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October 2018



Romans 12:1-2

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

28 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Transformation by Roxanne Swentzell.

Roxanne Swentzell describes her art as being for people, particularly women, who have been hurt.  She said, “People need to be reassured that things are OK.”  And in particular that we “can feel a sense that there’s a mother taking care of us.”

            Roxanne Swentzell, is a ceramicist from the Taos pueblo.  She calls herself a “sculptor of human emotions.”  She says, “I have tried to make sculpture that would help people get basic values, would help them get in touch with themselves.”  She describes her art as “crossing cultural and all kinds of boundaries.” 

            The Joslyn Art Museum says of her, “With her sculptures Swentzell shares her culture and declares a common humanity — she invites us to ‘Come, sit down, we aren’t that different, let me tell you something about us.’”

            And so today we sit beside this photographic image of Roxanne Swentzell’s sculpture entitled Transformation.  What can we learn about us?  How can we get in touch with ourselves through these ceramics?  Will we be reassured that we are being taken care of?  Will we be inspired to goodness?

            I’m delighted to conclude this worship series, inspired by art from our local museum, with this piece Transformation.  We began the series with the idea that the enjoyment of art is a spiritual practice like prayer, drawing us outside of ourselves, teaching us humility, and cultivating virtue.  Along the way we have explored various points at which art connects with theology and spirituality—how we view images, particularly ourselves as images of God; the role of desire, both its dangers and its ability to transform us; and how we must cultivate the ability to see the world the way that God loves it. 

            Last week you had the opportunity to create art as a part of the worship experience, and I’ve heard some good things and seen such fun pictures.  Thank you Katie Miller for designing that worship for us.

            Two weeks ago I preached on American landscape art and its theological mistakes which contributed to the genocide of Native Americans.  Today, then it is fitting, to be inspired by a Native American artist as we draw the series to a close with this focus on how art participates in our transformation.

            Roxanne Swentzell grew up in Taos in a family filled with social, political, and artistic leaders.  She began to make clay figures early in her life, sitting beside her mother, a noted potter.  Roxanne had a speech impediment as a young girl and used her clay figures to communicate.  Over her career she has become one of America’s leading ceramicists.  Using the traditional coil method of the Santa Clara Pueblo, she builds large clay figures expressing deep emotion and whimsy.  One is amazed looking at her art to realize that this is clay pottery, as they are intricate sculptures.

            The piece before us was commissioned by the Joslyn in the year 2000.  They provided us with a copy of the letter Roxanne Swentzell mailed to the museum accepting the commission and describing what she intended to create.

The topic of this piece has its origins in our pueblo [sic] cultural beliefs. The title, “Transformation,” helps to explain the piece. As Pueblo people we believe that we can and do, at times, transform or take on qualities of other entities such as animals, places, or spirit-beings. One such time of transformation is during our dances or ceremonies in which drums and singers sing songs of prayers to the entities of the cosmos, asking for life, but also acting as transmitters to give life. One of these such dances is our most common and well-known dance, our corn or harvest dance. This is done in celebration of the year’s harvest, but at a deeper level, it is about life...the coming together of all the forces around us that create and make life possible.

            This sculpture shows four young women preparing for the Corn Dance.  They are in the process of getting dressed.  The final one is fully dressed and is described as “having become the Corn Maiden.”

            Let me read one detailed description of this work.  This was in materials sent by the Joslyn, though I do not know the author.

According to traditional Pueblo belief, as dance clothing is put on in preparation for a ceremonial dance—in this case the Corn Dance—there is a much deeper, unseen process taking place.  Each article of clothing and each object used in the dance is symbolic of the natural and spiritual elements, such as sun, clouds, rain and earth, that come together to create and sustain life.  As a dancer fastens and ties the clothing, she absorbs and gathers the powerful forces they represent.  Her individual identity falls away and she becomes the Corn Maiden.  She becomes part of the greater whole, transformed into the spiritual being that brings harvest to the people.  With every breath the Corn Maiden entity takes into herself the forces of life, and with every exhalation she gently blesses the earth and its creatures.

            Wow, I think that’s rather beautiful.

            It also reminds me of something.  On occasion I’ve participated in ecumenical and interfaith worship services at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown, which means I’ve been in the sacristy in order to put on my robes.  Hanging on the wall of the sacristy is a detailed set of instructions for the Episcopal priest to follow when she or he is vesting for worship.  There are specific prayers to utter for each piece of clothing and each item they wear.  The act of getting dressed for worship is itself an act of worship, transforming the priest. 

            For the Pueblo young women the Corn Dance is about blessing the community with what it needs to nourish itself.  Sharon Naranjo-Garcia, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, said, “From the corn we learn to live, we learn the life that is ours. By grinding the corn we learn the footsteps of life.”  Corn has spiritual connections with the longstanding traditions of the people. 

            In her letter to the Joslyn describing the piece, Roxanne Swentzell wrote,

We live in a world of patterns and symbols. Everything has a meaning and is a part of the story of life.  At the point that a dancer has gathered the different forces around and within him or her, which are symbolized by the different dance articles he or she wears, that person is no longer an individual but has transformed into a spiritual being connected to the greater whole. At this point much life force is flowing through this being in every breath and as the breath is released...the breath itself is a blessing

of life going out to the places and beings who are there.

            Can we be transformed into a giver of life and blessing?

            In Romans 12, St. Paul instructs us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”  How are we to do this?  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

            In our worship, we take bread and grape juice and pray over it, turning it into a symbolic and spiritual food to nourish us.  According to theologian Natalie Carnes, “The Eucharist reveals to us what our bread and wine, our fruit of the land and work of human hands, truly are and are for.”  Our work and what we produce are intended by God for communion—to connect us to God and one another, crossing barriers of time and space.  The Lord’s Supper, as with all our worship, forms our character and shapes how we see and experience the world.

            In another place Carnes writes that we become like Christ by behaving as Christ did, which means “behaving as if others are Christ.”  We draw closer to Jesus by treating everyone as Jesus did, as persons with dignity.

            This is one reason I’m deeply troubled this week.  As I’m sure you are.  A bigoted assault upon our transgender citizens.  Fearful rhetoric directed at poor people fleeing violence and seeking a better life.  Assassination attempts on public figures.  And yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Earlier this week I awoke from a dream in which I saw images of the Honduran peasants fleeing violence and heard the voice of Jesus saying, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

            To be transformed into who God wants us to be means to see and love and act as Jesus did.  As our religious tradition has long taught us.  We must become agents of life and blessing, crossing borders and boundaries. 

            To be transformed by God enables us to see as God sees and love as God loves.  Carnes writes, “To see the world in this way—as an image of God—requires resisting the will to master the world.  It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish.”

            Let’s do that!  Let’s open ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable.  Let God work in us and through us so that we become ever more like God.  More glorious, more wonderful.  Let us be transformed.

10 for the 90's

The last two weeks I've been enjoying Lit Hub's series devoted to the 10 Books that defined each decade of the 20th century.  

Thinking ahead to Friday's list for the 1990's I decided that was the only decade I would make a serious guess at, as it was the only 20th century decade in which it was likely that I had read (or at least could have read) the books listed.  So, here's my prediction for their 10.

The Things They Carried, 1990

The Firm, 1991

Angels in America, 1992

Parable of the Sower, 1993

Left Behind, 1995

Infinite Jest, 1996

A Game of Thrones, 1996

American Pastoral, 1997 (now, they already picked Portnoy's Complaint and their rule is not to pick an author twice (a rule they've already broken) but you can't define the literary 90's without a Roth novel.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 1998

The Starr Report, 1998

The Sublime

The Sublime

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Mountain Scene by Thomas Hill.



    Today our worship is inspired by the painting Mountain Scene by Thomas Hill. The materials from the Joslyn Art Museum inform us that this painting is of Hill's favorite subject—Yosemite Valley. Thomas Hill is described as "one of the earliest and most accomplished painters of California scenery and became the leading practitioner of its grand-scale panorama." What drew his to Yosemite Valley were the "vistas which because of their towering rock formations, deep chasms, and dramatic scenery, provided a most magnificent display of nature's wonders." In this particular painting, which is quite large if you visit the museum to see the original, the viewers are "dwarfed by a sublime yet benign nature."

    This is a gorgeous painting, and these types of American landscapes are among my favorite art. I think that's true for many Americans. We are drawn to these images of our land, of mountains, and forests, and hills, and valleys, and rivers, and streams. And images of Yosemite Valley in particular from Albert Bierstadt through John Muir to Ansel Adams inspire us with beauty.

    Michael and I visited Yosemite in the summer of 2008. It was a beautiful July day with clear skies. We walked through the valley, clambering over boulders and soaking our feet in the cold waters of the river. We gazed in awe upon the towering rocks of the canyon. We were dazzled by rock climbers and waterfalls. We laid upon the bank of the river watching the ever-shifting shadows. And we took our pictures of Half Dome and El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls. Our own attempts to create art from this marvelous, sublime place.

    A visit to Yosemite is a religious experience. Because our culture has already defined it as such.

    In his magisterial book Landscape and Memory the historian Simon Schama writes that Yosemite is America's "first and most famous . . . Eden." He continues, "It was an act of Congress in 1864 that established Yosemite Valley as a place of sacred significance for the nation, during the war which marked the moment of Fall in the American Garden."

    During our greatest national crisis, the Civil War, when we feared for the ideals of the nation, we created this wilderness park that would be an "antidote for the poisons of industrial society" and a place of healing within the "imagined garden."

    And Yosemite became precisely that, through the writings of naturalists and the most importantly the landscapes of the great painters and photographers. Yosemite became "the holy park of the West," to quote Schama. "The site of a new birth; a redemption for the national agony; an American re-creation."

    He points out that Yosemite of all the grand places of the West leant itself for this spiritual purpose. "The strangely unearthly topography of the place, with brilliant meadows carpeting the valley flush to the sheer cliff walls of Cathedral Rock, the Merced River winding through the tall grass, lent itself perfectly to this vision of a democratic terrestrial paradise. And the fact that visitors had to descend to the valley floor only emphasized the religious sensation of entering a walled sanctuary."

    Schama's point is that nature itself doesn't do this. We have a spiritual experience of the place because human culture has decided that we will. We have learned to see and experience nature in this way because of our cultural conditioning. And these paintings played a huge role in shaping how we see and experience and understand.


    Thomas Hill is less famous than some of the other great American landscape painters like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Alfred Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran. Our museum owns some of their works as well, though none of the giant canvases that draw us to these painters. I plan to visit the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa this week, and they do have a grand collection of these painters. I'm looking forward to it.

    This American landscape tradition that helped to capture the American West actually began in New York along the Hudson River and in the Catskills. Three years ago, Michael, Sebastian, and I were fortunate to visit the town of Hudson, New York for Desi Fortina's weddings. The day before the wedding we drove along part of the Hudson River School Art Trail. We visited Olana, the glorious mansion of Frederic Church which sits high atop a hill overlooking the Hudson River with the Catskills in the background. The view from that hill having appeared in Church's paintings.

    From there we crossed the river to the charming village of Catskill and visited Thomas Cole's home. Then the trail leads up into the Catskill Mountains with stops at various vantage points made famous in American landscape painting. Unfortunately we didn't have time to hike the trail to Kaaterskill Falls made famous in Cole's painting and the poetry of William Cullen Bryant.

    In 1828 Thomas Cole painted The Garden of Eden. Theologian James McClendon writes, "Many critics believe Cole meant to represent America as a new Eden where unspoiled nature could return humankind to a state of innocence."

    These Hudson River School painters eventually traveled in the American West and began to paint these grand, sublime, beautiful images of American wilderness as this pure space. America was a new Eden where we might begin again and create something new.


    My favorite theologian is the Baptist James William McClendon. His three volume Systematic Theology has deeply shaped me, as I read it early in my full time ministry career. Volume Three is entitled Witness and is his theology of culture in which he helps us to understand how our Christian worldview intersects with the world, giving us the ability to interpret it.

    And so there are chapters on philosophy and science but my favorite is the chapter on art, where he explores American painting, literature, and music. By the way, he thinks Jazz is the greatest American art form and the one that resonates most closely with the Christian gospel.

    This week I reread his theological reflection on the history of American art, and I felt again some of the wonder I experienced the first time I read it. I didn't know that theology could engage in such things. Reading McClendon opened my eyes to the way our religious faith helps to shape our interpretation of the world and how we can view anything as a theological text. During this series I've heard from one of you wondering how I can look at these paintings and get such deep ideas from them, it is because the theology of James McClendon taught me to do that.

    As you can probably tell, the Hudson River School and the landscapes of the American West, is art I relish. I seek out these paintings in American museums. I enjoy them and their beauty.

    But. And there is a but. These paintings are theological texts. And the theology they express sadly has devastating political implications.

    McClendon writes that their basic flaw is that they train us to look backwards "to Eden rather than forward to the kingdom of God." He writes that these artists,


sadly perverted the Genesis creation narrative: they revised the story of an earth created by God for purposes best unfolded in the prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth into a story of Eden revisited by a new Adam, the pioneering American, whose industrial mills (and by extension, whose territorial conquests) perfect God's plan.


    These paintings were the "artistic rendering of Manifest Destiny." And so they helped to shape a vision of the West as this empty place. But it wasn't empty. There were people living here. They had been here for millennia, with their own cultures, economics, and art. These landscapes helped to empower the military conquest of the West.

    And they distract us from the real work of the Gospel, which is to bring about God's reign upon the earth. Our spiritual fulfillment is not to be found in escapes to wilderness, however much we enjoy that. Our spiritual fulfilment is to be found in the formation of a better world shaped by God's vision of justice and fairness and peace. Our spiritual fulfillment will come about through the long, difficult work of serving one another, creating community, overcoming social divisions, making a better society.


    The Christian gospel isn't a set of propositions to be believed. It is a way of life to be lived. And that way of life—its stories, its traditions, its rituals—teach us how to see and experience and understand the world according to the way God loves it. Our faith teaches us how to witness the world and witness to the world. So we can interpret paintings and nature itself according to God's love and God's vision. "Be now my vision, O God of my heart" we will sing at the close of this worship.

    Art, James McClendon writes, teaches us one more thing, something we also learn in the Christian gospel—that a new world can be created. These American landscapes helped to create a new vision of the American West, with devastating consequences. But we can create a new world that is the peaceable kingdom of God.

    Good art can inspire us to "'a whole new world' of unrealized possibility." May we open our eyes to see, experience, and understand, that we might be so inspired.

My Struggle: Volume 2

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in LoveMy Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What I different opinion I have of volume two. I gave volume one four stars and called it "marvelous." Not so this time. I felt like it needed serious editing, and it was less clear what overall purpose this book was supposed to achieve. Yes, it is about how marriage can be difficult, but we didn't need more than 500 pages to get that. It seemed very self-indulgent to me and even cruel in places. Not sure I'll stick with the remaining five volumes.

View all my reviews

Eastern Philosophy: The Basics

Eastern Philosophy: The BasicsEastern Philosophy: The Basics by Victoria S. Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harrison is a good writer. Despite this being an introduction to the basics, I feel as if my knowledge base and understanding have greatly expanded.

At the close she declares "A so-called 'global philosophy' that attempted to merge the various philosophies of the world into a common tradition seems unlikely to succeed." Instead she advocates focusing on the idea of a "global philosopher" which she then defines as "one who is conversant with a number of the world's philosophical traditions and is equipped to participate in a philosophical discussion within and between them."

View all my reviews

Tell It on the Mountain

Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11 by Barbara Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Browsing the local progressive Christian bookstore I saw this volume and was intrigued what an entire book on Jephthah's daughter would be like. Plus, I was about to teach that story in an adult Bible study this fall, so I grabbed the book.

This is really a textbook (though you could do an adult bible study with it) exploring various ways of reading and interpreting the Bible, using this story as the entry point. In particular Miller brings into conversation Medieval Jewish Midrash and contemporary feminist scholars, with the book introducing both methods and the variety of voices even within those traditions.

The book also introduces methods one can (and should according to the text) use when interpreting biblical narratives.

I was hoping for some more in-depth analysis, but some of my other commentaries and books asked more provocative questions of the text. That said, I still find it engaging and useful. In particular I would not have encountered the midrash in most of my sources. I'm most thankful for having here encountered a first century poem imagining the sung lament of Jephthah's daughter.

View all my reviews



Song of Solomon 7:10-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Salome Dancing Before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse.



    As I prepared the sermon for this week, I kept listening to the song "Wild" by the South African singer Troye Sivan. The refrain of the pop song is


Never knew loving could hurt this good, oh

And it drives me wild

'Cause when you look like that

I've never ever wanted to be so bad, oh

It drives me wild

You're driving me wild, wild, wild


    Sivan's songs have been described as "an infectious celebration of sexual desire." A fitting complement to this painting of Salome Dancing before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse. The Joslyn Art Museum describes Georges Rochegrosse's painting as such: "Frequently, literary or historical sources serve as pretexts for sensational and titillating images." And in this particular painting "inspired by the biblical account of the death of St. John the Baptist, minute details of setting and human physiognomy encourage the viewer to share with the painted audience the lithe dancer's provocative performance." This is a painting meant to both exhibit and evoke our desire. To drive us wild.

    Now, we modern people are trained to take a detached, sophisticated approach to art. Nude bodies in art are okay, because they're art. As if great art couldn't inspire our desire. I'm certain that Michelangelo didn't expect a detached reaction to his statue of David.

    Art, even great fine art, does inspire our desires. But desires are slippery things; they can drive us wild. Therefore, desires make us anxious. Plato, for example, thought pleasure was wrong, that it polluted the soul, and that the enlightened person must rise about desire and pleasure into the realm of abstract reason. Some of those ideas clearly infected Christian thinking.

    But what if desire is vital to our spiritual life? What if God wants to drive us wild? Contemporary theologian Belden Lane, for instance, praises a "God of wild beauty" and Natalie Carnes declares that "God is desire itself."

    Could our desires inspire us to transformation? By driving us wild, can they also make us good?


    Salome Dancing before King Herod hangs in the European galleries on the north side of the Joslyn's main building. In that room are a handful of paintings from the Orientialist style.

    These Orientalist paintings are fascinating. They come from the middle and late 19th century when traditional forms of painting were at their most developed. These painting represent classical painting just before modernism burst upon the scene. They exhibit great detail and skilled execution.

    Orientalism emerged as part of a Western European fascination with the exotic. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, his soldiers returned with such new and exotic things, they they inspired imaginations. And so artists began to paint images of "the Orient." But for them "the Orient" meant pretty much everything east of Western Europe, including Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East, regions that are actually part of Western civilization.

    Despite the artistic skill of these paintings, they are problematic, for they perpetuated racist stereotypes. Though they were painted in a realistic style, the images were fantasies, exoticizing their subjects. Here, for instance, a biblical subject matter excuses the prurient details of the painting.

    Edward Said, the great cultural critic, published his masterpiece Orientalism in 1978 criticizing how 19th century Europeans had fetishized the East in ways that presented lasting implications for global politics. And one point he made was how these artists had created sexual fantasies--"What they looked for often," he wrote, "was a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt-ridden."

    The cultural and political issues surrounding this paint inform us that one of the dangers with desire is that the object of our desire can become objectified and commodified. Isn't that what the story of Herod is about? His own prurient lusting after Salome and the dangers it leads to? For objectification can lead to exploitation and attempts to possess and control the objects of our desire. And the attempt to possess and control that can become violent.

    Our society is currently engaged in a deeply profound conversation about just these matters of sexual ethics. And in particular how toxic masculinity breeds a sense of entitlement and privilege that results in violence, abuse, and trauma for women.



    Can desire, then, drive us wild and make us good?

What glory that our religious tradition contains the love poem I read at the start of this sermon! In contrast to commodified, fetishized desire, the Song of Solomon is a rich resource for celebrating love that is good. Dianne Bergant points out in her commentary that what this poem celebrates is "mutual love, not an unequal relationship." The Bible gives us an image of mutual love and mutual desire that drive us wild.

    That we humans are tempted by objectified and commodified desire, is it possible that we desire too weakly?

Natalie Carnes, a professor at Baylor, wrote precisely that in her new book Image and Presence—"the problem with our own desire is that it is too weak, too easily satiated, too quick to terminate. We are satisfied with golden calves."

    Instead we need a desire that grows and enriches us. A desire that is never-ending and never satisfied. And what kind of love does that describe? God's love for all of us. So, the desire that truly drives us wild and makes us good is the desire for God and God's desire for us.

To love and desire as God does, change us, by teaching us to see the world in new ways. Natalie Carnes declares, "To see the world [as God does]. . . requires resisting the will to master the world. It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish."

    I've now been married for over nine years, and marriage has worked its changes upon me. Marriage has revealed to me my rough edges. I've learned things about myself I might not have learned otherwise. Or even really wanted to learn. So to be a better husband, I've had to work on myself.

    And being a father these last three and half years has revealed depths of love I wasn't even aware of. Joys and delights I didn't know.

    Loving my husband and my child have changed me. This is what good desire, true enjoyment can accomplish.

    And so with God's love for us. God's love and desire for us can open us up and change us. It can drive us wild and make us good.


    Today is World Communion Sunday. Together we will eat the bread and drink the grape juice. These elements nourish us. But the little bread and the little juice aren't enough to fill us up if we are actually hungry and thirsty. Despite how tasty the gluten free matzo is. In fact, that little taste might serve as a reminder that you are hungry.

Instead, the communion nourishes our spirits. In the meal we remember Christ, which means we also remember "a life beyond us, which precedes us, [and] prepares us to enter into a . . . fullness that shatters boundaries." As Natalie Carnes writes.

    Through Jesus we share in God's glory, and "the divine presence come to us . . . transforming us into an image with still greater likeness to God."

    God never desires us as objects or commodities. Listen to this beautiful description from Natalie Carnes:


For God looks upon us as clothed in Christ—as if we are God, inexhaustible and infinitely unfolding. God loves us as if we are Christ, and such love makes us little christs. Thirsty for us, Christ looks upon us as if we are Christ's very body, and so the Father looks upon us as if we are Christ, and desires us as if we are Christ. So looked upon and desired, we can become christs.


    God loves us with an infinite, unconditional love, and invites to enjoy the same kind of love.

Dearly beloved, let us be made wild with a desire that makes us good.