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January 2022

The Weariness of the Self

The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary AgeThe Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age by Alain Ehrenberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why in the last fifty years has depression become such a widespread illness? Ehrenberg explores that question. While much of the book details changing understandings in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, particularly with the advent of anti-depressants, his question is much broader. He determines that the rise of depression is a result in a changed understanding of the self. We have emerged from traditional societies where our roles were often defined for us. Now we have almost complete freedom to create our own lives. He argues this has caused the rise in depression, as many struggle with that freedom and the social impulse to keep up. Depression results from feeling of inadequacy and leads to an inability to function.

This book was referenced in a book I read in December, and I was so intrigued by these ideas that I ordered this to read for myself. I found it illuminating and thought provoking. I feel it advanced my understanding of some of the people in my life and myself.

View all my reviews


CrossroadsCrossroads by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never grasped why people have been so impressed with Franzen's novels. I read The Corrections and it just didn't resonate with me (though I have wondered if I'd been middle-aged instead of in my twenties if I'd thought differently?). I eviscerated Freedom in my review of it.

But Crossroads is the real deal. A big and engrossing book about faith, identity, family, mental illness, and more. Besides being puzzled by where it ends, I really enjoyed this book. There were even a handful of sentences I underlined because of their profundity.

View all my reviews

Your Restoration

Your Restoration

Mark 1:29-31; Zephaniah 3:14-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 January 2022

            The ancient prophet summons the people to rejoice, for God is restoring the people.  “Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout, all ye Israel!”

            We will be renewed in love.  Our oppressors vanquished.  Our outcasts gathered.  Our brokenness healed.  Our shame turned into praise.  All of us gathered home again, and our fortunes restored.  For God is salvation.

            Now, we note, this hasn’t actually happened yet.  The prophet is looking forward to it.  But he summons the people to rejoice now nonetheless.  To rejoice now in the God of salvation, even as that salvation is yet to come.  To rejoice now looking forward in anticipation of the fulfillment of the promises of restoration.

            Now we also read that “the mother of Simon’s wife was in bed with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her.  Jesus came and lifted her up, taking her by the hand.  Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”

            A daughter of Zion is sick and need of healing.  And through Christ she is restored.  In these two short sentences in the Gospel story we read a narrative that embodies the promises of the prophet, so today’s let’s look more closely at this story and what it teaches us about our humanity, God’s love, and the healing power of the divine that brings about our restoration.

            In the last two years, we’ve all learned that even if illness can strike anyone, anywhere from the White House to the homeless shelter, those most likely to become ill and to be struck down by it are those without power and affluence.  The Covid pandemic has more deeply impacted racial minorities, especially Native American communities.  The poor and the working classes.  One thinks vividly of the meat packers who ended up on the front lines of the pandemic in April 2020.  Especially in the early days of the pandemic, the ability to isolate and protect oneself and ones family was generally a sign of some affluence and privilege, while “necessary workers” put their lives and health at risk.

            We know that illness has a greater impact upon poor and marginalized communities because of a history of neglect, lack of access to quality health care, food deserts, higher rates of crime, violence, and drug use, and the presence of pollution, dirtier air and dirtier water.  That oppressive systems of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy are also public health problems.

            And so when we hear that a daughter of Zion is very ill, we bring all of that knowledge to bear and wonder—is this just an infection or is it a metaphor for everything else we know about disease and illness at the intersection of injustice and exploitation?  She just might represent the ways in which women’s bodies are harmed by patriarchy.

            Now, at the same time, she can also represent something more universal—the reality that all of us experience these moments of vulnerability, illness, and pain.

            “To be alive today is to live with pain,” declares Rita Nakashima Brock in the opening sentence of her marvelous book Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power.  She continues,

For some of us, our pain is the daily struggle to survive and to find a safe place to live.  Others of us work to lift oppressive barriers that silence us and batter us into submission.  For those unable to hope or to find one sustaining, ennobling relationship, a quiet, desolate loneliness defines the center of our existence, a center sometimes hidden by intense, aimless activity or hollow friendships.  To live with our pain without some comprehension is to exist in the denial of pain or in the overwhelming, intractable presence of it.  Both lead to despair.

            “Rejoice, daughter . . . God will renew you in love, daughter,” the prophet promises.  And so, “Jesus came and lifted her up, taking her by the hand.  Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”

            Rita Nakashima Brock calls this deep human experience of pain “brokenheartedness” and writes that the way to healing is through the heart.  To find the power that lies within our hearts.  A divine power of love.  What she calls erotic power.

            She is not alone among feminist thinkers to focus on the importance of the stories of Jesus healing.  And how those stories often feature women and other marginalized people.  And how those stories aren’t just focused on the physical, but so often reflect an attention to the whole person—emotional, spiritual, even social and political.  How in healing a person Jesus restores them to life, to their own power and agency, to their relationships with others, to their places in the community.  The pioneering feminist scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote that “Jesus makes people whole, healthy, cleansed, and strong.  [He] restores people’s humanity and life.”

            Rita Nakashima Brock explores this divine erotic power present in the healing stories of Jesus and cautions that we misread the stories if we see them as Jesus having some supernatural magical power.  Rather, Jesus is attuned to the divine power of love within his own heart, and in those moments of healing, he awakens that power within those he touches.  For healing, according to Brock, genuinely occurs in relationships of mutuality that empower our own agency. 

            She writes, “The unexpected and new power is participated in by Jesus, but it is not his alone. . . .  The point is . . . the revelation of a new understanding of power that connects members of the community.” 

            Studying this week, I turned again to the insightful Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldua and her book Light in the Dark, which is a rich exploration of brokenness and healing.  Anzaldua reminds us that “We are all wounded” but that we “can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others.”  By embracing our vulnerability and our brokenness, and using that to connect with other people, we then gain the power to heal.

            And that healing begins by imagining something different.  We change our own “perspectives and perceptions.”  We choose a different future.  We imagine a better world.  So, “As we think inspiring, positive, life-generating thoughts,” she writes, “and embody these thoughts in every act we perform, we can gradually change the mood of our days, the habits of years, and the beliefs of a lifetime.”  Anzaldua also reminds us that healing is an on-going process.

            It is this consciousness that we must cultivate in relationship together, using art and storytelling and writing.

            I was drawn back to the idea that the prophet is summoning the people to rejoice, despite the fact that God’s promised salvation has not yet arrived.  This isn’t the party after the victory, this is the party anticipating the victory, trying to embody that future restoration even now, to participate in its birthing.  To rejoice now is to help make it happen.

            Jesus, in touch with the divine erotic power present in his own heart, comes to the sick mother and he lifts her up, which I imagine we can interpret both literally and figuratively.  The divine power in him connects with and awakens the power of God within this daughter of Zion.  And then Jesus takes her by the hand.  The importance of touch.  Of sustaining one another.    And then the fever left her.  Whatever was the cause of her illness, whether the injustices of patriarchy, an infectious disease, a broken heart, the universal human experience of pain, the power of God’s love sets her free, heals her, and restores her.  “Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter.” 

            Now, what happens?  We read, “and she ministered to them.”

            We might initially think—oh the boys healed mother-in-law so she could get up and fix them lunch.

            But I think something more is happening here.  We are told that she ministered to them.  She is a minister.  She who was in need of care is now an active agent in caring for others.  Her power has been restored. 

            The Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye helps us to see something we might miss in this final phrase of the Gospel story.  Oduyoye writes that hospitality is a key experience of African women and also a significant theological concept.  Hospitality is about much more than welcoming people and providing food and shelter, as important as those are.  In the African experience, she writes, that “offering and receiving hospitality” reveals an “emphasis on sustaining our life-force at all costs.” 

            The healed mother of our gospel story is a minister.  She is practicing hospitality.  She who was in need of the divine power of healing is now herself engaged in sustaining the life-force. 

            This Gospel story truly is about connection, relationship, mutuality, empowerment.  We are restored by God through the ways that we sustain the life-force in one another. 

            And Oduyoye echoes what our other teachers today have reminded us, this connection comes in our shared vulnerability and woundedness.  She writes that practicing hospitality, the power of sustaining the life-force, paradoxically makes us vulnerable.  The very thing that strengthens life also risks it.  She writes, “Hospitality is built on reciprocity, openness and acceptance, but to open one’s self to the other is always a risk.”

            “Fear not,” the prophet reminds us.  God is present with us.  God is actively working in us and through us, to bring about this healing, this salvation, this restoration.

            And so I turn again to Rita Nakashima Brock and her insights on the divine power of healing that resides within each one of us.  She writes,

No one else can stop the suffering of brokenheartedness in our world but our own courage and willingness to act in the midst of the awareness of our own fragility. . . .  Our heartfelt action, not alone, but in the fragile, resilient interconnections we share with others, generates the power that makes and sustains life.  There, in the erotic power of heart, we find the sacred mystery that binds us in loving each other fiercely in the face of suffering and pain.

            “Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout all ye Israel!”

            For God is restoring our fortunes.

            Within us is the divine power of love that helps us to connect with one another, inspires us to imagine a new and better future, and gives us the strength to sustain life.

            “Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!”

Your Vindication

Your Vindication

Isaiah 62:1-7, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:2-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 January 2022

            “We are most dangerous to ourselves and to the people around us when we feel powerless.” 

            That’s according to Brene Brown, who has turned her academic research on the emotions into a series of bestselling books.  In Rising Strong she discusses how believing one is a failure can lead us to feel powerless, and how feeling powerless, we can begin to despair.  Then she offers a surprising definition of despair—“It’s the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.”

            What she means by that is, tomorrow is just like today, if we can’t set goals and pursue them.  If we can’t make any changes in our lives.  Once we begin to feel that way, then we feel powerless and we despair. 

            And this is when she gives a surprising definition of hope.  Hope, she writes, “is not an emotion; It’s a cognitive process.”  She explains, “Hope happens when we can set goals, have the tenacity and perseverance to pursue those goals, and believe in our own abilities to act.”  Hope, then is “a function of struggle,” not some rosy outlook on life.

            What often prevents us from hoping, from acting, from rising strong, is our own sense of shame.  Some of Brown’s earliest and best research focused on shame and how that is different from guilt.  Guilt, she writes, is feeling “I screwed up.”  Whereas shame is feeling, “I’m a screw up.”  Guilt focuses on behavior and shame on our sense of self. 

            We counter shame by being open and vulnerable.  She encourages us to talk with someone we trust about our feelings of shame, because “shame thrives in secrecy” and it “can’t survive being spoken” to someone who responds with empathy.

            And so the prophet Isaiah declares that he will not keep silent.  Instead, he proclaims the vindication of the daughters of Zion.  God has seen and heard, and God is responding.  God is a rock and a refuge.  God delivers those she loves.  Now is the day of salvation, the epistle proclaims. 

            In her notes on today’s scripture lessons, biblical scholar Wilda Gafney writes that these stories offer “a way to talk about life after trauma.”  We can see that in the Psalm, where the poet cries out for God to deliver her from her enemies.  Or in the Epistle lesson, where Saint Paul has an entire list of bad things that have happened—beatings, imprisonments, punishments, sleepless nights. 

            Wilda Gafney points out that this is most clear in the reading from Isaiah.  If we listen carefully to that text we realize the sorts of trauma it’s about.  Zion has been conquered.  Ravaged by her enemies.  What must be understood is that this includes sexual violation and violence.  How often rape and other dehumanizing acts accompany conquest. 

            Yet, God is promising vindication.  Shame will be vanquished.  The daughters of zion will receive a crown of beauty.  They will find a spouse who cherishes them.  They will be protected from future violation.  They will be saved. 

            One of the best books on life after trauma from a theological perspective is Serene Jones’s Trauma and Grace.  Jones is the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York.  And she’s spent much of her career working in the field of trauma, including leading support groups for women recovering from violence.

            For her a key insight into life after trauma is that “wounds are not magically healed but are borne.”  That’s borne with an “e,” as in carried.  She writes that we have to learn to “hold the loss.”  And that we can do that, because we are “held together in the strong grip of divine compassion.”

She suggests two spiritual practices to helps us hold the loss and move into life after trauma—mourning and wondering.  She writes that grieving is the hardest of all our emotions, that its “demands are so excruciating.”  But that if we genuinely grieve, then we have the possibility of moving on.  So we must learn to give our loss “as much attention as can be mustered.” 

Last week we talked about the strength of attentive care, and how that includes care of ourselves.  When dealing with loss, grief, and trauma, that is one of the vital places for attending to ourselves, caring for ourselves.  Giving ourselves the time and space to have these emotions, to feel them fully, to learn from them.  Instead of living in denial, pushing them down all the time, trying to move on too quickly.

Serene Jones teaches that if we are attentive to our mourning, that’s actually when wonder appears.  Because if we are attentive to our grief, then we are being vulnerable.  And it is when we are vulnerable, that we are most likely to be drawn outside of ourselves, to have our attention drawn to something or someone else.

“Wondering,” she writes, “is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.” 

And so wonder works to heal the trauma because, as she says, “wonder is the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.” 

            Now, then the Gospel lesson Gafney attaches to these other scripture lessons about life after trauma is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.  What gives?  How is this story tied to the themes of these other passages?

            Gafney answers, “Against this background [of sexual violence and trauma], the ability of women to choose baptism and discipleship matters.”

            The ability to choose an identity, a faith, a community.  To undergo a ritual about new life, putting the past to death and being reborn as a beloved child of God. 

            To rise strong from trauma, powerlessness, and despair is to believe that we can set goals and pursue them. That we have agency and power.  To hope.  To do new things so that tomorrow is not like today. 

            God sees our pain and hears our cries.  God’s compassion holds us.  God’s power delivers us.  God saves us.  We are vindicated, because God has given us the love, the strength, and the chance to heal.  And to move forward.

            Now is the day of salvation.  We are alive.

            Our vindication shines out like a blazing light.

            We are God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased.

As the final verses of today’s Psalm declare: 

God reached down from on high, she took me;

She drew me out of the multitude of water.

She delivered me from my strong enemy,

And from those who hate me;

For they were too mighty for me.

They confronted me in the day of my calamity;

Yet the Sheltering God was my support.

She brought me out into a broad place;

She delivered me, because she delights in me.

Your Strength

Your Strength

Isaiah 52:1-10; I Corinthians 1:26-31; Luke 2:41-51

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 January 2022

            Tuesday afternoon Randy Solberg sat down in his recliner to take a nap and didn’t wake up.  The news of his sudden and unexpected death was a shock to all of us.  Randy was only seventy-four.  But Mary, his wife, assured me that this was exactly the way Randy had always wanted to die.  And there is something good in a death without illness and pain that comes at home in your recliner while taking a nap.

            What I enjoyed most about Randy as his pastor was his curiosity.  He was constantly learning new things and constantly engaging with people.  When we posted about his death on Facebook the bereaved comments began pouring in from you all about the various ways he touched your lives, from always engaging you in conversation, to enjoying your chili, to his hearty laugh.

            He enjoyed my teaching and preaching, often following up on an idea or a book I mentioned.  He would actually read the theology books I talk about.  And then want to discuss them.  I introduced him to Process thought—the discipline in which I’d written my dissertation—and he dove into it, fully embracing it as his own theological paradigm, and doing his own independent research and reading. 

            In the early days of my pastorate, I held a Spirituality Group on Wednesday nights and Randy was one of the most faithful members of that group, as we explored prayer, meditation, lectio divina, Buddhist mindfulness, Quaker silence, and more. 

            His deep spirituality and appreciation for theology, also led to a rich embrace of worship and liturgy.  He was a vital member of our Worship Ministry in a period when we made some significant changes to our Sunday morning worship.  At that time when the Worship Ministry would consider a topic they’d read articles and essays on various possibilities and then engage in robust discussions.  One of the changes that Randy helped to lead was that our communion bread is always gluten-free.  We had first begun offering a gluten-free option for those who needed it, but Randy insisted that was not welcoming and inclusive enough.  Plus, it didn’t sound much like communion to have separate bread for some people.  Therefore, we must, if we were to live up to our values and truly practice communion, have only one type of bread and that would be gluten-free for everyone.  This despite the fact that it is significantly more expensive.  But no one notices that now, and we’ve lived with the change for so long people probably don’t even realize the rich discussion and deep thinking that led to that decision.

            But Randy wasn’t only focused on the higher things like spirituality, theology, and liturgy, he was deeply engaged with other people and committed to a life of service.  One of his passions was veterans, himself being a combat veteran, and he led our efforts during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to minister to soldiers in those combat theatres and the returning veterans.  This ministry intersected with our fair-trade coffee program, which he also led for many years, bringing us reports on farm worker conditions in the coffee bean fields of Haiti. 

            Randy hasn’t been as active among us in recent years, and I missed him.  Randy was that somewhat odd combination of a person who was both a Congregationalist and a Roman Catholic.  So there were seasons of his life when he was drawn back to the Catholic Church and its rich spirituality and liturgy.  He was particularly drawn to Pope Francis and the changes Francis has embodied and encouraged in the church, and Randy wanted to lend his support to such efforts.

            The Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki teaches that God calls us to be active participants with the entire world.  She writes that “to exist is to be physically related to the whole universe; to exist is to receive from all and to give to all.”  God desires that we participate fully in God’s creative work.

            This openness to possibility is one reason Randy was drawn to Process theology, and it so resonated with who he was—his curiosity, his deep thinking, his engagement with other people, his devotion to service, his honesty and authenticity and passion, his ability to embrace what is best about us and encourage us to be even better.

            What a blessing to have known him and been known by him.  We mourn his passing.

            In today’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah we are encouraged to “Don our strength.”  Isaiah is speaking, again, to Daughter Zion, encouraging her to embrace her beauty, her divine glory, to sit upon her thrown in majesty, to purge herself of all that is impure, and to revel and rejoice that God has comforted and saved the people. 

            And from there the vision of salvation expands.  In the Psalm, God’s love is for all humanity, all creation, and extends into the heavens.  In the Gospel, God is revealed to be present and at work in the life of a child, particularly a child engaged in learning.  A reminder to all our teachers and students and school employees and parents living through this vexing and difficult era, that our tradition reminds us that what you do in the classroom is sacred and holy and part of God’s work in the world.  Thank you.

            Then, in the Epistle, we are told that God is at work in the everyday lives of ordinary people, particularly those considered foolish and weak and insignificant.  The Epiphany season teaches us to be attentive and to look for God to surprise us, for God is present and at work all over the place, in people and times and locations we don’t expect.

            As I prepared for this Sunday I was drawn to this invitation of the prophet Isaiah to “don your strength.”  What might our strength be?  Well, we know that our strength comes from the Lord, but how does it manifest?  In these readings, as we’ve seen, it manifests in some surprising places—in a missing child, and worried mother, and foolish people.

            The Isaiah passage itself is focused on this image of the royal daughters of Jerusalem.  Wilda Gafney, the biblical scholar whose lectionary and translations we are using this Epiphany season, warns that this image of Daughter Zion can be turned into a “virtually unattainable archetype” that’s rooted in “patriarchal and paternalistic notions,” so we do want to be sure to avoid that in our interpretation and application of the text.

            But is there a particular strength the Daughters of Zion might have that we can learn from?  Gafney draws upon Mary, the worried mother of the missing child in the Gospel story.  She points out that Mary had given her child a “surprising amount of room, a full day to wander among the traveling group out of her direct sight.”  Mary was clearly not a helicopter parent!  She gave Jesus freedom to wander and to wonder.  I’m guessing that some of Jesus’ curiosity might have come from his mother.

            To explore this theme of strength, I returned to a book I read last fall, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces by Maria Tatar.  Tatar is a professor at Harvard with a long and distinguished career studying folk and fairy tales.  In this latest book she challenges one of the dominant approaches to such stories—the hero myth as described by Joseph Campbell.  Campbell’s masterpiece, the Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced us all to the concept of the hero’s journey as an archetype structuring the world’s great stories.  With its call to adventure, crossing the threshold, descent into the underworld, and return home.  And how from these stories we can all learn to follow our bliss.  Campbell was most influential in the way Hollywood has told stories.  George Lucas was an ardent fan, and Star Wars explicitly follows Campbell’s understanding of myth.

            Maria Tatar is critical of Campbell because he focuses on the stories of male heroes and largely ignores the vast trove of folk and fairy tales that through much of human history were passed down orally by women.  The stories they told one another as they cleaned and cooked.  The stories they told children in the nursery.  These stories don’t fit the structure of the hero’s journey and are most often centered around concerns of women about children, marriage, untrustworthy and violent men, and domestic chores.

            She does not identify one archetypal structure that fits folk and fairy tales from all cultures, but she does reveal themes, including stories of resistance, stories of women as tricksters overcoming threatening situations, and what she reveals as the central understanding of heroism in women’s folk tales—attentive care.  Maria Tatar explains, “Attentive care [is] an affect that is triggered by openness to the world, followed by curiosity and concern about those who inhabit it.”

            So the greatest sin, in these stories, is the “failure to acknowledge the presence of others and to care about the circumstances and conditions of their lives.”

            I want to use Maria Tatar’s analysis of women’s folk tales, then, to help us interpret and apply these lessons from scripture.  Daughter Zion is to don her strength, a strength that God is going to make use of to bring about the salvation of the world, all humanity and all creatures.  But this power isn’t something reserved only for royal women, it can be found in worried mothers, errant sons, the weak, the foolish, even the insignificant. 

            And that strength is attentive care.  A strength we are maybe most likely to experience and learn from our mothers, grandmothers, teachers, nurses, and caregivers. 

            The strength of attentive care acknowledges the presence of others and the circumstances of their lives.  It is open to the world around us.  Curious about the world and other people.  Concerned for everyone and everything, because “to exist is to receive from all and to give to all.”  This strength participates in God’s creative work.  This strength is salvation.

            I suspect that right now most of us don’t feel very strong?  We had hoped with booster shots and children’s vaccinations and pills for treatment that maybe we were moving into a better phase of this pandemic.  Many of us enjoyed somewhat normal Thanksgivings and Christmases with family and friends, even if we made sure to schedule COVID tests before traveling and visiting.  Yet, here we find ourselves once again canceling events, confused by new recommendations, unable to schedule timely tests, waiting out another surge, and watching as lots of people who’ve been cautious for years finally catch the virus.  And it, of course, comes in the midst of winter—with its bitter cold, gray skies, and long nights. 

Let’s take a deep breath.  Let’s take a moment to grieve more losses. 

            And then, let’s don our strength. 

Let’s be like the royal daughters of Zion who radiate with the glory of God.

Even in the midst of winter and the omicron surge, we can demonstrate attentive care.  For ourselves.  For our bodies and spirits.  For the members of our household.s  For our neighbors and family and friends. 

Three little snippets from this week.  Last Sunday after worship Sebastian and I walked home with plans of shoveling snow before heading inside for lunch.  But as we arrived at our house, our sidewalks had already been cleared by our new next door neighbor who knew the single dad and pastor probably could use some help on a Sunday.

Yesterday I posted on Facebook that three friends had died this week.  And within an hour a casual acquaintance showed up at our front door bearing candy bars.  He said, “I thought you and Sebastian could probably use some chocolate.”

And the third snippet is something Sebastian has begun repeating, “The days are growing longer.” 

This week let us stay open and curious, attentive to everyone we encounter, caring for ourselves and one another, for God is using us to better the world.

Your Light

Your Light

Isaiah 60:1-6, 11; Psalm 67; 2 Timothy 1:5-10; Matthew 2:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 January 2022

            “The ‘star’ serves as [a] physical marker of a new outpouring of heavenly light,” writes William J. Danaher in his commentary on this passage.  The star the magi followed is a symbol, a metaphor of the new revelation God is giving to humanity.  And in this particular story from Matthew, what is revealed is the baby Jesus.  In this child, God is doing something new and marvelous.

            On this Second Sunday after Christmas, we are looking ahead to the Feast of the Epiphany. The traditional day for celebrating the dawning of the revelation of what God is doing with the incarnation of Jesus. 

            I had a church member in Oklahoma City, a retired Methodist minister, who summarized his spiritual practice as every day trying to experience an epiphany and a resurrection.  A pretty good resolution, if you are still looking for one.  An epiphany being a new idea, a new understanding, new wisdom to be gained.  Often experienced with the sudden breaking in of light, realization, attention, or delight.  Like the light bulb going off in the cartoon bubble above our heads. 

            So, for us, Epiphany as a season of worship isn’t just about remembering the stories of the Bible, but also realizing that new understandings, new revelations, are a part of our life as well.  Like the daughters of Jerusalem, God’s light can dawn upon us, radiating with God’s glory.  This Epiphany season, then, we are going to Arise and Shine.

            To help us experience our own spiritual epiphanies, we are going to draw upon a new resource—Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church.  This new book, which will ultimately be four volumes, curates a new set of weekly readings that center the experiences of women in the Bible, often drawing upon stories and texts left out of the traditional lectionaries.  Gafney has coupled those selections with new translations that are gender-expansive, and she provides her own notes to each week highlighting the themes that connect the readings.

            She begins her Introduction with some important questions:

What does it look like to tell the Good News through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news?  How would a lectionary centering women’s stories, chosen with womanist and feminist commitments in mind, frame the presentation of the scriptures for proclamation and teaching?  How is the story of God told when stories of women’s brutalization and marginalization are moved from the margins of the canon and lectionary and held in the center in tension with stories of biblical heroines and heroes?  More simply, what would it look like if women built a lectionary focusing on women’s stories? 

            I suspect that exploring those questions will yield new insights.  Which is exactly what the Season of Epiphany is supposed to be about. 

            And so today, Gafney presents us some texts that are traditionally connected with Epiphany, while inviting us to see them in a new light.

            The Isaiah passage is quite familiar to you—“Arise, shine, for your light has come.”  Gafney’s innovation is to make this passage explicitly addressed to the daughters of Zion.  The daughters of Zion are a familiar image in the Hebrew prophetic literature, and Zion itself is often represented as feminine.  So Gafney intends to provoke our imaginations in new ways by translating “Arise, daughter; shine, daughter; for your light has come daughter.”  We are invited to ask ourselves—In what ways do our daughters reveal the glory of God?

            The Psalm, which praises God for providing the blessings of the Earth, takes on a new light of maternal care and provision, with an emphasis on fertility—“The earth has brought forth her increase; may God, our own God, give us her blessing.  May God give us her blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of her.”

            Not much in changed in the passage from Second Timothy, a passage that has always celebrated grandmother Lois and mother Eunice for passing along the faith to Timothy.  But maybe we see it in a new light when we draw out the connections to Isaiah and the Psalm.  Lois and Eunice are daughters of Zion.  They are agents of God’s glory.  Their faith shines through them.  And, like God, they bear fruit.  They provide, they care, they teach.  They are powerful, and that power is in their love, just like it is for God.

I was drawn anew to the line “I remind you to reignite the gift of God that is within you.”  This idea is a thread connecting all of these Epiphany readings.

So when we get to the familiar Matthew passage about the magi visiting the promised child of Bethlehem, we can see even that with new eyes.  While it’s a story about the baby Jesus, the Christmas stories always invite us to image the ways that the Christ can be born anew in us.  We can read this story as reminding us that no matter where we are born, no matter our circumstances, no matter how dangerous the world we live, we too can be an agent of God’s glory and power.  And if we do approach the story this way, it can reignite the gift of God that is within each of us.   Exactly what we want this Feast of the Epiphany.

The Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, in her beautiful book Quest for the Living God describes God in a way that resonates with today’s Psalm—“The holy mystery of God is . . . a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world.”  That’s really just a fancy way of saying “God is love,” but I think it’s such a rich and exciting description of God that has the potential to reorder our imaginations.  We are so often tempted to see God as remote and distant, as a bearded old man riding the clouds.  So how might our spirituality and our interactions with the world change if we always thought of God as “a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world?” 

And that love and power overflow into us, making us radiate.  Arise and shine for “the glory of God has risen upon you.”  We are filled with divine relational, maternal power.  Power of fertility, blessing, love, and care.  And God is using that power to reorder the world, to do new things.

Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The glory of god is the communion of all things fully alive.”  Isn’t that a wonderful idea!  “The glory of god is the communion of all things fully alive.”  The glory of God, that shines in us and through us, connects us to the flourishing of all living things.

She then elaborates:

Wherever the human heart is healed,
justice gains a foothold,
peace holds sway,
an ecological habitat is protected,

wherever liberation, hope and healing break through,

wherever an act of simple kindness is done,
a cup of cool water given,
a book offered to a child thirsty for learning,

there the human and earth community already reflect,

in fragments,

the visage of the trinitarian God.

            The gift of God is within each one of us.  And God’s love appears in every act of kindness and care we show to one another.

            This Season of Epiphany, we are invited to open our imaginations to new revelations.  To let the light of God awaken within us, and fill us with divine power and glory.  The power of God’s love, which will flow through us with blessing, for ourselves, and the flourishing of all life.