My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A thorough and compelling history of American and British liberal political philosophy in the era from the Second World War to the end of the Cold War.
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Isaiah 62:1-7, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:2-10
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
16 January 2022
“We are most dangerous to ourselves and to the people around us when we feel powerless.”
That’s according to Brene Brown, who has turned her academic research on the emotions into a series of bestselling books. In Rising Strong she discusses how believing one is a failure can lead us to feel powerless, and how feeling powerless, we can begin to despair. Then she offers a surprising definition of despair—“It’s the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.”
What she means by that is, tomorrow is just like today, if we can’t set goals and pursue them. If we can’t make any changes in our lives. Once we begin to feel that way, then we feel powerless and we despair.
And this is when she gives a surprising definition of hope. Hope, she writes, “is not an emotion; It’s a cognitive process.” She explains, “Hope happens when we can set goals, have the tenacity and perseverance to pursue those goals, and believe in our own abilities to act.” Hope, then is “a function of struggle,” not some rosy outlook on life.
What often prevents us from hoping, from acting, from rising strong, is our own sense of shame. Some of Brown’s earliest and best research focused on shame and how that is different from guilt. Guilt, she writes, is feeling “I screwed up.” Whereas shame is feeling, “I’m a screw up.” Guilt focuses on behavior and shame on our sense of self.
We counter shame by being open and vulnerable. She encourages us to talk with someone we trust about our feelings of shame, because “shame thrives in secrecy” and it “can’t survive being spoken” to someone who responds with empathy.
And so the prophet Isaiah declares that he will not keep silent. Instead, he proclaims the vindication of the daughters of Zion. God has seen and heard, and God is responding. God is a rock and a refuge. God delivers those she loves. Now is the day of salvation, the epistle proclaims.
In her notes on today’s scripture lessons, biblical scholar Wilda Gafney writes that these stories offer “a way to talk about life after trauma.” We can see that in the Psalm, where the poet cries out for God to deliver her from her enemies. Or in the Epistle lesson, where Saint Paul has an entire list of bad things that have happened—beatings, imprisonments, punishments, sleepless nights.
Wilda Gafney points out that this is most clear in the reading from Isaiah. If we listen carefully to that text we realize the sorts of trauma it’s about. Zion has been conquered. Ravaged by her enemies. What must be understood is that this includes sexual violation and violence. How often rape and other dehumanizing acts accompany conquest.
Yet, God is promising vindication. Shame will be vanquished. The daughters of zion will receive a crown of beauty. They will find a spouse who cherishes them. They will be protected from future violation. They will be saved.
One of the best books on life after trauma from a theological perspective is Serene Jones’s Trauma and Grace. Jones is the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York. And she’s spent much of her career working in the field of trauma, including leading support groups for women recovering from violence.
For her a key insight into life after trauma is that “wounds are not magically healed but are borne.” That’s borne with an “e,” as in carried. She writes that we have to learn to “hold the loss.” And that we can do that, because we are “held together in the strong grip of divine compassion.”
She suggests two spiritual practices to helps us hold the loss and move into life after trauma—mourning and wondering. She writes that grieving is the hardest of all our emotions, that its “demands are so excruciating.” But that if we genuinely grieve, then we have the possibility of moving on. So we must learn to give our loss “as much attention as can be mustered.”
Last week we talked about the strength of attentive care, and how that includes care of ourselves. When dealing with loss, grief, and trauma, that is one of the vital places for attending to ourselves, caring for ourselves. Giving ourselves the time and space to have these emotions, to feel them fully, to learn from them. Instead of living in denial, pushing them down all the time, trying to move on too quickly.
Serene Jones teaches that if we are attentive to our mourning, that’s actually when wonder appears. Because if we are attentive to our grief, then we are being vulnerable. And it is when we are vulnerable, that we are most likely to be drawn outside of ourselves, to have our attention drawn to something or someone else.
“Wondering,” she writes, “is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”
And so wonder works to heal the trauma because, as she says, “wonder is the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.”
Now, then the Gospel lesson Gafney attaches to these other scripture lessons about life after trauma is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. What gives? How is this story tied to the themes of these other passages?
Gafney answers, “Against this background [of sexual violence and trauma], the ability of women to choose baptism and discipleship matters.”
The ability to choose an identity, a faith, a community. To undergo a ritual about new life, putting the past to death and being reborn as a beloved child of God.
To rise strong from trauma, powerlessness, and despair is to believe that we can set goals and pursue them. That we have agency and power. To hope. To do new things so that tomorrow is not like today.
God sees our pain and hears our cries. God’s compassion holds us. God’s power delivers us. God saves us. We are vindicated, because God has given us the love, the strength, and the chance to heal. And to move forward.
Now is the day of salvation. We are alive.
Our vindication shines out like a blazing light.
We are God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased.
As the final verses of today’s Psalm declare:
God reached down from on high, she took me;
She drew me out of the multitude of water.
She delivered me from my strong enemy,
And from those who hate me;
For they were too mighty for me.
They confronted me in the day of my calamity;
Yet the Sheltering God was my support.
She brought me out into a broad place;
She delivered me, because she delights in me.
Isaiah 52:1-10; I Corinthians 1:26-31; Luke 2:41-51
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
9 January 2022
Tuesday afternoon Randy Solberg sat down in his recliner to take a nap and didn’t wake up. The news of his sudden and unexpected death was a shock to all of us. Randy was only seventy-four. But Mary, his wife, assured me that this was exactly the way Randy had always wanted to die. And there is something good in a death without illness and pain that comes at home in your recliner while taking a nap.
What I enjoyed most about Randy as his pastor was his curiosity. He was constantly learning new things and constantly engaging with people. When we posted about his death on Facebook the bereaved comments began pouring in from you all about the various ways he touched your lives, from always engaging you in conversation, to enjoying your chili, to his hearty laugh.
He enjoyed my teaching and preaching, often following up on an idea or a book I mentioned. He would actually read the theology books I talk about. And then want to discuss them. I introduced him to Process thought—the discipline in which I’d written my dissertation—and he dove into it, fully embracing it as his own theological paradigm, and doing his own independent research and reading.
In the early days of my pastorate, I held a Spirituality Group on Wednesday nights and Randy was one of the most faithful members of that group, as we explored prayer, meditation, lectio divina, Buddhist mindfulness, Quaker silence, and more.
His deep spirituality and appreciation for theology, also led to a rich embrace of worship and liturgy. He was a vital member of our Worship Ministry in a period when we made some significant changes to our Sunday morning worship. At that time when the Worship Ministry would consider a topic they’d read articles and essays on various possibilities and then engage in robust discussions. One of the changes that Randy helped to lead was that our communion bread is always gluten-free. We had first begun offering a gluten-free option for those who needed it, but Randy insisted that was not welcoming and inclusive enough. Plus, it didn’t sound much like communion to have separate bread for some people. Therefore, we must, if we were to live up to our values and truly practice communion, have only one type of bread and that would be gluten-free for everyone. This despite the fact that it is significantly more expensive. But no one notices that now, and we’ve lived with the change for so long people probably don’t even realize the rich discussion and deep thinking that led to that decision.
But Randy wasn’t only focused on the higher things like spirituality, theology, and liturgy, he was deeply engaged with other people and committed to a life of service. One of his passions was veterans, himself being a combat veteran, and he led our efforts during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to minister to soldiers in those combat theatres and the returning veterans. This ministry intersected with our fair-trade coffee program, which he also led for many years, bringing us reports on farm worker conditions in the coffee bean fields of Haiti.
Randy hasn’t been as active among us in recent years, and I missed him. Randy was that somewhat odd combination of a person who was both a Congregationalist and a Roman Catholic. So there were seasons of his life when he was drawn back to the Catholic Church and its rich spirituality and liturgy. He was particularly drawn to Pope Francis and the changes Francis has embodied and encouraged in the church, and Randy wanted to lend his support to such efforts.
The Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki teaches that God calls us to be active participants with the entire world. She writes that “to exist is to be physically related to the whole universe; to exist is to receive from all and to give to all.” God desires that we participate fully in God’s creative work.
This openness to possibility is one reason Randy was drawn to Process theology, and it so resonated with who he was—his curiosity, his deep thinking, his engagement with other people, his devotion to service, his honesty and authenticity and passion, his ability to embrace what is best about us and encourage us to be even better.
What a blessing to have known him and been known by him. We mourn his passing.
In today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah we are encouraged to “Don our strength.” Isaiah is speaking, again, to Daughter Zion, encouraging her to embrace her beauty, her divine glory, to sit upon her thrown in majesty, to purge herself of all that is impure, and to revel and rejoice that God has comforted and saved the people.
And from there the vision of salvation expands. In the Psalm, God’s love is for all humanity, all creation, and extends into the heavens. In the Gospel, God is revealed to be present and at work in the life of a child, particularly a child engaged in learning. A reminder to all our teachers and students and school employees and parents living through this vexing and difficult era, that our tradition reminds us that what you do in the classroom is sacred and holy and part of God’s work in the world. Thank you.
Then, in the Epistle, we are told that God is at work in the everyday lives of ordinary people, particularly those considered foolish and weak and insignificant. The Epiphany season teaches us to be attentive and to look for God to surprise us, for God is present and at work all over the place, in people and times and locations we don’t expect.
As I prepared for this Sunday I was drawn to this invitation of the prophet Isaiah to “don your strength.” What might our strength be? Well, we know that our strength comes from the Lord, but how does it manifest? In these readings, as we’ve seen, it manifests in some surprising places—in a missing child, and worried mother, and foolish people.
The Isaiah passage itself is focused on this image of the royal daughters of Jerusalem. Wilda Gafney, the biblical scholar whose lectionary and translations we are using this Epiphany season, warns that this image of Daughter Zion can be turned into a “virtually unattainable archetype” that’s rooted in “patriarchal and paternalistic notions,” so we do want to be sure to avoid that in our interpretation and application of the text.
But is there a particular strength the Daughters of Zion might have that we can learn from? Gafney draws upon Mary, the worried mother of the missing child in the Gospel story. She points out that Mary had given her child a “surprising amount of room, a full day to wander among the traveling group out of her direct sight.” Mary was clearly not a helicopter parent! She gave Jesus freedom to wander and to wonder. I’m guessing that some of Jesus’ curiosity might have come from his mother.
To explore this theme of strength, I returned to a book I read last fall, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces by Maria Tatar. Tatar is a professor at Harvard with a long and distinguished career studying folk and fairy tales. In this latest book she challenges one of the dominant approaches to such stories—the hero myth as described by Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s masterpiece, the Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced us all to the concept of the hero’s journey as an archetype structuring the world’s great stories. With its call to adventure, crossing the threshold, descent into the underworld, and return home. And how from these stories we can all learn to follow our bliss. Campbell was most influential in the way Hollywood has told stories. George Lucas was an ardent fan, and Star Wars explicitly follows Campbell’s understanding of myth.
Maria Tatar is critical of Campbell because he focuses on the stories of male heroes and largely ignores the vast trove of folk and fairy tales that through much of human history were passed down orally by women. The stories they told one another as they cleaned and cooked. The stories they told children in the nursery. These stories don’t fit the structure of the hero’s journey and are most often centered around concerns of women about children, marriage, untrustworthy and violent men, and domestic chores.
She does not identify one archetypal structure that fits folk and fairy tales from all cultures, but she does reveal themes, including stories of resistance, stories of women as tricksters overcoming threatening situations, and what she reveals as the central understanding of heroism in women’s folk tales—attentive care. Maria Tatar explains, “Attentive care [is] an affect that is triggered by openness to the world, followed by curiosity and concern about those who inhabit it.”
So the greatest sin, in these stories, is the “failure to acknowledge the presence of others and to care about the circumstances and conditions of their lives.”
I want to use Maria Tatar’s analysis of women’s folk tales, then, to help us interpret and apply these lessons from scripture. Daughter Zion is to don her strength, a strength that God is going to make use of to bring about the salvation of the world, all humanity and all creatures. But this power isn’t something reserved only for royal women, it can be found in worried mothers, errant sons, the weak, the foolish, even the insignificant.
And that strength is attentive care. A strength we are maybe most likely to experience and learn from our mothers, grandmothers, teachers, nurses, and caregivers.
The strength of attentive care acknowledges the presence of others and the circumstances of their lives. It is open to the world around us. Curious about the world and other people. Concerned for everyone and everything, because “to exist is to receive from all and to give to all.” This strength participates in God’s creative work. This strength is salvation.
I suspect that right now most of us don’t feel very strong? We had hoped with booster shots and children’s vaccinations and pills for treatment that maybe we were moving into a better phase of this pandemic. Many of us enjoyed somewhat normal Thanksgivings and Christmases with family and friends, even if we made sure to schedule COVID tests before traveling and visiting. Yet, here we find ourselves once again canceling events, confused by new recommendations, unable to schedule timely tests, waiting out another surge, and watching as lots of people who’ve been cautious for years finally catch the virus. And it, of course, comes in the midst of winter—with its bitter cold, gray skies, and long nights.
Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s take a moment to grieve more losses.
And then, let’s don our strength.
Let’s be like the royal daughters of Zion who radiate with the glory of God.
Even in the midst of winter and the omicron surge, we can demonstrate attentive care. For ourselves. For our bodies and spirits. For the members of our household.s For our neighbors and family and friends.
Three little snippets from this week. Last Sunday after worship Sebastian and I walked home with plans of shoveling snow before heading inside for lunch. But as we arrived at our house, our sidewalks had already been cleared by our new next door neighbor who knew the single dad and pastor probably could use some help on a Sunday.
Yesterday I posted on Facebook that three friends had died this week. And within an hour a casual acquaintance showed up at our front door bearing candy bars. He said, “I thought you and Sebastian could probably use some chocolate.”
And the third snippet is something Sebastian has begun repeating, “The days are growing longer.”
This week let us stay open and curious, attentive to everyone we encounter, caring for ourselves and one another, for God is using us to better the world.
Isaiah 60:1-6, 11; Psalm 67; 2 Timothy 1:5-10; Matthew 2:1-12
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
2 January 2022
“The ‘star’ serves as [a] physical marker of a new outpouring of heavenly light,” writes William J. Danaher in his commentary on this passage. The star the magi followed is a symbol, a metaphor of the new revelation God is giving to humanity. And in this particular story from Matthew, what is revealed is the baby Jesus. In this child, God is doing something new and marvelous.
On this Second Sunday after Christmas, we are looking ahead to the Feast of the Epiphany. The traditional day for celebrating the dawning of the revelation of what God is doing with the incarnation of Jesus.
I had a church member in Oklahoma City, a retired Methodist minister, who summarized his spiritual practice as every day trying to experience an epiphany and a resurrection. A pretty good resolution, if you are still looking for one. An epiphany being a new idea, a new understanding, new wisdom to be gained. Often experienced with the sudden breaking in of light, realization, attention, or delight. Like the light bulb going off in the cartoon bubble above our heads.
So, for us, Epiphany as a season of worship isn’t just about remembering the stories of the Bible, but also realizing that new understandings, new revelations, are a part of our life as well. Like the daughters of Jerusalem, God’s light can dawn upon us, radiating with God’s glory. This Epiphany season, then, we are going to Arise and Shine.
To help us experience our own spiritual epiphanies, we are going to draw upon a new resource—Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. This new book, which will ultimately be four volumes, curates a new set of weekly readings that center the experiences of women in the Bible, often drawing upon stories and texts left out of the traditional lectionaries. Gafney has coupled those selections with new translations that are gender-expansive, and she provides her own notes to each week highlighting the themes that connect the readings.
She begins her Introduction with some important questions:
What does it look like to tell the Good News through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news? How would a lectionary centering women’s stories, chosen with womanist and feminist commitments in mind, frame the presentation of the scriptures for proclamation and teaching? How is the story of God told when stories of women’s brutalization and marginalization are moved from the margins of the canon and lectionary and held in the center in tension with stories of biblical heroines and heroes? More simply, what would it look like if women built a lectionary focusing on women’s stories?
I suspect that exploring those questions will yield new insights. Which is exactly what the Season of Epiphany is supposed to be about.
And so today, Gafney presents us some texts that are traditionally connected with Epiphany, while inviting us to see them in a new light.
The Isaiah passage is quite familiar to you—“Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Gafney’s innovation is to make this passage explicitly addressed to the daughters of Zion. The daughters of Zion are a familiar image in the Hebrew prophetic literature, and Zion itself is often represented as feminine. So Gafney intends to provoke our imaginations in new ways by translating “Arise, daughter; shine, daughter; for your light has come daughter.” We are invited to ask ourselves—In what ways do our daughters reveal the glory of God?
The Psalm, which praises God for providing the blessings of the Earth, takes on a new light of maternal care and provision, with an emphasis on fertility—“The earth has brought forth her increase; may God, our own God, give us her blessing. May God give us her blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of her.”
Not much in changed in the passage from Second Timothy, a passage that has always celebrated grandmother Lois and mother Eunice for passing along the faith to Timothy. But maybe we see it in a new light when we draw out the connections to Isaiah and the Psalm. Lois and Eunice are daughters of Zion. They are agents of God’s glory. Their faith shines through them. And, like God, they bear fruit. They provide, they care, they teach. They are powerful, and that power is in their love, just like it is for God.
I was drawn anew to the line “I remind you to reignite the gift of God that is within you.” This idea is a thread connecting all of these Epiphany readings.
So when we get to the familiar Matthew passage about the magi visiting the promised child of Bethlehem, we can see even that with new eyes. While it’s a story about the baby Jesus, the Christmas stories always invite us to image the ways that the Christ can be born anew in us. We can read this story as reminding us that no matter where we are born, no matter our circumstances, no matter how dangerous the world we live, we too can be an agent of God’s glory and power. And if we do approach the story this way, it can reignite the gift of God that is within each of us. Exactly what we want this Feast of the Epiphany.
The Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, in her beautiful book Quest for the Living God describes God in a way that resonates with today’s Psalm—“The holy mystery of God is . . . a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world.” That’s really just a fancy way of saying “God is love,” but I think it’s such a rich and exciting description of God that has the potential to reorder our imaginations. We are so often tempted to see God as remote and distant, as a bearded old man riding the clouds. So how might our spirituality and our interactions with the world change if we always thought of God as “a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world?”
And that love and power overflow into us, making us radiate. Arise and shine for “the glory of God has risen upon you.” We are filled with divine relational, maternal power. Power of fertility, blessing, love, and care. And God is using that power to reorder the world, to do new things.
Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The glory of god is the communion of all things fully alive.” Isn’t that a wonderful idea! “The glory of god is the communion of all things fully alive.” The glory of God, that shines in us and through us, connects us to the flourishing of all living things.
She then elaborates:
Wherever the human heart is healed,
justice gains a foothold,
peace holds sway,
an ecological habitat is protected,
wherever liberation, hope and healing break through,
wherever an act of simple kindness is done,
a cup of cool water given,
a book offered to a child thirsty for learning,
there the human and earth community already reflect,
the visage of the trinitarian God.
The gift of God is within each one of us. And God’s love appears in every act of kindness and care we show to one another.
This Season of Epiphany, we are invited to open our imaginations to new revelations. To let the light of God awaken within us, and fill us with divine power and glory. The power of God’s love, which will flow through us with blessing, for ourselves, and the flourishing of all life.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
24 December 2021
“The best things arrive as if by lightning, in sudden penetrations of light and joy.”
So writes the philosopher Marth Nussbaum in her magisterial book on the human emotions. The particular context for that great sentence is a discussion of infanthood. All of us as infants experience a transformation when we begin to understand that the persons caring for us are real and will return to meet our needs. Thus, it is for the infant that the best things arrive as sudden penetrations of light and joy.
But Nussbaum is quick to point out that those early experiences imprint themselves upon us and help to form and shape us as persons throughout our lives. And I was drawn to that sentence, because while she might have meant it primarily for infants, it seems to bear some truth even or us adults. So many good things do arrive as if by sudden penetrations of light and joy.
And Christmas is always about the sudden bursting forth of light and joy. As the prophet Isaiah sings, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” And with the light comes joy and exultation.
Walter Brueggemann, the great UCC bible scholar, writes that the Israel for which Isaiah wrote was “driven to distress, darkness, gloom, and anguish.” Sounds familiar. And into this dismal situation Isaiah proclaims that there is “yet another chance in the world.” We don’t have to resign ourselves to the dismal status quo. God is at work, in human history, to do something new and different. Brueggemann writes that the theological point of the passage is God’s capacity “for a newness that is completely fresh.”
And so there will be light. A reference to God’s glory. To the “visible evidence of [God’s] splendor, majesty, and sovereignty” as Brueggemann writes. Where people had felt God absent, God is going to suddenly seem very present.
And that experience will evoke “unrestrained celebration and rejoicing.”
All together is the “The Great Reversal.” And God is recruiting us to become agents of the transformation.
And in the passage all of this is tied to the birth of a child. For the prophet Isaiah, probably a reference to the birth of a new prince in Jerusalem, a new prince always a vessel of the people’s hopes for a better future. But the passage took on layers of meaning through our long history. Eventually a promise of a coming Messiah, God’s agent of restoration. And then we Christian’s view the passage as a reference to Jesus and the Gospel writers draw upon it in telling their stories, and that’s why it’s one of the scripture lessons for Christmas Eve.
But there’s the more general meaning that with every birth of every child there is promise and possibility, newness and hope.
Every year I remind you of Meister Eckhart’s great statement on Christmas that the whole point isn’t just to celebrate a historical event, that Jesus was born two thousand years ago, but to recognize that the Christ can be born anew in us this year, every year.
And so this passage in Isaiah holds out the possibility that something new can be born in us, a sudden penetration of light and joy that leads, as promised, to endless peace.
The great twentieth century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that we humans get something wrong when we focus on mortality as the experience we all have in common. While we do have death in common, much more important for us right now is that we have birth in common. Natality is the great shared human experience. We were all infants, all vulnerable, all of us relied upon the care and attention of others even to survive. But we lose touch with that and the reality that it remains true for our fragile adult bodies. And natality is also our experience of newness. As theologian Elizabeth Gandolfo writes, drawing upon Arendt, “Natality is the condition of human possibility, the foundation of freedom—because we are natals we are free to do new things.”
So, if we are going to be transformed and experience the promised light, joy, peace, then we’ve got to get back in touch with our natality. With our vulnerability and possibility.
Elizabeth Gandolfo writes that the power of this Christmas story is that God became a baby, experience human natality too. And our connection with God is in this experience. She writes, “Humans are united with the loving God in and through their union with the creatable, cradled presence of God in the vulnerable world.” Incarnation is the embrace of vulnerability. Therefore, our transformation too is about embracing our vulnerability.
How do we embrace our vulnerability? By making peace with the tragic nature of human existence. In fact, that’s the essence of the endless peace promised to us and that we seek. She writes, “Peace entails an understanding and an acceptance of the tragic structure of existence, and thus frees us to appreciate the Beauty that continually and infinitely emerges from the process.”
Our human experiences of the last two years have been an intense pedagogy in human vulnerability, in the tragic nature of our existence, in the fragility of our bodies and our social systems.
Which means we’ve also gone through something that had the potential to transform us. A deeply spiritual experience. A chance to accept reality and then within that to find those moments of beauty. To see where, even in the darkness, light and joy suddenly penetrate.
This Christmas story is our annual reminder of those very truths. So let us rejoice, that a child is born, that we are renewed and transformed, that God is doing fresh and new things, that our future can be one of endless peace.
Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
19 December 2021
Six and a half years ago, as I was awaiting the birth of our son Sebastian, like many other American parents of recent decades, I read the bible for parents, otherwise known as What to Expect when You’re Expecting. Of course I was able to skip over the pregnancy parts and go right to the details about those first few days and weeks. I must have read the section on the first couple of days at least three times before he was born and then consulted it as a reference more than once in those days. I remember in those early months reading ahead so I’d be prepared for the next developmental stage. But also the growing sense over the first few months that I now knew my baby and was more comfortable taking care of him. And then that weird feeling sometime when he was one or two when I donated the book to the Thrift Shop because I didn’t need it anymore.
When you are expecting your first child you are riven with wonder and anxiety in equal measure. For all the joy, there’s also fear. The nervousness that you will make a catastrophic mistake with this fragile infant in your care. It’s easy to look back on those emotions later with mild amusement, but they were not amusing at all at the time.
And this experience of the expectant first parent so adequately grasps the themes of this Advent season. We come with expectations of joy and wonder, but also all the fears, uncertainties, and anxieties of our time.
Even Micah the Old Testament prophet knows how effective this metaphor is. He writes about daughter Zion who is in labor as an image for the people awaiting the coming of the Messiah. In his commentary Marvin Sweeney writes that “The oracle employs the metaphor of a woman giving birth to express the necessary interval until the rest of the [the] kindred are sufficiently restored so that they might bring about the new era of peace.” The “necessary interval.” Peace is coming, justice is coming, joy is coming, but there’s a “necessary interval.”
Of course the images of pregnancy and labor pains pervade the Bible. God tells the prophet Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb, God knew him. The Psalms rejoice in God’s knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. In Romans Paul uses the image to describe how all of creation is groaning as if in labor to await the revelation of the children of God. And in Revelation the culmination of history is also likened to a woman giving birth.
In her classic text God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible taught us to understand how central are the images of pregnancy and labor to our biblical understanding. She wrote:
God conceives in the womb; God fashions in the womb; God judges in the womb; God destines in the womb; God brings forth from the womb; God receives out of the womb; and God carries from the womb to gray hairs. From this uterine perspective, then, Yahweh molds life for individuals and for the nation Israel. Accordingly, in biblical traditions an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.
What Phyllis Trible goes on to demonstrate in her classic text is that the Hebrew word for compassion, used repeatedly to describe God in the Old Testament, has its roots in the word for womb. Divine compassion, divine love, divine care is, thus, like the love of a mother for the child she carries within her own body. This fundamentally maternal, feminine, uterine image is, then, one of the central themes of our faith.
And, so, the prophet Micah imagines a woman in labor, awaiting the restoration of Israel’s children so that the age of peace might dawn. As Phyllis Trible writes, the image of the divine womb is about imagining that “wholeness and well-being may happen.” Micah’s dream is for an age of well-being in which all of us feel secure, all of us are at peace, when together we shall be fed.
And for Micah that age will be ushered in by the child born in Bethlehem.
This Advent season we’ve been emphasizing the topsy-turvy nature of the biblical story. How God works through the unexpected. Two weeks ago I drew parallels with fairy tales, where frogs turn out to be princes and beautiful women are sometimes witches. Katie’s play emphasized how those who think they are wise, often are not, and that God’s gifts are found in surprising places. And today we have the wonderfully comic story of two pregnant women and the children leaping in their wombs, followed by Mary’s song that the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be lifted up. The Bible is constantly telling us to be ready for the unexpected.
And Bethlehem is a core symbol of that idea. For Bethlehem is the home of David. As Calvin Miller writes in his commentary, “Instead of another boring, bloody generalissimo, there would arise a shepherd king.”
Let’s remind ourselves who David was and why he was so central to the biblical imagination. He was the shepherd boy, who didn’t look like a potential king. The last of a series of brothers. Small even. From a rural village. Yet, he was the one of which the story is told that as a boy he had the courage to face the giant and prevail. He was the one who defied King Saul’s paranoia and violence and defeated Israel’s enemies and established a just kingdom centered in Jerusalem around the worship of God.
Walter Brueggemann has a fascinating little book in which he explores the roles that David played upon the Hebrew imagination. And the stories about David start as those of the outsiders, the subversives. Brueggemann writes, “One may then understand this narrative to be hopeful, because it tells, generation after generation, that the marginal ones can become the legitimate holders of power.” One of the conclusions Brueggemann believes we can draw from the David stories is that “This Yahweh is not committed to the moral civility of entrenched order.” In other words, the status quo social arrangement doesn’t have some divine imprimatur. God imagines something different and takes action in history to bring it about.
Now, of course, the story and image of David gets taken over by the power elite eventually. The rule he established in Jerusalem becomes a hereditary monarchy and that monarchy begins to justify itself by its claims to be Davidic. And while they might be biological descendants of David, rarely are the kings spiritual descendants of David, for they often seem to represent the complete opposite of the original Davidic idea.
But, Walter Brueggemann writes, the people will not give up on the ideal of David the underdog, David the unexpected, David the beloved of God. And so the Hebrew imagination also upholds an idealized David, often used as a counterpoint against whichever descendant of David is currently sitting upon the throne. This idealized David, according to the Brueggemann, is “the bearer of the promise, the one who keeps the future open against every vexed present.”
Brueggemann goes further, “The very name of David in these traditions asserts that God has dreams and intentions, that history is not closed, and that the person of David is a means for God’s purposes to come to fruition in the future.”
And it seems to be this idea that underlies Micah’s use of David. Micah, the eighth century prophet, is critical of the regime in Jerusalem. They are unjust and unrighteous. Therefore, they are unworthy of any claims they make to be descendants of David.
And so Micah draws upon the memory of David to subvert the current authorities. He imagines that just as God picked a shepherd boy from Bethlehem to topple the king and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish a new order, God can do that again. God will bring forth a new shepherd king who will bring about a new era of peace and security. God still has dreams. The future still is open. God’s promises will be fulfilled.
But, right now, we are in the necessary interval as we wait for God to act, to bring all of this about. Right now, we are in labor. We are expecting.
So, what can we expect when we are expecting? Some fear, some uncertainty, some anxiety. Everything isn’t right yet. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the way things are. We should still be dreaming. We should imagine different future possibilities. We should also learn to expect the unexpected.
What else can we expect while we are expecting? We can expect wonder, hope, beauty, joy, and delight. And if we believe God is acting in human history to bring about God’s dreams, then we can also expect justice and righteousness and security and peace, because that’s what God has promised us. That’s who God is at God’s core.
For God is love. God is compassionate. God is like a mother nurturing us within her womb.
Or, as Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his beautiful little book The Love that Is God, “This divine kindness is the endless sea of love upon which our created being floats. This is the love that can heal the failures of our human loves.”
So, we wait, in labor, with our hopes and our fears. But even during this interval, we rest in the deep, nurturing, compassionate, mothering love that is God.
Look & See
Philippians 1:6 & Baruch 5:1-9
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
5 December 2021
Today is one of the rare occasions when even our Protestant lectionary gives us an apocryphal text for the Old Testament lesson. And so we have this passage from Baruch, a book that claims to be written by the student and scribe of the Prophet Jeremiah, but likely came much later, probably in the century just before Jesus was born. And it draws upon various images and words from other Old Testament writings, including today’s passage which relies a lot upon the Book of Isaiah.
And I have paired that with one sentence from this week’s epistle lesson, a reminder that we are not finished, that God is still working on us. Hear now these ancient words:
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look towards the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
Of course I am not the resident musical theatre geek. That would be Katie Miller. But I am a gay man, so that gives me license to have opinions about musical theatre.
The theatre world, the popular music world, actually vast swaths of American arts and culture, have been mourning and eulogizing Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at 91 after a long career as a composer, songwriter, and creator of one Broadway hit after another. Few Americans have had such a lengthy and rich influence on our culture as Sondheim has. So it was good this week to read and watch the many tributes of him and his work.
The Sondheim show I’m most well acquainted with is Into the Woods. I first saw it as a teenager when the local college performed it. And I was impacted by its storytelling. The first act, which is a fun and enthusiastic mish-mash of various fairy tales, concludes with what appears to be the happy ending, only for the second act to descend into complexity, darkness, and ambiguity, raising rich questions about how we tell our stories and, therefore, how we live our lives.
In a tribute that appeared this week on the Atlantic’s website, Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote about Into the Woods and Sondheim’s overall approach to endings. She said, “He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them.”
Yes, we do long for a happy ending. We long for everything to turn out right in the end. That if we work hard and do the right thing, life will be good and blessed. But, that’s not what always happens. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t turn out the way we expected them to.
Back in the summer when the church staff picked our Advent theme, we began by acknowledging that we had no idea what to expect pandemic-wise come December. Would we be in the midst of another winter surge or would vaccinations lead to a decline in infection rates or something else?
We then realized that this idea of expectations was the right way to orient our focus. Of course there is the other meaning of “expecting” that has to do with being pregnant, of waiting for a baby to be born. And the last time we used expectations in our advent theme, in 2015, it was precisely this idea that shaped our worship. The joy and excitement and risk involved in waiting for new life. “Wonderful Expectations” was our theme.
But in 2021 our expectations are more unclear, complex, ambiguous even. As like to be full of anxiety as they are hope. Much less that we’ve learned the very hard way the last two years that what we expect might not happen and that we must be somewhat ready for the unexpected. Though, how can you ever really prepare for what’s unexpected?
So, we focused our idea for Advent worship around this ambiguity of waiting.
In her Atlantic tribute, Amy Weiss-Meyer reflected on how Sondheim’s wisdom about endings speaks precisely to the moment we are in in the course of this pandemic. She wrote,
Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasts long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs.
So, maybe this Advent, our spiritual growth will be measured by how much we’ve learned that messiness and ambiguity are to be expected and can even be “part of the beauty?”
And beauty is precisely what today’s scripture lessons imagines for us. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction” we are instructed by the author. And instead, we are to clothe ourselves forever in beauty, the beauty of the glory from God. Wow, just wow! One of grandest statements in our scriptural tradition, I think. Definitely, worthy of our attention when we find ourselves in the midst of sorrow and affliction.
And then the passage continues. We will be robed in righteousness and crowned with glory. God’s going to show off our splendor, everywhere. And we will receive the name of “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”
After these wonderful lines, the author invites her readers to arise and stand and look and see that their children are coming home, rejoicing. They were carried away in exile by our enemies, and all have suffered, but God has spoken and the reunion is about to occur, just look and see.
And the road we children will be traveling home on, instead of being through a difficult wilderness, will be made smooth and plain and easy so that we might travel in safety. And there will even be fragrant shade trees all along the way.
If Paul in Philippians declares that God is still working on us, something like this vision from Baruch is the work that God is trying to complete. God is turning us into our best selves.
What amazing images. What joy, what excitement. Baruch describes about as happy an ending as one could imagine.
But dare we imagine that ending? Can we truly hope for it? Are we fools if we expect it?
Frederick Buechner has a profound little book entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he reveals the ways in which our Christian story has all three types of endings. It isn’t simply a happy ending; it messier and more ambiguous than that.
This week I read again through the chapter on how the gospel is like a fairy tale. The primary point Buechner makes is that in the Gospel, as in most fairy tales, our expectations get messed up. The noble king might really be the villain. The beautiful woman might end up being the witch. The poor and dirty peasant is likely to be the hero of the story. Or, as the gospel tells it, this child, born in a barn, in a small town on the edge of the great empire, to a teenage mother who was pregnant before she was married. Among the most marginalized figures one could imagine—that’s the truly human one, the child of God, the savior of the world, the king of kings, the prince of peace, etc., etc., etc.
Buechner also writes that “Like the fairy-tale world, the world of the Gospel is a world of darkness.” The Gospel understands that all its visions, hopes, and dreams come in the midst of sorrow and affliction. In fairy tales the characters learn to see beyond this world and its darkness to the place of beauty and joy.
And so the spiritual wisdom that Frederick Buechner wants to cultivate within us is that same sense of vision. He writes,
If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still. No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth.
To see the possibilities of beauty and joy and hope is to see like children again, full of amazement and wonder. And isn’t that part of what we enjoy about the holiday season? Doesn’t it, at its best, break through our adultness and return to us a sense of magic and splendor and awe?
We don’t want to give up longing for, hoping for, even expecting the happy ending. While at the same time we have to learn that messiness and ambiguity are also to be expected and are themselves part of the beauty. I like the poem by Hafiz that was read earlier, even when we are lonely in the darkness, there is an astonishing light in our own being. Or as Baruch imagines, beyond the sorrow and affliction are splendor, joy, and peace.