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.
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