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October 2015

Society Gone Awry

Society Gone Awry

Hosea 4:1-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 October 2015



    Wednesday night, during our Confirmation: Phase One class with 4th-8th graders, the kids created a film of some scenes from the life of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. We'll have that video playing during Coffee Hour after service so that you can see the entertaining job they did of bringing to life this significant moment in world history and in the heritage of the United Church of Christ.

    We do well to remember on this Reformation Sunday that one branch of the ecumenical movement that birthed our denomination was the Evangelical Synod, a group of German immigrants with roots in the Lutheran Reformation.

    2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, commemorating the moment when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. By the way, I learned recently that he didn't hammer the theses to the door—he used wax to post them, a far less dramatic event than the way we've generally imagined it.

    Currently I'm serving on an ecumenical committee to organize how Omaha and Nebraska will commemorate the 500th anniversary. I'm serving as the representative of the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ. The organizing committee was called together by the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and, so far, includes representatives from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mennonites, the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, and the United Methodist Church. We intend to include Jewish and Muslim neighbors in interfaith events recognizing the effects the Reformation had upon the peoples of all three faiths.

    Our committee is guided by four motivations when planning this anniversary.


  1. We are going to celebrate, but we are going to celebrate not the divisions and animosities of a half-millennium ago but the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to heal the those division, particularly the significant ecumenical cooperation and agreements of the last fifty years.
  2. We will remember and commemorate an event that changed all of us, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike.
  3. We will repent for the actions that have divided us, especially the ways in which we have born false witness against our Christian sisters and brothers of other denominations.
  4. And finally, we will use the anniversary to explore the continuing path to unity.


A sign of growing ecumenism is my autumn sermon series, exploring the themes of Pope Francis' encyclical letter Praise Be. The irony is not lost on me that on Reformation Sunday, I'm preaching from a Roman Catholic text. But if we are a church that is always reforming, something we pride ourselves in, then part of that reform may be opening ourselves to voices we once ignored. Plus, Francis himself is calling for a reformation in this document, for a change in human society and culture. So, on this Reformation Sunday we can join in solidarity with our Christian brother as we continue the on-going effort of reforming ourselves, the church, and the world through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


Francis proclaims that "Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads." We have benefited from this technology in myriad ways, but we also seem to have lost something.

This week was Back to the Future Day, and many of us enjoyed how many of the movie's predictions of 2015 had come true and how many had not. Of course, we don't have flying cars, mass produced hover boards, or World Series Champion Cubs, but we do teleconference with one another, video glasses exist, cars run on alternative fuels, and drones are beginning to become common (unfortunately). The ubiquity of digital communications technologies has been most overwhelming. I've only had a cell phone for ten years, and yet I find it difficult to imagine how I did things before. Of course, these devices aren't phones, they are pocket computers that we can use to instantly contact people around the world and gather information which once took hours of research in a library.

I'm only 41 years old, but the technological advances of my own lifetime are stunning. In recent months I've admired the photos of Pluto that NASA has been releasing. The idea the human mind can create a probe, send it billions of miles away, and broadcast back to ourselves these amazing images astounds me. We are a brilliant species, capable of once unbelievable things.

But, with those adventures and advances also come losses and new concerns. One concern is what we do with all that power. Pope Francis writes that "our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values, and conscience." He adds, "Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used." Francis warns, "we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it." "Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence." He does sound like Hosea and the other Minor Prophets at times.

In response to this technocratic paradigm Francis offers a challenge and a call to action and reformation. "There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm." We need time for contemplation and wonder and discussions about the meaning and purpose of existence. We particularly must remind ourselves of the "intrinsic dignity of the world" and its creatures.

So, if we are going to heal the current climate change and environmental crisis, Francis believes we must begin by healing human relationships. We must be open to other people, engaging in dialogue that is respectful and loving. One only need watch the latest political news to see how much this is lacking, which is probably one reason that Francis, when he addressed a joint session of Congress, took so much time to school them on what the responsibilities of legislators are.

One area where Francis believes we need to change our focus is how we view work. I found this section of the encyclical letter to be very interesting, for one of the advances of the Lutheran Reformation was an appreciation of ordinary life and the theological concept that every person is called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to a vocation. Francis writes that "We were created with a vocation to work. . . . Work should be the setting for . . . rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, [and] giving glory to God." But, he warns that the meaning of work has lost this rich understanding as we focus on market forces and technological advances. His worry is that as technology replaces much ordinary labor we lose the very activity that brings meaning and purpose to most people's lives. "Work is a necessity," he writes, "part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment." What Francis advocates is business that invests in the real economy—the work of real people.


Recent human culture may have led us down a path that has resulted in environmental damage and huge inequalities, but we can reform ourselves. We can repent. We can change. And so next week we'll begin to look at what contributions Christian spirituality might make to transforming human culture and healing the problems of the world. Over the next few weeks we will explore the mystery of the universe, the ultimate meaning of life, the common good, and the path to renewal just in time for our season of Thanksgiving.

Last Sunday was most encouraging, as our children led us in worship, focusing on wisdom. They shared with us very concrete issues for which they need wisdom, including bullying and understanding the world. They also shared about how they've discovered wisdom in the bible, the church, and our spiritual tradition.

498 years after Luther changed the world, we are raising a new generation of children who may lead us into a new reformation, an era less focused on domination and exploitation, and one focused on wisdom, beauty, contemplation, respect, and dialogue. That is my prayer this Reformation Sunday.

A Milestone Passed

My father died when he was 41 years old.  Since I was sixteen I've said that 41 would be my "weird year."  A few years ago I got a complete cardiac workup and the cardiologist said that though he could give no guarantees, my heart was fine and I would most likely live past 41.  That day, as we drove away from the cardiologist's office, I began to cry and Michael said, "I don't understand.  You received good news."  I answered, "Knowing I will live longer than Dad is a good thing, but it also makes me sad."

But 41 has ended up being the best year--the year of our son's birth.  I've never been happier or more content.

Yesterday afternoon I realized that last Wednesday was the day I lived longer than my father did.  Yes, I cried when I realized that.  Earlier in the day we visited Dad's grave.  I know Dad isn't there and that I've talked to him (or, at least the idea of him) about Sebastian since my son was born, but I still wanted to "introduce" Sebastian to Dad.  The moment was tender.  Sebastian was craning his neck, like usual, wanting to take everything in around him, but when we stepped to Dad's grave, Sebastian turned around and calmly looked down, his gaze lingering.

I've missed Dad and cried more about his death this year than the last fifteen years combined.  But the grief is not because I'm forty-one.  I wish I could share this moment of being a father with him.

Inequality & the Church

Inequality & the Church

Zechariah 7:8-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

4 October 2015



    One April morning in 2002 I was driving south along rural state highways in eastern Arkansas, in the region called The Delta, on my way to the town of Helena. I was listening to Mary J. Blige's album No More Drama and watching the cotton fields pass by. I was heading to Helena in order to plan my youth group's upcoming mission trip to the town. The church I was serving, Rolling Hills Baptist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, had decided to send our youth to Helena, Arkansas as part of new work being done there by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Nationally the CBF had adopted the twenty poorest counties in the country in order to focus our domestic missions efforts. Two of the counties were in Arkansas.     

    I arrived in Helena a couple of hours before my scheduled meeting with our local partners, so I decided to drive around and take a look at the town. There were beautiful, grand, old homes, but there were also areas of extreme poverty. One thing I quickly noticed were the campaign posters. Despite the fact that Helena is an African-American majority city, the faces on the posters of the candidates running for sheriff and other offices were white.

    I parked on the old main street where blocks and blocks of buildings lay empty. Sixty years ago this town had a population of 40,000; in 2002 it was less than 10,000. I went into a little café run by an African-American woman and had the best grits and some of the best coffee I've ever had. While sitting there, I started talking with the other customers and got into a deep conversation with a man who ran one of the organizations in town that helped teenagers. He moved over to my table and began to share his story with me.

    He had grown up in Helena and gone away to college, one of the benefits of integration. But he hadn't come back home after college; he had stayed away for decades, until he realized that he needed to go home and help the young people there. He told me that integration, though clearly a good thing, had had negative effects on the town. The town was drained of capital when many of the white people fled to the suburbs of Little Rock, Memphis, and Jackson. He said that many of the talented and intelligent members of the African-American community were finally able to go to college and get good jobs in other parts of the country, leading to a brain drain. The most devastating impact, however, had been the death of black businesses. Once all of the town's stores were integrated and open to everyone, the African-American business district had slowly died, ridding the city of its African-American professional class. This was an eye-opening conversation for me, I'd never had any conversation like it before.

    The local organizers I met with after this eye-opening conversation were the Rev. Dr. Mary Olson and Ms. Naomi Cottoms. Dr. Olson is a white woman and a Methodist minister. Ms. Cottoms is African-American. Together they had moved to Helena to try to help with issues of poverty, housing, health care, and democracy.

    As I entered their offices, I was nervous because I'd never done anything like this before. They later told me that they were not sure what to make of me. Here I was, a young, white guy from the affluent part of the state, and a Baptist at that. Maybe I was going to just bring my youth, have some fun, but not really help.

    But, something just clicked between us. Have you ever met people like that, strangers whom you suddenly realize you can connect with deeply? It was like that for me and Dr. Olson and Ms. Cottoms. Over the course of a few hours, we talked logistics and plans, and then drove around to look at the town and the worksites. I even met some of the elderly people whose homes we would be working on.

    In 2002 in the United States here I was being driven around a city with neighborhoods that did not have running water, where the residents had to go to a central spigot and get water and carry the water back to their homes. In this town there were human beings living in shelters where I wouldn't house animals.

    Though I had known that extreme poverty existed in this country, I didn't really know it before that day. Though I intellectually knew that racism still deeply affected American society, before that day I didn't really know it. I can honestly say that my day in Helena, Arkansas that April in 2002 forever changed me. My eyes were opened, and I awoke from a slumber. My ministry changed because I now realized that I had to work actively in the communities in which I lived to improve life. That day I developed an active passion for issues of race, poverty, and justice.


    In his encyclical letter "Praise Be," Pope Francis is concerned not only with climate change and other environmental issues. He is concerned with our current "throwaway culture," as he calls it, and the effect that culture has not only upon the Earth but upon human society. We are experiencing a breakdown of society and a decline in the quality of human life, he writes. And his concerns are broad. Cities around the globe are experiencing unruly and ugly growth making them unhealthy places to live. The global drug trade and its violence. An overload of trivial information through new media, leading to a lack of wisdom and contemplation. Hunger and the lack of clean water. National debt and income equality. The exploitation of natural resources, particularly in developing countries. A deified market and reliance on technological fixes. The mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Mercury pollution resulting from gold mining. Unsustainable agricultural practices. All of these and more issues are mentioned in the broad scope of Francis' pastoral letter. His breadth of vision is inspiring and a bold reminder that much of what troubles humanity is interconnected. He wrote, "We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference."

    We must begin to change our culture by first seeing what's wrong, particularly what we've done wrong. Francis wrote, "The way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices [is by] trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen."

    Once we see what's wrong and confess our role, then we can begin to recognize the way forward. What Francis urges is not a big technological fix, what he recommends are "gestures of generosity, solidarity and care . . . since we were made for love."


    The prophet Zechariah recommends rendering true judgments, showing kindness and mercy, not oppressing, and not devising evil against one another. Both messages are hopeful. Looking at the news and the problems of the world—the refugee crisis, bombing a hospital, three school shootings in one day—we can easily be overwhelmed. We can wonder if there are any solutions and what possibly we can do. Again and again the wise ones remind us that the world is improved by small acts of kindness. Yes, we should do what we can to change systems and laws and improve the world, but remember all of that also relies on us each and every day treating the people around us with care and hospitality.


    When my youth group visited Helena, Arkansas in the summer of 2002 we painted houses, rebuilt front steps, and constructed a wheel chair ramp for one mother we had watched carry her disabled son up and down her back steps. In the grand scheme of things, these were small acts.

    The next year, when I returned, I learned that a Habitat for Humanity chapter had been formed by one of the local men who worked with our team and realized that the town didn't need people on mission trips, that they could organize and do the work themselves. And now I'm excited whenever I read the newsletter of Rolling Hills Baptist Church and see that thirteen years later that church continues its ministry in the Arkansas Delta, having now forged very long-lasting relationships.

    Let us open our eyes in order to see what is occurring around us. Confess our sins. And then begin the work of repentance and healing through our small acts of kindness and care.

Patriotism fail

The other day I was driving along in Omaha and stopped behind this truck.  What I saw bothered me.  This is the best image I captured on my phone, though the bird poop on my own windshield gets in the way.


In a misguided effort to express patriotism, this person has broken the flag code.  First, a flag isn't supposed to touch the ground, or in this case the bed of the truck.  The edge of the flag has become soiled from touching the bed of the truck, which means it should be disposed of.  The flag is also tattered along the edges, another reason the flag should be respectfully and properly disposed of.

This person, then, is actually demonstrating disrespect.  When he later gunned it and sped along a residential street, his disrespect of others was confirmed.

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals/On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic ConcernsGrounding for the Metaphysics of Morals/On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns by Immanuel Kant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first encountered the basics of Kant's ethical theory in high school debate and then deepened my understanding through the rest of my formal (and informal) education. In graduate school I probably read the Groundwork through for the first time. Deeply influence by virtue theories and 20th century virtue criticisms of Kantian ethics, I never much cared for the complicated analytical details of the theory.

I'm still not, even now teaching the Groundwork for the first time.

Yet, there is some appreciation. Modern human rights law is based upon Kant's robust notion of the dignity of autonomous, rational beings. So, when in my reading I came across the key paragraph, my feelings were similar to standing before Galileo's telescope--this tool helped to change the world, ushering in modernity and freedom.

"Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will. He must in all his actions, whether directed to himself or to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end. All the objects of inclinations have only a conditioned value; for if there were not these inclinations and the needs founded on them, then their object would be without value. But the inclinations themselves, being sources of needs, are so far from having an absolute value such as to render them desirable for their own sake that the universal wish of every rational being must be, rather, to be wholly free from them. Accordingly, the value of any object obtainable by our action is always conditioned. Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves, i.e., as something which is not to be used merely as means and hence there is imposed thereby a limit on all arbitrary use of such beings, which are thus objects of respect. Persons are, therefore, not merely subjective ends, whose existence as an effect of our actions has a value for us; but such beings are objective ends, i.e., exist as ends in themselves. Such an end is one for which there can be substituted no other end to which such beings should serve merely as means, for otherwise nothing at all of absolute value would be found anywhere. But if all value were conditioned and hence contingent, then no supreme practical principle could be found for reason at all. . . . Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means."

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Climate Change & the Church

Climate Change & the Church

Joel 1:1-2:1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

4 October 2015



    The Day of the Lord is coming, the prophet Joel warns us. And it sounds pretty bad.


    This doom and gloom is one reason we don't preach a lot of sermons from the Minor Prophets. They are called the "minor prophets" because their books are short, but the name could just as easily refer to the "minor key" in which they write. These guys talk a lot about God smiting people because of sin.

    But these prophets are also powerful social justice advocates. Remember the great passage from Amos "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

    These cantankerous prophets are concerned about the big issues of their day, particularly social inequality, the mistreatment of the poor, and irresponsible exploitation and damage to the land. Therefore, they are the perfect ancient voices to couple with the recent encyclical letter of Pope Francis.


    This summer Francis issued the letter "Laudato Si," which translates into English as "Praise Be," inviting the entire world into dialogue about the major issues that face us—climate change, income inequality, refugees, technology, etc. He thinks the major issues facing humanity are interconnected and the result of our current way of living, what he calls a "throwaway lifestyle" that has damaged our common home, the Earth.

    At the beginning of this letter, Francis wrote, "I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home." According to John O'Keefe, a theologian from Creighton University who spoke to our First Forum a few weeks ago, this papal encyclical is the very first one to be written to the entire world and not just the church.

    So I want to accept the Pope's invitation and dialogue about these issues. As Stephen Bouma, our music director, preached last week in a sermon about the things he appreciates here at First Central, this congregation values inquiry—open and honest discussion and disagreement about significant topics. In that spirit, then, we accept the Pope's invitation to conversation.


    Now, the Pope sounds like the prophet Joel when he describes the effects of pollution. He wrote, "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." This ugliness is a concern because the Earth is part of the revelation of God. Nature should be a source of beauty and joy, "contemplated with gladness and praise."

    Yet, in much contemporary culture, nature has become an object to be used and controlled not a mystery to be enjoyed. Viewing nature as something to be used has led to its abuse. We live in a throwaway culture that consumes at an unsustainable level and does not reuse and recycle what we do use. The Earth has been exploited and she is crying out for deliverance.

    Things should not be like this. For the Earth is our common home and the Earth's climate is part of the common good meant for all of us.

    We come to this topic on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the namesake of the current pope. St. Francis was known for his relationship to nature and his love and concern for animals. Every year we bless pets and animals on the weekend closest to St. Francis' feast day. Blessing the animals reminds us of the important and holy connection between animals and ourselves.

    We also come to this topic on World Communion Sunday. A day in which we are reminded of interconnections. Not just with all Christians around the globe. Or even with all humans and all cultures. We are also reminded that our communion is with all creatures of the Earth and the environments in which we live.

    Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, wisely reminds us that we Christians are called "to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and with our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God's creation, in the last speck of dust on our planet."


    And so climate change is not just a scientific and political issue, the issue is moral, theological, spiritual. The damage being done to the Earth is damage being done to the work of God. The lifestyles that damage the Earth are lifestyles lived in contradiction to the communion that is God's will and intention.

    But can we do anything about it?

    The prophet Joel has a pretty negative view of the ecological devastation he lived through and foresaw getting worse if people did not repent. But he did believe repentance was possible, that's why he sounded the alarm.

    Pope Francis is more hopeful than the ancient prophet. He believes that humanity is capable of changing our ways and living in greater solidarity with one another and with the Earth. This renewal calls for a change of heart based upon a better understanding of the Earth as our common home. We can and must work together, Francis proclaims. "All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements, and talents."


    Last Sunday morning Michael, Sebastian, and I were driving through the hills of northwestern Connecticut. We were on our way back to Hartford to catch a flight home to Omaha after having participated in the wedding of Desi Fortina the night before in the town of Hudson, New York. Our drive was quiet on a crisp, cool, sunny day. Occasionally a leaf flamed into view, as the foliage was just beginning to turn autumnal colors.

    We passed, unexpectedly, through the town of Norfolk (not Norfork), which was the hometown of this congregation's founding pastor, the Rev. Reuben Gaylord. We stopped to look the place over, see the church, and explore the cemetery. In the graveyard we encountered a historical marker at the tombstone of James Mars, the last slave who lived in Norfolk. Mars gained his own freedom, became a prominent member of the community, and wrote a book about his experiences. He was also a member of the Congregational Church, meaning that even in the 19th century the home congregation of our founding pastor was integrated. Gaylord himself was a strong proponent of abolition.

    To our predecessors, slavery could have been perceived as an insurmountable problem. But they had hope and conviction and used their moral and theological understanding to abolish it.

    Our Sunday morning visit to Norfolk, during which I recalled the great heritage we have as the people of God, renewed my hope that we can heed the message of the prophets and heal the world.


    This morning I haven't recited the troubling scientific data; there are folk, even some in our congregation, who are better skilled at that. Nor have I waded into the murk of public policy. My point has been simpler than all of that.

    Climate change is a moral, theological, and spiritual concern calling upon the commitment of people of faith. For we are people of hope and conviction who have changed the world before and can do so again. On this World Communion Sunday, this Feast Day of St. Francis, let us recommit ourselves to live in solidarity and communion with all of creation, repenting of our sins, and working to heal and renew our common home, the Earth.