Remnant

Remnant

Zechariah 8:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

25 July 2021

            Last week when Stephen and I were selecting hymns for this Sunday, I mentioned that a good fit for this text from Zechariah would be the hymn “Marching to Zion.”  But then I couldn’t find it in either of our hymnals.  Of course it was under a different name in the New Century Hymnal—our opening hymn today, “Come, We Who Love God’s Name.” 

            Now, if you look, there are actually two settings of this hymn in our hymnal.  The one we sang, number 379 set to the tune St. Thomas and also number 382 set to the tune Marching to Zion.  I grew up with the second setting.  Stephen the first setting.  That we sang Stephen’s preferred setting may say something about our professional relationship.

            While we were selecting the hymns I sang the other version for him—“Don’t know it at all,” he said.  “Must be a regional thing.” 

            I happened to notice that the setting I’m used to is in the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal which describes it as “lively” and “rhythmic” and “clearly for joyous Christians.”  So, I wish Stephen were here today so I could tell him that it’s not a regional thing.  One setting is for joyous Christians and the other setting is for the other type.

            Joy is what the prophet Zechariah wants to evoke.  His oracle celebrates with wonderful images the return of the people to life and land after the traumas of the exile.  There are images of fertility and agricultural plenty, of peace and justice, of prosperity and social strength.  I particularly enjoy the elderly people sitting in the streets watching the children play.  He imagines a time when no one will experience fear.

            Last year, only a few weeks into the pandemic, the great UCC bible scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book entitled Virus as a Summons to Faith in which he tried to draw upon the insights of the Old Testament to guide us in our moment of crisis.  In the foreword he wrote that “Humankind faces a pressing and daunting learning challenge.  We are called to learn how to peaceably relinquish the old world and how to imaginatively give birth to a new world in which all life can flourish.”

            He wrote about how catastrophes, particularly plagues, had impacted the writers of the Old Testament.  From the prophet Jeremiah he drew lessons on how to wait “until the dancing begins again.”  And from Isaiah about how to prepare for God’s new thing.  Brueggemann advised focusing on prayer and authored prayers to fit the moment.  He held out hope that despite the catastrophe, we might learn lessons about how to live better with one another and with creation.

            Zechariah’s vision of the joyful and peaceful remnant resonates with this hope we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic, that we will once again return to abundant life together.

            Yet, I can’t quite preach this text as I had planned to: we stand at a strange moment in this pandemic.  Many are vaccinated and have enjoyed returning to relatively normal life this summer.  As a society, we’ve looked forward to when enough people would be vaccinated and our kids will be, so that we could definitively move beyond the immediate crisis and into the longed-for future. 

            The efficacy of these vaccines and the speed of their development were such marvels.  Some people viewed getting the shot as a ticket to freedom and a return to life.  For others it is the fulfilment of a moral obligation, a way to demonstrate love of neighbor, a patriotic duty, or a civic good.  To me, it has been the excitement and adventure of being a part of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human species. 

            Yet, just on the verge of fulfilling our desires for restoration, the news grows dim again.  Already this week I saw people canceling and postponing events, yet again.  Some people began wearing their masks again.  Parents were discussing what to do about kids and school this autumn.  And now there’s the added frustration—do we have to go backwards when we were so close to victory?

            So, Zechariah’s vision of the future remains that—a vision of the future.  We aren’t quite yet at the joyful restoration of the remnant, when we no longer need to fear.

            This week, while remote working from Lake Okoboji, I read the book Radical Sacrifice by the English literary critic Terry Eagleton.  The book is about the concept of sacrifice and it’s meaning in the contemporary world, but along the way, he explores a handful of other, related topics.  For instance, in a discussion of love, he writes, “Mutual love has something of the contagiousness of mutual laughter, as the other’s delighted response serves only to enhance one’s own.”

            I thought about my excitement last January when I got my first shot.  It was like a year’s worth of anxiety and fear physically lifted off of my shoulders.  I did a lot of laughing.  And dancing.  And I went for a walk along the Field Club Trail listening to music by the Scissor Sisters and I couldn’t stop smiling.  Joy and love and excitement are contagious.

            From this discussion of love, Terry Eagleton moves on to the topic of giving and generosity.  He writes, “It is of the nature of God to be prodigal, ecstatic, overbrimming, one for whom excess is no more than the norm.”  He writes about how God’s squandering of God’s self creates a different and deeper economy. 

            Zechariah’s vision is about that.  Abundance, peace, joy, justice, faithfulness, prosperity, and playfulness.  God’s dream for God’s people is one of wild generosity, where we all get to join together in something new and wonderful.

            Eagleton goes on to describe how when we give each other a gift, we make meaning in the process.  We take some object and invest it with purpose and intention and meaning when we give it to someone else.

            That made me think of one of the gifts in my office.  It was given to me by some church members in Oklahoma City when I was leaving that congregation to come here eleven years ago.  This couple traveled around Oklahoma City and collected dirt in various shades of red and layered them in a jar so that I could take a little bit of Oklahoma with me.  In that way, they invested dirt with meaning.  And I can look at this jar with fondness and appreciation.  Love and joy are contagious.

            Zechariah encourages us to be strong, not to fear, to be faithful, for God is still at work, drawing us through this period of crisis, with a joyful and peaceful vision of what is yet to come.

            At the close of today’s worship we will sing the hymn “O Day of God, Draw Near.”  The biblical Day of the Lord brings judgement, but also peace and light.  We will sing, “Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid, the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.”

            And in the hymn we will sing in a minute, “O Holy City, Seen of John,” pay attention particularly to that third verse, “Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stayed, too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose ways are your own ways.”

            May we travel through our time of plague and crisis with vision, courage, and most importantly, joy.  Let us not become discouraged, so close to our goals.  Let us be faithful to the exciting and adventurous call of God to create a new and better world.


Seeing

Seeing

Zechariah 1:1-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 July 2021

            This summer our worship theme has been “Restore.”  After all the events of the last year and a half, we—as individuals, families, a congregation, and the wider society—are in a period of restoration and transformation.  And to aid us in our spiritual reflection upon this experience, we’ve turned to the stories of the ancient Judeans as they returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their society and culture. 

            Today we hear from the prophet Zechariah, who along with the prophet Haggai, encouraged the people in the building of the Temple.  Hear, now, the word of the Lord:

Zechariah 1:1-17

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying: The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.  Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me . . . and I will return to you . . .  Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.”  But they did not hear or heed me.  Your ancestors, where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever?  But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors?  

So they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as God planned to do.”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah: In the night I saw a man riding on a red horse!  He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.  Then I said, “What are these, my lord?”  The angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.”  So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, “They are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.”  Then they spoke to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.”  Then the angel of the Lord said, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?”  Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.  . . .  Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.  And I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.  Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.  Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.

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.

            Back in 2012, the youth group was on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Pat Lange, Emma Ferber, John Hodgson, and myself were the adult sponsors.  One day that week, our group went for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen, near Manderson, where we sat under the arbor and enjoyed our meal while looking out at the beautiful hills. 

            Bette, the owner of the restaurant, is a descendant of the Lakota holy man Black Elk.  I asked our guide if this was in fact Black Elk’s land, as I knew he had lived near Manderson.  The guide said that it was, and that Black Elk’s cabin still stood downhill from where we were sitting, in a grove of trees.  He pointed out the trail and invited me and others to walk down there.  A small handful of us did.

            When I moved here to Omaha eleven years ago, Bud Cassiday recommended that I read Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.  When I did, I was immediately struck by its power, beauty, and wisdom.  I’ve been something of a Black Elk fan ever since.  So I jumped at the chance to see the holy man’s cabin.

            The cabin was old and not maintained.  Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti.  I wish it were a preserved historical site like the homes of so many prominent persons.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting the cabin, taking in the view, and imagining the wise old man sharing his vision in this very spot.

            Black Elk’s Great Vision began with two men coming from the clouds carrying long spears from which lightning flashed.  He is summoned on a journey to meet the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World.  They tell him that he will receive power from the thunder beings and that they shall take him to the center of the world where he will see, and the sun will shine, and he will understand. 

On his journey, Black Elk defeats drought, who is a blue giant.  This victory brings rain upon the earth.  Black Elk plunges his red lightning stick into the ground and it becomes a tree of life in the center of the nation's hoop, bringing peace and abundance to the people.  The people chant and shout with joy.

Near the end of his great vision, he has this moment of epiphany:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.  And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.  And I saw that it was holy.

This is a great, holy, eschatological vision that we have not yet achieved—many hoops making one circle, humanity living in solidarity with creation, everyone being sheltered and provided for.

In their commentary on the book of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, Carol and Eric Meyers write,

The prophet ‘sees’ in the objects or persons around him meanings that transcend the normal qualities of those figures.  The prophet’s perception of reality is extraordinary.  The conventional properties of realia are transformed.

            Because the prophet sees things that others don’t, the prophet’s role is “to clarify in visions and oracles the world about him and to articulate a hopeful vision of the future.”

            Through new perception and insight, the prophet makes sense of the world and inspires future possibilities.  That’s what people need after a trauma, during a time of restoration.  This new perception is what Black Elk offers to the Lakota, what Zechariah offered to the Hebrew exiles, and what we in our own way require now in our own season of restoration.

            Zechariah’s visions may, when we initially read them, sound strange to us.  But that strangeness can evoke our sense of wonder, leading us to search for deeper understanding.  What do all these images mean?  Well, we honestly lack the ability to see and understand without a little expert guidance, so I’m thankful for the scholars who help us to figure things out.  

            Maybe the first aspect of the vision we notice is the nighttime setting.  It’s dark and the foliage would make it even darker.  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that myrtles are “dense shade-creating shrubbery.”  This is a “setting of darkness,” they write, in which it should be very difficult, if not impossible, to make out the color of horses or to see clearly what’s happening.  Yet, Zechariah does see.  That’s the significant thing—he does see in the dark. 

            Sometimes our life situations are too dark and difficult for us to see.  We wonder where God is?  If we can ever hope or love or rejoice again?  If there is any path forward?  If anything makes sense anymore? 

            In those moments we need the help of others who can see for us and who can help us to gain our own insight and perception.  There, even in the darkness, is something to draw our attention, that can help us move forward, that can restore us.

            So the first important lesson from the vision is gaining the ability to see in the dark.  But what is it that Zechariah sees?  First, a glen of myrtle trees.  In his commentary on this vision, Marvin Sweeney draws out the importance of the myrtle.  He writes that “Myrtles play a role in ancient mythologies” because of “their evergreen character.”  People believed that “their long roots reach to the depths of the subterranean waters.” 

            So, myrtles go deep, into the very depths of creation, where creation itself first overcame chaos. 

            After a time of trauma, when we are healing, we too must go deep into ourselves.  The healing begins by restoring our sense of self, by reconnecting with what’s important to us, by tapping into that higher power that helps us to transcend our current situation.

            There’s more to the myrtles.  They were also used in the Jewish festival of Tabernacles as part of the ritual.  Now, Tabernacles was the festival during which Solomon first dedicated the Temple and during which the restorers of Zechariah’s time will also rededicated their Temple.  During these religious celebrations, branches of the myrtle tree are used “to symbolize the rebirth of creation.” 

            So, according to Marvin Sweeney, the myrtles in Zechariah’s vision suggest going to the “center of creation and the cosmos” in order to experience “rebirth and new creation.”

            And then there are the horses Zechariah sees in his vision, inside the myrtle glen.  Horses who patrol the earth.  Carol and Eric Meyers write that “the horses with their riders go everywhere, see everything that needs to be seen.”  Horses, in the ancient world also conveyed the idea of speed.  That there are three horses represents totality.  So, the idea contained in this image is that God goes everywhere, is watching everything, sees all.  God has plans for the entire world.  The work that the Judeans are doing rebuilding the Temple is only a part of something much bigger than they realize.

            And what is God’s plan for the world? 

            Well, something that may unsettle us in the Book of Zechariah are the references to God’s anger.  When the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, they came to understand their history in this way—they had been disobedient and sinned, breaking the covenant, and that God had brought calamity upon them.  Now, we don’t usually share their interpretation of trauma and suffering, but we do understand how this is a narrative that a traumatized people might use in order to cope with their circumstances. 

            Let’s sit with their explanation for a moment to better understand it.  What did they think God was angry about?  What had their ancestors failed to do?  What was the disobedience that brought about the calamity?

            Well, for Zechariah, as it was for Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and so many of his predecessor prophets, God’s anger was directed at injustice.  In chapter seven of Zechariah, we read:

Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

            Breaking these rules is what angered God.  And what did God do?  First God sent prophets to appeal to the people and call them to change.  But when the people still didn’t listen, God acted to end the injustice.

            So, if we sit a while with the ancient Judean view of God’s anger, we might find that it does resonate with us.  We too want God to act against injustice.  We too want a world where there is no oppression, where truth and kindness and mercy are the order of the day.  Right?

            But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there.  In his nighttime vision there’s another vital piece.  God’s no longer angry; God is compassionate. 

So, even if these exiles used God’s anger to explain what had happened to them, they are by this time beginning to move beyond that explanation to a different understanding.  In their new understanding God is compassionate and God is comforting the people.

            The great bible scholar Phyllis Trible in her classic work God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, helped us all to understand that the Hebrew word for compassion originates in how a mother nurtures her baby.  So, when Zechariah declares that a compassionate God is comforting the people, you should picture God as divine mother, soothing her crying child. 

            So, now that we’ve followed some expert help, we can see and understand better.   Zechariah’s vision, when we initially read it, seemed strange to us.  But when we open our eyes, when we develop the ability to see, what is revealed is a wonderful vision of hope, healing, and future possibilities. 

            The vision began in darkness and rises up into comfort.  Here’s a lesson for us: When we are troubled, hurt, and traumatized, we can’t see the path forward, the world does not make sense, we are on the verge of losing our hope—

            But God is working in the darkness and the depths, seeing all, and transforming all, in order to bring about justice, compassion, and comfort.

            The theologian Serene Jones, in her writing on trauma, states that the ability to wonder is “the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.” 

            Zechariah and Black Elk both teach us to wonder at the strange things they see.  Wondering breaks us open to new possibilities, which is part of healing and restoration.  Serene Jones writes, “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”

            So, even when it’s dark, let’s look at what is happening around us, and be open to what it might teach.


Intersectionality

Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, HorizonsIntersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons by Anna Carastathis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A thorough, informative, and compelling discussion of intersectionality. Kimberle Crenshaw's original writings introducing the metaphor are carefully interpreted. They are also situated within a long tradition of Black feminist thought. Carastathis also considers a wide variety of criticisms and later developments of the idea. And she supplements it with decolonial ideas of Gloria Anzaldua, Andrea Smith, and Maria Lugones in ways that are really compelling. This is a heavy academic work, full of theory, but if you are interested in understanding this concept of Critical Race Theory more in-depth, I'd recommend the book.

View all my reviews

Called to Freedom

Called to Freedom

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones Royal Lane Baptist Church

4 July 2021

Hello friends.  It has been sixteen years since I preached from this pulpit and eleven since I consecrated Barrett and Jackie’s wedding here.  So it is good to be home today with you.

I bring you greetings from the First Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska, where I have pastored these last eleven years.  And from your fellow Christians in the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ.

This being Independence Day, I have selected for my text one of Saint Paul’s great proclamations of freedom, found in the letter to the Christians in Galatia.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

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.

               So, the congregation I pastor in Omaha, First Central Congregational, is the oldest Protestant congregation in Omaha and one of the oldest in the State of Nebraska.  We were founded in 1856 by a small band of pioneers who imagined that someday Omaha would be a major city on key trade routes and that it needed the presence of good, faithful people.  Those early founders, besides being boosters for the new territory, were also abolitionists, who came to ensure that when the territory voted on whether it would be slave or free, that they would vote for it to be a place of freedom.  This pioneering, pilgrim, prophetic spirit has never left this old and venerable church.

            And that congregation, because of its rich history, has an extensive archive.  Occasionally I have a reason to look at the old ledge size membership books, which are kept in special boxes and you have to wear special white gloves when handling them.  As a history geek, I’ve relished exploring those archives and learning more about my congregation, its ministers, and prominent lay people.

            A few years ago I found the sermon that one of my predecessors, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes preached at First Central on Reformation Sunday, October 31, 1948 entitled, “Why We Are Protestants.”  I’ve come to cherish that sermon and rely upon it to express some of the deep values of the congregation I serve, values I know Royal Lane shares as well. 

According to Dr. Janes there are four key Protestant values—salvation is by individual faith and not mediated through the church, the significance of religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, and the holiness of ordinary life.  Of course, these four values hang closely together, but today, being Independence Day, I want to talk about religious liberty.

Religious liberty has become a controversial topic in our society.  In recent years, various segments of conservative Christianity have begun to defend their discriminatory actions by claiming their religious freedom.  Because of this, many younger people seem to view religious liberty as a problem, instead of a cherished value.  All of this alarms me. 

So, I think it is important for us to explore this topic.  What is religious freedom and how should we as people of faith understand this current debate?  

To begin answering that question, let me first return to that 1948 sermon by Dr. Harold Janes.  This is his description of religious liberty as understood by our Protestant tradition:

[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth.  Each group sees a part of the truth.  “We know in part,” as Paul said.  Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives.  Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

This is a rich passage, and in order to better understand all these ideas, I want to return to the Epistle lesson for today, from Galatians, for it is also the passage that Dr. Janes quoted in his 1948 sermon.  This passage comes as Paul is arguing for the freedom of grace as opposed to what he calls the slavery of the law.  Followers of Jesus, according to Paul, do not need to be bound by obedience to the law because they live according to grace and love.  We are free, not having to earn our salvation by work and effort.  But our freedom is not license to do whatever we personally want.  Our freedom is shaped by love, the kind of self-sacrificial love revealed in Jesus.  The kind of love that respects and values our sisters and brothers.

The great Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, wrote:

Now Christianity is [a] true democracy, because in a Christian state everyone would think as much of his neighbor as he does of himself.  The Christian is the [person] who through the indwelling Spirit of Christ is so purged of self that he [or she] loves . . . neighbor as . . . self.

Barclay then picks up on Paul’s final statement:

In the end Paul adds a grim bit of advice.  “Unless,” he says, “you solve the problem of living together you will make life impossible and unlivable at all.”  Selfishness in the end does not exalt a [person]; it destroys him.

As both Dr. Janes and William Barclay point out, our Christian tradition of liberty is rooted in the love of neighbor, the removal of selfishness, and humility about our own views.  Liberty, then, is a form of love towards others that enables us to live together.  This is the essential quality of religious freedom.

When the Pilgrim and Puritans, the spiritual ancestors of my current denomination the United Church of Christ, came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith.  However, once they arrived, they weren’t so good about passing along that same freedom to others.  This was particularly a problem for the Puritans.  They went to war with the Natives.  Burned some they thought were witches.  Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority.  And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty and the founder of the first Baptist congregation in America.  I’ve always been proud of my own ancestors who were on the Mayflower and those who left with Roger Williams because they believed in liberty.

            Roger Williams is the key early American person who promoted the equal liberty of conscience.  For Williams the core problem was the same as that which St. Paul referenced— how are we to live together in love.  Williams was troubled by the settlers’ treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority.  He was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be “infinitely precious” demanding respect from everyone.

Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be

imprisoned.”  Therefore, it is essential for consciences to have that breathing space.  In a just society, everyone will respect each other’s conscience, and give each other space.

From these Baptist ideas would develop the American tradition of religious liberty.   Should you want to read a history of the development of that tradition and all its complexities, I highly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality.  In it she presents the six principles that have guided America’s complicated history balancing religion with the public life of a pluralistic democracy.

Essential to the American tradition derived from Roger Williams is the idea of a public space in which everyone’s views are allowed to interact.  For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect.  It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary.  It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else.  Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right.  You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience.  Or, as St. Paul put it in the letter to the Galatians, quoting an even more ancient text, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And this, my friends, is why I’m so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept “religious freedom.”  Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.  Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty.  They are hostile to it.

It is brazen dishonesty to wrap biases in the language of religious freedom.  It risks substantial harm to the Republic.  To the entire American democratic experiment.  And even to the Christian gospel.

It is Orwellian to use a term to describe its exact opposite.  This dishonesty must be resisted.

Dr. Harold Janes warned in 1948, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”

Religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same.

Now, that does not mean that these issues are simple.  They are in fact quite complex, with broad gray zones that can be difficult to interpret.  Legislators and judges must constantly examine those areas where the values of our society create complexity and conflict.  They must examine and decide with reason and compassion, nuance and patience.

The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us.  It is a social practice.  It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves.  It manifests in kindness and hospitality.  It is guided by humility and generosity.  For it is rooted in the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And, as such, the equal liberty of conscience then develops into a robust defense of human and civil rights.  Because we value religious liberty and the rights of conscience, even of those who are different from ourselves, we fight to end racism, for Native American rights, the equality of women, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and persons who are transgender.

As Paul so clearly stated: You were called to freedom.  Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence.  Love one another.


New Realities

New Realities

Malachi 4:1-3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 June 2021

            This summer our worship theme is “Restore.”  We are ourselves living through a season of restoration, as many aspects of our lives return after more than a year of distance and isolation.  We are also doing new things and creating a new normal, both restoring and transforming the lives we once had and the lessons we learned during the worst of the pandemic.

            And that pandemic along with the reckoning for racial justice, violence in our streets, the tumultuous election, the attempted insurrection, and more have left a collective trauma upon us and really every person in the world.  How do we heal and grow from these experiences we’ve been through?

            To explore these concerns, we’ve turned to stories in the Hebrew scriptures about the return from exile of the Jewish people as they worked through their collective trauma and tried to restore their society, their culture, their religious faith.  Our reading has opened up insights on the emotions and resilience and courage.  But also some lessons in what not to do, especially the tendency of traumatized people to hurt others.

            Today, we read a passage from the Book of Malachi, and I want to use it as a launching pad to explore the importance of imagining and enacting new realities as part of the process of healing.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Malachi 4:1-3

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.  You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.  And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

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.

 

            This oracle of the prophet invites the people, invites us, to use our imaginations.  Let’s imagine a day burning like an oven—no stretch for us who have endured some awful heat the last month.  On this day, God’s justice will arrive.  The wicked and the evildoers will meet their just rewards.  And the righteous will go out leaping because a new day has dawned, bringing healing.

            Don’t you like the image “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings”?  We can picture it.  Even sing about it.  It’s an evocative image of newness, hope, possibility.

            And this imagining of a new, good, joyful reality is what I want to focus on today, as we continue to explore the theme of Restore.

            One of the best books I’ve read on trauma and healing is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.  There was a point this last winter when in a few weeks four different people mentioned the book in conversation, so I finally thought, “I’d better read that.”  And it is a thorough, informative look at the way trauma affects our bodies and various approaches to healing.

            In the early chapters of the book, Van Der Kolk explains what research has revealed about trauma and its impacts on our minds and bodies.  That research has shown how dramatically it can affect us, reorienting our minds and deeply impacting our ability to live well.  He writes,

We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.  This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.

            Van Der Kolk then goes on to explain further,

Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions.  It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.

            In detail in the book, he discusses these impacts and how a traumatized person can begin to view everything in their reality through the lens of the negative experience.  And how this can damage their relationships and sense of well-being.

            Brain research has shown how trauma physically impacts the brain.  He writes, “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.”

            One of my favorite quotes to use, that has often shaped my preaching and ministry, comes from St. Irenaeus—“The glory of God is a humanity fully alive.”  Another is our Reformed teaching that the chief end of humanity is to “glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.” 

            To live fully, with enjoyment and glory, to be our best selves—these are central ideas in Christian theology and in my own approach to ministry. 

            But the research on trauma studies shows how difficult that can be for people who have experienced real trauma, those who suffer from various forms of PTSD.  Or those who have been traumatized by poverty, injustice, and oppression.  Plus, all of us experience less debilitating forms through grief, depression, illness, loss, or the even the world events of the last year and a half. 

            And so we face a spiritual challenge.  To develop resilience, to hope, to heal, to rise up again.

            This brief passage from the Book of Malachi contains one of the ways we do that—through imagining and then living into new realities.

            Here’s what Bessel Van Der Kolk writes about the importance of imagination:

Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives.  Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting.  Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true.  It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.

            Since trauma compromises the ability to imagine, it can have devastating effects on our well-being and our enjoyment of life.  So, part of healing from trauma is learning to imagine again.  For imagining, over time, can actually heal the brain.

            But if our ability to imagine is compromised, how do we start to imagine new realities? 

            Another book I’ve read recently on healing from trauma, by Mark Wolynn, emphasizes the importance of having new experiences and how practicing those new experiences slowly retrains the brain.

            How many of you were a nervous the last few months the first time you were in a crowd, or went to a restaurant, or took your mask off around other people?  Yet once we did those sorts of things, we became a little less nervous and took bigger steps. 

            Wolynn emphasizes the value of new experiences that “engage our sense of curiosity and wonder.”  Also those that bring “comfort or support, or feeling compassion or gratitude.”  He writes,

On a neurophysiological level, each time we practice having the beneficial experience, we’re pulling engagement away from our brain’s trauma response center, and bringing engagement to the other areas of our brain, specifically to our prefrontal cortex, where we can integrate the new experience and neuroplastic change can occur.

            So, we begin to rewrite the brain as we have these new positive experiences that help us to imagine new realities.

            Last week I had a most marvelous experience.  I drove back home to Miami, Oklahoma for their first ever Pride Festival.  Miami, Oklahoma—my birthplace and hometown and the place four generations of my family lived—has a population around 12,000 and is located in the northeastern corner of the state.  I was thoroughly shocked about a month ago when someone sent me a Facebook post about their upcoming Pride Festival in Riverview Park.  At first I donated some money to the effort, but pretty quickly realized that young Scotty Jones would not forgive grown up Scott if he didn’t go to this event.

            Riverview Park, where the Festival was held, was the site of so many events in my childhood and adolescence—family reunions, church picnics, Independence Day fireworks, and more.  But here I was, in this place of such rich memory, watching drag queens perform and trans kids march. 

            Hundreds of people showed up.  There were twenty or more vendors.  A large area for crafts.  Bouncey houses for kids.  Food trucks.  And a performance stage that ran all afternoon.  I sat on my lawn chair in the shade with one of my high school teachers and everyone who stopped by said, “Did you ever imagine this would happen?”  And the answer was, of course, “No.”  But here it was.

            Someone did imagine it.  And they then made it real.  And here, in an unlikely place, a new reality came into being.

            And I’ve watched this week on the Facebook group organized around the event as parents have posted pictures of bringing their queer kids to this, their first ever Pride, and what a good and affirming and welcoming experience those kids had.  In Riverview Park in Miami, Oklahoma.

Mark Wolynn does give us some particulars about what we need in order to imagine new realities.  He writes,

We will need sentences, rituals, practices, or exercises to help us forge a new inner image.

            Aha!  Worship!  Church!  Prayer!  Spiritual practice!  We already come equipped with tools of hope and healing.  We can sing a hymn like “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,” and that singing, that physical act of our bodies, helps to rewire our brains.  Or we read passages from ancient scripture that invite us to imagine “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” and something happens in our prefrontal cortex that helps us to develop courage and strength. 

            And so this place becomes a sanctuary, where we are safe and comforted.  In this space, we hear and say and sing good words.  We see beautiful images.  We encounter encouraging, smiling faces.  And we begin to imagine, and our brains begin to change, and our bodies begin to relax, and new realities begin to emerge, and healing is possible.

            I return to Bessel Van Der Kolk, who writes that for people to heal, they need to have experiences “rooted in safety, mastery, delight, and connection.” 

            Then, he adds, “to be welcomed into a world where people delight in them, protect them, meet their needs, and make you feel at home.”

            I experienced that last week in Miami, Oklahoma—when home felt even more welcoming. 

            And I experience that here every week—a place of comfort, support, and delight.  Where God brings healing as we make this home a new reality.


Upheavals of Thought

Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of EmotionsUpheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the last month I have been engrossed in this over 700 page treatise on the emotions. And it is a brilliant masterpiece. I've read so many of Nussbaum's books but hadn't ever ventured this major work until this spring as I'm dealing with my own emotional turmoil around my divorce. It seemed a perfect time to connect my academic interest with personal need.

And what a great fit this book was. Despite it's intellectual rigor it is a an eloquent, emotional, engaging read. A true literary work, which few philosophical masterpieces achieve. One only wishes that this was more widely read.

View all my reviews

Danger!

Danger

Ezra 7:25-28

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

20 June 2021

            Last week we read from the book of the prophet Haggai as he encouraged the people to finish rebuilding the Temple after they had returned to Judea from exile in Babylon.  This week we get the story of the priest and scribe Ezra.  Some decades after the Temple was rededicated, Ezra was commissioned by a new Persian king to lead yet another band of exiles back to Judea in order to purify religious practice.  Our text today begins with part of the proclamation of the Persian king Artaxerxes and concludes with Ezra’s own recorded thoughts on this commission.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Ezra 7:25-28

“And you, Ezra, according to the God-given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them.  All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment.”

Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers.  I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.

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.

 

 

            When the Babylonians conquered Judah, they took the elite members of society as hostages back to Babylon.  They left a remnant of Jews in the land, mostly poor peasants.  Some of those people eventually left Judea and traveled to Egypt and formed a new Jewish community there in the town of Elephantine, where they even constructed a Temple.  And so for a couple of generations there were at least three different Jewish communities—the old elite living in Babylon, the peasants left in Judea, and the group of refugees who’d traveled to Egypt.  And each developed independently their own understanding of the faith and culture. 

            What comes down to us in the Old Testament is primarily the faith and culture developed by the exiles in Babylon.  We know about the Jewish community in Egypt because of modern archaeological discoveries.  The Egyptian Jews seem to have developed a more pluralistic, cosmopolitan culture and faith.  While the Babylonian Jews formed a more tight-knit community centered on the written word.  It is the Babylonian Jews who finally wrote down and edited and treasured the texts that later formed the canon of Hebrew Scriptures and gave birth to Judaism as it’s been known through the millennia.

            When the exiles in Babylon returned to Judea, they encountered people who had lived in the land throughout that time but they didn’t recognize them as Jews.  These poor peasants continued to practice the faith and culture that had been handed down to them, but they had missed out on the developments of the faith that had occurred among the exiles.  Plus, they had learned to live with the other people around them, including marrying and having children.  The returning exiles viewed the remnant in the land as practicing an impure, unfaithful version of the faith. 

            But for the first generation or so that didn’t matter too much.  The focus of the first returnees was on restoring some sort of society and rebuilding Jerusalem. 

            So, after the Temple had been rebuilt, Ezra, who was a priest and scribe living in Babylon determined that he should organize a group to return to Judea and institute proper worship.  He received the backing of King Artaxerxes for his effort.  He organized a group of priests and Levites and had them prepare themselves for a spiritual mission.  They viewed themselves as a new Exodus.

            And when they got to Jerusalem, they were shocked by what they encountered.  The faith and culture were not pure.  It was not focused sufficiently on the Hebrew Torah that had been written down while in exile.  Even the earlier returnees had grown laxer in their practice and had begun to intermingle with the non-exiles and foreigners. 

            Ezra, using the authority he had received from the Persian emperor, set out to rectify the situation.  To educate people about the true faith.  To impose proper rituals upon the Temple worship.  And to rid society of its foreign elements.

            And right about here, if not before, you should be sensing the danger of what’s to come.  For Ezra is one of the most complicated figures in our religious heritage.  On the one hand, Ezra is largely responsible for the Hebrew text we are able to read today.  He and his scribes valued the written word.  They accumulated, preserved, and edited the texts that had been written down before them.   And they wrote much of it themselves.  If we are “people of the Book” it is because we are spiritual descendants of Ezra.

            And of course this accomplishment, centering the Hebrew faith upon written text, moral commands, and religious practices, gave birth to Judaism as a faith that has survived the millennia, despite much war, violence, persecution, and being spread around the globe.  Of all the ancient cultures of the near east, it is the one people group whose literature and faith survives into the modern day.  And Ezra is a key figure in that story of survival.

            But, Ezra is also something of a fundamentalist.  Unlike the prophet Haggai who we read last week, Ezra’s was not a universal vision.  Both visions are present in the Hebrew Scriptures.  One tradition inclusive of diversity and another that is not, but is exclusive, focused on purity.  Ezra falls within that second group.  He wanted to purify the faith and the people and to exclude all the elements which posed a danger to the long-term survival of the Jewish people.

            And so what Ezra did is he required that all the returned exiles, including those who had already been living in Judea before he returned, to divorce their non-exile wives and set aside their children from those marriages.  So any wives who were foreigners or any wives from the old remnant of people who had lived in the land.  The returning exiles were only able to remain legally married to other returned exiles. 

            On one day he gathered all the people together and all the men were compelled to take this action.  The wives and the children were set aside and disinherited.  And no surviving texts record for us what happened to them.

            This is one of the truly terrifying stories contained within our Bible.  Even if we work to understand it, it horrifies us.  As it should.

            We get that this was a traumatized people, trying to do something new and move on from their trauma.  And research shows how fears of the other can manifest themselves in traumatized people.  I talked two Sundays ago, when we started this summer worship series, that these ancient forebears didn’t always succeed at creating something better.  Sometimes they failed and created more trauma.  And this is the clearest example of the ways in which a traumatized people can traumatize others.  So it’s important that we rumble with these stories in order to learn.  And in this instance what we learn is what not to do.  Not to focus on purity in a way that excludes and leads to division and violence.

            Back in the winter Katie introduced us, via Zoom, to one of her professors Rachel Mikva who talked to us about her book Dangerous Religious Ideas.   This is an excellent book, that I highly recommend.  We still have some copies in the church office too, if you’d like to purchase one.

            In the book Mikva explores how key religious ideas can be good, vital, and helpful to our spirituality, yet also have dark sides that can be exploited in ways that lead to harm.  She explores these ideas in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Ultimately she is focused on how all of us can and should develop a self-critical faith, so that we can handle these dangerous ideas.

            The two dangerous ideas she spends most of the book on are scripture and chosenness.  Ezra is a key figure in both of these ideas.

            Why is scripture a dangerous idea?  She writes, “As long as there is scripture, people will wield the word as a weapon against each other in order to justify their own biases.  As long as there is scripture, we have to reckon with the painful silences of those voices left out of the canon.  As long as there is scripture, some people will turn their back on other God-given ways of knowing.”

            Having myself grown up in a tradition that was overtaken by fundamentalists who insisted on the inerrant and infallible word of God and that their interpretations were the authoritative and correct ones to the exclusion of all others, I know how dangerous scripture can be.  The Bible can become a weapon.  And as a gay may I’ve been clobbered by fundamentalists abusing scripture.

            Scripture doesn’t have to be this way, of course.  We can have a critical faith, that weeds out what is terrifying and unethical, and treasures what is good and just and loving.  Scripture inspires us to be our best, helps us to make sense of the world, comforts our sorrows, shapes a community with a mission to others. 

            So, I’m grateful for those teachers and professors and scholars who early in my life helped me to understand the dangers of mishandling scripture and how to embrace a more open and vital faith.

            It is easier for us to see how the religious idea of chosenness can be dangerous.  As Mikva writes, even the Hebrew prophets saw and warned about “complacency, chauvinism, and parochialism” that can result.  And we’ve seen throughout history how campaigns for purity lead quickly from exclusion to violence. 

            So, is there any good side to chosenness?  Over the centuries Judaism came to understand the idea of being “God’s chosen people” not that they had some special identity separate from other nations, but that they were given a responsibility to bring peace and healing to the world. 

            Which is closer to Haggai’s vision, not Ezra’s.

            What should we learn, then, from reading a text like the Book of Ezra?  I think rumbling with our stories can teach us what not to do as much as it can what to do.  Reading this story invites us to empathize with the characters we encounter.  What horror did the divorced wives and children experience?  What were the feelings of the men forced to divorce their wives and cut off their kids?  Can we even get into the mind of Ezra and understand what might lead someone to do such an awful thing? 

            As we try to empathize and understand a story like this, we learn and grow our emotional capacity, and we develop a self-critical faith.  Which we can then apply to our own lives and situations.  And maybe develop ethical principles to guide us in considering the hot button issues of our time, like how to treat transgender children or migrants at the border.

            As we are engaged in our own season of restoration and transformation, let’s beware of the dangers that lie ahead even during this season.  Let’s not be tempted into the paths revealed in this story.  But let’s instead be inspired by the universal, inclusive, compassionate vision we also find in scripture.  So that we might lay a foundation for a better future for all.


Take Courage

Take Courage

Haggai 2:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 June 2021

            In her latest best-selling memoir Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes about “the cost of living a brave, openhearted life.”

            She writes,

            I am a human being, meant to be in perpetual becoming.  If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths.  My goal is not to remain the same but to live in such a way that each day, year, moment, relationship, conversation, and crisis is the material I use to become a truer, more beautiful version of myself.  The goal is to surrender, constantly, who I just was in order to become who this next moment calls me to be.  I will not hold on to a single existing idea, opinion, identity, story, or relationship that keeps me from emerging new.  I cannot hold too tightly to any riverbank.  I must let go of the shore in order to travel deeper and see farther.  Again and again and then again.  Until the final death and rebirth.  Right up until then.

            Glennon Doyle rose to fame first as an evangelical mommy blogger and memoirist who developed a large following of readers, primarily other evangelical moms.  Over time she organized her audience into a massive philanthropy.  And she kept evolving.  Four years ago, I was surprised that she was one of the keynote speakers of our United Church of Christ General Synod.  At the time I’d never heard of her, not falling into the evangelical mommy demographic myself.

            But by then Glennon had radically altered her life.  She had divorced her husband, fallen in love with and married the soccer great Aby Wambaugh, left evangelicalism and joined Naples UCC (which is pastored by my friend Dawson Taylor), and awoken to social justice activism.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed her talk at General Synod and then heard her again at the Iowa Conference meeting in 2018. 

            This latest memoir recounts how she so radically transformed her life and the spiritual and emotional resources she drew upon to live a brave, openhearted, untamed life. 

            She claims that transformation is always on-going and that we must develop the ability to courageously let go of the past in order to move openly into the future.  This work is not easy either spiritually or emotionally.  But wholehearted living is the result of overcoming our fears and living courageously.

            The prophet Haggai proclaims in his oracle that the people are to take courage and not fear.  They are to be strong, but it is an emotional and not a physical strength that is called for.  What they need is spiritual courage to complete the task of rebuilding the Temple.  And the prophet is the one encouraging them with vision, hope, and inspiration.  [A note: my interpretation of this passage relies heavily upon the commentary by Carol and Eric Meyers.]

            Last week we read the proclamation of the Persian emperor Cyrus allowing the Jewish people to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  But now a number of years have passed and the restoration has not yet been accomplished.  Now under a new Persian emperor, Darius, and a new Jewish governor, Zerubbabel, the work is renewed, largely at the instigation of Haggai and his oracles of encouragement.

            When the people returned to Jerusalem they faced many challenges—rebuilding a society, providing for themselves, acquiring resources, fending off opponents, and more.  The rebuilding of the Temple had started but not been completed.  And so Haggai, much like the old prophets before him, receives a word from God that he then proclaims to the people.  And this is a call to take up the work again, to rebuild the temple, and to see it to completion.

            And it seems that Haggai was successful.  Because of his preaching, the rebuilding began anew and it was completed in a short time and the new Temple was dedicated.  Some scholars believe that the written book of Haggai which we have today was prepared for the dedication ceremony and was read aloud as a reminder to the people of who and what had inspired them to do the work.

            Part of the task of the prophets was to help people comprehend their experiences, including the suffering and trauma they had encountered.  And then to help them to face the challenging tasks of restoration.  In order to do that, Haggai had to ease their uncertainty, help to clarify their world, and then provide hope.  From this the people would develop the emotional strength to carry on this work. 

            The passage I read a moment ago from the Book of Haggai most scholars believe came a few months into the work on the Temple, when people began to see what they were building and began to have doubts and to lose their energy and focus.  The purpose of this oracle was to inspire them to keep at the task, to renew their energy.

            And so Haggai raises a question.  It seems that as the people have watched the new Temple arise from the ruins of the old one that they’ve begun to question its glory.  Surely the new Temple does not match the glory of the old Temple built by Solomon.

            Now, at first glance this seems to be about a physical comparison.  That some in the crowd believe that this new building isn’t as grand and beautiful as the old one.  But we would misunderstand this proclamation if we understood the question this way. 

            The fact is, it is very unlikely that anyone physically present at this rebuilding of the Temple would have seen and remembered the old one.  It had been almost 70 years since the old Temple was burned.  And life expectancies in this era, especially of a traumatized, exiled people, were not that long.  Almost two full generations, according to the ancient reckoning, had passed.  So maybe the workers’ grandparents had seen the Temple?

            What’s more, almost none of those grandparents would have seen anything but the exterior.  Only the priests could enter the Temple building and only the High Priest into the Holy of Holies.  Even the old Temple of Solomon was rather plain on the outside.  The ornamentation and the gold, silver, and bronze embellishments were mostly on the inside.  So, any physical comparison is highly unlikely, except that maybe the people have read about the original Temple and what they see rising around them doesn’t fit the description?

            It’s also the case that by the time the Babylonians burned the Temple, much of its treasures were long gone, stolen by various other invading armies over the centuries.  So even before the conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple had long not been as glorious as what the ancient historians recorded at the time of Solomon.

            So, what might the people have in mind if they were grumbling about it not matching a former glory?  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that the people would remember that the old Temple had been a part of the royal complex of Jerusalem.  It had been imagined by King David and built by his son Solomon.  Their royal descendants maintained the Temple.  And stories of kings are often connected with the Temple, like the restoration of the Temple in the reign of the boy king Josiah.

            What is different this time is that Judea has no king.  No king is building this Temple, the people are.  No king has conquered other territories and is bringing back their riches to adorn the Temple.  There aren’t the great trade alliances of the past, by which goods and artisans arrive in the city to help with construction.  The new Temple, then doesn’t reflect the royal and national glory that the people once had.  They are not independent, they are ruled by a vast empire headquartered far away, and they are but a small and lowly piece of a much larger puzzle. 

            And, so, the challenge for the prophet Haggai is to inspire the people to find glory in a new way.  Not in the old ways of the kingdom.  In fact, Haggai has already engaged in a bold act of people-making.  He has already inspired and organized the people to do something that they once relied upon a monarch to do.  They are building the Temple. 

            Haggai is forming a new national identity, centered not on a monarch or a political structure, but around religious faith and moral demands.  A new Jewish identity focused on God.  And as such, Haggai is vital to the develop of Judaism throughout the millennia, helping to turn it from only the faith of a small ethnic group, into a global faith focused on religious practice and moral living.

            Haggai had a universal vision.  He basically tells the people—“If you build it, they will come.”  He believes that once the Temple is built, God will use it as an instrument to bring the world together in peace and abundance.  The Temple will become the center not of a new, small nation, but of an international community of peace.

            And God will bring this about.  Because God is not only the sovereign of the Jewish people but is the divine ruler of all.  No matter how good, wise, and benevolent the Persian emperors Cyrus and Darius are, God’s rule is even better.  Here is how the Meyerses describe this idea in their commentary on the passage:

The well-being for which the [Jews] yearn will become available to them, but not only to them.  In the future time, when other nations recognize [God’s] universal rule, those nations too will achieve well-being.  The power of [God] as universal ruler will not be exploitative.  In contrast to human emperors, [God] will establish universal plenty.

            It is this vision that Haggai says the Temple represents, not a restoration of what had once been, but a transformation into something new, bold, and wonderful.  So, take courage,  people, for God is doing something new here and you get to be a part.

            To help us take courage against our fears, Glennon Doyle shares one of her mantras, that she finds particularly helpful in parenting her children.  She tells them, “This is a hard thing to do.  We can do hard things.” 

            Haggai is saying something similar to his people.  And I think it’s a powerful message for us.  In the midst of fear and uncertainty, when we too face the crises of life, we can keep our vision focused on restoration and transformation and take the courageous action necessary to rebuild and renew. 

            Because God is with us.  God’s Spirit fills us with divine power and divine glory.  This presence is the source of our courage.

            So, we too can do hard things.


Go Up

Go Up

2 Chronicles 36:22-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

6 June 2021

Let’s back up.

A generation before this moment we just read about, the armies of the Babylonian Empire, under the infamous King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the Kingdom of Judah, conquered it’s people, and took control of Jerusalem.  The Babylonians took the Jewish King Jeconiah hostage and along with a significant portion of the nation’s elite, carried them away into exile. into the Babylonian heartland of Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. 

Nebuchadnezzar appointed a puppet government over Judea.  Eventually the puppet king Zedekiah rebelled and the Babylonian armies returned.  After a long siege of the city of Jerusalem, the Babylonians defeated the Jews.  Then they tore down the city walls, burned the Temple, executed the king’s family, blinded him and carried him off to prison where he died.  More people were taken to Babylon, and only a small, poor remnant of people remained in the land, which was reduced to a province of the great empire.

Meanwhile, in exile in Babylon, Jewish culture seized the moment of trauma and in a bold act of resilience their culture thrived.  Ezekiel had visions of the bones of the defeated Jews being brought back to life by God’s Spirit.  He imagined a new temple, restored and glorious.  The poet Second Isaiah dreamed of a day when all the nations of the world would stream to a new Jerusalem, a city of peace. 

Poets, songwriters, historians, religious scholars, prophets all began to dream and to tell stories and to write.  They looked back on the ancient stories of Abraham’s journeys, of the Exodus from Egypt, of David’s establishment of the kingdom.  And in those stories they found hope and tools to survive and ideas for the future. 

And they waited for the day when they might return again to the land and rebuild their society and worship God in freedom.

In rather shocking, quick order that day came.  Babylon, the once great empire that had commanded most of the near east, collapsed quickly before the armies of the Persian emperor Cyrus.  Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian kings, was so disliked by his own people, that they did welcome the Persians.

And Cyrus was something of a messianic figure, honored as such even by the Book of Isaiah.  For Cyrus took a different approach than the empire builders before him.  The old Assyrian Empire had built itself through ethnic cleansing and genocide.  When they conquered a nation, they removed most of its people and spread them through the empire and moved new people into the homes and cities of the defeated nations.  In doing so they wiped from history many of the ancient peoples, including the northern kingdom of Israel and its lost ten tribes.  The Babylonians were not quite as fierce, but kept something of the same idea in their kidnapping of a country’s elites.

But Cyrus, he and the Persians took a different approach.  They respected the diversity of their empire’s peoples, their cultures and faiths.  They left people groups intact and allowed them to continue their religious practices and granted some autonomy in how they organized themselves.  And, so, one way Cyrus gained favor over his new subjects was to allow those who were in exile to return to their homelands and re-establish themselves.  And, thus, the Hebrew Scriptures honor Cyrus as an agent of God, creating the opportunity for the people to return home.

And so, after a generation, they were able to Go up to Jerusalem once again.  But the Jews of Babylon didn’t all rush to return.  In fact, they never all left.  The Jewish community of Babylon and eventually Baghdad was one of the centers of Jewish intellectual life well into the Middle Ages and a remnant of that community remained well into the modern age. 

The first group to return to Judea was led by Shesh-bazzar and probably included the bravest, the most daring, and those with little to lose.  It took many years and multiple waves of return under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah before the new Jerusalem and the new Judea began to take shape.  It is this story of restoration which we explore this summer in our worship.

A few years ago we followed the first part of this story—the conquests of Israel and Judah, the people being led into Exile, the formation of a new people through resilience after trauma.  At the time we always intended to tell the second part of the story, and this year seems fitting, as we too have gone through our own collective traumas with the global pandemic, the racial uprising and reckoning, the insurrection.  We are also in a time of restoration, taking our first stumbles out into a new normal, some of us with eager fascination and some with great anxiety and trepidation.  All of this while the dangers are still present, and we aren’t quite sure what the new normal will look like.  Or whether our society will muster the political and cultural will to heal and rebuild and restore, creating something better than what we’ve known before.  So, we turn to these ancient stories looking for tools and ideas and spiritual connection.

Healing from trauma begins with the ability to tell our story and have it listened to by a compassionate person.  And so the stories of ancient Judea are their attempts at this process of healing and resilience. 

According to Serene Jones, healing from trauma involves three stages—first, establishing our safety; secondly, remembering and mourning; and finally, reconnecting with ordinary life.   We will encounter each of these in the ancient stories.  And all of us have been moving through those stages, and we are at different places along the journey.

One of the more popular writers and spiritual guides of our time is Brené Brown.  In her bestselling book Rising Strong she writes about how we go up again.  She says, “Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.”  She says that it is this process which tests our courage and forges our values.

In her research, Brown has identified a three stage process involved in rising strong from a fall.  It begins with a reckoning, particularly a reckoning with our emotions.  She writes, “Recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.” 

This first step can be a difficult and tricky process, because we have so often been trained to suppress or ignore our emotions.  Which is why often this work requires professional help. 

This stage also involves listening to our bodies, which teach us so much about what we are feeling.  Even when we are trying to ignore an emotion, it will often manifest itself as an ache or a pain within our bodies.  Being aware of our physicality and the ways our bodies keep the score, is an important part of emotional maturity and wholehearted living.

As we read these stories this summer, listen for the ways they deal with emotions.  Today’s brief passage, for instance, exults with joy and celebration.  Let’s also be aware of our own emotions and pay attention to our bodies and what they are telling us, as we begin to move into this new normal.

According to Brown, the second stage of the rising strong process is to rumble with our stories.  Here’s what she says about that fun word “rumble”—“By rumble, I mean they get honest about the stories they’ve made up about their struggles and they are willing to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as they dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness.”

So, step two isn’t easy either!  Learning to rumble well with topics like shame and resentment and forgiveness can take a lifetime of spiritual work.  In another of her books, she writes, “When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending.  And when we don’t own our stories of failure, setbacks, and hurts—they own us.”  So, yes, it’s not easy work, but it is vital work.

And remember: we are beloved children of God, with amazing minds and souls, empowered by the Holy Spirit, filled with amazing grace, and radiant with glory.  We are capable of growing into our best selves.

Our ancient forebears had to do the serious spiritual work of rumbling with their stories.  They didn’t always succeed at creating something better, as we will see.  Sometimes they failed and created more trauma.  Let’s learn from that as we rumble with our stories.

The final stage of the rising strong process, according to Brené Brown, is the revolution.  She describes it as writing “a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble.”  And that we then “use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.”

And it is this ability to rise strong from failure that leads to wholehearted lives.

That’s our goal, isn’t it?  How to rise up from our pandemic experience better, whole, joyful, and glorious?

            In ancient Babylon a few, brave, intrepid souls heard the call of God in the proclamation of the emperor Cyrus to “Go up.”  They traveled to a place that required vision and hard work if it was to be transformed and restored. 

            In our own lives, may we too rise strong and hear God’s call to go up, to be restored, to become our best selves.


What Does This Mean?

What Does This Mean?

Acts 2:1-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 May 2021

            One Sunday in 1819 in the city of Philadelphia, at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, guest preacher Reverend Richard Williams was struggling to preach the sermon he had prepared and found himself unable to go on.  In the silence that followed, suddenly a woman in the congregation stood up and began to preach.  Her name was Jarena Lee, and what she was doing was not allowed.

            Jarena Lee was born to a free black family in Cape May, New Jersey in 1783.  In 1807 she had a series of religious experiences in which she heard the voice of God calling her preach.  As she recorded it in her autobiography:

But to my utter surprise, there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say—“Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends.”

            When she received this call, Jarena Lee approached the AME bishop and founder of the denomination Richard Allen.  Allen dissuaded her, because women weren’t allowed to preach.

            And so Jarena Lee went about her life, getting married and working.  Until that Sunday when the guest preacher couldn’t continue, and she decided to stand up and preach the sermon herself.

            What happened next?

            Well, Bishop Allen was in the congregation that day.  And to his great enduring credit, Bishop Allen realized in that moment that Jarena Lee was called of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach.  Following that service, he authorized her to preach, making her the first black woman to receive such authorization.  Lee then became a popular preacher of the Second Great Awakening, traveling thousands of miles each year to preach hundreds of sermons in churches and revivals and camp meetings.  Then, in the 1830’s, she published two editions of her autobiography, leaving a written record of her spiritual experience and her ministry.

            In her autobiography we find these words from the Bible:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your old men shall dream dreams,

and your young men shall see visions.

On the male and female slaves,

in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Jarena Lee underlined that important word “all.” 

Anglican priest Caitlin Carmichael-Davis imagines how those words resonated with Jarena Lee.  Carmichael-Davis writes, “As she reads these words, Lee is transformed, and the world around her suddenly looks different. No longer defined by hierarchies and division, each person has the dignity as a child of God, and the responsibility to embody Christ in the world.”

            The contemporary theologian J. Kameron Carter, reflecting on the meaning of Jarena Lee, writes that “To enter Christ’s flesh through the Holy Spirit’s pentecostal overshadowing is to exit the gendered economy and protocols of modern racial reasoning.”

            Jarena Lee was a poor black woman living in a time and place when poor black women had almost no social standing and were the victims of many intersecting oppressions and injustices.  Yet, Jarena Lee had a spiritual experience from which she did not allow those oppressions to define her.  She would not be confined to her society’s expectations for women or for people of color.  She knew herself to be a beloved child of God, called of God, and filled with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.  Her bold speaking was itself an act of breaking the demonic powers of patriarchy and white supremacy.

            Carter writes that “the Spirit of Christ is the architect of a new mode of life together” in the church.  And that new mode, “transfigures social reality” by inviting all people to join in fellowship in the body of Christ.  Thus, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost breaks down the barriers that divide and separate us, creating the opportunity for something new to be fashioned.

            Kameron Carter writes of Jarena Lee that what she “has literally done . . . is broaden the reach of Christ’s historical, bodily existence so as to understand her own existential and historical moment as an articulation of Christ’s own life and way of being in the world.  It is her understanding of Pentecost as part and parcel of the economy of Christ’s bodily existence that allows her to accomplish this.”

            She is a Holy Spirit-gifted minister, a part of the Body of Christ, and, thus, she is joined in fellowship with all other people.  And she too becomes a physical embodiment of the Spirit of Christ, meaning that her experience as a poor black woman in antebellum America is a part of the experience of Christ’s incarnation in the world.  Her bold act of preaching is itself one more moment in the history of the world where the Holy Spirit breaks forth, much like it did that day in Jerusalem when Peter and the disciples experienced wind and flame and speaking in strange languages.  The Holy Spirit continues to break down barriers and pour herself out onto all flesh, so that God’s dream of a new world, united in peace and love might come to fruition.

            That’s part of what this ancient story means.  The Pentecost story is about God’s invasion of our social world and our history in order to create something new.  The wind that blew that day is like the wind that blew at the Creation of the earth from the story in Genesis.  That wind is still blowing, that original Spirit is still hovering, God is still speaking new things into being. 

            And the Pentecost movement of the Spirit didn’t end that day in Jerusalem when Peter preached, it continues to move through human history, breaking forth in new and surprising ways as the Spirit gives voice to all flesh.  And so we humans keep playing catch up to realize that God is speaking from black voices and indigenous voices and female voices and disabled voices and gay and lesbian voices and transgender and genderqueer and non-binary voices and none of us know what voices God will start speaking in next that the church might spend time arguing over rather than absorbing fully the lesson of this ancient story that God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.

            Willie James Jennings writes:

The same Spirit that was there from the beginning, hovering, brooding in the joy of creation of the universe and of each one of us, who knows us together and separately in our most intimate places, has announced the divine intention through the Son, to reach into our lives, and make each life a site of speaking glory.

            Imagine that!  Our lives a “site of speaking glory!”  Hallelujah!

            But how does that happen?  Jennings explains, “But this will require bodies that reach across massive and real boundaries, cultural, religious, and ethnic.  It will require a . . . devotion to peoples unknown and undesired.”  To love oor neighbor, as Jesus taught us.  Yet now we realize that the love of neighbor isn’t just about kindness and hospitality, but about the Holy Spirit empowered formation of a new humanity.

            Jennings explains that the Holy Spirit is living inside of us, sharing with us God’s own desire.  And, he writes, “that desire has the power to press through centuries of animosity and hatred and beckon people to want one another and envision lives woven together.”  What the church needs, he writes, is “people of faith who will yield to the Spirit in this present moment.”  People who will allow God’s desire for union and peace to fill us with love and hope so that we enter into each other’s lives and break down the barriers that segregate us from one another.

            Let’s be those Pentecostal people.  Filled with God’s desire for a new humanity and empowered by the Spirit to create a new world of peace and love.

            And, so, what does this Pentecost story mean?  I’ll let Willie James Jennings answer for us:

The Holy Spirit has come.  Joining has begun.  This is the real meaning.


Jesus in Asia

Jesus in AsiaJesus in Asia by R.S. Sugirtharajah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Asian quest for Jesus did not see him as a unique person, but perceived him as one who was engaged in work similar to that of the Asian seers, and welcomed him and such teachers 'as God's revelation in history.'"

Sugirtharajah writes about a number of Asian Jesus scholars whose contributions have been overlooked by the Western theological academy. Some of these Asian scholars were Christians, but some of them were Hindo, Jain, or Buddhist and were writing about Jesus from those religious perspectives.

Much of the material was completely new to me. I was very fascinated by the chapter on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's work on Jesus from a Hindu perspective. Sugirtharajah writes that for Radhakrishnan "what was attractive about Jesus . . . was his ability to awaken an awareness of the divine in oneself." Radhakrishnan saw Jesus in the tradition of the Upanishads.

I learned the most from the chapter on the Korean theologian Ahn Byung Mu. Ahn argued that to understand Jesus you had to understand who he kept company with and the status of those people in their society. Here's an example of Ahn's ideas as discussed by Sugirtharajah:

"What counted most were the lifestyle choices Jesus had made, such as forgoing all material possessions and securities of life, cutting himself off from family attachments, and more crucially, overturning the value system so that those who exalted themselves were humbled, and the humble were exalted."

One common theme among all these Asian scholars is emphasizing that Jesus was Asian and should be interpreted in the broader context of Asian religious culture rather than the Hellenistic and Roman interpretations because Jesus rejected and seemed to have so little in common with those cultures.

In the conclusion Sugirtharajah uses these scholars as a means of criticizing the search for an historical Jesus and identifying how even Western academic approaches are emotional, imaginative constructs--"The so-called historical Jesus is invariably an idealized picture drawn from the interpreter's fancy and from fads."

But what we learn from these Asian scholars is that maybe we shouldn't center our faith on the history of one individual person. Rather, shouldn't we focus on the values Jesus taught and the kind of life he modeled as a way of awakening spirituality within humanity?

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