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December 2021

A Spirit of Trust

A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel's PhenomenologyA Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology by Robert B. Brandom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

18 months of reading. This is a dense, difficult magisterial work. Brandom believes that Hegel provides the explanation for how our normative rules emerges and are normative, through subjective consciousness of communities. And how a recognition of this process leads to confession, forgiveness, and trust. I found Brandom's arguments on many points quite convincing. The book is difficult to read, not eloquent or literary, and very repetitive. Only recommend for specialists. Hopefully someone who is a better writer will develop a more accessible version of these points.

And I feel the accomplishment of having finished!

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Endless Peace

Endless Peace

Isaiah 9:207

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 December 2021

            “The best things arrive as if by lightning, in sudden penetrations of light and joy.”

            So writes the philosopher Marth Nussbaum in her magisterial book on the human emotions.  The particular context for that great sentence is a discussion of infanthood.  All of us as infants experience a transformation when we begin to understand that the persons caring for us are real and will return to meet our needs.  Thus, it is for the infant that the best things arrive as sudden penetrations of light and joy. 

            But Nussbaum is quick to point out that those early experiences imprint themselves upon us and help to form and shape us as persons throughout our lives.  And I was drawn to that sentence, because while she might have meant it primarily for infants, it seems to bear some truth even or us adults.  So many good things do arrive as if by sudden penetrations of light and joy.

            And Christmas is always about the sudden bursting forth of light and joy.  As the prophet Isaiah sings, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”  And with the light comes joy and exultation. 

            Walter Brueggemann, the great UCC bible scholar, writes that the Israel for which Isaiah wrote was “driven to distress, darkness, gloom, and anguish.”  Sounds familiar.  And into this dismal situation Isaiah proclaims that there is “yet another chance in the world.”  We don’t have to resign ourselves to the dismal status quo.  God is at work, in human history, to do something new and different.  Brueggemann writes that the theological point of the passage is God’s capacity “for a newness that is completely fresh.”

            And so there will be light.  A reference to God’s glory.  To the “visible evidence of [God’s] splendor, majesty, and sovereignty” as Brueggemann writes.  Where people had felt God absent, God is going to suddenly seem very present.

            And that experience will evoke “unrestrained celebration and rejoicing.” 

            All together is the “The Great Reversal.”  And God is recruiting us to become agents of the transformation.

            And in the passage all of this is tied to the birth of a child.  For the prophet Isaiah, probably a reference to the birth of a new prince in Jerusalem, a new prince always a vessel of the people’s hopes for a better future.  But the passage took on layers of meaning through our long history.  Eventually a promise of a coming Messiah, God’s agent of restoration.  And then we Christian’s view the passage as a reference to Jesus and the Gospel writers draw upon it in telling their stories, and that’s why it’s one of the scripture lessons for Christmas Eve.

            But there’s the more general meaning that with every birth of every child there is promise and possibility, newness and hope. 

            Every year I remind you of Meister Eckhart’s great statement on Christmas that the whole point isn’t just to celebrate a historical event, that Jesus was born two thousand years ago, but to recognize that the Christ can be born anew in us this year, every year. 

            And so this passage in Isaiah holds out the possibility that something new can be born in us, a sudden penetration of light and joy that leads, as promised, to endless peace.

            The great twentieth century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that we humans get something wrong when we focus on mortality as the experience we all have in common.  While we do have death in common, much more important for us right now is that we have birth in common.  Natality is the great shared human experience.  We were all infants, all vulnerable, all of us relied upon the care and attention of others even to survive.  But we lose touch with that and the reality that it remains true for our fragile adult bodies.  And natality is also our experience of newness.  As theologian Elizabeth Gandolfo writes, drawing upon Arendt, “Natality is the condition of human possibility, the foundation of freedom—because we are natals we are free to do new things.”

            So, if we are going to be transformed and experience the promised light, joy, peace, then we’ve got to get back in touch with our natality.  With our vulnerability and possibility. 

            Elizabeth Gandolfo writes that the power of this Christmas story is that God became a baby, experience human natality too.  And our connection with God is in this experience.  She writes, “Humans are united with the loving God in and through their union with the creatable, cradled presence of God in the vulnerable world.”  Incarnation is the embrace of vulnerability.  Therefore, our transformation too is about embracing our vulnerability.

            How do we embrace our vulnerability?  By making peace with the tragic nature of human existence.  In fact, that’s the essence of the endless peace promised to us and that we seek.  She writes, “Peace entails an understanding and an acceptance of the tragic structure of existence, and thus frees us to appreciate the Beauty that continually and infinitely emerges from the process.”

            Our human experiences of the last two years have been an intense pedagogy in human vulnerability, in the tragic nature of our existence, in the fragility of our bodies and our social systems. 

            Which means we’ve also gone through something that had the potential to transform us.  A deeply spiritual experience.  A chance to accept reality and then within that to find those moments of beauty.  To see where, even in the darkness, light and joy suddenly penetrate.

            This Christmas story is our annual reminder of those very truths.  So let us rejoice, that a child is born, that we are renewed and transformed, that God is doing fresh and new things, that our future can be one of endless peace.

In Labor

In Labor

Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 December 2021

            Six and a half years ago, as I was awaiting the birth of our son Sebastian, like many other American parents of recent decades, I read the bible for parents, otherwise known as What to Expect when You’re Expecting.  Of course I was able to skip over the pregnancy parts and go right to the details about those first few days and weeks.  I must have read the section on the first couple of days at least three times before he was born and then consulted it as a reference more than once in those days.  I remember in those early months reading ahead so I’d be prepared for the next developmental stage.  But also the growing sense over the first few months that I now knew my baby and was more comfortable taking care of him.  And then that weird feeling sometime when he was one or two when I donated the book to the Thrift Shop because I didn’t need it anymore.

When you are expecting your first child you are riven with wonder and anxiety in equal measure.  For all the joy, there’s also fear.  The nervousness that you will make a catastrophic mistake with this fragile infant in your care.  It’s easy to look back on those emotions later with mild amusement, but they were not amusing at all at the time.

And this experience of the expectant first parent so adequately grasps the themes of this Advent season.  We come with expectations of joy and wonder, but also all the fears, uncertainties, and anxieties of our time.

Even Micah the Old Testament prophet knows how effective this metaphor is.  He writes about daughter Zion who is in labor as an image for the people awaiting the coming of the Messiah.  In his commentary Marvin Sweeney writes that “The oracle employs the metaphor of a woman giving birth to express the necessary interval until the rest of the [the] kindred are sufficiently restored so that they might bring about the new era of peace.”  The “necessary interval.”  Peace is coming, justice is coming, joy is coming, but there’s a “necessary interval.”

Of course the images of pregnancy and labor pains pervade the Bible.  God tells the prophet Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb, God knew him.  The Psalms rejoice in God’s knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. In Romans Paul uses the image to describe how all of creation is groaning as if in labor to await the revelation of the children of God.  And in Revelation the culmination of history is also likened to a woman giving birth.

In her classic text God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible taught us to understand how central are the images of pregnancy and labor to our biblical understanding.  She wrote:

God conceives in the womb; God fashions in the womb; God judges in the womb; God destines in the womb; God brings forth from the womb; God receives out of the womb; and God carries from the womb to gray hairs.  From this uterine perspective, then, Yahweh molds life for individuals and for the nation Israel.  Accordingly, in biblical traditions an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.

            What Phyllis Trible goes on to demonstrate in her classic text is that the Hebrew word for compassion, used repeatedly to describe God in the Old Testament, has its roots in the word for womb.  Divine compassion, divine love, divine care is, thus, like the love of a mother for the child she carries within her own body.  This fundamentally maternal, feminine, uterine image is, then, one of the central themes of our faith.

            And, so, the prophet Micah imagines a woman in labor, awaiting the restoration of Israel’s children so that the age of peace might dawn.  As Phyllis Trible writes, the image of the divine womb is about imagining that “wholeness and well-being may happen.”  Micah’s dream is for an age of well-being in which all of us feel secure, all of us are at peace, when together we shall be fed.

And for Micah that age will be ushered in by the child born in Bethlehem. 

This Advent season we’ve been emphasizing the topsy-turvy nature of the biblical story.  How God works through the unexpected.  Two weeks ago I drew parallels with fairy tales, where frogs turn out to be princes and beautiful women are sometimes witches.  Katie’s play emphasized how those who think they are wise, often are not, and that God’s gifts are found in surprising places.  And today we have the wonderfully comic story of two pregnant women and the children leaping in their wombs, followed by Mary’s song that the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be lifted up.  The Bible is constantly telling us to be ready for the unexpected.

And Bethlehem is a core symbol of that idea.  For Bethlehem is the home of David.  As Calvin Miller writes in his commentary, “Instead of another boring, bloody generalissimo, there would arise a shepherd king.”

Let’s remind ourselves who David was and why he was so central to the biblical imagination.  He was the shepherd boy, who didn’t look like a potential king.  The last of a series of brothers.  Small even.  From a rural village.  Yet, he was the one of which the story is told that as a boy he had the courage to face the giant and prevail.  He was the one who defied King Saul’s paranoia and violence and defeated Israel’s enemies and established a just kingdom centered in Jerusalem around the worship of God.

Walter Brueggemann has a fascinating little book in which he explores the roles that David played upon the Hebrew imagination.  And the stories about David start as those of the outsiders, the subversives.  Brueggemann writes, “One may then understand this narrative to be hopeful, because it tells, generation after generation, that the marginal ones can become the legitimate holders of power.”  One of the conclusions Brueggemann believes we can draw from the David stories is that “This Yahweh is not committed to the moral civility of entrenched order.”  In other words, the status quo social arrangement doesn’t have some divine imprimatur.  God imagines something different and takes action in history to bring it about.

Now, of course, the story and image of David gets taken over by the power elite eventually.  The rule he established in Jerusalem becomes a hereditary monarchy and that monarchy begins to justify itself by its claims to be Davidic.  And while they might be biological descendants of David, rarely are the kings spiritual descendants of David, for they often seem to represent the complete opposite of the original Davidic idea. 

But, Walter Brueggemann writes, the people will not give up on the ideal of David the underdog, David the unexpected, David the beloved of God.  And so the Hebrew imagination also upholds an idealized David, often used as a counterpoint against whichever descendant of David is currently sitting upon the throne.  This idealized David, according to the Brueggemann, is “the bearer of the promise, the one who keeps the future open against every vexed present.”

Brueggemann goes further, “The very name of David in these traditions asserts that God has dreams and intentions, that history is not closed, and that the person of David is a means for God’s purposes to come to fruition in the future.”

And it seems to be this idea that underlies Micah’s use of David.  Micah, the eighth century prophet, is critical of the regime in Jerusalem.  They are unjust and unrighteous.  Therefore, they are unworthy of any claims they make to be descendants of David. 

And so Micah draws upon the memory of David to subvert the current authorities.  He imagines that just as God picked a shepherd boy from Bethlehem to topple the king and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish a new order, God can do that again.  God will bring forth a new shepherd king who will bring about a new era of peace and security. God still has dreams.  The future still is open.  God’s promises will be fulfilled.

But, right now, we are in the necessary interval as we wait for God to act, to bring all of this about.  Right now, we are in labor.  We are expecting.

So, what can we expect when we are expecting?  Some fear, some uncertainty, some anxiety.  Everything isn’t right yet.  We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the way things are.  We should still be dreaming.  We should imagine different future possibilities.  We should also learn to expect the unexpected.

What else can we expect while we are expecting?  We can expect wonder, hope, beauty, joy, and delight.  And if we believe God is acting in human history to bring about God’s dreams, then we can also expect justice and righteousness and security and peace, because that’s what God has promised us.  That’s who God is at God’s core. 

For God is love.  God is compassionate.  God is like a mother nurturing us within her womb.

Or, as Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his beautiful little book The Love that Is God, “This divine kindness is the endless sea of love upon which our created being floats.  This is the love that can heal the failures of our human loves.”

So, we wait, in labor, with our hopes and our fears.  But even during this interval, we rest in the deep, nurturing, compassionate, mothering love that is God.

The Racial Contract

The Racial ContractThe Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent, concise critique of mainstream political philosophy. In the burst of anti-racist volumes in the last couple of years, it is a shame this thirty year old book wasn't a best-seller, as it deserves to be. With Mills' death this year and it being the anniversary of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, which also draws attention to Rawls's respondents, I assume this book is getting increased attention--that's why I read it. And I regret not having read it long ago.

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The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life

The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time Against the Speed of Modern LifeThe Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time Against the Speed of Modern Life by Andrew Root
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last week, and much of it while I was in a monastery on retreat experiencing the rhythms of prayer in monastic time, I was coincidentally/serendipitously reading this book. Root identifies the core problem facing contemporary churches and church people to be time related. This resonated with me. I've long enjoyed exploring the topic of time (you can find a number of my sermons that approach this theme). And how often in the pandemic years have we heard people focus on losing a sense of time?

Root writes, "We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future time, but more deeply into time itself. We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity. We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!"


The opening chapter on depression is so excellent. He writes that most depression in the 21st century is actually related to time--that we can't keep up the pace of living our best lives. I've copied this chapter to share with someone I thought needed to read it.

This is the sort of book that had me really thinking of how to apply it to my personal life and how to engage its themes as a pastor for my congregation. I think there will be a future worship series formatted around it. Also, at least four books that he references I plan to read, so it will likely lead to intellectual fertility.

My only criticism was that Root summarizes his points so many times that in some places it becomes very repetitive to the point of tiresome. So it could have used some editing. But that overall does not diminish the book too much.

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Body Connections

Body Connections: Body-Based Spiritual CareBody Connections: Body-Based Spiritual Care by Michael S Koppel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Caring for our bodies is faithful moral activity in a world that fragments, torments, and traumatizes."

A helpful book on how to engage in body-based spiritual care for yourself and as a care giver in your interactions with others.

I found some of the chapters stronger than others. And there are helpful practices suggested.

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Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul

Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of PaulOutlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Paul is proposing a radical rethinking of the political by insisting that justice should be thought in contrast to law."

Building on recent work by various European thinkers, Jennings introduces us to the idea that Paul in Romans was writing to address fundamental political and social issues (and not what most commentators have traditionally focused on). And, particular, a revolutionary idea that society ought to be oriented around love and fellowship instead of law if we are ever going to achieve peace.

A compelling and exciting approach that you'll want to engage with.

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Look & See

Look & See

Philippians 1:6 & Baruch 5:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 December 2021

            Today is one of the rare occasions when even our Protestant lectionary gives us an apocryphal text for the Old Testament lesson.  And so we have this passage from Baruch, a book that claims to be written by the student and scribe of the Prophet Jeremiah, but likely came much later, probably in the century just before Jesus was born.  And it draws upon various images and words from other Old Testament writings, including today’s passage which relies a lot upon the Book of Isaiah.

            And I have paired that with one sentence from this week’s epistle lesson, a reminder that we are not finished, that God is still working on us.  Hear now these ancient words:

Philippians 1:6

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Baruch 5:1-9

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,

   and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;

   put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.

For God will give you evermore the name,

   ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;

   look towards the east,

and see your children gathered from west and east

   at the word of the Holy One,

   rejoicing that God has remembered them.

For they went out from you on foot,

   led away by their enemies;

but God will bring them back to you,

   carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low

   and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,

   so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

The woods and every fragrant tree

   have shaded Israel at God’s command.

For God will lead Israel with joy,

   in the light of his glory,

   with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            Of course I am not the resident musical theatre geek.  That would be Katie Miller.  But I am a gay man, so that gives me license to have opinions about musical theatre. 

            The theatre world, the popular music world, actually vast swaths of American arts and culture, have been mourning and eulogizing Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at 91 after a long career as a composer, songwriter, and creator of one Broadway hit after another.  Few Americans have had such a lengthy and rich influence on our culture as Sondheim has.  So it was good this week to read and watch the many tributes of him and his work.

            The Sondheim show I’m most well acquainted with is Into the Woods.  I first saw it as a teenager when the local college performed it.  And I was impacted by its storytelling.  The first act, which is a fun and enthusiastic mish-mash of various fairy tales, concludes with what appears to be the happy ending, only for the second act to descend into complexity, darkness, and ambiguity, raising rich questions about how we tell our stories and, therefore, how we live our lives. 

            In a tribute that appeared this week on the Atlantic’s website, Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote about Into the Woods and Sondheim’s overall approach to endings.  She said, “He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them.”

            Yes, we do long for a happy ending.  We long for everything to turn out right in the end.  That if we work hard and do the right thing, life will be good and blessed.  But, that’s not what always happens.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t turn out the way we expected them to.

            Back in the summer when the church staff picked our Advent theme, we began by acknowledging that we had no idea what to expect pandemic-wise come December.  Would we be in the midst of another winter surge or would vaccinations lead to a decline in infection rates or something else? 

            We then realized that this idea of expectations was the right way to orient our focus.  Of course there is the other meaning of “expecting” that has to do with being pregnant, of waiting for a baby to be born.  And the last time we used expectations in our advent theme, in 2015, it was precisely this idea that shaped our worship.  The joy and excitement and risk involved in waiting for new life.  “Wonderful Expectations” was our theme.

            But in 2021 our expectations are more unclear, complex, ambiguous even.  As like to be full of anxiety as they are hope.  Much less that we’ve learned the very hard way the last two years that what we expect might not happen and that we must be somewhat ready for the unexpected.  Though, how can you ever really prepare for what’s unexpected?

            So, we focused our idea for Advent worship around this ambiguity of waiting.

            In her Atlantic tribute, Amy Weiss-Meyer reflected on how Sondheim’s wisdom about endings speaks precisely to the moment we are in in the course of this pandemic.  She wrote,

Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasts long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs.

            So, maybe this Advent, our spiritual growth will be measured by how much we’ve learned that messiness and ambiguity are to be expected and can even be “part of the beauty?”

            And beauty is precisely what today’s scripture lessons imagines for us.  “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction” we are instructed by the author.  And instead, we are to clothe ourselves forever in beauty, the beauty of the glory from God.  Wow, just wow!  One of grandest statements in our scriptural tradition, I think.  Definitely, worthy of our attention when we find ourselves in the midst of sorrow and affliction.

            And then the passage continues.  We will be robed in righteousness and crowned with glory.  God’s going to show off our splendor, everywhere.  And we will receive the name of “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

            After these wonderful lines, the author invites her readers to arise and stand and look and see that their children are coming home, rejoicing.  They were carried away in exile by our enemies, and all have suffered, but God has spoken and the reunion is about to occur, just look and see. 

            And the road we children will be traveling home on, instead of being through a difficult wilderness, will be made smooth and plain and easy so that we might travel in safety.  And there will even be fragrant shade trees all along the way.

            If Paul in Philippians declares that God is still working on us, something like this vision from Baruch is the work that God is trying to complete.  God is turning us into our best selves.

            What amazing images.  What joy, what excitement.  Baruch describes about as happy an ending as one could imagine. 

            But dare we imagine that ending?  Can we truly hope for it?  Are we fools if we expect it?

            Frederick Buechner has a profound little book entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he reveals the ways in which our Christian story has all three types of endings.  It isn’t simply a happy ending; it messier and more ambiguous than that.

            This week I read again through the chapter on how the gospel is like a fairy tale.  The primary point Buechner makes is that in the Gospel, as in most fairy tales, our expectations get messed up.  The noble king might really be the villain.  The beautiful woman might end up being the witch.  The poor and dirty peasant is likely to be the hero of the story.  Or, as the gospel tells it, this child, born in a barn, in a small town on the edge of the great empire, to a teenage mother who was pregnant before she was married.  Among the most marginalized figures one could imagine—that’s the truly human one, the child of God, the savior of the world, the king of kings, the prince of peace, etc., etc., etc.

            Buechner also writes that “Like the fairy-tale world, the world of the Gospel is a world of darkness.”  The Gospel understands that all its visions, hopes, and dreams come in the midst of sorrow and affliction.  In fairy tales the characters learn to see beyond this world and its darkness to the place of beauty and joy.

            And so the spiritual wisdom that Frederick Buechner wants to cultivate within us is that same sense of vision.  He writes,

If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still.  No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth.

            To see the possibilities of beauty and joy and hope is to see like children again, full of amazement and wonder.  And isn’t that part of what we enjoy about the holiday season?  Doesn’t it, at its best, break through our adultness and return to us a sense of magic and splendor and awe?

            We don’t want to give up longing for, hoping for, even expecting the happy ending.  While at the same time we have to learn that messiness and ambiguity are also to be expected and are themselves part of the beauty.  I like the poem by Hafiz that was read earlier, even when we are lonely in the darkness, there is an astonishing light in our own being.  Or as Baruch imagines, beyond the sorrow and affliction are splendor, joy, and peace.