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What We Need

What We Need

1 Samuel 1:19-28; 2:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 June 2024

               Through persistence and faithfulness in God Hannah achieves her goals.  And once again we see her taking matters into her own hands, not intimidated by religious authority or the way things are normally done, as she engages in worship—a ritual to dedicate her son to lifelong service to God.

            This Bible story got me remembering the weekend of Sebastian’s baptism, when family and friends came into town, and we had a house full of folks.  My mother-in-law, Sebastian’s Lola, spent two days fixing homemade Filipino food, and HyVee roasted us a pig, and after Sunday morning’s worship, we feasted together. 

            In January when I attended Conversations, the annual gathering of United Church of Christ senior ministers, our keynote speaker was the professor Mary Luti talking about the ethical demands of the sacraments—baptism and communion.  The sacraments, she said, are

rituals that announce, embody, and enact the good news of Jesus Christ. By grace and faith over time, they can infuse in us the gospel’s revolutionary joy, its indefensible mercy, its liberating honesty, its risk and danger, its distinctive ethics.

            The gist of her remarks was that while we do good and beautiful things with the sacraments, what we normally do is insufficient for the power and potential that they possess to form us into who God desires us to be.  And so she focused on their significance in the ethical dimension, proclaiming:

The sacraments are a vital source of the church’s public witness. And yet when we’re talking about Chritstian justice-making it’s rare that anyone says, “For these moments we have our baptisms; for these challenges, we come to the table. This is a baptismal imperative, this is eucharistic action. We can do hard things drenched in baptismal waters. We will persist, for we have been fed.” 

The sacraments just might be the church’s most underrated source of formative power for persevering engagement with the world. Centering them more than we normally do in our worship and formation could go a long way towards sustaining the public witness of the Body of Christ. 

            Last week we talked about Hannah’s prayers, arising from pain and expressing her faith and desires, as helping to give birth to the nation.  Today we read a story about her act of worship.  Eugene Peterson highlights that in her story there are seven different times she prays or worships.  She seems to be grounded in spiritual practice, and that spiritual practice comforts her pain, gives her confidence, inspires her vision, and empowers her actions.  Peterson writes that Hannah is an example that “worship is a way of life.”

            He also points out—“This story began with Hannah weeping.  It ends with Hannah singing.”

            And the song she sings is filled with power and vision.  Not only that her own needs will be addressed by God, but that God will intervene radically on behalf of the people to deliver them from evil and establish a better, more just future.  Hannah’s acts of worship have ethical imperatives too, just like our Christian sacraments.

            This song is a source for the radical, justice-making vision of the people of God.  At his best, David embodies the vision of this song, and at his worst, he is judged for failing to live up to it.  The words and images and ideas in this song become central to the visions of the prophets and the lyrics of the poets.  It is Hannah’s song which Mary covers and remixes and makes her own—the Magnificat.  And this vision, originating in Hannah’s song, growing and developing over the centuries, is what Mary taught her son Jesus, who embodied as fully as one can the grand ideas of justice that Hannah sang.  What a song!

            And talk about the ethical imperatives we can draw from worship!

            This magnificent song, this act of worship—full of gratitude, praise, thanksgiving, and forward-looking radical hope—arose from the needs, the pain, the grief and sorrow, of this one woman.  Her persistence and faithfulness.  And her confidence in a God who listens and responds.

            This summer I’m leading a Theology Book Club.  We’ll be meeting once a month to discuss a book, and the book for August is Christena Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman.  Cleveland is a social psychologist and founder of the Center for Justice + Renewal.  Cleveland writes about growing up in an evangelical church and her youthful embrace of faith, religion, and spirituality.  Yet her growing struggles with that faith and her dawning awareness that not only did it not meet her needs, that it actively worked against them.  Specifically, it did not meet her needs as a black woman.  And fundamentally what didn’t meet her needs was the image of God she grew up with, what she starts to call “whitemalegod” and “fatherskygod” (both all one lowercase word).  And the more she studied and experienced life and began to question, the more she wondered if this image of God met anyone’s needs.  If we believe in a God who listens and responds and loves us, then we must reject whitemalegod and all of his negative effects on people and society.

            And so Cleveland went in search of images of God that arise from the Christian tradition and that did speak to her needs and the needs of all humanity.  Like Hannah, she took matters into her own hands, was not intimidated by religious authority and the way things are normally done, but sought out a life-giving spiritual practice and worship of God that met her needs.

Cleveland encourages the use of imagination when exploring God.  She writes that we cannot believe what we cannot imagine, and that too often traditional views have limited and inhibited our use of imagination, which leads to control.

            The divine image she discovered that spoke most powerfully to her were the Black Madonnas of rural France.  In villages throughout France, churches and shrines have centuries-old images of the Madonna and Jesus that are black.  In these sculptures and their stories and traditions, she discovered the God who listens and responds to her need.

            Cleveland argues that whitmalegod not only doesn’t meet human need but seems disgusted by it.  Toxic forms of religion compel us to conceal and repress our needs, particularly teaching women to do so.  Leading to a spiral of shame.  Instead, we must be liberated to identify and express our needs and take action to meet them.  Cleveland writes:

Echoed throughout these imaginings is a desire to authentically express our needs and for them to be cherished by those around us.  In other words, we long for nurturing . . . We yearn for a society that beckons our most authentic selves and celebrates our glorious quirks and foibles.  We long for a community that sees our need as an invitation to deepen our collective connections.  We crave a world in which our humanity is honored first and foremost.

            In the Black Madonna of Vichy, Cleveland discovered an image of the divine “She who cherishes our hot mess.”  For her, the needier the better.  This image of God gets “down into the thick of human experience.”  And God empowers us to create communities based on meeting our needs.

            I feel a resonance with Hannah, who believed in a God who listens and responds to our pains and our needs.  And with persistence and faithfulness, through acts of worship, she took decisive actions to bring about the changes she longed for.  Her worship and spiritual practice led to a set of ethical imperatives.  Cleveland does something similar in her spiritual awakening and her pilgrimage to discover the faith and the God she needs.

            Cleveland draws on research that shows matriarchal, as opposed to patriarchal, societies are “need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.”  Our vulnerability is valued and affirmed.  And society is structured to lift up our needs and respond to them.

            Hannah was alarmed by the corruption, disorder, and violence against women in her time.  She chafed under the patriarchal conditions of her life.  She envisioned something new, different, and better.  A world of greater justice. 

            She became a mother, who dedicated her son to this transformative work, to leadership among the people, guiding them to something better. 

            For Christena Cleveland, the work of creating needs-based communities is what it means “to mother.”  She proclaims, “No matter our gender identity, we are all invited to mother by creating life out of pain, by creating loving, interdependent community in response to violence.”

            Hannah may not have been the paragon of nurture—giving up her son to live at the shrine and be raised in service to God.  But she is an icon of creating life out of pain and taking the steps to respond creatively to the violence of her world.  From her individual pain, she envisioned something better.  She believed that God would listen and respond.  And so she centered her life on worship and spiritual practice—on her own terms, not bound by convention or intimidated by religious authority.  Her acts of worship, of persistence and faithfulness, became the source of a tradition that continues today, in us and the work that we do to nurture communities of care and outreach, supporting and encouraging one another, and engaging in the work of justice. 

            What do you need?  How do you experience God responding to your needs?  What sort of relationships and community would address those needs?  How might your needs shape your worship and your spiritual practice?  And how might your worship and spiritual practice flow back into the ethical dimensions of your life?

            Let’s imagine the more we might become.  And then let us live into the ethical demands of our faith and practice, to be a people who repond to human needs, and in that way embody God, who cherishes our hot mess.

Prayers of Parents

Prayers of Parents

1 Samuel 1:1-6, 9-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

16 June 2024

            When Stephen and I were planning this worship series we noted that this story from I Samuel, centering a woman desiring a child, would, ironically, fall on Father’s Day.

            So, we decided to lean into it and focus our attention more broadly upon parenting and families. 

            But this isn’t a story about some conventional family.  For one, Elkanah has two wives.  A reminder that families come in various forms. 

The feature of the story that resonates for many of us in the 21st century is Hannah’s struggle in her effort to have a child.  Many families struggle with fertility.  Many must find alternative paths to form their families.  Two months ago, we hosted a First Forum in which some of our church families talked about the various routes they took in forming their families.  Adoption, in vitro, donors, surrogates—these and other methods have become common.  In a story like today’s, we can find parallels to our experiences.

Which is part of the power of the Bible.  As Eugene Peterson described it, “The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us: ‘Live into this—this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’”

So these ancient stories call for our participation—to find the ways that God connects to us and speaks to us and the ways these stories resonate with our own.

Before continuing, I do want to take a moment to comment on something.  This week the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination I grew up in and was ordained in, passed a resolution against in vitro fertilization.  Probably all of us know children born through this medical procedure.  Couples who struggled emotionally and physically to have children and experienced in vitro as a modern miracle. 

In vitro fertilization helps to create life, to create families, to expand our ability to love and care for one another.  God gave us amazing brains and with those brains we’ve gained scientific understanding of the world.  We’ve invented and developed medical technologies and procedures that allow us to address age-old human conditions, like infertility.  Why shouldn’t we understand these modern medical miracles as themselves part of God’s gift and blessing? 

Here at First Central, and in the United Church of Christ, we embrace the good that comes from these technologies.  More importantly, we embrace the children and families that they create.  God loves you, God embraces you, you are welcomed and affirmed here.

Let me give a little introduction to the Book of First Samuel, which is the text we’ll be exploring the rest of the summer.  First Samuel is part of a series of books recounting the stories of the nation, particularly focused on the southern Israelite nation of Judah.  These stories center around the Davidic monarchy and the Temple in Jerusalem.  So kings and rulers figure prominently in the stories of First Samuel.

But one of the most fascinating aspects of these stories is how they are in depth explorations of moral character.  Unlike most nations, who tell triumphant stories of their rulers that gloss over any defects, the scribes of ancient Israel recorded both stories of triumph and failure.  All the weaknesses and shortcomings of their rulers are made clear.  Which is one reason these stories still draw our attention all these millennia later.  We resonate with the moral struggles and psychological depths of these characters.

Last week I talked about the Book of Ruth, and how it is set in the time of the judges, which was a time of chaos, disorder, and violence.  Particularly violence against women.  Ruth appears in that context as a counter-story, focused on two ordinary women and the ways they survive and thrive in the patriarchy of their day through their initiative.

First Samuel begins similarly, by centering a woman—Hannah.  The Book of Samuel implies that the project of building the nation begins in the prayers of this woman.  So, let’s turn our attention to Hannah for a moment.  What is it that she desires?

That’s the provocative question asked by biblical scholar David Jobling in his magnificent commentary on First Samuel.  A commentary I’ve been mining for treasures to preach for fifteen years now.

Jobling takes an interesting approach to this story, beginning with how he views Elkanah.  In many commentaries, Elkanah is interpreted as a man of great integrity and moral character, with deep affection for Hannah.  David Jobling isn’t so sure.  He says its possible that Elkanah with his two wives is enjoying a best-of-both-worlds available to a man in that kind of polygynous patriarchal system—he has one wife for bearing and raising children and another wife free of all those complications.  Jobling wonders, Elkanah “has no need of children from Hannah, and perhaps fears that she would cease to be attractive if she were worn out by childbearing.”

Hannah goes into the shrine and pours out her heart to God about how she feels in this situation and the way she’s being treated.  She wants a son.  But, as David Jobling points out, it’s not exactly clear why she wants a son.  Because she does not raise this son; she gives him away to be a servant of God, to grow up at the shrine.  It doesn’t seem that she wants a son for Elkanah—he’s already got children and Hannah in no way commits her son to her husband.  Nor does she seem to want a son to nurture and care for.

So, what does she want?  David Jobling says the story suggests that she wants a son who will be in service to God.  A son who will be a leader among the people.  He writes, “Perhaps this is an ambitious woman who, having little scope herself, hopes to satisfy her ambition vicariously through her son.”

Here is Jobling’s interpretive theory.  Hannah sees the state the nation is in—disorder, violence, and chaos.  She also sees the corruption of the priests at the shrine.  In the next chapter we are told about how the sons of Eli the priest have extorted people and also engaged in sexual harassment and probably worse. 

So she takes the initiative to do what she can to address the situation. Her patriarchal society limits what she is capable of doing herself, but she envisions a son who will become a leader of the people and serve without corruption.  Jobling writes, “As the initiative-taker in her story she is the cause of the restoration and glorification of judgeship in Samuel.  Through her son she achieves the resolution of the . . . scandals of her time.”  Through Hannah’s persistence and faithfulness, change for the better is brought to her people.

So, she is, in many ways, a mother of the nation, helping to give birth to a new order.

Hannah begins her revolutionary work with prayer.  Some commentators call her a “prayer-warrior,” to parallel the warriors we so often encounter in these stories.  Eugene Peterson makes much of Hannah’s prayers.  He points out how she’s not intimidated by religious authority, and that she goes around the prescribed rules for religious rituals, and takes matters into her own hands.  He writes, “She uses her own words, her own voice, without intermediaries.”  She boldly asserts her needs and is confident that God has addressed them.

Which suggests that she believes in a God who listens, who is present with us, who lives in solidarity to human need and suffering and responds. 

Today we sang “This Is My Father’s World.”  I love this hymn, and we don’t often sing it in its traditional form.  One thing I love about it is that the God it celebrates is not some removed and distant judge.  God in this hymn is immanent, present everywhere, gently discovered in nature—“in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.”  This hymn does celebrate God as Father, but it is a loving, affectionate, present father.  The best kind.  The ideal, really.

And because God is so intimately present, God is the power that strengthens us to fight the evils of our time.  When I find myself in times of trouble, or dismayed about the situation of the world, I will sing that last verse—“Oh, let me not forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. . . . The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.”

Another aside.  Two weeks ago the greatest living Christian theologian died.  Jurgen Moltmann grew up a youth in Nazi Germany.  As a teenager he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery and experienced the horrors of bombing, watching his friends die.  He spent time in a British prisoner-of-war camp, and there discovered the Christian faith in its fullness.  Over the last seventy years he’s been one of the most prominent and influential of Christian voices.  Realizing that after the horrors of the war, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb, belief in God was endangered.  What was needed was a theology that arose from these experiences of suffering.

And so Moltmann wrote about a God who suffers with us.  Not a God that is remote, free of emotion, and unacquainted with the human condition.  But a God who feels, who loves deeply and compassionately, and who took it upon God’s self at the cross to experience the depths of human evil and suffering. And because of the crucifixion, God is a power always present with us in our suffering and pain.

Moltmann, though, was primarily a theologian of hope.  That we must always be looking forward to newness and possibility.  That we are the eternal beginners.  And what we hope for is a fullness of life, an eternal livingness, that enriches our experiences every day.  He celebrated the ways we encounter God in all that is joyful, good, beautiful, and fun.

And so the Christian church mourns the passing of this, our brother, one of the greatest Christian voices of all time. 

I see a parallel with Hannah’s belief in God.  She is confident that God will hear her and respond.  That her child will bring about the changes she desires, a nation that lives more fully into God’s vision for humanity.

The story of Hannah is not one of an ideal parent, as we usually conceive it.  Frankly, she doesn’t seem all that maternal.  Her vision is big and bold and far transcends her own family.  So, she becomes an interesting model for us and a reminder that families come in many forms, and that there’s not just one model for how we parent.

To those who are parents or who long to be parents, what is it you desire?  What do you hope and dream for your children?  What are your prayers? 

For God, who is also our parent, our mother and father, is listening.  God has dreams and desires to.  Of how each of us can transform and grow into our best selves.  Of how we can all learn to be family to one another.  Of how our society can become more just and kind and good.

So, let us pray for what we desire—for our children, our families, our world.  Trusting that God is with us as we work together to make our longings a reality.

Beloved Community

Beloved Community

Ruth 4:9-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 June 2024

               A couple of weeks ago, in the daily email from the Atlantic, Charles Sykes wrote about what he called the “airsickness” of our current moment in America.  He described the airsickness as experiencing “a disconnect between our senses—a nausea-inducing conflict between what we know and what we see.”  And what has caused this?  Sykes explains:

We’ve been led to believe that things work in a certain way, that there are mores and norms. We thought our world was right side up, but it now feels as if it’s been turned upside down. Words don’t mean what we think they do. Outrage is followed not by accountability, but by adulation. Standards shift, flicker, vanish. Nothing is stable.

He summed it up—"we find ourselves in a land of confusion.”

               Those descriptions resonated with me as I was preparing this summer sermon series on Old Testament stories beginning with the Book of Ruth.  Ruth is set during the period of the Judges, before Israel had an enduring monarchy.  And if you’ve ever read the Book of Judges, you know that it details a society descending further and further into chaos, disorder, and violence.  Each generation appears to get worse, and the final story of the Book is one of rape, murder, mutilation, and horrific violence as cities and tribes attempt to destroy one another.

               Our time is obviously not as fraught as that period of ancient Israelite history, but there are parallels with the sense of disorder, dread, and confusion.

               And in this context, we get the Book of Ruth.  As Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes, “Ruth is the still, small voice after the cataclysmic storm of Judges.”  She develops that idea further:

In the wake of Judges’ scenes of large-scale violence, deeply problematic national leadership, and moral deterioration of the whole people Israel, Ruth is a story of personal relationships that prove to be redemptive in the lives of a few ordinary people—yet ultimately point in the direction of hope for Israel as a whole.           

               The Book of Ruth, then, might just be a great place to turn as well in the summer of 2024, here to find how ordinary, modest people enter into relationships that “sow seeds of hope in the midst of desperate situations.”

               Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the rest of the story that precedes what I’ve read already. 

               Naomi and her husband and two sons leave Bethlehem during a famine and move to the country of Moab.  Now, Moab is sometimes a rival and enemy of Israel and sometimes is occupied by Israel.  It is not necessarily the most friendly of places for them to live.  Yet, they stay.  Eventually Naomi’s husband dies and her two sons marry local women, one of them being Ruth.  Those sons then die, leaving the three women alone. 

               Naomi decides to return to her homeland, to Bethlehem, and releases the two women to return to their families.  A fraught situation in ancient patriarchal cultures, where a woman, most of the time, needed a father, husband, or son to provide for them.  The story turns attention to the unjust plight of women in such a culture. 

Orpah decides to return home, but Ruth commits herself to traveling with Naomi in what is one of the most beautiful passages of scripture, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following after you!  Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

This pledge has often been used at weddings.  An interesting fact we gay marriage activists used to point out, because this is actually a commitment made between two women.  Not that they were married, because they weren’t, but it is one of those Bible stories that explodes traditional, patriarchal, hetero-normative gender and family relations.  These two women form a family and a household out of commitment and love for one another.  And then they use the survival strategies and coping skills necessary for two women to survive and thrive in the social setting they find themselves.

Because of this, Naomi and Ruth have long been icons in the queer community.  It’s irrelevant whether they were romantic partners or not—they exhibit the love and commitment of same-gender families and they embody the strategies and skills that our families have often had to evoke in order to survive and thrive in legal and social regimes that discriminated against us.  For these reasons the scholar Mona West proclaims Ruth to be our “queer ancestress.”  She exhibits the self-determination we require to live our full, authentic selves.  So, Happy Pride Month, from this ancient Biblical story.

Naomi and Ruth, then, return to Bethlehem and now must figure out how to live.  Ruth goes out into the fields to glean the leftovers from the harvests.  One of the ethical principles handed down in the Torah, is that when a farmer harvests their fields, they are to leave a remnant for the poor to come to collect for their survival. 

The Book of Ruth is also a story about the welcome and inclusion of foreigners, including those from untrusted rival nations.  The Book of Ruth is in the canon to counter the exclusionary perspective of some other biblical books, such as Ezra, which forbids the taking of foreign wives.  As biblical scholar Jacob L. Wright points out, the Book of Ruth is a challenge to the Old Testament laws, and evidences how the biblical canon includes stories about people of protest who provide examples of dissent and challenge, which themselves become core aspects of the biblical testimony.

(Many layers in this little book Ruth)

While gleaning, Ruth draws the attention of Boaz, who guarantees that she will be able to gather enough to support her and Naomi.  Naomi encourages Ruth to take matters into her own hands, so one night, Ruth enters Boaz’s tent, and they sleep together.  After that, Boaz takes the steps to publicly claim Ruth as his own, leading to the bit of the story I read earlier. 

A child is born, and the community celebrates that child as Naomi’s, recognizing that Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz have together formed a unique family and household that defies the hetero-normative, patriarchal standards.  And this family ends up being the most consequential of families—the origin of the Davidic Monarchy.

According to Ellen Davis this story “shows how the future opens up from the faithful, small-scale actions of three ordinary people, each of them serving the needs, spoken and unspoken, of the other.” 

This is a story of how people should act in a time of crisis and difficulty.  It centers women.  Modest, ordinary women.  And teaches us that relationships should be prioritized, even when those relationships don’t quite fit custom and law.  What matters is that we treat each other with generosity and loving-kindness.  That we trust one another and defer to each other.  We mutually take these risks with one another in order to create something new and better that helps all of us to survive and thrive.

               Ellen Davis writes, “The real test of covenant relationship is how one vulnerable person treats another who is likewise vulnerable.”

               In our own topsy-turvy time, that remains the true test.  How we vulnerable creatures treat each other in our vulnerability.  With proper care and attention, we can create the beloved community, where all are welcomed and included and given the opportunities and the capacities to flourish. 

               From our ordinary, daily acts of kindness, the future opens up to new possibilities.

               I like how UFMCC pastor Celena M. Duncan describes it in her commentary on Ruth:

For God’s realm to be realized concretely on earth, at the center of one’s life must be love of God, respect for self and for others, loving-kindness, responsibility, accountability, and integrity.  These are boundaries by which we recognize the dignity and personhood of ourselves and of each other, by which we acknowledge our common humanity, siblings all, children of the same Parent with the same spark of the divine that runs through one and all.  In the Creator of all, there is no straight or gay, asexual or bisexual, oriental or occidental, this nation or that one, old or young, not even Protestant or Roman Catholic.  There is only the diversity that the Creator in wisdom, love, and grace wants to share with us, diversity that we are expected to treat responsibly and respectfully.



Hosea 11:1-4; Psalms 130:5-131:3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 May 2024

               Earlier this week when I told one person it was Trinity Sunday, they responded, “Trinity?  What’s that?”  At least they didn’t think we were doing some Barbenheimer celebration, since the location of the first atomic bomb was the Trinity Test Site. 

            So I put “Trinity?” down as my sermon title.  Hoping that seeing that your eyes wouldn’t glaze over and your mind go numb.  Surely the question mark would inspire a little spark of curiosity.

            Christianity teaches that there is one and only one God, but that God exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The ordinary Christian layperson might be aware that there were early church Councils and creeds that tried to spell out all of the metaphysics.  With the resulting divisions, conflicts, and schisms when folks disagreed.

After I explained Trinity the person said, “I don’t really understand.”  To which I said, “Don’t worry, no one does.  Which is actually the point I think—mystery.”

So, today we won’t go on some historical discursus through ancient creeds diving deep into Greek metaphysics.  Instead, I want to talk about the revival of Trinitarian thinking about God as part of the explosion of new theology in the last half century.

Which, might be a surprise—that this incomprehensible, old idea would have new lease in an era of globally diverse and pluralistic theological voices. 

Earlier this year I taught in First Forum about the vibrant blooming of theological ideas and perspectives on God since the end of the Second World War.  Liberationist, feminist, queer, postcolonial, ecological, and more ways of thinking and talking about God have emerged and engaged in conversation with one another.

Long gone, at least in theological circles, are out-dated notions of an all-powerful, patriarchal deity, distant from creation, exacting judgement and punishment upon wayward people.  That such ideas still permeate the consciousness of so much of the public is sad.  And well out-of-step with the best ideas of the contemporary Christian Church.

The book I used to structure our adult education series was Quest for the Living God by the prominent Catholic, feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson.  And yes, there are Catholic, feminist theologians.  That she has been able to successfully navigate those two identities throughout her career is to her credit and one reason her thinking and writing about God is so rich.

Elizabeth Johnson provides us three rules of thumb for our thinking and talking about God.  Three rules that I’ve taken to heart.  I’ve even suggested that we paint them on a wall somewhere in the building.

First, is that “the reality of the living God is an ineffable mystery beyond all telling.”  Meaning first off, that God is fundamentally a mystery that will transcend every effort we take to conceive it.  And also meaning that all of our words will always be inadequate. 

Which leads to the second rule of thumb—“no expression for God can be taken literally.”  Not only is every word we use about God inadequate, those words can never be literal descriptions, they are always symbols, metaphors, analogies, allegories, or something like that which only hints at what we are talking about.  This is one area that actually has often strained my atheist friends, when they ask about my “God-talk” and I respond, “It’s all metaphor.”

Johnson’s third rule of thumb, is that because of the inadequacy and limitations of all our thinking and talking about God, it becomes necessary then to give God many names.  No one perspective, voice, concept, creed, confession, description, word, or name can tell us who God is.  So we should hold our convictions with humility and the sense that our beliefs are that—ours.  Which means we need to listen to other people and their perspectives.  To be open.  To learn from them.  To expand our own ideas.  Or to hold gently a multitude of ideas at once, never settling into any firm foundations. 

It also means, we must listen not only to other Christians, but even to what other religions say about God.  For Elizabeth Johnson this openness to religious pluralism arises because of our Trinitarian views of God.  She quotes these ideas from the theologian Jacques Dupuis: “The expansiveness of God’s inner life overflowing outside the Godhead is the root cause for the existence in history of divergent paths leading to a unique common goal, the absolute mystery of God.”

So, instead of Trinity being some ancient notion that creates stumbling-blocks for us, it can be the opening to a religious pluralism and global diversity of voices about God.  How’d that happen?

Well, I think we must first understand the renewal of Trinitarian language as part of what was a radical shift in theology to think of God as open and relational.  Some of the origins of these changes lie in the extreme suffering of humanity in the face of great evil, especially in the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, the colonial wars for independence, which led to reconsidering what we believe about God’s power and goodness and how that connects to evil and suffering.

The result was an emphasis on a God who feels.  Like how God is described in Hosea or today’s Psalms.  A God who isn’t remote and distant, but is present, immediately and always, with creation, feeling what we feel, living in solidarity with us, and empowering us to respond to the trials of this world and our lives.  Such a God is not all powerful, at least not as that was once understood.  Instead, God also suffers and feels pain and hurt, and responds.  This God doesn’t endorse the status quo, but instead works with the victims, the oppressed, and the poor to undo the injustices of this world.

Another source of these changes was our new scientific understandings.  That the universe is very old, incomprehensibly large, complexly interconnected, and profoundly dynamic.  God is a part of this vast process, guiding it and inspiring it, but not in dictatorial control.  And this universe has its own agency and role to play within the creative process—God is open and responsive to the novel changes arising from universe.

God then works not through fiats and orders and extreme acts, but instead through relationships—luring, inspiring, drawing the world and us toward what God dreams for us.

And so we recover the idea that God is Trinity—mystery beyond our understanding—except that the one thing we do understand is that God at God’s core is a relationship.

Here’s how Elizabeth Johnson describes it:

To say that God is one is to negate division, thus affirming the unity of divine being: there is only one God.  To say that the “persons” are three is to negate solitariness, thus affirming that divine being dwells in living communion.  The holy mystery of God is not a single monolith with a rigid nature, an undifferentiated whole, but a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world.”

            God is fruitful and abundant life, fruitful and abundant relationship, so fruitful and abundant that they overflow into creation.  Or as one of my other favorite theologians describe it, God is an “ecstatic fellowship.”  Or, as First John simply puts it, “God is love.”

            So, when we talk about Trinity these days, we aren’t trying to spell out the details of a metaphysics.  We are trying to express, in inadequate words and symbolic language, what we feel in our religious experience of the love, compassion, and aliveness of God.

            And, we usually do so in a burst of contemporary idioms.  Like Sally MacFague’s Mother, Lover, and Friend.  Or Karen Armstrong’s drawing parallels with other religions in describing Nothingness, Ungraspable, Ultimate Innerness of Every Being.  Or Anthony Kelly’s Giver, Gift, and Giving.  Or Peter Hodgson’s One, Love, and Freedom.  Johnson herself likes to draw from our DNA and imagine a triple helix that brings forth, heals, and creates anew.

            The only way we know and interact with God, then, is relationally, as we live a life of communion and compassion.  The love that is God overflows into us such that, as she describes it, “the glory of God is the communion of all things fully alive.”

            I delight in her description of how we encounter God:

Wherever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, an ecological habitat is protected, wherever liberation, hope and healing break through, wherever an act of simple kindness is done, a cup of cool water given, a book offered to a child thirsty for learning, there the human and earth community already reflect, in fragments, the visage of the trinitarian God.

            And, so that we might hear various voices, and glory in our dynamic, adventurous, loving, mysterious God, I have invited three folks to come close out this sermon by reading a litany formed from the UCC Stillspeaking Writers’ Group book Stating Our Faith in Urgent Times:


How do we cultivate resurrection in community?

            This Easter season we examined Resurrection Stories.  And how these ancient stories give us spiritual insight to the obstacles we encounter in our lives.  Addiction, loneliness, cancer, mental illness, and injustice.  Whatever tries to hold you back or keep you down or lock you up—the power of the Risen Christ exists to set you free, so that you too might rise up in power to live the life of fullness God has dreamed for you. 

            On this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Christian Church, when the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Jesus and filled them with glory so that they might become the movement to change the world, let’s ponder how we cultivate resurrection in community.

            And we ponder this question at such a fraught time.  Living in this age of polycrisis with climate change, racial injustice, toxic politics, war, income inequality, attacks on trans people, assaults on bodily autonomy, rising costs, and epidemics of despair, loneliness, and adolescent mental illness. 

            As I’ve written before: These crises also present opportunities for the church, because we have values, qualities, and skills that can help humanity in this moment.  Our rich traditions, our spiritual practices, our commitments to care and community, our service to others, our work for justice and peace, even the beauty of our artistry, these are among Christianity’s great strengths. 

            In this period of crisis, church might just be even more important than it has been.  So, we’d better be cultivating resurrection in community.

            A few months ago I read the book Finding Yourself in Chaos: Self-Discovery for Religious Leaders in a Time of Transition by Jim Newby and Mark Minear.  I know Jim.  He and I were UCC colleagues together in Oklahoma City.  This good book is about ministering during this period of crisis, particularly for ministers as they experience crises in their personal lives as well. I found much of value for myself and my ministry in the book. The final chapters are less focused on clergy and more on what churches can be doing in this time of crisis.

            Because we live in an age of mistrust, incivility, and conflict, they believe that there are some key elements that churches ought to be fostering, particularly trust, listening, and vulnerability. 

            These elements are part of having a tender heart, which they argue is key to transformation.  They write, “Transformation is expressed in the tenderizing of one’s heart and issues in an increase of universal love to one’s fellow creatures.”

            In a society and an age that often wants our anger and ideological purity, it is a counter-cultural strength to cultivate a tender heart and the sensitivity, humility, concern, and vulnerability that come with it.

            What are some ways church helps us tenderize our hearts? 

            By fostering spiritual practices like silence, prayer, and meditation.  Promoting emotional literacy.  Through class discussions on the interpersonal skills we all need.  Through intergenerational opportunities.  By telling the stories of Jesus which lift up things like forgiveness, gratitude, mercy, and loving one’s enemies.

            A good question for you to consider today--what are some ways you personally tenderize your heart?

            We are all on a spiritual quest.  Newby & Minear outline four marks envisioned by the current spiritual quest.  First is a need to simplify our lives, to cut down on clutter and all that encumbers us.  Particularly to escape the rat race of consumer capitalism. 

            Second is our drive for diversity and inclusivity.  Our societies are rapidly becoming more diverse and multicultural.  You notice even here as you drive and walk around this neighborhood.  The variety of races, ethnicities, and religions that are visually apparent.  The twenty-first century world calls for our increased sensitivity to the pluralism of humanity.

            Third in the spiritual quest for transformation is a concern for peace.  In the midst of the world’s violence, war, and conflict, we should aim to be peacemakers.  And while we might have very little influence on geopolitical events, we can be peacemakers in our own homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces.

            Finally, the drive for justice animates the transformational spiritual quest.  They write, “The ways of the world encourage individualism, but growth in the spirit of Christ will accentuate the interconnectedness of all people and the care we should have for one another.”

            How are you personally engaged in this spiritual quest?  How are you pursuing each of these elements of growth and healing in your own life?  And, then, how are we as a congregation cultivating this awareness and the skills necessary for us to heal and grow?

            If we cultivate resurrection in our community through tenderizing our hearts and participating in the spiritual quest, what, then, are the marks of a thriving congregation, faithful to who God needs them to be in this time of polycrisis?

            First, a congregation cultivating resurrection is a place where people experience transformation.  Newby and Minear write that such a congregation aims to be a place where people can feel “the evil weakening within them” and “the good being raised up.”

            I sure hope you have that experience in our times of worship, study, service, and celebration.  One point they make is that such congregations—where people feel transformed—are ones where “the deadening crust of tradition and emphasis upon correct process and procedure” have given way “to the fresh winds of God’s transforming spirit.”

            One of the challenges for all congregations in this time of crisis is to learn flexibility, adaptation, and innovation.  How to live with more uncertainty and ambiguity, as we discern how to be the church that God needs us to be right now and in the future.

            The second mark of churches cultivating resurrection is that they nurture community.  Particularly communities that embody love in all it radical power.

            The third mark is that resurrecting congregations help people discern their convictions—what they believe and why.  Such congregations “become self-reflective and think critically.”  They are serious about Christian education that both informs the mind and awakens the heart.  We live in an age of thoughtlessness, so one of the ways churches can be counter-cultural and helpful to humanity is to encourage good thinking.

            The final mark is that such congregations have a vision toward ministry and service.  The authors write, “When religious leaders and the congregations they serve focus outward on meeting the needs of a hurting world, they surrender themselves to something outside of themselves, and new life is the result.”

            If we are to be set free from what holds us back, keeps us down, or locks us up, there is much we can do on our own to tap into the power of the Risen Christ and practice resurrection.  But all of that spiritual effort becomes easier and more effective if we are part of a community of people who are doing the same.  Who together are cultivating resurrection.

            On this Pentecost Sunday, let’s recommit ourselves to be such a community.  Where hearts are made tender and the transformative spiritual quest can be lived, because we raise up the good, nurture our connections, think critically and well, and live boldly with a vision of ministry and service to the world outside our walls.

            If so, then we too will be vessels of the Holy Spirit, radiating with divine glory and power, resilient and strong in this time of crisis.


Earlier, we read responsively today’s Gospel lesson.  Let’s pause to imagine what’s happening in this story—in that beautiful moment. 

               The disciples are fresh from Jerusalem where they watched their friend arrested, tortured, and executed.  They’ve cowered in fear and confusion.  Then had a series of what must have been bewildering episodes of seeing and talking to their dead friend.  Now, they’ve fled back home, to places and tasks that are familiar.  They are in Galilee, on the shore, listening to the water lapping and the breeze blowing and the fire crackling. 

And here is Jesus, their dead friend newly revealed to them once again, and this time he’s sitting here on the beach with them, helping to cook the fish, and then they eat it together. 

There’s both something strange and something simple about this story.  Nothing could be simpler than sharing food over a campfire with friends.  But this one is shrouded in trauma and mystery, because it is also a Resurrection story.  Here, are a few friends eating together after the worst violence that life could throw at them.

And it is in the strangeness and the simplicity of this moment on the beach that Jesus tells them, “Feed my sheep.  Tend my sheep.”

This Easter season we’ve talked about ways the resurrection stories apply to our current human needs from addiction and loneliness to fighting cancer.  And I’ve recommended some practical bits of advice—spending fifteen minutes in a phone call connecting with someone, eating together, walking the labyrinth, and dancing.

The task Jesus gives us in this story seems much bigger.  First, he’s inviting them, and us, to be more like God.  That’s one reason the Exodus story is paired with this Gospel today.  In the Exodus story, God hears the cries of the people suffering in slavery, and then God takes action to deliver them, to liberate them.  We are invited to be more like God—to hear the needs of those around us and to respond.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.

So this story sets us a spiritual task—to become better listeners.  And from that listening to take liberating action.

Jesus is also inviting them, and us, on a mission.  To share the good news, to make disciples, to spread this message and way of life.  And what’s going to happen when they do that is, they are going to help create a new world.  Feed my sheep.  Tend my sheep.

These resurrection stories invite us to change our lives.  They also invite us to participate in changing the world.  Joining in the new creation God has always dreamed of.  Our job is not just to do good, but to unite with God in the struggle for a better world, to fight the forces of evil, and help to set humanity free.

How do we, then, participate in the resurrection stories and experience liberation?

               In January I attended the annual retreat for United Church of Christ senior ministers, and our keynote speaker was the teacher, writer, and pastor Mary Luti.  Her talks centered on the ethical imperatives of the sacraments—baptism and communion.  When Mary talks there’s grace, humor, artfulness, and insight.  Here’s one insightful, ironic story that she shared about some colleagues:

Back in the 80’s some hip Andover Newton [Theological Seminary] faculty members decided to get off the hill and down into what was then called, forebodingly, “the inner city”. They got a sort of ministry school going in Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood of Boston with real challenges and (largely bigoted) bad press. They spent hours on end consulting with area activists to learn what they could do to help address the neighborhood’s issues. One woman from the community listened patiently and politely as they nattered on, but soon she’d had enough. She stood up and began describing the richness of the community, the people who lived there, their beauty and accomplishments, their creative institutions, their courageous families, their struggle to make the neighborhood more than a frontpage horror story; and she demanded to know why smart theology guys seemed to conceive of Roxbury as a problem to be solved, not a gift to be received.

               We UCCers are so devoted to justice, to welcome, to inclusion, to doing the good, hard work of creating God’s community in the world.  But . . .

               Sometimes we are the ones who need to learn something.  We are the ones who need to receive a gift.  We are the ones who need to be set free from our own blinders and preconceptions.  Sometimes we need to be liberated from the ways we hold and use power.  Maybe we need to work more on that spiritual task of being good listeners before we act?              

               So, let’s listen to Virgilio Elizondo.  Elizondo served in the Archdiocese of San Antonio and was rector of the San Fernando Cathedral.  His lasting contribution to theology was to develop a mestizo approach in his book Galilean Journey.  I think he’s a a good teacher for us today. 

               Elizondo writes that God is often at work in the frontier regions, on the borders and the fringes, working to bring about God’s new creation.  And that the experience of pain and struggle of oppressed and excluded persons has given them insights into resurrection that the rest of us could benefit from.  He declares, “Society’s rejects—now reborn of God—begin to invite everyone to the new way that has been shown to them.  All are invited.”  They need only open their hearts to the working of the Spirit.

               What are the liberating gifts that the mestizo community has to share?  Elizabeth Johnson summarizes Virgilio Elizondo’s teaching:

First, the Galilee principle: what human beings reject, God chooses as [God’s] own.  Second, the Jerusalem principle: God entrusts the rejected with a mission, to confront the powers of this world in order to transform society.  Third, the resurrection principle: out of the suffering and death that this entails, God brings life, overcoming evil by the power of love.  These principles spell out the divine way of acting in the world made known in Christ.

               When God chooses those whom society has rejected, this choice is not just good news but is also “new life.”  A “profound rebirth.”  Because the experience of being noticed and wanted gives life.  Just as in the Exodus story, when God hears the cries of the slaves and works to deliver them.

               God chooses the oppressed, not to give them comfort, but in order to empower them in their confrontation with oppression and their efforts to transcend and transform.  The result will be the possibility of transformation for all of society.  They have divine gifts to give; if only we pay attention.

In this new self, revealed in Christ and his resurrection, we have the chance ourselves to be reborn, to rise again into new and better life as part of a transformed and better world.

               But, this doesn’t just come about magically.  We must feed the sheep.  Tend the sheep.  Or, as Elizondo states, this transformed self and society “must be worked at critically, creatively, and persistently.”

               So how do we receive these gifts and live this new life?  How do we participate in the resurrection stories and experience liberation?

               Virgilio Elizondo writes, “One of the greatest things the Christian has to offer our mixed-up and alienated world is that, while realistically facing the struggles of life, one can rise above them and experience and radiate authentic joy and hope, peace and serenity.” 

               Thus all those ordinary practices we’ve been recommending the last few weeks: spending fifteen minutes in a phone call connecting with someone, eating together, walking the labyrinth, dancing.  And today we are going to add to those Resurrection powers-- celebration.

Elizondo draws upon the mestizo traditions of fiesta and recommends that in the face of our human struggles, we claim joy, hope, and resurrection, when we celebrate with one other.

               “It is the prophetic-festive that keeps the spirit alive,” he proclaims, “and nourishes the life of the group.”

               In the fiesta we remember the past, but also get a foretaste of the future, when the fullness of God’s kingdom will come.  And the joy we experience empowers us to continue the struggle today.

So, we need to have parties.  Wide-open, multi-cultural parties that help us to transform into the people God dreams for us to be. 

Just imagine returning to the beach, this time not overwhelmed by trauma, fear, and confusion.  Imagine the disciples came to the beach with their families and friends, and this time they roasted the fish, while the children were swimming.  And then after dinner they danced, celebrating the new life they’d found in Jesus.  And the great opportunity and mission that lay ahead of them.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.

               Let’s claim that fiesta of newness for ourselves.  Whatever tries to hold you back or keep you down—the power of the Risen Christ exists to set you free, so that you too might rise up in power to live the life of fullness God has dreamed for you. 



Mark 5:24b-34; John 21:1-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

28 April 2024

               “Healing doesn’t happen passively. Often you have to seek out healing . . . to receive it.”  So writes Marcia MacFee in her comments on this story from the Gospel of Mark.  She continues, “Having the hope of healing may be as important as medicine . . . .  And clinging to that hope can be hard when things feel impossible.”

               This Gospel story is about a woman who suffered for twelve long years with a flow of blood—we can presume a menstrual illness.  Not only did she have to deal with the physical pain and discomfort, but also the social stigma, because such an illness was viewed by her contemporaries as “unclean.”  Robbing her of some of the essential supports a sick person requires.  Not fully embraced by her community.  Obstacles placed before her attempts to practice her faith. 

               Can’t you imagine, if you were her, being weary and sinking into despair and hopelessness?  Yet, she didn’t.  This is her story—of the actions she took, the risks she bore, the faith and hope she expressed—that day when she reached out and touched Jesus.

               This Easter season we are examining Resurrection Stories.  And how these ancient stories give us spiritual insight to the obstacles we encounter in our lives.  Whatever tries to hold you back or keep you down or lock you up—the power of the Risen Christ exists to set you free, so that you too might rise up in power to live the life of fullness God has dreamed for you. 

               Our adult ed this morning was presented by my colleague Molley Phinney Baskette, co-senior pastor of the First Church UCC in Berkeley, California.  She talked about the renaissance in scientific research around psychedelics, their therapeutic effects, and links to spirituality and mysticism. 

               Recently I finished reading her latest book, which connects perfectly with today’s worship theme.  A nice synchronicity, though a coincidence, that I’ll share some of Molly’s story on the same day we’ve already encountered her.

               The book is entitled How to Begin When Your World Is Ending: A Spiritual Field Guide to Joy Despite Everything.  At the heart of the book is her battle with cancer.  An exploration of how a pastor dealt with life-threatening illness and all the changes it wrought.  I’ve already recommended the book to half-a-dozen folks, dealing with their own fraught diagnoses.

               In essence, the book is about how we find healing.  When healing isn’t understood as waving a magic wand and the illness suddenly disappears. 

               And Molly understands her story as a resurrection story.  The universe made that even more explicit in that she was diagnosed right before Easter and returned to the pulpit from her disability leave for chemo treatment on the next Easter Sunday.  Her experience taught her that all of us, in our lifetimes, will have a chance for a resurrection story.  Here’s how she expresses it:

Every one of us gets an invitation to resurrection.  It comes in a little ivory envelope, delivered directly to our souls, right after the disaster happens.  Sometimes, we miss it.  Sometimes, we open it much later.  Sometimes, we tear it open with eager hands.  You don’t have to be an optimist to accept this invitation.  But you do have to be curious about what will happen next, if it will be different from the pain of right now, and if you will be different.  Curiosity and longing will take you pretty far in life, no matter how bad things are in the moment.

               Earlier we participated in the responsive reading of the story from John’s Gospel.  We can imagine those grief-stricken, traumatized disciples retreating back to Galilee to what was familiar.  To fishing, to the quiet beach, to the solitude on the water.  Trying to make sense of what had happened in Jerusalem.  Trying to figure out what the last few years had meant.  Trying to figure out what to do next. 

               It seems that one of the takeaways from this beautiful story is that Jesus appears to them again to disrupt their return to what was familiar and to strengthen them for the new life, new risks, new adventures, that God’s mission is calling them to.

               In the same way, our all-to-human, and unavoidable, vulnerability to illness, can create a situation for us, in which we can either sink into the grief and despair that our old life may have ended or we can move on through the experience of illness to what is new.  For the healing probably won’t return us to what was comfortable in the past.  Healing will probably move us forward into something new and different.

               Here’s how Molly preached about it in her Easter sermon when she was first diagnosed, “Easter people, when something gets broken, look for Jesus immediately.  Look behind the breaking to see what’s being blessed, and look ahead to what God will give you.”

               And, a year later, after chemo, in her Easter sermon she declared, “Resurrection has not been easy.”  She’s right, and we shouldn’t expect it to be—it wasn’t easy for Jesus either. 

I enjoy how she describes the Risen Christ:

When Jesus rises from the dead, it is not as an oiled, brawny superhero or some kind of gorgeous self-healing immortal vampire.  He rises with his wounds, the sign of what he has lost, of what the fullness of life and commitment to this Way has cost him.

               And, so, the same is true for us.  The healing of resurrection comes through loss, bearing wounds. 

               Part of what is so painful in serious illness is how it affects our sense of self.  That happened for Molly, no longer able to be the overworking, full-of-energy pastor with a mane of beautiful red hair, but instead a sick, tired, bald woman capable of accomplishing very little.  Of this experience she writes, “The loss of who we believe ourselves to be, which happens not once but over and over again, is extremely painful.”  But a key part in our healing is learning to let that go.  Of developing the serenity to understand and embrace that life is filled with change and loss and also chances to create our new selves.

               To develop that serenity and learn to let go and embrace our vulnerability, requires spending time in “the liminal place of holy uncertainty” (her great description).  But this holy place is “deeply uncomfortable.”  She says that it messes with your thinking in ways bad and good, useful and not useful.  This holy place of uncertainty rubs up against our human tendency to need reasons for everything.  But this human tendency to need reasons isn’t the path to healing.  Instead, it leads in the opposite direction.  Here is how Molly phrases it:

We are all amateur fundamentalists because we all want reasons.  Reasons mean rules, and rules mean we can avoid bad things happening to ourselves and those we love.  The wanting of reasons can lead us into magical thinking.

               And one of the ways many people seek reasons is to retreat into the bad, toxic theology that “God has a plan.”  I’ve despised that pop-theology idea since my Dad died 34 years ago, and so I deeply resonated with her rant against the notion. 

We’re tempted to look for simple answers when complicated things happen, and bad theologies provide them.  Consider the idea that God Has a Plan: who does that benefit, besides drugstore self-help book authors?  Not to mention, this fictitious “has-a-plan” business plays suspiciously well with the status quo of hypercapitalism, patriarchy, and structural racism.  It revokes our free will and our capacity to resist and change by saying that whatever is is the way things ought to be.

               Molly tells us, God doesn’t have a plan, but God does has a dream.  “God is a Dreamer” she writes, “amorphous, artistic, delighted, inclusive, and messy.”  Which is pretty different from a plan.  And what is God’s dream?  “A world where love rules, where everyone belongs, where we are more than the sum of our parts.” 

               God doesn’t cause the illnesses and the bad things that happen to us, but God can and will use them to change us, grow us, transform us.

               I love the wisdom that Molly proclaims near the end of her story:

The central question of our lives might be: How much can we heal from the hard things that happen to us?  And with it: How do we find meaning and purpose from our woundings? 

               She closes her book and her resurrection story with the advice that we dance more often.  In the churches she has served it has become common for worship to end with a dance party, usually led by the children.  A most exciting idea. 

               Why dance?  Because it is fun and so healing.  The movement, the joy, the laughter, the doing something silly and fun together, helps to get all the stress and negative energy out of our bodies and our souls and strengthens all those positive energies we need to heal.

               Molly also points out that “to dance is to laugh in the face of death and all its minions.  As long as we can dance, they have not won.”

               All of which, of course, made me think of our beloved Jennifer, for whom dance has been essential to her healing journey as she has battled cancer. 

               And, so, we should dance, right?  But instead of radically last minute changing up our worship—though I know Dorothy Hill used to do it—I’m inviting you to a dance party in coffee hour after the kids get down there from Children’s choir.

               I’ll close by repeating the charge that Molly gave her congregation when she returned from chemo: “Easter people, when something gets broken, look for Jesus immediately.  Look behind the breaking to see what’s being blessed, and look ahead to what God will give you.”



Psalm 84; Luke 24:36-43

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 April 2024

               Have you read the beautiful children’s book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy?  It was published in 2019.  Our copy was given to us by Charlene Wozny, who often finds wonderful books she passes along to me and Sebastian.

            The book is about friendship and learning how to live well despite all that happens in life.  The book is filled with wise tidbits accompanied by beautiful art.

            Near the end the boy whispers to his animal friends, “I’ve realized why we are here.”  To which the mole responds, “for cake?”  Cake has been a running theme of the book, particularly for mole, and how cake can help many situations.

            But that isn’t the boy’s answer.  He says, “To love.”  To which the horse adds, “And be loved.” 

            Then the boy asks, “What do we do when our hearts hurt?”  The horse answers, “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”

            And then, very near the end of the book, the boy declares, “Home isn’t always a place is it?”

            This beautiful book is about being found—being found in our relationships with others, particularly our friends.

            And being found is a vital human need, one of the keys to a flourishing life.  Last year the Surgeon General declared that our nation is facing an epidemic of loneliness, that had risen to be a national emergency, requiring that “rebuilding social connection must be a top public health priority for our nation.” 

            Dr. Murthy wrote,

At any moment, about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. This includes introverts and extroverts, rich and poor, and younger and older Americans. Sometimes loneliness is set off by the loss of a loved one or a job, a move to a new city, or health or financial difficulties — or a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Other times, it’s hard to know how it arose but it’s simply there. One thing is clear: Nearly everyone experiences it at some point. But its invisibility is part of what makes it so insidious. We need to acknowledge the loneliness and isolation that millions are experiencing and the grave consequences for our mental health, physical health and collective well-being.

            And those consequences are well documented.  Back in 2020 the Nobel-prize-winning economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton released their book on the epidemic of what they termed “deaths of despair.”  How in American culture in this century there has actually been a lowering of life expectancy because of a sharp rise in deaths, largely among middle-aged people, from suicide, drug and alcohol addictions, and other illnesses that their research revealed were all a result of despair.  Despair brought on by social isolation, loss of job, lack of meaningful relationships, and an increase in physical pain.

            Surgeon General Murthy’s emergency declaration last year pointed out how loneliness increases a person’s risks for anxiety, depression, heart disease, dementia, and stroke.  The effects are not just individual, loneliness has social effects, harming our institutions, rending our social fabric, making our lives together more difficult.  So the response must be both individual and collective.  He was quite strong in the language he used to describe the situation and what we must do:

Every generation is called to take on challenges that threaten the underpinnings of society. Addressing the crisis of loneliness and isolation is one of our generation’s greatest challenges. By building more connected lives and more connected communities, we can strengthen the foundation of our individual and collective well-being and we can be better poised to respond to the threats we are facing as a nation.

            Now, in some ways, talking about this subject at a church is preaching to the choir.  For the evidence shows that church-goers are among the least lonely people in our nation.  And that the crisis of loneliness actually corresponds with the decline in church attendance in the last quarter century.  So, that you are here on a Sunday morning means that you are among the people who are taking steps to build social connection.

            But given that, my guess is, even all of us have had our periods of loneliness, especially four years ago when we were locked down at home.  And those effects are still with us, still shaping so much of our thinking and interacting.

            Surgeon General Murthy wrote about his own struggles with loneliness.   During his first term as Surgeon General during the Obama administration he said that he let most of his personal friendships suffer, replacing his time, energy, and focus with his job.  But when that job ended, he suddenly lacked friendships, began to feel lonely, and ultimately experienced depression.  He wrote that it took a year of hard work and intentionally reconnecting with folks to return to health and well-being.

            Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take.  Dr. Murthy said the medical evidence shows that even taking just fifteen minutes each day to connect with another person can have a significant impact.  That’s as simple as one phone call or one visit with a neighbor.

            And even if we church-goers are among the folks already prioritizing social connection, we need to be aware of the epidemic of loneliness all around us, and look for the people in our lives—family, friends, neighbors, co-workers—who might be suffering and in need of a little extra connection.  Take a moment and think of one person you know who could benefit from your contacting them this week to check in and see how they are doing.

            According to Marcia MacFee, whose worship materials we are using this Easter season, Psalm 84 is “for pilgrims who are far from the Temple.”  She writes that the Psalm “expresses the yearning of one who would give anything to just sit at the threshold of this sacred place.”  For “the temple is a home” and “God is in the Temple.”

She points out that when we are on a pilgrimage, we are often alone, but not really alone, as there are often many other pilgrims taking the same journey.  Melanie Naughtin some years ago walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and shared all about it when she returned.  She was on the trip alone, but every day ran into other pilgrims, spent the nights in hostels with other pilgrims, and routinely relied upon the kindness of other people to ease her journey. 

Marcia MacFee writes, “I think a word of encouragement we can offer to the lonely and isolated is to look up and notice the other pilgrims around you and to recognize that loneliness and isolation are not what we are meant for. And also to remember that ultimately, God is with us always! We are not alone.”

This week Facebook reminded me of a Christian Wiman poem that I had posted four years ago during the Covid lockdowns (I read and posted A LOT of poetry that spring).  The poem ended:

Lord, suffer me to sing

these wounds by which I am made

and marred, savor this creature

whose aloneness you ease and are.

            Just last night I was talking with one of our youth who told me that she’s seen how God can fill a person’s need, giving them a sense of meaning.

            Of course, the way that God often comes to us, easing our loneliness, is in the flesh of another person doing the most ordinary of things.  For example, the story in the Luke’s Gospel is revealing.  Marcia MacFee writes,

Perhaps the most beautiful moment in this story is the simple question Jesus asks as they pepper him with questions, dumbfounded that he is alive and with them: “Have you anything here to eat?” Meals are one of the best ways to be with people. Something about sitting down together and eating just loosens up the things that might keep us from interacting and connecting with our neighbor.

            The theologian Wendy Farley, in her beautiful book Gathering Those Driven Away, connects this moment to the church’s teaching of the harrowing of hell that I spoke about in last week’s Resurrection Stories sermon.  Farley writes,

The Incarnate One, upon returning from the harrowing of hell, does not make a lot of moral demands or give another inspiring speech or tell confusing parables.  When Jesus wanders again among his friends after the upheaval of crucifixion, he asks: “Is there anything to eat?”

Let me pause here, because this is so simple and so profound at the same time, and I don’t think we actually draw attention to it.  After torture, crucifixion, spending a couple of days in hell, and then rising again, Jesus shows up and asks “Is there anything to eat.”

            Wendy Farley continues:

No great moralism here, no miraculous pyrotechnics, just the pleasure of food and friends, pleasure, admittedly, in the midst of terror and grief.  Eating and drinking is just the ordinary pleasure we take in one another.  Eating and drinking together, we look directly at Christ.  We see Christ in ordinary pleasures, in everything we do.

            This Easter Season we are exploring the ways that the power of the resurrected Christ is made present and available to us to help us rise again from all the things that would hold us back and keep us down.  Whatever has us locked up, the Risen Christ provides the keys.  And one of the simplest ways that divine power comes to us is in the daily, ordinary acts of connecting with one another. 

            This week may you experience resurrection.  And, in turn, be the power of the risen Christ for someone else, some lonely person in need of your connection.

Empowered by Love

Empowered by Love

Song of Solomon 2:8-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 March 2024

               One of the fun aspects of my work life the last few years has been the Millennial young women on staff who have opened my horizons to new things.  For example, in the ups and downs of my adventures in dating, Lizzie Patterson will send me helpful playlists of Taylor Swift songs.  So, as I’ve been working on this Lenten sermon series on love, I thought she might have some good recommendations, and she did.  Thanks Lizzie for the soundtrack of my sermon preparation.

            The song that resonated with this week’s sermon isn’t a Taylor Swift song, but is instead a Ben Rector song that Lizzie said “always makes me happy.” The song is “Forever Like That” and begins:

Well, I'll be your rainy day lover
Whenever the sunny days end
And whatever the weather we have each other
And that's how the story will end

Well, I'll be your shade tree in summer
If you'll be my fire when it's cold
And whatever the season
Well, we'll keep on breathing
'Cause we'll have each other to hold
And I'll hold you and I'll sing

Well, I wanna love you forever, I do
I wanna spend all of my days with you
I'll carry your burden and be the wind at your back
I wanna spend my forever
Forever like that

            Love songs are some of our favorite songs.  They resonate with our emotions.  They also themselves become part of our life stories, as they were the songs we were listening to at significant moments in our lives.  Sometimes they help us make sense of what we are feeling.  Putting words to the emotions.  Giving us a mantra to repeat over and over.

            A song like this one expresses the power we experiences in our deepest connections.  We feel our full selves to be awakened, even as we are being attentive to the fullness of another person.  bell hooks writes that in true love “individuals . . . feel in touch with each other’s core identity.  Embarking on such a relationship is frightening precisely because we feel there is no place to hide.  We are known.”

            And what happens when we experience this intoxicating revelation?  hooks says, “All the ecstasy that we feel emerges as this love nurtures us and challenges us to grow and transform.”  True love both reveals our full authentic self and empowers and encourages us to grow and transform.  Here’s bell hooks again:  “True love accepts the person who now is without qualifications, but with a sincere and unwavering commitment to help him to achieve his goals of self-unfoldment.”

            One of the delights of our scriptural tradition is that the Bible includes the Song of Solomon, an unparalleled explosion of erotic poetry.  That has long resisted all efforts to allegorize it to mean something other than the clear initial meaning that can cause us to blush.  Its presence in the canon is a delight, but still a surprise.  What is it doing here?

            I recently read a wonderful book on the formation of the Hebrew Scriptures entitled Why the Bible Began by the professor Jacob L. Wright.  He contends that late in the history of the development of the Hebrew religion, after all the experiences of trauma, exile, and restoration, the focus turned to how ordinary people should respond to all this religious history.  Interestingly he places the Book of Esther as the culmination of this exercise, and I plan to teach an adult ed series on Wright’s book sometime this summer. 

            He contends that the Song of Songs is there to teach us that we aren’t self-sufficient.  That the only way to develop fully is in partnership and collaboration.  That we need each other to heal the traumas of human suffering.  Also that this truth of our personal lives is true in our collective lives.  Society can’t function without loving and nurturing personal relationships.  That should create loving and healthy families.  That can then hopefully come together to create loving and healthy and nurturing societies.  Wright states, “The Song of Songs celebrates the construction of this collaborative self and the kind of partnership that is essential to human flourishing.”

            That this Song is about the healing power of love is echoed in the work of the excellent Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, who writes of this book, that it invites us to play with its meanings and to immerse ourselves in the experience of love so that we might “envision that the deep wounds that have plagued human existence almost from the beginning might yet be healed.”

            The nineteenth century Russian thinker Vladimir Solovyov contended that what was needed to heal humanity was more love, particularly erotic love.  That kind of love can heal us, and can teach us about the sort of human unity that we should strive for socially and politically.  He wrote, “The relation of the one to the other would be a complete and continual exchange, a complete and continual affirmation of oneself in the other, with perfect reciprocity and communion.”  True love at its best teaches us about joy, mutuality, and communion.  It encourages and empowers us to grow and become our best selves. 

            So, this Lent we’ve been exploring the new account of Love developed by the philosopher Simon May.  Who describes love as our joyful response to the promise of feeling rooted.  And that this experience has four facets—love makes us feel alive, that we are at home, that we are empowered, and it calls us to a new self.  Today we are focused on that third idea, how love empowers us.  Here is May’s handy description:

We feel that [the person we love possesses] decisive power to deepen our sense of existing—power to intensify the reality and vitality, and therefore the validity, of our existence, as we experience it.  This is the power—a power that at the limit feels like one of life and death—by which love is always inspired and to which it is unfailingly attracted.

            How have you experienced love as empowering?  As intensifying reality?  As deepening your sense of existing?  Listen to a few love songs, like the one from Ben Rector, or the one in the Bible, and these aspects of love are paramount.

            Simon May writes that this is one reason heartbreak is so devastating, which you can also learn by listen to break-up songs.  May writes that losing this feeling of being empowered “can plunge us into a living death.”  Almost a loss of our sense of being. 

            When I was a youth minister, one of the aspects of pastoral care for teenagers is the depth of heartbreak they feel at the loss of a first love.  It devastates them.  As if the world is coming to an end.  And the world is coming to an end for them in an important way.  Because a first love is an experience of someone who we can be our full selves with for the first time, reveal deep secrets about ourself, find the embrace of our authenticity, and then this exhilarating rush of empowerment.  So when that ends for the first time in our lives, it is crushing.

            How have you experienced this side of love as well?  Sometimes seeing the experience from the other side reveals how powerful the feeling really is. 

            Simon May’s understanding of love as the joyful response to the feeling of being rooted isn’t limited though to our romantic loves.  He believes this is our experience of love in all its facets—in family, friendship, even the love of God.  And over the last few weeks we’ve touched on these loves as well.  In our relationship with God, we can feel empowered, a deepening of our sense of existence, a renewed vitality.  Our closest friendships make us feel that way too.  My best friend Robyn is currently living at my house as she goes through a divorce.  And we are cherishing this time to grow even closer.

            One idea we haven’t explored yet, but that is central to Simon May’s new understanding of love, is that Western culture is going through a shift in its understanding of the supreme object of love.  The paradigm love has been romantic love for a few centuries now, but he says in the twenty-first century the trend is clearly toward parental love being the supreme form of love.  Excelling as a parent is now one of the most important life goals and viewed as essential to human flourishing by a wide segment of society.

            Obviously this idea has resonated deeply with me and my own experience of love.  As my romantic relationship ended and no other has arisen to take its place, the supreme object of my love has been my son.  And the role of Dad has been the richest, most rewarding part of my life.  Being a father deepens my sense of existence, fills me with vitality, empowers and encourages me to be my best self. 

            We all have different life stories.  Love comes to us in various forms, in various relationships.  Maybe it’s our best friend.  Maybe we find it in romance.  Maybe we experience it from our parents or in being a parent. Maybe our richest, most empowering love is in our religious experience.  Maybe it is in our artistic expression—music or dance or painting.  Maybe the love that empowers us is in our work or service for others.  You can imagine a teacher, for example, who finds the most empowering love in the children she nurtures. 

            The God who is love has given us a great gift.  Love is the source of joy and delight.  Love heals and transforms.  Love opens us up, expanding our horizons.  Love embraces our authentic selves and encourages our growth and transformation. 

            As we head into this Holy Week, preparing to experience the Passion of Christ and awaiting Resurrection, may we be empowered by love.

Promise of Home

Promise of Home

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 20-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 March 2024

            Through her TED Talk, podcast, and best-selling books, the psychotherapist Esther Perel has become one of America’s most trusted voices on relationships.   Helping us understand how the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives. As she writes, “We magnify the good qualities of those we love, and confer on them almost mythical powers.  We transform them, and we in turn are transformed in their presence.”

A pretty intoxicating experience.  Something we obviously desire and long for.

            The beginning of a new relationship can be so exciting.  Here is her description:

Beginnings are always ripe with possibilities, for they hold the promise of completion.  Through love we imagine a new way of being.  You see me as I’ve never seen myself.  You airbrush my imperfections, and I like what you see.  With you, and through you, I will become that which I long to be.  I will become whole.  Being chosen by the one you chose is one of the glories of falling in love.  It generates a feeling of intense personal importance.  I matter.  You confirm my significance.

            She adds that so much of the beginning of a relationship is filled with dreams and fantasies.  Sometimes the long-term reality fits those hopes, but often it doesn’t. 

            At the core of her approach is a tension she sees in most contemporary American relationships between security and freedom.  When we first fall in love with someone it is because they excite us, there is a sense of adventure, sometimes risk even.  But what we long for in a serious, long-term relationship, particularly in marriage, is security, stability, reliability.  Herein lies the tension.  We want one person to provide both constancy and excitement.  In her practice of counseling couples, she finds that this tension is almost always at the root of whatever problem has brought them into therapy.

            She believes this tension has been exacerbated in the United States by a decline in our friendships and other social relationships.  She writes that “modern life has deprived us of our traditional resources, and has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide.  Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.”  In essence, one person cannot be all things for us.  We need friends, family, work, other outlets and support systems.

            Our need for reliability and constancy also, she says, leads to neutralizing the beloved’s complexity and limiting their ability to grow and change.  She writes, “Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us.  We are invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination, based on our own set of needs.”

            Esther Perel does believe there are steps we can take to address these tensions and work on the issues that arise.  That is her profession—a relationship therapist.  And her books and talks are filled with ideas on how to heighten curiosity, excitement, play, and adventure within long-term relationships.  For a loving relationship ought to make us feel more alive.

            Which is one of the themes we’ve already explored in this Lenten series on love.  We are using Simon May’s idea that love is the joyful response we have to the promise of finding ourselves rooted in another person.  That sort of love, he says, manifests itself in four experiences—feeling more alive, feeling at home, being empowered, and being called to a new self.  We’ve been taking these points one at a time, and today are focused on the experience of feeling at home in love.

            The first week in this series, I discussed how May believes love arises from our universal human experience of exile.  That because we arrive into a world not of our choosing and have to learn to make our way in it, we long to be rooted and grounded in that effort.  He claimed that this origin of love can be seen in the story of Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden of Eden.  This ancient myth describes the archetypal human experience of feeling uprooted and desiring to find a home.

            And desiring to find a home is key to this biblical text from Deuteronomy and the experience of the ancient Hebrews in the stories of the Exodus and the journey to a Promised Land. 

            According to Simon May this idea that in love we are searching for a home is evident in the core stories of Western Civilization.  In the Bible here in the stories of the Exodus and also of Abraham and Sarah and their journey to a new land to establish a new home.  The other archetypal story he says is the Odyssey, as Odysseus spends decades trying to get back home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope, his efforts constantly thwarted by gods, witches, and monsters. 

            In the Odyssey, May says Odysseus must face a series of challenges, all of which present counterfeits of the true love that awaits him at home.  Odysseus must overcome any temptation to settle.  The story also reveals that finding our true love, our sense of home, can be long endeavor, with dangers faced along the way.

            In the biblical stories of Genesis and Exodus, May says we learn that our home in the world often isn’t found where we start out, but is, instead, something we must journey toward.  It is a new place we must go.  And that our help in getting there is the covenantal God, who inspires us and teaches us how to love. 

            From the biblical stories we also learn that “the way of love is strewn with difficulties, some of them self-inflicted.”  I liked this powerfully written sentence, “Even when an overwhelming promise of love is staring us in the face, golden calves beckon everywhere.”

            Another aspect of love that we learn from the biblical stories is that “rootedness is promised; it isn’t guaranteed.”  May writes, “There is no endpoint at which home is secured once and for all, and so at which love’s orientation to the future ceases.”  Instead, the biblical stories remind us that we are constantly moving forward, looking to the promises of the future.

            Simon May concludes that the biblical stories teach us that “to love well is not a matter of merely celebrating a promise offered by the loved one, or seeking a relationship with him or her of comforting stability, but involves tremendous effort and risk, patience and responsibility.”

            This is because the Bible teaches us that genuine love is with “all your heart, all your soul, all your might.”  A hard and demanding task.

            I feel like May’s discussion of the biblical lessons resonates with Perel’s contemporary psychotherapeutic advice.  For Simon May, the love we learn from God and the Bible is a love that offers us the promise of home, but it is never a boring, settled place.  The sense of home that love provides is “a reliable place in the world,” but which makes us more alive.  For love to flourish and truly provide us a sense of home, we must always be turned toward the future promise and taking the risk of loving fully.  May describes the promise of home as presenting “thrilling new possibilities for your flourishing and freedom.”

            This is not the boring sense of constancy Esther Perel worriedly sees in many marriages.  Instead, the biblical promise of home, provides both safety and excitement, and in that way, evokes our sense of wonder.

            So, if Esther Perel is right about the tension that underlies most relationship problems in the United States today—this tension between security and freedom—then it seems that the idea of love we draw from the Bible and our experience of God offers a healthy response.  To be at home is never to be boringly settled, but to always be journeying together into a future of promise, full of adventure, excitement, wonder, flourishing, and freedom.  And it is precisely because true love offers that aliveness that we find it to be safe, constant, and reliable.