The Wisdom of Your Body

The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied LivingThe Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living by Hillary L. McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent discussion of embodiment. McBride explores pain, disability, trauma, oppression, emotions, sex, etc. in well-written chapters that are insightful, moving, informative, and helpful. I've been recommending it to lots of people.

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Find the Wonder

Find the Wonder

Isaiah 11:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 December 2022

               George Bailey feels that his life has been wasted.  He hasn’t done the things he’d hoped to do.  His dreams have not come true.  He’s made sacrifice after sacrifice and toiled away at a job he’d rather not have, only to now be facing financial ruin.  Has it all been in vain?  He feels he has no future to look forward to.  And so he’s ready to jump from the bridge and end it all.

               When Clarence the Angel prevents him from destroying himself.  Then Clarence gives him a tour of what the world would have been like without George Bailey—a cruel place, robbed of joy and delight for the people he cares about. 

               Which finally leads George to see how wonderful his life has been, and he runs through the town excited at seeing all the old familiar things that long ago he had started taking for granted.

               It seems that one thing George Bailey had lost, before his angelic encounter, was the capacity for wonder.  Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard, writes that “Wonder is a characteristic of human flourishing, without which we may be unable to survive in ways we would deem desirable.”  Yeah, that describes George Bailey, forlorn and lost, standing on the bridge in the snowstorm.  But once that capacity for wonder is restored, George doesn’t only survive, he flourishes.

               Early in the autumn as the staff met to consider Advent worship themes, we were pondering the idea of “what will come.”  What does the future hold?  And is the future threatening or not? 

               I had just finished reading a bunch of books about the changing climate and what we need to do to live faithfully and resiliently during this time of human history, and a theme in many of those books was how to retain our hope and joy despite the strong possibility that life will become harder in the decades ahead. 

               As the staff pondered these ideas, the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and its conceit of an alternative future, entered into our conversation and eventually led to our Advent theme for this year “It’s a Wonder-filled Life.”  We decided to explore how wonder is crucial to our survival and how wonder can remind us that the future doesn’t have to be threatening. 

               Later in the autumn I read Cody Sanders’ essay “Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse” in the book Doing Theology in Pandemics.  He writes about how the last few years have evoked many emotions in us, particularly fear, anger, and sadness.  These feelings are good and proper and correct given what we’ve experienced.  But his worry is when those feelings become moods and then persistent attitudes on life.  In particular, how sadness can lead to immobility and resignation such that we quit working for a better world.

               So he advises that we need to cultivate other experiences and emotions in order to learn how to feel our way through this season of our lives.  He writes about the importance of grieving in community as a way to address the losses we’ve encountered. He advocates for practices of gratitude that will help us to experience the world as gift, which can help us to dismantle injustices.  And he encourages us to direct our lives to wonder.

               Cody Sanders is concerned about the ways that fear can become the dominating way we interact with un uncertain and dangerous world.  Instead, he invites us to approach the world with wonder.  If we are constantly surprised by all the ordinary things around us, how does that reshape our lives?

               Sanders writes,

Wonder helps us suspend our habitual ways of looking at the world.  Wonder lures us into creative engagement with our surroundings.  Wonder induces receptivity and openness and connection to our environment.  Wonder prompts us to consider life from new perspectives.  Wonder entices us into relational aspects of reality, giving us a vision of our relatedness to the world, to other beings, and to sources of ultimacy, or the Divine.

               Wow!  That sounds like a super power.  More creativity, more connection and belonging, more openness.  Getting to see and experience the world in new ways.  Finding deeper relations with everything around us, including the source of meaning in our lives. 

               And isn’t this exactly what happens to George Bailey when Clarence the Angel intervenes to save his life?

               This week I asked Liz Loveday to help me find some poems about wonder and one she sent along was this by William Martin from The Parents Dao De Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents:

 

               One of the greatest works on human emotions is Upheavals of Thought by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  And in that over 700 page book, wonder plays a key role in our emotional and moral development.

               Nussbaum writes that we humans are born into a world we do not control, a world that can be alarming and frightening to a newborn.  The world can also be a place of delight.  The world, for most babies, is both at the same time.  Those first days and weeks and months and years of a human life are vital in shaping how we encounter the world.  There’s strong evidence that the more we are held as newborns, the more likely we are to view the world as worth living in.  And it falls to our earliest care givers to help us take delight in the world, to experience it with wonder, to cultivate our abilities to see and experience the good and the beautiful and the exciting.  Imaginative play becomes central to developing these early skills, as evidence shows that children who are more playful are more likely to be show love, inclusivity, and generosity. 

According to Nussbaum, wonder becomes the key element in leading to compassion.  This is true developmentally—the better capacity we have developed for wonder as a child the more likely we are to be compassionate throughout life.  But it’s also true for the adult skill of compassion.  We are more likely to approach a person or situation with compassion if they or it evokes some of our wonder.

Wonder truly is a superpower that can save lives!

In her commentary on Isaiah’s vision, pastor Stacey Simpson Duke states, “Isaiah’s declaration stands in direct contrast to the terror and brutality that pervade our world.” 

When the world as we know it has ended and is starting anew, when things are uncertain, alarming, maybe even terrifying, Isaiah’s vision speaks, wonderfully, to God’s dream that the world can and will be a better, more peaceful, more just, more beautiful place. 

Yet, she acknowledges that it can be difficult for us to view this vision as applicable to us now.  Our lives are ravaged by lions.  Snakes coil hidden in our lives ready to strike.  Bears prowl.  Duke asks, “How is Isaiah’s word also a word of security for now, for people living in unstable and frightening times, and not just a word about a secure future?”

               The answer, she writes, is in the vision itself.  “According to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump.  Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life—a green sprig.”  And this, she reminds us, is how hope starts “it emerges as tiny tendril in an unexpected place.” 

               Something we might fail to notice if we have not cultivated our capacity for wonder, right?  Something we might fail to notice if we aren’t looking with the eyes of a child delighted with the world.

               Just as George Bailey didn’t see how good his life was, how full of meaning, how significant its positive effects on other people, until Clarence the Angel evoked his capacity for wonder.

               So, one of the keys to human flourishing, to living a desirable to life, to becoming more compassionate, to feeling our ways through uncertain and alarming times, is to find the wonder.  As the poet said, “find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.”

               This Advent, as you decorate for the holidays, as you prepare your gifts for loved ones, as you celebrate with friends, as you drive around at night and look at the Christmas lights, as you bake cookies, and sing carols, and snuggle by the fire with a warm mug of apple cider, use this as a time to cultivate your wonder, for the kind of life you desire depends upon it.


An Ending & A Beginning

And Ending & A Beginning

Luke 21:5-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 November 2022

            Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is noticeably different from everything else we’ve read this autumn.  It isn’t a parable.  It isn’t really a story about Jesus.  It is Jesus giving answers to questions about end of the world.  Particularly here about the end of the Temple and how that relates to the end of time and the coming reign of God.

            This sort of discourse is known as “apocalyptic.”  The common understanding of the word apocalypse suggests catastrophes at the end of time.  But the literal translation of the Greek word into English is “unveiling.”  Apocalyptic discourse, then, lifts back the veil to expose what’s really going on—how history and the cosmos really function as a contest between good and evil.

            So, with those words of introduction, let’s listen to Jesus:

            Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”  And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’  Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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.

            A month ago Katie and I were in Sioux City, Iowa for the Joint Annual Meeting of the Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa Conferences of the United Church of Christ, our denomination.  This was our first in person gathering since June 2019, so there was much warmth, joy, and celebration as we actually saw people in the flesh, rather than a Zoom box.  We got to hug and shake hands and share meals and drinks and laughter.  And you could just feel the strengthening of connections, the relaxing of tensions, the sense that we had come through some difficult days together.

            As usual, a table with books for sale was there in the exhibit hall.  I’m a sucker for such a thing, of course.  And I walked away with a small stack of books, including some new children’s books for our children’s library here at church.

            One volume I was deeply interested in, and have already read, is a collection of essays by prominent theologians entitled Doing Theology in Pandemics: Facing Viruses, Violence, and Vitriol

            In her foreword for the book, Pamela Lightsey states, “This book makes clear that a pandemic is a kind of apocalypse—a revealing.” 

            As I reflected on this idea and the ways it is fleshed out in the book’s essays, it became clearer that we’ve lived through an apocalypse in both senses of that word—a major catastrophe that ended the world as we knew it and a moment when the veil is pulled away and hidden truths are revealed.

            Think of what all was revealed.  The failures of governments and health care systems.  The health impacts of systemic racism.  The way different socio-economic classes were impacted.  How refugee meat packers and minimum wage store clerks died so that others could be safe and comfortable at home. 

How fraught and fragile our systems of childcare and education are.  How unprepared each of us was.  How at risk we were for mental illness, and how little prepared society was to support those needs.

How supply chains do and don’t work and what the impacts of those disruptions would be on normal life.  How workers had had enough and quit.  How sectors of our economy are now rapidly adjusting.

How much we can and cannot trust our family, friends, neighbors, or fellow citizens to put the common interest above self-interest.

And without all the normal escapes and distractions to occupy our attention, we were able to watch when George Floyd was murdered and so there was a massive uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, a major reckoning impacting every sector of society, and the ensuing backlash.

And in these years we’ve been compelled to pay more attention to the effects of the changing climate and how we’ve come so close to the brink of catastrophe so stupidly.  How governments seem incapable of effectively dealing with all of the major dangers we face.

And piled on top of all of that a rise in autocracy, a senseless and brutal war in Europe, and threats of more war in the Pacific.

“Permacrisis” was picked as the word of the year by a British dictionary.  I’ve also seen the word “polycrisis” recently. 

So, this reading from Luke, which a few years ago would have seemed to us kind of crazy, doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.

This summer, while on my sabbatical, I read a lot on how we as a community can be faithful and resilient as the climate changes and impacts everything about lives.  It was sobering reading, some writers more hopeful and comforting, and some less so.  The theologian Timothy Gorringe opened his book with the question, Is a dark age coming? And came to the conclusion: “I think we have to say that civilizational collapse is likely.”  His subsequent chapters do lay out what we might do to prevent it and what we should do to survive it, as faithful followers of Jesus.  His main advice is a “rigorous return to the traditions, practices, and virtues that Christians have nourished for so many centuries.”  For the small communities of the church to focus on being the church and doing what we do best because that’s what we can do “to keep human beings human in the dark ages already upon us.” 

He sounds a lot like the final verse from today’s Gospel, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Vital to our faithfulness will be remaining grace, generous, hopeful, and joyful in these times.  That is the gift from God we give ourselves, our fellow congregants, and the wider world.

The great theologian Rita Nakashima Brock contends that what has happened to all of us is a form of moral injury.  Our moral consciences have become “ungrounded from our pre-catastrophe identities.”  And while she provides some insights in how to care for ourselves and heal from the trauma, she also believes this apocalypse is an opportunity to change things for the better, and we absolutely must take the opportunity.

“How do we feel our way through an apocalypse?” asks Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard.  Because we’ve been living through the end of the world as we knew it, Sanders says we have been overwhelmed by fear, anger, and sadness.  All of these are appropriate emotions, but he worries that they might become pervasive moods.  In order to avoid that, we need to care for ourselves and one another.  We need to care for these emotions.  How?

First, he gives us a dose of reality—this “Isn’t the first ending the world has faced, and there are many endings yet to come.”  Which is the value of reading this crazy passage from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus’s listeners did live through apocalyptic times, when the Temple was destroyed, and then a generation later Jerusalem itself was laid waste.  Christians lived through the fall of Rome and the sacking of Constantinople.  My grandparents and great-grandparents dealt with world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu. 

In other words, we’ve been through these times before.  And we can look to the past for wisdom and guidance.  And be reminded that the world can be made otherwise, that we can create a better world, that times like these are also vital opportunities, and, thus, periods of hope and growth.

So, we need to cultivate other emotions that care for the fear, anger, and sadness, we are feeling.  We need to grieve our losses, we need to practice gratitude for our blessings, we need to cultivate a sense of wonder at what is good and beautiful in the world.  And he recommends that these skills are best acquired in communities, like the church. 

Where does Jesus leave his questioners and listeners?  In typical biblical fashion he reminds them, “do not fear.”  Be aware and be realistic of what is happening.  Times will be difficult, but we can do difficult things.  And the reason is because God is with you.  Jesus says he will give us the words and the wisdom we need.  And “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

As faithful followers of Jesus, we have felt all the emotions, as we’ve lived through this apocalyptic time.  We’ve been afraid, angry, and sad.  And as faithful followers of Jesus, we aren’t going to get stuck there, are we?  We have been grieving our losses and are cultivating a rich emotional and spiritual life, full of gratitude, wonder, generosity, and joy.  This is a time of opportunities, a time for vision and mission.  This is a new beginning, and we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  W are beloved children of God, called to serve, with gifts to give the world.   


Right Wing Paranoia

Today my latest Library of America volume was delivered--two books and some collected essays by historian Richard Hofstadter.  I decided to read a short essay entitled "The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style."  The title seemed timely, despite having been written in 1959.  It was an illuminating read, both for what has remained similar and for what has changed.

Hofstadter points out that the right wing is "organized into an extraordinarily large number of fanatical groups of indeterminable size," which seems to be mostly the same.  He adds that they sometimes will unite despite their differences, usually around a personality, like Senator McCarthy.  He states that it is between 10 and 15 percent of the population.

Two ideas seemed to be shared by right wing groups of the 1950's--"isolationism in foreign policy" and "a dogmatic insistence on laissez-faire liberalism in economic policy."  He adds that these are generally followed by "ethnic prejudice" and "a fanatically intense anti-Communism."  But what he thinks distinguishes the extreme right wing from its more intellectual members (like Bill Buckley) is the style of thought or frame of mind he calls "the paranoid style."

Intriguing to see what remains the same and what has altered on this list.  I'm sure he would be surprised to find pro-Putin apologists in the contemporary right wing, for instance.

The paranoid style has a number of features.  First is " the tendency to dwell upon the failures of the past rather than to work on programmatic proposals for the future."  Check.

Prejudice, is the second feature.  He lists anti-Black and anti-Jewish prejudice, noting that anti-Catholic prejudice was far less than it once had been given the common cause against communism by fundamentalist Protestants and fundamentalist Catholics.  Update some of the prejudices,  and check.

The third feature is that its spokespeople are "indignants."  He writes, "Their capacity for indignation is very high in proportion to their capacity for understanding of what is going on."  Check.

Next is "an awareness of their own victimization."  Check.

But the most important feature of the paranoid style is an emphasis on conspiracies.  Check, check, check.  He writes, "The imaginative artists of the right wing, who work in the paranoid style, never feel themselves to be in the grip of history: they are always in the grip of wicked persons."

In his final paragraph he says that they haven't had much political success apart from "making life miserable for thousands of their favorite scapegoats" and impairing "freedom of thought in America by their pressures on teachers, writers, and librarians."  Check those continuing negative outcomes, except for the fact that they did finally have electoral successes in the 21st century.  

He also says they are not fascists because they lack "the fascist determination or capacity to seize power."  Wrong about that one Hofstadter.  

And so he concludes, "For while they are unlikely to vault into a position from which they can govern, they are frequently in a position to hinder those who do govern from doing so with the wisdom and restraint that the times demand."


Doing Theology in Pandemics

Doing Theology in PandemicsDoing Theology in Pandemics by Zachary Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a profound essay that opens this volume, Rita Nakashima Brock contends that the pandemic "created the conditions for an apocalypse, an unveiling of moral truth in the midst of the collapse of powerful malevolent systems."

She goes on to write about how we have all experienced moral injury during the pandemic and confrontations against racial injustice and police brutality. Her essay is the best theological reflection I've read yet on the pandemic.

The other excellent essay in this collection is Cody Sanders's "Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse." He grapples with the emotions elicited from the end of the world as we know it. We care for our anger, fear, and sadness by cultivating wonder, gratitude, and grief, in community.

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The Art of Gathering

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It MattersThe Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A ministry colleague recommended this one, and I'm glad I read it. The book helps us to understand how to better host various types of gathering from a dinner party to a large conference, first by clarifying what the purpose of gathering is. Though not focused on church ministry, I think it would be helpful to other colleagues as well.

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A Beautiful Ending

A Beautiful Ending: The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Making of the Modern WorldA Beautiful Ending: The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Making of the Modern World by John Jeffries Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Modernity is rooted in the Apocalypse."

Martin, an historian, recounts the vital role that the apocalyptic imagination played in early modernity, which still affects us today. A fascinating book I'd recommend to folks interested in history, the history of ideas, and religious thought.

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Aztec Philosophy

Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in MotionAztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion by James Maffie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Life on earth is slippery because order and being are always sliding into disorder and nonbeing. The existence and well-orderedness of the things upon which humans depend slip away from under their feet, causing them to lose their balance and suffer pain, hunger, thirst, sorrow, disease, and death."

An at time dense and other time exciting (for example, the philosophical importance of sweeping with a broom) survey of Aztec metaphysics. Since reading an article by Maffie some years ago, I've wanted to understand Aztec thought better, because of this core idea that the world is constantly changing and that to live well is to develop balance. That seems more useful than the centrality of certain foundations and unchanging ideas in much Western thought.

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How to Be Perfect

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral QuestionHow to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My former nextdoor neighbor sent this to me thinking I would like it. And I did. Which isn't always the case when a professional read a book by an amateur writing for a general audience. But Schur is a wonderful writer who grasps this subject matter well and arranges it in a way that I don't think an academic philosopher would have been able to do. This, then, is a most helpful book for introducing philosophical moral reasoning. I heartily recommend it.

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Good, Hard Lessons

Good, Hard Lessons

Luke 16:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 September 2022

            “This is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables.”  So writes Brandon Scott, one of the foremost authorities on the parables.  As you listened I’m sure you thought it sounded weird.  Just know that the scholars and commentators feel the same.

            Amy-Jill Levine, that other scholar of the parables whom I like to draw upon, reminds us that the stories Jesus tells are often supposed to be disturbing.  And that we can get too lost in trying to find their “meaning.”  Instead, she asks us to “allow ourselves to be open to various interpretations” because then the parables can become tools “for good, hard lessons learned with a sense of playfulness.”

            With a playful attitude then, let’s try to unpack this story Jesus told.  Then we’ll try to make it mean something for us today.

            Brandon Scott says we run into problems with this parable when we make two interpretative mistakes at the beginning.  First, we have a tendency to turn parables into allegories and in this case that means we try to make the master into God.  But, clearly, that doesn’t work.  Which is one reason we are uncomfortable.  So, give up the notion of trying to make this allegory, trying to make it tell us something about God.

            The second mistake we make is reading our own capitalist economic system into the story.  That wasn’t the economic system of Jesus and his compatriots.  They existed in a very different system built upon patronage.  So, as Brandon Scott writes, “Capitalist assumptions obscure the social structure implied by the parable.”

            What social and economic system, then, is the story operating in? 

            Scott first points out some facts about the characters in the story.  These are men of wealth.  Wealth far in excess of anything the average person listening to the story would be familiar with.  The debts are also very large debts.  The characters can read and write, also not widespread in the time period.  These, then, are all wealthy elites and the person listening would have understood it as such.  This is a story, then, about how wealthy elites treat and mistreat one another.

            Now, the average listener would have been familiar with debts.  Usury was forbidden by the religious economic laws of Jesus’ time, but even that society had found ways around the laws and customs.

            And as a result, we know from historical sources, that many common landowners had lost their property to the wealthy because they were unable to pay their debts.  Many people who had been self-sustaining farmers had fallen to become tenant farmers.  Families that had once sustained themselves were now peasants.  Some were even sold into slavery.  The burdens of debt were massive in first century Palestine, and a wealthy elite had benefited from the system.  Brandon Scott reminds us, “The request to ‘forgive us our debts’ in the Lord’s Prayer is not an idle spiritual request, but a peasant’s plea of desperation.”

            The manager, then, in this story, seems to be the property manager for the truly rich guy who owns a lot and is gaining even more property because of these exorbitant debts.  The master might even be an absentee landlord, and the manager the one doing the real work of overseeing the properties and accounts. 

            But he isn’t an employee as we understand it in our current system.  The master would be his patron, and he would be a client.  Any power, authority, or wealth the manager has is because he is in the service of the master.  If the master dismisses him, the manager can’t simply go get another managerial job elsewhere, he has lost his patron.  And as the manager tells us in the story, if he loses his status, he fears he’ll be reduced to begging or digging in the mines.

            Patronage systems work by doing the bidding of those above you in the hierarchy.  You don’t have much freedom or agency unless you are on the top of the social pyramid. 

            So, what is it that the manager does when he loses his position?  He goes to the various folks who owe the master money, who haven’t yet heard that he’s been fired, and he reduces their debts to the master.  This is a way of getting back at the master, for the master will now lose his profits, and it is a way of currying favor with other potential patrons who might support this shrewd manager who saved them money.

            Where the story surprises both its original listeners and us, is that the logical outcome would be for the master to become furious when he learns of this scheme.  Instead, in the story Jesus told, the master praises the manager for his shrewdness.  And then Luke adds those strange comments to the end of the story.

            Brandon Scott writes that this ending makes it difficult for any of us to make sense of the story and what Jesus meant.  He then asks us to consider, “what if the strategy of the parable teller is to frustrate our efforts to fit it together, to make sense of it, to relieve its tension?”  Amy-Jill Levine would say that any meaning of the story slips away from us, inviting us to use our imaginations and engage playfully in meaning-making ourselves.  And in that process maybe learn some good, hard lessons.

            From my study and reading of this parable over the years as a pastor and teacher and simply as a faithful reader of the Bible, I’ve come to a way I understand it, that I offer to you today.

            Part of what’s going on here is that Jesus is making fun of the wealthy elites and the way they treat each other.  But he’s doing more than that.  If that alone were the goal, then he’d end the tale in the predictable fashion.  Instead, Jesus surprises the listeners with his ending.

            Which invites us to think about the entire social-economic system.  I think his original listeners were able to walk away puzzling about how strange and weird the patronage economy of their time was.  And in that puzzling, maybe begin to engage in criticism and imagination of something better.  What might that something better be?

            The clue is contained in the story itself.  What puzzles us is a strange act of grace.  Of unmerited, undeserved favor.  Power, debts, greed, shrewdness—those don’t surprise us.  What surprises is the strange, maybe even foolish, act of grace that ends the story.

            Maybe Jesus’ listeners then began to ponder—what would a social and economic system built around grace look like?

            One reason I think this is the direction we can head in listening to Jesus’ story, is that so many of the other stories he told seem to point in the same direction.  Many of the parables he tells about rich men, property managers, debts, money, income, etc. have really surprising outcomes.  But grace, as opposed to merit, desert, or what one has earned, seems to be a common theme.

            What then are we supposed to do with this story today then?  Clearly we don’t operate in a patronage socio-economic system.  We aren’t, generally, peasants losing our land to greedy landlords. 

            There’s an old adage that a sermon is best when it models the form of the story you are preaching.  Earlier this week I realized that the best way to approach this text, then, would be to craft my own parable that exposes absurdities in our own socio-economic system and invites us to imagine alternatives.  But I don’t think I’m that gifted of a story-teller.  Especially to write something so clever in just a few days.  After all, I’m not Jesus.

            But I do think that Jesus’ story can invite us to use our imaginations to think about how absurd our socio-economic system is.  Maybe reading about the disputes between Elon Musk and Twitter are a good example—elites treating each other poorly.  I invite you to think of your own examples.

            Because even if our economic system is an improvement upon the patronage and debt system of first century Palestine, I think we can all agree that our current system is clearly not an expression of the kingdom of God.

            There remains too much inequality, too much injustice, too much greed and exploitation.  It could be fairer, with more grace and generosity and kindness.

            This summer on my sabbatical I read a number of books on climate change.  Not about how the climate is changing, as that has become obvious, but more about what we can and should still do if we are to live resiliently and faithfully in this time of world history. 

            In one of those books, by the British theologian Timothy Gorringe titled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, he has a chapter entitled “Economics as if the Planet Mattered.”  Because, of course, it does.  The planet does matter.  But our current system isn’t very good at taking that to account. 

            He wants to return to the most basic sense of the word “economy,” which in its Greek origin means “household management.”  What do we need to do to properly manage our household?  What all is included in the household?  Does our circle of concern expand to all creation?

Gorringe invites us to consider the question “What is it that people need in order to live well?”  That seems like a key consideration for us as we try to live in this time as faithful followers of Jesus.

            Now, Jesus didn’t tell his story and then lay out a set of economic policies to be implemented.  And I’m not either today. 

            Instead, I believe Jesus wanted his faithful followers to start asking themselves such questions.  To begin criticizing what was wrong about the system they lived in.  To playfully imagine alternatives.  And then to start trying them out.  Make those changes in their own lives that they could make in order to further the values of a better, more gracious, more generous world. 

And I think that’s what Jesus wants for us, his faithful disciples today.  To imagine a better world.  And to do what we can in our daily activities to make a better world—kinder, more loving, more gracious.  A world where everyone and everything can live well.  Those are the good, hard lessons I believe we can take from this very strange story that Jesus told.


Initial thoughts on Bentham

I've begun reading Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation for the first time.  What an opening paragraph!

A few chapters in, my pre-existing opinions of Bentham are being affirmed.  

The theory has deep flaws because of a naïve understanding of human psychology and a complete obtuseness to some topics (he actually writes that no society ever created a plan to oppress and plunder).  But . . .

What he was trying to do in his time was so liberative and so ahead of its time.  When teaching him I often write on the board a list of views he held and how they'd locate him on the progressive left in 21st century America, much less 18th century Britain.

His basic intention was spot on--let's clear away all the clutter and free people up to live happy lives.  Can we all leaves such a legacy?

One more thing.  As far as a principle of legislation, as opposed to an ethical theory, it's difficult to argue for any better approach than the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest period of time.


The New Negro

The New Negro: The Life of Alain LockeThe New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A spirit lurks in the shadows of America that, if summoned, can launch a renaissance of our shared humanity. That is his most profound gift to us."

So glad to finally read this major, award-winning book. I spent most of my sabbatical summer, and then some, getting through it.

While there is much to commend this biography, it really feels too long, going too in depth into minutiae at times. And was at times repetitive, I think because of the challenge of a text so long. It needed serious editing.

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