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Take Courage

Take Courage

Haggai 2:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 June 2021

            In her latest best-selling memoir Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes about “the cost of living a brave, openhearted life.”

            She writes,

            I am a human being, meant to be in perpetual becoming.  If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths.  My goal is not to remain the same but to live in such a way that each day, year, moment, relationship, conversation, and crisis is the material I use to become a truer, more beautiful version of myself.  The goal is to surrender, constantly, who I just was in order to become who this next moment calls me to be.  I will not hold on to a single existing idea, opinion, identity, story, or relationship that keeps me from emerging new.  I cannot hold too tightly to any riverbank.  I must let go of the shore in order to travel deeper and see farther.  Again and again and then again.  Until the final death and rebirth.  Right up until then.

            Glennon Doyle rose to fame first as an evangelical mommy blogger and memoirist who developed a large following of readers, primarily other evangelical moms.  Over time she organized her audience into a massive philanthropy.  And she kept evolving.  Four years ago, I was surprised that she was one of the keynote speakers of our United Church of Christ General Synod.  At the time I’d never heard of her, not falling into the evangelical mommy demographic myself.

            But by then Glennon had radically altered her life.  She had divorced her husband, fallen in love with and married the soccer great Aby Wambaugh, left evangelicalism and joined Naples UCC (which is pastored by my friend Dawson Taylor), and awoken to social justice activism.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed her talk at General Synod and then heard her again at the Iowa Conference meeting in 2018. 

            This latest memoir recounts how she so radically transformed her life and the spiritual and emotional resources she drew upon to live a brave, openhearted, untamed life. 

            She claims that transformation is always on-going and that we must develop the ability to courageously let go of the past in order to move openly into the future.  This work is not easy either spiritually or emotionally.  But wholehearted living is the result of overcoming our fears and living courageously.

            The prophet Haggai proclaims in his oracle that the people are to take courage and not fear.  They are to be strong, but it is an emotional and not a physical strength that is called for.  What they need is spiritual courage to complete the task of rebuilding the Temple.  And the prophet is the one encouraging them with vision, hope, and inspiration.  [A note: my interpretation of this passage relies heavily upon the commentary by Carol and Eric Meyers.]

            Last week we read the proclamation of the Persian emperor Cyrus allowing the Jewish people to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  But now a number of years have passed and the restoration has not yet been accomplished.  Now under a new Persian emperor, Darius, and a new Jewish governor, Zerubbabel, the work is renewed, largely at the instigation of Haggai and his oracles of encouragement.

            When the people returned to Jerusalem they faced many challenges—rebuilding a society, providing for themselves, acquiring resources, fending off opponents, and more.  The rebuilding of the Temple had started but not been completed.  And so Haggai, much like the old prophets before him, receives a word from God that he then proclaims to the people.  And this is a call to take up the work again, to rebuild the temple, and to see it to completion.

            And it seems that Haggai was successful.  Because of his preaching, the rebuilding began anew and it was completed in a short time and the new Temple was dedicated.  Some scholars believe that the written book of Haggai which we have today was prepared for the dedication ceremony and was read aloud as a reminder to the people of who and what had inspired them to do the work.

            Part of the task of the prophets was to help people comprehend their experiences, including the suffering and trauma they had encountered.  And then to help them to face the challenging tasks of restoration.  In order to do that, Haggai had to ease their uncertainty, help to clarify their world, and then provide hope.  From this the people would develop the emotional strength to carry on this work. 

            The passage I read a moment ago from the Book of Haggai most scholars believe came a few months into the work on the Temple, when people began to see what they were building and began to have doubts and to lose their energy and focus.  The purpose of this oracle was to inspire them to keep at the task, to renew their energy.

            And so Haggai raises a question.  It seems that as the people have watched the new Temple arise from the ruins of the old one that they’ve begun to question its glory.  Surely the new Temple does not match the glory of the old Temple built by Solomon.

            Now, at first glance this seems to be about a physical comparison.  That some in the crowd believe that this new building isn’t as grand and beautiful as the old one.  But we would misunderstand this proclamation if we understood the question this way. 

            The fact is, it is very unlikely that anyone physically present at this rebuilding of the Temple would have seen and remembered the old one.  It had been almost 70 years since the old Temple was burned.  And life expectancies in this era, especially of a traumatized, exiled people, were not that long.  Almost two full generations, according to the ancient reckoning, had passed.  So maybe the workers’ grandparents had seen the Temple?

            What’s more, almost none of those grandparents would have seen anything but the exterior.  Only the priests could enter the Temple building and only the High Priest into the Holy of Holies.  Even the old Temple of Solomon was rather plain on the outside.  The ornamentation and the gold, silver, and bronze embellishments were mostly on the inside.  So, any physical comparison is highly unlikely, except that maybe the people have read about the original Temple and what they see rising around them doesn’t fit the description?

            It’s also the case that by the time the Babylonians burned the Temple, much of its treasures were long gone, stolen by various other invading armies over the centuries.  So even before the conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple had long not been as glorious as what the ancient historians recorded at the time of Solomon.

            So, what might the people have in mind if they were grumbling about it not matching a former glory?  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that the people would remember that the old Temple had been a part of the royal complex of Jerusalem.  It had been imagined by King David and built by his son Solomon.  Their royal descendants maintained the Temple.  And stories of kings are often connected with the Temple, like the restoration of the Temple in the reign of the boy king Josiah.

            What is different this time is that Judea has no king.  No king is building this Temple, the people are.  No king has conquered other territories and is bringing back their riches to adorn the Temple.  There aren’t the great trade alliances of the past, by which goods and artisans arrive in the city to help with construction.  The new Temple, then doesn’t reflect the royal and national glory that the people once had.  They are not independent, they are ruled by a vast empire headquartered far away, and they are but a small and lowly piece of a much larger puzzle. 

            And, so, the challenge for the prophet Haggai is to inspire the people to find glory in a new way.  Not in the old ways of the kingdom.  In fact, Haggai has already engaged in a bold act of people-making.  He has already inspired and organized the people to do something that they once relied upon a monarch to do.  They are building the Temple. 

            Haggai is forming a new national identity, centered not on a monarch or a political structure, but around religious faith and moral demands.  A new Jewish identity focused on God.  And as such, Haggai is vital to the develop of Judaism throughout the millennia, helping to turn it from only the faith of a small ethnic group, into a global faith focused on religious practice and moral living.

            Haggai had a universal vision.  He basically tells the people—“If you build it, they will come.”  He believes that once the Temple is built, God will use it as an instrument to bring the world together in peace and abundance.  The Temple will become the center not of a new, small nation, but of an international community of peace.

            And God will bring this about.  Because God is not only the sovereign of the Jewish people but is the divine ruler of all.  No matter how good, wise, and benevolent the Persian emperors Cyrus and Darius are, God’s rule is even better.  Here is how the Meyerses describe this idea in their commentary on the passage:

The well-being for which the [Jews] yearn will become available to them, but not only to them.  In the future time, when other nations recognize [God’s] universal rule, those nations too will achieve well-being.  The power of [God] as universal ruler will not be exploitative.  In contrast to human emperors, [God] will establish universal plenty.

            It is this vision that Haggai says the Temple represents, not a restoration of what had once been, but a transformation into something new, bold, and wonderful.  So, take courage,  people, for God is doing something new here and you get to be a part.

            To help us take courage against our fears, Glennon Doyle shares one of her mantras, that she finds particularly helpful in parenting her children.  She tells them, “This is a hard thing to do.  We can do hard things.” 

            Haggai is saying something similar to his people.  And I think it’s a powerful message for us.  In the midst of fear and uncertainty, when we too face the crises of life, we can keep our vision focused on restoration and transformation and take the courageous action necessary to rebuild and renew. 

            Because God is with us.  God’s Spirit fills us with divine power and divine glory.  This presence is the source of our courage.

            So, we too can do hard things.


Go Up

Go Up

2 Chronicles 36:22-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

6 June 2021

Let’s back up.

A generation before this moment we just read about, the armies of the Babylonian Empire, under the infamous King Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the Kingdom of Judah, conquered it’s people, and took control of Jerusalem.  The Babylonians took the Jewish King Jeconiah hostage and along with a significant portion of the nation’s elite, carried them away into exile. into the Babylonian heartland of Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. 

Nebuchadnezzar appointed a puppet government over Judea.  Eventually the puppet king Zedekiah rebelled and the Babylonian armies returned.  After a long siege of the city of Jerusalem, the Babylonians defeated the Jews.  Then they tore down the city walls, burned the Temple, executed the king’s family, blinded him and carried him off to prison where he died.  More people were taken to Babylon, and only a small, poor remnant of people remained in the land, which was reduced to a province of the great empire.

Meanwhile, in exile in Babylon, Jewish culture seized the moment of trauma and in a bold act of resilience their culture thrived.  Ezekiel had visions of the bones of the defeated Jews being brought back to life by God’s Spirit.  He imagined a new temple, restored and glorious.  The poet Second Isaiah dreamed of a day when all the nations of the world would stream to a new Jerusalem, a city of peace. 

Poets, songwriters, historians, religious scholars, prophets all began to dream and to tell stories and to write.  They looked back on the ancient stories of Abraham’s journeys, of the Exodus from Egypt, of David’s establishment of the kingdom.  And in those stories they found hope and tools to survive and ideas for the future. 

And they waited for the day when they might return again to the land and rebuild their society and worship God in freedom.

In rather shocking, quick order that day came.  Babylon, the once great empire that had commanded most of the near east, collapsed quickly before the armies of the Persian emperor Cyrus.  Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian kings, was so disliked by his own people, that they did welcome the Persians.

And Cyrus was something of a messianic figure, honored as such even by the Book of Isaiah.  For Cyrus took a different approach than the empire builders before him.  The old Assyrian Empire had built itself through ethnic cleansing and genocide.  When they conquered a nation, they removed most of its people and spread them through the empire and moved new people into the homes and cities of the defeated nations.  In doing so they wiped from history many of the ancient peoples, including the northern kingdom of Israel and its lost ten tribes.  The Babylonians were not quite as fierce, but kept something of the same idea in their kidnapping of a country’s elites.

But Cyrus, he and the Persians took a different approach.  They respected the diversity of their empire’s peoples, their cultures and faiths.  They left people groups intact and allowed them to continue their religious practices and granted some autonomy in how they organized themselves.  And, so, one way Cyrus gained favor over his new subjects was to allow those who were in exile to return to their homelands and re-establish themselves.  And, thus, the Hebrew Scriptures honor Cyrus as an agent of God, creating the opportunity for the people to return home.

And so, after a generation, they were able to Go up to Jerusalem once again.  But the Jews of Babylon didn’t all rush to return.  In fact, they never all left.  The Jewish community of Babylon and eventually Baghdad was one of the centers of Jewish intellectual life well into the Middle Ages and a remnant of that community remained well into the modern age. 

The first group to return to Judea was led by Shesh-bazzar and probably included the bravest, the most daring, and those with little to lose.  It took many years and multiple waves of return under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah before the new Jerusalem and the new Judea began to take shape.  It is this story of restoration which we explore this summer in our worship.

A few years ago we followed the first part of this story—the conquests of Israel and Judah, the people being led into Exile, the formation of a new people through resilience after trauma.  At the time we always intended to tell the second part of the story, and this year seems fitting, as we too have gone through our own collective traumas with the global pandemic, the racial uprising and reckoning, the insurrection.  We are also in a time of restoration, taking our first stumbles out into a new normal, some of us with eager fascination and some with great anxiety and trepidation.  All of this while the dangers are still present, and we aren’t quite sure what the new normal will look like.  Or whether our society will muster the political and cultural will to heal and rebuild and restore, creating something better than what we’ve known before.  So, we turn to these ancient stories looking for tools and ideas and spiritual connection.

Healing from trauma begins with the ability to tell our story and have it listened to by a compassionate person.  And so the stories of ancient Judea are their attempts at this process of healing and resilience. 

According to Serene Jones, healing from trauma involves three stages—first, establishing our safety; secondly, remembering and mourning; and finally, reconnecting with ordinary life.   We will encounter each of these in the ancient stories.  And all of us have been moving through those stages, and we are at different places along the journey.

One of the more popular writers and spiritual guides of our time is Brené Brown.  In her bestselling book Rising Strong she writes about how we go up again.  She says, “Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.”  She says that it is this process which tests our courage and forges our values.

In her research, Brown has identified a three stage process involved in rising strong from a fall.  It begins with a reckoning, particularly a reckoning with our emotions.  She writes, “Recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.” 

This first step can be a difficult and tricky process, because we have so often been trained to suppress or ignore our emotions.  Which is why often this work requires professional help. 

This stage also involves listening to our bodies, which teach us so much about what we are feeling.  Even when we are trying to ignore an emotion, it will often manifest itself as an ache or a pain within our bodies.  Being aware of our physicality and the ways our bodies keep the score, is an important part of emotional maturity and wholehearted living.

As we read these stories this summer, listen for the ways they deal with emotions.  Today’s brief passage, for instance, exults with joy and celebration.  Let’s also be aware of our own emotions and pay attention to our bodies and what they are telling us, as we begin to move into this new normal.

According to Brown, the second stage of the rising strong process is to rumble with our stories.  Here’s what she says about that fun word “rumble”—“By rumble, I mean they get honest about the stories they’ve made up about their struggles and they are willing to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as they dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness.”

So, step two isn’t easy either!  Learning to rumble well with topics like shame and resentment and forgiveness can take a lifetime of spiritual work.  In another of her books, she writes, “When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending.  And when we don’t own our stories of failure, setbacks, and hurts—they own us.”  So, yes, it’s not easy work, but it is vital work.

And remember: we are beloved children of God, with amazing minds and souls, empowered by the Holy Spirit, filled with amazing grace, and radiant with glory.  We are capable of growing into our best selves.

Our ancient forebears had to do the serious spiritual work of rumbling with their stories.  They didn’t always succeed at creating something better, as we will see.  Sometimes they failed and created more trauma.  Let’s learn from that as we rumble with our stories.

The final stage of the rising strong process, according to Brené Brown, is the revolution.  She describes it as writing “a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble.”  And that we then “use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.”

And it is this ability to rise strong from failure that leads to wholehearted lives.

That’s our goal, isn’t it?  How to rise up from our pandemic experience better, whole, joyful, and glorious?

            In ancient Babylon a few, brave, intrepid souls heard the call of God in the proclamation of the emperor Cyrus to “Go up.”  They traveled to a place that required vision and hard work if it was to be transformed and restored. 

            In our own lives, may we too rise strong and hear God’s call to go up, to be restored, to become our best selves.


What Does This Mean?

What Does This Mean?

Acts 2:1-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 May 2021

            One Sunday in 1819 in the city of Philadelphia, at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, guest preacher Reverend Richard Williams was struggling to preach the sermon he had prepared and found himself unable to go on.  In the silence that followed, suddenly a woman in the congregation stood up and began to preach.  Her name was Jarena Lee, and what she was doing was not allowed.

            Jarena Lee was born to a free black family in Cape May, New Jersey in 1783.  In 1807 she had a series of religious experiences in which she heard the voice of God calling her preach.  As she recorded it in her autobiography:

But to my utter surprise, there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say—“Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends.”

            When she received this call, Jarena Lee approached the AME bishop and founder of the denomination Richard Allen.  Allen dissuaded her, because women weren’t allowed to preach.

            And so Jarena Lee went about her life, getting married and working.  Until that Sunday when the guest preacher couldn’t continue, and she decided to stand up and preach the sermon herself.

            What happened next?

            Well, Bishop Allen was in the congregation that day.  And to his great enduring credit, Bishop Allen realized in that moment that Jarena Lee was called of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach.  Following that service, he authorized her to preach, making her the first black woman to receive such authorization.  Lee then became a popular preacher of the Second Great Awakening, traveling thousands of miles each year to preach hundreds of sermons in churches and revivals and camp meetings.  Then, in the 1830’s, she published two editions of her autobiography, leaving a written record of her spiritual experience and her ministry.

            In her autobiography we find these words from the Bible:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your old men shall dream dreams,

and your young men shall see visions.

On the male and female slaves,

in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Jarena Lee underlined that important word “all.” 

Anglican priest Caitlin Carmichael-Davis imagines how those words resonated with Jarena Lee.  Carmichael-Davis writes, “As she reads these words, Lee is transformed, and the world around her suddenly looks different. No longer defined by hierarchies and division, each person has the dignity as a child of God, and the responsibility to embody Christ in the world.”

            The contemporary theologian J. Kameron Carter, reflecting on the meaning of Jarena Lee, writes that “To enter Christ’s flesh through the Holy Spirit’s pentecostal overshadowing is to exit the gendered economy and protocols of modern racial reasoning.”

            Jarena Lee was a poor black woman living in a time and place when poor black women had almost no social standing and were the victims of many intersecting oppressions and injustices.  Yet, Jarena Lee had a spiritual experience from which she did not allow those oppressions to define her.  She would not be confined to her society’s expectations for women or for people of color.  She knew herself to be a beloved child of God, called of God, and filled with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.  Her bold speaking was itself an act of breaking the demonic powers of patriarchy and white supremacy.

            Carter writes that “the Spirit of Christ is the architect of a new mode of life together” in the church.  And that new mode, “transfigures social reality” by inviting all people to join in fellowship in the body of Christ.  Thus, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost breaks down the barriers that divide and separate us, creating the opportunity for something new to be fashioned.

            Kameron Carter writes of Jarena Lee that what she “has literally done . . . is broaden the reach of Christ’s historical, bodily existence so as to understand her own existential and historical moment as an articulation of Christ’s own life and way of being in the world.  It is her understanding of Pentecost as part and parcel of the economy of Christ’s bodily existence that allows her to accomplish this.”

            She is a Holy Spirit-gifted minister, a part of the Body of Christ, and, thus, she is joined in fellowship with all other people.  And she too becomes a physical embodiment of the Spirit of Christ, meaning that her experience as a poor black woman in antebellum America is a part of the experience of Christ’s incarnation in the world.  Her bold act of preaching is itself one more moment in the history of the world where the Holy Spirit breaks forth, much like it did that day in Jerusalem when Peter and the disciples experienced wind and flame and speaking in strange languages.  The Holy Spirit continues to break down barriers and pour herself out onto all flesh, so that God’s dream of a new world, united in peace and love might come to fruition.

            That’s part of what this ancient story means.  The Pentecost story is about God’s invasion of our social world and our history in order to create something new.  The wind that blew that day is like the wind that blew at the Creation of the earth from the story in Genesis.  That wind is still blowing, that original Spirit is still hovering, God is still speaking new things into being. 

            And the Pentecost movement of the Spirit didn’t end that day in Jerusalem when Peter preached, it continues to move through human history, breaking forth in new and surprising ways as the Spirit gives voice to all flesh.  And so we humans keep playing catch up to realize that God is speaking from black voices and indigenous voices and female voices and disabled voices and gay and lesbian voices and transgender and genderqueer and non-binary voices and none of us know what voices God will start speaking in next that the church might spend time arguing over rather than absorbing fully the lesson of this ancient story that God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.

            Willie James Jennings writes:

The same Spirit that was there from the beginning, hovering, brooding in the joy of creation of the universe and of each one of us, who knows us together and separately in our most intimate places, has announced the divine intention through the Son, to reach into our lives, and make each life a site of speaking glory.

            Imagine that!  Our lives a “site of speaking glory!”  Hallelujah!

            But how does that happen?  Jennings explains, “But this will require bodies that reach across massive and real boundaries, cultural, religious, and ethnic.  It will require a . . . devotion to peoples unknown and undesired.”  To love oor neighbor, as Jesus taught us.  Yet now we realize that the love of neighbor isn’t just about kindness and hospitality, but about the Holy Spirit empowered formation of a new humanity.

            Jennings explains that the Holy Spirit is living inside of us, sharing with us God’s own desire.  And, he writes, “that desire has the power to press through centuries of animosity and hatred and beckon people to want one another and envision lives woven together.”  What the church needs, he writes, is “people of faith who will yield to the Spirit in this present moment.”  People who will allow God’s desire for union and peace to fill us with love and hope so that we enter into each other’s lives and break down the barriers that segregate us from one another.

            Let’s be those Pentecostal people.  Filled with God’s desire for a new humanity and empowered by the Spirit to create a new world of peace and love.

            And, so, what does this Pentecost story mean?  I’ll let Willie James Jennings answer for us:

The Holy Spirit has come.  Joining has begun.  This is the real meaning.


The Way of Righteousness

The Way of Righteousness

Matthew 21:23-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 September 2020

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

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

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

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

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

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

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

The One who met you on the road,

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

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One who met you on the road,

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

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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

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

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

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

            Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One who met you on the road,

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

and the One to whom we all shall return,

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


Regathering

Regathering

Psalm 84

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 August 2020

            [Sigh]

            So, here we are.  A few of us, at least.  For those of us who’ve been the faithful remnant here each week for the last five months, it is good to look out and see other faces, even if they are masked and distant.

            Today is a festive day.  Even if our festivity is muted, but more especially because it is only a foretaste of the truly big party that awaits—the longed for day when we can all gather together again with the hugs and handshakes and coffee hour.  That day is not today, but we continue to pray and hope and do our best to follow the health guidelines so that we might hasten the coming of that day.

            For today we are diverting from the Book of Genesis and chose Psalm 84 as our text.  This is one of the Zion Psalms, used by God’s people as part of a pilgrimage to the holy site in Jerusalem where they join together in worship.  Walter Brueggemann writes, “This psalm articulates anticipation of being in that place and envisions arriving there.” 

            As we continue our pilgrimage through this calamitous time, we turn to these ancient words to help us explore our longing, and also to recognize the importance of this day, when we begin to gather in new ways as a God’s people at worship.

            Walter Brueggemann points out that the psalm begins with “an exclamation of the beauty of the place of [God’s] presence.”  The pilgrims have seen the city or the temple from afar and respond with joy.

            Why our attractions to specific buildings?  For one thing, they become central to key parts of our stories—where we and our children are baptized and married, where our family and friend’s lives were celebrated and mourned, where we mark the significant turning points of the years. 

            But, of course, God does not need buildings to carry on the work of the church.  They aren’t essential in that way.  Yet, through the centuries we’ve realized the importance buildings can play for carrying on that ministry over time.  N. T. Wright describes them as “bridgeheads into the world.”  And adds that we should see our buildings of public worship as “advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation.”  This is what they are designed to do, the role they play in the wider society.  And he describes these last few months as an “enforced exile” as our buildings have been unable to fully serve their purpose, to the glory of God.

            If our buildings are signs of God’s intention for the world, that explains why we want them to be inspiring, comforting, and beautiful.  And why being absent from them, and the worship that takes places in them, is felt as such a significant loss.  I, for one, have felt so unmoored these months.  Like many of you I have attended worship almost every week my entire life, and only when it was absent did I realize how vital it is for my well-being, my identity, my morality, my very sense of self.

            Which grasps the sense of the next section of the psalm, that begins with a beatitude-“Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”  The psalmist reminds us that God’s people are strengthened and comforted through troubled times by God’s presence with them.  Brueggeman writes, “Those who anticipate a pilgrimage to worship and those who are in worship . . . know joy in life.”  He adds, “The journey may be long and difficult, but the anticipation of encountering the presence of God in Zion brings hope and expectation.”

            William Bellinger points out that it “is the encounter with the divine presence that makes the event and the place so significant.”  Fortunately, we worship a God who is not confined by a specific place.  Our worship is not confined to this building.  We have shown these last few months the power of our spiritual connection, drawing people together across vast distances to worship God.  And as we move into this new season of the church’s worship, we will never only gather here in person—we will always gather as a hybrid people, some physically present and some participating digitally.  And in this way we will be more faithful as God’s people, better able to minister to those who are stick, staying home, traveling, or living away from us.  For it is God’s presence which sanctifies the moment and the place, and God is present with us in all times and all places.

            Verses 8 and 9 of the Psalm include a petition for God to support the leaders of the people.  We have been reminded throughout these months of the centrality of prayer to sustain us.  Let us keep praying.  Let us pray for our leaders—political, medical, academic, scientific, moral, religious, etc.—that they be given wisdom, courage, and discernment.  Let us continue to lament, being present with the world and sharing in its pain during this season of illness, death, and grief.  Let us continue to pray for justice, as the pandemic reveals the long-standing inequities of our society.  And let us continue to pray for the end of the virus, imploring God to deliver us, to bring salvation to the world.

            The psalm concludes with another moment of anticipation of being in the divine presence and the grand blessings that bestows.  What are those blessings?  Walter Brueggemann describes them as “whole, healthy, complete life in all its dimensions.”  Sounds like something we all desire right now, doesn’t it?  And worship is one of the vital ways we receive those blessings.  Brueggemann writes, “Encounter with the divine presence in worship can make possible an integration of the various dimensions of life and its hopes.”

            Four years ago for my sabbatical I did a lot of reading and exploration on worship, so I turned back to some of those writers this week as I was pondering the importance of this day and why worship is vital to us humans.  James K. A. Smith writes that beauty is the Gospel’s power, as Christian worship presents “a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life.”  Worship does this by presenting a vision of the good life, of what it is “to flourish and live well.”  We do that through words, songs, visuals, etc. 

            Part of the struggle these last months has been how to do that faithfully through digital media, and I hope you believe we’ve done our best, because we really have tried.  It is a struggle, because, as Smith writes, “One of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is.  To engage in worship requires a body—with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell, tongues to taste, ears to hear, and hands to hold and raise.”  So we’ve encouraged you to light candles, draw pictures and tape them in your windows, prepare communion to share together, etc. 

            This is one of the many reasons why regathering is so vitally important to our faith.  As Smith adds, “Historic Christian worship is fundamentally formative because it educates our hearts through our bodies.” 

            Worship, then, engages us in a holistic view of life, integrating our various dimensions.  We believe that Christian worship is vital to health, wholeness, and well-being.  These are the blessings of God we receive together in this time of praise and thanksgiving. 

            So, with praise to the living God on this festive day that is itself only a foretaste of the yet more festive day that we anticipate together, we sing with the ancient psalmist, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.”


To Be More . . . Neighborly

To Be More . . . Neighborly

Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

8 March 2020

            We are to be holy because God is holy.

            Kimberly Clayton in her commentary on this passage informs us that “how we love God is evident in every action we take” and so holiness is not about the grand gestures but the way we manifest the love of God in all the ordinary things we do.  For the writer in Leviticus this includes how we harvest our grain, so we can use our imaginations to think of mundane aspects of our daily lives that manifest holiness.  Ways every day that we are fair, kind, courteous, and respectful to others.  Ways we every day consider others needs and don’t think only for ourselves.  From how we drive on the interstate to how we treat the customer service person on the telephone to whether we safely return our grocery carts to the bins or let them roll around the parking lot damaging other cars.  She writes, “In Leviticus holiness is at least not making life more difficult for someone with a disability or standing idly by when your neighbor is in trouble. . . . You are holy when you are fair to everyone equally, without being influenced by either pity or greed.”

            The Book of Leviticus gives us a lot of guidelines that are intended to help shape our lives in a holy direction.  But, as one commentator I read this week emphasized, we are always a work in progress, “swimming against the tide of prevailing human ways” when we commit to living according to God’s holiness.

            And, of course, Leviticus isn’t the final word on holiness, but it does, according to biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann “[constitute] a long reflection on the form holiness may take for the people of God.”  A key question in that conversation is how we are to treat other people, which is the essence of this passage in Leviticus 19 where we are told how to be fair to the poor and the foreigner and to love our neighbors.  Of course we also hear that great question posed to Jesus in the Gospels, “Who is my neighbor?”  And our entire biblical tradition has been answering that question with a constantly expanding vision.

            Walter Brueggemann emphasizes this in his writings on neighborliness, which he takes to be one of the basics of the biblical covenant and, therefore, one of the basic ethical ideas that continues to shape us as the people of God.

            At the center of our answer is the suggestion here in Leviticus that we must love ourselves.  Sometimes that can be difficult for us.  We humans can tend to self-loathing or narcissism.  Whereas the healthy self-respect that empowers our love of neighbor can take some work.

            Leviticus teaches us to first love our neighbor as ourselves.  The circle expands from us to those we encounter daily.  To be holy is to practice kindness and justice with those people. 

            One of the delights of living and working in this neighborhood, walking it streets, and sitting on my front porch the last decade has been familiarizing myself with the neighborhood’s residents.  Last Saturday our nextdoor neighbors to the north, the Rossittos, invited us over for a cookout because the weather was so wonderful, and Angela and I sat and talked about all the interesting people we encounter.

            Tuesday night Sebastian and I were at Don & Millie’s for supper and ran into our neighbor Doug who lives to the south of us.  Sebastian hollered, “Doug, come sit by me.”  We’ve developed a good friendship with Doug.  He often takes our dog Nash for walks, and some pictures Sebastian drew for him after his partner died hang in his house. 

            The philosopher John Dewey said that democracy is a way of life that actually begins with neighbors meeting together to solve a problem on their block.  In this era when we worry about the social fabric of the nation, one of the best things we can do is to develop good relationships in our neighborhood.

            But the biblical tradition doesn’t end there.  Already in Leviticus it asks us to consider how the poor are our neighbors and we must make sure we are collectively providing for them.  Leviticus also asks us to consider the stranger among us, the foreigner, the sojourner, the immigrant and the refugee.  Holiness as neighborliness includes caring for them.  Brueggemann describes holiness as “restorative practices toward the vulnerable who have been diminished” by our culture. 

            One of the joys of this congregation’s ministry the last three years has been our sponsorship of refugee families.  First with Shee Lweh and Gar Moo and now Hawa and Mobark and their children, we have helped to make a better life for people who needed it .  Shee Lweh and Gar Moo had spent most of their lives in a refugee camp in Thailand.  As children, they fled, from Burma, with their parents, to the camp in Thailand.  They met in the camp and married and gave birth to three children.  The kids knew nothing of the world other than the refugee camp before they flew to Omaha in the winter of 2017 and were greeted at the airport by a happy group of strangers from First Central.  Now those kids are fully Americanized, according to Pat Lamberty, and Shee Lweh has a good job with career prospects. 

            Hawa and Mobark came from the Sudan, a nation ripped apart by civil war and genocide.  We don’t know all the details of what they experienced fleeing their country and eventually ending up in Jordan before coming to Omaha last year. 

            We have lived into the holy vision of God through our welcome and support and care for these families, who now have a better life.

The biblical tradition does go further, though that step is not taken here in Leviticus.  Jesus teaches us to also love our enemies.  It’s a challenging, difficult vision.

At the center of this teaching is the idea that to be holy is to treat everyone as neighbor and not as threat.  So we must learn when we encounter someone different from us not to treat them as other but to treat them with inclusive love.  To be neighborly, then, includes confronting our biases and prejudices.  Doing the often hard work of overcoming the ways we might have been programed as children.  Learning the ways we participate in unjust and oppressive systems that privilege us and harm others and then working to correct those.

So, we work to make our language gender inclusive, because the Christian tradition has a history of harming women.  We have declared ourselves open and affirming and worked to correct the oppression of LGBTQ persons.  We have acknowledged the ways our facilities and programs have not been accessible to persons of all abilities and have worked diligently to correct these mistakes.  We have confessed that mental illness is stigmatized in society, so we have committed to being more welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged in order to undo that stigma.  And we’ve explored and challenged our racial biases in hopes of becoming a more multicultural people.

All of this is involved in being holy as God is holy, in being more neighborly.

So, when our Long-Range Planning Task Force completed its work, neighborliness was one of the key opportunities we identified for this church to expand our ministries in the this decade.  Our physical facility is strategically located and already a cultural anchor and asset to our neighborhood.  Neighbor children learn to ride their bikes on our patio, people sit on our benches to rest and eat, they walk our labyrinth, they grow food in our garden, shop in our Thrift shop, and attend concerts and performances here.  We imagined that we could expand on all that, becoming even more of a community center for our neighborhood and the city.

Among the opportunities we identified an invigorated Thrift Shop, a coffee and gathering area, activities and programs for neighbors including refugee support services, afterschool programs, classes on various topics, support groups, recreational activities, enhancing our exterior with benches, gardens, and a little library to engage the pedestrians of the neighborhood and more effectively communicate our values to passersby.

Being neighborly also means expanding our vision to be more engaged in service and justice work in our community.  We are respected for the work we have done, but there is even more we can do, often working in partnership with others.  A couple of years ago we were actively exploring options of working together with some of our sister churches, an initiative we need to rekindle. 

And one of the main goals of the Long-Range Plan was an emphasis on Global Citizenship.  At the recent Annual Meeting there was much discussion of how we can be more engaged in global ministries.  I’ve scheduled the new executive minister for the UCC’s Global Ministries, the Rev. Karen-Georgia Thompson, to preach and lead a workshop in October.  She’ll help us engage further in that conversation.

So, how can we be more neighborly?  Let me count the ways!

This Lent, as you are thinking and praying and reflecting and considering for yourself how God is calling you to be more, consider these possibilities.  How can you be more neighborly? And how can your Christian witness and involvement in this faith community expand our neighborhood?

For we are called to be holy as God is holy and our holiness is revealed in how we treat other people.


To Be More . . . Daring

To Be More . . . Daring

Psalm 84, Isaiah 35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 March 2020

            Last April I was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the First Congregational Church attending a visioning and training session for the directors of the boards of our three United Church of Christ conferences in Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota.  During the Saturday sessions our goal was to develop a “Why” statement—why we do the work we do on the conference level of the church. 

            As is often the case in these sorts of meetings, we were broken up into various small groups seated at tables around the church’s fellowship hall.  The facilitators invited us to begin the day’s work by telling stories of times in our lives when we were inspired by church. 

            I happened to be at the same table as Louie Blue Coat.  Louie is a minister in the Dakota Association, serving Virgin Creek United Church of Christ on the Cheyenne River Reservation.  The story Louie shared that day about a time he was inspired by church inspired me in turn.

            In 2016 when the Water Protectors were trying to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Reservation, an international call went for clergy and faith leaders to gather in solidarity.  More than 500 arrived on the given day, representing 22 faith traditions.

            The morning began with a Native American water ceremony.  Then, Chief Arvol Looking Horse invited the clergy to gather around the sacred fire to pray.  And the first person invited to pray was the Rev. Gordon Rankin, then South Dakota’s UCC Conference minister.  According to Louie Blue Coat, the crowd grew silent as Gordon spoke and his words inspired and encouraged.

            “Who is that?” those around Louie began to ask.  He was proud to respond, “That’s Gordon Rankin, my Conference Minister.”

Moments later, when the march began, Louie wanted to walk alongside Gordon, but too many people wanted to be near the man who had prayed.

The clergy walked to the site where the Water Protectors and Law Enforcement faced one another.  As they gathered there, in that place of tension, a peace settled over the people. Everything became quiet.  And then an eagle flew overheard.  According to Louie, everyone, clergy, Water Protectors, and police, watched the eagle.

“God was there,” Louie said.

Then, he added, “That day, watching Gordon be a pastor made me want to be more, made me want to be a pastor too.” 

Last year listening to Louie, I knew I’d heard my why.  Why church can inspire people--it calls us to be more. 

This Lent I invite you to listen—God is calling you to be more.  “More what?” you might ask.  Well, that will be unique to you, but each Sunday we’ll consider various possibilities, particularly how we as a church together might be or do more on behalf of God’s work in this time and place. 

Today we consider what it might be like to be more daring. 

According to Vocabulary.com “To be daring is to be bold, adventurous, and a little nervy. It’s a quality possessed by people who tend to take risks.”

Of course I Googled “To be more daring” to see what the results were and you wouldn’t be surprised to find lots of self-help sites presenting the “7 ways to be more daring” and the “10 rules for a bold and daring life.”  Included in the advice were gems like “Stop Being So Scared of Looking Foolish,” “Constantly Push Against Your Comfort Zone,” and “Do Something You Think You Can’t.”

Consider the vision of the Prophet Isaiah.  The desert shall blossom, the weak kneed will be made firm, the blind will see, the wild will be tamed.  You might describe it as bold, daring, and audacious. 

The prophet inspires us to think big.  To share in God’s dream.  To imagine a world transformed.  And then to draw strength, courage, and joy from that vision.

The Psalmist adds to this image.  As we follow along God’s path, we are strengthened and made happy.  The psalmist inspires us to imagine how great and glorious is our vision of God and the home that God is creating for us to share together.  God will withhold no good thing from us.

Back in 2015, my former boss the Rev. Mike Piazza, led a workshop here at our church entitled “Reinvigorating the Vintage Church.”  He praised this congregation and the good hard work it had done.  We had responded well to the changing demographics of our society and were enjoying vitality and growth.  He said that of all the churches he had consulted with, ours was one of the best positioned. 

He said we could stay where we were, in this good position, or we could now contemplate doing even more and moving to the next level.  What would that look like for us? 

The church’s leadership accepted that challenge.  And the first thing we did was decide to turn the position of Christian Education Director into a full-time Associate Pastor position, which resulted in calling Katie here in 2016. 

And then we launched a Long-Range Planning Task Force and assigned them the job of holding brainstorming sessions with the congregation in order to identify and prioritize a set of goals and objectives for the next decade.  In 2017 that report was released, and we’ve been guided by its goals of accessibility, sustainability, neighborliness, education and outreach as we’ve introduced new programs, built up our digital and communications infrastructure, and made improvements to our facilities. 

Of course if we are going to do all the things we believe God is calling us to do, we have to have the funding in place.  One of the mechanisms for funding some of the projects will come about through our next capital campaign that is currently being prepared and will launch this summer.

Our congregation has the opportunity to be an even more vital center of community life in our neighborhood.  A place where people come for help and support, where they experience spiritual formation and religious growth, where they develop friendships and find opportunities for service, where they experience beautiful music, art, and theatre, where they practice environmental sustainability and social justice in community, and where everyone is welcome no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, breaking down barriers and building bridges.  We want to open even more doors to possibilities.

[INTERLUDE:  Atlantic article, Hannah Arendt, how can we think and act boldly?

We had a good example of it earlier this week in Katherine Johnson who died aged 101.  Not that many years ago, none of us knew who she was.  But once her story was told, she became a beloved American icon, a figure we can all admire.

Born in 1918 in a small town in West Virginia, she was educated in segregated schools and even had to move away from her hometown because there was no high school for African Americans for her to attend.  But she was a math prodigy from the youngest age, and her teachers steered her to a career in math.  In the 21st century, after civil rights and the women’s movement, math and technology remain fields difficult for a poor woman of color, and yet a century ago, with persistence Katherine Johnson received her education and launched her career as a computer for our nation’s space program.

When our nation dared to send human beings into outer space and fifty years ago went to the moon and back, we did so based on Katherine Johnson’s math.  And if we do such daring things again, according to NASA historian Bill Barry, “If we go back to the moon, or to Mars, we’ll be using her math.”

Katherine Johnson is a reminder to us of how bold vision, persistence and determination can succeed in world-changing ways.  She always knew she could be more and that we as a people could be more, and she was right.

Lent is a time of reflection and examination, as we prepare ourselves for the new birth of Easter.  This year, instead of giving something up, I want to you listen to God.  God who wants us to be happy, to experience joy, to receive all the blessings of this life.  God who invites us to vision and dream and be daring in imagining the possibilities. 

This year, what does it mean for you, for us To be more?  What more is God calling us to?