I want most of all this morning to interest you and excite you about a spiritual opportunity that is knocking on Eliot Church’s door. My text is from Ephesians: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro, but speaking the truth in love, grow up in Christ.”
Let us pray. . . I. There is no vacation to be had from social and political conflict. Groups within society have always vied for power to determine what is right as they see it.
Worse, cultural groups, tribes, nations frequently get it wrong. From the point of view of individual conscience, national policy fails. The good a person would do, the state does not. We always seem to be protesting, and that is as it should be. The great 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, put it this way: “As individuals, we believe that we ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups we take for ourselves, whatever our power can command.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932)
The people who find themselves on the wrong end of those conflicts are often mortally vulnerable. Hymns from every era reflect this. Take the hymn we will sing following the sermon—a mighty fortress is our God, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. Martin Luther, writing 500 years ago, meant not death in general but, specifically, death at the hands of his religious superiors. It could as well refer to the persecution of the Jews, slavery in America, or the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Such is the human prospect, the same hymn is perpetually valid.
The mortal ills Luther referred to obviously have human sources, as we read in the 2nd Commandment—the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the third and fourth generations of children and beyond. Many events described as “punishment” of God in the Bible, as they are here, is another way of expressing simple cause and effect in the moral domain.
Moral cause and effect has been having its way with us in America since slavery, and longer. Successive generations—and we’re far beyond the third and fourth generations—have had their moments of reckoning, some of which ended with good results but at great cost—the Emancipation Declaration, Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, legalization of same sex marriage in 2015.
We are this year in the midst of another era of reckoning—will there be good results and are we willing to pay the price?
The sins of the fathers in question are the sins of the mostly white fathers, of course. The accumulated grievance over police killings of unarmed black men, starting with Michael Brown and Eric Garner, really broke open the collective American conscience upon the murder of George Floyd.
As it happens, the tide of suppressed outrage led by Black Lives Matter seems to have lifted the visibility of indigenous grievances that also go back to the very origins of this country in Boston and Jamestown. The experience of Native Americans was the almost complete dispossession of their land and the almost complete annihilation of their populations during almost 400 years of war, deception, and betrayal.
Our era of reckoning has had a glimmer of good results for African-Americans—the passage of H.R. 40 in the House, the intense light now being put on police reform. It remains to be seen if this momentum builds.
And what of Native Americans, what will this era of reckoning bring about for them? What is to be our part in their future on what is indigenous soil?
This is a question of great pertinence to us at Eliot Church because our namesake, the Rev. John Eliot, was the “Apostle to the Indians” who led the mission to convert the “Indians” to Christianity. It would seem natural that we would not only be curious about John Eliot himself as a man, as a Christian, and about his impact on history, but we should also want to know what the Rev. John Eliot means to us at Eliot Church today. It is, of course, an historical matter but also a spiritual matter, as presumably any institution takes its heading from the head. So, who was John Eliot and what is his place in our vision of ourselves?
If it doesn't matter to us, it certainly does to others. Because of John Eliot’s part in the colonial settlement of this region, the catastrophic climax of which was King Philip’s War, in 1675-76, the City of Newton is studying whether he deserves to be memorialized on the City seal. The 13-member committee commissioned by Mayor Fuller for this study just submitted its report last week. It is 70 pages in length and would certainly appear to have scooped us. I have read it and it is very good.
We have made a good start of our own with Rebekah Mitsein’s excellent article on John Eliot, posted in our archive, and which I used in my October 2019 Columns issue. But while the article lays out a history and a tentative assessment of John Eliot, the task of learning that history in greater detail and depth as well as owning it spiritually remains to be done. At present, I wouldn’t say we are in a position to have much of an opinion about the Newton City decision to remove John Eliot from the seal as recommended by the Committee (p. 24). Informally, I met with Lisa Dady and her staff at Historic Newton more than a year ago, and three of us Newton UCC clergy gave Mayor Fuller our blessing a year ago, and basically stating that we had no proprietary claim on John Eliot despite being his spiritual and institutional descendants. If the members of this community want to register their opinions, there is a way to do this.
The current reckoning over American slavery has made waves through major institutions. The images of athletic mascots in professional sports and local high school teams are being replaced. Buildings in universities are being renamed—Yale University renamed Calhoun College, whose namesake was a passionate promoter of slavery and white supremacy, to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and Rear Admiral of the U.S. Navy. Likewise, Princeton removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school of international and public affairs. Boston is contending with the choice between removing Faneuil’s name or adding a sculpture exhibit that makes clear his slave-trading past.
The same issues that apply to names and images of African-Americans in our public spaces apply to native American history. The MFA has yet to grapple with what is right to do about its Indian statue outside of the main entrance called “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” If we were asked about John Eliot Apostle to the Indians, what would we say? Have we ascertained what the truth is about John Eliot’s relationship to the Indians he sought to convert and what relation that bears to horrible events that unfolded thereafter, for better or for worse?
It’s a huge subject, but it needn’t sink our ship. My great wish today is to excite you about undertaking a spiritual process that would prepare us better to participate in the public discussion in our particular era of reckoning.
First, we need to do our own reckoning. I am calling upon us to undertake the spiritual search for the historical John Eliot. And to this end, I am now developing a “teaspoon curriculum” that breaks up this complex story into (so far) 23 teaspoons that will each appear in successive weeks in different formats in our different media—our website, TWEC, One Minute Minister, Columns, and Facebook. This will be a collaborative process, involving partners in the indigenous nations of Southern New England, other non-native activists and scholars that you know like Judy Battat. I will try to form a core group from among you to lead and model this process.
Everybody will have access to an experience that people can pursue voluntarily and at your own pace with regular opportunities to join a Zoom conversation. We will devise a way to incorporate your research, your learnings and observations into it, Wiki-style. This would be equally accessible to congregational participants as well as the general public who might in this way find its way into this community.
I have no preconceptions about what actions might be deemed appropriate by the conclusion of it all—only I do believe in a method not of subtraction, but addition. Rather than remove names or images, I believe in adding them. For instance, I would like us to hold a “competition” to create images of John Eliot that would augment the one you see behind me. By a process of addition, we can best complexify a story over-simplified by the single image created a century ago. This won’t work in the case of the Confederate memorials, which are not memorials but tools of intimidation. There are other exceptions. But the point remains, part of reckoning with history is not to reject it but to complete and fulfil it.
Next Sunday, I will speak of the farther horizons possible for us to aim for—perhaps to co-found with indigenous people an educational institute for the propagation of native cultures. That could have an environmental dimension. Perhaps, put Eliot Church on the register of Sites of Conscience.
Such a process is a spiritual process—unless we have made an idol of John Eliot, we can commit to “speak truth in love,” for the sake of the truth and for the sake of our integrity as members of the Rev. John Eliot Church of Newton. As the poet wrote, “I know the time has come for me to walk through the door, to take a look at that dark part of what is calling, to touch that place of willingness to look again.”
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. April 25, 2021 The Fourth Sunday of Easter Psalm 116 John 20: 24-29
To Set Our Hearts Upon
Two weeks ago, Rev. Rick preached “you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed.” All of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus relate the surprise and disbelief of his disciples. Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples – minus Thomas. None of them asks Jesus to prove who he is, but Jesus recognizes their disbelief, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Today’s Gospel reading begins with these same disciples telling Thomas what they have seen. Thomas scoffs and insists he will not believe in the resurrection unless he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds. A week later, Jesus invites Thomas to do exactly this. The encounter with Jesus in the flesh causes Thomas to proclaim “My Lord and my God”.
Christian tradition chastises Thomas for his disbelief– “doubting Thomas” remains a turn of phrase two centuries later. But I am not sure this is fair. The eleven who met the resurrected Jesus first were unable to trust what they saw in front of their eyes. Jesus sees their disbelief so clearly that he voluntarily offers his hands and feet for the disciples’ inspection and then reinforces his corporality by asking for and eating the fish. Thomas only makes his doubt explicit – he asks for the same showing the eleven received, although he is clear he wants to touch the wounds; we often overlook that Thomas does NOT touch Jesus, he believes without touching. Yet Thomas remains the odd man out, the worst of the disbelievers. Jesus responds “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I suspect that most of us are like Thomas more than we would like to admit. We “believe” in Jesus’ resurrection, but . . . just what exactly does believing mean? We say “seeing is believing” and we accept it as proof that confirms truth. Since the Age of Reason, the English definition of “believe” is: “to be persuaded in the truth or existence of something with demonstrable facts that are ordered rationally.”
You do not need to be a non-stop consumer of information in our present culture to know that truth is up for grabs. Conspiracy theories abound, the principles of science are challenged – to “believe” something because it feels true for us seems to be the only criteria that matter. This not only affects our politics, it affects the Church as well – what must we “believe” to call ourselves followers of Jesus?
In his seminal work Stages of Faith, James Fowler begins his discussion of belief this way: “For the ancient Jew or Christian to have said ‘I believe there is a God’ or ‘I believe God exists’ would have been a strange circumlocution. The being or existence of God was taken for granted, and therefore, it was not an issue.” But 21st century Christians do not take the existence of God for granted. William Smith writes in Faith and Belief:“A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort:‘Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life so-and-so reports that the idea of God is a part of the furniture of his mind.”
The word “believe” is problematic for 21st century Christians – but the difficulty is not so much the act of believing, but the verb “believe” itself. “Believing” in our context demands certainty and it implies that we have rational, provable facts to support what we believe. We are constricted by the word “believe” because our language has no verb for “faith;” we cannot say “I faith,” This is not true for biblical Hebrew or Greek. In both, there is a verb form for “faith,” and the meaning of that verb translates as “to set one’s heart upon something or someone.” This holds true in the Latin translations of Scripture as well – “Credo - creed” means “to trust or rely on.”
Does it open up our understanding if we translate “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” to “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.” This translation offers us the opportunity to expand our response to the Resurrection. Rather than focusing on whatever propositions we assert as belief, it invites us to ask “What do we set our hearts upon? In whom do we place our trust?”
The Easter season calls us to align our individual lives and our communal life with that upon which we set our hearts. Setting our hearts on Jesus is to proclaim that we will follow Jesus’ teaching and his example to love one another as God has loved us. To set our hearts upon Jesus leads us to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to heal the deep wounds in ourselves and in the structures of the society in which we live. Setting our hearts upon Jesus demands we build our lives on the hope that resurrection is true. We trust the promise that resurrection will transform us, our lives, and our world. We will be uncomfortable at times and go to places we never imagined. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in her book, Hope in Disarray, “The Christian faith is different from what the world teaches. The Christian faith is not “seeing is believing,” but rather “believing is seeing.” We must open our eyes and hearts to see Jesus’ presence in our lives. We need to see him in the places we dare not to look and dare not to think about.”
The resurrection of Jesus is NOT a proposition we assert from logic; it is the revelation of our hearts’ longing for love, truth, healing, justice and abundant life, relying with confidence on Jesus who loves and forgives us. Resurrection gifts us the courage to imagine the world as Jesus would have it to be and the persistence to work for that vision in the face of all obstacles. When the weight of collective wrongs seems overwhelming and outcomes are not guaranteed, Resurrection calls us to hope and persevere.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who set their hearts upon me without seeing, and yet have come to rely on me.”Alleluia. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Jesus personally could claim for himself the conditions of the people he blessed in the Beatitudes. Everyone who heard the blessings pronounced upon them, had to know Jesus spoke from the same conditions. I am poor, I have mourned, I would not even snap a reed, I hunger and thirst for righteousness, I am persecuted, I preach mercy, I want just one thing for all of you, I bring a different peace than the peace the world promises.
In a region that had only known an empire of iron for 150 years, Jesus stirred hearts and fired imaginations. Under that empire where one’s fate was decreed by arbitrary fiat, Jesus inspired individual responsibility. Jesus made a liberating gift to Rome’s subjects, without having so much as to leave your village or overthrow a government. You can imagine how different it was, living in a police state, to hear the refreshingly, astonishingly, revivifyingly sudden proclamation of an alternate kingdom.
When Jesus finished pronouncing his blessing upon his followers in the Beatitudes, he gave them a new role in life, in their family and society--but rather than lay down instructions, Jesus gave them a new identity: he said, you are light, you are salt. In a single stroke, his listeners, his disciples, anyone who followed what he was saying, understood themselves to have a new place in the sun.
Just what are you when the gift of Jesus’ spirit is bestowed upon you?--you are light, you radiate light that reveals others to themselves as God sees them, that is, forgiven; and you are salt, you give flavor and savor to the routineized life. Your mere presence in God’s world blesses the world--your presence provides the key people need to unlock the prison humankind has made for ourselves.
In other words, you make a difference--simply as a disciple, you are a conveyance of Christ’s gift to others. Yes, you can and you do make a big spiritual difference right where you are.
No, it doesn’t take pursuing a theological degree, any more than Jesus’ listeners would have--but you might want to explore the sacred texts with someone. That qualifies as being a disciple.
No, you don’t need to be a member of a church, any more than Jesus’ listeners would be doing that--but you might want to hang around an inquisitive community. That qualifies as being a disciple.
No, you don’t have to be a “believer,” any more than Jesus’ listeners could say for sure what and whether they believed--but you might want to put yourself in a position to feel Christ’s spirit. That qualifies as being a disciple.
You might feel that it would be a grandiose claim on your part to say you are a disciple of Christ, but it’s not, it’s a humble, unassuming way to look at yourself. In a way, you are like the rest of the world trying to understand what it means to get our food and secure some love, too.
But something tells you to get closer to Christ because he is trustworthy, so you find yourself thinking more and more about this gospel verse or that gospel event. It could even become a regular thing, like opening the Bible every other day where you can look out the window and muse upon eternity. It might lead to something like prayer, whatever that is. Any of that is enough to earn you Christ’s designation as light and salt, and that alone should be a sufficient status in life for anybody.
We might prefer to say, oh I am a theological student, or I am a member of such-and-such church, or perhaps you would prefer to introduce yourself as “a Christian,” as many people do, with the particular associations that come with that in this country. But each of these labels has a social status and an approximately identifiable meaning in public--whereas, people probably wouldn’t understand you if you just said, “I am a disciple of Christ.”
But it constitutes an identity, nevertheless, and there is a minimum threshold by which Jesus would understand you to be his disciple--the light must be seen, and the salt retain its flavor. Humble and unassuming and as unprepossessing as it may be to look at oneself as a disciple of Christ, it requires a certain reality although Jesus does not provide much specificity as to what that looks like.
Let your light shine, don’t keep it under a bushel--commit to articulation. Don’t dilute the strength of your flavor--keep your distinction, your distinctiveness. No, Jesus does not supply any further explication or instruction by which we or the world might know us to be his disciples and find health and purpose and usefulness--that remains up to us.
We have many models we could imitate. And it doesn’t matter if it takes denominational shape, if it doesn’t domesticate a certain wildness that goes with it.
And we have many models NOT to imitate--which have not respected the dignity and the self-determination of others. Some so-called disciples in the service of Christ have weaponized, militarized and monetized Christ’s gospels. This is a concern that we must be careful to attend to as the Rev. John Eliot Church of Nonantum.
I guess after Easter, we are on our own. We are free to give body and shape to being a disciple, free to give our body and shape to it, however that may evolve. But know: being a disciple of Christ makes you an extension of the Word-made-flesh-made-bread-now-made-disciple- and-made-Word-again in the world (Could there be a principle of the conservation of energy at work here?)
Christ is a spirit that wants to be incarnate in the world, otherwise life in our society won’t distinguish itself from the merely appetitive, the grossly competitive, the narrowly self-interested.
There comes a definite responsibility with being a disciple of Christ, with looking at oneself as a disciple of Christ. After Easter, mustn't we each find a way to be in the world in which we are light and salt? And mustn't that be true for us, too, collectively as churches, as Eliot Church of Newton? It will be interesting to see, just how articulation and distinction will materialize in our case.
After Easter, it is up to us to find a way to be in the world in which we are light and salt. After Easter, will you own your vocation as disciples of Christ? May it be so! RevRichard Chrisman, April 11, 2021
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday John 20: 1-18 “Welcome Happy Morning,” Indeed “Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. . .” Unlike Easter last year when we were newly entombed by the pandemic, this Easter, the stone has just been rolled away from our tombs. Like Mary, we stand just at the threshold of moving from one deadly reality to a new reality that we cannot predict. Fear and expectancy – with perhaps a dash of hope for good measure – comingle.
Easters of the past have always felt familiar to me – I don’t remember when I first heard the resurrection accounts, but they have been a part of me for so long that I have come to take them for granted. Familiar Gospel passages, soaring music, spring dresses and new shoes, lilies and daffodils abound in my memories. I expected to feel much the same this Easter Sunday.
But – I did not realize just how much the experience of the long Lent we have been living since Covid-19 over ran us would make new and real Mary’s experience on that day of resurrection so long ago. It must have been an intensely terrible week for Mary and Jesus’ other disciples. The experience of God’s presence in their lives had always held the promise that a Messiah would come to restore God’s glory to the nation of Israel. His disciples and those he had healed, fed and loved believed that the Jesus they knew was the fulfillment of that promise. He enters into the city on a donkey – making a mockery of Roman processions – not kingly at all. Yet, the disciples and the crowd hail Jesus with their “hosannas” as they wait to see what happens next. They are confounded by what follows; the authorities search for Jesus to arrest him. Judas arranges to betray him. Expectations are turned upside down – a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She anoints his feet with oil – when Kings are anointed by oil poured on the head. They gather for a final meal together where he washes their feet as though he were a servant. They accompany Jesus to the garden to pray. Judas kisses him, Roman soldiers arrest him, Herod and Pilate try him and then Mary and the other disciples watch in agony as Jesus is crucified and then dies. All of the disciples flee. Whatever their expectations might have been, this was not how their journey with Jesus was supposed to end.
And so Mary comes to the tomb to do what women did at the time of death – she brings what is necessary to care for his dead body. She finds the tomb empty; the body gone and once again, expectations shatter. So many thoughts and emotions must have run through her mind and heart. What she knew and loved is gone. Only an empty tomb remains.
How different from her experience is our experience as we stand at the threshold of our Covid-19 tomb? The last year defied all of our beliefs about who we are as a people. Our government lied to us and did not protect us. Racism reared its ugly head as the most vulnerable among us suffered the most. Human beings deliberately put other human beings at risks by not wearing masks, refusing to practice social distancing and inciting violence directed at those trying to keep citizens safe. The biggest economy in the world came to a standstill as our neighbors, family members and those we did not know died agonizing and lonely deaths. Whatever we expected as citizens of the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, this was not it. Like Mary, we are left heart-broken and grieving. Our tombs are empty.
But Mary does not remain facing the tomb, she turns from the emptiness and after telling the male disciples Jesus’ body is gone, she retreats to grieve and continue her search for the body. Perhaps blinded by her tears and grief, she assumes the man she meets to be the gardener. It is only when she hears him call her name that she realizes the man before her is the risen Jesus. She races to tell the other disciples “I have seen the Lord!” Expectations are again overturned and suddenly, as the morning breaks, a whole new life of possibility opens up to those who seek Jesus. What has been a horrible morning following a devastating week, has become a happy if perplexing one. Unexpectedly, new life has arrived.
This Easter morning feels that same way. After a devastating year, vaccines are rolling away the stone that has kept us entombed. It is no less than a miracle; brought to us by scientists living their calling through their God-given gifts. As did Mary and the other disciples, we cannot forget all the hard truths we came to know during our time in the tomb. Just as Mary and the disciples are invited to live a new way of being in the transformation of the resurrection, so too, are we. The world around us may look much the same as when we left it. But WE have been changed by all that happened – and as a result, Jesus may no longer look familiar to us in this new light of this happy morning. But Jesus is here to surprise us with the gift of new life. As our risen Lord, he calls each one of our names as we listen for his voice.
The truth of the Christian faith preached for centuries is that because of Jesus’ resurrection, new life is always waiting for us no matter how long we have been stuck in our tombs or how broken we and our society may be. This particular Easter celebration of the resurrection is especially resplendent in so much possibility. As we emerge from the darkness of our tombs into the light of spring life bursting out around us, the resurrection is our invitation from Jesus to join him in making all things new again; to participate in recreating the world revealed in the Beatitudes we explored in Lent.
The hard lessons of the pandemic will – and must – remain with us and our search for the resurrected Jesus will continue to challenge our expectations, calling us to work for justice and healing, to care for one another and for the earth; to follow Jesus wherever he leads in ways we may not have understood before. There is a new urgency to our lives of faith that demands we boldly engage in undoing the human brokenness and suffering revealed to us during our time in the tomb.
We have been changed by our time in the tomb, but the world has not. As the Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris often reminded the Church, “We are an Easter people in a Good Friday world.” To be an Easter people demands that we be light for the world, bringing love, hope, reconciliation and peace into a world that so badly needs our witness and our participation. We, too, have met the resurrected Jesus and because of his presence with us, today we are able to welcome this happy morning, secure in our hope and trusting that we will make a difference in the holy work of re-creating the world. With Mary, we boldly proclaim “[We] have seen the Lord!” “Welcome happy morning, indeed!” Alleluia! Amen.
We don’t know how long it took for Jesus to die on the cross exactly, but the gospel accounts put it at 3 hours. You don’t need Mel Gibson’s horrible movie to tell you this was a painful death.
A crucifixion can actually be as short as 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Yes, even shorter--a crucifixion can be over in 5 minutes in the death chambers of American prisons where black men constitute 34% of those executed (since 1979), a significant portion of which in error. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
There’s wholesale crucifixion, too, and when you’re talking about more than one person, it could take longer, although it only took the 2 minutes for that for the bomb to fall from the Enola Gay to crucify a city of 100,000. Normally, though, it takes longer. It took the Third Reich 10 years to crucify ⅔ of European Jewry. The United States holds the record--we spent 400 continuous years crucifying entire native nations. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
During the Jewish wars against the Romans between 50 and 70 CE, there could be as many as 1000 crucifixions visible in and around Jerusalem at one time, historians say. Crucifixion is more common than you would think.
What is crucifixion besides state murder by any manner of termination? It is death of the manifestly innocent. Death without due process. Death with malice. Death by religious rationalization. And with those permissions, crucifixion is easier than you would think.
Does this observation cheapen the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion for us Christians and the world? What is left of Christ’s sacrifice if his unjust death is just one in so many?
This is what: we heard the prophet say once--
Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations--and we saw Jesus.
We heard the prophet say, He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench--and we saw Jesus.
He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth--and we saw Jesus. Christ’s cross speaks backwards in time and forward in time, giving voice to every innocent death whose voice died with their demise. Jesus’ death made the very stones cry out against wrongful death, whereas without him, that would have remained the norm.
We say Christ died for our sins--that also means BECAUSE of our sins. Without Christ, man’s inhumanity to man (as the proverb goes) would continue to be business as usual, without remorse, without recourse, without abatement.
Not only that, but Jesus revealed crucifixion to be humanity’s dehumanization of itself. The executioner says, I look at me, I see an animal, we are only human animals, don’t let’s expect more of ourselves. But the exception, of course, was the Roman centurion at the foot of Christ’s cross, who said that, truly, this was the Son of God.
Otherwise, all the executioner sees, with his knee on a neck, is a drug addict; all the prison warden sees is another con; all the bomber sees is little specks below; all anybody ever sees is the Other who has nothing to do with me. Jesus had to say from the cross for all of them, Forgive them, God, for they know not what they do.
But what then of all those promises in the Beatitudes?--when will we inherit the earth, when will we be satisfied, when will we be comforted, when will we see mercy, when will we see God--??
God’s promises are still worthy and valid--Jesus gave flesh and blood to the Lord’s plumbline, and in so doing, Jesus created a new baseline.
So, it’s out there, it’s been named, it’s why we say the arc of God’s universe bends toward justice. It was Jesus who made the world recognize that, if we must suffer in this life, let it be for righteousness’ sake. He is why we don’t give up hope, and why we keep faith. He is why we say with the prophet:
How beautiful upon the mountain (even though it be Golgotha), are the feet of him who brings good tidings, Who publishes peace, Who publishes salvation, Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Blessed are the peacemakers--but no peace is made by lying. Luke 19:28-47
The Gospel text for Palm Sunday always includes this vivid scene when Jesus entered the Temple precincts during the Passover festival and went about overturning the tables of the moneychangers. It is reported in all four Gospels. In one account, in the Gospel of John, Jesus even fashions a whip of cords to carry out his mission.
The event is of single importance because upon entering Jerusalem, it is first to the Temple that Jesus goes! In one gospel, he stays over several days teaching, interpreting and reinterpreting Jewish law. He declared earlier that he hadn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. And that included scolding the Temple hierarchy throughout his entire ministry into fulfilling their spiritual role. “You have turned God’s house of prayer into a robbers’ cave,” he said as the tables went flying.
Jesus wasn’t objecting to the commercial practices—the commentators all agree—the sale of animals to be sacrificed was necessary for the sake of pilgrims who traveled from afar, and for those coming from other countries, moneychangers were needed to exchange currency. Jesus would be objecting to the dominating presence that crowded people out of the Court of the Gentiles, namely the poor and disabled (are we surprised at Jesus?).
Furthermore, when he complained that they had turned the place into a robbers’ den, this had reference apparently to the fact that thieves often claimed sanctuary but had no intention of observing religious laws. Again, Jesus was not aiming at business practices but at crowding out those who were there for spiritual purposes.
It is a commonplace of Christian teaching that Jesus was attacking the Temple. Christians, especially Protestants, glory in the fact that our Jesus had real emotions and that he directed his anger at the institution of the Temple just as he had at the priests, scribes, and the various Jewish sects throughout his ministry. And, more important, here supposedly was proof that Jesus intended to supersede the Temple with either himself or an alternative religion of his own initiation.
But Jesus was not attacking the Temple, he was defending it. The emotion we should associate with his action is not anger but devotion. You can love something so much that it fires up your indignation and exasperation at its failures. And Jesus was manifestly fired up.
Jesus’ devotion to the Temple was peaceful to his core. He could not have possibly been one of the Zealot Party, as one scholar, Reza Azlan, claims in his excellent book, Zealot. The almost constant combat between the Roman occupiers and the Israelites going back several decades before Jesus’ birth and into his own lifetime had generated many rebellious factions. Jesus did not belong to any of them, other scholars have concluded. However, it is quite conceivable that Jesus got mistaken as one of the insurrectionists who wanted to overthrow both church and state, and when the authorities had a chance to be rid of him, they let it happen, as we know from the end of the story. But that comes later.
Howsoever he may have been perceived at the time, I believe Jesus came willing one thing, and that was the renewal and restoration of the Jews’ faith in God, a faith that was dependent upon the renewal and the restoration of the Temple’s spiritual integrity.
Jesus prophesies at one point, that the Temple would be destroyed and that he would rebuild it in three days. This has been taken to mean he would replace Judaism. What Jesus sought was Judaism’s survival and perfection—he predicted its fall due to the weight of its institutional sins, because he had so much invested in its survival.
The Temple was a place of surpassing beauty, although Herod the Great’s spectacular renovations around the year 20 BCE were irrelevant to the Jews. The Temple’s real importance derived from its being the repository of the Arc of the Covenant and the fountain of moral law. Even more significant, the Temple’s placement on Mount Zion in Jerusalem expressed its mystical association as the meeting place of heaven and earth, so it was not only the moral but the physical capital of the universe for Jews. The Temple sat at the intersection of cosmos and earth. Mount Zion, on which the Temple sits, reflects how God subdued chaos (Genesis 1), referred to in our Psalm today as the seas and the rivers.
Much loved by the Judeans, Jesus loved the Temple, too. In order to even faintly imagine what was at stake for Jesus in the Temple, you only have to recall the many references in the Psalms. Ps 36:8-10: They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 23:6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 27:4: One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 132:13-14: For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: “This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.
So, there was meaning in that prophecy of destruction, as preposterous a claim as it sounded. Only his listeners didn’t know it. They mistook the meaning that was right on the surface. Everything that impeded what the Temple stood for—God’s mercy and lovingkindness, God’s righteousness—was about to be overturned and overhauled, by God. The Temple as they knew it would be transformed. This was the faith of Jesus.
How should any of this affect our faith in Christ and the way we manage our lives? For one thing, it was another reminder that Jesus did not come to start another religion. If he could have, Jesus would restore the religion of his people. But those in a position of power wouldn’t budge, and the collision would break Jesus.
How is his unpeaceful behavior consistent with the blessing he confers upon all peacemakers as “children of God”? Jesus does bless the peacemakers, but Jesus makes it abundantly clear that lying doesn’t promote peace. Before he even entered Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city which “didn’t recognize the things that make for peace.” Lying promotes temporary peace of an external sort, such as we do to placate someone else in a disagreement—we button our lip. Or, when we enable another person’s addiction—we do so, to “keep the peace.” Or, when we oppose a war, or the suppression of the vote, we may not feel it’s worth getting all stirred up.
Peacemaking should not avoid the truth, it should proclaim it. Speaking truth to power, and speaking truth to a loved one who has power over us, brings the only peace worth having, but it may require turning over some tables, either literally or figuratively—maybe finding some “good trouble.” Because of the travail that Jesus underwent, he made clear the very possible costs. Because of the faith Jesus had in God, he showed us the power of God. There may be two different worlds—the private (personal) and the public (political), but they are just two different locations of the same spiritual fact: truth leads to ultimate peace, whereas lying, deceit and deception lead to violence and destruction. And, believe me, destruction destroys.
For another thing, this Temple scene tells us to regard our own temple and sanctuary with similar devotion. We should feel the same way about our churches, synagogues and mosques. They should not be the objects of worship in themselves but places of devotion and truth-seeking.
So, let us return to Psalm 24 and listen to its answer to the question, “Who shall ascend the hill of God, the hill of Mount Zion?” Only you who have clean hands and pure hearts. Only you who lift up your souls to truth and refuse to utter deceits. Who shall ascend the hill of God--? All of you and the Sovereign of hosts, the God beyond gods. So, lift up your heads, O Temple gates! And be lifted up, O ancient temple doors, that the Ruler of Glory may come in with you, the people of God!
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Pure in heart? How? Me see God? Actually? When is that to be? What can Jesus have meant, back in Galilee, when he was preaching from the lake shore or on the mountain side?
Purity of heart! Not many of us are going to see God at that rate. . . not ANY of us! Purity of heart! Our hearts are complicated with all kinds of dubious motives over which we have no control—quasi-homicidal, vengeful feelings, sometimes hate-filled feelings. As for the sexual imagination, it knows no bounds (male or female, straight or gay), although Christians have tried to muffle them, muzzle them, extirpate them, purify them by all kinds of inhuman and illogical punitive means. Pure in heart?—unlikely. See God?—not me anyway, doubtful.
Yet a possibility opens if we consider that by purity of heart is not meant moral purity. Could we have missed that? In the conventional religious world, pure has meant clean, innocent, without moral blemish, uncontaminated, perfect, perfected. Impossible.
On the other hand, the answer of one philosopher (I’ll tell you later who I mean) was, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Pure, in the sense of un-mixed, full-strength, simple, uniform, un-compounded, homogenous, unalloyed, without by-products—that’s what our philosopher means by pure, that is single-minded. Our philosopher goes on, “If it is possible to will one thing, then we must will the Good, for only the Good is one. We can will no other thing, than the Good, and only single-mindedly.”
Well, what is the Good and how do you define it? That’s a fair question. Our philosopher says, “Now, willing one thing does not mean willing the grandiose. It is not a brazen, unholy enthusiasm for what is big.” It may have to be something more modest than defeating the monster of American racism wholesale.
And whatever we mean by “the Good” is not Good if pursued for secondary benefits, to keep legal or keep kosher or keep orthodox. “Willing one thing is not willing it for any reward, or to avoid punishment—there are no subordinate or ulterior goals, if we are willing the Good.”
But if we remember Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, we see what our philosopher means—straight ahead for the sake only of one enduring value or truth. His singleness of purpose eclipsed any ulterior purposes. So, our philosopher goes on (are you willing to follow?)—a qualitative change of your present life is required. It’s more than re-prioritizing, it is revolutionizing, although to the outward eye, you may not appear or sound any different. But oh what a difference.
Our philosopher poses for us our questions. “There are two different questions: What is it that endures? And, How do I get through this world? Those who ask the second question have no desire for real knowledge. But the one who asks what endures has already passed through, she has already gone over from chronological time to eternity, though she is still alive.”
Eternity for her “is not a final change that creeps in at the moment of death. Quite the contrary, it is a changelessness that remains unaltered by the passage of time.” Jesus’ kingdom of heaven is neither a place nor another time. For truly to will one thing, our philosopher says, “we must will the Good for its own sake. And we must be willing to do anything or to suffer anything for it. It requires a commitment to always be loyal to the Good.
In this case, an unexpected result occurs. In this case, “because she does not have to do everything, therefore she finds ample time for the Good.”
The Good must be good for all, good that cuts across the particular goods of particular groups (e.g., royalty, dominant races or classes, etc.)—this is likely to be risky because it will be unpopular for the zero-sum mentality of Temple priests or white nationalist Christians. “But the confidence required for a person to step out into risk does give him superhuman strength. One who does not trust, does not receive this strength.”
There are historic biographies I could use to illustrate—Mother Jones would be one (in honor of Women’s History Month). She trusted. “One who does not trust, does not receive this strength.”
I realize that’s not totally reassuring, especially on the road to Jerusalem. Prudence will make someone say, “I owe it to myself and to my future not to put all my eggs in one basket.” Maybe I can make my point another way. But, “In so saying, anybody would be forgetting that Eternity is his future, and it were best not to miss it.” Best take one egg from the basket.
By the same token, ambition will make someone keep an eye on one’s accomplishments. “The amount we accomplish in life is no measure of the Eternal. God’s Son truly willed the Good in the Eternal sense and not the temporal. In the temporal world, he was perceived to have been rejected and as having accomplished little. Just so has it gone with many other witnesses to the Good and the True, in whom this eternal will has burned fiercely.”
Burn fiercely—that is our human destiny if conventional Christianity doesn’t get in the way. “Because I do believe that at each person’s birth, there comes into being an eternal vocation for him, expressly for him. To be true to himself in relation to this eternal vocation is the highest thing a man or a woman can do. Sin is disloyalty to the self we are called to be, the denial of our higher calling. The sufferings of life test one as to whether it is truly the Good that he wills, or whether I myself am caught up in deception.”
For the honest person, for the one who wills one thing, “when a man or woman leaves this world, they bring everything they value with them and leaves nothing behind. He loses nothing and gains everything—for God is everything to him.”
There is always suffering in human life, especially in life devoted to the Good, and we would wish that this cup pass from me. “The wish is the sufferer’s connection with a happier temporal existence.” Jesus warned against wishing for more things or for another fate.
“Wherever we are in the world, whichever road we travel, when we will one thing, we are on a road that leads to You!” It led Jesus to Jerusalem. The Good he was loyal to made such a journey inevitable. But the journey was not taken to death; it was taken toward a Good whose earthly consequence might involve death, as it had before for other witnesses to the True and the Good. What was that Good for Jesus? It was the perpetual forgiveness of God, that people might know it and seize it for their release and redemption. Jesus is who he is not because Christians call him Savior, but because the Good he served will save us. Jesus indeed saw God—but, ironically, to such an extent that he was mistaken for God.
“The decision to will the Good of which each person is capable, means listening to the universe. To be eloquent is a mere frill, by no means essential to anything truly important. Earnestness to listen in order to act, this is the most important attitude in the spiritual, devotional sense.” This will come about only in a reconstructed community, in a reconstructed church, like the reconstructed Temple Jesus came to Jerusalem to life up. A place not of formal show of religion, but a place of honesty and self-discovery, of repentance and repair, of prayer, meditation, study and dialogue. It’s not a community of belief but of action, the action being listening and learning, as with Mary, that our lives may be transformed by the desire to will one thing, willing the Good. The action being to choose steps that serve the Good.
Now comes our philosopher’s challenge to us. “What kind of life to you live? Do you will only one thing? And if so, what is this one thing? Do you live your life in such a way that this question is even meaningful to you? Do you consciously live your life before God? This consciousness is the most basic condition for purity of heart. The person who is not wholly himself, who is not a conscious individual, is never anything wholly and decisively. He only exists in an external sense; he is only ever a fraction within the crowd, a fragment of society. How desperately does such a person need to consider what it means to will one thing!”
Another reason for the church’s existence is to support you in such conscious living. “Like changing our clothes, we take off our many-ness, our distraction and duplicity, in order to rightly put on the seamless garment of one thing, willing the Good.”
Beware, Jesus warned his followers on the road to Jerusalem, “the press of many-ness and busy-ness is like a magic spell. And it is sad to see how its power swells, how it reaches out to lay hold of ever younger victims. [Who] will ever be allowed the peace and quiet in which the Eternal may unfold its divine growth?”
This calls not for the imitation of Christ, but for living the Christ-life, as the conditions of your life dictate. Maybe this is too much Jesus for you. I don’t blame you, given the way that Jesus has been used and abused and sanctified and idealized from one church to another. Jesus himself said, not everyone who says Lord, Lord, enters the kingdom of heaven. But the Jesus, when purity of heart is understood in his way, you can’t get enough of that Jesus, I believe. As your minister today, albeit as interim, the Good I seek is your connection with Christ. It is my temporal obligation to see you from one minister to the next, but that is a sub-set of my one single goal of converting you to the eternal Christ you don’t know yet. Just know that the Jesus who sought the restoration of the Temple gives you the strength to risk restoring Eliot Church. This is not so much a matter of belief as it is of action, not spiritual practices either but purity of heart. You too will see God, as Jesus did and as Jesus promised.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin March 14, 2021 The Fourth Sunday of Lent Psalm 23 Romans 8: 37-39 Matthew 5: 1-6 The Comfort of Mourning
“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” I cannot think of a sentence that better describes where we are as a people at this moment. It has been a year since Covid-19 changed our lives in profound ways. We have been mourning the loss of so much that we loved; family and friends sickened or dead, time lost with siblings and grandchildren, colleagues, and friends, the loss of work and in-person schooling, the loss of gathering for worship, concerts, sporting events and those major life markers – graduations, weddings, and yes, funerals.
Even as the light at the end of the Covid tunnel is approaching, the mourning feels as though it will go on forever. Among my clergy friends and colleagues, there is a growing sense of unease – all of the funerals and memorial services that could not be held due to Covid restrictions now will stretch across the late spring and summer. There is so much grief compounded by delay, so much trauma that requires acknowledgement and tending to. Mental health professionals are already cautioning that after the immediate jubilation of re-joining something like “normal” life, there will be a flood post-traumatic stress disorder breaking into our communities – from the youngest among us to our elders. We already know of the deep depression that has overwhelmed so many in all ages and stages of life. We have mourning permanently etched into our souls.
The promise Jesus makes to us in today’s beatitude is that we will be comforted in our mourning. While I trust in the promise, I confess I cannot see how we are going to be comforted or how we are going to offer comfort to others on such a massive scale. A rabbi friend remarked the other day, “We should sit Shiva for at least a year.” A Catholic priest friend is thinking along the same lines: “How do we hold a wake for the world?”
For people of faith, gathering together to mourn is how we give and receive comfort. Those with whom we mourn reveal the presence of God with us in our mourning–and that particular gift IS comforting. As both my rabbi friend and my priest friend’s wise words remind us, in our mourning of the past year that comfort has been denied us.
But has God’s presence been absent? Paul’s words from Romans assure us that God has been with us in our solitary mourning, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These are some of the most comforting words in the New Testament and there is a reason that this passage is often included in funeral or memorial services. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus – not even during a pandemic. The question is: how will we live that truth?
For us to realize promise that Jesus is with us in our lives at the present moment and in the post-pandemic months and years to follow, requires us to remember that “Christhas no body but ours,” as Teresa of Avila teaches. WE are to comfort the mourners – a challenge to each one of us as we are not only those who comfort but also those who mourn. This is a complicated process. We know that those who live with trauma can be triggered again by others’ traumatic experiences. We also know that we live in a society that is deeply afraid of illness and death. Many of those around us will choose anger as a response rather than admit that no one of us is strong enough to heal ourselves. We need the comfort of others on this journey to be present to our own pain and we need to be present to the pain of others in order to comfort them. This is not going to be easy; we are in unfamiliar territory and the scope and scale of whatever the new normal will be is going to require faith, action and our presence in ways it has not before.
As I have been talking with friends and colleagues of faith, I realized I have been struggling with just how to comfort others and receive comfort in the face of such overwhelming need. A Wise Woman friend from a church I previously served reminded me that we had read together The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama. In it, the Dali Lama tells of his experience on an overnight flight from San Francisco to Japan. Seated near him were a couple with a three-year-old toddler and a baby. Both parents did their best to keep the children occupied. But the Dad eventually fell asleep and the Dali Lama noticed the mother’s swollen, exhausted eyes as she continued to care for the two tired and cranky children herself. He writes, “I thought about it and I don’t think I would have had that kind of patience.” The Dali Lama names this type of self-giving love as compassion. The narrator of the book further observes, “It probably takes many years of monastic practice to equal the spiritual growth generated by one sleepless night with a sick child.” The same can be said about caring for a sick parent, sick spouse or sick friend.” And I think the same can be said for a year of social distancing, isolation and mourning.
Aware of it or not, this past year has been an unsought exercise of the practices that lead to spiritual growth. The disciplines of mask-wearing, self-isolation and hand washing in order to care for ourselves, those we love and those who are our neighbors is a spiritual exercise–and we have had ample time to practice it. This practice has taught us patience and compassion–the exact spiritual gifts that we will need to be Christ’s hands and heart comforting a post-pandemic world. Patience with ourselves and others and compassion for ourselves and others will be stretched in new ways as we live into whatever lies ahead in a post-pandemic society. We have the promise that Jesus is with us and in us–both as we mourn and as we comfort. And that will be more than sufficient in a world where “Christ has no body but ours.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
I have a question to ask this morning, as I did last Sunday, for which I do not have a definitive answer. This time it is: what is the difference between mercy and forgiveness? Both are referred to in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant--are they indistinguishable?
Mercy begets mercy—that’s what this Beatitude of Jesus today says. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” This is one of God’s promises, and the promises of God are good. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant this morning confirms it, although through a negative example and one in which mercy and forgiveness appear synonymous. Someone who owes money is “forgiven” their debt, wherein “forgiven” is only a manner of speaking about loans that are cancelled. But forgiveness is not actually applicable, because there is no wrong doing when you borrow money. This is not an act of forgiveness, but an act of mercy.
As the story goes, a man is mercifully relieved of a huge debt and then that man turns right around and denies the same mercy he received to another man who owes him very little money. The first debtor (the Greek is “slave,” but many translators put “servant” to indicate someone in the king’s retinue) owes 10,000 talents—what would amount to 15 times the annual tribute paid to Rome by Galilee; but he is owed a pittance by one of his fellow servants. Jesus means by this difference between the sizes of the loans to highlight how great is the mercy of God towards us compared to us human beings who can be so petty. The King’s reaction is exaggerated by Jesus, in his typical way to make his point, when he says he condemns the servant to be tortured, when of course Jews never countenanced or permitted torture. It was to signify how grievous was the servant’s failure to forgive. And that is the point of the parable, which Jesus tells by way of amplifying on his answer to Peter’s question about how many times we are expected to forgive, saying you must forgive 70 times 7 times, from your heart. So, this parable must be about forgiveness, right?
But let’s not lose complete sight of the language about mercy in the parable because it is the correct characterization of relieving a debt or canceling a loan. And also, because mercy correlates with the Beatitude about mercy. Forgiveness and mercy don’t seem to be interchangeable terms exactly, but why?
Mercy is a special kind of act. Like forgiveness, it can’t be earned. But unlike forgiveness, there need be no wrongdoing, so no confession or repentance or reform is involved. Mercy is pure grace, unexpected and unprompted. It made me think of the “Pay it forward” movement in the 1970s and ‘80s, remember?—when people who received a benefit from someone and couldn’t thank or reciprocate it to the benefactor so she chooses to pay it forward to another deserving person. Like having received the gift of college tuition from someone then paying someone else’s tuition in turn. But this breaks an act between two people into one between three. It also reminds me of the bumper sticker, “Commit random acts of kindness,” except that it sounds a little trivial.
It strikes me that mercy applies only in the cases where absolute power is exercised over another person or persons. For instance, in this parable the king has absolute power over the servant and may relieve the debt if he wants to. Or, as when a court commutes a death sentence, which it can do having absolute power over the defendant. Or again, in the case of Presidential pardons (but so abused by the most recent incumbent) who can vacate excessive punishments. Still again, student loans can be zeroed out by the bank in their absolute power over a debtor. In some cases, a cost has to be absorbed by the King or bank or society. In Shakespeare’s words, mercy “'is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown.” Then too, when someone has the power to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned or sick (Matthew 25:31-46), one has been merciful with the simplest of powers.
Mercy has mainly to do with instances of power over others. Then, what is the possible relevance of Jesus telling the disinherited and the powerless on that hillside that, if they are merciful, mercy will be shown to them? They have no kind of power over anyone. But, in fact, whoever you are, there is always someone else to lord it over. And so it is with all of us regular, powerless folk—people have power over animals; parents have power over their children; husbands and wives have power over their spouses; employers have power over employees; police over their communities; prison guards over their charges. But because many of these in many instances failed to bestow mercy where it was appropriate, laws had to change to limit power or oblige mercy (husbands have less now since draconian divorce laws giving only the husband absolute powers have been liberalized). Nevertheless, even law can’t reach into private lives where mercy is cruelly withheld. Mercy is pure grace, pure generosity, exacting less than the full measure. Not to be merciful is an abuse of power. The opposite of mercy is cruelty.
Here are three practical implicates of mercy--1) refrain from cruelty; 2) refrain from vengeance; and 3) refrain from taking all the compensation you are entitled to, say, the rents owed in a pandemic.
Your mercy will be rewarded, is God’s promise. And God’s promises are good. But even if you are not rewarded, mercy is fertile. As my Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice produces injustice”—a handy echo of today’s Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for you shall receive mercy.” Let’s see what we can do about that! Amen.
Shall the disinherited inherit the earth, really? Ecclesiastes 4:1-6 Matthew 5:1-4
I want to ask a question this morning, that I don’t have the answer to. But I want to ask the question so well, that you will want to answer it, that you will want so deeply to be a part of Eliot’s answer to it, and make of Eliot Church a community devoted to finding and living the answer. Here is my question: Shall the disinherited inherit the earth, really?
Can we agree that the complaint of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is not so far-fetched? Elizabeth only read you a small part of his inventory of discontents. The Preacher frankly acknowledges that injustice is endemic, which made him and us, too, feel it’s all useless, futile emptiness. Even so, he doesn’t say “helpless.” I’ll come back to that later.
Although the feeling persists among us in the U.S. today that we’re not moving the baseline at all, of course we do move the baseline. Jesus acknowledges as much in today’s Beatitude when he says the meek, or the gentle, will inherit the earth. As someone we know paraphrased it, the arc of the universe bends toward justice. The first shall be last, and the last will be first, Jesus promised.
Who are the meek, anyway? --the gentle, the unassuming, the cooperative, the non-squeaky wheels? They are the decent people certain presidents call losers. They are simply those regular people often at a competitive disadvantage in this competitive society of ours--they are the ones likely to get cheated by cheaters, duped by grifters, over-mastered by the hyper-achievers. Just like so many in the Israelite economy who were at the wrong end of the abusive debtor laws, the dishonest market practices, and the courts that let rich violators off with fees instead of physical punishment. Sound familiar? Ancient Israelite society was a caste society and would fit right into the description of the U.S. in Isabel Wilkerson’s book about caste.
Jesus said the lowest caste would be vindicated and in so saying, Jesus was also dignifying their status in life as human beings, no matter what their society deemed them or made them into. And by validating them, he activated their sense of justice and their indignation at any injustices they experienced. We like to say, God loves everybody, but frankly such news matters more to those without means than to those to whom money sticks. It is only those without earth who need to be reassured that they will indeed inherit the earth—Jesus was speaking a social religion to the disinherited.
Perhaps Jesus was just trying to make people feel better, so was this Beatitude only a bromide to salve hurts that he couldn’t heal himself? It certainly sounded rather cynical for him to have said to Judas, when Judas later in the gospel complained about the expense of the spikenard being lavished on him, “the poor you always have with you.” Jesus was not minimizing them or depreciating the obligation to minister to them. His was simply making a comparative statement—yes, the work on behalf of the poorest is our mission, but you only have me for a few more days, best attend to me just for this last moment. Jesus doesn’t say it explicitly, but he means that soon you will be resuming the work for the disinherited without me. Our conclusion should be, if we want to do good, don’t omit first and last to celebrate Jesus in our life, Jesus who is the Good among us and our inspiration to do justice.
Jesus means it when he says the disinherited will inherit the earth, I believe. But we have a right to ask, exactly how?
How? The answer Howard Thurman gave was, we will only inherit the earth by resisting, and then he adds, by resisting in a very specific way--by laying hold of and controlling certain emotions that the disinherited are subject to in their condition. Thurman, who died in 1981, was an African-American public intellectual and theologian who taught at Howard University and was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-65, just at the same time ML King was a student here. In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949, he warned about the disabling emotions which betray the disinherited into the hands of the dominant, white society. “To revile because one has been reviled--this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.” Again and again, Thurman writes, it all has to come back to the inner life of the individual--the prior condition of resistance must be the health of the soul. “Anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the oppressor the keys to his destiny.”
They are three spiritual weaknesses that undermine resistance, and I want to describe them and then to point out a very surprising correlative.
First is fear--the black man and woman in America had reasons without number to fear whites. And while fear is originally a protective reflex to survive, yet ultimately it becomes death for the self. Thurman counseled his people to banish their fears of whites through an acceptance and internalization of God’s love.
Second is deception--Thurman understood that to survive under the conditions of white supremacy, American blacks went to extremes of self-distortion and dissembling. Deception shelters and protects us temporarily, but it distorts the soul. The penalty of deception is to become a deception, without a moral compass anymore. A man or woman who lies becomes a lie. However, during slavery the cost of honesty was death, so resistance was blocked until the Emancipation. Even so, Thurman was writing in the era of the Great Migration north where blacks would find very different kinds of rejection to navigate.
Third, hate. Hatred is only natural when black men and black women are confronted with arbitrariness from their first waking moment every day until they fall asleep. When hatred becomes a source for you of the validation of your personality and the entire reason for being, you have murdered yourself. Hatred must be met on the battlefield of the inner life for resistance even to happen let alone succeed.
Such was Thurman’s counsel to his community of the disinherited. But is there possibly a curious parallel here—with the white supremacists? Even though they have not been disinherited, at all, white supremacists feel disinherited and that’s where their malignant behavior stems from. And, in their way, white supremacists are proving the truth of Thurman’s observation--fear, deception, and hate are corrupting, debilitating influences upon the soul and actually disempowering. Thurman was right in his analysis of the black man and woman’s predicament. I’m certainly not saying white supremacists merit sympathy, but they might benefit from the same analysis and advice. If they are to be weaned off of the toxins of fear, deception and hate, we might have to ask what a Christian ministry to them might need to look like. Isn’t it worth asking, if we want to change this racist society? Don’t we have to address directly those who are captives of their own debilitating resentments? And to the extent that we write white supremacists off as hopeless deplorables to be feared, we have our own inner work to do. We too must attend to the inner life and seek the higher self we are meant to be, or our resistance will only be so much vanity, futility and chasing of the wind.
Howard Thurman, a black preacher, could speak commandingly to the disinherited blacks--. How would I, a white preacher, and you my white (mostly) congregation, go about speaking to white supremacists? It probably won’t work to tell them to read books on my shelf like, “White Too Long,” or “Dear White Christians.” However, I could see spending money to distribute these books the way the Gideons put Bibles in every hotel and motel in this country. I would love to evangelize the evangelical churches of this country, stand outside as they leave their sanctuaries and ask, “Jesus loves you: what do you have to fear and hate and lie about?” How would you change peoples’ hearts in rural Pennsylvania, in McConnell and Rand Paul’s Kentucky, in Chicago, in North and South Dakota and Minnesota, Texas? It would require a Johnny or Sally Appleseed with missionary zeal.
But here we are in Newton Corner in greater Boston, and we have a church. We have a community and a building and a history as the foundation for a new ministry not yet even conceived of. You are on the threshold today of fashioning that ministry! What an exciting thought—to see that the disinherited inherit the earth and with their and our souls intact. Moreover, we have to be concerned what state the earth is in that the disinherited shall inherit. But that’s another subject.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was driven to the conclusion that all is vanity because human beings never seem to change, but that was no reason to suspend our commitment to God’s Word. God’s Word, he said, is the foundation of our inner life and the way out of fear, deception and hate. Religion is inescapably social; religion is not a gated mental community for us to escape into. Climate change will force us into each other’s laps and each other’s fates, so let us commit to become a church here that will minister to the world of the disinherited which is only getting bigger. The best part about today is that you will be discussing how to trade in this lumbering 18-wheel semi-trailer truck for a more maneuverable, economical, sharp-cornering sports car!
As I said, I don’t have the answer to my own question—I am betting on Eliot Church to come up with it! Bless you and amen!