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.