When I was Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Skidmore College in upstate NY, I also taught in the Religion Dept. I collaborated with them on bringing significant scholars and practitioners of religion to campus. Every year we sponsored lecturers representing varied faith traditions. It wasn’t long before I realized that lectures on Buddhism drew very large student audiences. On the other hand, lectures related to Christianity were poorly attended. For instance, we brought Konrad Ryushin Marchaj to Skidmore twice in four years, both times to very full lecture halls. Ryushin was abbot of nearby Zen Mountain Monastery from 2009 to 2015. One indication of how engaged the students were, the Q and A was always long. But to take one example of Christian lectures, a wonderful speaker on altar paintings from northern Europe garnered only a dozen of us in an empty hall.
I puzzled over this for the longest time. Finally, I surmised that the appeal of the Buddhist talks is that there was no theology. None of the usual wrangling points came up–no God, no virgin birth, no sin, salvation or dismal church history or hierarchical assumptions. Instead, there were novel concepts like dharma, etc. As one of my students said, in Christianity there is no praxis, no practical religious life, as there is in Buddhism. Strike one for me.
So I decided to take a different approach. I brought a unique speaker up from NYC who made his reputation doing impersonations of evangelical preachers, except with liberal progressive political content. His name was Rev. Billy, the “minister” of the “Stop Shopping Gospel Church.” He always appeared with a back-up group of three gospel singers, and he was a fixture at Occupy Wall Street events. I reserved the performance space at the student center, anticipating a crowd. But there was no crowd, and they didn’t find his antics particularly funny or his critique of conventional Christianity up their alley either. Strike two for me–!
The next step was interfaith dialogue. I had attended a campus chaplain conference recently at Yale where I heard Eboo Patel, the head of the Chicago based Interfaith Youth Corps, speak. So I sponsored an entirely student run panel discussion about personal faith, which didn’t draw much audience either because it was–too personal. There just are not enough people who come to campus with enough of a religious background for this subject to matter. The plurality of students nowadays mark “NONE” on the religious preference survey. And those that do have a religious preference only have very partial exposures to their nominally held religion.
I should have believed it when the national student directory of American colleges and universities tagged Skidmore as the most secular campus, as most colleges and universities have become over the last 50 years. And that’s where the importance of Thich Nhat Hanh who died last week comes in. It’s hard to say who was the most important religious figure in the last 25 years, but Desmond Tutu, who also died last week, and TNH would be at the top in their different ways. Nhat Hahn benefitted millions upon millions of people in teaching Buddhist meditation as “mindfulness.” Looking deeply was his spiritual goal, and it necessitates commitment and discipline. This was the praxis that my student said Christianity lacked. TNH wanted to replace the order, “Don’t just stand there, do something,” with “Don’t just do something, stand still–!”
But he participated in and symbolized a growing accord between world religions over his 50-year career as a monk. He became the model of interfaith dialogue, engaging principally in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, having written books like “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” and “Going Home, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.” You could say he caught the wave of interreligious curiosity and religious war fatigue following the Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1898, the same wave that Vatican II caught in the 1960s. Religious people were starting to learn from each other–for the first time ever. TNH was motivated by very close relationships he had with people he admired who were believers in other religions. His goal was to help people see the affinities among the different religions and the good that there is in all of them. His premise was: you can only know your own religion if you know another; in fact, it is by knowing another that you understand your own.
But this movement not only faced headwinds in the increasingly secularized cultures. Worse, in every tradition the anchor was out, because there is no authorization in any religion for interreligious dialogue. The most we find in the Bible is hospitality to the stranger which was probably never envisioned as contemplating the possibility of there being truth outside our own tradition.
Let’s go back to Jesus who in our scripture lesson instructed the disciples as he sent them out, not to go to the Gentiles but to “the lost sheep of Israel.” The phrase gets repeated when he tells the Canaanite woman he couldn’t heal her daughter because his mission was to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus’ religious purpose seems to have been for Jews to be better Jews. Jesus seems to have been a “restorationist,” to revive the integrity of the Temple [EP Sanders]. It took the first Christians only a few decades before they reconceived Jesus’ mission as being to all nations, but how could that possibly happen? Scholars explain that the early church turned its back on the Jews, whom it believed responsible for Jesus’ death [Amy-Jill Levine]. The Jewish Jesus of a Jewish sect in the earliest gospel record became the royal Christ of the emerging Gentile church, then became the avenging angel harrowing the Jews of Europe and Muslims across northern Africa and the Holy Land. After that, it was the Inquisition and the attempted suppression of the Reformation. No wonder today’s students were bound to conclude: please, anything but Christianity.
What is a liberal, progressive church like Eliot and the United Church of Christ to do? We can adopt the very mission that Jesus pursued–to reclaim the lost soul of our religion, of Christianity. Maybe we temporarily suspend the dialogue with other religions until we have a better personal grip on our own. We certainly can develop our own praxis–
Receive scripture from the outside inward. You will have your next opportunity beginning next Sunday with Yonder Moynihan Gillihan. Be in meditation during Song, Word and Prayer. Worship God in spirit and in truth. Deeply reflect on what needs forgiveness in your life and in this nation. Apply Christ’s teachings in what we consume, how we spend our time, and how we treat others.
I. I have never undergone a religious conversion experience. Because there was never a time when I did not know God. My vision of God came upon me, amidst night’s darkness, like the dawn of a clear day– a very gradual brightening of the sky was announced by that red line at the horizon.
My vision came as a wordless Word, calm, certain, secure. It guided me, without my seeking guidance. It informed me of the Truth, without instruction. Gradually words came, with teachers and relationships and libraries and exposure to nature. The first words were “only connect” [E.M. Forster], and they came with the insight that Christ was the connection. His forgiveness restored, repaired, reshaped, and resurrected all life, including my own. Christ promises that we will be changed from a half to a whole [David L. Miller], that was given to me.
The Bible says it all, but so does God’s creation and all human creations. I experienced what people call “church” whenever I attended a musical concert, an art gallery, a poetry reading, sitting next to a weaver, throwing pots, even just walking across a university campus, and attending eucharist at St. Cyril's Catholic Church on the southside of Chicago. Art, to me, was the one true religion, and God had given me the supreme poem, Christ.
I was no artist, of course. I had no art and still don’t. And yet art is the medium in which I walk and talk and have my being. I found that out explicitly when I took a mid-career battery of vocational tests once. I couldn’t understand some dissatisfactions with ministry that nagged me. I took all the tests, had the debriefing, and learned an amazing thing. I tested off the meter in aesthetic quotient, whereas typical clergy score higher than me in the ethical and didactic quotient. As artists will do, I tend to look at things from many different angles, I like to see things in their context, and postpone judgement. I seem to pose questions that I can not answer myself, which doesn’t make for great sermons. I’m not crowing here, apologizing.
II. The vision I was given had its seeds when I was a teenager coming and going in the parsonage of my hometown minister. In the foyer of Don and Edna Bartholomew’s home was this remarkable sculpture, white stone or alabaster, about chest high, of a seated woman in a hieratic pose, praying, from an Asian religious tradition. There it was every time I came and went through the hall, it was beautiful, although I never once asked him what it was. It was Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of peace and mercy, I eventually learned. But it told me then that everything I heard from Don on Sunday mornings issued from a worldwide landscape. My vision told me that beauty was part of truth, and all that was human was beautiful. My vision told me that religion communicates through art, that religion was in itself art–in fact, that religion is the collective art of a people. Everything you see and hear at church, at temple or mosque, is an echo of the wordless Word [Daniel C. Noel].
III. The spiritual challenge for me when I became a minister was how to help worshipers make room for the wordless Word, give it room to “speak” and be heard in our hearts, when so many other words were circulating in the Sanctuary. Was true worship silence? Did Protestants need more silence? Were we lifting up the wrong models for the spiritual life, the saints? Perhaps the church needed to turn to the artists for models or examples–the great ones who produce the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the ordinary ones who compose hymn tunes and write hymn lyrics, for instance. My vision told me, we should be paying more attention to the lives of the artists–they create objects which they lift up into the silence. In fact, what are they doing but bringing their compositions in from the silence, the silence of the wordless Word. They don’t deal in formulas and shibboleths as is common among believers.
The spiritual challenge laid upon me by my vision was to clear out the static in the worship life church. Churches need to make room for more voices, more and different kinds of bodies, and fortunately that has been happening. More truth has broken forth from the gospel of Christ than we imagined. Jesus was given to us to envision, to imagine. Christ is Alpha and Omega, and everything in between. We assume only professional artists venture into such territory, like the artist who created the mural reproduced on the bulletin cover. But church members can, and should be given the platform and the permission, and the budget when necessary, to do so.
Paul wrote that each of you has different gifts, not in the sense of different talents, but perceptions and reactions–and visions–of Christ as Alpha and Omega. Teachers, prophets, healers etc.–these are active projections of the vision within. In these ways, we console others, help them understand, love them, giving back, and pardoning, by which we experience the Eternal Now.
IV. Every vision comes tailored to the needs of the recipient–Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Mujigore. My vision emerged to meet the particular hunger of one particular youngster, myself, who became the father of the idiosyncratic Christian minister you see before you today, myself. If I could only instill in you, not my vision, but the importance of articulating your personal vision–! The importance to yourself, of course, and to your spiritual life. But more so, the importance of your adding to the voices of this congregation which must resound like a trumpet on this corner of this community.
That’s why you hear me say so often, that churches don’t need to evangelize–if you just ARTICULATE. Make echoes of the wordless Word that are felt inside the Sanctuary and outside the church walls. Eliot Church, you have a platform here–use it–take your foot off the brake–release your inhibitions. There are many gifts, but one Spirit, it says in this morning’s scripture. You don’t need to be thinking of Eliot’s future–look at what you are doing today, or not. Rather than be consumers of religion, you could use your imaginations and exercise your will to offer others your vision of Christ.
You're not an artist, you might say–well, neither am I. But we can be what artists are–they are like tuning forks, who vibrate to the universe and to the wordless Word. All that’s called for is for you to amplify those vibrations into a vision for others to enjoy. My vision tells me of a great payoff–peace among the religions, more beauty everywhere, consolation for our deepest losses during this pandemic, a resurgence experience joy. –Rev. Richard Chrisman 1.23.22
The view from King’s mountaintop. Deuteronomy 34:1-8 The Lord said to Moses,“I have let you see the Promised Land, but you shall not cross over there.”
Martin Luther King saw everything very clearly. He always did. He saw it all very clearly that April night in 1968 in Memphis where he went to support the striking sanitation workers. Exactly one year before, to the day, King had given a speech at Riverside Church in NYC denouncing the war in Vietnam. That speech probably sealed his fate, and he knew it—King saw everything very clearly. He always knew who he was dealing with, as Blacks in this White society all do.
That April night, with a thunder storm threatening, King assured his audience that longevity was of no concern to him. Because, he had been to the mountaintop. He had reached heights from which to see the goal, he could see the Promised Land. He could see clearly that night, that to which he had dedicated his life, even though he would not experience the hoped for fulfilment along with everybody else. On what turned out to be the last night of his life, Rev. King was referring to Moses who had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and through the travail of the wilderness to freedom. Moses only got to Mt. Nebo overlooking the Jordan River and Jericho and further. He would die before the entrance into the Promised Land, and another would lead the Israelites to the goal, which King saw very clearly was to be his fate as well. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
King’s view from the mountaintop contained God’s purpose for him–a peaceable kingdom, the beloved community. King felt it in his bones, he knew it in his soul, very clearly could he see the goal. Having a vision colors everything around you and puts everything very clearly in perspective. His voice shook with emotion that night, he saw very clearly the danger he was in, but he never wavered from his purpose. God allowed him to reach the mountaintop. But no further. We don’t know why. Except that in King’s case, the forces against him which he had always seen, closed in. We are most familiar with King through his public addresses with the unique cadences of his oratory, as in the Memphis speech. But we are less familiar with his writing. It was always an education to listen to him, but it’s even more true when reading him. That King saw clearly what America aspired to be and what America actually was comes across even more so in his writing, revealing not only a visionary man, but a sober analyst who understood precisely the enormity of the evil against which God called him to fight. The book chosen as the theme for tomorrow’s Newton King Day observance is “Where Do We Go from Here–Chaos or Community” is a case in point.
King was an equal opportunity critic. He nailed white liberals who are never sure they want to pay the price of their convictions. In a prescient anticipation of January 6th, he nailed the white supremacist, who, he wrote, held that “democracy was not worth having if it involves equality with the Negro.” He wrote that in 1967, and today we are seeing that demonstrated in real time. Better to trash the government and the benefits of democracy if we must share this country with Blacks.
Reading Rev. King, you encounter a poetic mind, a phrase maker, using parallelism, paradox, searching analysis, and biblical clinchers. He draws extensively from philosophers and theologians, from history and historical sources. His reading of history, for instance, taught him that “the hope of the world is in dedicated minorities.” Who should take note of this insight? King was urging the churches to rediscover their (our) prophetic vocation and to “lift up their voices like a trumpet.” King cited a distinction made between the enforceable obligations of a society, laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that he fought for, on the one hand, and the unenforceable obligations of the heart and soul, on the other. Changing hearts and souls lies in the religious domain.
Expanding access to the right to vote, of course, was Martin Luther King’s great success, but fifty years later, in the wake of Citizens United and after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, with white supremacy invading the Capitol, with Christian nationalism in religious ascendancy, the fight is back on to protect free and open access to the ballot. The very integrity of our elections must be secured all over again. The landscape has changed since King wrote. Black Power of King’s day has been replaced by rap, the new Freedom song. Today, post-George Floyd police murder, whites know the score all too clearly, even if many do not admit it. A magnifying glass has been put to the absolutely appalling history whites have put Blacks through every year of the last 400 years since 1619. In the book of that title, a project of the New York Times by Prof. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the record is very clear. Only facing and owning such bitter truths will make America free. But you can be sure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King clearly saw everything recorded in this book, and knew what he was up against.
Now we are the owners of that knowledge, and white privilege is howling out about critical race theory. They know it’s true, Everybody knows, we live in the aftermath of slavery. Its effects must be reversed. The descendants of the enslaved must be acknowledged for their history, respected for their humanity, and compensated for their loss. Nobody knows what form or value this might take, but it cannot be determined without full and fair study and debate. H.R. 40, a bill to fund the study of reparations for slavery has yet to be passed in the U.S. Congress. The way things look today, it never will pass. Therefore, reparations to Blacks and Indigenous peoples may fall into the zone of those unenforceable obligations which belong to religious communities like ours. It will be our job to open people’s hearts and souls to the obligation to make right these mangled relationships. Start by getting over this “where’s-the-money-coming-from-and-who-is-going-to-be-paid” mentality. There’s a petty quid-pro-quo logic out there that just stops the conversation. Let’s replace the word “reparation” with “repair.” Repair regressive legislation. Think of strategic, structural changes like changing the way we fund public education. Repair urban communities–that’s why Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries was founded by Chuck Harper. King and James Baldwin spoke the same language, which is our language–“Blacks and whites are part of each other.” The whole challenge has now been forced back into the territory of the religious institutions.
Whoever chose the sculptor and image of Martin Luther King for his memorial in Washington, they did the right thing. It looks as though Rev. King were thinking, “Well, America, what are you going to do now? And, Eliot Church in Newton, just what do you plan to do about racism in America?” So let’s join Rev. King on the mountaintop, even if we, like him, don’t get to the Promised Land. Let your vision be clear and God’s purpose firm in your heart.
Seems like all we talked about in December through Christmas was light–now it’s water, another universal symbol. I.
John August Swanson’s composition on the cover of this morning’s bulletin is called “The River.” His river follows the many uses that any river has for people. He shows the essential roles a river plays in society, health, and culture. The painting culminates, at the bottom, in Christ’s baptism in that river with the Holy Spirit of God adding a blessing. The river Swanson depicted has no particular identity, although it could be the River Jordan.
What matters are all the activities, human and natural, that take place because of it–irrigating, bathing, playing, watering stock, dying clothes (?) and–the act of consecrating Jesus. Water itself blesses human life, as much in its ordinary uses as in sacred ones. Water gives life in every dimension.
During the four years I lived in Los Angeles, I was acquainted with John Swanson [see Appendix]. I admired his work and I admired him, so I was very sad to learn of his death last September. His art often depicts an idealized world, not to prettify reality, but to proclaim what it should be and to reveal what it is at its core. John Swanson’s art declares that God means for us to survive the trials of life and to triumph over them. God sets a baseline, a norm, upon which to judge ourselves.
Our scripture passage from Isaiah this morning declares, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
How can this be, or is it all just wishful thinking? No, it’s not wishful thinking, unless you read Isaiah to mean that God steps between us and nature, which is not Isaiah’s belief. He is simply saying that injury and harm are not in the divine program, except when we default.
In the case of “The River,” and in Swanson’s art generally, the artist shames today’s America by contrast with the divine program depicted there. America, where we fight over the precious, depleted waters of the Colorado River. America, where we allow Detroit children to be poisoned by lead in their water. Where the corporations despoil our rivers with their pollutants. America, where water drowns cities without proper hurricane protection. Where we have not responded adequately to the rising sea levels due to climate change.
Default need not be our fate, so declares John August Swanson. This need not be our fate, so declares the prophet Isaiah. This need not be our fate, so thunders God in our ears. It only lacks for there to be a people, any people, who will consecrate themselves to God’s promise, as Jesus did. This need not be our fate.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are mine.
II. Jesus stepped forward when he heard John preaching at the River Jordan. John was calling for people to depart from business as usual and embrace another life-style. John warned, “The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.”
Whatever spiritual maturation Jesus had been going through in his 20s, he heard his call to action at the River Jordan. Only, this was happening at the time of more civil unrest in Israel. Bands of zealots were raiding and marauding Roman installations. Executions were common.
John the Baptist was thought to be among the insurrectionists, but Jesus saw that John had more profound, spiritual ideas, and in the midst of dangerous turmoil Jesus stepped forward risking being mistaken for insurrectionists. They both were, and both were killed. So, the decisive moment was Jesus’ baptism.
Baptism is a ritual borrowed from ancient practices of ablution performed in many different cultures and religions. For followers of Christ, it isn’t about getting clean, like, “I want to wash that man right out of my hair,” or as when the impurities of living can be dissolved in water to be drained down the bathtub drain.
Unless you mean “cleaning up your act.” Getting right with God is the point.
How is that possible in standard Christian practice today? The act of baptism is supposed to be public and voluntary, as it was in the first three centuries. It took great preparation to be admitted for baptism, which took place at the Easter Vigil. Catechumens went through a long preparation for this event.
However, as later theologians focused on the state of the soul, it was imagined that performing this act was a minimum requirement for salvation. So, it was deemed necessary to baptize infants, lest they should die without benefit of grace. This magical thinking borders on superstition, of which there is a lot in Christianity.
Nevertheless: it is good that someone has said these words over a newborn’s head:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; You are mine.
But infant baptism cheated us out of the decision that Jesus himself made–a public and voluntary commitment to God. Today few of us remember our baptisms. Confirmation is supposed to enlist our assent to what baptism did for us, except it turns out in many denominations to be just an academic exercise serving as induction to the church community. It is in some denominations a condition of receiving communion.
Christian life lacks the public opportunity Jesus had to align himself actively with God’s will. Baptism should express our wish, or decision to live a godly life in a ritual that galvanizes the will.
Is there anything else comparable that accomplishes the same thing? The altar call? The renewal of one’s marriage vows? There are not many rites of passage left in secular society like baptism. What can we do to duplicate it? How are we to respond to John’s admonition: The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.
What would you do if you needed to reinforce your commitment to, say, democracy? A vigil, a demonstration, like last Thursday night? The peaceful demonstration may be the modern sacrament. Think of the march on Selma, or the 1963 March on Washington.
By the same token, what would you do if you needed to reinforce your commitment to Eliot Church? Do we have a ritual that projects publicly our commitments and values? Is there anything on our front lawn, in front of the imposing Greek Revival pillars and Christopher Wren steeple? Or are we mute?
Where do we proclaim for all to hear and see, Water blesses us, as it blessed Jesus. Do we bless water with every swallow, and with every decision we make?