September 8, 2019
Sunday Morning in New England
Text: Matthew 28:16-20
A certain young woman is just awakening, being about 10:00 a.m., and she is daydreaming next to her coffee and the unopened Sunday paper. Here in Boston, this 17th century colonial city, a city once rich in religious tradition, as the sun rises this morning, some of its residents are thinking of going to church. Many do not think about going to church at all.
Our young woman sits in her bathrobe next to the window, stirring her coffee and cream and sugar slowly in the framed light, vacantly savoring the taste and the emerging colors of the oriental rug on the floor; she pushes back the realization that it is Sunday and that it is time for church.
Her thoughts drift back to a weeklong yoga retreat she took 10 years ago at Kripalu in the Berkshires. On the last day of her April retreat, it was an Easter Sunday morning, in fact, she stepped out onto the grand lawn overlooking the Stockbridge Bowl, along with the others all carrying their mats under their arms and sitting down to enjoy the view.
Silently, she rehearsed in her mind the words of sacrifice and violence and redemption that were said that week and that very hour at Christian services across New England, and beyond. The empty tomb had nothing to say to her that morning. She asked herself, why should she give her bounty to the dead?
She dropped in on a variety of churches in Boston up till then, pursuing a hunger for something more substantial than hope and not as mind-cracking as Christian doctrine—this Methodist church, that Catholic Church, a university chapel across town, a black mega-church—but she quit expecting the familiar words to come back to life for her, and quit going.
She chooses these mornings to dream instead, she dreams a little while longer in the sunny chair, sampling some plums and grapes, seeing eternity in their taste and in their sunlit colors.
I know this woman, and others like her, and some young men too--they have ceased to have spiritual needs that they can quite put their finger on; we in this church haven’t put our finger on those needs either, or they would be here.
She has her bookshelf of self-help books (there are thousands in the bookstores), a membership in a health club (it seems like those are popping up in the neighborhoods like mushrooms), a social life (friends without number on Facebook), and her biggest religious problem is what symbol to choose for her first tattoo.
The conflicts among the churches and within the churches used to repel her; but those have been overshadowed these last 10 years by the violence of religious extremists and our own domestic terrorists, so that church now just seems quaint. Just quaint. Quaint.
Lately, her anger at church has been replaced by boredom. Today’s battle for the fate of the earth leads her friends to cast their fate with the pleasure seekers and fortune hunters, although she continues to seek “significance” where she can.
Over the years that she was drifting away, the faithful have been here in New England sanctuaries, expecting faith to soothe us, to calm us, while people in the world like our young woman seek substance and spiritual stimulation.
At Eliot and at churches across New England, we have noticed with helpless alarm their absence, but has anybody even yet really, really grasped and grappled with what has happened to people like our young woman? We faithfully maintain our “traditions” and buildings, but have we contributed an added-value to this moment in time? Can we say what faith is and who faith is for—if we are honest, can we say we even have any faith for sure?
Haven’t we changed too, these last 10 years spanning two Senior Ministers, three Associates, and one Interim (not counting myself), along with our young woman and everybody else, all of us carried along by our culture’s drift and bringing it imperceptibly right with us into the pews?
And here we sit, this Sunday morning in New England, subscribers to a religion and followers of a man whose last words according to the Gospel of Matthew were, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
We are ambivalent about this gospel imperative that has sent Christian communities off on a global campaign of individual and mass proselytizing that lasted 21 centuries and is not over yet. We are horrified and embarrassed by the hostile, quasi-militaristic take-over of the world exemplified by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the conquest of South, North and Central Americas?
We are just like our young woman who knows Jesus did not found a religion or the church, for that matter; we know that the earliest Christians penned the Great Commission and put it into the mouth of Jesus. She doesn’t want anything more to do with religion—it only wants to sell her something.
Then how can we take the Great Commission seriously?
Well, I believe we must take it seriously, either that, or stay home on Sunday mornings like our young woman. I believe Christians must take charge and conduct our own trans-valuation of Christian values, or continue as the Rip Van Winkle of the 21st century.
But now, we must set about fashioning our own understanding of the Great Commission—after all, it does contain the vision of a universal, inclusive community of “all nations.” However, we must do so in a way distinct from the two choices which this young woman has rejected, that is, American evangelical fundamentalism, on the one hand, and our own mainline liberal Protestantism, on the other. It will no longer be a matter of “propagating the faith” at all, but more like the flowering of an “anonymous Christianity.”
To do this, I believe we will have to exercise the very gifts imagined by St. Paul, but in totally fresh ways—he lists the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, the interpretation of tongues.
It would be an excellent way to spend some of our time during this Interim, as part of getting ready to call a new minister—let us go about giving fresh content to the four imperatives of the Great Commission: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.
I would translate them this way for starters and you can chime in as we go forward: First, “Go,” make ourselves known for who we are—make it a priority to achieve some clarity in our spiritual lives. Second, “Make disciples” is only accomplished by being a disciple—again, a matter of spiritual priority. Third, “Baptize” is another word for making our experience of Christ accessible to others—be open to the world, and love it as it is. Acceptance is just forgiveness in advance. And fourth, “Teach” by practicing your personal exploration out loud where you can be heard to be known for who you really are.
There is no one way to be a Christian, but it would be nice to have one place where we are allowed—and expected!—to develop, and that will be Eliot Church, if we can fashion ourselves that way.
We’re going to have church here during this Interim, I say, and we are going to have it abundantly. It will mean two things for you:
One, it will necessitate a new pair of glasses with which to look at what we do here at Eliot Church, programmatically and administratively. I will take this up here over successive Sundays.
Two, it will mean identifying so closely with our young woman that we see ourselves in her spiritual aimlessness. We have to take an honest look at the way faith and doubt have ceased to be alternatives but are actually conjoined in human experience now, as it is for our young woman.
And just who is this young woman? She was born in 1915, and has no name. She was the creation of the poet Wallace Stevens, as a way for him to capture the quality of religious wistfulness at a time of religious decline—100 years ago, Stevens gave beautiful form to spiritual dilemmas of his time that persist to this day and can be seen on any Sunday morning in New England.
Let’s cast our lot with Christ who said, seek first the Kingdom of God, and all else will follow. The key to that kingdom lies in that Word, the Word which has a prominent place in this sanctuary on the Holy Table.
Let’s rejoice in who we are as followers of Christ, and rediscover with each other the excitement of being in the world with Christ. And let it begin this Sunday morning at this table where the Word become flesh now becomes bread. Amen.