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!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

So Where Have I been?

Hey There!

Things have been pretty quiet at Unity, haven't they? That is because I have moved to "Parsonage Life" at revtierneyeliot.net. Its not too far developed but, hey! Check it out!

Oh, and Thanks to Boy in The Bands, Rev. Scott Wells for being my technological guide...

Friday, January 12, 2007


Here is the sermon (translated from notes for your convenience) that I gave in Newton this past Sunday. Not Surprisingly, it is similar to the one I gave in Natick the week before!

PS. I apologize for any unconventional punctuation, grammar, etc. I was never an English major, after all, and this was originally meant to be spoken...

Lost in the Temple (Newton Version)
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

For many of us, the holidays require quite a bit of packing and unpacking. Starting around Thanksgiving and continuing on into the New Year there are family outings. Ones often farther than a days drive.

In my family, for example, we pack up the van and go to Maine to visit relatives. It is where I’m from, after all, and half of my family still lives there. Into the car go the pies and the presents, the spare clothes, distractions for the kids on the way. On the way back the presents have been replaced with other presents there are leftovers, too. All of this has been somewhat haphazardly stowed in our haste to go south.

Given our haste it should not be surprising that there have been times when I have forgotten some crucial item. Sometimes it is something small, like car keys. However, somewhat less frequently, we drive the long miles back to our home only to find a message on the answering machine: “Son, you forgot your dog”.

You cannot ship a dog. You have to go back.

Now, just maybe this sort of thing has happened to you, and if it has (even though few of us have probably forgotten our children) it is hard not to sympathize with Mary and Joseph. In fact, many of us may be feeling the same way these days. After a long trip and a big holiday it is natural to feel a bit tired--Maybe a little less festive than we felt just days and weeks before
In anticipation of our plans and observances. After all the highs and lows that the holidays bring, it is hard to return to the regular, everyday world

Maybe this is why Joseph and Mary got a little confused and forgot one of their children back in Jerusalem. In their defense, the Bible tells us that they did have other kids and they were moving in a group of friends and relatives. Also, Jesus was a teenager at the time--testing the boundaries of his home life, exploring the new freedom that comes with that advanced age. But, of course, they eventually figured out that he wasn’t with any of their friends returning to Nazareth.

Three days of travel and frantic searching ensued until there he was--in the Temple. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His parents probably could have killed him just then and the Bible says that they “Did not understand what he said”

When we read this passage in the context of later orthodox theology it seems merely to be another reference to and reinforcement of the literal divinity of Jesus. In this context he appears to be rebuking his earthly parents by claiming one father (God) above another (Joseph). But upon closer inspection, this doesn’t really make sense. The fact is--If that is all it was--the Mary and Joseph of Luke’s Gospel Would have understood exactly what Jesus had said. After all, they had just had their fill of the heavenly hosts a chapter before.

No, there must be something else going on here. The famous religious educator Sophia Fahs, (who wrote today’s responsive reading) also wrote a book about Jesus back in the 1940’s that has a slightly different, more human take on this same moment. If you are curious, I am sure that there are probably some old copies still in the Sunday School.

How astonished they were when entering one of the cloisters among the pillars [of the temple] they saw their son, sitting quietly, with older men all around him listening to the rabbi! They heard Jesus ask a question. They trembled lest the teacher become annoyed by their son. But the teacher listened with interest and answered the boy’s question respectfully, and Jesus was…absorbed in what the teacher was saying.”

“[later Mary asks] ‘Son, why have you behaved like this?’ [And Jesus responds] ‘Mother, why have you been looking for me all over the city? Did you not know that I would be right here in the temple?’…So Jesus’ dream of being with the great teachers to listen and ask them questions came to an end.”

To Fahs this story has a practical and understandable message. Jesus was a special child--as all children are. He was one who asked questions about the world around him and about his faith. He wasn’t always understood, but listened closely to the beat of his own drum. Instead of arguing with Mary and Joseph he seems genuinely surprised that it took so long to find him.
He tells them, in essence, “This is who I am! You know that! Where else would I be?”

And where else would he be at the end of one of the holiest times in Judaism. Where else would he be? No wonder they didn’t understand. No wonder we do not understand. After all, in our day at least the religious aspects of the holidays can, and do take something of a back seat to all the other seemingly (but not really) central events like big feasts, family get-togethers…packing and unpacking presents.

Jesus didn’t come for the festival, for the celebrations and the food, for parties with old friends and new. He didn’t show up for the excitement, for all the many secular joys of a time like this in the capital city. Nor did he come to Jerusalem to merely go through the motions of religious observance, to make the appointed sacrifices, to pray the required prayers and be done with it.

No, apparently not.

He came to listen to the old rabbis, to learn about his faith of all things and, in his own way, as a young person, to contribute to the discussion. To ask questions, to air his doubts. Where else would he be?

In fact, this moment of conversation—helping to fill the gap between his infancy and his ministry--gets at the most fundamental aspect of his faith. The theologian Harvey Cox, in his book When Jesus Came to Harvard, points out that “Jesus was a Rabbi…[Jesus] never delivered an easy answer to a hard question but, in time-honored rabbinical fashion…would not allow people to escape the responsibility of making their own decisions”.

One thing that Jesus teaches us in this moment is that real religion expands and contracts as we human beings inhabit it and discover more about ourselves and our world. Sometimes we must abandon (or at least modify) the ways of our elders--To follow new dreams and develop new ideas. Still, even as Jesus leaves his parents he encounters other teachers. For the core of our faith is always the same--whether we are Buddhist or Christian, Jewish or Muslim, or any other of the many responsible varieties of belief that exist today.

Religion can seem complex. This is, in part, by design. It is the design of those who wish to establish a system of right and wrong belief--to define us and them. However, to the reformer--reformers like Jesus and like the other prophets of the past and the present—the goal is to cut through the layers of doctrine, to gather in the shadow of the temple and to talk, to exchange ideas. For them the goal is the simple and understandable faith

Now, there is a difference between simplicity and shallowness. When we seek out the Divine we are searching for something that is profoundly simple. It is also amazingly deep and mysterious
Chaung-Tzu (The ancient Taoist philosopher) writes about the Tao, “how deep and still its hiding place. Without this stillness, metal would not ring…the power of sound is in the metal and Tao in all things. When they clash, they ring with Tao and are silent again. Who is there now to tell all things their places?”

This stillness that Chang-Tzu writes about is something we all participate in, though we may have different names for it. When Jesus sat with the rabbis at the temple he was acknowledging this stillness and the place where he most felt connected to it.

Of course, there have always been those who are so invested in the smallest particulars of religious doctrine that they are unwilling to let them go. From our own tradition, there is the story of Theodore Parker who once observed that “Anyone who traces the history of what is called Christianity will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation.” The Church, to Parker, was meant to change with the times and with the growth of our human body of knowledge. Churches, however, (both liberal and conservative) move slowly--as does any community so linked to the past. Even when they do move, there is always some disagreement as to the direction.

The first minister of the Eliot Church in Natick, MA (The church that I now serve) was the Unitarian James Thompson, who refused to exchange pulpits with Reverend Parker—as did others. This is considered quite the insult then and now (so it’s a good thing you invited me). Thompson’s refusal, in Parker’s words “Decides my course for the future”.

Parker became increasingly estranged From many of his fellow Unitarians for his then-liberal views. Still, it would have seemed strange to Parker to have modified his opinions merely to stay in the good graces of his colleagues. “I should laugh out loud,” he wrote sarcastically, “To catch myself weeping because the Boston Clergy would not exchange with me!”

This kind of compromise would have been strange to Jesus, too
“Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and their own house”

There is something else that this story of the Temple tells us about the nature of our faith. It lies in the timing. In this story Passover is finished for the year but Jesus and his teachers are still there--still preaching and praying, teaching and learning…and arguing. The mature faith--the simple faith--doesn’t wax and wane based on the cycles of the season. The hard and rewarding work continues.

Now some people worry about putting the Christ in Christmas. No doubt there is somewhere a catalogue of all the perceived infractions—the ground lost to forces of secularism--that occurred this past year. Maybe instead we should be concerned with putting the life and teachings of Jesus and all the great and true prophets to work in this world, every day of the year. That is a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Praying Like Jesus

I just finished a very good book that I would like to tell you about. It is Praying Like Jesus by James Mulholland. I first learned of Mulholland in conjunction with this year's Revival program in New York. Before I knew his name, I was dimly aware of his work as the co-author of the books If Grace is True and If God is Love. That is, I was aware of the books and their titles and of the rising of Christian Universalism and celebrated their presence in the wake of the slow retreat of Christians from Unitarian Universalism. I, however, hadn't read the books and, frankly, "Grace" and "God" still sit on my bookshelf awaiting the advent of spare time that I most likely will not have any time soon.

Praying Like Jesus, however, called to me. I have been giving some serious thought to my prayer life. When Mulholland talks about the "Prayer of Jesus," the focus of the book, he means what most of us call the "Lord's Prayer" or "Our Father". I, like many people pray the Lord's Prayer (with "trespasses") every day. It is also part of the prayer I say about fifteen minutes before I preach on Sunday. During that time I also pray for my congregation and that I will do a good job for them and for God. We also pray the prayer during the service, itself.

This prayer--the prayer of Jesus--is a big part of my life for something so short. In fact, my entire spiritual discipline is short. It has to be. For me, and (I suspect) for many others, there isn't enough time in the day for any of the nifty "home rituals" that I hear suggested from time to time. Still, in its brevity it must be effective, too.

The book is also short. It is effective in that Mulholland has chosen an effective subject. Additionally, there is a conversation going on. This book is meant in part to be a response to another work The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson. That prayer can be found in 1 Chronicles 4:10. The prayer is fine enough, but the book is aparently part of the ever-popular prosperity gospel that many Americans and others wish were true. Who wouldn't want to be proserous, after all? Who wouldn't want to enlist God to aid them in getting what they want? I am being rhetorical here. The fact is, religion is so much about our worldly needs as about God.

Mulholland attempts to show us how the Lord's Prayer reinforces such Christian virtues as compassion and forgiveness. He also points out the social justice implications of these virtues. The prayer helps us, in a simple way, to look outside our needs and to strive for the true transformation of ourselves and our world. Jesus' prayer does that. Mulholland just underlines what is already there.

I am grateful for this as, at times, I have forgotten that faith requires a certain amount of discipline to live well. I have forgotten the words of the Prayer of Jesus even as I have said them. I am grateful, therefore, to be reminded of their message and power. I recommend this for book discussions and, possibly Adult Religious Education. If I ever get my act together, perhaps I will take a crack at doing just that...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Hey There!

I haven't posted in over a month. I just couldn't do it. December and the holidays have been exhausting and I just couldn't quite get it together enough to put something up here that would be worth reading! However, I am back, at least for the moment, thanks to minor-but-painful mouth surgery that makes it hard to talk (my preferred form of communication). Now I have the time, it seems.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach elsewhere. I went over to First Unitarian Church of Newton, to fill-in for the incomparable James Ford, who is on sabbatical. I had a lovely time. The building couldn't be more different from Eliot's. Ours is a stereotypical "small white church" of the New England flavor. Newton's is just plain huge in a Harry Potter sort of way that made it a fun space to be in. The congregation, of course, was very like the one at Eliot. They were warm and welcoming and--while not Christian--did not mind my fairly extensive exegesis on the story of the adolescent Jesus lost in the temple in Jerusalem.

One of the great things about supply (or exchange) preaching is that it challenges you to get out of whatever mental ruts you might have been in and to look at worship and preaching in a slightly different way. Back before I had a church, I spent a year or two supplementing my community-organizer income through itinerant preaching. Sunday brought back to me the joy and excitement of doing something different, of being challenged and rising to that challenge in a creative way.

Sunday also reminded me of how much I love my own church. Whenever I go somewhere I get a lot of questions about Eliot and its status as an Ecumenical Shared Ministry with the UUA and UCC. Pretty much all that I do is talk about Eliot during coffee hour and in the parking lot! Folks aren't hostile, just curious. I like the way we do things. I enjoy preaching and pastoring to the Eliot church and I love attending services there to hear someone else preach. This shouldn't be seen as a slam on any other religious community. It is great to be able to find a church home. Eliot happens to be mine.

I dimly recall that PeaceBang had a post about liking the church one serves but, sadly, it appears that "old blogger" is in for maintenance. Check it out later...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Adalius for Peace!

Here is an article about professional athletes opposing the war and the barriers they face in speaking out. Pro athletes have a great deal of potential power that they rarely use. People listen to them. Kids listen in particular, but parents do to. All you have to do is look at all the folks with football connections in the recent election. They are there, from Heath Schuler to George Allen to JC Watts. Tom Brady gets paraded around from time to time by the Bush administration as do others. Dave Zirin, in his article, urges liberal athletes to speak up and to organize. I wish him (and them) luck...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Christmas Vacation

Two things happened recently that got me thinking. I was walking to the church yesterday after dropping the kids off at school when one of the other "walking dads" asked me what I was doing for Christmas vacation. "I'm Working!" I said. This, of course, is true. I am working three services on Christmas Eve. After that, I proceded to tell him how I would spend Christmas morning. After we parted company I started to wonder if what I told him might have sounded a bit too much like complaining. After all, most people have family-time, parties, and Thanksgiving-style feasts on the big day. My family does not. In fact, if one didn't know what I did for work, one might assume that I had been possessed by the ghost of Ebenezar Scrooge (pre-reformation).

Then this morning I read the post over at Peacebang, where she outlined her rather ambitious Christmas rituals and realized that I am not alone. Her plans are "ambitious" in the sense that we all try to achieve that level of relaxation and in-the-now-ness from time to time. More often than not, we fail.

So I thought I would share with you what I do. This story is not unique to me (or to Peacebang, whose plans are similar). Church Organists, Choir Directors, clergypeople and just about every trumpeter in Chrisendom celebrate in very similar ways. We like it.

For the last seven years, I have worked on Christmas Eve. I get to church early, make sure the place is clean, call my readers, musicians, deacons, etc to make sure all are ready and there is nothing that they need from me. I then read through the services. There are usually two of them. This year there is a third at the usual Sunday morning time. Are there enough chairs up front? Do the flowers still look fresh? Do we have the candles for the "silent night" lighting? I go through everything. I know that the deacons, musicians, etc are doing the same thing, but hey. It never hurts to check that list twice!

Then the services. This year the first one will be a small half-hour gathering for communion (probably) at 10 am. Wherever two or more are gathered as they say! This will be festive in a small way. If it goes well, maybe we will do it again.

The second service is the "Family" one. The kids play music. Congregants (many of them former RE denizens or RE Committee people) read from a "Children's Bible" and we will recite Christmas poetry from Dylan Thomas and Horatio Alger, Junior. Later, the more formal service begins. We used to refer to it as the "candlight" service but we have candles at the Family service, too. My readers will be the two community ministers affiliated with Eliot, the Reverends Dave Miller and Donna Tetreault. After that, I will have lost my voice. We say our "Merry Christmases," our Music Director, Stephen James, grabs a flight, and I close up church.

Back home we put on a video. My wife and kids will have ordered pizza after the first evening's service and put in some serious "claymation special" time. After a while we will go to bed.

My Christmas Day is similar to Peacebang's except with kids. We get up, we open presents, we have an enormous breakfast, walk, eat, play, and then sleep. We do not have visitors. Usually, we do not see family. I am too tired to do much more than hang out with my immediate family. Since they hadn't seen me pretty much for 24 hours, they like it, too.

That is Christmas for a religious professional. Certainly I miss the family and a part of me would like to be with them. Still, I like it this way. My mom, after all, is also a minister, so my parents will be doing similar things. They understand and I like the day without distractions, doing nothing with the wife and kids. It is a rare opportunity for everyone these days.

I hope you all have similarly satisfying ways of spending the holiday. God bless. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent Sermon, 1st Sunday, 2006!

Here is my first Advent sermon of the year. I finally took the time to "prosify" one for ease of reading. I should tell you that--I use a lot of these--. Mostly it is because sermons are meant to be spoken, after all. Blogger continues to be a bit sticky, so, for some reason I cannot make this as readable as I would like. Maybe when they get around to fixing themselves, I will come back and adjust everything...

Demonstrations of Doubt
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
The Eliot Church
December 3, 2006

"The Days are surely coming," says God through Jeremiah
"When I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel."

This is a statement of certainty and optimism. It urges us to look forward with anticipation to the sure fulfillment of prophecy. This certainty is a hallmark of much of modern faith, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other of the great world religions. There is the sense of absolute truth. We see this understanding in the architecture of the great cathedrals and the rituals of the church. We see it particularly during Advent, when so many people are preparing for Christmas, for our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus

This story of Christmas--one that many churches begin preparing for today--is a powerful one. It is a story that, in many ways, transcends our actual beliefs. But, of course, as moving as the story may be, many of us who gather here today to help usher in the Christian New Year and with it the holiday season, probably have a few questions lurking in the back of our minds. There are doubts sitting and whispering in the corners of our hearts

Our newspapers are filled daily, not with the news of the coming Commonwealth of Heaven, but with news of war and famine and tales of natural disasters that ruin lives and communities. The suffering continues in spite of the promise of prophets like Jeremiah. For many of us, the very stories, themselves, from the Creation in Genesis through the Christmas nativity and on to the resurrection, have become harder to comprehend and believe in the light of two thousand years of growth and discovery.

Our doubts can wear on us and wear on those who would just like to believe and want us to believe, too (to be happy, maybe when we are not,to worry about “putting the Christ in Christmas” when, perhaps in deference to our Jewish and Muslim friends, we do not). Still, we gather on this first Sunday in Advent to once again experience and remember the teachings of the prophets and heroes of the Biblical past. We gather together to celebrate Christmas just as dissenters of the past did--people like the Universalist Olympia Brown, the Unitarian Fredrick Henry Hedge, and (while his father, Lyman forbade it growing up), the Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher--all of whom we have spoken about this past month. We gather just as they did to live out a faith founded on love.

Why do we do it? Why do we celebrate this holiday even when we have questions? Well, the asking, of course, is natural, it is part of our tradition. It is a tradition of debate that goes back to the Bible. There we can find plenty of people who aren’t so ready to accept the party line. There is Peter, of course, and Thomas, apostles who required convincing on many occasions. There is Zekariah, from one of our readings today, unwilling to believe the angel of God, saying, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18)

The Gospel writers, themselves, disagreed with each other--each book representing a different tradition and a different audience. The texts are filled with contradictions as each early Christian community or school of thought attempted to have their perspective heard and understood. This merely proves that in faith and scripture, it is hard to find any absolutes.

For example, in the Gospel of Luke we find the virgin Mary and her husband-to-be, Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth to Jesus in a barn. In Matthew, however, Jesus and Mary apparently already live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born in a house. The writer of Mark, the oldest Gospel, seems to feel that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are not remarkable enough to record (which is strange when one considers the claims made by Matthew and Luke). In fact, the earliest texts in the Bible are Paul’s. He doesn’t mention the virgin birth, either, and the Gospel of John refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father, without any qualifications that would indicate that his fatherhood was adoptive rather than biological.

Knowing all of this, it seems almost too much to point out that the Hebrew word (Almah) in Isaiah--a word that Matthew cites to legitimize Jesus as the main character in a messianic prophecy, and that our Bibles have translated as “virgin”--lacks the biological implications that we usually associate with it. It refers instead to a young woman who has recently been married but isn’t yet pregnant.

The jury is out on the historical veracity of the Christmas story as we know it, as it is on many aspects of scripture. However, that doesn’t mean we have to box up our ornaments and take down the tree. Nor must we anoint ourselves the town Grinches.

All of these points of theology, either known or intuited by many of us here today, have less to do with why we celebrate Christmas than we might think. Norman Vincent Peale once said that, “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” There is something magical about this time, A beauty and a goodness that tries hard to break through the shell and cynicism of our modern minds.

Our understanding of the Bible and its contradictions isn’t a reason to throw it away. Instead, it reinforces an approach and acceptance of the fact that (In the words of Bible Scholar and priest Father John Dominic Crossan) “It is possible to take the Christian message seriously, without having to take it at all points literally.” The spirit after all, is still there, strong and holy. For all that the tradition has done to present our faith as one monolithic system of beliefs, the fact remains that from the very beginning there have been different ways to understand it. We, in the tradition of our forebears are well within our rights to demonstrate our doubt. Our doubts keep us honest. They excite and energize us. They allow us to find, in all the competing signs, the true light and spirit of the season.

One thing that the liberal church does well is to articulate what we do not believe. Much less frequently (and often with an overabundance of modifiers and conditions), we say what we do believe. This Christmas season gives us the opportunity to do both. For at the root of our faith is an idea, one that all of the Gospel writers can agree on: That God is in the world. Wherever and whatever else God may be, God is in the world and in us and between us.

Today we read responsively from a piece inspired by the Magnificat, when the gospel of Luke quotes Mary as saying,
“My soul magnifies the sovereign God
And my spirit rejoices in God my savior
For God has looked with favor
On the lowliness of this servant”
God is with us and in us. God is with and in all the lowly servants, just as it was for Mary and the Commonwealth of Heaven exists for us all--women and men of all races, all nations and creeds--in our joy as well as in our deepest suffering--no matter how painful, no matter how dark.

It is telling that the great Roman critic of the Christians, Celsus, objected to the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus, not because he thought such a thing impossible--the Emperor Augustus, for example was supposed to have been the son of the god Apollo--no, his objection was that such a thing would happen to the least of these. Not to an emperor but a carpenter. Not to a warrior but a rabbi.

The story of the birth of Jesus is a parable in some sense lived by us each year. It is lived by us in rituals and retelling and is meant not to widen the gulf between us and God, but to help us bridge it. To help us bridge the gap through the life of a man who did and said extraordinary things.

The great irony may be how isolated the holidays can make us feel, so let us all try to celebrate this universal message of peace and of love, to remember that God is with us all. Amen