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The Way of Righteousness

The Way of Righteousness

Matthew 21:23-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 September 2020

            We continue our series exploring the lectionary texts from the Gospel of Matthew.  Today begins a series of moments of Jesus teaching in the Temple.  The setting is that week between his Triumphal Entry that we commemorate on Palm Sunday and his impending arrest and execution at the end of the week.  In those intervening days, the Gospel tells us that Jesus went daily to the Temple in Jerusalem and there debated the religious leaders.  And his words and actions lead to his arrest. 

            In today’s lesson the leaders confront Jesus with questions of authority.  He diverts the conversation by asking his own questions and then telling them a parable.  Hear, now, this ancient story:

Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said,
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus said to them,
“I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
And they argued with one another,
“If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’
But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said,
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
The son answered, ‘I will not’; but later changed his mind and went.
The father went to the second son and said the same;
and that son answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?” [Jesus asked]
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them,
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe 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.

 

 

            Today I want to begin my sermon with a benediction.  Of course, benedictions properly come at the close of a worship service.  They are words of blessings that send us forth for another week of ministry.  Here is today’s blessing:

The One who blesses you is the One from whom you came,

The One who met you on the road,

The One who has sustained you all the days of your life,

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

            Almost twenty years ago I heard that benediction almost every week.  Those were the words that the Rev. Dr. Raymond Vickrey used to close Sunday worship.  He’d speak from the back of the sanctuary.  He spoke calmly and assuredly, radiating joy and hope.

            Ray was the Senior Minister of Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas for twenty-seven years, and it was my privilege and honor to work as his Associate Pastor for a couple of years in the early Aughts.  Ray died a little over a week ago, taken by that evil disease Alzheimer’s. 

            Ray grew up in a working class area of Houston, around oil refinery workers.  He attended Baylor University, where he excelled as an athlete and student, and had hoped to compete in the Olympics.  He was a student when Waco's downtown was destroyed by a powerful tornado.  He rushed downtown from the university and helped rescue people, pulling them from the rubble.  His early ministerial career was ended by a divorce, at a time when Southern Baptists still opposed divorce.  His own experience of exclusion helped to shape his approach to others in the decades to come.

Ray became the director of the alumni association at Baylor and in that role cemented relationships throughout the state.  Then, in the late seventies, he was called back to the church, pastoring a large singles ministry at FBC Richardson.  Then, in 1981, Royal Lane called him as pastor, where he served until 2008.

In the 1980's Southern Baptists would undergo a huge battle as the fundamentalists took over the denomination.  Ray was a voice of reason and moderation in those battles, standing on the right side of questions of biblical interpretation and the role of women in the church.  And so he was one of the leaders as new splinter groups of moderates and progressives formed in the 1990's. 

One of Ray's great gifts was his ability to form deep friendships.  His close friend the Rev. Kyle Childress published an article in the magazine The Christian Century in 2004 about Ray and their close group of friends.  They call themselves "The Neighborhood."  Six pastors who for years gathered twice a year for a week at a time to be friends and supporters of each other.  Try as I might, I've never been able to replicate this in my own ministry.  Even beyond this gang, it wasn't unusual for some friend of Ray’s to drive or fly to Dallas to spend time with Ray when they needed wisdom and advice.

On the big issues before the church of women’s roles and leadership and inclusion of LGBT persons, Ray worked gently, holding conversations, and encouraging people.  He used the example of an elephant—You don’t turn an elephant by tugging hard at a rope.  You turn an elephant by applying pressure, slowly, to its side.

            I learned many lessons from Ray, benefiting from his wisdom and years of experience so early in my own ministry. 

            The day he died, the image of Ray that kept playing in my head was of our last time together at the Bavarian Grill, a wonderful German restaurant in Plano that was our habitat while working together where we spent time almost every week eating, drinking, smoking cigars, planning worship, telling stories.  One on of my visits back to Dallas after moving here, I met up with Ray again at the Bavarian Grill and he wanted to hear all about this church and Omaha and our ministry here.  And he smiled his charming smile and laughed and his face radiated with light.  It is this image of him that played in my head on repeat the day he died.

The One who blesses you is the One from whom you came,

The One who met you on the road,

The One who has sustained you all the days of your life,

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

            The religious leaders wanted to know by what authority Jesus operated.  They wanted to know who he claimed to be.  But Jesus doesn’t answer directly.  Instead, he tries to get them to think about John the Baptist and where his authority came from.  The religious leaders perceive the question as a trap, according to the way Matthew tells the story.  But Jesus might just as easily have been trying to tease their imaginations to think outside the box.  Our hint that this might be the case is that he next tells a parable, and he almost always uses a parable to tease the imagination into considering other possibilities.

            And this one is no different.  There’s a rather straightforward reading, that, in the end, it is better to do the right thing.  Matthew even takes that straightforward reading in a radically inclusive direction—our human hierarchies will be overturned and those so often excluded will be included and those who think they are doing everything right will learn they have made a mistake. 

            Brandon Scott, scholar of the parables, invites us to consider how this parable would have been heard by the original audience, living in a patriarchal society shaped significantly by the concepts of honor and shame.  The first son has publicly shamed the father by disobeying him, but has privately honored him by doing the work anyway.  The second son has publicly honored the son by saying yes, but has privately shamed him by failing to do the work.  Neither has really done the will of the father.  When Jesus asks his listeners which is better, the truth is that neither is a very good option, given the social context. 

            Which teases the imagination into considering new possibilities.  Maybe the social system is wrong—the hierarchy, the patriarchy, the overwhelming role of honor and shame.  Maybe the way of righteousness is to get away from those completely.  Maybe that goes back to the earlier question about authority.  Does Jesus need an authority?  Does he refuse the question because that tries to frame his ministry in a way that is inauthentic to what he’s trying to do?

            Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry.  If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus.

Hauerwas writes that we only know Jesus by participating in the way of life that he models.  Jesus seems to be saying to the authorities—just try living this kind of life and see if it isn’t a better way of being human, of being faithful to God.

            Jesus’ way of righteousness is a rejection of our normal systems of authority.  My friend Tripp Fuller recently published a book on Christology (the academic study of Jesus) and in it he writes that we misunderstand the incarnation and God’s presence and work through Jesus if we understand that as divine intervention into the world.  Instead, Jesus models “divine fidelity, patience, and loving investment in the world.”  God doesn’t invade the world with great power to compel obedience.  God is present in the ordinary, suffering alongside us, encouraging and inspiring us in the work.  Jesus wants his listeners to rethink divine power and agency, to rethink authority, and to rethink what it means for us to be faithful.  What it means for us to follow the way of righteousness.

            We have been reminded this week, in the case of Breonna Taylor, that systems often fail to bring about the justice we desire.  I find cynicism tempting in a way I never have before.  Yet Jesus taught us long ago that human systems will often fail us, and that we must dare to imagine new possibilities.

            The Christian way is very difficult.  Patience, fidelity, love, friendship, service—these so often work slowly.  And we can’t judge their effectiveness by the normal human standards.  We have chosen this way of life because our participation in it has revealed to us that this is the better way of being human, of being faithful to God. 

            I point to my friend and mentor as an example of a life that followed the way of righteousness, working slowly and deliberately over many decades, gently teaching and pastoring so many.

            And so Jesus doesn’t appeal to an authority, but invites us into a new way of life.

The One who blesses you is the One from whom you came,

The One who met you on the road,

The One who has sustained you all the days of your life,

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


My Tribute to Ray Vickrey

Ray and Me
On Thursday evening I heard my cell phone ringing and when I picked it up and saw that Harry Wooten was calling, I just knew what he was going to tell me. It's not that Harry doesn't call regularly, but it was an odd time of day for such a call.  So I made sure to sit down and he soon told me that Ray had died that afternoon.  And I cried and spent the evening sending condolence messages and texting with other people who loved Ray.  And participating in that double grief we all experience in 2020--the loss of the person and the loss of what would be the fitting response to their death.  For in normal times, I'd already be in Dallas and there would be a mass gathering of progressive and moderate Baptists to honor a legend.  

I first met Ray Vickrey twenty years ago.  He was twenty years into his tenure as Senior Minister at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and I was freshly out of grad school, a new Associate Pastor in my first position at Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  The two churches were part of a larger group of Baptist churches in our region who had for many years been gathering together to do youth camp together because these churches were more moderate and progressive than many other Baptists around them.  The Southwest Baptist Youth Camping Association formed a tightly knit group of clergy who gathered through the year to plan and then for the week in the summer to host camp, and I was a new member of this fellowship.  But Ray was the senior figure of the group, treated almost with reverence.

Ray didn't attend all the planning meetings but when he showed up for the minister's meeting at camp, everything changed.  Other pastors, themselves highly opinionated people sometimes serving larger churches, quieted down and showed their respect to Ray.  But Ray didn't demand this treatment, in fact I'd come to learn how amused by it he was.  Ray himself was unassuming, never thrusting forward his own ideas, often remaining reserved, and only speaking on occasion, but when he did, everyone listened.  As a 27 year old I had no idea what to make of what I was seeing.  I sometimes found it funny while also finding it compelling, what was going on here?

In my memoir I introduce Ray this way, 

He had been a champion runner in college and retained the trimness and vigor of a much younger man. His bearing was both authoritative and charming; he smiled broadly. He was over six feet tall with bright white hair that was always perfectly combed. Distinguished is an overused word, but the word fit Ray.

Ray was a respected Baptist statesman. He had endured the Eighties-era fights in the Southern Baptist Convention and was a leader in the moderate and progressive camp. Other ministers treated him with deference and sometimes awe.

You can read about his athletic exploits here.  I remember him talking about how he should have gotten to the Olympics, but I fail to remember what prevented that.

So, over a couple of years I casually got to know Ray, but got to know Harry Wooten even better.  Harry was Ray's colleague, the Minister of Music at Royal Lane, and Harry and I hit it off rather quickly.  It helped my relationship with both men in that I was friends with Tim Youmans who has served with the two of them at Royal Lane when Tim was Youth Minister there.  I had befriended Tim when we both lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  Tim vouching for me, paved the way for my relationships with Harry and Ray.

Then, in 2002, when Royal Lane was looking for a new youth minister, I was surprised and honored when Harry called and said he and Ray wanted to hire me.  But I wasn't looking for a job and hadn't been in my current one very long.  I told him no.  And told him no again a second time later.  And then that autumn he called again.  They were struggling with finding the right candidate and he and Ray were convinced it was because I was that person.  Just come to Dallas for a weekend, let us show you around, then make up  your mind.  I finally agreed to that.  Before I left for the weekend I had decided I didn't want to move again so soon.  And I was particularly ready that if they put on some hard sale, I'd be able to easily say no.

But that's not what they did.  What they did was give me a foretaste of what was to come.  The three of us just hung out, eating and drinking and talking.  Sure, they showed me around the church and told me their visions for it, but there was no hard sale at all.  They did set up an interview with the committee, though they seriously downplayed that ahead of time.  We spent the afternoon drinking beers and then they brought me (a little tipsy I might add) to the interview and suddenly I was in a room with fifteen people!

Driving back home to Fayetteville, I knew they were right, that I was being called to Royal Lane.  And, so, a few months later after tearful goodbyes in Arkansas, I moved to Dallas, a town I'd always thought represented everything that was wrong with America.  And there everything in my life would change.

The first half of my memoir records in detail the affects of living in Dallas and how during that time I came out of the closet as a gay man, so no reason to go into all of that here.  

Serving at Royal Lane will always been one of the high points of my career.  There was a special alchemy between Ray, Harry, and I.  We were not simply effective colleagues, we were dear friends.  So much of our work was done while sitting at a table together enjoying fellowship, often with some visiting friend of Ray's.  Our favorite place was the Bavarian Grill, a great German beer hall surprisingly located in a Plano strip mall. When we were doing it up right, we’d arrive after the lunch rush for our own late lunch of trout, red cabbage, spinach, and pretzel rolls washed down by Warsteiner Dunkel. After lunch we’d smoke a cigar and then eventually order Black Forest cake and coffee for dessert. We’d usually leave about the time the dinner crowd was beginning to arrive. Sometimes we’d actually plan an entire season of worship during one of these outings. Other times it was just fellowship.

Ray grew up in a working class area of Houston.  He attended Baylor University, where he excelled as an athlete and student.  He was there when Waco's downtown was destroyed by a powerful tornado.  He rushed downtown from the university and helped rescue people, pulling them from the rubble.  His early ministerial career was ended by a divorce, at a time when Southern Baptist still opposed divorce.  He became the director of the alumni association at Baylor and in that role cemented relationships throughout the state (more on that in a moment).  Then, in the late seventies, he was called back to the church, pastoring a large singles ministry at FBC Richardson.  Then, in 1981, Royal Lane called him as pastor, where he served until 2008.

In the 1980's Southern Baptists would undergo a huge battle as the fundamentalists took over the denomination.  Ray was a voice of reason and moderation in those battles, but standing on the right side of questions of biblical interpretation and the role of women in the church.  And so he was one of the leaders as new splinter groups of moderates and progressives formed in the 1990's.  

When you attended a denominational meeting with Ray, you needed to be prepared for something.  When your group decided it was time to leave the convention hall to head to lunch or dinner, you had to decide that a least a half hour before you planned to eat, because it would take you at least that long to get out of the convention center.  The reason is that everyone wanted to talk to Ray.  I personally would find this irritating, which is why I'll never be that person.  But Ray handled it with grace.  Pastors were constantly coming up to him to talk.  More than once I'd hear some small town Texas pastor say, "Ray, I've been looking for you.  I really need to talk to you about something."  And then pull him aside.  Ray had spent decades at the university and in church work cultivating relationships, and he was a deeply and wide respected and admired man.

I was glad to know him more personally.  As funny and wise and more rebellious than the public role suggested.  

One of Ray's great gifts was his ability to form deep friendships.  His close friend the Rev. Kyle Childress published an article in The Christian Century in 2004 about Ray and their close group of friends.  They call themselves "The Neighborhood."  Six pastors who for years gathered twice a year for a week at a time to be friends and supporters of each other.  Try as I might, I've never been able to replicate this in my own relationships.

But even beyond this gang, it wasn't unusual for some friend of his to drive or fly to Dallas to spend time with Ray when they needed wisdom and advice, and Ray would bring that person along for drinks at the Bavarian Grill.

When the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was beginning to discuss and argue over what to do about gay people, Ray hosted conversations for people to talk.  He encouraged a more inclusive church, but never stepped out radically.  Royal Lane and slowly and quietly acquired gay members who were promoted into positions of leadership.  Years later, when the Baptist General Convention of Texas somehow finally figured this out, then they expelled the congregation.  

One of the most important things I can say about Ray Vickrey is that he didn't fire me.  I think I completely surprised him one day, when during staff meeting, completely out of the blue, I just said, "Ray, I'm gay."  He seemed at a rare loss for words at first.  It took him a couple of days to formulate a response.  This was the early Aughts in a Baptist church in Texas, when it would have been so easy and so typical for me to be done with ministry at that point.  But that didn't happen.  Now, if you've read my book, you know that the next few months were a struggle for me and for my colleagues.  This sure wasn't what Ray expected in the final years of his ministry, and I did things that didn't make it easy for him.  But we remained despite those difficult months, we remained friends.  He was present at my wedding to Michael in 2009 and was so very excited when I called to tell him about my call to Omaha.  It is safe to say that Ray is one reason I'm still in ministry 17 years after coming out.

Ray and I were so different in temperament.  He thought I was too open, that I shared too much, that I expressed my opinions too often.  He was more reserved, quiet in meetings, kept his personal thoughts for close friends.  I've always recognized that his temperament was the source of his power and the respect and admiration with which he was treated.  I've always been somewhat envious of it, while also know that I'm not that person, as much as I might want to be.  And so he remains a mentor and a model, but in some ways the ideal I can never achieve.

What a blessing for a young minister to work with Ray and to learn from him.  He was quite fair and balanced but brooked no nonsense.  If someone caused trouble in the church, Ray had no problem making sure that person knew they should leave and not let the door hit them on the way out.  That was an important lesson to learn.  So many other lessons run through my brain--how to cultivate relationships with congregants, to make short hospital visits, the proper concern a pastor should have for stewardship and finances, how to develop a staff that works effectively as a team, how to have fun while working, etc. 

Most importantly maybe was this set of lessons.  He often said that ministry was not a difficult job, and he was annoyed at those who viewed it that way.  He had grown up around oil refinery workers and knew that was a difficult job.  A minister should set clear boundaries and take lots of time for themselves and their family, which was more important than the job.  In fact, it was the pastor's job to model not overworking because too many congregants overworked in their professional lives, to the detriment of themselves and their families.  And no minister should not everything about their church.  If you knew were the scissors were kept in the fourth grade Sunday school classroom, you were headed for burnout.  I believe I have absorbed all of these lessons and also done my best to pass them along to my Associate minister.

Alzheimer's took Ray in the end.  It was a long, slow decline.  With hindsight, I was clearly there as it was beginning, though none of us knew it at the time.  It was a shame to see such a keen intellect who had cultivated relationships with so many people lose much of that in the final years.  On my most recent visits to Dallas I was encouraged not to visit, as he wouldn't know me, and I decided I didn't want that experience of my friend.

On Thursday after I got the call from Harry, I kept picturing my last visit with Ray, fittingly at the Bavarian Grill.  And I remember his charming smile and his big laugh and the light that radiated from him.


The First Funeral

Today I attended my first funeral in two months.  We didn't hold it at the church; it was held at the funeral home chapel.  Though I had missed our ability to help people in their grief, I was also nervous about attending and leading, having spent so many weeks mostly away from people.

The funeral home had spaced chairs six feet a part throughout the chapel.  There were only a few people in attendance and many of them had not been in public in weeks.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  The mood was extra somber, unlike so many funerals anymore where there is such a desire to be "celebratory."  It was weird not hugging for comfort, but everyone was openly acknowledging the weirdnesses.  I was extra sad for the deceased, having these restrictions upon his memorial.

And then the service started and it felt SO good to be doing the thing I do and am good at.  


At Home: Difficult Night

I confess last night and this morning were rough for me.  I believe I can safely say I'm depressed.  This situation is so contrary to all my normal ways of operating and many of my normal coping mechanisms for difficult situations don't seem well-suited to this one.  I do think it would be easier if I could be at a cabin by the lake with my husband and son and we had nothing to do.  I vacation where you are completely disengaged is something many of us long for, but this situation is not that, obviously.  I'm envious of those who can be home with family reading and getting bored.  

Last night I started reading W. S. Merwin's Garden Time, one of his last volumes of poetry, with reflections on aging and growing limitations.  There is a darkness to it that seemed fitting.  This poem stood out the most to me:

Living with the News

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box
that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight.

I haven't seen much yet written by America's leading philosophers (where you Martha Nussbaum?) but there's quite a lot happening in Europe.  In Sweden philosophers have helped design the ethical protocols for triaging care.  While a great debate has been stirred in Italy about the response to the virus taken there.  The European Journal of Pscyhoanalysis invited some leading thinker to respond to what Michel Foucault had previously written about the rise of the disciplinary state in the midst of plague.  You can read there contributions here.  Giorgio Agamben has, in particular, generated much controversy and response with what he has written about it.  Here is his latest.  And an Arendtian response to these European thinkers that I wish were longer can be found here.  A different perspective from a quarantined Italian philosopher is shared here.  Slavoj Zizek seems to have taken very different positions, here in an early writing and here in a more recent oneHis most controversial claim is that he thinks the crisis will result in a return to communism.

Altar

I think our worship live stream yesterday went reasonably well.  As of this morning we've had 370 views.  Yesterday we also had Zoom Sunday School and will be rolling out some other digital services this week.

Sebastian and I continue our study of the planets.  Yesterday we papier mached two balloons for the model solar system we are building.  Sebastian didn't want to touch the paste and was ready for a break after two.  I think when these (Neptune and Saturn) dry, we'll paint them so he can see finished product.  

Papier mache planets

He really enjoys his new book The Girl Who Named Pluto and has requested that we read it every night.  So this morning for our school time we watched a video about the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet.  That occurred in 2015 when he was a newborn.  At the time the mission thrilled me--the idea that we as a species had the ability to design a spaceship that would travel that far and send back pictures, the reality that Pluto was so beautiful and sat there unobserved until that moment, the ideas that we as a species are capable of great things and that the universe is filled with beauty.  At the time I talked often to newborn Sebastian about the mission and showed him the photos NASA released.  His high chair became the "rocket chair" and as we traveled from the kitchen to the dining room we'd pass the various (newly named by humans) features of the planet such as the Sputnik Planum and the Norgay Montes.  Watching the video together this morning brought back all those lovely memories and helped my mood.

I recommend this article that I read yesterday entitled "Against Productivity in a Pandemic."


At Home, Post No. 1

So, time to start blogging about life during COVID-19.

Yesterday, Monday, March 16 was the first full weekday when the impacts of closures and staying at home were felt by the overwhelming number of people.  Last week was one of confusion and increasing realization of what was happening and coming.  Luckily last week I had gone to the grocery store on Monday for a normal grocery run but decided to go ahead and stock up.  There was hardly anyone in the store and the shelves were still full.

On Tuesday night last week our Church Council made decisions related to the virus and how our programming might change in the weeks ahead.  We didn't realize that the full plan would be implemented within days.  I feel pretty good about live-stream we did pull off on Sunday, and we intend to get better at it as we go along.

Live Stream Wave

Our Associate Pastor recommended people make signs to hang in their windows as ways to pass the peace to neighbors walking by.  Sebastian liked that idea.  Over time we plan to make more and fill our windows with fun messages.

Window signs

Michael works for the Election Commission, and they were already into pre-primary overtime.  The virus just added to that. He has been working very long overtimes the last week, including one twenty hour day.

Yesterday our church staff spent planning our next steps.  Despite meetings and events being cancelled, we suddenly have more work to do, as we must come up with new ways of doing what we normally do and the pastoral care needs increase.  So much of ones job becomes easy routine with time, but now all those routines are upset.  There will be fun in experimenting and innovating.  I'm excited to see the long-term benefits that could result from all of this.

I decided that one project of this season will be calling all my church members, a few each day, to check on them.  Already yesterday in the few people I called I discovered a host of needs heightened by the crisis.  Most poignant was the congregant on hospice care who now can't have visits from friends and family.  I'm so used to us surrounding people in that moment, how sad to imagine not having that.

Sebastian largely spent yesterday tagging along to my office or watching TV at home.  I told him that was the last day of that, as we would begin a daily routine on Tuesday.  His preschool e-mailed me their normal daily schedule, so I'm going to adapt it for our use.  Suddenly I find myself having more work while also becoming a full-time early childhood educator.  Add on top of that cooking every meal and the extra household chores from being at home.  And with the other parent working overtime.

For his first topic of study Sebastian selected Space and the Planets, interests of his for a while.  Last night I posted on Facebook "Like many of you, I now have a second full-time job as the early childhood educator of my son. Sebastian has decided that our first topic of exploration is space and planets (an interest of his for a while now). Any suggestions on activities and resources is much appreciated."  Within minutes the suggestions started rolling in.  I almost cried.

So during my insomnia I researched those ideas and started working out some lesson plans.  I ordered some supplies from Amazon.  You know it's real when expected delivery times are in three or four days instead of next day delivery!

Beautifully there are many places offering services for free at this time.  Also I saw that various authors and artists are now creating material from home for people to share.  There will be some good things happening in this season.

I'm both looking forward to trying our new routine today and apprehensive about how it will go.  Also worried about how soon I'm going to be drained.


The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Three

One of the virtues of a small liberal arts college is that there is a greater chance for direct, personal relationships with senior faculty even when you are an undergrad.  For example, the first semester of my freshman year I had been in the Wester home, which was an inspiration.  Don and Janie had built a home that with the best available technology of the 1980's was energy efficient and environmentally sustainable.  It was filled with Janie's art and Don's books.  Books everywhere, but well organized, in wooden shelves with glass doors.  

My sophomore year I began working with Don as one of his graders, a job I kept for three years.  As his student employee, I grew personally close to Don and benefited from the many conversations.

One day he mentioned reading a book that week, which to me was shocking, that he could read the entire book in one week. When I said as much, he said he did that all the time and assured me I would one day too.  He was correct, of course, as I now read 70-80 books a year.

Working for him, I also became the tutor for Intro to Philosophy, hosting a weekly session with students reviewing what they were doing in the class and answering their questions.  This was my first opportunity for teaching philosophy.

I remained living in Shawnee the five years I commuted to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to work on my Masters and Ph. D.  During those years I was an active member of the First Baptist Church of Shawnee where the Westers were members.  So through those years of grad school at OU, my friendship with Don deepened.

And we live in a small world, as my connections to the Wester family have grown.  Son Mike and I served as deacons at First Baptist Shawnee.  When I moved to Oklahoma City in 2005 to pastor at Cathedral of Hope, Tom Wester attended the church.  And then I was very surprised when I moved to Omaha in 2010 and son Donald Junior was a member of First Central.  Donald and I became good friends as well, initially bonding over stories of his dad.  I got to participate in Donald’s ordination, and he even served on the staff of First Central for a while, before moving to Arkansas to pastor.  Don, Sr. participated in the ordination service for his son, a fun moment for me.

This week so many messages have been shared by former students and colleagues about Don and his impact.  Today we will celebrate and honor a great legacy.

 


300 Miles to Ranching Country for a Funeral

The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm.  I didn't relish the thought.  Obviously.  But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.

Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn.  Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her.  My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church.  There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state.  I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.

So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.

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Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways.  The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas.  The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.

A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor.  The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor.  She received the training and was licensed to the church.

The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off.  Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct.  I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall.  It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery.  I began to contemplate turning around.  I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather.  Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.

An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.

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I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest.  If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted.  While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.

Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills.  What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch.  I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.

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And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building.  The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out.  Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.

The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."  One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman."  The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community.  Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."

And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording.  Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church.  In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected.  And it was being honored and celebrated.

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After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.

The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before.  Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow.  It snowed until the other side of the town.  In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going.  So odd.

In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband.  Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another.  I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.

I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."

I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving.  Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork.  After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.

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Our Truth

Our Truth

Luke 4:21-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 February 2019

 

 

            One of the things I enjoy about pastoring this church, is its rich history.  Fortunately, generations did a great job of archiving what they were doing and telling stories, so that you can learn about the past.  I particularly like reading about the pastors who proceeded me, most of them gifted leaders with vision and innovative thinking.

            Harold Janes was the pastor here from 1946-1958, in that post-World War II boom era for Mainline Christian churches.  One of our history books describes his pastorate as “outstanding” and said, “It can hardly be questioned that during his ministry the church has never been busier.  A great number of new organizations, projects and religious services have been inaugurated by him.  It would be impossible to name all of them.”  It then proceeds to list a bunch, at the conclusion of which the annual Jordan Festival.

            What’s that you ask?

            Then we are told, “This last originated in 1949 as a means of celebrating the baptism of Jesus, one of the most important and yet neglected events of the founder of the Christian Church.  As a result of this annual observance, First Central Church has become known as the Church of the Jordan Festival.”

            Now, see, this is the sort of tantalizing tidbit that sends me pouring through archives to learn more.

            The first place I learned more was in the booklet for the Capital Campaign that was launched in 1953 called “Program of Progress.”  Joan Eddy gave me the book a few years ago when I approached her wanting to know more about Harold Janes and his pastorate.  You might be interested in some of the things that were included in that capital campaign:  Air conditioning, new choir robes, the antiphonal organ, remodeling the chancel of the sanctuary, supporting medical missionaries in Angola, supporting the camping program.  Then there are a few others that never happened:  completing the bell tower, ensuring there were adequate parking lots of the future, adding counselors to the church staff, establishing a senior care residential home, building a cloister to run along the north side of the sanctuary connecting what we call the South Patio Entrance with the Narthex, and then building a 125 seat chapel off of the northwest side of the narthex running along 36th Street where the patio currently is.  Janes and the church leadership had ambitious, visionary goals.

            Now, I said this document told me more about the Jordan Festival.  That’s because fully funding it was the first item in the capital campaign.  What had started as an annual worship service was supposed to grow to include weekend conferences, lecture series by visiting theologians, commissioning new choral and dramatic works, and producing those for the community.

            Finally, they were going to install a quote “beautiful wood-carving of the baptism of Jesus” at the back of the chancel there where the table and cross now are to “be a source of constant inspiration to those who come within the sanctuary.”

            Before this week, I knew all of that, but this week I pulled out seven years of church bulletins from the 40’s and 50’s and scanned through them to learn more about this Jordan Festival.  The February 10, 1952 bulletin announces that year the expansion of the festival.  It had begun in 1949 with three weeks of preaching culminating in a big worship service which gained national attention interestingly enough.  Then in the following years, Martin Bush, who was this church’s  organist and music director from 1906-1955 (Stephen, to beat that you’ll have to be here till at list 2048) . . . anyway Martin Bush composed a choral anthem for the festival entitled “In Those Days Came John the Baptist.”  He composed the work because he realized there was a dearth of music about Jesus’ baptism.  By the way, I went looking in the music library, and sure enough, that piece is still there in our collection.  I couldn’t find another Martin Bush original piece “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” however.  I was really interested in seeing that one.

            Anyway, this festival was growing every year, and in 1952 they added an original one-act play to the many-week program. The play was entitled “He Came Seeing” by Mary P. Hamlin.  Included in the choir performing that night was one Contralto Miss Joan Eddy and the part of Hilkiah, a Jewish aristocrat, was played by William Wiseman, Tracy and Wendy’s dad.

            Why all this for the Baptism of Jesus?  It appears that Harold Janes wanted this holiday to become as big as Christmas and Easter.  He must have been nuts.  I can’t imagine any sane clergy person wanting a third holiday as involved as the other two.  And even more nuts for putting it in between them! 

            But he had his reasons, in that 1952 newsletter announcement, we read,

 

The inception of the festival was based on the idea that the baptism of Jesus was one of the most transforming, yet much neglected, events in His life.  Its celebration, we thought, would remind us of the source of individual religious power, of the true basis of our democracy, and the nature of the church.

 

            I really wish I could locate one of Harold Janes’s sermons about this so I could get more details, especially how he connects baptism to democracy.

 

            Last summer our Worship Ministry read an essay by UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann entitled “Back to Basics,” and in the fourth section that essay, Brueggemann wrote that one of the ways our worship and preaching should get back to basics is “articulating and processing the profound either/or of our baptisms.”  As we discussed this section of the essay, the Worship Ministry was persuaded, we needed to spend some time exploring the implications of our baptism for our understanding of our identity and our ethics.  And that’s why this Epiphany Season we are doing that during this series we have called “Children of God.”  What does it mean to be God’s children, marked in a special way, committed to following Jesus?

            For Walter Brueggemann our baptism is a commitment to one way of life in direction opposition to another.  The way of life we are rejecting is the dominant culture’s value system.  In the time of Jesus this was the Roman Empire and its “predatory political economy” which specialized in “the desires of the flesh.”  Brueggemann writes that these values “consisted in mean-spirited self-promotion and uncaring self-induldgence.”  He adds, “The empire functioned to generate appetites that could be satisfied only by anti-neighborly action . . . that put the satiation of the self at the center of reality.”

            What, then, is the alternative way-of-life that we commit ourselves to in our baptism?  “Covenantal neighborliness” is what he calls it.  Particularly as that is directed toward “the poor, the immigrant, and the enemy.”  And this neighborliness finds expression in the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  All of these virtues are alternatives to the dominant value system.

           

            In today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus angers his hometown crowd by reminding them that God does not show favorites, but includes within God’s care and God’s family, those outsiders and aliens, even the enemies of the people, like the Syrian general Naaman. 

            The hometown crowd apparently didn’t like hearing the truth about God, so they wanted to throw Jesus off of a cliff and kill him.  A rather violent reaction.

            This story is a reminder that living as a child of God is not easy, that living the truth can generate opposition, particularly opposition in defense of the dominant value system which attempts to divide and exclude people rather than build an ever growing neighborhood of kindness and compassion.

 

            My predecessor, Harold Janes, was onto something then.  We do need to be reminded of what we are committing ourselves to in our baptism.  We need to be reminded because the dominant value systems are so powerful.  But we are more powerful.  We have the Creator of the Universe on our side, filling with us the Holy Spirit.

            And maybe there’s something to this connection between democracy and our baptism.  I don’t know what connection Harold Janes made, but here’s the connection I will make.  Our democratic society can only thrive and endure when we live together in covenant as neighbors, expressing kindness, generosity, and faithfulness to one another.  So, if the reality of our baptism reminds us to live a more spiritual life, then maybe it will also help us to be better citizens.