Our theme today is imagination and the life of faith, and what this has to do with you, the Bible, Eliot Church, and the Annual Meeting. Imagination, and the life of faith.
Jesus is yours to imagine.
I. I have served Eliot Church as your Interim for almost exactly two years, to the day today. Two years is about an average length of tenure for interims, maybe a tad longer. Covid slowed us down somewhat, so we still have a little way to go together. But there is a Search Committee on the case!
All this puts me in a reflective mood. It makes me sad that I won’t be in your future--it feels like being the date who was fun but not meant for the long haul. It has been my principal assignment to get you from one ministry to the next, and that involves keeping the glue in the Eliot community with programming and worship. I have had Dr. Elizabeth and Monique as partners in that spiritual work, which has been a dream. And I hope there’s been some fun in it for everyone!
It has never been my calling to make people have faith. I have seen it as my calling to activate what faith you may have, be it very little or much. Your faith is personal. Faith is something individually held and owned. Like anything else in life, though, religion can be borrowed, imitated, faked, or have been forced upon you. However, authentic, life-giving faith arises from engagement with God and with the Word of God, active engagement and not passive reception. Jacob wrestled with the angel, remember! He was marked in the process.
We engage the Word of God by means of the Imagination. God gave you Jesus to imagine. Were it otherwise, God would have given us Mt. Fuji or the Grand Canyon for revelation. But no, God gave us someone who spoke and didn’t write, God gave us someone who taught and didn’t organize, God gave us someone who healed people and didn’t build buildings. All God gave us are the residues of residues of other people's memory of Jesus. From those residues, we must imagine Jesus. The operative faculty is the imagination. God gave us Jesus to imagine. Faith is an act of the Imagination! I know you may not have heard faith described this way before.
What else but Paul’s imagination was at work when he declared in the letter to the Colossian church: Jesus himself is the image of God. Jesus is the image of what creates creation and gives it its character. God is in Jesus and works through him for the perfection of creation through forgiveness. Paul put the experience he had of Christ on the road to Damascus together with the inspirational elements of Jewish and Greek thought at hand, combining, collating, weaving many different teachings into the Christ articulated in his letters. These are not doctrines, they are imaginings. You can feel Paul straining and reaching passionately to convey his Jesus to us, the Jesus of his faith is the Jesus he imagines.
What else but his imagination was at work when John of Patmos declares: God and Jesus rule over everything from their throne in the middle of the street of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, from which throne flows the river of the water of life, on either side of which grows the Tree of Life with fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. John of Patmos, in what has been called the most Jewish book in the New Testament, has made a brilliant, dazzling picture of Jesus for the church--the Lamb on the Throne, whoever said that before?
What are these words but imaginings, visualizations, re-conceptions fashioned from the story of Jesus by the spirit of God’s forgiveness? What have Paul and John done but to imagine Jesus? Now you are definitely thinking, imagining is to pretend, to invent, to falsify. No. Paul and John have only done what everyone who meets Jesus is called to do--make my particular sense out of this blinding flash of light, to make continuities out of discontinuities. Now that they have done their brilliant work, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we must do ours. A spiritual experience is bound up in their startling words. We must enter into their words and phrases, engage the scenes and stories of Jesus actively to make sense for ourselves. You’ve got to wrestle with that angel. Either that, or take somebody else’s word for it--and that is not faith.
Imagination activates the life of faith. Without it, all you have is somebody else’s Jesus, the Jesus of your parents or Sunday School teachers, or MY Jesus. Or it’s the Jesus of Cecil B. DeMille or Mel Gibson. But what about your Jesus? Have you imagined Jesus, for yourself? Do you think of faith this way? Have you put aside time in your day, in your life, to compose your picture of Christ out of your experiences in this church or any other, your reading of scripture? It would be an indispensible faith exercise to have that kind of talk with yourself--it would be like meeting Jesus again for the first time (!). The result is faith. People always say, “Just have faith”--as long as people remember that it is an active endeavor--not like waiting for the bus.
I wonder today if I have lived up to my personal calling here? In 104 Sundays, have I, have we three, prompted you to imagine Jesus for yourselves? Perhaps you have, and I won’t ever know about it, or need to. But it’s an honest question I ask myself. And it’s a pertinent question for the day of our Annual Meeting. Because, the business we are called to do here, takes the same imagination. The elements are pretty basic--numbers, dates, reports, dollars, and so on--but are they commingled with all that we have learned in two years? Do we actively remember and bring into this moment with each other all the insights of our experience over two years of prayers, meetings, joys, disappointments and frustrations? Is the Christ we collectively imagine present to us here today? Do you bring with you this morning a Jesus in whom you have faith? Do enough of us have the faith necessary to see around the next corner way down there? That’s precisely the human challenge, of course--we can never see around the corner. But we can imagine. And what do you imagine here today? Do you imagine a church, a community of Christ, its congregation and its minister?
II. To open this Annual Meeting in the year of Covid 2021 is to participate in an act of faith--to activate our faith, a faith in the Jesus that Eliot Church imagines. If all we’re going to do is to balance the budget, that’s already been done for us, and we’ll be done in 10 minutes. Aren’t we a church, though? Aren’t we supposed to see how all of this holds together, how this building we own, the assets we control, and the history we have inherited, actually adds up to a ministry for Christ on this corner? And what do we conceive that ministry to be, how do we imagine the unfolding of ministry at Eliot Church?
Let’s review for a moment. Do we remember the lessons of the Soundings we did? Do we remember the Discernment process today, how we weighed the promises of alternative models of ministry. Does our community remember . . .
Is this not a day when a flash of light is possible, when it is revealed to us what’s beyond that corner, even though we can’t see around it? We arrive here with many elements swimming in the air over our heads. Will our imagination unite them into congregational resolve? A huge ship takes a huge crew--we still have the ship, but less crew. That’s our challenge in this meeting today. Nevertheless, we chose a Family Church Model, we set about right-sizing ourselves, we will be hiring a Building Manager, we are completing the Sanctuary Acoustics project, we are going through every room (Josephine and Rich have just emptied out the Parlor Kitchenette), the store rooms are next. We are preparing the soil for new seeds to be planted.
But there is more that we could do before a Settled Pastor arrives, and that time will be here sooner than you think. Based on what I have seen over two years (and the agenda of today’s meeting will prove me right), namely 1) Eliot could afford to take itself to Parliamentary procedure school, 2) hold a summer retreat about Endowment policy, 3) study what Partnership means. I’ll just suggest these for our summer menu, as part of preparing the soil for the planting of new seeds with your Settled Pastor.
I wonder, can anyone have a church without Imagination? You know the answer is: No. Jesus is yours to imagine. And Eliot Church’s future is yours to imagine, and embrace together, today.
Matthew 11:12-17. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
The last shot of the Civil War was the one which killed President Lincoln. It could also be called the first shot of the war which gained new life on January 6th.
There are two kinds of wars--civil wars and foreign wars. Our Memorial Day came out of the American Civil War. It was said to have started at Gettysburg with President Lincoln’s address there. At some point much later, Memorial Day became a memorial for the dead of our foreign wars.
And by the war dead, I mean our war dead. The 3100 Union dead were interred and memorialized at Gettysburg. But not the 3900 Confederates who died at Gettysburg. Today, our memorials for WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq memorialize only OUR dead, although between 25,000 and 250,000 German civilians in the firebombing of Dresden died. [Ambrose Beirce/Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five[
Isn’t our true spiritual challenge to mourn all the dead of war, which is an equal opportunity employer, because war is the enemy. Isn’t war the enemy, truly? Whether war is fought for land, for food, for pride--it is the enemy. Whether it’s Napoleon or Eisenhower, whether it is Sergeant York or Lt. Calley. It’s a fine line between memorializing the war dead and glorifying war.
There’s no accounting for war. People have tried, but war and the suffering it imposes defies comprehension. There is no adequate explanation nor satisfactory way for humans to disgorge the welled-up grief of it, although we try. Then we get this grief all mixed up with patriotism and martial pride and lately, white Christian nationalism has been added to the mix. Memorial Day parades mix flags, floats and fire engines with the military on full display in their gorgeous uniforms and weapons as they march to the local cemetery where a 21-gun salute follows prayers by the clergy. To say “thank you for your service” to those who go as our proxies into battle doesn’t have much credibility until we unite in identifying the true enemy--war itself.
Now it is 2021. Memorial Days will have to feel different after the Covid memorial for the 400,000 deceased at that point led by President Biden on Inauguration Eve, a quiet, solemn affair. Pres Biden and VP Harris set a wonderful example for us today.
The Greeks had The Iliad, a sustained diatribe against the cruelty and arbitrariness of war. And so do we, too, and maybe we should be reading selections of it aloud at our Memorial Day events. Compare the Iliad in its great length and depth with President Lincoln’s address at the Gettysburg Cemetery in 1863. Ironically, we have no Homeric epic to memorialize the war dead, just this short speech of 272 words that could have been written on the back of an envelope but epical in its impact.
No, America never produced a literary epic for our Civil War like the Iliad. But our national poet, Walt Whitman, who produced his epic “Song of Myself” in 1850, did visit the Union hospitals in Washington D.C. in 1863, looking for his brother who was wounded in the war and where he signed on as a nurse and wrote many poems, collected in a volume titled, “Drum-Taps”, that documented his experience-- Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in; Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground; Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d Hospital; To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return; To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not one do I miss; An attendant follows, holding a tray—he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds; I am firm with each—the pangs are sharp, yet unavoid- able; One turns to me his appealing eyes—(poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.)
On, on I go—(open, doors of time! open, hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away;) The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine; Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard; (Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death! In mercy come quickly.)
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood; Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head; His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet looked on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep; But a day or two more—for see, the frame all wasted and sinking, And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bul- let wound, Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive, While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out; The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdo- men, These and more I dress with impassive hand—(yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
Ceremonies in military cemeteries often gather at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It symbolizes an unidentified soldier (from WWI). All the other gravesites at Arlington have full identification--we know their names, dates, and ranks. But, we don’t know what these youths would have become were it not for war. They too are, in another way, unknown soldiers to us. The change of Armistice Day to Veterans’ Day in effect trades the sacrifice of those buried youth for the survivors of war.
Most memorials have to be borne in private--like that of Whitman’s, the grief of widows and orphans. We can’t bear so much pain in public. It has to be dressed up. Then we forget when the time comes again. However, the conscientious objectors try to remind us. The protestors try. The draft dodgers, so-called, in their way, do too. Bob Dylan tried in his way to undress war’s realities.
In our gospel today, Christ gives us permission to find the joy in life and permission to cry the tears if we can find them on Memorial Day 2021. Christ’s church has the obligation not to fall into the role of those who wouldn’t dance and wouldn't mourn. We can lead by example when the prayer we lift tomorrow is a prayer of confession and contrition. Bob Dylan gave us one such prayer, where is ours? We didn’t know it at the time, but the protest songs were memorials in advance. Shouldn’t we lead the nation’s change of perspective and make war the enemy? What we all have in common is grief at our human lot. An appropriate action, after confession and contrition, would be an act of repentance, to ensure that war’s survivors are cared for--through the Veterans’ Administration or through the Veterans’ Homeless Shelters. What used to be called the “walking wounded” we appreciate better now to be suffering PTSD.
The tragedy of power is that we have it to use it or not use it. Either way, the result is tragic. When Chamberlain refused to challenge Hitler, it was tragic; and when Churchill did, it was tragic, too. Maybe war is just the inevitable price we have to pay being human?
We are about to leave the longest war in American history, if we can actually go through with it. When will they ever learn, when will we ever learn--that war is the enemy?
John Eliot and January 6th Christian nationalists were among the supporters present at the insurrection upon the U.S. Capitol building last January 6th, and around the country generally that day.
What is a Christian nationalist and what’s the deal with them? Should Christian churches be concerned? Should we be concerned? YES.
A Christian nationalist is a contradiction in terms. It is a logical and a spiritual impossibility, simply because Christ said his kingdom was not of this world, not in the way the Zealots of his time or ours understood it. Christ loved the world as it is, in order to improve it. The Christian nationalist wants to improve the country first, and by force of law, in order to love it. Christian nationalists exist in this country by that name who espouse this manifesto in a 1987 book titled Biblical Principles for Political Action by the executive director of D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge (FL) Ministries:
“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ–to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. It is not just a voice, it is dominion we are after. It is not just influence, it is dominion we are after. It is not just equal time, it is dominion we are after. It is dominion we are after–world conquest.” Their words.
What did Jesus instruct his disciples to do? Heal them, heal their souls, deliver their souls from captivity. Paul saw mission the same way. Heal them with love, the content of the word love being forgiveness of sins that Christ preached. The eponymous apostle in Duvall’s 1997 movie, is a God-intoxicated and Bible-centered revivalist minister of the holiness variety, who became a free-lance missionary in Louisiana to escape the law. It is a charming and persuasive depiction of someone who willed only one thing: to save people’s souls, heal them with love. What you don’t see, because it is beside the point of the movie to show it, is the dominion theology implicit in Sonny’s evangelical fundamentalism. Duvall himself may or may not subscribe to that theology, but the actual religious superstructure invisibly surrounding Sonny wants not only the individual souls, and not only many souls, but it wants all souls for Christ. To conquer the whole nation, if not the whole world, for Christ–that is Christian nationalism, and white Christian nationalism at that. [Christian Union for Ivies]
The Rev. John Eliot also was a God-intoxicated, Bible-centered minister, like the holiness preacher of Duvall’s movie who willed one thing–to live in the Bible. They were both missionaries, but what we at the John Eliot Church of Newton should want to know is, does that make them the same? Was John Eliot’s motivation the same as Sonny’s–was it Eliot’s mission to liberate the souls of individuals, or to start building a Christian empire?
We have seen Christian nationalism in every century of the Christian era. Was John Eliot any different? There is evidence that he was very different from the colonial clergy and their Puritan followers.
And yet fantasies of Christian hegemony insidiously seem to spread among the sincerest of believers who start out only seeking to pursue the care and nurture of souls. Otherwise, how did a counter-cultural religion become an engine for empire? Moral ministers do give way to immoral churches. But did John Eliot? NO. Before Eliot’s time and after, the religion of a Jewish Jesus had become the religion about a Jesus that wants you to conquer the world for him. American evangelical communities, starting from the date of the 1927 Scopes trial in Tennessee, grew to fulfil the colonial era dream of a city on a hill finally by attempting on January 6th to take over by force the Congress, the state houses, the courts, the educational system and the whole apparatus of government. The grandiose hopes of past movements like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, Heritage Foundation, Trinity Broadcast Network, Constitutional Reconstructionists all were fulfilled because, until Trump, they were just so many decentralized white nationalist movements, and then on January 6th they suddenly coalesced and merged into a larger, unified force under the Presidential cover he provided. Thus, a once-legitimate conservative wing of American Christianity made common cause with unChristian values and behaviors. How biblical is that, how is it even Christian?
Let’s step back a little and assess. They claim a biblical mandate for abolishing the separation of church and state, for replacing welfare with charity, for substituting creationism for evolution. None of these has clear warrants from the Bible, because the Bible is not a blueprint for society; it is the record of a spiritual experience.
Let’s assess further. Biblical literalists claim that the Bible doesn’t need interpretation, which is folly because everything requires interpretation which travels from God to thee, and from thee to me. In effect, dominion theologians have fetishized the Bible and made it into a sort of God. Whereas the most that anybody can say is that the Bible points to God.
Let’s assess again. Out of the Bible stories and legend and poetry they distill many doctrines and dogmas. These are used as a hammer by dominion Christians to subdue your brain and violate common sense. Christian nationalists have made the Bible into a paper idol.
Let’s assess once more. The unity which dominion theologians demand requires uniformity, whereas we know that each person comes to God in her or his own way. Jesus is our door to a righteous God, who knew that we would need forgiveness until we got it right.
How far we have come from the solace of the Psalms to pursuing enemies of the faith! How far we have come from the Beatitudes to cursing doctrinal deviants! How far we have come from St. Francis’ prayer that we prayed earlier this morning, although Francis too set out on a missionary journey himself from Assisi through Eastern Europe to Egypt. Folks, it is natural to share the excitement of your liberation–but it remains a mystery, and a tragedy, that Christian faith metamorphoses so often and so malignantly into an “invasion within,” as proselytizing has been characterized?
John Eliot ministered to his congregation in Roxbury for 14 years without being otherwise much concerned with the native Americans that ventured into colonial precincts for trade and to satisfy their curiosity. Eliot may not have been as independent a thinker as Anne Hutchinson or as liberal as the banished Roger Williams, but I believe Eliot charted a different course in that he saw the Indians for themselves.
I have picked up three qualified evidences of this so far–a) Eliot approached them pastorally, b) he sought to put his Bible into their hands in their language, and c) he advocated on their behalf during the disastrous King Philip’s War which he sought to avert [to be explored later in my teaspoon curriculum]. Yes, strict Calvinist that he was, Eliot preached a gospel which has been deconstructed at least two times by his own spiritual descendants–meaning us. Yes, patriarchal paternalist that he was, Eliot made a strategic mistake by segregating his Indian converts into “Praying Towns,” although his intention was only for them to foster their own Christian communities and their own churches, since the colonists wouldn’t have them on any terms. John Eliot was a man of his times, and yet not. Let’s review. If there is a direct line between the colonists and Jan. 6th, and if there was an indirect line from John Eliot and Jan. 6th, that line was broken by the U.S. Constitution in 1789 which white Christian nationalists want to reconstruct without the separation of Church and State. And furthermore, the disciples were sent out by Jesus to heal; St. Paul declared that love is the healing agent. St. Francis gave us our loving orders. Where can one find therein the remotest rationale to overturn the halls of our own democratically elected government? Our problem in America basically is a Christianity distorted by the grandiosity of high school kids. If they won’t grow up, then do we have to pray for a God who will save us from religion? Dietrich Bonhoeffer dreamed of “a religionless Christianity.” Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Not to get involved in another religious war or anything, in the meantime our church must articulate its faith to the world, because not to articulate the Christian faith is either to endorse white Christian nationalism or to be mistaken for the secular society which elects life without Jesus at all.
Let us repeat for our Benediction this morning the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi-- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
When is a minister a missionary? When the minister is the Rev. John Eliot.
John Eliot was a minister before he was a missionary. But he eventually became a passionate and compassionate missionary. The image portrayed in the emblems of John Eliot proselytizing the native Americans is not fully representative, as no one image can be, of course. But our stained glass portrayal of him needs completion and complexification. I hope we will take on that project this summer.
To understand the Eliot story, though, first it’s necessary to understand Christian ministry, at least better than people generally do. How does anyone decide to become a minister, anyway? Why do people want to be ministers? What is behind what is known as a call from God? Where does the imperative to preach and teach the Word of God come from? Where does the missionary impulse come from that marks world history the way that it has. Where does John Eliot fit among the 2000 years of ministers before and after him?
Where can we turn for answers to these questions, for insight into Christian ministry, its motivation and purpose, outside of the usual theological tomes? It is tempting to start with the infamous Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale from Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter.
The story takes place in our colonial Boston in 1642, just ten years after Eliot’s own arrival here at the age of 27. The novel features the minister of Boston’s first church, the actual John Wilson, for whom the actual John Eliot substituted for nine months while Wilson was in London persuading his wife to come to New England. Eliot had never served a congregation before, and that should tell us something of his maturity and spiritual capacities. It is a fun fact–drum roll–Eliot himself gets a cameo reference in Hawthorne’s novel as the object of a visit by Dimmesdale to “the Apostle Eliot, among his Indian converts.” Eliot would be known to Hawthorne’s 19th century readers as a saint, so the reference is in purposeful contrast to Dimmesdale. Rev. Dimmesdale suffers in anguish over a sin he only confesses to after seven years upon his death. This leaves the woman, Hester Prynne, to continue bearing the burden of punishment all alone. His training, his community, and his Bible told him he was grievously wrong. But he knew his offense would be professionally terminal as it would be, in fact, today for violating parishioner/minister boundaries. Dimmesdale could not bear the pain of public shaming.
Hawthorne portrays the Puritan ministers as a gloomy bunch. Hawthorne’s caricature is rooted in truth. They preached a strict Calvinist doctrine of sin and sanctification on earth, heaven or hell in the afterlife. It illustrates the gravity with which colonial religion was taken—both government and religion revolved around the Bible. It was a theocratic state, and strict uniformity of belief was paramount in importance. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished from Boston in Eliot’s time, and so was Mary Dyer who was executed by them.
Compare this picture of ministry with the one portrayed in Robert Duvall’s 1997 film, The Apostle. There are remarkable parallels between our Rev. Eliot and the protagonist, Rev. Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey. They aren’t obvious at first, because of the huge distance between them in time and culture. The movie opens with Sonny coming upon a multi-vehicle car accident beside the highway. The police have already arrived and the ambulances can be heard. Sonny pulls right over, grabs his Bible, and approaches one of the cars which, he discovers, has two young people in the front seat apparently mortally injured. Sonny prays first then reaches his head in to speak to the young man about God’s love for him. Sonny would appear to be following the standard formula we associate with fundamentalist Christianity, but we are persuaded of the genuine importance of this to the fate of the dying boy. Prayer is always close to the surface–Sonny drops into it readily like dropping to your knees. So Sonny gets shooed away by the police and goes on his way back to home and church where his ministry is being overthrown by his musician wife and her lover, the youth minister. We learn that Sonny is a dynamic preacher sought after on the tent meeting circuit, but that he is also an overbearing, abusive husband. When his wife’s lover shows up at the Little League field for his son’s game one day, Sonny takes a baseball bat to the youth minister and leaves him possibly dead and tended to by the spectators. Sonny knows what he has done and flees the scene and home and town altogether. He travels incognito to evade justice and takes up life as a missionary. He calls himself “Apostle E.F.,” being his initials. He tells no one of his origins nor, of course, what he has left behind. With the help of a retired black preacher, he starts a church that becomes a modest success in the town, complete with radio broadcasts and revivals.
Like Dimmesdale, Sonny too is living a lie. Or is he? We see a minister who is committed to preaching the Bible, like Dimmesdale, but with a difference. Sonny certainly is deeply flawed personally–anger management problems and homicide. But in the holiness faith he practices, Sonny exemplifies a prime characteristic of ministry–they know the Bible so well, they are so close to the world of the Bible, that they seem to be living the story, living IN the story. Sonny’s well-thumbed volume finds its way into his conversation, his preaching and his praying. The Bible’s widely disparate elements nevertheless form an interconnected archipelago of images and personages that are constantly ready to hand. The minds of his people are saturated in the Bible’s dramatis personae. You listen to Sonny speak, and it makes a kind of word jazz. He loops the symbols around and through each other continuously.
I repeat, ministers live the story, they live IN the story. They will one thing and one thing only, to see the Word become alive in others, so alive that Abraham can speak to Moses, and Joshua can speak to Jesus and Mary can speak to Miriam. Ministers don’t care about people living a “spiritual life” or adopting spiritual practices—we want each person to give up “the good life” for “a good life.” The news, and it is news, that a good life is even possible becomes the prime responsibility of such men and women to proclaim–like the newspapers which years ago had little boys on street corners shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it–!” In a world where goodness is scarce, the good word of God has to come out. When the obviousness of the good news emerges from obscurity, the result is excitement, enthusiasm, possession by the Holy Spirit. The Good Book contains sacred words, and so it is a sacred object, a talisman. In the movie, Sonny places the book on the ground before the advancing bulldozer driven by a hostile skeptic, and it stops him. It’s a holy object with holy powers. That leads us to the importance of translation into the local vernacular–just as Luther and his martyred predecessors did before him, John Eliot did when he translated the Bible into Algonquin, with the help of 5 or 6 very intelligent young native men.
Dimmesdale lived a lie; Sonny Dewey lived the truth, at least, the spiritual truth as he saw it. He was trying to avoid being caught for more time to bring light and life to others–hence, the “apostle” title. Of course, he knew the day was coming, and should come, when the piper had to be paid. Dimmesdale on the other hand, wouldn’t have confessed except for collapsing under the weight of his guilt. Sonny is remanded to his expected punishment, but nothing changes his mission. This minister remains ever the missionary, as was Eliot and perhaps every minister.
Ministers are god-intoxicated men and women. Religion, in the minds of the god-intoxicated, is a total thing. And not only John Eliot, but every minister is in some degree a missionary, some set apart to evangelize his/her congregation, others to be sent out (“apostle” means sent away) to dispense this indispensable knowledge among the unbelievers, sometimes to foreign countries.
The question we are left with is, when it comes to evangelizing, how could something so not-the-point become the point? In Eliot’s day, and before him and after, the proof of faith meant assenting to intellectual formulas. The Trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ were taught at the point of a sword; in American revivalistic religion, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior issues from emotional manipulation. It’s what one scholar calls, “the invasion within.” Christ has been prosecuted with a kind of madness, even cruelty, to enjoy someone forced into submission beneath the economic expansion of empires.
But this is not true of all Christian missions. Eliot’s conduct was very different, we will learn further down the road. The Puritan minister-become-missionary was more pastoral and more practically oriented when it came to his indigenous constituency. But for that story we have to wait.
What we see today is that a minister has a Book and an alternative Life to share, be it near or far, or foul or fair.
I want most of all this morning to interest you and excite you about a spiritual opportunity that is knocking on Eliot Church’s door. My text is from Ephesians: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro, but speaking the truth in love, grow up in Christ.”
Let us pray. . . I. There is no vacation to be had from social and political conflict. Groups within society have always vied for power to determine what is right as they see it.
Worse, cultural groups, tribes, nations frequently get it wrong. From the point of view of individual conscience, national policy fails. The good a person would do, the state does not. We always seem to be protesting, and that is as it should be. The great 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, put it this way: “As individuals, we believe that we ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups we take for ourselves, whatever our power can command.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932)
The people who find themselves on the wrong end of those conflicts are often mortally vulnerable. Hymns from every era reflect this. Take the hymn we will sing following the sermon—a mighty fortress is our God, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. Martin Luther, writing 500 years ago, meant not death in general but, specifically, death at the hands of his religious superiors. It could as well refer to the persecution of the Jews, slavery in America, or the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Such is the human prospect, the same hymn is perpetually valid.
The mortal ills Luther referred to obviously have human sources, as we read in the 2nd Commandment—the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the third and fourth generations of children and beyond. Many events described as “punishment” of God in the Bible, as they are here, is another way of expressing simple cause and effect in the moral domain.
Moral cause and effect has been having its way with us in America since slavery, and longer. Successive generations—and we’re far beyond the third and fourth generations—have had their moments of reckoning, some of which ended with good results but at great cost—the Emancipation Declaration, Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, legalization of same sex marriage in 2015.
We are this year in the midst of another era of reckoning—will there be good results and are we willing to pay the price?
The sins of the fathers in question are the sins of the mostly white fathers, of course. The accumulated grievance over police killings of unarmed black men, starting with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, really broke open the collective American conscience upon the murder of George Floyd.
As it happens, the tide of suppressed outrage led by Black Lives Matter seems to have lifted the visibility of indigenous grievances that also go back to the very origins of this country in Boston and Jamestown. The experience of Native Americans was the almost complete dispossession of their land and the almost complete annihilation of their populations during almost 400 years of war, deception, and betrayal.
Our era of reckoning has had a glimmer of good results for African-Americans—the passage of H.R. 40 in the House, the intense light now being put on police reform. It remains to be seen if this momentum builds.
And what of Native Americans, what will this era of reckoning bring about for them? What is to be our part in their future on what is indigenous soil?
This is a question of great pertinence to us at Eliot Church because our namesake, the Rev. John Eliot, was the “Apostle to the Indians” who led the mission to convert the “Indians” to Christianity. It would seem natural that we would not only be curious about John Eliot himself as a man, as a Christian, and about his impact on history, but we should also want to know what the Rev. John Eliot means to us at Eliot Church today. It is, of course, an historical matter but also a spiritual matter, as presumably any institution takes its heading from the head. So, who was John Eliot and what is his place in our vision of ourselves?
If it doesn't matter to us, it certainly does to others. Because of John Eliot’s part in the colonial settlement of this region, the catastrophic climax of which was King Philip’s War, in 1675-76, the City of Newton is studying whether he deserves to be memorialized on the City seal. The 13-member committee commissioned by Mayor Fuller for this study just submitted its report last week. It is 70 pages in length and would certainly appear to have scooped us. I have read it and it is very good.
We have made a good start of our own with Rebekah Mitsein’s excellent article on John Eliot, posted in our archive, and which I used in my October 2019 Columns issue. But while the article lays out a history and a tentative assessment of John Eliot, the task of learning that history in greater detail and depth as well as owning it spiritually remains to be done. At present, I wouldn’t say we are in a position to have much of an opinion about the Newton City decision to remove John Eliot from the seal as recommended by the Committee (p. 24). Informally, I met with Lisa Dady and her staff at Historic Newton more than a year ago, and three of us Newton UCC clergy gave Mayor Fuller our blessing a year ago, and basically stating that we had no proprietary claim on John Eliot despite being his spiritual and institutional descendants. If the members of this community want to register their opinions, there is a way to do this.
The current reckoning over American slavery has made waves through major institutions. The images of athletic mascots in professional sports and local high school teams are being replaced. Buildings in universities are being renamed—Yale University renamed Calhoun College, whose namesake was a passionate promoter of slavery and white supremacy, to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and Rear Admiral of the U.S. Navy. Likewise, Princeton removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of international and public affairs. Boston is contending with the choice between removing Faneuil’s name or adding a sculpture exhibit that makes clear his slave-trading past.
The same issues that apply to names and images of African-Americans in our public spaces apply to native American history. The MFA has yet to grapple with what is right to do about its Indian statue outside of the main entrance called “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” If we were asked about John Eliot Apostle to the Indians, what would we say? Have we ascertained what the truth is about John Eliot’s relationship to the Indians he sought to convert and what relation that bears to horrible events that unfolded thereafter, for better or for worse?
It’s a huge subject, but it needn’t sink our ship. My great wish today is to excite you about undertaking a spiritual process that would prepare us better to participate in the public discussion in our particular era of reckoning.
First, we need to do our own reckoning. I am calling upon us to undertake the spiritual search for the historical John Eliot. And to this end, I am now developing a “teaspoon curriculum” that breaks up this complex story into (so far) 23 teaspoons that will each appear in successive weeks in different formats in our different media—our website, TWEC, One Minute Minister, Columns, and Facebook. This will be a collaborative process, involving partners in the indigenous nations of Southern New England, other non-native activists and scholars that you know like Judy Battat. I will try to form a core group from among you to lead and model this process.
Everybody will have access to an experience that people can pursue voluntarily and at your own pace with regular opportunities to join a Zoom conversation. We will devise a way to incorporate your research, your learnings and observations into it, Wiki-style. This would be equally accessible to congregational participants as well as the general public who might in this way find its way into this community.
I have no preconceptions about what actions might be deemed appropriate by the conclusion of it all—only I do believe in a method not of subtraction, but addition. Rather than remove names or images, I believe in adding them. For instance, I would like us to hold a “competition” to create images of John Eliot that would augment the one you see behind me. By a process of addition, we can best complexify a story over-simplified by the single image created a century ago. This won’t work in the case of the Confederate memorials, which are not memorials but tools of intimidation. There are other exceptions. But the point remains, part of reckoning with history is not to reject it but to complete and fulfil it.
Next Sunday, I will speak of the farther horizons possible for us to aim for—perhaps to co-found with indigenous people an educational institute for the propagation of native cultures. That could have an environmental dimension. Perhaps, put Eliot Church on the register of Sites of Conscience.
Such a process is a spiritual process—unless we have made an idol of John Eliot, we can commit to “speak truth in love,” for the sake of the truth and for the sake of our integrity as members of the Rev. John Eliot Church of Newton. As the poet wrote, “I know the time has come for me to walk through the door, to take a look at that dark part of what is calling, to touch that place of willingness to look again.”
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. April 25, 2021 The Fourth Sunday of Easter Psalm 116 John 20: 24-29
To Set Our Hearts Upon
Two weeks ago, Rev. Rick preached “you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed.” All of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus relate the surprise and disbelief of his disciples. Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples – minus Thomas. None of them asks Jesus to prove who he is, but Jesus recognizes their disbelief, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Today’s Gospel reading begins with these same disciples telling Thomas what they have seen. Thomas scoffs and insists he will not believe in the resurrection unless he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds. A week later, Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly this. The encounter with Jesus in the flesh causes Thomas to proclaim “My Lord and my God”.
Christian tradition chastises Thomas for his disbelief– “doubting Thomas” remains a turn of phrase two centuries later. But I am not sure this is fair. The eleven who met the resurrected Jesus first were unable to trust what they saw in front of their eyes. Jesus sees their disbelief so clearly that he voluntarily offers his hands and feet for the disciples’ inspection and then reinforces his corporality by asking for and eating the fish. Thomas only makes his doubt explicit – he asks for the same showing the eleven received, although he is clear he wants to touch the wounds; we often overlook that Thomas does NOT touch Jesus, he believes without touching. Yet Thomas remains the odd man out, the worst of the disbelievers. Jesus responds “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I suspect that most of us are like Thomas more than we would like to admit. We “believe” in Jesus’ resurrection, but . . . just what exactly does believing mean? We say “seeing is believing” and we accept it as proof that confirms truth. Since the Age of Reason, the English definition of “believe” is: “to be persuaded in the truth or existence of something with demonstrable facts that are ordered rationally.”
You do not need to be a non-stop consumer of information in our present culture to know that truth is up for grabs. Conspiracy theories abound, the principles of science are challenged – to “believe” something because it feels true for us seems to be the only criteria that matter. This not only affects our politics, it affects the Church as well – what must we “believe” to call ourselves followers of Jesus?
In his seminal work Stages of Faith, James Fowler begins his discussion of belief this way: “For the ancient Jew or Christian to have said ‘I believe there is a God’ or ‘I believe God exists’ would have been a strange circumlocution. The being or existence of God was taken for granted, and therefore, it was not an issue.” But 21st century Christians do not take the existence of God for granted. William Smith writes in Faith and Belief:“A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort:‘Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life so-and-so reports that the idea of God is a part of the furniture of his mind.”
The word “believe” is problematic for 21st century Christians – but the difficulty is not so much the act of believing, but the verb “believe” itself. “Believing” in our context demands certainty and it implies that we have rational, provable facts to support what we believe. We are constricted by the word “believe” because our language has no verb for “faith;” we cannot say “I faith,” This is not true for biblical Hebrew or Greek. In both, there is a verb form for “faith,” and the meaning of that verb translates as “to set one’s heart upon something or someone.” This holds true in the Latin translations of Scripture as well – “Credo - creed” means “to trust or rely on.”
Does it open up our understanding if we translate “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” to “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.” This translation offers us the opportunity to expand our response to the Resurrection. Rather than focusing on whatever propositions we assert as belief, it invites us to ask “What do we set our hearts upon? In whom do we place our trust?”
The Easter season calls us to align our individual lives and our communal life with that upon which we set our hearts. Setting our hearts on Jesus is to proclaim that we will follow Jesus’ teaching and his example to love one another as God has loved us. To set our hearts upon Jesus leads us to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to heal the deep wounds in ourselves and in the structures of the society in which we live. Setting our hearts upon Jesus demands we build our lives on the hope that resurrection is true. We trust the promise that resurrection will transform us, our lives, and our world. We will be uncomfortable at times and go to places we never imagined. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in her book, Hope in Disarray, “The Christian faith is different from what the world teaches. The Christian faith is not “seeing is believing,” but rather “believing is seeing.” We must open our eyes and hearts to see Jesus’ presence in our lives. We need to see him in the places we dare not to look and dare not to think about.”
The resurrection of Jesus is NOT a proposition we assert from logic; it is the revelation of our hearts’ longing for love, truth, healing, justice and abundant life, relying with confidence on Jesus who loves and forgives us. Resurrection gifts us the courage to imagine the world as Jesus would have it to be and the persistence to work for that vision in the face of all obstacles. When the weight of collective wrongs seems overwhelming and outcomes are not guaranteed, Resurrection calls us to hope and persevere.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.”Alleluia. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Jesus personally could claim for himself the conditions of the people he blessed in the Beatitudes. Everyone who heard the blessings pronounced upon them, had to know Jesus spoke from the same conditions. I am poor, I have mourned, I would not even snap a reed, I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I am persecuted, I preach mercy, I want just one thing for all of you, I bring a different peace than the peace the world promises.
In a region that had only known an empire of iron for 150 years, Jesus stirred hearts and fired imaginations. Under that empire where one’s fate was decreed by arbitrary fiat, Jesus inspired individual responsibility. Jesus made a liberating gift to Rome’s subjects, without having so much as to leave your village or overthrow a government. You can imagine how different it was, living in a police state, to hear the refreshingly, astonishingly, revivifyingly sudden proclamation of an alternate kingdom.
When Jesus finished pronouncing his blessing upon his followers in the Beatitudes, he gave them a new role in life, in their family and society--but rather than lay down instructions, Jesus gave them a new identity: he said, you are light, you are salt. In a single stroke, his listeners, his disciples, anyone who followed what he was saying, understood themselves to have a new place in the sun.
Just what are you when the gift of Jesus’ spirit is bestowed upon you?--you are light, you radiate light that reveals others to themselves as God sees them, that is, forgiven; and you are salt, you give flavor and savor to the routineized life. Your mere presence in God’s world blesses the world--your presence provides the key people need to unlock the prison humankind has made for ourselves.
In other words, you make a difference--simply as a disciple, you are a conveyance of Christ’s gift to others. Yes, you can and you do make a big spiritual difference right where you are.
No, it doesn’t take pursuing a theological degree, any more than Jesus’ listeners would have--but you might want to explore the sacred texts with someone. That qualifies as being a disciple.
No, you don’t need to be a member of a church, any more than Jesus’ listeners would be doing that--but you might want to hang around an inquisitive community. That qualifies as being a disciple.
No, you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed--but you might want to put yourself in a position to feel Christ’s spirit. That qualifies as being a disciple.
You might feel that it would be a grandiose claim on your part to say you are a disciple of Christ, but it’s not, it’s a humble, unassuming way to look at yourself. In a way, you are like the rest of the world trying to understand what it means to get our food and secure some love, too.
But something tells you to get closer to Christ because he is trustworthy, so you find yourself thinking more and more about this gospel verse or that gospel event. It could even become a regular thing, like opening the Bible every other day where you can look out the window and muse upon eternity. It might lead to something like prayer, whatever that is. Any of that is enough to earn you Christ’s designation as light and salt, and that alone should be a sufficient status in life for anybody.
We might prefer to say, oh I am a theological student, or I am a member of such-and-such church, or perhaps you would prefer to introduce yourself as “a Christian,” as many people do, with the particular associations that come with that in this country. But each of these labels has a social status and an approximately identifiable meaning in public--whereas, people probably wouldn’t understand you if you just said, “I am a disciple of Christ.”
But it constitutes an identity, nevertheless, and there is a minimum threshold by which Jesus would understand you to be his disciple--the light must be seen, and the salt retain its flavor. Humble and unassuming and as unprepossessing as it may be to look at oneself as a disciple of Christ, it requires a certain reality although Jesus does not provide much specificity as to what that looks like.
Let your light shine, don’t keep it under a bushel--commit to articulation. Don’t dilute the strength of your flavor--keep your distinction, your distinctiveness. No, Jesus does not supply any further explication or instruction by which we or the world might know us to be his disciples and find health and purpose and usefulness--that remains up to us.
We have many models we could imitate. And it doesn’t matter if it takes denominational shape, if it doesn’t domesticate a certain wildness that goes with it.
And we have many models NOT to imitate--which have not respected the dignity and the self-determination of others. Some so-called disciples in the service of Christ have weaponized, militarized and monetized Christ’s gospels. This is a concern that we must be careful to attend to as the Rev. John Eliot Church of Nonantum.
I guess after Easter, we are on our own. We are free to give body and shape to being a disciple, free to give our body and shape to it, however that may evolve. But know: being a disciple of Christ makes you an extension of the Word-made-flesh-made-bread-now-made-disciple- and-made-Word-again in the world (Could there be a principle of the conservation of energy at work here?)
Christ is a spirit that wants to be incarnate in the world, otherwise life in our society won’t distinguish itself from the merely appetitive, the grossly competitive, the narrowly self-interested.
There comes a definite responsibility with being a disciple of Christ, with looking at oneself as a disciple of Christ. After Easter, mustn't we each find a way to be in the world in which we are light and salt? And mustn't that be true for us, too, collectively as churches, as Eliot Church of Newton? It will be interesting to see, just how articulation and distinction will materialize in our case.
After Easter, it is up to us to find a way to be in the world in which we are light and salt. After Easter, will you own your vocation as disciples of Christ? May it be so! RevRichard Chrisman, April 11, 2021
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday John 20: 1-18 “Welcome Happy Morning,” Indeed “Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. . .” Unlike Easter last year when we were newly entombed by the pandemic, this Easter, the stone has just been rolled away from our tombs. Like Mary, we stand just at the threshold of moving from one deadly reality to a new reality that we cannot predict. Fear and expectancy – with perhaps a dash of hope for good measure – comingle.
Easters of the past have always felt familiar to me – I don’t remember when I first heard the resurrection accounts, but they have been a part of me for so long that I have come to take them for granted. Familiar Gospel passages, soaring music, spring dresses and new shoes, lilies and daffodils abound in my memories. I expected to feel much the same this Easter Sunday.
But – I did not realize just how much the experience of the long Lent we have been living since Covid-19 over ran us would make new and real Mary’s experience on that day of resurrection so long ago. It must have been an intensely terrible week for Mary and Jesus’ other disciples. The experience of God’s presence in their lives had always held the promise that a Messiah would come to restore God’s glory to the nation of Israel. His disciples and those he had healed, fed and loved believed that the Jesus they knew was the fulfillment of that promise. He enters into the city on a donkey – making a mockery of Roman processions – not kingly at all. Yet, the disciples and the crowd hail Jesus with their “hosannas” as they wait to see what happens next. They are confounded by what follows; the authorities search for Jesus to arrest him. Judas arranges to betray him. Expectations are turned upside down – a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She anoints his feet with oil – when Kings are anointed by oil poured on the head. They gather for a final meal together where he washes their feet as though he were a servant. They accompany Jesus to the garden to pray. Judas kisses him, Roman soldiers arrest him, Herod and Pilate try him and then Mary and the other disciples watch in agony as Jesus is crucified and then dies. All of the disciples flee. Whatever their expectations might have been, this was not how their journey with Jesus was supposed to end.
And so Mary comes to the tomb to do what women did at the time of death – she brings what is necessary to care for his dead body. She finds the tomb empty; the body gone and once again, expectations shatter. So many thoughts and emotions must have run through her mind and heart. What she knew and loved is gone. Only an empty tomb remains.
How different from her experience is our experience as we stand at the threshold of our Covid-19 tomb? The last year defied all of our beliefs about who we are as a people. Our government lied to us and did not protect us. Racism reared its ugly head as the most vulnerable among us suffered the most. Human beings deliberately put other human beings at risks by not wearing masks, refusing to practice social distancing and inciting violence directed at those trying to keep citizens safe. The biggest economy in the world came to a standstill as our neighbors, family members and those we did not know died agonizing and lonely deaths. Whatever we expected as citizens of the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, this was not it. Like Mary, we are left heart-broken and grieving. Our tombs are empty.
But Mary does not remain facing the tomb, she turns from the emptiness and after telling the male disciples Jesus’ body is gone, she retreats to grieve and continue her search for the body. Perhaps blinded by her tears and grief, she assumes the man she meets to be the gardener. It is only when she hears him call her name that she realizes the man before her is the risen Jesus. She races to tell the other disciples “I have seen the Lord!” Expectations are again overturned and suddenly, as the morning breaks, a whole new life of possibility opens up to those who seek Jesus. What has been a horrible morning following a devastating week, has become a happy if perplexing one. Unexpectedly, new life has arrived.
This Easter morning feels that same way. After a devastating year, vaccines are rolling away the stone that has kept us entombed. It is no less than a miracle; brought to us by scientists living their calling through their God-given gifts. As did Mary and the other disciples, we cannot forget all the hard truths we came to know during our time in the tomb. Just as Mary and the disciples are invited to live a new way of being in the transformation of the resurrection, so too, are we. The world around us may look much the same as when we left it. But WE have been changed by all that happened – and as a result, Jesus may no longer look familiar to us in this new light of this happy morning. But Jesus is here to surprise us with the gift of new life. As our risen Lord, he calls each one of our names as we listen for his voice.
The truth of the Christian faith preached for centuries is that because of Jesus’ resurrection, new life is always waiting for us no matter how long we have been stuck in our tombs or how broken we and our society may be. This particular Easter celebration of the resurrection is especially resplendent in so much possibility. As we emerge from the darkness of our tombs into the light of spring life bursting out around us, the resurrection is our invitation from Jesus to join him in making all things new again; to participate in recreating the world revealed in the Beatitudes we explored in Lent.
The hard lessons of the pandemic will – and must – remain with us and our search for the resurrected Jesus will continue to challenge our expectations, calling us to work for justice and healing, to care for one another and for the earth; to follow Jesus wherever he leads in ways we may not have understood before. There is a new urgency to our lives of faith that demands we boldly engage in undoing the human brokenness and suffering revealed to us during our time in the tomb.
We have been changed by our time in the tomb, but the world has not. As the Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris often reminded the Church, “We are an Easter people in a Good Friday world.” To be an Easter people demands that we be light for the world, bringing love, hope, reconciliation and peace into a world that so badly needs our witness and our participation. We, too, have met the resurrected Jesus and because of his presence with us, today we are able to welcome this happy morning, secure in our hope and trusting that we will make a difference in the holy work of re-creating the world. With Mary, we boldly proclaim “[We] have seen the Lord!” “Welcome happy morning, indeed!” Alleluia! Amen.
We don’t know how long it took for Jesus to die on the cross exactly, but the gospel accounts put it at 3 hours. You don’t need Mel Gibson’s horrible movie to tell you this was a painful death.
A crucifixion can actually be as short as 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Yes, even shorter--a crucifixion can be over in 5 minutes in the death chambers of American prisons where black men constitute 34% of those executed (since 1979), a significant portion of which in error. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
There’s wholesale crucifixion, too, and when you’re talking about more than one person, it could take longer, although it only took the 2 minutes for that for the bomb to fall from the Enola Gay to crucify a city of 100,000. Normally, though, it takes longer. It took the Third Reich 10 years to crucify ⅔ of European Jewry. The United States holds the record--we spent 400 continuous years crucifying entire native nations. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
During the Jewish wars against the Romans between 50 and 70 CE, there could be as many as 1000 crucifixions visible in and around Jerusalem at one time, historians say. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
What is crucifixion besides state murder by any manner of termination? It is death of the manifestly innocent. Death without due process. Death with malice. Death by religious rationalization. And with those permissions, crucifixion is easier than you would think.
Does this observation cheapen the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion for us Christians and the world? What is left of Christ’s sacrifice if his unjust death is just one in so many?
This is what: we heard the prophet say once--
Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations--and we saw Jesus.
We heard the prophet say, He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench--and we saw Jesus.
He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth--and we saw Jesus. Christ’s cross speaks backwards in time and forward in time, giving voice to every innocent death whose voice died with their demise. Jesus’ death made the very stones cry out against wrongful death, whereas without him, that would have remained the norm.
We say Christ died for our sins--that also means BECAUSE of our sins. Without Christ, man’s inhumanity to man (as the proverb goes) would continue to be business as usual, without remorse, without recourse, without abatement.
Not only that, but Jesus revealed crucifixion to be humanity’s dehumanization of itself. The executioner says, I look at me, I see an animal, we are only human animals, don’t let’s expect more of ourselves. But the exception, of course, was the Roman centurion at the foot of Christ’s cross, who said that, truly, this was the Son of God.
Otherwise, all the executioner sees, with his knee on a neck, is a drug addict; all the prison warden sees is another con; all the bomber sees is little specks below; all anybody ever sees is the Other who has nothing to do with me. Jesus had to say from the cross for all of them, Forgive them, God, for they know not what they do.
But what then of all those promises in the Beatitudes?--when will we inherit the earth, when will we be satisfied, when will we be comforted, when will we see mercy, when will we see God--??
God’s promises are still worthy and valid--Jesus gave flesh and blood to the Lord’s plumbline, and in so doing, Jesus created a new baseline.
So, it’s out there, it’s been named, it’s why we say the arc of God’s universe bends toward justice. It was Jesus who made the world recognize that, if we must suffer in this life, let it be for righteousness’ sake. He is why we don’t give up hope, and why we keep faith. He is why we say with the prophet:
How beautiful upon the mountain (even though it be Golgotha), are the feet of him who brings good tidings, Who publishes peace, Who publishes salvation, Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Blessed are the peacemakers--but no peace is made by lying. Luke 19:28-47
The Gospel text for Palm Sunday always includes this vivid scene when Jesus entered the Temple precincts during the Passover festival and went about overturning the tables of the moneychangers. It is reported in all four Gospels. In one account, in the Gospel of John, Jesus even fashions a whip of cords to carry out his mission.
The event is of single importance because upon entering Jerusalem, it is first to the Temple that Jesus goes! In one gospel, he stays over several days teaching, interpreting and reinterpreting Jewish law. He declared earlier that he hadn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. And that included scolding the Temple hierarchy throughout his entire ministry into fulfilling their spiritual role. “You have turned God’s house of prayer into a robbers’ cave,” he said as the tables went flying.
Jesus wasn’t objecting to the commercial practices—the commentators all agree—the sale of animals to be sacrificed was necessary for the sake of pilgrims who traveled from afar, and for those coming from other countries, moneychangers were needed to exchange currency. Jesus would be objecting to the dominating presence that crowded people out of the Court of the Gentiles, namely the poor and disabled (are we surprised at Jesus?).
Furthermore, when he complained that they had turned the place into a robbers’ den, this had reference apparently to the fact that thieves often claimed sanctuary but had no intention of observing religious laws. Again, Jesus was not aiming at business practices but at crowding out those who were there for spiritual purposes.
It is a commonplace of Christian teaching that Jesus was attacking the Temple. Christians, especially Protestants, glory in the fact that our Jesus had real emotions and that he directed his anger at the institution of the Temple just as he had at the priests, scribes, and the various Jewish sects throughout his ministry. And, more important, here supposedly was proof that Jesus intended to supersede the Temple with either himself or an alternative religion of his own initiation.
But Jesus was not attacking the Temple, he was defending it. The emotion we should associate with his action is not anger but devotion. You can love something so much that it fires up your indignation and exasperation at its failures. And Jesus was manifestly fired up.
Jesus’ devotion to the Temple was peaceful to his core. He could not have possibly been one of the Zealot Party, as one scholar, Reza Azlan, claims in his excellent book, Zealot. The almost constant combat between the Roman occupiers and the Israelites going back several decades before Jesus’ birth and into his own lifetime had generated many rebellious factions. Jesus did not belong to any of them, other scholars have concluded. However, it is quite conceivable that Jesus got mistaken as one of the insurrectionists who wanted to overthrow both church and state, and when the authorities had a chance to be rid of him, they let it happen, as we know from the end of the story. But that comes later.
Howsoever he may have been perceived at the time, I believe Jesus came willing one thing, and that was the renewal and restoration of the Jews’ faith in God, a faith that was dependent upon the renewal and the restoration of the Temple’s spiritual integrity.
Jesus prophesies at one point, that the Temple would be destroyed and that he would rebuild it in three days. This has been taken to mean he would replace Judaism. What Jesus sought was Judaism’s survival and perfection—he predicted its fall due to the weight of its institutional sins, because he had so much invested in its survival.
The Temple was a place of surpassing beauty, although Herod the Great’s spectacular renovations around the year 20 BCE were irrelevant to the Jews. The Temple’s real importance derived from its being the repository of the Arc of the Covenant and the fountain of moral law. Even more significant, the Temple’s placement on Mount Zion in Jerusalem expressed its mystical association as the meeting place of heaven and earth, so it was not only the moral but the physical capital of the universe for Jews. The Temple sat at the intersection of cosmos and earth. Mount Zion, on which the Temple sits, reflects how God subdued chaos (Genesis 1), referred to in our Psalm today as the seas and the rivers.
Much loved by the Judeans, Jesus loved the Temple, too. In order to even faintly imagine what was at stake for Jesus in the Temple, you only have to recall the many references in the Psalms. Ps 36:8-10: They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 23:6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 27:4: One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 132:13-14: For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: “This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.
So, there was meaning in that prophecy of destruction, as preposterous a claim as it sounded. Only his listeners didn’t know it. They mistook the meaning that was right on the surface. Everything that impeded what the Temple stood for—God’s mercy and lovingkindness, God’s righteousness—was about to be overturned and overhauled, by God. The Temple as they knew it would be transformed. This was the faith of Jesus.
How should any of this affect our faith in Christ and the way we manage our lives? For one thing, it was another reminder that Jesus did not come to start another religion. If he could have, Jesus would restore the religion of his people. But those in a position of power wouldn’t budge, and the collision would break Jesus.
How is his unpeaceful behavior consistent with the blessing he confers upon all peacemakers as “children of God”? Jesus does bless the peacemakers, but Jesus makes it abundantly clear that lying doesn’t promote peace. Before he even entered Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city which “didn’t recognize the things that make for peace.” Lying promotes temporary peace of an external sort, such as we do to placate someone else in a disagreement—we button our lip. Or, when we enable another person’s addiction—we do so, to “keep the peace.” Or, when we oppose a war, or the suppression of the vote, we may not feel it’s worth getting all stirred up.
Peacemaking should not avoid the truth, it should proclaim it. Speaking truth to power, and speaking truth to a loved one who has power over us, brings the only peace worth having, but it may require turning over some tables, either literally or figuratively—maybe finding some “good trouble.” Because of the travail that Jesus underwent, he made clear the very possible costs. Because of the faith Jesus had in God, he showed us the power of God. There may be two different worlds—the private (personal) and the public (political), but they are just two different locations of the same spiritual fact: truth leads to ultimate peace, whereas lying, deceit and deception lead to violence and destruction. And, believe me, destruction destroys.
For another thing, this Temple scene tells us to regard our own temple and sanctuary with similar devotion. We should feel the same way about our churches, synagogues and mosques. They should not be the objects of worship in themselves but places of devotion and truth-seeking.
So, let us return to Psalm 24 and listen to its answer to the question, “Who shall ascend the hill of God, the hill of Mount Zion?” Only you who have clean hands and pure hearts. Only you who lift up your souls to truth and refuse to utter deceits. Who shall ascend the hill of God--? All of you and the Sovereign of hosts, the God beyond gods. So, lift up your heads, O Temple gates! And be lifted up, O ancient temple doors, that the Ruler of Glory may come in with you, the people of God!