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Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Galatians 2

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 September 2023

In March of 1939 the German passenger ship the St. Louis left Europe with some nine hundred German and Austrian Jewish refugees on board, hoping to escape the Nazis.  They initially sailed to Cuba, where they were denied entry, told that their visas were invalid.  They sought refuge someplace else.  Any place else, in fact.  They sailed up and down the Atlantic, but no nation would receive them.  Finally, the ship had to turn back and head for Europe.

The captain of the ship ordered that the ship sail as slowly as she possibly could, holding out hope that someone would come to the rescue of these people.  Finally, the captain decided that if he must, he would wreck his ship rather than take these victims back to face concentration camps, torture, and inhumane death.

In the end, a few European countries took in these refugees.  For many unlucky enough to end up in the Netherlands, Belgium, or France, they were subsequently caught and murdered after the Nazis invaded those countries a few months later.

We must remember that not only did the Allies abandon the Jews on board the St. Louis, no Allied country bombed the railways to the camps or the camps themselves.  History has proven that this wasn’t out of ignorance or infeasibility.  As the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote “never in all human history was a people as radically abandoned.”

Fackenheim invites us to use our imaginations to conduct an experiment.  He wants us to imagine that the State of Israel had come into existence in March of 1939, while the St. Louis was traveling up and down the Atlantic Coast.  Receiving the news, the ship’s captain now shouts “full steam ahead.”  Fackenheim writes, “Their anguish turned into sudden gladness, his passengers break out into dance and song, and do not cease dancing and singing until they reach the beaches of Netanya and Naharia, where joyful, tearful Jews await them by the thousands.”

This, beautiful, historical “what-if” captures what Judaism means by “salvation.”  Salvation isn’t the rescue of individual souls.  Salvation is, according to Emil Fackenheim, “the sudden removal of a radical threat – a removal so astonishing that the more it is explained the deeper the astonishment becomes.”

And it is this idea of salvation that I believe captured the imagination of Paul, the apostle.  This “sudden removal of a radical threat” he had experienced in Jesus on the Damascus Road, and the experience forever changed him.  And it is why he is so angry in this letter to the Galatian Christians. 

Paul is angry because he realizes that people have misunderstood the gospel.   And in their misunderstanding they are about to undo the astonishing act of rescue that God has brought about.  These misunderstandings are threatening the very salvation of humanity that God has given to us.

So, what exactly is going on?  What has gotten Paul so upset that he perceives the possible ruin of the Christian movement?

Using our imaginations, I’m going to construct a story that will help us to perceive what’s going on with Paul and the Galatian Christian.

So, imagine with me if you will, two loyal and faithful members of the new church in Lystra, Urbanus and his wife Olympas. When Paul came through Lystra, he stayed in their home, and they became good friends.  During his time there, they had learned much from him about Jesus and the apostles and had celebrated the freedom they found in their new faith.

But recently an issue had arisen in the local church, well after Paul had moved on to other places of mission.  This new issue arose because of one of the legal realities of the Roman Empire—that all citizens are supposed to worship Caesar.  Only the Jews, of all the citizens of the Empire, were exempt from this requirement.

Now, some troublemaker had gone to the city magistrate and asked him about these new Christians.  These new Christians were not worshipping the emperor.  Some of them were Jews, but some of them weren’t.  Nor did it seem that these Gentile Christians had converted to Judaism— they seemed to be participating in some new religion.  They didn’t follow the Jewish teachings and rituals.  And most tellingly, these Gentile Christians had not been circumcised.  

Thus, a debate arose centering on the question—were these Christians a new branch of Judaism or not?

Let’s imagine Rufus, an elder of the church, known for his gentle spirit.  Let’s imagine that one day in the church council meeting he proposed a solution.  He said,

Now some of the people in this church are Jews. As such, they are circumcised and continue many Jewish practices, while they are also believers in Jesus Christ. 

Many others of us are Gentiles, for whom these Jewish traditions are alien.  We respect and admire the roots of our faith and respect and admire those who continue to practice the rituals of their traditions.  Paul taught us that we Gentiles did not have to first become Jews in order to become Christians.

If the government authorities determine that we are not exempt from worshipping Caesar, then this church and our very lives will be in danger.  We will have to choose between execution or doing something that runs contrary to our faith.  We would place each other, our families, even the future of this church at risk.

Therefore, I propose that those of us who are Gentiles undergo circumcision.  Doing so will be a sign of respect and solidarity with our Jewish members and the faith tradition of Jesus himself.  It will also spare us the danger posed by the civil authorities.  I propose this as a compromise solution to the situation we find ourselves in.

Imagine, that while on their way home from this meeting, Urbanus and Olympas discussed what Rufus said.  There appeared to be great wisdom in his proposal.  What he suggested seemed to be an acceptable compromise that would ensure everyone’s safety and keep everyone in the church happy.  After all, whether one was circumcised or not wasn’t really that big a deal.  In the spiritual sense, of course.  It wouldn’t affect one’s beliefs.  And seemed like a simple solution that would avoid the possibility of greater problems down the road.  A potential conflict had arisen and had been quickly and easily avoided with a reasonable compromise.

Now, imagine, that a couple of weeks later, Olympas wrote a letter to Paul, just like she did every month or so.  She would write to keep him up-to-date on the church and its ministries.  In this letter, she recounted that Phoebus had joined the church, that Junia’s daughter had been born, that Rachel was getting married, that the new program to help feed the people over on the bad side of town was really going well, and she recounted the church council meeting and Rufus’ speech.  

Olympas did not expect the letter she received in response.  And this letter was addressed not only to her and Urbanus, but to the entire congregation, and also to all the churches throughout Galatia.  “What is this all about?” she wondered.

After a brief and hurriedly scribbled greeting, the letter began:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. . . there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

Needless to say, Olympas was herself astonished.  Paul was in a tirade, one rant after another: about his authority as an apostle, recounting his life story (which she had heard before), attacking other leaders of the church, calling people hypocrites, attacking her and others for abandoning the faith, going on and on about what it meant to be a Jew, and strange tangents about law and faith and all sorts of topics.  She was puzzled.  What in the world could this be in reference to?  What had she said in her last letter that so angered Paul, her dear friend and teacher?

Then, finally she got to it,

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.

Oh!  That’s what he’s angry about.  Rufus’s solution to the problem of our exemption from worshipping Caesar.  Now, she was puzzled as to why Paul would make such a big issue of this? Why did he think that this idea had the potential of destroying the church?

            In the letter Paul says it is better to face the possibilities of persecution and hostility, because that is what Jesus himself did in going to the cross.  And, it is through Jesus’ suffering that we truly overcome the powers of this world, he writes.  True freedom comes from the cross, not from avoiding persecution through compromise.

So, Paul’s saying that circumcision itself is not the central issue.  Circumcision is, actually, irrelevant to God’s grace.  You are not excluded or included from God’s grace based on whether or not you’ve been circumcised.  What’s really at issue is that if they take this course of action, then they risk the new creation found in Jesus.  They will be throwing away the grace of God. 

So, what is this grace that Paul is writing about?  

Let’s go back to the story I opened with -- the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis waiting for an astonishing rescue. In other words, waiting for salvation.

Paul preached that without Jesus we are ourselves refugees.  We are exiles living under a curse.  We are exiled from our authentic selves.  We are exiled from genuine relationships and true human community.  We are estranged from God’s will for the creation.  We are abandoned, and stand in need of an astonishing rescue.

Paul believed that that astonishing rescue came in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The one he believed to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah.  Jesus signaled that God was breaking into the world in a new way, bringing about a new creation.  And in that new creation all would be free, and all would live according to righteousness and peace.  God’s new creation is people, people living together in genuine and loving human community.

So, what is at issue, according to Paul, is how you become one of those people, how you become part of God’s chosen people.  Some thought you were only part of God’s chosen people if you followed certain rules.  Some argued that only the circumcised were God’s chosen people.  Others thought it was based upon culture or ethnicity.

But Paul was a radical, with a universal, maybe even somewhat pluralistic view.  Paul said God’s chosen people are simply everyone who has faith.  You aren’t required to do anything, or follow any set of rules, or be a certain race, to be part of God’s people.  All you have to do is have faith.

So Jews can be Christians and remain Jewish, and Gentiles can be Christians and remain Gentiles.  In fact, it was vitally important for Paul that the church be big enough to include people from all these diverse cultural backgrounds.  Paul thought that this racially and culturally diverse community would itself be the great witness to God’s grace.  That this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church was the sign that God’s new creation had been born.  The testimony that God’s dramatic rescue of the world had occurred.

Thus, if the Gentiles were circumcised, they would rob the church of its cultural and ethnic diversity.  They would rob it of its freedom.  They would thwart the freely given grace of God.  And they would be giving evidence that God’s great rescue of humanity had in fact failed. 

So, the lessons for us today are obvious.  Those who think Christian faith is all about following set of rules, are denying the Spirit and gratifying their own flesh.  Those who shun racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the church have fallen away from grace.  Those who deny women leadership roles have disobeyed the truth.  Those who exclude and threaten God’s LGBT children are teaching a false gospel. 

Let us, therefore, follow Paul, in proclaiming the radical, amazing grace of God. 

Being Real

Being Real

Acts 22:3-16

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 September 2023

            “Being a person is hard work; it is anxiety inducing and stressful.”  So writes religion professor Chris Stedman in his book IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World.

            The book grapples with how the digital world shapes our identities, particularly how we struggle with being real online and how our online selves match up with our analog selves.  One of his key points is that we are still in the early years of living with these technologies, still figuring them out, still experimenting and learning from our mistakes.  Which is one of the reasons that being online can be difficult.

            But the main reason, he says, that being online is difficult, is because more fundamentally, being a human is difficult.  Regardless of whether we are online or not.

            Stedman’s book is a rich discussion of a lot of topics that I know many of us deal with in our personal and professional lives.  And the discussion is relevant to all we’ve been learning in recent years about the impacts of these new technologies on mental health, loneliness, and our need for belonging.  Which is one reason that we’ll be using his book as a prompt for conversation in the first unit of our revitalized Wednesday night program, which begins on September 13.

            But what does digital identity have to do with the story of Paul on the Damascus road?  I hope you’re asking yourself that question.

Chris Stedman argues that our struggles with these new technologies and the difficulties surrounding our digital selves actually have the potential to teach us some lessons in how to be human.  And one way it does that is through uncertainty.  He writes, “Uncertainty may thus be the greatest gift of the digital age.”  The internet is messy and it reveals the messiness of our lives and the lives of other people.  Which causes us discomfort and anxiety along with excitement and exploration.

And Stedman thinks all of this is a good thing.  Because we are learning how little we are in control of things, how vulnerable we really are, and how interconnected we are and everything is.  Which is causing anxiety and growing pains, but also creating the potential for real human growth and development. 

He writes,

If we put ourselves in situations in which we can be surprised by ourselves, we will continue to grow and change—a core aspect of what it means to be human. . . .  What’s important is an openness to surprise and to things uncharted, or we become unable to navigate life without a map.

            So, Saul of Tarsus was a religious zealot.  An extremist, who used violence against his opponents to enforce what we believed was the right way to live and worship God.  He modeled himself on those figures in Hebrew history who were religious warriors, fighting on God’s behalf against idolatry, foreign influence, and impiety.  Because this, he believed, was the way to righteousness.  This was holy living.  This was how you were justified before God.

            The Book of Acts tells the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church and the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was basically lynched, taken by a mob and stoned to death.  And Saul of Tarsus was there.  A witness to it all.

            And then the next time we hear about Saul, the Book of Acts says, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  Which makes it rather clear how fanatical this man was.  The very worst kind of fundamentalist.  Sowing terror in his wake.

            Saul gets authorization to travel to Damascus so that he can round up the Christians there and drag them, bound, to Jerusalem.

            But, God intervenes, and on the Damascus Road everything changed for Saul, who became Paul.

            Many of us learned this story as the “conversion of Paul,” but scholars have begun to resist that description.  The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl began to change our understanding of this story, and of Paul, with his groundbreaking book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. 

Stendahl argued that what Paul experienced was not a “conversion” but a new “call.”  A conversion generally means that one has changed one’s religion.  But Paul hasn’t done that.  For one thing, at this point there aren’t two religions Judaism and Christianity as we now understand them.  Those developments still lie in the future. 

Stendahl also points out that usually when there is a conversion, the person is having some inner spiritual experience that leads to the change.  But for Paul, that isn’t the case.  The Book Acts records no inner spiritual struggle Paul was experiencing.  And the various times Paul himself writes and talks about what happened, he never describes some inner spiritual struggle. 

So Paul wasn’t having any doubts about what he believed.  As Stendahl writes, “He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings.”  He believed and practiced his faith with absolute conviction and certainty.

Until God intervened on the Damascus Road.

And the way Paul and the Book of Acts describe what happened is as a call by God for Paul to embrace a new mission.  Paul is struck blind—which probably also has metaphorical implications—and must begin to see again.  And see in new ways.  See differently. 

He doesn’t change his religion—Paul still is a faithful, law-abiding Jew, who believes in the same God, the same scriptures, the same religious tradition. 

But, boy, has what and how he believed changed. 

The French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that Paul’s Damascus Road experience is simply an event, that happened.  It can’t be fully explained or understood.  Nor are there any causes that lead up to it.  It is simply a new “founding event” that forever changed its subject, Paul.  And the event itself is the authority for all that changes and all that he does and teaches.  Paul, in his own telling in the Book of Galatians, went to no one to explain the event or give it a sign of authority.  He does not return to Jerusalem for three years, but instead goes into the deserts of Arabia.  About which we never learn any details. 

When he returns he claims to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, who met the resurrected Jesus face-to-face, and who has now been authorized by God to preach to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish nations, the salvation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. 

The guy who persecuted and murdered Christians is now claiming to be one of their leaders.

The guy who believed that he could be justified before God by exercising violent extremism, is now preaching nonviolence and peace.

A guy who believed in killing your enemies, now says you should love them.

A guy who hunted pagans, now wants to welcome them into the fold.

And the guy who sought religious authority for what he did, now says he needs no other authorization than that given him by God, and he is going to go out into the world and fulfill God’s mission.

And, truth is, the other disciples and followers of Jesus do NOT know what to make of this.  He was their enemy, and now he says he isn’t.  And he doesn’t seem to want to follow any rules or structure or guidance, but he’s just going to do his own thing and that thing, is going to burst open this movement in ways that none of them really anticipated.

The Anglican bishop N T Wright tells us, “I think Paul even glimpsed something of the dark humour of God through which a fanatical right-wing nationalistic Jew should be the one to take to the pagans the news that the Jewish Messiah welcomed them on equal terms.”

And what exactly is that new mission God has sent Paul to be as apostle for?  The creation of a new, global, multi-ethnic, inclusive, loving and peaceful Jesus movement.  Here’s N T Wright again, “Paul believed that it was his task to call into being, by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the worldwide community in which ethnic divisions would be abolished and a new family created as a sign to the watching world that Jesus was its rightful Lord and that new creation had been launched and would one day come to full flower.”

The French philosopher Alain Badiou and other contemporary European thinkers find in Paul the most radical political thinker of freedom.  Beverly Roberts Gaventa writes that “Paul’s theological horizon is nothing less than the cosmos itself.”  And the late Ted Jennings, who came here once to preach and teach us about Paul, claims that in him we discover “one who is seeking to illuminate the most basic issues of our common life as human beings who dwell together on a planet in peril.”

And all of this because of the event that occurred on the Damascus Road that forever changed a religious zealot into an apostle of openness.

So part of what happened to Paul is he learned how to be more human.  To be real.  And that to do so he had to give up certainty and embrace vulnerability, to be open to wherever God would lead and to possibilities he had never before imagined.  And that in this adventure through God’s grace is how one is saved.

Back to Chris Stedman and our current struggles with being human and being real in a digital age.  He writes:

I’ve come to believe that making more space for people to be messy, complicated, contradictory, imperfect—to feel real—is not just fundamentally important to ensuring that we live in a world of healthy individuals.  It’s important to society as a whole.  Allowing people to be more fully human changes the way we talk about difference and increases our ability to understand one another.  It helps us recognize that we all enter into these debates with biases and baggage, and that we’re going to screw up but also, hopefully, grow when we do.

            And that, I believe, is an essentially Pauline project.

            This autumn we will go on a journey through the life and work of Paul, as he bears witness to the world of how we can become real.

Becoming Human

Becoming Human

Jonah 3:9-4:11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 August 2023

               On the Day of Atonement every year, Jews read the entire Book of Jonah at their worship service.  The reason is explained by Baruch Levine, “The story of Jonah epitomizes the power of repentance, and serves to reassure the worshipers that God’s arm is extended to receive them.”

               Two weeks ago when I preached about the far more familiar story of Jonah and the whale, one of the themes we drew out of the book was God’s “lavish love.”  That God pursues Jonah out of affection for wanting the best for Jonah.  And that this book reveals the breadth of God’s mercy and grace, because God keeps offering opportunities for salvation to everyone in the story.

               Barbara Green, whose commentary is guiding me into a better understanding of the Book of Jonah, points out this theme of repentance.  She writes that for Judaism, repentance is understood to be “coded into the universe for our participation.”  Part of the very fabric of creation.

               In this book, Jonah first repents of running from God’s call to mission, and then, very dramatically, the entire city of Nineveh repents of their sins and is offered the mercy of God.

               Which then makes Jonah angry. 

               Why exactly is Jonah angry?  What is he angry about?  Is this anger tied to why he fled from God in the first place?  Did Jonah really not grow and transform that much during his three days in the belly of the whale?

               Barbara Green asks a provocative question—“If Nineveh is reprieved, is ‘Nineveh’ the issue, or ‘reprieve?’”  Is Jonah angry specifically that God has forgiven the Ninevites, those awful enemies of Israel?  Or is Jonah angry that mercy and forgiveness are aspects of who God is?

               The answer to those questions is not immediately clear.  Would Jonah prefer that the Ninevites get theirs or would Jonah prefer that God not be so nice?  Maybe he wants a more wrathful, warrior God? 

               Should this sound like something no one would want, did you see the report this week from Russell Moore?  Moore used to be the head of the ethical and political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, but had a major, public falling out with the SBC in recent years.  This week Moore told NPR that he has begun to encounter people on the Religious Right who have decided that Jesus is too weak and too liberal.  They especially don’t like the Sermon on the Mount.

               Is Jonah’s problem similar?  Maybe.  Again, the book isn’t fully clear, but we can ask our questions and explore the possibilities.

               Barbara Green draws attention to the way St. Jerome in the fifth century interpreted this story.  Jerome thought everyone in the story had some good intentions, so he wasn’t super hard on Jonah.  He believes Jonah’s flight from his call and subsequent anger are because Nineveh is the enemy of Israel, and he doesn’t want to be the agent of their salvation, because he knows ahead of time that God will be merciful, because God is just like that.  She imagines Jonah thinking:

I could have come to Nineveh preaching God’s views gently, and no one would have heeded;

And yet if I preached a God of harshness, it would not have been true!

St. Jerome’s conclusion, paraphrased by Barbara Green is that “Jonah feels angry at being made to look, or feel, like a liar.”

               Another interpretative insight she gains from St. Jerome is God’s handling of Jonah and his anger.  God is “gentle and pedagogic.”  Caring for Jonah.  When Jonah’s so upset, God doesn’t show up and scold him, God asks questions.  Barbara Green writes, “Jerome seems to understand that when one feels as bad as Jonah does and for the serious reasons he is sad, there is no need for reproof; to elicit insight is better.”

               What Jerome sees in the Book of Jonah is a generous economy of relationships.  And Barbara Green draws upon that theme in her own understanding of the book.  What seems to be happening is God’s constant pursuit of Jonah to allow Jonah opportunities for growth. 

               And here at the end God is actively engaging Jonah to examine his own feelings.  God asks a series of questions that provoke thoughts about the nature of relationships, what we feel entitled to, how wide we draw our circle of care.  Also, what is the source of your anger Jonah? 

Barbara Green writes, “In my reading God is prompting Jonah to locate more precisely the core of his frustration, more carefully to probe his desire.”  She points out that often when she is angry, and especially when she isn’t fully sure as to why she’s angry, that anger can get misdirected onto someone or something that does not deserve the anger.  Ever had that experience?  I’m sure we all have.  So probing the source of our anger is often a key step in integration and growth.

At the very end, Jonah is angry about the plant that shaded him and is now gone.  God seems to point out that Jonah didn’t have a deeply invested relationship with the plant, yet its absence has really ticked him off.  God wants Jonah to realize that God had a much deeper, longer, more invested and richer relationship with the city of Nineveh.  And God wanted the best for them, despite their flaws.  God also wants the best for Jonah, despite his flaws.  God even cared about the animals, which is the last word in the book. God’s lavish love is revealed.

And, yes, God’s love is merciful.  Even willing to change God’s mind about what was going to happen to the Ninevites.  God is more interested in the relationship than in sticking with any pronouncements.  The rules can be bent, broken, even discarded if they get in the way of relationships of love.  Green writes, “The key thing is relatedness.  If the creator loves all the creatures and longs for this company, then if and when they approach, God is happy to unbend from past pronouncements.  In fact, God winks, I was there first!”

Jonah does not seem to have fully understood this about God’s love.  Or at whatever level he did understand it, he doesn’t seem to have liked it.  Jonah needed to learn who God really is and why this gracious way of being is good and right. 

Barbara Green writes at length summarizing these points:

God has designed for Jonah a ministry the prophet needed to undertake.  God’s survey turned up evil in Nineveh, but not simply that.  The prophet and the pagans share a need for God’s gentle instruction, each distinctively.  Jonah, assigned, acts out his resistant reaction not once but a number of times.  But God persists, pursues, not in angry determination but in anxious love.  While God woos Jonah, others benefit as well.  There are plenty of God’s gifts to go around.  Care for one creature can splash over onto others.  Lavish love. . . . Jonah cries to God, who responds.  Jonah emerges changed from his experience.  But conversion is never really complete; there are always more possibilities to explore.  So Jonah, re-commissioned, preaches, effectively, successfully; but he is not satisfied.  As is now his integrity, he speaks up his feelings about God’s qualities that seem troublesome instead of comforting.  And God, attentive and patient, helps him push for additional insight.

               And, so, Barbara Green concludes that the central insight of the Book of Jonah is about how we are all related—God, people, whales, plants, etc.  And God is pursuing Jonah in order to teach him, to provide him opportunities to learn, to push him to new insights.  So she identifies that this story is about “the gradual and painful stages of humanization.”

               Which may also explain the abrupt and inconclusive ending.  Because the journey to our full and best humanity is on-going.  We always have more to learn, more changes to make, more realizations to repent for, more insights to probe.

               Around the same time I was reading Barbara Green’s commentary on the Book of Jonah, I also read Randy Woodley’s new book Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview in which he encourages a decolonization of Christian teaching and informing it instead with Native American values and wisdom.  Some of his themes aligned with Green’s take on Jonah.  Woodley writes:

We are all simply human beings, imperfect but learning from our mistakes.  Those mistakes make us human.  And being human by climbing out on a limb in order to reach others is the most spiritual state of being in which we may find ourselves.

               Woodley proclaims that in order to heal from the wounds of the colonial past we need to undergo a process of “rehumanizing.”  This process involves listening, gaining awareness, lamenting together, making restitution through reparations, and finally memorializing the past by telling the history.  This is a process of openness and vulnerability, both of which Woodley says we see modeled by Jesus and the Creator.  He calls the Creator “the most vulnerable being who exists.”  So if we are going to be more like the Creator, then we must open ourselves to vulnerability that brings healing.

               He adds to this that we must also learn to let go of control.  Part of the healing is letting go and not wanting to control everything.  It seems to me that Jonah had a problem just going with the flow of God’s grace.  Part of what he has to learn is that he isn’t able to control everything.

               A key principle of this rehumanizing, according to Randy Woodley, is to not treat people as objects in our own agenda.  If we love people, we must respect their dignity.

               I was struck by this way of framing a core ethical principle.  Woodley’s words resonate with what I’ve learned in my philosophical training, but I think with clarity he states it directly and simply—don’t treat other people as objects in our own agenda. 

               And it seems to me that’s part of what Jonah’s having to learn in his journey too.  The sailors, the Ninevites, the whale, the plant—all of these deserve their own dignity and respect, all of them have their own relationships with God, God cares for them, they don’t just exist as characters in Jonah’s story.

               As a second key principle Randy Woodley teaches us that our responsibility is to keep harmony.  Harmony is a key indigenous value, and Woodly believes it resonates with the Hebrew idea of shalom.  Our responsibility as the Creator’s human children is to keep harmony—inside ourselves, with other people, with the land around us, and with the animals.  While the dignity of each of us must be respected, we are also all interconnected, such that what one of us does affects others.  So we must be aware of this in our actions, so that we are always respectful, loving, balanced.

               This rehumanizing calls us to take risks, so that we might develop better and healthier relationships.  And together we will become more fully human.

               So, like Jonah and the Ninevites, we are being called to repentance by a merciful God, who pursues us, with lavish love, offering us more opportunities to become fully human.

               This summer we’ve gotten in some Good Trouble, as we explored these ancient stories of prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice.  In these stories we’ve discovered teachings about courage, integrity, humility, and conviction.  They’ve lifted up the importance of critical questions, of listening to a myriad of voices, and also standing firm in the face of coercive power.  We’ve explored autonomy, agency, liberty, and dignity, and the ways those values intersect with contemporary concerns, especially the ways that abusive political power continues to threaten core aspects of our humanity.  We’ve learned that compassion is power, and words can change the world.  And we’ve talked about the meaning of history, how the way things turn out depends on the choices we make and the actions we take. 

               And, in all of this, God is on our side.  When the ruler is a tyrant.  When those in power are corrupt or incompetent or even insane.  When chaos seems unleashed, and terrible monsters are on the prowl.  With us in the fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.  With us when we are uncertain and afraid, stuck in the belly of a whale.

               God’s justice and God’s power and God’s compassion are on our side.  Pushing us to new insights, pursuing us in love, standing with us in danger.  And always working for our deliverance, salvation, and healing, so that we might be strong, courageous, and free.

A Forever Kingdom

A Forever Kingdom

Daniel 7

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

30 July 2023

               We’ve finished with the legends that compose the first half of the Book of Daniel and today will look at one of the apocalyptic visions recorded in the second part of the book.  Get ready for terrifying monsters and strange encounters.  Hear now the Word of the Lord:

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

            According to commentator C. L. Seow, what we have here is a “vision of chaotic terror.”  Four terrifying beasts arising from the sea. 

            The sea, you might remember, throughout the Old Testament represents primeval chaos over which God’s Spirit moved at the dawn of Creation.  In many Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the sea was the source of chaos and evil, and the creation of the world was brought about by the hero god slaying a sea monster and using her body (for it was usually a she) to fashion the world.

            The Hebrew telling demythologized those stories.  Instead of a pantheon of gods and goddesses and divine monsters, there was one sovereign Lord of all who brought the world into being by speaking.  No fighting.  No defeated monsters.

            But still the monsters lurk in the pages of the Old Testament, like the Leviathan and Behemoth in the Book of Job.  And the sea retains its symbolic force as a representation of chaos and disorder.

            An idea which we have never lost, of course.  Moby Dick terrorizes sailors.  Jaws lurks beneath the waters.  Godzilla arises from the ocean to destroy the city. 

            So it is fitting that these images of terror arise from the sea.  The vision suggests that creation is coming undone.  Order is collapsing.  And chaos has returned.

            According to Seow the vision communicates the danger that “nothing less than world order is at stake as creation seems to become undone.”

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

            If you’ve ever wondered where those images of God as an old man with long white hair comes from, this passage is it.  The Ancient of Days enthroned in judgement. 

            This chapter in Daniel draws upon many images familiar to the people and the cultures of the ancient near east.  Daniel takes them and refashions them and reinterprets them and puts them to new uses.

            The image here of the Ancient of Days draws upon Canaanite mythology and the image of its High God El.  And like that Canaanite deity did, soon a divine council is called. 

            But here instead of a pantheon of various Gods there is one God, Lord of the universe, passing judgement upon the forces of chaos and terror and bringing order and justice back to the world. 

            Before I read the next section, I want to point out that it too will take an image from Canaanite myth and reshape it.  One of the Canaanite gods was Baal, the storm god.  Earlier this summer we encountered Baal when Elijah was contending with Baal’s prophets during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel.  One of the common images of Baal was that he would appear as a rider on the clouds.  So pay attention to how this book reshapes that image.

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And the human came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To the human was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve the human. Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and whose kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

            So instead of a storm god riding the clouds, who appears is a human being.  This image will later develop into the concept of the Son of Man and how that title related to the Messiah.  And the Gospel writers will claim that title and image for Jesus.  And the Book of Revelation will interpret Jesus as the rider on the clouds.

            But I think it is a mistake to read a prophecy about Jesus or incarnation into this passage.  That’s not, I believe, what the author of this text was intending.  Instead, this seems to be just a human, any human, an everyperson. 

            And with that something really incredible has happened.  The agent of God’s judgement upon the forces of chaos and disorder isn’t some divine being or superhero, it’s just a human being.  God will give power and authority to an ordinary human.

            But wait, there’s more.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask her the truth concerning all this. So she said that she would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

            I invite you on your own to read the rest of this chapter, which continues in more detail with the interpretation of the vision.  I’ll summarize that here and then make a few general points that I believe are most relevant to us.

            The divine attendant tells Daniel the meaning of the vision and the four beasts.  They represent human empires.  The forces of terror and destruction then are not really primordial monsters—they are human institutions.  So, while this vision is apocalyptic and strange, it’s true meaning is about human history and power and what we humans do with it.

            Of course there has long been speculation about the empires involved, even though the Book of Daniel itself doesn’t say.  It seems to most scholars that the references are to the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians.  The fourth beast are the Greco-Macedonian empires that came in the wake of Alexander the Great.  And the arrogant horn is that great villain Antiochus Epiphanes IV, he of the abomination of desolation we talked about a few weeks ago.

            Side note on late twentieth century apocalyptic ideas in American fundamentalism that tried to interpret these beasts for our time—the lion was the British empire of course, with the eagle’s wings being the US.  The bear was the Soviet Union.  Etc.  Utter rubbish, but it demonstrates the lasting force of images like this and the ways that they have been used by humans to make sense of history.

            For the interpretation of history is what is going on here.  The author of Daniel is telling us that despite how things look, even when the forces of history seem to be controlled by chaos monsters, God is ultimately in charge and will restore order.

            These images were deeply influential in the century following the Protestant Reformation, as people struggled to make sense of the chaos, war, and violence they were living through.  One of the writers who influenced our Pilgrim parents was the French Huguenot Philippe Duplessis-Mornay.  Mornay drew upon the stories of kings and prophets in the Old Testament in writing his book The Defense of Liberty Against Tyranny in which he claimed that “if the sovereign failed to keep faith with his subjects, and with God, then the people were free to be rid of him.  If the covenants were broken, the people had to repair the breach with the Lord, even if that meant taking up arms against their king.”

            Earlier this year I read a book about how apocalyptic writings such as this were central to the shaping of early modern thought and its new ideas of how societies should be governed.

            For example, this particular vision in Daniel was one of the sources cited by the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt in 16th century Germany.  The revolt that frightened even Martin Luther and led him to backtrack that he didn’t mean for people to assume they had that much liberty.

            Why did this vision motivate one of the first truly radical revolts on behalf of ordinary people?  It comes at the end of what I read a moment ago—"But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

            To whom is God giving power and authority?  Humans.  C. L. Seow declares in his commentary “the agent of God’s will has not only been demythologized; the agent of God has been democratized.”  Instead of a storm god, an ordinary human.  Instead of one specific human, the many.  God is giving power to a plurality of beings, God’s faithful people.  God’s people will be God’s agents to bring order.  Seow writes, “the oppressed people of God are expected to become triumphant through this rule that transcends time.”

            And so we understand the purpose of all these legends we’ve been reading the last few weeks.  Stories about faithful people trying to live with integrity and courage in the midst of cruel and petty political systems.  These stories have been providing examples of how God’s people persist through the disorders of human history and how they participate in using God’s power to create something better.

            Despite the terrifying images and strange appearances, this vision is about how humans wield power.  Do they create monstrous empires that enact cruelty and oppression upon the people and the world?  Or do they wield it justly and democratically, upholding the dignity and the liberty of all people? 

            Yes, right here in this wild vision of Daniel is one of the sources that fired the imaginations of our predecessors four centuries ago who laid the groundwork for the democratic age. 

            And it remains a challenge to us—how do we use the power God has given to us?  For it’s what we choose to do that makes sense of history.  The meaning of history is in our hands.

            Let me close with a bit of twentieth century political philosophy.  For it says something similar to Daniel’s vision about the power we people have to shape history.  It comes from the magisterial volume The Open Society & Its Enemies by Karl Popper:

It is we who introduce purpose and meaning into nature and into history.  Men are not equal; but we can decide to fight for equal rights.  Human institutions such as the state are not rational, but we can decide to fight to make them more rational.  We ourselves and our ordinary language are, on the whole, emotional rather than rational; but we can try to become a little more rational . . .  History itself—I mean the history of power politics . . .—has no end nor meaning, but we can decide to give it both.  We can make it our fight for the open society and against its enemies. . .  It is up to us to decide what shall be our purpose in life, to determine our ends.

            So, let us resolve to use God’s power for good—for justice and love and beauty and liberty, fashioning an open and pluralistic society where the dignity and conscience and integrity and autonomy of all are respected, so that together we all might flourish.  And this shall be an everlasting reign—forever and ever.  Amen.

The Lion's Den

The Lion’s Den

Daniel 6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 July 2023

               The Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk is one of the mothers of the United Church of Christ.  She has spent many decades in leadership in our denomination.  In the opening of her most recent book, of which I’ll have more to say in a moment, she writes,

To “remember” is to define who we are in ways that we are not free to walk away from.  Remembering is a sacred liturgy that grounds and equips us with an identity, meaning, and purpose.  It is the connection to all life—the living and the dead and the yet to be born.

            This summer we are remembering ancient stories of prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice under the rubric “Good Trouble.”  Today brings us one of the great stories, Daniel in the Lion’s Den.  As you listen, consider what Dr. Delk has said about remembering, how it defines us, how it grounds us, and equips us with identity.  How it is our connection with others.

            Hear now this ancient story:

            Coming at the end of the legends told here in the first half of the Book of Daniel, this story doesn’t break much new ground.  We’ve already dealt with rulers claiming power that is not theirs by right, presuming to override the sovereignty of God.  We’ve had numerous stories about faithful Jews trying their best to live in difficult political circumstances.  We’ve already seen God teaching a lesson to those who overstep their authority.  We’ve even had God present in a moment of dangerous punishment already, in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

            So, this story doesn’t break much new ground.  We have a story about a faithful Jew, a stupid king, jealous and cruel courtiers, and God present in the moment of death and danger.

  1. L. Seow, whose commentary I have relied on throughout this Daniel series, declares one of the themes of this story is that people of faith can live risky lives. Faith does not always bring us comfort and tranquility, sometimes it calls for courage in dangerous times.  He points out that Daniel doesn’t seem to do anything to purposely resist the king’s stupid new law.  Rather, it seems that Daniel just keeps on doing what Daniel has always done, praying before his open window.  This is what we call integrity.  Daniel knows full well the risk to his life and well-being, and yet he keeps living his faith, despite the circumstances.

            And it is Seow who points out here, as he did in the story of the fiery furnace, that God does not deliver Daniel from the lions, in the same way that God did not deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fire.  Instead, in both stories, we are told that God was with them in the moment of danger.  God is “in the pit.”

            The Jewish novelist Lynne Schwartz admires the Daniel in this story as someone who goes into a “dark, savage place.”  She wishes we knew what Daniel thought and felt and learned in the pit, but we don’t, as the story only tells us about the king’s sleep-deprived night.

            But one lesson we do learn from this story, and which we can apply to periods of “real abominations and reprisals” is about the nature of freedom as an inner quality.  Lynne Schwartz writes, “Freedom is a quality of the inner spirit and not of the body’s circumstances.”

            While the story suggests that such moments will turn out all right in the end, with good and justice triumphant, Schwartz admits that maturity teaches us otherwise.  We cannot always count on things to turn out this way when we live with integrity and freedom.  But we need that idea, nonetheless, to keep us persisting and resisting in the life of faith.

            Mona West, who used to be the pastor at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas (where I also worked at a different time) focuses her commentary on the person on Daniel and, especially that he is described earlier in the book as being a eunuch.  We know that many ancient courts were served by eunuchs, and that captured young men, like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were often turned into eunuchs.

            She ponders whether Daniel, then, is one of the queer heroes of scripture?  He clearly lived in the tension between resistance and accommodation.  He obviously succeeded at the latter, given his meteoric rise within these foreign kingdoms and serving, as the legends go, so many different monarchs. 

            Drawing on the work of the late queer activist Urvashi Vaid, Mona West declares “There is a difference between gaining access and wielding power, and queer political resistance must ‘strive beyond personal gain to an institutional transformation, beyond mainstreaming ourselves into the center to transforming the mainstream.’”

            Does Daniel’s faithfulness, integrity, persistence, and inner freedom provide us a model of transformation?

            These ideas of freedom and integrity drew me back to my favorite book on UCC history, The Evolution of a UCC Style by Randi Walker, and an excerpt she includes in the book.  It is part of an essay entitled “Creeds Rejected” published in the March 15, 1838 edition of the Christian Palladium, which was one of the news outlets of the Christian Church, one of our predecessor denominations.  The Christians were a unique American movement, arising on the frontier as part of the Great Awakening revivals.  This 1838 essay, by Elder Simon Clough enumerates a number of reasons the Christians opposed creeds.  Here are some of the reasons he states:

We object, then, to creeds and confessions of faith, as bonds of Christian union, as conditions of Christian fellowship, as means of fastening chains on men’s [and women’s] minds, because they are unauthorized by Scriptures—because they infringe the right of private judgement . . . because they lead to oppression and hold out temptations and allurements to practice hypocrisy and deception . . . because they shut the door against free inquiry . . .

            This idea of freedom and integrity has deeply influenced us in the United Church of Christ, and, I believe, resonates with this story of Daniel and the king trying to impose faith, overriding individual consciences.

            Now, let me return to the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk’s latest book, that I referenced before I read today’s scripture.  That book is entitled Afro-Christian Convention: The Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ. 

            Well, if you know UCC history 101, then you know that we have traditionally acknowledged four streams—movements and denominations that have shaped this denomination, often through formal mergers.  One stream was the Christian movement I’ve mentioned already.  Another was the Congregationalists, that we reference all the time.  The other two were the Evangelical and Reformed, denominations of German immigrants centered in Pennsylvania and the Midwest.  Our predecessor congregation—First United Church of Christ, which used to be on Deer Park in South O was an E&R congregation and current members such as Pauline Bahnke, Bud Cassiday, and Janet Bonet come from that church.

            But this year at General Synod the United Church of Christ officially acknowledged a fifth stream that has been relegated to the margins all these decades, and that stream is the Afro-Christian Convention.  Delk’s new book is part of the effort to rectify this whitewashing of our history.

            The Afro-Christian Convention arose from the worship of enslaved persons in the hush harbors where they hid from their masters so that they might worship in freedom.  A group of independent black congregations created their own denomination, the Afro-Christian Convention, after the Civil War.  They set up a seminary and other training, ordained clergy, sponsored missions, and published materials.  Eventually this group connected with the wider Christian movement and formally merged with the Congregationalists in 1913, though the Afro-Christian Convention remained an autonomous group within the wider denomination. 

            The UCC has now acknowledged this independent group as our fifth stream, informing our religious heritage.  It is incumbent upon us to better understand our history and the role of this stream of thought and practice in shaping our 21st century identity.

            As Dr. Delk said about remembering, “Remembering is a sacred liturgy that grounds and equips us with an identity, meaning, and purpose.”

            This story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den is a fitting place for us to make a connection to this fifth stream.  For the story of Daniel is one of freedom and integrity in the midst of power that tries to compel conformity, at threat of one’s very life.  It is about people of faith resisting and persisting in their faith.  And surely these themes resonate with the history of the Afro-Christian movement, arising from the slave plantations of the South.

            In his essay in the new book, K. Ray Hill, pastor of Maple Temple UCC in Raleigh, North Carolina, describes the theology of the Afro-Christian movement—“a commitment to foundational Christ-centered principle linked to a wholistic African perspective that nurtured dignity, self-determination, and a fierce independence in response to the challenges of racism and oppression in the church and in the world.”

            Pastor Hill states quite emphatically, “Our theology was not born in slavery.  It was tested in slavery.” 

            We have much to learn from this tradition about standing for freedom with integrity and persisting in faith.

            Pastor Hill asks the question, “How do you develop a resistance to oppression and cruelty?”  That could have been Daniel’s question too, faced with the stupid, petty, and cruel law of King Darius.  Here’s how Pastor Hill answers, “By trusting a God that is bigger than your circumstance.  This is not done through intellect alone but through faith.”

            Remembering, then, can provide us resources to live with courage and integrity.

            Let us remember this Afro-Christian history, as well as this ancient story of Daniel, so that we might better understand ourselves and who God is calling us to be.  So that we might learn how to trust in God when we are in dangerous times and places.  To remember that God is present with us, even then and there.  And let us claim our legacy of freedom, so that we might live with courage and integrity.

A Mad King

A Mad King

Daniel 4:28-37

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 July 2023

            Before Joffrey Baratheon and Aerys Targaryen.  Before MacBeth and King Lear.  Even before Caligula and Nero.  There was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Mad King.

            According to the History Channel’s website, of the ten most famous Mad Kings and Queens in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar ranks number one.  Of him they write, “The granddaddy of all mad kings is King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler whose first-person account of a seven-year descent into animal-like insanity is one of the most fascinating sections of the Old Testament book of Daniel.”

            On Medium this week I found a post discussing “how consistent a tradition there is of mad and petty kings in both literature and history.”  That post focused on The Game of Thrones pointing out how the mad king was a “particularly consistent theme.”  The author stated:

All the various plots and sub-plots trace back to the actions of a literal Mad King. And, throughout the storyline, we are constantly bombarded with the actions and excesses of varying levels of madness and pettiness from those who hold seats of power. 

            Yes, this is one of the enduring tropes of our literature and history and maybe even current geo-politics. 

            I’ve never preached on this passage before, but it has long fascinated me.  Chapter four of the Book of Daniel opens as a letter Nebuchadnezzar is writing “to all peoples, nations, and languages that live through the earth,” informing them of his madness.  The king tells us about a vision he had that terrified him, so he sent for sages and magicians to decipher it for him.  In the dream a watcher had proclaimed “Let his mind be changed from that of a human, and let the mind of an animal be given to him.”  Eventually, Daniel is able to interpret the dream, and he warns the king, that when he is at the height of his power and his glory, he will be cast down, humiliated by insanity, living like a wild animal, because he has not recognized that true sovereignty belongs to God.

            And the story I just read tells us how that happened.  It seems that for seven years Nebuchadnezzar endured this wild, feral state before returning to the throne and authoring the letter printed here in the book of the Hebrew prophet.

            Now, first a historical note.  No independent, non-Biblical record exists of such a period of madness in the life of the actual King Nebuchadnezzar.  We do know that another Babylonian king, Nabonidus, lived in the desert for many years while his son served as regent in his stead. 

            The story also seems to draw upon the Epic of Gilgamesh and the character of Enkidu who lived like a wild animal before he was civilized.  So there are elements of connection between this Biblical story and Babylonian culture.

            Of course whether or not this episode actually happened is not hugely relevant to its role in the Biblical story.

            On the one hand, it would be easy to make fun of this image of the mad king.  The arrogant, cruel king gets his due.  Seems like a version of karma.

            But I also find something poignant in Nebuchadnezzar’s personal account of his own madness, that he is openly sharing with the people of the world.  His description resonates with other first-hand accounts of extreme mental illness—the sense of loss, of despair and hopelessness, of lack of control, of wildness and darkness. 

            And, so, I don’t want to make fun of Nebuchadnezzar and his account of madness. 

            Nebuchadnezzar offers his own interpretation of the episode—that he failed to recognize that God was sovereign and not him.  So the straightforward meaning of this story is clear—that absolute power can corrupt absolutely.  Nebuchadnezzar’s own arrogance and cruelty led to his suffering.

            The overall context of the Book of Daniel seems relevant to this story.

            The book is pretty much divided in half.  The first half is full of strange, wonderful, often funny stories, many of which, like the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, we learned in Sunday school as kids.  In these stories faithful Jews live in exile in Babylon and Persia and deal with persecution at the hands of various rulers. 

            Now, these stories are pretty clearly legends.  In the Hebrew Bible this book is not included either with the historical books or the prophetic books, but rather with the Writings.  If the character of Daniel lived through all the various reigns of all the monarchs mentioned in the stories, he would have been centuries old.  He seems to be a stock figure drawn from ancient folklore.  Other mentions of a legendary Daniel exist.  In the Book of Jubilees we are told he lived in the time before Noah’s flood.  Daniel is mentioned in the literature of the ancient Ugaritic people as “a man from long ago who trusted his gods and was . . . known for his righteousness and wisdom.”  There’s also a Daniel in Canaanite legend.

            So, it seems that the author of the Book of Daniel was crafting stories about a legendary figure to convey some moral truths.  In the same way that stories are told of King Arthur, Paul Bunyan, and many more.

            In fact, every indication is that the Book of Daniel was written centuries after it was set.  And that is made clear in the second half of the book, which contains, not stories, but a series of strange visions, with spectacular monsters.  The second half uses vivid, apocalyptic imagery to convey the imperial history of the ancient Near East, where one empire succeeded another in wars that brought destruction to the people, particularly the Jews.

            The Book of Daniel is most concerned with one evil ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, ruler of the Seleucid empire in the second century before the common era (which is about 400 years after the time of Nebuchadnezzar). 

            Antiochus Epiphanes IV is THE great villain of the Old Testament.  It was he who carried about “the abomination of desolation”—when a pig was sacrificed to Zeus on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Even his name suggests his arrogance—he chose to be styled “Epiphanes,” which means “God Manifest,” as if he were himself the incarnation of God on Earth.  So Antiochus is the actual, historical “mad king” who rejects the sovereignty of God.  Maybe the story of Nebuchadnezzar was written as a warning to him?

            A little history.  The Seleucid Empire was one of the handful of empires that arose from the death of Alexander the Great after his conquest of so much of that part of the world.  You’ll remember that his generals divvied up the various conquered lands and then established their own dynasties.  Antiochus comes late in that history, when these Greek empires are now being challenged by the rising power of Rome. 

            Antiochus becomes embroiled in local Hebrew politics as various figures contend for power in Jerusalem.  And it all gets complicated as to who is bribing whom to gain what office.  All of it eventually leads to the Maccabean Revolt, when the Jews rise up in arms to overthrow their imperial oppressors. 

            But before all of that, Antiochus finally gets so fed up with the Jews that he invades Jerusalem and robs the Temple in order to help pay off his debts to Rome.  And then the next year he invades again, massacring the inhabitants of the city and desecrating the Temple with the offering to Zeus.  He then made it criminal for the people to engage in the worship of God—their Torahs were destroyed, and they could not keep the Sabbath or any of their religious festivals.

            So, it was during this crisis in the life of Judaism that someone put together the book we have in our Bibles with the title of Daniel.  The author wrote the series of visions that is the second half and combined them with an anthology of legends about Jews living faithfully in a much older imperial situation.  These are legends, told to assure Jews living under foreign domination, to encourage them with examples of courage and fidelity.

            What becomes clear, then, is that this entire Book of Daniel is written in the midst of crisis.  And according to scholar C. L. Seow, “In the face of such a crisis of theological confidence, the author of Daniel reconsiders history.”  Both the legendary stories and the apocalyptic visions are reflections on the meaning of history and God’s role in it.  Throughout this book, what we encounter is the age-old battle between good and evil, played out in the courtrooms of various kings and the consciences of people of faith.

            And for someone writing after the massacres and desecrations of Antiochus Epiphanes, wouldn’t it be difficult to remain hopeful or optimistic?  If your religion and culture were banned, wouldn’t it seem that evil had won, and that the future was hopeless?  Why not simply just go mad then, like Nebuchadnezzar? 

            I think the madness of the king is one way the author of this book is reflecting on the crisis in which he lived. 

            What gave me that insight was something C. L. Seow writes in his commentary:

To the author, evil, which seems to dominate this world, has taken on cosmic proportions.  Indeed, creation seems to have been undone, the chaotic monsters of the world seem to have been unleashed once again, and God seems to have lost all dominion.

            If that truly is the state of the world, then wouldn’t we go mad?  Insanity would seem a viable option.

            I read this quote to Stephen Bouma this week as we were working on worship, and he said something to effect of, “Wow!  It’s amazing how much that resonates with now.”  And isn’t that the genius of these ancient stories, and why we continue to read them?  Because they don’t just speak to human experience in the far past, they give us insight into how to live the human condition in our time and our place. 

            Sometimes these days it does seem as if the chaos monsters have been unleashed, that creation is coming undone, that maybe society is going mad.

            Is that what’s really happening?  Is that how we make sense of the times in which we live?  Is that how faithful people should respond to all the news?

            But, that’s not the conclusion this story in the Book of Daniel comes to.  Evil may seem triumphant, but that is only temporary.  God may seem absent, but is working, behind-the-scenes, in history to achieve God’s goals.  We might be insane, but it doesn’t last.  This is only a season.  Truth, justice, and reason will be re-established.

            For the core truth of this story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, the core theme of the Book of Daniel, and, really, one of the core themes of the entire Bible is that no matter what happens in the ups and downs of human history, God is sovereign, God is with us, and God will see us through.  Things are not always what they seem, and the dark times will not last. 

            Though I’ll have more to say on these themes as we continue in the Book of Daniel the next few weeks, I’ll close today with another quote from scholar C. L. Seow,

People of faith can be assured that the reign of God, even if it is not fully realized in one’s own time and place . . . will never pass away and will never be destroyed.

Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty

Daniel 3:1-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 July 2023

            Let’s note a few things about this story.

            For one, it’s a little over-the-top, isn’t it?  Especially how often the author repeats those long lists of the officials present and the musical instruments played.  We get the sense of heightened spectacle.

            Another is how over-the-top the king is.  Leaders often get an inflated sense of self, but King Nebuchadnezzar takes the cake.  In his commentary on the Book of Daniel, Princeton professor C. L. Seow points out that the problem here isn’t really the statue, but Nebuchadnezzar’s demand for submission to his authority.  Seow writes, “Idolatry here is associated with political power.”  The issue isn’t bowing down to the statue as much as it is submitting to the king.  Nebuchadnezzar wants to claim sovereignty that is not his, but, in fact, belongs to God.

            The Book of Daniel is written, again according to Seow, to describe “the experience of faithful Jews under difficult circumstances.”  How do we live as faithful followers of God under a political system that wants us to submit to authority that violates our faith?

            Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego won’t submit.  They refuse to grant to Nebuchadnezzar power over their own consciences that he does not legitimately possess.  They will not accept that he has this authority over them.  And they are willing to go to their own deaths in order to refuse.

            You’ll notice in the story that while they hope to be rescued by God, they are quite clear in saying that even if they burn to death in the fiery furnace, they would rather do that than submit to the will of the king.  What integrity and courage!  And for that, they have served as moral examplars for centuries to folks in similar circumstances—defending freedom of conscience against political powers that try to assume authority that is not theirs.

            Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego make no deal with God ahead of time.  Their faith is not transactional, dependent on God doing something for them.  They are committed to their principles, whatever comes.

            And Seow reveals something interesting about the story—God does not quench the fire, nor does the story even say that God delivers them from the fire.  Rather, the story pictures God present with them in the fire.  That the fire had “no power over” them.  God remains with them, a reliable help and support in the midst of their danger. 

            So, I picked this story especially for today.  As part of our “Good Trouble” series this summer about prophets, rulers, and God’s compassion and justice, I wanted to explore the Book of Daniel, which we’ll be doing for the month of July.  And this story was just right for today, ahead of our Independence Day celebrations, because it affords me an opportunity to talk about religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.

            Back in 1948, my predecessor in this pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes, described religious liberty this way:

[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth. Each group sees a part of the truth. “We know in part,” as Paul said.  Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives.  Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

            Rev. Janes also warned, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”

            I have returned to these words often, and even quoted them during my advocacy work and in testimony before the state legislature.  They express important truths about our tradition.

            When our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith. However, once they arrived, they weren’t so good about passing along the same freedom to others. They went to war with the Natives. Burned some they thought were witches.  Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority. And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty.

It took a while before our tradition fully embraced religious freedom and its attendant doctrines—disestablishment, separation, governmental neutrality.  But once we did embrace these ideals, they became central to who we are as a people.  Our commitment to religious liberty undergirds our commitment to human rights.  Because we value the rights of conscience—even of those who are different from ourselves—we fought for abolition, Native American rights, the equality of women, reproductive justice, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of the LGBTQ community.

So Roger Williams is the key early American thinker who promoted religious liberty.  For Williams the core problem was how we are to live together in love.  He was troubled by the settlers’ treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority.  Williams was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be “infinitely precious” demanding respect from everyone.  In the strongest language possible Williams declared, “Forcing of conscience is a soul-rape.”  Isn’t that exactly what King Nebuchadnezzar was trying to do to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be imprisoned.”  Therefore, it is essential for consciences to have breathing space.  In a just society, everyone will respect each other’s conscience, and give each other space.

Essential to the American tradition is the idea of a public space in which everyone's views are allowed to interact.  For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect.  In the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else.  Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right.  You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience.  Religious liberty rests on the ancient principle: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

In the last decade we’ve become familiar with the ways some groups use religious liberty as a fig leaf to cover their attempts to discriminate against other people.  But discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty.  They are hostile to it.  In the public sphere no one ever has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.  And if you think your religion tells you to discriminate against another human being, then you’ve got this religion thing all wrong.

This year I also noticed another misunderstanding around religious liberty.  As our legislature, and others, legislated the religious views of some groups in our society, they ignored that their actions were often in direct conflict with the teachings of other faith groups.  They were preferring one set of religious doctrines over another, discriminating against people of faith, making it illegal for them to engage in actions that their faith permits, supports, or even requires, and, thereby, violating their consciences, just like King Nebuchadnezzar tried to do. 

Again, as the Rev. Harold Janes warned us in 1948, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”  On this Independence Day we must denounce these actions for the cruelties and the evils that they perpetuate in direct contradiction to the highest ideals of our nation and our religious heritage. 

Consciences are infinitely precious, delicate, vulnerable, living things, that should not be forced.  To violate the dignity and consciences of our fellow human beings is, as Roger Williams called it, “soul-rape.”  In the current climate, we people of faith must be true to our consciences and true to our God, even when it defies unjust laws, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

But we cannot wait on politicians to do the right thing.  The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us.  It is a social practice.  It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves.  It manifests in kindness and hospitality.  It is guided by humility and generosity.  For it is rooted in the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You were called to freedom. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence.  Love one another.

For religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same, and demands that our consciences not be violated with presumptuous actions that defy the sovereignty of God.

Compassion & Power

Compassion & Power

2 Kings 4:8-37

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

11 June 2023

            This summer we are reading stories of prophets and rulers under the lens of the theme “Good Trouble.”  Last week we heard a story about the prophet Elijah confronting King Ahab for the evil he and Queen Jezebel had committed against Naboth—having him killed so that they might have his vineyard.  Today we hear a story not about a ruler, but a regular citizen of Israel.  And our prophet has changed.  Now it is Elisha, who succeeded Elijah as God’s voice after Elijah was carried away into heaven on a fiery chariot. 

            Listen now to this ancient story:

            2 Kings 4:8-37

            This long story comes in the middle of a series of stories where the prophet Elisha is not interacting with kings and queens and generals but rather with ordinary people.  The wider context of this time is a famine in the land and in many of the stories, the prophet is helping people with their hunger.  He helps a widowed mother who is hungry feed her children, he provides the antidote to some poisoned stew, he multiplies the grain so that a hundred people might be fed. 

            As more than one commentator notes, the prophet represents the interests of the traditional agricultural communities.  He “brings the power of God to address the survival needs of the poor,” according to Patricia Dutcher-Walls.  These stories, she adds, reveal “a focus on God’s wider compassion for the whole of the social structure.”

            In last week’s story, God is on the side of Naboth, the ordinary Israelite whose life and land are taken from him.  Because the land was God’s gift to Naboth, assuring Naboth of his and his family’s freedom. 

            Over and over and over again, these stories of the ancient prophets reveal God on the side of ordinary people, protecting them from natural disasters and the evils inflicted upon them by their rulers.

            One feature of the story last week was that Jezebel and Ahab are behaving just like any Iron Age ruler might.  Actually, like many people in power throughout history.  They aren’t particularly evil, as much as they are typical rulers.  And that itself seems to be the problem.  The way rulers typically behave is itself a threat to what God intends for humanity.  And, so, God’s compassion and justice are on the side of the peasants and the ordinary citizens of Israel.

            Which is one of the ways to read this story before us today.  The story reveals God’s concern for this woman and her son.  God’s power comes to her aid, through the working of the prophet Elisha.

            Now, there’s a parallel story in First Kings told about the prophet Elijah.  During a different famine, he is taken care of by a poor widow with a son.  In response to her generosity to Elijah, God provides the woman grain and oil to feed herself and her son, so that they might survive the famine.  And when her son also tragically dies, he brought back to life by God’s power working through the prophet Elijah.  That story is wonderful, and I’ve preached it before.  The message of that story is rather straightforward—God’s compassion and power are directed toward suffering and needy people.

            But this similar story is notably different, which makes the message less straightforward.  For one, this woman is not poor.  In fact, she is wealthy.  Some translations even say she’s a “great woman.”  She’s able to build a little apartment for the prophet to use when he’s in town.  The average person can’t be that generous. 

            She’s also not a widow.  She has a husband.  In fact, she tells the prophet that she’s among her people.  She’s not alone.  She seems to be living a pretty good life.

            She also doesn’t initially have a child to take care of.  But, in the story, she is given one.

            And in the giving of the son, there is also a complexity. 

I was reading the commentary on Second Kings by Song-Mi Suzie Park, an Old Testament professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and she pointed out a handful of things I may not have noticed myself when first reading this passage.

She notices how the prophet Elisha rarely addresses the woman directly, but involves his servant Gehazi in all the interactions.  And in ways that when you read it don’t make complete sense.  At one point the woman seems to be standing in front of Elisha, but the prophet tells Gehazi to speak to the woman, rather than him speaking directly to her.  Park writes, “All these indirect interactions create an odd, tortuous narrative.”  What’s going on?

And then, if you look again, you’ll see that this woman never asks for a child and at no point conveys that she wants one.  We’ve been primed through reading the Bible to immediately cast her as yet another barren woman desiring a child, like Sarah, Hannah, or Elizabeth.  But nothing in this text actually conveys that.  It is an interpretation we bring to the text, but isn’t actually located within it.

It is Elisha and Gehazi, two men talking together, who come up with the idea of giving her a son.  And when they actually tell her that’s what they are going to do, she says “No.”

Also, notice that God is absent.  Unlike in other stories where a barren woman receives a child as a gift from God.  Elisha seems to have given her this child of his own decision.

So, Park, in her commentary, draws the conclusion that it’s these two men who believe that “a woman without a child cannot possibly be fulfilled.”  She adds, “The presence of a wealthy, active, independent woman without need of a son, seems . . . to have been too much for the male-centric text to sustain.”

Is this a story about a woman compelled to give birth to a child she does not want?  All because the men in the story think she needs a son? 

Another scholar described this text as an “extraordinary feast of patriarchal propaganda.”

Other possibilities lurk here as well.  Some scholars wonder if the woman says “No” because she interprets the prophet Elisha as offering to father the child himself.  And given the different ways the child is treated later in the story by her husband and by the prophet, this possibility lurks in the corners.

Oh, that I had decided to preach the much easier story about Elijah and the widow from First Kings!

Instead, we have an ambiguous story from Second Kings where the message and the moral implications remain uncertain and confused. 

But, the ambiguity and confusion actually make the story feel timely, don’t they?

Our society has now spent many years reckoning with the sexual abuses of male power.  The possibility that lurks in the corner of this story means that this text might speak to that social concern.

And forcing a woman to give birth to a child she does not want is definitely relevant to our national debate over reproductive justice and bodily autonomy.

If this is a child she did not want, then her behavior when the son falls ill and dies is quite compelling.  The child lies in her lap as he suffers and dies.  And then she takes all the decisive action in response.  The men seem to keep fumbling around either indifferent or not knowing what to do.  We are left feeling odd and indifferent about Elisha but the woman is the true hero of this story.  She is the one full of virtues, from her initial generosity and hospitality to her gratitude at the end.

While the message of this story isn’t nearly as straightforward as that in the other child resurrection story, I couldn’t help but feel that we are being told some things about compassion and power.  So, I turned to my favorite book about divine compassion, one I read back in my undergrad days, theologian Wendy Farley’s Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion.  And in that text she describes and defines compassion as follows:

Compassion is power to bring to life what is broken by pain, to bring to justice and redemption what is twisted by brutality, to free creatures from the torment of self-absorption and enliven them for care and delight and creativity.

            Compassion, she writes, is powerful.  Compassion is a form of power.  Just not power as domination, control, or coercion.  Instead, it is creative, freeing power, that brings life and justice and care.

            And that seems quite relevant to this story.  Bringing life to what is broken by pain.  Bringing justice to that which has been twisted by cruelty.  Freeing people for care and creativity.  In some ways we have to read against the patriarchy in this text to see that compassion, but God has given us the brains and the insights to do exactly that. 

            And in doing that, we are exhibiting some of the very creative power that compassion is.

            Wendy Farley also discusses how compassion is related to integrity.  Compassion sees a suffering person, but does not see them as their suffering or pain.  Compassion recognizes them as a person first.  She writes, “Compassion identifies suffering as an affront to this integrity, as an anomaly that threatens and defaces the sufferer.”

            Now, if this story fits with the others around it in Second Kings, where Elisha is helping those suffering from hunger during the famine, and if it is like the story of God standing on the side of Naboth who has been mistreated by his rulers, and if it is also like the story of the widow whose child died and Elijah brought him back to life, which has to be the case, as the parallels compel us to look back at that story,

            Then this is another story in which God is standing on the side of a person, defending their integrity against systems that threaten that integrity.  God’s compassion and power challenge injustices and the suffering they cause.  Including the patriarchy.

            Last week we concluded that the lesson for us is that God’s justice is on the side of freedom.  This week, I proclaim that God’s compassion, and power, are on the side of our personal integrity and autonomy, and against those who would use their power to dominate, coerce, and control.

Emotional Overload

Emotional Overload

John 21:1-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 May 2023

            I almost entitled this sermon “Gone Fishin’,” thinking of the Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby duet.  Reflecting on this text, I thought about my Dad going fishing.  He was a high school principal and a work-aholic, a type A personality (which is one reason he died of a heart attack at 41).  One of the few times he took for himself away from all his responsibilities was to go fishing with his friends, and drink a few beers, and relax.

            But I decided on “Emotional Overload” instead for the title.  This Easter season I’ve been focused on the reactions of the disciples to their experiences of Jesus’s death and resurrection—the running of Peter and the beloved disciple, the weeping of Mary, the fear of those gathered in the upper room that eventually led to their empowerment, the doubting and then believing of Thomas.  In this final, poignant story from the Gospel of John, we encounter a few of the disciples who’ve gotten away from Jerusalem and everything that has happened to them.  They’ve gone to the lake, to fish, and build a campfire on the beach.  This is a story that resonates easily with us, because we can identify with this act of getting away from it all, the act of rest and recreation, embodied in a fishing trip with friends.

            The title I did choose came from Gary D. Jones’s commentary on this passage when he says, of the disciple’s fishing trip, “This is how human beings often respond to emotional overload.”

            Think about it.  Their friend they spent pretty much every day with for the last three years was assaulted, arrested, tortured, and brutally murdered, and they were eyewitnesses to some of that.  They feared the same would happen to them.  Surely they have some PTSD? 

            And after all that horror, they then have a series of encounters with a living, resurrected Jesus.  How overwhelming must that have been?  I’m certain that they couldn’t wrap their brains around it.  I’m sure they were feeling all the feels—such a swirl of emotions that they couldn’t figure out which ones they were feeling at any given moment. 

            And, so, they just got away from it all.  Tried to take a break, have some rest, do something familiar.  They went fishing, as a way of coping with their emotional overload.

            And emotional overload didn’t seem to just be a great lens for examining this story, but also timely and appropriate for us. 

            For one thing, this is Mental Health Sunday.  We are a WISE congregation.  Which is an official designation of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  This congregation has committed to be welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged for mental health and wellbeing.  And, a point of pride, we were the second WISE church in the entire denomination and the hosts of the very first WISE Conference.

One of the ways we are living into our WISE commitment today is through the town hall following worship to discuss and brainstorm about the current public health crisis in adolescent mental health.  I hope you’ll join us in Memorial Hall if this issue is of concern to you, or you are a parent, or you are part of the ministries of this church that care for, educate, or support our teens.

So, emotional overload seemed fitting for Mental Health Awareness.

But, then, it also became an emotionally overwhelming week for thousands of us. It was particularly a rough week for the local LGBTQ community and those of us who’ve spent much time and energy this year trying to thwart legislative attempts to rob us of our freedom of conscience and bodily autonomy.  Please check in with your queer and trans family and friends, for they are under assault, and they need you to be loudly and vigorously defending them right now.  This is a struggle for the survival and autonomy of queer bodies.

            And once I leaned into this idea of emotional overload, a number of serendipities occurred this week.  And I delight in serendipities.  Especially during an emotionally difficult week.

The first serendipity occurred on Tuesday—that rough and difficult Tuesday.  One of my Facebook memories that day was a post Kerrie Kleppin-Winn had shared on my timeline two years ago of “tiny sermons by tiny people.”   It was a post that she’d seen somewhere else on Facebook and then shared with me and Katie Miller. 

These tiny sermons were one sentence comments by children that resonate with profound meaning and humor.  Kerrie had originally shared them on May 16, 2020, right around that moment when we all knew for certain that the Covid isolation wasn’t going away soon.  The children’s comments resonated deeply in May of 2020.

But I also found the wisdom of these kids was helpful for me this week of emotional overload.  So, I was quite glad that they came to my notice again in my Facebook memories.  Here’s what these children preached:

2-year-old Henry said, “Don’t wipe my tears away; I want to feel them on my face.”

6-year-old Ezra remarked, “I know two things that are permanent: love and sharpies.”

An anonymous six-year-old commented, “Sometimes I fall down on purpose so that I can take a break.”

Gideon, 7-years-old said, “Sometimes when my feelings are big, I like to sing them.”

Keira, also seven, advised, “I’ll just take a nap.  That’s how you solve that.”

2-year-old Jameson wisely proclaimed, “I’m too sad for pants.”

And one 4-year-old cut to the chase and simply said, “This is an F word day.”

            I feel that 4-year-old.  I feel them all actually.  And what wonderful advice.  There’s something in those seven comments for most people, most days—taking breaks, singing, napping, cursing, crying, loving, etc. 

            Another serendipity occurred Wednesday morning.  It was the children’s spring concert at Field Club Elementary where Ashley Lidgett is the music teacher.  The theme of the concert was “Rules for Living” and included a series of songs filled with advice on how to live well.  I’m grateful to Miss Lidgett for sharing the lyrics with me so I could quote them in today’s sermon.

            Mrs. Riha and Mr. Jackman’s second grade classes sang “Positive,” which includes these words,

I can close my eyes and picture how I want my world to be.

I deserve and affirm, my happy thoughts are good for me.

I believe in who I am, I know my thoughts are mine.

I can change the script I write and positively shine!

            Ms. Noon and Ms. Head’s second grade classes sang a couple of songs that I really liked, and not just because Sebastian, my son, was singing them.  Though I’m sure that helped.  The song “Rules for Living” included this advice:

Laugh a lot.  Smile a log.

Eat your veggies and fruit a lot.

Work and play well today.

And say nice things a lot.

Read a lot.  Rest a lot.

Wash your hands a face a lot.

Miss Ropp and Mrs. Kerwin’s fourth grade class opened the concert with “Responsible.”

No matter what the outside throws at me,
I’m choosin’ to react responsibly with

Decency, fairness, honesty, respect.

Discipline, justice, courage, and respect.

Integrity, compassion, morality, respect.

Humility, kindness,

And did I say respect?

Those fourth graders also sang “Do the Good You Know” with this advice:

We all have sorrow.  We all have pain.

Sometimes our sunshine turns into rain.

When someone falls right next to you,

Then you must do what you can do.

Do the good you know.  Let compassion show.

You can’t save the world alone, but you can do the good you know.

            In a moment of emotional overload, the wisdom of children, singing, reminding us of all the most important things that truly matter, if we but listen. 

These disciples had had too much.  They’d felt all the feels.  And, now, they just needed a break.  And so they took it.

            Maybe we should also understand Jesus’s conversation with Peter differently than we often do?  Maybe Jesus isn’t shaming Peter.  Maybe Jesus simply wants Peter to realize that it is from an honest embrace of his own vulnerability and his failings that he’s going to be the best and most effective pastor and leader that he can be?

            I’m guessing Jesus was deeply aware of all the feelings that Peter was feeling, and Jesus is reminding him that it is those feelings which give us our power.

            The emotions that overwhelm and overload us are the source of our compassion, our agency, our strength.

            The other serendipity this week was that the next book up on my to-read stack was Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance.   I began reading it on Wednesday while eating lunch at the Crescent Moon, and it was also exactly what I needed in the moment.  It’s like the Spirit knows!

I’m still reading this one so I’m likely to have more insights from it in the future, but early on she writes:

We must see our bodies as a miracle, and a place of reverence where existing in exhaustion is not normal or acceptable.  The beauty of resting knows that we are blessed to have a body, to be chosen to be alive, to breathe, to make choices, and to proclaim that our bodies are our own, is a deep practice in care.  It is the beginning of a revolution, radical, and a resistance.

            One of the many voices this week saying “if you are emotionally overwhelmed, take a break, rest, relax.”  Breathe.  Go listen to birdsong (which the Washington Post recommended this week for its scientifically proven positive effects on mental health).  Taking a break when we are emotionally overloaded is one of the ways we love each other.  One of the ways we get in touch with the divine source of our strength.  Where we can meet Jesus, and find the sustenance we need.

            Rev. Sarah Lund, who spoke at this church many years ago when we hosted that first WISE Conference for mental health, has written a new resource for teens to support their mental and emotional health and well-being.  She entitled it the “Blessed Youth Survival Guide.”  And the prayer it ends with I’ve planned on using in our town hall today, but I realized that the prayer is also the best way to end this sermon on emotional overload:

You are amazing.
You are beautiful.

You are complex (in a good way).

You are a beloved human being.

Your brain is different and good.

The fact that you exist is a miracle and a dream come true.

You are here for a reason.

You may not know your reason yet, but trust me, it is a really good one.

Your life is important.

Getting better takes time.

Be patient and gentle with yourself.

You are more than your disability, disease, illness, or diagnosis.

It’s ok to be different.

It’s ok not to be ok for a while.

Your life matters to me.

Try your best.