These Sunday mornings lately, we have been confronting our history a lot: national and racial history, the colonial history of Eliot Church—all of it is big history, destined one day for the history books. But there’s a whole other department of history for us to discuss—I mean, Invisible History, that is, the history of human relationships and personal development which never makes it into the history books. For churches, the invisible part has a greater share than the visible part of its history—if you wanted to put a percentage on it, maybe 99%?
Here’s a perfect example from last week—the Eliot Welcome home to Nadja. Have you seen Patrick’s snapshots of us posted on the website? When you look at the expression on Nadja's face, you see priceless testimony to the personal ties that bind us together. But you won’t see that in the history books—it’s invisible history.
Other examples lately are the Food for Kids project that got 14 bags together for the Centre Street Food Pantry and the letter-writing project to promote Ryan’s early release—more invisible history.
You know what else, I think of Eliot’s invisible history every time I make the morning rounds of this church building and go through the downstairs kitchen and think of all the meals prepared, all the conversations that took place, and all the laughter shared over the decades of events held there—practically none of it ever makes written history.
It’s what I am calling Invisible History—our spiritual history, the gift to us of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the vital breath of this, and every church, over long, long, long stretches of time, through thick and thin, through wars, depressions, and civil unrest. Christ’s spirit has been our mainstay, and will always remain so.
This breath, this spiritual bond, counts more than ever, now that we have entered the Covid era. I won’t say more about the obvious except to place ourselves in our biblical context—Solomon’s glorious Temple, built in approximately 950 BCE, was destroyed in 586 BCE by the new Babylonian Empire, and the Israelites were all mostly carted off to Babylon. Solomon’s temple was rebuilt over the centuries by the Jews returning from exile and then completely destroyed again in 70 CE by the Romans.
Such was the utter devastation of their experience of exile in Babylon, the Israelites bemoaned their fate in the most extreme of our 151 Psalms, cursing their captors who mocked them and taunted them, wishing upon their captors in return the cruelest of vengeance, that their babies be dashed against the rocks.
We recoil from such a violent wish. But the Psalmist only permits himself such an expression because acting vengefully on such wishes was prohibited—Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord—it’s the difference between expressing the emotion vs. acting on it.
Recalling their mortal straits, the Psalmist stresses the importance of honoring the spirit they associated with the Temple in distant Jerusalem and singing to the Lord anyway. There is a lesson here for us during Covid.
Jerusalem and the Temple foremost within it, had been utterly and totally wiped out finally by Rome after 100 years of tolerating the pesky state of Judea where Jesus ministered and where he got mistaken for political zealots who agitated to throw out the occupying army. Out of wholesale devastation, emerged two wholly novel and unforeseen developments: first was the rabbinic Judaism which we know today, which is Judaism without the Temple. The second was the early Christian church, of which we are the descendants.
The long, gradual extinction of the Judean people was capped with extirpation—and that’s just what we could be looking at here today. The Jesus movement was about dead when he was executed by the Romans, but the Way didn’t die. Their belief in Christ’s resurrection carried over into a belief in their own resurrection.
Then we read in the lesson from the Book of Acts today, where the apostles start to form and shape a successor to the Temple (not a replacement, it must be added)—they invoked God’s spirit and did powerful deeds in the face of opposition. Paul himself persecuted the early followers as they became what we call a “church.”
Before this pandemic hit, we were facing a comparable situation of our own. Christians in the 20th century had been coping with erosions caused by secularism. The net result for mainline, liberal Protestantism was the evisceration of our supply lines—today we are being told: there are not now viable seminaries even for the few candidates enrolled; the cost of theological education exceeds what its graduates can repay; candidates cannot find church placements that remunerate them above subsistence levels; fewer churches can afford a fully trained Master of Divinity at competitive rates.
A famous song once asked people to speculate about a world without religion—and its benefits. That was coming true already pre-Covid. How will Eliot Church fare post-Covid? Will we come out the other side? What will meet us on the other side? Many churches besides Eliot have reason to wonder. It’s time to tap the Holy Spirit of the apostles, dear church.
One professor of the History of Medicine recently observed, “Great crises, like the previous three global pandemics, tend to bring profound social change, for good or ill.” Profound change, she said. It’s time for us to find the Holy Spirit that performed wonders among the apostles.
Lately we have been simply dazed and puzzled, especially about how far from ideal our American dream turns out to be. But our professor continued, pandemics are “accelerators of mental renewal,” and so has this pandemic revealed itself to be. If that is true generally, is it true of us? Are we experiencing “mental renewal?” Have we put on our thinking caps—no, I should ask, our reimagining hats?
Don’t try to imagine the world without religion—try to re-imagine our religion! It’s time to invoke the Holy Spirit and perform wonders.
Look: Jesus and the dire circumstances of his time combined to prompt two new kinds of community into being. The Temple was destroyed—as a result, Judaism reinvented itself and Christianity was born—the twin daughters of apparent finality.
Whether we realize it or not, this is exactly what is happening to us. What’s Eliot Church to do? We are going to need those reimagining hats. Because, you know there have already been creative imaginations out there for 25 years—you’ve heard of them and read their book under previous pastorates—the emergent churches, the divergent churches, the weird churches movement, church 2.0 and church 3.0, oh my!
Eliot church will want to redouble those imaginative leaps—and must.
We are in a perfect position to plant the seeds for the next Eliot generation with a fantastic history (visible and invisible), material assets (God be thanked), and an ideal location positioned for a city-wide ministry. People may not want their grandmother’s church anymore, but they still need and want a real church, whether they say so or not.
So it’s time for Eliot to find the Holy Spirit, because the next version just cannot look like the last—and won’t willy nilly. Consider yourselves from now on in the business of sponsoring a New Church Start—this will require not just the congregation in the aggregate, but also each and every one of you, to be the seed for your successor. You must die first, as Jesus told us that seeds do, before you can rise with new life.
It’s time for each Eliot member and friend to find the Holy Spirit, and next Sunday I will devote entirely to how that happens. Unless the plan is to disappear from history, both visible and invisible, Eliot we are going to call upon the Holy Spirit going forward. We are going to proclaim our discipleship to Christ Jesus and promise to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.