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.
The Mystic’s Way Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29 John 14:7-14 “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” For our Lenten Sundays, Elizabeth and I have been describing ways to personal empowerment in these days of national distress. We saw first how Christ overcame the deprivations of the desert by facing down the Devil, which we learned was to will one thing, only one thing, not many things. Then, I invited Mr. Rogers to visit us, to demonstrate how important ritual is in our lives, because it provides the order that reassures us at the most fundamental levels. We saw next how we are strengthened by acts of devotion, devotion to Christ, to God and to church. Among many possibilities, one way is pilgrimage—long or short, journeys of redemption matter when grief assails us. Then, we learned about the power which comes by bringing God’s Word closer to us, by opening the Bible and entering God’s world. We come to another possible way of personal empowerment in times of public distress—the way of the mystic. If you are “attending” our online worship service right now, you are among those who want to see more deeply into the workings of God’s universe, who want to see past the distractions and the entertainments into ultimate reality. You are a mystic, therefore, although you don’t know it. You may not be among the ecstatic mystics, like Teresa of Avila or like St. John of the Cross, who wrote, “The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.” But you understand what he meant.
You may not be among the spiritual poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins or T.S. Eliot, or like Rainier Maria Rilke, who wrote. . . “I live my life in widening circles/which spread out to cover the whole earth/I may not complete this one/But I will give myself to it./I’m circling around God, around the primordial tower/And I’ve been circling for thousands of years—/And I don’t yet know: am I falcon, a storm?/Or a vast song. . . .” Neither you nor I could have written those words, but you understand what he meant. You do know, I am sure, or you wouldn’t have opened a church website. You know that the essentials of life can never be taken away, as long as there is life. And what are the essentials of life? The answer to that question does not lie on the surface of life. You must lift up the cover, and look in, and see for yourself. That is a mystic’s work. So, if you will accept that fact about you, will you also accept the effort involved in the mystic way? It’s OK, you can do it, you should. More than ever, it’s time to junk ordinary life and find its essence. There is a Christian way to go about it, although Sufis and Kabbalists and Taoists practice their ways. You don’t have to join a monastic order, or practice self-mortification as some mystics in the past have. But you do have to interrupt your routine. The great mystics whose names and writings we know so well may have been impelled by their particular personality or a certain intellectual capacity, but they were no different than us in having to clear the decks for the expansion of their souls. Yes, they probably belonged to the imaginative stratosphere of human society. .. .Yes, they often took drastic steps to accomplish this--amendments to their diets, abandonment of their families, attachment to like-minded communities. For us, so far, that has been out of the question. It’s just that circumstances haven’t favored us that way. It’s not in the cards for people with jobs or families, or both. Nevertheless, we need the silence, we need the space—because the questions of meaning and purpose nag us, they just won’t leave us alone. We are mystics, after all. However, there are specific steps you could take, if you are willing to ask others to cooperate. It will require others to understand when you make time for silence, make room for emptiness. Jesus was at pains to explain to the disciples, often without success, that there were no barriers between him and the disciples (he called them friends, not servants).
And there was no barrier between Jesus and God, whom he called Father. Therefore, there was no barrier between the disciples, or anybody, and God. This was a vision of vital unity—a mystical vision—a beatific vision. Annie Dillard, the great American writer and a mystic in her own right, put her vision in more naturalistic terms—“God is spirit," she wrote, "expressed infinitely in the universe, and God does not give as the world gives.” It is simply to say, God’s appearances are not like any appearances we are used to—God gives to us, not as the world gives, but in silence. Jesus made God manifest in his own person. This was Jesus’ message to the disciples in the Upper Room. You might say, Jesus gave vocal chords to the wordless Word. Or, in visual way of looking at it, Jesus served sort of like the prism through which light breaks out into color. Do we have the will to carve out the time and empty the space, so that we can see our lives “in widening circles that reach out across the world”? Can you feel yourself as being ageless, having “circled for thousands of years around God,” to the extent that you must question your very own being, whether you might actually be “a falcon, or a storm, or a vast song.” Jesus resisted the Devil’s temptations by willing one thing. Are you able, in a single-minded way, to place this mystical imperative in a setting of order and ritual, can you give this imperative body through active love, can you follow the lead offered in Holy Scripture? You know who else had a vision like this, Martin Luther King, Jr. He called his vision “the beloved community.” He could see this vision plain as day, even though it was like nothing else on the surface of things. He lifted up the cover, and looked in, and saw for himself. Lift up the cover, look in, and see for yourself. Jesus himself invites you to, for your sake and for the sake of our poor old earth this week. Rev. Richard Chrisman, March 29, 2020
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Fourth Sunday of Lent The Second Sunday of Physical Distancing March 22, 2020 Psalm 121 Romans 8:35-39
During Lent, we have been exploring Christian disciplines to sustain and empower us in times of crisis - crises such as the pandemic in which we are now living. Today, we will explore engaging the Scriptures.
That said, you might think that geometry is an odd place to begin. As many of you know, I came to Eliot via the Episcopal Church, a part of the Anglican Communion, for most of my life, followed by ten years in the United Methodist Church. Both of these denominations define their approach to Holy Scripture in geometry. The Anglican practice uses a triangle – more commonly known as “the Three-Legged Stool.” Scripture is understood through reason and the traditions of the Church, and it is tied together by human experience – our own and those of others. The Methodist Church – a denomination that grew from the Anglican Church - uses these same principles – Scripture, reason, tradition and experience – but each word anchors a corner of what is called “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” after Methodism’s founder John Wesley.
The UCC does not have a geometric shape to help us hold Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience in tension – something for which I am eternally grateful as triangles and quadrilaterals are my limit when it comes to geometry! The UCC’s approach to Scripture is to “take the Bible seriously.”
John Thomas, a former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, describes taking the Bible seriously this way, “[we] recognize its transparency, expect to see beyond mere text to the mysterious presence . . . the ultimate living Word [that] encounters us full of challenge, comfort, judgment, grace and truth . . . the transparency works both ways and allows the Word to see us for who we really are . . . the Bible is both divine revelation and human disclosure. Beyond the sacred page, we seek [the] Lord and in so doing, [we] look over God’s shoulder to see ourselves as God sees us.”
We know we live in a troubled world, even more deeply challenged now. Everything is out of balance – and the warnings clang louder and louder as we continue to degrade our planet, wealth inequality grows, borders and hearts become hardened and pandemic spreads around the globe. Despair, fear and anxiety fill our every moment. We are overwhelmed. It is critical to remember that God does not send these things to punish us, but there are natural consequences to the ways in which we have been living, and those consequences are upon us now. To restore our perspective, to understand who we are in relation to God and one another, it is urgent to renew our acquaintance with the Bible.
Rev. Thomas encourages us to “befriend it and like any good friend, look to it to tell [us] the truth, the hard truth, the whole truth, astonishing truth, the Gospel truth.”
The “hard truth” . . . We have brought ourselves to this mess because we have forgotten who we are and whose we are. And still, the “Gospel Truth” continues to proclaim what has always been revealed in Scripture; God loves us. God is with us. We do not have to be afraid. We can always come home – although perhaps we should change that to “stay home” right now.
I invite you use the restrictions of our current lives to “befriend” Holy Scripture and take it seriously. One of the best ways to do this is by reading the Psalms. There is a Psalm for just about everything. The Psalms reveal the human desire to reach beyond the text to the mysterious loving presence beyond them. They help us to see the best of who God calls us to be and they hold us accountable when we fail to do so. There are Psalms of praise, Psalms of lament and Psalms for every human condition in between. Psalms help us to regain the proper prospective in our relationship with God. Begin with the Psalm we heard read this morning, Psalm 21 and ask these three questions:
What does this Psalm reveal about God? What does this Psalm reveal about people? What does this Psalm reveal about God and people together?
These are generally good questions to ask about any Scripture passage, but during this strange and terrible Lent, this Psalm is particularly helpful. Jot down your thoughts as you ask these questions or perhaps draw what the Psalm evokes for you. In whatever medium you prefer to use, open your heart and mind to encounter the God who loves us beyond measure.
We are hoping to organize a Zoom meeting this week where we can reflect together on Psalm 121. We are working on getting to know the software and will send you the information on how to access it when we have it set up. I promise, there is no geometry involved. Amen.
The Way of Devotion A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.—Mark 12:42. Jesus was in the temple one day, teaching. It may have been on a Sabbath day. From among the great range of social and economic levels present, Jesus observed a widow deposit two copper coins into the offering. He knew it had to be all the cash she had, possibly her whole livelihood, given her being a widow without support of any kind. He compared her gift to that of the rich people who “put in large sums out of their abundance.”
This story is often used by the churches to shame rich people into giving more. And maybe they need it. He might as well have said that the rich give out of their surplus, an afterthought (as most people do anyway today). It was certainly not the act of devotion for them that it was for the widow.
But I’m personally not sure that was Jesus’ intent. The sense I get from the story is that she gave from her heart. A gift of such proportions has to have come from the heart. That’s the real point I believe. Jesus can’t have been concerned for Temple finances, except that everyone take part in the sustenance of Sabbath observances there.
I myself hope everyone at Eliot Church will participate in the same spirit to our Stewardship Campaign, and to every Sunday offering—from the heart. This story of one person’s act of devotion, though, should put us in mind of the many things people do for love—the extraordinary things we do because we are so devoted to someone or to some cause. Devotion has a way of propelling us right through the demands of ordinary, or extraordinary, life, including the loss, grief and despair this epidemic is inflicting on us now. Examples from the long history of Christian tradition come to mind, like pilgrimages, journeys taken to keep a promise, pay a moral debt, or find one’s personal way.
Let’s keep our heart in the picture—let’s rekindle our devotion. What might that look like for you?
A compelling example comes from a movie titled, “The Way,” with Martin Sheen. It’s about a father who went on a lengthy pilgrimage for his own son. This man’s son, from whom he was alienated, dies at the very outset of his own pilgrimage on the Santiago de Compostela trail (in Spain); he dies accidentally on the first day. The father goes to identify the body and bring it back to the States. But he soon realizes he has to finish the son’s pilgrimage himself, what is a long trek of hundreds of miles. So strong is this strange, involuntary compulsion! By the end of this journey, on foot with backpack and walking stick alongside other pilgrims, he experiences a certain peace, maybe even religion, and a posthumous reconciliation with his estranged son.
An act of devotion resulted in one man’s redemption. I wonder if this involuntary journey we are just beginning if it shouldn’t be thought of as a pilgrimage, too. But for it to be redemptive, it must be an act of devotion, of love. At the same time that we worry and work for our individual and family survival, let’s keep our heart in the picture.
Suddenly this all looks different. None of this is about me; it is about us. is what I believe. --Rev. Richard Chrisman, March 15, 2020
Sabbath as resistance. “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine, could you be mine? I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor like you, so let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Won’t you please be my neighbor?” Fred Rogers is in our minds lately because both a documentary and a feature film about him have come out in the last year. Our family has seen both (how about you?). Didn’t they bring tears to your eyes—they did mine. What made his show such an enduring success with children? Well, many things, but an important one for adults comes down to the fact that every morning he led the children through a ritual. I’m going to say more about that next. This is a sermon about the ritual way as the way to personal empowerment in these days of public distress. Our Sabbath ritual in particular helps us resist the forces around us that steal our sense of self and our humanity. It’s not very hard to see what’s going on during that children’s television show—it’s fun just to think about. It’s uncanny how Rogers created a ritual similar to what occurs right here in our own Sunday morning ritual. For one thing, it’s the repetition. Repetition is the hallmark of all rituals, and you see many in Mr. Roger’s show—it opens the same way and ends the exact same way every time. Then there is a regular routine involving a regular cast of characters who visit—Mr. McFeeley, etc.. These characters bring in a variety of issues or problems for Mr. Rogers to engage with but always in the same, signature way. The setting is always the same, requiring regular stops at the familiar household items—feeding the fish, etc., culminating in the regular visit to Imagination Land. Children count on all those repetitions for security, it builds trust, something they can count on. Second, the show highlights emotional issues—every day Mr. Rogers delves into how people deal with death, anger, disappointment, surprises, etc. The children come to expect Mr. Rogers will bring them into an intimate circle with him. There are didactic elements, of course, but he never condescends to them. Mainly, he simply points out things that are going on inside his viewers, gives those things a name, and demystifies them. He never departs from the seriousness with which he takes their emotional concerns. Third, the show is life-affirming and person-affirming. He likes you just the way you are. Mr. Rogers goes straight for the “ugly duckling” feelings any child can have, and he leads them past their felt and sometimes actual limitations to an awareness of their true worth. And he makes the children feel that life is fundamentally good, even when things go wrong. You can see for yourselves the parallels between his show and ours. First, how obvious that many kinds of repetitions occur in our Sunday morning ritual. We, too, start and end with a song, with a few in between—e.g., the Lord’s Prayer. Certain predictable characters appear and disappear—the liturgist, the preacher, the music director and choir, church members who make announcements. But a huge cast of offstage characters surface very regularly, too—Jesus, Mary, the disciples, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses. . . And we make regular stops at the same iconic places in our “household”—the baptismal font, the pulpit (and lectern), the altar, the church door (see bulletin cover). That order, the orderliness, reflects the order of God’s universe and is fundamentally reassuring to us as adults. When you come to church, emotions and emotional issues get raised—death, anger, disappointment, health surprises, etc. Adults come to expect that the ministers will bring us, just as Mr. Rogers does, into an intimate circle with them. There are didactic elements, most obviously in the sermon—hopefully, the preacher never condescends to the congregation--! The preacher wants to name the feelings that are going on inside the worshipers and to place them within the largest possible perspective in time and space—between heaven and earth, between God and the devil. The hour in church never departs from the seriousness with which the minister takes emotional concerns—maybe sometimes too much so. Third, the service is life-affirming and person-affirming. How often do we repeat that God loves you just the way you are? Adults are led past their felt and sometimes actual deficiencies to an awareness of their true worth. The worship service should make you feel that life is fundamentally good, even when things go wrong. For children, Mr. Rogers creates a sanctuary where it is safe from the outside world to explore feelings. For adults, the Eliot Church creates a sanctuary to strengthen feelings with which to face down the forces of the outside world—just being here is resistance to the culture. One big difference between Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sunday morning worship is that kids don’t have anyone telling them they have to watch the show. In our case, the Fourth Commandment (read in the morning lesson) has made worship an obligation, a duty, and a felt burden—due to the arbitrariness of it all, many people have rebelled and refused to attend. The restrictions and prohibitions associated with the Sabbath (Matthew 26:17-19) have compounded the negativity. Here we see Jesus criticize the hypocrisy of official teaching about the Sabbath—are we affirming life, or not?? Prof. Walter Brueggemann (Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary), in a wonderful book entitled, Sabbath as Resistance, wants us feel a commitment to the Sabbath as a positive practice of faith, a practice that will empower us for public life. Brueggemann shows us that our Sabbath rituals can fortify us to resist the mindlessness and restlessness of a compulsively competitive, commercial society. The Sabbath commandment only wanted us to rest, because God rested. We need that now because our commodity society is so restless we can’t rest, Brueggemann wrote. Americans take on average two weeks’ vacation a year, and a vacation for us is often hyper-recreation. Worship is resistance to the cultural drag on our lives. Because the wrong expectations get people looking for the wrong things on Sunday morning, I have some tips for getting more out of worship:
You don’t have to check your brain at the door.
But it’s like poetry, it doesn’t have to make perfect sense.
Belief is not a price of admission.
We sing lots of things we don’t “believe.”
Sing no matter how poorly.
But you don’t have to sing—it’s OK just to be silent.
Let your mind wander, perfect attention is not required.
Look around, look out the windows.
Stay with a feeling—the service can go on without you for a while.
Remember to breathe.
Be generous at offering time ($20 bill is the new $1).
Think about the people in the city around us.
Remember your loved ones, past and present, living and dead.
Allow the reason you are alive to surface.
Be still, so God can find you.
Even though Mr. Rogers communicates through the television camera, which makes that experience a wholly private one, the same dynamics operate in this setting, which is public. Not many television shows, for children or adults, work on the audience like a ritual, on a Sunday morning—maybe it has something to do with the fact that Fred Rogers had a theological education and saw his television work with children as a ministry. I hope this visit with Fred Rogers will remind you of the important role ritual has in human life. Mr. Rogers’ ritual for children helped them cope with their emotions. Our Sabbath ritual helps us step aside from the fray so that when we go back into the fray we are not mere consumers or idle participants, but able to resist because we are not afraid. “It’s such a good feeling, to know you’re alive. It’s such a happy feeling, you’re growing inside. And when you wake up ready to say, I think I’ll make a snappy new day—it’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling, the feeling that you know that I’ll be back when the day is new. And I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about. I will too.” --Rev. Richard Chrisman, 3/8/2020
Preamble. These Lenten Sundays, we are turning to Christ for personal empowerment in this time of public distress. I believe our church traditions will be instrumental in keeping faith with each other and with the world as this era of climate change unfolds, and I will lift up 5 different ways. I take up, first, Christ’s Way this morning, then on the successive Sundays of Lent: the ways of ritual, of devotion, of reasoned inquiry, mystical practice, and the way of right action. Many people say they are spiritual but not religious; however, given our present global circumstances, I want you to get some religion. We will need it for personal support and to sustain our community commitments. My thoughts fall into two parts: I. Fantasy. II. Reality.
Let us pray. . .
Christ’s Way—resist the Devil. Matthew 4:1-11
How would you describe your feelings today about this moment in time? It’s hard to do, isn’t it? These are new feelings to us, and it’s hard to own up to all of them—either publicly or privately, or even to ourselves.
We did not expect any of this. We certainly didn’t bargain for this when we agreed to our planetary lives. All of a sudden, the carefree life vanished.
If we are having trouble with our feelings, imagine the reactions to the climate crisis by the generations which are succeeding us—climate grief, resentment, resignation on the one hand, and on the other hand, the energized mobilization of political and social will as in the case of Greta Thunberg, God bless her!
As for reactions to the Coronavirus threat, you can already see the “survivalist”-bunker mentality emerging, which of course is ridiculous unless you’re willing to move to the South Pole.
The two situations are different only in that one is short term and the other is very short term—you can decide which is which.
These threats to life as we know it have altered significantly our emotional lives. And they inspire wishes similar to those Jesus must have felt in the wilderness, to judge from the temptations that the Devil presented Jesus with. The Devil confronted Jesus with prospects of infinite power.
Of course, these prospects were just fantasies, and Jesus knew it. But fantasies are powerful, they are so . . . well, tempting. Guaranteed food (stones into bread); guaranteed health and life (protection against all dangers); guaranteed riches (dominion over worldly kingdoms). To have the power to bring this about, how tempting indeed! We recognize these temptations because everybody wishes for these things—that’s what wars are about, that’s why we protect our own interests so guardedly, that’s why people play the lottery or the stock market. The things we do to fulfill these tempting wishes are the bane of human existence—fighting, lying (to ourselves and to others), cheating, stealing, even killing, all for more power.
When he entered the wilderness following his baptism, Jesus demonstrated what it means for us to survive in this world full of glories, this world full of contingency and terror, our world. The drama between the Devil and Jesus demonstrates that whether you are the Son of God or a mere mortal, the answer is the same: grasping at absolute power the Devil’s way does not avail, nor does invoking the power of God (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”).
Under conditions of severe deprivation such as Jesus endured in the wilderness, the Devil offered him a way out, and Christ’s way was to refuse it. In Jesus’ words, paraphrasing Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything you need follows.”
But just how were the people Jesus preached to supposed then to go about meeting their needs? And how are we supposed to go about meeting our needs, and the world’s, under these planetary and medical conditions if we don’t reach out for some super power?
The wishes for insulation and isolation and invulnerability are the same as they ever were, during the plagues, the influenza epidemic, but intensified—people wonder how are we supposed to get food on the table, keep healthy and alive, make it to work and meet all our obligations without some miracle? “Give us this day our daily bread” will not be an idle prayer.
What are the chances of our living a Christian life, let alone a Christ-like life, in this world?
We can—we must. In truth, nothing has really changed since Jesus’ time, except the knowledge of our mortality has intensified lately, which is what Jesus experienced during his 40 days in the wilderness. In truth, we need something like that ourselves, which is what the 40 days and nights of Lent are really for. But the rescue fantasy has got to go.
Christ’s Way is revealed here—it means getting a good grip on reality: power is a mirage, and God will not rescue us.
We face today multiple situations at once that scare us. Many of our fears are unwarranted because the imagination has a way of running away with us. But we will never be able to cope with the realities unless we follow Jesus’ example and reject the temptation of wishing for rescue, be it divine or demonic.
We have seen what Jesus did NOT do—let’s turn and ask what he DID do—how did he resist temptation? Is there something positive we are supposed to learn here for the conduct of our own lives?
Yes, there is, and Kierkegaard explained it. What enabled Jesus to refuse those temptations was to have come out of that wilderness experience with one purpose—he found his way in those 40 days and nights to will one thing which is displayed clearly before any reader of the gospels.
If we’re faced with limit situations as we are, Christ’s way comes down to this: to will one thing, only one thing.
Kierkegaard preached that, when someone chooses to will one thing, when one finally comes to the point when you organize all your disparate “obligations” around a single priority, you are, in effect, refusing temptation of divine or demonic power. The wilderness ordeal of Jesus was a clarifying experience, an ordeal that revealed who he was to himself—have we attained that kind of clarity for ourselves, and have we reorganized our lives around that single identity?
The thing most needful in uncertain times is certainty about our purpose.
We see examples of willing one thing not only in the religious world—Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, etc.—but lots of other places, too: the artist’s life (but not every artist), the athlete’s life (but not every athlete), Alcoholics Anonymous.
It’s not a matter of imitating Christ, as it is learning single-mindedness from him. It’s not a matter of giving something up for Lent, as it is pruning your priorities—giving up the vain wishes that drive you to delusions of grandeur or to depression. It’s not a matter of putting yourself through phony renunciations, but instead putting yourself in a place where God can find you (that’s what we explore these Lenten Sundays).
Christ’s Way may seem miraculous, but notice: the gospel story this morning has no miracles—and no miracles are required of us.
This Lent you could be finding Christ’s way to cope with the world as it is. As Jean Sulivan wrote some years ago, Jesus was unnoticeable among the worldly glories twenty centuries ago—it is up to “the poor” in spirit (which is us) to choose him in the secret of our hearts. To choose the Christ of this temptation story is to will one thing and to be empowered for anything ahead.
What that single thing will turn out to be that will animate and reorganize your life, only going through the 40 day and night experience of Lent will reveal to you. We survive climate change, we survive Coronavirus, we survive that cancer malignancy, not by “survivalism,” but by finding and embracing the inner clarity and singleness of purpose that can reject distractions and easy answers the way Christ did.
I have made my decision for that Christ. And the one wish I will in this season of discontent is that you find God, or better, that you place yourself where God can find you, where that single purpose in life can reorganize and animate you. I decided this Lent I wanted to give you something to do, something you can start practicing right now, for these times.
Call them “spiritual practices,” if you will, but I am exploring the specifically Christian ones, five over the next five Sundays—ritual, devotion, study, and contemplation that lead to action.
I know you may be thinking, isn’t there getting to be too much “Jesus” here? Maybe for some people, but here is someone offering us bread for the journey, who is inviting us to a wedding feast such as the one laid for us at this Communion Table right now.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, D.Min 8th Sunday after the Epiphany Transfiguration of the Lord Matthew 17: 1-9 February 23, 2020
Your Attention, Please
At last, we have come to the place in the service where I explain “the theology of Transfiguration, the parallelism with Moses on Mt. Sinai, and how the Transfiguration is a foretaste of the Parousia and a witness to the prophetic tradition of Elijah . . .” Perhaps not . . . Historically, the Christian Church reserves the last Sunday of the Epiphany season – the Sunday before Lent begins, to tell the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Transfiguration Sunday is the culmination of all the light we have been celebrating since Advent began. In Advent, the darkness is slowly overcome by the increase in candles each week. At Christmas, the light of the world is born. The Epiphany star‘s light reveals a Savior for the whole world and all people. Transfiguration illumines the past of God’s people in the stories of Moses and Elijah and confirms that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah by placing him in their company. The light of God’s love blazes on top of the mountain. Yet, there is something terrifying and unexplainable about this story. It doesn’t make sense. Not only is it odd, but this is the only Sunday of the Church year that has only ONE craft to accompany it. This is it. Responsible for 30 years of Sunday school, I can tell you this is problematic. That there is only ONE craft for Transfiguration tells me that adult curriculum developers are as puzzled by this story of Jesus on the mountain top as the rest of us are. Why is it so difficult to make sense of? A thread of mystery weaves through the nine verses that begin chapter 17 in Matthew’s Gospel. But there is nothing subtle in this account. Rather, Matthew placed flashing lights all around these verses so that we pay particular attention to the Transfiguration. As we just heard, the story begins “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain . . .” The biblical number “six” and the mountain are the first markers Matthew places for us to notice. His largely Jewish audience would immediately have heard the echo of the story of Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus and we are told that the cloud covered Moses for six days. Likewise, they would also remember that Elijah, too, climbed the mountain and heard God’s small voice in the silence. In case we missed the Old Testament references in this story, Moses and Elijah actually appear and converse with Jesus. Furthermore, Moses, Elijah and Jesus literally shine with the glory of the Holy. The Holy Voice Moses heard speak from the covering cloud, told him to give the law to God’s people. Elijah heard God in the still small voice that followed a tornado, an earthquake and an inferno. That same Holy Voice on the mountain names Jesus “the Beloved” and commands the followers of Jesus to “listen to him.” These words are familiar too – we heard that same Holy Voice at Jesus’ baptism. The placement of the Transfiguration story in Matthew’s Gospel is also an important key to unlock the mystery of the Transfiguration. The events Matthew captures in the chapters prior to today’s reading highlight Jesus’ reframing and deepening the understanding of God’s law of love; love your enemies, resolve your conflicts with one another before you bring your gifts to the altar, and the Beatitudes that turn society’s values upside down and inside out. When we live God’s love, justice and mercy prevail. To “love God and neighbor,” is to stand with the poor, the stranger, the forgotten, the lost, the lonely and the powerless. Having understood Matthew’s markers, we are ready to wrestle with the Transfiguration itself. What does it mean for Jesus, for the few disciples with him – and most importantly, what does it mean for us right now? Jesus knows what is coming. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus begins “to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” As with Moses and Elijah, Jesus and his message of God’s love, justice and mercy will be rejected. The same law of love that calls Jesus up the mountain will send him down from the mountain through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus’ face that shines so brightly on the mountain top will be the same face that he will “turn toward Jerusalem” and the death and resurrection that wait for him there. This mountain top moment is a springboard to the crucifixion. Matthew uses every rhetorical art available to him to compel the disciples – and us – to pay attention. As usual, the disciples aren’t. In the midst of what is certainly an amazing spiritual experience, Peter wants to make it a permanent reality and keep it close, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” How very human Peter is – he wants to hold on to the moment. He is awed by the loving light but frightened of it too. His response is to keep the Holy close, but his fear needs to contain it in dwellings where the Holy can be managed. Neatly confined to their “dwellings,” Peter would know where to find the Holy One whenever he needed to re-charge his faith batteries – without requiring that he be brave enough to let the light transfigure him too. But the Holy One is having none of it – the Voice speaks, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Peter and his companions are “overcome by fear.” When God calls us to live more deeply into loving “God and our neighbors”– as individuals or a community of faith – it can, indeed, be very frightening. We might be asked to change our way of life, to do something we never wanted to do, to go more deeply into the wounded places in our lives, to step into the unknown. When God’s loving light penetrates the darkness, we risk being transfigured into a life and a community outside of our control. It is much easier to tuck our faith inside “dwellings” as Matthew describes them – and visit from time to time. But that is not what Jesus is asking his disciples to do – “Get up and do not be afraid.” Peter, James, and John get up as the light fades and follow Jesus down the mountain toward death and resurrection. The love that Jesus embodies cannot be lived within neat boundaries; secure dwelling places are not home for those who follow Jesus. The darkness of the cross shatters every boundary – the shinning resurrection truth tells us even death cannot contain such a love. Rather than take a risk, we like the disciples, sometimes prefer to ignore this truth. Human beings like boundaries. Boundaries tell us who we are and who we are not – who is in and who is out – who is worthy and who is not – who is loved and who is not. We hope our boundaries keep us safe – and we often prefer they protect us from crossing thresholds that lead to the pain, loss, suffering, and injustice of those who do not share our “dwellings.” Transfiguration summons us to take the light of the mountain top down into the gathering darkness. “Get up and do not be afraid” is a command to live more deeply into a love that refuses to stay in the dwellings of our choosing. Love calls us outside our comfortable dwellings – into the lives that are less privileged than ours. There is nothing sentimental or touchy-feely about this kind of love, although a lot of times we wish it were. Public theologian and civil rights advocate Cornel West reminds us that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Doing the work of justice is how we are transfigured by the blaze of God’s love. It is how we leave our dwelling places behind to join those who have none. It will bring us mountain top moments where love is so bright, we will yearn to rest in it. But this is not the lesson of the Transfiguration. It is all the work following the mountain top moments that are the public face of the love that shatters boundaries. And as Jesus shows us this love always comes at a cost. It involves our making a decision to “get up and not be afraid.” It calls us to turn our faces to Jerusalem – and into the darkness of the hurting world around us. An Op-Ed in the New York Times this past week tells of a Mormon woman’s experience of living beyond fear. In a piece entitled”Why I Have Become an Activist against Fear,” Sharlene Mullins Glenn recalls her mother’s way of making decisions based on a verse from 2 Timothy, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Ms. Glenn remembers that her mother’s choices were always filtered through the lens of Christian compassion: “If you can’t find the love, it’s not of God,” she would say. “Love saves; fear destroys.” My mother applied this Scripture verse to whatever confronted her."
Ms. Glenn applies her mother’s scriptural test to the fear of our present time: “Fear insists that life is a zero-sum game. Love knows that there is enough, and to spare. Fear both proclaims and begets scarcity. Love invites and welcomes abundance. So I became increasingly concerned during the 2016 election cycle when a man who built his candidacy on a platform of fear — of immigrants, Muslims, refugees and others — inexplicably became not only the nominee of the party I had belonged to my entire life, but also president. This was a man who proclaimed, “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” She then founded a Facebook group called “Mormon Women for Ethical Government” which quickly grew from 2,000 Mormon women to over 4,000 women of all faith traditions who”felt compelled to act — to push back against fear and hate and take a stand for love.” Now incorporated as a 501(C) 4 non-profit with chapters in almost every state, “Women for Ethical Government” has registered over 20,000 new voters, organized protests at our southern border, lobbied for the marginalized in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals. These faithful women seek to live the truth Ms. Glenn names as their purpose: “We will not be complicit by being complacent. We believe that Jesus really meant it when he said that we should love our neighbors — meaning everyone, as the parable of the good Samaritan makes clear — and care for the poor, the sick, the homeless, the vulnerable. This is the calling of all Christians. We have been called to love.” Through the transfiguration of her mother, to her own transfiguration, the light of love Ms. Glenn shines in the darkness has transfigured a whole group of women who, in turn, have transfigured the lives of refuges, the poor, and the marginalized.
Being transfigured by love does not permit us to remain fearfully confined in our safe dwellings. Perhaps it isn’t that the Transfiguration is hard to understand; rather it is the demand love makes for us to leave our fear behind and live for others that we find so difficult. The Transfiguration is our invitation from Jesus to let God’s love and mercy transfigure us, individually and as a community of faith. Jesus asks us to leave the mountain behind and get into the frightening, painful and hard work of doing justice. As the darkness of Lent approaches, Ms. Glenn reminds us, “We have our work cut out for us. In fact, the ante has just been raised in this conflict between fear and love.” May we choose to be transfigured by love. Amen.
What’s in a name? Bread of Life Missionary Baptist Church Burning Bush M.B.C. Calvary Temple Baptist Church Cathedral of Love M.B.C. Christ Open Door Divine Solid Rock Garden of Gethsemane House of Prayer Greater King David M.B.C. Mt. Zion Holy Miracle B.C. River Jordan Temple Rose of Sharon Baptist Church St. Peter’s Temple of Love In a Boston that knows its history, our church’s name makes sense to anyone. John Eliot was the colonial missionary to the Wampanoags here. The church he founded in Roxbury bears his name—the Eliot Church in Roxbury. And then there’s the congregation that arose in Natick that housed the “Praying Indians” that Eliot converted called the Eliot Church in Natick. We came along in 1857 and named our congregation in honor of Eliot because the site of his first sermon to the Wampanoags was one mile away. So this church, and we here this morning, stand on indigenous ground. If you know your history, those names make sense. IF you know your history. Same thing, though, with the other Christian churches in America. Just take a look at the old yellow pages. Look up “churches.” They are listed by denomination, that is, by their national identity. They make sense when you know your history, which people used to, and so when it says “Grace Episcopal Church” (our neighbor), or Newton Presbyterian Church (another neighbor), the identifiers were references to their mode of governance or organization—Episcopal means ruled by a bishop (episcopus), Presbyterian means ruled by elders (presbyters, from Gk old man). Other names refer to their theology—Faith Lutheran Church belongs to the tradition whose roots go back to Martin Luther; Calvary Methodist Church tells you it belongs to the pietistic theology of the Anglican Church; the Friendship Mennonite Church is named for Menno Simons, a 16th century Anabaptist (they practice adult baptism only). How about us in the United Church of Christ? We are the product of a merger in 1957 of 4 denominations--the Evangelical, the Reformed, and the Congregational. Let’s just take “congregational” which means what it sounds like—we are self-governed, the congregation governs itself without bishops or elders. Our roots go back to the Pilgrims, dissenters from the Anglican Church in England, who came here in 1620. Let’s look at those yellow pages again under Congregational—we’ll see First Cong, First, Cong. . . etc. I guess when the First Congregational Church in Lee (MA) was founded in 1779 they thought there would be another and another and another! It didn’t happen, but the name stuck. What’s in a name? Let’s look around us in the city, or any American city. You will find churches like the one pictured on the front of the bulletin. It’s a storefront church, usually in commercial districts in the poorest parts of a city where the rents are lowest. And why should they be here? They are descendants of the enslaved. They fled the post-Reconstruction lynchings in the South. They gathered in northern cities where they could afford to. They served in two world wars. The non-discriminatory Federal GI Bill provided veterans with education and housing, except the program was administered by racially biased local departments. That’s why American suburbs look like they do and why these storefronts dot the inner-urban landscape. It’s another universe, where the storefront churches are located. Economically speaking, that would be obvious. Necessity dictates finding the cheapest location. The rent in places vacated when businesses die can’t be beat. Move in, fix it up, sing, pray, preach. Spiritually speaking, it is another universe, too. A very beautiful one, starting with signs on the front of the churches. For everyone to see, they announce, and by announcing they create, the universe which we are invited to approach. These markers define not only the world within their doors—they define the street, the whole neighborhood. For one thing, the church signs claim our attention, and they get it. Whether hand-painted or professionally done, these signs stand totally apart from the commercial ones around them. They don’t advertise; they communicate. The signs speak to us, almost personally, both about the congregation inside and also the promised life they represent. On those commercial streets, its message is anti-materialistic; surrounded by desolation and deprivation, the message is of spiritual abundance. Most importantly, these churches conform to the original biblical model of a tabernacle. In Israelite history, Yahweh’s home was in a tent—mobile, temporary—dating from the beginning of the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. When David revealed his vision of creating a temple for Yahweh, the Israelite tribes remonstrated and resisted. The concern was whether the divine truth would be compromised by enshrining God in luxury. So, exactly what’s going on inside these storefronts? For the most part, these are Pentecostal churches in practice and belief, which means they are moved by the Holy Spirit. They are “holiness” sects, whose members make commitments to the straight and narrow life. They refer to each other as the saints. As a rule, these are independent congregations founded by a charismatic independent minister, but many have national affiliations like the Church of God and the Church of God in Christ, or the Missionary Baptist churches. With more time, I would take you inside one of these congregations which James Baldwin described in his semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in a Harlem church of which his step-father was the pastor and where Baldwin himself experienced the conversion which made him a preacher at the age of 14. Let’s consider some examples of storefront church names—what do you notice? . . . .And how do these names compare with our own name—the sound, the meaning . . . What do we learn from these names? For one thing, they fulfill Christ’s injunction not to hide our light under a bushel. . . If you were starting a church, what would you name it—? What’s in a name? Heaven’s Door Table of Plenty Church Holy Ground Tabernacle Words Into Deeds Church United Christian Cathedral Church of Love and Justice Friends In the Holy Spirit Church Divine Song Congregational Church Water of the Trinity Church Good News! Temple Embracing Life Congregational Church Open Door Living Life Missionary Congregational Church
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