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Speaking Truthfully

Speaking Truthfully

Psalm 51:6-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 January 2024

               What does it mean to remember truthfully?

            Especially given all we know about the fickleness of memory.  How easily we forget or elide details.  How often two people’s memories of the same moment are quite different from each other.  How our self-interest and biases can shade what we recall.  Even how trauma can deeply wound our memory. 

            Maybe we can start by thinking of ways we remember falsely?

            Like nostalgia.  I’m a deeply sentimental person who engages in a fair bit of nostalgia.  But nostalgia can be a problem.  Last week I quoted James K. A. Smith who wrote, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”

            Nostalgia can traffic in illusions, making the past better than it actually was.

            In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown talks about how nostalgia was once considered a medical disease and psychiatric disorder.  That’s not the common perspective anymore, but she does warn that nostalgia can be an unhealthy coping strategy.

            Nostalgia, she writes, often arises from loneliness and when combined with rumination is a strong predictor for depression making us “more likely to pay attention to negative things, and [zapping] our motivation to do things that would improve how we feel.” 

            So, she generally comes down on the negative side in her evaluation of nostalgia, describing it as “a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.”

            Miroslav Volf writes that we can also remember unjustly.  And this violates what he considers to be our moral obligation to remember truthfully.  We are most likely to remember unjustly in the case of complex memories of wrongdoing.  We tend to be self-protective, of course, and in doing so, often frame the memory to put ourselves in the best light and see others at their worst.  This, he teaches, is unjust.  In our remembering we must be honest about our own role and accurate in how we judge other’s actions, not making them worse than they actually were.  We need to be very careful about how we assign blame and avoid making others a scapegoat. 

            Volf says this is a very difficult task, to remember wrongdoings truthfully and justly.  We are finite, our memories are always approximations with some mix of imaginative construction.  But doing the hard work of remembering truthfully and justly, he writes, is worth the effort because such hard work is more likely to result in healing and justice.

            S0, we can remember falsely in the way we assign blame to others . . .  and, also, ourselves.  One way false memories show up is through the emotion of shame.  James K. A. Smith calls shame “a nefarious enemy of grace that thrives on the backward glance.”  He goes on, “Shame teaches me to look at my past and see something hideous that makes me regret my existence.”

            Much of the best recent work on shame has been done by Brene Brown.  She is always clear in distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong, whereas shame is the feeling that we are bad.  The feeling of guilt can lead to accountability, making amends, healing, and growth.  Shame generally leads to disconnection and feelings of unworthiness.  It is the belief that we are flawed. 

            Interestingly, she writes that shame is often actually connected to narcissism and perfectionism.  A perfectionist views all their failures as personal defects and so avoids trying new things.  Narcissists have what she calls a “shame-based fear of being ordinary.” 

            Shame burdens us with a focus on something from our past.  It keeps us turned backwards, not fully enjoy the present or living with openness to the future.

            Brown writes that the antidote to shame is empathy.  Finding those you can share your shame with who will respond with care.  We can’t overcome our shame until we learn to speak about it.

            Smith teaches that shame is the opposite of grace. Whereas shame burdens us from the past, grace is God’s “good news of unfathomable possibility.”  He writes, “My personal history isn’t something to regret; it is something God can deploy in ways I never could have imagined.”  Instead, God sees our weaknesses as “openings for strength.”  “Grace,” he says, “wants to unleash our history for a future with God that could only be ours—living into the version of ourselves that the world needs.”  God’s grace opens up the possibilities that our pasts are the tools needed for God’s work to be done.

            So, from these teachers we learn that to remember truthfully, we must avoid the destructive forms of nostalgia, injustice in the way we view ourselves, and others, and the shame that robs us of the abundance of possibility that is God’s grace. 

            How, then, do we remember truthfully, especially if that’s a memory of our own wrong-doing? 

            A couple of years ago I read a small book entitled Regret: A Theology by Duke Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths.  In that book, Griffiths writes about what he calls the “otherwise emotions.”  The various emotions we feel when we wish that the world was other than what it is.  Or that we had done something other than what we have done. 

            I assume you’ve got a few—or more than a few—of these: moments or actions or decisions from the past that you wish were otherwise?

            Remorse is the emotion we feel when our past presses upon us, reminding us of what we have done.  Intriguingly, he writes that remorse itself reveals that our past is porous, that it can be redeemed, which we’ll get more into in a moment.  The feeling of remorse is itself part of the process of healing and reconciliation.  Even feeling or wishing that one had done otherwise is a step in the right direction.  A step that hopefully leads to further steps, to contrition, lament, making amends, etc. 

            Remorse also involves our ability to imagine a different future, a future where our past and our feelings of guilt no longer weigh heavily upon us. 

            Brene Brown writes about the healthy power of regret.  She’s very critical of those who say that they live “with no regrets.”  Such people, her research has revealed, are really people who live with no reflection.  Healthy, mature people do reflect, and in their reflecting, they regret what they’ve done wrong.  But they don’t let that remorse develop into shame, because they do something about it.

            Brown writes, “I firmly believe that regret is one of our most powerful emotional reminders that reflection, change, and growth are necessary.”  She goes on, “In our research, regret emerged as a function of empathy.  And, when used constructively, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.”

            The reason Miroslav Volf is so insistent on the moral obligation to remember truthfully, is because he believes this is integral to the redemption of the past.  And that’s probably a notion we don’t think of very often.  How can the past, which is settled and finished, be redeemed?

            Volf writes,

What we have suffered weighs us down like a heavy load we long to have lifted: like an indefatigable enemy, it assails us relentlessly.  The wreckage of history—a trail of shattered beauty, defiled goodness, twisted truths, streams of tears, rivers of blood, mountains of corpses—must somehow be mended.  That the past must and will be redeemed is a conviction essential to the Christian notion of redemption.

            God will acknowledge and take account of this history.  Rightly assigning blame and enacting justice.  Victims will be acknowledged, and amends will be made.  Perpetrators will be called to account and their sins forgiven and atoned for.  And, of course, all of us are both victims and perpetrators.

            God’s grace, then, opens up fresh and new possibilities.  Grace can’t go back and change the past, but it can change how we use it to create a better future, to become our best selves. 

            I like how Paul Griffiths describes it, “Regret sometimes permits a transfiguration of the past by an opening up of the future.  The past is never simply given, unchangeable; its presence to and in the present and the future belongs to it, and when the mode of that presence changes, so too does the past.”

            We might not be able to alter what we have done in the past, but we can alter its meaning and impact for us now and in the future.  We can even, sometimes, forget altogether. 

            What allows us to remember truthfully, in a way that leads to justice, healing, hope, and love, is the abundance of God’s grace.  Reaching out to envelop us, and all that we are, and have been and will be.  Constantly opening up new possibilities and providing for us the resources we need to live well and faithfully now. 

            Hear, again, the joyful words of the 51st Psalm:

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.


To Remember

To Remember

Ecclesiastes 3:9-22

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 January 2024

               In 1984 Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian and now professor at Yale, was interrogated by the Yugoslavian secret police.  The previous fall he had been summoned to compulsory military service, having to leave his family and the writing of his dissertation.  And immediately he realized that he’d been drawn into the military so that he could be spied upon.  Volf was suspect by the Communist authorities for a variety of reasons—he was married to an American woman, he was a Christian theologian in an officially atheist country, he had studied in the democratic West, and his own father, a pastor, had almost been killed once by the Communists on suspicion of sedition.

            And so the interrogations went on for months.  They never involved torture, but they did include threats, so much so that the interrogator colonized his interior life, as Volf describes it.  He wrote, “Even afterward, my mind was enslaved by the abuse I had suffered.”

            Decades later, still haunted by these memories, and particularly his interrogator Captain G, Volf began to wonder “How should I remember him and what he had done to me?”  Eventually the question prompted a book entitled The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

            Volf has spent much of his academic career as a theologian writing and teaching about forgiveness.  His work in that area is profound, ground-breaking, and deeply influential.  And that led him to think even more deeply and theologically about memory, and particularly his memories of this wrongdoing.  How should he remember those events and the perpetrators in a way that is faithful to his commitment to Christian love and forgiveness?  How to remember truthfully, in a way that condemns injustice and abuse but doesn’t heighten the trauma?  How to remember in such a way that the memories don’t overtake his identity and everything else about his past?  He was even worried about what he called “this dangerous moral fickleness of memory.”

            These questions prompted deep thinking.  Volf wrote, “How much of my projected future would Captain G. colonize, given that the memory of abuse kept projecting itself into my anticipated future?  Would he define the horizon of my possibilities, or would he and his dirty work shrink to just one dark dot on that horizon and possibly even disappear from it entirely?”

            He worried that if he focused on this memory too much, it would forever alter him.  Volf wrote, “Would I have remembered wrongly by first focusing on the negative and then allowing it to color the whole surrounding landscape?  Would I be allowing the abuse to whirl me down into the dark netherworld?”

            As he grappled with his personal stories, Miroslav Volf identifies for us how memory is connected to identity, forgiveness, justice, truthfulness, well-being, and our hopes for the future.  Remembering well and rightly, then, has a rich spiritual meaning for us.

            And it is that theme to which we will turn our worship focus in this season of Epiphany. 

            Remembering, itself, fits within a bigger and broader spiritual practice of timekeeping.  How we mark time spiritually and theologically has long been of interest to me and a staple in my preaching.  A couple of years ago we had an Easter season worship series on how we mark time.  That series was guided by the teachings of Princeton professor Andrew Root, and I’ve often since drawn us back to this quote from him:

We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!

And, yes, that quote ends with an exclamation mark.

            The theologian Kathryn Tanner approaches the spirituality of timekeeping and remembering our past from a different angle—that of her Christian critique of contemporary finance-based capitalism, which she argues tries to malform us with its false and destructive models of time-keeping.  One of the worst ways that the past enslaves us in contemporary capitalism is through debt, which limits our future horizons and binds us in the present. 

            Instead, Tanner wants humanity to live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, understanding that “one has all one needs now to meet the present challenge,” whatever that challenge is.  She encourages that “there is no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future” because “no failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy” of God’s saving grace. 

            Tanner’s thoughts resonate with those of the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, the most philosophical of biblical writers.  Ecclesiastes teaches that we have all we need.  That God desires of us not toil but living in harmony—to eat, drink, and find fulfilment in what we do.  Ecclesiastes encourages us not to dwell upon the past or worry about the future.  What has been, has been, and what will be, will be.  We should enjoy the life that God has given to us.

            The best book I’ve read recently about the spiritual practice of time-keeping is James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now.  We’ll be using Smith’s book to prompt our Wednesday night family night discussions this month.

            Smith reminds us that we are temporal beings, and to be temporal, he writes, “is to be indebted to a past and oriented toward a future.”  But how to inhabit this well, truthfully, faithfully? 

            We are shaped by our pasts, our history, and the larger histories we are embedded in.  Right now in the United States, how we remember our history and tell our stories has gotten caught up in the culture wars and partisan political battles.  Reminding us how significant the past itself is in shaping our identity, our sense of what is possible now, and our visions for the future. 

            On this point, Smith writes, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”

            Which resonates with Miroslav Volf’s contention that we shouldn’t only remember truthfully, but also rightly, faithfully, lovingly.  Some memories are best forgotten.

            James K. A. Smith describes “four fundamental convictions” of “the art of spiritual timekeeping.”  The first is that we are finite, temporal creatures.  He writes, “For every creature, to be is to become; to exist is to change; to have and to hold is to lose and to mourn; to awake is to hope.”

            I know we often struggle with this reality.  That we must live with constant change, learning how to let go, to grieve, to move nimbly into the future.  At the conference I attended in Florida this week, one of my colleagues reminded us that Darwin taught that adaptability is the most important asset in the evolutionary struggle.  In our personal and our collective lives we must hone our adaptative skills, responding to constant change with flexibility and grace.

            Smith’s second conviction of the art of spiritual time-keeping is our belief that time is shaped by covenant.  Our time is shaped by the promises God has made to God’s people.  The history of God with God’s people matters in forming who we are.  We must live faithfully those promises through the reality of constant change.

            The third conviction is somewhat in tension with the second.  It is our belief that God’s Spirit is still guiding us and speaking to us, leading us into new directions.  I like this sentence of Smith’s—“Listening to the Spirit is not an archaeological dig for some original deposit but rather an attunement to a God with us, still speaking, still surprising, still revealing.” 

            Hopefully you’ve been reading my columns in the church newsletter about the State of the Church in 2024, where I’m writing about the era of deep change we are living in, and what those changes mean for Christianity writ large and for us as one congregation adapting and responding faithfully.  Our task is to discern where the Spirit is leading us in our time, and our time is one of radical and deep change.

            Smith’s fourth and final fundamental conviction about the art of spiritual timekeeping is that we Christians are “animated by the future.”  Hope is central to who we are. 

            Central to my own spirituality, and my preaching, has been the teaching of the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann that we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  The life of hope is one in which we live into the resurrection promise that at every moment there is an indefinite set of possible futures, that no matter how our past shapes us, there is no set, inevitable future.  We can begin anew every moment of our lives. 

            I like the way Smith then describes our spiritual discernment.  He writes, “Keeping time with the Spirit is less a regimental march and more like a subtle dance, a responsive feel for what comes next.”

            So, our remembering is situated as a spiritual practice within this deeper spiritual practice of timekeeping.  To remember rightly, faithfully, truthfully, and lovingly is part of our rich spiritual life of dancing with God’s Spirit in attunement and discernment, embracing the fulsomeness of God’s grace, and practicing resurrection hope.

            Let’s return now to Miroslav Volf and what conclusions he came to about remembering rightly.  He writes:

To return to my own experience in the Yugoslavian army, I can view myself primarily as a person who was terrorized by powerful people against whom I was helpless and whose intentions I could not discern.  Or I can see myself primarily as a person who, after some suffering, has been delivered by God and given a new life . . . .  I can be angry about suffering.  I can be thankful for deliverance.  I can be both.  I can also let that year of suffering recede somewhere into a distant background and stretch myself toward the future.

A future which, for him, included his work at Yale and the lives of his two sons.

            What Volf came to realize is that “we are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us.” 

Yes, our self-image is largely made up of what we remember about ourselves.  And, of course, what we remember about ourselves isn’t always exactly what happened.  I loved, for example, when the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote early in his memoir that the stories he was telling about his childhood were the stories he remembered, and he was making no claim as to whether they actually occurred that way or not.  For it was how he remembered them that had shaped him, whether or not they actually occurred that way.

            Volf contends that a healthy person is not inevitably shaped by their memories of the past.  A healthy person is able to freely respond to memories and, therefore, shape how they form the sense of self.  He writes, “A person with a healthy sense of identity living in freedom and security will let the future draw her out of the past and the present and will play with new possibilities and embark on new paths.” 

            That should be our goal.  A rich, healthy, flourishing human life, playing with new possibilities.

            Memory, then, is a component of our well-being.  And Volf contends that there are four distinct ways that memory contributes to well-being.

            First is that remembering rightly plays a role in personal healing.  All of the literature on trauma, for instance, teaches us that the trauma must be interpreted and integrated in ways that cease to dominate our psyches but instead become part of a larger sense of self and meaning.  If you’ve read The Body Keeps the Score, or any other of the bestsellers in this vein, then you know how this works.

            The second way that remembering rightly contributes to well-being is through acknowledging our past.  This is particularly relevant to memories of wrong-doing and injustice.  And not just our personal remembering, but social remembering.  Such remembering of past wrongs was part of what Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel emphasized throughout his life’s work.

            Acknowledging then leads to solidarity, as community forms among those who remember rightly.  And finally, the fourth way remembering rightly leads to well-being, is that a people who remember rightly should then protect past victims from future harm.  Again, this is part of Elie Wiesel’s teaching.  I’d encourage you to read or listen to his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  In that speech he declares,

What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

            Remembering, then, is part of our well-being.  But not ours only.  The well-being of our families and society.  How we remember shapes our vision of justice, our hopes for the future, the values of the communities we form, and our spiritual vitality.

            We must learn to remember well as part of the broader spiritual practice of time-keeping.  Entering into that subtle dance with the Holy Spirit as she guides us through the present and into the vast open possibilities of the future.  That way we can live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, the fullness of time, and the feeling of being fully alive.

            To remember rightly, then, frees us to live as God intended, as the author of Ecclesiastes teaches us: 

What I do know is that what is best for us is to be happy and enjoy life as long as we live.  And God’s gift to us is to eat and drink and find fulfillment in our work.


God Speaks in the Darkness

God Speaks in Darkness

1 Samuel 3:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 December 2023

               This Advent, we have been exploring God’s Holy Darkness.  Partly as a corrective to how often we limit our spirituality and worship to images of light.  And one reason we have been motivated to explore this theme is because of our commitment to be an anti-racist congregation.  Light supremacy in spirituality is dangerously connected to white supremacy.

               The theme of Holy Darkness has also drawn us into exploring several Biblical stories that occur in the dark—there are so many once you start paying attention to it.  And we’ve drawn from the rich well of the church’s mystical tradition, which has long emphasized the spiritual importance of darkness.

               This week I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  She writes that one of the reasons she left ministry when she did was the over-emphasis on light.  What she calls “full solar spirituality.”  She says “You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer.  Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”  And then she follows that up, “If you have ever belonged to such a community, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life.”  Because such full solar congregations are not equipped for dealing well with the realities of life.

               Instead, she encourages a “lunar spirituality” with all of its doubts, questions, ambiguities, and uncertainties.  Such a spirituality is far healthier.  Rather than avoiding “the primal energy of dark emotions” by cutting themselves off from the world, congregations with a lunar spirituality, like Jacob of old, are willing to wrestle angels in the dark.  A lunar spirituality recognizes that what we call the dark emotions are “conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act.”

               Darkness is so often the place where God speaks to us something we need to hear. 

               Taylor writes,

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.

The Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg declares that “The night is indeed the time of redemption.”  There is a freedom and uncanniness to the night.  What happens in the night cannot be fully assimilated in the daylight. 

               How often God does speak in the darkness.

               From the Spirit hovering at the Creation calling the world into being.  Or Moses receiving the commandments in the clouds surrounding Mt. Sinai.  This story of the child Samuel, awakened to the mission that God had for his life.  Or the choirs of angels, appearing to sing their glorias to the startled shepherds below.  In so many of these vital stories, God speaks in the darkness.

               And God speaking, Eugene Peterson reminds us, is the fundamental conviction of our faith.  From Genesis to Revelation God keeps speaking.  Peterson writes:

God speaks—in creation and invitation, in judgement and salvation, in healing and guidance, in oracle and admonition, in rebuke and comfort.  The conspicuous feature in all of this speaking is that God speaks in personal address.  God does not speak grand general truths, huge billboard declarations of truth and morals; the Lord’s speaking is to persons, named persons.

               Like the child Samuel. 

               So we must beware of full solar spirituality for it might be closing us off from the word that God has just for us, in the darkness.

               We believe that God is still speaking.  Which means that in our darkness—whether literal, metaphorical, emotional, or existential—God comes to us and speaks to us a word that we need to hear. 

               May we listen.  Like the child Samuel learned to listen.

               As Barbara Brown Taylor beckons us, “Come outside now, it’s getting dark.”


God Dwells in Darkness

God Dwells in Darkness

Genesis 32:24-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 December 2023

               Last year I was fortunate to finally make a trip to the Boundary Waters.  That region along the Minnesota/Canada border where there’s no infrastructure, rarely a cell phone signal, about as pure a wilderness as one can experience near us. 

               My friend Robyn and I canoed, portaging along trails between bodies of water, setting up a campsite.  We packed in all of the food and supplies we needed for the weekend.

               We had fun, wonderful adventures on that trip—shooting rapids, swimming across the international border, seeing wildlife.  But what we both enjoyed and remember the most is the peace and tranquility, the chance to truly rest and restore.  One reason we traveled well together is that we are able to be silent with each other, not feeling the need to fill all the empty time and space with chatter.  We’d sit quietly every morning drinking our coffee, reading our books, and watching the fog lift off of the cove. 

               And one of the highlights of the trip was the darkness.  When night fell there was no artificial light, expect for the flashlights and lanterns we used.  The campfire, the moon, and the stars were the only real lights.  In the darkness we couldn’t see much around us, but the heavens opened up in all their glory, able to see the stars in a way we rarely get to anymore.

               I remembered being at a youth retreat twenty years ago with some of my teens from my church in Dallas.  We were at a retreat center in southeastern Oklahoma, and one night I was walking along talking with a couple of kids, only to realize that one of them wasn’t beside me anymore.  I turned and saw that he had stopped walking and was staring up at the sky.  For it was a clear night and the Milky Way was glorious.  I walked back to him, and he said, “Sorry, I happened to look up and had to stop.  I’ve never seen this before.”

               The deep darkness of night time, especially in the wilderness, presents risks, uncertainties, and dangers.  But, like all rich and multi-faceted experiences and symbols, that darkness is also full of rewards—beauty, stillness and silence, the chance for rest and restoration.

               One of my former congregants in Oklahoma City often shared about how much she enjoyed all of the “light Sundays”—Epiphany, Transfiguration, etc.  And our tradition is rich with metaphors of light, connecting us to spirituality, insight, and the divine.  I think of the line from the hymn “Immortal, Invisible” in which we sing “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”  The idea that God resides in light so bright it is blinding.

               But there is also a tradition that finds divinity in the darkness.  When King Solomon finished dedicating the temple in Jerusalem, the presence of God descends upon the building as a thick cloud, and so Solomon proclaims, “God dwells in darkness.”  And we are reminded of how often sanctuaries and sacred spaces can be more dark than light, with stained glass that filters and alters the light, all conveying a sense of mystery and awe.

               This familiar story from Genesis is another of those moments where the divine appears in the dark.  Jacob’s mysterious nighttime visitor, his wrestling with the holy, the wounding of the experience—have all animated the human imagination for centuries.  As we’ve pondered the meaning of this story and how this night-time wrestling match is an experience of seeing the face of God.

               This theme of Holy Darkness continues in the history of the church.  The Greek theologian Pseudo-Dionysius described God as “luminous darkness,” and talked of the depths of God that exceed our finite human abilities to understand. 

The Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart described God as the grunt, the ground, the dark soil in which we planted.  The grunt is “pure possibility,” and Eckhart teaches us to “Go into your own ground and there act, and the works that you do there will be living.”

The 20th century Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “The roots of a person’s being are submerged in the bottomless ocean of divine life and get their nourishment from this life.”

               And the 21st century feminist theologian Catherine Keller encourages us that in “embracing the depths of life, in which are mingled the depths of divinity itself, we participate in an open-ended creativity.”

               Divine darkness is, in our biblical and spiritual tradition, the source of mystery, awe, wonder, possibility, creativity, nourishment, holiness.

               Maybe the greatest Christian writing about his Holy Darkness is by the sixteenth century Spaniard San Juan de la Cruz, known in English as St. John of the Cross.  For he wrote the great classic Dark Night of the Soul, an image and idea that itself has been used repeatedly by so many. 

               For San Juan, the dark night of the soul is the path to mystical union with God.  He first uses beautiful poetic language to describe this ecstatic experience:

One dark night,

Fired with love’s urgent longings

--ah, the sheer grace!—

I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
Lover transformed in the beloved.

               In the rest of his book, though, there is less ecstasy and more agony.  For San Juan, the dark night is a spiritual experience wherein the soul is stripped of its desires and affections in a period of quietness.  For the individual experiencing this it can be felt as wasted time or more acutely as darkness.  A period of emptying and relinquishing can be felt as purging and annihilation.  One can find it difficult to focus, even to do simple things like pray.  He writes that the darkness can be “profound and horrible and most painful, for this darkness, being felt in the deepest substance of the spirit, seems to be substantial darkness.”

But for John, this is precisely the moment when God is most present with us.  Emptying ourselves of what normally captures our attention gives God a chance to fill that space.  It is through this experience that we can attain “the state of union with God” and “live that new and blessed life.”

               The contemporary theologian Wendy Farley helps us understand San Juan’s teaching.  She writes that the Dark Night of the Soul has two stages of darkness.  In the first we are released from our normal attachments, and in the second we are cleansed of egocentrism.  These experiences can be troubling and confusing, leaving us unsure what to do.  And often the things that we normally do to bring peace and joy don’t work.  She writes, “The healing itself is painful, and healing can require remedies that are, in the moment, suffering.” 

               San Juan and Wendy Farley seem to be describing the divine encounter in the darkness as being something like what Jacob experienced—a moment of wrestling, that leaves us wounded but transformed.  It is rather common for interpreters of Jacob’s story to point out that Jacob isn’t only wrestling with the mysterious divine being, but wrestling with a manifestation of all his past troubles, even wrestling with a manifestation of his very self. 

               Wrestling with the depths of our selves, our own shadow sides, is essential in emotional and spiritual health and well-being.  Often something we do as part of therapy, psychoanalysis, or spiritual direction. 

These teachings on the Dark Night of the Soul have also been helpful for centuries to Christians in moments of despair and struggle.  For this tradition teaches that even when we feel our spirituality to be lacking and God to be absent, that isn’t the case.  Even in those moments, God is present with us.  And how helpful to learn that even these experiences can be the path of spiritual growth and ultimate union with God.

               But finding God in the darkness isn’t only about wrestling and struggle and purgation and suffering.  There are also the experiences of beauty, awe, and wonder that come about in moments of stillness, rest, and quiet.

               Even San Juan writes about the dark night as a chance “to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness” which gives an opportunity for “peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God.”  Wendy Farley writes that “darkness is a time for supreme gentleness” and encourages us “to do nothing, to relax, to be still and stop making so many demands on ourselves.”

               In this vein, of holy darkness as a chance for rest, we find some wisdom in other traditions.  For example, Karen Armstrong writes about the Daoist thinker Laozi and his teaching of “the rich darkness” where we return to the One.  According to Laozi, “Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.”   Armstrong adds:

The (stillness) that the myriad things enjoy is, therefore, a return to their original source.  It can be compared with the seasonal cycle of a plant that grows exuberantly in the spring, forming flowers or fruit, but in winter sends in energy down into its roots . . . it is a stillness infused with the vitality of the Dao which will spring to life again.

As such, it is a stillness full of creative energy.

               One of the good books I read this last year was Rest is Resistance by the African-American artist, poet, theologian, and community organizer Tricia Hersey.  She writes that we are too busy, working too hard, always on the go.  And we are this way because of the injustices of the capitalist system have made us this way.  Yet, when we are so busy we are exhausted and can’t dream, can’t flourish in our humanity.  We “lack clarity and the ability to see deeply.”  She adds, “Your intuition and imagination are stifled by a culture of overworking and disconnection.”

               And so she teaches that rest itself is essential for our humanity, rest becomes an act of resistance, pushing against the injustices of our current systems. 

               Once we rest, then we can dream, engage our imaginations, become more creative.  She teaches, “We connect with the deepest parts of ourselves when we are rested.”  Which, to me, resonates with this tradition of Holy Darkness as going into the ground, or sinking into the vast divine ocean, to connect our roots with God and experience unlimited possibility.

               Hersey declares, “You were not just born to center your entire existence on work and labor.  You were born to heal, to grow, to be of service to yourself and community, to practice, to experiment, to create, to have space, to dream, and to connect.”

               And we live into that human potential when we have quiet moments of rest.

               I return to my experience in the Boundary Waters.  A chance to disconnect from much of modern life.  To get away from all the light, power, and energy that normally surrounds us.  To go into the wilderness, where there is quiet, serenity, and darkness.  And there to find beauty, rest, and restoration.

               King Solomon told us that “God dwells in darkness.”  And in that darkness we can experience so many different faces and aspects of the divine—wrestling purgation, presence, mystery, possibility, awe, beauty, rest.

               This Advent, as the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer.  As life slows down with the winter cold.  As you wait and prepare for the coming of Christ again at Christmas, enter into the darkness, there to encounter God, and be transformed.


TDOR Message

TDOR

Psalm 35

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First United Methodist Church

20 November 2023

               Thank you for the invitation to speak tonight.  This opportunity is both an honor and a privilege.  Over the years I’ve attended some of these services and always felt it important, as a cisgender gay man, to be present and to listen.  I did not feel it was my place to speak.

            TJ invited me to speak this year, and I accepted her invitation, and am honored.

            On this Transgender Day of Remembrance and Resilience, I want to frame my words with the 35th Psalm, which opens:

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!

Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!

Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”

Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me.

This psalm is what we in the business call an “imprecatory psalm.”  Imprecatory psalms are ones that implore God to deliver us from evil.  And these psalms do that by calling down curses upon our enemies.  Asking God to give them what they deserve.

One of the greatest features of the psalms is that they contain every single human emotion and a poem or song to fit it.  There are plenty of psalms for when we are happy and joyful and celebrating.  There are lament psalms for when we are sad and grieving.  There are psalms to sing and pray when we are offering forgiveness and reconciling with those who have hurt us.  But there are also Psalms to sing and pray when we are angry at the injustices of those who have opposed us and hurt us. 

Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on.

Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life.

Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.

Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in God’s deliverance.

I was a university student in Oklahoma back in 1995 when the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed.  The next day, as we gathered for our class on the Old Testament prophets, we all were overwhelmed with so many emotions.  My professor, Dr. Kevin Hall, used the occasion to teach us about imprecatory psalms.  These psalms are full of emotional and spiritual value.  We need to pray them when we are hurt and angry.  Expressing these emotions and thoughts is powerful and healing.  Our faith and spirituality are big enough to hold space for our hurt and anger.  God is listening.

All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me about things I do not know.

They repay me evil for good; my soul is forlorn.

But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom,

as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning.

But at my stumbling they gathered in glee, they gathered together against me; ruffians whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing;

they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth.

Sadly, the lesson that I learned that day after the Oklahoma City bombing, I’ve had plenty of occasions since to put into practice.  When violence has been visited upon the communities I’ve lived in and am a part of.  How many times have we gathered for vigils after a hate crime?  After a trans woman was beaten or killed?  After a drag queen was attacked?  After one of our clubs has been invaded and our siblings massacred?  Many years ago, after having attended and hosted so many, having sung We Shall Overcome and lit candles, I was just too drained.  I was tired of vigils and felt I had no more words to say.  And, yet, the evil doesn’t stop, and neither do we.  We must continue to remember and resist, for that is the source of our hope, the power of our deliverance.

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions!

Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.

Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye.

For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.

They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me!

Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord!

Last May I found myself reading and praying this psalm often.  It was on repeat in my consciousness.  Our state legislature had failed in its responsibilities to its citizens and enacted a cruel and inhumane law against trans children and adolescents. 

Just like the psalm says, lies were told about us.  We were mocked and ridiculed.  In public we were called horrible things and had too many times to sit there quietly and endure the insults because that’s the protocol.  Then our governor called us minions of Lucifer.

We demand to be rescued from these lies and deceptions.  We insist upon our vindication. 

Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me.

Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.”

Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor.

            After the vote last spring, I sent notes to the senators I had personally lobbied who ended up voting against us.  I used the notecards with our church printed on the cover, and then hand wrote inside them these words from this psalm, “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me.”   I forcefully underlined the word “shame.”  That felt really good.

            And we will be vindicated.  Because we know that truth and right are on our side. 

            We don’t know when or how, but we have faith that our deliverance will come.  We will be rescued.  Justice will be done.  We will receive the honor and respect that we deserve.  Violence and hate crimes will no longer be visited upon our trans heroes.  Trans kids and adolescents will receive the care they are entitled.  Care!  We have to fight so hard for other people to be caring.

            And the reason we know we will be vindicated is precisely because we won’t quit fighting.  Each and every day we will remember, and we will resist.  Together, organized, powerful, unstoppable, we will not quit until justice is done and right is restored.

            For God is with us, on our side, as the very power of hope that drives us. 

            And so this psalm closes:

Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of God’s servant.”

Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all day long.


Thanks

Thanks

Philippians 1:1-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 November 2023

In the summer of 2022, during my sabbatical, I set myself the task of reading about climate change resilience, particularly focused on what resources, skills, practices, and approaches we will need as a community of faith to navigate well through this crisis that is coming more and more to affect our daily lives and will be the major global challenge for most of us to face for the rest of our lives. 

Among the books I read was one entitled Words for a Dying World edited by Hannah Malcolm.  The subtitle is Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church.  Her contention is that a vital part of developing hope and resilience is to first face our grief over what we’ve lost and are losing.  She closes her introduction by inviting the reader to be softened, to grow more tender through caring.  She writes:

Adopting an orientation of grief means choosing to invest in things that are small, that are temporary, and celebrating them in the broken, fragile beauty they bear in the eyes of God.  It is soft, cruciform foolishness.

Which honestly doesn’t sound all that different than some of what Paul writes, identifying his own sufferings with those of Christ on the cross.

            One of the essays in Malcolm’s book is written by two South Africans, Peter Fox and Miles Giljam.  One is a Presbyterian minister and the other works in public affairs.  They write about how our listening to each other’s grief can turn us into witnesses:

As we listen, exposed to death and brokenness, we will feel anger, despair, frustration and rage.  If we face these hard emotions, letting them pass through us as a rupturing reality, we may become vulnerable witnesses, able to heal wounds and emerge into a new identity. 

They add that this process of being born into new life, will be painful.

            Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi is written somewhere near the end of his ministry, when he is imprisoned.  We aren’t sure if he wrote it from prison in Palestine or Rome or somewhere else (we know he was jailed many times).  He seems to be in a deeply reflective mood, remembering these folks and their faithfulness to him and the gospel.  The dominate mood of this letter is joyfulness—Paul rejoices in the Philippians, in his ministry, in the transformation wrought by the Gospel.  Yet, in the midst of his rejoicing, he also reflects on his own experiences of suffering, and how they have contributed to the advancement of the church, often doing the opposite of what was intended by those who have oppressed him.  In that, he feels a solidarity with and participation in the life and death of Jesus.  And for that he gives thanks.

            Christianity must be careful with how it handles the topic of suffering.  We know the abuses to which such discussions have often been put over the last two thousand years.  Particularly when the church has taught the poor, the enslaved, women, and children to accept their sufferings as part of their redemption.

            That was always bad theology and spiritual practices.  Fortunately, Christian theology has in the last seventy years come to terms with that toxic legacy and approached the topic differently.  Sadly, it was the shock of the Holocaust and the reaction to it which finally led the church to confront its sins in this regard.

            I like how the French radical philosopher Alain Badiou explains it.  Suffering can never be redemptive, for pain and death cannot be the operation of salvation, the yes to life that is the good news.

            I’ve mentioned before that the best class I took as an undergrad was “Evil and Suffering” with Professor Bob Clarke.  That class formed and transformed my thinking on so many issues.  And one of the blessings was that Wendy Farley’s book Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion was on the syllabus. 

            Farley identifies two types of suffering: meaningful and radical.  Radical suffering is identified as the kind from which meaning cannot be made.  It is affliction, in the worst, most painful, most soul-destroying way.  And is very often visited on people by unjust and abusive power.

            But she says that there is suffering from which meaning can be made, and that meaning is made through resistance, not endurance or acceptance.  And there are two types of resistance.  We resist suffering either by fighting it or refusing to let it dehumanize us.  The best response, if we can do it, is to fight, to organize, to work to alleviate it and prevent it from ever happening again to yourself or to others. 

            But sometimes, we cannot fight it, “no practical change can be anticipated.”  And so our resistance is manifested in refusing to lose our humanity.

            How do we do that?

            The queer biblical scholar Ted Jennings teaches us that Paul is repeatedly warning us that entering into the messianic life of the church means entering into distress.  Trying to create a new humanity, a new way of living, in the midst of violent and unjust empire will be difficult, risky, and dangerous, like we discussed last week.  Jennings says that the distress we experience is itself a sign pointing to the advent of the radically new.  Which is one reason Paul doesn’t let his imprisonment get him down.  He rejoices that even the jail time is a sign of God’s work, that even this is a witness to the world of the good news.

            And so Jennings encourages a mental toughness that will not be cowed, a resolute endurance, and undaunted determination, which is how he describes the virtue of hope.

            Which all sound like skill sets we need not only to face the climate crisis or war in the Middle East, but even the events of our own lives that try us—like unemployment, heartbreak, or cancer.

            The Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song has written powerfully about the relationship between hope and suffering.  He characterizes hope as the affirmation of life, which echoes the yes to life of Badiou.  In good Christian teaching we don’t find a justification or excuse or explanation for our suffering, instead we find solidarity, compassion, and encouragement.  We find that God is with us, present in our suffering, suffering alongside us.  We encounter God as the power that helps us to transform our suffering into hope.  Song writes that a primary mission of the church is to spread the good news that hope is possible.

            I’m moved by this statement of Song’s: “The courage to hope, which is given to us through Jesus Christ, is the dynamics that enables us to create our future out of our present sufferings.  The future does not come to us, but we must go to the future.”

            We must go to the future.  What an uplifting, exciting, adventurous, inspiring idea!  And we do that through cultivating these skills of resistance, and living with compassion, hope, gratitude, and joy.

            Sometimes the problems of the world, much less of our daily lives, seem so daunting that we likely to despair, rather than to hope or to rejoice.  But to succumb to that despair is to surrender our greatest strengths.  Instead, we should be like Paul, who even in the midst of prison finds reasons to rejoice and give thanks.

            Another book I read in the summer of 2022 was by the English theologian Timothy Gorringe and is entitled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World.  His book is precisely about what we must do in the mist of the climate crisis, and what tools Christian theology can bring to politics, economics, social services, and more.

            In one chapter he draws upon the work of Rob Hopkins, who is active in an English movement called Transition Town that works to create resilient communities.  Hopkins describes the work of climate resilience as “a creative, engaging, playful process” that helps us through our losses and inspires us to do new things.  Hopkins adds that he “hopes to sketch ‘a picture of the future so enticing people instinctively feel drawn towards it.’”

            I love this idea, that in the midst of crisis, instead of despair, we engage in creative, engaging, playful processes that inspire and encourage us.

            In his own context, that’s what Paul was doing.  Despite the difficulties, risks, and dangers that led to imprisonment and suffering, he focused on giving thanks and rejoicing, because he was part of God’s great mission to do something new, to create a new way of being human and living together.

            And in our own time that challenge remains, even while it faces fresh and different crises.  May we continue the work of Paul and our predecessors to be witnesses to the world that something better is possible— for "The future does not come to us, but we must go to the future.”


A Rhetoric of Desire

A Rhetoric of Desire

Acts 17:16-32

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 October 2023

               I’ve not yet made it to Athens.  So, I haven’t stood in the Areopagus where Paul delivered this sermon.  Where Socrates questioned his interlocutors.  Where the great philosophers and sages of Ancient Greece engaged in their discourses about all the great ideas.

            But a couple of weeks ago I was in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily.  As I sat on the ancient temple steps that are now part of the wall of the cathedral, I wondered if Paul or Plato or Aeschylus or Archimedes had sat there too, as all of them had lived in or traveled through that city.

            I delight in being in such places, with deep and rich ancient histories.  Such travel helps to make the stories and the ideas come alive.

            One of these days, hopefully, I’ll be in Athens and stand in the Areopagus and remember Paul’s sermon.

            The theologian Willie James Jennings writes of this story and sermon in Acts 17, “Here we witness a rhetoric of desire.”  What does he mean?

            For Jennings the desire being illustrated in this moment is actually God’s.  He writes, “God wants the Gentiles.  God desires those who desire idols. . . . This speech is driven by the irrepressible longing of God to embrace wayward creatures by every means possible.” 

            And because God desires these Gentiles, Paul also turns towards them.  He won’t turn away from these folks who believe differently from him and practice a very different faith.  Idol worship, of course, was anathema to a faithful Jew like Paul.  But rather then turn away in disgust, he turns towards these pagans and engages them, on their own terms, and in their own language, and with their own thoughts and ideas.  

            Jennings points out how radical this is.  He writes, “Luke performs a new human in these words given to Paul.” 

            I’ve been saying throughout this sermon series  that Paul believes Jesus has inaugurated a new age and with it a new humanity.  The network of new, small gatherings that will become the Christian churches are themselves experiments in new ways of living—a new family, a new society, a new culture, even a new politics and economics.  And the people drawn to these assemblies are becoming new people, new creatures, focused on the radical love of God, intent on breaking down every barrier and setting humanity free.  This is Paul’s witness to the world and the witness to the world that each of these churches is becoming.

            And, so, even here, Paul is modeling this new humanity that turns towards those different from him.

            God’s desire is for all of God’s children.  And the story identifies that those children also have a desire for God, even if they don’t fully understood it or have gone about it in misguided ways.  For both the worship of the idols and the philosophical discourse are evidence of human longing.

            But the idols are a problem—no matter how beautiful ancient Greek sculpture remains even to us 2500 years later.  Jennings writes, “The idol is a collective self-deception, a point of facilitation where human fantasy and wish, circulating around material realities, generate distorted hope.  The idol facilitates a hope of control of both my life and the life of the gods.”

            An idolatry of control is ultimately a culture of death, devoid of meaning, robbing us of our full humanity.

            But the God of Israel is offering something better.  Something good, true, and beautiful.  A life of freedom, joy, and love.  For a new age has dawned in the resurrection of Jesus.  And the fullness of God is given to everyone.  This is a new time of possibilities.

            In our own time one trend has been the increase in people, particularly younger people, identifying as or being attracted to nihilism.  You see it in popular culture—in the popularity of zombie stories, doomer memes, and the ubiquity of the image of staring into the abyss.

            In its harshest form, nihilism believes there is no meaning, no truth, no right, sometimes even no clarity on what is real.  What’s been on the rise in this century is usually softer forms and generally as a response to all of the bad things that have occurred in the last twenty years.  A 2021 study of 10,000 young people in ten countries found that 56% of them believe that humanity is doomed.  A whopping 75% said they view the future as frightening.  And “45 percent of 16-25-year-olds said climate-related anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives and ability to function normally.”  In another study, “one-fourth of 16-25-year-olds . . . feel they will ‘never recover’ emotionally” from the pandemic.

            An NPR show discussing the popularity of nihilism included this comment that helps us to understand: “At a certain moment, a culture discovers that its most esteemed values are for nothing. Nihilism is that moment where the rug’s pulled out from under you and nothing takes its place.”  Which is what the last two decades have felt like for many people.

            I was drawn to these paragraphs in an article on the website Huck about the popularity of nihilism:

In her book, The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy (2021), Wendy [Syfret] argues that nihilism can provide a balm for modern hyper-individualism and an obsession with finding meaning in everything, from our jobs to our skincare routine. The philosophy of ‘sunny nihilism’, she wrote, offers “a blank page; a chance to enjoy the moment, the present, the chaos and luck of being alive at all”. 

Wendy thinks that, rather than surrendering to nihilism, we should focus on Nietzche’s view that rules, laws, and morals are social constructs. “That can be a very liberating idea, because you can ask, well, why do we take capitalism to be the absolute truth?” Wendy says. “The reality is, the world is total chaos, and everything you think you know is a construct that someone created, and can be dismantled.” This has helped Wendy break out of productivity culture. “[Sunny nihilism] gives me a framework to pause and ask: do I actually want to be doing these things? Or am I just absorbing a narrative of success that’s ultimately treating me like a worker drone?”

Syfret argues that the collapse of institutions and systems that brought meaning actually opens up an opportunity for us to create something new.

            There is a sense in which the Christian good news agrees.  Institutions do fail us.  Attempts to exercise control bring harms.  Much of the way we live is a social construct that can and should change. The resurrection inaugurates a new time of possibilities.  Paul has turned towards the Athenians and is offering them a chance for something new.  God turns towards us and offers us the same.  So what do we desire? What does God desire for us?

            Paul viewed the Christian proclamation as offering a counter to the culture of death and negativity in his time.  For Paul the resurrection of Jesus is the source of a universal yes to life.  The radical French philosopher Alain Badiou states that this is centrally what Paul’s message is all about—a yes to life to counter nihilism’s no.  Paul wants to eradicate negativity with the grace of God.

            For grace is pure giving that affirms all that is good and opens up possibilities.  And this yes to life is made available to all of us because God’s Spirit has been shared with all of us.  We are invited into the fulsomeness of God.

            The Greek Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that the Holy Spirit is “fruition, love, rejoicing, delight, felicity, and beatitude.”  God has given all of that to all of God’s creatures, filling them with God’s own bounty.  Such that we can become “radiant mirrors of divine beauty.”

            God is the actuality on which all possibilities depend.  Hart says, “God shines forth in human longing.”  There’s desire again.  In our longing, God is present.  God graciously offers us the chance to become all that we are and can be and desire to be.  We can flourish and live in delight.  For, as Hart says, God is “the infinite treasure of delight glimpsed within every delight.”  Every joy, every excitement, every beautiful moment, every good and delightful thing is a glimpse of God. 

            Quite poetically, Hart writes, “One cannot contemplate a flower, watch a play, or pluck a strawberry from a [basket] without being situated within an [unbreakable] intentional continuum that extends all the way to God in [God’s] fullness.”

            In every moment of delight, we experience part of the fullness of God.  Which is why we can live with complete freedom and joy and generosity.  Hart writes that the law of love is “a kind of anarchic escape from all such rules.”  Instead we live directly in relationship to the fullness of God.

            Which is what gives us the freedom to turn towards those who are different from us, who don’t meet our expectations, even who disgust us.  Like Paul did to the Athenians.  Modelling a new humanity.  Because we are not trying to control one another, we can witness to the world by inviting and inspiring others to relax, to let it go, do not fear, but join us in the fullness of God.  We can let it be.

            The Church Father Maximus the Confessor described God as “delight and affection and joy” and said that what God is is what God desires for all of God’s creatures.  This winsome, gracious God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

            So what Paul offered the Athenians that day was a chance to break free from everything that had constrained them, especially a culture of death and control, and to live fully and graciously into the freedom and love of God, which calls them to a life of joy, delight, and affection.

            That is Paul’s witness to the world.

            And our invitation too. 

            Because of the fulsomeness of God’s grace, we can live with winsomeness and delight.  The best human life isn’t about meeting expectations, enforcing rules, criticizing others, being judgmental or negative.  It is about joy, affection, and delight.  Turning towards one another in love.  This is what God desires.

So, living as God intends us to live ought to be easy.  But, being human is so often hard.  Why?  I believe the difficulties are quite often a result of us humans getting in our own way, and getting in the way of others. 

Let’s think about those times when we mess up, when we aren’t saying yes to life.  Like when we erect barriers and divisions.  Maybe when we try to compel others to meet our expectations, or are critical and negative.  In those moments, we can give ourselves the grace of forgiving ourselves, because we understand that we are pushing hard against flawed social programming.  And a whole culture of control, negativity, nihilism, and death.

But while giving ourselves a break, we should also be clear that when we fail, we aren’t being our best, we aren’t living as God desires us to.  Because God desires a new humanity that lives fully into the joy, affection, and delight that is God.

And, so, we should make clear that our aim, the goal of our spiritual growth and maturation, is to say yes to life.  To fill ourselves with joy and freedom and love.   Let us live felicitously.  Let us live winsomely.  Let us live delightfully.  For that is God’s desire for us.


Abound in Love

Abound in Love

First Thessalonians 3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

15 October 2023

            Let me begin today with a quote from the contemporary philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah is currently the President of the American Academy of Letters.  He has written extensively about the ways in which we are shaped by our various identity categories and also about how we learn to live together despite those differences, as part of a cosmopolitan world.

            And it makes sense that these are among Appiah’s concerns.  He embodies the history of the modern age and the complex ways our identities interact.  Appiah is a married gay man living in New York, who became a United States citizen in 1997.  He grew up in Kumasi, Ghana and was educated in Britain, taking his degrees from Cambridge University.  On his father’s side he is descended from Osei Tutu, the pre-colonial emperor of Ghana.  Ghanaian royalty on one side, and British statesmen on the other.  His mother’s father was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  His great-grandfather was the leader of the Labor Party.  His mother’s side is also descended from John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts.

            So, like I said Appiah embodies in his very person the issues of identity and cosmopolitanism.  Here’s the quote:

Each person you know about and can affect is someone to whom you have responsibilities: to say this is just to affirm the very idea of morality.  The challenge, then, is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

            Appiah argues that identity categories are important ways we interact with the world, helping us to find belonging and meaning.  We can’t simply do away with them and find some homogeneous, universal humanity.  Which would also be boring, even if we could. 

            Nor does he think we have complete freedom when it comes to identity.  Our identities make sense within communities, within social groups.  Their meaning shaped by the collective, not just by us.  

            He’s also aware of the ways that identities can become unhealthy and pull us apart into competing groups.  Which simply will not work in the 21st century world.  We all live too interconnected and integrated with one another.  One of the moral imperatives of our time is to foster cosmopolitanism—being citizens of the world. 

            So, the challenge is to find meaning and purpose in our identity groups, while also learning how to live in friendship and intimacy across all those categories in our pluralistic, multi-cultural age.

            Reading Appiah wrestling with and providing ethical advice for this very contemporary set of issues, I can’t also help but draw a connection to the apostle Paul in the first century, wrestling with the same sorts of topics.  As I’ve pointed out the last few weeks, Paul was trying to foster multi-cultural communities that overcame various barriers of ethnicity and culture in order to model a new and better way of being human, all as part of God’s global mission to rescue the world.

            Paul traveled through the cities of the Roman empire, setting up little gatherings of people.  Through preaching, prayer, and service, he would inspire Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freepersons, women and men, to join up in this new Jesus movement.  And these groups would start to assemble together.  They called themselves by the Greek word ecclesia, which was the same word used to describe the local government assemblies of the Roman Empire.  In this way, they were an alternative to the politics of the day. 

They also became alternative families to one another, as many converts would have been excluded by their families of origin.  These new Christian gatherings became places where people met their significant other, raised their children, and celebrated their life events.  They were forming a new, alternative social life.

            And Paul was nurturing all of that.  Through his preaching, prayer, and pastoral care.  We find evidence of his pastoring in the stories told, but especially in the letters he wrote back to the churches he had founded.  He sometimes wrote in anger, sometimes in joy, always in love, with the intention of directing and shaping these nascent assemblies.

            One of the more fascinating books on Paul is Our Mother Saint Paul by Beverly Roberts Gaventa.  She draws attention to how often Paul uses maternal imagery to highlight his role pastoring congregations.  He uses images of birthing pangs and giving birth, of nursing an infant, of motherly nurture and care. 

            Gaventa also notices that Paul’s use of these metaphors often seems to confuse us for a moment, in order to draw our imaginations in new directions.

           

            Here, in First Thessalonians, we get an example of Paul’s leadership and care for this congregation, including his deep and abiding affection for them.

            First Thessalonians is probably the first of Paul’s letters to churches that we have passed down to us in the New Testament.  I read one scholar who said that the moment this letter was read in public to the church the first time is the beginning of the New Testament. 

            The scholar Victor Paul Furnish writes in his commentary that the letter “reflects the apostle’s eagerness to affirm and deepen the bonds of friendship.”  In doing so, Paul expands their hope, encourages their faith, and calls for them to let love inform everything that they do.  The love that they have for one another should overflow in ministry to others.  In this way, they form harmonious community, and bear witness to the world of this new way of being human shaped by Jesus and the Spirit.  Now is the time for abounding in love, in order to carry out the work God has given to the congregation.

            This love they are to abound isn’t just warm feelings of regard, however.  N. T. Wright, the Bible scholar and Anglican bishop, writes:


he doesn’t mean that he hopes that, as they already have warm fuzzy feelings about one another, those feelings will become yet warmer and fuzzier.  He means that as they are already exploring practical ways of supporting one another as though they were part of a single family or business . . . they should work out in practical terms how to do so more and more.

            What will bear witness to the world isn’t their warm regard, but their effective measures for supporting and caring for each other.

            And as you read Paul’s letters, you discover how often he gets very practical, as these congregations struggle with financial concerns, outside challenges, the burdens of effectively caring for each other, finding qualified leaders, what they should and shouldn’t do in worship, and more.  It becomes very apparent that most of the challenges the church faces now have their antecedents in the early church too.

            And all of this was in service to the mission to create a worldwide network of congregations who abolished ethnic divisions and found unity despite their differences.  Which also remains our challenge in the 21st century.

            Paul is nurturing these small, local congregations because he believes they have significant, global, even cosmic work to do on behalf of God’s mission.  And that’s why we keep at it too.  Here in the third decade of this century, congregations are facing all sorts of issues.  From very practical ones like the rising costs of goods and services or the shortage of clergy confronting most denominations.  And there are the big issues our entire culture is facing that also impact the church, such as climate change, natural disasters, polarized politics, changing gender norms, reckoning with our racial past, and more.  Plus, more and more people are electing not to attend or participate in churches.  Some because they’ve lost or changed beliefs, but many because they let go of the habit, a trend hastened by the pandemic lockdowns.  We live in an age of growing secularization, but also growing non-participation in various social groups, not just churches.  The lack of involvement has played a role, along with other factors, in the growing epidemic of loneliness and the rise in mental health needs.  All concerns the church must deal with as well.

            But we keep at it because we believe even our congregation has significant work to do on behalf of God’s mission.

            At the close of his book on Paul, N. T. Wright declares, “I believe that part of the task of the church in our own day is to pioneer a way through postmodernity and out the other side . . . into a new world, a new culture . . . [and] Paul has a vital role to play in that task.”

            Wright then enumerates three aspects of how the church can lead in the 21st century.  First, is “the reconstruction of the self.”  He writes that the proud, self-reliant self of modernity has given way to a “mass of floating signifiers.”  All those competing and intersecting identity categories.  All that push from globalism to rise above them at the same time.  All of which is also connected to the epidemic of loneliness and deaths of despair. 

            Wright argues that Paul, and the church, have a path forward.  He writes, “there is a way through, not to a reconstruction of an arrogant modernist Self, but to a new way of being human, a way that is rooted, through baptism, in the Messiah, or more particularly in the love of the one God revealed in him.”  Wright summarizes the point as “I am loved, therefore I am.”

            And this Christian love remains central to the other two aspects Wright enumerates of ways the church can lead humanity in the 21st century.  The second affects the way we know things.  The Enlightenment imagined one, universal, objective truth available to all, and postmodernity revealed that to be a fiction.  What we’ve been left with is alternative facts and post-truth, where knowledge becomes a power-play.  Instead, Wright says, “the basic Christian mode of knowing is love.”  He continues, “In love, the person who is loving is simultaneously affirming the Otherness of that which is loved and their own deep involvement wit that Other.”  By giving of our attention, in a way that respects and acknowledges the dignity and integrity of the other.  Or as my favorite poet Wendell Berry says, “It all turns on affection.”

            Finally, the church has a great story.  A good story.  An inspiring, encouraging story.  And it’s not a story about power but is a story about love.  The greatest love is revealed in the sacrifice of Christ, that disrupts the power-plays of the empire.  Every attempt to construct a world order contrary to love stands exposed as weak and wrong in the shadow of the cross and the dawn of Easter. 

            These are only quick hints at the larger, significant task of the church, that Paul was nurturing in his own day, and that we are called to in ours.  More can be said about each of these.  And, I think in this congregation, is being said multiple times every week in our programs and ministries and worship.  As we engage the big questions and concerns and seek helpful, practical tools for living well and flourishing.

            Paul invites us to abound in love for one another so that the entire world might see that there is a new and better way of being human.  His task as an apostle is to create the communities that will do that.  His work as a pastor is to nurture them towards those ends. 

  1. T. Wright closes his book on Paul by saying that Paul invites and encourages us “to stand as ourselves new creatures, called, justified and glorified, from which we go to the dangerous and exhilarating task of being, knowing, and telling.” For the world needs what we nurture.  Let us take courage, and abound in love.

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.