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February 2012

Hope, according to Vaclav Havel

I liked this quote by Vaclav Havel from a recent Christian Century:

Hope is not prognostication.  It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons . . .  It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. . . .  [Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Confronting Homophobia

Last time the Equal Employment ordinance was up before the City Council, many of us clergy became alarmed that the rhetoric used by the opposition did not stay grounded in rational, civic discourse but engaged in hurtful, threatening language that has again and again resulted in violence to the LGBT community, particularly youths.  The month before Omaha’s contentious city council meeting, a young man in Norman, Oklahoma attended a similar contentious city council meeting.  There the resolution was adopted by the city council, but due to what he had heard in the meeting from Christian ministers in opposition, the young man went home and killed himself.

I don’t pretend to change people’s views of human sexuality, though I believe that over time they will come to the position of full equality, as many have done on race and gender.  However, what I do argue passionately for is that all people cease their harmful and destructive language and behavior.  And I further recommend that everyone take the time to educate themselves on these issues, to read the information that is widely available and seek to understand, through compassion and empathy at the very least, the experience of their LGBT fellow Christians and citizens. 

I hope we can find common ground and engage in ecumenical dialogue, but I will continue to contest the sins of homophobia and heterosexism and the violence and abuse they lead to. 

Omaha lags in protecting its gay citizens

A great article today in the Omaha World-Herald.

Among the 50 largest cities in the nation, Omaha is one of 15 whose gay residents have no specific legal protection from discrimination.

Although such gay rights measures have been criticized as radical, the growing list of cities putting legal protections in place indicates that the issue has become more mainstream nationally.


Religious liberty doesn't make me "throw up"

Rick Santorum said many embarassing and frightening things over the weekend, including his outrageous comments on higher education.  But what led the news this morning was his comments on John Kennedy's famous 1960 address to Baptists in Houston, that reading that speech made him want to throw up.  Wow!  

So, this morning I went downstairs and got my collection of Kennedy speeches and re-read that famous speech.  I am shocked that anyone would find it objectionable.  That Santorum does is incredibly revealing.  And people should pay attention.

Evangelicals were worried about a Catholic president, that he would be overly influenced by the Catholic hierarchy, and Kennedy met with them to assure them of his commitment to religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  Here is Kennedy's core statement:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

In addition to that, "I believe in an America . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."

It is very disappointing that in 2012 a Catholic candidate would deny that claim.  It is also troubling that evangelicals would now accept someone denying that claim, where fifty years ago they expected a candidate to make that claim.  

Kennedy also made a bold statement about the conflict between private consciences and the national interest, "But if the time should ever come . . .when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same."

Re-reading Kennedy's speech, I became interested to re-read George Washington Truett's famous 1920 sermon on the steps of the nation's Capitol "Baptists and Religious Liberty."  In some ways it sets the context for the concerns that Kennedy was addressing when he spoke to the Baptists in Houston.

Re-reading the Truett for the first time probably since the 1990's, I was surprised by how dated it is and how sectarian it is.  I had not remembered that.  But it was as clear about individual liberty and the separation of church and state as I remembered it.  

It would be good for this sermon to re-enter the national dialogue, especially as it addresses the concerns a century ago about Catholic hierarchy and its conflict with religious liberty.  As Truett portrays the 1920's Baptist vision, religious liberty is for the individual not the church or institution.  In fact the individual's conscience is free even from the church.  

As I've been saying the last month or so in relation to the contraception issue, the religious liberty to be safeguarded is that of the person, the employees of Catholic hospitals who should not have Catholic doctrine imposed upon them.  

Here is what Truett preached (I've highlighted the key part of the paragraph):

Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history.  They have never been a party to oppression of conscience.  They have forever been the unwavering champions of liberty, both religious and civil.  Their contention now, is, and has been, and, please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty.  There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty.  Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to tolerate.  Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle. . . It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the perogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe.  God wants free worshipers and no other kind.

Truett held views which we would now label as anti-Catholic.  Post-Vatican II mainline Protestants and even evangelicals made siginificant strides in over-coming their anti-Catholicism, but largely because the Roman church had made significant strides in overcoming their opposition to Protestants.  We spent fifty years drawing closer together, only to now be drawing farther apart as the Roman Catholic Church goes backward on the changes of Vatican II and mainline Protestants continue to move forward on social justice issues in contemporary life that the Catholic church hasn't even begun to address adequately.

Here was Truett's concern.  It was not about the individual Catholic believer; he argued vigorously for their freedom of religion.  His concern was the hierarchy and its way of structuring ecclesiastical power in opposition to individual liberty.

Likewise, the Catholic conception of the church , thrusting all its complex and cumbrous machinery between the soul and God, prescribing beliefs, claiming to exercise the power of the keys, and to control the channels of grace; all such lording it over the consciences of men is to the Baptist mind a ghastly tyranny in the realm of the soul and tends to frustrate the grace of God, to destroy freedom of conscience, and to hinder terribly the coming of the Kingdom of God.


The right to private judgment is the crown jewel of humanity, and for any person or institution to dare to come between the soul and God is a blasphemous impertinence and a defamation of the crown rights of the Son of God.

Out of these two fundamental principles, the supreme authority of the Scriptures and the right of private judgment, have come all the historic protests in Europe or England and America against unscriptural creeds, polity and rites, and against the unwarranted and impertinent assumption of religious authority over men's consciences, whether by church or by state. Baptists regard as an enormity any attempt to force the conscience, or to constrain men, by outward penalties, to this or that form of religious belief. Persecution may make men hypocrites, but it will not make them Christians.

We would do well to remember that this famous, influential sermon of Truett's details the context and the concerns that Kennedy was addressing in his famous 1960 speech.  

We would also do well to remember the important distinction that Truett makes -- that religious liberty resides with the individual, sometimes in opposition to their church when that church tries to override individual conscience.

We are in a frightening place in the United States when a leading candidate for President casts scorn upon our magnificient tradition of religious liberty.

When the Waters Recede

When the Waters Recede

Genesis 9:1, 8-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

26 February 2012



    Last summer, after the events of my grandfather's funeral and the family lunch were complete, I returned to the cemetery with Michael because the minister had failed to utter the words which I find comforting and profound – the Christian committal of the dead.

    I put my Easter stole on and knelt down to take some of the freshly turned dirt. Then, I let the dirt fall through my fingers as I read the familiar words:


In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Willard, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious to him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace.


    We began Lent this week with our Ash Wednesday observance. This year we invited everyone to meditate upon their mortality by being creative. We had stations that you could move around. One was a "Meditation on Letting Go," where you could use art supplies to create a representation of what you were letting go this Lent. Another was a "Meditation on Frailty and Forgiveness," where you could burn last year's palms. And finally there was the "Meditation on the Possibilities of Dust." I really liked that name. Everyone took some modeling clay and then worked some dirt and ash into it before fashioning an image to signify how they wanted to grow this season. Some really interesting things were created.

    Earlier this month I met Nanette Sawyer, the pastor of Grace Commons in Chicago. This week, she wrote about topsoil and how getting your hands dirty in the ground is some of the best therapy available. Getting dirty reminds her of her connections with the rest of nature and how those connections are life-sustaining. She wrote:


It reminded me that I am part of the earth, connected to it. I am dependent on it, and it has me. (You know, like when a friend says, "I got you.") It is supporting my life.


In the second account of creation, in Genesis two, God takes up a handful of earth to make a human being. . . . This is the stuff from which life comes. This is the soil upon which life depends, and to which all life returns eventually.


I am made of that. I came from that. I will return to that. I am not alone and my life matters because every life matters.


George Mason, the Senior Minister of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, wrote in his Ash Wednesday reflection, "We can look to nature for lessons about ourselves, because human nature is nature too. We don't live on the world; we live in it. Nature and people share the code of the living, regardless of our humanity that makes such a difference." He went on:


Lent mirrors nature's season of cultivation. We put a spade in the ground and turn over the dirt. We get it ready for spring by breaking up the clods. We give the earth room to breathe after protecting itself all winter long. It's painful work to be that intentional with ourselves, to be that attentive to our condition. But just that makes growth possible.


    We are dirt and dust and ashes. Not only does that remind us of our mortality, it reminds us that we are connected with the rest of nature. In order to get the best out of dirt, you who have lived on farms or who garden know that the soil must be worked. The same with ourselves. We've got to work our soil for growth to occur.


    Our theme this Lent is "Tend the Soil." The staff came to that idea last autumn as we were preparing for this season. The waters of last year's historic floods had just receded and what was left looked awful – a devastated wasteland. To recover, the affected farmers and landowners will need to renew their soil this year.

    Plus, Lent overlaps the opening days of spring, when many of us will be out in our yards and gardens getting our hands dirty. These agricultural and gardening metaphors are ripe for the picking as symbols of the spiritual work of growth that the Lenten season invites us to.

    We had a lot of fun looking through thesauruses in order to find the right word and were pretty excited when we landed on "tend." Listen for a bit as I read some of those thesaurus and dictionary entries. First, from Webster's New World Thesaurus:


Tend: To watch over – Synonyms: care for, manage, direct, superintend, do, perform, accomplish, guard, administer, minister to, oversee, corral . . . [let's pause for a moment to realize that Webster's uses "minister to" and "corral" as synonyms!].


    Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms from 1942 has a very evocative description of the word:


Tend . . . usually suggests a more menial employment and takes for its object something that requires routine or unskilled care as in looking out for accidents, mishaps, signs of danger, or the like, or merely mechanical operation; thus, one who tends a lock is employed to work the devices adjusting the level of the water in the canal when a boat approaches; a shepherd is one who tends a flock of sheep; a stoker is one who tends a furnace (especially on a ship) and supplies it with fuel when needed. Tend is used in reference to the care of persons only when a menial or a ministering rather than a professional relationship is implied; as, to employ a girl to tend to the children for a few hours each day; [or] sacrificing her leisure to tend the sick and helpless poor in their homes.

Now, I think we could preach an entire sermon series on that dictionary entry, it is so rich with allusion and meaning. To tend is not professional, it is menial. It involves sacrificing leisure. It involves looking out for accidents and mishaps and signs of danger.

    Finally, from Roget's New Thesaurus:


To have the care and supervision of: tending the sheep in the pasture. Synonyms: attend, care for, look after, mind, minister to, see to, watch.


    This dirt is a reminder of our mortality and our humility. It is also a reminder of our responsibility for ourselves, for each other, for the earth. We are dirt that must be cultivated, cared for, nurtured, ministered to. But because dirt has such possibility for growth, for abundance and flourishing, dirt also reminds us that we are fashioned in the image of God, from the dirt of the ground. It reminds us that God loves us just the way we are. And a reminder that God dreams of such possibilities for us, including a life that is victorious beyond death. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote in today's contemporary lesson, the man born to farming "enters into death yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn." Dirt is a reminder of both mortality and resurrection.


    Which brings me finally to our scripture passage for today. It is part of the closing of the story of the Great Deluge. Noah and his family have survived the catastrophe of the flood. The waters have receded, and they have emerged to begin new lives on a new earth. God makes a covenant with them, a promise that this catastrophe will not come again. God, instead, will be faithful to them, caring for them. As a sign, God's sets the divine warrior bow in the heavens. Sets it pointing away from the earth. And it becomes a great, shining rainbow, a phenomenon of great beauty.

    The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes that all biblical theology is catastrophe theology. All biblical theology asks the question, "How do we get up again after we have fallen – or when catastrophes we could do nothing about have fallen on us?"

    The children of Israel wrote down this story of Noah and his family while they, the children of Israel, were in exile in Babylon. In the midst of their own catastrophe, they told this myth of a primal catastrophe and its promise that God would be faithful to deliver them and all creation into a new life marked with beauty.

    The followers of Jesus experienced the catastrophe of the crucifixion. And they too told a story of God's promise and deliverance. The end of the age, God's reign of justice and peace, is growing upon the earth, fashioning a new creation. Their sign of this deliverance and new life? -- the presence of the resurrected Jesus.

    In our biblical worldview catastrophes are always tied to hope for deliverance and new life. That's why, when someone dies, we can remember resurrection when the dirt of the grave is fresh in our hands. It's why Ash Wednesday is not a sorrowful day. It may remind us of our mortality and our humility, but it also points us forward to Easter and new creation.

    The floods of last year were catastrophic for many who lost their homes, land, and possessions, including some members of this congregation. Our river cities were fortunately spared the worst scenarios. We should be grateful to our local governments and the many teams of volunteers who helped to save our cities. Our region has already worked diligently at beginning the re-creation. We have rebuilt roads and begun to repair the levies which were so faithful to their purpose. Together this spring, we will work together to renew the land.

    And in our individual lives, we must face our limitations – our frailty, our creatureliness. We must also face our fear and anxiety about death and overcome it. The challenge of the life of faith is to live with courage and hope, believing that new life awaits us, that together we can create a new and better world. When the waters recede, a rainbow awaits.

    Let this Lent remind you of these things. Let it challenge you to engage in the hard, fruitful work of growth. Let's tend the soil together. Let's get our hands dirty. Okay?

The Greatness of Ike

Ross Douthat has a good column today on President Eishenhower.

But ultimately Eisenhower is underrated because his White House leadership didn’t fit the template of “greatness” that too many Americans pine for from their presidents. He was not a man for grand projects, bold crusades or world-historical gambles. There was no “Ike revolution” in American politics, no Eisen-mania among activists and intellectuals, no Eisenhower realignment.

Instead, his greatness was manifested in the crises he defused and the mistakes he did not make. He did not create unaffordable entitlement programs, embrace implausible economic theories, or hand on unsustainable deficits to his successors. He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that his feckless successor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw American into an Iraq-style intervention. He did not risk his presidency with third-rate burglaries or sexual adventurism. He was decisive when necessary, but his successes — prosperity, peace, steady progress on civil rights — were just as often the fruit of strategic caution and masterly inaction.

Perhaps “other men” could have achieved this combination of steadiness, competence and successful crisis management, as the Eisenhower memorial’s impersonal design seems to suggest. But few of them have occupied the Oval Office these last 50 years.