What do Christians have for Yom Kippur? Mark 1:9-15 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Our next word from the Biblical text is Repent, Repentance. The ten days that began with Rosh Hashanah and ending last Thursday with Yom Kippur impose upon Jews the demand to contemplate their lives, their behavior and attitudes and seek ways to change. Repentance and reform and renewal, announced with the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), culminate on the holiest day, Yom Kippur (“the day of atonement”).
This morning I am asking the question, What do Christians have for Yom Kippur? What is the place of repentance in Christian practice?
*** A young man from a socially prominent family returns to his native grounds from military duty. He encounters a girl he had known as a youth now grown up to be very beautiful. He is overwhelmed with love and desire. But she is unavailable, being a servant in the family household. During his visit, he importunes her and entices her into the greenhouse where they make love. She awakes the next morning with expectations of continuing the romance, but he’s already gone and has only left her a note. In the note, is a $100 bill, to her horror. She soon finds she is pregnant and is fired for it and ostracized from the community. The baby dies in infancy.
By some ten years later our young man has attained a major rank in the military and plays quite the dandy about town with his friends and their women. One day he is called for jury duty and listens to the case against three petty thieves, one of whom is a woman accused of murdering one of their victims. The accused murderer admits to being a prostitute and having robbed a customer, but denies the murder. The judge accepts the jury’s guilty verdict and sentences her to five years hard labor. Over the course of the trial, our officer recognizes her to be the young woman he degraded and disgraced. Immediately he realizes the connection between his actions and her fate. He approaches the judge on the spot and tries to get the verdict reversed. To no avail. He importunes him to reduce the sentence. To no avail. Our officer uses his rank to get into the offices of people high in the criminal justice system. To no avail. All the time, he is trying to get into the prison where she is kept in order to visit her, and when he finally does he begs for her forgiveness. She won’t have any of it. “I’ll get you out, I’ll save you. Just forgive me.” “You only want to save your eternal soul.” She sends him, baffled, away. Nevertheless, he manages to talk to her again as she is being transferred from the prison to the train taking prisoners to the labor camps, and he promises he will follow her and wait for her with the intention of marrying her. “I want to save you.” To no avail.
Over time as her sentence proceeds, she falls in love with another prisoner and eventually she decides she will marry him upon release. She tells our officer, who by now has forsaken his own family and fortune and taken up the cause of all prisoners because of the penal system’s bestial abuse of them. He resigns himself to her decision and, still unforgiven, blesses their plans to marry. But the whole ordeal has converted him to a life of reforming prisons and the criminal justice system.
I have just told you the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, published in 1899, which runs to 450 pages. The importance of our story can be found in that day in the jury box. Prince Dmitri Neklyudov was smitten with the realization that he is the cause of her downfall. Cause and effect were welded together in a lightning crack. He is instantly remorseful and sincerely knows he must seek her forgiveness. He is incredulous at the verdict because he knows her character and she is innocent. After repeated attempts to get her off, and with repeated visits to her in the prison, he asked her forgiveness which she declined to do over and over. This could be a story about forgiveness, because it raises the ethical issue of whether she was wrong to refuse it to him. But it’s not about forgiveness. The story is about repentance, which can lead, even without the forgiveness, to resurrection, hence the title of the novel. Prince Neklyudov found, in the five years he traveled with the prison train to Siberia, that he had found a purpose in life. It is interesting to note that an alternative translation of the title was “The Awakening,” suggesting that just seeing himself for what he was restored his life to him. He changed, without benefit of her forgiveness, anyway. And this only reflects the painful reality of life that forgiveness does not always come in one’s own lifetime or that of the person you seek forgiveness from.
Jesus is another word for Forgiveness. But, Repentance occupies the entire foreground of the Christian gospel. The word “repent” is among the first words Jesus utters in the gospel record, as you heard in the text for today. It means “to turn,” that is, to turn toward God, or in the Yom Kippur liturgy, to return to God (TeShuva). That is, return to good standing with God and with the community. To be in right relation with God is a definition of happiness. The health of human society depends upon the health of human relations, and repair of human injury is indispensable. Repent, mind you, is not the same as remorse which is a feeling, a bad feeling. To repent, on the other hand, is an action--to repent is to turn toward the light. In fact, it is like turning on the light when you go into a darkened walk-in closet, all of a sudden you see everything. It makes you want to say, “My God, why didn’t you tell me?” God’s answer would be, “I did--in Jesus.” The light enables you to re-order your life and your whole sense of self.
This is the whole point of the Jewish High Holy Days which concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the return to God’s good graces is fulfilled, or set in motion for the next year. And what do Christians have for Yom Kippur?
Since we are spiritual descendants of Judaism, the Christian year has several close parallels. There is no single “day of atonement” as such, although communion Sundays involve the same repentance and resolve to amend. The 50 days of Lent leading up to Holy Week and Easter represent a comparable spirit, being a time of special contemplation of our lives in relation to Christ’s. But the focus, unfortunately, can fall exclusively on Christ’s sufferings.
In Judaism and in Chrisitianity, the penitent attempts to make a clean breast of things, so that the weight of the past with its sin and errors, its hurts and violations, can be wiped away. Jews wish each other “to a good year,” but Christians don’t exactly have an expression we share after communion. It’s an open question what we could devise for our good wishes. Something, I hope, that would convey that this is your moment to step out of the mire of time toward the light, toward eternity from which you can see where you really are. All else is vanity, vanity as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, compared to the light. Turn, return, to it. Amen.
The Labor of Our Bodies and the Work of Our Hands
It was a day just like this one, 20 years ago yesterday. A perfect fall morning with high blue skies in the Northeast. And then, and then . . . Now, after a week of mourning of all those lost on that day, we realize that was the day “first responders” took on a whole new meaning. Underneath it all, we are still in shock.
I. As the 21st year following 9/11 opens today, we actually see a world the way it was when Genesis was written, in one important respect anyway. We see a world ever struggling to escape the bonds of earthly necessity—the bonds which nature dictates to us, the need for food, shelter and security—we see a world in which people and nations are willing to do literally anything to secure its goods and its comforts. Because, inside every person is a living creature who must bow to the demands of nature, demands as ironclad as the force of gravity.
Genesis refers to the most basic fact of life—Nature does not give up nourishment to man, or woman, without effort. You can’t eat the forests or the deserts or the seas. Survival must be extracted forcibly from “Mother” nature. Work, Genesis says, hard work is men’s fate, and women’s too, to be precise. Just as the woman suffers pangs with every childbirth, the man suffers the pangs of endless toil— (it is the same word in Hebrew, according to Robert Alter’s notes). So nothing can be taken for granted either in the creating or in the sustaining of life. Gains are not permanent—any given creature is only a sometime success who must renew, secure, and guarantee that success against a change of fortune or circumstance.
It’s just as true of nations as it is of people—how else are we to explain a rich country like the United States needing to shore up its own bountiful resources with a worldwide network of military bases to defend our “national interests”? Did we really have to spend 20 years, and how many lives!, defending this consumer existence of ours? Deep down inside, humans and nations suffer from serial insecurity.
This is our world, this is our experience today. Genesis pierced straight to the heart of the human condition—to be human is to suffer in these two particular ways in which we are subject to Nature. And so it is that people are always prone to dream of a by-gone blissful state of perfection, a “before.” Nevertheless, every day, we humans must awake from that dream in a terrain of contingency and terror, scrapping and scraping the means of subsistence from a grudging soil and painfully delivering ever more mouths to feed and to defend from other human predators.
II. Through every era of human history, we have sought to dispel the “curse” and bring nature under our control, to make nature yield more with less effort—through the eras of tool making, agronomy, refining minerals, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial age, the atomic age, and the computer age. The human has resorted to gain any mortal advantage over competitors and threats—it’s a jungle out there--just let your guard down and find out.
Genesis pierces straight to the heart of the human condition, nor has subsequent history invalidated Genesis’ description of human life. Except we abhor toil, and every society has arranged it so somebody is tending to the body and its needs, tending to the fields and animals, butchering and cleaning, hauling and digging, sustaining the fuel supply of the human engine. The life of the laborer is deemed so unfulfilling that humans invented indentured servitude or slavery—acquiring a labor force through taking prisoners of war, or by some other means like the slave trade we engaged in—thus creating a caste system or a servant class.
The closer you labor in nature, the lower the status in society you occupy, the lower you are paid, the less you are valued (see the new film, “Worth,” about setting the insurance compensations for 9/11 survivors and families.) If you’ve watched a season of Downton Abbey, you’ve seen this pernicious principle at work. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen Chris Rock’s routine comparing “jobs and careers.”
And you can even see this economic arrangement in the backdrop of this morning’s parable, too. Jesus has a theological point to make, which is to assure his listeners that, come early or late, God will always receive you. But to make his point, Jesus as usual resorts to a commonplace of life which everyone would recognize—laborers lining up by the fields hoping to get hired for the day. I saw them myself in L.A., gathering every morning under the freeway cloverleafs, lining up behind the trucks waiting to load up laborers and hoping to be chosen.
In our parable, the landowner sees himself as beneficent in giving everybody the same wage for the day, but that’s not the way the laborers see things. But the vulnerability of the laborers is quite apparent, and fairness to them would mean paying them more than the late comers. The laborer depends totally on how the landowner chooses to define “generosity.”
Civilization has only sporadically tried to protect the laborer even as it protects itself from Nature. Mechanization and the industrial revolution seemed only to have made things worse.
What a history humans have woven out of work—toil, slavery, danger, disease, wealth, happiness, war!
III. But that’s why church is so important. To dispel the “curse” as Genesis saw it, we have only to commit to community. To dispel the curse of labor that led to the subordination of women and servants and slaves, day laborers, wage earners, and caregivers, God called us to create community. Not as a social group with its hierarchies and cliques, but as a kind of “mutual aid” society. Not like when my wife and I join the MFA and drop in occasionally on this or that exhibit, which is OK for what it is. But the church is much more, it is a flotation device in the storm of life as nature shaped it. Nor is it either just a refuge from the hazards of nature but where we pull the human back from our inhumanity in times of duress.
The Bible depicts our expulsion from Eden into Christ’s church, passing through Sinai, Zion, Jerusalem, and Golgotha on the way. Through this passage, we learned from Martin Luther that all labor and work is godly in God’s eyes. In truth, the church brings us to love life and to love the world as it is. Pope Francis envisioned the church as a sort of “field hospital.” And so we are, although not staffed with doctors for the patients but wherein we all minister to each other. And the healing balm that is applied starts and ends with the process of Christ’s forgiveness wherein we repent, reform and find renewal. Let us be the church. Let us be Eliot Church, for the sake of those in and around this community and region. Amen. Rev. Richard Chrisman, September 12, 2021
Are women people? What a question! Of course women are people. Why would I ask such a question? Because, to judge from the piece of anti-abortion legislation that went into effect in Texas last week, and without objection from the U.S. Supreme Court, not everybody thinks so. This law makes abortion illegal after 6 weeks (before a woman is barely aware of being pregnant), and it allows a citizen to sue any party to the arranging, paying for or providing of an abortion (pitting private citizen against citizen). Its excesses betray an ulterior motive than saving babies’ lives, which for many supporting the Texas bill, may be so. But, for many others, it’s manifestly also about reversing women’s emancipation.
This law is just the caboose on the long train of legislation going back 100 years meant to make not only abortion but also contraception and sex education and reproductive health barely available to women there or anywhere in this country. The unusual fierceness of the Texas law intensifies the long resistance to women’s emancipation.
How can we avoid the conclusion that some people view women as just so much potting soil, in one commentator’s phrase? Women’s suffrage took 50 years of exertion and sometimes violence before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919, the ratification process having come down to a single vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The marriage laws kept a manhole cover over women’s heads until women’s suffrage made change possible. The Equal Rights Amendment passed in the U.S. Congress in 1972 but was ultimately defeated in the state ratification process in 1980. Women’s right to self-determination seems like the last thing Americans will stand for. Many Americans act as if they do not trust women as adult people.
The concern may well be to save babies’ lives, but if so, why should this be done on the backs of women alone--two people are responsible, but they are not both being held responsible. The anti-reproductive rights laws transfer the entire responsibility to one party alone for something that two people do together, one hopes consensually (obviously not in the cases of rape and incest). The anti-abortion position transfers the entire burden exclusively to the woman.
The abortion debate is legitimate, with truth to be found on both sides of the conflict, and I am not going to rehearse that debate here. What is NOT legitimate is abusing the Bible to rationalize your position against abortion.
Howard Moody, the renowned minister of Judson Memorial Church in NYC and an outspoken participant in the abortion debate of the 1960s, always said, “Leave the Bible out of it.” But you can’t--it’s embedded in our culture and in our assumptions. For instance, abortion and reproductive freedom opponents openly state that woman should be under a man’s rule, and the Bible tells them so. They cite as their evidence the creation story (the second one) in Genesis (chapters 2 and 3) where God created a woman out of Adam’s rib and assigned her as Adam’s “helpmeet.” They cite that Eve was created second chronologically which establishes her subordination to Adam. They blame her disobedience as the cause of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But here are my objections to this abuse of the Bible.
You can’t make doctrine out of poetry. This creation story is a fanciful, wholly fictional answer to the question, “How did we get here? Who are we?” This portion of Genesis reads like the script of a Christmas pageant, where animals talk and God walks around demanding answers.
What you learn from this story is the importance of taking responsibility for our actions, which the pair does not do: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake. If there is anything like an “original sin” in this story, it is evading culpability. The genders here are equal in their evasion of culpability.
Their expulsion from Eden was not a “Fall,” or a punishment for anything, because the “curses” on the pair simply reflect the reality of planetary life. The myth of “the Fall,” so-called, begun in Genesis, argued by St. Augustine, and elaborated by the poet John Milton in over 10,000 lines of epic verse, is factual for many Christians. The only facts are life’s sufferings. Labor pains may feel like a curse to women, but they are simply the result of quadrupeds going upright and becoming bi-peds, complicating the birth canal. And Adam is told what everybody knows: subsistence and survival have to be extracted from Nature and so is fated, not “condemned,” to live by the sweat of his brow. (And by the way, the snake is also cursed with having to grovel in the dirt.) Theirs is not a “Fall” (which is not a Biblical term anyway) but an Entrance into reality as they leave a Paradise imagined by the narrator to have preceded our existence as we know it. Eve is not to be blamed for human suffering at all, as church doctrine asserts.
Why can such a story be in the Bible, if it is as fanciful as I claim--? Because, it dramatizes the first observations and feelings of one particular society about our earthly life. The writers of Genesis preserved this legend to explain the painful facts of human life as we experience them. They imagined a previous life of perfection without suffering, and they concluded that we can only have “fallen” from that state as punishment of some kind. It’s one guess. But a deeper look at Genesis 2-3 reveals woman’s true fate on earth, and man’s.
The forces of nature which humans have faced throughout eras of changing climates and circumstances as well as, most importantly, the burden of overwhelming reproductive demands, they all require management. Society has had to employ parental controls, institutional (church) controls, and cultural controls to keep child bearing within the capacities of child rearing. Self-management is ultimately called for. Abstinence, when enforced, will work, but it has seldom worked voluntarily (except as part of religious vocation). Contraception has been practiced throughout history, until the Church pounced on it (v. Humanae Vitae, 1968). Abortion has also had an ancient history, because if unwanted, or unintended, pregnancies are not stopped, the direction of personal history can change drastically. Abortion is a last resort, and women will take it if absolutely necessary. Isn’t it best for us to get out of the way? We really have no choice but to trust the woman with this decision. After all, the men are often not there except to legislate what, after the fact, a woman does with her body.
Compare the three versions of Eve. Paula Stallworth’s woman [from poem entitled "I Am A Woman": email RevRick for a copy.] is 3-dimensional, sure of her powers. In Genesis, Eve is 2-dimensional, a free agent with a partner. In church doctrine, Eve is 1-dimensional, alone guilty of causing human suffering. Take your pick.
Woman is trustworthy. I’m not pro-choice or anti-choice. I believe we have NO choice but to trust her with her decision.
Sin is not what you think it is. (*) Luke 15:20-24
The Bible is just not a user-friendly book. In fact, it is not a book at all, it is a library. It contains 66 books of a dizzying variety of kinds. There are different GENRES--letters, histories, legal compendiums, prophecies, sermons, visions, prayers and poetry. Moreover, each of the books has different ORIGINS, some having been generated out of oral culture, from legends and songs, others being patchwork quilts stitched together by editors, still others have been revised and “improved” for religious consumption. Then, too, within each book are VARIETIES of perspective and theology. It would be nice to know, of all the other books and versions available, who made the selections that resulted in our Bible?
We have not even scratched the surface on BOOKS, but the same is true of particular WORDS. One of the words, for instance, whose meanings are widely misunderstood right now is FEAR. There are two different senses in which it is used. “Fear not,” which appears 365 times in the Bible, means something different than the expression, “the fear of the Lord” which has 490 references. The same word has two completely different meanings. In the first case, fear means “dread,” which we are reassured there is no need to feel in life. In the other, it denotes “respect” as the appropriate attitude before God and has no punitive meanings. That’s one example when a word can confuse the reader of the Bible.
Yet another is the word “SIN.” The word “sin” doesn’t mean what you think it does. Generally, you take it to be a bad word, signifying something bad. Yes, it does signify something bad, but it is a GOOD word. How can that be?
The words used prior to the Israelite religion and Christian faith to designate human fault were words like defilement, stain, blemish, filth, impurity. People understood themselves to be defiled by some objective act which is prohibited. In pre-Israelite religion, purification rites had the physical purpose of cleansing when a prohibited act occurred--touching blood, for instance, through a murder or menses. But purification rites also functioned symbolically--our essential impurity is never really altered, nevertheless, the rite is intended to represent the NEED to purify. Failure to purify oneself entailed serious punishments. Even being UNINTENTIONALLY associated with evil incurs defilement, such as with death or disease. Anything SEXUALLY related was subject to prohibition due to contamination, but there were different levels of intensity associated with the gravity of the taboo.
The emotion associated with defilement is shame, an emotion arising from embarrassment at having something very basic and very personal exposed to view.
We today do not remotely understand the power of defilement over a society. It has no ethical import for us--to us, the prohibitions seem arbitrary. We live in a religious environment thoroughly influenced by Jewish and Christian worldviews. For us, the operative term for fault or wrongdoing is not defilement; it is not defilement but “sin.”
Sin connotes wrongful behavior. Contrary to pre-Israelite views, there is nothing wrong with you. In fact, according to Genesis, you are very much part of God’s good creation. In this way, Genesis was a protest against the doctrine of defilement. When you deviate from God’s law, you don’t cease being good in your essence. The new understanding became that human beings are prone to sin (fallible), hence you are a SINNER. But you are NOT a blemished product.
The emotion associated with sin is guilt. And it need only be a temporary emotion because, as we shall see in a moment, the wrong which we call sin has a remedy.
But, before long, Christianity corrupted itself when it began to teach the “total depravity” of human beings. It regressed to pre-Israelite faith. Even parents commit this error whenever we say, “Bad boy” or “bad girl.” And preachers err when they set out to convict you of sin, in the sense of being a faulty product. For that, their remedy lies in an imagined transaction in the sky between the Father (so-called) and the Son (so-called) brought about by the sacrifice of the Son. So the human being is left no role either in fault, because we are essentially faulty, or in the remedy, because Jesus took care of it. In that view, it is for us to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.
In fact, the actual remedy, the biblical remedy, for wrong-doing is confession, repentance, contrition, repair and reparation. The gospel proclaims that God’s forgiveness is perpetual. It is like the crystal clear water of a glacial lake. But you have to climb the Mountain of Humility and ask for a glass. All you have to do is ask--you won’t be refused. There is no transaction in the sky--it is an earthly transaction between me and someone I have wronged or hurt, made possible by Yahweh’s forgiveness that was ratified, revealed and celebrated by the Resurrection of Christ.
Sin is the violation of a personal bond (“covenant”) between me and God, and only a personal accounting removes the offense, if not the hurt itself. At some point, our personal relation to God was intensified exponentially by the man Jesus of Nazareth whom we therefore call the Son of God. Jesus became the bridge to a God too far.
Finally, instead of the retributive justice of our legal system, we have been given a new lease on life called restorative justice. Sin, the cause of a relationship broken off, has been conquered, and a relationship can be recovered.
It is a loss to our public life that we don’t think of crimes also as sins. On TV, in politics--crimes are prosecuted. We see people convicted which we call justice, but it is really a kind of societal vengeance--punitive justice. Shouldn’t we also be thinking about the relationships ruptured in a crime which need repairing. Thinking of crimes as sins would point us in this direction. Then worse, by not regarding crimes as sins, convicted criminals are treated by society as defiled in perpetuity--marked for life. Meantime, nothing is done to repair ruptured relationships.
St. Paul illustrates this change when he bemoans the fact he does what he knows he shouldn't, and doesn’t do what he should. He is identifying wrong with actions, with behavior, not with self. And our gospel parable of the Prodigal Son makes it clear, the offended party and God are reconciled to the offending party.
Jesus is the heart at the center of human hurt. He makes possible the repair of sin, which you now realize is actually a good word.
(*) For further reading: the classic source on this subject is Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967). A recent, very accessible analysis can be found in Stephen Finlan, Ph.D., Salvation Not Purchased (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020). Finlan is the Sr. Minister of First Church, W. Bridgewater, MA, and teaches at Boston University.
Our Independence was declared July fourth in 1776. It declared us free from British rule. And a war ensued.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass declined the invitation to give the annual Independence Day speech in Rochester NY because the enslaved were not free from white rule, south or north. On the next day, he did give the speech, a blistering one that received a rousing standing ovation from an all-white audience.
The emancipation of the American slaves 10 years later also necessitated a war. Ultimately, the Union victory brought about the creation of Juneteenth as a national holiday last month, making the Black Independence Day official.
The fourth of July commemorates our political freedom from Great Britain, but that was a long time ago now. It seems rather quaint to think of our troubles with King George III 250 years ago after a year in which this nation quaked through the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.
Don’t Americans need to be asking ourselves on this Independence Day of 2021, in what ways are we not free yet? Didn’t last year show us (once again) that the United States continues to have serious independence gaps since 1776, and 1865--?
Of course, your answer will differ depending on if you are female, Black in America, gay, or a non-Christian. However, white people are not free either, not as much as whites imagine--as long as we deny freedom to others, we are not free. Heather McGhee, in her book The Sum of Us, shows how American whites shortchange ourselves with every restriction we place on people of color--government benefits, housing access, student loans, voting rights--. In sum, whites are a perfect illustration of the old phrase: cutting off our nose to spite our faces, because racism costs white people enormous losses in economic prosperity, community health and national strength.
So far we have been talking about political freedom. But you know, political freedom in the West has its roots in the spiritual freedom proclaimed in the Bible. Even Gandhi acknowledged the importance of Biblical freedom to his own demand for India’s independence from England.
The human yearning for freedom found its expression and inspiration in the Biblical stories of the exodus from Egypt, the return from the Babylonian captivity, the end of servitude to idols, and release from the imprisonment by sin. Whether one is white or black, male or female, gay or straight, Greek or Jew, the Bible proclaims that spiritual freedom is everyone’s birthright that translated over time into the public domain. The question we have to be asking is, in what way am I myself, are we, not free? Have I discovered the plank in my own eye--the respect in which my wrongdoing is my own captivity?
You may recoil at St. Paul’s denunciation of the evil of sin. He uses a dichotomy between spirit and flesh that we have since graduated from. But with a little thought you should be able to identify with his own frustration about the manhole cover he lives under called sin. The good he would do, Paul says, he finds he does not do. Instead, he finds himself doing what he outright wishes he would not do! He is so tied up, he equates it with death itself.
When you think about it, if you think about it, don’t we feel the anchor we are dragging about? Don’t we pick up a signal that we haven’t nearly realized the spiritual freedom that the gospel promises?
Let us meditate a moment--how are you not free--let us count the ways:
You are bound, of course, by gravity--otherwise you would be flying. In that way you are not free. This is not meant to be a joke.
You are bound, too, by your body--it must be fed and sheltered, adorned and entertained. It must be nursed through infancy until independent enough to manage itself, and nursed through old age until our end. In that way you are not free.
The perplexities of your own personality have you tied up, wondering why you aren’t rich or famous. How on earth did your life turn out this particular way? In that way you are not free.
You have many emotions, some of which are not fully grown up, I venture to guess. In that way, you are not free.
Then too, some dependencies of yours still tie you up. Alcoholics in recovery understand this very well. But you do not remotely see the dependencies you’ve adopted and accustomed yourselves to. In this you are not free.
People have other crutches, too, religion itself, for instance, the escapist wishful thinking wrapped up in gospel garb.
More fundamentally even, and we have to go to an even deeper level to expose these weights on our souls, how do your life choices contradict the purposes for which God made you? In that way, you are not free either.
Not to examine ourselves this way personally keeps us tangled up in our own shoelaces. And the failure of white people to examine ourselves this way diminishes the vigor with which we would fight for the political freedoms of others, as we say we want to, but don’t.
Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher and mystic, wrote, “No Elder, however advanced in the spiritual life, could be of any help to me [in my crisis]. The whole problem lies here, in the very fact that I must discover for myself that which God has hidden from me. God expects from me a free creative act.”
What are the revelations waiting for you and hidden in the Bible? Freedom is hidden in the Bible. It is through creative engagement with God’s Word in the sacred text that we find our way to ultimate freedom. In the Bible you will encounter the radical news that the world can change, that people can change, that YOU can change. Because, the sins that you do not intend to commit, and the sins that you willfully commit, are forgiven when you ask. Thus you are freed to live and make your way again with your head held up high.
If it weren’t for forgiveness, we would never be able to own up to our wrongdoing--it would be crushing. We would much prefer to cling to our self-righteousness or deny outright that anything is wrong. No--! Belief in the forgiveness of sins enables you to face the hurt you cause others because you know you are not destined to repeat those wrongs forever. There is a door out of your prison, and its name is forgiveness. As Paul made existentially clear, if I know what is right (which it is the function of the law to teach), and I don’t do it anyway, I live a half-life suspended in self-hatred, cynicism, and hopelessness. That is what Paul meant when he said in one of the most vivid expressions in the entire Bible, “Will anybody deliver me from the body of this death?”
Because of Christ, you can live, truly live--Jesus’ story and the stories he read make up the Bible that’s in your hands. True independence awaits you. The day you see Christ this way is your personal Independence Day.
You may still shrink away, because you know it means making different choices and facing the world differently. But how long will you postpone?
Repentance, repair and resurrection on a national political level is obviously not very simple, to say the least, as we are seeing thrashed out in this country where so many people are at sixes and sevens in the effort to attain independence in their way, especially given the threats of violence.
Similarly, institutional self-appraisal is also not very tidy, but there are good examples, like higher education where institutions are examining their history for their indebtedness to slavery. And some corporations, too, have made re-appraisals that led to responding to the restrictive voting laws imposed in Georgia.
Religious institutions, ironically, have the hardest time. Are we one?--can Eliot Church come to terms with our indigenous history, and can we pause to explore what an anti-colonial endowment policy might look like? If Eliot Church wonders how much more our church could be doing to address the injustices of this country, we must get to the next level by asking and answering the question--how are we not free? What is missing in our collective picture? Because charity is not an acceptable relationship to the world.
True freedom, if we learn this first lesson, is seeking the freedom of others, which is the second lesson. The Bible is a parable of the spiritual life taken from real life with implications ultimately for public life. The Bible shall set you free indeed, and the whole world, too.
Do you ever wonder, where is the joy in your life, where did it go anyway? You can get it back, once you see the light.
Mark, the first gospel chronologically, goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour within the first half of his first chapter. Mark opens with an immediate quote of stirring words from the 4th century BCE prophet Isaiah announcing the appearance of a divine herald–”prepare ye the way of the Lord. Clear a straight path for him.” That herald is John the Baptist, baptizing crowds in the Jordan River and forgiving sins. John predicted that another one like him, but greater, was coming. Indeed, Jesus appears and is baptized, when the skies open and the voice of God declares, “You are my beloved Son.” From there, Jesus is driven into the desert by the Devil for 40 days and 40 nights to be tempted. Already only 14 verses in, when Jesus returns, John the Baptist has been imprisoned, and Jesus takes up preaching, “The time has arrived, the kingdom of God is upon you–repent and believe the gospel.”
So far, Mark has used up only 15 short verses, and we are way into the meat of the story. The pace really quickens now. Jesus goes about teaching and encounters men fishing in the Sea of Galilee to whom he calls out, “Follow me,” and four of them do. They go into the city of Capernaum, where they attend the Sabbath services. Jesus teaches there, too, and people listened, astounded. Mark says, because he taught as one with authority. So, very quickly, very quickly in Mark’s version, we see Jesus take up his calling and take hold of his audiences. He appears and takes the public stage immediately in this gospel.
“He taught as one with authority.” What did he teach? He taught God’s Word from the scripture he knew, the Hebrew Bible. And by what authority? Was Jesus credentialed and vetted to speak in the Temple? The gospel says he was baptized by John and divinely adopted. Was he of the priestly class, raised to read and interpret scripture–No. Was he even literate, or had he absorbed everything he knew of scripture from hearing oral recitation? We don’t know. But he taught as one with authority.
The theological explanation given by scripture and tradition is that Jesus was God or the Son of God. Be that as it may, in human terms what would this mean? What would make him so persuasive? First, it was the content of his message–it replicated very closely what was in Hebrew scripture and law. Jesus was clear that he did not come to abrogate the law but to fulfil it. Jesus rendered teaching that everybody already knew, but in a way that entered their hearts as never before. Again, how does that happen? Do we accept it as part of the miraculous, that Jesus was Jesus? Or is there something to learn here about our Savior that may engrave him in our hearts as he entered their hearts?
Let’s look at Mark’s report again–he taught as one “with authority.” It was not necessary to say he taught with “great authority,” it was enough to say “with authority” because that raised Jesus to a recognized level of public worthiness. I think it is legitimate to wonder, what did that entail between speaker and listener? No cinematic treatment has ever portrayed this mystery other than by close-ups of transcendent blandness. Because, they didn’t solve the problem.
No, but we can turn to the word “authority” itself for our clue. The word is related to “author” via the Latin “augere,” which means to increase, to augment. What does an author do but to increase and augment knowledge, to add and enrich what we know? And we know how scholars do this through research and so forth. But only after they have rendered past knowledge “in their own words.” An author’s authority comes from conveying and enlarging past or existing knowledge “in their own words.” What is important about that?
Here’s proof. If all Dr. Elizabeth or I did was to quote pages of the Bible or pages of commentaries or pages of experts, the letter would fall dead on the floor between us. But no, we augment what we have learned and quoted with understanding and words of our own–by which you feel that she personally owns this knowledge and takes it to greater depths. She has attained authority when you are moved to thank the preacher for something in the message. It is all due to the fact that it all came out “in her own words.” She personalized the truth of scripture by taking it off the printed page and lifting to your ears “in her own words.” You probably felt she was speaking “with authority.” Anyone is, when they are the author and speaking their own words.
In Jesus’ case, he took what he learned from the sacred texts, which were printed texts, and spoke them by memory and “in his own words.” He did introduce a certain augmentation, enriched it with his personal ownership. When you do that, you are not regurgitating formulas in a conventional way, but giving life to the words.
Hearing the words, as people exclusively did until the advent of the printing press, was a kind of magic. The Bible was known mainly auditorily. When people read a text, they did not do so silently, but speaking the words out loud. Here we are, a people of the Book, and yet its power is auditory.
You have probably experienced the truth of this. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s see what happens if we do with Jesus’ teachings what he did with Hebrew scripture. Take a piece of notebook paper. Then take 45 minutes and write down as much as you remember of Jesus’ teaching. You may fill the page before time is up–that’s ok. Time may run out before you have thought of much–that’s ok too. The goal is to see how our memory of scripture stands up in this modern age when we depend too much on the printed text. Do we experience Jesus in our ears at all?
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.