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January 2018

Good News

Good News

Mark 1:1-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

7 January 2018



    Imagine it's the year 69 of the Common Era. The crucifixion of Jesus occurred almost forty years before. Christianity is still in its infancy—a small movement that has been spreading across the Near East and the Roman Empire.

    During those forty years conflict has increased in Judea as the people reacted to their Roman occupiers and the local elite who were allied with the Romans. Banditry has been on the rise. Revolutionary movements have increased. A decade before a prophetic figure appeared in the wilderness, drawing a large following. They prepared to march on Jerusalem where the leader had declared that he would stand on the Mount of Olives and order the city walls to crumble. The Romans intercepted these marchers and slaughtered them.

    And finally three years ago war broke out. A provisional government was created, free of Roman oppression and withstood the first assault by the Roman army. But there has been no united Jewish front. This has been as much a civil war among various elements of the local population as a war on Rome, with multiple individuals and groups battling for control. The Romans returned in might and have slowly been subduing the country.

    Meanwhile Rome itself has experienced chaos. Nero's unpopular reign ended in his suicide. That next year three different men served a short time as emperor before Vespasian, fresh from his victories in the Jewish War, became Caesar.

    All this chaos has been born most heavily by the peasant class, many of whom have lived as refugees and exiles.

    Maybe it was one of those exiles who fled into Syria who sat down to write "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."


    While Mark tells the story of Jesus, it is written a generation later and to an audience in the midst of chaos and war. It is written to bring them good news.

    A vast gulf separates us from the initial audience of this gospel. We live in a radically different age with different cultures and politics and economics. Our technological and scientific understanding far exceeds those who first read these words. We also read this text after two thousand years of accumulated interpretation and theological discussion which can both enrich our understanding but also get in the way of the original meanings of the story.

    But most different is that we read from a different socio-economic location. We are citizens of the globally dominating empire who experience lives of advantage and privilege compared with most people around the world. Most of us are not the peasant working class of a remote province. We are not refugees from war. We aren't subsistence farmers robbed of our livelihood by decisions from far away capitals.

    Though in 2018 we are less ignorant of those concerns than we once were. We live at a time of one of the greatest refugee crises in world history. In the sixties of the first century the refugees fled into Syria, today they flee from it.

We've also witnessed the outraged politics of working people who feel left behind by the centers of power and influence. Our age is also one of violence, chaos, and resentment when populist movements find opportunities for growth.

    We are challenged by lies and equivocations, fake news and alternative facts. What is true? What is real? Are there any facts we can agree upon? NPR host Brooke Gladstone wrote in her recent book The Trouble with Reality that "the nation seems to be waging civil war over reality itself."

    Samuel Wells, the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London has written that "To navigate these bewildering times, we need a renewed story."

    And so, like those exiles from the ancient war, we will turn back to the story of Jesus as told to us in the Gospel of Mark for here is the good news that we need.


    The leader strong enough for our needs in dangerous times happens to have been a carpenter the Romans executed. He is the promised deliverer, the true king, who heralds the coming of God. This Jesus has shown us the way to build a new order in the ruins of the old. A way that, if we follow, will be our salvation.

    It all began with John who went out into the wilderness to create a new Israel away from the centers of economic, political, and religious power yet drawing upon the great episodes in the people's history. John, who was a new Elijah, the forerunner for God's invasion of the world.

    And to him all the people came, dissatisfied with the failures of the status quo, seeking something new.

    One who came to him was Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee. A nobody from Nowheresville. And yet it is this one for whom the heavens ripped open and the Spirit of God descended. This one is God's child. This one will lead the way. And the scriptures quoted about him make it clear that he will be the one to challenge the rulers and powers of this world.

    Scholar Herman Waetjen wrote, "In effect, [Jesus] drowned." In his baptism "he embraced the reality of his death" and so became "wholly unobliged" to the status quo. His baptism was his break with his past—"the structures and values of his society" would hold no power over him anymore. His power would come from his direct relationship with God.

    And then the Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he was surrounded by the wild beasts, an illusion to the prophecies of the Book of Daniel where the great empires of the ancient world are symbolized as great monsters—the lion with eagle's wings, the great bear devouring human bodies, the leopard with four heads and four wings, and the terrifying beast with ten horns which made war upon the saints. These dreadful beasts are defeated, according to Daniel, by "the Son of Man" the "Truly Human One" and after their defeat the rule of the earth shall be given to the people, to the holy ones, and that reign shall be everlasting.

    And, so, this Jesus, fresh from his wilderness triumph over the evils of the earth, returns to the Galilee, to the outer provinces, away from the centers of power and influence, and there he proclaims the good news that the time long promised has been fulfilled. This reign of the people has come near, so it is time to repent and cast off your old way of life and believe in the good news.

    Jesus is calling on the people to join him in remaking humanity and reordering society. And it is to this idea that Mark turns a generation later as his world is overtaken by chaos and violence. The only lasting solution is to embrace the work that God began with Jesus and reorder the powers of this world for the benefit of all.

    And here in 2018 in our own disorienting time, we are called once again to be the people who follow in the way of Jesus, the people with good news to share. God has invaded earth, defeated the powers of death and evil, and is remaking the world so that all might share in abundance of the earth. For this good news to be true, we need only repent and believe.

Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild

Mark 1:1-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 December 2017



    Our language stigmatizes the wild. The California poet Gary Snyder points this out in his book The Practice of the Wild when he summarizes the Oxford English Dictionary's use of "wild":


Of animals—not tame, undomesticated, unruly.

Of land—uninhabited, uncultivated.

Of individuals—unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose.

Of behavior—violent, destructive, cruel, unruly.


The dictionary has defined the word wild by what it is not. But if we start from what wild is, according to Snyder, we get a different list.


Of animals—free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.

Of land—a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact. Pristine.

Of individuals—Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent.

Of behavior—fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation.


    Snyder explains how the way of the wild "elud[es] analysis;" it is "beyond categories, playful, surprising, impermanent, independent."

    Doesn't this sound like Jesus and the Gospel story?

    John the Baptist, that strange wild man, calling the people to leave the comfort and the order of their homes and enter the wilderness in order to repent and start over again. Jesus' own reordering of power through the introduction of a new humanity.

    Over in the Gospel of Luke a teenage girl has revolutionary visions: The powerful cast down. The lowly uplifted. The rich sent away empty. The poor filled with good things. Just imagine some contemporary American politician campaigning on that platform. Then we'd really have a "War on Christmas."

    The Christian message has been so tamed by political and social power and consumer capitalism and the sentimentalities of the holiday season that we fail to remember its radical, revolutionary, wildness.


As I prepared for this sermon series, I read all these wonderful descriptions of the wilderness and how the call of the wild is the call to freedom. In Gary Snyder's book he writes, "To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us."

But reading that just made me uncomfortable. Waiting in recent weeks for a diagnosis of Mom's health, I am deeply annoyed by the idea that we should "be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us."

As I was writing this sermon this week, my own words were annoying me. I'm not quite as radical as I once was. I don't like change as much as I once did. New technologies annoy me because I really liked the ones that were new when I was in my twenties and surely they can't be old already.

    Plus we've lived through political and social chaos in the last year, and it doesn't feel good. Stability and order and tradition and the standards and mores make even more sense when you see them upended.    

    Two weeks ago I ended my sermon by quoting the biblical scholar Mitzi Minor, "Wilderness experiences are necessary stages on the journey for those who seek to be authentically human." Then I said,


It is in these moments of potential danger that we are purged of excess and luxury. We are forced to grapple with the deep questions and build the qualities of strong character. In the wilderness we find our way forward and learn to trust in God.


    "Easier said than done, pastor," is what I wanted to say to myself this week.


    Yes, our world is a wild place,

And we also serve a wild God,

Who does wild things.

Who calls us into the wilderness to repent

And prepare for God's coming.


And while sometimes all that good news excites me, it can also make me uncomfortable. But maybe Advent should make us a little uncomfortable?


    Then I noticed something else in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus doesn't stay out there in the wilderness, he goes home, and tells them what he's learned. And again and again in Mark he teaches his followers in a house.

    In the Mary Oliver poem, the wild geese are returning home and we learn our place in the family of all things.

    The wilderness may be an essential place in the journey, but it isn't the final stop. God calls us into the wild, but also brings us home again.

Home will look different. Jesus is about creating a new humanity and reordering society. Mary's revolutionary vision is God's dream for the world.

    So we return to a home that is more fair and loving and equitable and peaceful and all those good, nice things we really want to sing about this season.

    And guess what, it's time now. Our Advent wanderings in the wilderness are over. [Sigh & Pause] Christmas is about to begin. So, enjoy.

Brooks's Final Chapter: Humility Code

The final chapter of David Brooks' The Road to Character is a rich and complex summary and an discussion of why and how our culture changed.

He opens by contrasting Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath.  Both grew up in the same area of western Pennyslvania and only a decade apart, but were fundamentally different people.  Unitas said "I always figured being a little dull was part of being pro."  Namath was anything but dull.  Brooks explains that Unitas viewed football as a job that was not fundamentally different from a factory worker or plumber.  Namath engaged in self-promotion.

Reading this section made me think of Tom Landry.  I miss his style of coaching.  Dressed in a suit like a professional, he was generally stoic in his response to the what was happening on the field.  I don't really care for the way most coaches dress and behave these days.

So, when did this change occur?  Brooks says that it wasn't the Baby Boomers and the upheavals of the late 1960's, like many people think.  No, the change occurred in what Brokaw called the "Greatest Generation."  In the post-war world they promoted a new culture of self-esteem and authenticity and abandoned the tradition of moral realism.

Brooks cites a number of examples, like Norman Vincent Peale's bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking.  Interesting, I read back in November that Peale was Trump's favorite minister and even performed his first wedding.

He writes that this change was a response to its time and that there were good reasons and results for the change, but I want to write about those in the next post.  But with the change "A moral vocabulary was lost and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls."

Key to the tradition of moral realism, according to Brooks, was a grasp of human limitations.  

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex.  We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves.  Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves.  Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves.  Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures.  To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence--on others, on institutions, on the divine.  

Brooks does not believe we need to abandon the new culture and return to the old one, but that we need to find greater balance between the two in order to respond to the moral needs of our time.  But more on that in a future post, in which I'll also share some personal reflections.

Descartes wrong about the self

He was wrong about so many things, but still so important to read and teach.  I often tell my students that his most lasting impact were the questions he raised, rather than the answers he gave them.

Here's a good essay critical of his influential notion of the self, arguing against an independent self and for a more relational view.  An excerpt:

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’ Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.


The importance of Foucault's analysis of power

An essay discusses the continuing importance of Foucault's work on power.  An excerpt:

Herein lies the richness and the challenge of Foucault’s work. His is a philosophical approach to power characterised by innovative, painstaking, sometimes frustrating, and often dazzling attempts to politicise power itself. Rather than using philosophy to freeze power into a timeless essence, and then to use that essence to comprehend so much of power’s manifestations in the world, Foucault sought to unburden philosophy of its icy gaze of capturing essences. He wanted to free philosophy to track the movements of power, the heat and the fury of it working to define the order of things.


To be sure, disciplinary training is not sovereign violence. But it is power. Classically, power took the form of force or coercion and was considered to be at its purest in acts of physical violence. Discipline acts otherwise. It gets a hold of us differently. It does not seize our bodies to destroy them, as Leviathan always threatened to do. Discipline rather trains them, drills them and (to use Foucault’s favoured word) ‘normalises’ them. All of this amounts to, Foucault saw, a distinctly subtle and relentless form of power. To refuse to recognise such disciplining as a form of power is a denial of how human life has come to be shaped and lived. If the only form of power we are willing to recognise is sovereign violence, we are in a poor position to understand the stakes of power today. If we are unable to see power in its other forms, we become impotent to resist all the other ways in which power brings itself to bear in forming us.