What’s in a name? Bread of Life Missionary Baptist Church Burning Bush M.B.C. Calvary Temple Baptist Church Cathedral of Love M.B.C. Christ Open Door Divine Solid Rock Garden of Gethsemane House of Prayer Greater King David M.B.C. Mt. Zion Holy Miracle B.C. River Jordan Temple Rose of Sharon Baptist Church St. Peter’s Temple of Love In a Boston that knows its history, our church’s name makes sense to anyone. John Eliot was the colonial missionary to the Wampanoags here. The church he founded in Roxbury bears his name—the Eliot Church in Roxbury. And then there’s the congregation that arose in Natick that housed the “Praying Indians” that Eliot converted called the Eliot Church in Natick. We came along in 1857 and named our congregation in honor of Eliot because the site of his first sermon to the Wampanoags was one mile away. So this church, and we here this morning, stand on indigenous ground. If you know your history, those names make sense. IF you know your history. Same thing, though, with the other Christian churches in America. Just take a look at the old yellow pages. Look up “churches.” They are listed by denomination, that is, by their national identity. They make sense when you know your history, which people used to, and so when it says “Grace Episcopal Church” (our neighbor), or Newton Presbyterian Church (another neighbor), the identifiers were references to their mode of governance or organization—Episcopal means ruled by a bishop (episcopus), Presbyterian means ruled by elders (presbyters, from Gk old man). Other names refer to their theology—Faith Lutheran Church belongs to the tradition whose roots go back to Martin Luther; Calvary Methodist Church tells you it belongs to the pietistic theology of the Anglican Church; the Friendship Mennonite Church is named for Menno Simons, a 16th century Anabaptist (they practice adult baptism only). How about us in the United Church of Christ? We are the product of a merger in 1957 of 4 denominations--the Evangelical, the Reformed, and the Congregational. Let’s just take “congregational” which means what it sounds like—we are self-governed, the congregation governs itself without bishops or elders. Our roots go back to the Pilgrims, dissenters from the Anglican Church in England, who came here in 1620. Let’s look at those yellow pages again under Congregational—we’ll see First Cong, First, Cong. . . etc. I guess when the First Congregational Church in Lee (MA) was founded in 1779 they thought there would be another and another and another! It didn’t happen, but the name stuck. What’s in a name? Let’s look around us in the city, or any American city. You will find churches like the one pictured on the front of the bulletin. It’s a storefront church, usually in commercial districts in the poorest parts of a city where the rents are lowest. And why should they be here? They are descendants of the enslaved. They fled the post-Reconstruction lynchings in the South. They gathered in northern cities where they could afford to. They served in two world wars. The non-discriminatory Federal GI Bill provided veterans with education and housing, except the program was administered by racially biased local departments. That’s why American suburbs look like they do and why these storefronts dot the inner-urban landscape. It’s another universe, where the storefront churches are located. Economically speaking, that would be obvious. Necessity dictates finding the cheapest location. The rent in places vacated when businesses die can’t be beat. Move in, fix it up, sing, pray, preach. Spiritually speaking, it is another universe, too. A very beautiful one, starting with signs on the front of the churches. For everyone to see, they announce, and by announcing they create, the universe which we are invited to approach. These markers define not only the world within their doors—they define the street, the whole neighborhood. For one thing, the church signs claim our attention, and they get it. Whether hand-painted or professionally done, these signs stand totally apart from the commercial ones around them. They don’t advertise; they communicate. The signs speak to us, almost personally, both about the congregation inside and also the promised life they represent. On those commercial streets, its message is anti-materialistic; surrounded by desolation and deprivation, the message is of spiritual abundance. Most importantly, these churches conform to the original biblical model of a tabernacle. In Israelite history, Yahweh’s home was in a tent—mobile, temporary—dating from the beginning of the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. When David revealed his vision of creating a temple for Yahweh, the Israelite tribes remonstrated and resisted. The concern was whether the divine truth would be compromised by enshrining God in luxury. So, exactly what’s going on inside these storefronts? For the most part, these are Pentecostal churches in practice and belief, which means they are moved by the Holy Spirit. They are “holiness” sects, whose members make commitments to the straight and narrow life. They refer to each other as the saints. As a rule, these are independent congregations founded by a charismatic independent minister, but many have national affiliations like the Church of God and the Church of God in Christ, or the Missionary Baptist churches. With more time, I would take you inside one of these congregations which James Baldwin described in his semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in a Harlem church of which his step-father was the pastor and where Baldwin himself experienced the conversion which made him a preacher at the age of 14. Let’s consider some examples of storefront church names—what do you notice? . . . .And how do these names compare with our own name—the sound, the meaning . . . What do we learn from these names? For one thing, they fulfill Christ’s injunction not to hide our light under a bushel. . . If you were starting a church, what would you name it—? What’s in a name? Heaven’s Door Table of Plenty Church Holy Ground Tabernacle Words Into Deeds Church United Christian Cathedral Church of Love and Justice Friends In the Holy Spirit Church Divine Song Congregational Church Water of the Trinity Church Good News! Temple Embracing Life Congregational Church Open Door Living Life Missionary Congregational Church
Rev. Rick Chrisman February 2, 2020 Who do we say we are? I Corinthians 1:26-31, Matthew 16: 13-20 Jesus once asked the disciples, who do people say that I am? Jesus posed this question after he had been performing miracles and engaging in controversies with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, so it was natural by now that he wondered what people made of him. The disciples proffered a number of alternatives they overheard—John the Baptist, some other prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. Then Jesus counters and pointedly asks the question that really matters, who do YOU say that I am? It’s the kind of question that reverses the field because the answer reveals who they are. Who Jesus is to me, in other words, says a lot about who I am. Who am I, is a question every person must answer for herself or himself, because it is a question about our identity. St. Paul gives us a humbling answer on our behalf, as we heard in this morning’s lesson, when he says we are not wise, not powerful or nobly born—rather, we are weak, low and among the despised with nothing to boast about except in the Lord—all too true, of course. Among other ways we can identify ourselves, in addition to what we say about Jesus, is by means of the social constructs—for instance, I am a straight, white, married male and father, of the tall persuasion, theologically educated and an ordained minister. That makes me a very lucky American, on several pretty obvious counts. Now, when I was a graduate student living on the Southside of Chicago, it was said that “Your politics is determined by what you see out your living room window.” It taught me that the answer to the perennial question, “Who am I?” must be answered in part by asking another question, “Where am I?” Yes, our identity is determined by where we live, where we work, and how we got here. The decisions I made along the way of getting where I am, invisible as they may be to you, are identity building blocks. I understood how decisions of mine, like my choice of friends, my decision to quit smoking (when I was 10--!), my choice of college, my choice of mate, how I handled a scrape with the law or conflict at work, all tell me who I am because these have determined where I physically and geographically am today. And, clearly, my decision for Christ also has shaped who I am occupationally and socially, and where I have landed since. The same analysis is applicable to institutions, like a church. In fact, the first of the three questions the Discernment Process of this congregation has to answer is, “Who are we?” This very important question does not have an automatic answer—it takes discernment. The question put that way can leave you a little at sea, it is rather abstract. One approach could be to apply it according to social constructs: we are a 125 member church, founded 175 years ago, a (mostly) white interracial congregation in a major staff transition. But let’s turn the question around and ask, “Where are we and what decisions has this church made that got us here?” “Where are we?” Just what can we see from our windows? #1 We are on Earth, the planet Earth, this earth ever turning even as we change it. #2 We are on indigenous land, where the indigenous people had lived for 10,000 years until we came here and John Eliot preached to the Indians one mile from here. #3 We are in a democratic country, where we are free from the arbitrary rule of kings, until the day before yesterday. Yet still more specifically, where are we? Yes, we are in a suburb, in Newton, Massachusetts. This congregation is used to thinking you are in Newton. But Newton is only your address—474 Centre Street, Newton, is just your street address, but I contend that it is not where you/we are. Eliot Church, I submit, is a city church, and I don’t mean the City of Newton but that larger thing that encompasses surrounding suburbs Watertown, Waltham and Cambridge and many others called “greater Boston.” Sure, you pay real estate taxes to Newton, vote for Newton’s mayor, attend the Newton town meetings, are proud of Newton’s trees, and are grateful for its safe streets and good schools. The whole point of suburbs 100 years ago was to get away from the awful city, but that ignores that we are dependent upon the city! The fate of the city is our fate! Ultimately, this alleged suburban congregation belongs to a larger organism called a city, called Boston in our case, or greater Boston, not to Newton at all. Newton actually faces the city, and Eliot Church is nearly contiguous, being the closest of our 5 UCC churches in Newton to the central city. This church occupies a little precinct in a mammoth nexus of interdependence that, because wholly invisible, perhaps has not much impact upon your view of yourselves as being intimately part of the city and in the city. The number and the scale and the complexity of urban systems in which Newton is enmeshed defeats any attempt to document or describe them—invisibly we are connected by money, food, and hope in four-dimensional networks as fine and numerous as capillaries. Start with this mural created by the Girl Scouts, and see what they see. What would you add, from the vantage point of your age and experience?
For example, what’s under our streets, what lines sustain our fuel consumption, who pays our paychecks, where does that money come from and how did they get it, who trains the police, where are the ships from China unloaded, how many radio and TV broadcasting stations are there, what do the students eat and who puts it in front of them, who launders the uniforms of the professional athletic teams every night, how is water for that procured and where disposed of, and while we’re at it, how many toilet flushes per hour flow under these streets to Deer Island? Eliot Church belongs less to Newton than to the ganglia of this giant organism interpenetrating us, despite all the superficial appearances to the contrary, like your Newton street address. I perceive from this church’s outreach that you have the consciousness, but do you own the identity, of a city church? Could this be what has held you up in recent decades? Eliot Church thinks about city issues and acts on them, Eliot extends itself outward (with ministries to the homeless, to immigrants, and involvement in the climate crisis), but does so as a suburban church? Instead of anchoring our work in the psychology of our suburban street address, we should follow our heart into the regions beyond this immediate municipality. This psychic step permits us to avoid the “us vs. them” trap where “charity” taints our solidarity with the larger world. We no longer reach out to “the less fortunate,” but participate in uniform solidarity with the larger city. Could this mean an end to white guilt and black resentment? So Eliot Church, I repeat, is a city church, by my lights. Can we own this identity explicitly, or at all? Does it guide our decision-making explicitly? Does it affect our self-presentation explicitly? Are we perceived that way by our own members, and just as importantly, by others? This is important because errors of perception, and errors of self-perception, cause lost opportunities. We all know that from personal experience, don’t we? What if we were to revise our view of ourselves, acknowledging that we are in and of the city, and henceforward call ourselves a city church? How might the response to us be different if the sign out front which reads “Be the Church” were rewritten to read: “Be City Church”? Like City Year, just City Church!
How can we make this identity real to ourselves? First, answer Question #1, Who do we say that we are? Then, let the answer to this question lead us to Question #2 of the Discernment Process, Who is our neighbor? And to Question #3 of the Discernment Process, What is God calling us to be? Jesus is not only asking, who do you say that I am, but who do you say that YOU are? --Rev. Richard Chrisman, 2/2/2020