

(1)  The first true story happened many years ago, about 1970 –

in the first congregation I served as Pastor, a relatively small church like this one…the church was about a hundred and TEN years old at the time…

I found a wonderful poster that said something much like your theme today.

I put it on a bulletin board just inside the front door of the church,

             for folks to think about as they came and went.

It read:



To me, it was an affirmation of where the church had been,

   for all that God had accomplished through its ministry, already lasting

                                                               more than a century!

and it expressed our hope and faith that God would continue to bless us and lead us and use us for God’s glory and to serve God’s people in the future.

            One of the elders of the church, whose name was ED,

                                 was actually rather horrified.

             I CAN NOT AGREE WITH THAT, he said.

             I understood his objection.

    He had had a very unhappy childhood.  His father had abandoned his mother with four small boys.   He and one other brother had been put in an orphanage, because his mother was not able to provide for them all, even though she came to visit them when she could. 

     He was very bitter.

     He was a man who loved nature and worked to preserve it, even going regularly to a park that the Nature Conservancy took care of and picking up old cans and beer bottles and cleaning up the trash that thoughtless people had left after their picnicking. 

     He shook his head at what this world was coming to, with nobody taking responsibility.

     He was a man who took responsibility.  Every week all summer long, he came and mowed the HUGE lawn at the church, a HILLSIDE lawn, a VERY LARGE hill!  People would always ask me,

                 How do you mow that lawn?

     Well, I would say, we have a man with his left leg shorter than his right, who pushes the lawn mower one way around the hill, and we have another man with his right leg shorter than his left, and he pushes the lawn mower the other way.  (And people would laugh)

     But actually, we just had ED!   (who had two short legs…)  He mowed the lawn in summer, and shoveled the snow in winter, and cleaned the church every week, and who had a heart of gold, and who took responsibility.  

     But sadly, ED was unable to be thankful for the past.


     And he could not believe in the future enough to affirm what it might hold.  His bitterness would not let him be joyful and thankful.


(2)  My second story is one that I remember telling once before

from this pulpit…  in a sermon I preached the very first Thanksgiving I was here as your Pastor, 33 years ago, in 1979. 

A TRUE Thanksgiving Story

           that happened to me back in 1967 in New York City.

I was feeling VERY SORRY for myself. 

I had no job, no home, and I was sick… and it was Thanksgiving Day. 

It was during what I call “my time of unemployment while I was seeking to open up the Pastorate of the church to women”. 

           (That just means I was trying to get a job!)

I had been ordained for 9 years already, one of the first women in the Presbyterian Church, as you probably know.  I had been blessed with two great jobs working on the staff of large churches, had gone back to graduate school for an advanced theology degree, got my STM degree from Union Seminary in New York City, CUM LAUDE: “with honors”.

I was READY for a job as a pastor, and believed God was leading me in this direction, …..  but

I could NOT get an interview with a pastoral nominating committee. 

After I graduated, I had no place to live….

The organist in a little church where I substituted as a guest preacher, invited me home to stay with her and her musician roommates, who were all studying at the Manhattan School of Music.   I slept on their living room couch…. for several months.  As Thanksgiving neared, I  made plans to bake a pumpkin pie and take it on the train with me to visit my family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving Dinner.  But I got sick a couple days before Thanksgiving.  One of my roommates let me sleep in her bed while I was sick, as she went away for the holiday.

     By Thanksgiving afternoon, I WAS REALLY FEELING SORRY FOR MYSELF, as miserable as I could be, when the phone rang.

     My friend, Chris, a former roommate of mine – was apparently having a mental breakdown.  A seminary faculty member had kindly invited her for Thanksgiving Dinner, and now he desperately needed someone who could help her.   Immediately I got out of bed, got dressed and took the bus.  It was a long and difficult afternoon, but

it was our friendship that allowed me to coax her, step by step, moment by moment, inch by inch, when each minute, in her fear, she wanted to back away…… one step at a time, step by step, I loved Chris and coaxed Chris all the way to the hospital for her to agree to admit herself.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

From this I gained a new understaning of what THANKSGIVING truly is…

I was so thankful for our friendship, our love, which is what enabled Chris to trust me enough, to let me help her, even when she was scared to death and almost out of touch with reality.

I was so thankful for getting sick, and NOT being away with my family, so that I could be there for my friend in her need.

I am even thankful for those three years of unemployment, and all the lessons I learned in them, as hard as they were, on the path where God was leading me all the time, although I did NOT always know it!  

What I learned about THANKFULNESS on that Thanksgiving Day in 1967 is just ONE of the MANY lessons God taught me through those very difficult times.

Friends, in the most difficult of circumstances, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for, and it changes totally how you see the world and yourself and your church and your future.  When you are having a tough day (and we ALL have them), or a difficult month, or even a horrendous year, STOP and let yourself consider what there is for you to be thankful for!  Make a list! of what you’re thankful for!   Being thankful can change everything.  You cannot be angry or miserable or negative while you are being thankful.


(3)  The 3rd story is much older still.  It is a story that Jesus told in Luke chapter 18. 

Jesus pointed out a prayer of thanksgiving that is WRONG.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, (a)

  it is the prayer that the Pharisee prayed in the temple:

       “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”.

Luke tells us:  Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” 

What an indictment on the current discourse in our society… the hateful words of superiority and arrogance that we hear from those who condemn others FOR WHO THEY ARE.   Whether they are Muslim, or Gay, or speak a language other than English…..

Whole groups of people are despised, demeaned and judged …because of their religion or race,

their age or class,

their illness or physical ability,

their sexual identity or marital status, or for whom they love,

their nationality, language or accent,

their sex or marital status,

their poverty or their work,

their previous mistakes, alcoholism or addiction,

who their parents were or where they were born,

the color of their skin, how much they weigh, fat or thin,

and the list goes on and on,

here in our own country and around the world.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” said Jesus, “ one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 

    The Pharisees of course were regarded as the upstanding righteous

          spiritually correct religious leaders of their day.

     While tax collectors were generally despised, not just for greediness or lack of compassion, but also because they were considered traitors, working for the Romans who had occupied their country by military conquest.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray to God, said Jesus…. a pharisee and a tax collector…

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying proudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people:  thieves, scoundrels, adulterers, unjust, or even like this tax collector.

(I am so good.)  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

Thank you God, for making me better than others, so that I am deserving of your blessings

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’   I tell you,” said Jesus, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee; for allwho exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The WRONG thanksgiving (says Jesus)

   is the arrogance of feeling superior: 

whether it’s spiritual or religious superiority,

the arrogance of “privilege” and “entitlement”,

or some mistaken notion of racial superiority

       or ethnic superiority

            or class superiority

               or moral superiority,

                  anything that says, I AM BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE.  

                  Thank you, God, that I am not like them.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the New Testament speaks to a situation in the early church where some thought they were superior to others,  and St. Paul wrote to them,

     In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, for ALL of you are ONE in Christ Jesus. 

                           You are ALL God’s people. (b)

Lest any of you see YOURSELVES as LESS THAN other people.

The church’s message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is just as real today for those who have allowed themselves to be demeaned,

  who give in to thinking, “I guess I’m not good enough”.  If I’ve been treated with such disrespect, and told I’m inferior, maybe I’m not as good as other people.

Do we church people today “trust in ourselves that we are righteous and regard others with contempt”? 

    Yes, that is what Jesus was warning against in the thanksgiving prayer  of the Pharisee.

But Jesus’ whole life and ministry carry the message on the other side of this:  YOU who others think are undeserving:  I have come to let you know that God loves YOU.  God created you.  Black, brown, white, and every shade in between.  You are all beautiful.

God created you, Gay, straight, no matter whom you love. The wonderful thing is that God created you to love.

God created you, and your past mistakes, or your present reality, or your economic situation does not make you LESS than anyone else!

In God’s eyes you are precious and wonderful, with your own uniqueness, God loves you just the way you are.

In Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, (c) he gives Timothy good advice:

“Let no one despise your youth.”  That’s what Timothy was – young.

And Paul was his mentor. 

          Let no one despise you for being who you are.

  Let no one tell you – you are less than God has created you to be.

   Let no one tell you that WHO YOU ARE means you cannot be a leader in the church, a helper, a teacher of others, one who shows the love of God in your life.

I am thankful today.

I am thankful today for what this congregation taught me in the 20 years I was with you.

As the pastor to a church full of people from many nationalities and cultures and various economic situations, of many colors and sizes and shapes, immigrants to this country and the children of other cultures…  I saw what was happening in your lives.  I learned much about white privilege, about racism and classism, and the arrogance of power….

You have a unique opportunity in this church to be a welcoming congregation, because God has welcomed you….to show the love of God to everyone, of every class and race and nationality and situation. l

(4)  ONE MORE STORY…. About the power of those whom others think are powerless…  in other words, for those who may be treated as inferior, the power they DO have.

All four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell us that WOMEN, who were not in that day qualified to be witnesses in court, were the ones God chose to be witnesses of what for us Christians is the central great fact of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (d)

    Have you thought about why it was the women who were at the crucifixion, while Jesus’ disciples ran away and went into hiding?  We’re told that one disciple, John, was at the cross for a while.  But it was the women who stayed at the cross.  And it was the women who saw where they laid Jesus in the tomb, so they could come back (after the Sabbath was past) to lovingly prepare Jesus body for a proper burial.

       The reason they could be there is that women were “nobody”.  They didn’t matter.  They were powerless, they were what we call “marginalized”, unimportant.  Nobody saw them as dangerous.  BUT GOD GAVE THEM A VOICE AND A MESSAGE.  God gave them a message to tell.  And we’re told they left the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples!  Yes, they were afraid.  But their fear was mixed with great joy!  And they RAN!  They ran to tell his disciples. 

Some accounts say that the women were afraid and didn’t tell anybody, or that they told them but nobody believed them.  How could such a preposterous thing be true?!

    But Matthew doesn’t say whether anybody believed them or not, just that they RAN to tell the disciples!  (e)  God had given them a voice! 

    Have you got your voice?  Do you recall when you got it?  Is there a message so important that you have to tell, that you are no longer shy, and you are not trying to fade into the background.  But God has given you a voice to say what you believe needs to be said!

     This is not just about women, but about all ordinary people.  Poor people, working class people, minority groups, people nobody considers important enough to listen to, powerless people.  But God can give them a voice, when there is a message that needs to be said.

            BELIEVE that YOU can have a voice, too!

        And while those women that first Easter were running to do what God had called them to do, the risen Christ appeared to them.  They were not alone. 

        And the presence of the risen Christ is with US as we are doing what God has called us to do.  As you are being the welcoming congregation who says to EVERYONE:  GOD LOVES YOU!  Christ is with you.

        As we approach Christmas, we hear once more that the Christ child’s name will be “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us”.  (f)

The Easter story tells us the same message, that God is with us.

        The proof – the evidence – that GOD IS WITH US is not just the baby in the manger.  It is not just the empty tomb, nor his resurrection appearances to the women and to his disciples long ago.

        YOU are the evidence of THAT GOD IS WITH US, as God gives YOU new life.  YOU are the evidence of the living presence of Christ as God gives YOU a voice to tell to others the good news of God’s grace and love and forgiveness, of God’s power to give new life, of GOD’S WELCOME FOR ALL PEOPLE.  NO ONE EXCLUDED

YOU as a welcoming congregation

        are the evidence of the love of God that WELCOMES everyone of every class and race and station in life, black and brown and white, gay and straight, fat and thin, old and young, male and female.

God loves you.  Thank you, South Presbyterian Church, for the way in which you show that love of God in this community.

Give thanks to God in ALL circumstances, FOR THIS IS THE WILL OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS FOR YOU.


+ + + +


(a)  Luke 18:9-14

(b)  Galatians 3:28

(c)  I Timothy 4:12

(d)  Matthew 27:55-61; 28:1-10, Mark 15:40 – 16:11, Luke 23:49 – 24:12,22-24,   John 19:25-27;20:1-18

(e)  Matthew 18:8-10

(f)   Matthew 1:21-23



A Love Letter for June Fifteenth

15 Jun

       A June fifteenth love letter

             By Peggy Howland


You are my mother and my father.

You taught me how to grow up.

You led me through the fears and shame

that paralyzed me, and you watched in amazement

as recovering fellow sufferers,

to whom you sent me, worked a miracle

of insight and acceptance and finally serenity

in me.  You let me see

your humanness.  You let me learn,

step by faltering step, to begin to trust.

You patiently explained, again and again,

when my anger masked the hurt

from the one whose love I longed for,

but could never receive,

because it was not freely hers to freely give.

She could not see me or know my need.

You know my need.  You let me see

myself.  You almost gave up on this

Slow Learner.  You will always have me with you,

you said.  And it is true.

A hundred times a day I recall

some lesson learned, some word spoken,

assurance of hope, some step to take.

My gorilla is tamer now, not as fierce

or fearful as in the days of despair.

What a long journey we have come together.

There is only one way I know to thank you.

It is to live the gift you gave me.

It is to trust you, to trust myself,

to trust in life and trust in people.

The road is still not easy all the way.

But it is not so difficult as it once was

to trust…  You will always be with me.

Thanks, dear friend.  A thousand thanks. 

                      Love, Peggy



“Doctrine, Shmoctrine…Where’s the Love?”

6 Jun

                     “Doctrine, Shmoctrine…. Where’s the Love?”

A sermon preached at White Plains Presbyterian Church

on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8

John 3:1-17



Our beautiful chancel window always reminds me of the story from Isaiah.  Are you able to see the words?  For those of you who sit in the back, the words tell the story:  “To thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy!  Holy!   Holy!   Lord God Almighty!”    (1)


The One in THIS window who is “high and holy and lifted up” is Jesus.

The angels you see at either side of Jesus in the window are clearly SERAPHS (or SERAPHIM in Hebrew), because you can see that each has six wings, like the description of the seraphs in our Reading from Isaiah this morning. 



We can only TRY to imagine what that experience of God’s presence was like for him!  That’s why Lynn carried the smoking incense down the aisle this morning – to get us thinking about what the young Isaiah, who was not yet a prophet – what he experienced:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; the hem of God’s robe filled the temple.”   In his vision of God there were Seraphs (who were not like these angels in our beautiful window), but we think they were great creatures, huge sacred beasts, with wings …calling to one another: “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory!”   The sound was so magnified, that the pivots on the thresholds of the great temple SHOOK at the sound of the voices calling like thunder, and the house of God was filled with smoke!  We can only imagine what it was like….

What we DO know is the profound effect Isaiah’s experience of God had on him.  In the presence of God’s majesty and holiness and power, he feels utterly unworthy and sinful.

 “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”   Then one of the seraphs flew to him, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched his mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

DO YOU REMEMBER THE first time that YOU felt utterly unworthy and sinful, and what it was like to be forgiven?  

Was it like a huge weight rolling off your shoulders?

Was it like the amazing sunshine of morning after a long and terribly difficult and dark night?

Was it like a nightmare that is OVER?

Was it like EVERYTHING had at last become new, and beautiful?

Did it seem like a NEW DAY for YOU?

Isaiah, now that he understands his sinfulness and unworthiness is gone, tells us:    Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”


And I said, “Here am I; send me!”



Have you had an experience with God that changed YOUR life?

Some life-changing experience, when you found a new direction that affected where you were headed and what you were going to do… ordering your life in a new way?  Has God touched YOU like that?  



Our second story is very different.  Quiet, intimate, at night time. Probably at night so that it could be a private meeting, and nobody else would know that the esteemed Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, NICODEMUS, was coming to talk to Jesus, to the young upstart teacher who was disturbing things around Jerusalem.  The way John tells the story, in his Gospel… he starts right out at the beginning helping us see the confrontation developing between Jesus and the recognized religious leaders.  This is the beginning of his 3rd chapter, and John has just told us at the end of chapter 2 how Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, and when he saw the moneychangers in the Temple, he took a whip of cords, overturned their tables, poured out their money on the floor, told them to get out of his Father’s house, and stop making it a marketplace, and drove them all out, along with the sheep and oxen and doves they were selling there.  AND… he also predicted the that the temple would be destroyed.

It is immediately following the account of this confrontation, that John tells us of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus.  Nicodemus has seen Jesus at work, and he speaks respectfully to Jesus, calling him Rabbi, Teacher.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
We’re heard this story many times – how Jesus zeroes right in, and says to Nicodemus,

 “No one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above, without being born anew.”  Here these two men are discussing a life-changing experience with God, a spiritual experience with which Nicodemus seems unfamiliar but interested to learn more.  How can these things be? asks Nicodemus.  And they keep talking about it, with Nicodemus continuing to ask questions…

John never finishes the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus here in the 3rd chapter.  Instead the story launches into that discourse we love about God’s purpose in sending Jesus…. GOD LOVED THE WORLD SO MUCH THAT HE GAVE HIS SON TO BRING THIS NEW LIFE, this change of life, this eternal life… to all who believe, to everyone.

We DO see glimpses of what happened to Nicodemus, indeed, the new life that was beginning in him, in two other places… in the 7th chapter of John, where Jesus is back in Jerusalem again, this time for the Festival of Sukkoth, and again he is teaching in the temple.  The people are astonished at his teaching and love to listen to him, but the chief priests and the Pharisees want the temple police to arrest Jesus, because, unlike most of the people, they do NOT approve of his teachings.  But Nicodemus speaks up on Jesus’ behalf, defending him, and the Pharisees ridicule Nicodemus for that. 

We hear of Nicodemus just once more in the 19th chapter of John…  after the crucifixion.

 AFTER Jesus has died on the cross, and Jesus’ close friends have run away in fear, it is Nicodemus who comes with Joseph of Arimathea.  Joseph has asked Pilate for permission to take the body of Jesus, and they wrap it with linen cloths, with myrrh and spices that Nicodemus has brought, and they lay his body in a new tomb in a nearby garden, which was all there was time to do before the Sabbath.

What a difference from the Call of Isaiah!

Meeting Jesus was such a much slower, more gradual life-changing experience for Nicodemus than the overwhelming and powerful vision of God that Isaiah had.  Nicodemus came questioning, seeing Jesus at work, hearing teachings that intrigued him, disturbed him, and left him hungering for more.  But it also CHANGED HIM.  From someone who did not want to be seen, coming to Jesus under cover of night, he became bold enough to speak in Jesus’ defense, when the chief priests and other Pharisees were saying, “What are you, crazy?  Nobody pays any attention to this itinerant preacher, Jesus, … he’s from Galilee, of all places”.  And they mocked Nicodemus for speaking up for Jesus.  But cautious Nicodemus became sure enough and brave enough to lovingly care for the body of Jesus after his fellow Pharisees on the Council had demanded Jesus’ execution, and had him killed as a blasphemer and dangerous criminal.   A powerful huge change in Nicodemus’ life and his loyalties.   Yes, I think Nicodemus in his life discovered what it meant to be born anew, to be born from above.

Do YOU remember the journey of your own faith?

Do you recall the first stirrings of discovering God and God’s truth that spoke to you and began to change your life, to see things in a new way?

To discover God’s Spirit speaking to YOU, and your life and faith EVOLVING, your perspective on life taking you in new directions, challenging old beliefs, changing YOU and your loyalties.  Making you no longer afraid of what others might think, as you came to know in WHOM YOU BELIEVE?

There are so many ways of meeting God, so many ways in which God comes to us. 


I remember what I said when I came under care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a candidate for the ministry.  It seemed such a BOLD thing to me to say that God was calling ME to be a minister.  I had three reasons, which are STILL TRUE.  The first is the overwhelming conviction of GOD’S LOVE FOR ME AND FOR ALL PEOPLE.  The second is the desire to share that love with others.  The third is the belief that God was leading me in that direction.

That is the message – GOD LOVES YOU.

God loves you and God loves me, NOT because we are good, but because GOD IS GOOD. 

And our response is to love God and love our neighbors, and love one another.  By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, said Jesus, because you have love for one another.  Old and young, male and female, fat and thin, black and white, rich and poor, sinner and saint, wise and foolish, gay and straight.   We are loved by God, and therefore we are to show love to all and seek justice for everyone.

This is Trinity Sunday.  The Trinity is a doctrine.  Words.  (We are surrounded by the Banners of the Confessions on our walls.  One of those banners is for the Nicene Creed in the 4th century, where the doctrine of the Trinity was put into words.)  Words that are our inadequate human way of describing the God we know.  God is our loving Father/Mother.  God is our Creator.  We have met God in the person of Jesus, as Nicodemus did. We have found God’s Spirit teaching us, refreshing our spirits, leading us through the dark valleys and the long nights, sustaining us and strengthening us.

But it is all the same God.  One God.  The doctrine of the Trinity tells that we do not have three Gods.  We have ONE GOD, whom we meet and discover in so many different ways.  God who bursts in upon us. God who sometimes overwhelms us.  God who meets us in the silence. 

Sometime, read through the Book of Isaiah, and realize what kind of prophet of God Isaiah became, after God encountered him and called him, saying “Whom shall I send?”  and Isaiah answered “Here I am, Send me”.   After he became God’s prophet, he still needed encounters with God, to see that God was with him.  There’s a very passionate prayer in Isaiah Chapter 64, expressing this need that is shared by so many people:   He cries out to God, “OH THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS and come down!” 


I want to tell you a love story.  Because when you truly know that God loves you, you can live a life of sharing God’s love with others.  This is a story about a minister, but anyone who knows the love of God in his or her own life, can love people into knowing that God loves them, too.

Today happens to be Gay Pride Sunday.  More and more churches are observing it as a way of letting Gays and Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgender people know that they are welcome, and loved for who they are.  And that GOD loves them.

This is the story of a queer hospital chaplain. (2)  Her name is Laura.  She calls herself QUEER, as many gay people do. She does not normally tell people she is gay unless there is some reason to, but she does not hide it.  She knows from bitter experience the pain and hurt that hatred and condemnation bring to gay people.  These are her own words:

“While I live with a perceived and real threat about living as an openly queer chaplain, I also live with an incredible gift. I live as a chaplain in a profoundly different way than my straight colleagues. I am a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven. I have the privilege of conveying and testifying of God’s love in a way that no straight chaplain can.”

And then Laura tells us this story:

“I entered the small family conference room where Stephen sat, alongside a pair of doctors and a nurse. Introductions were made and then as gently as possible Stephen was told that his partner, James, had inexplicably gone into cardiac arrest and that, despite every effort, he could not be resuscitated. The sudden outpouring of grief made the medical staff retreat, leaving Stephen and me together. We sat for a long time letting the news sink in. When I asked Stephen if he would like to spend time with James, he pulled himself together enough to walk to the room. I offered him some private time, but he insisted that I stay and then asked if I would offer a prayer. Trying to sculpt a meaningful prayer, I asked what religious tradition Stephen and James came from. More tears streamed down his cheeks as Stephen told me that he was a Baptist and that James believed in God but hadn’t been to church in a long time. With prayers offered, I again asked Stephen if he wanted some private time but he insisted I stay. So I stayed silently by Stephen’s side until the coroner came to pick up James’s body.

With Stephen unable to think clearly and unwilling to call any of his friends, we decided to call a cab for him. As I helped him outside, Stephen asked me what denomination I came from. A perfectly good question but given the circumstances, I wanted to be careful of how I answered it.  My denomination’s name is often confused for a very conservative, very anti-gay denomination. “I’m a part of the United Church of Christ,” I said, “But my wife is a Unitarian Universalist, so I tend to be pretty ecumenical.”  He stared at me like I had twelve heads. “Did you say ‘your wife’?”  I nodded yes, though found myself questioning my choice of outing myself.  Out of nowhere he grabbed me and dropped his weight into my arms. “Do you think James is in heaven?” Stephen barely got the words out as he began to sob, “They say he won’t go to heaven. But does God love him?”

“The only thing I’m sure of,” I said, “Is that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God.”  In those moments, standing on the sidewalk waiting for the taxi, I was so deeply thankful to be queer. I thought about how my straight colleagues could have offered Stephen just as good if not better pastoral care, but I could stand with him, as another queer person, in a much different way and assure him that both he and James are loved by God.”


Trinity Sunday is a day to celebrate God.  We do this by loving others as God first loved us.


(PRAYER by Dom Helder Camara of Brazil)

Come, Lord: do not smile and say you are already with us.
Millions do not know you,
and to us who do, what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter our complacency.
Make your word flesh of our flesh and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus that other peace is made, your peace.  Amen.

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Rev. Peggy Howland

White Plains Presbyterian Church

June 3, 2012


+       +       +       +       +       +


(1) from the ancient hymn “Te Deum Laudamus”  (“We Praise You, O God”)

(2) “Life as a Queer Chaplain” by Laura.  In Kimberly Knight’s blog, “Coming out Christian” (Conversations about being Christian and gay in America), May 31, 2012

(3) Dom Helder Camara, in “The Desert Is Fertile”(poems), 1974



“Identify, Don’t Compare”

17 Mar

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Third Sunday Of Lent, March 11, 2012

Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday



(on difference, privilege and marginalization)

The Rev. Peggy Howland

Genesis 16: 1-6 and Genesis 21: 1-21

Let us pray: Open our hearts, O God, to your Word and your will, that we may be taught by your Spirit, and be guided to think and act in ways that honor you. Amen.

Have you ever seen your own story in the story of someone else? We call it IDENTIFYING with the other person’s experience.

In the church in Yonkers where I was pastor for 20 years, there was a Saturday night Alcoholics Anonymous open meeting, which I occasionally attended.  They always had two speakers from a visiting AA group, who told their personal stories.  They called it “sharing their experience, strength and hope”.  But first the Chairperson of the meeting would always say these words: “Identify, don’t compare.” 

He (or she) was telling them:  Don’t say to yourself, Oh, that’s not ME.  I’m better than that.  Or, I’m worse than that.  Instead, see the places where your own experience is like this person’s experience.   See the places that are similar….  So that you can learn something about yourself, or see some possibility for yourself, some direction, or  warning, or reminder, or hope….

I always found those stories helpful to me, even though I’ve never been an alcoholic, because I could identify with the humanness, the mistakes, the craziness, the wanting to escape reality, the necessity of asking for help, the opportunity for a second chance, and a changed life with the help of God and of caring people ….

That’s how I read the Bible, too.  Finding my story in the stories of the sinners and saints, the misfits and the redeemed, the people whose lives were changed by God, or whose lives were touched by Jesus,  who followed the leading of God’s Spirit….

IDENTIFY, Don’t compare! Clothe yourself in their skin, walk a mile in their shoes, think what YOU would do – if you were in their situation.  And perhaps you will understand the emotions and thoughts that you share with them, the struggles, the fears, the defenses you put up, the despair that paralyzes you, the faith that sustains you, the encounters with God that lift you up and set you on a new path, by God’s grace.


It is very common for people to compare, instead of identify. To compare, as in – I’m not that bad, or – I would never do that!  or – She should be ashamed of herself! Judging another, instead of seeking to understand the other, applying rigid rules, instead of compassion, pronouncing God’s condemnation on someone, speaking ill of another, even hating with righteous indignation and superiority.  That’s in the Bible, too!

Remember the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable? …. who compared himself to the tax collector, when both came to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee stood proudly and prayed, God, I thank you that I am NOT LIKE OTHER PEOPLE, or even like this tax collector, for  I work at being Good and I follow your laws and do what is Right and Charitable.  I thank you that I am not like that fellow over there. …. And the tax collector bowed and did not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but smote his breast in repentance, praying, “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”  The Bible says Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)

That’s the secret of how to listen to people’s stories … IDENTIFY, don’t compare. 

Do we regard the storyteller with respect or with contempt?   

Do we regard certain classes of people as superior and other groups inferior?

You see, the Bible, just like our life today, is full of the stories of people who are DIFFERENT from each other.  There are rich and powerful people like Abraham and Sarah, a wealthy herdsman and his wife.  There are slaves who are in a position of powerlessness, like Hagar, a slave girl from Egypt who was given to Sarah to be her maid and to be subject to whatever Sarah required of her and however Sarah treated her.  But even Sarah, as a woman in a patriarchal society, was in a vulnerable position, especially as a woman who was barren and in her old age felt ashamed and ridiculed and looked down upon because she had still not borne a child and an heir for her family.

Where there are differences between groups of people, whether in the Bible or in our society, differences of nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, class, religion, financial standing, political power, education level, marital status, sexuality  . . . where there ARE such differences, it becomes possible for one group to use the difference as a means of gaining privileges that the other group doesn’t have.      

The group with more power, prestige, money or greater numbers may take privileges for themselves and set themselves up as SUPERIOR, and push others to the margins of society, to “marginalize” them, denying rights or benefits to those they consider INFERIOR, and causing the vulnerable population to develop their own sense of inferiority.  We know this, of course, from the shameful history of slavery in our own country.  And we have seen it in genocidal atrocities like the Nazi slaughter of Jews, and more recent ethnic wars in some European and African countries (among others).

What I want us to realize is how the BIBLE itself has been USED to foster such systems of dominance and oppression, as genocidal wars against Native Americans, attacks against Equal Rights for women, South African Apartheid, American racial segregation, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholic bigotry, the fight against lesbian and gay rights–and many other causes, ALWAYS augmented and supported by the dominant groups’ interpretations of the Bible.[1]

A favorite method of using the Bible for political oppression is by “SELECTIVE LITERALISM”.  That is, selectively choosing proof texts, often pulled out of their context in Scripture, declaring them to be the infallible Word of God, ignoring any human elements of prejudice or cultural blindness which may be in the text.  And this method of selective literalism conveniently dismisses or creatively does away with whole portions of the Bible which contradict their chosen verses.[2]  This is happening outrageously in the current political discussions of social issues today.

But there is another side, the good news of how disadvantaged and vulnerable groups have found their own stories in the Bible.  “The Bible has been reclaimed by many marginalized communities as a powerful tool with which to overcome oppression.”[3]They read a Bible story and then discuss what it has to say for their own lives, and develop plans of action.

You cannot take the Bible seriously without seeing the teachings of God’s concern for the poor, and Jesus’ compassion and inclusion of women, outcasts and marginalized classes who were considered inferior and undeserving by the political and religious establishment of his day.  Political prisoners and farmworkers and Latin American peasants have identified with and been motivated by the Bible to change their lives

Nineteenth century African slaves saw in the story of Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt the inspiration that encouraged their own dreams of freedom.  Just so the story of Hagar has given courage to many women today in their struggles for dignity and personhood because they can IDENTIFY WITH HER.  They see her caught in bondage, forced to become a second wife to her owner, and a surrogate mother whose child was not to be her own, fleeing from harsh treatment by her jealous mistress, yet still having the mindset of a slave because she had no sense of who she was or where she wanted to go, back again in slavery, then rejected and tossed out to become homeless with no means of providing for herself, grieved to see her son at the point of death for lack of food and water, ultimately being rescued and cared for only by the grace of God.   

Even Sarah, who was in a somewhat powerful situation in relation to Hagar, was powerless in other ways, a victim of patriarchy and cultural prejudice and subject to stigma and ridicule, despised by “the other woman” she had herself created, as well as put in compromising and dangerous situations twice by her husband to save his own neck. (That’s in the chapters in between today’s two scripture readings.)

Their stories call us to identify and understand with compassion the difficulties they faced, and not compare or judge either of them by standards and rules that show no mercy. 

On this “Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday”, that is how the story of Hagar and Sarah speaks to me.   I remember how the modern Women’s Movement of the 60’s and 70’s taught me to TRY not to speak ill of any woman, but to try to understand ALL women, even those who might disagree with me or criticize me. 

That same church where I was pastor for 20 years, where they had the AA meetings…  was a church of working class people, of immigrants from Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and Europe.                   

This is my Hagar (holding up a small mahogany wood carving of an African woman)… it belonged to Eunice, whom I loved. She was the granddaughter of a slave, and it reminds me of her. The people of that church, whom I loved, were multi-ethnic and interracial, more dark-skinned than light…  I knew their stories, THE INDIGNITIES they suffered in their lives because of prejudice, because of who they were, and what they looked like, and where they were from … I also knew THEIR DEEP FAITH IN GOD, that sustained them, because they knew the love of God in their lives.


[1] “Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature” by Michael J. Mazza, University of Pittsburgh.

[2] “Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature” by Michael J. Mazza.

[3] “Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature” by Michael J. Mazza.