I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, March 31, 2005

What is a Meme?

Well, I have been asked to answer a series of questions by Scott Wells over at Boy in the Bands. He was challeneged to answer the same questions by James at Peregrinato. He got it from somwhere else. I am told this is called a Meme....

Anyway, here are the questions and answers...

If you are stuck in Farenheit 451, which book would you be?

I must admit that I am at a disadvantage on this question as I have not read Farenheit 451. However, Scott says that the question amounts to "What book would I like to preserve for all time?"...

I will start with Scott's runner-up, Precious remedies against Satan's Devices (1652). I, too, bought it for the cover. However, in real life I would take The Fellowship of the Ring By JRR Tolkien or Christian Simplicities by Palfrey Perkins (UUChristian Vol 47 Nos 1-2). It is quite likely that Tolkien doesn't need me to preserve his work, however. I will, therefore go with Perkins as this book has meant much to me and I have already collected a few copies for a discussion group some day.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

No. Really, I haven't.

The last book you bought is?

The last book I bought was The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. However, I should note that yesterday was my birthday and I recieved (and was delighted by) a large variety of books. Two of them were Beacon Press publications (New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver and This Day in UU History by Frank Schulman). The other three were about this great nation of ours. I recieved America (the book), written by the folks at The Daily Show, What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, and a work by Eric Idle which I will, for the sake of propriety refer to as The Greedy ------------ Diary. Idle's book is about his recent tour of the United States and Canada.

The last book you read is?

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian (for the third time)

What are you currently reading?

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin travels about the parsonage with me. It is best read on the porch. Also, I am reading the aforementioned book by Eric Idle, and If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.

Five books you would take to a deserted island

Like Scott Wells, I am going to assume that the Bible and Shakespeare are already a given and, therefore, select five other books. Also like Scott, I will have to think about this and update you soon...

Who are you going to pass the baton to (three persons) and why?

The Socinian because I love what I read over there...

Sparkle because babies have opinions, too

My Dad Because former Attorneys General read a great deal and because it would be fun if he responded.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Easter Wrap-Up and Sermon

Well, Easter Sunday has come and gone and I am still recovering! The church was packed with adults and children. We had, in addition to our regular attenders, a good many visitors and family from out of town. The kids had their Easter Egg hunt after church. It was in the sanctuary thanks to the snow and the construction debris from the steeple project. Our nieghbors from Sacred Heart Church had a special outdoor service in the park next to Eliot. It was nice to have them. Sacred Heart was closed by Bishop O'Malley right after Christmas and this was the first time since then that they had services. Their future is still in doubt, but it was great to see all the people walking about (theirs and ours) on such a nice spring day.

Speaking of the steeple project, we have removed the plastic from the back of the church (thank you to Dave Dimmick and Michael Dyer for their work on this). There isn't any plaster up, but the imagination has an easier job of filling in the missing pieces...

Here are my notes for Easter Sunday. Also, I would suggest checking out Rev. Peacebang's sermon selections. They can be found at her sight...

Cracking the Mystery
Easter Sunday 2005
Eliot Church
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

So...happy Easter

For many Americans, Easter begins
In Pretty much the same way:
At church
There are people here who come every Sunday
And those who come occasionally
There are people who have a church home
And those who are visitors for the very first time
Welcome to you all

But after church
After we are done this morning, our paths diverge
As we depart to attend to our various family rituals
Each one unique to the family that made it
When I was growing up--for example--my grandfather
Used to make us all go down to the creek
To race plastic ducks!
There are Easter baskets for most
Easter bonnets for some
And usually a big meal (often involving ham)
That, as with Thanksgiving
Can last all day

But the one ritual that everyone
Seems to like to work in
Is the Easter Egg hunt
We are having one here at church, of course
And for many among us this is just one
Of a variety of opportunities to look for candy
And, yes, actual eggs too

The Easter Egg and its decorated shell
Has a history longer than the holiday, itself
Before the Christian era--
Back when the people looked up at the moon
And didn’t see a man’s face but that of a rabbit—
Before Easter, people would exchange colored eggs
As symbols of fertility, of birth and of spring
As a recognition of all the signs that were around them
That life was returning to the world

Then, as now, the decorations reflected the joy
And, no doubt, the relief felt at the lengthening of days
And the improving weather
But, also, tradition focused on what was inside that shell

We human beings think we know what is inside the egg
We have the faith to believe that, when we open it
There will be a small package of protein
That goes well with a little salt
And I have yet to be disappointed
However, in reality we suspect,
We do not know
We cannot peek inside
Without breaking the egg first

The Ukrainians would tell us that the Easter egg
Carries blessings for its owner
All sealed up in its tiny package
Waiting to be released
At the first crack of the shell

It is the release of blessings
That the women in our story this morning
Encountered when they found another
Formerly sealed container broken open
And discovered something they didn’t expect
Jesus is not here but has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where Jesus lay.
And they went and they saw and then
They departed from the tomb in fear and great joy

It was quite a surprise for them
Like if we opened our plastic eggs after church
And in place of jelly beans
Found a live chicken!
A shock
One that had a profound effect upon them
One that altered them forever

Now, let us stop here for a moment
Because many of us have come here to celebrate
This cracking open of a shell
This miraculous story of the resurrection
And are not so sure why we have
There is a mystery here
Whose explanation we may not entirely agree with
But the key to cracking the mystery
Is an open mind

Of course, doubt is OK here, too
We are a Christian Church, yes
But we are inheritors
Of a tradition and a belief that revelation
Is not sealed/that, in the words of the United Church of Christ
God is Still Speaking
We are a non-creedal, covenanted congregation
Agreeing to seek and serve in the
spirit of Jesus
Agreeing to disagree in love and respect as we journey together
We are a Universalist church, believing in the goodness of God
And the guaranteed salvation of all

And, at least in part, we are a Unitarian Christian Church
Many of us wrestle with the place Christ
Has in our own personal faith
Or have chosen a place for him that is different
From the dominant view of Jesus at this moment in history

We hold this view
Even as we sit with our friends and co-religionists
Who are secure in the knowledge
Of a true and literal resurrection
And a Trinitarian understanding of God

We are a congregation of diverse perspectives
A diversity that we feel more than ever on this day
Well, rest assured that
There is no requirement that we have to agree
Even on Easter morning!
(At least on this point)
For we are a free church founded upon the belief
That everyone is free to search for their own truth and meaning
And that everyone is required to do so
Responsibly and respectfully
After all, we experience the world
Through our own eyes and hands

The Rev. Arthur Severance points out
That our task in this time is to translate the ancient
Stories and traditions into beliefs and rituals
That have meaning for us, in our time
As we discussed in our workshop
On the 23rd psalm last week
This can be a hard thing to do

Severance writes:
Some words or phrases are tricky to translate from one language to another. The advertising slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi,” lost something when translated...in one Slavic country [to] “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” So (he says) let us rejoice in our own interpretation.

And that is just what we do here at Eliot
We interpret for ourselves
Understanding that the language of symbols
Is different for each of us
And we rejoice in it
Open to the mystery and the miracle
To inspiration and to each other

For when we roll away the stone
Or crack that shell
We must all be prepared
For the possibility that we are wrong
To be surprised, shocked and awed
By what we find
Not just on Easter, but on every day
We are blessed to inhabit this world

We can experience a moment of breaking through
A little enlightenment at any time
And when we do, we are expected to share
What we have seen felt and heard

Mary and Mary are told
Do not be afraid, go and tell my followers to go to Galilee and there they will see me
Go and tell,
This resurrection is for more than its witnesses
It is for the world
Like the Marys and the disciples, we, too, are charged
Charged to spread our own broad and inclusive understanding
Of the faith of Jesus

And what does this inclusive understanding
This religious liberalism entail
During Easter-time, in the spring of 2005?
The same thing that it requires every day of the year
We need to be alert, to look for the wondrous and the Divine
Not just in the dry texts of theology
But in a wet world,
Right now filled with melting snow
And the buds of small plants and flowers

Our journey, our “Easter charge” is not one
To be taken on with grim joyless determination
But with simplicity of heart
The wonderfully named Elton Trueblood
Once wrote that
Anyone who reads the synoptic gospels with relative freedom from presumptions might be expected to see that Christ laughed, and that he expected others to laugh.

This Good Friday, my son spent some time
Floating cork boats down the stream at his friend Kurt’s house
Which, not surprisingly reminded me of the springtime game
Of Pooh Sticks, where Pooh, Piglet
And the other denizens of A.A. Milne’s classic children’s stories
Drop sticks on the upstream side of a bridge
Watch them disappear
And then run over to the other side
To see which one comes out
Which reappears first

Why do they do this? (these kids and toy bears?)
Because it is a natural thing for us to do
This time of year we are meant to pay a visit to our
Inner child, to our natural selves
That part of us that knows how to experience the created world
And, yes, the divine presence
Without the hard shell of our adult requirements
Without the cynicism that requires an explanation
(Secular or sacred)
Of miracles large and small

The philosopher of Taoism, Benjamin Hoff
In his book the Tao of Pooh
Translates a story written
By the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuan-Tzu
About Confucius

Chuan-Tzu writes:
At the gorge of Lu the great waterfall plunges for thousands of feet…in the churning waters below, no living creatures can be seen

One day Confucius and his disciples
Saw an old man apparently trapped
In the great waterfall at the gorge
Bobbing around and sliding through the waves
They ran down to the bank to help him
Only to find the man walking out of the river apparently fine
It looked like a miracle to Confucius
So he asked the man: What secret power do you have
[That can make you survive that]?

And the old man replied: I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power.
So there was an explanation
One as amazing as if it had, truly been magic
He forgets himself

I bring this story up because so much of what we think of
As our religious or spiritual lives seems to require
A great deal of effort
Those of you who have been to church in the winter
Can attest to the added time it takes
To get the kids ready and clear the driveway
But there is mental effort, too

So often we think that we must worry about
The various subtleties of this or that theological concept
Or the exact meaning of a ritual or an idea
We worry about either being orthodox
Or unorthodox in a way that everyone can recognize

These are legitimate concerns
But really we must also remember
To connect to the self-forgetting good
This season is an opportunity to witness without trying to explain
It is a chance to move where the divine
In nature takes us

In our psalms discussion one idea kept coming up
The idea that true theology is experienced
That it comes not from a higher power
(And here I mean a human power
With theoretically greater knowledge)
But from our own lives
In this great and miraculous world
As the kids sang today
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

The Easter story
Of Christ’s resurrection
Lets us see the little lights
The simple rebirths
Small ones that make the whole
As we go about the day let us all
Make a real and faithful effort
To be reborn ourselves

Now, let us take a moment of silent prayer
To listen to the spirit and the earth…

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Palm Sunday Sermon

Things are in full swing at Eliot right now. Last night we had an Adult RE-sponored discussion of the 23rd Psalm. Tonight we will have our annual Maundy Thursday Service at 5:30pm. In the midst of this, the church is closing out its budget and there is much to do for those of us on the church staff.

Here is my sermon from Palm Sunday. The readings were Jeremiah 31:25-40, Mark 14:12-31, a reading by Richard Fewkes and a prayer by A. Powell Davies. These last two can be found in "Celebrating Easter and Spring". It is edited by Carl Seaburg and Mark Harris and is available at the UUA Bookstore. Also, the responsive reading was from Singing the Living Tradition (Mark 15). It is, in fact, a Good Friday Reading (#622). However, since Eliot does not have a Good Friday Service, we try to integrate that story into our Palm Sunday observance.

Here are my notes:

The Eliot Church
Palm Sunday 2005
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

During the early years of debate
Concerning the theory of evolution
At a meeting of
The British Association for the Advancement of Science

The famous sailor, scientist, politician
And inventor of modern weather forecasting
Admiral Robert FitzRoy,
In the words of one witness stood up
And lifting an immense Bible first with both and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man.
Many people had issues with Evolution
Many still do

But FitzRoy was a life long friend of Darwin
A shipmate, in fact
When he was 26 FitzRoy was Captain of the HMS Beagle
And helped to develop the theory that
Some believe contributed to the despair
That caused him to eventually end his own life

FitzRoy’s denial of the theory of evolution
And the pain it caused him
Didn’t in the end make it cease to be true

In the sermon last week I referred
To the holocaust denier
Ernst Zundel and to the Roman Catholic inquisition
That condemned the work of Gallieo
But denial is more than something that happens
In response to social change
It also can occur during a personal crisis
Either a quick, sudden shock
Or a long term slowly developing problem

Really, it is probably always (at its root) personal
After all, when we hold on to an idea
Even as it becomes less plausible
We do so because
It is crucial to our identity
To How we define ourselves
For a scientist like FitzRoy,
It was a scientific theory
(Something big and broad)
But for most of us
What we cannot accept or try to ignore
Is a bit more intimate
The only true unifying element
Is that what we deny
Has the power to change us

This is the sort of thing that is happening
In our first reading from Mark
Peter and the disciples have grown accustomed to a life
To a life of traveling and learning
They love Jesus and do not like
To think of his death
But here Jesus is telling them
That the life they know is coming to an end

The most interesting part of this exchange, to me
Is the way Peter reacts
When Jesus says to him
I tell you the truth. Tonight you will say you do not know me. You will say this three times before the rooster crows twice.
And Peter replies
I will never say that…I will even die with you!

Now, many folks believe that in this moment
Jesus predicts the future
But, I think, it is just as plausible to see it
As an order or request from Jesus
To help the disciples come to grips
With what they must do
Jesus knows that Peter would rather die than live without him
And he also knows that Peter and the disciples
The foundation of the church he is building
Must live to carry out their task
Peter needs to survive to lead the church

As hard as it is to imagine for most of us
There are folks who would prefer martyrdom
To living in a new world
(Good or bad)
And Jesus is telling these people
That form of denial isn’t always the best thing
The disciples cannot deny their responsibility
In building the Commonwealth of Heaven

So, what can Peter and Peter’s situation
Tell us about ourselves?

Peter, a sort of everyman of the Gospels
Shows us that, in spite of our best intentions
We all are willing sometimes
To avoid and ignore the signs of change
Again, not only the “earth shattering” changes,
But the little ones as well

There is the phone bill, for example
That sits on the kitchen table
Is moved to the counter and back again
Only to be finally addressed at the last moment
This time of year there are taxes
There also is the leaky roof we only notice when it rains
The relationship that needs our attention
And that we think is going fine

But a little denial isn’t always bad
We deny issues that need to be immediately addressed
But our denial also can help us to live
While we make sense of the problem before us
One could also say. For example,
That without an implicit denial of our own mortality
We wouldn’t get up in the morning
Or do all that we do
Our own fear would stop us

Graham Standish, (pastor of
A Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania) says that
Pain, suffering, and death are only part of life, they are also part of the spiritual journey. We cannot escape them

Sometimes, our denial of something gives us time
Time to deal with its inevitability
Peter in that moment at the Passover meal
Was afraid, and he dealt with his fear
The only way he knew how
By being zealous
“No, I will die with you”

But, of course, he doesn’t die on that day
And denies Jesus as he was told he would
And lives on to help found the institution of the church
One could say that Judas was a betrayer
But Peter, either on his own judgement
Or with prodding from Jesus
Turned out to have done the right thing

Our basic emotion,
When we deny the obvious
Is fear
We see it in Peter’s concern
Not just for the future
But over his own weakness
We see it in ourselves
After all, life doesn’t always work out
The way we want it to

If we were to somehow step into the Bible and ask Peter
Many years later
Ask him if he thought everything worked out for the best
He might say “yes”,
But he may also tell us
That he still wished his friend and teacher Jesus was alive
Or that he, himself, had died on the cross next to him

While denial keeps us from feeling pain, sometimes
Accepting things as they are or need to be
May not make that pain we feel go away

I know that some of you
Are reading Harold Kushner’s book: The Lord is My Shepherd
For Wednesday’s discussion of the 23rd psalm
In the chapter entitled I Shall Not Want
He talks about this very situation
Yes, he says, I have held the hands and dried the tears of people whose marriages have failed or who had been fired from their jobs and lamented, “why do I have to go through this?” only to hear them tell me two years later that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. But I have also held the hands and dried the tears of people in hospital rooms who have been told about the incurable illness afflicting them, their child, or their parent. [then] It is hard to [quote the 23rd psalm and] say “I shall not want/I will lack for nothing”.

So, at times, we find a need to pretend
That the problems in our lives do not exist
Sometimes it is even necessary to do so
But there are other times when it isn’t
What if Peter had decided not to face his responsibilities
What if he had’nt denied Jesus
And died on the cross?

What if we never confront our addictions
Or those of a co-worker, spouse or friend?
Suffering is a part of life
And we all must struggle with it to varying degrees
Standish writes We want our spiritual path to be one of bliss, comfort, peace, and happiness. Eventually it will be, but we often have to go through darkness and pain before we come to light and joy.

Now, when I read this in light of the pain
We all experience and we all see in our daily living
I am struck by Standish’s willingness to believe
That everything will be all right in the end
And, in a sense, it will be
Although I am not sure that it is
What he is thinking of

Walter Brueggeman, a Bible scholar
Describes the psalms
As being of three basic types
Reflecting three stages or facets of our lives
There are those of Orientation
Where everything is OK
Where life is a good as it can be
(the 23rd psalm reflects this stage
As do some prayers of thanksgiving)
There are psalms and prayers of Disorientation
When our souls cry out in our pain
To ask God “why me?”
And, finally, after those prayers
There are prayers
Of Re-Orientation
After a broken world
Has been put back together
Whole but still changed
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

We human beings live most of our lives
In this world of Re-Orientation
We recognize, many times, that things could have been better
That we have failed, lost, and suffered
That our loved ones have too
And that we are not, nor will we ever be perfect

To deny this is to live in a dream world
A place with a population of less than one

In a recent poem the Rev. Anita Farber Robinson
Wrote: Riveted to the moment/We remember Jesus/We remember him riveted to the cross/in glory, pain, sorrow, and joy/We remember him who dies that we might live/Who lived that we might know that God is love/Riveted to the memory, memory transforms/We are there.

It is that memory that transformed the disciples
It is their memory that makes us celebrate Holy Week
In their moment of disorientation
Of questioning, of denial, and acceptance
Jesus gave his followers the strength to go on
Even though the road was hard
And they were rewarded with an Easter
A resurrection (be it a literal or metaphorical one)

We must not deny the opportunity
For a resurrection in our own lives
The Rev. Richard Fewkes in our reading today wrote that
Far deep below the deeps of human consciousness there is a power, a new being ever waiting to be born, a power of hope and faith and courage in the face of adversity, tragedy and loss

We cannot rush through the hard times in our lives
They usually take their own time
But we cannot deny them either
To do so means that we will never emerge
To the other end and see what lies in store
That power that Fewkes describes does live inside us
And will come as surely as winter yields to spring

For as Jeremiah says
The days are surely coming when the city shall be rebuilt

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Palm Sunday at Eliot

I will post my Palm Sunday Sermon soon. Things are rolling along at the church as we get ready for Easter morning. If only there were less snow! The RE committee is planning for the egg hunt to be indoors just in case...

The Palm Sunday service was well attended and we had a good time. It is always interesting during Holy Week here because everybody has a slightly different idea of how things should go. Christmas is easier since, really, it is pretty much a big party. Easter, however, is something that stirs up various emotions and memories. It is, although it can be hard to imagine sometimes, the real deal. It is the climax of the story. At Eliot, it also brings our theological differences to the front of our minds. I am not only speaking of the multiple resurrection theologies! We also have, as many churches do, some variety in liturgical expectations.

We are a community church affiliated with the UUA and the UCC. It is interesting how this "Low Church" tries to accommodate both our tradition and our desires for some "High Church" ritual. Unlike virtually all UU Churches and many in the UCC, we do the liturgical colors of the Christian Year. In the past, some of Eliot's ministers preached weekly from the Revised Common Lectionary. This makes us different from many of the churches with whom we have the closest relations and the most in common theologically. This is not to downplay the conversations some of us are having about the actual meaning of the day. We are talking and we are learning from each other. Ah, the life of a Liberal Christian Congregation in the opening days of the 21st Century!

It is fun, actually, to deal with these things and to talk about the place of tradition and, in fact, of Jesus in our church. I am truly blessed. In fact, I am blessed in many ways to be serving here in Natick. Easter is a good time to say "Thank You" to God and to the church for all that they have done for me. I appreciate it. Thank You.

Over at Peacebang there is an interesting conversation about teaching Christianity in a "more UU" UU church.--"More UU" sound like "our trinitarian connection." I really need to work on these things. It is under the heading "I am Convicted." I suggest you take a look if you get the chance...

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Next Lent Sermon

Here is my sermon from the sunday before Palm Sunday. It is directly inspired by a virtual conversation going on at Boy in the Bands, Prophet Motive, Philocrites, and Socinian. All of these fabulous places can be reached in my links section. However, Prophet Motive was the instigator of this. Part of Rev. Tom Schade's piece was used as a reading, as was the quote from JLA he mentions on his blog. MICAH (which I mention in the sermon) is a congregationally-based organization similar to Worcester Interfaith Association and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. I link to GBIO because we do not have our own page as of yet. I could not find one for Worcester Interfaith, which is too bad. Both WIA and MICAH are part of another organization called OLTC... However, the GBIO page can give you the flavor for what it is about. Here is an article written by Rev. Bob Batchelder about WAMS and WIA. Bob, as you may recall, preached at Eliot last month...

The other Readings are from St. Patrick's Letter to Coroticus and James 5:13-20 unless otherwise noted.

So there you go! A conversation leaves the virtual and enters the "real" world...

To Coroticus
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

I myself have composed and written these words with my own hand, so that they can be given and handed over, then sent swiftly to the soldiers of Coroticus…they have chosen, by their hostile deed, to live in death

There is a reason why we read
St. Patrick’s letter this morning
St. Patrick did something
More important than invent green beer
And more lasting than charming the snakes

He wrote a letter opposing the
Capture and sale of people into slavery
It may be the oldest statement of its sort
The Bible seems to accept slavery as a fact of life
Even Paul, in his letter to Philemon
Accepts the right of one person to own another
Even while asking
For one slave in particular to be freed
But Patrick--himself an escaped slave
Doesn’t feel that way
And in his short letter
He makes it clear that he is prepared to do something about it

Because of this, let every God fearing [person] mark well that to me they are outcasts: cast out by Christ my God whose ambassador I am
Coroticus and his soldiers
Were, essentially, excommunicated

Patrick, way back in the 5th Century
Recognized one of the most important elements
Of the religious life
The ability/The right and responsibility
To speak the truth
To be prophetic
I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God

Now, prophecy, even in the earliest times
Wasn’t limited to the spiritual life
The prophets of the Hebrew Bible
Regularly railed against the actions of their kings and nations
When they felt that they were not following the Divine path
Today we quote Micah and Moses, Isaiah and John the Baptist
In church
And try to live up to their example
And the story of Jesus shows him in the Temple
Cleansing it of the money changers/Turning over the tables
Preaching a doctrine of real-world significance

So when James tells us that
Anyone who brings a sinner from the wrong way will save that sinner’s soul from death.
He is speaking of more than right thinking
But also of right living/
Of keeping and teaching a faith
That changes not only hearts
But institutions

Now, this charge to go forth
And speak out
Is one that the orthodox churches
And the fundamentalists take very seriously
But just because they do
Does not mean that we in the free church
In the non-creedal tradition
Should concede the task
The liberal church, after all
Holds up a different mirror to the world

The Rev. James Luther Adams said that
The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith.
It is our job, too
We aren’t merely expected to serve
That is to give and to help with time and money
But to search for root causes
And solutions
Of course, it is easy to say that
Yes, we must be prophetic
But what does that mean?
How do we, as a congregation of diverse perspectives
(Both theologically and politically)
How do we manifest this call to speak out
When there are very few issues
Upon which we all can completely agree
Well, one place to start is by recognizing when there is a problem
Even if we disagree on the solution

The Rev. Tom Schade, whom we also heard from this morning
Believes that churches like ours (and, I should note, like his)
Are just the kinds of places that are most able to be prophetic
Because we are not married to one solution
In a recent essay, he divided churches into four groups
Two of them seem to be the exact opposite but are, in fact
Very much the same
We can refer to them as partisan
(Or politically idolatrous) churches
Their theology is often modified to fit the needs
The sometimes practical, strategic needs
Of the Democrats or Republicans,
Or even I guess the Greens or Libertarians
There are as many forms of political orthodoxy
As there are religious ones
And the partisan church embraces
One of these positions to the exclusion of others
Co-opting the Divine, instead of truly listening
And being guided by it
Often these congregations consider themselves to be prophetic
But if there is no challenge or exchange
Then there is no risk or openness

A prophetic church is, by its nature open to ideas
The goal isn’t to support one political agenda or another
But instead to understand
That the evils of the world
Can only be addressed through tolerance, respect, and cooperation
Among those of sincere intent

This openness is hard to maintain, sometimes
Particularly when, to be prophetic
We must be willing to engage in discussing controversial subjects
This causes some communities
To use the goal of openness and acceptance
To avoid the hard work of prophecy
These difficulties cause some churches to become passive

This final option may seem to be a good one to many people
We can say that because so many people
Believe so many things
About the world outside our door
We need to make everyone comfortable
By focusing instead upon our personal spiritual journeys
Strife can cause distractions, after all
Even if everyone is genuinely respectful
Maybe it would be better, some folks would say
If the church functioned solely as a refuge
From the pressing cares and concerns of the world

It is a compelling argument
In part because this is a legitimate part
Of the role of any community of faith
The problem, after all, with the partisan church
Is that is isn’t always welcoming
And a good, healthy congregation is
We try to care for each other pastorally
We come here seeking out support
Looking for a warmth that we might not find elsewhere
And this is good and spiritual and faithful to our mission

However, in just the same way that the partisan church
Sometimes fails to affirm the humanity of its members
The strictly quietistic inward-looking church fails to affirm
Is not open to an important part
Of life in this world

Quite simply
We cannot fully focus on God
Without considering the God outside ourselves
The world situation, the systems that we live in every day
We cannot serve at the Open Door [Natick's Hunger Ministry]
Without forming a larger opinion about hunger in our communities
Or rehabilitate a house without seeking to understand
The problem of homelessness
Or do both of these
Without trying to understand the root causes of poverty

I assume you know the saying:
Give them a fish and they will be fed for a day
Teach them to fish and they will be fed a lifetime

When we are called to serve
We are moved to give someone a fish
Or even to hold fishing lessons
(Both necessary and important acts)
But when we are called to be a prophetic voice
Then we need also to be concerned
With the number of fish in the stream
And the quality of water that they swim in
Otherwise those fishing lessons
May be to no avail

Our prophetic role is one that needs to be recognized
And exercised, or else we can lose it

As I mentioned earlier
Today is Amistad Sunday
When churches in the UCC celebrate the work
Of Congregationalists in the fight against slavery
Unitarian Universalists, too are proud of their work in this area
And rightly so
But it would be wrong for us to think that all our churches
Stood up against the slave power
Slavery, after all, worked for many people
And many of them were folks who considered themselves
Good liberals/Responsive to the needs of others
What seems to be an obvious evil to us
Required prophets to bring it down

For example, when fugitive slave Thomas Sims
Was arrested in Boston
The Bells of the Congregationalist and Universalist
Churches of Waltham tolled in protest
But the Unitarian Church’s bell did not
As its members’ fortunes depended upon the southern textile industry

William Lloyd Garrison in his newspaper reported that
The bell on the Unitarian Church, being clogged with cotton,
Would not sound

The fear of acknowledging a problem and an evil
Meant that church was unable to act in the world
The fear of offending had, at least in that moment
Made them irrelevant in that moment
To the great debate of their era

And closer to home, Lydia Maria Child,
The early feminist and abolitionist
While living here in South Natick in the 1840’s and 50’s
Preferred to go to church in Natick Center
Because (according to her)
The Pastor of the South Natick Congregation
Wasn’t interested in the events of the day
And was (in her words) Spiritually Dead
(We can look at the list later to figure out which minister it was)

Of course, all of that was a long time ago
I bring these stories up because I do not believe
That the need for the prophetic voice has ended
Slavery, itself, still exists in unsanctioned forms in this country
And there are many other
Issues large and small that need the attention
Of those with a sincere heart
Religion is more than an exercise in self-fulfillment
It is a call to struggle
Sometimes the greatest struggle
Is within ourselves

For James Luther Adams the role of the church
Was to address these issues
To think and work together in his words
To make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking that times demand
Discussion implies a variety of opinions
The prophetic church is not about uniformity of belief
But about shining a light into the dark corners of this world
It is this ability to shine
Without partisan commitment or concern
That is the very strength of churches such as our own
We are comfortable with disagreement
With difference of perspective
And are willing to learn from each other
We can (and do) talk about what concerns us
At Eliot we exercise our prophetic voice
In worship, by unofficial means
And through the forums
Our Outreach committee provides after church

Of course, part of being prophetic
Is communicating with other people, too
Another place to learn about the dark places
In our own community is through an organization
Called MICAH (you may have heard me talk about it before)
MICAH (named in honor of the prophet, not the rock)
Stands for Metropolitan Interfaith Congregations Acting for Hope
Its sole purpose is to provide a venue for people of faith
To discuss the problems of their communities
And, when there is consensus around an issue
To work to find a solution

It is a place where conservative Baptists and Pentecostals
Come together and share with Jews, Congregationalists, Methodists, Unitarian Universalists, Roman Catholics and others
Of all political and religious stripes
I have been involved in the formation of MICAH
And if anyone here is interested in such a broad discussion
I would love for you to join us as well

Rev. Jim Wallis and the Sojourners Community
In Washington DC
Have an increasingly popular slogan
God is not a Republican or a Democrat
And they are right
Being prophetic isn’t about being a Democrat or a Republican
It is about believing in our ability to discern together
The will and the way
The path toward a better world

Our church tradition was built
On the free exchange of opinions and ideas
This is a part of who we are
We owe it to ourselves and society
To bend our minds, our hearts, and our souls
To the work of prophecy
To the task of creating
The commonwealth of heaven
Right here where we live

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Another Lent Sermon

Before we get to the sermon, I would like to urge you all to take a look at Prophet Motive. It is the Weblog of Tom Schade, the Associate Minister at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA. I was also going to link to the church's web page but, for some reason, I cannot get it to work...

So here are my sermon notes from March 6. It was a "Communion Sunday". I tried a slightly different service than the ones we usually do. We normally rotate between three communion services (UUA, UCC, and "ecumenical"). However, we have a very simple one for our annual Maundy Thursday service. Maundy Thursday is not a "big turnout" service for us so I thought I would use it this past Sunday as well. Basically, we read a psalm and then the story of the "first communion" from Luke.

Into the Light
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

The story we heard today from the Gospel of John
Is an interesting one
It may seem strange for many of us
To think of someone curing anything
(Much less blindness)
With spit and dirt
But this is what the story tells us

The very strangeness of it
Has made many declare it to be evidence
Of a miracle/
But I will leave the truth or falsity
Of that idea that up to you
For literally true or not
The uniqueness of the tale
Points us to another truth/In fact, many truths

Now, we are not going to examine all of them today
And furthermore, today we will not concern ourselves
With the many words and teachings
Of Jesus
But instead we will concern ourselves
With Jesus’ simple physical act
And the healing it brings

That image of Jesus mixing and smearing the mud
Can serve us today as an illustration
Of the basic task of religion
Not just Christianity but any religion
Any built on a sincere foundation
For the aid of humanity and the glory of the unknown

We can say, after all, that
True religion leads people from the darkness into the light
From (not a literal blindness but) a lack of understanding
To a broad awareness and appreciation of existence

We all, every once in a while
Realize our own place in the darkness
To think that we know all and see all
May very well be our attitude
When we come into the world as babies
Unable to differentiate what is us from what is not
But that condition doesn’t last all that long
At least for those who are able to live
Firmly connected to reality

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that
The great act of faith is when a person decides that he [or she] is not God
Now, this decision he speaks of
Can either drive us to despair
Or set our feet on the path of enlightenment
Most likely we will experience both roads
From time to time
It all depends on our reactions
When we face the enormous sea of our own ignorance

Sometimes (as we talked about when I was last in the pulpit so long ago)
The recognition of our limitations causes despair
Or, even worse in many ways; denial
Our anxiety about the unknown
Can make us cling to falsehoods
Believing that the vehemence of our defense
Will make our position true in the end
At Galileo’s trial by the Roman Inquisition, in 1633
The Catholic Church declared at that time that
1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures. [and]
2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.
Subsequent history has shown that you cannot dictate or legislate
Physics or the truth

Of course, it isn’t always institutions that get stuck
But individuals, too
Individuals like Ernst Zundel
The famous holocaust denier
In the news this week for his deportation to Germany

It is this kind of darkness
This ignorance,
That Jesus, (somewhat un-hygienically)
Was trying to remove
Now sometimes as in the case of the inquisition
And people like Ernst Zundel
It is a willful ignorance
But for many of us it is not
It is either imposed or a natural part of being alive
After all, Jesus said
Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind
Not knowing is a natural part of growing
For it is this very absence that makes us move
Makes us yearn to touch and experience life

Lead kindly light our hymn says
Amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home

The healing of our blindness
Does not come in one great and magical moment
Entering into the light
Is something we work toward our whole lives

Rev. Walter Kring once said
That for each of us, just beyond our immediate reach there appears to be a life that has much more promise, more integrity and more happiness than the life we are now living.
Our long journey out of the darkness continues to cause
Anxiety, Greed, Lust, Envy all sorts of emotions
That come from wanting to be or do or comprehend
Something else
That is when we turn to our addictions
Or, at least, to an affection for stuff
Things that we do not need but have convinced ourselves
Are necessary for our happiness
(Attachments if you will)
But they are not necessary

Our material desires, in fact, far from making us happy
Can sometimes drag us down
If we value them too highly
The author Brenda Ueland
In describing the challenge of her calling wrote that
[In writing] One great inhibition and obstacle to me was the thought: will it make money? But you find that if you are thinking of that all the time, either you don’t make money because the work is so empty, dry, calculated and without life, Or you do make money and you are ashamed of your work

So, should we give all of our worldly possessions away
And have the church auction to end all auctions?
Maybe, but probably not
Still, we need to know our desires for what they are
And keep them in perspective

So, what can we do on this journey?
How can we keep our perspective
In the face of all that we do not know?
How can we acknowledge the darkness we live in
Without succumbing to despair?

There are quite a few things
We have talked about many of them
Hobbies, study, conversation, meditation
Exercise and prayer (to name a few)
But all of these have something in common

A single dimension that binds them together
And keeps us energized
We don’t always think of it
But it is there when we get up and when we go to bed
That “thing” that unifying element is ritual

Now, often we think of rituals
As things we do in church and, of course, they are
But we do them all the time in a variety of venues
Think of all the things normal, rational human beings
That some people in this room, in fact
We Cynical New Englanders have done
Over the last 86 years to help out the Boston Red Sox

I have a colleague (a self-proclaimed secular humanist)
Who tapped his doorknob three times
Upon entering and leaving his house
During the pennant race!
(I wonder if we still need to do all those things)

Now, it is easy to see this as superstition
And certainly there is something to that
But really there isn’t anything “magical” about our need
To provide structure to our lives
Ritual makes us focus
It helps us to tell our story
Be it the one about Jesus and Easter
The one about the Bambino
Or the one about brushing our teeth
Ritual helps us to make sense of the world
Not in the future, but right now

When those baseball players
Perform their rituals
They are not expecting, really
That there will be some divine intervention
This is same in our “free church” tradition
We do not expect God to inhabit
Our communion bread any more than anyplace else
They and we are finding a way to focus
On what is important in the moment
And to connect to the experiences of those around us
Be they a sports team or a congregation

The specificity of our actions
Just like those of Jesus in our story today
Slows down time
And slowing down is often just what we need
Ueland observed back in 1938:
We have become too much driven by the idea that in twenty years we will live [but] not now: because by that time our savings and the accrued interest will make it possible. [We often believe that] to live now would be idleness.

We are never truly idle after all
When we are trying to make sense of our world
We are never, really, wasting time
When we take time out
To relax, to clear our heads
Rituals help us do that
They are actions
That mark the occasions
The often emotional, spiritual, private steps of life

The simple act of coming to church, for example
Even before a note is played or sung
Even before a word has been said
Is a powerful recognition of our place
And our participation
We need to honor these actions
(What we do as much as what we say)

Fredrick Meek, the senior minister of Old South Church in Boston
From 1946-1973, once said that
Our need is for more than we have, and to those whose lives have the dimension of eternity, the need is met
Now matter how we find the way
We, all of us, are called into the light
So may we all be able to say
Like the man that Jesus healed
Though once I was blind, now I see

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Slow Poster

My mother-in-law and Unity fan, Margaret Nelson pointed out recently that I seem to have taken something of a hiatus from posting! My apologies. Things have been crazy.

Take this weekend, for instance: On Saturday morning I and the family went to the very fun and extremely well attended Pancake Breakfast at the Memorial School for the Natick Organic Farm. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. Then it was off to a meeting of local UU congregations to discuss discussing issues worth discussing. Finally, after dinner, my wife Allison and I attended the Eliot Church Auction. This was a rip-roaring success!

Sunday began at church with worship reasonably well attended by the previous night's party-goers. After service was the first meeting of our 2005 Confirmation Class. I enjoyed hanging out with the kids. I think they may have enjoyed learning about the church as well. We went to the Natick Historical Society Museum across the street from our church building and the kids were given a tour by Anne Schaller and Mary Ellen Ames, two long-time members of the church. Anne also has a book about Natick that can be ordered on the Historical Society web page.

All told, it has been a busy and exciting time! However, there has been little time for Unity. I will do my best to change that in the near future. This week,please watch for the posting of Sunday's sermon, where I take the pulpit back from Chris Walton and Bob Batchelder who filled in the past couple weeks. Reviews are still excellent on their work. Thank you, guys!

Finally, Chris Walton, as some of you know, had his weblog featured on The Daily Show. You can link to it below or type "philocrites.com". Note that second "i"... Congrats Chris!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Football Thoughts

On the very top of my refrigerator resides one lone "Bobble-Head" doll. It doesn't look like who it is supposed to be, but the Patriots jersey has a big "80" and the base says "Troy Brown." Sadly, this may soon be a collectible. Yes, Troy Brown may be leaving God's own Patriots for parts unknown. I have grown up with Troy in many ways. As a fan of long standing I remember his rocky start and his rise to stardom. I cheered him on during his recent "career change" to Defensive Back. How could you not want him to do well? He is a team player, a well spoken and--by all accounts--a selfless guy. He is a brilliant actor as well. Anyone who has seen his "I've Got Bingo" PSA can attest to that!

For all these reasons, his potential departure from the scene is troubling. There is, however, more to it than that. Troy is 33 which, apparently, is old. I am 33, too. How do we old folks say healthy? Maybe it is time to tell Troy Brown (and Drew Bledsoe too, for that matter) about the importance of diet and exercise...

In my paper today, there was a story about obesity in the NFL. Neither of the two oldsters mentioned above could be considered obese, but it does create some questions about our health and about how we treat our bodies even when we seem to be "physically fit." The fact is, even many of our sports icons are not in as good shape as we might think. These often gigantic men are athletes, right? I have written about obesity on this blog before in a piece entitled Athletics or Sport. Feel free to take a look.

I did not find anything on nfl.com about the obesity study but I did find something else. Here is anold article about the same issue. Linked under the title above is also a short article about Troy...