I am speaking to Eliot Church today, but what I have to say applies generally to many other churches, so I hope you stay with me. If the shoe fits, wear it.
Remember when Yogi Berra was asked, “What time is it?” He answered, “You mean, now?” God bless you, Yogi Berra, a true philosopher.
Yes, Now—! And what time is it now? For Eliot Church of Newton MA, it is the Kairos, meaning it is the right time for something big to happen.
Ripeness is all, saith the Bard, and I want to level with you and say that Eliot’s time has come to right-size itself. In order to cast a vision for Eliot’s future, which is the principal work of the transition period, a church must first take stock. A sober, fact-based reckoning has been publicly missing so far, perhaps because church members feared it would just paint a hopeless picture.
Think with me a moment about this great story from sacred scripture. It’s one of the favorites because it contains hope and it contains a sly joke.
Look back to where the Lord, in the guise of a visiting stranger, says to Abraham, “Before I come back in a year hence, you will have a son.” Abraham, the first patriarch of the Israelites, lived in mortal fear of his family being wiped out in the desert wilderness. Yahweh had been promising Abraham that his progeny would be numberless like the sands, and here was the Lord predicting these two nonagenarians would be parents again.
Now being something like 100, Abraham, and Sarah, age maybe 90, had long since come to the proverbial end of their family line. And so the Lord tells them that the line will continue, that Sarah and you will conceive a baby. Well, when Sarah overhears this conversation outside the tent, it makes her laugh out loud—she’s pretty clear about her being past any sexual pleasure and, besides, the old man is, well, OLD—point taken!
The Lord then said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
In other words, you did doubt me when you laughed.
Nothing proceeds in a straight line for the Israelite history (for instance, second-born Jacob supplants first-born Esau, Israelite slavery in Egypt is overturned by the youngest son Joseph who himself had been sold into slavery, corrupt monarchies follow, and the crooked, deviating line goes on, never in the straight way expected).
And this is exactly Paul’s point when it came to the arrival of the rabbi Jeshua, ben-Joseph, whom Paul called the Christ. Surprise, another jog in the line: Christians will be the new Israelites, Paul asserts. Paul contends that, once again, Israel will be reborn and continue its life of faith.
Well, Israel laughed in Paul’s face–that’s not in the reproductive cards, spiritually speaking, and certainly NOT in the way you envision it, Paul! This has been a bone of contention between Christians and Jews to this day. But, clearly, there was something to Paul’s claim that God had more in store for his people because here Christians are, 2000 years later one of the world-religions.
But some Christian churches are feeling their age. At 175 years of age, Eliot Church of Newton is feeling wizened, withered, and weathered, and members have privately wondered for 10-12 years now, as Sarah did, whether this church is fertile enough to produce another generation.
How explicitly can I put this—you have good reasons to doubt: Eliot Church is mortally over-extended and underpowered. (It is certainly not undercapitalized, but that paradoxically is actually one of Eliot’s problems—more about that another time.)
Look, we live in the desert wilderness of modern secularism, and a plague has descended on the land. But there is nothing so bleak about Eliot Church’s prospects that can’t be fixed with a cold hard look at the facts, just the facts, Ma’am. And there is nothing dire about Eliot Church’s prospects if approached with a good collective laugh, with Sarah by your side, resting in the divine promise which is right in your laps. Frankness about the facts will bring rebirth, new members and a new minister.
It’s time, it’s high time for leadership and members to have an open, public conversation with each other, with no pre-conceptions about outcomes. Just hear each other out, one by one and anticipate the divine wisdom that comes with discernment.
What I have observed so far is that Eliot is reckoning every week with a whole apparatus that is just out of proportion to the size and needs of its congregation. Think about this: do 60 members in a church justify a $400,000 budget? What story does that tell you—can you discern the entire story this tells, and implies? What has the story told you about the remedies that have been proposed over the last 10-12 years to increase membership and income? Many worthwhile endeavors have been tried, but to no avail.
So now it’s time to rewrite this story and exercise your only other option for renewal, alter our expenses to fit the reality. That’s what I mean by right-sizing the church. It’s time, and it’s the right time, my friends in Christ.
This is known in the New Testament as the Kairos—a decisive point in history. Maybe it means a jog out of the expected line.
How do you discern and honestly know when the Kairos is actually here? Because it gives you the sweats, it gives you the chills, it makes you want to run away, and tempts you to laugh it off, even as you realize the divinely fertile moment that this is. We believe in the living God here, and when God poses a demand, God confers an ability. Trust it. Will this congregation discern its Kairos moment? Discernment Committee, Leadership Council, leaders and followers, bystanders and stakeholders—let’s embrace our time’s challenges as a stimulus to stake our claim upon the future. We will get through this together.
It’s time to reorganize the staffing, rebuild the spiritual life, pull people out of the woodwork, all hands on deck. Time to give me an “Articulation Mob” so we can put up a banner thanking the health workers, so we can put green floodlights on the church pillars to keep the Climate Crisis front and center. Time to put the church on alert for changes in the social needs of our precincts, and be prepared to take concerted action as a church in service to the community.
Let’s summon the frank and open conversation necessary to fashion the publically oriented plan that will make our mission real and visible in the Post-Covid era. The main thing needed is trust in each other—that’s what you must bring to the table. We are here not just to get hope (although I pray you do), but to give hope to each other and our broadest community.
You have an identity, I can see it for myself—Eliot Church is an Owner-Operated, Total-Participation, Equal-Opportunity Gospel Mission Center!
That identity only needs you to give it some flesh and blood. I will pray for the Holy Spirit.
President Obama, in an online “Commencement” speech to graduates of high schools and colleges last week, gave a not-so-veiled swipe at the federal administration when he told the young people, “It’s up to you now, nobody else seems able to do it.” But, hey, what about us at Eliot and around the adult world—what about our role in rebuilding our communities? It’s also up to us.
We have our role to play—this should be a summer when we write that script. I invite you, I exhort each of you and the church collectively to see, to grasp and to accept the Kairos. You are entitled to your laugh first, but the Kairos moment for us has arrived, and we are stewards of that moment.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Answer me that.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. May 17, 2020 The Sixth Sunday of Easter Deuteronomy 30: 19-20 John 15: 12-17
What’s Anger Got to Do with It?
For the past few weeks, we have been sharing together our “Building Blocks of Faith” project. I hope you have had the opportunity to view the hymn presentation on the Eliot website. Our current assignment is to share with one another the things that give us hope. Thanks to those of you who have sent me your musings and images of hope. I “hope” more of you will do the same this week!
I confess that I have been struggling to find anything hopeful right now. As the flowers bloom and the temperatures (hopefully) warm, there has been something between me and the hope made visible in front of me. Prayer, meditation and reflection have forced me to name what this is; anger. There is a vast and deep anger in my soul – and it feels to me that I must face that anger if I am ever to hope again.
Our Christian tradition cautions each of us “to turn the other cheek,” to go “the extra mile” and “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” These verses and others like them, lead us to believe that anger is NOT an emotion good Christians are supposed to feel.
But there is another experience of anger in the Christian tradition: Prophets angrily warn God’s people that their failure to live according to God’s ways brings wrath and death. Jesus angrily turns over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. Righteous anger has its place in the Scriptures and so it must have a place in our souls. So – How did we come to ever believe that anger is one of the “Seven Deadly Sins”– a doctrine mentioned nowhere in Scripture?
In an essay entitled, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Christian ethicist Bev Harrison tackles that exact question “We Christians have come very close to killing love because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin. Anger is not the opposite of love. It is a feeling signal that all is not well in our relations to other persons or groups or to the world around us. It is always a vivid form of caring. . . Anger is . . . a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the morality of the social relations in which we are immersed.”
These are a mouthful of words, yet they call us to explore the role anger plays as we practice our faith. Harrison’s naming of anger as a “feeling signal of vivid caring . . . of resistance in ourselves to the morality of the social relations in which we are immersed” eloquently describes the state of my soul – and maybe yours too.
Covid-19 exposes the “morality” – or rather the “immorality” of the social relations in our nation. It is the poor, the vulnerable and human beings of color who bear the brunt of our disordered relations with one another – those forced to work in essential services who have no other choice if there is going to be food on the table, those who cannot afford medical care, those in prisons and detention camps, those who live where nutritious food and housing are scarce resources, and in environments with air pollution and impure water making them more vulnerable. In the richest nation in the world, children go to bed hungry while adults literally work themselves to their deaths in the close quarters of meat packing plants. If that weren’t enough, there are small, easily manipulated, but vocal and well-armed, groups who understand their “liberty” to mean that they can do what they want no matter how it impacts the rights and humanity of others.
We are Christians – called to love our neighbors, not through feeling benevolently toward them, but acting with and for them. Eliot Church “practices what we preach,” generous with both time and money. Some of our frustration right now is that we cannot do the hands-on mission work we have always done. Yet we find ways to continue walking for hunger. We still work for fair housing and immigration reforms.
The evils of systemic dysfunction have been laid bare before us during this pandemic. It can overwhelm us and be a barrier to our hope. But that is where our anger can save us. Our anger reveals just how deeply we care about those who are the victims of our society’s disordered moral relations. And it compels us to work for the justice of God’s Kingdom.
Bev Harrison concludes her essay on anger with these words: “Chief evidence of the grace of God – which always comes to us in, with and through each other – is this power to struggle and to experience [anger]. We should not make light of our power to rage against the dying of the light.” In anger’s power, the seeds of hope are nurtured. Amen.
The question I posed for myself to discuss today was whether churches are, or can be, collectively creative when faced by a “limit situation” such as that represented not just by Covid-19 but also by Eliot’s transitional circumstances. Limit situations are those which take you to your earthly limits, when you are at your wits’ end, as they say, meaning, beyond human intelligence and will.
A limit situation calls for more than the problem-solving kind of creativity. It calls for the life-giving kind creativity, what we have been calling Resurrection creativity. There was a Resurrection because the spirit is eternal, yet the spirit wants a body. Here is a mystery—the eternal Word was made flesh—God sought incarnation, God sought “bodiness.” The result was Jesus, and you, the believer.
Paul expressed this mystery in his way by saying that “the Spirit of God dwells in you,” and he goes about explaining how your faith in Christ makes this real for you. Christians take words like flesh and our “lower nature” as the pejoratives they sound like. But this misinterpretation led to the mistaken disparagement of the body by Christianity.
But actually, Paul was at pains to explain that we live not in two worlds (not spirit AND flesh, nor spirit against flesh) but in one world only (spirit IN flesh).
Think of it this way on a wet day in May: Spirit infuses the body like a spring rain saturates the earth. The spirit in us gives us life, and given a chance it will animate even a dead body (“resurrection”), dead goals, dead hearts, even (?) dead churches.
We have already talked about the ways individuals can do this—through life-giving creativity. Dr. Elizabeth and I have been plying you with assignments—journaling, submitting concrete spiritual exercises—all intended to deepen your individual religious lives. What about a church--can a church do this for itself? When faced with a limit situation like ours—can we collectively deepen our spiritual lives?
My answer is that the same recipe for individuals applies to congregations. You’ve heard this before, but I’m going to repeat it today, this time with a boost from some on-screen examples (let’s see what I can do with Zoom!)—my recipe is—ARTICULATION.
What is articulation? Simply put, articulation is bringing what is inside of you outside—as when you write your thoughts and feelings in a journal, as when you explain your favorite hymn, or compose a symphony, choreograph a dance, perform an anthem, sculpt a sculpture.
Articulation is the common denominator of—proclamation, witness, testimony, verbalization, exclamation, profession, declaration, making visible, making audible, making understood, making REAL, making your spirit visible, giving your collective spirits in this congregation a body.
Without articulation, we don’t know ourselves, either as an individual or as a church, and nobody will know who we are. In the case of a church, articulation permits others to get a glimpse inside the church doors, into our church’s soul, if you will.
So where is our canvass, our notebook, where is our stage? We have walls, we have an actual stage, but let’s just focus on the church exterior, the church grounds.
What means of expression do we have at our disposal out front and around the church building? Well, all churches have signs, so do we. We have several, e.g., the one that reads, FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT THE EASTER PROMISE.
Churches use their open grounds differently—a Lutheran Church I visited in Washington DC (at Dupont Circle) placed little placards with the names of the victims after the shootings at Parkland High School in FL.
Many churches have not found anything or any way to express themselves. But cities often make use public spaces.
Expressions like these are life-giving, and they give people hope because they ARTICULATE a creative movement in the life of their community.
Someone asked me recently, “What are we doing all this for (gesturing to the whole building)?” My answer is, you’re here not just to get hope (which I pray you do), but to give hope. I would rephrase the church’s mission this way: you are here not just to get hope, but to ARTICULATE hope.
Helen Keller was asked once which of the two senses hearing or sight she would wish to have back—she answered, neither, I would wish for speech. She actually learned how to speak, and she did give speeches everywhere she went, but she was just barely intelligible and she knew it and suffered terribly about it. That’s how important ARTICULATION is.
If you want to mount up creatively as a church, we will need to get organized—that is, reorganized. We will need an Articulation team, or call it an articulation string, or an articulation mob in order to create more opportunities for individual expression; to promote collective artistic projects; to provide training, as rudimentary (or advanced) as it needs to be; to sponsor a sculpture competition that we exhibit on the lawn; to create an outdoor performance (or worship?) space.
For such to succeed, a church will need to develop guidelines, fundraising, vetting, time limits—and trust, lots of trust. Be prepared for the surprising differences of theology and spirituality that surface. Welcome and enjoy the diversification and differentiation that emerges.
St. Paul was asking whether we live within horizons that we have set too narrowly, blind to the vast horizon of God which stretches beyond us but which is really IN us. What is Resurrection—a doctrine we subscribe to, or a real experience? I ask you, do you want a Resurrection experience? Can we demonstrate, can we ARTICULATE, our answer in this very time and in this very place?
I trust you will come to believe with me, “Our creativeness should be the expression of our love for God”—it will give hope to others.
The breadth and depth of pain inflicted by this virus so far will never be fully measured, recorded, or reported. And it isn’t even over yet—the twin crises of Covid and climate have more in store for us.
This is an absurd world, and we have made it that way. The airwaves are full of analyses of how we got here and how to get out of it. You won’t guess what Jesus’ analysis is.
Start with this passage from John’s Gospel this morning, the appointed text in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter--Jesus seems to be in some public place where a crowd had gathered around to witness the altercation between the man born blind, whom Jesus had just healed, and his family and their neighbors and the Pharisees all disputing how such a miracle could have happened.
After putting the Pharisees down as being blind themselves, Jesus relates a parable for them as a clue—just a clue—to who he is. The picture he draws is taken from the very familiar context of agrarian society, but they don’t get it at first (that was in the first reading). Then Jesus has another go at it (this was in the second reading), from a slightly different direction, that sows even more dissention among his listeners.
It shouldn't have been hard to understand the analogy he was drawing between himself and a shepherd who cares for his flock. Except that Jesus explicitly contrasts the shepherd with thieves and bandits who sneak into the sheepfold late at night to plunder the flock.
Well today, we mostly find this to be a quaint image, from the point of view of our post-industrial and middle class society, one we already recognize from the comforting 23rd Psalm and the reassuring image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who seeks after every last one of his flock. Not to mention its familiarity to us because it was the primary visual image of Jesus for the first two hundred years of the church’s history, prominent in the catacombs of Rome during the decades of persecution—it is the image of a shepherd with a lamb thrown over his shoulders. (The cross and the crucifix do not figure in Christian iconography until a long time later.)
Yes, how quaint, to us, but it had another meaning—to Jewish ears the analogy was abrasive, because the Hebrew prophets are replete with identifications of the king with shepherds as a way of signifying the nature of the responsibility of kings for their domain, actually a very personal and almost intimate responsibility. Which responsibility the prophets were clear to point out was violated over and over by Israel’s monarchs.
Here’s a passage from Ezekiel that will show you why the shepherd analogy raised the hackles of Jesus’ listeners.
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
It goes on, but here is the clincher--
18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
Jesus was contrasting himself against the religious authorities and the actual governors in a way that was particularly embarrassing to them—as if to say, let me do your job for you—the right way.
In the second part, Jesus shifts the analogy to claim now that he is the gate to the sheepfold, that is, the door to safety, the door to salvation, to eternal life, that is, to a life lived in the eternal now of forgiveness and reconciliation which brings abundant wealth and riches.
Even though he has shifted the analogy from shepherd to door, Jesus again (!) repeats the by now grating reminder about the thieves and robbers who despoil the land. This fierce shepherd, Jesus, one day will run afoul of the enthroned shepherds during the Roman occupation of Israel and die for it, and he will not be deterred by that likelihood any more than the prophets before him were.
Sheep are not stupid followers, it must be said—they will follow only someone trustworthy, and Jesus says to them, I am that—follow me. The stringent demands of the prophets upon rulership are not being met by kings, but by Jesus himself, the forgiveness-bearer whom you can trust.
Maybe there isn’t any king who wants to or can live up to the demands of the prophets, and maybe there is no American president either (of whatever party), nor cabinet member nor state governor. However, fallible women and men can be good rulers, “good shepherds.” So then, make all leaders sit under the glaring exam light of Jesus’ parable of a good shepherd, or THE good shepherd, and judge how they fare.
It was a simple parable, but they didn’t get it at first, but when they did, they didn’t like it. It’s a simple parable for us, too, but we don’t get it in the United States of America either, and if we did, we wouldn’t like it.
The land of the free and the home of the brave has translated in practice into a democracy of unregulated opportunism—and don’t anybody tread on me! The sheer abundance of nature just had to be harvested wholesale, the dangers thoroughly subdued, the vastness rendered useful to human habitation—and so it came to pass, nature was trammeled in the process of making the continent not just habitable but also profitable.
Nothing new here, every part of the globe has been settled by an invading force—that’s nature, one body of organisms claiming space for itself over others. What’s Covid, after all?
But America added one lethal thing—science. Yes, lethal. It’s a paradox—science is one of the great creative forces in human civilization, conquering disease, saving lives; but science made a Faustian bargain when our civilization embraced only the problem-solving faculty of creativity.
Yes, we Americans are well-known for this, for our can-do faculty, and this kind of creativity got us to the moon and safely back. This was exemplified during the Apollo 13 crisis when they signaled, “Houston, we have a problem,” and their science saved them. All good, of course, they got home, thank goodness. But this life-saving effort was only half the creative equation and the lesser half, at that.
The other half of creativity has more than a life-saving purpose; it has a life-giving purpose—LIFE-GIVING. It is proclaimed in the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reaches back behind the death of Christ into his life and ratifies the true life of divine creativity.
It may or may not work out that we get saved from the death-threat of Covid-19 by the scientific search for a vaccine. But what I can guarantee that will succeed is activating the theological creativity that creates out of nothing, as God created out of nothing. At the moment, many, many people are bumping their heads against their limits, and so we are going to have to reach beyond science into our spiritual selves for the Eternal Now that is ever and always creating new possibilities.
We mistake Jesus if we take creativity to be an “activity” like science, instead of as a property of God’s universe to which we belong and are heirs, as the Native American cultures that we destroyed believe.
Possibly you understand now the prohibition against worshiping created goods instead of the creative good, against worshiping the Golden Calf instead of the “I Am,” against worshiping the stock market instead of “treasures in heaven,” that is, the life-giving treasures of divine creativity.
This is an absurd world, and we have made it that way alright, but . . BUT! We were created in the image of God, heirs to a theological creativity. And so there is hope—I know that my Redeemer liveth! Our hope is in Christ the Resurrected One, the forgiveness bearer, bringer of life abundant. Amen.
My subject next Sunday will be the question whether churches are, or can be, collectively creative when faced by a “limit situation” such as the present one.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Third Sunday of Easter April 26, 2020 Luke 24:13-25 2 Corinthians 5:17
“The Building Blocks of Faith”
The Scripture we heard from Luke today is the traditional story the Church tells on the third Sunday after Easter. In many biblical accounts following the resurrection, Jesus appears in forms the disciples do not recognize. The Emmaus story is one of these accounts. Two unnamed disciples meet a stranger on their way to Emmaus. Their discussion of Scripture with the stranger is so compelling that it results in an invitation to dinner. It is only after the Scripture has been “opened to them” - when the bread is broken - that they recognize the resurrected Jesus. The Jesus they met on the road was not the one they knew. The resurrected Jesus required understanding their Scriptures in a new way; only then could they know their resurrected Lord.
All of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels contain this element of surprise and revelation. How could Jesus’ followers understand their new reality when it was nothing any of them had expected?
In a series of reflections on the last words of Jesus, the American historian, Jon Meacham, expresses it this way: “As the sun set on the Friday of the execution, Jesus appeared to be a disappointment, his promises about the kingdom of God little more than provocative but powerless rhetoric.” They had been anticipating the final struggle between evil (the Roman Empire) and good (the people of God). It was supposed to end with the triumph of God’s chosen one, Jesus, reigning over a restored Israel, liberating God’s people, and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. No wonder they were disappointed.
This Easter, unlike many of the Easters of the past, brings us into a similar place of confusion, disorientation and disappointment. Our new reality is frightening. It overwhelms our hope. Whatever we believed about resurrection, it certainly isn’t this. So what do we do now that our reality and our expectations have nothing to do with one another?
A cataclysmic outbreak of pandemic that shatters our expectations parallels much of the disciples’ experience of the crucifixion and resurrection. So perhaps looking at how they made sense of their new reality might show us how to do the same. Meacham writes, “Jesus’ followers reacted to his failure . . . by reinterpreting their theological views in light of their historical experience. If the kingdom they had so long expected was not at hand, then Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must have meant something different. The Christ they had looked for at the beginning was NOT the Christ they had come to know.” Isn’t this exactly what happened on the road to Emmaus? The Emmaus story invites us to do as the disciples did, but how?
Last week, Rev. Rick invited us to keep a journal as we live through this pandemic. A world changed by Covid-19 is our new reality, much like the crucifixion and resurrection were the disciples’. But to make sense of its impact on our faith, we need to reinterpret our previous faith journey in light of our new lived experience. So Rev. Rick and I are inviting you to use this time of physical distancing to examine the building blocks of your own faith and explore how they have supported your faith in the past and might sustain you in our new reality. Perhaps previous understandings will be challenged, sustained or re-imagined in light of the pandemic. Perhaps the blocks need to be re-arranged, or you might want to remove particular blocks and search for different ones to build new configurations.
Our new “Building Blocks of Faith” project is designed to share our individual blocks of faith with each other via virtual space, much like our Easter Vigil project. Each week, there will be a theme chosen to help you reflect in your journal. While some of this work is intensely personal, some blocks will be shareable. For the coming week our theme is “What is your favorite hymn?” You will find prompts in TWEC and on our new “All-Church Adventures in Faith” page on the Eliot website. PLEASE participate and share. Not only will you come to understand your own faith journey more deeply, this project will build our relationships with Jesus and each other. In so doing, we will construct together the new Eliot Church God calls us to offer to the world around us. What blocks of faith continue to sustain us? What new forms might our blocks create together? We won’t know for a while yet, but we do know it must be done together. We can’t do it without you, so please participate in this adventure of faith. May the new creation we build give glory to God and sustenance to all in whatever lies ahead. Amen.
John 20:19-29 Let’s go back for a look at this story again. First, Jesus commissions the disciples, and us by extension, to study where forgiveness is needed around us and to minister to those who need forgiveness (including ourselves). It comes down to this: Jesus wants you to be the TONIC in a world of suffering. Without this tonic of forgiveness, human life falters.
Jesus speaks to you when he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Our ministry, the ministry of forgiveness, is that important.
Then, Jesus says to Thomas who has come to see Jesus’ wounds, “Blessed are those who never saw me (as you do) and yet have found faith.” He blesses those beyond Thomas, such as we ourselves, who only have these written gospels of him, yet aren’t we freshly surprised every time he accosts us from these pages, although we have never seen him?
How does such faith come about?
Jesus crosses the great distance between the gospel pages and our hearts on a river called the Holy Spirit. Breathing on them in that locked room, Jesus transmitted to them something that cannot be seen—just as God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus grants the spirit of creativity we need right now to survive. Let me explain.
I. Faith. Covid-19 cannot take Jesus’ spirit away from us, any more than a grave hewn out of rock can—not at all. But Covid-19, just as much as it has damaged or taken some peoples’ physical lives, has shaken our emotional life and we doubt whether anything will alleviate our anxiety. So deep, wide and high is this crisis that we ask, “Where is God in it all?” feeling abandoned.
Someone in the church recently commented to me, “These are reflective times.” Truly, these are indeed times that make us reflect, that make us go deeper within our selves, into our memory of how we got here and who we are fundamentally, times that make us reach for a deeper spiritual life. Because, the old habits are not working for us under these conditions, nor are our old assumptions about life.
You have already been creative about so many things so far, about how to manage the children under one roof 24/7, creative in weaving work into household management, creative about keeping on top of the bills, many people are having to be very creative about maintaining income. Running on that kind of emergency creativity is exhausting.
We fall back blaming God, or worse, blaming ourselves for insufficient faith in God. But faith is surely more than passive acquiescence in the destiny that God has meted out to us. Such faith is a kind of giving up—“God will take care of us.” God has already “taken care” of us in creating us in God’s own image (Genesis 1:26). As creatures of this creator God, we also are creators. God has equipped us with the creativity called for in this awful crisis. We experience it every day in the active exercise of our imagination—faith imagines things as yet unimagined.
Faith like this is, in fact, an elemental force in nature, our God-given nature. In this faith, we experience the freedom to become what God in this crisis calls for.
Of course we wonder where God is in this? Of course we are afraid of our fears. Of course, we don’t know what to do. So now it is time to clear the way for reflection (remember the phrase, “reflective times”?) equal to the seriousness of this moment.
II. Imagination. So, I call all of you, in the name of Christ, to a deeper spirituality than you have attained heretofore. Even as you juggle all that goes with this sheltering, I call you to take an additional two steps. Make just these two little steps at first, just to get started.
First, reduce the input; reduce the intake. This is easier said than done. We complain of internet overwhelm—well, we have to do something about that, don’t we? I can’t tell you what self-discipline may be required in your case, but you already know what I mean.
So I’ll go straight to the second little step—increase the output. We take in internet advice and wisdom and news all day and produce little of our own, little of ourselves that comes from our insides, from the gut, from the heart. That’s because nobody asks us to, but I am asking you to now. Because expression allows us to discover what’s inside that we don’t realize.
Finding creative ways to express ourselves, even in the smallest way, unearths the self that wants to be born in this moment’s crisis. The painters are painting; the composers are composing; I hope the dancers are dancing. But for our initial purposes, I would recommend to you keeping a daily journal. A journal?? Yes, even so mundane a vehicle serves this sacred purpose.
You might not try to start a journal, possibly, because no minister ever asked you to before—forgive them! You might not try a journal, possibly, because your family will laugh at you—forgive them! You might not try, possibly, because you feel awkward and self-conscious about it—forgive yourself. You might not try, possibly, because you’re just too full of anger—forgive those you are angry at.
Again, reduce the input. Again, second, increase the output, the expression. Make more room for reflection in these reflective times—and don’t let those reflections evaporate.
I know two people now at Eliot Church who are keeping a daily journal. Perhaps there are others who already have the practice. They record not just events but also their own thoughts and feelings, reflections about what they’re reading (scripture?) before charging into the day.
Where’s that pad you make grocery lists on? Got a leftover notebook lying around? Keep it handy. You don’t have to compose essays—just jot down the passing thoughts about the strangeness of this strange time.
Because, when you write, you capture time for eternity. Your journal actually represents your devotion to the God who made you to break your silence, it is a ritual in a pedestrian day, it is a kind of armchair pilgrimage, and if you do it with a Bible open on the table beside you in front of the window which opens to the outside world—it is, finally, your prayer for the day.
You will experience the vital link between yourself and Christ—call it faith, call it imagination, call it what you will—it opens what is closed, it frees what is locked down, it energizes what is inert. It may turn out that Covid-19 will drive us to living our life as a religious vocation the way we always should have been living it.
Short-term—deepen your spiritual life this way. It will prepare you for the long-term—when we must be ready to attack poverty. Before this all hit, there were 500,000 homeless in the U.S. 27 million without health insurance. 38 million living below the poverty level. 40 million on SNAP.
What will those numbers be when the all-clear signal is given? And what do you suppose the racial breakdown of those numbers will be?
Covid-19 cannot defeat anyone who is possessed of the creativeness which is itself our God-given religion through the Holy Spirit bestowed on us by Christ.
See how Matthew Fox put it in one of his books: “There is a river of creativity that runs through all things, all relationships, all being, all corners and centers of this universe. We are here to join it, to get wet, to jump in to ride these rapids, wild and sacred as they be. That river is the Holy Spirit itself.” Amen!
I. Now, let me start out as clearly as I can. Easter is real.
It’s a little bit of a shame that we speak of the “Easter miracle.” Because it is no miracle at all. Easter is really real. Sometimes people regard Easter the way we react to a magic trick like, say, pulling a rabbit out of a hat. People always want to puzzle out the trick—it’s, well, just miraculous—but to no avail. So, when it comes to Easter, then they have to conclude, well, it’s just God being God again!
If you think of Easter as some kind of magic trick, then keep your eye on Good Friday. There is no Easter without Good Friday—there is no Resurrection without crucifixion. In fact, and this may be the big point lost in translation, resurrection occurs in and through the crucifixion.
Normally, stories unfold in order—first one event, then the next, is how we commonly tell them, everything laid out in a sequence. And so it is here—Good Friday is followed on the third day by Easter Sunday. But, although laid out in sequence in the Bible, the uniqueness of the Christian experience is that the one contains the other: the crucifixion contains the resurrection—it all happens on the cross, because Jesus’ last words was a prayer with his last breath, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
This was not to dismiss what he was undergoing, obviously, nor for us to condone, to approve or to baptize any evil. Forgiveness puts us in a more powerful relationship to evil than any other alternative. Jesus invokes the God of Israel on the cross, the God of mercy and righteousness. Jesus would have us love the world as it is—to redeem the world if we want to improve it.
II. You might learn this, as I did attending churches in the poorest sections of Southside Chicago. You know these areas, like the ones in Roxbury and Mattapan, neighborhoods now being wasted because of racist practices by the coronavirus epidemic—poor, crowded, underserved, long on dreams, short on hope.
My entire exposure to this world was summarized in a semi-autobiographical novel by James Baldwin where he described his conversion experience at the age of 14 in the storefront church of his Pentecostal preacher step-father. After an intense and long marination in the racial oppression of urban America, this boy underwent the harrowing of hell and heaven in an all-night trance that led finally to the revelation that broke through his resistance to Christ—when he saw the crucifixion and resurrection in the same moment.
“A sweetness filled John as he heard this voice and he heard the sound of singing: the singing was for him. For his drifting soul was anchored in the love of God; in the rock that endured forever. The light and the darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever in the life and vision of John’s soul. . . .”
That was how it was laid to Baldwin’s charge “to keep his heart free from hatred and despair.” The crucifixion of black America on the white cross was not followed by resurrection—for Baldwin, the mystery was somewhere in the crucifixion, where it was laid to his mind that hate was futile and self-destructive. Baldwin’s cross transformed him—it resurrected him as a man of extraordinary self-possession and as the most articulate critic of American society. If Baldwin could do this, why not we?
So, the resurrection was real only because the crucifixion was real, the two being one in the transformed spirit of a sanctified Harlem youngster. The two are one. The resurrection is not a solution to a problem—it is the living of the problem in a state of forgiveness.
It is from there that the fight for justice and God’s righteousness arises.
III. To take an example closer to hand, maybe you would be more familiar with a recent musical icon, the late Leonard Cohen, who made the very same testimony in his chart-topping hit, Hallelujah. Such is the spiritual power of this song that it is performed by church choirs and soloists, not to mention a host of music stars. But most renditions more nearly resemble lullabies which project comfort and transcendence. They may not have comprehended, because when you see and hear a Leonard Cohen performance of his own song, you understand that he means something pretty stark.
Cohen is all grit and grittiness when he comes to the alleluia—his HA-le-lu-ia has a guttural sound to it—. This refrain comes out of some gritty biblical stories and a hard-bitten reality of his own. First, King David in the Bible got all caught up in a tangle of adultery and murder and deceit, yet finds the right “key” (musically) to life in the course of it. Then Cohen appears to make a reference to Samson the strong man in the Book of Judges seduced by a foreign woman who betrayed him into enemy hands by cutting his hair which was the source of his strength. He was in prison so long his hair and then his strength returned, enough to pull down the capital building around his head and that of his enemies.
Cohen also seems to be making oblique references to his own love life and its, shall we say, crucifixions. But he sings outright that the Holy Spirit had a part to play in the consummation of conflicted relationships. And the resulting hallelujah is not the one people sing at church “it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.” His raspy voice and closed eyes as he sings, doubled over, convey that life emerges from a furnace, or to put it in his more explicitly Christian terms—the furnace unveils the higher life.
In response to a question during an interview, Cohen said, “The world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled--but there are moments we can reconcile and embrace the wholeness. That is what I mean by “Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen means to position resurrection within the painful lives of everyone, not just church people, so that everybody can take personal possession of the Alleluia because it means, in Hebrew, “Praise God.”
The question is asked every day, Where’s God in this pandemic?
Right here. The answer is, right here. Mind you, literal crucifixion is not involved—it serves as a figure for all kinds of death, death of our goals, death of our hopes, the death of our old selves, which can be as painful as anything we will ever know.
It merely requires for us to flip on the Christian light switch and see God wherever there is the strength, the endurance, the hope that comes from forgiveness. This is easier for those who have lived a life of devotion, ritual observance, study, pilgrimage, and—eventually—direct non-violent action. But sometimes, sometimes, we come upon resurrection by surprise, in the Emergency Room, the workplace, in our sequestration, where we know resurrection to bring —“a cold and broken Hallelujah.”
In conclusion, we can’t make too big a deal out of Easter, it’s that important. But isn’t it amazing to think that this is all about such a small thing—forgiveness?
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. Good Friday 2020 April 10, 2020 John 19: 16b-30
A Good Friday World
It is Good Friday. Traditionally the Christian Church marks the day of Jesus’ crucifixion by walking the Stations of the Cross, or meditating on his last words. Over the course of centuries, these rituals have allowed us to witness and mourn Jesus’ death. But, no rituals are required on this particular Good Friday.
In the midst of a world-wide plague, we need no reminders of sacrifice and death. Our nation and the world suffer. As it was for Jesus’ disciples on that day so long ago, our illusions have been shattered, our hope has been overwhelmed and our futures are unknown. We live in a Good Friday world.
For those of Christian or Jewish faith, our religious practices re-focus our attention on plague this week. Our Jewish siblings began Passover at sundown two days ago. They remember their experience of slavery in Egypt and tell the story of God’s liberating participation in their communal history. Their lintels marked with the blood of a lamb, the Angel of Death passes over God’s people as the first-born sons of the Egyptians die. It is the last in a series of calamitous plagues that finally convinces Pharaoh to let God’s people go. Christians, too, remember these plagues as we tell the story of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and that is the meal he shares with his disciples on the night he is arrested.
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s campaign for Moral Revival, reflected on plagues in a recent essay in Sojouners Magazine, “ . . . Plagues expose the foundations of injustice.They tear down the flimsy, whitewashed walls of false narratives to expose the foundations of injustice . . . when the powerful double down on inequality, violence, exploitation, and deceit - God speaks . . . through plague to force us to see the truth of sinful injustice in our society, remove oppressors from power, and repent. “
Covid-19 has revealed the brokenness of our Good Friday world more clearly than we can bear. All of our world’s unjust structures of power and privilege have been made visible in ways we can no longer ignore. While the virus strikes people of all walks of life and of all social statuses, the effects of it do not. The privileged shelter in place and work from home, while the poor continue to work or go without. The emergency gives cover to the authorities to use their power to further exploit the system to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. The deceit of our Good Friday world is ugly. Our failures to love God and our neighbors publically hang on the cross. We cannot hide from them.
But Good Friday is not the end - even though it may feel that way to us, and it certainly felt that way to the disciples. The late Barbara Harris, the first woman elected Bishop in the Episcopal Church, preached over and over and over again that Christians are “Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” Easter people know that resurrection waits beyond the cross. Easter people know that God’s power – love’s power- cannot be contained by death. Easter people know that God’s power working in us calls us to faithfully respond to the injustices of our Good Friday world.
Easter people choose to participate in the resurrection that is both already here and yet is still coming. Dr. Theoharis invites us to live the resurrection even in the midst of the horrors revealed by Covid-19, “. . . the lesson from our sacred traditions is that . . . the basic demands of justice, cannot be temporary.Plague in the Bible is not a storm to be weathered before the return to normalcy. It is a call to come together in new ways in order to survive, to hold the powerful responsible for their unjust policies and the lies they tell to cover up injustice and to rebuild on foundations of justice and love.”
Rebuilding our Good Friday world “on foundations of justice and love” is the work of Easter People. On this terrible Good Friday, may we be the Easter people our suffering world needs. Amen.
I. The Conspiracy against Jesus. Sermons spoken with fire. Hard stares from cold priests. Hearts warmed, chains dissolved. And Herod fumes. Multitudes fed. And the Pharisees are not at all satisfied. Time starts to feel short. Murder is put on the Council agenda. Bad signs mean times they are a’changin’. Who are you? Who are you? Who am I? Temple ruckus. Who can be found to put the finger on him?
II. The Upper Room. Late one day, they traveled out to Bethany village where it’s quiet. Invited in to a Pharisee’s home, a woman in their midst wept over Jesus, then she knelt and wiped his feet with her tears and anointed his feet with a costly oil. That set the house in a commotion, but Jesus told them to leave her alone, because it was done out of love. He said she would always be remembered, wherever the gospel is preached.
Another day and the sun slants downward to Passover when they secure a guest room in the city, upstairs somewhere.
Meanwhile to raise a little money for the poor, one of them snuck out to arrange a signal for the plotted arrest, somewhere away from the crowds.
III. At Table with Christ.
Luke 22:14-20 John 13:1-5, 12-15
IV. Gethsemane. Prayer and Confession. Distress.But a trouble overcame his spirit then. He sensed that his demise approached and that it would be triggered by one of his own intimates. Things were rolling inexorably forward, and his disciples held back squabbling as to whose fame would be most glorious. He told them a mystery, that the first shall be last and last first. And that Peter would end up last. Where to pray? Up to the seclusion of Gethsemane, yes. They could hide out there and pray the night through. Travail overcame his spirit then as he saw happening what he long foresaw. The scent of violence now palpable, making true the scripture, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” So it was, as heavy hands, armed and purposeful, were laid upon him. And he was led away somewhere.
V. Despair and Hope. To Calvary. What happens in the soul when destiny, once distant, comes home? What happens when that exit and that exit and that exit is shut closed? What happens when you are ushered into a dark room overhearing the laughs outside? What happens to the soul when the highest earthly authority and the divine one, abandon your side? The hope you always believed in happens, but it’s a long walk up to the hill.
Today is the first Sunday of the rest of April, predicted to bring more disease and death than this country has ever seen at once. Where does all this hit you—the pit of your stomach, your solar plexus, your brain, your whole body, like me? We cannot imagine at all what the health care workers and service people must feel, and those stricken who must be admitted to hospitals without family or friends to visit, the many who were instantaneously unemployed. We fear for them and ourselves. We can only, we must, turn our faces to Christ, who said, “Do not be afraid.”
Let us pray. . .May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
“He kept to himself the sorrow in his heart, Wearing, for them, a mask of hopefulness.” --Vergil, The Aeneid, Bk. I.
These words of the Roman poet Vergil, who died in the year 19 B.C.E., describe Aeneas, the founder of Rome, before his hopeless counter-attack on enemy troops. But they aptly describe what Jesus must have felt upon his entry into enemy territory himself, although he was not leading an army. However, Jesus was entering a hostile environment, where the authorities always expected trouble on Passover, and we know from what Jesus said to the disciples that he expected the worst.
People at the time traveled from all over Israel, pilgrims carrying palm fronds to signal their destination. And so do we on Palm Sundays, but this year the festive nature of day is tempered by extra tension, a tension between what we would like to see happen and what actually happens, between what we wish for and what may happen.
I. The same tension animates this story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a masterpiece of storytelling, among the most compelling in all scripture, a story that almost tells itself because of everything that leads up to this moment. The story is retold in all four gospels, of which you heard the shortest version, from John, written in 90 A.D. and contains all you need to know.
The usual rowdy Passover crowds found out that Jesus was on the way, his reputation having preceded him. We don’t know how many gathered in adulation and laid down their blankets before him, nor do we know how many were there to mock Jesus and deride the peasant magician. Neither do we know Jesus’ personal state of mind, except that there had to be a mix of hopelessness and hopefulness, as he joined the festivities.
All four gospel writers saw a message in the way Jesus approached, on the foal of donkey, which from their post-Resurrection view 30-40 and more years later was a signal that Jesus brought something different than political power into the religious and political capital of Israel. Jesus’ entry that way was purposeful, choosing to enter as the prophet Zechariah (9:9) predicted a non-military king would, on the foal of an ass.
This is a monarch, a king? Yes, but of a different kind and with a different reception. Here was David and Goliath again, except this time it was the Son of David versus goliath-size potentates of Israel.
The vortex awaited him, the air was electric, it was a live moment when anything could happen—and the story makes this clear.
II. Why is it such a compelling story? . . .because it captures a decision Jesus made, it captures an action he took that was not scripted, not warranted, counter-intuitive, so to speak. It came out of Jesus’ prayer life, out of a life opposed to vanities, out of a life of devotion to Torah and Yahweh, out of a life of redemptive journeys away from home and back, out of a life committed to the single and only mission of forgiveness, this man, who was called rabbi by his followers, stepped into the vortex.
He didn’t have to, but he did. It was not a death-wish (as Nietzsche scoffed); it was a redemptive action. When at an impasse, Jesus made a move; when boxed in, he stepped out. Action is implicit in the spiritual life—truth inconveniently motivates us beyond our usual boundaries. Right action is a consequence of the spiritual life.
That’s what stands out here—the whole Passion story starts with the entrance, the entrance into the vortex. When you look at the artistic renderings of this story through history, in a single frame all of them depict the necessity of this action, the redemptive escape from futility and irrelevance and impotence. Look at the mosaics of Ravenna, look at the icons of eastern Orthodoxy, look at the Medieval triptychs, look at the Renaissance miniatures—most very stark, emotionally charged—all, all, in one frame, capture the call of the spiritual life to action. The movement was always forward. There is one such image in the bulletin by an unidentified artist. The other image, on the website, by Benjamin Robert Haydon, an early 19th century British artist, depicts the scene with even more tension where even the onlookers convey a sense of foreboding. You should ignore, however, the depictions by sentimental American Christianity which show a serene Christ entering Jerusalem with a beneficent blandness—be it Warner Sallman or Hollywood (shame on them)—they gut the force of the gospel and its dangerousness to life-as-usual.
III. How would you portray this scene, if you had the skills? Consider only that Jesus projected an aspect of hopefulness under hopeless conditions—he knew, but he did not fear. He taught his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” It was his constant refrain. His hope obviously lay far beyond what the crowds were invested in—the spectacle, the controversy, the scent of violence. His hope, and that of his followers, lay in a new relation to God, in a new way of reading God’s Word.
Jesus actively and single-mindedly taught forgiveness as the door into life in God’s world (kingdom).With that mission, there was nothing of which to be afraid.
IV. So, given this, what are we to do, caught as we are, Christians in a pandemic moment of history? Beyond our fright, our alarm, our anger, are we spiritually prepared to take a step into the vortex ourselves?
Have we been prepared for this moment by our Sunday Schools, our confirmation classes, our Sundays of sermons and choirs, our ritual life, our prayer life, our study of scripture, our devotion to Christ—I hope so. And if so, then we will see the right action to take as individuals, as a congregation, as citizens of Boston!
It won’t be obvious, what ministries will be called for here, not right away—the moment will come when it is clear to us. We do not know yet, but we have our own entrance into Jerusalem before us to consider. Do not be afraid, you are prepared.