These Sunday mornings lately, we have been confronting our history a lot: national and racial history, the colonial history of Eliot Church—all of it is big history, destined one day for the history books. But there’s a whole other department of history for us to discuss—I mean, Invisible History, that is, the history of human relationships and personal development which never makes it into the history books. For churches, the invisible part has a greater share than the visible part of its history—if you wanted to put a percentage on it, maybe 99%?
Here’s a perfect example from last week—the Eliot Welcome home to Nadja. Have you seen Patrick’s snapshots of us posted on the website? When you look at the expression on Nadja's face, you see priceless testimony to the personal ties that bind us together. But you won’t see that in the history books—it’s invisible history.
Other examples lately are the Food for Kids project that got 14 bags together for the Centre Street Food Pantry and the letter-writing project to promote Ryan’s early release—more invisible history.
You know what else, I think of Eliot’s invisible history every time I make the morning rounds of this church building and go through the downstairs kitchen and think of all the meals prepared, all the conversations that took place, and all the laughter shared over the decades of events held there—practically none of it ever makes written history.
It’s what I am calling Invisible History—our spiritual history, the gift to us of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the vital breath of this, and every church, over long, long, long stretches of time, through thick and thin, through wars, depressions, and civil unrest. Christ’s spirit has been our mainstay, and will always remain so.
This breath, this spiritual bond, counts more than ever, now that we have entered the Covid era. I won’t say more about the obvious except to place ourselves in our biblical context—Solomon’s glorious Temple, built in approximately 950 BCE, was destroyed in 586 BCE by the new Babylonian Empire, and the Israelites were all mostly carted off to Babylon. Solomon’s temple was rebuilt over the centuries by the Jews returning from exile and then completely destroyed again in 70 CE by the Romans.
Such was the utter devastation of their experience of exile in Babylon, the Israelites bemoaned their fate in the most extreme of our 151 Psalms, cursing their captors who mocked them and taunted them, wishing upon their captors in return the cruelest of vengeance, that their babies be dashed against the rocks.
We recoil from such a violent wish. But the Psalmist only permits himself such an expression because acting vengefully on such wishes was prohibited—Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord—it’s the difference between expressing the emotion vs. acting on it.
Recalling their mortal straits, the Psalmist stresses the importance of honoring the spirit they associated with the Temple in distant Jerusalem and singing to the Lord anyway. There is a lesson here for us during Covid.
Jerusalem and the Temple foremost within it, had been utterly and totally wiped out finally by Rome after 100 years of tolerating the pesky state of Judea where Jesus ministered and where he got mistaken for political zealots who agitated to throw out the occupying army. Out of wholesale devastation, emerged two wholly novel and unforeseen developments: first was the rabbinic Judaism which we know today, which is Judaism without the Temple. The second was the early Christian church, of which we are the descendants.
The long, gradual extinction of the Judean people was capped with extirpation—and that’s just what we could be looking at here today. The Jesus movement was about dead when he was executed by the Romans, but the Way didn’t die. Their belief in Christ’s resurrection carried over into a belief in their own resurrection.
Then we read in the lesson from the Book of Acts today, where the apostles start to form and shape a successor to the Temple (not a replacement, it must be added)—they invoked God’s spirit and did powerful deeds in the face of opposition. Paul himself persecuted the early followers as they became what we call a “church.”
Before this pandemic hit, we were facing a comparable situation of our own. Christians in the 20th century had been coping with erosions caused by secularism. The net result for mainline, liberal Protestantism was the evisceration of our supply lines—today we are being told: there are not now viable seminaries even for the few candidates enrolled; the cost of theological education exceeds what its graduates can repay; candidates cannot find church placements that remunerate them above subsistence levels; fewer churches can afford a fully trained Master of Divinity at competitive rates.
A famous song once asked people to speculate about a world without religion—and its benefits. That was coming true already pre-Covid. How will Eliot Church fare post-Covid? Will we come out the other side? What will meet us on the other side? Many churches besides Eliot have reason to wonder. It’s time to tap the Holy Spirit of the apostles, dear church.
One professor of the History of Medicine recently observed, “Great crises, like the previous three global pandemics, tend to bring profound social change, for good or ill.” Profound change, she said. It’s time for us to find the Holy Spirit that performed wonders among the apostles.
Lately we have been simply dazed and puzzled, especially about how far from ideal our American dream turns out to be. But our professor continued, pandemics are “accelerators of mental renewal,” and so has this pandemic revealed itself to be. If that is true generally, is it true of us? Are we experiencing “mental renewal?” Have we put on our thinking caps—no, I should ask, our reimagining hats?
Don’t try to imagine the world without religion—try to re-imagine our religion! It’s time to invoke the Holy Spirit and perform wonders.
Look: Jesus and the dire circumstances of his time combined to prompt two new kinds of community into being. The Temple was destroyed—as a result, Judaism reinvented itself and Christianity was born—the twin daughters of apparent finality.
Whether we realize it or not, this is exactly what is happening to us. What’s Eliot Church to do? We are going to need those reimagining hats. Because, you know there have already been creative imaginations out there for 25 years—you’ve heard of them and read their book under previous pastorates—the emergent churches, the divergent churches, the weird churches movement, church 2.0 and church 3.0, oh my!
Eliot church will want to redouble those imaginative leaps—and must.
We are in a perfect position to plant the seeds for the next Eliot generation with a fantastic history (visible and invisible), material assets (God be thanked), and an ideal location positioned for a city-wide ministry. People may not want their grandmother’s church anymore, but they still need and want a real church, whether they say so or not.
So it’s time for Eliot to find the Holy Spirit, because the next version just cannot look like the last—and won’t willy nilly. Consider yourselves from now on in the business of sponsoring a New Church Start—this will require not just the congregation in the aggregate, but also each and every one of you, to be the seed for your successor. You must die first, as Jesus told us that seeds do, before you can rise with new life.
It’s time for each Eliot member and friend to find the Holy Spirit, and next Sunday I will devote entirely to how that happens. Unless the plan is to disappear from history, both visible and invisible, Eliot we are going to call upon the Holy Spirit going forward. We are going to proclaim our discipleship to Christ Jesus and promise to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin July 19, 2020 The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 Matthew 19: 13-35
Commandments, Signs and Blessings, O My! Weaving through the pandemic and protest of this difficult summer has been the constant stream of images. Doctors in PPE covered from top to bottom. Marchers for justice in our streets. Statues coming down. “Black Lives Matter” painted on our thoroughfares. But one image stands out in my mind - Donald Trump, in front of St. John’s Church holding a Bible for the cameras, after the violent clearing of Lafayette Square. There is so much that troubles me about this image. I am deeply offended by the use of the Holy Bible as a prop. And while I am not certain what Donald Trump intended to convey, the Bible mixed with violence is always dangerous. History reveals the many ways the Bible has been used as a weapon against others – think of the Crusades or the religious wars in Europe. Whatever his intended message, Donald Trump used the Bible as an idol – a “statue” in its own way, closed, fixed and rigid.
Last Sunday, Rev. Rick preached on public art and the messages they send. He posed the question Jesus asked, “Who among you, if their child asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Reflecting on the image of Donald Trump in front of the Church holding the Bible, I wonder whether we see the Holy Bible as stone or bread – for us and for the generations who follow us.
The religious right believes that the Bible is metaphorically etched in stone, unchanging and not to be challenged. There is only one way to live a biblical faith. Their use of the Bible is intended to keep us – and our children on the straight and narrow. It proclaims the power of hierarchy and patriarchy– forever.
To be sure, the Scripture from Deuteronomy makes unambiguous demands: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” We are commanded to love the Lord and to make sure that our children and the generations that follow us learn to love the Lord too. But how do we teach our children by example what it is to love God?
The image behind me is from a Godly Play story called “The Ten Best Ways” and, of course, it is about the Ten Commandments. You will notice the heart shape of the box the pieces are stored in and that the commandments themselves are written on miniature tablets. The three tablets that form the heart are a summary of what it means to live biblically; “Love God, Love People, God Loves You” – That heart reveals love, relationship and mutuality. It offers us space to grow as we learn to live the way of love through Scripture. It is not stone, rather it is living bread to nourish and sustain us and those to whom we will pass the faith. We have to break open the bread, however. We need a relationship with the Bible, not as a set of demands to be obeyed, but as a life-giving exploration of living love. So here are some suggestions to break open the word of God in Scripture.
Find your favorite Bible story or better yet, one that perplexes you – doesn’t matter from which testament. Read it out loud to yourself or with your spouse or children. Then put yourself into the story. Is there something or someone that has been left out that you can fill in? Are there questions that you want to ask the people in the story? Imagine how they would respond. Act out the imagined conversation or actions with your kids, add costumes if you like – or simply write it out in dialogue with yourself. For example: I continue to listen for the folks who are missing from the story of the Prodigal son: I have always suspected that a discussion between the “good” son and his mother is taking place in the kitchen while she oversees the cooking of the fatter calf for the prodigal.
Another way to approach the Bible is to think about the stuff of your own life. There is no human experience that cannot be found in the Bible – everything from abandonment, to infertility, to family difficulties, to joy, failure, and worry – and everything else – are found within this living word. You can find the passages that speak to your situation by googling your experience followed by “in the Bible.” You will be surprised how much turns up. Once you have found a story, let the text be your partner in dialogue. What questions, concerns, or feelings are you experiencing? Tell them to the people in the story. See what wisdom might be there for you as you converse.
The Holy Bible is not fixed in stone as are statues and idols. It is a living expression of faith. You do not need anyone’s permission to imaginatively explore it. Scholar John Dominic Crossan, reminds us, “[It] is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” Taking them symbolically gives us plenty of freedom to play with biblical stories.
As you do, remember the commands that “form” the heart. Look for the places in the Bible and in your own life where you see people loving God, people loving people and the ways God shows love for us. Let the Bible knead you into living bread for yourself and the generations to come.
United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto posted the following on her Facebook page this week: “We are the ancestors of the future church.” Let that sink in. As ancestors of the faith, our vocation is to pass the biblical way of love to those who follow us. May our lives of faith be the living bread that will nurture our children and the generations to come. Amen.
Today’s controversies over monuments represent a profound teachable moment, which everyone should embrace with all due seriousness and hope. However, the subject of public art, e.g., war memorials, monuments to heroes, historical markers, decoration of public spaces, etc., generally is beset with more perplexity than clarity.
The first perplexity about public art is—who does public art belong to anyway? In the case of civic monuments, history is involved, which belongs to no one person, yet affects everyone. A monument not only celebrates history, it affects the course of history. The derivation of the word monument is from “monere,” to remind, to remember gratefully.
A good example is the memorial to John Lennon in Central Park in NYC, called Strawberry Fields.
A second perplexity is—civic monuments strangely seem to appear the way mushrooms do—from nowhere. What inspired whom to erect a monument and to what and to whose memory? Who funds a particular monument? Why? Who designs it? Who hires the artist? Who is it meant to please, to educate or to inspire? Is it a strictly local matter, or does it have a national audience, or even international? Our monuments just appear and nobody seems to know why. The third perplexity is—why are many monuments so bad? Consider this monument to Boston’s fire fighters (pictured here), a noble and worthy subject deserving of our honor, yet this sculpture’s cartoonlike composition does not do justice to the sacrifice they routinely make on our behalf.
On the other hand, why do some monuments inspire people beyond all comprehension. The memorial in Washington to those who died in the Vietnam War designed by Maya Lin has evoked strong emotions of both grief and appreciation from the hundreds of thousands who have paid their respects there.
Finally comes the bombshell question—who can remove and/or replace a monument? What if when it goes up, nobody likes it?—it’s not as if you can just take it off your living room wall. The case of naming a building is a related matter of similar sensitivity. Who may change the name of Faneuil Hall? To what, and why?
A confirmation of how potent symbolic images and names are—in the 2nd commandment, Yahweh prohibits images of God. And according to Jewish custom, the name of God is never to be pronounced or written, lest a lesser reality be taken for God. What applies to Yahweh would seem to apply also to human culture. We may not bow down and worship these objects, but we certainly form powerful attachments with them. Another way to look at the power of monuments is that they feed a people’s need for meaning. Think of them as the food one generation provides the next generation to carry forward the civilization. I’m borrowing Jesus’ personal image here to put our monuments in context—would you give your child a stone who is asking for bread? One generation feeds the next—we pass along the experience and experiences of our forbearers in these “graven images.” Eventually, time reveals new truths about the past, and suddenly monuments and names attain a different, sometimes offensive aspect. Today, the stubborn fact of slavery and its evils has broken over white heads. New meanings demand fresh images. Given all these considerations, how are we to respond to the call for the removal of certain monuments and the removal of names from certain buildings? Here are three cases—the Confederate monuments, Faneuil Hall, and Eliot Church. Case #1—the Confederate monuments. I don’t begrudge a society the right to preserve its heritage, as Pres. Trump argues. But I do begrudge the gesture when the purpose was never to memorialize but to send a covert message of subordination of the descendants of the enslaved to white society. You may have been emancipated, but we still own you. Do these qualify as true memorials? Or rather are they examples of bad faith, as I think they are, and deserving of being targets or reevaluation and removal? Case #2—by naming Faneuil Hall for a slaveholder and trader, we honor a dishonorable man and give tacit approval to the perpetuation of racism. Have we inherited a memorial that does not reveal history but obscures it? How shall Boston respond—do we commission a monument that acknowledges the fact of slavery, or erase the name that profited from it? Case #3—Eliot Church is the namesake John Eliot Church. Here we must prayerfully study the history. The first missionary to the Native Americans was operating within the completely accepted norms of the time, and yet he opposed the war against the Indians and the taking of them prisoner to sell them into slavery. Eventually John Eliot translated the entire Bible into the Algonquin language with the help of three native Americans at the risk of their lives. One of them, John Sassamon, was killed by the Wampanoags who doubted or suspected his loyalty to them. An article written for our website by an Eliot Church member tells the story of John Eliotwho famously preached in 1631 to the Wampanoags not far from here where there is a small monument marking the site—and this building itself with his name is a huge monument to him.
How do we disavow a certain part of our heritage and not all of it? Do we honor a dishonorable man, or is it more ambiguous? Or does he fall under complete judgment? The Newton Historical Commission last fall was deliberating removing Eliot’s image from the town seal, although I don’t know what has become or will become of that discussion. It’s time for white America, including our churches, to own our own history. The Wampanoag tribal family has been asking us to do this since they started making their Thanksgiving witness at Plymouth Rock (way) back in 1970 (!). How do we embrace the ambiguities as well as the praiseworthy aspects of John Eliot’s ministry at the same time? Moreover, we could afford to investigate, since we were founded in 1845, what role did we have with abolitionist movement (founded and run by William Lloyd Garrison from Boston), or not. This church opposed slavery and supported the Civil War [according to a sermon by Eliot member, Susan Nason.] But now, people will have to decide. We are caught in an absolute conundrum. A society wants to make permanent that which we value in a person, or an historic event. The trouble is, the value we attach to an unchanging symbol can change with time. New meanings demand fresh images. But if we want purity, we won’t achieve it— all Americans are part and parcel of a morally ambiguous enterprise, from violent colonization to ambitious expansion to heedless entrepreneurial juggernauts. We can have honesty, however—we can complete and complexify our symbols in order to represent the whole story, not by subtracting from the horizon but adding to it. A public hearing on the Faneuil Hall issue would be good, although Mayor Walsh has not opened that possibility, which is a shame. How did they arrive at the decision to memorialize Mary Dyer (pictured here next to the State House) who was executed in 1660 on Boston Common by our congregational forebears?
And, what process led to the commission of the monument (pictured here) recognizing the accomplishment of nuclear fission at this location at the University of Chicago (my graduate alma mater)? They weren’t shy about acknowledging the profound ambiguities following from that discovery.
But we have to attend to our own institutional history. Where is our curiosity? Where is our commitment to get right with history? And where is our wish to get right with our God? There is a valuable learning for us awaiting to be undertaken in faith, in hope, and in charity. --Richard Chrisman
Independence Day—for whom? Mark 11:20-25 As Jesus approached Jerusalem during the Passover festival, he cursed the fig tree on the Mount of Olives for a specific reason: not out of petty spite, but because he was expressing his dismay at the spiritual barrenness of Israel, as had the prophets before him, basically saying, everything may as well be dried up and dying, whether it be this little tree or a valley of dry bones. He could not stand the thought of a people’s soul, the soul of the “tree” of Israel, being spiritually barren and guilty of the crimes that necessarily follows from that barrenness. When the disciples pointed out to Jesus that the fig tree actually had shriveled up, Jesus cites a common proverb about the power of prayer, which is more than the power of positive thinking—it is the power of faith. But the clincher here is the post-script: whenever it is that you may pray, be sure to forgive your debtors and ask forgiveness for your own sins. I pray for our souls’ transformation and the remaking of this nation, and I pray this in Jesus’ name. The face of George Floyd is now on posters, tee-shirts, huge murals everywhere. He stares back at us—imperious, impassive, serene, collected, confident—as if to say to us, My children, you have let it happen once again. You’ve let it happen once again, he seems to be saying, Yes and you know it. And here we are, another Independence Day weekend in America, more speeches although without the parades this year. Independence Day indeed!—for whom? Frederick Douglass asked that very question in 1852. Douglass had turned down an invitation to give an Independence Day speech, because American freedoms were not extended to everyone, former slave that he was—but he agreed to speak in protest on the next day, on July 5, 1852. Born into slavery himself, and freed in 1838 at the age of 20 not by any declaration of independence but only by his own wiles and the encouragement of a freed black woman in Baltimore whom he later married, Douglass said that “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” It was in Rochester, NY, the city of his residence and the site of his national abolitionist newspaper, the “North Star,” where Douglass enumerated over the course of his 1½ hour speech before an audience of 600 people, the individual crimes of slavery and the national corruption of soul at the root of them. The speech was greeted by a tumultuous standing ovation of the all-white audience. Today, the murder of George Floyd represents in microcosm the million punitive daily strokes that send little boys and girls to bed each night wondering what their parents got them into. I pray for our souls’ transformation and the remaking of America, a nation that cannot seem to find the door, a nation grasping and groping in night sweats, the guilty dreaming of release and redemption. I pray for our souls’ transformation and the remaking of America, and I pray in the name of Jesus who told us to pray for forgiveness of our sins and for the repentance, expiation, reform and renewal that go with it. We are talking about sin here, not only crime—crime, like this crime of murder, arises from the heart where sin resides. The crime was against a man, the sin is always against ourselves. Of all the stupid sacrifices—not one but two lives lost in the same 8 minutes and 46 seconds! Think of the love foregone, heights forsaken, hopes erased. Yes, we witnessed the self-immolation of the white man and nation right along with our ongoing crimes against the black man and nation. One tragedy is that it didn’t have to be, if America had been following Jesus. The other tragedy is that it had to be, because so much of America believes only in itself and its personal freedoms. Churches are not just complicit in that tragedy, we partake of it, we own it, we experience it, we grieve daily over the tragedy, just for being American. As Douglass put it in his speech, the churches of that time “are not only indifferent to the wrongs against the slave, they actually take sides with the oppressors.” Since then, every Christian denomination has formally denounced racism but with quite uneven commitment and results. Individual churches have not all figured out the role they want to play in the national soul’s transformation and the remaking of America. If only every church had simply followed our Christian vocation—to resist oppression, work for justice, and to love like Jesus. There it is—and you can read it on our own front lawn today in the memorial there to black women and men killed by white police. That profession, that declaration of intent, just needs more fleshing out for our present time, for 2020, granted that during this pandemic it is harder than ever to find the right handle to grab and the most effective lever to push. We must promise to keep informed, form smart alliances, enter partnerships, use our financial power and our institutional example right on this street corner at the intersection with Exit 17 of the Massachusetts Turnpike, bordering with Waltham, Watertown, Oak Square, Brighton Center, and the rest of Newton. Already one nucleus of Eliot people has reorganized to strengthen our mission and social justice outreach and another nucleus is studying how to project our ministry into the community. But it won’t be enough to study racism without understanding sin the way Jesus did (which actually is something quite other than how many churches, mainly evangelical, understand it)—otherwise, we lose sight of our own sin. What good is our analysis of the problem of racism if we import our own sin into the solution? Can we graduate from and add to being anti-racist whites becoming freedom-bound Christians? If we truly want to “do” something, Christians first must reattach ourselves to Jesus. I pray that Eliot Church will get religion all over again somehow. I pray we will get over being so Jesus-shy, because what other basis for freedom goes deep enough into the problem of Independence and who does or doesn’t have freedom? To love like Jesus is to know that true freedom means seeking the freedom of others—spiritual freedom, emotional freedom, freedom from drugs, political freedom, intellectual freedom. Dr. Elizabeth and I encourage you and your family to spend some time on theAnti-Racism Study page of our website. There are a variety of materials there to help you understand and talk about systemic racism (including materials for children and you), reading and study recommendations and materials put together by members of our congregation about how we can be part of anti-racism work locally. Becoming anti-racist is a life-long practice and it’s one we can do together. We invite you to begin by reading How to Be an Antiracistby Ibram X. Kendi. The book is available in hardcover, ebook and audible formats at Amazon. We will announce opportunities to discuss and share questions about the book in the next several weeks!
Ultimately, I wish for you a personal thunderclap that permanently shakes up your individual souls—the redemption of our national soul is at stake. You have heard us read two stanzas of the Black National Anthem so far—the first stanza says, Sing! The second stanza says, Keep marching! The third is a prayer, like mine—for the transformation of our souls and the remaking of America. Let us pray. . .God of our weary years God of our silent tears You who have brought us thus far on the way You who have by Your might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met You Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget You Shadowed beneath Your hand May we forever stand True to our God True to our native land
--Rick Chrisman 7/5/2020
SPECIAL PRAYER by Dr. Elizabeth Windsor
Good and gracious God, you teach us through the prophets to “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. This Sunday as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are simultaneously grateful for the aspirations of our founders and yet concerned for our future.
We are thankful for those who came before us paving the way for liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our convictions, and our lifestyle. But we confess that we have often failed to extend these freedoms to all people of the United States. Race, class, gender and immigration status limit the possibilities of some, and give others the power to exploit and deny those who still yearn for these same freedoms.
During this time of national celebration we are grateful, yet concerned….concerned about our nation, and concerned about the future. Our nation suffers through pandemic with no end in sight, our people are divided, children remain in cages, black men and women are endangered by our policing, and our economy is in pieces.
These concerns elevate our anxiety about the stability of our government, the dependability of our employment, and the longevity of our freedom. And we confess that these anxieties often distract us from our mission to “love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly” with you.
We confess that we have too frequently taken our freedom for granted and we have too often been negligent in living up to the responsibilities of our citizenship. We also confess that our self-interests have too often taken priority over the best interest you intend for all who live in our nation.
As we celebrate this Independence Day weekend, we ask you to forgive our sin and to heal our land. We pray for the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will lead with integrity, courage, and wisdom. Guide us to exercise our freedom responsibly and to pursue “liberty and justice for all” people, without discrimination, fear or favor.
O God, grant us wisdom, grant us courage as we seek a “more perfect union” with you and one another. Amen.
What are we missing here? PROLOGUE For the prayer on confession last Sunday, I offered a prayer by Flannery O’Connor, the celebrated fiction writer from Milledgeville Georgia, who, I learned the next day from a church member, was also a racist of very standard southern issue. This was a surprise to me, and I was ashamed I was not more informed or I probably wouldn’t have used her prayer on a Sunday devoted to African-American oppression from the racism in all of us. On the other hand, she prays to lose her blind spot, even though she didn’t recognize the particular one we are focused on. By the same token, blind spots were a concern of Jesus, as you will be hearing in the scripture lesson and sermon later. So I think it is very appropriate to repeat Flannery O’Connor’s prayer this morning and the assurance of pardon I wrote for it. Prayer of Confession—Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self-shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and I will judge myself by the shadow which is nothing. I do not know you, God, because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside. Please help me get down under things and find where you are. Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me. Amen. –Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964).
Assurance of Pardon—The forgiveness of God is perpetual. God’s forgiveness inspires humility, honesty, repentance and reform—let it be so for every one of us and for every American citizen today. Amen. What are we missing here? Matthew 7:1-3“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? I. Over the years of reading history, I can remember my silent reaction when encountering the account of some particularly egregious inhumanity. Romans crucified thousands and thousands of people for robbery or sedition, as Jesus was himself—a barbarous cruelty that absolutely defies belief. The church gave Joan of Arc over to the secular authorities to be burned at the stake—how could they possibly burn anyone to death, least of all her?? They dunked women they thought were witches to see if they would live—what on earth kind of logic is that? People were stolen from their peaceable lives and after a perilous passage across the Atlantic sold into slavery—who could possibly conceive of human beings as property and treat them that way? Lately, the American military would torture captives nearly to death—how could they possibly abide by what they were doing to another person with their own hands? The few objections to these practices went unheeded at the time, if they were even heard. II. I do not judge that there are satisfactory answers to excuse those behaviors today, and nobody does—but what I probably ought to be more worried about is, what could there be that is comparably barbarous, cruel, inhuman, and illogical that we are overlooking in our front yard today? Jesus not only was preaching a commonplace ethic of his time—judge not that ye be not judged; he was making a particularly Jewish point—that God is the ultimate judge, not you or me. But Jesus characteristically added a little dig at our hypocrisy by using the wildly exaggerated analogy between the speck in other person’s eye and the log in our own to put our own sin in correct proportion to its real importance. It is to our great shame that the Kerner Commission Report in 1968 got it right—poverty and institutional racism were driving inner-city violence. But nobody in power gave heed, and we continued living our precious lives while African-Americans continued dying—. It is to our great shame that Americans to this day will make points out of “welfare queens” so-called and poorly educated blacks and unstable families without seeing our direct role in their existence. It is to our great shame that we could not get a clue, neither from plain common sense nor all the sociological data, until people had to pour out into the streets last month in 99 cities in the midst of a pandemic to express the heartbreak of life in America for people of color. What are we missing here, like those people in past centuries who condoned barbarity, cruelty, inhumanity, and lethal illogic? White flight to the suburbs has baked into our living habits a casual insouciance. What are we missing here? American self-reliance has baked into our living habits a malignant stinginess. What are we missing here? What are we looking straight at and not seeing? An axiom of urban studies is that people in every age and culture want safety for their families and education for their children. Safety and education—for lack of which cultures must endure high anxiety and ceilings to their aspirations. Safety and education—everything I got growing up white so I have wealth that isn’t even measured in dollars. The promise of safety and education for our children populated American suburbs with 10s of millions of white families. Here is what I know we are missing: it’s the barbarous, cruel, inhuman and illogical way we fund education on the basis of local real estate taxes. We fund public education on the basis of taxes on local real estate values. Seems obvious, but we don’t see the mistake here—or, if we do see it, we don’t and won’t do anything about it. Germany saw it. They fund all national education from the state level with state-wide taxes—not municipal real estate taxes—so school quality does not vary significantly between rich and poor towns and cities. Maybe in 50-100 years down the road, people will read about us in their history books and say, “How could they possibly have missed seeing the barbarous, cruel, inhuman and illogical way they funded public school education??” III. But let’s take this analysis back to the personal level where Jesus had pointed us. For lack of practicing at the personal level what Jesus preached, we persist in habits of judgments we call “opinions” on how other people dress, about their decisions and mishaps and, worst of all, we form ill-considered opinions that form the substratum of political positions we take on public issues. How qualitatively different opinions are from wisdom! Opinions are judgments not substantiated by positive knowledge—not thoughtful discernments. (“In my opinion. . .”, “Well, if you want to know my opinion. . .”.) How destructive opinions are when people live on an exclusive diet of them. This is a distinction I was trying to cultivate last fall with my “Soundings” program, where I urged us as we entered our Transition phase at Eliot Church to get beneath or around or over the mere opinion level into a more discerning faculty. Opinions are born from our judgmental reflexes, our vested interests, our blocked emotions, and the imperfect vision we have of God. We hardly know ourselves, let alone others, because we are always batting around opinions we wish others would come to their good senses and concur with. Before you judge a man or a woman, walk a mile in his or her shoes, goes another proverb. See what walking in George Floyd’s shoes for only 8 minutes and 46 seconds did for this country. All this applies to us in our Discernment phase at Eliot Church as we seek to make a path forward in 2020, just as much as it applies to developing sound political positions in a country in a racial crisis. To ask God for us to remove ourselves from our line of vision of God, is not a bad prayer, it’s a very good prayer that O’Connor prayed. In fact, it certainly meets my definition of prayer as a moment of honesty before your God. Flannery O’Connor probably didn’t even know she was racist, but her prayer asked for the honesty to find what she didn’t know about herself. Well, it’s up to her to find the speck in her eye, and up to us to find the log in ours. Will people continue to value her books and stories? Should I? Of course she will be read, but with the additional awareness of her fallibility as a human being. Because, as a matter of literary fact, Flannery O’Connor was a mordant critic of white people, especially of religious white people. IV. Besides missing the barbarous, cruel, inhuman and illogical funding inequities that are right in front of us in our educational system, there’s one more thing we might be missing, which we don’t want to be caught without—heart, a heart. I have to think what that Minneapolis officer was missing was a heart; what Mitch McConnell is missing is heart; what Kelly Ann Conway is missing is a heart. We don’t want to be caught missing a heart and funding public education through local real estate taxes. This would be a fitting chapter in a study on what reparations to the African-American community might look like, if we dared to look that closely. --Rev. Richard Chrisman, 6/28/2020
Can we do justice to this moment? Romans 8:18-25.
It’s been a week, it’s been a three weeks, it’s been a year, it’s been a three and a half years of national turmoil which has finally reached this boiling point, perhaps (hopefully) this tipping point, as popular demonstrations in the streets have again brought to the surface America’s long wrestling match with its own soul.
That’s it, you know, we are witnessing our national soul struggling with itself to bring our fallible selves into line with our democratic aspirations. But it is an uneven and lately very turbulent moment, with our history popping up in surprising and inconvenient ways. In 99 cities, Americans took to the streets in revulsion, in disgust, in a towering rage at who we are as a country--a nation unable yet to harmonize individual freedom with moral obligations, so we privilege some lawbreakers (like the impeached President and some police who go unconvicted for excessive force) but harshly penalize others like anyone born with dark skin.
But Americans have always had a tough assignment—how difficult it is for us to reckon with our history because there is this contradiction, you know, this fatal flaw, as it were: we flourished only because of an extraordinary dependency upon forced labor and stolen land which makes it very hard to square with our claims of independence and fair play. It’s a moral quandary which we have never owned up to and diminishes our claims to uniqueness.
Well. America is unique alright, but not in the way exceptionalists like to think. America was uniquely born and raised in violence. America was uniquely nursed on competitiveness and the hustle. America, in its adolescence, uniquely did not resist the lust to satisfy our material appetites. America uniquely showed off our grown muscles in two world wars and proudly claimed the admiration of the world. America then proceeded to master the globe under a tsunami of transnational businesses reinforced by 600 to 800 military bases in 70 different countries.
All this while our not-so-hidden assumptions of white supremacy played a well-executed game of keepaway such that today the networth of white families exceeds that of black families by a factor of 10.
How can the most diverse nation in the world be so immature as to promote the xenophobia and racism which presently cripples our country? I don’t fathom it, myself, but for sure we won’t attain maturity until we are able gratefully to acknowledge our racial interdependencies and celebrate—no, revel—in our diversity. We are poised at the brink of that maturity this week as the world sees us humbled and convicted nationally of subjecting our black nation under the knee of our white nation. But will America attain maturity before we self-destruct? Will we do justice to this moment? Or will America let the moment pass? Or embrace it but not follow through, as happened after Eric Garner’s murder?
But all of a sudden the wires are hot; corporations and nonprofits are retooling their programs, editing their advertisements; district attorneys are calling for legislation. The courts are getting on board. Then here came Juneteenth the day before yesterday, people turning out in a spirit of celebration it seems like in every city. Suddenly (finally), making it a national holiday is being discussed. People marched in Boston, in Newton, and in cities across the country. A healing day has followed directly upon the trauma of the last month.
It’s all happening so fast, and we could hope we are turning some kind of corner.
What of the churches? Many are starting anti-racism campaigns, or reviving old ones.
Eliot Church has our own—1) a congregation wide viewing and dialogue about “Just Mercy,” the film about Bryan Stephenson’s work with death row inmates (June 30); and 2) installing a banner on the front lawn to memorialize those since Eric Garner killed by white police officers.
But churches have an additional role, particular to us, I believe, because this struggle is not only political but moral, and not just moral but religious. Because what evil so profound as racism can be met only by human effort and good will? This problem is so wide and so high and so deep as to resist rational comprehension.
American racism needs repentance for the wrongs—the crimes—committed. American racism necessitates asking forgiveness of God and promising never to sin again. It means being willing to come back to the fountain of forgiveness again until we are truly renewed and remade.
We understand all this at a personal level, of course, but is there such a thing as national repentance? Is there any way that a nation can confess its sins, repent, and ask forgiveness of God and be freed from the bondage of our sin? Can a nation promise never to sin again and be renewed and remade as we should be? Can the United States become one nation under God after having riven a continent’s worth of people over a period of 400 years into opposed and opposing races?
And when will we come to the African-American peoples for forgiveness? Only if we repent, but what does national repentance look like?
Take, for one example, Germany, which by the time of its third generation after WWII was able to look itself in the mirror and confess the sins of the Third Reich and the horrors they committed upon Jews, gays, the disabled, Roma, the continent of Europe, the helpless citizenry of Britain, the people of Russia, the armies of the Allies including the United States, and its own German population. They overhauled the entire educational system, and installed physical reminders at cultural and historical sites across the major cities!
Can we do something like that—as a nation? It’s a question worth asking, and it is up to the churches to ask it over and over and over again.
We could start by passing H.R. 40 in the U.S. Congress which seeks funding for the study of what reparations to African-Americans might look like. Only such a study will bring about the kind of dialogue and self-scrutiny that can meet and vanquish the beast that racism is.
St. Paul puts our travail into the widest possible perspective today when he wrote that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” meaning the forthcoming freedom that comes with forgiveness which creation waits for with eagerness. We thrash about in futility, Paul wrote, until the time when we experience freedom from our bondage to entropy and decay.
God’s purpose is for us and everyone to enjoy that freedom fully one day. All human societies groan in the labor pains which will, most certainly, deliver our freedom. I interpret the groaning of this American moment to include those who are resisting the breakthrough to the higher consciousness—like those in the present administration and their supporters Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma—the ultimate freedom being that which God is revealing.
And it is not only us humans but also the whole of creation that has been groaning in labor pain until now—witness the planet itself in travail as we sort out what kind of a nation we want to be.
We are only at the first stage of the spiritual life, Paul assures us, having been visited by Christ, as we proceed toward ultimate release from our racism.
We can live in hopeful expectation with patience—with impatient patience, if you will—even though we do not yet have the end in sight. If there is any life left in this nation at all, we will yet do justice to this moment and to the democratic aspirations that brought the United States into being and continue to sustain us today.
It is only for us churches to remember and to repeat, repeat, repeat: [Micah 6:8] “God has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Amen!