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Stephen Phelps
Rev. Stephen H. Phelps is the Interim Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York city.

Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind- Your Word For A Whole World


by: on September 23rd, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text: 2 Kings 8; 1-6; Luke 18: 1-8

Last July, the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute published results of a survey which aimed to go deeper with its 2,000 American interviewees than the usual labels, left and right. Not surprisingly, the survey found religious conservatives in greater numbers than progressives. But that is before age is factored in. Among the oldest Americans, about half think of themselves as religious conservatives and only one-eighth as progressives. Among adults born after 1980, however, only one sixth are conservatives, and one quarter are progressives. Robert P Jones, head of PRRI, says, “The percentage of religious conservative shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering conservatives among the millennial generation.” That’s the generation you Riversiders keep saying you want to open this church up for. The church-wide survey said it, your commentaries at forums we have held say it, the interviews done for us by Auburn Seminary affirm it, as did the 5-year strategic plan which expired in 2010. Is it time to put your money where your mouth is?


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind — If What You Fear Does Not Exist


by: on September 9th, 2013 | Comments Off

Text: 2 Kings 6:24 – 7:21

O my God, Such an appalling story is this. The beloved city, Israel’s capital, is besieged by Syria. Famine – man-made, war-made – has them by the throat. No crops come from the fields for no one dares venture outside the city walls. No one is free. Everyone is terrified. Carrion and pigeon poop are sold for food at extortionate prices. The moral life of the people has collapsed in greed, violence, and betrayal. Are your ears still burning with the complaint of the mother who went to her neighbor’s house expecting boiled boy for lunch, but was deceived? Despair over his city has shrunk the king to an inner tornado of angry, hopeless watching – like the useless official in New Orleans after Katrina. Why should the ruler trouble to punish these women, or anyone, for their evil deeds when the whole fabric of society is rotting, starring with the leaders’ failure to find peace with Syria. Why, the sentence that immediately precedes this awesome story is, “And the Syrians no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” But here they are again – and are we not responsible for this utter human disrepair?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
- W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

The king of Israel now aims his impotent fury at God, or at the man of God, Elisha. He wants to kill somebody. We have been in a like place before.

This story is a parable of our self. We are the walled city. We are its violent, deceitful citizens. We are the raging ruler, who when the need is greatest, leans only to his own understanding, and has no God, though he goes to church each Sabbath day.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind — This Is Not The Way


by: on August 19th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text on Sunday, August 18, 2013

2 Kings 6: 8-23; Luke 19: 39-42

Late last spring, I read a new book by Nick Turse called Kill Anything That Moves. I recall the moment I finished it. I closed the cover and laid it on the table and wept some while in silence.

It took Turse ten years to compile this history, never told fully until now. He interviewed hundreds of veterans and Vietnamese and pored over files forgotten or hidden by the government. More than 1,000 footnotes armor his book against the rage it will provoke in many Americans. Its 250 pages still the heart like the most appalling confession of sin our soul could conceive.

Here is one veteran’s memory of one atrocity. It is not My Lai; it merely mimics My Lai, except that it was undocumented until now.

We moved into a small hamlet, 19 women and children were rounded up as Vietcong suspects and the lieutenant that rounded them up called the captain on the radio and asked what should be done with them. The captain simply repeated the order that came down from the colonel that morning . . . to kill anything that moves . . . I looked toward where the supposed Vietcong suspects were, and two men were leading a young girl, approximately 19 years old, very pretty, out of a hootch. She had no clothes on so I assumed she had been raped—that’s standard operating procedure for civilians—and she was thrown onto the pile of the 19 women and children, and five men around the circle opened up on full automatic with their M-16s. And that was the end of that. (Turse, p. 238)

If we can’t deal with these things in church, what good is church? Where else will we cry this utterance in a way that can do some good? Told short, the book shows that murder and rape and bombing to death of millions of Vietnamese civilians was unleashed by orders from the top. Through a decade of hell, on virtually every day and in every province of Vietnam, North and South, America practiced genocide. Of 5.3 million civilians wounded by our war, one third were women and one quarter were not yet at the age of puberty. We lost our mind. We also lost hundreds of thousands of our veterans to homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, and prison. We utterly lost our way.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind — Be Bountiful


by: on August 5th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text: 2 Kings 4: 42-44; Luke 9: 10-17

The stories of Elisha are tucked away in a few chapters of 2 Kings, where most Christians never tread. Perhaps we heard them in Sunday school, but since then, they have been locked in a cabinet. Now, suddenly, this dusty old box bursts with a word like one of the best-loved gospel stories, the feeding of the multitudes. Set side by side, this Elisha story and the Jesus story look like twin sisters: the hungry crowd, disciples with only a little something in a grocery bag, the master’s command—Give them food, the disciples’ protest—How?, the command repeated . . . and then, food for all.

Meditate with me on this promise, this hope, this possibility of food for all. As ever, we won’t worry whether this all happened just so, for here is the heart of the story: Food for all. When there is food for all, when the hungry are filled with good things, then there will be no more war, no more greed, no more racism, no more mean streets, no more mass incarceration, no more border police, no more deportation, no more joblessness, no more fracking the foundations of the earth, no more lousy education, no more lousy housing, no more bankruptcy and death when sickness comes to the uninsured, no more rotting democracy, no more hunger and thirst—when there is food for all. This possibility in the feast of food for all—you have always felt it.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind – The Help We Need


by: on July 29th, 2013 | Comments Off

Text: 2 Kings 5: 1-14; John 15: 12-17

Now we have heard another story of wondrous healing. Our Bible holds very many. We came to love them when we were little, and we may love them still, but they come with puzzles now. If they mean that God once acted with power, but does no more, then they pronounce a curse on us. If they mean that miracles, still possible, come only to people of great faith, or only to those with lots of people pulling for them, then God is like politicians, who care only for constituents with means. If miracles are just random acts of kindness, why bother with the God theory at all? And if the stories mean that ancient people were gullible, and saw magic anywhere, then we are wiser, but sadder – for never mind Bible stories; we still have sorrows and wounds and depressions and diseases which keep us from the help we need. Everyone hurts. Our dead boys won’t walk again, the streets are mean, and greed is at the wheel of the world. Has this miracle story something to say to one who just wants to be whole? The word had better not be just heavenly sweet, but a goad and a guide.

Of all the figures in this story, only one is so anxious and untrusting and hurt that he cannot do any good. It is the king of Israel. He is you. He is me. This king represents every old thought we have about how things work. He stands for that forlorn wish we have for a leader to swoop in and save us from disaster. The king is in our every anxious thought about money or about next year’s budget. The king is our fear that it will all turn out wrong if we make a wrong turn now, so we turn nothing at all. The king is that flat view of reality which sees only cause and effect; and works harder and harder to gun the engine of more cause for more effect – and is always exhausted.


Weekly Sermon: Learner’s Mind – Decision


by: on July 8th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Text on Sunday, July 7, 2013: 2 Kings 2: 1-14; Luke 9:51-62

The stories you have heard this morning are master/disciple stories. They tell of the moment of decision to leave everything and go. These stories are about you and me. If they were merely about the old heroes, we’d find them only behind glass in libraries. But they are here because they are about that moment of decision for possibility in the crisis you are facing. The door of the eternal is here: the infinite in a moment. Or not. If perhaps you think, There is no great decision before me now, that means that for you, discipleship is dormant. This is not a bad thing, but let us see it clearly. In Luke’s story, Jesus calls several individuals to follow him, but they do not sense the crisis in the call; they have ordinary attachments to attend to. Jesus is not annoyed. It is just not time for them to become disciples; no one is always a disciple. If you sense no call to rise and follow, then at present you have no master. Or, you are your own master; you are at rest and discipleship is dormant. It is as if the divine master said, “Elisha, stay here,” and Elisha replied, “O.K.” Would that not be obedience?

When a teacher tells a student to stay behind, it means only that she is not ready to go on. As we say, this is not a bad thing. If one is not ready, then to go on, unprepared, would be the bad thing. A sad thing, however, is our cultural assumption that we may ignore the question of preparing to be ready to rise and go, to become human. American culture wants to flatten the path of the soul’s development; to insist that everyone is on a journey and every journey is on the same level, except, of course, those of athletes and rich people. Someone observed that American Protestants want the church to teach the children and bless the adults with a sermon – just the opposite of Jesus’ way, who blessed children and taught the adults – or some adults, at any rate: the learners, the disciples. Most of the time, our discipleship is dormant. “First, let me bury my father,” we say. Let me keep my appointments. Let me stick with what’s stuck, and defer decision.


Weekly Sermon: One For All


by: on June 18th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

When a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all, think what he is after. Not in this story is he testing Jesus; that was Matthew’s theme when telling this story, because Matthew wanted to show how the religious officials feared and hated Jesus. Mark’s story is simpler. This scribe admires Jesus. He wants to learn from Jesus how all truth is organized. What is the first good? What is the purpose of reality?

This scribe is engaged in the quest that has animated all our forebears. We want to understand the cause and the meaning of our existence. The philosophers of science in ancient Greece peeled back the multitude of sensations trying to comprehend physics through the four elements earth, air, fire, and water. They invented the word “atom” to refer to the smallest indivisible component of any object. Aristotle put the pursuit of happiness at the pinnacle of human motivation. According to Luke, the Greeks in Athens were daily in the quest for unified meaning. We can hardly credit Luke with an open mind as he dismisses all the Athenians and the foreigners there as “spending their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Perhaps Paul too thought them ignorant, but nevertheless he praised them for their hungering after an “unknown God.” Astrologers of ancient times sought one truth through the stars. In medieval times, the search for the Holy Grail captured the imagination of Europeans seeking that one thing above all. In our day, and for a century now, quantum physicists look for a “unified field theory,” a single, elegant explanation for all the forces at work in the physical universe. Every love song, sad or glad, is searching for the true one.


Weekly Sermon: When One Works


by: on June 11th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

A long long time ago, I stayed two months with a commune in Copenhagen whose members aspired to hold all things in common and to decide all matters together, much like the practice in the earliest church, according to Acts 4. At the commune, holding things in common meant that one morning, my belt and jeans showed up on someone else’s body. That was nothing important. After a while, however, I noticed that access to the best clothes and money and critical decisions was retained by the three members who had the greatest personal appeal and energy. Political intentions notwithstanding, only these three had real power, yet no one was bold to disturb the communitarian experiment with serious political reflection. Being one did not work there and the commune soon broke up.

A few years later, I served as communications coordinator for a liberal non-profit organization whose membership aimed to decide everything by consensus. Far from strengthening the voice of the people, however, the pretense of arriving at consensus actually shut speech down. Emotionally needy members sucked all the time and oxygen out of a meeting, but no means existed for the body to hold them to account. No vote could say “Stop!” More-balanced members ceased discussing things altogether, hoping to get the meetings over with. The principle of majority rule would have better served the value of free speech; as it was, unity eluded them. “One” did not work.


The Church’s Second Birthday


by: on May 31st, 2013 | Comments Off

Have you ever had to reinvent yourself? I have. I am sure that many of you have. The phrase has a peculiarly American flavor, as if oneself were the hero of the whole project – designer, director, and finished product. But re-invention is just a phrase; the experience to which it refers has always belonged to the human predicament. Of such is the story of Arjuna – Odysseus – Jacob – Job – Jesus in the wilderness – Jesus before the Cross. Re-invention comes to this. Your hopes and values, your skills and habits prove inadequate to the present situation. Something’s got to give. As we have said here before, when facing great loss, the options before us are two: either misery, or spiritual growth; either despair, or a possibility.

An identity crisis so absolute has faced me in the aftermath of a divorce; in having career plans dashed; and more. On Memorial Day, countless wives and mothers and fathers, and now husbands too, remember the rupture in oneself brought by the news of a beloved soldier’s death. If the term “re-inventing yourself” is not altogether wrong, that is because we do not passively undergo an automatic transformation to new skills, new commitments, new values and hopes. These do not comes as butterfly wings come upon a caterpillar, or birth to a baby. No, one who commits herself to herself when all seems blocked, one who then swears loyalty to her own being, come what may, change what must, that one chooses to stand somehow on God’s side of life, where there comes into view a door not seen before, and a key.


Weekly Sermon: The Word Is Very Near


by: on May 21st, 2013 | 3 Comments »

Since Easter, we have worked with the great challenge of our times, the news that climate change will bring no more normal now – that everything will change, and we must change. Our species has no experience with demands so implacable. Our whole world view – religious, philosophical and political – along with all other world views, evolved on a hospitable planet and presumes such. But that simple presumption of earth’s hospitality has been shattered by our own actions, however unwittingly. Therefore, our religion faces a test unlike any previous: Is our faith able to help us adapt and adopt a world view and habits adequate to a world waiting to be born? Why, just yesterday, Columbia Univ. professor James Hanson, retired head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, was speaking to lawmakers in London. He told them that if the tar sands in Canada and other lands are exploited “to a significant extent,” then the problem of climate change will be “unsolvable.” Yet like an alcoholic, the nations belly up to the barrel and tell the baron of oil, “Break open another!” If in this crisis, our religion is not part of the solution, then what we do each Sunday is part of the addiction.

Certainly, religious life has been key in crises before. We could tell the stories for hours, but let Moses speak for them all. “I call hot heaven and a warming earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” But before the faithful get to work on themselves and their situation, the people must first confront the basic predicament of society. We just don’t agree. Unlike the animals, we come to our crises with separate consciences and separate aims, which cannot be coerced; with separate fears and separate gifts for living with our fears.