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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.

Weekly Sermon: Considering Adoption


by: on January 25th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Here in the beginning of the year, we are going to hear what might be called “the beginning of the gospel.” These are the voices of the New Testament’s first authors, Paul and Mark. Paul was writing 15-20 years before Mark. Mark, most experts say, set his gospel down about 70 A.D. – 10, 15, even 25 years before the other gospels, Matthew, Luke, andJohn. Listen now to the first words of Paul’s letter to the Romans…

Paul calls Jesus “Son of God.” This sounds familiar to Christian ears. Let’s listen closer. How do you get to be someone’s son? Usually, you’re born that way. But Paul knows nothing of Jesus’ birth. Not here nor in any of his letters does Paul show interest in Jesus’ birth. His life of Jesus is painted in a few bold strokes: “This is the gospel concerning God’s son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh, and was declared Son of God, according to the Holy Spirit, by resurrection from the dead.” Let’s hear that even more simply. According to Paul, Jesus was born in the ordinary way, son of a mother and a father, one of whose thousands of great-great grandfathers was King David. And Jesus became God’s Son, says Paul, by divine declaration. How did God make that declaration? By resurrection. In other words, Jesus, a plain man, was adopted – at the crucifixion-resurrection.


Weekly Sermon: What if God Were One of Us?


by: on January 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

When you hear Ezekiel letting God’s word pour down through him, crying Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! oh, but don’t you feel the thrill of his righteous anger, and feel it is as your own! “You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock; you do not bring back the strays.” The translation sounds out as plain politics. You eat the curds means you pay poverty wages to the poor and make a million off their backs. You clothe yourselves with their wool refers to the fine estates, the sumptuous feasts, the elegant clothes and the secure billions the topmost take from the wages of the bottommost to lay up in tax-free counting houses. You slaughter the choice animals: You run the people to bankruptcy with hospital charges and student loans. But you do not care for the flock or bring back the strays. You do not try to reduce the school dropout rate, or employ the unemployed, or end mass incarceration, or help drug users, but hound them to hell. When we hear Ezekiel’s word sounding the alarms for the fires of injustice, it seems they’ve been burning forever. But to whom did he call?

Remember Ezekiel’s time. Nearly 400 years after King David’s death, Ezekiel had lived through the destruction of Jerusalem. In the years before the disaster, he had watched his own leaders rule ruthlessly for their own gain. Now, after the sack of Jerusalem by the armies of the eastern empire, Ezekiel has seen his kings and their kingdom swept away. The prophet was allowed to travel back and forth from Jerusalem to the far away land to which the leaders of his nation were exiled. No doubt he saw still more unjust works. No doubt he grew exhausted from praying and hoping for justice at the hands of ordinary men inside ordinary time. At some point beyond exhaustion, a new word comes to him. No longer does he prophesy that such-and-such or so-and-so will finish a great work and all will be well. It is as if centuries of his people’s hope and despair, rolling wave on wave, have loomed up inside him in a tsunami of No! to ordinary politics in ordinary time.


Weekly Sermon: A World in Tumult


by: on December 13th, 2012 | Comments Off

Jesus says There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Really? A lot of people awfully excited by the “end of the Mayan calendar” sure think so. Why, last week, NASA sent out a de-bunking message in re: end-of-world to try to head off self-destructive excess, especially among youth. Will there be distress on the earth among the nations? Ask Greece. Ask Egypt. Ask Syria and Palestine. Will the people be confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves? That question stings. Go ask Sandy’s victims. Or Irene’s or Ivan’s or Katrina’s. Or climate change deniers. Last Friday, network news offered a kind of Global Warming 101 on the subject of ocean heat and hurricanes – a story which, just a few weeks back, no broadcaster would have dared to risk in terms so clear. Are people filled with foreboding at what is coming upon the world? They are! They don’t agree about just what is coming upon the world, but foreboding is selling at market highs.

Does this mean the Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and glory . . . Now? Soon? Ever? If you mean coming on a certain day, so News Channel 7 can get a reporter on the scene – I don’t think so. I never have. Now, my belief doesn’t make me right nor those wrong who hold to a literal belief in Jesus’ return. But there are so many things that you’re liable to read in the Bible that –ain’t necessarily so . . . let’s be clear. In this fellowship, many do not take the Bible as a guide to astronomy, physics, geology, paleontology, meteorology, cosmology, biology, sociology. . . and that list could go on. The Bible is not for science. Very little did they understood about natural causes and effects. The biblical visions of things future are speculative and imaginative. Therefore, we let go of worry about predictions of the end of the world. It’s not what the Word is for. Even Jesus says so.




by: on November 14th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Very OFTEN, dear friends, have we told here the tale of Israel’s sorrow at the breaking of her city walls, the smashing of her temple, the forced marching out to exile of her nobles, her leaders, her men of law and letters, and all their families. Of how in a city far away they despaired of help from their God, how some defected to other gods, how some abandoned hope, and some heard a new song, to whose strains we listened again just now. Thus says the Lord, Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. For behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?

We tell this tale often for two reasons. One, because it’s much in the Bible. Isaiah intones it, Jeremiah joins it, Ezekiel’s bones bear it, 2 Kings will make you weep for the last day of Israel’s last king, who was brought before his captors, who slew his two young sons before his two eyes then scooped them both from their sockets and led him to Babylon with only visions of grief in his solitude. And the Psalms sing it. + By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down / And there we wept when remembered Zion. One reason we tell this story over and again is that it’s all over the book.


Weekly Sermon: Things That Make For Peace


by: on August 21st, 2012 | 1 Comment »

In very many aspects of our common life, we Americans cannot find the will for concerted moral action. With respect to some of the crises America faces, our sermons this summer and fall aim to consider core values which opposing wings embrace, and to ask how the Christian tradition can encourage and inform and strengthen us to hold a light of God before us and before those we must oppose, as we all fly into the obscurity of the future.

Today, our subject is war and violence. God knows, it is the subject of our biblical texts – and of hundreds of others besides. We might say that while the jewels of the Bible’s teachings are about loving God and loving neighbor, the biblical setting for those jewels is a ring of violence and warfare. Love is com- manded in these testaments, old and new, because love is rare and necessary and practical in life so raw and invaded as was theirs. But in America, we have a romance with violence. If Jesus drew near and saw the American city set upon a hill, would he not weep?

The American expressions of violence are so manifest that spooning up statistics for you now would misspend our time. Indeed, with the massacres in Aurora and Oak Creek hard upon us, and the muteness of our presidential can- didates so startling in the matter of our breaking off this evil romance, speakers who take violence as their subject must exercise every nerve to avoid a serious risk in our warring madness, namely, yet further numbing us with numbers. Numbers will not stir our slumbers. We need wisdom, not sleep.

So, hear the alarm sounding. On August 3rd, Israel’s former head of military intelligence announced on Israeli television that that nation will attack Iran within a few weeks. America, you see, is not alone in dancing with the devil; our sister Israel has the disease as well. Is the decision to war or not to war the sort of thing best left to experts and politicians – to those who “have all the facts,” as those who have all the power like to say? Let us turn to some recent history.


Weekly Sermon: Sabbath, Land & Enough


by: on August 8th, 2012 | Comments Off

Today we continue a series of sermons on great matters of American culture and practice in which millions of people are stuck in painful or unjust relations, and no movement toward solution is coming through our collective will. Our theme today is the food system in America. It seems hardly to bear repeating, but let it be heard again that this, the world’s richest nation, has the largest proportion of poor people, when compared with other industrialized nations. How is that possible, except that somehow our wings are broken.

Unlike gun control or our criminal justice system, which no politician will discuss, hunger and poverty have sometimes mattered to elected leaders. Yesterday, I heard President Lyndon Johnson’s voice on the radio, coming from 1964. He was declaring “war on poverty” in that famous Texas drawl. Yet how tragic was the news that followed. For the first time since 1964, the proportion of Americans living at or below the poverty line will exceed 16%. One out of six of us is poor; that is, has less than $23,000 for a household of four. The news story went on to report that although malnutrition is not the scourge in America that it had been before President Johnson started the Food Stamp program and other anti-poverty initiatives, unlike the poor in Johnson’s day, today’s poor are generally employed – and hungry! Two full time jobs paid at the federal minimum wage barely raise a family above water.


Weekly Sermon: Wings of the Dove


by: on July 18th, 2012 | Comments Off

In 1908, Winston Churchill wrote, “The seed of Imperial ruin and national decay [lies in] the unnatural gap between the rich and the poor [and] the swift increase of vulgar . . . luxury.” In the same decade, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt said, “The supreme political task of our day is to drive the special interests out of our public life.” A generation later, his cousin President Franklin Roosevelt would offer that “political equality is meaningless in the face of economic inequality.” Justice Louis Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court framed his concern in ominous terms: “We can have a democracy, or we can have great wealth in the hands of a comparative few, but we cannot have both.” There would have been no five citizens united on the bench of the Supreme Court were the wisdom of Brandeis still moving in high places in America. But no one in high places believes any of these things anymore. Why not add one more famous man’s words to this anthology? When the devil took Jesus up to the high places and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and promised him all, saying “all their glory and all this authority will I give you; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please; if you, then, will worship me,” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:5) Or, in other words which you just heard from those same so-quotable lips, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

But no one in high places believes this any longer. If they do, they dare not say so, for fear the higher-ups will yank their feeding tube from the Wall…Street. Mammon is master. You have seen the charts showing that the wealth of America has accrued to the wealthiest Americans in astounding measure over the last thirty years. In the first decade of this century, the top tenth of one percent of all households – one of every thousand – gulped down one fifth of the nation’s income.


Weekly Sermon: Jesus and the Giant Triplets


by: on January 17th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

In the story we heard today from the Hebrew scriptures, Eli the priest is not the hero. Samuel is. At one level, the story’s message belongs to a genre beloved around the world, wherein a youth is able to discern the truth which age and experience cannot see or hear. By means of such stories, the keepers of tradition remind themselves that they are passing on – that our ways are not always. But this story has a twist to send us into a channel deeper than the ordinary legend of its kind. Here we are told that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days.” As the story opens, the priest is no longer able to see. Both he and young Samuel are trying to sleep.

Blindness and sleep are figures for ignorance and denial in all the people. A group who cannot face their crisis is sleeping; most of its members are blind. The word of the LORD is rare – not because the Eternal ever ceases from communicating, but because so few are awake and able to discern the word. Now, when Samuel awakes, it is a figure for a whole people preparing to wake from their indifference to action. It can happen in a whole nation. What is the Arab Spring if not whole peoples preparing to wake? It can happen in a church, as the people grow restless with their old ways and evil habits and yearn for transforming meaning and effective action.

Of course, waking comes to individuals, too. Yet on this day of honor for our prophet Martin Luther King, it is well that we remember that no individual, no matter how skilled or gifted, ever simply leads a people out of the valley of the shadow of sleep. No, the rising of a people is a work far more complex. It resists all science and prediction. But this much is sure. The greatness of a leader hangs on the people’s awareness of the severity of their crisis. If most of the people are sleeping, no matter how their heedless practices oppress, there exists no severity in which great skill and wisdom can find expression. But sometimes, something changes in a people. A critical mass of energy arises in the consciousness of enough of them, and they turn in their beds and rise and stand. You know this is how it happened with Martin Luther King. We know from his own words that, fresh from doctoral studies at Boston University, installed in his Montgomery, Alabama pulpit, he anticipated nothing of the public life that unfolded through him. The waking began when the bus riders had awakened and begun their boycott, when they asked him – how shall we put it? – asked him to become great for them.


Weekly Sermon: Wade in the Water


by: on January 10th, 2012 | Comments Off

When John comes down to the Jordan river saying God is on the move, the kingdom of heaven is near — hundreds of years have passed since any prophet offered a word worth keeping about God’s power to save. So far as the Hebrew Bible tells it, after the Jews headed home from exile in Babylon, God pretty much retired from the mighty works business, a.k.a. politics.

Maybe Isaiah of Babylon just went too far. In that gorgeous passage — Comfort, comfort ye, my people — so perfectly rendered by the aria from Handel’s Messiah — Ev’ry valley shall be exalted — there hides a terrible irony. When the poet writes from exile in Babylon, everyone knows that the Persian emperor Cyrus is turning his great army west toward Babylon. The die is cast. Babylon will fall. The Jews will be sent home from their sorrows to Jerusalem. Everyone knows it, but the poet in Babylon sees in it the hand of God and this inspires his song. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . may every mountain and hill be made low” – for General Cyrus! May this military march move, swift and unhindered, to victory utter and complete. That is Isaiah’s prayer. “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him.” Shock and awe in Babylon of Iraq. That is Isaiah’s song.


Weekly Sermon: Touching Taxes


by: on December 8th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

This sermon by Rev. Stephen Phelps, the interim Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York, is the first in an ongoing series of sermons by the Reverend.

Romans 12: 1-13; Matthew 22: 16-22

Almost 180 years ago, the French citizen Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the new America and later described the character of our people in essays which still startle us Americans with features so recognizable. He saw, for example, our vaunted individualism. He defined it this way:

a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass
of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society
formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself . . . Such folk owe
no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of
thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their hands.
(Democracy in America, p. 508)

You could say that something of today’s Tea Party has been part of America from the beginning. Its creed is hardly clear but it contains the belief that What’s mine is mine and I got it with nobody’s help. The extreme expression of this mantra once belonged to libertarians only, with Ayn Rand their evangelist. But since Ronald Reagan taught the catechism that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” hundreds of politicians have been bornagain to the religion of self and wealth.