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!

Friday, December 30, 2005

They're Closing the Berghoff

I heard a story last night on NPR about the closing of The Berghoff in Chicago. This, combined with the "renaming of the stores" to Macy's (I mean, of course, Filene's and Field's, among others) demonstrate the trend toward what I fear may be a staggering uniformity in the years to come. Sure, the Burghoff will house a catering business, but it probably won't sell the old menu! Yes, you can buy the same stuff at Macy's as you did at Marshall Field's. Still, there is something lost and that is diversity and history. Macy's isn't really a part of Chicago history, after, all. However, at least it is more interesting than everbodies new darling, Target. Incidentally, Chalice Chick has some things to say about these folks but I cannot seem to link to it...

The church, too, can show this tendency. Certainly it has in the past and many denominations strive for a certain uniformity in belief and worship. The advantage is that you feel comfortable. The disadvantage is that we don't go to church to feel comforted ALL the time. Also, you may not always feel like the religious version of a "Big Mac". Only the faces have changed and probably not by much when one visits churches that strive for sameness. This is enforced by the popular "growth programs" and, of course, from marketing intitiatives. Well, good luck, I guess. I don't think Eliot Church will be signing up for any of that soon.

We are, as I have mentioned before, in something of a marketing phase at Eliot. We are intentionally going it alone because of these issues. What we are discovering is that our primary consituency isn't so much people who identify with the UUA or UCC but the people who live in Natick. We are, it seems, putting the "community" in community church. At Christmas we sent a letter out to the community around our building to reach out and see what they thought about our congregation. We offered various ways of keeping in touch. We also asked for money to help defray the cost of our steeple project. Our steeple, the tallest structure in the nieghborhood, is a local landmark. Response has been good on all counts.

Who knows where our quest to be ourselves will take us...

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Interesting Stuff Here!

I am trying to get to writing/researching my sermon for New Year's Day but the Blog Bug is working its magic....

There are some very interesting conversations going on about the ministry and its theological street cred or lack thereof. You can find it (if you haven't already) over at Philocrites, PeaceBang, and ChaliceBlog. They raise some interesting questions about how congregations "do theology" and the role of the minister in that discussion.

This has all been great fertilizer in the garden of thought for me. I have posted at a couple of these sites already so I won't discuss those issues here. However, I have, once again, begun to wonder how the mainline churches can continue to attract smart, creative, and talented individuals into the ministry at a time when there are so many other options. I have a great many friends who would have made great ministers. They are warm people who care about others. They are bright and articulate, even scholarly. They are also doctors and lawyers. This is not to say that those of us who have made a committment to the church are necessarily second-rate. I, however, would like to see the ministry become the "first choice" more often and for more people.

Are their societal pressures? Financial ones? Of course there are. What are the benfits to a life of service in a religious context? What does the "order" do for us? These are questions I ask myself often because, at the heart of things, I am basically an institutionalist and would like to see the institution of the ministry grow and attract more of the very best and very brightest (a group in which I do NOT include myself, by the way). Anyway, no answers today, just questions....

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I'm Back!

Well, I am back from vacation and, like many of my clergy colleagues, recovering from the post-Christmas crash. I, at least, always get sick either before or after Christmas. Last year I had a raging ear infection and couldn't hear during Christmas Eve services. This year I lost my voice at the beginning of the second service and it still hasn't completely returned...

Today, though, I'm not thinking so much about Christmas as the problem of evil. The New York Times today had an article about the Catholic discussions concerning the status of Limbo. As a Universalist Christian, obviously, this doesn't exactly impact my theology much. However, it does make one think.

I have also noticed in the news a variety of truly shocking and violent crimes. I do not have to tell you what they are as you probably have similar stories in the paper where you live (if you live in Metrowest, MA, you have the same ones as me).
Such events, I think, challenge religious liberals who too often have a rather rosy perspective on bad things.

It is hard, when I see what is going on here and elsewhere to subscribe to the "People are too good to be damned" argument. I am sure that many folks would agree with me and yet our actions seem to assume our own goodness much of the time. We are cruel to each other and we are cruel to the earth we live on often because we cannot get our minds around "our" good (what we feel we need) not being "the" good. Enron (and so forth) may be getting a bit cliched as an example but, of course, it is. There are others, too.

Fortunately, as a Universalist I can say with Thomas Starr King (paraphrasing) that "God is too good to damn people." The first idea promotes a sort of triumphalism that I, at least, do not feel. This one reminds us to seek forgiveness for our imperfections and, possibly, even to do something positive about them. God's goodness, if we fully recognize it, should draw us to our better selves and to make us work to bring others into the broad and welcoming path toward a good life.

OK, we still have a few days to make resolutions...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve

Merry Christmas Everyone!

I am sitting here getting ready for our two Christmas Eve Services. I have gone over everything. I have checked it twice and probably will check it all a couple more times before we start at 5 O'Clock. I realized recently that I haven't been a very good blogger this Advent. There has been so much going on at home and in the church that there really hasn't been any time to do anything but check out what everyone else was writing about this season. Well, there will be less to do next week (I hope)!

I really enjoy these services. This is my second favorite time in the church (the first being Holy Week and Easter). Right now I am the only one here and it is quiet. It won't stay that way forever, though. We have hundreds of Orders of Service to be put together, an army of child-musicians (for the first service) to be marshalled, two sets of readers to get together, and, of course, lots of carols to sing.

We do "Lessons and Carols" at this church, so once things get rolling there isn't really a whole lot for me to do. I lead the prayers and do some of the other stuff but it is good to spread the wealth. I like hearing some other voices coming over the speakers. My thoughts will be with my friends and family who are leading worship tonight and (some of them) tomorrow. Also, I will be thinking about and praying for those who have experienced some form of life changing event this past year. God knows there are quite a few.

So, Happy Christmas Eve and Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah, too since I probably won't blog before it starts. Ok, I might not get back on the computer before Kwanzaa... (this is why people just say "Happy Holidays"). Just everybody have a great holiday season!

I have to go check on something...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The United Church Thing

The UUA is counting its members and congregations once again. Thom Belote is keeping track over at Philocrites. Eliot church has already registered. We figured we would get it out of the way now so that we could get down to the rather elaborate reporting we need to do for the UCC (it has been a while since we sent them stuff).

If you go to the list, you can find us in the Mass Bay District with 57 members. Don't panic people! We, have, of course, twice that many. When a United church reports its numbers it has two options, it can kind of guess how many of each denomination they have, or they can just divide the membership by the number of denominations. A Federated church keeps records of who is what. We do not.

Sure, this doesn't seem like a big deal, but this little membership fiction illustrates one of the sticky hurdles in United church/Association (or denominational, the UCC requires the same thing) relations. I understand the reasoning. It is, after all, about the money. How else to figure out how much we are supposed to contribute? I do not mean to be sarcastic, either. Money is important.

However, there are some problems that are underlined by the count:

First, if I was a UUA/UCC or District/Conference Official, I think I would want a more accurate picture of the size of the church than that. Maybe I'm wrong, but I would approach a church with 57 members differently from one with 114. Also, I would look differently at a church with 10 members than I would at one with 250. There have been churches like that in the past, too. Our count doesn't always reflect our reality.

The UUA has done something about this in our reportage. There is now a category for "Multi Denominational Members". This is a step in the right direction. Thank you.

Second, the theory, I realize, is that we pay our contributions based on the number 57. This theory in reality only works when the two associations have the same rates! The UUA and the UCC as well as their respective Conference and District offices have different rates and requirements. Since, in reality, we take our funds and send the same amount to both the UUA and the UCC, one group (UCC) gets more than they ask for and one group (UUA) gets less.

What does this do to our relations with the Mass Bay District and the UUA? Well, it probably doesn't help. We may very well appear hostile when we are just trying to be balanced. I have no concrete examples so maybe I don't need to worry about this. However, as a Christian Church in the UUA, in many ways Eliot has a consituency outside our congregation that doesn't need any "bad press"...

Third (and this may be a small point), since the UUA is so small, wouldn't it want to count all the members of a united church if only for boasting rights? The other 57 members have the same minister, sit on the same committees, and hear the same sermon as the "CertifiedUU" ones (again, we didn't even count actual people). They, too, are a part of our movement...

Anyway, none of this is earth-shattering to our daily operations. However, it is one of the things I must consider when I go to meetings, express interest in District assistance, and other related things. Incidentally, if you are wondering about the size of some of these churches, look at the RE program. If it has more kids than the Congregation has members, you are probably seeing an entry for a United or Federated Church...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Advent Sermon II

It really felt like Advent last Sunday. It was snowing as we started church. All our decorations were out. It was very nice all around. I hope that the rest of the season is a lovely as that.

Here is the sermon from Sunday. I try from time to time to preach about Jesus. This may sound strange considering my previous post. However, what I mean is that, while I preach regularly on his teachings and other Biblical themes. It is rarer to actually talk about Jesus, himself. This is a "Historical Jesus" sermon as I deal with the resurrection closer to Easter. I read two interesting books in preparation for the sermon. One was "Rabbi Jesus" by Bruce Chilton (actually a re-read) and "Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time" by Marcus Borg.

Incidentally, I found an interesting web page today entitled "A Portrait of Jesus" which is based on Borg's work...

December 4, 2005
The Eliot Church
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

Every once in a while
During the course of my ministry
I have met someone who,
(Much like many of us here today)
Has found him or her self in a rough spot in life
And while seeking out some comfort and guidance
From the pain and confusion they feel
Has found a need to meet Jesus again

It is the “again” that we are talking about today
For some of these seekers,
Their formerly secure beliefs about Jesus are shaken
Others rejected the traditional Jesus story previously
Or never really gave him much thought
And then were struck in their time of need
By the message of the gospels

It isn’t surprising that they would be
The theologian and philosopher J. Ernest Renan wrote in 1863
The whole of history is incomprehensible without [Jesus]
And while he may have overstated the case a bit
Certainly his life and teachings
Though often dimly understood today
And the subsequent ideals and actions
Of the Christian movement
Have affected the world for better and for worse
For over two thousand years

This is an important point
The Jesus that many people remember and wrestle with
And that many of us have in our heads
Comes not so much from history
But from many layers of tradition
And when many of us strive to meet Jesus again
We are also trying to peel back the curtain a bit
Look past the angels and the shepherds
To see that human being who live so long ago

Liberal Christians, both Trinitarians and Unitarians
Have made this a part of their tradition
Striving to practice the religion of Jesus
Not the religion about him
It is a catchy slogan, but hard to do
Because to do so, one must be willing
To look at this man in his context
To put aside the Easter story for a moment
And concentrate on
That individual who was born and lived and died
In the first Century in the area
We call Israel and Palestine
He was a human being
Who existed well before any doctrinal debates
Councils of priests and bishops
Before any institution called church or Christianity

It is hard to know a lot about this man
But we can try and certainly we can draw
Some few conclusions about him
Today, with the remainder of our time
I would like to briefly consider Jesus
In his roles as Teacher, prophet or politician, and as a healer

But the first thing we must realize in our quest
For the faith and life of Jesus
Is that he was and considered himself to be
100% Jewish
I remember in my senior year of high school
A classmate of mine who reacted in complete and utter shock
When she was told that Jesus was Jewish
She went to church, she celebrated Christmas
But she didn’t know
The one most basic and fundamental fact
Of his life

Yes, Jesus was Jewish, he was a rabbi
A teacher of wisdom
In a tradition well known then as now
For its philosophical and theological explorations
The 8th Chapter of Proverbs reads
I, Wisdom, live with prudence and I attain knowledge and discretion. I have good advice. By me rulers decree what is just. I love those who love me and those who seek me diligently find me.
Jesus was a diligent seeker of wisdom
This quest for wisdom/An understanding of divine order
Was what dominated his life

But, of course, there is more to Jesus that that
There are many sages
Many teachers and clergy people
Who we do not remember today
No, Jesus was a teacher of a wisdom that subverted
What was then perceived as the natural order
He based his relationship with God
Not on ritual sacrifice and the obeying of laws
A view common not just in Judaism at the time
But all faiths in that part of the world
But, instead he based his relationship with God
Onlove and compassion
He taught the untouchables, after all
And was often criticized for healing people
When it was against the rules to do so

God, he believed, wasn’t an arbitrary ruler
Demanding tribute
But a loving parent, friend or relative
To Jesus God is someone who cares
Our reading from Luke today started out with Jesus saying
Be compassionate just as God is compassionate

Some Bibles say Be Merciful instead
But compassionate
Gets closer to the heart of the matter
In our modern usage Mercy implies a distance and a power imbalance
That is not what Jesus was talking about
The God that he described is a companion
A fellow sufferer, a friend when in need
Not a ruler to be feared
Those kinds of rulers exist in the human world
Not in The Commonwealth of Heaven
Do not judge and you will not be judged forgive and you will be forgiven
The God of compassion was a revolutionary idea
It went against the conventional wisdom of the day
To some extent, it still does

When we think of passages such as this one
Forgive and you will be forgiven
It is easy for us to see the revolution he wished to cause
In the hearts and minds of individuals
But Jesus was also a prophet
This was an idea that he wanted for society as a whole

Marcus Borg writes
Studies of our culture disclose that it is characterized by a pervasive individualism. Within this framework, compassion has become an individual rather than a political virtue. It is to be enacted by “a thousand points of light” rather than being a paradigm for public policy

The culture that Borg describes is where we live
Not what life was like for Jesus
Ties between people
Were much stronger for him
And the idea of salvation for the individual
Wouldn’t really make sense in the same way that we think of it
It was, in many respects all about the community

In this sense
Jesus was also a politician
Most prophets were and are
He had to be persuasive, a good speaker and story teller
Someone who could get his point across again and again
In fact it may be
That what we have in the synoptic gospels
(Matthew, Mark, and Luke)
Is, in many ways, the greatest hits if his “stump speeches”
Catch phrases and illustrations from his sermons
The things that stuck in people’s minds

Politicians will often say the same things
Make the same points,
Tell the same stories over and over again
In different ways to different people
So that they will not be forgotten
And instead become part of the communal identity and will
It is quite likely, for example
That the Sermon on the Mount was not so much a sermon
As the main points of a sermon series

So the Jesus we see, the human Jesus
Wasn’t a disconnected figure
A world-renouncer
But someone who came out of the wilderness
To sit in the public square
In fact, what he did in the square
Often generated more than a little controversy

Now, last communion Sunday
I made much of the open table that we celebrate here
The scriptural basis for open communion
Comes from Jesus’ parable of the great dinner
Where God is depicted as a wealthy man having a party
Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame…Go out and compel people to come in so my house shall be filled.
This is a radical hospitality
Unusual then in a way that
Is hard for us to understand now
It was a time where sinfulness was understood
As a kind of disease, an impurity that one could catch
To share food, to touch, even to speak to certain kinds of people
Was to infect yourself, to make yourself unholy

When Jesus invites people in to eat with him
Tax collectors,… people off the street, women
He isn’t just committing a social Faux Pas
Or demonstrating kindness by offering free food
If that was what it was,
It wouldn’t have been remembered and written down
He was attacking the purity laws of his faith and society
He was violating a literal caste system at the root of his culture

So Jesus was a prophet, a politician, a rabbi and teacher
But none of this would have been possible
If he wasn’t also a truly unique individual
A person connected to the divine
Someone with a special relationship with God
One thing that all the sources about Jesus agree on
Is that he was a healer

Whether what he did was miraculous
Is something open for debate
But there was something about him
That made people feel better
One could say that there is still something about him
That heals us, that helps to make us whole
This power to heal came from his own deep spirituality
He was a spirit person and holy man

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science wrote
Jesus of Nazareth was the most scientific man that ever trod the globe. He plunged beneath the material surface of things, and found the spiritual cause.

The Christian Scientists, of course,
Have taken this idea of spiritual healing
And opened a broad debate with much of modern medicine
While we may have differing views on this point
It does seem quite clear
That Jesus from his personal relationship with God
Found the strength
To provide a healing spirit to others
This relationship is something he invited others
To share and participate in

It is this invitation that causes people to wish to meet Jesus again
When we are weary, when we are sad,
When winter comes and we seek some light in the darkness
When we wish to work for justice and peace
Many of us turn to Jesus, the prophet of compassion and love
We remember his teachings and his works

And we do so when we just want to celebrate, too
To connect to the holy in each other
Like now, during the holiday season

Hugh Litchfield, the author of Preaching the Christmas Story
Points out that this time of year
We are warned “Don’t take Christ out of Christmas” But, [he goes on to say], that is not our danger …Our danger is that we can get so busy with preparations for it that unconsciously we might nudge him to the edges of our Christmas celebration and miss the true significance of what Christmas is about. It is about a love that’s for all seasons, a love that meets our needs forever.

Christmas is about a love for all seasons
This love is the message that Jesus taught and embodied
Regardless of whatever else he may or may not have been
So, let us remember to keep this Christmas season holy
By holding on to the love we have
And letting it grow by sharing it with others

Accidental Clericalism on Scott's Blog

Scott Wells, over at Boy in the Bands, has an interesting discussion going on about the use of non-scriptural readings in church. I think this is an interesting quandry and one worth exploring not just for "regular" UUs but also for those of us who attend liberal Christian churches (be they UUA, UCC, UUA/UCC, or "other").

I posted a response on Scott's page. In essence, I wrote that when I use a non-scriptural reading, I do not expect it to carry the same wieght as the scriptural reading. The first in our four readings is always from the Hebrew Bible and the last is always from Christian Scripture. In the middle I put readings that I hope will serve as a counterpoint or a complement to them. As I said on Scott's page, I hope that they exist in conversation with the scriptural texts.

I have talked about this from the pulpit in the past, but it may be time to do so again. Scott points out that using these readings often misrepresents them as scripture and, while I do believe that in a Christian context (Eliot Church is, most UU churches are not) the primacy of the Bible should be obvious (and not only because of the big Bible on the lecturn), the issue may require the occasional examination and reflection.

Finally, there is a question I have been meaning to ask: How many preachers in the UUA use the lectionary from time to time? I do occasionally and, during Advent and Lent, often find that I am using it accidentally...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Advent Sermon Flashback

I did not preach this year on the first Sunday in Advent. Thank you Dave Miller for stepping in and doing a fine job!

Here, however, is last year's sermon from the fourth Sunday. I posted it well after the big day, so maybe it deserves another run. I tried to import the whole thing forward to today but it wouldn't format properly. Therefore, one must click the link...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Middlesex DA

I had a conversation with my dad--who fights the good fight over at Tierney's WebLag--about the Middlesex County DA's race. Sadly, I didn't know nearly as much as he. Quite possibly this is because I am not a former Attorney General. I'm not a lawyer, either, for that matter. Anyway, it does seem to be of interest to some folks because the DA of Middlesex often goes on to bigger and presumably better things at the state level. In particular, they become AG's of the Commonwealth. Therefore, it does make sense that we who live here might want to pay attention...

So, for all of you legal types who accidentally got here from my father's page (I know you're out there), I have included a list of Middlesex County's Villages and Farms (OK, the poem is here). Actually, I encourage everyone to come visit the county some time. This is quite the historic place, even if you aren't a prosecutor!

Also: Big happenings in Canada continue...