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!

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