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, February 23, 2006

Great Idea #4 Not Necessarily Diners

In his 1948 culinary tour de force “The Unprejudiced Palate,” Angelo Pellegrini wrote “The American breakfast, an ingenious combination of fruit, cereal, eggs with bacon or ham, and the finest coffee found anywhere is a superb culinary achievement.” There is no better place to begin my description of Great Idea #4. Yes, once again, we enter the realm of food. I can’t help it. I like to eat and so, dear reader, do you. Today I want to call to your attention an institution that goes by many names and is one of the finest cultural achievements of these United States.

Some would refer to it as a Diner. This is fine, as far as it goes. However, when many folks think of diners, they instantly go to the chrome-encrusted railroad car, or the equally shiny ‘50’s themed restaurant. Stop yourselves, please. Many such establishments suffer from the rather odd belief that one wants to pay more than one should to listen to Buddy Holly and be treated rudely by the waitstaff. This, they feel, is authentic. This, in reality, is a rip-off. Others (particularly the railroad-car variety) used to be something more but have become tourist traps or places for the yuppies to buy coffee. The “Miss Brunswick” (a "Worcester Diner" and, therefore, a purist's dream) for example, has phases of tastiness, but when I was in high school, at least, was a great place if you needed a lawyer.

Still, to call it a diner is as accurate a description as one might desire. After all, to call it a “breakfast place” neglects its ample burgers. To say “lunch counter” ignores both breakfast and the fact that some have no counter at all! “Greasy Spoon,” is a sign of disrespect toward the hard-working, often immigrant families that run these establishments. These are people who would die of humiliation if the restaurant were found to be unsanitary! However, you could call it a “Grill (or Grille)” or even a “Place” as these are the words you will often find over the front door.

Sometimes they are known by the name of the proprietor. When I was the minister of the First Universalist Church of Sangerville, Maine, I was expected, from time to time, to hold down a seat at the counter of “Gloria’s”. The fact that this was not the name on the sign out front was beside the point. Gloria was behind the counter. If you sat at it, it was Gloria’s restaurant. I also ate at Drake’s in Guilford and a variety of other places over the years.

To describe them by one blanket name is, of course, to miss their uniqueness. Going there you enter a community. If you go there too many times, you must be prepared to converse with your neighbors and tell your waitress how you are really feeling. When at Gloria’s, I was expected to chat with my neighbors, the workers, and anyone else who may drop in. Popular topics were the Pats, the Sox, the weather, church, business, and politics. Such conversations help to define you. They give you a place and a reason to be there. Conversation is, more than the money, the currency of breakfast.

In a dining establishment where belonging is important, the rules of politeness change. When you go to one of these places it is true that they might not at first give you a menu. This isn’t, actually, an attempt to be rude but, in fact, the opposite. “Regulars” don’t always need or want menus. It may be that the staff doesn't want to insult someone by not remembering them! This, friends, is very different from the practiced snobbery you might be familiar with. However, if they are rude when you ask for one, you have my permission to get up and leave.

My local "Great Idea" is called the Central Street Grill. It is located, not surprisingly, on East Central Street in Natick, MA. There is no better place to go in the morning when you don’t feel like breakfast at home or when you want to spend some time in an unpretentious environment with your family. All kinds of people go there. Everybody is welcome, just like churches should be, except that it is “more true” at the Grill. There is no counter here and I miss that, but the service is welcoming...even friendly. I highly recommend it.

In fact, I recommend that you take your first available morning and explore a bit, yourself. Particularly if you have avoided the store-front diner and the road-side breakfast place. There may be more inside than meets the eye! Of course, there may not be, too. However, life without risks has few rewards. It is the brave bird that gets the best Breakfast Burger…

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I Ate the Meatballs...

...and they were good!

Waiting for baby can make you do strange things. Today the fam went on a field trip to IKEA. Now, Boy in the Bands has from time to time mentioned to me the magical goodness of its furniture selection, its prices, and, yes, its Swedish Meatballs. Others had forewarned me that the air-terminal sized establishment was...well... somewhat unusual. Still, I thought myself prepared. I have been to Jordan's Furniture in Framingham and seen its "Bourbon Street" show. I was wrong! Nothing in my sheltered existence had prepared me for the IKEA experience. Jordan's now seems a mere sidewalk stand to me. It was, truly, an amazing display of consumption and vaguely scandanavian design.

We were there looking for certain items for the baby-room and, of course, to sample the famous meatballs, but we gained so much more. For starters, my housewares spirit was lifted in a way it hasn't been since the demise of the DANSK Factory Outlet in Freeport, Maine. The cafeteria even had (albeit cheaply made) forks with three prongs! I used to work at Dansk and, some days, still miss it. Also, the music was total '80's. I know I will be old when IKEA stops playing Wham!!

I had so much fun, in fact, that had I eaten the meatballs yesterday, maybe I would have pulled for Sweden instead of Canada in the Women's Hockey finals...

...and speaking of the Olympics, has anyone noticed how angry some people are getting at Bryant Gumbel? Gumbel, whose sports show is the only reason I ever watch HBO, in a recent editorial had some rather strong words about the Winter Olympics.

Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t like them and won’t watch them ... Because they’re so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something’s not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won ... So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they’re done, when we can move on to March Madness — for God’s sake, let the games begin.

Now, I will leave it up to Bryant to explain what he meant here. However, I have to say that, as a person who tried--really tried--to watch this year, I am ready to have this over. My favorite moments included the Croatian Woman (Janica Kostelic) who skied with the flu, the Slovak men's hockey team, and the US Bobsled team (why is it Bobsleigh now?). My least favorite moment was when a comentator said that the Canadian women's gold medal was a "hollow victory" because they didn't play the Americans (they seemed happy enough to me).

The fact is, I do not ski. I do not play hockey. I went to a private high school (and then, briefly, Bates College, Gumbel's alma mater) in Maine where, frankly (and with a couple major exceptions), the kids who skied and played hockey weren't my favorite people. Some of them seemed to be a lot like Bode Miller (I do feel sorry for him), clueless and popular.

I was briefly impressed by the snowboarding, with its rebellious, non-conformist roots but, it seems that these roots are pretty much forgotten now. This is why we saw Lindsey Jacobellis put down for "showboating". Yeah, it was silly, but I am sure that her VISA contract will help console her. I did enjoy reading about Shani Davis, the first African-American man to win an individual gold at the winter games. But now, I am done.

Please, Bryant Gumbel, minor deity of sport, give me a call and we can talk about the NFL Combine, OK? I am ready, too...

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Last night I officiated at a very lovely wedding for a very lovely young couple. They were younger, even, than me! I have noticed that this happens more often lately... After the service, I was asked by a few congregants how I was doing. This had little to do with the service but with something else. As you may have gathered (and some of you already know), my wife and I are expecting our third child any day now.

When I say "any day", I of course am referring to the week-and-a-half before the due date when you just can't stand another moment. Everyone is exhausted (especially "Mrs. Unity") and all is in place. All there is left to do is wait. I have the week relatively off. Clergy readers will recognize this state as "On-Call" or "Study-Time". That wedding was the last set appointment on my schedule for some time. Now I must put the crib together, assemble the changing table, and distract the kids (it is February Vacation), while Terasa Schwartz and the Rev. Liz Magill cover for me in the pulpit. Come on kid! This is the time!

Its amazing to me how distracting real waiting can be. During Advent and Lent we try to practice this a bit. We have projects like buying presents or giving something up. Now, however, it is a little less spiritual and quite a bit more practical. Maybe that will change, but I am not the kind of expectant dad who can say, "this looks like a great time for self-improvement!"

Actually, I am more likely to become an absent-minded curmudgeon. I told my wife, for example, that I can no longer go to Babies "R" Us because the last time I was there it was all I could do not to go and lecture a couple of first-timers. They had lined up all the different "Diaper Genies" (a trash can that makes little sausages out of disposed diapers) and one of them had actually used the term "aroma" unironically. Poor kids...all they can do is learn to love the smell. Meanwhile, I can rarely find my keys and my work schedule has become something of a maze of complexity.

Of course birth, itself, is (among other things) profoundly religious, but it is not quite as orderly as Advent. There is no slow-stately donkey-ride. There is, as far as I can tell from past experience, a shortage of wise folks bearing gifts. The due date, too, doesn't quite correspond to the actuall birth day. The big moment sneaks up on you like a chronological ambush. That makes it hard to plan those pesky pre-birth rituals. It is why Santa only comes once a year.

I will need to go get some books, both for my wife and for me. We are both big readers. As the moment approaches (whenever that is) and immediately following, we will want to pretend we have time to read. Also, I will take some time with 1&2 Kings. I have been meaning to read them again but haven't. No, really...it will be fun! Otherwise the older boys and I will work hard to keep from going crazy by way of walks, trips to Boston, and playdates (for them). My people aren't all that great in the patience department. Still, we will wait. Then the real fun begins!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Do Not Conform!

Here are the notes from my very short sermon a week ago Sunday. It is short because it was a "Communion Sunday" as all first-Sundays-of-the-month are. However, it is extra short because it was Confirmation Sunday. When we confirm people at Eliot we invite the confirmands to "sign the book" and join the church. Two did and this is what I said about the big day.

As usual, this is printed the way I preached it. Also, the Bible passages lack the "chapter:verse" endnote. They are only notes because I lack the time to put them into another format. I leave the bible verse out in hopes that, if you are interested in the source and context, that you goodle and read the stuff around it.

Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Eliot Church

Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds

This is the suggestion, the charge, the commandment
That we find in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans today
And it is a fitting one for us
It is fitting, not just for Ben and Zach
But for all of us, members and friends of the Eliot Church
Do not conform
Many sects and denominations in the contemporary Christian landscape
Look at this passage and see, rightly
A requirement to avoid overly entangling oneself
In the many superficialities of daily life

Do not conform, Paul tells us
To the fashion of the day
The urge to fit in
The race for more wealth and more fame
Do not, he seems to say
Do not get too carried away with the pressures and values
Of a specific era in human history
But, instead, look to God for guidance
And Be transformed by the renewing of your mind

But this is where many faiths stop
When read in the light of many churches
And other houses of worship
We are meant to assume
That Paul stops short in his call
When it comes to the church
In other words
Do not conform to the world. Conform to the doctrines and teachings of this one, true faith whatever that may be

Of course, here at Eliot, we don’t usually agree with that interpretation
For how, (we and our predecessors here have asked)
How can we both conform to a static faith
And be transformed?
How can we renew our minds, our hearts and our souls
If we aren’t expected to stretch them and explore?
And so we, too, as a church are nonconformists
Like Paul and those other members of the early Jesus movement

Waldemar Argow,
(as many of you know, a past minister of this church)
Waldemar Argow once wrote
The first of the tenets of liberal religion is freedom in religionReligious liberalism does not ask that you subscribe to any creed or doctrinal statement…Why not? [he asks and then answers] Because it does not believe that the truth is ever fixed, or that any one religion or creedal formulation contains the final answer. It does believe that our comprehension of truth is an emergent thing which grows clearer as humanity grows wiser, nobler, and better informed.

This, this idea of growth that Argow describes
Is the guiding light of the faith of many in this room
And so, it informs our religious education program
Just as it informs and guides our worship services
And our outreach projects
And many other moments for us
Both as a community and as individuals
Our liberal faith is dedicated to something that is sometimes called
The Free and Responsible Search for truth and meaning
{from the P&P}

First, ours is a free faith
One where we do not expect others to agree with us
We can see that freedom in action today
Where we are celebrating the good work
Of those in our Confirmation program
we have come today
Not to celebrate a journey that has ended
There is no test for the people coming out of our Sunday School
This is not Conformation, at all
We do not ask our adults to conform
Why would we do so to our children?

No…We are today confirming, or affirming
Zach and Ben and, for that matter all the people
Who call Eliot “their church”
We are affirming their (and our) maturity
Their (and our) willingness and ability
To conduct and pursue the constant transformation of our minds
We are confirming their (and our) connection to this church

I call that mind free writes William Ellery Channing
Abolitionist, Liberal Christian, and long-time minister
Of what is now called the Arlington Street Church in Boston
I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall

That is the goal still today
The free faith, the free church, and the free mind
But such a goal can breed arrogance

And we must beware
For the purpose of our faith is just as much
About respect of others
As it is about the quest for truth
For it is through others that we learn about our world
About the Divine
And so Paul warns us
Not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but think with sober judgement

Good advice from the follower of a man named Jesus
A Rabbi another dissenter who paid the ultimate price
For the freedom he sought for humanity
This is why we, in our search for truth and meaning
Must also be responsible
Responsible to each other
And responsible for ourselves

The faith of the Eliot Church is built on trust
From the Universalists: trust in the goodness
And eternal, unconditional love of God
And from the Congregationalists (both Trinitarian and Unitarian):
Trust in the ability of our fellow human beings
To do the right thing
To govern themselves in matters of faith
As well as in those matters pertaining to society as a whole
That is why our members meet annually
To select officers and approve the budget of our church

(A system of governance that our tradition
Gifted to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Through Town Meeting)

And it is also why we reach out to the community
Through the Outreach Committee
And through MICAH
For example, As you heard today,
Ben went to West Virginia with the Work Camp
And both Zach and Ben have volunteered at the Open Door
Here in Natick

We are responsible for each other as a congregation
We are responsible as a congregation
And as individuals for the condition of the world

There is no higher earthly authority in our faith
To tell us what is right or what is wrong
It falls to us to do that
To Zach and Ben and to each of us
Member or not, adult and child
To share in that process of discernment and action

This process is an ongoing one
One that requires us not just to receive
But to give, to give of our time and our selves
As much as anything else
So it is with pleasure that I (along with the rest of you)
Welcome Zach and Ben
In to membership
Affirm their respective journeys
And confirm their place here

Let us take a moment now in silent prayer
For all those who have found a place
Within our walls and within our tradition

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sunday Snow

So, we've cancelled church today because of the remarkable amount of snow currently blanketing Natick. Naturally, we have forgotten how to change the message on our church phone so I am responsible for sitting next to it and telling callers that, yes, we are closed. Next time we will put this on TV. Next time we will have a phone tree, too. We live, we learn I guess. Fortunately, I doubt too many people will have any question. The weather folks are as excited as I've seen them. Plenty of opportunities to stand outdoors and say things like, "It's really snowing now!" or "It's snowing less but we think it will pick up...look, there's a skier!" I am happy for the meteorologists...

Anyway, I will probably spend some of the day catching up on my reading. Right now I am picking my way through three books:Saint Augustine by Gary Wills, The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher, and Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter. All of these are compelling, but I like to rotate them. When I get bored with the old saint, I can read about the culinary explorations of semi-bohemian Fisher, then when that gets too rich I can revel in the call to action made by our square-but-lovable past president. If only I don't get them confused...

OK, probably there won't be too much reading today, even though that is what storms like these are made for. My very pregnant wife expects me to have assembled the crib and the changing table BEFORE the new baby comes and, frankly, I am out of time...

Finally, just a note to say the the Blog Awards have come to their fiery conclusion. I, alas, wasn't even close to winning the one category in which I was nominated. However, I have enjoyed reading the winning entries and suggest that, if you haven't you should check them out during the storm. They reminded me how much our UU blog community has increased! Congrats to the winners and keep up the good work...

I must go shovel now. More later!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Church, Jokes, Jesus

There has been much talk as of late about the place of humor in religion. Needless to say, most of it has been centered on certain Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. This is a tragic situation that is grounded, in part, in differing religious expectations and the complexity inherent in relations between different groups with differing amounts of power (here is what Sojourner’s has to say). Here is another article about this very tragic situation.

However, today I want to focus a little closer to home and ask one important question: Why aren’t liberal Christians funny? It may seem a strange thing to ask when we have so recently seen what can happen when bad "humor" can spark riots around the world. However, I do not think humor is the problem there so much as bigotry. Our ability to laugh remains one of the most important aspects of human existence. This ability seems to be somewhat challenged in the daily functioning of many of our church leaders. Sadly, when this occurs, we are neglecting a major part of our broad church mission.

Sure, some of us are (some of the time) and many have been known during moments of extreme weakness to crack a joke that has nothing to do with evolution. Still, when you go to church, how often do you find yourself generating more than a light chuckle about anything that contains theological or spiritual meaning? Ministers in particular, it seems are incapable of anything more hysterical than, say, Family Circus. It makes us look a bit stiff, surely. It also contributes to a view of church that is remarkably one-dimensional.

Many people, I think, are surprised when they encounter real humor at or near a church, even their own. They do not expect to and, even though they might find some cause to laugh at the preacher or the organist, they often seem to rest secure in the complete piousness and dullness of the church. In fact, many of them rely on this assumption to assure themselves of their own rebelliousness when they stray from the true grim road.

Am I making this up? Well, I may be exaggerating a bit. But try going to a party some time where nobody knows you. Tell them you’re a minister (if you’re not, its okay to pretend just once) and then start cracking jokes and sending up one-liners. You will probably experience the same thing many church people do amongst their un-churched friends and many ministers do wherever they may be. If there is more than one witness they might glance at each other in surprise, giggle a bit, and then (depending on how funny you actually were) respond as if you were a “normal” person possessing whatever humor skills you displayed. The point is, it is funny to them that church people are funny in a “non-PG” way. Sometimes you can actually see them come to terms with the disconnect. The problem is, they think this because there is some truth to the stereotype.

This should be an area of concern for us all. The fact is, when we are unable to laugh at ourselves and our tradition, we run the serious risk of becoming too brittle to survive in the real world and too boring to be relevant. We need to be comfortable shocking and prodding folks from time to time. Sometimes the folks who need prodding are us! We need to be less concerned with polishing our reputations and our communion silver and more concerned with making a difference. Faith needs to speak the language of the people which, for the vast majority of us, includes the occasional laugh. It includes being tasteless, even. Fortunately, there are some who are trying to do something about this.

First, I refer you to the work of Chris Yambar, featured recently in an interview in the Wittenburg Door, a magazine I have mentioned here before. Also, please note this intriguing article about humor in Christianity from the UCC, possibly the funniest denomination in existence (Their “Spongebob Visits Headquarters” piece is still a great pick-me-up on an otherwise dreary day). The UUA is not so funny, which is too bad, because I have always found things about them (I should say us) to laugh at (and with).

Anyway, this has become quite a bit longer than I meant it to be. Remember these words of the ancient Greek poet, Pindar, "A thing well said goes forward with immortal voice, crossing the fertile land and the sea". So stay relaxed, love Jesus, and be funny.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Lincoln and Plutarch

This Sunday we will mark the birthday of President Lincoln. Lincoln was, as most people realize but some would like to forget, a complex man who struggled with issues of war and race during one of the darkest times in our nation's history. Naturally, we honor him (and all the other presidents) in February by selling cars. It is so much easier, after all, to cast our history in as one-dimensional a light as possible. So why not don a fake beard and declare freedom from down payments for the first six months? How much simpler than really thinking about the Civil War and the results of that conflict that still help shape the American cultural and political landscape.

This is what I fear for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, actually. I worry that it will become a "second tier" holiday that once meant something and now means a day off. Labor Day and even Memorial Day have also become less significant in the lives of most Americans. It is too bad. There is so much that needs to be done in order to make our communities and our families places where kindness, humility and justice are simply the way of life. It takes a lot of work and we are all, at times, tempted to place our own personal satisfaction ahead of the common good. These national holidays are to remind us that the struggle is far from over. When we cease to reflect on our nation's successes and failures, we lose the ability to govern ourselves with the sensitivity, subtlety and understanding that has always been truly necessary.

Here is a quote from Plutarch that I found while looking for material for Sunday. Maybe it will work for you...

Uneducated rulers think that by a bass voice, ferocity of expression, harshness of manner, and unsociable way of life they are imitating the weight and dignity of leadership; but actually they are like those colossal statues which have a heroic and godlike appearance on the outside but inside are filled with clay and stone and lead--except that the statues are kept in an upright position by the heavy substances, whereas uncultured rulers are often rocked and overturned by the ignorance within them.

Peace be with you...

Friday, February 03, 2006

Great Idea #3: The Restaurant of Hope

Recently in the New York Times sports section an enterprising reporter—interviewing average Detroiters about the Super Bowl, factory closings, et cetera—spoke to a man “coming out of a hot dog shop.” Now, maybe the reporter was new to the region. Maybe he (or she, I cannot recall) was just trying to translate a unique place to a world wary of difference. Either way, I will bet you that the “hot dog shop” in question was none other than a Coney Island.

Yes, a Coney Island. Many an easterner who has visited Michigan has wondered at the area’s fascination with the Big Apple and its entertainment melting pot. Many an easterner has been tragically confused. A Coney Island is a restaurant that, contrary to what you might have been told, does not cater to Detroiters nostalgic for merry go rounds (they have those in Detroit and in nearby Dearborn) and other quaint NYC-type entertainments. No, this is not a Subway sandwich shop! The Coney Island is an institution unto itself.

The Coney Island sells Coney Islands. Simply put, they are hot dogs. However, to put it simply doesn’t do them justice. One could also say that they are natural-casing franks, covered in chili, diced onions and mustard and served on a steamed bun. That, too, is inadequate for they are special franks with special chili, special onions and special (usually French’s yellow) mustard. The bun is that special combination of fresh and stale. They are Detroit’s contribution to the American culinary landscape and they are darn good.

Here is what Dan Keros of American Coney Island says about its history in a recent Life Magazine article. "My grandfather Gust came from Greece and got his first taste of a hot dog in Coney Island. When he moved to Detroit he worked a bunch of jobs--pushing a popcorn cart, shining shoes, cleaning hats. He eventually saved enough to open American Coney Island, basically a hot dog cart with a roof and no wheels. He sold dogs, and he sold chili..." I think you can figure out how the rest of the story goes.

So, why are they Great Idea #3? It’s a religious thing. Do you remember the MASH episode about “Adam’s Ribs”? Hawkeye Pierce from Crabapple Cove, Maine got a hankerin’ for barbeque from a specific restaurant in Chicago Illinois. Maybe he developed his affection while a medical student? I do not recall. The point is, amazing high jinx ensue, Hawkeye gets his ribs and all is right in the world for one perfect evening.

OK…still with me? Adam Tierney-Eliot from Lisbon Falls, Maine loves Coney Islands. This is a love developed while on my parish internship in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, right outside the Motor City. I miss them, too. Sure I can make them at home, but that is not the point. The Coney Island to me—just as the ribs, no doubt, were to Hawk—symbolize so much more. These Hot Dogs represent adventure, freedom, the chance to try something new. They also stand for their city, an exciting place with much more going for it than people often will allow.

Coney Islands are my comfort food, not because grew up with them but because I did not. When life throws me a curve, when there are bumps in the road as there are for all people, I often find myself thinking back to time spend in Coney Island Restaurants, when my wife, son and I were on a great new trip and I was starting out on this new career. We were filled with hope and love for each other and for the world. That, gentle reader, is why it is religious for me. For what are human beings without these two things? Where, friends, would we be without our dreams for the future and the bonds that support us? Well, I’ll tell you, life would certainly be a faith free zone, devoid of joy.

So, anyway, I conclude my missive today with something of a celebration. Like Hawkeye, I have found a way. I have ordered 20 Coney Islands from American Coney Island in downtown Detroit. This is enough to both harden my arteries and see me through to the spring. What joy! What happiness is now mine as I prepare to eat these delectable treats while drinking beer and watching the big game on Sunday! I, for one, will be rooting casually for Pittsburgh and passionately for Detroit. Go Lions! Fire Millen! Fire Ford First! I urge you to join me. Then maybe, for one brief shining moment, all will be right in the world.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sermon on Revelation, Chinese New Year, Friends of Jerry Falwell

Here is the sermon I preached last Sunday.

Also, I should point out that the UU Blog Awards voting is going on even as we speak (er...write...er...read...). Last year Unity did quite well. It got nominated for some things and even might have won something. This year, thanks to the very hard work of some very creative UUs, Unity is just fortunate to be able to bask in the company of some really great weblogs put out by some really great writers. So fell free to go vote. I will not be hurt if you don't vote for me...

Year of the Dog
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
at the Eliot Church

One very good reason for talking about the Chinese New Year today
Is that, in China, it is actually also known as the “Spring Festival”
It is the start, in some areas, of the ploughing season
And of preparations for the warming up
The thawing out of the days to come
What better reason, at the end of January, do we need?

Well, it probably won’t surprise you to hear
That there is at least one other reason that I bring this up today
But first, lets take a look at another of our readings

In our reading today from the book of Revelation we heard
Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God.

The book of Revelation
And passages like this have,
At various times in the history of humanity
Spawned some rather startling ideas about the Divine
There are too many to describe today
But one group of ideas that has been extremely influential
In 21st Century American thought
Can be lumped together and described as End-Time Theology

There are people today, many varieties of evangelists
On the radio and on television, for example
Folks like televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell
Who read this book of Revelation and see in it
Predictions of future events
All leading to an epic battle
Between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil

This is the world view
That makes Falwell and others see God’s hand
In many of the recent natural disasters
That have afflicted us
When you think in this way it cannot be
The actions and cycles of nature
That brought the hurricanes to the Gulf Coast
But instead must be some human act
That required violent punishment

Not surprisingly with such a binary world view
The people who hold these beliefs today
Have very little patience for differences of opinion
Those who disagree with them (they feel)
Are at best misguided
Those that disagree strongly
(Muslims, Jews, other Christians, agnostics…)
Are, at worst, soldiers of Satan

So, why should we care that people think these things?
Why shouldn’t we just reject
Or ignore this part of the Bible for ourselves and move on?
Because this modern, literal, interpretation of Revelation
Is becoming less of a fringe position
And influences our daily lives quite a bit more
Than our view of the world influences theirs
How we talk about our faith
How we frame the debates and issues before us in our society
How, (through the influence of the Religious Right)
Our nation is governed
Is increasingly impacted by beliefs
That are purportedly based in the book of Revelation
And we citizens of the American religious landscape
Might just want to know a thing or two
About this last book in the Bible

Now, there are other ways to interpret the book of Revelation
First, John of Patmos, its author
Points out right up front that Revelation
Is the record of a dream that he had
Very rarely are dreams literally true

And second, the book is a product of its time
Written for seven specific churches
To address the needs and issues that they had
The fact is, First Century Christians and Jews
Had a very different understanding of the world
Of the uses of literature
And of the the parameters concerning the study of history
That is, their context was very different from ours
Some two thousand years later

For example, many modern fundamentalists
Have been unable or unwilling
To take in the lesson of The Year of the Dog

The Chinese, like the Jews and the Muslims, use,
Not the Gregorian calendar, with its fixed dates
Based on the position of the Earth relative to the sun
But their own versions of a Lunar Calendar
Based as it is on the more easily experienced
Phases of the moon
Its beginning and end are based on actual observable events
And these events (the waxing and waning of the moon)
Are ongoing and cyclical

This is quite a departure from how we see time in the west
For us a day comes but once with its assigned tasks
And once a day has been completed
You can never go back
We worry about “wasting time”
As we march relentlessly forward
Toward some unknown goal
This view is a requirement
For the rather imaginative arguments for the end-times

Now, the way we think of time here is useful
When it comes to things like international trade
And keeping appointments
Things that even the Chinese, themselves, use our calendar for
But, it is still a modern idea
And would not have been something
The ancient John of Patmos understood

In fact, Bible writers
Had much more in common with the Chinese
In this respect
Using their own, ancient lunar calendar
Still in use, in the Jewish and Arab worlds

The Chinese New Year, the Spring Festival, reminds us
That in the same way that our seemingly flat earth
Is round
Our seemingly linear lives, with their beginning and end
Are also an illusion

This is most clearly illustrated in the Chinese Zodiac
When you see the zodiac drawn out
It is usually circular
(Zodiac posters were popular dormitory decorations
When I was in college
So, no doubt some of the rest of you have seen them as well.)
This circle is meant to convey the continuous nature of the cycle of life

In fact, as with the story about Jonah that we talked about last week
We have, once again found a tale that is meant to be a bit funny
When viewed through the lense of the Chinese calendar
We see that the animals are racing for nothing
Because there isn’t, really, a first year
Or a last, when a cycle of twelve months is complete
The moon continues it phases just as it did before
One after another after another
And twelve years later, it will be the year of the dog again
So, as it says in Ecclesiastes
There is nothing new under the sun

When we are confronted in Revelations
With this New Heaven and New Earth
It is quite possible that what may be apparent to
To the conservative theologians of the 21st Century
That is, predictions of
An entirely different world brought about
Through acts of angelic violence
May have actually held a another message to its writer
And its original audience
For they were thinking of something other than
The literal end of time

This style of writing can be found in other books of the Bible
(Like the book of Daniel),
And elsewhere, too
For as long as there have been human beings
Someone has been apparently predicting the end of the world
But in this literature is still where we see
Some of the greatest expressions
Of human creativity and imagination
In part, I believe, because at its heart
It isn’t meant to be taken literally
In a way, it has a much more radical message
Based on insight and inspiration
Rather than obedience

Bible scholar Mitchell Reddish writes
Revelation is a fantasia of sights, sounds, smells and action
Through this rich imagery,
We can see the message
That starts with the understanding that
The kingdom of heaven,
(Or as we sometimes say around here, Commonwealth) of Heaven
Isn’t some foreign entity, some new city that comes
After wiping out all the old things in one great gesture
But heaven is, instead an idea
That is forever growing in our hearts
That has, in the words of Augustine been coming down since the beginning
The Commonwealth of Heaven is already here
Waiting to be discovered

And it is also a gift that comes not from our actions
But from the Divine
As the preacher David Buttrick says
Left to our own devices we’ll dream a holy city and build Babel every time.
God speaks to us in Revelations 21 and says The home of God is among mortals…See; I am making all things new

Too often we have been tempted to look outside this world
Reading here in the Bible and elsewhere
A promise of a future eternal happiness
Which, of course, is only granted to those who obey
Whichever leader or theologian developed that particular idea

But the book of Revelation was written
To address specific needs
Just as Daniel was meant to give heart to the Jews
During the period of the Maccabean revolt
What message we gain from literature such as this
Must also have a similar practical foundation

As I mentioned earlier today
The Book of Revelations is what is known as Apocalyptic literature
Mitchell Reddish tells us that is
Is meant to be read imaginatively—with eyes ears and mind wide open. It is no wonder that artists of all types have been inspired by this work.

We need, like the artist
(And like John of Patmos)
To be creative in our faith
For an inflexible religion in the end
Prevents our growing in the spirit

Whereas one view held by Falwell and others
Requires that we seek out this new world
Which the righteous shall rule
The other view is more concerned with finding the new in the old
Sensing the slow changes that have come with the turning of the wheel

Still, we do have a task
As the new world grows and develops
And one that is in tension
With how we often live our lives

With our limited perspective we can sometimes try
To be the Rat in the Zodiac
Trying always to get ahead, cheating, pushing others out of the way
To reach the opposite shore
To win

Or we can make the effort to be like the dog
Stopping for a bath
Or better yet the dragon helping others
Because we realize that what comes around goes around
And the first shall be last soon enough

Seeking the Commonwealth of Heaven
Requires patience/Requires tolerance
Because chances are that no one person
Is completely right about anything
All we can do is make sure
That none of us are completely wrong

Yes, there is work involved
Not so much in the building and regulating line
As in the connecting, the reaching out
The understanding of difference

So let us work
To find
That constantly renewing spirit and vision
In Elizabeth Tapia’s prayer today
The one for transformed relations, sustainable communities, [and] a pacific, peace-loving world

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Two Great Americans Two Great Women

I briefly considered blogging about the State of the Union Address, but I am not. One reason is that it has become a near literary form amongst bloggers and I can, therefore, leave it to the fine practitioners of this art. The other reason is that I watched it with the "mute" button on and, therefore, only know what I read in the papers. I do have some fashion notes, however. My wife (and some congregants) always tell me that blue does not go with black. Yet I saw at least three of our nation's leaders making that particular combination (Alito, Bush, Kerry). I do not know why Alito and Kerry went that way but Bush, I think, was meant to be part of a red-white-and-blue triumvirate involving the gigantic flag over the rostrum and the red ties of Cheney and Hastert (sp?). Guys, sometimes you just have to say "no" to your handlers. For those of us who weren't listening to what you were saying (and, believe me, I am not alone) it was a bit much...

(I should note that I didn't listen to this guy, either)

Really, I just wanted to lift up the loss of two great Americans. You know the ones I mean. One of them, Coretta Scott King, has been a fixture in the lives of most of us. She is someone whose name we know and who has contributed a great deal to the discussion of race in this country. My hope is that we can, as a nation, resist the urge to sanitize her message (and that of MLK). They were radicals in their own way. This is something that many people would like to forget during that inevitable and ongoing revisionism that occurs when a leader dies.

The other is Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright. Her death pulled me up short in a way that King's did not. I was surprised by my reaction, actually. I have always been a fan and have seen a couple of her plays (and read others), but a casual one. All I could think was that our cultural, social, and political life as a people will be diminished through her absence.

At the Natick Interfaith MLK Service our guest preacher, Dr. Ed Rodman reminded us that Martin Luther King didn't have a dream as much as he had a vision. Hopefully someone else will be able to articulate as complex and moving a vision as these two remarkable women and great Americans were able to do.