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March 2013

A New Earth

A New Earth

Luke 24:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

31 March 2013



    Isaiah 65 is "a glorious artistic achievement" declares the great bible scholar Walter Brueggemann. He continues, "It is also an act of daring . . . faith that refuses to be curbed by present circumstances. This poet . . . knows that [God's] coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible." In other words, the poet believes that the world can change, that the status quo is not the way things must always be.

    This poem from Isaiah 65 is part of the section of the Book of Isaiah which scholars believe comes from the period after the Jews have returned to Judea from their exile in Babylon, when they have begun rebuilding the country. The poet was writing during a period when the city of Jerusalem was being rebuilt and the people were striving to create a just society. The poet knows that the previous effort at nationhood had been unjust, exploiting the poor and defying the righteousness of God. The poet imagines Jerusalem reborn as a city of peace and justice, true to its name.

    One is caught up when the poet mentions infant mortality. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't read a lot of poems about infant mortality. If it comes up at all in my reading, infant mortality appears in some statistical analysis, like some World Health Organization report comparing the health systems of various societies. Not the stuff of poetry. But Isaiah 65 rhapsodizes about infant mortality and life expectancy. This discussion of infant mortality and life expectancy is a sign that the poet isn't just interested in beautiful words and wonderful images, he is dealing with practical issues of actual social relationships. Measurable qualities of how well a society is doing. The poet is actually describing what a peaceful city looks like!

    In order to achieve the measurable goals of low infant mortality and high life expectancy, a peaceful city will be stable, it will not be engaged in violence, and it will have developed an infrastructure that promotes the quality of life of its inhabitants. A caring community will rid itself of neglect, malnutrition, and bad medical service.     

The poet advocates for economic stability and respecting property and labor. The peaceful city in which God reigns is one where government does not burden your labor, but it is also a society that agrees to provide access to health care in order to care for the least of us. We should take note here. If America wants to find a middle ground in our on-going political debates, a way to end the uncivil rhetoric, then we could begin by reading Isaiah 65.

    The poem reminds us of a promise in the Book of Genesis, where children and descendants are seen as a sign of blessing from God. Children are always the most at-risk members of a society, so a society that cares deeply for children and works to ensure that their life will be one of blessing, is a good, a just, and a peaceful society.

    The poet actually believes that all of this great social change is possible. It is possible because God is at work, restoring not only Jerusalem, but the entire cosmos. "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth," God proclaims, "Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating." All of creation will experience the change God intends. "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain."

    The lion shall eat straw, huh? Pastor Chuck Warnock asks the provocative question, "How do you feed straw to lions?" The answer, "The only way . . . is if everything we know has changed – if the world as we know it is not the same."

    And this is the poet's vision. Everything can change. The way the world is is not the way it has to be.


    But I wonder, can we take the poet's vision seriously? Can we believe its promise? The very history of the city of Jerusalem casts doubt upon what the poet has written.

In his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf records the repeated conquests of Jerusalem by Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. Each group was intent on possessing the holy city for themselves. Some of the conquerors and rulers were more enlightened than others, particularly the Kurdish-Muslim Saladin who allowed Christians and Jews to live peacefully in the city and allowed pilgrims to visit. But one reads painfully of the various atrocities committed in the name of religion.

    Of course, Jerusalem remains in the news. Israelis and Palestinians continue to fight over its neighborhoods. Twenty-seven centuries after this Isaianic vision of a Jerusalem where "no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress," we are still fighting over this city named for peace.

    So, can we believe the poet's promises? Can we believe in a new heavens and a new earth where justice and peace shall reign?


    This poem from the Book of Isaiah is offered to us as a reading on Easter Sunday, when we proclaim that Christ is risen and that God's work of creating a new heavens and a new earth has moved closer to reality.     But your experience of the world might leave you wondering if all of this is just escapist fantasy, the "opiate of the masses" as Karl Marx called it. Or is there something deeply powerful for us to believe on this day? Something that can save us?

    For we are in need of salvation. We have not achieved the peace and justice of the poet's vision. We have not renewed the earth, learning to live in sustainable relationships with all of God's creation. We ourselves may still be awaiting transformation to our best selves.

We must realize that our suffering and the injustices that oppress us have blinded us. Our understanding has been deformed by the status quo. We accept that the world is the way it is and do not believe that it can be radically different.

Yes, we enjoy the poetry of Isaiah, but "It's only an ideal," we think. "Something to aspire to, of course, but something that can never be." We wonder if Jesus' death was any kind of victory at all, for we look around us and see that the forces of evil continue to thrive and that the oppressive logic of the empire infiltrated the Christian church. Rather than the hopeful words from the Gospel of John, spoken by Jesus before he dies, "It is finished," theologian Wendy Farley writes of the "ongoing crucifixion of the world."

Yes, we are in need of salvation. Where can we find it?

    I believe that the glory of God revealed in this story of the death and resurrection of Jesus can save us from our suffering, cure our blindness, and heal our brokenness. Listen to these words from Wendy Farley:


The passion of the Beloved [Jesus] displays the intimacy of the Divine with our suffering. There is light in what we experience as the darkest hell. There is opposition to the prevarications and injustices of history. This is an indelible aspect of reality. . . . Christ's incarnation in ministry, passion, and resurrection is a light that "shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."


The story of Jesus reveals to us an alternative reality. It reveals that the tyranny of our suffering is not the way things have to be. There is another power. Even this simple revelation, like a candle being lit in a darkened room, has profound consequences.

    She continues:


Whether we find our way out of hell sooner or later, whether we do so through Christian faith or in some other way. . . . Whether any particular struggle is successful, whether our leaders are murdered or betrayed, the very act of demanding justice defrauds "the ruler of this world" of total mastery. It is a witness that another truth animates humanity and our history.


    The popular author Brian McLaren has written that the most radical thing that we can do is to believe. To believe in a different kind of story than our current status quo. To believe something like the vision of Isaiah or the Easter story – the present isn't the way things have to be; there can be a new heaven and a new earth.

    The reason that simply believing is the most radical thing we can do is because the only power which the status quo has is because we believe it. Thing are the way they are because we believe them to be the way things will always be. In response, Jesus promises us that we will be saved if we simply believe, and this is why. Because when we believe that the reign of God is possible, then we rob those other unjust and oppressive stories of their power, and we take the first step to making Easter true in our own lives.

    I've seen this personally. One of the joys of my ministry has been to see the resurrection moments that occur when a gay or lesbian person comes out of the closet after many years of hiding in the darkness. To watch someone, particularly someone older, emerge from shame and guilt into the joy and wholeness of their God-given identity, is like watching a new life being born. Simply believing that they can live honestly brings about an entire transformation. There is much to learn from these resurrection stories in our midst.

    How can believing bring about our salvation? Theologian Delores Williams writes that the salvation offered by God through Jesus is a "new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life." Brian McLaren adds that because of Jesus we begin to see ourselves in a new light, "not armed with an ideology but infused with a new imagination." Wendy Farley describes our casting off that which obscures the divine beauty within us and instead recognizing that we are "luminous with divine beauty."

    The saving power of Isaiah's vision and of the Easter story is that they awaken us to the truth about ourselves -- we are filled with holy light. If we awaken to that truth, then our present circumstances can change, we can cast off that which binds us in darkness and be transformed. And when we are individually transformed, it is just possible that we will bring others along with us. And as more join in the movement, human society will change. And -- dare we also believe -- all of creation.

The poet writes: "The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind," I say "Amen" to that! "But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating!" Easter is a chance for us to reflect – Do I believe that the world can be a better place? Or am I going to succumb to the cynicism and the despair that it cannot?

Brian McLaren writes,


If we believe, we can be transformed into agents of something beautiful.


    This Easter, be beautiful.

Chinua Achebe

In honour of Chinua Achebe, who recently died, I'm going to re-read Things Fall Apart.  I find it a shocking travesty that Achebe died without winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Re-reading The Last Battle

For my next "fun" reading, I'm going to re-read The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis. It is difficult on Goodreads to indicate that one is re-reading a book. This is the longest span in my life in which I've gone without re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, my favourite stories. I haven't re-read them since I lived in Dallas in the mid-Aughts. I'm reading The Last Battle because of the depression I've experience in February and March, and I believe that this novel will be healing. The chapter "Further Up and Further In" has always been one of my favourite in fiction, and it has inspired me since I first read it in sixth grade. 

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of PowerThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This latest biography of Jefferson was a Christmas gift from a friend. I'm grateful for the thoughtful gift, but was disappointed in the book.

Meacham wants to tell the story of Jefferson's mastery of political power, which resulted in the longest lasting political dynasty in our history. This is an interesting thesis. He also wants to restore some appreciation for Jefferson, which has suffered in the last few decades with confirmation of the relationship with Sally Hemmings and the spate of great biographies of the Federalist leaders Washington, Adams, and Hamilton.

Only in the afterword does he tell you that he has written a "portrait," that a more thorough biography of Jefferson and his times would take volumes. Hmm. Would have been nice to know this was the aim in the beginning, for I found the volume sorely lacking in historical narrative, detail, explanation, and analysis. More a series of vignettes and quotes from Jefferson or his contemporaries. Meacham seems to assume pretty good knowledge of most of the historical events and characters in the narrative, and, yes, I may know about them, but one wants to read about them again and learn something new.

And there was almost nothing new that I learned in this book.

View all my reviews

It is Finished

It is Finished

John 19:30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church

Good Friday

29 March 2013



    "It is finished."    

"What is finished?" one might wonder. And if one wonders long enough, one wonders if anything was accomplished that day.

For evil was clearly not vanquished. Every day we are reminded that evil continues to thrive.

Nor did suffering come to an end. We each can tell our own story of suffering.

Nor was death conquered. Death and our grief over loved ones continues to rob us of life-affirming power.

Justice and peace didn't reign supreme, for violence and oppression continue.

It isn't even that the Christian vision triumphed over the empire, for subsequent history makes clear that the logic of empire infiltrated the church, and we became perpetrators of violence, oppression, and exclusion.

Theologian Wendy Farley describes the "ongoing crucifixion of the world."

A few minutes reflection and one wonders why we still tell this story and why we believe it offers us any type of salvation. Maybe we should listen to those voices who tell us to reject this story, because it clearly does not have the power to save. Voices like Rita Nakashima Brock,


I saw in Christianity's ideas about Jesus, a theology that made people passive and acquiescent in their own suffering, a legacy of abuse entrenched in doctrine.


    Or Karen Baker-Fletcher who wrote,


Glorifying the cross as though Jesus came to die actually glorifies the 'human capacity to oppress others.'


    I deeply respect these voices and have learned much from them, including that there is much in our tradition that must be rejected if we are to find salvation. For our conventional way of telling this story has not stopped humanity's suicidal trajectory, but may have actually assisted it to death.


    Yet, I cannot reject the cross.

    More than a year ago some of the folk in my congregation came to me and said they had questions about the atonement. They had just finished a study of a Bart Ehrman series on the historical Jesus, and they were puzzled by things he had said about Evangelical views of the atonement, views that were unfamiliar to them. I said I'd be happy to teach a class on the atonement, but that I wanted a few months preparation to read a lot of the latest books on the subject, as I knew there had been much ferment on this topic in recent years.

    And, so, I spent a few months last year reading books on the cross. The best one I read was by James Cone. Cone was one of the founders of Black Theology and his masterpiece God of the Oppressed had already transformed much of my thinking about Jesus and cross. He taught there that crucifixion was a present reality, an on-going experience in the life of black people, and that they were empowered by the story of Jesus sharing in their suffering. In 2012 he developed his ideas further in a little book entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In it he took to task American mainline Protestant theology for its participation in and subsequent failure to recognize the on-going crucifixion of black bodies.

    He also wrote about the life-affirming, transforming power of this story in the black community:


Instead of attempting to explain the saving power of the cross rationally, black Christians recognized it as a mystery, beyond human understanding or control. In remembrance of Jesus' last week, leading to his death, blacks at Ebenezer and other black churches, celebrating the sacrament of "Holy Communion," raised their voices to acknowledge "a fountain filled with blood," "drawn from Immanuel's veins"; "blood," they believed, "will never lose its power," because "there is power in the blood," and "nothing but the blood."


When blacks sang about the "blood," they were wrestling not only with the blood of the crucified carpenter from Nazareth but also with the blood of raped and castrated black bodies in America -- innocent, often nameless, burning and hanging bodies, images of hurt so deep that only God's "amazing grace" could offer consolation.


    Rather than seeing the on-going crucifixion as a reason to reject the story of the cross, black suffering led to a deeper and more passionate embrace. Cone continued:


One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy. What kind of salvation is that? No human language can fully describe what salvation through the cross means. Salvation through the cross is a mystery and can only be apprehended through faith, repentance, and humility. The cross is an "opening to the transcendent" for the poor who have nowhere else to turn -- that transcendence of the spirit that no one can take away, no matter what they do. Salvation is broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness.


    And this is where Cone's writing connected with what I was reading in many other theologians -- that the saving power of the cross is the transformation in brings about in us. Because God is identified with the oppressed and because God accompanies us in our suffering, suffering and oppression can enslave and tyrannize us no more. We are able to imagine something different, something new, something good and beautiful and healing.

    Delores Williams wrote,


Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus' death on the cross. . . . Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. . . . God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.


    And, so, now I return to the word from the Gospel of John. "It is finished." Jesus of Nazareth had finished his work. He had lived in such a way that challenged violence and oppression and offered us a new way of living, a new vision. His work was done. That there is an "ongoing crucifixion of the world" is not because his life, his death, this story failed, but because we didn't really get the message.

    The work of salvation – liberating, healing, and empowering creation to live in justice, love, and peace, isn't finished. We are responsible for carrying on the work, so that Christ did not die in vain.

Meditations: Book Two

Book Two of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius had me contrasting his Stoic philosophy with the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius, which I read just prior to this.  The Emperor is very negative on pleasure and its pursuit.  Giving in to pleasure (the phrase itself is derogatory) is unmanly (this was a common view for Roman ethicists and seems to have been St. Paul's view as well).

The Emperor expresses a view similar to Lucretius when it comes to the fear of death:

at all times awaiting death with the glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed.

I realized that Stoicism had been more influential in my own thinking in the late nineties through the mid-Aughts, but that I had embraced more Epicurean elements since then.  This was not a conscious embrace of one ancient philosophy over another, but was more directly tied to embracing my identity and living well.

Marcus Aurelius wrote, "nothing harmful is in accordance with nature."  That ludicrous.

I've been reading Ecclesiastes in my morning bible reading.  I've read it a handful of times in my life, but this time it is really having an impact (is it that I'm older or am I more jaded?).  There is a paragraph in Book II that sounds like something from Ecclesiastes:

In man's life his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux, his perception fogged, his whole bodily composition rotting, his mind a whirligig, his fortune unpredictable, his fame unclear.  To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion.

That paragrphy, while dark and cynical, is beautifully written.


Narrow ruling could create chaos

I've been worried about that after listening to the hearings.  In fact, the only real solution is to declare that:

  • gay people are covered under the 14th amendment
  • that discrimination must meet strict scrutiny
  • and that gay people have a right to marry

Those rulings will come eventually, even if not this year, but narrow rulings will create chaos, as even the hearing indicated.  Mr. Clement, for the opposition, cited the problem of military personnel refusing a transfer from West Point to Fort Sill, because it would mean losing their rights.

This Bloomberg blog post discusses the chaos that could ensue from a narrow ruling. 

A limited government call for marriage equality

My friend Razi Hashmi sent me the link to this column arguing for marriage equality based on the principles of limited government.  The columnist rightly points out that the state interest in marriage is relatively recent and inappropriate.  It is also tainted by a racist past.  He writes:

As a matter of principle, the argument is charmingly simple: from where does the government derive the authority to prohibit consenting adults from marrying each other?

Though the word “traditional” has erroneously become attached to the concept, the state licensure of marriage contracts is not traditional in any sense of the word. State licensing regimes replaced church- and contract-based marriage only in the last few centuries, and are the byproducts of a sordid period of American history when governmentstook it upon themselves to prevent people of different races from marrying one another (licensing subsequently became a source of revenue generation for the same governments, which is why the practice continued even after the boogeyman of miscegenation was largely snuffed out).

In short, the state co-option of marriage was an exercise in massive government infringement on the natural rights of individual citizens, not a hearkening back to “traditional” values. Prior to that, marriage was widely considered a religious and contractual (i.e., a private) affair, not an institution of the state. For advocates of limited government who believe that the state has only the power to protect life, liberty, and property, it should be easy to condemn and oppose the racist, extortive practice of states usurping marriage regulation from churches and civil society.

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