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Emotional Overload

Emotional Overload

John 21:1-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 May 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, emotional overload seemed fitting for Mental Health Awareness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can change the script I write and positively shine!

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

Laugh a lot.  Smile a log.

Eat your veggies and fruit a lot.

Work and play well today.

And say nice things a lot.

Read a lot.  Rest a lot.

Wash your hands a face a lot.

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

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

Decency, fairness, honesty, respect.

Discipline, justice, courage, and respect.

Integrity, compassion, morality, respect.

Humility, kindness,

And did I say respect?

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

We all have sorrow.  We all have pain.

Sometimes our sunshine turns into rain.

When someone falls right next to you,

Then you must do what you can do.

Do the good you know.  Let compassion show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are amazing.
You are beautiful.

You are complex (in a good way).

You are a beloved human being.

Your brain is different and good.

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

You are here for a reason.

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

Your life is important.

Getting better takes time.

Be patient and gentle with yourself.

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

It’s ok to be different.

It’s ok not to be ok for a while.

Your life matters to me.

Try your best.



Doubting & Believing

Doubting & Believing

John 20:24-31

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 May 2023

               Normally this story is preached the Sunday after Easter, as that is when it appears in the Revised Common Lectionary—the list of weekly Bible readings that most Mainline Protestant denominations utilize for worship.  It’s a fitting location, as one Sunday we celebrate the resurrection and the next Sunday we are already raising questions and doubts about it.

               This particular year we decided to spread out the resurrection stories in the Gospel of John, giving them closer, more focused attention.  So, here we are on the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide finally getting to this passage.  Throughout this season I’ve focused on the various ways the Risen Jesus is experienced by the various disciples and the effects that his appearances have upon them—Peter and the Beloved Disciple running to see the empty tomb, Mary weeping in the garden, those gathered afraid in the upper room who are then empowered to go forth, and now Thomas, the doubter. 

Thomas is known for doubting, even though Thomas never says that.  He never says he’s skeptical or doubting, he just says he needs empirical proof if he’s going to believe.

And the cool thing is, he gets it.  Jesus does appear, just for Thomas.  And many commentaries focus on this aspect of the story.  Jesus meets us where we are.  Jesus enters into our fear, our questions, our needs, even passes through locked doors, to come to us, to encounter us, to show God’s love and compassion for us.

The result of this appearance is that Thomas believes, and all the disciples believe, and then the author of the Gospel proclaims that all of this has been written so that we might believe.

So, what is being asked of us?  What does it mean to believe?

In my pastoral library is a book entitled The Predicament of Belief which actually tries to give an account of the resurrection that it believes will satisfy a contemporary, rational, scientific mind.  I don’t care for this book.  It just seems wrong-headed to me.  I pulled it down off my shelves again this week and perused it, trying to determine if there is anything useful in it.  I decided there wasn’t, and after a decade of it being in my library, unused, I decided it could be donated to the book sale.

Because I really don’t think the Gospel of John, or our faith, are trying to develop a rational, scientific account of the resurrection.

I much prefer Warren Carter’s commentary on this Gospel and how he describes belief.  Carter is a Professor of the New Testament at the St. Paul School of Theology, and he describes belief, as portrayed in the Gospel of John, this way:

Believing [is] the means whereby humans encounter God’s salvation.  It is the means of participating in God’s work of rescuing the world from its present way of life and transforming it to enact God’s life-giving purposes.

               In other words, belief is about entrusting ourselves, committing ourselves, choosing to join up and participate in something.

               Believing is one of the key themes of the Gospel of John.  The verb appears almost one hundred times in this Gospel.  John never actually uses the noun belief, Carter points out.  He thinks this usage is significant.  He writes, “believing is not static, not an inner possession, not a private disposition.”  What is it instead, then?

               Carter answers, believing “is an activity that constitutes and expresses an identity in an ongoing way of life, an active and continuing commitment.  It has the sense of living faithfully and loyally, of acting with fidelity.”  He adds later that it is an ongoing process, even an “experiential, relational encounter with God.”

               And as a relational, ongoing process, believing, according to Carter, includes “insight, adversity, and social interaction.”  Believing isn’t something we do once and are finished with.  It’s not even something we do alone.  Believing is about participating in the community of God’s mission.

               So, what results for those who believe is a commitment of their life to the realm of God and away from sin, death, and evil.  Believing is about an allegiance to Jesus and the life Jesus modeled.  It is claiming an identity as a disciple of Jesus and taking concrete actions to live out that way of life.  Believing brings with it insights into Jesus and his life-giving purposes, an understanding of ourselves as beloved children of God, and membership in a community of other believers.  SO much more than some rational acknowledgment of a set of propositions.

               And what is it that we are committing and entrusting ourselves to when we believe in Jesus?  According to Carter the answer is that other great theme of the Gospel of John—life.  We are committing ourselves to and entrusting ourselves to the life-giving, life-affirming, life-renewing mission of Jesus Christ.  Symbolized most powerfully in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

               So, we normally preach this story as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. But theologian Shelly Rambo is critical of this approach.  Instead, Rambo invites us to pay attention to something else in this story.  She invites us into a different reading that focuses instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus.  For isn’t it strange, interesting, even provocative that the risen body of Jesus bears the wounds of the crucifixion?  Wouldn’t we imagine that  a resurrected body is healed of all wounds?  That it is purified, even the ideal version, the “perfect” version?

               But it isn’t.  The body of the resurrected Jesus bears wounds that Jesus even invites Thomas to touch. 

               What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection?  Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch?  And why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?  Or preachers to preach much about it?

               Rambo, in her book Resurrecting Wounds, explores all of these questions and leads us on a fascinating journey through Christian tradition.  Her focus is on how we can continue living beyond trauma.  She invites us to grapple with the questions: When we are wounded, how do we rise again?  How do victims find healing and hope?  How do we bear our physical and emotional wounds into new life? 

               Rambo concludes that we must surface our wounds, we must pay attention to them, acknowledge them, be aware of them.  And then we have to engage with them, but in contexts that are safe and compassionate.  So we need to foster and develop communities where each of us can engage our wounds safely.  The idea, of course, is that the church should be such a community.

               And when we engage our wounds, what need is healing touch from that safe and compassionate community.  And it is through that healing touch that we can integrate our wounds into new life. 

               I believe Shelly Rambo’s reading of this story is an example of what it means to commit and entrust ourselves to the life-giving purposes of God.  The act of believing isn’t about knowledge, but about participating in life. 

And one of the most important ways we can participate in the life-giving purposes of God is to be a community in which people can safely engage with their wounds.  Where people can share their stories and expect compassionate listening instead of a critical or judgmental attitude or unhelpful advice.  Where we each acknowledge our woundedness and vulnerability and our need of each other’s care.  A people who openly explore and share what we need to live well.  And who are committed to developing and strengthening these skills and ridding ourselves of attitudes and actions that are unhelpful.  A place where we can receive a healing touch and rise again into a new life that integrates those wounds.

               I go back to what Warren Carter said believing is:

Believing [is] the means whereby humans encounter God’s salvation.  It is the means of participating in God’s work of rescuing the world from its present way of life and transforming it to enact God’s life-giving purposes.

               So, lets be God’s agents of rescue, a safe and compassionate, believing people, offering salvation to a wounded world.

Receive the Spirit

Receive the Spirit

John 20:19-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 April 2023

               Two weeks ago I was yet again at the State Capitol in Lincoln to protest yet another one of this year’s legislative attempts to rob people of their liberty of conscience and bodily autonomy.  The first speaker at our press conference was Rabbi Deana Berezin of Temple Israel.  She drew attention to the fact that that day was the last day of Passover and yet she was there at the state capitol instead of leading services at the synagogue.  Why?  Here’s what the rabbi said,

I stand here today in the midst of a holiday that celebrates the victory of freedom over slavery, and the liberation of a people who were under the yoke of oppression, because good people stood up to a Pharoah who held their futures captive and demanded something more.

And it was not just Moses. It was Miriam and it was Aaron. It was Batya and it was Yocheved. And it was every ordinary Israelite and many of their Egyptian friends and neighbors. It was all of them, together, an entire people demanding in one voice “Let My people go, [so]that they may worship [their God].”

I stand here today as did my ancestors before me – to demand religious liberty in the face of those who stand to hold it captive.

               In Warren Carter’s commentary on the Gospel of John he points out the importance of the Jewish Passover as the context for Jesus’ death and resurrection in the story John is telling.  Passover “celebrates a way of life free of . . . oppressive rule and structures,” Carter writes.  And so the author of the Gospel of John wants us to draw parallels to the story he is telling about Jesus and his disciples.

               Carter proclaims, “Jesus’ revelation of God’s life-giving purposes is necessary because the world is contrary to God’s purposes but does not seem to know it.”

               This Easter Season we are taking our time with the stories the Gospel of John tells us about the resurrection of Jesus and the disciples’ reactions to it.  We’ve already focused on Peter and John running to the tomb and Mary weeping in the garden.  Today we get the story of Jesus’ first appearance to a group of his followers, who are gathered in a room together, afraid.

               And their fear is legitimate.  They’ve seen armed guards arrest Jesus.  They either watched or heard about his beating, being paraded through the streets, the crucifixion.  They must be worried that the authorities are looking for them too, especially if they are too public.

               And now they’ve heard confusing stories about the empty tomb and must be wondering what this means.  And they’ve most likely heard from Mary and probably aren’t sure they understand what she’s told them. 

               So, they are confused, anxious, uncertain, and afraid.

               And, suddenly, here is Jesus, standing in their midst.  Clearly not a corpse, but wounded none the less.  A traumatized but resurrected body and he tells them “peace be with you.”

               Throughout these gospels it’s pretty common that the disciples don’t understand what’s happening.  They often don’t grasp the full meaning or intentions of Jesus.  And here again they are having an experience that transcends their comprehension.

               But what makes them disciples is not full understanding, but following.  Trusting Jesus even when they don’t understand.  Carter writes, “Disciples bear witness to and confess Jesus’ identity as God’s agent.”  That’s the core thing.  In Jesus they’ve experienced God at work.  They don’t fully understand what and how, but this they trust and so they are going to follow, to stake their lives upon it.

               And once they realize this truly is Jesus and he isn’t dead, they rejoice.

               But that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus again says, “Peace be with you.”  But then he adds something.  In essence he’s telling them that the story isn’t finished.  Indeed, it’s only beginning.  For Jesus says, “As the Heavenly Parent has sent me, so I send you.”  And he breathes upon them.

               They aren’t just followers anymore, not they are sent.  They shift from being disciples to also being apostles.  They are given a mission from God to go forth into the scary world and carry on Jesus’ work.  As Cameron Murchison writes in his commentary on the passage, “It becomes evident that the peace Jesus announces is not one that can allow the disciples to remain behind locked doors.”  Now they’ve got to overcome their fear and get out and do the work.

               And what is that work?  Jesus tells them they are forgive sins.  Murchison interprets this as follows, “The commission to contend with sin as it afflicts and affects the world.”  That’s their mission—to contend with all the ways that sin afflicts the world by living as agents of God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

               You see, that’s what Jesus has already done in his death and resurrection.  The powers that be have killed him, violently and horribly, hoping that that would be the end of the Jesus movement.  But it isn’t the end.  He rose again.  Revealing that the powers of death do not have the final word.  There is new life.  Life is greater than death.  Life, truth, beauty, goodness, love, freedom—these are the great powers of the universe.  Jesus has revealed all the ways that powers-that-be are opposed to the life-giving purposes of God.

               And, so, he sends forth these once frightened disciples to carry on the work of challenging sin and evil and bringing about redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

               How are these frightened people who don’t understand all of this supposed to do that? 

               Well, Jesus has breathed upon them.  He’s given them the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will bring them the power and the courage that they need to carry out the work.

               Just as the Passover context of this story hearkens back to the story in the Book of Exodus of the freedom of slaves from Egypt and the formation of a new people, this story also hearkens back even further to the story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. 

               In Genesis chapter 2, God breathes upon the human bodies God has formed, breathing into them the spirit, the life-force.  And here Jesus breathes upon the frightened disciples again, breathing into them the spirit, the life-force.  Here is a sign that this story is a new creation story.  Cameron Murchison states that Jesus is “recreating” the disciples.  From frightened followers to powerful apostles.

               Seeing this connection to the Genesis story, I looked at my favorite Jewish commentator on Genesis, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, and she writes that even at the Creation “To make the world is the charge that God left [humanity].”  God left the world “open-ended, open to the doing, the making of [humanity].”  What continues the creation of the world is humankind facing the challenges before us and rising to the occasion to create new and good things.

               And it is that same task that falls to the disciples in this resurrection appearance of Jesus.  They are part of a new creation, a recreation, as God empowers a new generation of God’s people with the task of continuing the creation of the world, of making the world, of healing and repairing the world.  Of confronting all the ways that sin afflicts the world, of challenging the forces of death with the life-giving work of Jesus.

               Warren Carter summarizes:

The good news according to John is that Jesus is the definitive revealer of God’s life-giving purposes and that his mission continues in and through the alternative community, the church, an antisociety that is sustained by the Spirit in a hostile world until God’s purposes are established in full.

               So we too are followers of Jesus who don’t always understand what’s happening, who are sometimes uncertain, confused, and afraid. 

               And Jesus comes to us and says “Peace be upon you.”  Do not fear.  And don’t stay here behind the safety and security of these closed doors.  It’s time to venture forth.

               You must be go out into a hurting and needy world, where the forces of sin and death are afflicting pain and destruction, and you’ve got to challenge them with the powers of love and forgiveness, freedom and redemption, and new life. 

               And, don’t worry, Jesus says, the Spirit that created the universe is going to fill you with courage and power and hope and joy.

               And don’t worry, because life has already defeated death.  You’ve already won, no matter what happens.


            We have a bunch of kids in this congregation who love to run.  And here, on the most sacred day of the year, we’ve got a story about running.  Mary running.  Peter and the other disciple racing.  The action moves with speed.

            This story and the others that follow it in the Gospel of John have a cinematic quality, they are like watching a movie of the reactions and responses of the various followers of Jesus to the news of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.

            But we don’t just watch the action—we can feel it.  There’s a physical immediacy and urgency to the stories, starting here with running disciples.  Later we’ll have Mary’s weeping and Thomas’s touching and Peter walking on the sand and John eating beside the fire.

            These stories are vivid and powerful and intimate.  They are stories that reveal the deep relationships Jesus had with his friends and those he loved.  Ted Jennings, one of Katie’s seminary profs and who spoke and preached here a few years ago, describes these stories as depicting love through “physical closeness and bodily intimacy.”

            He elaborates, “This love is expressed in intimate fellowship, mutual service, friendship, shared understanding, a common fate, and destiny, which together characterize Jesus’ relationships to all these disciples.”

            And it is this intimacy that draws us in.

            Eugene Peterson, the New Testament scholar, points out that these stories describe action that even a five year old can comprehend.  These stories aren’t alien, abstract, intellectual—they are exciting and vivid and resonate.

            Peterson, too, indicates that intimacy is a key aspect of the stories.  He writes, “Jesus by means of John’s story, invites us into his life, God’s life, in terms and in circumstances that are immediately accessible.”

            And, so, we get Mary running from the empty tomb, and Peter and the other disciple running back to see what’s up.  Running is something we understand.  Running in fear, running in worry, running in joy, running for exercise, running to play, running just because we can.

            The very best recess of my childhood was one afternoon in sixth grade.  I had been reading, for the first time, C. S. Lewis’s final novel in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.  I’d read the chapter “Farther Up, and Farther In.”  The characters in the story have survived the final battle and have watched the ending of the world, and now they are in Aslan’s world where they will experience the full abundance and fecundity of God’s goodness.  They start by traveling through this new landscape in sorrow and bewilderment until they begin to recognize what is around them, but seeing familiar places in new, richer ways, seeing a deeper and truer reality.  And so they become joyful and, then, they start running and running.  And those who couldn’t run before can run now and they run fast and they don’t get tired.  And they begin to call to one another, “farther up, and farther in” as they run to explore this new world and its goodness.

            And I read that chapter, and went out to recess, and I ran and ran and ran.  With abandon and enthusiasm and joy.   And I’d never quite realized until that moment that running could be a spiritual practice, a way to connect to God, through playfulness.  And I’m grateful to C. S. Lewis for revealing that to me, but his source was probably here in the Gospel of John, where on the most sacred and holy of days, we are met first with running.

            And it’s somewhat of a funny scene too, this race between Peter and the one whom Jesus loved.  It is traditional to identify the other disciple as John, the author of the story, though that’s only tradition and not actually in the Gospel itself.  In fact, some scholars think there’s a lot better evidence for it to be Andrew or some other follower of Jesus.  But the who isn’t too relevant to us today, and I’ll probably just say John on occasion just because that’s familiar and easy.

            Peter and John run to see what Mary saw first. 

            Ted Jennings points out why these two might have been hanging out together.  Peter had denied Jesus the night before and was full of shame and guilt and might have needed to unburden himself of his failures.  And the one whom Jesus loved had been there are the crucifixion, watching the horrible, violent death of the one he had loved.  Maybe he was seeking comfort too?  Were they consoling one another in their grief?

            And so they run to see what happened and the one whom Jesus loved gets there first and stops and looks and can’t go in.  I like what Ted Jennings writes, “One may suppose that the loved one hesitates also because he is still traumatized by the sight of the mangled bleeding corpse of his lover only some hours before.”

            But Peter rushes in, as impetuous Peter is wont to do.  And is then followed by the other,  beloved disciple.  And we are told that the beloved immediately believes. 

            Maybe what the beloved immediately believes is that life has defeated death?  Warren Carter points out that life versus death has been one of the dominant themes of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.  “I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly,” he tells them.  Jesus is repeatedly inviting people into new life.  Inviting them to engage in activities that are life-giving and life-affirming.  And a kind of life that is eternal—that transcends time and all the constraints of our human lives.

            “Eternal livingness” is how the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes the teaching of Jesus.  Which he points out is not about length of life but is, instead, “depth of experience in the moment.”  He writes beautifully,

But it is at the same time a life that begins every moment, and an awakening vitality, provided that we look to the future and welcome the possibilities of the new morning.

            The kind of life Jesus offers us is also “infectious livingness,” which, Moltmann points out, results in a “new courage for living.”  This is power that kindles within us the sense of life beyond death, that every moment of every day is ripe with possibilities for new beginnings. 

            Warren Carter then says “Those who believe in [or] entrust themselves to Jesus already have eternal life.  Already now they participate in a life free from what is contrary to and opposes God’s purposes.”

            To believe, in this case, isn’t to affirm a proposition, but is to embrace the fullness of life offered by Jesus.  Is to entrust oneself to what Jesus has taught and witnessed to.  To live with courage and hope in the possibilities of a new and better future that transcends all human constraints and defeats the forces of death.

            That’s why the characters in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle ran with joy and abandon at the end of one world and the beginning of a new and better one.

            Our response to the empty tomb of Easter ought to also be one of joy and courage and hope.  This is our reminder that we too can be a part of God’s great and good work in the world.  Our takeaway should be—to look every day for the ways we can participate in God’s life-giving work.

            Warren Carter summarizes our task this way, whatever “manifests God’s life-giving, loving, and liberating purposes should guide our thinking and shape our practices.”

            And when we see and embrace God’s life-giving work, then we experience that infectious livingness, we get our moment of eternal life.  That is when we find ourselves in intimate union with God.

            These stories invite us to participate in God’s life, they are invitations to intimacy.

            And, so, this Easter Sunday I invite you to find some way this afternoon to experience the joy of living fully.  If that’s playing or listening to music, taking a walk on this beautiful day, laughing with friends and family, or maybe, for you, it is running. 



Ecclesiastes 4:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 March 2023

Today we conclude our Lenten worship series Words of Wisdom.  Each week we’ve drawn from a different Wisdom Book in the Bible.  Looking in each for what theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes as rhythms of the spiritual life. 

Today finds us in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is one of the strangest books in the Bible.  The author takes an often negative, even cynical view, counter to the testimony recorded in many other books. 

First, a note about the title of the book.  “Ecclesiastes” is a strange English translation of the Hebrew title, which is the word Qohelet.  That word is sometimes translated “teacher” or “preacher.”  But if we were to use the most literal translation it would be “She who assembles.”  Yes, it is, in fact, a feminine word in the Hebrew.  Creating the tantalizing possibility that this book just might be written by a female sage.

Today I will be reading from the magisterial translation of the book by the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter:

Back in the now faraway summer of 1980, the workers in the Gdansk, Poland shipyard had had enough.  Enough of forty years of political oppression.  Enough of a stalled economy.  Enough of the boredom of life under the Communist regime.  The workers were inspired by the visit the year before of John Paul II, the new Polish pope. The Pope's ability to move the people demonstrated the irrelevance of the government.  And so the Gdansk shipyard strike began.

The strike spread to other workers in Gdansk and then all over Poland.  A national strike was building.  One electrician, a devout Catholic named Lech Walesa, scaled the shipyard walls in order to become part of the strike.

The Communist regime responded.  It first tried to end the original strike by offering conditions to the workers that the workers might accept.  But the government was caught off guard when the local strikers rejected the offer.  Even if their original demands were met, now the strike had expanded and was bigger than them.  Now those shipyard workers were standing in solidarity with those on strike around the nation.  All the workers’s needs should be met.

So, a movement was born -- an independent trade union with a long official name but the nickname of “Solidarity.”  The new movement claimed that the people should "carry each other's burdens."  Altars and crosses were erected.  Father Jerzy Popieluszko became chaplain for the union, holding masses in the shipyard.  [some information from Secrets of Solidarity by Patricia B. Bozell, National Review, 19 February 1988 and Wikipedia].  

On December 13, 1981 at 2 a.m. the secret police arrested thousands of Solidarity activists.  The military secured the borders, declared martial law, and proceeded to invade their own country.  The regime took over the media and declared a "state of war" in which the government was acting for "national salvation." [David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb].

In the years that followed the crackdown, Solidarity went underground with its own press, universities, and plays.  Many of the leaders were jailed.  Father Popieluszko, who continued to preach against the human rights abuses of the government, was kidnapped and brutally murdered.

Finally, in 1989, the government began to negotiate again with Solidarity.  By August a power-sharing deal was in place.  And you might know what happened from there.  The winds of change blew from Warsaw throughout Eastern Europe.  By November of that year the Berlin Wall came down.  In December, Lech Walesa, the electrician and former political prisoner, became President of a democratic Poland, and within two more years the Soviet Union would cease to exist.

This world-changing movement for liberty and democracy was deeply rooted in a theological notion of solidarity.  A central Christian idea that God has invited us to share in the very life of God and along with that, to live in solidarity with all creation.

The laborers of the Gdansk shipyard succeeded in a world-wide revolution because of their faith and their commitment to one another.  Their insistence on sharing burdens and seeking the good of the larger movement of the people.  Father Popieluszko may have been martyred, but his death was part of something far larger.  He proved that solidarity is more powerful than death itself.

According to theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw, the Book of Ecclesiastes reflects a time when traditional institutions are breaking down, when people are skeptical of government and society.  It was also a period of economic insecurity, when people felt like even if they worked hard, they could never get ahead. It was a time of uncertainty and disillusionment.  Sounds timely, right?

I just happened to be teaching Ecclesiastes in our Wednesday night class back in the spring of 2020.  We completed the study over Zoom.  It was pretty much the perfect book to be reading and discussing at that time.

Last year, during Omaha’s Fringe Festival, I attended a performance of Ecclesiastes at the Blackstone Theatre, just a couple of blocks from here.  It was a one man show, in which he acted out the entire book.  It was marvelous, thought-provoking theatre.  At times hilarious.  Watching it performed live made me think that’s probably the best way to encounter this book.

Ecclesiastes is the most cynical and skeptical book in the Bible, as if it was written by an existentialist philosopher.  And one with an absurdist, comic streak.

The main point of the entire book is that pretty much everything we humans try to do is vanity.  Not vanity as in an over-confident sense of how pretty we are, but vanity as in futile.  The Hebrew word is hevel and conveys a cluster of English concepts, among them absurdity, insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness.  The great translator Robert Alter translates the word “mere breath” and clarifies that this isn’t the life-breath identified with the spirit, but the “waste-product of breathing.”  He describes it as “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day.”

Alter uses the phrase “herding the wind” to convey the futility of the notion “everything is vanity.”  The Book of Ecclesiastes marches through most human pursuits—riches, fame, power, education, work—and finds each of them meaningless, futile, like trying to herd the wind.

So, what do we do?  If pretty much everything is futile, what wisdom does Ecclesiastes offer us for how to live?

Elsewhere in the book she emphasizes enjoying life the best we can, particularly the little and everyday things like a good meal and a good drink.  But in this passage we’ve read today, Ecclesiastes offers “modest forms of creaturely solidarity.”  Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, Ecclesiastes’ “response to oppression, envy, and selfishness is to commend concrete forms of human solidarity: working together, lifting one another up, keeping one another warm, defending one another.”  We are called to comfort people, to advocate on their behalf, to relieve suffering. 

Whereas the Hebrew prophets loudly and publicly denounced the social, political, and economic injustices of their day, Ecclesiastes offers instead what Pauw calls “quiet resilience.”  She suggests that Ecclesiastes might be the perfect book for contemporary Christian communities who find themselves dealing with broken political institutions and threatening laws.  Ecclesiastes shows how we continue to resist, by fostering solidarity.

This is Holy Week.  We begin with children singing and palms waving and then move through a challenge to the political powers that be, their violent reaction, betrayal, through pain to death, then darkness and silence, all before we rise again in glory on Easter morning.

The movements of this week, and our emotional responses to them, parallel experiences in our own lives.  The yearly activity of moving through these stories is part of our formation as faithful followers of Jesus, so that we can learn how to respond to the parallel moments in our own lives with faith.

And another thing we learn as we worship together over these days is that we support one another through the darkness and celebrate with one another through the joys.  That we make this journey by joining together.

And so the sixth and final rhythm of life attuned to the Spirit is joining, in particular how we join hands with one another in solidarity and support.  As Pauw writes, “Life in the Spirit is life that is opened toward the other.”

One way to view the entire Biblical story is that it is about joining—about bringing people together, about creating community, about bridging human divisions. 

And so the six rhythms of the wise life we’ve explored—making do and making new, giving, longing, suffering, rejoicing, and joining are all practices that attune us to God and help us to lead rich and full human lives.

Amy Plantinga Pauw summarizes what we’ve learned this Lent:

As creator, God gives human creatures a lifelong vocation to pursue wisdom.  Human wisdom is patient, attentive discernment of the character and quality of life as God has given it.  Human beings flourish not by evading or overcoming the ambiguities of their finite and contingent life as creatures, but by recognizing and coming to terms with them and by seeing the opportunities of this creaturely life as God’s gracious gift.



Job 3:20-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 March 2023

Titling a sermon “Suffering” doesn’t exact spark excitement and anticipation, I’m sure.  Nor was I prescient in knowing that winter would return this weekend.  Rather, suffering is one of the six rhythms of the Spirit that we are exploring this Lent, ways we connect with God spiritually.

Of course, consoling suffering people is a significant part of pastoral care.  Of what I and Jim and Katie do every week.  When people are anxious, uncertain, afraid, worried, troubled, sad, in pain, they reach out to talk, to vent, sometimes to rage, sometimes to problem-solve, sometimes just to be heard.

               Like, the person who had an accident, and the recovery is taking so much longer than expected, and they miss their active life.

               The person going into surgery frightened about possible scenarios that would radically alter their happiness.

               The person still trying to recover from all the impacts of the pandemic isolation on their mental, emotional, and social well-being.

               Of course, sometimes the concern is also directed to issues of the what’s going on in the wider world.

               The expecting mother deeply troubled by what it means to bring a child into the world at this time.

               The grandfather concerned about his children who he says seem to take only an apocalyptic view on things anymore.

               The mom deeply worried about her trans daughter amidst all the anti-trans activities being taken by our and other state legislatures.  Worried not only for her daughter but all trans people.

               In moments of suffering, we seek consolation.  But we also search for wisdom--wisdom for how to live through these life circumstances, how to cope with a world that isn’t what we expected and is often out of our control.

               This Lent we are exploring the Words of Wisdom, the parts of the Bible where we receive practical advice on how to live, where God speaks to us about our daily, ordinary lives.  Where we are reminded that God is present with us, helping us and guiding us.

               Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw describes six rhythms of life in the spirit that we’ve been exploring.  And one of those is suffering.  In suffering we can become attuned to God and to one another.  We can sense a connection between our own suffering and the sufferings of Christ.  We can feel God present with us in our suffering, sharing in it, comforting and consoling us, and working for our deliverance and healing.  

Last May, as I was preparing for my sabbatical, the first book I read was Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.  After two really stressful years personally and professionally, I was looking forward to the sabbatical as a chance to take a break, to rest, to recharge.  And Ignatieff’s book seemed a good way to transition from the stress to the break. 

Because we are living in difficult times, Ignatieff wants us to draw upon the received wisdom of humanity and the ways that others before us dealt with their difficulties and found resilience and solace.  So, the first place he goes is to the Book of Job.  This ancient Hebrew text is the source of much wisdom on how we can respond to our suffering. 

What Michael Ignatieff admires in Job is that Job demanded to be heard.  He insisted on the validation of his own experience.  This is an important lesson for us to learn.  So often we’ve been trained to minimize our hurt, to swallow our feelings, to avoid dealing directly with them.  This we know is unhealthy and can cause lasting damage.  A key first step to growth and healing is to take a lesson from Job and share our hurt and insist on its being seen and heard.

Job also refused to accept false consolation, even from the friends who showed up with the intention of trying to comfort him.  Their words were not comforting, not validating.  Job refused their advice and instead insisted that his suffering mattered.  He demanded that God respond.  Ignatieff writes, “His very despair is a way of insisting, despite everything, on his own importance in the ultimate scheme of things.” 

Of course, even when Job does finally hear from God and the end of the book, he never truly receives the explanations and the answers that he wants.  But, even then, Job refuses to resign himself to his suffering.

Here is how Ignatieff summarizes the story of Job and the lessons we can take from him:

Job’s story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable.  But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations . . .   We should . . . struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives.

He then adds: “to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.”

This week I read the book Imaginable by the futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, whose great book Reality is Broken I had read about a decade ago.  This latest books comes after the global pandemic and after we have all lived through situations we never imagined that we would.  In order for us to become more resilient and better able to manage such scenarios, McGonigal wants us to begin actively imagining various future scenarios and what we might do and think and feel in those situations.  She sights all sorts of scientific evidence for how engaging in such forward-thinking has positive mental and emotional benefits.

One of the ideas she suggested at the start of the book, and which I did, was to open up the digital calendar on your phone, go to the same date some years in the future—I chose to go a full ten years, the furthest out she said you might go, but maybe one or three or five years works for you.  And then, to schedule one thing you want to do that day.  What I decided to schedule in my 2033 calendar was to plan a sixtieth birthday trip to New Zealand.  And, truly, the very act of thinking about what I might do a decade from now and then imagining the trip, brought a smile to my face and a lightness to my being.

McGonigal writes that such future-oriented practices cultivate urgent optimism.  And optimism that is realistic about the challenges we face, but that also sees them as opportunities.  She writes, “Coming out of the darkness of the pandemic, we have the chance to grow into something new together.  But first, we have to grapple with the truth of what we’ve been through.”

She calls this post-traumatic growth.  It’s the sort of transformational change that might occur when a trauma opens up new possibilities through what had previously been unthinkable challenges.  She writes:

Post-traumatic growth can result in a better understanding of our own strengths, an openness to new possibilities and opportunities, an increase sense of connection with others who suffer, the courage to make dramatic changes in our lives that better reflect our hopes and dreams, and a newfound desire to serve a cause bigger than ourselves.

               And I think all of us have seen such changes in people we know.  People relocating, changing jobs and careers, taking up new habits and routines, spending more time with family and friends or on self-care, radically altering what they give their time and resources too.

               McGonigal believes that “the next decade will be the most significant opportunity most of us have in our lifetimes to create long-lasting positive change in society.”

Of course, a faithful life attuned to suffering must also turn its attention outward, beyond the needs of the self to the suffering of others and the wider world.

We respond to suffering by first grieving and lamenting our losses.  We should then examine ourselves to see when we might bear some responsibility.  And if we do, to make confession and seek reconciliation.  Then to get busy working to right the wrongs we can.  Working for healing and for justice.

Amy Plantinga Pauw points out that we can’t just sit around and wait for Easter to happen—we need to be actively involved in confronting the forces of suffering and death.

               And so we organize and advocate and serve.  We lobby and march and protest.  We lead and influence and inspire.

               Job insisted on being heard.  He demanded respect.  He wouldn’t resign himself to his situation.  Job was courageous, and so must we be.  If we are to be consoled.  If we are to be resilient in the face of the world’s difficulties.  If we are to live wisely.  Then we must take these ancient and recent lessons and apply them to our own lives.  When we do, we will be better attuned to God.  That is the path to well-being, to flourishing.

God’s wisdom isn’t to passively submit to fate.  No, God’s wisdom is to lament, grieve, console, then to heal, resist, and work to make the world better so that we all suffer less. 



Psalm 145:13-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 March 2023

               Last April, during a work trip to Boston, I scheduled a visit to the Congregational Archives, which are in a grand historic building on Beacon Street, just past Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House.  Deb Kirwan, Susan Fortina, and former First Central member and now resident of Maine, Ken Friedman-Fitch and I were welcomed into the beautiful reading room of the library and archive, with giant windows that overlook the cemetery where Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and others are buried.

               The helpful archivist had brought out for us a number of documents and books that I had requested to look at, and showed off some of the highlights of the historic collection.  He also said that the archives maintains a file on each of the churches across the nation, so he had ours to show us.  Inside were lots of pamphlets and orders of worship and postcards and such from throughout our history, most of which I’d seen already in our own archives.

               But there was one document which I hadn’t seen before—the program for the 1922 dedication of this building.  It’s a twelve page booklet with pictures, histories, and lists—some of which we’ve included for your enjoyment in an insert in today’s bulletin.  The dedication program also contains the orders of worship for the services held 101 years ago to commemorate the completion of this building.

               And, that’s right, I said “services” with an s.  The program began on Thursday, March 2 at six o’clock with a big fellowship dinner in the room we now call Memorial Hall.  The Pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Smith, presided.  Unfortunately, the menu was not printed.  There were toasts and responses to the toasts from representatives of the state conference and other Congregational churches in Nebraska. 

               At 8 p.m., after the dinner, they moved into this sanctuary, which they called the “auditorium.”  Where they held a “Service of Worship and Inspiration” with the Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Kansas City preaching.  One of the hymns sung that evening was “Faith of Our Fathers,” which we will be singing shortly.  Another was “Day is Dying in the West.”  Here are the first two verses:

Day is dying in the west;

Heav'n is touching earth with rest;

Wait and worship while the night

Sets her evening lamps alight

Through all the sky.

Lord of life, beneath the dome

Of the universe, Thy home,

Gather us who seek Thy face

To the fold of Thy embrace,

For Thou art nigh.

               They gathered again the next night, Friday, March 3, at 8 p.m. for a Service of Music.  They opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and heard choirs, soloists, quartets, and organ.  The music was by Wagner, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and others.  The postlude was “March for a Church Festival.”

               On Saturday, they rested.  Apparently.  No programs in the booklet. 

               Sunday morning, March 5, began with an 11 o’clock Service of Dedication.  They opened with the hymn “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand,” which is about the church being gathered into paradise triumphantly at the end of history, but I’m guessing the second verse felt appropriate to the moment in which they were singing:

What rush of alleluias
Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps
Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day, for which creation
And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes,

A thousand-fold repaid!

               Mr. E. H. Benner, the Chair of the building committee, then gave the keys to Dr. J. P. Lord, the Chair of Trustees, and the church read the litany of dedication, which we will reprise later in this service.  These memorial stained glass windows were dedicated, and Dr. Ozora S. Davis, the President of Chicago Theological Seminary delivered a sermon.  The congregation sang “O God Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which is about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock.  The final verse a stirring evocation on that day in 1922, I’m sure:

And here thy name, O God of love
Their children’s children shall adore,
Till these eternal hills remove,
And spring adorns the earth no more.

               But, they weren’t finished.  At 3:30 p.m. they returned for a “Service of Fraternal Greetings” with messages brought by local ministers and bishops of other churches and denominations. 

               Then, at 8 p.m. they held the final “Service of Praise and Meditation” with Dr. Davis of the seminary preaching again, this time a sermon entitled “The Christian Church in the Modern City.”  The congregation sang “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.”

               A lot comes through in the program and the orders of worship.  Their pride, delight, and satisfaction in what they had accomplished.  They even express a triumphalism that sees their work as part of a great, centuries-old legacy, that will lead on into the future as part of God’s great work.  There is a sense of we did this—with our hard work and money.  They viewed it as a spiritual accomplishment.  And one that would be of benefit not just to them, but to the wider community, to the entire state, region, and nation, and even in benefit to ministry around the world.  As you can see in the excerpts we’ve included, they highlighted the congregation’s support of Anna Lane, missionary pastor in Beijing, China.

               If we are wise, we should also examine all of this with a critical interpretative lens as well. This was a settler congregation building on land once inhabited by the Omaha people.  The triumphalism of the hymns can be a little off-putting, such as the third verse of “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which was about the Pilgrims. 

Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God

Came with those exiles o’er the waves

As if such things did not already exist on this continent among the indigenous people who lived here.

               We are the heirs of this building, this legacy, this history.  We are the recipients of a great gift.  The heirs of their generosity.

               Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw reminds us that the church is part of a “complex, intergenerational web” of giving.  There is no way, of course, to reciprocate the gifts, instead the concern for us becomes how do we “use their gifts well and pass them on to others.”

               This Lenten season our worship series is focused on words of wisdom and the six “rhythms of life lived in God’s presence” that Pauw identifies.  Giving is one of those.

               Giving is central to who God is in our tradition, as this Psalm 145 reminds us.  God’s hands are always open, trying to satisfy the desires of every living thing.  God’s giving is so extravagant, that it can be overwhelming.  Of course, God’s greatest gift is Jesus himself.  The story of Christmas is the story of the greatest gift—God’s child born in human flesh to live our life and die our death and rise again so that we too might fulfill the image of God inside each of us. 

               Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “There is an indispensable generosity to creaturely life.  We respond to God’s manifold gifts to us by becoming mediators of God’s gifts to others.”  The best way for us to respond to God’s graciousness and generosity is to become generous ourselves.  The best way for us to receive the gifts of our ancestors, including this building, is to use the gift well, to share it, and to pass it along to others. 

               The goals of our Christian living are to sustain life, to help all people and all creation to flourish.  To create a community of sharing and service that benefits and cares for one another.  To bear witness to alternative and better ways of being human.  She writes, “In its giving, [the church] leans into [a] vision of universal communion in which all creation rejoices in God’s boundless generosity.”  The church “aims to be a community whose life gives life to others.”

               At its best, that’s what I see in the dedication of this building 101 years ago and the legacy that it left in this community—of care, service, and prophetic witness.  They had a vision for what this great gift could do not just for them but for the world.  Our task is to forge our own vision for the second century of this gift.  To share this building to the service of humanity and the renewal of creation so that God’s mission in our time is accomplished.  And to pass this gift along to those who come after us, so that they can use it in the ways God calls them in their time, even if that means changing the things we have done or that we cherish.

               How do we use it, share it, give it in a way that fulfills God’s purpose and mission? 

               I recently read a book that said churches should be guided in these sorts of decisions by three over-arching values—how we create a common life together, how we repair the damages done in the past that are part of our legacy, and how we use our resources to set people free. 

               Here is a place where we baptize babies, educate children, grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically, celebrate marriages, care for one another in illness and loss, join in fellowship and worship, and grieve our dead.  And we want to do these holy things in a space that is beautiful, accessible, hospitable, fun, and sacred. 

               Here is a place where the prophetic word is spoken, where we listen to the still-speaking God and work for justice and peace.  Here we create a community where all are welcome and included.  Where we work to break down stigma and try to right past wrongs.  We opened this space for the Omaha people when they first started teaching language classes in order to preserve their culture.  Father back we hosted the first integrated head start in the city.  We host baby showers for refugees. 

               And from this place we work to set people free.  We feed the hungry and clothe the needy and visit prisoners and build houses for the homeless and forgive medical debt.

               But, we can do more.  Be more, in the second century in this place.  For this is also a place where we can imagine more ways in which our resources and our gifts could be used to fulfill God’s mission to set people free, right what is wrong, and create a common life together.  To craft a vision for what this great gift could do not just for us but for the world.  Let’s be inspired by our history not just to honor a legacy, but to live into the future with vision and mission.

               So, like those a century and one years ago, let God’s generosity flow through us, shining with glory.  We too can give, serve, and share.  So that this gift is one we pass on into its second century.

Making New & Making Do

Making New & Making Do

James 3:13-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 February 2023

               The “Church shares in the call to cultivate wisdom for daily life,” writes theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw.  “Church life,” she adds, “is a site of training in wisdom.”

               The Season of Lent is always a time for spiritual growth.  Through examination, reflection, and discernment we try to prepare ourselves for the new creation of Holy Week and Easter.  This season often involves coming to terms with our sins through confession, forgiveness, repentance, and mercy.  This season often involves giving something up, making sacrifices, engaging the spiritual disciplines, training our habits.  This season sometimes involves taking something on—exploring something new, learning, and growing. 

               This Lent, our worship life will focus on the words of wisdom—the various books of the Bible that are called wisdom books and the advice that they give us for living.  I’ll be guided by this idea of Amy Plantinga Pauw’s that the church is a school for wisdom.  That in church we should be learning practical ideas for how to live well and faithfully in the actual world.

               According to Pauw, the church’s wisdom is not some ethereal, spiritual advice, but is earthy and practical.  Grounded in our experiences of the world we actually live in.  She writes, “Our understandings . . . should be earthy, rooted in and attuned to the patterns and cycles, the vulnerabilities and resilience, of our planet.”

               And there are a few key points she highlights about the church’s wisdom.  Among those are:

               That this wisdom is practical—we are learning about real, ordinary, daily life.

               This wisdom is about our bodies.  We are embodied creatures and all of our spirituality, all of our morality, takes places in these fragile, vulnerable, beautiful human bodies.

               The church cultivates wisdom not just for our own good, but for the world.  She writes that the pursuit of wisdom “propels [the] church beyond itself into the world.”  And that God calls us to be wise on behalf of “creaturely well-being.”

               Which means that our wisdom is also ecumenical.  We live in a world of diverse cultures and faiths, and so the practical wisdom for living well in our world means that we have to learn from each other.  She points out that significant bits of the material in Old Testament wisdom books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes comes from other cultures and other faith traditions.  And here in the 21st century, we have much to learn from one another.  So, our the church’s wisdom is not limited only to our own faith tradition, but should draw upon what is wise in the teachings of others.

               Which means that our wisdom also is filled with ambiguity and contingency and even uncertainty.  We only ever have partial answers to life’s vexing problems.  We are trying to do our best within the limitations of the human body and the complexities of the world.

               And maybe most importantly, she emphasizes that the church’s wisdom “lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things.”  We are to carry out God’s work, but ours is not the final word on creation.  Nor are we Jesus.  But we are responsible for living well and faithfully in the mean time.

               So, guided by those values, this Lent we will examine what we can learn from the wisdom teachings of our scriptural tradition that will help us to live better, more faithful lives as God’s agents in this complicated world.

               Amy Plantinga Pauw focuses on six themes that she calls “communal orientations of the heart.”  They are making new and making do, longing, giving, suffering, rejoicing, and joining hands.  Those will be our weekly worship themes for Lent.  She claims that these are “the rhythms of life lived in God’s presence,” and we are called to attune ourselves to these rhythms.

               So, this week, then, Making New & Making Do.

               If we are “called to live faithfully within the opportunities and constraints of the present,” how do we do that?  God has proclaimed that all things will be made new.  Yet, we don’t seem to be living in the time when the fullness of God’s reign has come upon the earth.  We are living in the mean time, in ordinary, complex, sometimes even quite weird, times.

               She begins by emphasizing that the church is “a place of lifelong embodied learning.”  The training in wisdom we do here doesn’t stop in Sunday school or confirmation, but fills the life of a congregation.  Such that one of our central, ongoing tasks is helping people learn what they need to live well and faithfully, at every stage of life, and no matter what happens to them or in the wider world.

               And we must remind ourselves, that this life isn’t something we do alone.  We are in this together.  Our pursuit of wisdom, of living well, occurs in a shared life.

               This is true, even when we aren’t being intentional about it.  We learn how to live through the messages we receive from our wider culture, through the ways other people treat us, and by copying what we see others doing. 

               And we know that the wider culture and society aren’t always giving us messages that are wise and lead to well-being.  Think of all the body issues that arise because of the limited range of beautiful bodies we see.  Or the toxic masculinity that boys can absorb.  Or the violence inherent in so much entertainment.  I’ve been focused a lot on trans kids in the last couple of months, and the negative messages they are receiving from the anti-trans bills currently before our state legislature.  And this was already a group highly prone to thoughts of suicide.

               In recent weeks there’s been much reaction to the new study that revealed the tragic state of adolescent mental health coming out of the pandemic, particularly the effects on girls.  I was drawn to one article that said our children are sick because our society is sick. 

               Listen—if you need help, if you need someone to talk to, please know that I’m here, Katie’s here, Jim’s here, so many of the people in this room are here to listen, to see you, to care for you.  And also to work together to get us all safely through this thing called life.

               We in the church believe in sanctification—that we can be transformed into wise, whole, and holy people.  That all of our vulnerability, fragility, wrongheadedness can be transformed.  That we can become a new creation.  We even believe that we can overcome the negative images of the society and culture, that we can defeat sin and temptation, that we can leave the toxic behind and take what is good and helpful and safe and turn it into something beautiful and good.

               We are creatures of dust and ashes, as we are reminded at the beginning of Lent.  We are made up of all the same stuff as everyone else—both good and bad.  There’s good news.  This earthy stuff can embody joy and well-being and courage and hope. 

               This is our belief in “making new.”  A new creation, new and transformed selves, everything made new.  This we believe.

               And so, as Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Christian practices [such as healing, worship, and forgiveness] aim at embodied wisdom for a way of life that lives in gratitude to God and is aligned with God’s purposes for all creation.”

               And we do that, we make new, by also making do.  Making do with our own limitations as embodied creatures.  Making do during the times and in the spaces and communities in which we live.  She adds, “Making do is also an acknowledgement  of creaturely limits—limits of time, energy, knowledge, and control over the . . . forces around us.”  So, together as a worshipping community we admit that “we are not whole, that we are not at peace, that we need healing and nourishment only God can provide.”  

               What helps us to make do then? 

               Honest awareness about ourselves and our situations.  Discernment over what is around us that affirms life and well-being and what doesn’t.  Humility about our own limitations.  Patience that our own individual growth, much less a wider transformation, can and does take time.  

               Honesty, discernment, humility, patience—these are aspects of practical wisdom.

               Pauw writes, “Church does not pretend to have already realized the full hope of the Spirit in its own life, nor to have the capacity to bring this hope to fruition by its own actions.”  But we are called to do our best.  We are responsible for living as faithfully and effectively and as well as we can—not only for ourselves and our families, but on behalf of God’s mission to the whole world.

               This Lent I invite you to a season of exploration and growth, as we listen to these ancient words of wisdom, as we discern how to live well and faithfully in our time and our place.

Everlasting Joy

Everlasting Joy

Isaiah 61:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 February 2023

               “It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann.  The poet in Third Isaiah promises “everlasting joy” accomplished through a vision of the future that is filled with justice, righteousness, peace, comfort, liberty, and abundance.  Here is a vision, as one commentary said, of the world as it should be.

               Yet, we open up our phones in the morning and get the latest death toll from the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, hear about the latest American mass shooting, are alarmed at the toxic chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio, worry about what happens next in the war in Ukraine, and puzzle over balloons being shot down by fighter jets.

               Brueggemann declares that ministry must “bring people to engage the promise of newness.”  But he then immediately warns that “despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness.”  The challenge, despite the state of the world, is to maintain hope in this vision of the future, promised by God, the one in which justice leads to everlasting joy.

               Back in the Spring of 2020, when we were all still mostly stuck at home, living through a season of our lives we had never imagined (and still can’t quite grasp), I read the book The Ordinary Virtues by the academic and former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff. 

               In a chapter on the Fukushima disaster, he tells us that the unimaginable has consistently been occurring in the 21st century, from 9/11 to destructive natural disasters to financial collapses (this book was written and published before the Covid-19 pandemic).  All these experiences of the unimaginable, he writes, are eroding our trust in the institutions which keep failing us and are eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. Ignatieff writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management."

               A far cry from the vision of the poet Isaiah.

               So, how do we engage the promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy and avoid such a dismal view of the future that might lead us to despair?

               That seems to be a key challenge for people of faith and hope and courage here in the third decade of this century.

               Well, I think the ancient Isaiah poet gives us some clues, so we turn to this text for the details.

               The poet declares that God wants to comfort all who mourn, to provide for them, to garland them with flowers and anoint them with the oil of gladness.  To revive their spirits and build up their ruins.  To repair the ruined cities and cultivate the people like a beautiful and strong garden.

               William P. Brown in his commentary on this poem writes that “the expressed aim is to comfort” and that “it is the comfort of new creation.”  God is doing some new, out of the remains of the past.  He writes that the “garden of God’s glory” will be the birthplace and nursery of a new people.

               The Isaiah poet has declared that this will happen in the “year of the Lord’s favor,” which most scholars believe to be a reference to the ancient Jewish year of Jubilee, written about in the Book of Leviticus.  This was the year in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and people who had lost their land to debt had it restored to them or their families.  The Jubilee was a socioeconomic reconfiguration.  A radical idea. 

               In the Gospel of Luke, the first sermon that Jesus preaches, back home in the synagogue in Nazareth, is based on this text of Isaiah 61.  Jesus proclaims that his movement is a new Jubliee, a fulfillment of this vision in Isaiah.

               And every week when we pray in the Lord’s prayer—“forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—we too are calling upon the Jubilee and the radical economic reordering it calls for.

               So, this is part of the answer to how we get to everlasting joy—embodying a vision of economic transformation that centers justice and flourishing for everyone.

               And when we look back here at the poem in Isaiah we begin to notice the key elements of God’s vision:

  • Good news to the oppressed
  • Healing the brokenhearted
  • Liberty for captives
  • Release of prisoners
  • Comfort for the mourners

Walter Brueggemann writes, “All of these actions are powerful ministries to the weak, the powerless, and the marginalized to restore them to full function in a community of well-being and joy.”  Aha!  That’s God’s vision.  A community of well-being and joy that allows everyone to function, even flourish.  And the way to get there is a new social order that centers justice and newness for everyone.

Brueggemann concludes his comments on this passage from Isaiah by declaring, “Thus in the end, the gospel powered by the spirit is a restoration of a viable economic community in a reorganized city, the redemption of public life.”

So, that’s it.  That’s how we get to “everlasting joy” according to the Isaiah poet—we redeem public life by a transformation of the social order.

So, that probably sounds daunting.  And it is, of course.  Fortunately, we have God on our side working with us and empowering.  We also have all the time in the world, as we over the centuries do our best to improve and grow, like with the expansion over the last two centuries of human rights as a new moral paradigm.

And our task is to focus on this community, our community, being the best embodiment of God’s design as we can be, so that we stand as a sign and witness to the wider world of what good human community can be—one that is loving, inclusive, just, and peaceful.

One reason I really liked Michael Ignatieff’s book that I read back in the spring of 2020 was that it was focused on “ordinary virtue.”  Written in the context of a world where unimaginable things keep happening that threaten our sense of hope, Ignatieff didn’t despair, he was actually quite encouraged by what he witnessed around the world. 

A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.  He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa.  In these places he dialogues with  all sorts of folks from poor women living in shanties to prominent public officials.  He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes.

And what he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share.  He writes,

The virtues we display are enduringly common because daily life throws up the same challenges: how much, if at all, to trust those who rule over us; how much, if at all, to tolerate those who are different; how much to forgive, if we can, those who have wronged us; and how to rebuild life when fate and misfortune sweep away what we have tried to accomplish.

He finds these same questions and struggles in the daily lives of people all over the globe.  We are all struggling to do these things and do them well and with goodness.

               Another thing Ignatieff argues for is the essential role that community plays in our ability to live out the ordinary virtues.  Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society.  We need a functioning community and civil society in order to practice these virtues.  He writes, “The test of public institutions is whether they make it possible for us to behave decently toward each other.” 

               Which sounds like a rather basic standard to achieve, write?  And maybe the first step to justice and fairness, to embodying the vision of the Isaiah poet?

               Now, Ignatieff is himself not a religious man.  But I believe his ethical understanding of our current global situation helps us to grasp this ancient prophetic vision and what we can do about. 

So, to return to my earlier question—how do we engage God’s promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy, while avoiding the dismal view of our common future that might lead us to despair?

Isaiah tells us we do that by redeeming public life through a transformation of the social order.  A tall order.  But our mission as God’s people, nonetheless.

That mission begins, I’m suggesting today, by living daily with the ordinary virtues, such as trust, forgiveness, tolerance, and resilience.  To show kindness and generosity and compassion. 

This is the path to everlasting joy—our own, our children’s, and all humanity’s. 

Barriers to Justice

Barriers to Justice

Isaiah 59:1-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 February 2023

               “Something is deeply amiss in the community of faith,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on this passage in Isaiah.  He continues, “The covenant agreement between [God] and the community is not working.”  Injustice abounds, and is getting worse. 

Did you notice the image of the adder’s eggs?  It’s rather vivid.  Brueggemann points out that the eggs represent “the birth of more poison in the community.”  These are “killer eggs.”  They release into the community “fresh dimensions of deathly distortion.”

               What’s to be done? 

               According to Isaiah, God had assumed someone would step forward and do something about it.  But it seems that no one has.  And, so, the covenant is breaking down.  Which means that God must tear down the barriers to justice.  Brueggemann writes, “This is no benign God but a forceful agent who will powerfully defeat all those organized and mobilized against a right ordering of the world.”

               This week I read the book American Prophets by religious journalist Jack Jenkins.  In the book he outlines the growth of progressive religious activism in the 21st century, drawing together the religious connections that the media often has overlooked in moments like Ferguson, Charlottesville, Standing Rock, and more.  One of the chapters, for instance, focuses on the work of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who leads Local Church and Justice Ministries for our denomination, the United Church of Christ. 

               Near the end of the book, Jenkins relates a conversation he had at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina with Melvin Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd, had been murdered by Dylan Roof during a Bible study at the church in 2015.  Graham said,

We don’t want ‘thoughts and prayers’ anymore—we want action.  God is good. God is great.  God can do all things.  But God gave you the power to do some things on your own.  Use that power [God’s] given you.  Use that authority [God’s] given you to make things better.  Don’t hold it back for yourself.  Take those talent’s [God’s] given you—don’t bury them in the sand.  Use them for good, for justice.  Power is yours not to hold on to exclusively.  Power is there for you to help people, to uplift people.

               Earlier in the book, Jenkins relates a sermon preached by the Los Angeles based rabbi Sharon Brous in which she proclaimed:

Faith is a rebellion against [the] world.  The goal is not to be quieted, to feel good, to get comfortable and settled while the palace burns.  It is to be awake and to fight—with love—for the courage we need, for the family we yearn for, for the beloved community we’re called to be, for the world we want our children to inherit.

               These are contemporary voices, echoing the call of the prophet Isaiah for us people of faith to confess our sins, speak the truth in the public square, run to good, and walk in the way of peace.

               My first full-time pastoral call was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I served as the Associate Pastor for Rolling Hills Baptist Church, which was a part of a group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Whenever people look at me confused as to what type of Baptist that might be, I respond, “We were Jimmy Carter Baptists.”  And then people get it.

               I was primarily responsible for the youth and college ministries of the church, and so it fell to me to organize the mission trip—a daunting task the first time you have to be in charge of such a thing.  Of course, the first decision to make is where to go and what to do, as there are an indefinite number of options for good service work. 

               At the time the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship had just launched a project called the “Rural Poverty Initiative.”  They were going to focus domestic mission dollars and energy on the twenty poorest counties in the United States.  And those counties generally are grouped—in Appalachia, the Native American Reservations of the Great Plains, along the border with Mexico, and in the Cotton Belt of the South.  Which meant that Arkansas had one of those counties.

               So, I decided we’d work with this initiative.  Soon we were partnered with a local organization in Helena, Arkansas run by two women who were focused on addressing poverty and systemic racism, and cultivating deliberative democracy.

               I’ve told you bits of this story various times over the years, but I return to it because it was one of the key turning points in my life, when my eyes were opened, and I had the epiphany that changed the shape of my ministry and my life.

               One morning months ahead of our mission trip, I drove into Helena for a scouting and organizing meeting.  I drove through cotton fields listening to Mary J. Blige on my cd player, not aware of what I was going to encounter.

               Helena had once been a thriving town of around 40,000 people, but was now only about 8,000.  The massive decline in population was the result of decades of agricultural depression, but also white flight after integration, when thousands of white families moved to the suburbs of Little Rock, Memphis, and Jackson.  There had also been an African-American brain drain, as one of the unintended consequences of integration was the collapse of the Black business class.  All of this was information I learned and saw that day.

               Helena had vast blocks abandoned and blighted.  I saw people’s homes that were so derelict I wouldn’t have kept livestock in them.  I was shown one neighborhood, in town, that had no indoor plumbing, in the year 2002.  Folks, black folks, who lived in that neighborhood, were still carrying buckets to a central tap to get their water.

               Before that day I had intellectual knowledge of America’s racist history.  But that day I really saw it firsthand in a way I had never seen—or maybe just never taken the time to notice—before.  And I’ve never been the same since.

               From that moment, my ministry, and thus my life, took on a deeper commitment to justice work. In my next call, in Dallas, Texas, I was part of the Texas Faith Network.  A statewide organization of clergy who responded to unjust political activities in the state government.  We were particularly concerned with how the Religious Right was gaining power over the Texas State School Board and changing education standards and text books to reflect their worldview.  And so other religious voices were critical in presenting alternative perspectives on the relationship between faith and science or health standards.  My testimony before the State Board of Education about sex ed curriculum even appeared in a documentary about the topic.

               All of that was just training for the role I played in my next call, in Oklahoma City, as the Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope.  I was now an out gay man, leading a predominately LGBTQ+ congregation.  As part of the interview process for that call, I was explicitly asked and warned about what that would mean.  I would become a leading public figure in the gay community, a spokesperson and activist.  And, thus, a target. 

               In my first week as pastor of that church, I appeared at a meeting of the library board where some local religious leaders were trying to ban gay-themed books from the public library.  And that day was my first television interview that appeared on the nightly news.

               Those five years were filled with activism work, and not just on LGBT issues.  I appeared at the Reform Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to express solidarity with them when they were targeted with anti-Semitic violence during the High Holy Days.  I organized a vigil when a many was murdered by the Aryan Nation.  I trained social workers and educators on diversity.  I worked with the local Muslim community on hate crimes legislation.  I often appeared at the State Capitol as the official UCC representative for all sorts of issues from anti-war protests to health care advocacy to supporting reproductive justice.

               And I was a target.  I received death threats.  Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest me.  The Oklahoma State Republican Party’s platform condemned my wedding—not just gay marriage—my wedding. 

               Here, in Omaha, I helped lead the effort to pass this city’s employment non-discrimination ordinance—the thing in my life I’m second most proud of, after being a father.  And I’ve been involved in a wide range of issues from defending immigrants and refugees, speaking out on the true nature of religious liberty, challenging measures that set up barriers to voting, testifying against the Keystone XL pipeline, helping to organize our state conference’s response to climate change, and getting shot and pepper sprayed during the 2020 summer of racial uprising. 

               This week I spent nine hours at the State Capitol in defense of reproductive justice, wearing a stole that once belonged to our late member, the Rev. Dorothy Murdoch Hill, honoring her decades of work on that issue.  And this coming week I’ll be back fighting against the effort to ban gender-affirming care for children and adolescents.

               That day in Helena, Arkansas opened my eyes to injustice and how my call as a disciple and minister of the Good News of Jesus Christ included speaking truth in the public square and working, wherever my voice and power were going to be effective, in scaling and breaking down the barriers to justice.

               Isaiah challenges people of faith to confess our sins, to run to the good, and to walk in the way of peace. 

               What are the ways we have participated, intentionally and unintentionally, is systems of injustice?  What barriers to justice have we helped to erect?  What biases and prejudices might be holding us back from experiencing the wild, inclusive love of God?  How often is it simply that we fail to speak or act or respond, and that alone is the barrier?

               Isaiah implores us to be better, to do better.  To be God’s agents in breaking down the barriers to justice.  This is what it means to be a child of the God of Israel.  This work is part of the call of discipleship for those who take the name of Jesus at our baptism.  And we are reminded that we don’t do the work alone--the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers the church with courage in the struggle for justice and peace. 

Let us be God’s faithful servants, in the service of others, proclaiming Good News to all the world, resisting the powers of evil.