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

Inherit the Earth: Stay in the City


by: on May 7th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

A film from 2010 by Danish director Lars von Trier received little notice then, but I hear of it more and more now. It is called Melancholia. A heavenly body – far bigger than an asteroid – has appeared in the night sky. It seems more beautiful than the moon – but is it moving? How? Will it fly by Earth? Will it . . . ? Can people deny the evidence of its approach? The film’s sole subject is a wealthy family living on an elegant country estate, reacting to this approaching orb, one in this way, another in that.

It would be too small to say the film is about global warming. Rather, the film evokes silence for a question of absolute urgency: How do we meet the news that there is no more normal now – that everything will change, that we must change; not just our person, but our civilization must change; and with it every connection, every living system? How to meet that news?

When the subject is climate change, some of us wonder, Why worry about a far-off threat that doesn’t affect us where we live? Has the preacher already forgotten about mass incarceration and stop+frisk? About immigration abuses and the need for education and health care delivery right here in this community? Others of us feel overwhelmed. Climate change is just too big – like that planet coming in the skies of Melancholia. It is news we can’t use in the pews! What can we do? These responses are normal.


Weekly Sermon: Eyes Open


by: on April 23rd, 2013 | Comments Off

Nothing is as beautiful as union and unity of mind. Nothing compares with being one – provided each individual is honored and respected. Each individual! Inside that little word, you can hear the matchless value it declares – undividable, must-not-be-broken, I am somebody, an individual. Yet individuals long to be not set apart. We seek unity, community, love, peace – a new heaven and a new earth. The matchless value in the hearts of all peoples in all times is that we may be one. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the USA: “Out of many, one.” To preserve the integrity of each and the unity of the one – this is hard. It is what makes life hard in our very imperfect nation. It is what makes life hard in our very imperfect church – hard for the one deep reason, that we long to be our self, and we long to be together. And we want both now, because time is short. Every love song, every national anthem, every hymn to God, every I have a dream! is woven from the wondrous deep wish that each one be one, and that all may be one. All the promises of God revealed to us through our faith aim for peace along this path. Christians call it the way of the Cross.

But we cannot get to unity through our longings. We are too disordered by our own worries. Therefore, profound experiences of joined humanity usually come only in the face of mortal danger. We have seen it in Boston these last days, both in the vast cooperation of the citizenry to apprehend the bombers and in the sudden joy spilling into the streets to thank the authorities after the manhunt was over. When the murderous mayhem at Newtown still stunned our spirits, we experienced a depth of unity – but last week, disunity and party spirit ruled in Washington as the power of the people to join in unified action against gun violence was shattered. In the aftermath of natural disasters like Sandy, the beauty of community builds up. If a terrible war ends, the victors, though not the vanquished, join in joy. Thus danger and release from danger unify those who see the same danger.


Weekly Sermon – Tend My Sheep


by: on April 16th, 2013 | Comments Off

The poet who wrote the lyric for that hymn, Rev. Thomas Troeger, teaches at Yale Divinity School, my alma mater. When I attend a conference there, Tom Troeger is often addressing the assembly, so I have developed a feeling for his sharp mind and great heart. For that reason, when I see how long ago Troeger penned these words – almost thirty years – I can’t help but imagine that he would be the first to say that his verse has suffered a reverse at the hands of climate change. God did not mark a line and tell the sea anything, or else the sea wasn’t listening. Ask Sandy. Ask Irene. Ask Katrina. Surf’s up, people, in the worst way. Either God never had a word with the sea . . . or God’s order is out of order.

Today, we are going to think hard about what Christian faith has to do with caring for the earth. We are going to return to the question next week, and the week after, April 28th, when Bill McKibben, the world’s foremost earth care activist, will bring our morning sermon. Now, our preaching, including Mr. McKibben’s, will certainly be preaching. Proclaiming the good news of the gospel is the heart of our message. But we are not going to change the subject.


Weekly Sermon: When You Turn Again


by: on April 3rd, 2013 | Comments Off

The single great question of human being is this, How may I become who I am to be? How may we become who we are to be? All other questions are either that question dressed differently, or less important questions. Why is our becoming the only great question? Because awareness of the possibility that we may become greater than now we are is the only way we show that we know we have been created in the image of Creator. Apart from human awareness in all the known universe, there is no becoming. Certainly, things change. Flowers bloom and fade, bears give birth and die. Planets swing through their orbits, stars explode. But only humans have a destiny before them. When a human cares not a whit about possibility, whether because she is satisfied with all her arrangements, or because he has lost all care or all hope, the light goes out; their humanity goes to sleep. When a society loses hope of its destiny, or when their urge is only for more of what they already are, the light goes out and their humanity fades.

The life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is all about and only about the great question, how an individual may become and how all humanity may become who and what we are called and created to be. Every story in the gospels offers a guide to the great question. How will you become who you are to be?


Weekly Sermon – No Separate Peace


by: on March 12th, 2013 | Comments Off

We are taking time this Lent with each of the temptations of Jesus. One Sunday, we felt after what can happen when, like Jesus, though we hunger, we wait upon the Lord to receive what is given, and do not take just what we think we need, but our soul waits in silence. Last Sunday, we searched out what can happen when, like Jesus, we see the kind of power we can have over others, but let it go, through simplicity and honor and truthfulness. We felt how the burdens of self-defense and its anxiety and anger can fall away when the gift of trust in the power God supplants our power complexes.

Now the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and places him on the pinnacle of the temple. Notice that Jesus is moved around by the devil and placed wherever the tempter wants. He has no power over what is done to his own body. We too know such powerlessness; our life in God does not keep us from peril. Truly, Jesus is fully human, as the ancient creeds say. And there- fore, the devil now urges him, if he is the son of God, to try the promises of God, found in Psalm 91. There in verse 9 the psalmist sings, “Because you have made the LORD your refuge and the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you.” The devil prompts Jesus to throw himself down from this most high place. And he quotes scripture – Psalm 91, vss. 10 and 11. “God will command the angels [to] bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Try it, son. Jump. No evil shall befall you.


Weekly Sermon: Breaking Ground – The Tower Complex


by: on March 5th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

When we looked at Jesus’ first temptation two Sundays ago, we saw this. He was hungry beyond any words for it, and he felt tempted to turn a stone into bread. Yet he said No, not by bread alone, and stayed hungry. Into that emptiness which he did not fill with satisfactions or wishful thinking, God came. Into that emptiness, God comes, we said, for in Jesus’ temptation is a word to you about your endless desires.

Now, let us bring a like clarity to the second temptation. Jesus was nameless and powerless in a resourceless wasteland. If ever there was an invisible man, an invisible woman, who for forty days, or forty years or four hundred years dwelled in powerlessness, scattered in a desert of disregard, that soul can receive a visit from this word today, for Jesus had nothing. Then he saw that everything was available to him – all the world’s wealth, all its authority, all its glory – if, said the Tempter, you will but bend your knee and bow to me. Yet Jesus said No, you shall worship the Lord your God and serve God alone, and he remained with the powerless. Into that condition of powerlessness, which the world despises; into that dispossession, which Jesus did not abandon, God came. God comes, we must say, for this temptation can be a word to us about our endless struggle for powers and towers.


Weekly Sermon – Breaking Ground: Endless Desire


by: on February 22nd, 2013 | 1 Comment »

When Jesus says, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone,” he is quoting from Deuteronomy. There, an ancient author lyrically reimagines Moses offering a long, beautiful sermon just before his people enter the Promised Land. Moses promises that they are about to

eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that God has given you. . .When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them . . . and your silver and gold is multiplied . . . then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you . . . by letting you hunger, then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors knew, to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8, selections)

To humble you and test you. . . by letting you hunger. Have you been there? Have you not been there? Who is “you” anyway? Just you-you, humbled and tested in your body, in your need? Or you-Riverside, hungering and testy, grumbling, wandering through a dry land, uncertain of the way forward? Or you-African-Americans, who have a story to tell the nations, what it was for hundreds of years to be humbled and tested, hungering and thirsting for righteousness in a land of plenty, of ignorance, of innocence, of evil? Is “you” America, a people not at all ready to be humbled and tested by more Sandys, be they Hooks or Hurricanes?


Weekly Sermon: On Attention


by: on February 19th, 2013 | Comments Off

“To gain control of the attention is the sole aim of all spiritual disciplines.” (Ramana Maharshi, d. 1950)

I am drawn to an idea set down by the Spanish philosopher Spinoza a long time ago. “Any thought not interrupted by another thought becomes action.” You can prove this. Hold your hand open. Think about closing it. If you think only that thought, you will close your hand. Otherwise, you will pass on to some other matter, more important. In other words, you will interrupt the thought; no action will follow. All action is composed of thought held like a flame until it catches the will in action. All inaction is composed of interruptions that douse the flames of thought.

In itself, seeing how thought becomes action will not heal us, for some thoughts are useless or evil, and it was our awful power to focus on them – our terrible obsession – that became an action we now so regret. Still, Spinoza’s rule holds: sometimes, no action is best and interruption is required. Yet sometimes, no action is no help at all. Do you wonder why a committee never gets anything done? Just watch how they let their thoughts get interrupted. Sometimes, no action was the worst thing we did. We knew what needed to be done, but we let interruptions come, and the hour of action was lost. How true like an arrow is the ancient prayer, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Yes, true. But equally true is the reverse. “Most gracious God, we thank thee, for thou hast given us the attention, in thought and word, from which to choose our deeds, and to guard our attention from thoughts that yield bad deeds. Amen.”


Weekly Sermon: Breaking Ground


by: on February 5th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

It’s funny about Jonah. So many people make it out to be a fish story. All the talk, all the wonder, all the ridicule drives straight at the ridiculous notion a man in the ocean could really be saved by a whale. Or, to quote rather more famously, Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale [2x] / For he made his home in / That fish’s abdomen . . . but it ain’t necessarily so. The story of Jonah is not about that fish. And the book is so short, so easy to read – just four chapters – that we ought to wonder: Has church focused on the unbelievable word in the book in order to not hear the undesirable word of the book?

The undesirable word is very basic. Jonah, the Jew, does not want to preach repentance and release – Jubilee! – to the hated people of Nineveh; he hates them too much. He does all he can to avoid the divine command, but at length, he arrives in the great city of unbelievers, and begins preaching. He’s not very good at it. “Forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But sometimes, the leaders and their people don’t waste time on how bad they think the preacher is. Sometimes, people just believe God, and make the change. That’s what the infidel king and all Nineveh do, according to Jonah. They believe God and change. The hard word of this book is that sometimes God stops sending the Word to the chosen people. Sometimes God’s Word moves like rain over the land. If the chosen people are stiff and hard and sure of their tradition, the Word rolls right off the land and does them no good. If the chosen are frozen, the rain of God moves on until it falls on a people whose ground is warm and soft and ready, whose hearts and ears are open. Yes, says the book of Jonah, God loves other people – nations we hate, religions we ridicule – for sometimes, they have their ground plowed, ready for the seed. If we are crusted over with certainty and regulations, possessions and traditions, God moves on.


Weekly Sermon: Break Through To Beloved


by: on February 1st, 2013 | Comments Off

At two o’clock today, over seven hundred people will gather here at Riverside Church to see the film “The Central Park 5.” This film proclaims release to the captives. It tells the terribly untold story of how in 1989, the City of New York – D.A., police, people, media, mayor, more – convicted five boys of a violent and bloody rape without any evidence except their own deceitfully forced confessions; and how, as grown men, the captives were released and finally exonerated in 2002, when the real rapist at last identified himself; and how, since 2002, our news media have showed no passion for the truth in any way matched to their former passion for the myth of evil boys out on a “wilding.” Our city has resisted paying these men any damages. Justice delayed is justice denied.

About all this, you can learn much more this afternoon – if you have a ticket. Here’s the point for this morning. I went to see The Central Park 5 at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem on a Sunday last December. Seven hundred thronged the small hall. This Sabbath afternoon, the church will be packed with people who don’t go in for church, but who will come here to hear proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and new eyes for the blind. The eyes of all will certainly be fixed on that film! Look, what Jesus felt impelled to say on his first day of work, and what thousands on thousands of our citizens long to hear proclaimed, are one and the same word. Release! But here this morning, we’re fewer than that throng will be this afternoon. What has the morning to learn from the afternoon about breaking through to the future? We’ll try an answer to that question presently, but first, let’s learn a little more from our Jewish brother Jesus.