Rev. Rick Chrisman February 2, 2020 Who do we say we are? I Corinthians 1:26-31, Matthew 16: 13-20 Jesus once asked the disciples, who do people say that I am? Jesus posed this question after he had been performing miracles and engaging in controversies with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, so it was natural by now that he wondered what people made of him. The disciples proffered a number of alternatives they overheard—John the Baptist, some other prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah. Then Jesus counters and pointedly asks the question that really matters, who do YOU say that I am? It’s the kind of question that reverses the field because the answer reveals who they are. Who Jesus is to me, in other words, says a lot about who I am. Who am I, is a question every person must answer for herself or himself, because it is a question about our identity. St. Paul gives us a humbling answer on our behalf, as we heard in this morning’s lesson, when he says we are not wise, not powerful or nobly born—rather, we are weak, low and among the despised with nothing to boast about except in the Lord—all too true, of course. Among other ways we can identify ourselves, in addition to what we say about Jesus, is by means of the social constructs—for instance, I am a straight, white, married male and father, of the tall persuasion, theologically educated and an ordained minister. That makes me a very lucky American, on several pretty obvious counts. Now, when I was a graduate student living on the Southside of Chicago, it was said that “Your politics is determined by what you see out your living room window.” It taught me that the answer to the perennial question, “Who am I?” must be answered in part by asking another question, “Where am I?” Yes, our identity is determined by where we live, where we work, and how we got here. The decisions I made along the way of getting where I am, invisible as they may be to you, are identity building blocks. I understood how decisions of mine, like my choice of friends, my decision to quit smoking (when I was 10--!), my choice of college, my choice of mate, how I handled a scrape with the law or conflict at work, all tell me who I am because these have determined where I physically and geographically am today. And, clearly, my decision for Christ also has shaped who I am occupationally and socially, and where I have landed since. The same analysis is applicable to institutions, like a church. In fact, the first of the three questions the Discernment Process of this congregation has to answer is, “Who are we?” This very important question does not have an automatic answer—it takes discernment. The question put that way can leave you a little at sea, it is rather abstract. One approach could be to apply it according to social constructs: we are a 125 member church, founded 175 years ago, a (mostly) white interracial congregation in a major staff transition. But let’s turn the question around and ask, “Where are we and what decisions has this church made that got us here?” “Where are we?” Just what can we see from our windows? #1 We are on Earth, the planet Earth, this earth ever turning even as we change it. #2 We are on indigenous land, where the indigenous people had lived for 10,000 years until we came here and John Eliot preached to the Indians one mile from here. #3 We are in a democratic country, where we are free from the arbitrary rule of kings, until the day before yesterday. Yet still more specifically, where are we? Yes, we are in a suburb, in Newton, Massachusetts. This congregation is used to thinking you are in Newton. But Newton is only your address—474 Centre Street, Newton, is just your street address, but I contend that it is not where you/we are. Eliot Church, I submit, is a city church, and I don’t mean the City of Newton but that larger thing that encompasses surrounding suburbs Watertown, Waltham and Cambridge and many others called “greater Boston.” Sure, you pay real estate taxes to Newton, vote for Newton’s mayor, attend the Newton town meetings, are proud of Newton’s trees, and are grateful for its safe streets and good schools. The whole point of suburbs 100 years ago was to get away from the awful city, but that ignores that we are dependent upon the city! The fate of the city is our fate! Ultimately, this alleged suburban congregation belongs to a larger organism called a city, called Boston in our case, or greater Boston, not to Newton at all. Newton actually faces the city, and Eliot Church is nearly contiguous, being the closest of our 5 UCC churches in Newton to the central city. This church occupies a little precinct in a mammoth nexus of interdependence that, because wholly invisible, perhaps has not much impact upon your view of yourselves as being intimately part of the city and in the city. The number and the scale and the complexity of urban systems in which Newton is enmeshed defeats any attempt to document or describe them—invisibly we are connected by money, food, and hope in four-dimensional networks as fine and numerous as capillaries. Start with this mural created by the Girl Scouts, and see what they see. What would you add, from the vantage point of your age and experience?
For example, what’s under our streets, what lines sustain our fuel consumption, who pays our paychecks, where does that money come from and how did they get it, who trains the police, where are the ships from China unloaded, how many radio and TV broadcasting stations are there, what do the students eat and who puts it in front of them, who launders the uniforms of the professional athletic teams every night, how is water for that procured and where disposed of, and while we’re at it, how many toilet flushes per hour flow under these streets to Deer Island? Eliot Church belongs less to Newton than to the ganglia of this giant organism interpenetrating us, despite all the superficial appearances to the contrary, like your Newton street address. I perceive from this church’s outreach that you have the consciousness, but do you own the identity, of a city church? Could this be what has held you up in recent decades? Eliot Church thinks about city issues and acts on them, Eliot extends itself outward (with ministries to the homeless, to immigrants, and involvement in the climate crisis), but does so as a suburban church? Instead of anchoring our work in the psychology of our suburban street address, we should follow our heart into the regions beyond this immediate municipality. This psychic step permits us to avoid the “us vs. them” trap where “charity” taints our solidarity with the larger world. We no longer reach out to “the less fortunate,” but participate in uniform solidarity with the larger city. Could this mean an end to white guilt and black resentment? So Eliot Church, I repeat, is a city church, by my lights. Can we own this identity explicitly, or at all? Does it guide our decision-making explicitly? Does it affect our self-presentation explicitly? Are we perceived that way by our own members, and just as importantly, by others? This is important because errors of perception, and errors of self-perception, cause lost opportunities. We all know that from personal experience, don’t we? What if we were to revise our view of ourselves, acknowledging that we are in and of the city, and henceforward call ourselves a city church? How might the response to us be different if the sign out front which reads “Be the Church” were rewritten to read: “Be City Church”? Like City Year, just City Church!
How can we make this identity real to ourselves? First, answer Question #1, Who do we say that we are? Then, let the answer to this question lead us to Question #2 of the Discernment Process, Who is our neighbor? And to Question #3 of the Discernment Process, What is God calling us to be? Jesus is not only asking, who do you say that I am, but who do you say that YOU are? --Rev. Richard Chrisman, 2/2/2020