by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
25 July 2021
Last week when Stephen and I were selecting hymns for this Sunday, I mentioned that a good fit for this text from Zechariah would be the hymn “Marching to Zion.” But then I couldn’t find it in either of our hymnals. Of course it was under a different name in the New Century Hymnal—our opening hymn today, “Come, We Who Love God’s Name.”
Now, if you look, there are actually two settings of this hymn in our hymnal. The one we sang, number 379 set to the tune St. Thomas and also number 382 set to the tune Marching to Zion. I grew up with the second setting. Stephen the first setting. That we sang Stephen’s preferred setting may say something about our professional relationship.
While we were selecting the hymns I sang the other version for him—“Don’t know it at all,” he said. “Must be a regional thing.”
I happened to notice that the setting I’m used to is in the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal which describes it as “lively” and “rhythmic” and “clearly for joyous Christians.” So, I wish Stephen were here today so I could tell him that it’s not a regional thing. One setting is for joyous Christians and the other setting is for the other type.
Joy is what the prophet Zechariah wants to evoke. His oracle celebrates with wonderful images the return of the people to life and land after the traumas of the exile. There are images of fertility and agricultural plenty, of peace and justice, of prosperity and social strength. I particularly enjoy the elderly people sitting in the streets watching the children play. He imagines a time when no one will experience fear.
Last year, only a few weeks into the pandemic, the great UCC bible scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book entitled Virus as a Summons to Faith in which he tried to draw upon the insights of the Old Testament to guide us in our moment of crisis. In the foreword he wrote that “Humankind faces a pressing and daunting learning challenge. We are called to learn how to peaceably relinquish the old world and how to imaginatively give birth to a new world in which all life can flourish.”
He wrote about how catastrophes, particularly plagues, had impacted the writers of the Old Testament. From the prophet Jeremiah he drew lessons on how to wait “until the dancing begins again.” And from Isaiah about how to prepare for God’s new thing. Brueggemann advised focusing on prayer and authored prayers to fit the moment. He held out hope that despite the catastrophe, we might learn lessons about how to live better with one another and with creation.
Zechariah’s vision of the joyful and peaceful remnant resonates with this hope we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic, that we will once again return to abundant life together.
Yet, I can’t quite preach this text as I had planned to: we stand at a strange moment in this pandemic. Many are vaccinated and have enjoyed returning to relatively normal life this summer. As a society, we’ve looked forward to when enough people would be vaccinated and our kids will be, so that we could definitively move beyond the immediate crisis and into the longed-for future.
The efficacy of these vaccines and the speed of their development were such marvels. Some people viewed getting the shot as a ticket to freedom and a return to life. For others it is the fulfilment of a moral obligation, a way to demonstrate love of neighbor, a patriotic duty, or a civic good. To me, it has been the excitement and adventure of being a part of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human species.
Yet, just on the verge of fulfilling our desires for restoration, the news grows dim again. Already this week I saw people canceling and postponing events, yet again. Some people began wearing their masks again. Parents were discussing what to do about kids and school this autumn. And now there’s the added frustration—do we have to go backwards when we were so close to victory?
So, Zechariah’s vision of the future remains that—a vision of the future. We aren’t quite yet at the joyful restoration of the remnant, when we no longer need to fear.
This week, while remote working from Lake Okoboji, I read the book Radical Sacrifice by the English literary critic Terry Eagleton. The book is about the concept of sacrifice and it’s meaning in the contemporary world, but along the way, he explores a handful of other, related topics. For instance, in a discussion of love, he writes, “Mutual love has something of the contagiousness of mutual laughter, as the other’s delighted response serves only to enhance one’s own.”
I thought about my excitement last January when I got my first shot. It was like a year’s worth of anxiety and fear physically lifted off of my shoulders. I did a lot of laughing. And dancing. And I went for a walk along the Field Club Trail listening to music by the Scissor Sisters and I couldn’t stop smiling. Joy and love and excitement are contagious.
From this discussion of love, Terry Eagleton moves on to the topic of giving and generosity. He writes, “It is of the nature of God to be prodigal, ecstatic, overbrimming, one for whom excess is no more than the norm.” He writes about how God’s squandering of God’s self creates a different and deeper economy.
Zechariah’s vision is about that. Abundance, peace, joy, justice, faithfulness, prosperity, and playfulness. God’s dream for God’s people is one of wild generosity, where we all get to join together in something new and wonderful.
Eagleton goes on to describe how when we give each other a gift, we make meaning in the process. We take some object and invest it with purpose and intention and meaning when we give it to someone else.
That made me think of one of the gifts in my office. It was given to me by some church members in Oklahoma City when I was leaving that congregation to come here eleven years ago. This couple traveled around Oklahoma City and collected dirt in various shades of red and layered them in a jar so that I could take a little bit of Oklahoma with me. In that way, they invested dirt with meaning. And I can look at this jar with fondness and appreciation. Love and joy are contagious.
Zechariah encourages us to be strong, not to fear, to be faithful, for God is still at work, drawing us through this period of crisis, with a joyful and peaceful vision of what is yet to come.
At the close of today’s worship we will sing the hymn “O Day of God, Draw Near.” The biblical Day of the Lord brings judgement, but also peace and light. We will sing, “Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid, the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.”
And in the hymn we will sing in a minute, “O Holy City, Seen of John,” pay attention particularly to that third verse, “Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stayed, too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose ways are your own ways.”
May we travel through our time of plague and crisis with vision, courage, and most importantly, joy. Let us not become discouraged, so close to our goals. Let us be faithful to the exciting and adventurous call of God to create a new and better world.