I am speaking to Eliot Church today, but what I have to say applies generally to many other churches, so I hope you stay with me. If the shoe fits, wear it.
Remember when Yogi Berra was asked, “What time is it?” He answered, “You mean, now?” God bless you, Yogi Berra, a true philosopher.
Yes, Now—! And what time is it now? For Eliot Church of Newton MA, it is the Kairos, meaning it is the right time for something big to happen.
Ripeness is all, saith the Bard, and I want to level with you and say that Eliot’s time has come to right-size itself. In order to cast a vision for Eliot’s future, which is the principal work of the transition period, a church must first take stock. A sober, fact-based reckoning has been publicly missing so far, perhaps because church members feared it would just paint a hopeless picture.
Think with me a moment about this great story from sacred scripture. It’s one of the favorites because it contains hope and it contains a sly joke.
Look back to where the Lord, in the guise of a visiting stranger, says to Abraham, “Before I come back in a year hence, you will have a son.” Abraham, the first patriarch of the Israelites, lived in mortal fear of his family being wiped out in the desert wilderness. Yahweh had been promising Abraham that his progeny would be numberless like the sands, and here was the Lord predicting these two nonagenarians would be parents again.
Now being something like 100, Abraham, and Sarah, age maybe 90, had long since come to the proverbial end of their family line. And so the Lord tells them that the line will continue, that Sarah and you will conceive a baby. Well, when Sarah overhears this conversation outside the tent, it makes her laugh out loud—she’s pretty clear about her being past any sexual pleasure and, besides, the old man is, well, OLD—point taken!
The Lord then said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
In other words, you did doubt me when you laughed.
Nothing proceeds in a straight line for the Israelite history (for instance, second-born Jacob supplants first-born Esau, Israelite slavery in Egypt is overturned by the youngest son Joseph who himself had been sold into slavery, corrupt monarchies follow, and the crooked, deviating line goes on, never in the straight way expected).
And this is exactly Paul’s point when it came to the arrival of the rabbi Jeshua, ben-Joseph, whom Paul called the Christ. Surprise, another jog in the line: Christians will be the new Israelites, Paul asserts. Paul contends that, once again, Israel will be reborn and continue its life of faith.
Well, Israel laughed in Paul’s face–that’s not in the reproductive cards, spiritually speaking, and certainly NOT in the way you envision it, Paul! This has been a bone of contention between Christians and Jews to this day. But, clearly, there was something to Paul’s claim that God had more in store for his people because here Christians are, 2000 years later one of the world-religions.
But some Christian churches are feeling their age. At 175 years of age, Eliot Church of Newton is feeling wizened, withered, and weathered, and members have privately wondered for 10-12 years now, as Sarah did, whether this church is fertile enough to produce another generation.
How explicitly can I put this—you have good reasons to doubt: Eliot Church is mortally over-extended and underpowered. (It is certainly not undercapitalized, but that paradoxically is actually one of Eliot’s problems—more about that another time.)
Look, we live in the desert wilderness of modern secularism, and a plague has descended on the land. But there is nothing so bleak about Eliot Church’s prospects that can’t be fixed with a cold hard look at the facts, just the facts, Ma’am. And there is nothing dire about Eliot Church’s prospects if approached with a good collective laugh, with Sarah by your side, resting in the divine promise which is right in your laps. Frankness about the facts will bring rebirth, new members and a new minister.
It’s time, it’s high time for leadership and members to have an open, public conversation with each other, with no pre-conceptions about outcomes. Just hear each other out, one by one and anticipate the divine wisdom that comes with discernment.
What I have observed so far is that Eliot is reckoning every week with a whole apparatus that is just out of proportion to the size and needs of its congregation. Think about this: do 60 members in a church justify a $400,000 budget? What story does that tell you—can you discern the entire story this tells, and implies? What has the story told you about the remedies that have been proposed over the last 10-12 years to increase membership and income? Many worthwhile endeavors have been tried, but to no avail.
So now it’s time to rewrite this story and exercise your only other option for renewal, alter our expenses to fit the reality. That’s what I mean by right-sizing the church. It’s time, and it’s the right time, my friends in Christ.
This is known in the New Testament as the Kairos—a decisive point in history. Maybe it means a jog out of the expected line.
How do you discern and honestly know when the Kairos is actually here? Because it gives you the sweats, it gives you the chills, it makes you want to run away, and tempts you to laugh it off, even as you realize the divinely fertile moment that this is. We believe in the living God here, and when God poses a demand, God confers an ability. Trust it. Will this congregation discern its Kairos moment? Discernment Committee, Leadership Council, leaders and followers, bystanders and stakeholders—let’s embrace our time’s challenges as a stimulus to stake our claim upon the future. We will get through this together.
It’s time to reorganize the staffing, rebuild the spiritual life, pull people out of the woodwork, all hands on deck. Time to give me an “Articulation Mob” so we can put up a banner thanking the health workers, so we can put green floodlights on the church pillars to keep the Climate Crisis front and center. Time to put the church on alert for changes in the social needs of our precincts, and be prepared to take concerted action as a church in service to the community.
Let’s summon the frank and open conversation necessary to fashion the publically oriented plan that will make our mission real and visible in the Post-Covid era. The main thing needed is trust in each other—that’s what you must bring to the table. We are here not just to get hope (although I pray you do), but to give hope to each other and our broadest community.
You have an identity, I can see it for myself—Eliot Church is an Owner-Operated, Total-Participation, Equal-Opportunity Gospel Mission Center!
That identity only needs you to give it some flesh and blood. I will pray for the Holy Spirit.
President Obama, in an online “Commencement” speech to graduates of high schools and colleges last week, gave a not-so-veiled swipe at the federal administration when he told the young people, “It’s up to you now, nobody else seems able to do it.” But, hey, what about us at Eliot and around the adult world—what about our role in rebuilding our communities? It’s also up to us.
We have our role to play—this should be a summer when we write that script. I invite you, I exhort each of you and the church collectively to see, to grasp and to accept the Kairos. You are entitled to your laugh first, but the Kairos moment for us has arrived, and we are stewards of that moment.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Answer me that.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. May 17, 2020 The Sixth Sunday of Easter Deuteronomy 30: 19-20 John 15: 12-17
What’s Anger Got to Do with It?
For the past few weeks, we have been sharing together our “Building Blocks of Faith” project. I hope you have had the opportunity to view the hymn presentation on the Eliot website. Our current assignment is to share with one another the things that give us hope. Thanks to those of you who have sent me your musings and images of hope. I “hope” more of you will do the same this week!
I confess that I have been struggling to find anything hopeful right now. As the flowers bloom and the temperatures (hopefully) warm, there has been something between me and the hope made visible in front of me. Prayer, meditation and reflection have forced me to name what this is; anger. There is a vast and deep anger in my soul – and it feels to me that I must face that anger if I am ever to hope again.
Our Christian tradition cautions each of us “to turn the other cheek,” to go “the extra mile” and “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” These verses and others like them, lead us to believe that anger is NOT an emotion good Christians are supposed to feel.
But there is another experience of anger in the Christian tradition: Prophets angrily warn God’s people that their failure to live according to God’s ways brings wrath and death. Jesus angrily turns over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. Righteous anger has its place in the Scriptures and so it must have a place in our souls. So – How did we come to ever believe that anger is one of the “Seven Deadly Sins”– a doctrine mentioned nowhere in Scripture?
In an essay entitled, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Christian ethicist Bev Harrison tackles that exact question “We Christians have come very close to killing love because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin. Anger is not the opposite of love. It is a feeling signal that all is not well in our relations to other persons or groups or to the world around us. It is always a vivid form of caring. . . Anger is . . . a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the morality of the social relations in which we are immersed.”
These are a mouthful of words, yet they call us to explore the role anger plays as we practice our faith. Harrison’s naming of anger as a “feeling signal of vivid caring . . . of resistance in ourselves to the morality of the social relations in which we are immersed” eloquently describes the state of my soul – and maybe yours too.
Covid-19 exposes the “morality” – or rather the “immorality” of the social relations in our nation. It is the poor, the vulnerable and human beings of color who bear the brunt of our disordered relations with one another – those forced to work in essential services who have no other choice if there is going to be food on the table, those who cannot afford medical care, those in prisons and detention camps, those who live where nutritious food and housing are scarce resources, and in environments with air pollution and impure water making them more vulnerable. In the richest nation in the world, children go to bed hungry while adults literally work themselves to their deaths in the close quarters of meat packing plants. If that weren’t enough, there are small, easily manipulated, but vocal and well-armed, groups who understand their “liberty” to mean that they can do what they want no matter how it impacts the rights and humanity of others.
We are Christians – called to love our neighbors, not through feeling benevolently toward them, but acting with and for them. Eliot Church “practices what we preach,” generous with both time and money. Some of our frustration right now is that we cannot do the hands-on mission work we have always done. Yet we find ways to continue walking for hunger. We still work for fair housing and immigration reforms.
The evils of systemic dysfunction have been laid bare before us during this pandemic. It can overwhelm us and be a barrier to our hope. But that is where our anger can save us. Our anger reveals just how deeply we care about those who are the victims of our society’s disordered moral relations. And it compels us to work for the justice of God’s Kingdom.
Bev Harrison concludes her essay on anger with these words: “Chief evidence of the grace of God – which always comes to us in, with and through each other – is this power to struggle and to experience [anger]. We should not make light of our power to rage against the dying of the light.” In anger’s power, the seeds of hope are nurtured. Amen.
The question I posed for myself to discuss today was whether churches are, or can be, collectively creative when faced by a “limit situation” such as that represented not just by Covid-19 but also by Eliot’s transitional circumstances. Limit situations are those which take you to your earthly limits, when you are at your wits’ end, as they say, meaning, beyond human intelligence and will.
A limit situation calls for more than the problem-solving kind of creativity. It calls for the life-giving kind creativity, what we have been calling Resurrection creativity. There was a Resurrection because the spirit is eternal, yet the spirit wants a body. Here is a mystery—the eternal Word was made flesh—God sought incarnation, God sought “bodiness.” The result was Jesus, and you, the believer.
Paul expressed this mystery in his way by saying that “the Spirit of God dwells in you,” and he goes about explaining how your faith in Christ makes this real for you. Christians take words like flesh and our “lower nature” as the pejoratives they sound like. But this misinterpretation led to the mistaken disparagement of the body by Christianity.
But actually, Paul was at pains to explain that we live not in two worlds (not spirit AND flesh, nor spirit against flesh) but in one world only (spirit IN flesh).
Think of it this way on a wet day in May: Spirit infuses the body like a spring rain saturates the earth. The spirit in us gives us life, and given a chance it will animate even a dead body (“resurrection”), dead goals, dead hearts, even (?) dead churches.
We have already talked about the ways individuals can do this—through life-giving creativity. Dr. Elizabeth and I have been plying you with assignments—journaling, submitting concrete spiritual exercises—all intended to deepen your individual religious lives. What about a church--can a church do this for itself? When faced with a limit situation like ours—can we collectively deepen our spiritual lives?
My answer is that the same recipe for individuals applies to congregations. You’ve heard this before, but I’m going to repeat it today, this time with a boost from some on-screen examples (let’s see what I can do with Zoom!)—my recipe is—ARTICULATION.
What is articulation? Simply put, articulation is bringing what is inside of you outside—as when you write your thoughts and feelings in a journal, as when you explain your favorite hymn, or compose a symphony, choreograph a dance, perform an anthem, sculpt a sculpture.
Articulation is the common denominator of—proclamation, witness, testimony, verbalization, exclamation, profession, declaration, making visible, making audible, making understood, making REAL, making your spirit visible, giving your collective spirits in this congregation a body.
Without articulation, we don’t know ourselves, either as an individual or as a church, and nobody will know who we are. In the case of a church, articulation permits others to get a glimpse inside the church doors, into our church’s soul, if you will.
So where is our canvass, our notebook, where is our stage? We have walls, we have an actual stage, but let’s just focus on the church exterior, the church grounds.
What means of expression do we have at our disposal out front and around the church building? Well, all churches have signs, so do we. We have several, e.g., the one that reads, FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT THE EASTER PROMISE.
Churches use their open grounds differently—a Lutheran Church I visited in Washington DC (at Dupont Circle) placed little placards with the names of the victims after the shootings at Parkland High School in FL.
Many churches have not found anything or any way to express themselves. But cities often make use public spaces.
Expressions like these are life-giving, and they give people hope because they ARTICULATE a creative movement in the life of their community.
Someone asked me recently, “What are we doing all this for (gesturing to the whole building)?” My answer is, you’re here not just to get hope (which I pray you do), but to give hope. I would rephrase the church’s mission this way: you are here not just to get hope, but to ARTICULATE hope.
Helen Keller was asked once which of the two senses hearing or sight she would wish to have back—she answered, neither, I would wish for speech. She actually learned how to speak, and she did give speeches everywhere she went, but she was just barely intelligible and she knew it and suffered terribly about it. That’s how important ARTICULATION is.
If you want to mount up creatively as a church, we will need to get organized—that is, reorganized. We will need an Articulation team, or call it an articulation string, or an articulation mob in order to create more opportunities for individual expression; to promote collective artistic projects; to provide training, as rudimentary (or advanced) as it needs to be; to sponsor a sculpture competition that we exhibit on the lawn; to create an outdoor performance (or worship?) space.
For such to succeed, a church will need to develop guidelines, fundraising, vetting, time limits—and trust, lots of trust. Be prepared for the surprising differences of theology and spirituality that surface. Welcome and enjoy the diversification and differentiation that emerges.
St. Paul was asking whether we live within horizons that we have set too narrowly, blind to the vast horizon of God which stretches beyond us but which is really IN us. What is Resurrection—a doctrine we subscribe to, or a real experience? I ask you, do you want a Resurrection experience? Can we demonstrate, can we ARTICULATE, our answer in this very time and in this very place?
I trust you will come to believe with me, “Our creativeness should be the expression of our love for God”—it will give hope to others.
The breadth and depth of pain inflicted by this virus so far will never be fully measured, recorded, or reported. And it isn’t even over yet—the twin crises of Covid and climate have more in store for us.
This is an absurd world, and we have made it that way. The airwaves are full of analyses of how we got here and how to get out of it. You won’t guess what Jesus’ analysis is.
Start with this passage from John’s Gospel this morning, the appointed text in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter--Jesus seems to be in some public place where a crowd had gathered around to witness the altercation between the man born blind, whom Jesus had just healed, and his family and their neighbors and the Pharisees all disputing how such a miracle could have happened.
After putting the Pharisees down as being blind themselves, Jesus relates a parable for them as a clue—just a clue—to who he is. The picture he draws is taken from the very familiar context of agrarian society, but they don’t get it at first (that was in the first reading). Then Jesus has another go at it (this was in the second reading), from a slightly different direction, that sows even more dissention among his listeners.
It shouldn't have been hard to understand the analogy he was drawing between himself and a shepherd who cares for his flock. Except that Jesus explicitly contrasts the shepherd with thieves and bandits who sneak into the sheepfold late at night to plunder the flock.
Well today, we mostly find this to be a quaint image, from the point of view of our post-industrial and middle class society, one we already recognize from the comforting 23rd Psalm and the reassuring image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who seeks after every last one of his flock. Not to mention its familiarity to us because it was the primary visual image of Jesus for the first two hundred years of the church’s history, prominent in the catacombs of Rome during the decades of persecution—it is the image of a shepherd with a lamb thrown over his shoulders. (The cross and the crucifix do not figure in Christian iconography until a long time later.)
Yes, how quaint, to us, but it had another meaning—to Jewish ears the analogy was abrasive, because the Hebrew prophets are replete with identifications of the king with shepherds as a way of signifying the nature of the responsibility of kings for their domain, actually a very personal and almost intimate responsibility. Which responsibility the prophets were clear to point out was violated over and over by Israel’s monarchs.
Here’s a passage from Ezekiel that will show you why the shepherd analogy raised the hackles of Jesus’ listeners.
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
It goes on, but here is the clincher--
18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
Jesus was contrasting himself against the religious authorities and the actual governors in a way that was particularly embarrassing to them—as if to say, let me do your job for you—the right way.
In the second part, Jesus shifts the analogy to claim now that he is the gate to the sheepfold, that is, the door to safety, the door to salvation, to eternal life, that is, to a life lived in the eternal now of forgiveness and reconciliation which brings abundant wealth and riches.
Even though he has shifted the analogy from shepherd to door, Jesus again (!) repeats the by now grating reminder about the thieves and robbers who despoil the land. This fierce shepherd, Jesus, one day will run afoul of the enthroned shepherds during the Roman occupation of Israel and die for it, and he will not be deterred by that likelihood any more than the prophets before him were.
Sheep are not stupid followers, it must be said—they will follow only someone trustworthy, and Jesus says to them, I am that—follow me. The stringent demands of the prophets upon rulership are not being met by kings, but by Jesus himself, the forgiveness-bearer whom you can trust.
Maybe there isn’t any king who wants to or can live up to the demands of the prophets, and maybe there is no American president either (of whatever party), nor cabinet member nor state governor. However, fallible women and men can be good rulers, “good shepherds.” So then, make all leaders sit under the glaring exam light of Jesus’ parable of a good shepherd, or THE good shepherd, and judge how they fare.
It was a simple parable, but they didn’t get it at first, but when they did, they didn’t like it. It’s a simple parable for us, too, but we don’t get it in the United States of America either, and if we did, we wouldn’t like it.
The land of the free and the home of the brave has translated in practice into a democracy of unregulated opportunism—and don’t anybody tread on me! The sheer abundance of nature just had to be harvested wholesale, the dangers thoroughly subdued, the vastness rendered useful to human habitation—and so it came to pass, nature was trammeled in the process of making the continent not just habitable but also profitable.
Nothing new here, every part of the globe has been settled by an invading force—that’s nature, one body of organisms claiming space for itself over others. What’s Covid, after all?
But America added one lethal thing—science. Yes, lethal. It’s a paradox—science is one of the great creative forces in human civilization, conquering disease, saving lives; but science made a Faustian bargain when our civilization embraced only the problem-solving faculty of creativity.
Yes, we Americans are well-known for this, for our can-do faculty, and this kind of creativity got us to the moon and safely back. This was exemplified during the Apollo 13 crisis when they signaled, “Houston, we have a problem,” and their science saved them. All good, of course, they got home, thank goodness. But this life-saving effort was only half the creative equation and the lesser half, at that.
The other half of creativity has more than a life-saving purpose; it has a life-giving purpose—LIFE-GIVING. It is proclaimed in the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reaches back behind the death of Christ into his life and ratifies the true life of divine creativity.
It may or may not work out that we get saved from the death-threat of Covid-19 by the scientific search for a vaccine. But what I can guarantee that will succeed is activating the theological creativity that creates out of nothing, as God created out of nothing. At the moment, many, many people are bumping their heads against their limits, and so we are going to have to reach beyond science into our spiritual selves for the Eternal Now that is ever and always creating new possibilities.
We mistake Jesus if we take creativity to be an “activity” like science, instead of as a property of God’s universe to which we belong and are heirs, as the Native American cultures that we destroyed believe.
Possibly you understand now the prohibition against worshiping created goods instead of the creative good, against worshiping the Golden Calf instead of the “I Am,” against worshiping the stock market instead of “treasures in heaven,” that is, the life-giving treasures of divine creativity.
This is an absurd world, and we have made it that way alright, but . . BUT! We were created in the image of God, heirs to a theological creativity. And so there is hope—I know that my Redeemer liveth! Our hope is in Christ the Resurrected One, the forgiveness bearer, bringer of life abundant. Amen.
My subject next Sunday will be the question whether churches are, or can be, collectively creative when faced by a “limit situation” such as the present one.