A religious matter–where are the men? Matthew 23:13-16
Last week I was struck by something with the force of a blow to my solar plexus. When I heard about the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion on abortion, I doubled over. The image immediately arose before me of a blood sacrifice. I saw in my mind Agamemnon’s ritual sacrifice of his own daughter Iphigenia to bring favorable winds that would take their warships to Troy—. It was blind, it was desperate, and death-dealing.
And for what? a war. Agamemnon launches his warships with the wind procured by his daughter’s life. A man throws away his daughter. There it is, the exact parable of the Supreme Court abortion opinion. They would sacrifice women’s lives, their self-determination to keep the male prerogative sacrosanct.
Don’t know the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice? Here is a more recent parable for you, a novel published in 1925, where an ambitious young man with his sights on socialite hotties lets his working-class pregnant girlfriend drown in a boating accident. Rather than the abortion that the pair considers, this man takes an expedient of his own and sacrifices two lives for the sake of his next sexual exploit. This is so common a commonplace that we dismiss such behavior with cliches like boys will be boys. This boy will pay with his own life, ultimately executed for murder, another life sacrificed. Blood blood everywhere and nobody cries foul, despicable waste all in the name of the male prerogative to consume females with impunity. The name of the novel? An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. In it people saw our tragic society.
May I draw it out for you? The Court finds women dispensable. Women are apparently not people who have personal aspirations that deserve to be honored. Experts and the professional classes debate whether she has the right to take the life of the fetus, without considering that the fetus is taking the life of the woman. But rights are fine points I am not qualified to adjudicate. I appeal this morning not to rights but to facts that lead you directly to ask the religious, the ethical question–where are the men? Men just don’t want their precious lives encumbered either by women or wives or unintended pregnancies.
I submit to you three facts. Fact #1–sexual reproduction is overdetermined in nature. Fact #2–there is no foolproof contraception. Fact #3–all ethics are contextual including the ethics of abortion.
Fact #1–sexual reproduction is overdetermined in nature. That’s fine for turtles and oak trees and dandelions like the one on your bulletin cover page. But sexual temperance has always figured in civilization’s survival, either to avoid births without family support or to avoid births that threatened the survival of the family. There have been contraceptives and abortifacients and infanticide since before recorded history. It is right to ask, when is abortion justified? But fact #1 remains–sexual reproduction is overdetermined in nature, and humanity has always striven to control our fertility.
Fact #2–there is no foolproof contraception. Early on, family and social mores and religious restrictions applied the brakes to sexual activity–that was the original contraception. It didn’t always work, progressively weakening over time–the 1920s, the 1960s when sexual activity came to be viewed as part of a healthy life, married or not. More sex meant more danger of pregnancy, at least until the pill arrived, but the use of that was not uniform or foolproof. So, the ancient anxiety about unintended pregnancy has never been overcome. Very few people regard having a baby without family support as a good thing, although clearly lots of single moms have made a success of it. Economic conditions determine survival–poverty, health care, health insurance affect white and black women. And most importantly, the absence of the father directly impacts the survival and quality of life for the newborn. Fact #2, the original and the modern contraceptives are not foolproof, so unsustainable pregnancies do occur.
Fact #3–all ethics are contextual, including whether or not to keep a pregnancy. Because a baby can’t live on oxygen alone, the social and family reality surrounding each pregnancy matters, and has to be individually assessed. Everybody wants the baby to survive. If it is known that it can’t, then best not bring it to term. Some people want to call this homicide, pure and simple. Or, they deem it equivalent to the holocaust. They are wrong to think so, because the law puts every human act in its context, all acts deemed criminal are evaluated according to the situation and the intent, whether it’s car theft, embezzling or murder for that matter. People love to watch Perry Mason shows or Judge Judy and crime movies with trials, where part of the drama involves establishing the context. When it comes to homicide, there are five different categories, each defined by context, and each of those is even more finely worked through in the sentencing phase. Nevertheless, abortion is tragic because human life is inherently tragic. Fact #3–all ethics are contextual, and that applies to abortion.
Let me tell you this story. A huge survey of Christian families done in the 1970s was conducted by the Methodist Church and found that kids of religious families were as sexually active as those of non-religious families. Here’s what I think. Evangelical Christians couldn’t control their children’s sexual activity, so they want to employ the government to do it. That is, Christian men couldn’t control their families, so they figure laws will put fences around people’s minds and their sexuality.
But people of the “Christian” Right have duped themselves and many other Americans with their Bible about every issue: race, sexuality, gay rights, marriage, guns, Putin, and also abortion and contraception—it’s been a thoroughgoing whitewash out of white male fear, excuse the play on words. Those Christians see the Bible as a blueprint for society, when in fact it is no such thing but rather a prescription for getting right with God. Over millennia, through revelation, consensus, legislation, custom and culture, the human condition has steadily realized what it means to be human. We are now watching the brakes being put on the hard-won humanization of humanity through this violent, arbitrary decision, blind to the facts.
Christ had nothing good to say about the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, blind guides. The scribes and Pharisees were just examples–there are religious hypocrites everywhere. We are hypocrites to the extent that our behavior doesn’t line up with our profession of faith. Today we heard only two of the six woes Jesus laid on us, but it’s quite enough to understand his fierce complaint. “Shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” “You make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” “Blind guides.” Another day we will put ourselves under Christ’s microscope, but today belongs to the Christian right–“you strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”
The good news is that God always takes us back, even you and me, as we painfully learn from our errors and sins. The forgiveness of God is perpetual.
American Evangelicals have made of human life an absolute where that has never been done before. If that were done, to be consistent every newborn would be awarded a $100,000 bond, adjusted for inflation make that $500,000. Or at least guarantee the support of both parents. Why don’t Christians bring back the shotgun wedding? Because men’s freedom would be limited. And because our society has given up on holding men responsible, it will shift the burden entirely and solely to one person, where two were involved. There is the clearest rationale for permitting abortion–to even the playing field.
We want, the world should want, every mother to want to be a mother. If motherhood is forced on women when they can't afford it, or don't have the physical and moral support of the father, or face their own medical complications, and certainly if they are victims of rape or incest, no one should stand in the way of a pregnancy termination. I trust women to make this decision, and polls show that most Americans do too, even when they don't agree with the decision.
The Supreme Court will pull women and our whole society down with this mortal sacrifice. None of today’s formal public statements can remotely approach the tragic direness of this decision. Yes, if they go through with this, we have made our blood sacrifice of women. Maybe the bulletin image symbolizes the treatment of women by American society, tragically consigning them to drift in the breeze to live or die wherever they may fall.
It is right to ask, when are abortions justified? It is always right to answer: consider the context. It is a matter of religious integrity to ask, where in that context are the men?
Eliot Church of Newton Fourth Sunday of Easter May 8, 2022
The Rev. Dr. Jessica McArdle John 10:22-30 & Psalm 23
Psalm 23 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
John 10:22-30 10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,
10:23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.
10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
10:25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;
10:26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
10:27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
10:28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
10:29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
10:30 The Father and I are one.”
Opening Prayer – Under the canopy of the heavens above us, and earth and waters below, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, always be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Introduction: Today, May 8, 2022, falls on the annual commemoration of Mother’s Day.
Yet if we were to go back seventy-four years ago, and only after one month after Martin Luther King’s assassination, we would have joined a massive Mother’s Day March held in Washington DC. So transformative was this march, that it would lay the foundation for the Poor People’s Campaign, currently led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis.
Tragically, Senator Robert Kennedy… whose wife Ethyl is standing behind Coretta Scott King in this photo, would be assassinated less than one month later. (pause)
Yet even now, as we grapple as a nation, a global community and planet in the wake of cataclysmic circumstances, dare we ask this question?
What if God Loves Things by Becoming Them?
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John….
….the setting is within the Temple of Jerusalem. It was winter, the Season of Hannukah. Jesus was in the Temple as well, strolling. But then a group of his adversaries encircled him, saying, “How long are you going to keep us guessing? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!”
Pastor and blogger, Jo Anne Taylor, candidly observes, [we have to appreciate that] when the crowds gather around Jesus insisting “Stop talking in riddles and parables,” they want clear answers. “Jesus, If you are Messiah, [the one who is going to liberate us from Roman occupation and oppression], just tell us!” And tell us plainly.
Taylor observes that this plea, “Just tell me plainly,” is just as evident in our own lives. She asks, “Have there been times when you prayed that prayer? C’on, Jesus, just tell me plainly what I need to know. Show me clearly the way I should do, so I can make the right decision. And above all, keep it simple, so even I can get it.”
So, there is a problem with today’s scripture, and it is one also mirrored in our world. And it is this: In this passage, Jesus emphatically claims that he has been speaking plainly. But when you and I are looking for direction, clarity as to which way to go – is it any wonder we may be asking, “Is this the right way to go? And better yet, is this God’s leading or something else? Some years ago, the United Church of Christ came up with the by-line, God is still speaking. The UCC put this by-line on just about everything: posters, calendars, stationary, lapel pins, devotionals, bumper stickers and large banners. If there was a place to put it, it was going there.
From the perspective of the United Church of Christ, this phrase, “God is still speaking,” speaks of God’s revelation. In the UCC, we affirm that God was revealed in the past, yes, but also God is being revealed to us in the present and will be in the future. (pause) The late poet, Mary Oliver, was one who paid close attention to the natural world. For Oliver, the sacred was revealed in the natural world.
In Oliver’s 2005 poem, “Lead,” she painfully recalls loons that come to her harbor but die one by one throughout the day and into the night. She writes, “A friend told me of one on the shore, that lifted its head and cried out in the long, sweet savoring of its life which, if you have heard it, you know is a sacred thing. And for which, if you haven’t heard it, you had better hurry to where the loons still sing.”
If God who loves things by becoming them – what are the implications of God loving AND becoming the very things we have commodified: the land and its waters, the air and creatures, mountains and rivers?
If this is true, imagine if God can be found amongst those clamoring for justice: indigenous people whose lands were taken from them, people of color whose voting rights are being absconded with? What if the voices of the young who must live with the mess we’ve passed on to them,….
….reveal that the God who is still speaking, has taken up their cause? What then?
Writes the Franciscan leader and author, Richard Rohr, “God is not just saving people; God is about saving all of creation. The Incarnate One of God, Jesus, who dared to say before a hostile crowd, “The Father and I are one,” stands for all creation.
The 23rd Psalm that was read earlier…
has been translated into countless number of languages, and is beloved throughout the world. A profoundly pastoral psalm and hymn, it is easy to forget that it was written – not to refute the necessity of action – but to make clear that the Good Shepherd walks with us in the midst of it.
Wrote the psalmist, Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff ‒ they comfort me.
On Sunday, May 12th, 1968 and some 54 years ago:
it only after one month after Martin Luther King’s assassination. But those protesting and laboring for justice did not walk alone, nor do they now.
For the Good News of the Gospel is this:
God loves things by becoming them. And in so doing, God is still speaking.
Eliot Church of Newton, U.C.C. Romans 8.18-27 May 1, 2022
It is a pretty safe bet that all of us here today know that we are in a climate crisis. We’ve been bombarded by facts and figures that confirm this sobering reality. This crisis calls for immediate action, and at next week’s service and forum we will consider how best to answer that call. But today let’s explore the effect the crisis is having on us emotionally and spiritually.
That said, we must face facts, so here are just a few that convey where we are today. Last year a Siberian town in the arctic circle reached a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit during a protracted heat wave. The latest report from the UN’s IPCC, (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says we have three years to take the action needed to prevent the worst consequences from climate change. According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “it is now code red for humanity.” Personally, I like the way young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg puts it when she says, “Act like your house is on fire because it is.”
There is a new dilemma within this larger crisis. Recent polls show that most people in the U.S. and most of us in Massachusetts now feel less urgency about climate than they did a few years ago. As one participant put it, “With so many issues right in your face, climate just seems less urgent.” With a brutal war, a pandemic that feels endless, insurrection in our capital, and racial, religious, and economic divisions tearing apart our communities, we appear to be in an emotional and a spiritual crisis as well as a climate crisis. What to do?
We can give voice to our feelings and offer support to one other. Please join me at our forum immediately after worship, as we begin to do that. But now, let’s look for signs of hope Then we will ask, “where is God in all of this?”
Rev. Steve Blackmer of Church of the Woods in New Hampshire reminds us that “Hope comes in small packages with small beginnings, hiding in small places. But hope comes.” One of those small packages is the recovery of the monarch butterfly, helped by individuals who have built small, and in some cases large breeding habitats. IF we continue to nurture that recovery it will become a big deal.
We can also find hope in this very congregation! Eliot Church embarked on a “Caring for Creation” initiative in 2003. The net result is that since then we have lowered our carbon dioxide emissions by 61%! The most visible signs of that are our solar panels, which generate more electricity than we need, allowing us to donate some of our Eversource credits to the Brighton-Allston Congregational Church. But even before the panels went up in 2016, Eliot had obtained an EPA Energy Star for Congregations rating of 91%. That means that we were more energy efficient than 91% of the houses of worship in the country. Massachusetts has more Energy Star congregations than any state except Michigan, and more houses of worship with solar than any state except California.
Eliot’s commitment to climate justice extends beyond the improvements to our building. With leadership from Rev. Reebee Girash we passed a resolution committing ourselves to reduce our investments in companies which extract and sell fossil fuels. Between 2014 and 2020 Rev. Girash and other Eliot members advocated for, and testified in support of legislation requiring Massachusetts to provide more offshore wind and to put a price on carbon.
Every year we participate in volunteer cleanups along the Charles River and at other green spaces. We have participated in many marches and made our building available without cost to climate advocacy groups. The Needham-Newton Chamber of Commerce, the Southern New England Conference of the UCC, Green Newton and MassIPL have all recognized that work. We can celebrate our progress, while at the same time acknowledging that there is much more to do.
On behalf of the congregation, I would like to offer thanks to some current and past members, who have contributed to this success, namely: Mary Anne Schoonover, Betsy Harper, Ginny Robinson, Doug Stuart, Nadia Young, Rev. Rick Chrisman, Beverly Craig, the Reverends Reebee Girash and Tony Kill and the many others whose efforts are unknown to me. And I’d like to personally thank each of you for Eliot’s financial support for MassIPL; and to thank Mary Anne for her years of volunteer service before MassIPL was able to pay her.
Hope may be found in many other places. Massachusetts is one of eight states including the District of Columbia that has passed legislation committing themselves to become net-zero carbon by 2050. Now there are laws (which are essentially binding promises), and then there are actual results. Of the seventeen states (including DC), who have committed to carbon dioxide reductions of at least 80% by either law or executive order, Massachusetts’ actual carbon dioxide emissions exceed those of the next best state, 10%, which I will only identify because that state is New York. On the corporate side, 313 major corporations, like Colgate Palmolive, Microsoft and Verizon have committed to become net-zero carbon by 2040, ten years earlier than most of the above states.
The Keystone XL pipeline which would have carried carbon intensive tar-sands oil from Alberta to a port on the Gulf of Mexico for export, has been abandoned. Keystone was known as a “fossil fuel zombie” because it survived years of grassroots protests and three presidential administrations. A smaller, natural gas pipeline that would have gone through northern Massachusetts was also abandoned a few years ago after intense grassroots opposition. And there are similar campaigns around the country.
The infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last November includes $240 billion for environmental justice projects, the largest such investment in U.S. history. Although the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow were a disappointment, former MA Senator John Kerry brokered a joint resolution providing that the US and China, “would work together to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
But how about the emotional and spiritual realms? It is there that most motivation originates. As Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas of the Episcopal Diocese of Western MA says, “God is giving God’s self to us as the sun and the moon, the stars, the wind, the air, the trees, the birds, and the pets we love. We live in a sacred world of interdependence and interrelationship.” 1 But do we feel that? If not, can we take the time to begin to feel it?
Here are a few times when I have felt it. Our son, our first and only child was born in Nebraska. He woke me up before sunrise the first night after he was home from the hospital. As I held him in my arms the sun rose over the corn fields, turning the entire sky into the deepest and most brilliant red that I have ever seen in the sky. Things had seemed dark during the more than ten years we had tried to have a child. That brilliant red sky over the golden corn, felt like the love God has for creation was being reflected in the love I had for my son.
I was born and grew up in New York City. After college I hiked into the Grand Canyon with two buddies. As we descended the switchbacks through the multi-colored layers of rock shaped over the eons into an endless array of shapes, we eventually saw the mighty Colorado River, appearing as swirling ribbons below. I was awestruck by its power. The power of the Colorado River reminded me of God’s power and the immensity Grand Canyon reminded me of the wideness of God’s mercy.
Our late pet cat, Calli, was a source of comfort, as is the companionship or our chocolate lab Zoey, who implores me with soulful eyes to take her for a walk, and who every night comes to my side of the bed to say good night before she goes to her bed. Yes, our family is both cat friendly and dog friendly.
Francis of Assisi “was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and the outcast. In his Canticle of Creation, he called his fellow creatures, no matter how small, by the name of “brother” or “sister.” Francis reminds us that “the Earth, our common home is like a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us or like a sister with whom we share our life. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom:8:22)2”as this morning’s scripture tells us.
Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are gifts of God’s love for humanity. Jesus reconciled God to humanity, but God also promises us the renewal of all creation. Just as “the love of God has been poured into our hearts (5:5), so also its full realization is not yet fully manifest. This morning’s scripture says, that “suffering is not eliminated by the resurrection life, but it is sustained by the Spirit (8.17-22). And since the Spirit is at work in the world to bring about a radical renewal of all creation, there is genuine hope for the future (8:22-25).
According to theologian Jurgen Moltmann, “the evolutions and the catastrophes of the universe are also the movements and experiences of the Spirit of Creation. That is why Paul says that the divine Spirit ‘sighs’ in all created things under the power of futility.” “Through the spirit we are bound together with the natural environment. We might describe this as a spiritual ecosystem; for human societies live in and from the recurring cycles of earth and sun, air and water, day and night, summer, and winter. So human beings are participants in subsystems of the cosmic life system, and of the divine Spirit that lives in it.”3
The Hebrew bible uses wind, or breath or fire as images for the Ruah, or spirit of God. The gospels speak of the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove. These are all dynamic images involving air. We cannot see it, but we know it is always with us, within us and around us. For me, the Holy Spirit is God’s presence above, below, within and betweenall of God’s creatures.
Might the Spirit be operating when humans restore the habitat of the Monarch butterfly? Or when diverse members of a congregation join as one to make their sanctuary sustainable and to advocate for change? Was the fire of the spirit there when activists killed Keystone XL? Is the breath of the spirit shared when both states and corporations strive to become carbon neutral, and when our president commits funds for climate justice? Did a dove of peace descend to help John Kerry establish a personal relationship with his Chinese counterpart that enabled them to find agreement?
On a lighter note, I recall a moment when I testified before a Massachusetts legislative committee. Although these words were not in my prepared remarks, I was somehow moved to say, “If Jews, Catholics, and Protestants can agree that this law is good for Massachusetts I hope that the House, the Senate, and the governor can agree.” I got a big laugh, but judging from the results, the Holy Spirit must have been somewhere else.
Today, we are in a great existential crisis. So now, after we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death, during this season when the birds are chirping and the tulips, the azaleas, and the cherry trees are blooming, spend some time with Mother Earth, sister sun, the hills and vales and the plants and the animals who are our brothers and sisters. Spend time with them. Observe them. Listen to them. Feel what you feel. Begin to create a loving relationship with them.
If you are yet to feel God’s love in creation, take a first step from anger, fear, or sadness by opening your heart to the awareness of God’s love and the Spirit’s presence in this beautiful, abundant, complex, and suffering gift of creation that God has given us.
And in this moment, let us pray,
Here and now the Spirit waits to break into our experience: to change our hearts to change our lives, to change our ways. to make us see the world and the whole of life in a new light. to fill us with joy and hope for the future. This is the place, as are all places. this is the time, as are all times.
Everything we look for in a sermon is here—scripture made relevant to immediate need, vivid drama, emotion, and, in this case, a personal confession—from a minister to mariners in Melville’s Moby Dick. His text comes from the familiar story of Jonah and the whale. The sermon not only is a spiritual experience for the listeners (or even a reader today)—that stormy night in Nantucket, Father Mapple underwent a spiritual experience giving it.
FATHER MAPPLE rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. ‘Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!’ 1
There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher. 2
He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea. 3
This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog—in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner toward the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy:--
‘The ribs and terrors in the whale Arched over me a dismal gloom, While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, And lift me deepening down to doom.
‘I saw the opening maw of hell, With endless pains and sorrows there; Which none but they that feel can tell-- Oh, I was plunging to despair.
‘In black distress, I called my God, When I could scarce believe him mine, He bowed his ear to my complaints-- No more the whale did me confine.
‘With speed he flew to my relief, As on a radiant dolphin borne; Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone The face of my Deliverer God.
‘My song forever shall record That terrible, that joyful hour; I give the glory to my God, His all the mercy and the power.’ 4
Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: ‘Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—“And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” 5
‘Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. 6
‘With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign, but only the captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that ’s bound for Tarshish. There lurks, perhaps, a hitherto unheeded meaning here. By all accounts Tarshish could have been no other city than the modern Cadiz. That ’s the opinion of learned men. And where is Cadiz, shipmates? Cadiz is in Spain; as far by water, from Joppa, as Jonah could possibly have sailed in those ancient days, when the Atlantic was an almost unknown sea. Because Joppa, the modern Jaffa, shipmates, is on the most easterly coast of the Mediterranean, the Syrian; and Tarshish or Cadiz more than two thousand miles to the westward from that, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. See ye not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee world-wide from God? Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas. So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck. How plainly he ’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag,—no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux. At last, after much dodging search, he finds the Tarshish ship receiving the last items of her cargo; and as he steps on board to see its captain in the cabin, all the sailors for the moment desist from hoisting in the goods, to mark the stranger’s evil eye. Jonah sees this; but in vain he tries to look all ease and confidence; in vain essays his wretched smile. Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent. In their gamesome but still serious way, one whispers to the other—“Jack, he ’s robbed a widow”; or, “Joe, do you mark him; he ’s a bigamist”; or, “Harry, lad, I guess he ’s the adulterer that broke jail in old Gomorrah, or belike, one of the missing murderers from Sodom.” Another runs to read the bill that ’s stuck against the spile upon the wharf to which the ship is moored, offering five hundred gold coins for the apprehension of a parricide, and containing a description of his person. He reads, and looks from Jonah to the bill; while all his sympathetic shipmates now crowd round Jonah, prepared to lay their hands upon him. Frighted Jonah trembles, and summoning all his boldness to his face, only looks so much the more a coward. He will not confess himself suspected; but that itself is strong suspicion. So he makes the best of it; and when the sailors find him not to be the man that is advertised, they let him pass, and he descends into the cabin. 7
‘“Who ’s there?” cries the Captain at his busy desk, hurriedly making out his papers for the Customs—“Who ’s there?” Oh! how that harmless question mangles Jonah! For the instant he almost turns to flee again. But he rallies. “I seek a passage in this ship to Tarshish; how soon sail ye, sir?” Thus far the busy captain had not looked up to Jonah, though the man now stands before him; but no sooner does he hear that hollow voice, than he darts a scrutinising glance. “We sail with the next coming tide,” at last he slowly answered, still intently eyeing him. “No sooner, sir?”—“Soon enough for any honest man that goes a passenger.” Ha! Jonah, that ’s another stab. But he swiftly calls away the captain from that scent. “I ’ll sail with ye,” he says,—“the passage money, how much is that?—I ’ll pay now.” For it is particularly written, shipmates, as if it were a thing not to be overlooked in this history, “that he paid the fare thereof” ere the craft did sail. And taken with the context, this is full of meaning. 8
‘Now Jonah’s Captain, shipmates, was one whose discernment detects crime in any, but whose cupidity exposes it only in the penniless. In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. So Jonah’s captain prepares to test the length of Jonah’s purse, ere he judge him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it ’s assented to. Then the captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive; but at the same time resolves to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, any way, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage. “Point out my state-room, sir,” says Jonah now, “I ’m travel-weary; I need sleep.” “Thou look’st like it,” says the captain, “there ’s thy room.” Jonah enters, and would lock the door, but the lock contains no key. Hearing him foolishly fumbling there, the captain laughs lowly to himself, and mutters something about the doors of convicts’ cells being never allowed to be locked within. All dressed and dusty as he is, Jonah throws himself into his berth, and finds the little state-room ceiling almost resting on his forehead. The air is close, and Jonah gasps. Then, in that contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship’s water-line, Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel’s wards. 9
‘Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over toward the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. The lamp alarms and frightens Jonah; as lying in his berth his tormented eyes roll round the place, and this thus far successful fugitive finds no refuge for his restless glance. But that contradiction in the lamp more and more appals him. The floor, the ceiling, and the side, are all awry. “Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!” he groans, “straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!” 10
‘Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steals over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there ’s naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestlings in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep. 11
‘And now the time of tide has come; the ship casts off her cables; and from the deserted wharf the uncheered ship for Tarshish, all careening, glides to sea. That ship, my friends, was the first of recorded smugglers! the contraband was Jonah. But the sea rebels; he will not bear the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now when the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales, and jars are clattering overboard; when the wind is shrieking, and the men are yelling, and every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah’s head; in all this raging tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep. He sees no black sky and raging sea, feels not the reeling timbers, and little hears he or heeds he the far rush of the mighty whale, which even now with open mouth is cleaving the seas after him. Ay, shipmates, Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship—a berth in the cabin as I have taken it—and was fast asleep. But the frightened master comes to him, and shrieks in his dead ear, “What meanest thou, O, sleeper! arise!” Startled from his lethargy by that direful cry, Jonah staggers to his feet, and stumbling to the deck, grasps a shroud, to look out upon the sea. But at that moment he is sprung upon by a panther billow leaping over the bulwarks. Wave after wave thus leaps into the ship, and finding no speedy vent runs roaring fore and aft, till the mariners come nigh to drowning while yet afloat. And ever, as the white moon shows her affrighted face from the steep gullies in the blackness overhead, aghast Jonah sees the rearing bowsprit pointing high upward, but soon beat downward again toward the tormented deep. 12
‘Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known. The sailors mark him; more and more certain grow their suspicions of him, and at last, fully to test the truth, by referring the whole matter to high Heaven, they fall to casting lots, to see for whose cause this great tempest was upon them. The lot is Jonah’s; that discovered, then how furiously they mob him with their questions. “What is thine occupation? Whence comest thou? Thy country? What people?” But mark now, my shipmates, the behavior of poor Jonah. The eager mariners but ask him who he is, and where from; whereas, they not only receive an answer to those questions, but likewise another answer to a question not put by them, but the unsolicited answer is forced from Jonah by the hard hand of God that is upon him. 13
‘“I am a Hebrew,” he cries—and then—“I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!” Fear him, O Jonah? Ay, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then! Straightway, he now goes on to make a full confession; whereupon the mariners became more and more appalled, but still are pitiful. For when Jonah, not yet supplicating God for mercy, since he but too well knew the darkness of his deserts,—when wretched Jonah cries out to them to take him and cast him forth into the sea, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them; they mercifully turn from him, and seek by other means to save the ship. But all in vain; the indignant gale howls louder; then, with one hand raised invokingly to God, with the other they not unreluctantly lay hold of Jonah. 14
‘And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is still, as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, and learn a weighty lesson. For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look toward His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamourous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.’ 15
While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah’s sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them. 16
There now came a lull in his look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself. 17
But again he leaned over toward the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:-- 18
‘Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things, and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along “into the midst of the seas,” where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and “the weeds were wrapped about his head,” and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet—“out of the belly of hell”—when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up toward the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land”; when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten—his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean—Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it! 19
‘This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!’ 20
He dropped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,—‘But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,—top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath—O Father!—chiefly known to me by Thy rod—mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing; I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?’ 21
He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place. 22
I know that this is an even stranger Easter than last year, with the pandemic still simmering, the racism that killed George Floyd continually surfacing and a cruel cruel war is going on. It doesn’t feel like the usual Easter festivity is called for.. But it really is called for, more than ever, because our hope lies in the way Christ draws us forward, not toward the end of the world but toward a creative issue for the world. And here we all are this weekend we all together in this expression of hope with Easter, Passover and Ramadan coinciding.
Let us pray with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin this Easter Day--
Lord Jesus, you who are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself, you in whom I can melt away and with whom I must have mastery and freedom: I love you just as I love this world which has captivated my heart; --and it is you whom we sense and seek throughout the magic immensities of the cosmos.
It will seem like an odd one to you, but I have a question for you this Easter Day of 2022. What does the Resurrection mean to the Andromeda Galaxy? You do know the Andromeda Galaxy, right? At approximately 2.5 billion light years distance away from us, the Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest next galaxy to ours, the Milky Way. Andromeda has a trillion stars, compared with our 250 billion. It’s big enough, 200,000 light years across, that it can actually be seen with the naked eye, in the vicinity of Cassiopeia’s chair.
Marveling at this beautiful neighbor, I ask, do you ever wonder if “anybody” is over there to celebrate the miracle of Christ’s resurrection? Could the Resurrection of Christ possibly be a cosmic event in which Earth participates? Is the God of all Creation revealed in the same way in different planets or galaxies? Does carbon lack an element that God fulfills? Is forgiveness a “word” in the language of radio waves? Is reconciliation perhaps the universe at work in its usual way? Or is this our own private Resurrection for our benefit alone?
The answers to the above questions are Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, and to the last question, No. No, this isn’t our private personal miracle, and Yes, the Resurrection of Jesus belongs to the universe. It is one instant in a cosmic event called God’s creation. It’s important for us not to make too little of this cataclysmic story that changed human history. You know, the story as we have it in the gospels, like the one from John this morning, is pretty simple, it comes without any embellishment or interpretation. It sticks entirely to the immediate facts of the event, including the order in which they arrived, Mary Magdalen first, who was very likely a disciple, naming one male disciple but not the other. The earliest Christians who put their story on paper only conveyed the barest facts–the strange discovery of a stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb which brings other disciples running, at first suspecting thievery, but only beginning to grasp that he was raised in fulfillment of the scriptures. Nothing else. They were witnesses to a monumental surprise that revealed the elemental fact of life—life won’t die.
We might die, in one sense of that word, but we don’t at all. Paul gave the experience its most emotional expression—o grave where is thy victory, or death where is thy sting? But really, what the first followers of Jesus felt on that first Easter and what we feel today, is felt throughout creation, felt at the cellular level and in every galaxy of the universe. God is not a presence only in human lives, God is ingredient in the dynamic reality that is the creation. Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote at the turn of the last century, wrote, “All existence is the base of something hidden, and this Something is the figure of Someone who is hidden.”
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign to us that creation is as explosive as ever, and always will be. “Life” is more alive than we imagine. The human body, the planet Earth, the points of light in the sky are not machines or parts of one great machine. If anything, the universe is God’s body, with a volatile capacity for change and development and growth. Christian faith itself has continuously expanded over the centuries—hopefully it’s expanding right here as I speak.
Nor are we religiously alone—Jesus gave us a vocabulary for the same experience that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Balinese, Taoists and others have their own words for.
Annie Dillard, who studied Teilhard and later in life converted to Catholicism, captures the sacramentality of the universe here:
Every day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time, I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split. I wake in a god. I wake in arms holding my quilt, holding me as best they can inside my quilt. Someone is kissing me already. I wake, I cry “Oh,” I rise from the pillow. Why should I open my eyes? I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs: islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage. Today’s god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spreading, holding all and spread on me like skin.
Annie Dillard with her earthy doxology springs almost straight from St. Francis and Teilhard. It’s important not to make too little of the resurrection, I repeat. We think it’s only about us. But we are solipsistic by nature, our vision is submarine. What we really fear is our own death, and we seek assurances that we will be saved and go to heaven. So we take this story straight to the ego.
The spirituality of many Christians has them thinking about heaven, trying to get to heaven, wanting to be saved from our earthly sins and made perfect before God at the last judgment. The life of many Christians is one of constant yearning and striving, seeking God beyond the clouds, which will upon our deaths part and reveal him. This is a case of people trying to go up the down escalator [from Richard Rohr]. Whereas in the meantime God is on the down escalator seeking us in the midst of our personal imperfections, in the midst of a cruel war we can barely stand to contemplate, in the midst of worrying whether such a thing could ever happen to us.
Yes, “Life” is more alive than we imagine. But individual lives are not indestructible. The Resurrection of Christ is not a story with a happy ending. Because, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are not two events but a single one. It was reported as two separate events in the gospel narrative—that’s just the way stories work–first the awful death, then burial, then the disappearance of his body. The intent is not some silver lining in the cloud, nor is it that there is a lesson in every challenge. Here is a deep secret hidden in plain sight.
It seems like the sci-fi movies get it, and the world of poetry gets it, metaphysicians and theologians get it, teenagers get it, and people in love get it. If you’ve been in therapy or counseling, you probably get it. If you have felt hopeless and depressed, you probably get it. If you are a victim of abuse and buried in the tomb of your memories, you probably get it.
But . . .does the church really get it? Tragedy contains the seed of triumph–the triumph has its birth in and within the tragedy. That’s how creation expands— “the story of the universe is a story of majesty and beauty as well as of violence and disruption, a drama filled with both elegance and ruin” [Thomas Berry]—we are part of that. Jesus Christ is our name for the expansion of the universe.
But Christians ask, isn’t our Jesus unique—isn’t he the only Christ, the only way, the only truth, the only light? Isn’t that why it was so important for us to go and drive Muslims out of Jerusalem, and to convert the indigenous peoples at sword and gunpoint? Well yes, the Resurrection of Jesus was uniquely typical—it flashed the truth of life before our eyes and vanished again. Except it’s not even over. Although we celebrate Holy Week once a year, the passion and resurrection is continuous.
Don’t let your Easter be too small. Christ’s resurrection makes us rich beyond compare, and the right response to this knowledge is to share the wealth. With the Resurrection story we have been given a gem of immeasurable value, in Christ we have our own Fort Knox. The hope of the world is to bring this treasure where people have lost hope.
Easter comes with definite ethical imperatives. What would Teilhard de Chardin say about the climate crisis? Will there be a resurrection for the planet Earth? Even as people everywhere now grasp for a new relation to nature and write a new earth-ethic, Teilhard already gave us one, a theological one. He would tell us that the renewal of the Earth is going on right now, in the midst of its very advanced degradation. He would say these are the growing pains that accompany all expansion. Parts of us, parts of creation are always breaking down, but creation moves continuously toward healing, recovery and regeneration. He would say, we are expanding toward the fulness of Christ, and scripture has always been telling us that. You may not find the comfort you wish for in this, but it is hope that is actionable.
Be that as it may, we are scheduled to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in 4 billion years from now (Wiki). Now, that’s when some real healing and reconciliation will be necessary! In the meantime, we have some Resurrection work of our own to do at home, at work, and in Congress.
Don’t let your Easter be too small. Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again!
Who welcomed Jesus? Luke 19:28-40 The same single identical plot in three different stories– Czechoslovakia, Russia, Biblical Jerusalem.
I. You have heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. The four horses represent scourges of the ancient world—famine, disease, war and death. The fifth horseman, not in the Bible and equally terrifying, is fear. Such is the import of a great Czech movie of 1965 entitled, The Fifth Horseman is Fear. It tells the story of a Jewish doctor in Prague during the Nazi occupation. In the Nazi era of surveillance, people were urged to report antigovernment sentiment or activity—to report on each other, that is. The central surveillance phone number was posted ubiquitously on public walls. Unfortunately, Dr. Braun, our doctor, lives in an old apartment building with a central spiral staircase from which people see each other come and go daily. The building has the variety of occupants you would expect and they have little to do with each other except to complain about each other’s noise or pets or the like.
The occupation has made everyone tense, but it doesn’t occur to them that they are being surveilled until one day the intelligence police arrive and inspect every apartment and grill the residents. They leave without any arrests, but that sets up intense mutual suspicions amongst the residents. The doctor has illegally helped a man with a gunshot wound, and he becomes the focus of a subsequent search. In the meantime, the anxieties of the residents set them against each other and even within their separate households. From beginning to end, the movie conveys the universal apprehensiveness of life under these circumstances. The social fabric has broken down, exactly as intended. Without a single overt reference to the Holocaust, except for one industrial smokestack visible through a bedroom window, the movie nevertheless evokes the pervasive infection of an entire society because of the fear of being reported. The government mantra is, “The longer the war lasts the greater is our faith in the final victory." And people are supposed to believe that and have their fears assuaged.
II. Such is precisely the same experience now taking over in Russia. While Russia proceeds to bomb, maim and kill civilians during their criminally berserk invasion of Ukraine, the citizenry back home is becoming restive. Without access to reliable information about the war, yet picking up stray reports through social media, enough people are starting to react that the Kremlin has ordered arrests with punishments in excess even of the Stalin era. The NYTimes reported yesterday about different school teachers, for instance, who had been involved in conversations with their students about the war in Ukraine, then being visited by investigators who questioned their loyalty. A headline yesterday read, “Russians Turn on One Another Over the War. Citizens are denouncing one another, illustrating how the war is feeding paranoia and polarization in Russian society. It’s an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state and enabled by far-reaching new laws that criminalize dissent.” The story goes on to say, “In the Soviet logic, those who choose not to report their fellow citizens could be viewed as being suspect themselves. In these conditions, fear is settling into people again,” said Nikita Petrov, a leading scholar of the Soviet secret police. “And that fear dictates that you report.” Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fifth one is fear.
An historic example from Russia is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was actually serving in the army when he was tagged for a stray “unpatriotic” remark and sent to the Gulag in 1945. But surveillance and reporting went on in the Bolshevik era too, as described by Boris Pasternak in his novel Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak himself was investigated and held in suspicion, to the extent that he was not permitted to go to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. And still earlier, under Czar Nicholas I, Dostoevsky himself was arrested in 1849 when he was not quite 30 years old, imprisoned and brought before a firing squad, although he was reprieved at the very last minute and sent to Siberia for four years followed by six years of obligatory military service in exile.
Totalitarian governments control through surveillance and the fear of being reported. Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fifth one is fear.
III. In Roman occupied Jerusalem during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Israelites lived in the equivalent of a police state, with all the threats of violence, imprisonment, and summary execution that we would easily recognize from our own history. There had been popular uprisings before Jesus’ time, to the extent that he was himself suspected as one of the self-described Zealots. Now entering Jerusalem with his reputation going before him, the entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate today is the equivalent of infiltrating enemy lines, only he did so openly. There had already been much open conflict between Jesus and religious authorities. His popularity was seen by them as dissidence. And his forerunner, John the Baptist, had already been imprisoned and executed, making Jesus’ arrival particularly provocative.
When Jesus entered the city, on a donkey as the scriptures report, Who welcomed him? It was his own disciples, according to Luke, and crowds, according to Matthew who says they “went wild with excitement.” At first, they hailed him as the Son of David, a royal designation the Roman royalty would have noticed. But next Jesus is called only “the prophet Jesus from Galilee,” perhaps meaning “of whom you have heard so much.”
You only have to ask yourself, for whom would Jesus’ message correlate with the need? For whom would his answers correlate to their questions? For whom would his presence in the streets, at table with them, in their homes correlate with their hunger? His parables were filled with owners and employers—for whom would those words about fairness and fair play resonate? When Jesus spoke about wealth and wages, who would likely welcome his entrance into Jerusalem? Didn’t he say it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? Were there any of the wealthy class at the gates of Jerusalem to welcome him?
As Jesus passes the gates, whatever festivity and hilarity may have accompanied him, he comes soon to the Temple itself where his contention with all the authorities heats up.
From this point forward, public association with Jesus would have been dangerous.
We hear little more of the disciples until the Upper Room.
Who welcomed Jesus? The disciples, for a while yes, except obviously for Judas. Early on, the investigative agents had their informants out, and it only took some money, not a lot, to buy one man’s soul and cast another man in chains. Judas had complained the night before that the expensive spikenard used by a woman to anoint Jesus’ feet was wasteful.
But the next day he accepts something of significantly less value for his own base purposes—thirty lousy pieces of silver. Money played its traditional role.
Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, fear is the fifth. Given the reputation of the Roman forces, Judas was certainly not alone in fearing the outcome of Jesus entering the city. Peter did, too, of course, and he ultimately denies him in the end. But right off the bat, the promise of wealth cracked whatever loyalty Judas had to Jesus. Certainly, you have to assume, the authorities had much more money than that to offer. But Judas lived at a subsistence level, and they knew this fearful man’s information could be bought for peanuts. It seems Jesus was undone not by the wealthy but by someone who wanted to be wealthy, or just to feel wealthy. Or did he just want the money for the poor, taking it from the very people who lorded it over the poor?
IV. There is a fourth story, ours in America today.
Judas woke up to his folly and tried to return the money. But he was scorned. The blood money could never be used again, it was so debased and degraded. The thirty pieces of silver were used to buy a potter’s field in which to bury Judas. So this festive occasion today is an ambiguous one—because of what awaited Jesus as he entered the capitol of a police state. But also because we celebrate this day in a world brimming with totalitarian rulers who rule by fear.
Would we welcome this man into our city? Do we welcome his example? After all, we know how much blood money circulates in our economy. Does it matter to us that corporations barter their souls away for profit? Do we want to be so wealthy ourselves that we let the wealthy make their money behind the scenes without objection, when we know that the profits of the arms industry are equally tainted, profits resulting from the sales to warring countries. How many innocent people die every day from weapons we manufacture?
What choice do we have? I think of the Berrigan brothers who went to the GE nuclear arms facility in King of Prussia, PA, broke in and spilled blood on the files and hammered on the nose cones of the missiles. The comparable movement today is our own Mass Peace Action.
But at the individual and local level, we had best look into the way our pensions and savings are invested and who we bank with, etc. We better look into it, or we’re not worth being buried in a potter’s field ourselves. Is the money worth it—are three pieces of silver worth it?
Theoretically, we can discuss such issues openly here in America. The curious thing about this tattered democracy today, though, is that dissident groups are the ones setting up surveillance, attacking fellow-citizens, and promoting laws muffling free speech and thought. Self-appointed hit-squads set out to capture a state governor! It’s a fantasy totalitarianism which has fear as its principal weapon. You can see why of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the fifth horseman is fear. And you can also see why Jesus’ constant refrain was, “Do not fear.”
Jesus wept over the city which murdered its prophets. Yet Jesus was undeterred and entered Jerusalem anyway. It was as if the only thing that matters in life was to bring living water to those who thirst and bread that truly nourishes to those who hunger. Our hope is in the giving and offering life of right where there is fear and death. The movie contrasts a man, Dr. Braun, who dies unnecessarily, with a man, with people, who live unnecessarily, without purpose. The same could be said of Jesus. That’s why the Psalm says, which we repeat today and at every Communion service—Blessed is the one who comes in the name of peace and justice and equity, which is the name of God.
This is a picture of individual wealth. It is clearly a picture of an individual declaring her individuality. Departing from the expected, from the norm, combining and recombining unexpected fashion markers. She has something to say, she projects an independence in her flippant sort of way. She dares you not to admire her.
Is this a superficial gesture by a material girl, or an act of spiritual possibility? We need to know a lot more about her, we would need to know a lot more about anyone seen just from the outside–we must be careful not to make unwarranted assumptions. For instance, we can’t see much of her biological parentage and chromosomal makeup, the physical and mental attributes she inherits from mom and dad. Nor can we see the string of decisions she made over time, the history of choices made at sensitive intersections in her life. We can’t see her emotional state, we never can–it’s largely invisible to outside observers.
What you create out of your life cannot necessarily be seen whole by others at any one given moment. Yet here is a fun and carefree invitation to others to get out of our life’s rut–Come on, depart from your norms, live a little. What might it cost her–? Perhaps she risks the approval of her friends, the school authorities, her boss at work? Maybe she risks getting into the college of her desires.
Never mind, she has the temerity to model a love of herself that says, “I am a work of art.” It could reflect a deeper love that really says, “I am God’s work of art.” I am taking all that I am and painting a canvas that represents me. I am the artist of my life, created in the image of the creator God, and painting, dancing for you, sculpting for you, composing for you a whole person. She seems secure in the knowledge articulated in the Psalm this morning–
A new thing today is how people are declaring who they are and say that they “identify as.” At last, people are encouraged and it seems possible to take pride in either our forebears, our ethnicity, or our gender/orientation, in ourselves. People are invited now to make that known by some explicit, verbal introduction with our pronouns.
Myself, I am a straight, white, married male of tall persuasion (6’3”) in the Social Security zone (over 65). But I figure that people can see that for themselves. So, what would my self-introduction be, how should I identify? And I’m not honestly sure. I’d rather let other people draw their own conclusions from the canvas that I have painted, and let whatever chips fall where they may. In the privacy of my mind, I am more inclined to be thinking about who I “identify with,” but you can’t see that. Where does my heart incline, but you can’t see that. Who do I admire and wish I were or, even, feel that I could be, whose pain or joy do I identify with, but you can’t see that. Those feelings contribute mightily to the amalgam that is “me.” Growing up, and even growing old, making my choices adds color and shape and texture to my canvas.
But I’d rather think that I, like you, am a work of art, a work of God’s art and trust that people will accept me that way. I think the spirit in places today is to trust that you are you in all your individuality, which will be respected and honored, even though I know this isn’t fully operational. My wealth is all that God gave me to paint. In sum, I am a wealth of possibility and possibilities. God made us to live lives being reconceived, recreated, repainted, and celebrated.
At the same time, everyone wants to be financially wealthy, doesn’t everybody dream of making a million dollars? As a campus minister, I was a little shaken when I would overhear undergraduates predicting when they would make their first million dollars. It was not a joke, they meant it–the choice of college majors in Business and Economics grew over the fifty years between 1970 and 2020–from 115,396 to 390,564. Of course, the student enrollment grew over that period. But let’s compare those numbers with English, Humanities, and foreign languages and literatures over the same period: 92,395 to 100,119. A growth of only 1%. The growth in business majors was 330%.
A popular movie of the 1980s was Wall Street (1987) in which Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) lectured people that “greed is good,) A signal song was “I am a material girl” sung by Madonna in 1984. But this was nothing new. The pursuit of financial wealth is universal–think of the Crash of 1929, the antitrust laws against the robber barons, etc., the slave trade. We are fully aware that the love of money, not money itself, is the root of all evil. Love of money blinds, as evidenced by the slave trade, the genocide of the indigenous Americans, and the rape of natural resources in our country.
But this young woman reminds us that our true wealth is what God gave us–we are each a wealth of possibility and possibilities. When Jesus summarizes the law as loving others as one loves oneself, he is certainly not talking about the kind of love that is just self-interested. It is the deep love that comes directly from God’s love of us, that gives us the courage to live in place and the joy of being ourselves. We should feel like my friend who astonished himself once when he said, “I like who I am.” God’s love that reassures us that our past course needs a mid-course correction, that bad judgment or willful offenses are wiped clean off the slate.
WHAT GOOD ARE WE TO OTHERS IF WE ARE NOT WHOLLY AND TRULY OURSELVES?
Finally, I don’t know if INSTITUTIONS are capable of this kind of artistry, self-invention and self-correction. Institutions tend to be like oil tankers, hard to steer. And so many expire before they are able to adapt. The Roman Empire that executed Jesus finally fell, due to its quest for dominance and wealth. We celebrate Jesus today because his love did triumph. We are the proof of the Resurrection, and so, we pray, is the Church.
I. Here is a thought experiment. Suppose human beings reproduced, not by the sexual reproduction we know, but by mitosis, that is, asexual reproduction through the dividing of the organism exactly into two, as amoebae do. The result is two fully formed organisms with the identical chromosomal makeup. Then those two in turn divide into two, yielding four identical organisms, and so on.
What would that be like? Everybody would be a descendant and an ancestor of identical progeny. We are all siblings. I suppose there could be different ethnicities and races as there are different genus, classes, orders and phyla, but within them all individuals would be identical, that is, they wouldn’t be individuals at all. Come to think of it, those differentiations would not exist either; we would just be an ocean of one human individual. There would be no progeny as we know them.
So, would there be what we humans call families? Doubtful, because a “family” would be numerically huge, making living under one roof an impossibility, which is one definition of family. There would be no gestation period, or infancy, adolescence and growth of any kind–we would all be “born” as full-fledged adults. That’s convenient–no school buses or fitting rooms for trying on clothes. Since the descendants are utterly undifferentiated, it might have the benefit of eliminating conflict. But not all, because even human identical twins get into conflicts. In the controversy over nature vs. nurture, nature’s uniformity is trumped by nurture’s differentiation. Witness this song from the Fantastiks–
Plant a radish, get a radish, not a brussels sprout–there’s never any doubt. While with children, It's bewilderin'. You don't know until the seed is nearly grown Just what you've sown.
Plato’s theory was that in pre-history we were originally single, androgynous creatures that the gods had to cut in half to separate the male and female halves. The result for humans was a built-in longing for one another that cannot be denied.
“Surely you can see that no one who received such an offer to come together and melt together with the one he loves, so that one person emerged from two. Why should this be so? It’s because, as I said, we used to be complete wholes in our original nature, and now ‘love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.”
Out of that love come families–that’s where you and I surfaced on this planet, each one of us the product of two different sets of chromosomes, no one exactly alike, even twins. We surfaced in a family where all the biology happens, not only copulation and birthing, but dying and decaying, eating and drinking, eliminating and sweating, grooming and hygiene, waking and sleeping, all very personal, very intimate things. While nations contend, and cities cope, and corporations reap, it is in families where the body learns our debt to Nature, for better or for worse.
Yes, sometimes for worse. Some of the most basic and truly awful human emotions are wreaked upon each other in families. It’s called growing up. Paul put it simply–when I was a child, I thought as a child. When I became an adult, I thought like an adult.
So the bonds formed at home matter all our life long, right into, especially into the aging process when we prepare to leave them behind. The family you start out with is not, and need not, be the one you end up with–fortunately! Lots of mixing and matching occurs as broken families fold into blended families, and extended family members may come back into the picture. Non-family become members too, as obviously happens in every marriage, but also as orphaned children become grafted by adoption into something wholly other than their family of origin. Read Charles Dickens.
Many people bemoan their families. But let it be known, the only thing worse than having a family is not having one. People yearn for family. They’ll even call church their family! The possibilities for getting a family now have increased. Due to modern science, there can be progeny for infertile couples or gay couples, all without procreation.
So, instead of mitosis, there are progeny, which start life in the home and go on to create homes of their own. The wealth of families is progeny.
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in (Robert Frost). But the number of people without homes where they have to take you in have increased astronomically. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Venezuela accounted for 63% of the 25 million refugees in the world, but there are even more displaced persons than that within other countries due to civil unrest and violence. These folks have no home to turn to. Soon it will be climate change. It is dire because families are the most vulnerable unit of society.
Social service agencies will not have the capacity to place and care for such refugees as are now flooding out of Ukraine. What will our role be? Even the strongest of religious congregations can only host a few families at best. But churches are not social service agencies anyway. We are spiritual communities. We offer things like hope, solidarity, and prayer. It’s not much as the world counts things, but it’s what churches were created for. We also are purveyors of a rare commodity–forgiveness, the lack of which busts families up and drives people out into solitary exile. The slight difference between the Greek notion of love and St. Paul’s is that the content of the word “love” in Christianity is forgiveness. Christ suffered and died because some people prefer their hurts and grievances to health. Such people ask, why solve these problems, why dissolve these emotional knots? I’d rather be right and sleep with my hurts. But Christ brings healing to people who say I’d rather be right than make right my relationship with my father, my mother, my sister or brother.
These are just a fraction of the population–the unforgiven and unforgiving number in the hundreds of millions–without a home. In addition, there are 85 million refugees. Do you see what work we have to do? Don’t fret about being a church without a Sunday School. A “family church” doesn’t have to have a Sunday School and be full of families–it has to serve families. Have we got the focus it takes to create such ministries? There are three street ministries locally that I know of in Cambridge, Boston, and Lowell. We could be supporting them financially and in person–attend their services. There is the West Newton Y and Bridge Over Troubled Waters–we can’t do their kind of work but we can partner with them.
On this planet, there are only progeny, and universally they (we) each want to take our place in the sequence of generations called “families”–let’s use our church for the healing of families.
Scripture introduction for Matthew 25:14-25. The lesson for today is the very familiar Parable of the Talents. Very familiar but over-interpreted. The 25th chapter of Matthew contains 3 parables, which are called the Parables of Judgment because the conflict is reaching its climax, and Jesus wants to portray the consequential nature of the Gospel. Know that a “talent” was worth 30 pounds of gold, by approximate estimates of the scholars. It is only used to measure wealth at the scale of rulers or monarchs. So right away Jesus’ listeners knew that the characters were not people banking, and we should know to put this parable into the “fairy-tale” category. So what meaning for real people does that leave us with?
What is wealth?
I. What is wealth? Where does wealth come from? How does it grow, and spread? Who owns wealth? Does wealth belong to anyone? Why? Could wealth be something held by a person in trust for all? Is wealth real? Don’t we all have to agree something has value in order for someone to be wealthy? Isn’t wealth just some trees and minerals and grain in another form? Don’t those who had a hand in changing that form have a share in that changed form?
I worked on an assembly line of a John Deere factory in East Moline, IL, one summer in college. Down the conveyor belt came former trees and minerals that had been transformed into wires, cables, and engine parts by somebody. I was the next somebody who put together all the electrical parts of the engine, which days before were trees and minerals, so that it would run. Somebody further down the line would put gasoline that once had been a mile underground in the form of oil into a tank, that permitted the engine to pull a plow made of steel, formerly iron ore, that could turn over the soil to plant seeds from which would grow the grain we would later eat out of a cereal box.
All wealth comes from Nature plus Labor, but there is an extra ingredient in there. Can you name it? I think the extra ingredient is Necessity. Necessity, we are told, is the mother of invention, and it is dire necessity that drives our will to provide food and shelter for ourselves. We have to make something to sell or we don’t have cash to buy what we need. What’ll we make, who will buy it? Let’s grow something, or manufacture it, steal it, or work for someone who does these things. We can sell our time, or the labor of our bodies, even our own bodies. We are our own most saleable natural resource.
In the face of disaster or possible disaster, human beings have resorted to all kinds of desperate schemes. Beginning with the Industrial and the post-Industrial era, with population expanding and land shrinking, mass societies had mass needs that necessitated mass solutions. Enter: the corporation–it’s a story, like many a horror story, wherein a nice young man turns into a vampire. At their inception in the 17th century, corporations were conceived for a given project, for a stipulated time, with particular participants. The charter was reviewed regularly and expired with the project. But one day, actually it was in 1886, corporations were accorded a status as a person by the U.S. Supreme Court, thus to hold a status in perpetuity as a person which shielded the persons in charge from culpability for error or malfeasance. The corporation is accountable externally to the law, of course, but internally it was only to the stockholders and the bottom line. Then the issues became productivity, market share, and the bottom line. Competition is good because it drives prices down, but competition also drives false economies in labor and natural resources and creates products utterly unnecessary to a society.
I’m not engaging in corporation bashing here this morning, although it may sound like I am. Principally because, not all young men turn into vampires. Nevertheless, corporations are as susceptible to sin as any persons are. And since corporations sought the status of persons and got it, they must come under the same judgment that persons before God do, just as the three servants in the Parable this morning do. I’ll come back to them momentarily.
About the same time I had that job in the John Deere factory, a movie came out about a guy who just came home to his graduation party, and a man takes him aside and tells him, in very personal and confidential tones, “One word, son, one word–plastics.” The movie, you will recall, was “The Graduate.” It makes practically a straight line from that opening scene to the picture on the cover of your bulletin this morning. How did that happen? Very little social accountability. They know it, they say it, they are proud of it. It took Mother (Mary Harris) Jones to go out in the 1870s and 80s and 90s to the coal fields of John D. Rockefeller to exhort the miners to fight the low wages and dangerous working conditions. She became known as the “most dangerous woman in America” at the time. A hundred years later, Senator Elizabeth Warren earned the title “most dangerous woman in America” for daring to insist on consumer protection laws and start a consumer protection agency. In between there were the Norma Rae’s, the Karen Silkwoods, Erin Brockovich, Naomi Klein, and Michael Moore who documented other real-life versions of them.
II. I know it’s a “catch as catch can” world that demands of business people ingenuity, innovation, extemporizing, improvising, risking, imagining, praying, collaborating, cajoling, some conning, unfortunately a lot of conning of consumers, investors, and lawmakers–. But when “catch as catch can” becomes a “catch me if you can” world, in other words, the world of Enron, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and Donald Trump, when hutzpah rises and scruples drop, we have a right to claim self-defense and demand a reprieve from this Babylonian captivity. There is nothing wrong with capitalism that a little government regulation and a lot of biblical self-regulation wouldn’t fix.
Corporate America has fed and clothed and fueled and armed and overmedicated the country, all the while betraying investors, employees, customers and the whole community–particularly in its obstructiveness about the environment. What to do about it all–at this late stage it has to be through the law and the lawmakers. Nothing short of the Vote will be sufficient. Please follow the CREATION JUSTICE MINISTRY of Eliot Church as it unfolds during Lent toward Earth Day.
We need to reclaim our identity as citizens, and Christian citizens at that. When Pope Francis proclaims that nothing short of an ecological conversion is called for, he means a conversion rooted in Christ’s Gospel, as you heard this morning. If you want to apply this parable to corporate performance, remember that the referent of “talent” is the love of God, which only lives in multiplication. This little playlet of Jesus should prompt us to think of the uselessness of unfaith, the needlessness of fear, the superabundance of love, and the joy of fulfilling our responsibilities. Jesus teaches not proselytizing, but multiplying. This parable does not tell you to be either an investor or an evangelist, but to become a big risk taker for the sake of others. John Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) wrote about this parable, “All must use all possessions, material or spiritual, for the good of others. Let us offer all things–wealth, knowledge, influence–for the benefit of our neighbor. Here, those things are called talents that are within the power of a person.”
If we don’t heed Christ, we are warned in all three of those Parables of Judgement in the 25th chapter of Matthew, that we will end up in a straight-jacket like Dabney Coleman in “9 to 5,” cast into outer darkness for the lack of the love of God at the hands of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. Dabney Coleman’s character simply lacked the courage of the gospel to resist the corporation-man mentality.
If we ask all this of corporations, and churches are corporations, too, non-profit ones, we should ask how we at Eliot Church measure up on the moral conversion scale. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) challenged his clergy to ask themselves, did they expend the talents of God wholeheartedly in their preaching, almsgiving, intercession, and advocacy? That would be a perfect question to guide an Interim Minister review–do I take the risks for Christ I could or should in my ministry? And how about the congregation–do your hearts overflow with the gospel for all people, in how you articulate yourselves, in how generous you are, in your prayer life and in your public demonstration? That’s for you to say. And you'll have that chance next Sunday when we call for a dialogue following Worship to learn what it might mean to be faithful as a SMALL CHURCH.
What is wealth? Where does wealth come from? How does it grow, and spread? Who owns wealth? Does wealth belong to anyone? Why? Could wealth be something held by a person in trust for all? Is wealth real? Don’t we all have to agree something has value in order for someone to be wealthy? Isn’t wealth just some trees and minerals and grain in another form? Don’t those who had a hand in changing that form have a share in that changed form? Let love abound that life be enriched!
The city is a miracle. Matthew 23:37-39 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Cities are always broke. You knew that, right? New York City had to be brought back from the brink of bankruptcy in 1977. Sixty-three out of America’s most populous seventy-five cities do not have enough money to pay all of their bills, according to Forbes Magazine. Boston is about 5th after NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
But where do all the skyscrapers and glass emporiums come from? How come there is a Miracle Mile and a Sears Tower in Chicago, a Copley Square and the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, a Rockefeller Center and Wall Street and the World Trade Center in NYC? City governments may be broke, but the engines of the city aren’t broken.
It makes me think of the young maid imprisoned in a dungeon, whom Rumpelstiltskin helped to turn straw into gold with her spinning wheel.
The city is such a spinning wheel. The city takes and takes and takes and takes–from the sweat of immigrants’ brows, from the vain fantasy of ignorant investors, from the earth and water around it (stolen in our case from the indigenous peoples), from the bedroom suburbs, from regional farmers, and loggers, and trappers, and miners–it takes and spins from them riches that only the richest kings once knew. Cities operate with impunity, where anything can be bought, and anything can be sold. Including your soul. A city is a free-agent, never heeding the health or safety of those it attracts. Until it is made to.
Whoever pointed the fact out? Jesus certainly did, as did the prophets of Israel before him. They called their leaders out because they who put their thumb on the scale were in dereliction of the covenant with Yahweh.
Fast forward into our post-Industrial era, the prophet was a novelist, Charles Dickens in England, where the Industrial Revolution had combined with greed and ethical blindness to render city life universally a hazard to health and hope. In America, writers like Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and F. Scott Fitzgerald held the mirror up to the vanity of the ambitious. It was a social worker named Jane Addams in Chicago who in the first third of the 20th century was the one-woman battering ram that compelled city politicians to address poverty and disease in the poorest part of the city (she also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, the second woman to do so). In NYC it was Margaret Sanger promoting family planning and contraception. It was Lilian Wald who founded the Henry St. Settlement House in the lower East Side of NYC, it was a Protestant minister by the name of Walter Rauschenbusch in New York City and a Catholic laywoman by the name of Dorothy Day. Cities chew people up, and modern prophets keep redirecting attention to the people victimized. Why? Because people are the wealth of cities. Our question today as a church–what is the churches’ role in the city, whether that be the City of Newton or the greater Boston megalopolis.
But did these prophets change anything? Yes, they added to the pressures upon cities coming from every direction. After the Great Depression hit, a great social safety net was created, labor unions were legalized, new sanitation and housing standards were set. Even so, cities remained a vortex of exploitation, crime, and disease. Who are the successors today to Addams, Sanger, Wald, Rauschenbusch and Dorothy Day? Community organizations like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, Black Ministerial Alliance, etc. And we should be asking what is churches’ role in the city?
Eventually, in the mid-twentieth century, cities became somewhat more habitable and hospitable. In order to survive, cities had to. They need tourists to fleece, knowing fools and their money are soon parted. Cities need to keep the elite residents, too. And cities need artists who live in low-rent districts as the advance guard of the gentrifiers. Urban renewal was conceived to scrape poverty aside and residents shunted into high-rise housing projects for the poor. Cities have been manicured to the degree of a movie set in order to fleece all those people on the duck boats. But the facade disguises the fact that city governments are always operating at a subsistence level and that the wealth of the city engines is created off the backs of millions of people who themselves live at a subsistence level. The volume of products made and sold in a mass society creates economies of scale which yield up volumes of wealth. But people are the wealth of the city, regularly squandered.
The cityscape masks the deals that Trump wrote about in his book, the high-risk profiteering and the borderline illegal (and outright illegal) maneuvers deal-makers make. But there are plenty of legal millions made in the city where human labor and natural resources are taken advantage of. Trump is only the latest example of what the Old Testament prophets railed at Jerusalem about in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Jesus himself wept as he viewed Jerusalem prior to his entrance there. The lack of religious leadership, the corruption of the temple oligarchy compromised a city’s wealth. The lack of standards and enforcement undermines the greatest of cities and invalidates their wealth. The bearers of such criticism encounter lethal reprisal from those in power. They do not welcome restriction. Markets must not only be free, they also must not be questioned. Cities cannot afford to be respecters of persons and still compete.
But cities are indeed wonders to behold–the skylines, the parks, the avenues and promenades, the monuments and memorials. What Pierre Charles L'Enfant did for Washington DC, what Baron Haussmann did for Paris, Frederick Law Olmstead did for New York and Boston, fulfilled more grandly what every city strives for–public distinction that makes its citizens feel proud just for living there. And we should never underestimate the creativity and innovation which are only possible in cities, not to mention the satisfaction, the fun and the cultural riches found in them. The city is a miracle, the most advanced artform of human civilization.
Cities have a concentration of financial capital, but human capital constitutes the wealth of any nation. One economic theory (Jane Jacobs) holds that a state without a city is a poor state. And that is exactly the lack that Vladimir Putin thinks he will correct by taking Ukraine, because in that country are multiple vigorous cities like Kyiv, etc. Then beyond Ukraine are Poland and all Eastern Europe with their great cities for the taking. The city is indeed a miracle, and Russia badly needs a miracle.
Vanity, vanity, all is vanity if the city’s wealth is won at the expense of the women, men and children who populate the city. The existence of the church in the city can serve to remind all the relevant parties of the plumb line held by Yahweh before all people. Whether business heeds it or not, the plumb line determines all–and the religious communities make that known.
In the greater city, of which Newton is a small part, people struggle for survival. Race and ethnicity place thick filters over the doors to opportunity. It is interesting that Pope Francis pauses in his encyclical about global warming to remind us that love of nature is empty without love of humanity. That love is scarce when city governments have their own racial blinders on, and often collude with the financial power brokers. Cities deserve judgment, and they deserve support. How can a church, like the one situated here at Newton Corners, do that? Consider calling a minister who serves as a city missioner in a city setting and acts as a chaplain to the congregation on Sunday mornings. Or dedicate a portion of the endowment earnings to a non-profit or agency in the city who fulfills our mission as a proxy.
I have been at pains since I came to Eliot to help you see yourselves as a “city church.” The day you do, you will discover your mission and your destiny.