You are strangers in a strange land. Isaiah 11:1-5
I. Thanks for the memories, Eliot Church! I’m taking with me so many great Eliot memories.
We first got to know each other at my drop-in office hours that first summer. Then we had a series of small group meetings called Soundings when we shared thoughts and feelings on pertinent questions. There was Regathering in September. Christmas Eve was jammed packed. And of course there was “Make a Joyful Noise.” Then Covid shut down our indoor services and we switched to Zoom. Monique and Dr. Elizabeth and I scrambled to put together a new kind of service with new technology. We lost a few people during the Zoom. And of course traffic in the building dropped to almost zero except for the preschool. I felt that I was the emperor of an empty empire. But we got many people back when we reopened, and we’re almost today where we were two years ago, because you have been steady and faithful. A body of you maintained a quality community here.
I want you to know how remarkable and important it is that you are here today. Not for recognizing me, but in order for me to encourage you as you go forward. I make a special point to do this because it is possible that you are unaware how unique you are, you and people in churches anywhere. People like you are unique because you are a minority. People say this is a religious country, and compared to England or France we are. In fact, though, we just like to think we are a religious country. In fact, this is a secular society, through and through. And people who turn up in church, whatever your degree of belief or unbelief, are refugees from the secular atmosphere out there. People are not sure how they feel about that.
The religious climate today goes back a long way. It predates your births and mine. So, very likely, many people here are not aware at all that we live in a religious environment that has sucked all the oxygen out of the air. We don’t notice because we have long since adapted to it and compensated. What is that oxygen? A sense of the transcendent, or the “more” in life, the presence of God. The other-worldly exaggerations of earlier Christianities caused an equal and opposite reaction toward an exclusive this-worldliness. This is what “secular” means–knowing only this time and age. The change was so pervasive and subtle, that Christianity itself took on different qualities to compensate, almost insensibly to us. Other parts of Christianity overcompensated–we know these as the fundamentalist sects.
No, this is not our grandparents’ era or faith. We’ve had to evolve to find meanings that they didn’t dream of. We’re not sure how we feel about that.
At the same time, many more religious traditions have tried to fill that transcendent void, and people rushed to sample other kinds of worship and spiritual practice. Such that, a country which (mistakenly) views itself as “Christian” has become the most religiously diverse society in the world (Diana Eck). We’re not sure how we feel about that.
Charles Taylor, the McGill University philosopher, calls this the “nova effect,” i.e., we are watching a super-nova bursting into many more stars. This makes us a “cross-pressured” pressured people. We live in an era of “contested meaning” with religions politely at war with each other (what else is new?) and us not feeling like we want to join any particular camp. The contest of faiths makes them all seem equally “unbeliev-able” (Charles Taylor). In sum, we are sick at heart and don’t know it.
It’s like the effects of acid rain that we used to hear more about. A pervasive but imperceptible mist from far away that falls on us and causes a 12-month winter. That’s a real problem when you can’t remember the spiritual summer any more.
However, this vast change did not change human beings, and you are the proof of it. Because you are here, it means you seek to fulfill your human need for a complete picture of life, one that incorporates time and eternity, the visible and the invisible. You want a true accounting of the human universe. Somehow you made it here, you came to a place that remembers, or tries to remember, the compendium of stories in the Bible which rests on the Communion Table, as our fund of memories.
III. This makes you survivors, and this is what I want to impress on you this morning. You belong to a very important Biblical category. You are among what the Bible calls the “faithful remnant.” Remnant here is not to be associated with the carpet industry where it means rejects. Rather, it means survivors, those remaining after disaster, “a people reduced to a vestige of its former grandeur, who keep the faith alive despite being yanked out of their spiritual habitat.” The remnant is a critical mass, a catalyst, a minion, the starter for a new batch of bread. That’s you.
Like the Israelites who were marched off from Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BCE and made to honor their gods. “By the waters of Babylon, we laid down and wept” (Psalm 137). [See the bulletin cover.] They eventually made it back to Jerusalem, and the prophet Isaiah saw in them a remainder from which a renewed faith would grow. This is why he speaks of “the stump of Jesse,” the remains of a blighted tree, the stump of whose roots will sprout again. Sprout–into what? Something that will proclaim and effect the restoration of what has been lost–equity, truth, righteousness, mercy and lovingkindness. Isaiah identifies this sprout as a man, harking back to Jesse’s son, David, and Christians saw in this prophecy a messianic harbinger of Christ, and thus Mary, too, played a role in Israel’s restoration as Jesus was the fruit of her womb. My point this morning is that the stump of Jesse also refers to a remnant people, the Israelite survivors, and therefore possibly a people like you. Isaiah summons a quality community that will “again take root downward and bear fruit upward.”
Of course, you have not been marched off anywhere; but your religious surroundings changed on you over a period of 150 years. You find yourselves to be strangers in a strange land, in the land in which you were actually born! “The ruthless disenchantment is more than you can bear” (Charles Taylor). When you found yourself gasping for the Spirit, somehow you made the decision to try church, even though you may not understand or remotely subscribe to its doctrines. You just like the vocabulary of faith and wanted to try it on, to turn the words over and hear how they sound and mean in different combinations. You didn’t know it, but you have been responding to the poetry of faith more than the binding of doctrines, which is why you have kept coming back to Eliot, to make your own personal version of the Christian way. You want to fulfill the very meaning of the word “religion” which is to bind together, to bind things and meanings and peoples together, apart from the empty alternatives. Naturally, you don’t want religion pre-packaged, you want to make meaning for yourselves. Could that be why this congregation’s motto is “Growing faith,” meaning, “growing with faith” or “the growing and evolving of faith”? Yes, yes, and yes. You have made Eliot Church a quality community, a home for seekers, for those others who are ill and don’t know it.
Yes, thanks for the memories, Eliot Church! I am so grateful that you gave me this opportunity to live my vocation, the longer the better, as far as I’m concerned, but the fullness of time has come. And I’m grateful not just for the memories you and I made, I’m grateful you keep before you the memories preserved for you in the Bible. Within the sinews and interstices of the Bible on this Communion Table lives a spiritual experience of the original remnant people–the Word was made flesh, and the flesh made bread.
I. You remember how Alice sees a bottle marked “DRINK ME,” which she does and shrinks so small she can’t reach the key to open the door to the garden. And you remember how she eats a piece of cake that grows her back up to size again, only to shrink once more then drinks from another bottle that makes her grow so big she gets stuck in the house.
Children love this story probably because it reflects their frustrations at never being the right size to do what they want. It’s no joke, it can be scary. Are we ever the right size? Churches wonder, too, whether we are ever the right size. Like Alice, at times we feel like we are too short to reach the table which has the key on it. At other times, our to-do list is so long it won’t fit through the door. Churches can be too small to afford a full time minister. Some can be so big that they are unable to organize effectively, for education or action. Just like when we were children, never being the right size to do what we want is frustrating.
Eliot Church was once so big it contemplated going to two Sunday services. Since then, our liberal progressive tradition has shrunk from its origin in the early 20th century with Walter Raushenbush and the Social Gospel from our heyday in the 1940s, 50s and ‘60s. Eliot Church has shrunk right along with that once grand tradition. It deeply concerns us now when we wish our influence was big enough to counter the “Christian” white nationalists today.
What was in that bottle anyway? Will we ever locate the other bottle which “right-sized” Alice?
II. Eliot Church has taken steps to understand and adapt to the size we are. That happened during the SMALL CHURCH seminar Susan Nason led here last March when we awoke to the fact that Eliot is SMALL. People were feeling the effects–volunteers shorthanded, overworked. The advice was welcome: do less–better, be selective.
Another step was taken last year when Eliot acknowledged we didn’t have the families or children to keep our CE Director, nor the likelihood such a person could turn that around, right now.
And even before that, a decade ago Eliot took steps to prune its governance structure to fit the size of the congregation. That was a much-needed practical step. What other adaptive steps might be needed now? Well, that remains for you and Rev. Domenik to determine. But today, I want you to take just one spiritual step.
III. We only have to remind ourselves today and every Sunday of what a church is. There are different ways of describing what churches do–field hospital, half-way house, refuge, oasis, gas station–these are some functions a church can fulfill. Now I just want you to consider what, at base, we are. A church is a “quality community,” not just a menu of programs in a building, not a “Community Center,” or in a cohort like the intelligence community, the academic community which are special interest, solidarity, or professional groupings.
Jesus wanted Israel to restore the Temple to its true purpose, which is to be a home for God and place of prayer for all people. Jesus was not afraid to place the Temple in the category of “disposable.” He challenged them, destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days. He couldn’t have meant this literally of course, and the early church understood that He was referring to his own Resurrection. But the Resurrection of Christ wasn’t just a one-off. It is a model for the never-ending process of regaining and reshaping life against threats to our existence. Resurrection is a perpetual possibility, a spiritual process. At the same time, Jesus was referring to rebuilding of the institution, the Temple of which he was a part, meaning even physically.
A small church needs not simply to do less–it needs to own the fact of our being a quality community and do what fosters in everyone the feeling of being a “quality community.” Whatever else we may do, this spiritual achievement falls within our grasp. Every Sunday people can go out feeling they have been received by a quality community, i.e., a real church. This is what Paul promised you–that you no longer feel you are strangers and aliens; that you would be Fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. He wanted us to feel the confidence of having for foundation the apostles and the prophets, and Christ himself as the cornerstone, being an organism, as it were, that grows into a holy temple, such that what you have “built” (with or without an actual building) becomes spiritually a dwelling place for God.
If we believe we are that “quality community,” people will feel all these things when they walk into this sacred space, this Temple, or hopefully by the time they leave. We should measure ourselves against this expectation. We are all about being something older, bigger, deeper and newer than ourselves. We offer through this building an alternative space in which to create God’s Temple–us, a quality community. We acknowledge that we are subject to creation, destruction, and re-creation, and all that at many different levels–spiritually, programmatically, etc. But we are the Body of Christ, born to die and rise again, even as we sit here. It is well worth the effort to maintain this edifice, although right now and for a few more years this small congregation strains to do so. But it will not always be thus, if you allow your old dreams to crumble and to dream new ones. Allow God’s impossible vision to be planted in you. As I like to say, “Don’t just DO something, be still and put on the mind of Christ.”
To this end, a church needs to get out of the way of its own life-process, as we have periodically done, admit we are a small church, and allow this fact to take its course. Realize that nevertheless you are meant for more. Not just more personal success or more personal gain, but you are meant for more than is even dreamed of in the workday world where people are preoccupied (and understandably so) for their survival.
IV. Churches are forever shrinking or bursting their seams. As for Eliot Church, the answer to the question whether we are too big or too small, the answer is–maybe it doesn’t matter. Whatever its size, a church is in the Resurrection business, the business of breaking down and rebuilding as a quality community. There is a classic expression for this in our theology–reformata, semper reformanda.
So, see if you catch Paul’s spirit in this translation from Eugene Petersen’s The Message:
That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.
Don’t just DO something, be still and put on the mind of Christ.